Christian practice – is it based on conscience or Holy Spirit?

So why did people pour out “from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan” to hear John the Baptist and “confess their sins,” Matthew 3:5-6

None of them had received the Holy Spirit yet, but they felt a deep need to own up to their guilt, seek forgiveness, and wash away their past and start anew. So what made them do that, when it wasn’t the Holy Spirit? 

Well, it had to be their conscience, right? God had given them the Law, so they knew right from wrong. And all through their history they were constantly being faced with either blessings for obedience or punishment for disobedience. And sometimes, when they knew they were way out of line, and the punishment was severe, they repented. They knew they were guilty and they accepted it. Having a conscience, then, that enabled that to happen was a wonderful gift from God.  

But their sad history showed that conscience wasn’t enough to create either constant or permanent change. Even after the Jews were carted off into slavery for their rebellion against God, their conscience wasn’t enough to permanently correct their attitudes after they returned. And it stayed that way up to the time John the Baptist turned up. 

But what was the point of John the Baptist turning up and stirring up their conscience, when their history had already proved a guilty conscience never creates permanent change? 

Because it was preparation for “one more powerful” than John, who would “baptize them with the Holy Spirit and fire,” Luke 3:16, which to John was “good news” (verse 18). Good news, yes, because at last, the solution had arrived to conscience not being sufficient. 

The solution was Jesus “asking the Father to give us another Counsellor,” John 14:16 – “the Holy Spirit,” verse 26, “whom the Father will send in my name (acting on my behalf),” who, John 16:13-14, “will guide you into all truth….by taking from what is mine and making it known to you.” And how the Spirit does that is by “living with you and in you,” John 14:17. The Spirit who’s always with us now lives what Jesus taught in us, enabling constant and permanent growth and change – something the Israelites never accomplished without the Holy Spirit. We are fortunate, then, to have the Spirit as our guide, not our conscience.  

Note: For those who haven’t received the Holy Spirit and rely on their conscience to moderate their behaviour, God honours that too (Romans 2:14-15). But it’s only by the Spirit that we “participate in the divine nature,” enabling us to “escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires,” 2 Peter 1:4.

(Feb 9 – “When conscience conflicts with the Spirit”) 

Christianity – no additives needed 

My wife makes her own bread, from scratch. She has her own “starter” made from flour and water that sizzles away producing all the necessary goodies for bread to rise, and all she has to do is “feed” the starter with a touch more flour when it’s bread-making time, chuck some of the starter and salt in her homemade bread mix and that’s it, no added yeast or any artificial or chemical additives needed.  

And that’s what stirred the title, because store bought bread requires additives, not only to replace parts of the original grain that were removed, but also for shelf life. And what a pity, because tasty, nutrient rich bread comes from the raw grain, and only water and salt are needed to bring it out.    

Which stirred the thought, “Does this apply to Christianity too?” Because the “bread of life,” as Jesus called it, came from the raw grain of his teaching (John 6:63), but over the centuries Christianity has picked up an awful lot of additives, that have separated Christians. It’s a fascinating study seeing the differences these additives have made, because we now have thousands of Christian denominations that can differ widely in their traditions, rituals, interpretations of Scripture, and their formats when meeting together. 

And it’s these differences that have become the identifiers of each denomination. So instead of a church simply being “Christian,” it becomes Catholic, or Protestant, or Pentecostal, or Evangelical, etc. And if you wish to be a member of any of these churches, then you’re expected to take on the things they do that identify them as different to the other churches.  

All sincerely based on a desire to obey God, I assume, but the Pharisees in their desire to obey God came up with all sorts of additives that they expected their followers to obey too. But these additives weren’t commanded by God. They were simply “the traditions of men,” Mark 7:8. And, unfortunately, they took priority over the word of God (verse 13). 

So, when saying the word, “Pharisee,” it’s their added required traditions that are more likely to come to mind first. What a pity. But isn’t it the same today? When asked if we’re Christian, for instance, and we answer, “Yes,” the next question so frequently asked is: “Oh yes, and what church do you go to?” – because it’s become so important nowadays to identify Christians by their denominational identifiers and additives.

We’ve done it to ourselves, unfortunately, which is such a pity, because in Christianity no additives of any sort are needed (John 6:63).    

Does the church need to be relevant?

As the culture changes does the church need to change with it? And if so, why does it need to?

The Church of England’s bishops, for instance, in a “radical new Christian inclusion” – based on “a proper 21st Century understanding of being human and of being sexual” – have voted in favour of performing a service of blessing on same-sex couples following their civil marriage or partnership. All COE congregations, therefore, should “celebrate and affirm same-sex relationships.”  

So here’s a case of a global church changing with the culture. And the reason given is to affirm and celebrate the diversity of views in the culture on sexuality, relationships and marriage, so that no one feels like a second class citizen in church. Taking into account – for those who still believe Scripture only talks of marriage between a man and a woman – that God is love so, the bishops claim, any relationship based on love is scriptural.

Well, it certainly makes the church more attractive to those with a diversity of views on sexuality, relationships and marriage. But why would the church want to do that, when it risks turning Christians away who believe Scripture is clear on the subject of marriage? 

Is it because the church feels the need to be relevant to survive? And to be relevant means representing all types in society. In other words, become what people with many different lifestyles and views want and expect the church to be, enabling them to continue their lifestyle in church without prejudice, rejection or hostility. 

But is that the church’s job, to fit in with people’s expectations of what church should be? Not according to Paul in Romans 12:2, where he writes, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world….but test and approve what God’s good, pleasing and perfect will is.” “For,” he wrote in 1 Corinthians 7:31, “this world in its present form is passing away,” just as John wrote in 1 John 2:17, that the “world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever.”  

The church exists, then, to explain what does not pass away, and what God has in mind for us now and forever. And the Holy Spirit is given to those who believe that (Ephesians 1:13). So why try to fit in with the culture instead? For institutional preservation, perhaps? 

Who decides for us – and on what basis?  

The decision, for instance, to lock down cities and mandate experimental drugs during the pandemic fell to the government officials that we underlings voted in. But on what basis did they decide what to do? 

Was it pressure from lobby groups, or consultation with many contrasting experts, or a knee jerk reaction “to do something” and appear to be decisive, or to stop people flying into a panic, or to hand over the reins to powerful corporations peddling their wares, or was it all very sincerely meant and it came as a genuine shock to them when things turned out so disastrously? 

Whatever the reason, has what’s happened had any impact on what basis governments make decisions in the future when a potent contagious virus strikes? 

Would they consider, for instance, the advice of the one public health official whose medical education was taught to him by God. So, when a man with those credentials tells us that anyone with a diagnosed infectious disease should immediately go into quarantine and stay there until no longer contagious – as Moses did in Leviticus 13:46 – then that would seem like a good place to begin.

And as a youngster in English boarding schools this was the practice I grew up with too. Whenever a virus ripped through the school a separate building on campus was set aside for quarantine while life went on as normal in the rest of the school. There wasno locking down the entire school, and no masks or social distancing. 

Nor were they required in ancient Israel either. The sick were quarantined in care outside the camp, but life for the rest of Israel went on as usual. A mask was only worn by the contagious as an indication to others to steer clear of them (Leviticus 13:45). Those who weren’t contagious did not wear masks.    

If only we’d done that during the pandemic. Think of all the businesses that would still be operating, school classes that would have continued, and teachers, nurses, doctors and thousands of others who would have kept their jobs and kept things functioning normally. 

But when governments “don’t think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God,” Romans 1:28 – well, we now know what happens when they don’t. And it’s so sad, because if they’d consulted Scripture and asked God for help, they would have got it (James 1:5). 

Psalms: when we get real, God gets real too – Psalm 116  

It was during the worst time in my life that I was given a tattered version of the Psalms in The Message translation. The timing was exquisite. I read through every Psalm, highlighting in yellow anything that hit me personally. But it was Psalm 116 where things first got real for me, so in going through Psalms I thought Psalm 116 would be a good place to start.

The Psalmist’s problem was the horribly disheartening realization in verses 10-11 that “All men are liars.” Or as The Message phrases it, the Psalmist was “giving up on the human race, saying, ‘They’re all liars and cheats.’”

Isn’t that sad? That you’ve come to the point in your life where you don’t believe anyone’s telling the truth, and people are only out to scam you in some way, by sneakily overcharging you for work done, or on a global scale, manipulating world events to make the rich even richer. So now you have a jaundiced view of everyone, and once that’s stuck in your head, what is there in the whole wide world that can free you of it? 

And especially if you’re doing your bit to keep up with what’s going on, like the investigative journalist I watch on Youtube, who admitted he had to go on medication he was so depressed by the ludicrous nonsense being spewed out publicly by those who think the world should be like them.    

And such was the state of mind of the writer of Psalm 116: “Up against it,” he writes in verse 3, “I didn’t know which way to turn.” Nor did I. Nor who to turn to either. I mean, who had the time and capacity to sort me out? And when you’re angry and confused, who really feels they can help you out too? 

The bit that got to me in this Psalm, then, was verse 4, which in The Message reads, “then I called out to God for help: ‘Please God!’ I cried out. ‘Save my life!’” And that was it. Just five words. No lengthy prayer, just (in my words), “God, I’ve had it. Help.” 

I suppose it’s hard to admit you’re that helpless and pathetic, but the Psalmist went on to say in verse 6, “God takes the side of the helpless,” the proof of which was: “When I was at the end of my rope, he saved me.” It sounds like God put the brakes on in his head, deleted all the stored up rubbish, and proved that “When other helpers fail and comforts flee,” he really is the “help of the helpless” who “abides with me.”  

So now we hear the psalmist shouting in verse 13: “I’ll lift high the cup of salvation – a toast to God!” So God can be that real to us, eh? But it seems to start with us getting real with him first…. 

(The first of a series on ‘Psalm Sundays’)

The job ’n’ joy of being Jesus’ disciples 

The JOY…

Jesus’ disciples were a joy to him. He “loved them all during his ministry, and now he loved them to the very end,” John 13:1. He wanted his disciples to know it too, because “As I have loved you, so you must love one another,” so they had to know his love first, right? 

So he made sure they understood it, and how deep his love was, as in John 15:9, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you.” That’s quite something, because what greater love could there be in the entire universe than the love the Father has for his Son? So, take that, my dear disciples, I love you that much. 

And then he says in verse 13, that “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends,” which sounds lovely, but then he immediately adds in verse 14, “YOU are my friends.” Imagine walking along with Jesus, then, and he puts his arm round your shoulder and he says, “I’d give my life up for you, you know, because you are my friend.” 

And then he explains in verse 15 what he meant by friend too: “I have called you friends; for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” And isn’t that the classic sign of true friendship, that friends hide nothing from each other? Imagine sitting with Jesus, then, and he says, “Whatever you want to know, go on, ask, and I’ll tell all. And I mean all, because everything the Father passed on to me, I happily pass on to you.” And the disciples experienced Jesus doing that, because they admitted in John 16:30 that he’d answered all they wanted to know. 

To Jesus, then, his disciples were a joy, which he expressed in Luke 10:21, when “full of joy through the Holy Spirit he said, ‘I thank you, Father, for hiding these things from those who think themselves wise and clever, and for revealing them to the childlike’” – to the little guys. And what a pleasure it was to Jesus to share all he knew with these little guys, who became his closest friends and companions. 

Us being his disciples, therefore, is joy to him. It was a joy choosing us (John 15:16), a joy that he has us as his friends and companions on the Earth right now, a joy sharing all that he knows with us, and a joy that we latch on to him as the provider of all that we need (John 14:13-14). 

It is a joy to him to have us as his disciples, but especially because “my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete,” John 15:11. So it’s not only a joy to him that we are his disciples, it’s a joy to us too. 

Stories from the Old Testament for coping with 2023 

Part 4, King Ahaz, Isaiah 7 (Part 3, January 20)

Imagine God making it known to us that because we’re frightened by people out to mess our lives up, we can ask him for any sign we like to convince us we’ll be OK in his hands – and he doesn’t mind how spectacular the sign we ask for is, either (verse 11). 

But Ahaz in his arrogance, stupidity and pious self image not only made it known to God he wasn’t going to ask him for a sign, he’d also come up with a much better plan of his own. He’d strip God’s temple and the palace treasury of all their gold and silver and send it to Tiglath-Pileser, king of the mighty empire of Assyria to seek an alliance with him, and that’s how he’d stop these two kings out to get him. 

Not surprisingly, Isaiah lets loose on Ahaz for refusing the sign – and he includes the whole “house of David” in his tirade in verses 13-14 – when he yells, “You people are enough to tire anyone out, but must that include tiring God out too? Well, God’s going to give you a sign anyway, and here it is: a young woman will become pregnant and she will give birth to a baby boy and call him Immanuel.” 

So this is the second little boy Ahaz is faced with, and like the first boy back in verse 3, there’s a message from God in the boy’s name. And again it’s highly reassuring, despite Ahaz’s defiance, because the child’s name meant God with us. And the sign that would prove to Ahaz that God was with him is in verse 16, that “before the boy Immanuel knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste.” Before the boy is two years old, in other words, God will have solved the problem of the two kings out to ruin Ahaz (verse 1), and Ahaz won’t have to lift a finger. 

Is there anything in this story so far, then, for our governments and leaders today? Well the situation isn’t much different to what Ahaz faced. Powerful people had ganged up to ruin him, take over his country, and put their own leader in charge instead. It was a blatant hit against the Jewish nation’s freedom, much like unelected globalists today, who make no secret of wanting to destroy the free world by demanding compliance with their agendas, and setting up their own leaders instead too. 

If that is indeed what’s happening, then the leaders of the free world are going to need all the help they can get, because the arrogance and lunacy of these globalists knows no bounds. But God makes us a promise too, that when we “pray that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men….the Lord is faithful, and he will strengthen and protect you from the evil one,” 2 Thessalonians 3:2-3. Just like he did Ahaz. 

Christian practice – is it based on habit or conscience?  

As pre-teen schoolboys in an English boarding school back in the 1950’s,  we were marched off every Sunday morning to the local church. It was in those formative years, therefore, that I picked up the basics of Christian practice – the traditions, rituals, format of service, and the day we met on. They became habit for me.

So has my Christian practice since been based on habit too, simply going through the same motions I grew up with, and being quite content with that? Or did those habits then become part of my conscience too – to the point it would be wrong in my mind if I didn’t follow the practices I grew up with? 

In which case, how would I deal with changes in my church, like changes in format, doctrine, tradition, ritual, and even the day we meet on? Habits are hard to change, but they can be changed – but what if those changes become a conscience issue too? Maybe not a conscience issue for others, but definitely a conscience issue for me; so now what do I do? 

Well, Paul wrote in Romans 14:23, that “If you do anything you believe is not right, you are sinning” (New Living Translation) – so following one’s conscience is crucial, isn’t it? Whether my conscience was formed by habit, or not, is not the issue. The issue is, I have a conscience telling me I’m disobeying God if I go along with the changes. So now what do I do?

And what does everyone else do in dealing with me too? Paul says that when a person is “fully convinced in his own mind” that what he’s doing or believing is right in God’s sight, verse 5, and he’s doing them “to the Lord, giving thanks to him,” verse 6, it means  “God has accepted him,” verse 3. But that means we could be stuck as fellow Christians with different and even totally opposite views, so how on earth can we keep the peace between us, or even relate to each other at all?  

Paul’s answer is simple: respect. And he says it in several ways too, like not “passing judgment on each other” (verses 1 and 13), not “looking down” on each other (verses 3 and 10), not “putting any stumbling block or obstacle in our brother’s way” (verse 13), and not “distressing” a fellow Christian by pushing what we believe as “good” and what he believes as “evil” (verse 16), because if that’s what we’re doing we’re “no longer acting in love” (verse 15), and we could even be “destroying the work of God” in a fellow Christian’s life too (verse 20). 

Respect – both ways, of course – means these tricky differences between us can build our love for each other, making us a wonderful example in a world where differences can be so destructive. 

Is “one size fits all” for Christians too?

It was “one size fits all” in the church I attended. We all had to believe the same things, observe the same annual “special days,” pay the same required minimum to the church, and trust whatever the founder of the church said as coming from God himself. 

So red flags popped up quite naturally when we were told by government and medical officials that we should all be vaccinated. All of us? You mean, one size fits all? But what about my medical history? And was there any evidence offered of possible long term effects? It didn’t seem to matter; just ignore all that stuff and follow the science, “THE” science, take note, as if there was only ONE science to follow. And don’t bother with how different your body and its reactions might be to someone else’s, because these novel vaccines are “safe and effective” for everyone. Yup, “one size fits all.”  

So is “one size fits all” how Christianity works too? Should all Christians believe the same list of doctrines, follow the same annual calendar, meet on the same day, keep to the same format for church services, and require the same conditions for church membership? Well, why not? Because then you could travel the world and in any Christian church it would be the same familiar routine. And no worries about what church to attend, or one being better and more accurate than another, because they’d all be the same. Everyone believing the same things, following the same format and rituals, singing the same hymns, sharing the same thoughts on alcohol and eating meat, etc.  

But Paul came up against real humans – you know, the kind that don’t fit into tidy boxes or categories very well. People who believed they should only eat vegetables, for instance, or that only one day a week was sacred, whereas others believed the church could meet on any day, or that some foods are not for human consumption, and alcohol was wrong. 

Now what? Did Paul demand that everyone should get on the same page for everything, and if so, what page was it? Was it his page? Well, to a point it was, because he did express what he believed in Romans 14:14, but three verses later he writes, “For God’s Kingdom is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of fair play, peace, and joy which the Holy Spirit gives. Serve Christ that way and not only does God love it, so do people.” 

That way,” eh? Sounds like there is a one size fits all for Christians after all, then. But it’s not on the same page in every little detail, it’s on the same page in our attitude to each other. That’s the one size Christian way for everyone; it’s the way that takes into consideration each other’s background, conscience and concerns, because let’s be fair, isn’t that what we want from others in their attitude toward us too?     

The trouble with unity by conformity…

Unity by conformity is the belief that if everybody “sings from the same hymn sheet,” we’ll have peace. Many rich globalists, for instance, believe that if we can get everybody driving electric cars (or no cars at all), get everybody on a digital currency, everybody on a social credit score system, everybody vaccinated, everybody on net zero carbon emissions, everybody off fossil fuels, everybody off meat, and there is total control over what everybody does, says, thinks, eats, etc., then everybody will be safe and happy, and the planet won’t die.  

The trouble with forcing such unity by conformity, however, is that it results in protest and sometimes outright revolution. And how can unity by conformity be possible anyway, when we differ so widely because of age, experience, natural gifts, emotions, the culture we live in, and the deep desire to be free to choose? 

To create unity in the real world, then, is going to involve an amazing amount of love, patience, adjusting, reasoning together, and listening without interruption. All very difficult for those who believe that their ideas and opinions come from the gods. 

And Christianity hasn’t helped much on this score either, with each denomination requiring compliance to its own set of beliefs and traditions to create unity. It can get rather heated, therefore, when some in a denomination begin to question their church’s practices and beliefs. Unity can quickly go out the window when conformity is resisted.  

But Scripture, in its usual beautiful, simple way, explains how unity is possible among people with many contrasting views. It’s loving others as we are loved. Or as John put it in 1 John 4:19, “We love because he first loved us.” 

The capacity to love is the key. If I can love people regardless of how different or unloveable they may be, conformity is no longer needed. I’m no longer dependent on similar interests, or a compatible personality to get along. And nor was Jesus when he died for us. He “died for all,” 2 Corinthians 5:15, regardless of what we’re like. But it took his death to convince us of that. So is it a little bit of dying on our part that convinces someone of our love too?   

Like when differences could seriously divide us, “keeping my thoughts between myself and God,” Romans 14:22. A little bit of me may die having to do that for someone, but that’s what Jesus did for us; he died. And the reason he died was that we “no longer live for ourselves” as well, 2 Corinthians 5:15. It’s not unity by conformity, then; it’s unity by dying.