by Al Maxey
Issue #853 -- September 19, 2022
Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake
of dreaming that I am being persecuted
whenever I am being contradicted.
Ralph Waldo Emerson [1803-1882]
When one challenges cherished religious traditions, understandings, and practices, one can be certain that he/she will be challenged in return. And this is the way it should be. Nobody, regardless of who they are, should "get a pass" when they make public declarations that call into question established doctrines and beliefs. Near the end of the first century, the apostle John wrote, "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world" (1 John 4:1, NASB). I like how The Message renders this text: "My dear friends, don’t believe everything you hear. Carefully weigh and examine what people tell you. Not everyone who talks about God comes from God. There are a lot of lying preachers loose in the world." The apostle Paul gives a similar warning and charge to the Ephesian elders, urging them to remain ever alert, for "men will rise up from your own number with deviant doctrines to lure the disciples into following them" (Acts 20:30, HCSB). There have always been prophets, teachers, and brethren who are "false" in their motives and desires, and as a result their doctrines and practices tend to be distorted, and thus deadly, as well. We must, therefore, be ever alert to such treachery. This we do by careful, prayerful in-depth examination and evaluation of what we hear, see, and read with respect to God's will for mankind. "Test everything; hold on to what is good" (1 Thessalonians 5:21). Again, I think The Message has captured the essence of this text: "Don’t be gullible. Check out everything, and keep only what’s good." We must possess a "Berean spirit," which never runs from teachings that differ with our beliefs or convictions, but which instead examines these differing teachings thoroughly in light of God's Word. Luke writes, "Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true" (Acts 17:11).
On the "flip side" of this apostolic admonishing, one finds the charge to believers who engage in sharing the Gospel (which should be all of us, though we may do so in differing ways based on ability and opportunity) to take heed to what they are teaching, and then to "always be ready to tell everyone who asks you why you believe as you do. Be gentle as you speak and show respect" (1 Peter 3:15, New Life Version). It is this latter charge that compels me to write this present issue of Reflections. None of us should ever run away from legitimate challenges or questions regarding our beliefs and practices. Notice that I said "legitimate" challenges or questions, for there are always those persons who are simply seeking to undermine the teachings and silence the teachers with which/whom they differ. Paul spoke of those who were "preaching Christ from envy and strife, ... proclaiming Christ out of selfish ambition rather than from pure motives, thinking to cause me distress" (Philippians 1:15-17). Nowhere are we instructed to engage such persons in perpetual and petty debate. Publius Syrus (85-43 B.C.), a writer from Syrian Antioch, rightly observed, "It is not every question that deserves an answer." Some people, frankly, love a heated "Bible brawl," and they will tirelessly seek to engage others with leading questions simply to stir up strife.
However, if someone is sincere and respectful in their questioning, and even in their challenging, of our teaching and practice, we should always be willing to dialogue with them in an equally respectful manner. We should also keep in mind that none of us has arrived at perfect perception of eternal realities; not a one of us is flawless in his/her teaching and practice. Thus, we are all learning as we go and should ever be open to embracing change when we come to greater understanding of God's will for us. The French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1900-1944) wrote, "Correction by correction I follow the path that leads to God." The principle found in Proverbs 27:17 certainly applies here: "As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another." This is why the Berean Jews were more noble-minded than the Jews of Thessalonica: they were also open-minded and thus open to change (see my study of this contrast in character in Reflections #163 - "A Berean Spirit: Thugs vs. Thinkers").
In my previous Reflections article titled "The Romans 4 Gospel: Awesome Apostolic Application of an Abrahamic Awareness" (Issue #852), I sought to show how the manner in which Abraham was justified and counted as righteous in the sight of God was/is instructive of the manner in which believers today may acquire the same blessing under our new covenant. Paul was not suggesting in this chapter that circumcision had no place in God's relationship with Abraham; rather, he was seeking to show its true divine purpose, and that purpose was not to be the act or deed through which His blessing to this man of faith would be conveyed. Indeed, Paul stresses the truth that Abraham was justified and declared righteous by God before he was circumcised (in fact, fourteen years before). Like us today, Abraham was counted as righteous by faith: a state of grace bestowed as a free gift of a loving, merciful God. Today, in our present covenant with God, justification and salvation and imputed righteousness are likewise a free gift "by grace through faith," and not by virtue of any act performed by man. And yes, I believe that this principle applies to baptism in water, just as it applied to circumcision in the time of Abraham. Although both these human evidentiary acts of faith are commanded, yet neither of them were ever intended by God to be redemptive in nature. They testified to a salvific reality; they were not the means of dispensing that salvific reality. They showed much, but they secured nothing. Or, as I like to say: they were designed to be reflective in nature and purpose, not redemptive.
So, what am I saying here? Simply that God accepts and blesses us "by grace through faith," and that baptism, like circumcision, follows that acceptance and blessing, rather than being the sacrament that dispenses it. As expected, it wasn't long after I sent out this issue of Reflections that the responses began pouring in. A few (only a couple, actually) wrote to condemn me to the fires of hell for being an apostate and heretic, terms employed because I dared to differ with them on the place and purpose of baptism in water. They see it as a sacrament; I see it as a symbol. Thus, I am unworthy of life eternal. The vast majority of the responses were very, very supportive. People are increasingly choosing to examine the Scriptures and to actually think, thank God, for themselves, and the result is that they are coming to realize that many of their traditional and sectarian perspectives and practices are NOT supported by the Scriptures. This, in turn, is leading to an outpouring of sincere and heartfelt expressions of gratitude to those who are finally and fearlessly speaking out and shedding light on our many "sacred cows" that need to be "put out to pasture."
QUESTIONS FROM GEORGIA
I received emails from a couple of people, on the other hand, who somewhat exemplify the plight of the man who said to Jesus, "I believe; help my unbelief" (Mark 9:24). Both persons were very respectful in their emails, and neither was seeking a quarrel. They simply had some questions and concerns triggered by my article. The first one to write is a noted leader in Churches of Christ (as was his father and grandfather) from Georgia. He and I have conversed many times over the years, and he has always been very gracious and respectful, even when discussing matters about which we differed greatly. I don't really perceive this individual as being "unsettled" in his convictions on baptism, and neither am I. We have both spent decades studying this matter, and we simply have arrived at differing convictions. To his credit, he is willing to dialogue to some extent about this topic, and to do so with kindness, which places him "head-and-shoulders" above the hardened legalistic patternists within "our tribe." Saturday evening, September 3rd, just a few hours after sending out my article, he emailed me, saying, "Al, I have looked over your views on baptism, and I have just a couple of questions for now." He then asked three questions, after which he closed his email, saying, "I could go on, but I think you get the point of my questions." I did see his point, for I spent the early years of my ministry preaching the same proof-texts in an attempt to show that the UNbaptized are UNsaved. I know very well these texts and these arguments, for I had used them. Through years of careful and prayerful study, however, I came to realize the interpretations of my "tribe" that were fed to me year after year as I grew up in this movement were horribly flawed. Let me address the ones he brought forth for consideration.
Question One: This brother from Georgia quoted 1 Peter 3:21, and he then asked, "Did Peter misunderstand the purpose of baptism?" The verse he quoted reads, "And corresponding to that, baptism now saves you - not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience - through the resurrection of Jesus Christ." There are a number of things in this verse that cry out for attention. What is the antecedent of "that" to which baptism "corresponds"? In what sense is baptism "an appeal" unto our God? What is the point Peter makes by distinguishing baptism from bathing? And, of course, what exactly does Peter have in mind when he says, "baptism now saves you"? Saved from what? What is the context of this declaration? What does Noah's ark and the flood have to do with how we interpret this statement? It is really easy to take those four words completely out of context, and in so doing use (or misuse) them as "proof" of our position.
This reader from Georgia asked me, "Did Peter misunderstand the purpose of baptism?" My answer is: No, I don't believe he did. However, the real question that needs to be asked is this: "Have we misunderstood Peter?!" Quite frankly, I believe that we have! I simply do not believe the apostle Peter is teaching a sacramental view of baptism in water, and those who promote such an understanding have, in my view, gravely misunderstood Peter's intent in this passage. Rather than imbed dozens and dozens of pages of research on this text into this issue of Reflections, let me direct the reader to that body of evidence which is already published and easily accessible to those who want to dig deeply into this verse. I have dealt with every aspect of it in the following three articles I wrote, and that in-depth treatment should more than sufficiently address this brother's first question. "Salvation by Immersion?: A Reflective Analysis of 1 Peter 3:21" (Reflections #217) ... "A Critical Question on 1 Peter 3:21 - Pondering the True Meaning of the 'Pledge' of a Good Conscience as it Relates to Baptism" (Reflections #497) ... "The Filth of the Flesh: Pondering a Petrine Phrase" (Reflections #613). Again, I have dealt in great depth, appealing to Scripture, with every aspect of this brother's question in the above three articles. Please, please examine my thinking on this. If I'm wrong in my convictions drawn from this in-depth exegesis, then please show me where I have mishandled, misused, or misunderstood Peter's intent. If I'm wrong, I truly want to know. I've changed before; I'm willing to change again.
Question Two: The reader in Georgia quoted Romans 6:4-7. He then wrote, "If my sins were already 'washed away' before my baptism, why does Paul say we are crucified in baptism to do away with sin? And if I was already made alive before baptism, what's the point of having to die again and be resurrected in baptism?" Let me urge the reader to stop at this point and go read Romans 6 (yes, the whole chapter). Examine the context. Take note especially of the first third of that chapter where Paul is talking about the concept of "dying to live," and what role, if any, baptism in water plays in that illustration. Again, I believe some have lifted a few phrases out of context and employed them as "proofs" that baptism is redemptive in nature: that the "dying" occurs at the point of immersion in water. Paul is not even remotely suggesting such a thing, and I have exposed the fallacy of that sacramental thinking in great depth in the following articles: "Reenacting Our Redemptive Reality: Significant Symbol vs. Salvific Sacrament" (Reflections #617) ... "The Paradox of Dying to Live: Considering the Intent of Romans 6:7" (Reflections #676). Again, if I am wrong in my conclusions based on this extensive research, I really want to know. Please show me. I'm willing to change (as I hope and pray we all are as we increase in our understanding of the Word and Will of God). After looking at the research provided, I think you will clearly see that the reader in Georgia has failed to grasp the reason for Paul's use of the example of baptism in this text. Baptism is not the focus of the text; indeed, it is merely incidental, at best, to the truths Paul sought to convey.
Question Three: The reader in Georgia quotes a very well-known text in which Ananias says to Saul of Tarsus, "Now why do you delay? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name" (Acts 22:16). After quoting this verse, he wrote, "Was Ananias mistaken? Why did he tell Saul to be baptized and wash away his sins if they had already been forgiven?" No, I don't believe Ananias was mistaken in what he did or said. I do think, however, that many have mistaken his meaning, and have formed a mistaken theology around their misunderstanding. I have tried to bring that misunderstanding and misapplication to light in my following study: "Wash Away Your Sins: A Reflective Study of Acts 22:16" (Reflections #507). NOTE: I sent my above response and these links to this brother in Georgia the very next evening (Sunday, September 4th). Two weeks have passed, and there has been no response from him whatsoever thus far. I can only hope that this time is being spent in some deep and prayerful reflection, just as Saul of Tarsus spent those 72 hours in Damascus prior to his change of course in life.
QUESTIONS FROM ALABAMA
Wednesday morning, September 7th, I received a lengthy email from a woman in Alabama. She began, "Al, as always, I want to thank you for all the study you do and for all the effort you put into your Reflections. I'm reading through your latest article on Romans 4, and I have a few questions for you." She then listed four main questions, although a couple of them had more than one part to them. After her list of questions, she wrote this in conclusion: "Sorry to bombard you; that's really not my intent. I come to this grace with a lot of baggage, and I am trying to walk in faith, yet not to the extent that I disregard key doctrines the Lord has defined for believers." I applaud this sister in Christ for her conscientious desire to grow in her understanding and application of the truths of God's Word. I also commend her for her acknowledgement of the existence of "baggage" in her life (which we all have, but which not all are willing to admit), especially when that baggage is in the form of prior religious and sectarian indoctrination. From prior written exchanges with this individual, I can attest that she is indeed moving away from legalism and into greater freedom in Christ, yet this is not a pain-free or stress-free journey for her. Many of us can relate, for we too have walked (and are still walking to some degree) that same path. Please keep her (and each of us, myself included) in your prayers as we "grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" (2 Peter 3:18). Following are the questions that she posed to me, as well as my responses. I pray that she, and each one of you, will find them helpful.
Question One: This woman wrote: "With regard to circumcision, I agree that it was a sign of an existing faith in Abraham, and therefore not part of his justification or salvation. So, based on your studies, why did God command it for the Jews? And if God didn't place some significance on it, why in Genesis 17:4 were those who weren't circumcised to be cut off from the people as breakers of the covenant? In Exodus 4 we even see God about to kill Moses for not having circumcised his son!" These are legitimate questions and concerns, and disciples of Jesus have been struggling with them for centuries! Clearly, the Lord God most certainly DID place significance upon the act of circumcision, and He definitely expected His people to do so as well. The question that needs to be asked, however, and it is a question most people don't ask, is: What was the significance of this act in God's sight? What was His intent and purpose for it? Why did it matter to Him?! If it was never intended to justify us, or save us, or sanctify us, or cause us to be regarded as righteous, and it wasn't, then what was its purpose?! This is the real question that needs to be answered.
Thankfully, that answer (within the context of covenants of God with man) is provided for us by the apostle Paul himself in Romans 4:11. It was intended by God to be both a "sign" and a "seal." It was a visible sign of one "in covenant" with God; it was not an act performed to ENTER that state of covenant, but rather a "sign" that EVIDENCED the reality of that covenant one was already in by grace through faith. It was one of the ways God desired His people (the men) to visibly manifest who they were (His covenant people). Those who refused were thereby suggesting (whether they did so intentionally or ignorantly) that they were NOT part of His called, covenant people, and thus, in consequence, would be "cut off" from His covenant people. God has always desired (and even commanded) His people to SHOW their love and faith for Him, not HIDE it. Every aspect of our lives is to be a visible declaration of who and Whose we are. Jesus urged men and women of faith to let their light shine visibly and powerfully before others, rather than hiding it "under a basket, ... so that people may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 5:14-16). That is why James, who often echoed the Sermon on the Mount in his epistle, put so much emphasis on "showing" our faith so that others might see our testimony of faith. A faith we refuse to manifest in our daily lives is a "dead" faith, says James. And he is right. To those with genuine faith, it would be inconceivable NOT to show it at every opportunity! Why would we hide it?!
Abraham was justified by faith and counted as righteous in the sight of God prior to his circumcision. Yet he subsequently "received the SIGN of circumcision," which was also "a SEAL of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised" (Romans 4:11). Thus, the promise to both Abraham and to all who have faith after him "was not through law, but through the righteousness of faith. ... It is by faith, that it might be in accordance with grace" (Romans 4:13, 16). God, who examines hearts, embraces and justifies us when He perceives genuine faith within us, a perception He undoubtedly has even prior to our own grasp of it. The physical signs, seals, and symbols are for our benefit, not His. Outward manifestation of inner reality (which HE already sees) is significant as a testimony to both others and ourselves of the validity of our faith (just as it is of love, compassion, repentance, etc. and other non-substantives that need to be seen to be fully appreciated). This is, in part, why Jesus told the ten lepers, "Go and show yourselves to the priests" (Luke 17:14), an action explained in Mark 1:44 - "...as a testimony to them." Yes, the Lord God expects those who have been justified, counted as righteous, and saved to SHOW that reality at every opportunity and in a multitude of ways (some of which are commanded). Those who refuse, for whatever reason, may suffer consequences for that refusal, based on the causes and circumstances associated with that refusal. As for the case of Moses in Exodus 4:24-26, which is a very strange event, yet which also illustrates the above principle, I dealt with that almost twenty years ago in an article titled: "The Case of the Flung Foreskin" (Reflections #34). It was also one of the biblical accounts I featured in my adult class this past spring on "The Bizarre Bible Stories of the OT Scriptures" (Click Here for information on how to order this CD).
Question Two: The reader wrote: "In Genesis 17:1-14, God tells Abraham that every Jewish man shall be circumcised as a sign of the covenant between God and Abraham as an everlasting covenant. As I understand it, the Jews had and have a special relationship with the Lord, as they are His chosen people. As an everlasting covenant, it is my understanding that even today Jewish men should be circumcised. NOT as a sign of salvation or faith, but as part of the everlasting covenant between God and Abraham (not the covenant with Moses which went away). Am I missing something here?" The term "everlasting" (or "eternal" or "forever") can be tricky, for it has both a qualitative and a quantitative meaning in Scripture, and we find both in about equal proportions. In other words, "everlasting" doesn't always mean something lasts forever; rather, it signifies it will endure until such time as it completes the purpose for which it was given. I would encourage the reader to consider the study I did on that usage in Scripture in my article titled "Reflective Analysis of Forever: Analyzing the Attributes of 'Aionios' and 'Olam'" (Reflections #74).
This is very important to understand, for in Romans 4 Paul makes it very clear that the covenant with Abraham, as well as his "descendants," is based on faith, not on circumcision. One is not a Jew, or a descendant of Abraham, outwardly, but rather inwardly. This was to pave the way for Gentiles to be regarded as "Jews" and "descendants" of their father Abraham. "For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter" of law (Romans 2:28-29). "For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants ... was not through law, but through the righteousness of faith. For if those who are of law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified" (Romans 4:13-14). "For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love" (Galatians 5:6). So, if the Jewish males today wish to practice physical circumcision, there is nothing wrong with that, but there is no divine compulsion for them to do so, for they are part of the Abrahamic covenant by faith, not by any specific act or deed. It is important to note that time and again circumcision is characterized by the Lord as a sign, or token, or symbol. Those terms should not be set aside lightly. "When first appointed by God, circumcision was expressly set forth as a token of the covenant which God had made with Abraham; and the apostle tells us that Abraham received 'the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness of that faith which he had, being yet uncircumcised' (Romans 4:11); so that to Abraham it was not only a sign or token of God's covenant, but also an obsignation or certificate that he was in a state of acceptance before he was circumcised. ... Baptism follows and succeeds to the ancient rite, ... sealing and imaging the same spiritual truths. For the saving economy of Jehovah has been the same from the beginning. ... Thus, as respects its meaning, it is symbolical" [Drs. James Strong & John McClintock, Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, e-Sword]. I like their use of the term "certificate," for, similar to a marriage certificate, both circumcision and baptism are a sign, seal, and certificate signifying the reality of a covenant entered into. The certificate doesn't create the covenant, it certifies its existence, and also serves as a continual reminder of a present reality based on a past personal commitment of heart and mind.
Question Three: The reader wrote: "While I understand your comments about baptism not saving us, and the view that immersion in water isn't the precise point of our salvation, I do have a few questions about that thought process. First: In Colossians 2:11ff, Paul likens baptism to circumcision for the New Covenant believer: it is a sign of what has taken place in the heart through faith. However, if a believer chooses not to be baptized, why wouldn't they be cut off like the Jews who chose not to be circumcised? Though the act itself of entering the water doesn't save us, yet it is a sign and public testimony of our entering into relationship with Christ." Although you and I today are no longer under law, with its many religious and ceremonial rules and regulations, our Father still has expectations of us as His beloved children. And He has expressed those desires to us. If we willfully and rebelliously refuse to evidence our love and faith in some way that He has directed, then such willful refusal constitutes sin against our Lord. And when we willfully sin against Him, that can indeed carry with it consequences. We live under the Royal Law of LOVE, and if we truly love the One who redeemed us, we will, to the best of our ability and understanding and opportunity, order our lives according to His wishes. Willful rebellion calls into question the reality of our faith and love. If my faith is genuine, I will show it; if it is a sham, then that too will become obvious in attitudes and actions. With the former come blessings; with the latter come consequences. This is a principle that applies to all covenants and dispensations.
The reader in Alabama continued: "Second: In every case except Cornelius, the Holy Spirit came after the believer was baptized; even Jesus. So, while baptism in water may not be the precise point at which one is 'saved,' yet it does seem to be significant in that it is when the believer receives the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38), and is clothed in Christ (Galatians 3:27), and when 'the old man' is buried with Christ and the new man arises to walk in a new form of life (Romans 6)." With respect to the Romans 6 passage, I would refer this reader to my response to question #2 from the reader in Georgia (which appears earlier in this present article). As for the Galatians 3:27 passage, the baptism mentioned there is not a reference to immersion in water. I have dealt extensively with that in the following studies, to which I would refer this reader: "Immersed by One Spirit: Reflecting on 1 Corinthians 12:13" (Reflections #353) and "Putting On Jesus Christ: An Examination of Romans 13:14 and Galatians 3:27" (Reflections #362). As for Acts 2:38 and the gift of the Spirit, please carefully consider my analysis in "Pondering Peter's Pentecost Promise: Identification and Distribution of a Precious Gift as Proclaimed by Peter on Pentecost" (Reflections #717).
The reader from Alabama asserted that "in every case except Cornelius, the Holy Spirit came after the believer was baptized." Actually, that is not quite the case. One could make a good case, for example, that Apollos may very well have been Spirit-filled and Spirit-led as he proclaimed accurately the Gospel, and he was doing this prior to his baptism (Acts 18:24-28). In Ephesus, Paul discovered a group of disciples, and he asked them, "Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?" (Acts 19:2). They didn't even know the Holy Spirit existed. Paul did indeed baptize them, for they only knew about John's baptism, but the Spirit wasn't given even then. After their baptism, "when Paul laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking with tongues and prophesying. There were in all about twelve men" (Acts 19:5-6). My study of this is: "The 'Dirty Dozen' of Ephesus: Pondering the Purpose of their Baptism" (Reflections #585). What about the apostles, and the 120 in the upper room, and even Apollos himself (the NT writings nowhere inform us that any of these were ever baptized, yet they clearly had the Holy Spirit). I took a close look at that in my article titled, "Already You Are Clean: A Reflective Study of John 15:3" (Reflections #580). Further, what is one to make of Acts 8:14-17? -- "When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. When they arrived, they prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of them; they had simply been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit." Here we find people who had submitted to Christian baptism, but who still had not received the Holy Spirit. That didn't occur until, once again, hands were laid upon them. Thus, it wasn't the baptism that conferred the Spirit (indeed, the Spirit was conferred on Cornelius before his baptism). In short, trying to link the reception of the Holy Spirit to the act of baptism in water is not the "slam dunk" some profess it to be.
Question Four: The reader wrote: "The analogy you made with marriage and baptism is a good one, but I wonder where in the 'process' you believe a couple can consummate the marriage? I know people, myself included, who were engaged to be married and then didn't go through with it. At what point is it a covenant relationship and bound in God's eyes?" Frankly, some don't even "go through with it" after the wedding ceremony (giving up on the covenant years later). With flawed human beings there is always the danger of failed relationships. This fact should not discourage people from entering such covenants, but rather should serve to encourage them to stay alert to the ever present pull of the world around them. As for when a covenant of marriage begins in the sight of God, and thus constitutes a binding covenant in HIS sight, that is a good question! I'm not sure we can pinpoint the precise split-second of that reality. I do believe, however, that God is more focused on the heart of the man and woman than He is on when a certificate is signed, or when the "I do" is spoken, or when a pastor says, "I now pronounce you...!" It is my studied conviction that when a man and woman truly love one another and have chosen to join their lives together "as one," and when they commit themselves to each other, calling upon God as their witness to their private vow or pledge, then they have entered into a covenant which God accepts.
But this is where it can get tricky, for we cannot discount the fact that we all live within societies and cultures that have their own set of standards as to what is expected of such a couple so that moral and legal and even religious sensitivities of the society in which they live are not dishonored. Frankly, God calls us to live responsibly within the societies and cultures of which we are a part. I personally believe a couple who has genuinely pledged themselves to one another, with God as witness to their hearts and vows, is married in His sight. There may be some additional steps necessary, however, for society to see it that way. Thus, it is the better part of wisdom, at times, to seek to satisfy at least some of the more reasonable expectations of those around us. All I'm trying to say (and probably doing so rather poorly) is that we need to be cognizant of the legal, social, cultural, and religious norms of the places in which we live, and the perceptions of our friends, family, and neighbors. What God approves as a true covenant of marriage is more connected to what is in our hearts, while what those around us perceive as a legitimate covenant of marriage may be more focused on our compliance to societal laws, regulations, and customs. At what point, then, may this couple consummate their covenant? Well, that depends upon whose approval one seeks. If you are in covenant in GOD's sight, then you are free to enjoy the blessings of that covenant relationship, for those blessings are God-given. However, and here's the caveat, don't overlook the fact that God also urges us to conduct ourselves in such a manner that we don't scandalize and horrify those around us. Remember, we are His ambassadors of Divine Love, Grace, and Mercy to those who reside around us, and such a God-given responsibility requires us to live responsibly for the good of others so that our Father in heaven is glorified. Our influence matters!
From a Reader in Florida:
Thank you, Al, for your article titled "A Nest of Baby Serpents: A Question Regarding Psalm 51:5" (Reflections #851). I read it three times, and I greatly appreciate the fact that you included references representing both sides of the debate. However, I'm taken aback at the complexity of the issue in question. I'm guessing that the Arminians would argue that David was not imputed with sin, but that his parents, by nature, were sinners. I'm not sure, though, so I'll keep studying, and reading and rereading, until it sinks in. I know what I don't believe; just struggling with what to believe.
It truly does seem like many of the major doctrinal debates in Christendom devolved into such a complex conglomeration of diverse views that it left (and still leaves) most people weary with the prospect of sorting it all out. I don't think God ever intended His message to mankind to be as complex and confusing as we have made it. I dealt with the Arminian (versus Calvinist) school of soteriological thought in a couple of articles that the reader might find enlightening: "The Theology of Prevenient Grace: Salvation Foundation of Wesleyan Arminianism" (Reflections #731) and "A Hymn Born of Discord: Augustus Toplady vs. John Wesley - 'Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me'" (Reflection #517). It's interesting how some of our beloved hymns were actually "battle hymns" in the greater context of theological conflict. -- Al Maxey
From a Minister in Ukraine:
Dear Brother Al, Greetings from Ukraine. How have you been doing? By God's grace and mercy, we have been doing well. Volunteers continue ministering to the refugees and those suffering in the war zone. We continue to conduct street evangelism among the people, with some of them coming to church afterwards. 24th of August was Independence Day in Ukraine. It wasn't celebrated this year due to the war. That day we had much more than usual air raid sirens going off. Al, thank you so much for your prayers for us (and for your friendship over the years). We want to serve the Lord as long as He allows us to do so. There are so many hurting people around us. Thank you for praying for God's protection for all of us here. Please tell the church how much we appreciate their prayers. The situation here remains very tense, and we don't know how much longer this will go on. We are praying and waiting ... waiting and praying. Thank you very much, Al, for being there for us, and for your articles as well. God bless you richly! We remain your friends in Christ here in Ukraine.
I have been blessed to know this individual and his family for many years. They are Ukrainian; that country is their home, and it is being devastated by the Russians. They have chosen to remain there, however, and to devote themselves to being a source of comfort and encouragement to their fellow citizens. Obviously, I can't reveal names, locations, or even personal remarks he writes to me that might point to who and where they are (thus, what he wrote above is just a very small piece of his most recent email to me). The pictures he sends me show not only the work he and the church are doing there, but also some of the devastation they are experiencing. It is truly heartbreaking to behold what is happening to their country; yet it is a joy to witness their resolve to keep sharing God's message to the people and to provide food, medicine, clothing, and shelter to those most in need. Please keep this dear family, and all the people of Ukraine, in your prayers. May God bring this conflict to an end very soon! -- Al Maxey
From a Reader in the United Kingdom:
Mr. Maxey, I read your article "Mystery of the 153 Fish: A Reflective Study of John 21:11" (Reflections #660). Nice try to make this number insignificant, but true Christians are given the Holy Spirit to understand what it means.
From a Reader in California:
Al, thank you so much for this new article ("The Romans 4 Gospel: Awesome Apostolic Application of an Abrahamic Awareness" - Reflections #852). It hit my inbox at just the right time today! Growing up, I was taught that this passage was about us trying to have a relationship with God and "what it takes" for us to achieve it. But this passage is actually about God trying to have a relationship with us, and what He has done to achieve it. The Bible makes SO much more sense when viewed as God showing us His love so that we would reach out for Him and find Him, as Paul discussed in Acts 18. It was a great day when I finally figured out that God is my biggest fan, and that He wants me to have a joyful life filled with His blessings. Thank you again, Al, for this article.
From a Minister in New Zealand:
Al, this was a great analysis of Romans 4. Paul would be pleased with you! I agree with what you wrote and concluded 100%. I just recently did a Lord's Supper presentation using Romans 4:11, discussing briefly "signs, seals, and symbols." You excelled yourself in this article, Al. Well done!!
From a Reader in Barbados:
Al, thanks for sharing this study of "The Romans 4 Gospel" with us!!
From an Author in Texas:
"The Romans 4 Gospel" is probably your very best study yet, Al. Please keep up the good work!
From a Reader in Georgia:
Well done!! Romans 4 is the antithesis of water-salvation. There can be no misunderstanding of what Paul writes so clearly. Also, I think it's interesting that "water-salvation" people must believe that we owe our salvation to Jesus and also to some other person who was responsible for dunking us in the water. I am not aware of anyone baptizing themselves and then counting that baptism as being "authentic." The more one strives to make baptism in water salvific, the more twisted the "gospel" becomes. And, as you clearly pointed out, the more inconsistent it becomes with what the true Gospel really is! Saved by faith through grace!! Woo Hoo!! And for those who wish to claim that James says that Abraham was justified by his willingness to offer up Isaac as a sacrifice ... well, just who UNjustified Abraham after God had justified him decades before?! You rightly pointed out that James was saying that Abraham SHOWED that he was a man of faith by his actions, not that he PURCHASED his justification through his actions. Personally, I believe that our declaration of faith is a public display to the church. A believer baptizes another believer to affirm that their declaration is genuine. It's not like God doesn't know who believes and who doesn't. You mentioned Cornelius: God sent an angel to speak with him because God knew the man's heart well before He gave him the gift of the Holy Spirit, which was well before his immersion in water. We hold onto our traditions with a death grip! Love ya, brother. Keep stompin' out ignorance!
From a Reader in Wyoming:
Dear EAM IV (I love that; thank you for sharing its meaning with us). Just read your study "The Romans 4 Gospel," and it is absolutely an "out of the park" grand slam that inspires the heart and rekindles the spirit within every believer! The weight of the law, even with knowledge, is among Satan's greatest temptations to divide and conquer when we are enticed by our sinful nature to performance and pride. Thanks, brother - lest we forget! "Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding" (Proverbs 3:5). Agape.
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