Godzilla in the garden

 

When we moved into our house over a year ago, we noticed this big green, ivy-like bush growing in the corner of the back yard.  Consultations with green thumbs yielded no answers as to which species it was. Once we determined its uselessness, we decided to eradicate it in order to clear space for more pleasant landscape possibilities. So, we had our lawn guy come out and chop it down after which he recommended that we poison the root of this green monster that was sure to come back. So for several months, we initiated a cycle of Round-Up squirts aimed at the leafy shoots which arose from every square inch of the area where the bush resided. Once poisoned, the shoots would begin to wilt and die followed by a good mowing over by our lawn guy.  But funny thing, new vines would pop up again and again followed by more Round-Up and mowing. No matter how much weed killer we squirted and how often we mowed, new leaves would continue popping up in different spots. Finally, I contacted a landscape friend of mine and told him our problem with killing this menace.  He recommended a more powerful solution… a broad leaf weed killer! Now as you probably have deduced, yard maintenance is not one of my gifts, which is why I hire a guy to do it.  After applying the new poison, I began to see results immediately, and after a few applications, I can happily say, our Godzilla has left the premises!

Likewise, as believers in Christ, we must deal with ugly bushes that crowd the landscape of our souls. The apostle Paul calls this “indwelling sin” and like my backyard ivy, it needs to be put to death to allow beauty to flourish. (Col 3:5). The theological term for this process is called mortification. To mortify means to put to death.

Often we neglect this necessary discipline due to an incomplete view of salvation. Perhaps our evangelical traditions have trained us to think this way by reducing salvation to a decision we made once (or twice) as opposed to the lengthy process that it is.  Indeed, because of the death and resurrection of Jesus we are declared righteous in God’s sight. Like the prodigal son, our filthy selves have been embraced by a loving Father, and we’ve been clothed in a fine robe and celebrated as His son. So, our identities, our standing, and our future have been secured by this atonement. Though our justification is immediate, however, we are still in the process of being saved. You see, though we have made the identity switch from rebel to son, sin still resides in us. Paul writes in Colossians 3 that this righteousness with all its benefits, especially that of knowing Christ, has not been attained or realized, yet is “the prize” that he is striving for.  He encourages us to “press on” even though he knows that we have a dim view of what this will eventually look like (1 Cor. 13:12).

In John Owen’s classic work, “The Mortification of Sin”, he reminds us that “sin doth not only still abide in us, but is acting, still laboring to bring forth the deeds of the flesh” and “in every moral action it is always either inclining to evil, or hindering from that which is good”. Owen knows Paul’s teaching well about the need to kill sin and goes on to write “He that stands still and suffers his enemies to double blows upon him without resistance, will undoubtedly be conquered in the issue.” All this can be summed up in Owen’s well known quote “be killing sin, or sin will be killing you.”

Now, it’s easy to see this idea of killing one’s sin as yet another religious activity or behavior modification we have to keep up with. Indeed, our sin nature beckons us to improve ourselves externally, but this is motivated by receiving the approval of others or even the approval of God and not by the desire to truly know Christ.  The apostle Paul should know. His life as a Pharisee was fueled by his religious pursuits and in his bitterness and hatred he sought to kill and persecute those who followed Christ. But one day, he was knocked off his donkey by the very presence of Christ and converted and it is through his pastoral writings that he encourages the churches he founded, as well as the ones we are a part of, to be disciples of Christ in a continuing effort to truly know Christ. The catch phrase of the past century most familiar to those of us with an evangelical background is to “accept Jesus as your personal Savior”, yet Paul is saying that to truly know Jesus personally is to die to self and kill the deeds of the flesh every day.

When John Owen admonishes us to “kill sin or it will kill us”, he is saying that our natural bent toward sin moves us farther from Christ and kills our relationship with Him.  Therefore, knowing Him intimately and deeply IS our life and the very reason we were created for.

Just like the bush in my backyard, sin must be diligently fought against daily, but to fight is not merely mowing over it and spraying weak poisons on the shoots that pop up. This will not address the root itself and this brings us to the most important thing to remember when talking about killing sin. We should never forget where the power to do this comes from. Owen reminds us where the power does NOT come from when he writes, “Mortification from a self-strength, carried on by ways of self-invention, unto the end of a self-righteousness, is the soul and substance of all false religions in the world.” In other words, we can’t do this work from our sin nature because our sin nature only desires to be glorified in this work, thus echoing Paul’s words of “not of works, lest any man should boast”. (Rom. 6:33)

So, if we’re called to this discipline of mortifying our sin, yet we are unable to achieve this with our own pragmatism, then where does the power to kill sin come from? Back to Owens once more. “All other ways of mortification are vain, all helps leave us helpless; it must be done by the Spirit.”  He points us back to Paul in Romans 8 10But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.”

This work of killing our sin ultimately is not ours. It’s not the white-knuckles of weed-chopping; it’s the effective “poison” applied by the Holy Spirit who ravages the root of our sin by daily pointing our hearts to the scarred hands of a resurrected Christ.  We not only trust in this power for the perfect garden of the life hereafter, but for the landscape of our souls here and now.

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To become

As the modern evangelical voice of reason, draped in right-wing politics, becomes faint to the ears of our evolving culture, the discussion of moral rightness has ironically increased across the board. You see,  those on the right have not cornered the market of claims to what is morally right. The voice from the left has a large bullhorn as well.  Each side believes they are “right” about the issues of the day, and are equally passionate about it. When you consider the post-modern crockpot of relative truth, you end up with a “toxic stew” to borrow language from Apple CEO Tim Cook. 

From a biblical viewpoint, the Genesis 3 account, where the very character of God was first questioned in Eden, has proven at the surface as an overwhelming Satanic success. The Serpent was the first post-modern if you will with questions of “Did God actually say” and “you will not surely die” as he lured them into moving their worship elsewhere. Up until that time, Adam and Eve worshipped only God. They worshipped him by simply fulfilling his purposes for them in cultivating the creation, enjoying creation, and simply enjoying Him.  

We know from other scriptural texts that Lucifer, as the serpent was first called, desired to be worshipped above all, even his own Creator.  This unholy desire got him “kicked out” of heaven and banished to the earth, if you will. So it’s no surprise that he had designs of his own to thwart the worship of God by the viceroys God had created in the form of man and woman. Described as “crafty” and “subtle”, the Serpent set out to divert the eyes of the first married couple away from their Source of Life and it began with his own claims of what was “right”.  Following were lies about the goodness of God and the character of God, which meant, so he reasoned,  they could take their eyes off of the Creator and become what they wanted to be. 

Isn’t that still the prevalent message of the age we live in now? You can become what you want to be by simply turning your attention to whatever it is you deem necessary to accomplish the goal. The result of this philosophy is that you simply become what you worship. This profound truth is something I’ve heard recently and has impacted the way I think about the life I’ve been given. We all worship (turn our gaze toward) the Creator, or we worship ourselves. Self-worship means seeking the approval of others, our own comfort, and the search for purpose and meaning. These play out in the careers we choose, the relationships we form, the causes we champion, the hobbies we engage in, the religious activities we commit to, the foods we eat, the material possessions we acquire, and the entertainment we occupy ourselves with. We are trying to replace God as our life source with things and people in creation that can not fill the demands. That’s why we are all guilty of trying to experience so many things in life. It’s because we view this life, of which we have no idea how long it will last, as the opportunity to find fulfillment. 

The idea for “You become what you worship” was something I recently read in the following Desiring God blog which was about how our smart phones are changing us. I recommend reading it and considering what you really want to become not only in this life, but in the life here-after. Biblical Christianity has often been castrated of it’s power as it has been reduced to the heaven or hell question. Frankly, no one wants to go to hell so I find this gospel reduction rather unhelpful, and even dangerous. But when you begin to see that this whole world and it’s inhabitants have meaning in purpose as worshippers of Someone who is infinitely Good, Just, and Right, then the question of what you do with your life is much closer to Jesus’ question “what does it profit a man who gains the whole world but loses his own soul”.  The soul is not some glowing orb locked in a briefcase (Pulp Fiction reference), but it is your very being. It’s that invisible person hidden in the cocoon. It is what you eventually will be, and there is no turning back at that point. You and I are being formed into something so beautiful mortal minds cannot comprehend it. Image bearers! It doesn’t look pretty for any of us at the moment as we are more larval than lovely. But we were created to be Image Bearers of the most High and Holy God, which can only happen when the mirrors of our souls are pointed straight at him in endless worship. 

In Eden, the mirrors were knocked off-axis resulting in a fractured universe. Since then, all of mankind is inherently unable to bear the image of the Creator as he is unwilling to do so. We can only reflect brokenness because that’s all we can see.  Those glass shards disperse rays of light in a million directions and we spend our lives chasing down every one of them. Solomon called them vanities. Thankfully, our Creator put the plan of restoration and redemption in place immediately with the promise of the Serpent’s crushed head and his endless lies. At first glance, it seems the human experiment was just that. It would seem that God’s attempt to make man in his likeness was a failure, but his designs were not frustrated by our fragmented natures. There was a Man, the promised Seed, who maintained the pristine reflection as the incarnated Deity that he was and still is.  He redeemed broken mirrors and remade them into Holy reflections.  He bruised his heel while becoming sin for us, and crushed the Serpent’s head in order that we might become the Image Bearers we were always meant to be.

The Spirit of Legalism

I’m not going to worry about writing a grammatically perfect blog post. I’m not going to sweat out the form too much. I’m just going to blurt out what I have on my mind. I am a legalist.

Pharisee
I'm not going to worry about writing a grammatically perfect blog post.  I'm not going to sweat out the form too much. I'm just going to blurt out what I have on my mind.   I am a legalist.  And here's the part you're not going to like too much.  You also are a legalist.  Obviously, this is going to be a post for Christians because the unbelieving world will have no idea what I am referring to, albeit they're legalists too. They just don't know it yet.  They will read this and think I'm talking about courtrooms and lawyers.  For that matter, there is probably a great segment of Christianity that will not know what I'm talking about either. 

Legalism is a term I came to know late in my teenage years although I can't pinpoint the event or place I first heard it.  What I did learn quickly was that I was surrounded by legalism.  I was, in fact, immersed in it.  My mind was legalistically saturated like a chicken leg in Crisco!  I came to understand that to be legalistic meant to be "rules driven".  Even though salvation was preached as a free gift of God, you found out after you "get saved" that apparently it wasn't free after all.  Now after you make a decision and get baptized, you are required to jump through hoops of fiery legalism one after the other until the end of time or eternity, whichever lasts longer.  When I tell friends of mine who didn't experience this growing up that these hoops were things like hair cut above the ears, prohibition of movie theaters, no drinking (don't even let it touch yer lips!!) no slacks for women,  no mixed "bathing" (they meant swimming, but somehow it turned into a bath…yucch!) and certainly no dancing of any kind and  Oh, no card playing either, not even gin rummy, they stare at me like a statue.

Thank God for the truth of His Word that teaches that I am not morally capable to meet God's standard of holiness! Thank God that He made so clear that there is nothing I can do to earn His love!  It is by Grace that I am being saved through faith!   It's not due to my self-righteousness, but his righteousness transferred to my account that I am considered in right standing with my Creator! 

In my zeal to run as fast I could from legalism the past 20 plus years, I really thought I was making headway.   What I failed to realize was that I was becoming a legalism legalist!  In other words, escape from legalism became my religion!  Distancing myself from the self-righteousness of my past resulted in another form of self-righteousness!

What I've come to realize in my journey, is that legalism comes in many forms.  There's legalism in every religion and denomination.  Case in point, there are churches who are anti-religion so they become non-denominational, but in reality have become their own denomination. "Non-denom" has become their "denomination".  How silly! 

There are many forms of legalism, yet one spirit that drives them.  It is the human spirit.  When you get down to it, legalism is really superstition.  Superstition is the idea that good things or bad things happen to you because of external circumstances like a broken mirror, a black cat and/or human actions like crossing your fingers or carrying a rabbit's foot.  

By nature, we think that external circumstances like illness, tragedy, natural disasters are indicators of our own personal lack of Godliness.  We also naturally think that there is somethng we can do in our own power to earn God's pleasure such as church activity, moral behavior, or good citizenship.  As Christians we are quick to dismiss this because we all believe the Bible about these things.  Yet, our actions indicate otherwise.  This is how the Pharisees lived.  They viewed lepers, tax collectors, prostitutes, women, and children as spiritually destitute.  Their cup was clean on the outside and a toilet inside according to Jesus.  That is true of all of us.  Our natural selves are unflushed toilets that need a good scrubbing!  (there are legalists who don't like that I said toilet)

As I search the scriptures, I have found only one solution to the human dilemma of legalism.  It is painfully simple.  Receive.  Receive Grace from God.  Receive the gift of His righteousness!  Receive the preached Word of God! Receive receive receive!  Don't do anything.  Just sit down and trust Christ to serve You!  Christianity is not driven by Christians serving God.  It is driven by God serving us!  Sounds selfish doesn't it?  Don't hear me wrong, God is not our butler.  In reality, it is more self-serving and dishonoring to God when we reject His gift.  Since Eden, mankind has been rejecting infinite joy and choosing self serving emptiness!  This is the highest offense to God imaginable.  Imagine, choosing an apple over the creator! 

Be careful when you become a fugitive of legalism.  It might be the very spirit of legalism that sustains your fleeting steps.