Live by the Spirit

When I saw the name Ellen Fowler (d.1929), I wondered if we’re kin. She was an English novelist, combining romance and religion. I decided to take up her Fuel of Fire (1902) just from curiosity.

Her character Rufus Webb is a man who had served as a missionary to China, but suffered great loss. He believed God expected great effort and sacrifice from His pitiful creatures. In one scene, a young lady brought him roses and good cheer, but he dashed them to the floor saying, “For His sake I have put away from me all pleasant things and have abjured the world with its many delights; in the hope that when He sees my anguish and humiliation He may turn again to me and forgive me my sin.”

It is a tragedy to be misjudged, especially if God is on the docket. Much in the Pauline epistles addresses counter-intuitive concepts about how God intends for us to live as Christians. We struggle with what it means to be free, but righteous.

In 25 years of pastoral experience, I have known many Rufus Webb’s who believe Christianity requires a mostly joyless life of toil and servitude trying to meet an impossible standard. The ancient Galatians made that mistake after they received Christ. They abandoned their freedom in Christ for food rules, calendar observances, and circumcision, which only increased their self-righteousness.

It is a mistake for anything to belie the sufficiency of Christ for your righteousness, and the centrality of the Holy Spirit for your freedom. Paul writes, “If righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly,” and, “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? (Gal. 2:21, 3:3). He contemplates two possibilities: either live by your own ideas, motives, and strength (“the flesh”), or by God’s work of grace (“the Spirit”).

To say that God’s grace through faith makes you righteous is NOT to say that it doesn’t matter what you do. Paul expected that charge. “May it never be! Shall we who died to sin still live in it?” (Rom. 6:2). The love of Christ and the presence of the Spirit set you free to live righteously as a new creation. The community of believers stimulates that new way in you.

As Rufus Webb lay dying, he spoke with the Vicar, “I have served Him and feared Him with all my heart.”

“That may be: but you have neither loved Him nor trusted Him, and by your unbelief you have crucified Him afresh.”

“I wonder if you are right, and if I have misjudged Him all these years.”

“I am sure of it.”

God wants you free to bear the fruit of love, joy, and peace. “If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit” (Gal. 5:25).

Faith v. Science

John Lennox is a math professor (emeritus) at Oxford. If you were to hear him speak, you’d agree that he is affable, unassuming, and disarming. And smart. He holds seven academic degrees, including three doctorates.

In his latest book, Can Science Explain Everything? he tells a story from early in his career. The Soviet Union’s university in Novosibirsk invited him to lecture. The faculty welcomed him, but were perplexed by his belief in God. So they filled an auditorium to hear him explain.

He told them that the great pioneers of modern science were men of faith. Galileo, Pascal, Newton, and others had foundational impact on the modern sciences of mathematics, astronomy, physics, and chemistry. Their faith was not an incidental detail. Their biblical worldview made modern science possible. Lennox quoted historian Edwin Judge: “The modern world is the product of a revolution in scientific method…Both experiment in science and the citing of sources as evidence in history, arise from the worldview of Jerusalem, not Athens, from Jews and Christians.” His audience realized that scientific atheism had denied them these significant details.

As science discovers more of the intricate details of nature, only a relentless ideological commitment can stifle the obvious evidence of a Designer. Yet the modern zeitgeist would still drive a scientific wedge between people and our Creator. That’s not new. In the oldest book in the Bible, God poses questions to such revisionists. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding, who set its measurements? Since you know. Or who stretched the line on it? On what were its bases sunk?” (Job 38:4-6).

Jesus was there, and He will forever know more science than we do. “By Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible… all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together” (Col. 1:16-17).

Many notable scientists reject the ideology of scientific atheism. In the 20th C., over 70% of Nobel Prize Laureates in chemistry and physics were Christians. So don’t be fooled by the false dilemma of faith v. science. The work of ancient and modern scientists is compatible with faith, and it strengthens ours as we discover more about the mind of God.

Even as we cheer on scientists with a Biblical worldview, we know science is limited. “Can science explain everything?” No. It may answer what is, but it cannot explain why you are here and what the transcendent meaning of life really is. But your Creator can. Perhaps heaven is a place of intrigue and discovery where we can eternally learn what temporal science cannot teach.

Blasphemy or Doxology

Blasphemy has been in the news of late. It’s a harsh word we tend to avoid in everyday use. A more accessible synonym is “slander,” defined as false and malicious speech against someone. So if blasphemy is false words against God, its antonym could be doxology, true words to God.

Ireland voted in late 2018 to remove blasphemy as a constitutional offence. It became an issue when actor Stephen Fry opined on TV about a god who is mean, stupid, and maniac. The Irish police investigated, and could have levied a fine of 25,000 euros. They dropped the case because not enough people were outraged. I wouldn’t have been either, since I don’t know the god Mr. Fry described. If he was addressing his Creator, I’d suggest that’s between the two of them.

Apparently Pakistan has defended its blasphemy law by pointing to Ireland’s constitution. It’s an issue that has roiled that country, especially concerning the case of a Christian woman, Asia Bibi. Pakistan imprisoned her for blasphemy from 2009 until 2018, when three high court judges acquitted her. Now she and her family are in hiding as vigilante radicals search house to house. She awaits asylum, but not even the country founded on religious freedom has stepped forward. (That’s US.)

A hero of the Christian faith was once a blasphemer, by his own admission. Paul wrote, “I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor. Yet I was shown mercy because I acted ignorantly in unbelief.” Perhaps Mr. Fry was similarly afflicted. Paul doesn’t dwell on his reckless unbelief. Instead, he speaks of the grace, love, and mercy of God toward the “foremost of sinners” (himself), and his own faith and gratitude to Christ Jesus our Lord. In fact, as Paul writes about the patience of Christ towards him, he becomes enraptured. “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen!” (1 Tim. 1:12-17)

Did you see what happened there? He abandoned blasphemy and embraced doxology. Wow, do we need more of that in our culture today! You can detect the cultural blasphemies that contradict the truth of God in these: “Male and female He created them.” “A man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife.” “You formed my inward parts; you wove me in my mother’s womb.”

How do you sail your ship against these cultural headwinds? Well, first, know what you believe. If you’re not sure, consider the evidence in nature of a Creator God. Next, trust who God has revealed Himself to be, and believe what He says about you in the Bible. Finally, say true words to and about God, from whom all blessings flow to all creatures here below. And pray for mercy.

“Re” Words

Taking stock of your life is so human. The changing of the calendar is a natural time to do it, especially when you have holiday time off to ponder how your relatives have changed since you last saw them. Or, as in the case of some of us, how our families have one less member.

Wanting things to be better, to be renewed, is a common longing. Every decent longing has a sublime object, even if we do not realize it. This one is no different. We yearn for renewal because God does. In “Restoring All Things,” Warren Smith writes, “The Bible is not a book about how to have a better life or how to handle life’s problems. It is a book that explains the universe and how God is in the process of redeeming and restoring it to its original good, true, and beautiful state.”

The Christian faith understands the world as it is, one that includes evil and brokenness. That falls on each of us human beings, so God offers us a fresh start, a re-birth. That is the way Jesus reached out to Nicodemus, who countered, “How can these things be?” Jesus proceeded to explain His identity as the Son, His atoning sacrifice, and His offer of eternal life. By faith you are reborn (John 3).

As you reflect, you may realize you need to change course. The word for that is repentance, but in the Bible it means far more than “turning over a new leaf.” It means you have turned away from what you were, and embraced your new identity in Christ. It means you “walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16).

Once I was speaking to dear souls recovering from substance abuse. One said, “Sometimes I wish I could take my brain out, wash it, and put it back in.” What a revealing statement about the junk habits and memories you can accumulate, to your detriment! The Bible says you can be transformed by the renewing of your mind. This happens when you present your body to God as a living and holy sacrifice, no longer conformed to the world (Rom. 12:1-2).

As you review your life, remember that as God has reconciled you, you are now a reconciler. This is how you participate in the work of God in this world. Redemption is within the grasp of your inquiring friends, as God is willing to reconcile them too, not counting their trespasses against them (2 Cor. 5:18-20).

All of these “re” words reveal a story about a loving God and people He created, you in particular. So, yes, take stock of your life now in the first few days of 2019, and believe God’s grand narrative that includes you finding your good, true, and beautiful state of being.