God’s Guidelines for the “Gray Areas” of Life: Wise Decision-Making in a Wicked World, Part 3

Ethical and moral decision-making presents a great challenge for devoted followers of Jesus in the 21st century context. In 1 Corinthians Paul provides helpful guidelines for navigating what could be called “the gray areas” of the Christian life.

These biblical principles are true anywhere, anytime and under any circumstances. They are extremely helpful in leading us to be wise decision-makers as we live out a gospel-centered ethic.

3). Will this action encourage my brother or sister in Christ?
Therefore, if food causes my brother to fall, I will never again eat meat, so that I won’t cause my brother to fall. – 1 Cor. 8:13

No one should seek his own good, but the good of the other person. – 1 Cor. 10:24

Give no offense to the Jews or the Greeks or the church of God… – 1 Cor. 10:32

Paul, for the sake of others, was willing to adjust his life that they might not be hurt or harmed. His brother or sister in Christ mattered more to him than his rights or liberties. This principle is grounded in the “mind of Christ” text of Phil. 2:3-5. For the sake of the body of Christ, your community of faith, “consider others as more important than yourselves.” Paul drives ethics to the gospel and to the cross. The gospel demands that the needs of others outweigh selfish desires. When it comes to wise decision making, a believer in Christ should always have an eye toward a potential weaker brother. John McArthur says, “Right or wrong is not the issue, but offending someone is” (Giving Up to Gain, 5). This principle was an important guide for me as a father. Being blessed by God with four sons, I did not want to do anything that could hurt them, harm them, mislead them or lead them astray. I wanted to live before them, as best I could, in a way that would encourage them to take the high road ethically and morally, and to avoid the “danger zones” that could lead to sorrow and even destruction.

4). Will this action help or hinder my gospel witness?
If others share this authority over you, don’t we even more? However, we have not used this authority; instead we endure everything so that we will not hinder the gospel of Christ. – 1 Cor. 9:12

For although I am free from all people, I have made myself a slave to all, in order to win more people. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win Jews; to those under the law, like one under the law–though I myself am not under the law–to win those under the law. To those who are outside the law, like one outside the law–not being outside God’s law, but under the law of Christ–to win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, in order to win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I may by all means save some. Now I do all this because of the gospel, that I may become a partner in its benefits. – 1 Cor. 9:19-23

Give no offense to the Jews or the Greeks or the church of God, just as I also try to please all people in all things, not seeking my own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved. – 1 Cor. 10:32-33

This principle is so crucial Paul repeats it at least three different times. He makes it very clear that his ethics are missiologically and evangelistically motivated. He did not allow anything to hinder the gospel from going forth and being heard in the most effective way possible.

Some misunderstand Paul to mean that he is infinitely flexible. However, antinomianism has no place in Paul’s theology, missional strategy, ethics or personal life. He would never say I am free to do anything that I want. He is “under Christ’s law!” To say, “to the thief I became a thief to win the thief; to the drunkard, I became a drunkard to win the drunkard” is utter nonsense and a total misinterpretation of what Paul is saying. Paul is not infinitely flexible; he is not free from the law of Christ that places the souls of men and women at a premium. The insights of D. A. Carson are helpful:

All of God’s demand upon him [Paul] is mediated through Christ. Whatever God demands of him as a new-covenant believer, a Christian, binds him; he cannot step outside those constraints. There is a rigid limit to his flexibility as he seeks to win the lost from different cultural and religious groups: he must not do anything that is forbidden to the Christian, and he must do everything mandated of the Christian…Today that expression, “all things to all men,” is often used as a form of derision. He (or she) has no backbone, we say; he is two-faced; he is “all things to all men.” But Paul wears the label as a witness to his evangelistic commitment. Even so, he could not do this if he did not know who he was as a Christian. The person who lives by endless rules and who forms his or her self-identity by conforming to them simply cannot flex at all. By contrast, the person without roots, heritage, self-identity, and nonnegotiable values is not really flexing, but is simply being driven hither and yon by the vagaries of every whimsical opinion that passes by. Such people may “fit in,” but they cannot win anyone. They hold to nothing stable or solid enough to win others to it! (The Cross and Christian Ministry, 120-21).

The bottom-line: nothing must hinder or obscure the gospel! Nothing! Absolutely nothing!

God’s Guidelines for the “Gray Areas” of Life: Wise Decision-Making in a Wicked World, Part 2

Ethical and moral decision-making presents a great challenge for devoted followers of Jesus in the 21st century context. In 1 Corinthians Paul provides helpful guidelines for navigating what could be called “the gray areas” of the Christian life.

These biblical principles are true anywhere, anytime and under any circumstances. They are extremely helpful in leading us to be wise decision-makers as we live out a gospel-centered ethic.

1). Will this action be helpful to me?
“Everything is permissible for me,” but not everything is helpful. “Everything is permissible for me,” but I will not be brought under the control of anything. – 1 Cor. 6:12

“Everything is permissible,” but not everything is helpful. “Everything is permissible,” but not everything builds up. – 1 Cor. 10:23

Certain actions are not helpful for believers. They don’t build you up or make you better for Jesus. They accomplish little or nothing. To understand this principle, examine the following four statements. “‘Everything is permissible for me'” (6:12; 10:23). “‘Foods for the stomach and the stomach for foods,’ but God will do away with both of them” (6:13). “‘Every sin a person can commit is outside the body'” (6:18). “‘It is good for a man not to have relations with a woman'” (7:1). I believe these were all “Corinth slogans.” In other words, these statements were not things Paul was affirming. On the contrary, these were popular sayings that Paul was correcting because they were rooted in a misunderstanding of the implications of the gospel. The first three erred on the side of antinomianism; the last one erred on the side of legalism and asceticism. All were infected with a view of reality that was grounded in a Platonic-type of philosophy that saw matter as evil or, at best, inferior. Thus, some went to one extreme and said, “The body does not matter, so indulge.” Others said, “The body is bad, so I will punish it.”

Paul said there is a third and better way. There is a gospel way! The Lord is for the body (6:13) and He is going to raise it (6:14). In other words, the body is a wonderful gift from God, God has redeemed it in Christ, He is going to resurrect and glorify it and it is a great thing when handled properly. So ask: is a particular activity helpful, profitable, beneficial? Will a particular activity make me better in Christ and raise me to a higher spiritual level? In other words, the question should not be, “Am I free to do it?” The question is, “Is it good for me to do this as a man or woman in Christ?”

2). Will this action potentially enslave me?
“Everything is permissible for me,” but not everything is helpful. “Everything is permissible for me,” but I will not be brought under the control of anything. – 1 Cor. 6:12

Paul is confident that he is a slave to only one master. His name is Jesus. No one or no thing is to “be master” (NIV) over us other than Him. I will choose to live a radically Christ-centered life because I belong to Him. You see, there is a danger in living “too close to the edge.” It can be the edge of antinomianism and libertarianism or legalism and asceticism. Either extreme is going to draw you away from Christ, and you will run the risk of being enslaved. Later, in 1 Corinthians 10:14-22, Paul will point out that living near the edge of sin can even make one vulnerable to demonic attack and influence. There is little, if any, wisdom in hanging around out here.

The boasts: “I have liberty in Christ” and “I am free under grace” can become something of a moral rationalization that is more likely a personal idol erected for satisfying sensual pleasure. What you convince yourself will hurt no one will lead you yourself into a world of slavery and bondage to the cruelest taskmaster of all: yourself and your own carnal desires. True spiritual freedom is not the right to do what you want, it is the supernatural enablement of Christ to do what you ought and enjoy doing so! Gordon Fee says, “There is a kind of self-deception that inflated spirituality promotes, which suggests to oneself that he/she is acting with freedom and authority, but which in fact is an enslavement of the worst kind-to the very freedom one thinks one has” (The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 253). Christians must consistently guard themselves against any action that will potentially enslave them. I believe this is a tremendous word of wisdom as it relates to issues like drugs, alcohol, tobacco and pornography just to note a few of the more common destroyers of lives and families in our day. racer online game

A Theologically-Driven Missiology (Pt. 10: End Times)

A Theologically-Driven Missiology (Pt. 10: End Times)

Note: This series of posts deals with the relationship between doctrine and practice in general, and between theology and missiology in particular. It argues that sound theology should provide the starting point, trajectory, and parameters for missiological practice. It seeks a “theologically-driven” missiology both for the United States and international contexts.

Eschatology, as much as any other doctrine, undergirds the theory and practice of mission. As Russ Moore points out in A Theology for the Church, “All of Christian theology points toward an end-an end where Jesus overcomes the satanic reign of death and restores God’s original creation order.” Indeed, “In Scripture the eschaton is not simply tacked on to the gospel at the end. It is instead the vision toward which all of Scripture is pointing-and the vision that grounds the hope of the gathered church and the individual believer. In the face of death, we see faith, hope, and love. This is what we mean when we speak of Christian eschatology-the study of the last things or ultimate matters.”

The doctrine of the end times is broad-ranging, but because of the limited scope of this post, I will address only three aspects of this doctrine, and then point the way toward a missiological appropriation. We will begin with personal eschatology, speaking to the missiological implications of death, heaven, and hell. Next, we will treat cosmic eschatology, speaking to the destiny of the nations and the promise of a new heaven and earth.

The Great Divide

The Christian Scriptures instruct us about death, heaven, and hell. To be concise to the extreme, we may say that death entered the world because of sin (Rom 5:12) and is a tool of Satan’s (Heb 2:14-15). It is appointed to man once to die, and then the judgment. After death, he enters into either eternal damnation or eternal bliss. Eternal torment awaits for those who die apart from Christ (Mt 5:22; 8:12), while eternal bliss is the reward of those who are in Christ (Rev 21:2-4).

This is a difficult doctrine, but a necessary one as it is taught clearly in the Scriptures. Furthermore, it is a great motivator for the Christian and for the church. The Christian must hold three truths together in tension: (1) There is no name other than Christ by which men are saved, and all men who die apart from Christ abide in eternal torment. (2) There are countless millions of people who have practically no access to the gospel, and another two billion who have very little access. They could search for days, weeks, and months, and never find a Bible, a Christian, or a church. (3) We, as believers, have the awesome privilege and responsibility of proclaiming to them the good news. More to the point, those of us in the West have more capacity to proclaim the gospel than Christians in any other part of the globe or at any other time in history.

It is difficult to apprehend and affirm these three truths and choose not to act. Once we hold these three truths in tension, we are faced with a decision. Will we act on the implications of these three truths? There are those who have not heard the gospel; without Christ they will go to Christless eternity; we are able to take the gospel to them. Our response tends to fall into one of three categories: (1) We may change our belief system by rejecting the biblical teaching that salvation comes through Christ alone, in order to ease our conscience. (2) We may ignore these truths, so that our conscience may rest more easily. (3) We may take these truths to heart by offering ourselves to take the gospel to the nations, by building Great Commission churches and seminaries who will take the gospel to the nations, and by praying for and supporting those who do.

The Nations

The Scriptures also have, as a point of focus, the destiny of the nations. The teaching of Christian Scripture is that the gospel will be proclaimed to the whole world: “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Mt 24:14). But it is not only that the gospel will be proclaimed. It is also that this gospel is powerful to save worshippers from among all tribes, tongues peoples, and nations: “You are worthy…For you were slain, and have redeemed us to God by Your blood out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation.”

Th ingathering of the nations is not a tack-on to Christian doctrine; it is at the heart of God’s promises. The central promise in the Scriptures is that God would send Messiah, and tightly riveted to it is the promise that Messiah would win the nations unto Himself. God put His Son on the cross in order to purchase the nations. The ingathering of the nations is not an issue merely for the missiologists write about, or for professional missionaries to care about, or for churches to nod toward once a year during Lottie Moon. Rather it is central to all who are Christian because it is central to the work of Christ. We are to be instruments in God’s hands as He makes clear to the world that He is not a tribal deity. He is the Creator, King, and Savior of the nations and we will not know Him in His full splendor until we know Him as the King of the Nations.

The New Heavens & Earth

Finally, the Scriptures declare God’s promise of a new heavens and a new earth. Peter instructs us to “look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet 3:13). John sees a vision in which there is a new heaven and a new earth, where there remains no pain or tears (Rev 21). And although this teaching does not get much air time in evangelical circles, it is no insignificant doctrine. Indeed, it is the doctrine of creation come full circle. The God who gave us the good creation of the Genesis narrative is the God who will give us a new heavens and a new earth.

In this new universe, God’s image bearers will experience neither sin nor its consequences. No longer will we use our rational capacities to speak falsehoods, or our creative capacities to construct idols. Never again will we use our relational capacities to suppress others and promote ourselves, our moral capacities to slander, rape, or murder. No longer will we live in an environment where tsunamis and floods destroy or where pollution poisons the ground and air. Never again will there be war or rumors of war.

Instead, we will live in unbroken relation with God, with others, with the new universe, and with ourselves. We will be “man fully alive,” man worshipping God in spirit and truth. But what does this doctrine of a new heavens and earth have to do with the mission of the church? Of the many implications, here are three:

First, we may use our God-given human capacities to glorify him in human culture, as a sign of what the new heavens and new earth will be like. We may flesh out the implications of the gospel for the arts, the sciences, and the public square. We may teach our children that it is an honorable thing to be an artist (writer, composer, singer, painter, graphic designer, etc.), a scientist (biologist, chemist, physicist, sociologist, anthropologist), or a participant in the public square (journalist, lawyer, politician, ethicist, educator).

Second, we may seek to glorify God in all of our callings. As Luther pointed out, the Christian has multiple callings, to workplace, family, church, and community. May we speak and live the gospel in all of those contexts so that the glory of God is not limited to the four walls of a church building, but instead is broadcast across every square inch of his universe.

Third, we may demonstrate that if there is anyone who cares about God’s good creation, it is the evangelical Christian. We do not care about it inordinately, or in the wrong way, but we do care. We have a different motivation than do most “environmentalists.” We recognize the creation as God’s good creation. We do not take the gift that God has given us and trash it recklessly. This is an insult to the God who made it and gave it to us to have dominion over it.

Conclusion

The promised Messiah has come, and He will come again to win the nations unto Himself and to reconcile all things unto Himself. He will do this because He loves the world (Jn 3:16-17). In His first coming, He provided the first fruits of that redemption and in the second coming he will provide the consummation of it.

We find ourselves living between those two comings, and the ramifications of this are multiple and significant. First, we must proclaim the gospel not only in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria, but also to the ends of the earth. Second, we must seek to glorify him in every facet of creation and culture, and in all of our multiple callings. This is because our God is worthy of worship, and that worship should not be limited or reduced to what happens once a week on Sunday mornings.

We look toward, and hope for, the day when we can join the chorus around the throne and sing, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom, and strength and honor and glory and blessing!”