True Religion (Part II) :: The Weekend Reading List

“If you have not the blood of Christ at the root of your religion, it will wither, and prove but painted pageantry to go to hell in,” proclaimed the Puritan Thomas Wilcox in his sermon, Honey from the Rock.

The life of faith—living by and for the grace, power, and glory of God—is regularly contrasted in Christian writings against the life that revolves around self. Yet, it is possible to use the language of faith without transferring the seat of control and benefit to God and his Kingdom.

“Self-righteousness and self-sufficiency are the darlings of sinful human nature, which she preserves as her life,” observed Wilcox before going on to expound on the way we can highlight good works to conceal the darkness of our sin:

Consider, the greatest sins may be hid under the greatest duties, and the greatest terrors. See that the wound that sin has made in your soul be perfectly cured by the blood of Christ! not skinned over with duties, humblings and enlargements.

Apply what you will besides the blood of Christ, it will poison the sore. You will find that sin was never mortified truly, if you have not seen Christ bleeding for you upon the cross. Nothing can kill it, but beholding Christ’s righteousness.

“Comfort from any hand but Christ is deadly,” Wilcox explained. “All temptations, Satan’s advantages, and our complaining, are laid in self-righteousness, and self-excellency… You may destroy Christ by duties, as well as by sins.” Reading his sermon invokes the tension Martin Luther explored so deeply in his commentary on Galatians:

If the truth of being justified by Christ alone (not by our works) is lost, then all Christian truths are lost. For there is no middle ground between Christian righteousness and works-righteousness. There is no other alternative to Christian righteousness but works-righteousness; if you do not build your confidence on the work of Christ you must build your confidence on your own work. On this truth and only on this truth the church is built and has its being.

Wilcox and Luther’s insight, like the words from John Wesley that we read yesterday, do a wonderful job of contrasting the difference between self-righteousness and true faith. For a look at how to cultivate buoyant, resurrected, and winsome faith—without the weight of the contrast—we have to turn back to Wesley: “True religion, or a heart right toward God and man, implies happiness as well as holiness.”

Wesley believed that the apostle Paul, “sums up true religion in three particulars: righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.” He explained:

First, righteousness. The most important commandment is, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” You shall delight yourself in the Lord your God; you shall seek and find all happiness in him.

The Second great branch of Christian righteousness is closely and inseparably connected; “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” You shall love—you shall embrace with the most tender good-will, the most earnest and cordial affection, the most inflamed desires of preventing or removing all evil, and of procuring for him every possible good—your neighbor.

You shall love every human creature, every soul which God has made, as yourself; with the same invariable thirst after his happiness in every kind, the same unwearied care to screen him from whatever might grieve or hurt either his soul or body.

With this peace of God, wherever it is fixed in the soul, there is also “joy in the Holy Ghost;” joy cultivated in the heart by the Holy Ghost, by the ever-blessed Spirit of God.

He it is that works in us that calm, humble rejoicing in God, through Christ Jesus, “by whom we have now received the atonement,” the reconciliation with God; and that enables us boldly to confirm the truth of the royal Psalmists declaration, Blessed is the man (or rather, happy) whose unrighteousness is forgiven, and whose sin is covered.

The tension couldn’t be more obvious—true religion is not found in the works of men, but you cannot have a life of faith without works. People of faith understand works of righteousness as the first-fruits of a flourishing soul, not the roots of salvation. True religion takes enormous devotion and discipline—but it is not dependent on them. It takes sacrifice and community—but it is not accelerated by our abilities to ‘deliver’ in either of these areas. We need honey from the rock—the nourishment of transcendent peace, accessible only by God’s grace, power, and glory—as Wilcox preached:

This will be sound religion: To rest all upon the everlasting mountains of God’s love and grace in Christ, to live continually in the sight of Christ’s infinite righteousness and merits—these things are sanctifying.

Today’s Reading
Nehemiah 12 (Listen – 6:30)
Acts 22 (Listen – 4:26)

This Weekend’s Readings
Nehemiah 13 (Listen – 5:57) Acts 23 (Listen – 5:15)
Esther 1 (Listen – 4:14) Acts 24 (Listen – 4:11)

The Weekend Reading List

True Religion (Part I) :: Throwback Thursday

By John Wesley

“They are all zealous for the law.” — Acts 21.20

Consider the nature of true religion, referred to by our Lord as, “the kingdom of God.” “The kingdom of God,” or true religion, “is not meat and drink.” (Rom 14.17) True religion does not consist in any ritual observances nor in any outward thing whatever.

The religion of Christ rises infinitely higher, and lies immensely deeper, than any outward thing—such as forms or ceremonies, even of the most excellent kind. These are good in their place; just so far as they are in fact subservient to true religion. Let no man dream that they have any intrinsic worth; or that religion cannot subsist without them. This were to make them an abomination to the Lord.

It is true, a man cannot have any religion who is guilty of vicious, immoral actions; or who does to others what he would not they should do to him. Yet may a man both abstain from outward evil, and do good, and still have no religion. Two persons may do the same outward work; suppose, feeding the hungry, or clothing the naked; and, in the meantime, one of these may be truly religious, and the other have no religion at all: For the one may act from the love of God, and the other from the love of praise.

Suppose perfect obedience could atone for the sins that are past, this would not profit uru one bit—for you art not able to perform it. You cannot. How will you change your life from evil to good? Indeed, it is impossible—unless your heart is changed first. So long as the tree remains evil, it cannot bring forth good fruit.

The substance of the gospel is this; “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners;” or, “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, to the end we might not perish, but have everlasting life;” or, “He was bruised for our transgressions, he was wounded for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.”

Believe this, and the kingdom of God is yours. By faith you attain the promise. “He pardoneth and absolveth all that truly repent, and unfeignedly believe his holy gospel.” As soon as ever God has spoken to your heart, “Be of good cheer, thy sins are forgiven thee,” his kingdom comes: You have “righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.”

*Abridged and language updated from John Wesley’s 1872 sermon, The Way To The Kingdom.

Today’s Reading
Nehemiah 11 (Listen – 5:05)
Acts 21 (Listen – 5:55)

N.T. Wright on Miracles

[The young man] fell down from the third story and was taken up dead. But Paul went down and bent over him, and taking him in his arms, said, “Do not be alarmed, for his life is in him.” … And they took the youth away alive. — Acts 20.9-10, 12

We are among the first generations in history to approach miracles first from a place of skepticism. In Jesus and the Victory of God N.T. Wright explores why we are skeptical and, more importantly, what the miracles truly demonstrate:

The older liberalism, dating back at least to the eighteenth century and in particular to Hume, claimed that ‘miracles’ never happened, or at any rate that there could never be sufficient evidence to believe that they had; hence, that Jesus probably never performed any; hence, that perhaps he was not after all ‘divine.’

Both of these lines of thought, in fact, contain the same non sequitur: the strongest incarnational claims in the New Testament (e.g. those in Paul) have nothing to do with Jesus’ mighty works, and the accounts of mighty works in the gospels are not usually offered as ‘proof’ of Jesus’ ‘divinity.’

The word ‘miracle,’ by contrast, has come to be associated with two quite different questions, developed not least in the period of the Enlightenment: (a) Is there a ‘supernatural’ dimension to the world? (b) Which religion, if any, is the true one?

‘Miracles’ became, for some, a way of answering ‘yes’ to the first and ‘Christianity’ to the second. Jesus’ ‘miracles’ are, in this scheme, a ‘proof’ that there is a god, who has ‘intervened’ in the world in this way.

Hume and his followers, as we saw, put it the other way round: granted that ‘miracles’ do not occur, or at least cannot be demonstrated to occur, does this mean that all religions, including Christianity, are false, and the Bible untrue?

Few serious historians now deny that Jesus, and for that matter many other people, performed cures and did other startling things for which there was no obvious natural explanation.

But Christian apologetics has moved on as well: ‘miracles’ are not advanced as a ‘proof’ of anything much. What matters far more is intention and meaning. What did Jesus think he was doing, and why?

From the perspective of a follower of Jesus at the time, his mighty works will have been interpreted within the context of his overall proclamation: they would be seen as signs that the kingdom of Israel’s God was indeed coming to birth.

Jesus’ mighty works thus had the effect of gathering the community of ‘all Israel,’ in accordance with ancient prophecy. They were linked very closely with the great blessing of the renewed covenant, namely, the forgiveness of sins.

C.S. Lewis on Miracles

Even handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched Paul’s skin were carried away to the sick, and their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them. — Acts 19.12
“The central miracle asserted by Christians is the Incarnation. They say that God became Man,” writes C.S. Lewis in his book, simply entitled, Miracles. Lewis argues that it is essential Christians believe in the miracles in Scripture because, when looking at the Incarnation of Christ, “every other miracle prepares the way for this, or results from this.”

Inside the book Lewis defines a miracle as “an interference with nature by supernatural power.” He explains:
I contend that in all these miracles alike the incarnate God does suddenly and locally something that God has done or will do in general. Each miracle writes for us in small letters something that God has already written, or will write, in letters almost too large to be noticed, across the whole canvas of Nature. They focus at a particular point either God’s actual, or His future, operations on the universe.
Lewis does not leave much room for the argument that if miracles were to happen more frequently today many more would believe.
In all my life I have met only one person who claims to have seen a ghost. And the interesting thing about the story is that she disbelieved in the immortal soul before she saw the ghost and still disbelieves after seeing it… Seeing is not believing.

For this reason, the question whether miracles occur can never be answered simply by experience. Every event which might claim to be a miracle is, in the last resort, something presented to our senses… and our senses are not infallible.
The occurrence of miracles in Scripture, according to Lewis, is part of God’s larger purpose of redeeming a broken world and proclaiming his love for those in it.
God does not shake miracles into Nature at random as if from a pepper-caster. They come on great occasions: they are found at the great ganglions of history—not political or social history, but of that spiritual history which cannot be fully known by men.

How likely is it that you or I will be present when a peace-treaty is signed, when a great scientific discovery is made? That we should see a miracle is even less likely. Nor, if we understand, shall we be anxious to do so. ‘Nothing almost sees miracles but misery’. Miracles and martyrdoms tend to bunch about the same areas of history.

Today’s Reading
Nehemiah 9 (Listen – 7:46)
Acts 19 (Listen – 5:47)

Faith’s Focus

When Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia, Paul was occupied with the word, testifying to the Jews that the Christ was Jesus. — Acts 18.5
It’s no secret that focus is one of the primary skills of successful people. Ralph Waldo Emerson writes, ”Concentration is the secret of strengths in politics, in war, in trade, in short in all management of human affairs.”

Sometimes focus creates an almost contradictory narrative, like in the case of Donald Knuth—the legendary computer scientist who doesn’t use email. Dr. Knuth is known as the “father of the analysis of algorithms” and his work helped create the foundation for computers and smartphones.
Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role is to be on top of things. But not for me. My role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration. — Donald Knuth
The Apostle Paul’s life is strikingly similar. Paul was wildly accomplished in his own field—his knowledge of the scriptures was astonishing and his exposure to the gospel came first-hand from the resurrected Christ. Yet in Acts the author notes that “Paul was occupied with the word.”

Paul could have had his attention focused on the formation of the first churches, the selection of leaders, how to best interact with the Roman government, or any number of other pressing issues. Instead his mind was dominated with the word of God.

Though Paul set his mind on things above, the apostle was not preoccupied by his personal spiritual experience. To be preoccupied is to be dominated or engrossed—to the exclusion of other things. Paul was profoundly God-centered and radically others-focused.

All that Paul accomplished—traveling over 8,000 miles to 48 different places without modern transportation to form the foundation of the Christian Church—happened because he was occupied with the word. It was Scripture that turned him toward the world’s greatest need and the Spirit’s guidance that magnified the effects of his gifts.

It is occupation with the word that allows us to focus on vocation and family as an extension of faith. In Dr. Knuth’s case, the scientist reported a turning point in his career happened when he took an algorithmic approach to scripture—his work and faith integrated. “I no longer lived Sunday mornings in a different world from the world that I occupied during the rest of the week.”

Through focus on the word our lives, vocations, and families are enriched in ways that transcend our individual abilities. As Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”

Today’s Reading
Nehemiah 8 (Listen – 4:07)
Acts 18 (Listen – 4:06)

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