Ten Obstacles to Saving Faith: Introduction and Obstacle One

In his letter to the church in Rome, the Apostle Paul sets out to defend the gospel of Jesus Christ. Part of that defense of the gospel is faith. Throughout this letter, Paul gives meaning to faith by association with the contents of the gospel. The center of that gospel is Jesus Christ. He associates faith with the following:

  • grace (Romans 1:5; 5:2; 12:3)
  • righteousness (1:17)
  • Christ’s sacrificial death (3:25),
  • justification (3:28, 30; 4:5; 5:1)
  • righteousness (4:11-13; 9:30-32; 10:6-8)
  • God’s promises and inheritance (4:13-20)
  • obedience (1:5; 16:26)

All of these comprise the meaning of God’s saving act toward us. They stand in contrast to our alienation from God and unbelief resulting in rebellion against and rejection of Him. In the first chapter of Romans, Paul sets out ten obstacles to saving faith, which prevent people from coming into relationship with God both in our existing life and in the life to come of eternity. These obstacles resist the above listed benefits from God and reflect unbelief. This article addresses the first obstacle with subsequent articles taking up each of the others. While Paul writes of these obstacles from the perspective of those who reject God and fail to believe Him, Christians can also stand in the way of enjoying relating to God and enjoying His presence in life through not believing God in the benefits He offers.  This is not to say that Christians do not possess these benefits.  Rather, believers can doubt them and fall into a similar life as someone who does not believe the gospel and the benefits it brings them.

In laying out the condition of all humanity in Romans 1-2, Paul sets forth a heavy indictment of those who reject God. Among the first of these indictments include ungodliness and unrighteousness. He writes,

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Romans 1:18).

Notice that ungodliness and unrighteousness begin a downward spiral. The first of their acts is the suppression of truth. Once this suppression occurs, indignity toward God results in dishonoring him. That follows with lack of gratitude leading to futile thinking and a dark heart. Once rejection of God and His glory thrusts Him down through dishonor and ingratitude, it leads to lifting up a claim to wisdom and ultimately full-blown idolatry.  A claim to the wisdom of which Paul notes, is really a claim of being wiser than God for recognizing what is best for ourselves.  The wisdom of which Paul speaks leads to idolatry (1:23), that is corrupting the image of God and setting up images gods unworthy of Him.

Rejection of God takes many forms:

  • Embracing God and then turning away (apostasy)
  • Claiming that one cannot know God (agnosticism)
  • Denying that God actually exists (atheism)
  • Worshiping of other gods (polytheism) made in the image of man (idolatry)
  • Defying outright God although one knows Him (rebellion)
  • Practicing the occult and cultism (Satanism)
  • Making excuses for not embracing God by faith (self-will)

Regardless of the form, they all add up to unbelief and rejection of God. Paul makes known that unbelief is the key ingredient leading to ultimate idolatry and all of its trappings: uncleanness, lust, and dishonorable treatment of self. The list Paul makes provides a summary of the type of people who typify unbelief (Romans 1:29-31), among which consist of sexual immorality, envy, murder, strife, violence, lack of trust and love.  Idolatry is the act of the worship of gods made in the image of those things in the created order including humanity.  It is the enshrinement and placement of anything in the created order as first place before God.  All of the above listed rejections of God are idolatrous practices.

Notice that their progression begins with ungodliness and unrighteousness. These two characteristics describe the natural bent of humanity. The first term, ungodliness, refers to a lack of respect or irreverence. It is a failure to render honor. It is the negation of a bent toward the goodness that characterizes God. The second term suggests unfaithfulness or disloyalty and not imperfection. It could also describe faithlessness that exhibits wrongdoing, injustice, and wickedness. Unrighteousness is a force for all other evils, especially those that Paul sums up at the conclusion of the chapter (1:29-31).

In listing the irrational and hostile traits at the conclusion of chapter one, Paul illustrates an undeniable truth. Those who exhibit ungodliness and unrighteousness toward God conduct themselves in like manner toward their fellow humans. If they demonstrate unrighteousness toward God, they will do so toward others. If they display acts counter to the sexual design for which God created them, they will perpetrate sexual immorality as described in the Bible toward others (1:29). If they are haters of God (1:30), they will be malicious, envious, deceptive, evil-minded, violent, undiscerning, untrustworthy, unloving, and unmerciful toward others (1:29-31). Dishonor and irreverence only perpetuates the results of these characteristics toward others. The empirical evidence is obvious worldwide where we witness conflicts and wars over the material goods of the world and the desire to deprive others not only of their property but also of their lives either on an individual level or on the level of a society or nation.

Faith in God cannot stand when such turmoil and maliciousness exist. They exist or have existed within each person on the earth and in every person who has ever lived who never turned to God. For faith to exist and thrive, all individuals must recognize, admit to, and turn away from ungodliness and unrighteousness. The Bible calls this repentance. Repentance and faith must come together, and they do so only through God’s activity within the individual in turning a person from his or her own self-oriented condition toward Jesus Christ to recognize Him as the Redeemer of one’s soul.

Copyright (c) 2014 Action Faith  Books Press.  All rights reserved.  Cannot be used or stored in any form without expressed written permission from Action Faith Books Press.

“My Preferred Reading” – Have We Lost Sight of the Biblical Authors?

A few words caught my attention in Scot Mcknight’s recent blog: “My preferred reading.”  I have read that phrase a thousand times over in another phrase: “That’s your interpretation.”

McKnight responds to an article by Paul Penley, “Bible Reading Destroys the Church.”  Hmm.  McKnight poses the question: “Does Personal Bible Reading Destroy the Church?”  Penley points to the real root of the problem of interpretation – authority.  He gave the example of Martin Luther before the examining council as Johann Eck interrogated him over his published writings.  He noted that Luther highlights conscience as an almost equal authority to Scripture and thereby created a shift in authority.  He quotes Luther as declaring before the council and Eck,

I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.”1

Accordingly, conscience and opinion became almost one in authority.  Penley points out the repercussions of Luther’s declaration: a million different opinions and thousands of denominations.  To this day, that shift remains in place among Christians, “I think it means…”  The problem with such a statement, as Penley notes, is the “I” rising high in any response as an authority.  Anyone can say, “I am bound by the Scriptures,” but are they?  He said Luther became the authority himself as to which books belonged in the Bible: James? NO.  Revelation? NO.  His ‘conscience’ disallowed them as having divine authority.

If then Bible reading results in a thousand opinions and numerous denominations, how are we to come to grips with the Bible?  As I shared from a biblical passage in a Bible study group, a participant quickly exclaimed, “That’s your interpretation!”  She did not agree.  Therefore, to voice a disagreement without a corresponding reply from the text, the next best answer amounted to “That’s your interpretation.”  My reply was that if each of us approached the Bible from individual interpretation without first attempting to understand the author’s message, then we would be in effect dancing around author intent and substituting our authority for theirs and the Holy Spirit’s as He spoke through the authors.  It is easy to read our opinion into the Scriptures rather than do the hard work of discovering the author’s message.

One problem we all face is that we are so eager to “spiritualize” and personalize the Bible’s content that we ignore the author in favor of a mystical approach.  That is, the Scriptures speak directly to me.  Bible reading and study becomes all about me and what God wants of me or me to do.  It is personal revelation to me or God speaking directly to me.  “Me” is the center of Bible reading to the extent that the original audience, contexts of almost two thousand years ago, and the author’s intent take a back seat to me.  The author’s message get lost in the mystical aura of ‘God and me.”  When someone challenges the ‘God and me’ scenario, we decry, “That’s your opinion!”  In other words, you have your opinion and I have mine.  Accordingly, the Bible is not God’s holy word of truth concerning Him.  It is a book for me to pick and choose what I think God is saying personally to me.  Again, ‘me’ gets in the way of discovery and understanding God through the means He chose.  Personal application arises from opinion rather than discovery and meaning in the text.  Division quickly shows its face.  When ‘me’ stands front and center, the authors of the biblical text fade in the shadow of ‘me.”

Some questions arise, “Well then, is the Bible not for me to live by?  Does it not apply to my life? Does it not show me God’s will for my life?”  A qualified yes, yes, and yes.  Paul informs Timothy that it is for instruction, reproof, and instruction.  However, that is not everything.  It is a book revealing God and His ways.  It reveals God’s redemption.  God speaks through it to a lost world that rebelled from Him which needs reconciliation.  Therefore, we are to read it with care, seeking the messages of the various author’s.

God spoke through those whom  He chose to communicate His redeeming message to people groups in time and history.  Ours is to discover those messages within those contexts.  The word of God came to those of God’s choosing in specific contexts: culture, language, and geographical.  God had a purpose for delivering His word within those time frames.  Recognizing this helps us to gain a greater perspective so that we do not narrow God’s revealed truth to a “God and me” scenario.  Reading for discovery and meaning first and second and application third allows us to gather the facts from the Bible as well as the message arising from those facts.  God desires for us to know Him, and we do so through Jesus Christ.  God also gave us His Spirit through whom He promised would guide us into all truth (John 14:26; 15:26; 16:13).  He brings to remembrance what Jesus taught and testifies of Jesus.

Seeking a mystical experience of ‘God and me’ can overshadow the Spirit’s guidance.  Rather, reading the Bible through the eyes of the original readers in seeking the intent of the authors enables us to understand God’s eternal truths from their eyes.  The application of faith arises as we grasp the messages of individual biblical authors as they reveal God, expose our shortcomings (sin), shows us God’s faithfulness, and explain to us what it means to walk by faith.

1. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2014/09/15/does-personal-bible-reading-destroy-the-church-paul-penley/?utm_source=SilverpopMailing&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=jesuscreed_091614UTC040924_daily&utm_content=&spMailingID=46985197&spUserID=MTA2ODE4NTE0MDI0S0&spJobID=521979577&spReportId=NTIxOTc5NTc3S0

Copyright (c) 2014, Action Faith Books Press.  All rights reserved.  Not to be used without expressed written permission.

Stray Cats, Wild Animals, and the Gospel

Some years ago, a cat started coming around in the back yard. He had no identification tags but appeared well groomed and domesticated, indicating that someone had him as a pet. I later learned that a neighbor abandoned him when moving. Yet, he seemed rather skittish and kept his distance. I began putting food down for him, and he eventually allowed me to pet him. In time, I took him in the house and began sitting him in my lap and petting him. At times, when he heard an unfamiliar noise, he would freeze up. One time when a friend came over and we were sitting around talking, he suddenly dug his sharp nails in my leg and hop off my lap. I finally caught him and placed him outside. He ran away and never returned.

Sometimes stray cats become involved in the Church. They hang out and get to know people in the congregation. Eventually they begin teaching classes and becoming deacons or elders. Many of these strays appear well read in the Scriptures and know their way around them. They can speak well of basic doctrines and talk of application. Their lives reflect devotion to God and the Scriptures. Sometimes they receive Bible college or seminary degrees and go on to become professors or pastors. Eventually, they introduce questionable teachings in the pulpit, groups, or in their discussions one-on-one. These teachings at first seem simply like a different interpretation or something taken out of context, a familiar approach not unlike what normally occurs in informal group settings.
Continue reading Stray Cats, Wild Animals, and the Gospel