“Liberal” Is Not a Bad Word

credit to npr.org
credit to npr.org

What do you think about when you hear the word liberal? I was raised to equate the word with all sorts of negative qualities, and I imagine many of you were too. It was a word that denoted an enemy of truth: “His views are too liberal.” It was a word to discredit political enemies: “Don’t vote for that liberal candidate.” It was a word to identify those congregations: “We can’t visit there. That’s a liberal church of Christ.”

When we use the word liberal, we create all sorts of negative imagery fostered by the past twenty or so years of political culture wars. But this post is not about politics or political philosophy. It is not about sound doctrine or church institutionalization. It’s not about church daycare or charities. It’s about individual Christians being liberal the way God is liberal.

Take a look at a portion of the Sabbath law in Deuteronomy 15:12-15 (NKJV):

If your brother, a Hebrew man, or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you and serves you six years, then in the seventh year you shall let him go free from you. And when you send him away free from you, you shall not let him go away empty-handed; you shall supply him liberally from your flock, from your threshing floor, and from your winepress. From what the LORD has blessed you with, you shall give to him. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this thing today.

Under the Law of Moses, if I owed you a huge debt, I could indenture myself to you as payment. Then, every Sabbath year, those who owned these indentured servants were to let them go free, but it didn’t stop there. The masters were to liberally supply their former servants from their own blessings. The servants in no way earned this favor; their service was paying off a past debt. Instead, this was supposed to remind both servant and master of God’s blessings to His people. As God was generous to His servants, so His people should be generous too.

My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him.

– James 1:2-5 (NKJV)

God is liberal with His gifts for us today as well. Not just in the knowledge of His word, but God is liberal in grace, in forgiveness, and in goodness. All good things are from Him, and He pours His grace and forgiveness on us when we cannot earn it or deserve it (see Romans 5). Like the servant in Deuteronomy, we are undeserving of the gifts He bestows upon us. We have a debt of sin we cannot possibly pay, but God liberally grants us grace and redemption in His Son. We should, therefore, be as liberal with our own gifts.

This means we forgive when we don’t feel the other party deserves it. This means we show kindness and goodness to all around us. This means we assume the best when someone is at their worst, and it means we give of our time and resources to benefit others. The first and easiest way we can practice God’s grace is to give — to individuals, to families, to churches, to charitable causes. We can give our money. We can donate food, books, clothes, and other blessings. We can donate our time. If we cannot liberally give of our physical blessings, how will we ever share our spiritual ones?

I’m a conservative Christian, and I seek to conservatively practice the faith brought by Jesus and practiced by His disciples, but we cannot allow conservatism to become a stumbling block. While we seek to conservatively preserve God’s way and prevent worldly influences from corrupting the gospel of hope, let’s also take note of the ways we should be liberal — in our giving, in forgiveness, with grace, with goodness.

Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, let us prophesy in proportion to our faith; or ministry, let us use it in our ministering; m he who teaches, in teaching; he who exhorts, in exhortation; o he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.

Romans 12:6-8 (NKJV)

Defined By Our Faith

The Old Covenant is more than a codified list of commands. It is more than a list of “dos and don’ts.” What it comes down to, in the midst of those detailed commands and expectations, is a system of faith and a covenant of relying on God more than others or self. It is predicated entirely upon faith, and – though our covenant, its terms, and its sacrifice are different – our relationship with God is no different today. Our lives in God are predicated entirely on our faith. On that faith rests the foundation of our spiritual lives.

II Corinthians 5:7 tells us we walk by faith rather than sight, similar to Hebrews 11:1, defining faith as the evidence of things we cannot see. Romans 3:28 then simply states we are saved by faith, and our salvation in faith is no different than the children of Israel’s justification through faith. For our faith then informs our conduct and our personal surrender to God’s will, truly understanding it by putting that faith into practice.

Faith Beyond Rationale

Faith is not always purely logical. Remember Abraham. In Genesis 12, God tells Abraham (then Abram) to leave his life behind him to inhabit a land he had never seen. Hebrews 11:8 tells us that Abraham obeys by faith, not knowing where he was going. Later, Abraham is asked to offer up Isaac, his only son, and Paul makes reference to this event in Romans 4:1-3, citing Abraham’s great faith. The Hebrew writer speaks of Abraham’s faith in the resurrection of his son.

Think of crossing the Red Sea. Think of the bronze serpent. Think of Joshua and Caleb encouraging the people to take the Promised Land. Consider Job, in Job 31, expressing his lack of understanding; then, in 40:3, after God provides an answer to Job, he relents and lays his fate in God’s hands. Even going as far as I Corinthians 1, Paul describes the gospel itself as something that goes against our reason and wisdom, yet it is God’s power to save.

We can read through Hebrews 11 and see person after person who do seemingly impossible things, who face insurmountable odds, who accomplish great deeds, because of their faith. Does this look like a faith that is inactive? In James 2:17-26, we see that faith without action is empty and lifeless. It is more than an acknowledgement of God. It is living for and by God.

Faith in Action

Again, look to Abraham in Genesis 22. It is in verse 12 that the angel proclaims, “for now I know that you fear God.” Did Abraham not already have a faithful heart? We know he did, but there is a difference between thought and action. Feelings are not actions. We can know about God intellectually; we can feel a relationship with God; we can understand God’s word. Without putting that knowledge and those feelings into action, though, our faith is empty. This may involve some significant sacrifices in our lives, but none of those can match what Abraham was willing to sacrifice in faith.

This is not, however, salvation dependent upon our own abilities or our checklist. Trusting in God and obediently yielding to Him in all things will abase self rather than elevate self. Our hope, trust, and confidence is placed entirely in what God has done and will do for us – no more and no less. We cannot lessen our faith by falling into inactivity, nor can we constrain it by relying on traditions and rituals, placing confidence in the flesh.

Faith – a complete, living faith – does require action. It requires obedience. It compels us to change our lives, but it is not a reliance on self. In Galatians 2:20-21, Paul plainly states that his faith drives self out of the equation of his life, living by and relying completely upon the teachings and promises of Christ, not nullifying God’s grace but by putting faith in that grace into action. Just as God wanted the children of Israel to wholly rely on Him in all things, He wants the same commitment from us today. We must crucify self, let Christ live in us, and take up a life defined by our faith.

lesson by Tim Smelser

Signs of Apostasy

Paul, in Romans chapter 1, walks us through a process that inevitably leads to apostasy. We recently looked at the dangers of apostasy from the book of Hebrews, but how does such unfaithfulness creep into our lives? In verses 18-24, after speaking to the power of salvation in God’s word, Paul writes about the plainness of the divine in the world around us. He reveals, however, that people gave up the glory of God to place the divine in the objects of Creation. Apostasy crept in, and it can overtake us today as well.

Verse 21 establishes that, at one time, all people knew God. We can look around us and see a greater power at work. We can see the hand of a higher power in the order and magnitude of our universe. Verse 20 calls us without excuse for failing to recognize God’s power over this world in which we live. We can know God, and we can know what He wants for us. This intellectual knowledge of God, however, is not enough to prevent apostasy.

Sliding Toward Apostasy

Many more will acknowledge the existence or possibility of God than will actually follow Him. We cannot rest easy simply in professing the existence of our Father, for, like those in Romans 1:21, we can know God without glorifying Him as such. In John 17:4, Jesus prays about His efforts to glorify God in doing the work of God. I Peter 4:14-16 calls on us to glorify God in our service, even in the face of persecution and suffering. Romans 12 calls on us to live sacrificially to glorify God in service. My place is not to seek honor for myself in this life but to submit to the work of the Lord and glorify Him in this service. Philippians 1:27 puts it this way: “…let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ…”

Also in Romans 1:21, Paul speaks of those who fail to give thanks to God. Ungratefulness leads to unfaithfulness. Luke 17:11 tells the story of Jesus healing ten lepers who meet Him on the road, but only one – a Samaritan – comes back to thank Jesus. A Christian’s life must be characterized by thankfulness. I Thessalonians 5:18 calls on us to give thanks in all things, and James 1:17 reminds us that our blessings come from above, coming down from the Father. How often do we remember to show gratitude for answered prayers, for the numerous blessings we have, for God’s preservation of us?

Romans 1:21 furthermore speaks of vain thinking leading to apostasy. Back in Genesis 6, prior to the flood, God is grieved by the fact that every thought of mankind is turned toward evil. We are what we think. Romans 8:5 says we are after the flesh or the spirit depending on what we occupy our thoughts with. In Colossians 3 and Philippians 4, Paul calls on his fellow Christians to set their minds on pure and worthwhile things. We need to be careful of eliminating God from our thinking, which will eliminate Him from our lives.

Paul says all of this will harden hearts in Romans 1:21. Remember Matthew 13:13, when Jesus is asked why He speaks in parables, He references the people’s closed eyes, closed ears, and hardened hearts. They present themselves as a people who do not want God’s healing, and we can likewise be so stubborn. Romans 2:5 then warns that hardening our hearts invites God’s judgment upon us.

Conclusion

Little by little, we can push God out of our minds and out of our lives, and, like Romans 1:22, we elevate self and debase God. I Corinthians 1:18-25 tells of God’s wisdom seeming foolish to our earthly thinking. We profess ourselves to be wiser than God when we look at His word and think we know better. We think we know how to live this life without God, but Jeremiah 10:23 reminds us that it is not in us to direct our own steps.

When we deny God, we open a void in our lives. In Romans 1:23, those people exchanged the glory of God for idols. Instead of those carved images, we seek to worship self. We elevate our reasonings. We justify our investment in secular matters. We refuse to submit in our pride. When we do these things, we squeeze God from our lives, and we begin to fall away. We can prevent this crisis, though, simply by humbling ourselves and submitting to His plan for us. Instead of exchanging God’s glory for that which is corruptible and fleeting, we can take hold of His power unto salvation and draw nearer to Him in faithfulness and love.

lesson by Tim Smelser

Resolute Resolutions

I’m not the type of person to make resolutions when a new year comes. It’s not that I have anything against self-improvement. It’s not like I don’t want to be a better person. I don’t hold anything against others making resolution, but I’ve just grown a little jaded about resolutions over time. It’s almost as if we make resolutions simply to break them, and we make these resolutions with full knowledge that we will not keep them. Some resolutions, however, are worth keeping, and we don’t have to look any farther than our Bibles to find a few.

Resolute Examples

We see, in Daniel 1:8, that Daniel resolves to eat no unclean food while in captivity. Even though he is away from the temple, away from many of his peers, away from the priests and Levites, he resolves to do what is right in God’s eyes. This pattern then continues throughout the rest of his life.

Think also of Joshua, in Joshua 24:14-15, challenging the people of Israel to choose their allegiance between Jehovah and other gods. Joshua is resolute in his faith, and his example impacts his entire generation and the one to come after him.

In Acts 19:21, Paul resolves to go to Jerusalem despite the trials that will face him there. He purposes in his heart that this is the path he will take. Again, his resolute nature impacts many more than himself.

Being Truly Resolved

We should be resolute  followers of Christ, but our resolutions cannot be lip-service. Simply making the statement does not make us follow it. Nor can we be purposeful because of peer pressure, for we cannot maintain a resolution if we lack individual commitment. If we are to serve God the way He deserves to be served, it takes a sincere determination of will that we will put our all into working for our God.

How could Daniel keep himself pure in God’s eyes despite all the ungodly influences around him? He and his companions could maintain their faith because they were determined to do so. Joshua, as well, sincerely wanted to serve God despite the seemingly insurmountable challenges associated with that service. Paul, Peter, Timothy, Titus – determination of will is what separates them from the pretenders of their day.

We should so want to do what is right. We need to be determined and we need a heart willing to sacrifice for that resoluteness.  Paul, in Romans 12:1-2, speaks of spiritual service in terms of sacrifice, holiness, transformation, renewal, and proving. Long before Daniel, Joshua, or Paul demonstrated their own spiritual resoluteness, they had particular mindsets. We need to change our minds to be followers of God. Colossians 3:2 tells us to set our minds on things above, for we have died to all else. Philippians 2:5 simply calls on us to have the mind of Christ. When we set our minds to be like His, we can do anything.

This determination, however, requires a compliance of our hearts. In Matthew 22:35-40, one asks Jesus what the greatest of the commandments is. Jesus answers with two, and they both come down to love – loving God and loving our fellow man. We may readily submit to God intellectually while our hearts remain far from Him. Romans 10:8-10 reinforces the need of both heart and mind in faithful service to God. Finally, Ephesians 6:6, in the context of discussion serving earthly masters, admonishes us do God’s will from the heart.

Conclusion

Our spiritual resolutions do not have to be empty. Will you resolve to be a more faithful servant to God in all things? Philippians 4:13 encourages us that we can do anything in Him who strengthens us. We can rid ourselves of skepticism, uncertainty, and indifference if we are determined to have a Christ-like mind. We can be holy in an unholy society if we but yield our hearts and our minds to our Creator.

lesson by Tim Smelser

A Dependable Faith

In I Timothy 6:11, Paul encourages the young preacher to feel carnality and worldliness, encouraging him to seek after things like meekness, patience, and faith. Then, in II Timothy 2:22, Paul calls on Timothy to flee youthful lusts but to rather pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace. Then, in Galatians 5 draws a contrast between the fruits of the world and the fruits of the spirit, and verse 22 describes these good fruits as peace, love, and faithfulness. Having faith and being faithful repeatedly appear as necessary elements to our godly walk.

The Necessity of Faith

We understand the importance of faith from passages like Hebrews 11:6 that tell us we cannot please God without having faith in Him and being faithful to Him. I Timothy 4:12 records Paul calling on Timothy to be an example of faith. James 2 draws a contrast between the shallow faith of demons and the active faith of true believers. John 12:42 tells of those who believed in Jesus but would not profess their faith. In Matthew 6, during the sermon on the mount, Jesus speaks to our basic trust in God leading up to verse 30. Our faith defines our lives, motivates our actions, and informs every decision we make. This is complete faith.

How do we grow this faith?

  • Romans 10:17 reminds us that faith comes from our exposure to God’s word, by teaching and by study.
  • Returning to James 2, verse 23 exemplifies Abraham as one who practiced his faith, whose experiences served to strengthen the faith he put into action.
  • In Matthew 9:24, a man seeking Jesus’ intervention cries out to Him to, “Help my unbelief.” Prayer is another avenue for developing faith. Wisdom comes from asking.

We should be doing more reading and studying. We should be living our faith more actively. We should be asking for God to strengthen our faith.

A Dependable Faith

Where having faith is a living testimony of our belief in God, being faithful as God is faithful implies reliability and dependability. I Thessalonians 5:23-24, II Thessalonians 3:3, Hebrews 10:23, Hebrews 11:11 – these passages and more emphasize God’s faithfulness. We can rely on Him. We can depend on Him. If we are living to emulate the qualities we see in His nature, He should likewise be able to depend upon us.

The ultimate sign of God’s faithfulness is in the resurrection of Christ. In Psalm 16:10, the psalmist prophecies that God’s holy one will not see corruption. There is a difference between Jesus, being alive and well, raising others from the dead and Jesus going Himself to death, trusting in the Father to raise Him up on the third day. How then do we commit ourselves better to our faith?

  • Our duty as Christians. II Timothy 2:21 describes us as set apart and useful to God’s work, and I Thessalonians 1:2-3 speaks to our endurance, our steadfastness, and our love in doing God’s work.
  • The spread of the gospel. I Peter 3:15 calls us to be prepared to speak about our faith, and II Timothy 2:15 calls on us to be diligent in our preparation to share God’s word.
  • Being Good Stewards. The parable of the wedding feats, the parable of the talents – these illustrate the faithfulness and reliability we should have with our resources and opportunities in this life.

Conclusion

Not only should God be able to rely on us, but our fellow Christians should see us as equally dependable. Hebrews 11:39-40 admonishes us that all those who came before us depend on us to continue the work they have started. When we are unfaithful in our service, we invalidate the efforts of our predecessors. When we are faithful, however, we create an unbroken chain between those assembled on the Day of Pentecost and those we pass God’s work to who will come after us.

Can God count on us? Can the saints count on us? We should be working daily to develop our faith in God and our faithfulness to God. We trust in Him so much. We depend on Him to fulfill us, to redeem us, to save us. The question to us is simple: Can He depend on us?

lesson by Tim Smelser

The Seven Churches and Us

The challenge in examining ourselves is to examine ourselves, not as we see ourselves, but as God sees us. We often hold ourselves to one standard while God may hold us to another. This is true both individually as well as a congregation. As a congregation, we have successes; we have failures; we have challenges; and we have times of growth. In these times, we have to remind our selves this: that God knows our work and our hearts, that He cares about our work, and that He has standards against which our congregation is measured.

In Revelation 1:13, Jesus is pictured as being present among seven churches of Asia Minor. He walks in their midst. Throughout the next couple chapters, Jesus speaks to the strengths and challenges faced by these congregations. Often, we wish to be like the church of Philadelphia, but, had Jesus addressed us in this book, what might He have said to us?

Jesus’ Address to His Churches

Repeatedly, Jesus begins by affirming He knows these congregations. He knows their works, their deeds, their challenges, their tribulations. This paints a picture of a Savior, not one who is disinterested and uninvolved. Instead, through this, Jesus reassures them and us that He takes an active interest in our lives. He cares about us. He knows what trials we face.

Jesus also speaks to “him that overcomes,” in the letters, reminding us of the reward that lies ahead. Likewise, Jesus repeats, “he that has an ear, let him hear.” These days, we might say, “I know you can hear me, but are you listening?” He is making it clear that the words He shares are important to their spiritual survival. What, then, can we learn from those words, and how can we apply these letters to our own efforts as a congregation?

The Message to the Seven Churches

  • To Ephesus, Jesus commends their efforts in keeping purity among their congregation. He knows they have endured in their work and have resisted evil. However, He chastises them for losing love in their service.
  • With Smyrna, he contrasts their physical poverty with their spiritual wealth. He warns them of impending persecution and promises them reward should they endure.
  • To Pergamum, Jesus praises them for holding to His word even in a place where Satan has a symbolic throne. He warns them, however, that there are those among them holding to false doctrines.
  • With Thyatira, He speaks of their love and their ministry as well as their growth. He holds against them their tolerating a Jezebel among them, leading members of their congregation astray, and he calls for those that have succumbed to her influence to repent.
  • To Sardis, Jesus says they have a good reputation, but He knows they are spiritually dead. He acknowledges, however, that even they have some among them whose robes remain white and pure.
  • To Philadelphia, Jesus promises protection in times of tribulation to come. He knows they have remained faithful, and He encourages them to endure in the times to come.
  • With Laodicea, Jesus criticizes the congregation for being lukewarm, uncommitted, and He warns He will dispense of them if they refuse to repent from their indifference. He admonishes them to see themselves as Christ sees them.

The Message to Us

We are probably most familiar with the letters to Ephesus and to Laodicea, but we can learn from the themes that run through all of these letters. We see Jesus commend, time and again, congregations’ endurance, their intolerance of false doctrine, their love. In contrast, a vein of indifference seems to affect many of these congregations’ efforts. They may have become unloving. They may have tolerated unscriptural teachings in some aspects. They may have been simply going through the motions.

We can relate to letter to Ephesus when Jesus calls on them to return to their first works. When we first obey the gospel, we may be full of energy and enthusiasm, but the cares of this world can wear us down. We can become comfortable with routine and forget the reasons behind those actions. Thyatira stands in contrast to Ephesus, whose later works are greater than their first. One congregation is praised for growing in their efforts while the other was dwindling. Which are we?

To Laodicea, Jesus encourages them to find their strengths. He asks them to find how they can be beneficial. He asks them to either be cold or hot, just as we all need cold refreshment at times and hot at others. We can be soothing or refreshing in different ways – a cold glass of water to some and a warm cocoa to others. Laodicea, however, is neither. They are uncommitted, but Jesus encourages them to simply get to work.

In these chapters, Jesus reminds us that He knows where we are and what we are going through, but the message is the same: “Get to work.” We can fall back on many excuses for lack of ministry, lack of growth, or lack of love, but Jesus calls on us to overcome those excuses. He reminds us to give ear to His word and endure with His promises set firmly before us.

lesson by Tim Smelser