Trimming the Wick


In Matthew Chapter 25, Jesus tells the parable of the wedding party and the ten virgins, or bridesmaids. When the bridegroom makes his appearance at midnight, five of the ten virgins are unable to join the wedding banquet because they have failed to bring enough oil to light their lamps, a custom at that time. The five wise virgins who came prepared join the bridegroom at the banquet. Some time later, after having gone out to purchase some oil, the five foolish virgins plead to be let in, to which the bridegroom responds, "I tell you the truth, I don't know you." (v. 12)

The parable of the ten virgins is a tale of great importance for believers in any age, from the early Christians to today. No one knows the time of their own final hour nor the time of Christ's return. The chilling words of the bridegroom, "I don't know you," is a warning for Christians to be spiritually ready at all times, to submit their lives to Christ -- that is, to store up oil. This warning is echoed in Matthew Chapter 7 when Jesus said:

21 Not everyone who says to me, "Lord, Lord," will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.
22 Many will say to me on that day, "Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?"
23 Then I will tell them plainly, "I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!"
But today, the parable of the ten virgins should have eye-opening resonance to believers. When Jesus spoke of the last days, He used the metaphor of the fig tree (Matthew 24:32-33). Just as we know that summer is near when the leaves on the fig tree begin to bloom, so will we know the coming of the end of the age via Scripture's prophetic signs. We live in a time when many brothers and sisters in Christ are being deceived. Jesus warned, "Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming 'I am the Christ,' and will deceive many." (Matthew 24:4-5) Believers must be careful not to be swayed by the philosophies of religious men, disguised as Christianity.

Steve Lumbley at Apostasy Watch recently wrote an insightful and powerful commentary on the state of Christianity today. Entitled "God Will Build His Temple," he states that the visible, organized church will suppress the revival of God's Word among the true body of Christ, much like the religious leaders of the day opposed Jesus 2,000 years ago.

There are several dangerous threads in the church today that will rob believers of righteousness in Christ (their storehouse of oil). These threads, which are all very close in nature, threaten to entangle believers and suffocate the life right out of them.

Apostasy: As Mr. Lumbley points out in his article, there is a false revival sweeping through churches today. It comes in many guises and with different labels: purpose-driven, seeker-sensitive, ecumenical, and so on. These movements have at least one thing in common. They gratify man's desire for self-righteousness and self-tolerance -- most especially self-justification of his sinful nature. The purpose-driven paradigm generally appeals to a more conservative and evangelical base while ecumenicalism has roots in liberal religious humanism. These differences are superficial since neither appeal to God's Word but rather our predisposed natures.

In the last century, there has been an explosion of cults and impostors, as Jesus warned there would be in the last days. It should be no surprise that Christianity has been stretched like a rubber band to appeal to all manner of man's fleshly desires, for it is Christianity that the enemy is so eager to distort. Consequently, is there any doubt why Christianity has been so relentlessly mutated and syncretized and diluted and deliberately misinterpreted for 2,000 years and that its truth has been so recklessly misrepresented and maligned more than any other with claims to divine inspiration?

Worldliness: More than any other time in the earth's history since the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11), the world is reaching a unity in purpose -- one that is in defiance of God's law. We live in a time of worldwide communication and shared popular culture. The values of natural man, the spirit of this world (1 Corinthians 2:12), are pervasive and invasive. Many Christians are ignoring the Biblical principle of separation and are seeking identification (i.e. justification) with the world. They are seeking acceptance in a world that hates their values, and so they gradually abandon those values. The elevation of the flesh (intellect/body) over the spirit is the tragic result. A believer's position with respect to the spirit of the world, or Babylon, is thus referenced in Scripture: "Come out of her, my people, so that you will not share in her sins." (Revelation 18:4)

Materialism: It is not so much the possession of material goods but the love of them that shipwrecks faith. Yet, it is material comfort and possession that causes many to take their eyes off God. In countries where these kinds of blessings are plentiful, people have come to believe that they deserve it (entitlement). Because people feel entitled to these luxuries, they believe material goods are necessary for happiness and fulfillment. While Christians in these countries may be appreciative and "count their blessings," oftentimes they are more appreciative of the gifts than the Giver.

Over at Blogging Truth, there is a very good article on the effects of materialism on the believer. Possessions can definitely weigh down the spirit of believers, particularly when those possessions become an avocation. Jesus said in Matthew Chapter 6:
19 Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.
20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.
21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Pragmatism: In essence, pragmatism espouses that "the end justifies the means." It should not be confused with practicalness or realism, though they often converge. Paul Proctor squares off against pragmatism in the church in his excellent article titled "Blessed Subtractions."

While it is in direct conflict with God's Word, pragmatic thinking is nonetheless prevalent among Christians today. The current election year in the United States highlights an example of this. Many American evangelicals are planning to cast their vote for incumbent President George W. Bush this fall. It is a vote for the principles of the man rather than a vote for the platform of his party, which has time and again rebuffed evangelicals in favor of secular moderation. The thinking is, the alternative is much worse; thus their vote is for the lesser of two evils.

To vote for the leader who more closely shares the values of believers does seem righteous, not pragmatic. Yet, in the context of a political machinery (a now mostly indistinguishable two-party system) that is greater than any one man, this kind of vote may only delay the inevitable. For American Christians, there might be alternatives (consider, for example, the platform of the Constitution Party). There is, however, the danger of falling into escapism, the polar extreme of pragmatism. And that hasn't solved anything. Since pragmatism is inherently motivational, it is difficult to detect, and indeed, only the Lord can know an individual's heart (1 Corinthians 4:5).

Hedonism: Craig W. Booth writes about Christian hedonism at The Faithful Word. More often than not, hedonism in the church is not so much a definitive movement as it is simply recidivism. Unfortunately, Paul's words in Philippians 4:8 to think on "whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable" have been misconstrued and abused to qualify the pursuit of pleasure. Paul defines these terms, not through the distorted lens of man's protean sensibilities, but in the context of righteousness in Christ. The appreciation of arts, sports, learning, sensuality, and so on can quickly develop into idolatry in the absence/ignorance of God's Word. We end up justifying men rather than defending God. Rather, Paul is imploring us to seek out that which glorifies God, not simply that which is part of His creation. Hedonism subverts the subordination of the created to the Creator and wrongly implies that appreciation of the creation is appreciation of the Creator.

The end result of these subversive threads in the church is apathy. It is apathy that leaves the five foolish virgins unprepared. Their faith is dissolute. Instead, brothers and sisters in Christ should be awaiting the return of the Lord -- eagerly, earnestly, and unashamedly.

In 1 Peter Chapter One, the apostle Peter wrote to believers concerning Christ's return:
8 Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy,
9 For you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

For His Purpose


In the life of the believer, there will most certainly be moments of godly sorrow, reflections upon grieving the Holy Spirit. One ponders the time and energy wasted on useless detours and sin-driven pursuit -- time and energy that could have been used for righteousness in Christ. This kind of sorrow leads to repentance, as it did for the prodigal son.

Perhaps you've heard the phrase "a life without regret is a life not lived." It has some resonance in the lives of believers. Consider Solomon and his reflections on spiritual dissolution in Ecclesiastes. If we can accept that we are unworthy of God's blessings, which we are, then we can accept that God uses the mistakes we have made in our life to guide us to a greater righteousness in Christ. The devil, however, wishes to drive a wedge between believers and God by suggesting the opposite: that they can be worthy of God's blessings and that their mistakes can and will push God away. It is a deadly trap that focuses man upon Self, resulting in lifeless legalism or despondent licentiousness. Yet, the Apostle Paul wrote that God "has saved us and called us to a holy life -- not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace." (2 Timothy 1:8)

In the verse from 2 Timothy, Paul spoke not only of God's grace but of His purpose. God's purpose calls the believer to a holy life. Not our purpose. While we may have a purpose for holiness that is indeed genuine, it still won't be God's purpose for our holy life -- one that He specifically designed for each of us to glorify Him. In Psalm 23, King David wrote, "The Lord is my shepherd....your rod and your staff, they comfort me." God can give us direction (the staff) through His discipline (the rod). Sometimes this means allowing us to suffer from our follies. "Do not despise the Lord's discipline and do not resent his rebuke, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in." (Proverbs 3:11-12) God's purpose fulfills His Law, which is constant and immutable.

Do we pray to be righteous, or do we pray to listen to God's righteous plan for us? Choose the former and love the flesh. Choose the latter and love God. Would a father kill his own son? No. A man who is spiritual and righteous before men would do no such thing. Even the most hardened and worldly of men would recoil at the thought. Yet Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son Isaac for the Lord. Because Abraham was righteous unto the Lord, he passed the test. At the sacrificial altar, God said to Abraham, "Do not lay a hand on the boy. Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son." (Genesis 22:12)

Contrast the godly righteousness of Abraham with the self-righteousness of King Saul from 1 Samuel, Chapter 13. At Gilgal, Saul made a burnt offering to the Lord, choosing not to wait for Samuel's arrival -- contrary to God's command. Saul believed that by doing a service for the Lord, he was acting righteously. However, he did not act righteously for God. His words betrayed him: "I thought, 'Now the Philistines will come down against me at Gilgal, and I have not sought the Lord's favor.' So I felt compelled to offer the burnt offering." (1 Samuel 13:12) By ignoring God's timing (purpose), Saul chose to gratify his own fleshly righteousness.

What can keep a believer from growing in Christ is their refusal to let go of Self, keeping the satisfying or unpleasant aspects of their life locked away from God. The believer who makes precious their personal righteousness is one still beholden to the Self, the flesh. In this sense, the legalist and the licentious man have something in common. But the same kind of bitter disillusionment greets both of them at the end of their journeys. A life lived for the stifling quest of personal holiness is a life lived without the inner joy that God gives believers who live for His purpose. "May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit." (Romans 15:13)

If there be regret in our life, may it be for God's purpose so that His discipline (the rod) may direct us to righteousness. If there be righteousness in our life, may we not forget it is for God's purpose, not ours, and that these blessings of righteousness are bestowed upon us in spite of our unworthiness. Then we will be humbled, not because it seems spiritual or right, but because that can be our only possible action once in the presence of our Lord.

Authenticating the Faith


In the parable of the sower (Matthew Chapter 13), Jesus told the story of a farmer sowing seeds to illustrate the types of faith among believers. Some of these seeds "fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root." (Mt 13:5-6). A few verses later, Jesus explained the metaphor:

20 The one who received the seed that fell on rocky places is the man who hears the word and at once receives it with joy.
21 But since he has no root, he lasts only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away.
Syndicated Christian radio talk show host Paul McGuire often refers to this type of believer as someone who's had a "Jesus experience," yet gradually falls away from the faith because they lack a solid Biblical world view. Jesus said that believers are the salt of the earth, but if the salt loses its flavor, "it is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men." (Mt 5:13). We have all seen the mistakes and missteps of public Christians mercilessly laid bare by unbelievers just waiting for that to happen.

Faith is two-fold: belief in and submission to Christ. For example, faith is strengthened when temptation (or the worldly) is rejected. But only through complete trust in the Lord can temptation be rejected on a consistent basis. Jesus responded to the devil's temptations in the desert with these words: "Away from me, Satan! For it is written: 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.'" (Mt 4:10) Faith is weakened, however, when we focus on some hapless self-centered battle to suppress sinful urges, rather than focusing on what God wants for us in our lives. Authentic faith means placing the old nature at the Cross on a daily basis. For the mature believer, the rejection of the worldly arises from conscious obedience to God's word, which goes against all inclinations of the sinful nature. In other words, it won't always be easy and it can only be accomplished by submitting one's will entirely to Christ. The quest for personal perfection and holiness is frequently the tempting alternative because its only real function is to gratify the flesh. (And it seems more spiritual in man's eyes.)

Because believers are called to "not conform any longer to the pattern of this world," (Rom 12:2), they will sometimes think that means to live in a bubble rather than face the real world. But a sheltered individual may not recognize the deception of the enemy until it is too late. In general, the world is bad not because it likes being bad, but because it is deceived. By nature, sinful man is deceived. Man can take his sinful self out of the world, but he cannot take the world out of him. Only Jesus can.

Enclaves of religiosity have had a history of dissolution and error. The praise of men, even righteous ones, within these man-made oases becomes confused with righteousness in Christ. This is the same trap that many churches today face. In his article "Dr. Donald Grey Barnhouse and Neo-Evangelicalism," Miles J. Stanford discussed a recent example of this kind of doctrinal drift within the organized church. Indeed, believers are to practice separation from the world ("Come out of her, my people, so that you will not share in her sins," Rev 18:4), but that separation is first and foremost a spiritual one. And mustn't this separation conform with the Great Commission commanded by Jesus in Matthew 28:18-20? For believers to be a witness for Christ, they must be spiritually separated and function in the real world. In the parable of the sower, faith is authenticated by trouble and persecution. Trouble and persecution do not occur when the believer runs away from the world.

The retreat of Bible-believing Christians from the world today has not increased their spirituality; rather, it has only increased the numbers of unsaved. That does not sound like fulfillment of the Great Commission. We still live in the church age. Until the day Jesus returns to rule the Millennial Kingdom, authentic faith, lived by believers in the world, is the witness to Christ's message of salvation. Instead, the most visible Christians these days are the ones trying to water down the message of the Gospel in a vain attempt to please the world. By rejecting the godly to avoid appearing supra-spiritual, these Christians risk falling into a snare of inescapable temptation. By placing the cart before the horse, they become indistinguishable from the world at large. However, the believer who places their complete trust in Lord can avoid both the traps of loving the world and running away from the world.

The Apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians Chapter 10:
13 No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.
The question then is, will we be able to recognize the Lord when He extends a hand to help us out of trouble (the "way out" as Paul describes above)? We are ready when we are trusting in the Lord. If an individual puts worldly possessions, worldly attachments, and worldly truths at the center of their life, they will not be able to see the way out provided by God. If faith is in name only, if it is merely a label, it becomes simply a human psychosis. If faith is built solely upon friendships, vague memories, and emotions, it will blow away in the first strong winds. We must keep the essentials (God's Word) and jettison the spiritual fat -- spiritual fat we create out of the apathy or wantonness of our sinful natures. In its place, we must build up the spiritual muscle that comes from complete obedience to the Lord.

Faith is authenticated by its steadfastness in the face of challenges. These challenges occur naturally during the course of a believer's life. "Naturally" is the operative word; it is risking disaster to prove one's faith outside of God's Will (i.e. to gratify oneself). As Jesus said to the devil in the desert, "It is also written: 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'" In God's time, we are drawn out of the world by our faith in and love of the Lord. And just as we must be ready to recognize when He provides us a way out of trouble, we must ready to recognize when He challenges us to leave our comfort zones.

David wrote in Psalm 23:
1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters,
3 he restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

In love with love


The subversion of Holy Scripture continues to proliferate in these tempestuous times as demagogues hijack Bible verses and principles to suit their human-centered agendas. Currently entrenched political divisions in the United States and elsewhere serve as prophetic, albeit secular, signposts to a rapidly approaching future where divisions will be much more pronounced and where the facade of politics will have dropped away, leaving extreme moral and spiritual differences. "Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child." (Mark 12:12) Notably, there has been, in the ranks of the secular mainstream media, much more public analysis of the core principles of Christianity. The so-called zeitgeist film, "The Passion of the Christ," which was released earlier this year, stirred the percolating but still latent last-days type of spiritual division. Partly because of the aforementioned film, partly because it is a presidential election year in the U.S. and George W. Bush, the incumbent president, has stated his born-again Christianity, partly because the spotlight of the world stage is on the Islamic terrorists, and partly because of controversies swirling around homosexual marriage, abortion, and the Ten Commandments, there has been a definite, if not authentic or sincere, resurgence of interest in Christianity.

As a result, this year has seen a peculiar trend by the typically secular and irreligious segments of society to try to claim Christianity for themselves. Well-known personalities are speaking out on Christianity. On the subject of Bush and his Christian convictions, Meryl Streep chafed at what she perceived as Bush's hypocrisy by going to war and not heeding Jesus' command to "turn the other cheek." Movie actor Alec Baldwin was rather more direct when he recently dismissed the "religious" (read: Bible-believing Christians) right as "fundamentalist wackos." Even more extreme were former labor secretary Robert Reich's comments that people who believe in a divine power with authority over man were more dangerous than terrorists. On a higher profile level, there are these words from John Kerry's acceptance speech at the recent Democratic National Convention: "We welcome people of faith....As Abraham Lincoln told us, I want to pray humbly that we are on God's side."

The arguments are meant only to prop up a universalist and syncretized view of Christianity, one that blends other world views, religious beliefs, and humanist relativism. Most egregious and spurious are their obvious attempts to twist Scripture to justify human error -- sin. One common method is to blur the lines between what the Bible defines as love and what man wants love to mean. This reductive understanding of Biblically based, Godly love (agape love) has led to the contemporary morass of confusion, error, and wickedness.

Jesus said that love, indeed, is the greatest commandment. But note His distinction in Matthew Chapter 22:

37 "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind."
38 This is the first and greatest commandment.
39 And the second is like it: "Love your neighbor as yourself."
Therefore, to love the Lord is to obey Him. The Apostle Paul defines love in 1 Corinthians Chapter 14:
6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.
7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Thus, Bible-based love abjures wickedness and leads to repentance. Paul states in 1 Corinthians Chapter 6:
9 Do you know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders
10 Nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.
The hoary Biblical paraphrase "love the sinner, but hate the sin" has been used and abused, and mostly abused. First and foremost, believers are told to flee sin; to resist the devil, not engage him. Because man is a fallen creature, "hate the sin" carries with it a Biblical warning. Paul implores believers to tread carefully when condemning sin: "Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted." (Galatians 6:1) When caution is not exercised in this area, this famous line from Shakespeare's Hamlet often comes to mind: "[She] doth protest too much, methinks." Most importantly, "love thy neighbor" is adjunct to loving the Lord, thus inferring subordinance. The predication and order of these two commandments does not logically lead to contemporary relativism, i.e. "anything goes as long as you're happy and you're not hurting anybody else."

The impulse to redefine Godly love is as old as time. But as erstwhile Christian nations stray further from God's Word, the understanding of Biblically based love has become muddled. Love has been appropriated solely by human emotion and experience -- a love without God-given definition, limits, or understanding. It has come to the point now that the physical (sexual) defines love and the parameters of love. Humanist proponents seek to nullify the effect of God's Truth by reinserting their postmodern relativistic definition of love into a Biblical context. When they say "God is love," religious humanists mean not only to reduce God to the level of human emotion, but to imply reversal: that love is God. The conflation of man's (usually self-centered) love with God's love is the tragic result. God calls His children to model Godly love, not the love that man easily falls into, out of, confuses with lust, or manipulates for self-gain, pleasure, gratification, and so on.

At the very center of the moral quagmire is a reliance on human knowledge, experience, and emotion to define truth. That genuine, real, loving emotion and humane empathy can and does compel what the Bible defines as sins of the flesh, there is no denying. But that is the point: humanist love (and its manifestations) is much like the snake eating its own tail. Man fools himself by modeling selflessness on the outside to achieve godliness on the inside. The Christian model of sexuality -- marriage between man and woman -- requires love of and obedience to God at its center, without which it would dissolve into the cesspool of human knowledge, experience, and emotion. Sexuality is a function, not a driving force. It serves a divine plan; it isn't a divine plan. God designed the love and emotional experience between a husband and wife to be sustained by Godly obedience; again, as functions rather than driving forces. Beautiful functions and beautiful creations, but creations all the same. As subordinate creations, romantic love and sexuality cannot take the place of, nor act as substitutes for, Biblically based Godly love. They are subject to divine rules and limitations.

In today's society, many people are in love with "love" -- a love that reflects man. In essence, they are in love with themselves. A truth defined by man, beyond being merely pagan, leads to the antithesis of Biblical principles, where good is evil and evil is called good (cf. Isaiah 5:20). Biblical love calls for love of God over Self, not other men over Self, not society or the environment over Self, and certainly not the love of Self supreme. Man's ways lead to death (Proverbs 14:12, 16:25); they already have. And as Fallen Man must die, so must his so-called truths.