Tuesday, September 9, 2008

How Not To Get Licked By Life - Part 1

Life is hard. I'm not trying to sound pessimistic; I'm just telling the truth. Jesus said that every single one of his followers would have trouble as long as they live, and it just so happens that this "trouble" seems to be making regular appearances in my life these days. I agree with the words of little orphan Annie: It's a hard knock life. Instead of kisses, I'm getting kicked. Maybe you're getting kicked too. If so, then this post (and the next one too) will help. I've been thinking a lot lately about the spiritual nature of the trouble I'm experiencing, and I decided to review the notes from a sermon series I preached a while back on spiritual warfare. I'm writing this for personal therapeutic purposes, but if you're experiencing hard knocks too, then maybe this will help you as well.

The Truth About the Trouble

Ephesians 6:12 says: For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. The Apostle Paul makes it clear that our struggles in our relationships, in our circumstances, and in doing what is right versus what is wrong is NOT of this world. Our greatest enemy is not the world we see (as wicked as it may be), but it’s the world we can’t see.

How intense is this struggle? The word translated “struggle” here comes from the Greek word which was used in that day for hand-to-hand combat or wrestling. There was a lot of trickery and deception in their wrestling back then. It kinda reminds me of our "professional" wrestling today (you know, the chair-smashing fake stuff). There's a lot of tomfoolery in that too, but the difference is that the wrestling back then was usually real with the winner staying alive and the loser dying. That’s the flavor of the spiritual struggle we face today. To say that the stakes are high would be an understatement.

Paul says that our struggle is against “the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” This seems to imply that Satan’s forces are well organized and ranked, but Paul’s point here is not for us to try to figure out how they’re organized. His point is to give us some idea of their sophistication and power. We are pitted against an incredibly evil and potent enemy.

So, how do we not just survive this battle; how do experience victory? Well, the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 6 tells us how. He tells us about the only armor and weaponry that will work for fighting and winning the spiritual battle that plagues us. Here are some of the details...

The Belt of Truth

The Roman soldier always wore a tunic as his primary piece of clothing. It was one square piece of material with holes cut out for the head and arms, and it draped loosely over most of the soldier’s body. Anybody familiar with the plight of an NFL lineman knows that anything loose gives the opponent an advantage because the loose clothing can be grabbed and held on to. Often, a lineman will pull-in or roll-up his jersey so that his opponent will be unable to grab hold of him.

This is exactly what the belt of the Roman soldier would do. Since most ancient battles were fought hand-to-hand, a loose tunic was dangerous. Before a battle, the Roman soldier would clinch up and tuck in his tunic using his belt. The belt was also used to hold his sword, allowing him to pull it out and use it at a moment’s notice. So, the Roman soldier’s belt was used to secure his clothing and hold his sword close by, thus readying him for battle.

For believers, Paul says that the belt that secures us and readies us for battle is truth, because two of Satan’s most common and damaging weapons are deceit and deception. If He can get us to buy into lies about God, about ourselves, or about others, then He can easily cause us to stumble and fall.

Truth here refers to 1) knowing the truth about God and 2) being truth tellers ourselves. First, we must know the truth about God, and we do this by knowing, meditating on, and obeying His Word. If we don’t, then our tunic hangs loose, and our enemy can grab hold of us and yank us around. Secondly, we must also be truth tellers. It’s one thing to know the truth about God, but if we don’t practice truthfulness in our lives, then we leave ourselves open and vulnerable to the attacks of our enemy. So, the belt of truth must be buckled around our waists if we're going to have any chance of standing firm when Satan attacks.

The Breastplate of Righteousness

No Roman soldier would go into battle without his breastplate. It was a tough, sleeveless piece or armor that covered his full torso from front to back. It was made out of either leather (covered with animal hooves and horns) or metal, and without it, his vital organs - heart, lungs, stomach, and kidneys - would be exposed. One stab from the end of a sword into any one of these organs, and death was almost certain. The breastplate covered for a soldier back then much the same area that a bulletproof vest covers our law enforcement officers today. Ask any officer whose been shot in the vest, and they’ll tell you how vital it is.

For believers, Paul says the breastplate that protects us like this spiritually is righteousness. We desperately need a breastplate, because Satan’s ultimate desire is to strike a lethal blow to our hearts in order to destroy us spiritually.

So, what does this kind of righteousness look like? Before I tell you what it is, let me tell you what it's not.

First, it’s not the kind of righteousness that we muster up on our own - commonly referred to as self-righteousness. As a matter of fact, self righteousness is a farce. It’s not real because the Scriptures say that there is NO ONE who is righteous on their own. But we can get caught in the trap of thinking that our own character, our own accomplishments, and our own legalistic behavior can please God and protect us from the attacks of Satan. The opposite is actually true: a cloak of self-righteousness, which is rooted in pride, gives Satan a ready-made weapon to attack and destroy us with. In our own strength, we can NOT produce the breastplate of righteousness.

Secondly, Paul's not talking here about the righteousness we get from Christ the moment we believe. Imputed righteousness for you theologians. Paul's not talking about this. This "imputed" righteousness from God makes it possible for us to have a breastplate, but it's not what makes up our breastplate, because we can not "put on" what God has already clothed us with.

The breastplate that we are to put on is made up of the righteousness that we display when we live in obedience to the Lord. It’s the righteousness we’re instructed to “put on” in Ephesians 4:24-27 where we’re told to put on things like the new self, truth, sinless anger, compassion, kindness, forgiveness, etc. We put on the breastplate that will protect us from the attacks of Satan when we choose to do what is right in the eyes of God. When we choose to disobey Him, we throw the breastplate to the ground and make ourselves incredibly vulnerable to the attacks of Satan.

So, in order not to be licked by life, we must live lives of obedience. And in so doing, we'll enjoy the protection of the breastplate, which is essential if we want any chance of standing firm when the enemy attacks.

This is the first of two posts on how not to get licked by life. In the next post, I'll explore the other pieces of our spiritual armor, including the one weapon that God tells us we can use to inflict pain and suffering! So, if you've ever been so down and overwhelmed by life that you've wanted to hurt someone, stay tuned!

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

The distinction between imputed righteousness and self-righteousness seems intelligible enough, but what about that between obedience and self-righteousness? Is there any formal difference between them? Ordinarily when we decry self-righteousness, we have in mind some such haughty attitude as the deportment of the Pharisees, that demonic parody of piety and sacrifice that stinks in God's nostrils. But if we take absolutely seriously the principle of iustificatio fidei, then must we not acknowledge that all human activity stands under the same condemnation, that all the works of men, whether we characterize them as self-righteous or obedient, are, precisely because they are works of men, fundamentally impotent and nothing more, at best, than an unwitting cry for forgiveness? If, in the end, man has no other refuge than the righteousness of Christ, what conceivable efficacy can the obedience of men have?

I'm thinking in particular of Luther's seventh thesis for the Heidelberg Disputation: "The works of righteous people would be deadly, if they were not feared to be deadly by these righteous people themselves in pious fear of God." If this is the case, what confidence is there to be placed in obedience of any kind whatsoever?

Matthew Valdiviez

Mike Potter said...

Matthew:

Great to hear from you! Let me rephrase what I think you're asking just to make sure I've got it right!

I think you're asking if there is any validity or value to man's obedience, and you're basing this question on a belief that says that the works of men are fundamentally impotent. This - I believe - is in response to the part in my post where I say: "The breastplate that we are to put on is made up of the righteousness that we display when we live in obedience to the Lord."

Am I on the right track? If so, here are some more thoughts on this. If not, please help me better understand what you're asking!

Even though the Scriptures make it clear that we are crucified with Christ and it is HE (along with His righteousness) that lives in and through us, we're also told in other passages to "put off" the deeds of unrighteousness and "put on" deeds of righteousness (Eph. 4:24-27).

We also know that the work of sanctification is the work that the Lord does in us, but we also understand that we play a role in it (like when Paul tells us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling).

Likewise, we know that the righteousness of Christ has been imputed to us and that our righteous deeds are like filthy rags to the Lord, yet we also see that we were saved to do righteous works (Eph. 2:10) and we're called to be holy and blameless in our behavior (Eph. 1:4).

This is - at the very least - ironic (and hard for me to wrap my mind around), but it's an irony that we must reckon with. I understand what you're saying, but in light of this irony between God's imputed righteousness and the call on us to be righteous, I don't think that the Scriptures support the belief that the works of men are "fundamentally impotent and nothing more."

So, in regards to your final question: What confidence is there to be placed in obedience of any kind whatsoever? Well, I think the Scriptures make it clear that our obedience does matter. James says that without acts of obedience (without righteous deeds) our faith is dead. Therefore, it seems that our faith in Christ is proven or validated by our obedience. Thus, we should place great confidence in our obedience because it is the evidence that our faith is alive, not dead.

Mike

Anonymous said...

Yes, I understand James' epistle's point about a dead faith. But does James actually claim that practical benefits are to be the anticipated yield of our obedience? If, indeed, the motive of our obedience is the return of the sort of security suggested by such an image as that of the breastplate, then isn't there something mercenary in our obedience? Doesn't this amount to an equivocating withdrawal into the smug surety of the salvific efficacy of good deeds? I find the strict mutual exclusivity of the dyad "imputed righteousness/self-righteousness" perfectly intelligible, but what it seems to call for is the total relinquishment of any claim to the goodness of human works; one cannot have it both ways: Either righteousness is God's or righteousness is man's. The obedience you've posited looks like a kind of half-way house between the foulness of Pharisaical piety and the summons to an unqualified dependence on and surrender to the righteousness that belongs to Christ alone. The Jamesian call to a faith quickened by works doesn't seem to me to have any direct bearing on the moral well-being of the faithful; one conforms to the will of God not because of all the lovely things obedience does for us but because conformity with the will of God is an imperative that demands no further justification than its own authoritative summons. Such obedience makes sense as a pure imperative, but when the impetus of an inner-worldly security shows up as the motive behind it, then this motive threatens to compromise or, rather, trivialize the sense of man's total depravity. What is the exegetical justification for equating the _obedience_ of James 1 with the _righteousness_ of Ephesians 6?

Mike Potter said...

Your Question: Does James actually claim that practical benefits are to be the anticipated yield of our obedience?

Yes. This is evident all throughout the Scriptures, including the book of James.

In James 1, we are told to "be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger." If we don't do these things, we are told that we will not "produce the righteousness that God requires." Therefore it can be assumed that if we do these things (through our obedience), then we will yield a practical benefit: the righteousness that God requires.

In James 2, James says that Abraham and Rahab were justified by their faith - a faith that was evidenced by their works (acts of obedience). When Abraham believed God and obediently did what He said, and when Rahab obediently hid the messengers, both of them yielded the practical benefits of justification and favor with God.

In James 4, we are told that if we "resist the devil" (an act of obedience), then he will flee from us. If we "humble ourselves before the Lord" (an act of obedience), we are told that we will be exalted by Him. Both of these are practical benefits that we yield when we obey the Lord.

In the text we've been discussing, Ephesians 6, it is also very clear there as well. In this text, Paul says that a practical benefit of our obedience is spiritual protection. As we "put on the whole armor of God" (which involves acts of obedience to do this), we yield the following benefits: the ability to "stand against the schemes of the devil," the ability to "withstand in the evil day," and the ability to "extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one."

Your Statement: Doesn't this amount to an equivocating withdrawal into the smug surety of the salvific efficacy of good deeds? I find the strict mutual exclusivity of the dyad "imputed righteousness/self-righteousness" perfectly intelligible, but what it seems to call for is the total relinquishment of any claim to the goodness of human works; one cannot have it both ways: Either righteousness is God's or righteousness is man's.

Maybe we're splitting hairs here. The Scriptures do indeed talk about two kinds of righteousness: the righteousness of God and the righteousness that God requires of man. I agree that all righteousness is from God, but I also understand the Scriptures to say that we must live righteous lives of obedience.

There is the imputed righteousness that we receive when we place our faith and trust in Christ, and then there is a righteousness that we are called to display.

Again, a clear evidence that the Scriptures call upon man to produce righteousness is in James 1:19-20. "Be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness that God requires." James' letter was written to belivers ("brothers" 1:2), and it was obvious to him that some of the brothers were not living righteous lives. Their anger was not producing the righteousness the God required of them.

It is the imputed righteousness of God that we receive by grace through faith. This - according to Paul - is not of ourselves; it is of God. Without it, we are lost, unsaved, and unable to bear the fruit of righteousness in our lives. However, once we are saved by grace through faith, then we are called upon to walk in the light not in the darkness (obedience)...to walk in the Spirit and not according to the flesh (obedience). If we do walk in the Spirit, then the Spirit bears in and through us the fruit of righteousness in our lives (Gal. 5:22-23).

Ultimately, this righteousness is God's righteousness being displayed in and through us, but we do participate in the process. Through our obedience (walking in the Spirit rather than according to the flesh), we enable the righteousness of God to bear fruit in and through us. Are we splitting hairs here?

Your Question: What is the exegetical justification for equating the obedience of James 1 with the righteousness of Ephesians 6?

James is writing believers that used to be under his pastoral care in Jerusalem but who are now scattered all over the place. He is writing to encourage them to stand firm as they "face trials of various kinds." He spends a lot of time telling them how to live lives of obedience that will produce the righteousness that God requires (1:20). He says that we are to do things like: be slow to anger, receive with meekness the implanted word, be doers of the word, etc. These things enable us to produce the righteousness that God requires.

So, when Paul tells us to put on the breastplate of righteousness, James gives us some insight into what this looks like practically.