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Playing Games With God

By Robert M. Smith


 

Playing Games With God

By Robert M. Smith

 

 
CHAPTER FOURTEEN

 

The Interpreting Game
 

 

 

 

Then the Pharisees and some of the scribes came together to Him, having come from Jerusalem. Now when they saw some of His disciples eat bread with defiled, that is, with unwashed hands, they found fault. For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands in a special way, holding the tradition of the elders. When they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other things which they have received and hold, like the washing of cups, pitchers, copper vessels, and couches.

Then the Pharisees and scribes asked Him, “Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashed hands?”

He answered and said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written:

     ‘This people honors Me with their lips,

     But their heart is far from Me.

     And in vain they worship Me,

     Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’

For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men—the washing of pitchers and cups, and many other such things you do.”

He said to them, “All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition. For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.’But you say, ‘If a man says to his father or mother, “Whatever profit you might have received from me is Corban”—’ (that is, a gift to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or his mother, making the word of God of no effect through your tradition which you have handed down. And many such things you do.”

(Mk 7:1-13 NKJV)

 

This confrontation between our Lord Jesus Christ and the religious authorities of Judaism, two thousand years ago, has always been and will always be the source of incredible fascination to me. If ever there was an exposition of the spiritual crimes of all men, this is indeed it. In man’s estimation, a belief or a tenet of one’s own personal, ethical code is discretionary; that spiritual matters are relativistic and thought to be beyond censure [even in evangelical circles, I might add. And that is precisely why this chapter is in this book.]. God, on the other hand, being Lord and Creator of all and to Whom most religions claim as the Object of their intentions and attentions, does not envision this matter so indifferently. He has dedicated a vast portion of the Scriptures toward reproving the notion that He may be approached, pleased and served by any means humanly construed.

 

Unfortunately, twenty-first century Christianity is not viewed by secular society as a singular construct; there are so many denominational variances in the midst of evangelicalism that no singular distinction stands out. Because of this obscurity the true message of Christ often lies hidden to the man on the street who, by the standard we have set for ourselves as Christians, also feels that he has a right to his own interpretation, which he takes hold of eagerly and readily. In response to all of the various religious people that come to his door, send him petitions in the mail, call out on the radio or appear on his television set, he adds his take to the mix … and until Christians “get their act together” he is justified in doing so. That is what the interpreting game is all about: namely, “my conclusions are as valid and as salient as yours!”

 

This argument holds water under most humanistic conditions but as we see with the reference from the Gospel of Mark, above, spiritual matters are anything but humanistic. The Pharisees and scribes were accosted by God with a disclosure of their limitations on spiritual matters and it is at this same point that we must start to dismantle the interpretation game. In spiritual issues – even more so than in issues of jurisprudence, science, math or any other major discipline – all opinions are not created equal and we must always come to God to verify them. Our concern here is not about deciphering and isolating cult teachings and philosophies because our job is already gargantuan within the confines of Christianity. Many of the cults are so self-evidently erroneous that most believers do not require special training to offset their teachings anymore. But there are many things happening within the Christian context that are being either purposely ignored or slipping under the radar due to our spiritual slovenliness at the moment. It is our Christian relativism that we must address for the problem, as Lutzer relates, is killing us: “We can’t blame postmodernism for the condition of the church, but there is no doubt that we have all been influenced by its tolerant mood. Many Christians feel no obligation to share their faith with others. They believe their own convictions are good for them, and it would be nice if others became Christians, but they do not see any urgency for others to hear the Christian message! Perhaps this explains that, according to pollster George Barna, only 8 percent of adults have evangelical beliefs compared to 12 percent a decade ago. He says, ‘The number has dropped by a third as Americans continue to reshape their theological views.’

Many Christians feel embarrassed about the fact that we believe in universal truth, specifically in the uniqueness of Christ and His death and resurrection as the only means by which we can be accepted by God. In an age when the greatest sin is offensiveness, and the greatest virtue is inoffensiveness, it is difficult to share a message that, at its core, is offensive to the mind of fallen man.” [1]

 

We must learn all over again that because the Bible is not merely a religious book but rather an historical record, a cultural record, a sociological treatise, a spiritual prognosis and an in-depth analysis of theological and humanistic issues it can be studied and applied to life. The way in which one studies it, however, has a direct correlation to the degree of efficacy obtained. And throughout the centuries of studying the Scriptures specific principles have been upheld in order to avoid controversy over doctrine: utilizing literal, cultural critical methodology or historical, grammatical methodology. Within these particular fields of investigation there is one particular measure that assists any and every man to discern theological truth from error insofar as the Bible is concerned: no doctrine can stand upon a single verse when the flow of Scripture does not support it and that the obscure must always give way to that which is clear. Exegetical [to read out of the text] study is an imperative and isogetical [to read into the text] study is to be avoided.

 

As an example of the proper way to study the Word of God I shall cite a prominent philosophy promoted in our time that, in an attempt to give honour and recognition to the sovereignty of God [a very good cause indeed and a very true cause] it has tragically missed the mark about the responsibility found in the human condition and about God’s interaction with man. The former emphasis is true according to Scripture, the latter is also true according to Scripture … in the spiritual realm many issues are not either/or issues; several are and/also issues. Here is one of those and/also issues: The word “seek” is used more that 220 times in the Bible. Of all those occurrences only Rom 3:11 is utilized by hyper Calvinism to support a particular tenet while the rest [217 other occurrences explained below] are surreptitiously ignored or revised.

 

Under Calvinist thought there is only one way to look at the mental and spiritual exercise of a person who “seeks” the Lord: the Lord had to have changed the nature of the man or woman prior to their search because the Apostle Paul emphasized in this single verse that no one seeks the Lord (Rom 3:11). Paul is quoting Psalm 14 [or Psalm 53 which is a repeat of Psalm 14 actually] and laying the foundation for his conclusion of justification through faith. In essence this coincides with an even later conclusion where Paul finally declares that “whatever is not from faith is sin” (Rom 14:23). Both the Psalms and the reference in Romans chapter 3 have a distinct purpose: to establish that there is no advantage for a Jew over a Gentile when it comes to salvation. That is the context from chapter 2 to chapter 5. To utilize this reference for something other than that is to take it out of context. In addition to this, even a cursory look at Psalm 14 or 53 will also reveal that this passage is not to be used as hyper Calvinism emphasizes [ie. That a man’s nature must be changed so that the man may subsequently start seeking the Lord]. There are statements to the contrary even within the Psalm itself.

 

How can I say these things with such assurance? Because there are other Scriptures that prove it to be so. In fact the bulk of Scripture does not support the conclusions made by hyper Calvinism in this matter and it is exegetically inaccurate to suggest otherwise. The following verses come with the word “seek” firmly entrenched within them … so we’re going to have a brief look at them here.

These verses encourage men and women to “seek” the Lord [not to have the Lord change their “natures”]: Deut 4:29; Ezra 6:21; Ezra 7:10; Ezra 8:21-23; Ps 9:10; Ps 22:26; Ps 27:4 & 8; Ps 34:10; Ps 40:16; Ps 69:5-6; Ps 69:32; Ps 70:4; Ps 83:16; Ps 105:3-4; Ps 119:2; Ps 119:45; Isa 26:9; Isa 51:1; Isa 55:6-7; Isa 58:1-2; Jer 29:13; Jer 50:4; Hosea 3:5; Hosea 5:15; Hosea 10:12; Amos 5:4-8; Zeph 2:1-3; Zech 8:21-23; Mal 3:1; Matt 6:33; Matt 7:7; Lk 11:9; Lk 12:31; Acts 17:25-27; Heb 11:6

 

The underlined, in particular and for various reasons within the text [none of which includes changing the “nature” of the seeker … the change comes after finding the One sought], show very substantially that the erroneous conclusions adopted via the use of primarily one passage (Rom 3:10-12) cannot be maintained. The weight of evidence – something that is fundamental in doctrinal issues – does not support Calvinist assumptions in this area. We are, therefore, to be very careful about building an entire spiritual philosophy around the assumptions presumed upon a single verse or a couple of verses when the rest of Scripture cannot be rallied in support of said assumption.

 

Considering Heb 11:6 alone – which is actually a summation of all these other references combined – the contrast with Rom 3:11 is stark beyond degree. Heb 11:6 (“But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.”) sets the record straight. There is a requirement of the man that longs to come to God and to please God. He must exercise faith in order to be rewarded by God … and here’s the “catch phrase”: “of them that diligently seek him”! The emphasis in this phrase is that there are some, through the initiative of faith, who God recognizes and rewards. Is God playing a cruel joke with this verse and others like it? After all, if a man is to do nothing in the process of salvation – no thinking, no accepting of the truth, no choosing, no seeking, no diligence, no decision to make – then this verse and all others listed above is nothing short of cruelty … and God rewards only Himself all the time. There is also, by extension however, no accountability/responsibility on the part of man either: if there is nothing of man in the process of salvation he cannot, therefore, be held accountable for missing out on salvation. Calvinist thought simply cannot “have it both ways” on this issue!

 

As a result of this thinking I have found hyper Calvinism to be one of those philosophies that hinge upon minute nuances which do not fit the general tenure and scope of the Scriptures. In an endeavour to shore up various spiritual perspectives it has become reactionary in its approach instead of remaining truthful to the tenor of the Word of God. Thus when formulating a doctrine from one verse, in contradiction to 217 others, we know beyond the shadow of a doubt that the doctrine is in error. Proper exegetical study of the Bible demands that the lesser interpretation [the one that is based upon the least Scriptural evidence] must always serve the greater [the one that is based upon the most Scriptural evidence]. If this principle is ignored Christianity would become even more twisted and convoluted than it is at the moment … and it is indeed distorted enough in many instances already.

 

The aforementioned is only one example among many within the church at the moment. It is intended to trigger an understanding of what every Christian should know and attempt to know about Bible study. Every Christian is called to grow to maturity (Eph 4:9-16 and Heb 5:11-14) and thus he/she has a responsibility before God to learn and discern truth. We must, however, go about learning and interpreting upon the right principles rather than the wrong.

 

There are some individuals who will pursue wrong doctrine through wrong means … we are told this in the pages of Scripture (2 Tim 4:3-4; Jude 8-23). So we must ask what would drive a person to start playing these interpretation games? Why would one start to play around with things that are so spiritually volatile? Some of the reasons are found in the texts referenced: personal preference, rebellious attitudes, ignorance, personal gain, selfishness, ungodliness, selfish passions, worldliness, and those who are devoid of the Holy Spirit. Although some of those characteristics can be applied to some of the interpreting games played within the church by believers I think that there is another that I’d like to analyze. It is the “control factor” that most people do not want to surrender. In other words, this is where one can, as is often coined in our time, “find the handle” on some issue. Any time one can define and wrap one’s mind around some concept it will not be given up without a major fight … and even when pummeled and beaten capitulation may yet obstinately be avoided at all cost. [In the case that I have chosen above a typical rejoinder, from a hyper Calvinist, to the Scriptural information that I have set forth would be to raise other strawman issues in desperation, like divine election and covenant theology; using circular argumentation in the hope of avoiding loss. But Calvinism unravels quickly once a thread or two of the doctrine of man is revealed.]

 

Only with the most intense reluctance is the hand of man pried from its treasures – both material and immaterial. I found that Oswald Chambers had such a grasp on this human travesty. His assessment of self-realization is second to none and certainly has great pertinence at this point because it is very much a part of the obstinate Christian as well: “There is nothing more highly esteemed among men than self-realization, but Jesus says that ‘that which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God.’ We are apt to have the notion that all Jesus Christ came to do was to deliver morally corrupt people from their corruption. A man is largely responsible for the corruption of his actual life; Jesus Christ does not deal with my morality or immorality, but ‘my right to myself.’ Whenever our Lord talked about discipleship He always said ‘IF’ – ‘If any man will be My disciple, let him deny himself,’ not deny himself things as an athlete does, but ‘let him give up his right to himself to Me.’ If I am going to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Master I must realize what I have to forego, viz., the best thing I know, my right to myself. It is easy to say, ‘Yes, I am delighted to be saved from hell and put right for heaven, but I don’t intend to give up my right to myself.’ Apart from Jesus Christ, conscious self-realization is the great thing – the desire to develop myself. My natural self may be noble, but it is a moral earthquake to realize that if I pursue the conscious realization of myself it must end in losing my ideal of life. It is a tremendous revelation when I realize that self-realization is the very spirit of antichrist. Self-realization is possible in the spiritual domain as well as the natural. Much of the ‘Higher Spiritual Life’ teaching is simply self-realization veneered over with Christian terms. For a man to be set on his own salvation, on his own whiteness, to want to be ‘the one taken’, is not Christian. The great characteristic of our Lord’s life is not self-realization, but the realization of God’s purposes.” [2]

 

There are many points of view that can and should be applied within the church in order to bring about maturity. We should have no trouble with a good new vantage point on truth and every individual believer has the potential of “bringing something to the table” as they say. An artist will see things from a different perspective than a business manager, and a janitor will have a different take on a spiritual truth than a CEO … all valid and worthy of examination. Within the proper atmosphere of a church that is keen on edification, these same people, however, do not rearrange or remake the object of their affections by their unique viewing angles. We must be careful to encourage perspectives as vehicles of growth and appreciation among the Lord’s people without promoting a “new gospel” that would only wreak havoc within the church. And that is the fundamental key in avoiding any interpreting game isn’t it? To appreciate various vantage points as long as they do not alter or attempt to alter the truth upon which they gaze. “Strictly speaking it is not possible to move beyond Christianity; you must abandon Christianity to move beyond it! Whenever you try to add to Christianity you subtract from it. Just as wine is diluted with every drop of water, so the power of the gospel must remain distinct or be reduced to something it was never meant to be. Those who surrender the uniqueness of Christ do not simply surrender a part of the Christian message, but they surrender it entirely. We cannot remove the foundation and profess that the building is still intact.” [3]

 

It is with great anticipation that I move from this chapter into the next two. There is an expanse of interpretation taking place within the evangelical Christian world at the moment, where new interpretations – not new viewing angles – are being foisted upon unsuspecting believers. New gospels are springing up within the church and old heretical teachings that were once thought to be dead and buried have arisen in our time. Everything from Gnostics and Deists to humanists, from exhibitionists to legalists, from stoics to emergents, from socialists to isolationists, from new agers to old covenanters, have taken up positions within the North American evangelical community … all under the banner of the interpreting game. To weed out the bad while retaining the good is the modern-day task of the church. Recall that Jesus, in His assessment of the seven churches of Revelation chapters two and three, gave six of those churches a task to accomplish. They were to repent of the major problem in their midst and fix it … He wasn’t going to do it for them. We are in a similar dilemma for if the church in North America persists with its present course we shall be ushering in the apostate church that we have been warned about in Matt 24:24-25, Mk 13:22-23, and 2 Thess 2:3. In fact, there are many roots of this apostate version of the church already firmly ensconced and leading astray.

 

One question remains: are we going to continue playing interpreting games or are we going to get down to the business of cleaning house? It is a choice that each must make in accordance with Mk 8:34 – “If any man would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.” You can indeed choose to leave your cross lying there … you might prefer to grab that bag of gold and follow Christ … you might prefer to get your leg healed first and then follow Him … you might even fancy picking up that Phd. lying there and follow Him … but those weren’t among the options He specified. We’ve got a choice between a cross and not following. It may not be comfortable but I suggest we embrace the cross and start getting rid of our prideful selves; it’s the only way to move forward.


 

[1] Erwin W. Lutzer, Who are you to judge?, Moody Press, Chicago, 2002, Page 26

[2] Oswald Chambers, The Complete Works of Oswald Chambers, Discovery House Publishers, Grand Rapids, 2000, Page 496

[3] Erwin W. Lutzer, Christ among other gods, Moody Press, Chicago, 1994, Page 111

 

 

 

 

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