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Satan Loves Excited Christians

revival 

No, that’s not a typo in the title.  Yes, I know that needs explaining. 

This is actually the first article in a whole series that I am writing as I slowly work my way through A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, a book by Jonathan Edwards, the 18th century philospher, writer, theologian, pastor, and president of Princeton University.  A whole group of Christian bloggers are going through this book together, led by Mr. Uber-Blogger himself Tim Challies.  I plan not to summarize everything that Edwards is saying in this very challenging and complex book, but each week to take out one important idea that is worth reflecting on and applying to our own lives. 

Edwards wrote Religious Affections in the 18th century during what became known as The First Great Awakening.  What was The Great Awakening?  It was a complex phenomenon, but basically the experience of what it meant to live a Christian life changed radically for many people during that time.  People became more emotional, more passionate, and more excited about following God.  As a result, many practices both within the church and in individual lives dramatically shifted, and there was much talk as to whether they shifted for good or ill.  Edwards wrote Religious Affections to meticulously examine the role of emotion and passion in religion from both a theological, philosophical, and practical perspective.  His insight and perspectives on this subject have influenced theologians down to the present day.

What Edwards wrote was no “ivory tower” academic posturing.  He was regarded as one of the leaders of the Great Awakening, and took heavy criticsm from both “old school” and “new school” pastors.  Many said his appeals to emotion and life change were dangerous and inappropriate.  But he also was very concerned about objective truth and maintaining Bible-based doctrine, and garnered himself enemies when he spoke out against pastors and practices that he saw had went too far in their reforms and new ways of doing things.

The book attempts to answer the question “What is the nature of true religion, and what practices actually please God?”  He looks at the subject from both a negative perspective (things that may appear to please God but don’t) and from a positive perspective (things that we can assure ourselves truly do please God).

In the book’s preface he explains why he wrote the book.  He correctly sees that when people become involved and excited about something new and became emotionally invested in it, the “rose-colored glasses” effect comes into play.  People become less concerned about whether what they believe in and practice is Biblical, because it is exciting and seems to work.  As a result, wrong and false beliefs and practices creep in unawares, which lead people off track and end up making a mess of everything. 

This is a much more serious problem than most people, then or now, give it credit.  Edward states:

It is by the mixture of counterfeit religion with true, not discerned and distinguished, that the devil has had his greatest advantage against the cause and kingdom of Christ.

That (like everything else in the 300+ pages in this book) is a mouthful.  It’s much easier to say, “Satan loves excited Christians.”  Not that excitement is bad, but that it can cloud our vision.  Edwards goes on to give a list of all the results of this clouded vision and mixing in of off-track ideas and practices in with the true.  Here is my 21st-century re-do of his list: 

  • Satan loves when people are excited about doing things that they think please God, when in actuality they are displeasing God.
  • Satan loves when people think that their souls are in good shape with God, when in fact they are far away from His blessing.
  • Satan loves when people forget about what God truly values as pure religion (which the apostle James defined as helping the poor and being holy) because they’re so excited in their religious worship experiences and other “exciting” stuff.
  • Satan loves when people get excited and do openly foolish things (like claiming they can heal any disease or raise people from the dead) that give non-Christians plenty of ammo to attack and ridicule what they now see as Christianity.
  • Satan loves it when people excitedly think they’re helping God when they’re actually openly working against God, like giving financial support to someone who teaches doctrine that is actually against the Bible.
  • Satan loves it as people excitedly promote false ideas and religion and think they’re advancing the Kingdom of God, when they’re actually tearing it down.
  • Finally, Satan loves how false doctrine splits churches and denominations and friends, and causes people to spend time arguing with each other.  As a result, Satan can influence people to go to one extreme or another, and grow farther apart and farther out of the path of true religion.

That’s a pretty stark list.  Read it over again.  Think it over.  The question we all have to ask ourselves is, “Where have I been guilty of that in the past? Where am I guilty of that now?”

Edwards summarizes his “terrible consequences” of the mixture of truth and untruth in religion by saying:

God’s people in general have their minds unsettled in religion, and know not where to set their foot, or what to think, and many are brought into doubts, whether there be any thing at all in religion; and heresy, infidelity, and atheism greatly prevail.

If we’re serious about loving and pleasing God and advancing the Kingdom, then we need to be serious about getting excited in a good way about it, and guarding our souls from the twin evils of apathy and lack of discernment.  As the weeks go by I’ll explore these topics in greater depth.

Your Only Chance

 

 In the excellent movie Groundhog Day, Bill Murray plays Phil Connors, a shallow, self-obsessed television weatherman who gets stuck in a mystical limbo, having to repeat the same day, Groundhog Day, in Punxsatawney, Pennsylvania over and over again, hundreds of times without any seeming way to break the cycle. The movie portrays his frustration and his fruitless efforts to escape his “prison” of time.  

Although Phil can do and get most anything in the town during each repeating day, he ends up fixated on getting the one thing he can’t connive or buy: the honest affections of a woman.  He repeatedly tries and fails to lie to her, befriend her, & seduce her, all to no avail. 

But slowly he begins to change.  He starts to realize that he can simply live this repeating day the best way he knows how.  It reminds me of how The Message paraphrases Ecclesiates 9:9-10:

Each day is God’s gift. It’s all you get in exchange
   For the hard work of staying alive.
   Make the most of each one!
   Whatever turns up, grab it and do it. And heartily!
   This is your last and only chance at it.

In the movie, it takes Bill Murray hundreds of tries until he realizes Solomon’s wisdom— to make the most of each day, “whatever turns up, grab it and do it.  And heartily!”  And when he finally learns that lesson, God allows him to wake up to a new day the next morning.

Have we learned Solomon’s lesson?  Really?  And what’s more, do we realize that we don’t get hundreds of tries to get one day right?  We only get one chance to get today right, to live heartily and to the Lord.  Make the most of your one chance today.

Knowing the Scriptures

Jesus answered and said to them, “You are wrong, because you neither know the Scriptures nor the power of God.”  Matthew 22:29 ESV

This is one of those famous verses that I had read dozens of times and thought, “Yea, they didn’t know the Bible or the power of God.”

Wait.

Think.

Jesus was talking to Saducees.  All of them had been raised Jewish, had studied the Scriptures since childhood, held high positions within the Jewish religion of the time.  Some of them probably had entire books of the Scriptures memorized.  In the sense of the word that we usually use “know” in, they KNEW the Scriptures, much better than I do.

So, what was Jesus meaning when He said these scholars didn’t know the focus of their life’s study?

What does it mean to know the scriptures?

The old maxim goes “the best commentary on the Bible is the Bible.”  Simply put, if we are unsure what a passage in the Bible means, our first response should not be “I think…” or “I believe…” or “what makes sense to me is…” or “What speaks to me is…” or even “This very wise man wrote…”  What our first response needs to be is “What does the Bible say about this?”

Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2:14, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”  This passage explains what theologians call illumination—the reality that although we may have great intellectual knowledge of the Bible, to overcome the innate distortions and darkness of our fallen souls, to truly know and understand the truth of Scripture requires the Holy Spirit’s work in our minds.

Jesus spoke to this inability to understand without the Holy Spirit’s work in his conversation with Nicodemus.  Jesus asked him, “Are you a teacher in Israel and yet do not understand these things?”

When speaking to the disciples in Matthew 13 Jesus said, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given…Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says:  You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive.”  Jesus clearly refers to being able to understand the spiritual truth of His teachings as being a gift, a gift from God. (see a related article on illumination here.)

Another aspect of being able to “know” the Scriptures is what I would term experiental knowledge, that is, knowledge that can only be gained through actually experiencing the truth described.  The old testament often uses the term “know” as in “Adam knew his wife”—which doesn’t mean he knew facts about her, it means he intimately knew her through sexual experience.  Paul in Philipians 3 talks about giving up everything to know Christ, the fellowship of His sufferings, and the power of His resurrection.  You can feel the passion, almost agony, in Paul’s voice as he wants to know God in such a deeper way than any mass of facts could take him.

There are things about the nature and power of God that can only be appropriated to our minds and hearts through humbly and obediently walking with Him.  Charlie Peacock captured it well in his song Experience:

We can only possess what we experience
Truth to be understood must be lived
We can only possess what we experience

There is a difference, a qualitative difference
Between what I know as fact
And what I know as truth
It stands as a great divide
To separate my thinking
From when I’m thinking foolishly
And when I’ve understood

The facts of theology can be altogether cold
Though true in every way
They alone can’t change me
Truth is creative, transforming and alive
It’s truth that keeps me hum
ble, saved and set free

We can only possess what we experience
We can only possess what we experience

Straight up honesty, that’s my obligation
That’s the point when I obey the truth without hesitation
When faith gains consent
Of my stubborn will
And makes the irreversible commitment real
To the Jesus of my journey
To the Christ of crucifixion
Resurrection and redemption
To the Father of mercy
To the God of all comfort.

Then and only then, then and only then,
Then and only then, truth begins its
Saving and illuminating work within the heart
And not a moment sooner, not one moment sooner
And not a moment sooner, not one moment sooner

We can only possess what we experience
We can only possess what we experience
Truth to be understood must be lived
We can only possess what we experience

If there be no sympathy
There can be no understanding
You must surrender to a truth
To really understand it
We can only possess what we experience
Truth to be understood must be lived
We can only possess what we experience.