Learning From an Expositor
I have been listening for the past few days to a series on the book of 1 John by a powerful minister recorded on MP3, Alistair Begg. He is one who takes great pains to explore the Word in detail very much like the inductive study methods that I learned years ago and that I use on a daily basis. As I have listened to him unpack what he has found in the Word and think about it myself as I am working through the day I am finding my own heart tuning in more to the mind of God. Sometimes I feel a bit overwhelmed with the sheer volume of information that my mind has to process at times. But I suppose that should be no surprise since I have been listening to around 8-10 sermons a day.
Quite a number of insights have come to my attention during this time of intense instruction, but one thing rather jumped out at me. It is also related to a clarifying of my own understanding of salvation and my own relationship to God that has been confusing in some respects nearly all of my life. In fact, much of the time I am listening to these I can almost hear my own father arguing vehemently with some of the assertions of this preacher. And while there are things that I feel are not accurate compared with what God has taught me in the Word, there is much more that is filling out the truths of reality as the Word itself and the Spirit exposes me to much needed truth about sin, about love and about God.
I am now having to admit at a much deeper level that some of the fundamental assumptions about religion that my father taught me were flawed and that I must let go of them under the influence of the Holy Spirit. That is not to say that many of the religious facts were necessarily wrong, but that the assumptions and assertions drawn from those facts were inherently flawed or misapplied. As a result my own heart has lived in semi-darkness for most of my life and as the increasing light of the real truth about God glows more brightly in my own consciousness I must continue to make choices to respond to that light or risk falling into deeper darkness.
As I listen to these expositions on the Word and ponder whether these things are true or not, I am challenged to again analyze carefully my own deep-rooted assumptions about religion. I cannot simply accept this preacher's assertions any more than I can safely depend on the assertions of my own parents, teachers or pastors. This dependence on others to determine truth or predigest the Word for me has been a great source of my confusion and I have found over the past few years that the more I take time and make stronger effort to grapple with the Word of God for myself the more out of sync I find myself with the mainstream of religious thought. That is not necessarily my goal, but that seems to be the effect of digging much deeper into the Word for myself.
As I think about this I realize that the early disciples likewise found themselves very much out of sorts with the mainstream of religious thinking as the early church experienced the baptism of the Holy Spirit and grew exponentially during the first few years. It is not that we should want to get out of sorts with others around us, but it seems that when we allow ourselves to think outside of the narrow box of religion and allow God to be our direct instructor that we will most often find ourselves out of step with mainstream assumptions about God. I suppose that this is always going to be inevitable.
One of the things that really struck me with force the past few days was something that exposed my continued inner discomfort regarding the words obedience, sin and the law. One of my father's favorite arguments was to quote from 1 John as a foundation for his fanatical legalism that promoted the teachings of perfectionism. I logically could see many of the flaws in this theology which is increasingly prevalent in some circles yet today. But since its deep assumptions have been drilled into me since early childhood, at a much deeper level I am still bothered by a misinformed, misguided conscience that has for years condemned me incessantly.
A condemning conscience is one of the curses of legalism and is one that I have struggled to deal with for most of my life. I am not trying to get rid of the voice of conscience but to reeducate it along the lines of real truth and valid perceptions of God rather than reacting to false views of God that uses fear as the foundation of religion. Many of these things I now believe were considered heresy by my father and so I still hear his arguing voice inside of me even though he has been gone for a number of years. Now I realize that it is actually the voice of a different spirit that just used my father to access my conscience to torment me and drive me away from knowing the love of my real Father in heaven.
The argument that my father loved to trot out during heated debates about the definitions of sin and how to be saved was an insistence that the only real definition for sin was found in 1 John 3:4, sin is the transgression of the law. Of course, implied in his arguments was his own definitions of each word which could in turn elicit even more heated arguments as he sought to shore up and protect each area of vulnerability in his logic. He depended far more on the teachings of ultra-conservative and legalistic organizations that supplied him with reinforcements for his fanatical logic rather than seeking to study the Word personally with an attitude of humility and letting the Spirit soften his own heart.
Yes, I have seen all of that for quite a number of years, and yet the effects of his arguments still linger deep inside of me and the questions and demands of his logic sometimes still must be addressed inside to silence effectively the accusing voices still stirring around inside my conscience. What I really want is to know the real truth, not a counterfeit, washed out, diluted gospel that reacts to legalism by going to some other error, but to know the real truth about God and salvation that inspired the early believers to glow with the love of God and live lives of selfless service and joy in community with each other.
Something that Alistair mentioned really hit home to me in this area. As he discoursed about this part of the passage he surprisingly reiterated some of the valid arguments that my own father had used for many years. He argued very strongly against using these passages and others to excuse sin in the believer's life and to show that God is very particular about wanting to eliminate all sin from our lives. At the same time he also explained much better than I have heard before how that is seen against the fact that sin still is found in a person's experience even though they are a child of God and born again legitimately. This has always been one of the most violent sources of contention among those I have lived around and so I was both very curious and very cautious as I listened with great interest to how pastor Begg would explain this.
I must say that I am somewhat surprised at how accurate and effective Alistair's teachings seem to be in making sense of all of this. I do not intend to take these explanations as the final word for that would be foolishness in one respect. He is no more a final authority on the Word of God than any other teacher or parent and he himself insists that each one must investigate the Word for themselves to find what is really true. But as I have listened and prayed and meditated and kept my mind open to the Spirit of God while listening to these discourses I have felt my heart starting to feel hope and life and encouragement springing up inside, even if ever so faintly.
The one thing that really got my attention was when he talked about this verse that my father loved to quote so often. He gave the scenario of a discussion with someone who might insist on similar ideas to that which my father subscribed to supporting perfectionism or someone who might think they were pretty good due to their own efforts at righteousness with help from God. The conversation might go something like this.
“I think I am a pretty good person because I don't do any bad things. I don't have sin in my life”
“Well, have you broken any laws lately?”
“No, I don't really think so.”
“Really? Well what about this one.”
He said to him, "' You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment." (Matthew 22:37-38 NRSV)
“So, have you kept this commandment? Have you loved God this way?”
“Well, I suppose I can't really say that I have.”
“Then I think you would have to admit that you still have sin in your life and that you are not perfect.”
This scenario really highlighted the faultiness of the logic used by people who believe like my father believed for many years. Fortunately my father actually experienced the real love of God and was changed dramatically a couple years before he died. But sadly there are thousands of people still angrily insisting and demanding that we must perfect a righteousness in our lives to prepare ourselves for the Second Coming of Jesus while at the same time minimizing the very love necessary to produce that righteousness. But their insistence always belies a spirit inside that is infected with pride, anger and a fear based on false ideas about how God feels toward us.
What this really highlighted for me was the fact that the definitions used for law-keeping by these conservatives is most often along the line of behavior, external appearances and comparisons with the demands of the Ten Commandments as they view them. They are so protective of their own opinions about the purpose and place of the Commandments in the Christian's life that they fail to allow the real love of God to become the motivation for complying with those commands. Instead, like my father did for many years, they simply redefine the word love to fit into what their own experience is instead of admitting that in their heart they really don't know the true nature of God's love.
The core problem is is that of getting the cart before the horse. This logic attempts to arrive at love by being obedient instead of the other way around. But this is an absolute impossibility and is why my life has been filled with frustration for so many years. Devoid of experiencing very much love myself I was always taught that love had to be earned rather than received. As a result my heart was deeply wounded and hardened and my mind was filled with false notions about love from those who likewise were filled with similar false notions themselves.
As I dwell on the teachings and words of 1 John, I sense that my understanding is clarifying a little bit and that some of the confusion inside is starting to clear away. I also realize that this would not be happening if I had not chosen to listen to sermons all day while working instead of listening to music or nothing at all. I realize that my choices in this respect likely make some people think I am quite weird or strange, but I have been richly blessed by doing this, and filling my mind with the Word instead of other things is having an effect inside of me that is something I truly desire for my life.