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Wednesday, August 14, 2013

All Things Work Together, But Maybe We Don't See the Big Picture!

Note - This was the text for a sermon I composed for a recent graduate-level Homiletics class.  There are some things here that I was unable to address due to time factors and other restrictions in the class, but we will do so here where I have the liberty to do so.  Hope this message will edify the listener.

The pericope in Scripture we are focusing on for this lesson today is taken from Romans 8:26-39, and it is chosen because it is the Epistle lesson for the 11th Sunday in Trinity, upon which date this sermon approximates.  The Trinity season focuses on Christ's teachings, challenging us to make practical applications of them in our own lives.  However, in doing so, we have to first be consecrated as vessels of the love of God to others.

In this passage, there are three important but interrelated aspects communicated to challenge us, and they are intercession, predestination, and inseparability. 

Beginning with verses 26-27, let us first talk a little about intercession.  First, intercession is done according to God's will for us.  Second, the Holy Spirit intercedes through us.  In the latter case, ultimately it is not us doing the interceding, but rather the voice of God Himself, for as believers His Holy Spirit does dwell within us.   The late evangelist Kathryn Kuhlman illustrated this idea well in one of her classic quotes - she often said "God doesn't want gold or silver vessels, but rather yielded vessels!"  She stated a valid observation, because it is indeed God who dwells within us that enables us to do what he called us to do.  Problem is, do we listen??  That could be the subject of a whole other message!

Secondly, in some cases this intercession is manifested by "groanings which cannot be uttered," according to verse 27.  Now, among many of our Pentecostal and Charismatic friends, this reference is often used as Scriptural support for the gift of speaking in unknown tongues, and I would concede that there is some validity to that.  However, the old-time Pentecostal folks understood this on a different level as well.  Some among them had what is known as a "gift of travail," and what that meant was that such a person with this gift would receive what was called a "burden" to intercede on behalf of someone else, usually for salvation, healing, or some important need of that person.  In interceding for this need, the person who did so would often display an almost agonizing demonstration of prayer, fasting, and it could last for days at a time - the person would indeed "groan inutterable groanings" that many equated with the agony of the birthing process a woman has.  This is also comparable to Isaiah 26, where similar imagery occurs.   Although it looked strange, God used it, and oftentimes the end result of such action would be a miraculous breakthrough of some sort.  Such was the old-time Pentecost of the past - what happened today??  In the past several decades, many people who once took this stuff seriously have passed on, and the new generation oftentimes doesn't display the commitment that these old-timers had.  And, with the distractions of the modern world, more focus is directed by many churches and their leaders on how to tickle ears, entertain, and in general Christianity has been "dumbed-down" by a postmodern generation that doesn't know the true faith as their forebears once did.  One of our traditional Anglican lay writers, Barton Gingerich, wrote an article recently that addressed this problem, and what he said was (based on research done by Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton) basically the postmodern generation is in a faith crisis of "kind," and what he means by this is simple - many of these young people were not properly discipled in true Christianity in the first place, but rather a philosophy called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD), which has the following core tenets:

1.  A single god exists who created and ordered the cosmos.
2.  Said "god" wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other - ie: "Thou shalt not be a jerk."
3.  God does not need to be particularly involved in one's life unless a problem needs to be solved.
4.  Good people go to heaven when they die.
(Barton Gingerich, "The Rise of the 'Nones'," in The Anglican Way {vol. 26, no. 2} 2013. p. 15)

To me, this sounds like nothing more than good old politically-correct universalist nonsense, not to mention a secularization of Christianity.  Fr. Alexander Schemann, the preeminent Orthodox theologian and late chancellor of St. Vladimir Seminary in New York, once said that secularism is a religion in and of itself, and its primary tenet is that man has the responsibility to make life as interesting, happy, and meaningful as possible, but he also notes that as much as secularism is a faith of "helps," it takes more than that to be a Christian (Alexander Schemann, For The Life of the World {Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir Seminary Press, 2004} pp 98-99).  That Christianity is slowly secularizing is of no great mystery - the individualistic mentality of Protestant Evangelicalism almost guarantees it will happen!  Archbishop Haverland also notes this, as he observes that the authority of personal religious experience divorced from the clear historic teachings of the Church will in time lead to secularization (Mark Haverland, Anglican Catholic Faith and Practice {Athens, GA: Anglican Parishes Association, 2011} p. 63).  And, that is why, in recent years, we have seen postmodernism infect much of American Christianity.  At the Pentecostal college I went to as a matter of fact, I have noted an alarming difference between when I was there as an undergraduate student over 20 years ago and what it is today - in its past, this college had a vibrant spiritual legacy, and revivals were more frequent back then because faculty at that time were godly men who had a vision for their students.  However, today it is all about activism, moralism, and money - the focus of the campus today is one of numbers and what entertains people, and the campus revivals of the past have been replaced with "leadership forums" and other nonsense trying to make the church look like the corporate world.  And, the spiritual atmosphere reflects this - it is dead, lifeless, and there is no continuity with the legacy it once had.  MTD, rather than Biblical Christianity, has overtaken both the campus and the impressionable young students.  Scary stuff - and, it is the reason why you don't see a lot of people who possess the gift of intercession; God forbid we interrupt our precious schedules so God can talk to us, because we only need to talk to him when we are in trouble!  This is a tragic and terrible.

The Christian East understood the intercessory ministry as well, in particular such great Church Fathers as St. Symeon the New Theologian, who taught extensively on a "gift of tears" that although not exclusively tied to intercessory prayer was intimately connected to it.  Intercession, bottom line, is a lost art, and it is tragic that it is so ignored in favor of a moralistic deism that appeals to the flesh while imperiling the eternity of the soul in hell.

Moving on from intercession, the Apostle inserts a peripheral thought in verse 28 which  affirms that God is ultimately in control, and that all things work together for His good for those who love him and are called to his purpose.  To tie it into the earlier verses, it means that real intercession is not an effort in vain, but will produce results.  In regard to this also, this "working together" also includes adversity, and my spiritual mentor, Fr. Eusebius Stephanou, summarizes that beautifully when he says "Man's disappointments are God's appointments."  Fr. Eusebius often uses the Biblical story of Joseph to illustrate what he means - essentially, the evil and adversity inflicted upon Joseph was used to orchestrate God's eventual favor, and the poor Hebrew kid sold into slavery becomes the second-most powerful man in a foreign land!  Remember though that one's faithfulness is still a determining factor in that equation, and we must remain faithful and obedient to the Lord in order for him to direct us where he wills us to go.  That being said, it also recalls a statement I heard another well-known minister say one time - "One's present position doesn't determine one's future potential."  What that is saying to us is that we need to look at the bigger picture and not let the adversity we face at times distract us from remembering God is ultimately in control of all things.

We now want to address predestination.  This word is often misunderstood, and some of our Calvinist/Reformed friends often misappropriate it to the point it can become a bad word.  Reformed Calvinists are fellow Christians, and they have produced many fine ministers and scholars (D. James Kennedy and Francis Schaeffer come to mind here).  However, the more extreme followers of this school of thought tend to go one of two extreme directions.  Some espouse what is called supralapsarianism, which is also known as the "Radical Two-Seed Doctrine." Those who espouse this view take predestination to mean that God has given some - called "the elect" - his holy seed, and they are predestined to salvation.  Others have "Satan's seed," and the more extreme proponents of this view will go as far as to state that Eve had sex with Satan, birthed Cain, and that "seed" has descendants today who are doomed to damnation with no hope of redemption - one proponent of this view was early Pentecostal evangelist William Branham.  This of course contradicts the true Word of God, which says Jesus died for all, and that anyone who accepts His atonement for our sins on the Cross will be saved.   The other extreme is rooted in the same mentality, and has recently gained some popularity, and that would be universalism.  A Reformed/Calvinistic universalism affirms that Christ died for all, and as a result, all have been predestined to salvation.  The most recent incarnation of this heresy is Rob "No Hell" Bell's controversial book Love Wins.  Both of these extremes are wrong, and neither represent what Scripture clearly teaches.  But to address that, one needs to differentiate between predestination and foreknowledge.  Predestination means a course has been set by God Himself for one's life pilgrimage, in that he knew us before we existed.  Foreknowledge, on the other hand, denotes a variability based on the free will God gave us.  God gives us the decision to make, but based on the choice he knows the outcome of it.  I like what early Church writer Theodoret of Cyr said in regard to the difference, as he correctly pointed out that God's foreknowledge does not predestine someone to salvation or baptism.  And, that leads us into the final idea of this passage, which is inseparability.

Inseparability is the word I chose to describe what is being communicated in the final verses of this passage, and essentially what it means is that once we have accepted Christ and know God's love, no external force can separate us from that!  Note external force, and look at the rhetorical interrogatory the Apostle engages, beginning in verse 35, when he asks if several external stimuli - tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness - can separate us from the love of Christ.  In verses 38-39, he answers the question by affirming that these and some additional externals - death, life, angels, principalities, powers, things present, things to come, height, depth, no other creature - can separate us from the love of God, manifested fully in Jesus Christ.  Note however what is not mentioned - temptation, the will, and our own flesh!  Those things are not external, but are part of us - God does not will that any should perish eternally in their sin, and it is not God who ultimately sends us to hell if we reject His salvation.  Rather, we do it ourselves.  Scripture affirms that backsliding is indeed a possibility, and eschatologically it is guaranteed to happen on a large scale as an apostasy is foretold many times in Scripture among those professing Christ.  And, it is not external stimuli that cause the apostasy, but rather the weakness of the human flesh!  A misunderstanding of this truth has led over the years to a couple of common errors.  One one hand, you have some radical Calvinists, who believing they are predestined to be saved anyway engage in a mindset known as antinomianism.  Antinomianism asserts that due to the fact that one's salvation is secure no matter what, such a person can engage in sinful behavior with no consequence.  This is a clear heresy, and also does not represent historic soteriology - the Church affirms that at the administration of baptism, all original sin is eradicated and the person becomes a new life in Christ.  However, we still have a sin nature, and must have a living faith in order to keep it in check - when we sin, in other words, the Holy Spirit should be present in our lives to convict us of that sin so that we can repent of it and remain in a state of grace.  God is faithful and just to forgive all who sincerely and humbly repent of sin, but we must be responsive enough in our Christianity to do so.  Therefore, antinomianism is not an option.   A second error was advanced on the other extreme by late Orthodox theologian Seraphim Rose called the "Tollhouse Theory," and what that entails is that when a believer dies, their souls can still be snatched and drug into hell by demonic "watchers" as the soul ascends to heaven.  This too is a clear heresy, and a misunderstanding and misappropriation of the spiritual conflict we experience in this life.  Be assured, if you die with a vibrant faith in Jesus Christ as your Savior, and His blood has atoned for your sins, your eternal reward is pretty much guaranteed, and those "tollhouse watchers" (also external forces - principalities) cannot steal that away because they have no authority to do so. 
That being said, it is important to know that we need to know what we believe - I hear even some pastors saying they are still "developing their theology," and if that is the case, they are in BIG trouble! - because deception is out there, and the enemy will use it to try to derail us.  And, that is why it is tragic that today much of postmodern Christianity doesn't have a clue when it comes to doctrine, apologetics, or history - the generation suffers as a result.  That tragedy must be averted before more people are lost for eternity.

In closing, let's tie it all together.  First, God has things under control, and if you are his, you are his vessel and nothing external can touch you.  However, you must remain faithful, or you will fall, simple as that.  As long as we allow God the primacy in our lives, He will take care of and look out for us.  Thankfully, his love and salvation are not contingent on external stimuli either, and that is the beauty of our own testimonies as Christians.  May we continue to walk faithfully in that path he has pre-ordained for us.