Monday, August 27, 2012

Renewing an Atmosphere of Faith in the Church of God

The Church of God has become scattered since the death of Mr. Herbert W. Armstrong 26 years ago. We are also greatly reduced in power - power to preach the gospel to the world.

We do not have the growth and power we had in the early days of the Worldwide Church of God, in the 1950s and 1960s when Mr. Armstrong was alive. We also do not have the healings we had at that time.

Many are sick in the Church today and are in need of healing. We pray for God's intervention, and though some are healed, many are not.

We need to build an atmosphere of faith within the Church.

Faith comes from Bible study and from our choice to believe what God says in the Bible. The apostle Paul wrote, "So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God" (Romans 10:17). When this was written, the Bible was not complete or widely available. People received the word of God by hearing Old Testament scriptures read on the Sabbath and by hearing the preaching of the first century apostles, whose message was backed up by public miracles from God. Today we receive the word of God by reading the Bible. Increased Bible reading and study is one way of building faith.

Also, faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:4, 9). Faith comes from God.

We have a need for more power and for more faith, faith for healing and power to preach the gospel and a warning message to the world. Yet, we don't have it. Why?

If we want to build an atmosphere of faith so we may have more healings (we do), and if we want to have more power for preaching the gospel (we do), why hasn't God supplied the faith and power we want and pray for?

Could it be that God sees something wrong in the Church, even something wrong in the best of the major Church of God fellowships, that we as a Church have not acknowledged? Could it be that we have a sin we don't see and have not confessed before God? Could it be that God is withholding miraculous healings to get our attention until we really examine ourselves to the point of seeing clearly what we have not seen before?

This kind of thing has happened before.

Read the account in Mr. Armstrong's autobiography of the first time he began to fast. What prodded him to fast? God was not answering his prayers for healing his wife and for other problems.

How did Mr. Armstrong fast?

He did not call a Church-wide fast, nor did he ask other Church members to fast for his wife's healing. He also did NOT, during most of this fast, pray for his wife's healing! In fact, he didn't ask for anything from God during his fast (till the end of the fast), except that God would show him what was wrong with him!

Read the account in the autobiography.

He had faith. He knew God answered prayer. He had received answers to his prayers before, including miraculous healings. But something was wrong. God was no longer answering his prayers as before.

Mr. Armstrong had the faith to know that the fault was not with God, it was with himself. So he fasted, prayed, and studied the Bible only to find out what was wrong with himself.

And through that period of fasting, God have him the answer. Once Mr. Armstrong understood his sin and repented, he prayed one more time for his wife's healing, and God answered him immediately.

That is the kind of fasting that is needed today in the Church.

We can't assume we know our own sins clearly. "Who can understand his errors? Cleanse me from secret faults" (Psalm 19:12). We still have human nature, and our human nature makes us tend to "look away" from our own sins without even realizing it, and Satan also tries to blind us to our own faults. But fasting can help us overcome Satan and his deceptions (Matthew 4:1-11, Luke 4:1-13, Matthew 17:14-21, Leviticus 16:5-31, Revelation 20:1-3).

What might the Church's fault be that prevents God from inspiring us with the faith that will enable our prayers for healing and power to preach the gospel to be heard and answered? And what might our fault be that prevents God from answering our prayers?

I will make a suggestion, for what it is worth, for consideration.

What I will say is not anything different from what I have said before.

Faith must be towards God and God alone (Hebrews 6:1).

"But of course," you might say. "That is obvious."

Not so fast. Let's think about this in more depth and not just assume that the faith we are trying to build is directed towards God.

"Faith", in the context of the way the Bible uses the term, is always faith towards God. But true godly faith is not always the kind of "faith" people have, in the world or in the Church of God.

Catholics have "faith". They have faith in their concept of God as a trinity. They have faith in their Catholic traditions and doctrines. They have faith in their church and its authority to interpret the Bible. Some of them have faith that their trinitarian "God" will protect them and provide for them. And that faith can be very strong in some cases.

Protestants have "faith" that God loves them, that their sins are forgiven because they have accepted Christ. Atheists and agnostics have "faith" in the scientific method as the best and only trustworthy method for discovering truth.

Millions of people in every religion have faith in their traditional beliefs, in their religious teachers and authorities, and sometimes in their own opinions and "insights".

How is it with Church of God members?

Can a Church of God member or minister have faith in his Church of God doctrinal traditions he has held for years? Can a Church of God member have faith in his pastor, his Church leader, or the ministry of his Church of God fellowship in general? Can a Church member have faith in Mr. Armstrong and in Mystery of the Ages? Can a member have faith in his own opinions?

To that last question, most experienced ministers will say, "yes", because they have had discussion sessions with people whose "faith" in the truth of their opinions was rock-solid.

But what about a member having faith in Church of God traditional doctrines, or faith in the Church ministry? Is that possible? And if a member had that kind of "faith", what would it look like? From the outside, would it look different from true faith in God and God's word, the Bible? Probably not much. In behavior and conversation about doctrine it would look about the same, as long as the ministry is teaching true doctrine from the Bible and as long as our traditional doctrines are generally correct.

But God looks at the heart. He sees not only what we say and do, but He sees our inner motives, why we say and do. And to God, faith in traditions and ministers will look very different in the heart from faith in God and the Bible.

But members whose faith is in their COG traditions or in the Church ministry more than God and the Bible can change, especially if the ministry points them in the right direction, teaching them to believe the Bible more than the ministry.

But what Church of God organization does that today?

Instead, too many ministers compete with God for the faith of the members. They teach the members to believe and trust the Church's doctrines more than what the members can see for themselves in the word of God. They do this by teaching the members to have faith that Christ is controlling the teaching of the ministry to make sure it is accurate. But God, in the Bible, nowhere promises to make sure that the ministry's doctrines are accurate, rather, the examples in the Bible and in Church of God history show that even the true Church and true ministers can make mistakes in doctrine.

Why do some ministers teach members to believe and trust that God will make sure the ministry only teaches the truth on everything and that they should "trust Christ" to lead the ministry to teach accurately without error? Why do they teach members to believe and trust the Church's interpretation of the Bible rather than let the Bible interpret the Bible and believe what they see in the Bible for themselves?

Part of the answer may be that ministers are afraid of each member interpreting the Bible for himself, then spreading his own doctrinal ideas among the congregation, causing confusion, division, and error.

This is a legitimate concern, but there is a right way and a wrong way to deal with this.

Teaching the members to trust the Church's interpretation of the Bible because Christ is head of the Church and to assume that the Church's interpretation of scripture is correct is the wrong way to deal with the problem.

For many of us who did not grow up in the Church, we had to give up our former beliefs. Whether we were Catholic, Protestant, or non-religious, when we heard Mr. Armstrong say, "Don't believe me, believe God, believe your own Bible", we had to make a choice, and when we chose to believe the Bible, we knew we were choosing to believe God more than our Catholic or Protestant ministers or more than our personal, non-religious opinions. Yet, millions of listeners never came into the Church because they made the opposite choice - they chose to continue in their religious traditions. They believed their ministers and priests more than the Bible, more than God. In this, they followed Satan, who deceives the whole world. They no doubt were sincere and well-meaning - they were deceived by Satan and by the traditions of this world and didn't realize they were making a mistake. In their minds, they were doing the right thing. The real guilt and blame is on Satan's head. But the result was, they didn't believe the Bible. They didn't believe God's word.

Perhaps Lucifer himself made the choice long ago to disbelieve God's warning and teaching about the way to live, and his choice to doubt God's word was the beginning of his downfall. Now he leads most of mankind to make that same choice. But we in the Church of God, who have been called by God to overcome Satan in this age, must be different.

Believing God more than man is a way of life, and we must continue in that way of life.

Now, we all make mistakes. In this physical life, we only know in part (1 Corinthians 8:2, 13:9-10, 12). This means that two Spirit-filled true Christians can read the same verses in the Bible and come to different conclusions. The Bible is a large book, and sometimes many verses must be put together correctly to fully understand what God is saying on a particular topic or doctrine. We all come from different backgrounds and with different experiences, talents, and perspectives. Also, we need God's help to understand, and He helps each person with the help that person needs, to teach each of us, to test us sometimes, one point at a time. And God does not give all of us instant understanding at once.

But God is able to see past our sincere mistakes, our misunderstanding of this scripture or that scripture, and He looks at the heart. Are we willing to believe Him, in other words? Are we really trying to understand what God is saying in the Bible so we can believe and do it, even though we make mistakes because we are human?

We have to believe what God says as a way of life. Whenever we are faced with a choice, believe the Bible or doubt what the Bible says, we must choose to believe the Bible because the Bible is God speaking.

So because we only understand in part, because we are human and can make mistakes, a Church member may have a different understanding of what a portion of scripture means, and as a result, a different view of a doctrinal question, than the ministry.

Who is right? Is it always the ministry? No, there is no promise in the Bible of that. Ministers are human too.

Could God open a member's mind to understand a point of truth in the Bible that the ministry does not understand? Might God do this to test both the member and the ministry?

God did this with Mr. Armstrong and the Church of God Seventh Day. Mr. Armstrong was only a lay member of the Church, not yet ordained, when God revealed several truths to him through the Bible and used Mr. Armstrong to take these truths to the Church of God Seventh Day leadership, which rejected them.

So a member could be right and the Church wrong on a particular point.

But even if the member is wrong, until he is able to see his mistake, he must continue to believe what it appears to him that God is saying in the Bible because he must choose to believe God's word even when he misunderstands it.

Instead of teaching members to believe the ministry, the Church should teach them to believe what they see in the Bible, and if there is a difference of belief between the ministry and a member, in the process of time God will show the ministry and the member who is in error. But in the meantime, the member should not discuss the issue with other members.

So members should be taught a simple formula for developing faith in God and His word while respecting the ministry and keeping peace in the Church:

1. If a member sees something in the Bible different from what the ministry teaches, take the question to the ministry with an open mind, willing to learn, but a mind that believes the Bible first.

2. The ministry may be able to show the member, from the Bible, that the member is in error, so the member can see his error and be corrected.

3. If after counseling, the member still cannot see, from the Bible, that he is wrong, then the member should continue to believe what he sees in the Bible, even though it differs from what the ministry teaches, until God opens the mind of whoever is wrong to see his error, whether that be the member or the minister, even if this doesn't happen till the return of Christ.

4. In the meantime, to preserve peace and unity in the Church and to uphold the office of the ministry to whom God has given the authority to teach, the member should respect the ministry, avoid contradicting the ministry in conversation with other members, and refrain from discussing this particular doctrine with other members.

Will some minister please tell me, what is wrong with this formula? It encourages members to put their faith in God's word. It puts God and the Bible first. It preserves peace and unity in the Church. No member lies about his beliefs, but instead he tactfully declines to discuss with other members any doctrines he isn't in agreement with the Church about, so there is no hypocrisy. It preserves honesty, it preserves peace, it preserve respect for the ministry and the office that ministers hold, and it teaches the member to direct his faith towards God, not man.

And if this formula is the right way to handle doctrinal disagreements, why isn't it taught more in the Church? Is there any Church of God fellowship that teaches this? Is there any minister who teaches this?

Some ministers quote 2 Peter 1:20: "knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation", but the context shows that it is talking about the inspiration of the writing of scripture, not the reading of it, for the next verse says, "for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit" (2 Peter 1:21). No scripture in the Bible was written based on private understanding or interpretation of events and doctrine, but men wrote as God inspired them by His Holy Spirit.

God has not given the ministry authority or "dominion" over the faith of the members (2 Corinthians 1:24). Only God has authority over what we believe.

This post is about building an atmosphere of faith, and I am suggesting that the ministry should actively teach members to believe the Bible more than the Church. That is the right kind of faith, the kind of faith I think God will help to build in the Church and the kind of faith He will honor with answers to prayer for healings and power to preach the gospel to the world and the Ezekiel warning to Israel.

God is a jealous God, and if the leadership of the Church is inadvertently pointing members in the direction of believing the Church more than the Bible, I don't think God will give the gift of greater faith or the gift of more healings. God will give us faith and accept our faith only if that faith is pointed in the right direction, towards God and His word, not towards the Church and its leadership and ministry.

God has promised healings, and if He has withheld those healings, it may be because He is showing us that there is a problem in the Church and its teachings that needs to be corrected.

"He who corrects a scoffer gets shame for himself, And he who rebukes a wicked man only harms himself. Do not correct a scoffer, lest he hate you; Rebuke a wise man, and he will love you. Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser; Teach a just man, and he will increase in learning" (Proverbs 9:7-9).

Here are links to related chapters or sections in Preaching the Gospel:

Chapter 6 - Obtaining God's Help -- Practicing What We Preach

Chapter 9 - Repentance

Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Purpose of Advice, and How to Receive It

God teaches us to receive and use advice from others, when possible, before making an important decision (Proverbs 11:14, 15:22, 24:6).

But if we have an important decision to make and want to receive advice and counsel, who should we go to for advice, and how should we use the advice once we receive it? How can advice help us?

Suppose you were thinking of leaving your job to start your own business. You want advice before making a decision. One person you know left his job to start a business, and his business became a success. Another person you know left a job to start a business, and his business failed and he went bankrupt. Which one should you go to for advice?

God does not just say, in couselors there is safety. God puts an adjective before "counselors". He could have used any one of several adjectives. He could have said, in experienced counselors there is safety. Or he could have said, in wise couselors there is safety. Or how about, in righteous counselors there is safety, or "God-fearing" counselors?

But God didn't use those adjectives. He said, "in the multitude of counselors there is safety" (Proverbs 11:14), and "Without counsel, plans go awry, But in the multitude of counselors they are established" (Proverbs 15:22), and again, "And in a multitude of counselors there is safety" (Proverbs 24:6).

So the best answer is, go to both persons for advice about your decision, and others also. Each person, the one who succeeded in business and the one who failed, can contribute information you do not know or perspectives you have not thought of. The one who succeeded can tell you how he succeeded, but that by itself may not be enough. He might have had more favorable circumstances than you, and also consider, how much did he learn from his success? But the one who failed can tell you why he failed, the mistakes he made, and the lessons he learned from his mistakes, and that can be valuable advice too.

We should certainly look to those who are experienced, wise, and righteous for advice. The problem is, we are not always the best judge of who is really wise or righteous. And age and experience alone is not always the best qualification. When Job was going through his trial, it was a younger man who spoke more wisely than Job's three older and more experienced friends (Job 32:1-9, 42:7-9). "Great men are not always wise, Nor do the aged always understand justice" (Job 32:9).

The fact that God encourages us to seek a multitude of counsel teaches us something about how we are to use that counsel and advice in making a decision.

When we receive advice, that advice does not relieve us from the responsibility for making the decision ourselves. There may be times when we should follow advice and times when we should not follow the advice and counsel others give us. But we should consider the advice in our thinking and planning. We should examine the decision in light of the advice given to us and see how that advice "holds up" compared to other advice and compared to the things we already know.

Different people have different opinions. The fact that God encourages us to listen to a multitude of counselors implies that we will be given different, and sometimes contradictory, advice, but we still have to make the decision.

Advice can be useful to us for several reasons. The person advising us may know facts and information we do not know ourselves, and that information may help us make a better decision. Advice from professionals such as doctors, accountants, lawyers, etc. can be useful that way. Perhaps that is why lawyers are sometimes called "counselors". But also, an advisor, even if he is not a specialist who has facts and information we do not have, sometimes can give us a perspective, a point of view, based on facts we already have, which we have not thought of, but can be important. An advisor, even if he gives us no new information, can examine our logic and sometimes point out mistakes or inconsistancies in our thinking that we have been blind to, because we are too close to the problem perhaps, or too emotionally involved with the problem to think clearly.

But in any case, the authority for making the decision is ours, not our advisors and counselors. And God wants that responsibility to be ours. Listening to advice does not take that decision-making authority and responsibility from us. There are times when we should follow advice and there are times when we should not follow the advice given to us. The purpose of advice is to improve and add to our thinking, not to make the decision for us.

Obviously, if we come to a fork in the road (figuratively speaking), and five people advise us, "go to the left", and five people advise us, "go to the right", we have to make the choice ourselves. But even if everyone we ask advises the same thing, that is not necessarily the best course. We have to examine WHY they advise a course of action and see if their thinking is sound. Sometimes it is not.

Look at the example of David when he was fleeing from Saul and learned that the Philistines were attacking Keilah, a city in Israel. His men advised him not to fight the Philistines, but that was not good advice. David ignored that advice and made the right decision (1 Samuel 23:1-5). Likewise, David did not follow the advice of those who told him to kill King Saul (1 Samuel 24:1-7, 26:7-12). So sometimes advice and opinion can be bad, and we have to make the right decision even in the face of bad advice. God holds us responsible for our decisions.

Rehoboam, son of Solomon, sought advice on how to answer the people who asked him to lighten their burdens. His older advisors told him to go one way and the younger ones told him to go another way. He followed the advice of his young men, and it was a bad decision (1 Kings 12:1-20). Yet, wisdom is not always with the older people, as the account in Job makes clear (Job 32:1-9, 42:7-9). The answer? The older and younger advisors to Rehoboam must have given detailed reasons for their advice, and Rohoboam had the responsibility to take those reasons into consideration in making a decision. And if the correct answer as to what the reaction of the people would be was a matter of "gut feel", based on experience, of how the people would react, Rehoboam should have considered that his older advisors probably had a better feel for how the people would react than his younger men, just based on experience.

But also, wisdom comes from God (1 Kings 3:5-12, Psalm 111:10, 1 Corinthians 12:7-8, James 1:5, 3:17), and it was God's decision to withhold the wisdom for making the right decision from Rehoboam because God had already decided to tear ten tribes from the house of David because of Solomon's sin, and God used Rehoboam's mistake in judgment to accomplish this (1 Kings 11:9-13, 29-39, 12:15, 18-24).

Before making an important decision, if possible, we should try to get advice from a multitude of people, even with a variety of perspectives, and consider, not just what they advise, but WHY they advise a course of action, and examine the logic and soundness of their thinking and reasoning. We should also look to God for wisdom and guidence in making the decision (James 1:5-7).

And of course, though I have not mentioned it to this point, the decision should be made in accordance with God's will according to God's word in the Bible.

Then we have the responsibility before God to make the best decision we can. And that is our responsibility, not our advisors'. Like David, there are times when we must make the decision contrary to the advice we receive if it is bad advice. And only we can make that decision.

Here are links to related chapters or sections in Preaching the Gospel:

Faith, Chapter 8

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Faith Is More than Believing God's Promises

What is godly faith?

That has been the subject of many articles and sermons in the Church of God over the years.

Most Christians know that faith is more than believing in God's existence. "You believe that there is one God. You do well. Even the demons believe-and tremble!" (James 2:19).

Some have taught that a primary part of faith is believing God's promises, believing that what God has said He will do, He will do.

That is true. That is a vital aspect of faith. We need to trust and believe God's promises to us. In believing God's promises, we are also trusting in God's righteousness, because it is due to our belief that God is righteous and trustworthy that we are willing to trust that He will always keep His promises to us.

But I think total faith is more than even that.

Faith means "belief", and in the context of the way that word is used in the Bible, referring to the kind of faith Jesus Christ had and Christians should have, I think it includes believing whatever God says, period, whether what God says is a promise or not.

In other words, we are not just to believe God's inspired promises in the Bible, but we are to believe ALL of God's inspired words in the Bible.

You say you believe God's promise in (Matthew 6:31-33) that if we seek God's righteousness and kingdom first, God will take care of our necessities of life such as food and clothing. That is good.

But do you believe Jonah was in the belly of a fish for three days and nights? Do you believe the human race started with Adam and Eve about 6,000 years ago, and not hundreds of thousands of years ago as scientists claim? Do you believe God renewed the face of the earth in six days?

What would you say about the faith of someone who says that he believes and trusts the promises of God, but does not believe a worldwide flood covered the earth in the days of Noah?

God teaches us many things in the Bible that are not promises. He teaches us how the world began. He teaches us the history of how He has worked out His plan for the human race so far in history, a history that includes many miracles such as the death of Egypt's firstborn, the parting of the Red Sea, and the stopping of the rotation of the earth for about a day in the days of Joshua (Joshua 10:12-14). God also gives us prophecies about what will occur in the future, and He has given us prophecies of events that have occurred in recent history that enable us to prove that God inspired the Bible.

If we do not believe everything the Bible teaches us, how can we know our faith in God's promises is genuine and deep? It is easy for us to kid ourselves and tell ourselves that we trust God's promises when the going is easy. We may even do it during light or moderate trials. But will we trust God's promises when the trials are severe and prolonged? That is the test. And God may test us that way.

Satan is very deceptive. He has made atheistic materialism his number one lie in our modern society. He has other lies including many varieties of false religion. But materialism is number one right now. Later, in the days of the beast and false prophet, materialism will take a back seat and a certain false religion will be promoted to the position of number one lie among Satan's lies.

But right now, Satan pulls out all stops to deceive mankind with the idea that there is no God that has intervened in history or the universe. The key to this false belief is the scientific method, which rejects faith in God and God's inspired word, the Bible. The scientific method even rejects consideration of the possibility that God has created anything or has ever intervened in this physical universe. Reasoning that considers the possibility of God's intervention in this earth or the universe, past, present, or future, is not allowed by the scientific method. And nearly all science and secular education is based to one degree or another on the scientific method. This is true in the United States and many other countries.

We are bombarded with that point of view.

That point of view is false.

But it can be persuasive.

Scientists look at physical evidence. But they never interpret it according to Bible revelation. They interpret it according to the scientific method. Their interpretations are based on the assumption that every piece of evidence can be explained by physical causes only. Hundreds of thousands of scientists, many of them brilliant men, each having studied for years one or more specialized areas of scientific knowledge in depth and in detail, have devoted lifetimes to inventing explanations for evidence that only include physical causes and reject any consideration of God's miraculous creation or intervention in the universe.

But such interpretations and explanations are fundamentally untrustworthy for the simple reason that they are biased. Science won't look at both sides of the issue impartially. They will give you arguments that support their point of view, but not the other side. The culture of scientific research is driven by men and women who do not WANT to believe in the true God of the Bible.

And behind this philosophy is Satan, the deceiver of the whole world (Revelation 12:9).

"The fool has said in his heart, 'There is no God' " (Psalm 14:1).

"The heart is deceitful above all things, And desperately wicked; Who can know it?" (Jeremiah 17:9).

But it is possible to prove that God exists. Science has no explanation whatsoever for the existence of the human mind and human consciousness. The existence of our conscious minds proves the existence of a Creator God who has made our minds. The universe itself shows that design choices have been made, which proves there must have been a master Designer to make those choices. There is an abundance of evidence that God exists.

Moreover, fulfilled prophecy, particularly prophecies about the sons of Joseph, Ephraim and Manasseh, and prophecies in Daniel about end-time conditions, prove not only God's existence, but the inspiration of the Bible. You can prove the Bible is God's word.

And having proved that the Bible is God's word, you can make a personal choice to believe what the Bible says. By believing the Bible, you are really believing God. That is faith.

I believe God made mankind with Adam and Eve about six thousand years ago, that the account in the Bible about Noah's flood is true, and that Jonah was in a fish for three days, because I have proved beyond any doubt, for myself, that God inspired the Bible, and I trust that God would not lie to me.

Faith includes more than just trusting God's promises because real faith is based on trust in God's character. Part of that character is truthfulness. I trust that God is not a liar, that in fact it is impossible for God to lie (Titus 1:2, Hebrews 6:18). That is why I believe the promises of God, but that same foundation, trust in God's righteous character, is what causes me to believe EVERYTHING that God says in the Bible, even if it is not in the exact form of a promise.

"Thus says the LORD: 'Cursed is the man who trusts in man And makes flesh his strength, Whose heart departs from the LORD" (Jeremiah 17:5).

I trust God's word more than I trust the word of scientists.

Here are links to related chapters or sections in Preaching the Gospel:

Chapter 1 - The United States and Britain in Prophecy

Faith, Chapter 6