Tuesday, November 27, 2012

In Saving Man, God Speaks To Him

Though most followers of Christ appreciate the Bible, referring to it, quoting it and so on, there remains a curious reluctance to really give it the due that it gives itself. The Scripture testifies to its own value in ways that make some uncomfortable. One reason this is true is because of the postmodern time we live in: we've all been influenced by postmodern thinking, and it's hard to shake.

But if we wanted to try to step out of this postmodern mindset and see something more timeless,  what would we see the Bible claiming for itself (i.e., what is its "self-witness")? John Frame, a good and dependable teacher, says,

"...the Bible... is first and foremost...a book about God, about Christ, about the salvation of man from sin.  But that message of salvation includes a message about the Bible.  For this salvation requires verbal revelation.  In saving man, God speaks to him..." (http://www.frame-poythress.org/scripture-speaks-for-itself/).

I recommend that article as a very good explanation of what's at stake in understanding the role of Scripture. 

Friday, October 12, 2012

Having The Teaching Of Kindness On Our Tongues

A verse that occurs to me frequently is from Proverbs 31: "The teaching of kindness is on her tongue" (Proverbs 31:26). How I've so wanted and so often failed to be the one of whom that description is true! Yet I keep reaching for it in the Lord.

I say "in the Lord" because as much as we all love and admire such virtues as kindness, patience, humility and love, we will never attain to them in reality apart from both (1) the Lord Jesus enabling us to have and perform such virtues, and (2) our doing them for his sake and honor and glory. A shorter sentence from the Bible (with commentary): "All our [own] righteousness [our own mere attempt at pleasing God] is like filthy rags [to God]" (Isaiah 64:6, Romans 10:3-4 ). Of course that's true. All of rebellious (i.e., outside of Christ) attempts at true virtue are tainted with self-serving, resentment and pride. God, who is Virtue and who created man to reflect it, is unimpressed by man's attempts as he thinks to by-pass the Creator, yet somehow mimic his virtues. At least that's my way of thinking about it.

Paul  talked in Romans 7 about how as  Jew, he had inevitably failed at doing the good he wanted to do. Meanwhile he kept doing the things he didn't want to do. No matter how hard he tried to be patient, for example [I imagine], he would inevitably find himself exploding with anger over something trivial. What was the answer to this terrible dilemma?

The answer was in what God has done: what even the Ten Commandments, since they were to be kept by such weak people as Paul and us, could not do. He sent his own Son (Romans 8:1-8) to live and walk around in the flesh like us, except that he would do the good we're unable to do, and he would not do the evil we find impossible to keep away from. Jesus would perform all the righteous requirements of God's Law, perfectly, without sin. Then he would die in our place, and be raised from the dead; and risen, impute his own record of perfect service and righteousness to all who by faith turn from their own efforts and trust in his perfect accomplishment.

Those who trust in this way find that God has not only forgiven their failures to keep his commands, but has given them a new life and principle within that enables them to actually keep them! Imperfectly, yes (it's why we will always need Christ's perfection reckoned to our account), but pleasing to God because of Christ, and because we do it for his sake.

Becoming women who really can have the teaching of kindness on our lips doesn't happen overnight, and none of us will be perfectly kind (not yet). But progress will be made. The sorrows and trials of life will likely be God's tools of discipline that he, in his kindness, will use to make us more like his Son (his ultimate purpose for all those who are his). His Son, being divine, is (among many other things) kind! The daughters of Eve are especially meant to reflect that kindness, especially to those they care for. I'm so thankful for God's provision for this-- he can and will give mothers and daughters who have trusted him the teaching of kindness for their lips. He has given us new hearts, where a new principle of life enables us to do good things for the sake of Christ.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Our Wanters Are Defective

Our wanters are defective. When we read in Romans 8:26-30 that "God causes all things to work together for good to those who love him", we so want the "good" promised to be an end to the current pain, sorrow, or affliction. That's just natural for us; pain and sorrow and affliction can be crushing, and feel like death to us. We know, instinctively, that we really weren't meant for it. We want to hold on to hope that life will get better.

A careful reading of Romans 8, though, shows that the "good" promised there is conformity to "the image of his Son". Paul is taking great pains to reassure his readers that this is a good that will surely come about, even by way of the pain and sorrow and affliction. A funny kind of reassurance this is-- not exactly what we were hoping for-- unless we've learned to want God's will to be done above all else.

This is where our wanters are defective, and why prayer is so important. Our prayers are to be all about God's will being done-- not speculative ideas about what his will might be in some certain area of life, but the sure revelation of what his will is, revealed to us in the scriptures. This is all God requires of us-- to know and understand that will. And to want that will to be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

If (when) we find that our wanters don't match up with God's plans, God has provided help. We must pray very earnestly, as sincerely as we can, that he will change what we want, and trust that it's his kind intention to do so. He can and will change our desires to match up with his desires. This kind of praying is right in line with his revealed will for us in the Bible. This kind of praying gets answered "Yes" by him.

To change our wanters, to conform us to the image of his Son who came to do the will of God (Hebrews 10:7) is the purpose of all the pain, all the sorrow, all the affliction. Without it, I'm afraid it's true that I would simply enjoy his blessings and not care so much about what his real purposes are for me, for his church, and for the world. God is able, willing, and more than that, determined to change our defective wanters. Because he is our Father, and we are adopted, and are being prepared for a great inheritance (Romans 8:12-30) and he loves us.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Accurate (And Even More Accurate)

In Acts 18:24-28 Apollos was eloquent, competent in the [Hebrew] Scriptures, instructed in the way of the Lord, fervent in Spirit, and was boldly and accurately teaching (to the Jews in the synagogue) the things concerning Jesus. When Priscilla and Aquila, who had been with Paul, heard Apollos, they took him and explained to him "the way of God more accurately". There was already accuracy--accuracy in what Apollos so far knew--but there was more accuracy needed, as the revelation of Christ through the Spirit continued to unfold through his apostles.

After this, when Apollos went in to Achaia, he "greatly helped those who through grace had believed"; he did this by powerfully refuting the Jews in public, "showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus".

Apollos had been useful to God before; now he was much more so, useful to God and to the church, because of his instruction in the epistles. That's what Priscilla and Aquila were giving him when they explained to him the way of God more accurately. They themselves had been learning from the already-written and also the not-yet-written words of Paul.

Jesus had told his apostles this would happen. "He [the Spirit] will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you" (John 16:14). The Epistles they wrote are the words of Christ as much as any words written in red in the Bible, and they were the wrods Jesus planned all along to be taught and written after his ascension.

I think this is such a great story in Acts. Apollos's humility really stands out. God's providence and plan that brought him together with Priscilla and Aquila is sweet to see. The encouragement that there is always more to learn and that learning more accurately results in such greater fruit is so wonderful, and really exciting. And as a woman, I'm appreciative and grateful to the Lord for Priscilla's (and other women named in the gospels and epistles) share in the work of the kingdom. And thankful for Paul--faithful apostle of God.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

"But We See Him... Namely, Jesus"

I want to confess to a bad habit. It's one very common to Christians, I think-- we almost think of it as part of "practicing" the Christian religion-- yet it's not a Christian practice. I'm referring to the habit of looking inward, of focusing on my own inner resources and thoughts and feelings as if they hold the answer, as if therein lies the reality of my difficult situation. It's a temptation; it's one I often give in to, that of looking within for answers. It's a method of figuring things out that only leads to sleepless nights and anxious worries.

The reason it's so wrong is, first of all, it's not at all what the Bible teaches us to do in response to sorrows and trials and difficulties. If the Bible teaches us not to do something, then no matter whether we understand why it's wrong, we'd just better not do it! But it's not too hard to understand why such a habit of looking within for the answers is wrong, and even harmful. The reason why this habit is wrong is that we don't have the answers within! The Answer is outside ourselves; the answer is Christ and his word. The Bible teaches this over and over.

The reason we think it's right to look within for answers and to neglect looking outwardly to Christ and his word for answers, is that we've sort of been taught to do one and to neglect to do the other. Teaching in the church and teaching from popular books have gone downhill in these past decades. They've reflected the drift of the culture rather than the teaching of the Bible.

But the teaching of the Bible on this is a lot better news than the cultural teaching! The Bible's teaching is that it's healthy and right to look away from ourselves and to the One the Bible describes as our Example (John 13:15, 1 Peter 2:21), as the Founder and Perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2), as the great High Priest who has "passed through the heavens" for us (Hebrews 4:14), as the Shepherd and Overseer of our souls (1 Peter 2:25), and on and on. We  are to look to him and depend on his words and not on our wishy-washy inner selves. (If you haven't figured out how wishy-washy and undependable your inner self is yet, just give it some time.) It's really the best news that the answers are outside our foggy old thoughts and distorted old motives.

Now I've known of these things for some time and "preached" them to myself and others for some time, but still I find myself practicing this bad habit of looking inwardly for the answers. Crazy, isn't it? Yes, well it's humbling. It's enlightening to see how very entrenched this habit can be, how very difficult to forsake, how very tempting to practice. In the still, lonely hours of the night I find myself tossing and turning just like always, turning things over in my mind, trying to figure things out, wrestling with and being conquered by the "devils" within. I don't mean I have devils in me. But I do believe it's "devilish" to practice the Christian life in this way. Yet, whether because of ignorance or a willful insistence on "figuring things out" our own way, it is what we do.

This is the biblical, and better practice: looking to Christ. From Abraham, who "went out, not knowing where he was going" (Hebrews 11:8), to the Israelites who looked to the bronze serpent in the wilderness and were healed (Numbers 21:9), to the coming of the Son of Man for this purpose (John 3:14, John 12:32), God has always meant for his people to look outside themselves and to Him for their salvation, both temporal and eternal.

Christ finished the work his Father sent him to do, meaning he accomplished everything necessary for our salvation and for our being made holy and fit for heaven. He then sat down at the right hand of God, there to reign until he has "put all his enemies under his feet" (1 Corinthians 15:25). God, the Bible says, crowned Jesus with glory and honor, putting everything in subjection to him, leaving nothing out of his control. But here's our difficulty: we don't yet see everything in subjection to him. We don't yet see everything under his control. But we do see what we need to see to be ok -- "we see Him... namely Jesus" (Hebrews 2:7-9).

Someday the "not yet" will be here. Faith will become sight. There will be no more temptations to toss and turn in the night watches, looking within for answers we don't have, worrying and fretting over these present afflictions and difficulties. Until then, we--and I'll bring it back to me, to "I"-- I need to look to Jesus. He's my hero, the trailblazer, the one who has gone before, conquered and overcome, set me an example to follow, promised me the power to overcome sin and temptation with faith and obedience. No answers lie within. The only answers and the only way are outside myself, in this Hero and in his living word (Hebrews 4:12), his Spirit in us giving us the power to trust and obey.

For it was not to angels that God subjected the world to come, of which we are speaking. It has been testified somewhere,
    “What is man, that you are mindful of him,
        or the son of man, that you care for him?
    You made him for a little while lower than the angels;
        you have crowned him with glory and honor,
        putting everything in subjection under his feet.”
     Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
   For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers, saying,   
 “I will tell of your name to my brothers,  in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise" (Hebrews 2:5-12).

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Model For Pleading With Our Children

I'm so often struck in reading Proverbs, particularly the first eight chapters, by the pleadings of the father to his son to listen, listen, listen to the father's words of wisdom, to his instructions. The words of wisdom he wants him to know are all the ensuing words of the whole book of Proverbs, from Chapter 1 to Chapter 31.  And then, Proverbs is a microcosm, if that is the right word, for the whole Bible. Every story, every teaching in the whole Bible reflects the wisdom of Proverbs in some way. The message of the Bible in this way gives evidence of itself to be divinely unified, divinely whole in authorship and purpose. But I digress. I was talking about the appeals of the father to his son to listen.

The first eight chapters of Proverbs are a model, a master design given from the Maker to parents who fear Him, for the upbringing and teaching of their children. The counsel of the father, his appeals to the heart of his son, his repeated warnings and insights and encouragements, show us how to appeal to our own children's hearts for the glory of God and their good. We have to flesh out all our instruction with the Old Testament accounts of God's dealings with Israel, his mighty deeds, and the dilemma of mankind, and then with the New Testament accounts of Christ's coming, and the revelation of His gospel. We have to teach our children all the Scriptures, which are able to make them "wise for salvation" (2 Timothy 3:15), and as we teach them the Scriptures we appeal to their hearts to get this wisdom.

And we pray, asking our Father in heaven to do what all our pleading and teaching alone can never accomplish-- we ask Him to grant them new eyes and ears to see and hear the truth and wisdom in His word. That is the work of His Spirit, and how we need Him to work! Our children need to be made new creatures in Christ who will love the truth and acquire this true wisdom.

Both are necessary-- the instruction of the Scriptures, the Proverbs-type of reminding and warning and showing; and the work that only God can do, the opening of eyes and understanding and the granting of faith.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Legacy We Shall Leave

I was just thinking this morning how the "legacy" of women in my family (well, at least of my dear Mom and me, which I don't think she will now mind me saying) has been this kind of thinking:

"That may be good advice, but it doesn't/won't/can't work for me."

"I know that's what the Bible says, but... (insert reason it doesn't/can't/won't work for me)."

"That's easy for you to say, because you don't have my problems/haven't walked in my shoes."

It was a stubbornness masked as helplessness. I thank God for his grace, which has overcome such thinking in exchange for a "glad obedience" (only by the help of the Spirit!) to God's commands. God's truth does, can and will "work" for all who call upon His name in sincerity and truth."He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it."

I thank God for the life of our Mom, who although she suffered terribly in this life from depression, anxiety, and the kind of stubborn helplessness I mentioned, still, by God's grace, shone rather brightly in her last days of life. Though she suffered from these things, His mercy to her was large, and I believe and am comforted that she awoke in His presence to freedom and joy.

So I'm thinking this morning about the legacy we leave, the story for our children. How I hope for God's mercy to them all, that they may recognize the grace of God, no matter how limited the clay vessels He works through.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

"You Can Verify...Neither Can They Prove"

In Acts 24, when Paul stood before Felix the governor to face charges brought against him by the Jews, he had nothing to hide. Paul had so lived his life before God, and God had so sovereignly arranged all circumstances, that he was in the perfect position before Felix or any other examiner.

"You can verify", he was able to say to Felix. Felix could easily verify the truth of Paul's claims that in Jerusalem he had not been disputing or stirring up a crowd, or in any other way causing trouble. He had, in fact, been humbly performing certain actions so as to avoid offense to the Jews (Acts 21:20-26). Because of Paul's submission to the elders and his desire to not give unnecessary offense, his character and actions were easily vindicated. This goes along with many instructions to us in God's word to "live above reproach" for the sake of the gospel (Titus 2:1-12).

"Neither can they prove to you what they now bring up against me", Paul was also able to say to Felix. The Jews had traveled to Caesarea to bring charges against Paul with nothing in their arsenal but false flattery for Felix (Acts 24:1-9). They had no proof for their accusations ("he is a plague, he stirs up riots, he tried to profane the temple") because there was no proof; Paul was innocent of these things. Yes, there were riots around Paul, but he hadn't caused them. The fury of the unbelieving Jews against the truth of the gospel was the reason for that rioting. Truth often brings division, but truth is not at fault for it. Rather, the unbelief of the hearers brings it about. 

God made sure that these charges against Paul wouldn't stick. God wanted Paul to be found "guilty" of only one charge: preaching the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. It had been the Lord's plan and predetermined purpose to bring Paul to Rome in order to testify about Him (Acts 23:11). The means He had used to that end were tumultuous: an angry mob, the beating of Paul, and a narrow escape from a plot against his life. All these things He had ordained that his servant Paul might stand before governors and kings and testify to them about Christ.

I see from these accounts how we should also aim to live, trusting God's providential ordering of our steps, so that if the time comes we can truthfully say, for the gospel's sake, "You can verify" and "neither can they prove".

"Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation" (1 Peter 2:12).

"This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering—since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.

 "They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.

 "To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ" (2 Thessalonians 1:5-12).

Monday, April 30, 2012

We Need God's Help to Get Us Praying (Together!)

Some people have told me they have no problem finding time to read and study the Bible, but they struggle with making (and guarding) time for prayer. I can relate to that, as it has been my struggle, too.
Other people have told me that for them it is the opposite.
But I see more and more that both effective study and effective prayer are vital, and that they depend on one another.
  • Apart from prayer, from our heartfelt application to him for help, our reading of God's word will not fill us with the knowledge of his will as it should.
"Incline my heart to your testimonies..." (Psalm 119:36).

"Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law" (Psalm 119:18).

"And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding"(Colossians 1:9).

  • Apart from the Bible, from our reading and study of it and meditation on it to know God's will, our prayers will not bear fruit and be effective.
"If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples

"And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us" (1 John 5:14).

We need the help of God's Holy Spirit to rightly apprehend his word (i.e. his will), and so we ask him for that help. God wants us to ask for those things he wants to give. "If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!" (Luke 11:13).

It seems like there is a real lack of prayer in the church (at least in the church I see around me). It seems we either make the mistake of believing our study of God's word is more important, or of believing that prayer is enough. Maybe another problem is that Christians are reading and praying, but praying ineffectively because we're reading ineffectively. If we misunderstand the texts we're reading and studying our prayers, no matter how sincere, will be amiss.

I pray for a revival of doctrine in the church that will result in:
   the right fear of the Lord and a trembling before his word, that will result in:
      dependency on God alone, that will result in:
         Prayer. Prayer in families. Prayer in the churches (not just "please pray for Aunt Sally's toe", but heartfelt corporate prayer for boldness and strength and for God's kingdom purposes. Prayers according to God's will, as revealed in his word).

I would love for God's people to really pray for these things together. And that I could get to be in on it. I pray that the day will come.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Perplexed But Not Doubting

The Bible uses the word "doubt" in a more negative sense than we often do. In the Bible, to doubt God is to:

  • Have a deficient faith (that's what "little" faith means in the Greek): "Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, 'O you of little faith, why did you doubt?'" (Matthew 14:31).

  • Be double-minded and unstable in all one's ways: "But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways" (James 1:6-8).

We should probably stay far away from any kind of doubting of God. I know a better word to use: perplexity. It's the word Paul used in 2 Corinthians 4:8: "We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies" (2 Corinthians 4:8-10).

There's just no good kind of doubting of God in the Bible, but to be perplexed is o.k. for his creatures. After all, he is God, and we're not. He has a plan but we're not privy to all the details, and it often seems difficult to us. God is patient with that. "For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust" (Psalm 103:14). To doubt him is to not even know him, it seems. But to be perplexed at times in this life is simply to be finite and human.

In times of perplexity, don't doubt his goodness and ability to keep. And (I remind myself) don't forget to take all your troubles to Jesus. "Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us" (Psalm 62:8).


Thursday, March 8, 2012

Hope Through the Encouragement of the Scriptures

I need to hide more of God's word in my heart, and I need to keep training myself to call it up when I'm tempted to depression and negative thinking.There is always some kind of dialogue running in the background of my mind, and left to itself it without fail becomes of the negative sort. "I have stored up your word in my heart that I might not sin against you" (Psalm 119:11).

Those negative thoughts of pessimism (inarticulated though they may be) are a direct affront to God's generous nature (Romans 8:32, 2 Peter 1:3), to the kindness he has shown me in Christ (Titus 3:4-7), to the promises he has made of a future with him and the hope of heaven (Romans 8:18-24). That's why to succumb to depression and gloom is so often, for the Christian, actually a sin against God--it amounts to unbelief in what he has said and promised! We feel like it's all about us, but what's at stake is our lives lived to glorify and honor him by believing him. He has prescribed his truth, standing outside of ourselves, as the antidote to fear and self-absorption. Let's not neglect the Scriptures. "For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope" (Romans 15:4).

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Translations, Commentaries and the NLT (Part 4)

This is the last in a series of four posts on Bible translations, commentaries and the NLT; I've specifically been talking about problems I saw with the NLT recently, not because I enjoy being negative, but because there's really nothing more important than having an accurate translation of God's word. If you haven't read those posts and want to, you can find them here. What I'd like to do now is just offer a few concluding thoughts on the whole issue of translations and commentaries.

First, no translation of the Bible from the original languages will be perfect. Essentially literal, word-for-word translations like the ESV, the NASB, the KJV and others will be most true to the Greek and Hebrew and to the true meaning of the text. These should be the translations we use and read and study, though they will here and there contain a "clunky" word or phrase (as in the phrase from Romans 5:5 I was researching). This is usually because the translator wants to preserve the integrity of the word-for-word translation. Often the meaning is made clear by the context (the surrounding verses and passages). But when more clarification is needed a good commentary can be helpful.

Some interesting statistics: the ESV reads at about the 10th grade level. The Holman Christian Standard, another essentially literal translation, reads at about the 9th grade level. The NLT, a dynamic equivalence (thought for thought, rather than word for word) translation, reads at about the 6th grade level, while the Message is at about the 3rd grade level. Though sometimes readers feel they can better understand the NLT or the Message, the reading levels of the literal translations are not that difficult (interesting chart on that here). After all, shouldn't we prefer to read an accurate translation of the Bible, and do the challenging work required to get us reading at that level? Thousands of generations grew up reading literal translations of the Scripture; the first paraphrase was only introduced in 1971. 

The problem with a dynamic equivalence version is that its translating team makes editorial decisions. Where they see fit, they will leave out a word that is in the original language (as they left out the important connecting word gar, translated "for", in Romans 5:6). In doing so, they are saying that they disagree with the connections the Bible itself makes; doctrine is at stake, yet these translators are willing to make these changes when it suits their interpretation. Worst of all, they don't alert the reader that they have translated this way.

The NLT is at least partly a paraphrase, but calls itself a translation; therefore its readers think they have in their hands an accurate rendering of the original Hebrew and Greek manuscripts. The reader should understand that in reading the NLT they are reading varying degrees of paraphrase, as well as the translation team's unspoken commentary implicit in their editing.

A good stand-alone commentary can indeed be hugely helpful. Reading an essentially literal translation and turning to a commentary for clarification is a good method. Of course, the very best way to understand the meaning of the Bible is to read it regularly and widely, in context, prayerfully and reverently and with enjoyment.

However it's worth saying again, that good commentaries are helpful; they're written by faithful scholars who revere God's word as given in the original language, and who seek to let the Scriptures speak for themselves. These commentaries will refuse to omit or change any word or phrase in the text. They will lay aside any doctrinal prejudice, and will come to the text believing that these are the very words of God, as given to the Bible authors under the Holy Spirit's inspiration. The only goal of such commentaries will be to understand, and help the student of God's word understand, what God meant for them to know in the text. Of course, even a good commentary can make mistakes, so ultimately it is up to each Christian to become a good student of the Bible, to learn to study and understand for themselves.

Lastly, finding a good commentary is not that hard, but it helps to get some recommendations. People and their writings get reputations for accuracy, for honesty, and for biblical faithfulness. Two scholars whose commentaries have stood the test of time are John Calvin and Matthew Henry. Following in that tradition of biblical faithfulness are more modern commentaries by John MacArthur, Kent R. Hughes, Jamieson, Fausset & Brown, D.A. Carson, and even the study notes of the ESV Study Bible. This article on commentaries at Desiring God may be helpful.

All will be similar in their approach to Scripture; none of them will be willing to omit, ignore or change words from the original language. They will offer their best shot at helping to interpret a passage's meaning. Good comments on Scripture can be immensely helpful and devotional, helping us to grow in the knowledge of God so that we ascribe even greater praise to God for all his wonderful deeds and purposes. This is a good indication that you have hit on the right translation and the right interpretation of a passage!

Translations, Commentaries and the NLT (Part 3)

This is the third in a series of posts on Bible translations, commentaries and the NLT Bible. You can read Part 1 here, and follow the link from it to Part 2. I was originally going to title these posts "How the NLT Both Helps and Falls Short" in studying the Bible. I did want to find the NLT helpful. But I can't say it is. It may be, in places, but I can't point to where, as I haven't compared it a lot to the original languages. I can only say you need to be careful in relying on it to be accurate, and that its failure to be faithful to the Greek in this one experiment of mine is troubling.

Here's the story: in researching a phrase from Romans 5:5, "hope does not put us to shame", I turned to the NLT to see if it could offer some clarification. But in reading Romans 5:5 in the NLT and then continuing to verse 6, I found problems. The most glaring, which I discussed in my previous post, was the NLT's omission of the Greek word gar ("for"). But there were other problems, too. First, for clarification, here is Romans 5:5-6 from the two translations I used in my research.

From the ESV's word-for-word translation:

"(5)... and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (6) For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly."

Then the NLT's thought-for-thought translation:

"(5) And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love. (6) When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners."

I wanted to see if it worded that phrase in a way that made it more clear in meaning. Let me just mention here that what Paul is saying in Romans 5:5 is that this is a unique hope. It's the hope expressed in the hymn line, "My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus' blood and righteousness..." "Hope" in Romans 5:4-5 isn't a wish, but a solid conviction springing out of something God has done, which Paul will describe in the next verses. We won't be ashamed of having had that hope, because it's all going to happen just like God has promised.

I noticed when I first looked at Romans 5:5 in the NLT that "disappointment" was used instead of "shame". I don't know all the ins and outs of that choice, but the Greek word, kataischuno, means "to shame down", to "put to the blush", to "confound" (from Strong's concordance). It's used when one has been proven wrong. So translating that it's a hope that "does not put us to shame" seems better than that it "will not lead to disappointment". That same word is used elsewhere in Scripture (Philippians 1:20, 1 Peter 2:6) where it has the idea of standing before God to give account. And in this passage, it helps to get the meaning and understand the translation issues if the word "shame" is used instead of "disappointment".

For the sake of brevity, then, I'll just use bullets to go through verses 5 and 6 in Romans 5 and talk about the differences in these two translations. I'll try to point out how I think the thought-for-thought translation fails to make clear the meaning of the passage.

Verse 5: Paul begins his reason that we have such a hope with the words "for God's love has been poured into our hearts". Notice that Paul's emphasis is on God's action. He is saying that we have this kind of hope, a hope that will not put us to shame, because of something God has done, and he has begun to tell us about it.

The NLT changes the wording, making it instead, "For we know how dearly God loves us." Paul didn't say this; he didn't ground the reason for our hope in our knowledge of how dearly God loves us, or on anything else about us, but on something true about God and about what he has done. This is a subtle but important difference in wording.

Verse 5: Paul builds on the reason for a hope that does not put us to shame by explaining that the love God has poured into our hearts was "through the Spirit who has been given to us". Now it's even clearer that Paul is talking about something God has done. In the Bible, to be given the Holy Spirit is to be born from above. Paul's wording puts the emphasis on God's gracious act in giving the Holy Spirit to us. He is explaining that the reason our hope is the kind that does not put us to shame is that it's based on what God has done in giving us the new birth, not on anything we know or feel.

Unfortunately, the wording of the NLT again fails to make clear the reason for a hope that does not put us to shame. In saying that God has "given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love," the translators fail to make clear that Paul is talking about the new birth as the basis for our hope. In saying that the reason God gave his Spirit was "to fill our hearts with his love," it inserts something into the text, emphasizing the "us" whose hearts are thus filled. This isn't the way the Bible talks about conversion (see, for instance, Titus 3:5-7).

Verse 6: Paul has just explained that the reason we have this hope is that God has poured his love into our hearts through the giving of his Spirit, which is the new birth. Now Paul gives us the reason God gave us the new birth. In doing so, he arrives at the very heart of the gospel, the very reason God has loved us and given us his Spirit: "For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly." The little word "for" is critical, connecting God's love and giving of his Spirit in the new birth with the person and work of Christ, who died at the right time for the ungodly. This action of Christ on our behalf is thus clearly shown to be the basis for all the benefits of Romans 5:1-5.

The NLT leaves out "for" in verse 6. In verse 5, its wording failed to make clear that the reason our hope doesn't put us to shame is that God has given us the new birth. Now its wording fails to make clear that the reason God gave us the new birth is that Christ died for the ungodly. Without the little word "for" to connect, verse 6 isn't seen as the reason for all the wonderful benefits of Romans 5:1-5.

One last quibble about verse 6: The phrase translated "us sinners" in the NLT is more accurately translated "the ungodly". Christ died for those who were destitute of the fear of God, condemning in their stance toward him, blasphemous in their words and deeds toward him (all implications of the Greek word asebes). Asebes is always translated, as far as I can tell, "godless" or "ungodly" in literal translations. It has a different and, seems to me, much stronger implication.

Well, those are the issues that concerned me about the NLT's translation of Romans 5:5-6. I've got one more related post coming down the pike, which will just be a little summing up about translations and commentaries. Thanks for reading (you can find the final post here).

(I linked to this article in previous posts, but here it is again: a good, short article on the issues involved in choosing a translation is here.)

Translations, Commentaries and the NLT (Part 2)

In my first post on translations, commentaries and the NLT,  I mentioned the question that arose in a Bible study with friends over the phrase in Romans 5:5, "hope does not put us to shame". I decided recently to look at a translation like the NLT to see if its wording would help clarify what Paul meant. What I saw and learned prompted these posts on the accuracy of the NLT (its faithfulness to the original languages) because I know a lot of people use it and depend on it.

So I wrote last time that some Bibles are translated using the "essentially literal" word-for-word method (like the ESV and the NASB), and some are translated using the "dynamic equivalence" thought-for-thought method (like the NLT and the NIV). You can a read a short and helpful article about that from Ligonier Ministries here. I said previously that translating the original Greek or Hebrew using the thought-for-thought method involves making editorial decisions, decisions that will be guided by the personal views of the translators, and leading to changes and adjustments in the wording of the text. This amounts to commentary, but sort of an undercover kind, since many readers won't know the issues.

Maybe it will help to see a comparison of the two translations I used to study Romans 5:5-6. First, the ESV's word-for-word translation: 

(5)... and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (6) For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.

And the NLT's thought-for-thought translation:

(5) And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love. (6) When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners.

The first difference I noticed was that the NLT changed the phrase "put us to shame" to "lead to disappointment" in verse 5. As I read on I noticed other things, including the omission of the Greek word gar in verse 6, which is translated "because" or "for". This is the issue I'll talk about first. In the original Greek gar occurs twice in this passage, once in verse 5 and again in verse 6. In verse 5, it connects us with the reason this hope does not put us to shame: God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit he has given us. In verse 6, it connects us with the reason the Holy Spirit was given to us: at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly.

But unaccountably, the NLT leaves out gar in verse 6. The result is that the reader will not connect Christ's great accomplishment as being the reason for the wonderful benefits just listed. The connecting word "for" makes it clear that it was Christ's coming and dying that accomplished all that's described in Romans 5:1-5 (all those wonderful benefits of the new birth). Aside from the spiritual implications, this doesn't even make literary sense. In any text a connecting word like "for" or "because" is quite important. How especially true this is in the Bible, where truths vital to our knowledge of God are being connected together. If a "for" is deleted by the translators, the reader can't make those connections and will miss something the Holy Spirit wanted them to see and understand.

This is how the NLT acts like a commentary in its editorial decisions. The unwritten commentary here must be that the translators believed the connection made in the original Greek to be unimportant, and so they left out the connecting word. This one little Greek word, gar, conveys a great deal of beautiful and crucial truth about the accomplishment of the Lord Jesus Christ. Most important of all, the Holy Spirit inspired it to be placed right where it is. I learned, sadly, that this is a common problem throughout the NLT, and in other dynamic equivalence translations as well.

I began this research on Romans 5:5 simply to check out the NLT's rendering of one phrase, "hope does not put us to shame". I wanted to see if its thought-for-thought method of translation could shed any helpful light on the meaning of that phrase. In doing so, I came across problems in the NLT's decisions concerning this passage, the most glaring being their decision to omit the important connecting word "for" in verse 6.

But there were other problems with the NLT's decisions, as I realized upon further investigation. Next post I'll explain what I mean (you can find the next post here).

I found this article very helpful-- "Dynamic Equivalence: The Method is the Problem". Jim Hamilton explains some things you may not have realized about why this matters.

Also, if you are feeling scholarly and want to read a more detailed paper on the subject, see Wayne Grudem's essay "Translating Truth".

Translations, Commentaries and The NLT

A while back I was reading and studying through Romans 1-5 with some dear friends. These chapters are wonderfully important. And they're so important to get right; Romans itself has been called the "crown jewel" of all the Scripture, and a right grasp of the truths taught in the first 5 chapters means a right grasp of the gospel.

In our study when we came to Romans 5:5, the wording of the first phrase seemed a bit strange: "hope does not put us to shame". We were using the ESV (English Standard Version), an "essentially literal", word-for-word translation. Sometimes in any essentially literal translation (which includes the King James, the New American Standard, the New King James, etc.), the word-for-word method of translating won't result in the smooth flow we're used to. This all depends on how the Hebrew or Greek translates into English.

In our study one friend had puzzled over that phrase in Romans 5:5, wondering how hope does or does not put us to shame. We discussed it and moved on, but missed the opportunity to slow down and look at a commentary. I decided to write this post after reading Romans 5 this morning and remembering my friend's question. I'd like to show how, in researching that phrase, I looked at Romans 5:5 in the New Living Translation (NLT), and found it to be problematic. I don't want to be negative for negativity's sake about any Bible translation. But it's so important to read an accurate translation of God's word.

When I decided to see how the NLT translates Romans 5:5, I did so because I had sometimes wondered if referring to the NLT in cases like this could be useful. I knew that one needs to be careful, since the NLT is not a literal word-for-word translation, but a "dynamic equivalence" (thought-for-thought) translation. What I learned is that the NLT is actually a commentary, of sorts. When translators use the thought-for-thought method to translate, they make editorial decisions about what the thought of the original writer really was, and adjust the wording accordingly. These editorial decisions will accord with the personal leanings and views of the translators. You can read a little about that here.

The NLT translates Romans 5:5, in contrast to the ESV's "hope does not put us to shame", "this hope will not lead to disappointment". On first reading that seemed fair enough; but as I considered the word change, read the rest of verse 5, and then read verse 6, I saw problems. The most obvious was that the translators had chosen to leave out the little Greek word gar, which means "because" or "for". That little word at the beginning of  verse 6 has big implications for why we have a hope that "does not put us to shame"! In fact it is of gospel significance, and to leave it out is to radically alter Paul's flow of thought and meaning. Next post I'll continue with how I worked through some of the issues in this passage in the NLT.

(You can read the next article in this series here.)

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

What A Torn Body Can Mean

“If his offering to the LORD is a burnt offering of birds, then he shall bring his offering of turtledoves or pigeons. And the priest shall bring it to the altar and wring off its head and burn it on the altar. Its blood shall be drained out on the side of the altar. He shall remove its crop with its contents and cast it beside the altar on the east side, in the place for ashes. He shall tear it open by its wings, but shall not sever it completely. And the priest shall burn it on the altar, on the wood that is on the fire. It is a burnt offering, a food offering with a pleasing aroma to the LORD" (Leviticus 1:14-17).
I can have so small a view of my sin and God's holiness. When I read this passage in Leviticus, or other passages describing the slaughter of a bull or a goat as a sin offering, my understanding can be trite and shallow. "Tear it open by its wings..."; ugh, but okay, whatever.  (Can't we secretly harbor a view of God, and of the times, as brutal and ancient... appallingly, embarrassingly violent, an offense to our sanctimonious sensitivities?)

But then this.

  "Who has believed what he has heard from us?
        And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?
    For he grew up before him like a young plant,
        and like a root out of dry ground;
    he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
        and no beauty that we should desire him.

 "He was despised and rejected by men;
        a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
    and as one from whom men hide their faces
        he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
    Surely he has borne our griefs
        and carried our sorrows;
    yet we esteemed him stricken,
        smitten by God, and afflicted.
"But he was pierced for our transgressions;
        he was crushed for our iniquities;
    upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
        and with his wounds we are healed.
    All we like sheep have gone astray;
        we have turned, every one, to his own way;
    and the LORD has laid on him
        the iniquity of us all."
(Isaiah 53:1-6 )

Stricken, smitten and afflicted; pierced and crushed for MY iniquity. For MY lawlessness. For MY arrogance, and my sanctimonious sensitivities. The Son of God must be stretched and fastened with nails to a crucifix of wood because of my unholy insistence on my own, deficient righteousness.
Simeon with Christ in the temple (Luke 2:25-35).
The Bible is silent in Genesis on the abhorrence of God as he slaughters a good and innocent beast (the first physical death of his creation) to provide a covering for my first parents for the first arrogant transgression (Genesis 3:21).

The Bible is silent in Leviticus on the revulsion and horror that must have been felt by many, or most, or all of the priests when they learned they must tear apart the body of a bird by its outstretched wings; again, for the iniquity of my first parents.

The Bible is silent in Isaiah on the unfathomable depths of the Father's heart as he crushes and bruises his only Son, the true Scapegoat sent to bear the iniquity "of us all".

Yet the Bible so clearly reveals, throughout, the horror of man's rebellion, God's love for his good creation and his holy rules, his anger and wrath against the transgression that brought death and ruin, and his mercy and justice in sending his own Son to redeem all back. We may infer from all this that the tearing open of a living bird and the spilled blood of beast after beast after beast was never meant to be taken as normal-for-the-times. It was always unnatural, always abhorrent, always horrible.

And that gives me a much more sober view of my sin, and God's holiness, and what he accomplished in the death of his Son on the cross.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Good News for Anxious Christians--Why Trying to Be Christian Makes Us Anxious

I recently decided to blog through the chapters of the book Good News For Anxious Christians (10 Practical Things You Don't Have to Do) by Phillip Cary. I find the title wittier the more I think about it because it mimics the titles of Christian self-help books. We all want those "practical" tips on everything from house-cleaning to living the Christian life. But this book is not about self-help. As the author confided in the first sentence of the preface, "this book is a stealth attempt to preach the gospel, disguised as an attack on the new evangelical theology." It's a good idea to keep that in mind as one reads along, although the author does a very good job of keeping the gospel in focus.

Last time, I recapped the Preface. This time I'll try to summarize the introduction, Why Trying to Be Christian Makes Us Anxious. Cary begins with a little history on the new evangelical theology he is critiquing in his book; the theology that has promoted certain practical ideas and techniques such as "giving God control", "letting God work", "finding God's will", and so on. "The good news is that this is a new theology--it's not in the Bible and you don't have to believe it. You might think, 'but wait a minute, isn't this how you have a relationship with God? Don't those phrases tell us something important about how to be a Christian'? And my answer is: not in the Bible, they don't."

This new theology took over American evangelicalism fairly recently, "about the time when color TV came on the scene." It fits in very well with the consumerist theology we now see everywhere--marketable products that promise to transform your life. This kind of marketing and the use of techniques in living the Christian life has had a terribly detrimental effect--Christians have been trained to feel guilty for thinking! "Since bad theology can't really defend itself against critical thinking, it has to try to get you not to think." Cary encourages his readers to "think critically about what I say--take seriously the task of discerning what is true from what is false here. Having done that, you're one step closer to discerning what is true from what is false in the theology you've been taught. And that will do you a lot of good."

Cary isn't just trying to dismantle a bad theology; he's trying to get across to us that the gospel is such good news, and is so liberating from all the newer, bad theology, that it's almost hard to believe it could be true. "For some readers, what I'm talking about in this book will seem too good to be true. To those readers, I say: the gospel of Christ is often like that--hard to believe because it is such good news. But go ahead and believe it!" The gospel of  Christ is good news, he says, because it does us a lot of good. "It frees us from anxiety, makes us cheerful and glad. And that is something we need, because life is hard and the Christian life is harder."

The Christian life is a life of love, which is very hard work, and of heartache, because we love people who hurt. And besides all that, we have our own hurt. "Trying to be Christian" is anxiety-producing. But what the gospel of Christ does is give us Christ, and that is enough. We can "...let everything else be what it is--hard work, worthwhile work, works of love, and the heartaches that come with all of that. And we can let our feelings be what they are, whatever that may be. What matters is Jesus Christ, and the gospel tells us that all is well on that score: that we are our Beloved's and he is ours."

Next time I'll take a look at Chapter 1, in which Cary discusses Why You Don't Have to Hear God's Voice in Your Heart. We'll see why Cary says that's such good news.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Good News For Anxious Christians

I'm re-reading a book, Good News For Anxious Christians: 10 Practical Things You Don't Have To Do, by Phillip Cary, and it's a great little book. I thought it might be a good idea to try blogging through it. If these posts catch your interest and you decide you might want to get the book and read it, you can order it here, at amazon. So here we go with the first part of the book, the Preface.

Cary, the author, is concerned about "the new evangelical theology". He believes that this theology consists of supposedly "practical" ideas that promise to transform our lives, but which actually get in the way of our believing the gospel.The gospel is the good news that God has already decided to do something about our lives--whether we let him or not, whether we do anything about it or not, whether we believe it or not. In contrast, the new evangelical theology offers ideas that "promise practical transformation", as Cary says, "but in real life they mainly have the effect of making people anxious--not to mention encouraging self-deception, undermining their sense of moral responsibility, and weakening their faith in Christ".

These are serious claims. We should be startled by this because each of us is, to some extent, a product of the teaching of this new evangelical theology. That's because it is taught in the majority of churches and sold in the majority of Christian bookstores. Cary believes that this theology, which is actually relatively new to the church, is harmful. Therefore, he says, he intends to be "unsparing in my criticism of these ideas... I want to do my best to free Christians from the burden of believing these ideas and trying to put them into practice".

The Introduction is next, in which Cary explains how "trying" to be Christian is making Christians anxious. The ten chapters that follow--the "ten practical things you don't have to do"-- will, in their turns, explain:

  1. Why You Don't Have to Hear God's Voice in Your Heart
  2. Why You Don't Have to Believe Your Intuitions Are the Holy Spirit
  3. Why You Don't Have to Let God "Take Control"
  4. Why You Don't Have to "Find God's Will For Your Life"
  5. Why You Don't Have to Be Sure You Have the Right Motivations
  6. Why You Don't Have to Worry About Splitting Head from Heart
  7. Why You Don't Have to Keep Getting Transformed All the Time
  8. Why You Don't Always Have to Experience Joy
  9. Why "Applying It to Your Life" Is Boring
  10. Why Basing Faith on Experience Leads to a Post-Christian Future 
I really like this book. I think it's an important one, especially for women. I appreciate the good news and the freedom of the gospel truths of it. Next time I'll try to summarize the Introduction, which has some important stuff in it, and then get on to the *heart* of the matter in Chapter One.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

If My People...

I have had several people express to me, concerning prayer, that praying is more for our benefit than anything. The thinking seems to be that since God sovereignly governs all things, and since he has decreed that all his purposes will come to pass, that our prayers serve mostly to encourage us when he answers them, or to remind us that he is God and we are dependent on him, and so forth.

We enjoy a real benefit to ourselves in prayer, for sure, but that's not all the Bible has to say of prayer. Paul, for instance, asked for prayer a good bit. And he asked for prayer so that good things would actually come to pass. He told the Colossians, "Pray for us, that God may open a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ... that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak" (Col. 4:3-4). He also told the Corinthian church, "You must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many" (2 Cor. 1:11).

It sounds to me like Paul really coveted their prayers, because opportunities and blessings and Paul's ability to speak well depended on them. I know God has already determined that his purposes and plans will prevail. I guess you could accurately say that they'll prevail with or without us. But they won't prevail apart from prayer. Prayer is a means God has chosen and ordained to accomplish his purposes. What happens when a Christian doesn't pray, or prays little? At the least, it seems that Christian will miss out on being a wonderful and important part of great things happening in the world.

Revelation 8:2-5 tells of an angel at the altar in heaven who takes a golden censer, filled with "the prayers of all the saints", and throws it upon the earth. This seems to bring about the final judgments of God on the earth and the end of all wickedness, and the ringing in of his everlasting kingdom. What did the Lord teach us to pray on a regular basis? "May your kingdom come and your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven." Surely that prayer, prayed by all the saints with fervency and longing through the centuries, will fill the golden censer and bring heaven to earth.