Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Gift of Free Will

God chose to give us free will. No, this isn’t that post about sovereignty and free will. I’ll just insert this one statement: in his sovereignty, God gave us free will. What do I mean when I say “free will”? Humans are unique. Being made in God’s image, we are different from animals. Animals have free will to an extent. They can choose to move different directions, to take certain actions. But they are also bound by instinct and act on it often (if not always—I’ll save that argument for another day). What animals cannot do is make moral choices. They have no capacity to understand the concept of morality and therefore, do not make moral decisions. I explain it in my class this way: we don’t take a lion to court for eating a zebra because it isn’t a moral issue. But we do take a human to court for killing someone because it is a moral issue. So, when I say “free will” I mean a human’s ability to make moral choices.

God gave this ability to us from the beginning of time. He gave man the choice to obey him or not obey him in the form of a rule regarding a tree. Man had a choice to make—a moral choice. We know that eventually he chose to make the wrong choice. He ate the fruit and thus transformed the world into a place filled with evil choices and a human nature incapable of choosing correctly every time.

This is why we live in a world where every day we face choices, many of them moral. This also means that it is inevitable people, and ourselves, will at times choose the wrong choice. Some may wonder why God would give us free will. If it leads to pain, why give it to us? Interestingly, I have yet to find someone who doesn’t want his or her free will. We like having a choice. We like making decisions. We get upset when people usurp this from us. We hate slavery because it impedes freedom and intrinsically, free will choice. There seems to be something within us that cherishes choice.

So, why did God give this to us? Why not just make us love him and do right all the time? The answer to these questions can be found in our creation. We are made in God’s image. As such, we have capacities that are unique to us: we have higher reason, creative ability, an eternal soul. And we also have moral free will. God could not make us in his image without giving us free will. God is an ethical being. Thus, he made us to be ethical beings. He gave us the capacity to be moral. Remember that the animals, not made in God’s image, have no morality. We have the choice to be moral because this reflects God’s image in us.

God also gave us free will because he wanted us to have a relationship with him. A personal relationship implies the freedom to choose to love. If God created us so that we had no choice, then we would not have a personal relationship with him. Our love would not be love. We would be programmed, manipulated beings. Love does not force and manipulate. Thus, to have a personal relationship with God we must be free to love.

Thus, God gave us free will to reflect him and to enter into a personal relationship with us. And in our free will, we have choice and we can choose right and we can choose wrong. We love our free choice. We have no problem with the fact that we get to choose. What is interesting is that we get upset at God’s gift of free will to man when others get to choose and they choose incorrectly and evil occurs. It is ironic that what we so cherish in ourselves we so loathe in others. Yes, we should loathe evil. People make moral choices that are wrong and evil and this grieves us. But we can’t get mad at God because this also grieves God. He would rather we use our creation in his image and our capacity to love to make the right choices. When evil occurs, we are to blame, never God. It is our choice, not his.

Moral free will is a gift to us. It is a gift we must use wisely and carefully. Gratefully, God did not leave us on our own to figure out how to use this gift. In his word to man, in the scriptures, we find direction. We find that God expresses to us what goodness is and how to live it. We are told the right choice to make and the consequences for the wrong choice. So God has not left us adrift. He has shown us how to choose to live morally and in love. He’s even given us the prime example: Jesus Christ.

“Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:1-2).

Friday, March 9, 2012

Sacrificial Dedication

My daily Bible reading took me to Leviticus 8 today. In this chapter, Moses is presenting Aaron and his sons to the Lord as priests, dedicating and consecrating them. In doing so, three sacrifices were offered and I was struck by the order and meaning of the sacrifices.

But first, a word about sacrifices. Many Christians assume that people in the Old Testament sacrificed to be saved, but this is incorrect. The writer of Hebrews makes it clear that this is not true: "it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins" (10:4). In the Old Testament Samuel declared, "To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams" (1 Sam. 15:22). I like how Douglas and Tenney explain this, that the basis for the covenant between God and Israel was obedience: "The foundation principle of this covenant was obedience, not sacrifices. Sacrifices were incidental--aids to obedience but valueless without it." The primary purpose of the sacrifices was to express the covenant relationship Israel had with God. Thus, when they disobeyed God and sinned, they came to him declaring their need for his forgiveness. The sacrifice did not wash away their sin; God washed away their sin as he saw his children's desire to get right with him.* I say this because the assumption that sacrifices were only used to "get saved" misses the whole point of sacrifice: an expression of a relationship with God. This is so beautifully evident in Leviticus 8.

The first sacrifice is a sin offering. Aaron and his sons place their hands on the bull and it is slaughtered. They come to acknowledge their need for forgiveness from God and watch a bull die in their places. In order to minister for God, to be close in relationship to him, they must put away their sin.

The second sacrifice is a burnt offering. This offering is called a pleasing aroma, a gift to God. The whole offering is burned up. It is a gift to the Lord alone. It is this sacrifice that declares atonement, reconciliation with God. It expresses that they now have a relationship with God.

The third offering is called the offering of ordination. I'd like to call it an offering of dedication. The blood is taken from the offering and applied to the right ears, right thumbs and right toes of Aaron and his sons (symbolizing the whole person dedicated to God). This is a sacrifice that declares they are dedicated to the service of God. They then eat portions of this offering at a meal. The sacrificial meal is a symbol of fellowship with God.

So, in order, Aaron and his sons are cleansed, then reconciled, then dedicated. And this, too, is what Jesus' sacrifice does for Christians.

Jesus is the sacrifice for sin. In order to even take a step towards God, we need to be clean and Jesus' blood does this for us (unlike bulls and goats, Jesus' blood utterly eradicates sin). Then, his blood reconciles us. His sacrifice is the pleasing aroma to God, the gift that opens the door to relationship. Finally, Jesus' blood is applied to us. We are covered in it and thus dedicated to God's service.

Christians will agree with the first two sacrifices. Yes, Jesus took away my sin. Yes, Jesus brought me into relationship with God. But how many also see that Jesus' blood applied to me means I am now dedicated to God? I am not my own, I am bought with a price, therefore I must honor God with my body.

Paul says that the Old Testament was written to teach us (Ro. 15:4). From Leviticus 8 we learn that Jesus' sacrifice is not only to save and reconcile, but to dedicate as well. We cannot be cleansed and reconciled without this leading to dedication. This is why our lives change the moment we become Christians. Does your life reflect Jesus' salvation and reconciliation through dedication?

*For those who wonder why Jesus then needed to come if God washed away sin of the Old Testament, it is clear that Old Testament believers were saved the same way we are: by faith in God's way of salvation. Jesus' blood is applied to Old Testament believers as much as to New Testament believers. People in the Old Testament looked forward to God's ultimate salvation, a picture of which is found in the sacrificial system. I like how theologians have often put it. Imagine a timeline in the middle of which is Jesus' death and resurrection. The Old Testament believers are on the left looking forward to his sacrifice and the New Testament believers are on the right looking back at his sacrifice.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Don't Throw Out the Baby with the Bathwater

In a way, this is a post that has some of its underpinnings in two previous posts here and here, although this post is a reaction to something that did not prompt those two posts. Suffice it to say that this post is in the same vein as the previous ones.

I was reading an article by someone in the emergent church who was criticizing another church that claims to be emergent. The criticism came on various levels, but the statement that troubled me was that the author emphasized that one of the tenants of the emergent church is relationship over doctrine. It bothered the author that the church claiming to be emergent seemed to have slipped back into doctrine. If you know nothing of the emergent church, let me just say that the emergent church is a movement that seeks to be post-modern (on its own terms), emphasizing experience and feelings rather than reason or fact. Thus, it wasn't surprising to me what this author said, but I immediately took issue with the statement.

You see, in our feel good culture, saying relationship over doctrine fits right in. After all, your experience of God should come from your relationship, not your doctrine. This is a relativist's perfect way of viewing Christianity. However, there is a fundamental problem with this idea and that is that relationship and doctrine cannot be separated.

A good definition of doctrine is from the World English Dictionary: "a creed or body of teachings of a religious, political, or philosophical group presented for acceptance or belief." Of course, words like "creed" and "religious" are anathema to relativists simply because they rub up against their worldview. If everything is relative, then you can't have a creed or be "religious" because those terms imply absolute truths. Thus, doctrine is a hated word. Rather, let's seek relationship.

Relationship is defined as "a connection between two people." Ah, this sounds good to a relativist's ear. No worry about facts or absolute truths. This is just two people sitting around getting to know each other and, of course, accepting whatever each of them say.

But wait... How is a relationship even formed? How do I get close to someone? You see, my relationship with someone is directly tied to what I believe about that person. I am a friend with someone because I know I can trust her, go to her when I need her, talk to her openly, be loved by her freely, etc. because I believe her to be trustworthy, loyal, faithful, loving, etc. In fact, if you asked me to tell you about this friend, I would be forced to give you a list of all the beliefs I have about her that make her a friend to me. I could tell you on what our relationship is based and show you why I have her as a friend.

It's the same for God...

I trust him because he is sovereign.
I pray to him because he is faithful.
I know he loves me because he died for me.
I know he loves because he is a Trinity.
I am free of guilt because of salvation and redemption, acts of Jesus.
I know I have a purpose because he has a plan for me.
I am moral because of the Holy Spirit's conviction.
I have assurance the whole earth won't flood because I know he keeps his promises.

I could go on for quite a while. My relationship with God is directly tied to what I believe about him. I cannot separate my relationship from my belief. And if I sat down and listed it all out, what I would come up with would be a series of statements, a body of teachings, a creed.

The problem with the idea of relationship over doctrine is that they cannot be separated at all. They are one. My doctrine forms the basis for my relationship. Show me a person who throws out doctrine and I'll show you a person that is easily blown down in the wind when feeling fails to satisfy. When the going gets tough, when the trials come, it turns out the base has been removed. Only when I am secure in the truth of what I know about my God will I be able to withstand the heartaches of the world (see cartoon above). Because my relationship is based on my truth; I have a strong relationship with my God because I know his truths.

Now, to be clear, the error can move the other direction. Indeed, the emergent church has swung far on the pendulum mostly in reaction to a church that often declared doctrine over relationship. This, too, is a costly error. The students I teach know that God is about relationship. It's a statement I have used over and over and over. God wants to have a relationship with us. The entire Bible is about his desire for relationship. And yes, this relationship is based in what I believe about him. Yet some Christians are so focused on the truths that they throw relationship out the window. Show me a person who does this and I will show you someone with a stagnant faith and a lack of love.

We don't need to swing either way on the pendulum. What we need to do is realize that relationship and doctrine are not at odds. Each side needs to come back to the middle, to where doctrine and relationship meet.