How Being With The Underprivileged Changes the Way You Read the Bible

Bible StudyI read Brian Zahnd’s “My Problem with The Bible” in 2014, and found it an interesting take on how perspectives and filters can either distort or correct one’s reading of scripture. He pointed out that instead of reading from the perspective of the beneficiary of a powerful empire, we must learn to read the bible from the position of the powerless who are totally dependent on God (which is what Israel as a nation was in biblical times). I found his points interesting, but I never thought I’d be writing my own “version” of this article a year and a half down the line.

I co-lead a very small (less than 20 people) house church in one of the poorer surburbs of Accra, Ghana called The Jesus Community, Agbogba. My church is dominated by mainly semi-literate, unemployed/under-employed men and women who will be classified as poor by any economic standard, with only 3 of us properly employed. Of course you can imagine the multitudes of needs in this community, and the struggle to meet them on a regular basis with the virtually non-existent resources we raise. Those of us better employed are asked on a regular basis why we choose to be in this impoverished church community, when there are nice, shiny, glossy megachurches next door that we could attend and meet some of our “middle-class” (if that is the right term) friends who we meet in our professional lives. The answer? We didn’t choose this life, neither did we choose these friends. God sent them our way just as he sent us their way, and for us then, faithfulness and love is all that matters as he works to shape and mold us into something beyond our wildest dreams.

But living life with these brothers and sisters, engaging scripture and being free to ask the kind of daring questions for which we would most surely have been excommunicated or would have been told to “shut up and take it like that” in Ghanaian Christendom, has totally reworked our hermeneutics – our way of interpreting scripture. And so here I offer my thoughts on how this shared life with people less socioeconomically advantaged than I am has changed my reading of the bible. This is not to say that everyone who is in the same state as we are will experience the bible the same way. I’m just telling part of my story.

A New Appreciation for Jesus and the Gospels

The first thing one notices is that the Gospels does portray Jesus as spending a lot of his time with the disadvantaged. One may choose to ignore this, especially a more privileged reader of the scriptures. But being i) a prophet , ii) the Messiah and iii) the embodiment of Israel’s God Yahweh, it is not surprising that he manifests in his incarnation, the “ways” of Yahweh – of being with the poor, oppressed and outcast. This is not because Jesus hated the privileged, but simply that from the giving of the Torah to the critique of the prophets, the privileged were commanded to meet the needs of the underprivileged and stand by them. And what better way to show this than when Yahweh himself takes on bodily form in the person of Jesus and does exactly that, as we see in the Gospels.

A Greater Affinity With the Prophets of Israel

Having been hooked by the the Gospels has forced me to look again at the life and times of the prophets of the Old Testament (seeing as they are quoted all over the Gospels), and the result I find astonishing. It becomes obvious to me the similarities between the concerns and critique of Jesus Christ and these prophets – the two main concerns being idolatory and injustice. The link between these two is much more evident these days. Someone once said that “You become more like what you worship”, and when the people of Israel departed from their worship of Yahweh, both his character of mercy and his commands of same went flying out the door. And one easily sees the same going on in Christendom today, where many love the notion of “worshiping God” more than the action of “following God” in his ways – ways revealed to us by Yahweh made flesh, Jesus the Christ. For me the poverty and injustice is not far away – I see them many times every week, and I’m reminded of how Amos, Jeremiah and Hosea felt watching the people of Israel abandon the poor and the weak, and still claim “this is the house of the Lord” (Jer 7). I watch contemporary Christendom sing the emotional ooh-aahs of the “I wanna be more like you” and the “Jesus I love you” and “I want more of you” blah blah, and I can only shake my head in sadness. Yes, sadness does fill my heart a lot, re-reading scripture through the eyes of the prophets. Maybe that’s part of the reason why I love Handel’s Messiah and Bob Marley with almost equal ferocity – the vision of the Messiah captured by the prophets and put to music by Handel is very moving to me, and Marley’s critique of the “system” is so apt.

A Greater Interest in the Story and History of Israel

Being born Protestant, my default mode was to read Genesis 1-3, skip over the story of Israel and head straight for Jesus and his cross, and then the Pauline epistles to explore his “grace” teaching as opposed to the “law” requirements of Israel. But those days are gone. With my interest piqued by the prophets, I’ve been much more interested in the historical background of the story of Israel and of the times of Jesus. I’m reading more of Ancient Near Eastern culture and looking to see how Israel fit in or critiqued it. I look to 1st century Judaism to understand the struggles of Jesus himself and early Christianity after Jesus’ resurrection. Of course this is a work in progress, but the insights already gleaned have reshaped me drastically, and make me see much more the big picture of humanity’s struggle to either eclipse one another or feel safe/superior over against another, into which God placed Israel, and into which God entered himself in the person of Jesus.

A Valuing of Orthopraxy over Orthodoxy

One of the benefits of conversation and friendship with both people who are and people who aren’t like me, but who love Jesus with the same passion has been that I’m becoming more interested in ways in which we are both being faithful to Jesus, and less worried about battles over the bible or how exactly my theology lines up with a tradition or the other’s way of reading scripture. Jesus’s own way of interpreting AND living out scripture was not always palatable to the theological gatekeepers of his time, but in so far as it was leading him to display a love of God and a love of neighbour, he was game. And when you live the bible with people who aren’t so theologically (or even educationally) savvy but whom you desire to still be in community with, you learn to focus on what is really important, and be less of a watchman. This feeling of mine is best captured by Scott McKnight’s book “The Blue Parakeet”, which I quote below.

St Augustine once said in his “On Christian Tradition” that if the bible leads the reader to be more loving, then the Bible has accomplished its mission … he offered a graphic image [to explain his point]. Getting the right result of becoming more loving, even if we aren’t as accurate in our interpretation as he’d prefer, is like a person on a journey who gets lost but somehow finds the way to the right destination … its not as if Augustine thought every interpretation was as good as any other … but Augustine knew the Bible’s main mission: so that we become people who love God and love others” (Scott McKnight, The Blue Parakeet, pp 104).

Many (including luminous Christian leaders of the past) have killed in the name of “orthodoxy” – a rightness of belief. I prefer to lose my life in defense of orthopraxy – a rightness of action. That’s not to say I don’t care about good theology (those who know me know that I do), but I’m more worried about what kind of Christianity is being produced by a theological position taken. Some people are miffed when I say I judge a theology by this standard, and I simply like to remind them of Jesus’ own ways of judging what was “standard teaching” around him.

Community Is the Life Blood of the Bible (and of it’s God)

As I read, think and try to practice the bible with other people like and not like me, I’m amazed at the insight that they are able to bring to scripture and life, and yet some of these people do not read the big fat theological books that I read often. It brings home the reality of the tradition upheld by early Christianity that scripture is best interpreted in community.

It becomes more obvious that the grand goal of Paul’s efforts and letters was to create a unique people who learnt to live together in unity and love despite all the sociocultural reasons why they shouldn’t be together. This community was meant to be a sign of the new age launched by Jesus which he called “the kingdom of God”. Thinking back further on the trinitarian nature of God, I’m not surprised that the ability to express the oneness of mind of 3 persons in the Godhead becomes the driving force for creating human communities that also are able to live in the same way. With this in mind then, one is saddened to watch the impact of individualistic readings of scripture that has ravaged the Christendom landscape for centuries.

The Bible is A Call To Action and Participation

Seeing Jesus’ vision of kingdom now, a kingdom filled with people of different social, economic and cultural backgrounds learning to live as one and supporting one another in this journey, we are galvanized into making choices to overcome the challenges of injustice, poverty, unemployment, deprivation and segregation that exists amongst us. As we read scripture, we see God on a mission to bring blessing to the world through the actions of the church, and are encouraged to seek out ways in which we can be a source of blessing to the underprivileged amongst and beyond us as well. As action reinforces knowledge, sitting and talking again about these same issues and steps we’ve already taken, alongside wrestling with scripture, we can truly see how the “the ways of Yahweh” are indeed ways of mercy, love and reconciliation. We are indeed reminded of Micah

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8)

A Greater Appreciation for the Plaintive Psalms in the Bible

Sometimes despite all our prayer and all our efforts, things still do go wrong, and we are forced to ask God why. Thankfully we have developed the habit of reading many Psalms everytime we meet, and we noticed the huge number of complaining Psalms that many in Christendom prefer to ignore in preference for only the upbeat ones (or as some Ghanaian churches do, read the Psalms about enemies and use them to heap curses on their personal enemies). Some of these psalms express a hope that God will in the end, come to their aid, but one particular Psalm (Ps 88) simply ends without hope, filled only with accusations against God. Given that God chose to preserve such Psalms in the bible for us, its taught me the foolishness of pretending that life will always be rosy for “those who have faith”, and also the foolishness of not sharing my disappointment with those in community with me when things don’t go well. After all, I live with others who are a lot worse than me, and I believe sharing my own struggles with others reminds us all that we are in this together, and that suffering is not the preserve of the underprivileged. It reminds us that we are not in control, the Spirit of God is, and ours is to take up our cross and follow, even if we seem lost and feel frustrated along the way.

Conclusion

A lot has changed about my reading of scripture, and it’s becoming more obvious how we all can be a people who love reading it, theologizing it, apologizing for it and yet be miles removed from the reality of what scripture is and is meant to be. And in this respect, I offer a reminder

All scripture is God-breathed and is useful … SO THAT the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:17)

Scripture is for the purpose of making us fit for good works. When Peter spoke about what these “good works” were, he had no other place to point to but to Jesus himself.

You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea … how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good … “ (Ac 10:36-38)

My hope is that scripture leads us indeed to be a people who are schooled in Yahweh’s righteous ways – ways he embodied in Jesus of Nazareth who lived, loved and died to show us these ways – ways that indeed lead to good works.

 

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Unmasking Ghanaian Christianity III – “By The Grace of God”

Grace

Here’s Part I and Part II of the series.

One of the great failures in communication is to use the same words with a person, but have different understandings of what those words mean. This failure is even worse when these words are associated with or derived from the bible, and yet have taken a totally different meaning and are subsequently being read back into the bible. So for those who actually do care about what the bible and Jesus has to say to the world, a vital skill to develop is the discernment to recognize when biblical words have been co-opted by the culture around us, and to ensure that we articulate a clearer explanation of what we mean when we use those words. In this respect I believe that one of the saddest and most damaging failures of contextualization amongst Ghanaian bible teachers for decades is how the wonderful New Testament language of “grace” has been totally bastardized by Ghanaian culture, unhinging it from its biblical roots. As with everything that Christendom comes along with, it’s gotten so bad that this unbiblical usages has become the standard way by which one’s “devoutness as a Christian” is judged in Ghana. Let me explain.

The Old Testament and Grace

We see the term “grace” used mostly by Paul in his letters to the churches he founded. However the concept it carried had been in use long before Paul to describe God’s choice of the people of Israel as his chosen people. As I’ve previously argued elsewhere, the idea that 1st century Judaism was a religion of works-righteousness where people were trying to get saved through “their own righteousness” has been proven largely to be an incorrect position that Christians attributed to Judaism since the days of the Protestant Reformation. As NT scholar Richard B. Hayes of Duke Divinity puts it

“The most important advance of New Testament scholarship in the second half of the twentieth century has been its dramatic reframing of the relationship between early Christianity and formative Judaism”. – Richard B. Hayes, The Moral Vision of the New Testament.

First century Jews believed that God chose Israel by grace – because he loved their fathers (Deut 7:7-8) – and not because of any work they did. To them keeping the law was a means of showing that one was indeed under grace. Grace was god’s gift of making them his “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Ex 19:6), a gift they did nothing to deserve.

The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt. (Deut 7:7-8)

The New Testament and Grace

Paul’s usage of the word grace falls exactly in this same line. By the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the doorway had now been open for the Gentiles to also become a part of God’s chosen people as expressed by prophets of old about Yahweh’s return. This time however, membership shall not be counted by descent from Abraham, but by “faith in Christ”.

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God … Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. (Eph 2:8-13)

For the Paul then, “grace” is about how Gentiles (and other classes of excluded people) came on equal footing with Jews to become part of God’s chosen nation.

Paul further expanded the usage of the word grace to cover additional grounds. He speaks of God setting him apart “from his mother’s womb” to preach him amongst the gentiles “by his grace” (Gal 1:15-16). He speaks of receiving “grace and apostleship to call all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith” (Rom 1:5). He calls the gifts of ministry given to his Gentile church members “gifts according to the grace given to each of us” (Rom 12:6).

But Paul goes on to say something which is quite striking, and I believe has been the cause of stumbling of many in Ghanaian Christendom regarding the use of the word “grace”. He says everything he is and everything HE HAS DONE is God’s grace. It is explicit what Paul is talking about, but I think sadly many exegetes haven’t paid attention to the whole point Paul is driving at.

But by the grace of God I am what I am … ” (1 Cor 15:10)

Thankfully he doesn’t stop there, but continues

and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them – yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me” (1 Cor 15:10)

In the above usages of “grace”, Paul speaks of it as empowering him to actually engage in mission for God – a mission which he has repeated mentioned – of bringing that same grace that he has received to the Gentiles. This second usage of “grace” describes then a special empowering to serve God, not just a grace to be anything he so desired. In essence, grace must lead to work, and Paul says his missionary efforts are all due to grace on his life.

The Corruption of Grace

It would seem however that in the fervency of Christianity (especially the Protestant category) in Ghana to emphasize grace as God’s free gift, it has lost its anchor – 1) that grace was about God accepting us Gentiles (in this case Ghanaians) into his family aka election. 2) that grace was about the power to continue to serve in God’s mission (not our own mission) AFTER being called into this family.

As I began to pay more attention to these usages of grace in the New Testament and to compare it to contemporary and historical Ghanaian Christianity’s usage of it, I began to realize how deviated we might be from the New Testament understanding of it. I recently asked in our church what people meant by the Twi word “adom”, and the answer was universally the same – unmerited favour for anything good in this life. And therein lies the problem – our concept of grace has no boundaries. We began to reflect on the songs we used to sing in our previous lives as Pentecostals and other Christian traditions (and some of which are still in vogue today), and the usage of the word “adom” in those songs – “adom” being the Twi word for grace.

Song 1

Twi – “Se wo abrabo mu nsem, yeyie mawo a, hwe yie na wo an hoa hoa wo ho, efrise eye Onyam n’adom ara kwa, na wo te se nia wo ti.”

Translation – “When life is good for you, do not get proud about it, but remember that it is by God’s grace that you are who you are

Note – The boldened part looks a lot like 1 Cor 5:10

Song 2

Twi – “Adom, adom, adom bia m’enya. Adom na miti ase, emu na me keka me ho, emu na me ye m’adie nyinaa ”

Translation – “Grace, grace, oh what grace I have received. It is by grace that I live, it is by grace that I move, it is by grace that I do everything”

Note – This sounds a lot like For in him we live and move and have our being” in Acts 17:28, but note Paul didn’t use the word “grace” here.

I could go on giving more examples of Ghanaian Christian songs with this motif. The word “adom” in these songs has moved beyond grace as a means of election and as a means of empowerment to serve after joining the elect, to grace being used to describe any “good” thing that comes one’s way. This has led to the following behaviour and subsequent questions in Ghanain Christendom.

  1. Amakye Dede, a popular highlife musician whose music I love was involved in an accident last December, and his manager died. He survived, and in typical Christendom fashion, Christians responded with “It’s only God’s grace that saved him from the accident”. The question becomes why did that grace – if it’s free and unmerited – not extend to his manager? Or did Amakye merit it?

  2. A marriage announcement is typically made with “By the grace of God, Kofi is getting married to Ama next week”. If grace is free and unmerited, why is Adwoa who is 35 years old not married, but Kofi and Ama in their twenties are getting married?

  3. During prayer meetings, one is reminded to pray thanking God that one is alive, because it is only by the grace of God that one is alive and not at the ICU of Korle-Bu Teaching Hospital, Ghana’s largest hospital. The obvious question is – if grace is free and unmerited, what kind of arbitrary God would decide to put some in a coma and allow some to breathe air freely? And is it the abundance of my thanks that keeps me from being in a coma like those unfortunate brethren? If that’s the case, is that grace really free and unmerited?

It is this usage of “grace” that has permeated Ghanaian Christendom such that when one is asked the simple question “how are you”, the “Christian” response is “I’m fine BY GOD’S GRACE”. When I began paying better attention to New Testament theology, I became wary of responding this way, and simply responded with “I’m fine” or “I’m alright”. Interestingly I’ve received queries from some friends as to why my response is always “dry” – by this they mean my response doesn’t sound “Christian”. Fortunately/unfortunately I still respond “I’m fine by the Grace of God” to my older relatives (uncles and aunties and that old crowd) because until I declare myself a Moslem or something else, it is the “Christian” thing to do, and I’m better off saving myself the trouble of negative impressions and questions. Even some Christians expect Moslems to somehow respond with “Nyame Adom oh” i.e. “I’m fine by God’s grace”

But what Christendom doesn’t realize about being precise about language is that if we decouple it from it’s biblical moorings, our words will be (and have already been) co-opted by interests not aligned with Jesus Christ, and we will either complain bitterly about these to no end or end up reading the bad usage back into our bibles. Let me give an example.

The Ghanaian hiplife rapper EL (whose artistry I totally admire by the way, coupled with my bias towards him as a former student of Presec Legon) has recently released a song called “Koko”, meaning “Easy”. Standing in front of a cross mounted by the German Christian missionaries on Mt Gemi in the Volta Region a century ago, he speaks of how everything is easy for his god to do for him, and one line says

Pidgin English – “And by his grace, there’s no girl I no go fit run oh”

Translation – “And by his grace, there’s no girl I cannot have as my lover”

Can Christians endorse this usage of the word grace, especially when being used to talk about the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? Is this the way of the Christian God as we see in the bible?

Conclusion

And yet EL is very right if judged by the already flawed understanding of “grace” in Ghanaian Christendom. If anything one determines as “good” for oneself must have been made available to you “by the grace of God”, then EL’s ability to snag any woman he desires is indeed by the grace of God. By extension, the ability to steal money from one’s public service job to build a nice house for oneself is “by the grace of God”, not so? Ever wonder why corruption is not going anywhere soon when the 70% Ghanaian Christian population think like this?

And one of the clearest ways that we can begin tackling this is to properly introspect our “gospel” songs, even our old favourites. Because the easiest way to spread false teaching in Africa is to put it to a nice danceable beat. The African love of dancing is a double edged sword that has been used to carry flawed theology for eons, and cannot be left to wander on its own without inspection. It’s part of the reasons why in my church we resolved to write and sing our own songs, instead of complaining about some of the trash being produced in the name of “gospel” music in Ghana.

I’ve had pushback from some friends about my qualms on the abuse of this “by the grace of God” theme, even when answering the simple question “how are you”, but I’m not budging from it. I might consider it if I were a high Calvinist and believed in divine determinism, but I’m not and so I desire that we rather wake up from this abuse. Because if we do not become a people who properly discern our culture, there will be only one end result – our culture will swallow us up, and there will be nothing left of true Christianity to speak of, practice or even defend.

Vicit Agnus Noster, Eum Sequamur – The Lamb Has Conquered, Let Us Follow Him.

Once Saved, Always Saved? Of Course!!

Photo Credit: Christopher JL via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Christopher JL via Compfight cc

A few days ago someone asked me a question that I’d been asked quite a few times before, and this time I couldn’t bring myself to give him a direct answer to his question. This is because over the years, my own understanding of the issue had grown beyond “is it this or that” to questioning the assumptions behind that question. Since my alarm deceived me and made me wake up at 3 am instead of 5am this morning, I thought to make good use of the time and share here the question and how I now approach it.

The Question

Is it possible to lose one’s salvation or is it ‘once saved always saved’?”

This is typically asked by someone who tends to be worried that a fellow brother or sister may be taking their “salvation” for granted and not living according to what the questioner expects them to live as a Christian. The legalist in us then seeks to warn the “sinner” that they may loose their salvation as the New Testament would seem to suggest in different places, whiles the “sinner” will also strongly hold to the libertine stance of “there is no condemnation for me” also found in so many other places in the NT.

How to resolve it? Challenge the assumptions.

The Assumptions

One of the greatest achievements of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century was to put grace front and center of the Christian life and doctrine, and we can all be thankful for that. However, this achievement was not without a fair amount of “demonization” of 1st century Judaism by interpreting the letters of Paul in a certain angle.

The Roman Catholic church had taken up the payment of penances and indulgences as a means of giving one’s favourite dead grandmother a quick passport to heaven instead of her spending a few hundred years in purgatory (after all who doesn’t love their adoring grandmother). This practice became an issue of concern to Martin Luther, John Calvin and the other leaders of the protest movement, and to buttress their arguments against an obviously wrong practice, they harnessed Paul’s writings on grace against law to finally break away from the Catholic church. In this scheme of things, the Roman Catholic church were cast as Paul’s 1st century “Judaizers” who thrived by “works” aka penances and indulgences, whiles they the reformers represented Paul, wielding one thing only – grace. The rest as they say is history.

Unfortunately this has coloured the way a lot of us read the Old but especially the New Testament, and even the gospel itself has been reduced to a question of grace as opposed to what it is about – that Jesus is Lord of the world.

What the past century is teaching us though is that Judaism was not quite the “works” religion that we thought it was (or at least not as defined by the Reformation). And in fact if we are to pay better attention, we might realize that Christianity and 1st century Judaism have a lot more in common, and maybe we have been asking the wrong question about salvation being lost or not for quite a while.

The Reality – Grace In the Old Testament

A closer attention to the Torah seems to yield the fact that Israel was a chosen nation by grace. They didn’t work for it, they didn’t have to pay any penances or indulgences to be a chosen people of God. They were chosen because their forefather Abraham had shown faith in God’s promise to remake the world through him. Simple and short.

In fact, Moses had to remind them how they become a chosen people: because he loved their ancestors.

Deut 7:6-8 “For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession. The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors that he brought you out with a mighty hand …”

Deut 10:14-15 “To the Lord your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it. Yet the Lord set his affection on your ancestors and loved them, and he chose you, their descendants, above all the nations—as it is today.”

Do you realize the similarities between this and Paul’s statements about being chosen, being saved, grace etc not because of our “works” but BECAUSE GOD LOVES JESUS and Christians who are in Christ are also loved and saved?

Rom 8:1 “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus

Eph 2:8-9 “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast”

Eph 3:6 “This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.”

These similarities should tell us 2 things.

  1. There is very little doubt that the principle of favouring a people because of someone else’s status before God is what runs through both the Old and New covenants and these 2 people are Abraham and Jesus Christ. In the case of the Old covenant, being born an Israelite was all it took, in the case of the New covenant, being born of Christ is all it takes.

  2. The point about grace is about election – who are the chosen people of God. An individual may be added to the people of God (aka saved by grace), but the covenant is not just about their individual selves but about God’s intent for the corporate entity called “the people of God”. In the latter, it is Israel, in the former it is the church.

Therefore if the old covenant only required being born an Israelite, then one needed to somehow declare oneself not an Israelite anymore for one to be outside the grace of God. I believe the same applies to a Christian. Once saved, they are indeed “under grace” forever unless they choose not to be.

The Caveat – Covenant Faithfulness

But the point of being the chosen people of God was always meant to achieve something beyond themselves. The point of being a chosen people was so they could point the rest of the world to Yahweh. To enable them do this, Yahweh gives them a set of laws to obey which if they obeyed, it will be well with they themselves as well as draw others to be attracted to this god called Yahweh.

Deut 4:6-7 “Observe them [the Torah] carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people’. What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him?”

The above harkens back to God’s promise to Abraham

Gen 12:2-3 “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; … and all peoples on earth will be blessed THROUGH you.”

What was the consequence of covenant unfaithfulness? Not that they will no longer be considered God’s chosen people (people of grace), but even whiles still being considered so, will suffer judgment, great loss and ultimately exile, as documented in Deut 28-30. Of course we know that these judgments did come upon them with the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles, and the evidence for that is well documented in the stories of the kings and prophets.

What do we find in the New covenant? Jesus launches his ministry and calls many to follow him. He tells people that being children of Abraham is no longer enough, but rather following him is. Behaving strikingly like Moses giving the law to Israel, he also takes his place on a mountain and delivers what most scholars refer to as his Torah in the Sermon on the Mount. Even while delivering it he places down his warnings as well, just like Moses.

Mt 7:21-23 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”

Elsewhere in John 15 he says he is the vine, and his followers are the branches. But they will be judged if they don’t bear fruit.

John 15:5;16 “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing … You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last”

The Answer To The Question

It would seem then that although the covenants may be different, the intended goal was and has always been the same. God chooses a people out of his love (grace) and not because of what they’ve done (works), and sets them on a journey beyond themselves to do WORKS because of his redemptive plan for the whole world. The same Ephesian letter says it quite succinctly.

Eph 2:10 “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do”

Grace always goes with covenant faithfulness, and the disciples being normal 1st century Jews (and not 16th century Europeans) didn’t pretend about this at all even in the new covenant.

Its sad to note then that Martin Luther in his unfortunate attempt to demonize works, was actually in favour of removing the book of James from the Protestant bible because James said things like this

James 2:14 “Faith without works is dead”

That would have been a grave loss to the Protestant church if the other Reformation leaders had agreed to this proposal.

Salvation then (as put in the original question. Salvation means much more but we’re sticking to the above usage) is about inclusion into the people of God through the person of Jesus Christ. God has no intention of taking that inclusion away from you if you don’t exclude yourself. After all what shall separate you from the love of God (Rom 8:35)?

However, it is a recruitment call of those who are glad to participate in God’s redemptive work for the world. Non-participation, or false participation, will always go with severe judgment. The old covenant had it, the new is not getting rid of it anytime soon. Not even if Martin Luther wants to.

The Kingdom of God And Education–Questioning The Ghanaian Church’s Perspective

Three weeks ago I attended the funeral of a cousin of mine in my hometown Gbi Kledzo, one of the towns of the Gbi Traditional area whose capital, Hohoe is currently under seige by communal violence. But don’t worry, today’s post is not going to be about the raging violence. Someday I will have something to say about that, but the time is not today. I’m currently reading JH Yoder’s “Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community before the Watching World”, and his thoughts have resonated with something that bothered me at my hometown, and I can’t rest without writing these down. So here I am this evening, goaded on by Yoder to address the attitude of the church towards education and ultimately towards poverty alleviation.

I attended the Sunday memorial service for my cousin held at the local “branch” of one of the most influential churches in the Volta Region, and I did enjoy the vim and vigour with which members sang so many theologically sound and deep songs in worship of God. In spite of the conditions of poverty that abounded in their midst, their attitude of praise was indeed miles ahead of many mega churches, I must say. This church tradition’s music is something I do admire a lot theologically, but music does not make the kingdom; actions do. And I do have a lot of friends who are members of this church so I’m not mentioning names. The point however is that this problem really goes beyond this church I attended alone.  And so, I digress.

In the sermon, the preacher urged the members to be faithful in giving their weekly donations towards the building/funding of a university being built by the leadership of the denomination, as God will indeed bless them in this wise. Of course he made the usual run-around about offering and tithes, but that is a moot point if you are familiar with my view on these matters. Though this was not the greatest sermon I’d ever heard in my life, that was my point of departure, and my deviously fertile mind began to ask questions.

Seriously?

Seriously? Given the levels of poverty in this town, how many members of this church can actually be able to pay for their children’s education all the way to the university level? How many children graduate from the local primary school and even advance to SHS? What is the quality of education being received by the children of these church members to be able to compete with their colleagues in the big cities? Are these church members by virtue of their contribution to the building of this university going to get free tuition if by some miracle their children are able to make it past JHS? Is the church more interested in the empire building antiques of having a university in it’s name, or are they actually concerned about breaking the vicious cycle of poverty through education?

I listen to the political elite spew all sorts of propaganda about education, from making SHS education free to increasing enrollment through increasing capitation grants and school feeding programs, and none of them is tackling the cold hard issue – the quality of our education, whether free or not, abundant or few is simply going down the tube. And yet it is a universally accepted fact that it is better to have a smaller number of highly skilled people who are able to turn around and create wealth for the lower skilled people to benefit from, than for everybody to be illiterate. At the pace at which the world is advancing today, we must invest in bringing higher quality education to our children to be able to compete, to be able to break the cycle of poverty that exists in our communities. Instead today, quality education is the preserve of the rich and middle class, and that is the end of the matter. As usual with politicians, they have simply lost the plot.

Top Down, or Bottom Up?

And so when I see our Archbishops, Moderators, Presidents, General Overseers etc busily competing with each other to also build universities so they can put their church’s name on it, I’m indeed saddened. Are we interested in dealing with the problems at the root, or do we want to continue with the superficial window dressing, all in the name of empire building? If we are, then we must not be tackling the problem from the top (university level where it is always the easiest to do and we can make the most money to continue feeding the church elite) but rather begin to focus on the weak foundations (which admittedly is harder to do and will cost us more in time and energy, but whose effectiveness is well proven). If not, then I wonder what difference there is between the church and the political structures of the day?

Because as Jesus showed in Lk 4:18-21, his coming is the source of good news to the poor, the oppressed, the destitute and the imprisoned. Our unfamiliarity with the history of the times of second Judaism clouds our ability to understand Jesus in these texts. For his coming was supposed to break the oppression that was being meted out by the rich Jew on his fellow Jew who was in debt and had sold himself into slavery to repay the debt. As Ex 21:1-11 and Lev 25 showed, after 6 years of service, no matter how high the debt, people were to be set free. And after 50 years, all property sold as a result of poverty is to returned to the poor. But then as it is today, the heart of the rich in this world has not been very open to obedience to the word of God regarding how to treat the poor, and it’s not about to change anytime in this age and in this worldly kingdom.

And so if Christ’s coming is good news to the poor, how is the church using education as a tool to uplift the poor? How is building a university good news to the poor and oppressed in the Kledzo church, when their children will never be able to progress academically to get there? And who says that until a person is able to attend the university, they don’t have enough education to make a change in society? As my sister Priscilla put it at our church meeting this morning, “if Jesus is the head and we are the body, then we the body act out what the head has thought up. If not, we have become dysfunctional, and might end up in a mental institution, or at worst in the mortuary.”

And So

And so I draw on a familiar story around me to make the point as to the Church’s ineffectiveness and lack of imagination when it comes to being the bearer of good news;  I refer to the ability of someone from Norway to make millions from his business and give back to society not by donating to charities unknown or giving to the corrupt politicians in the government of Ghana to fill their pockets, but actually building a school to train software entrepreneurs in Africa. I refer to Jorn Lyseggen and to the Meltwater Enterprieneural School of Technology model only because here is a person attempting to deal with problems the hard way, but definitely the more effective way. In this particular circumstance as the popular saying goes, he has been more Catholic than the Pope, an effort worth commending.

The church has the greatest capacity to bring change in EACH COMMUNITY in which it is found, if it is minded to be faithful to its king and to his kingdom agenda. This is why Jesus said he will build his church, and the gates of Hell will not overcome it. The kingdom of God is amongst us, and we must not collect people to fill up our pews only to build empires to fill up the elite leadership’s egos of importance. The Messianic age has already began now and the violent enter it by force (Mt 11:12) – we must not tell the poor to wait till they go to heaven to experience it. That theology is totally pagan (i.e. Greek) and has no Jewish underpinnings whatsoever.

Are we building up those whom God made in his own image and has rescued with his own blood, or are we creating empires for self-glorification?

How NOT To Be a False Prophet

Many will wonder why this article is titled this way. I mean, apparently there is an explosion of the word of God on the African continent, if you haven’t noticed. But the answer is simple – having heard a lot of sermons, I find it painful, if not appalling, that very few have stuck with me. I’ve had to downrightly condemn a lot of contemporary sermons as falsehood. Don’t worry, I’m not going to get on the high horse of super morality or spiritual knowledge. On the contrary, there are certain underlying principles about the word of God which enable us to discern when what we are hearing is NOT the word of God. As I always state, my writings are only an attempt to unearth just a little corner of the truth – the rest is up to God himself to reveal to us as we earnestly seek to know Him (Heb 11:6).

Conventional wisdom always informs us to tackle anything starting from a definition of the purpose, after which we define the process. Therefore it behoves us to first establish the purpose of the word of God, after which we look at the process that it seeks to achieve. We’ll look at the well beaten passage of 2 Ti 3:16-17 to help define the purpose.

Scripture Leads To Righteousness

All Scripture is God-breathed, and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Ti 3:16).

Isn’t it interesting that the four cardinal uses of the word of God are all related to “straightening” or “guiding” us in the right way i.e. through teaching, rebuking, correcting and training? This training is done to teach us righteousness, so that we will be equipped for every good work. But how does knowing righteousness make us “thoroughly equipped for every good work”. Because according to Heb 5:13-14, that is the only means by which we know the will of God , and stay away from evil.

Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use, have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil” (Heb 5:13-14).

Righteousness Shows Us The Will of God

Remember what the forbidden tree in the Garden of Eden was called? The tree of the knowledge of good and evil. What has this got to do with the above passage? The cardinal sin of the human race is our drive to establish our independence from God by deciding that we know what is good and what is evil i.e. we make our own choices. This nature of independence does not go away when we are born again, and must continuously (“by constant use”) be made to submit to what God defines as good or evil. That is when we will be said to be doing the will of God. Therefore, being trained in righteousness is knowing and doing what God says is good, not what our flesh, the world or the devil says is good. According to the above then, it is very dangerous to continuously feed on milk because then we will never be able to discern the will of God and do the same.

The importance of the word of God in achieving this maturity and perfection cannot be overstated, given the Apostle Paul’s command to the elders of the Ephesian church – a church he had started and nurtured – when he was about to leave them on another of his journeys.

Now I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among those who are sanctified” (Ac 20:32)

Here, the image of building a house or structure is used to describe the process of maturity, which should ultimately lead them to their inheritance – an inheritance which was promised from the foundation of the earth, to all spiritual descendants of Abraham – the inheritance of sonship with the Christ in God’s kingdom (Lk 22:28-30, Heb 12:28, Ro 8:17-20, Ro 8:29). This inheritance is described in several places of the New Testament as the hope of true disciples, and Ro 15:4 gives us clearly how by the “word of His grace” we have that same hope.

For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures, we might have hope.” (Ro 15:4).

Doing God’s Will Brings Perfection

The above notwithstanding, God wants us to arrive at the point when His will becomes perfect for us, not just good; “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Rom 12:2). Then we would have achieved what Jesus Christ told His listeners on the mount; “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). We would then have joined the ranks of the Abraham and Job, who were described as blameless (Gen 17:1, Job 1:1).

Having done these righteous acts – acts which are according to the good, pleasing and perfect will of God – we would then be qualified to be a part of the wedding feast of Christ and his bride – the church.

Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear. Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints”(Rev 19:7-8)

It is interesting to note that the bride is adorned with our righteous acts i.e. we all will be wearing our righteous acts on that wedding day – I shudder to think of what will happen to those who do not have any. I believe the Parable of the Wedding Banquet (Matt 22:1-14) holds the answer to the latter. As I’ve said before, the parables that Jesus spoke were not just stories, but things that will happen before, during and after he comes. He was only revealing the future.

I believe that by understanding these underlying foundations of what God’s will is for us and how He intends for His word to achieve it, we can by the guidance of the Spirit of God determine clearly when a certain “good news” (the word Gospel means “good news”) may not be good news after all.

The True Prophet

Because of this vision of God for the work that His word is supposed to achieve in us, it then becomes very essential to have this as the basis of understanding and expounding the word of God. Because of the fallibility of man and the tendency to only look at our circumstances when we come to God, there is also no doubt the tendency to twist the word of God to our advantage. This was what motivated Paul to strongly warn his “son” Timothy about the discharge of his duty as an apostle to the church in Ephesus – and it immediately follows in 2 Tim 4 right after stating the source and purpose of the word of God in the previous chapter as we’ve seen above.

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction.” 2 Tim 4:1-2 (emphasis mine)

The true prophet of God seeks to present the ever unchanging purpose and vision of God in all it’s different lights, and rejects any inclinations to water down or misrepresent that purpose. As a result, they teach with:

  1. great patience – because their aim is to make that vision as clear and comprehensible as possible. Such people are not in the business of numbers, but of ensuring that those over whom they are shepherds become “men of service”, such that together with their sheep, they “all may reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ”. (Eph 4:11-13).

  2. careful instruction – because nothing of that vision should be left out. As much as it lies with them and is within their power as the Spirit enables them they, like Paul, would have been deemed NOT to have “hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God” (Act 20:27).

The False Prophet

On the contrary, it is VERY easy to become a false prophet. In fact, we are living in an age where the false prophets far outnumber the true ones and are making the loudest noise with their own version of “the word of God”, and I live in full confidence of the fact that until God intervenes, there is only going to be more of them. And it is simply because they are in the business of telling us what our ears want to hear. Immediately after warning Timothy about how he should preach the word of God, Paul adds that:

For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.”(2 Tim 4:2)

Many of such men are busy in the enterprise of gaining worldly accolades and fame and they have totally abandoned the way of truth. I think we forget that the way to God is always a narrow one, and only a few find it. It is for such men that this was written:

For as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things.” (Phil 3:18-19)

I have made reference to some of these so called “words of God” in some of my previous posts, but one such “gospel” which is on an unfortunate ascendency is the so called “motivational gospel”. This gospel has become so widespread that even our “good old” traditional protestant churches are being swallowed by it. To start with, I find it very glaring that most of the passages that refer to the purpose of the word of God place little emphasis on “motivation” or “encouragement”. There is rather an abundance of “teaching”, “rebuking”, “correcting” etc. Secondly, where we are encouraged by these passages, they are to motivate us to run the race of faith, whose evidence is in absolute obedience to God. We should be motivating ourselves to set our minds heavenwards, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God (Col 3), and work towards preparing our garments of righteous acts that will be given back to us to wear at the wedding of Christ and His bride. We should be reminding ourselves that our citizenship is in heaven, not on this earth (Phil 3:20-21).

You see, when a people keep their focus on this life and it’s pleasures, and continue to teach, encourage and “motivate” only in the direction of “God is here to solve your problems” and “God is here to make you rich” and “Your enemies are out to destroy you”; when a people’s total focus is on being the “head and not the tail” even more so in their business and social endeavours; when a people live for the day when men will acclaim them as having been “great” men “blessed” by God; when people will go to the ends of the earth to proclaim their faith but live in a neighbourhood where their poor next door neighbour is even afraid to approach them, I beg to differ that such persons have the word of God dwelling within them.

Instead of reminding these poor souls who come to warm their pews every Sunday of the glorious authority and rule that awaits them in Christ’s future kingdom (2 Ti 4:7; Mt 19:27; Rev 20:4-6), of building them up into men of service (Eph 2:11-13), of allowing them to serve one another with their God given spiritual gifts (1 Cor 14:26;1 Pe 4:8-11; Col 3:16) we find these prophets only talking about how God will bless them on this imperfect earth marked for destruction by the same word of God.

Instead of reminding them of their calling to do good works (Eph 2:10; Tit 2:14; Rev 19:8) and above all to display the love that is the ultimate mark of our discipleship (Jn 13:34-35), they are busy in protecting the unscriptural institution called “the clergy” and building marvellous church buildings, forgetting that the people are the church. Instead of feeding the sheep and laying down their lives for them (Jn 10:11-12;2 Thess 3:7-9), they are busy feeding on the sheep (Ez 34:3; Phil 3:18-19).

Didn’t God promise the land of Caanan to all those he rescued from Egypt? Indeed, if “There were about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children” (Ex 12:37), why did God reject all of them and allow only two out of that generation – Joshua and Caleb – to enter the promised land? And God is good, making sure that the occurrences of the Exodus were recorded for us, “For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers that our forefathers were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea …Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered over the desert. Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did” (1 Co 10:1;5-6). Oh the lessons we have to learn from that Exodus!

I guess some of us are waiting for the day when Christ judges our works as depicted in 1 Cor 3:11-14, before we realise that it’s about quality, not quantity. My first fear is that it will be too late and too costly to wait for that discovery. But my greater fear is that if we keep on this path of disobedience, we will not even make it to that judgement, simply because we do not have anything to bring before Christ for testing. Like the unfaithful servant in The Parable of the Talents (Matt 25:14-30), we will most certainly be amongst those “weeping and gnashing” their teeth.

Faith of the Centurion

Recently I’d been reading on what the NIV appropriately titles as “The Faith of the Centurion” in Luke 7:1-10. This passage taught me a lesson on faith, and I want to put down my perspective of it as gleaned from this passage. Of course I’m only going to scratch the surface of this topic, since there are a million and one other writings on this most important issue.

The story goes of a servant of a centurion who was valued highly by his master fell ill. The centurion sends the elders of the Jews to see Jesus and plead for him to heal the servant. Jesus agreed to go, but on the way the centurion sends friends to Jesus saying

Lk 7:6-8 “(6) … Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. (7) That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you. But say the word, and my servant will be healed. (8) For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, ‘Go’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come’, and he comes. I say to my servant, ‘Do this’ and he does it.”

Jesus later expressed surprise at the faith of this centurion, telling the crowd following him that he hasn’t found such great faith in Israel, and when the centurion’s friends returned, the servant was healed.

I pondered over why Jesus said he hadn’t found such faith before, and what the Holy Spirit taught me I want to share here. I’ll call these the steps to faith.

Belief in An Almighty God

As a military man, the centurion was well versed with the notion of authority. He himself was “under authority, with soldiers under me”. He is able to give instructions to his soldiers, and they must be carried out, or they face the penalty of death. In the same way, his statements show a conviction that Jesus was a man of might and authority over the spiritual realm (and by extension the physical as well). In other words, he was God or sent from God – and the centurion considered himself unworthy to receive Jesus under his roof. Jesus only needed to give a command. This tallies with what the writer of Hebrews said about God.
Heb 11:6 “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him

In this day and age of increasing rebellion against God conveniently named “atheism”, it is very important that any form of faith that can be considered Christian faith be first founded on the fact that there is an Almighty God whose will we must seek to do. I recently had an arguement with a professing Christian who had a lot of questions to ask about why Christians do what they do, and I had to remind them that if they did not believe in God’s existence, then no answer I could give will be enough to convince them. I believe I’m writing to Christians and therefore do not need to go into the intricacies of the existence of God.

Absolute and Resolute Belief in His Word

But say the word, and my servant will be healed”. Having established the fact that Jesus was a man of authority as he himself was, he goes on to tell him to just “say the word”. For us Christians who already express a belief in God, this statement is of unparalleled importance. It is the difference between living faith and dead faith, between commitment and lukewarmness, between the good servant and the unfaithful one.
Faith is not founded on emotions. It leads to emotions. It is not founded on logic. It leads to logic and wisdom – and is one of the reasons why Paul discourages arguements based not on the authority of the word of God but on logic. Faith is founded on the word of God, and our obedience to it. Heb 11:1 defines faith as
Now faith is being sure of what we hope for, and certain of what we do not see.” And this is exactly what the centurion expressed.

But how can we achieve this? We believe in God, but we’ve not seen him before. How can we be “certain of what we do not see”?

  • We are certain because he told us so. Ge 15:5-6 “He took him outside and said, ‘Look up at the heavens and count the stars – if indeed you can count them’. The he said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be’. Abraham believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness”

    Abraham believed God’s promise or God’s word, and God considered him righteous. Note what Jesus said in Jo 6:47 “He who believes … has everlasting life” – not shall have. In the same way by believing in God’s word, God immediately imputed righteousness to Abraham. Faith is based on accepting God’s word – very simple.

  • They say seeing is believing. But seeing before believing is not faith. Faith is based on what has been said by God before, and clinging to them then brings the physical manifestation of them.

Jo 11:39-40 “Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone’. Martha, the sister of him who was dead, said to Him, ‘Lord, by this time there is a stench, for he has been dead four days’. Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not say to you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?”

  • What is the guarantee that the word of God is true? That what God has written in his word will come to pass? Because His word is truth. Jesus told his disciples in Jo 15:3 “You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you”. Ah, so the word of God can cleanse us? Then know these as well:

Jo 17:17 “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth”.

2 Sa 7:28 “O Sovereign Lord, you are God! Your words are trustworthy …”

Jo 14:6 “Jesus answered, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the father except through me’”

Jn 1:14 “The word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”

These expound emphatically one of most fundamental declarations of the nature of God and His word. You cannot believe in one and ignore the other. You cannot claim a belief in God but ignore His word or vice versa.

Confession and Appropriation

It is important to note that what the centurion believed, he did not keep to himself. He personally sent some elders to Jesus to plead on his behalf for his servant’s healing. Believing that Jesus Christ could heal his servant was not enough to save him – taking the steps to see that happen was.
This is the point where faith has an emotional manifestation. A genuine faith will always be confessed and acted upon by its professor.
Ro 10:8-10 “… (8) But what does it say? ‘The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,’ that is, the word of faith we are proclaiming: (9) That if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (10) For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.”
Note that v 9-10 are preceded by v 8, – “the word of faith we are proclaiming” confirms what we have concluded before that faith is based on God’s word. However, the residence of faith is not in the mind. It is in the heart. This is where faith and emotions meet.
We all know that it is emotions that drive us to do what we do. Remember, every decision is pondered in the mind. Once the mind is made up, we begin to act on our decisions with our emotions now taking over. This is how a Christian is able to withstand all the pressures that the devil brings against him – because he/she takes the word of God personal. We can’t begin to really experience faith in God if we will not allow it to take control of our hearts. How many references are there to people storing up the word “in their heart”?

Ps 31:30-31 “The mouth of the righteous man utters wisdom, and his tongue speaks what is just. The law of his God is in his heart; his feet do not slip”

Ps 119:11 “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you”

Pr 3:1-3 “My son, do not forget my teaching, but keep my commands in your heart, for they will prolong your life many years and bring you prosperity. Let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the table of your heart.

I could go on and give all the listed verses from the small concordance in my study Bible (I’m sure a bigger concordance will give me almost more than twice what I have here) but the point is still made – the repository of faith is the heart. The word must be stored in the heart, which is the driving seat of human body. So faith and emotions are very compatible because true faith leads to action, but it’s foundation is the word of God.

Allow me to digress a bit here – faith is different from hope, which is stored up in the mind. Someone pointed out to me 1 Th 5:8

1 Th 5:8 “But let us who are of the day be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet the hope of salvation

Faith and love emanates from the heart and must be protected by a breastplate. Hope is in the mind. Also faith is here and now – it is an active thing, not something of the future. Remember the number of people Jesus healed because they had faith in him. He didn’t say they should wait for a future resurrection before they receive their healing. He healed them there and then. So even though something we may be claiming from God by faith has not yet manifested, continuing in the faith that what you asked has already been provided is what makes what your desire come true.

Jas 1:5,6 “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God …. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind”.

See another example of the distinction between faith and hope. Col 3:3-4 points out that by faith you are now in Christ, but your hope is to be glorified with him when he appears.

Col 3:3 “For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God”

Col 3:4 “When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory”.

Most often but not always, references to hope in the NT are to future events of glory, whiles references to faith are to a present status of a disciple relative to Christ or His word.

Living out Your Faith

Although not exhibited by the centurion in our passage, I cannot close this article on faith without talking about living out your faith. You have believed God’s existence and believed in His word. You have stored up his word in your heart and confessed him with your mouth. Aren’t these enough? Well, I’ll raise a few hairs here by saying that going through these things guarantees you a place in His kingdom, but not an inheritance in it. Why? Because faith without works is dead. We’ve already established that saving faith does not depend on anything but repenting from sin and believing that Jesus Christ is Lord. Period. No rituals, no “works of righteousness” or “penance” or “good deeds” is required. It is free, by grace and by faith.
Eph 2:8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.

But there is a purpose for that salvation through grace. Interestingly it is stated in the same breath as this one is, but I can count the number of times I’ve heard somebody preach about it in the same breath as the one stated above.

Eph 2:10 For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Tit 2:14 Who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.

The purpose of salvation by grace is so we can show our faith by our works – works which God has prepared way in advance for us. Note I didn’t say gain faith by our works but show forth our faith by our works. Works is the evidence of faith, not the guarantee of it.

Jam 2:14-19 “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith, I have deeds’. Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that – and shudder.”

I believe this passage does not require a rocket scientist to understand, as my brother Odarno will tell you. However, I’ve heard some prosperity preacher massacre this passage beyond recognition before and I only pray for God’s mercy for him.

The passage in James also matches what Jesus said in Jn 15:1-2

Jn 15:1-2 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off ever branch in me that does not bear fruit”.

Note that the branch that is cut of was already IN Jesus the tree. This signifies one who is already a self-declared Christian, but who is bearing no fruit. Such a person on the day of Christ’s return for the first resurrection will be sent straight to the lake of fire, where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth”. My next post will go into more details on this issue of the faithful and unfaithful servant.

But what are these works? Well, they are simply works done in the love of God. In the same Jn 15, Jesus talks about “remaining in his love”. This love is the love given by God himself, and it is the same standard that Christ requires of us.

Jn 15:9 “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love

Jn 13:34-35 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another”.

Eph 1:4 “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons …”

In all these passages, the word love here refers to the “Agape” love. This love can only be given us by the Holy Spirit.

Ro 5:5 “And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.”

Gal 5:22 “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy , peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law”

Well, I need not say more on this. If there is no evidence of faith in our lives, we need to look again at it because even the demons claim faith in God, but we all know their destination. And if our works done in faith are not motivated by the love of God, they become worthless deeds, and stand the chance of being called evil deeds.

Mt 7:22 “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles? Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”

Conclusion

To conclude, there is no doubt about the importance of works after faith. Rev 19:7-8 tells you explicitly what they are for.

Rev 19:7-8 “Let us rejoice and be glad and five him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean was given here to wear (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints)”

The KJV says “righteousness of the saints” but almost all other translations have the above rendering. If you do not have any righteous acts to contribute to the garment, where do you think you will be? Your guess is as good as mine. Are you still warming the pew?

The Importance of Purpose & Process

I talked with a friend about the Gospel of the Kingdom the other day, explaining what it was and how our preaching of the gospel had deviated from what the apostles preached. However one argument of hers was that people should not come to God with the idea that he will reward them with co-heirship in the kingdom, but should just serve him because he is God who created us and who has forgiven our sins and therefore demands our service. I disagreed though and attempted to articulate the importance of Purpose and Process in everything that God does (though I’d never fully though of this separation before this discussion). Finally we came to a consensus that the gospel of today was fundamentally flawed and that Christians needed to take a second look at what we preach to avoid what I call a “heavenly disappointment”.

I’m currently reading the book of Exodus, and I find it interesting the exact measurements that God gives for the building of the Tabernacle, the Ark of the Testimony etc. all the way down to the way the priests should be dressed. I’m a New Testament Christian and definitely do not live according to the Law. But from Heb 8:1-2; 9:24, God was really mirroring the tabernacle above. He knew what he was seeing above and his purpose was to replicate that here on earth, though in a less perfect way.

Heb 8:1-2 The point of what we are saying is this: We do have such a high priest, who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, and who serves in the sanctuary, the true tabernacle set up by the Lord, not by man.

Heb 9:24 For Christ did not enter a man made sanctuary that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence.

And if we believe in an unchanging God then we’ll understand that He is very purposeful about whatever He wants. And to conform to that purpose God always gives the process to attain it. But when a people begin to revere the process more than the purpose, we get legalistic righteousness – this is on the Pharisaic side of things. On the other hand when people totally ignore the process, then I wonder if they even know what the purpose is in the first place – and I believe modern Christianity is on this side. No wonder we’ll end up with disappointment when our work is tested against the purpose for it.

Much of Christianity today has become of two extremes; either of institutionalisation or emotional sentimentality. The former demands a by rote obedience to certain principles, a lot of them man-made and unscriptural. The latter an unrestrained display of ignorance all in the name of “Holy Spirit” guidance. Although principles and emotions definitely have their place in a Christian life, the important thing is whether that is what God really wants us to be doing.

To understand my argument with this friend, lets look at who Jesus is. I think that this is the most important characteristic of Jesus Christ – he is a King, a Priest, and a Prophet. Some other terms that could apply is “righteous ruler” or “royal priest” (1 Pe 2:9). Note Heb 6:20.

Heb 6:20 … He has become a high priest for ever, in the order of Melchizedek.

Ge 14:18 Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High.

Lk 1:33 And he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; his kingdom will never end.

Next who are Christians destined to be?

Ro 8:17 Now if we are children, the we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

Lk 22:29-30 And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

Eph 1:4-5 For he chose us in him before creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will.

By Romans 8: 29, Christ is our senior brother and a pattern that we are to conform to. If He is king, priest and prophet, what will you his disciple be?

For His promises on our kingdom kingship, check out Mt 19:27-28 and 2 Pe 1:10-11 as well.

The destiny of Christians is to be the people of God, sharing in the nature of Christ – as kings and priests. Simple. That is the purpose of Christianity. The process is what we call discipleship (a transformation process beginning with the new birth). From hearing the gospel of the Kingdom and submitting to it’s message for salvation, to baptism by water and Holy Spirit to bearing fruit in service to God till the end of our physical life or till Christ comes for His church. Therefore in all the examples that the New Testament gives about how the apostles preached (eg. Ac 2:14-40 and Ac 13:13-48  )  the fact was always mentioned that Christ was coming to rule over the world as promised to David and reiterated by the prophets. In fact it forms the central part of these messages, with the call to repentance and faith as describing the first step of the process. And if whoever is preaching really knows what he’s doing, he will go on after people have repented and believed to teach the foundation messages (Heb 6:1-2).

The Gospel is the entry point into the purpose of God. And I believe in all sincerity that every unbeliever must know right from the start what they are getting themselves into, the rewards of it and the righteous requirements (Ro 8:4) that need to be fulfilled for that reward. Then the preaching of the gospel becomes purposeful. This is not about motivating people to become Christians because of a certain promise of a kingdom, as my friend had a problem with. God’s covenants with people of the bible have always been purposeful and motivating. When God called Abraham, the first statements out of God’s mouth after he told him to leave his father’s land were promises to make him into a great nation. He didn’t just tell him to leave his father’s house because “I’m God” or because “I have forgiven your sins”. Even Abraham with these promises, faltered along the way by going for Hagar to get a child. Even he with the greatest motivation to serve God in the world failed along the line to be faithful to God. That is why when God calls you, he gives you hope. And this hope has been the foundation of the Israeli nation over all these generations. If we are children of a better covenant, will God not do the same?

Col 1:4-5 Because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saints – the faith and love that spring from hope that is stored up for you in heaven and that you have already heard about in the word of truth, the gospel.

Col 1:12 Giving thanks to the father who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light.

This is the hope on which the Colossian’s faith and love was based. This is my analogy between hope, faith and love. Hope keeps where we are going in mind. Faith is the walking stick with which we take each step towards that place of hope. Love is the test of whether we really are on track to achieve that hope. When the disciples in Antioch were despairing because of their persecutions, what did the Apostle Paul say to them? How did he encourage them to go on?

Ac 14:22 Strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God”.

He reminded them of the hope of a kingdom, stressing that there is no easy way to get there. If there was no real hope in being a disciple of Christ, then what is the whole point of it?

1 Co 15:19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.

Certainly the preaching of the gospel today is an explicit example of not following the process – examples of preaching the gospel in the Bible – because most of us don’t even know the purpose of our Christianity. This confusion of purpose is the same reason that most of us don’t understand why God called us into a world visible unified church and why a denominational stance is against the will of God and is simple disobedience. And so we think however we do it does not matter.

Let me give this scenario to put a point across. While in Kumasi, I noticed that so many Methodist churches were named after John Wesley, and this was the case even on most of the Methodist churches I saw on my 5 hour journey back to Accra. My stance against denominationalism aside, I’m here just considering the purpose of the church – the body of Christ. We are called into a family where God is the Father, and Jesus Christ the first born brother. As we have established already, conforming to Christ is the purpose of a true Christian. He (Christ) alone is our purpose and every respect and honour is to be given to Him.

Ro 8:29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.

Eph 3:14-15 For this reason I kneel before the father, from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name.

Heb 2:17 For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.

In every endeavour the purpose must always supersede the process. But as human as we are we have classically focused on the processes – what they are and how they are brought about. And this is truly a testament to how carnal we’ve become as Christians of today when Paul recognised the same tendency in the Corinthian church, rebuking them for aligning themselves with people who are only part of the process or who are a means to bring about this purpose.

1 Co 3:1-4 Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly – mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarrelling among you are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men? For when one says, “I follow Paul”, and another “I follow Apollos” are you not mere men?

So I ask the Methodists (and not just them but Christianity in general). Why have they paid more attention and respect to the process or means rather than the purpose? Why have they revered John Wesley more than the word of God? If you don’t believe me speak to a Methodist and he will tell you how proud they are to be followers of the Wesleyan tradition – whatever that is. (Oh by the way, another example is the International Central Gospel Church branches I’ve seen nationwide, who put the picture of their “founder” on all their signboards. I could give a million and one of these.)

John Wesley came to achieve a set purpose for a set time. The word of God is revealed in portions and continues to be additional to what has previously been revealed. Do they mean to tell me that since his time centuries ago, God hasn’t given any other direction/revelation concerning the Christian life that they may live by them as well?

If there is one thing I’ve come to believe, it’s enshrined in 2 Ti 4:2: The word of God is complete.

2 Ti 4:2 Preach the word, be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage – with great patience and careful instruction.

(By the way I have a lot to say about “correct, rebuke and encourage” and I’ll do that by God’s grace in my next post.)

  1. We cannot preach it better than it was preached and written down for us in the Bible. It behoves us to ask for the Spirit’s leading to know the purpose of every word written the way it is so we can preach it the way it is.

  2. We must teach it with the 2 ingredients above – great patience and careful instruction. There shall be no haste about it’s preaching or it’s desired effect will not be realised. It is very easy for us to think that we can preach or teach the word of God anyhow and still get the same results. But the end result of such haste and disregard is recorded in the next verse.

2 Ti 4:3 For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.

I hope none of us become either one of the “great number of teachers” or those who are eager to listen to “what their itching ears want to hear”.