A peep into life in Africa, through the eyes of an African Reformed Baptist pastor.

Water, water, water, everywhere. What else do you expect? I am a Baptist, and I live in the land of the mighty Victoria Falls!

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Redeemed From The Curse Of The Law

“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’” (Galatians 3:13). In this third and final blog post on the subject of the cross of Christ, I want us to take a fresh look at this New Testament passage and see what light it sheds upon the cross of Christ to make us understand it better. What is Paul saying in this passage?

To begin with, we must always understand the death of Christ on our behalf as a form of redemption—a buying back! His death was the payment being made in order to buy us back to God. Sin against God is a debt that must be paid by eternity being spent in hell. It is a debt that we could never pay because all our acts are as filthy rags before God. In other words, they are tainted with sin and only make our debt worse. Someone else needed to make the payment for us—someone who himself did not owe God and his law this debt. There was none good enough in heaven, on earth, or under the earth, except God himself. Thus the Bible records that “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). Jesus alone was good enough to pay the debt and redeem us. As one famous chorus used to say,
      “He paid a debt he did not owe; I owed a debt I could not pay,
      I needed someone to wash my sins away;
      And now I sing a brand new song, ‘Amazing grace!’
      Christ Jesus paid the debt that I could never pay.”
And, what a price was paid for us—not that of an ordinary human being, nor that of an angel, but that of the very Son of God. Priceless! This is the value that God has placed upon your soul—the life of his own dear Son. Is this the value that you have placed on your own soul?

We also need to understand what Christ has redeemed us from. Many people look at the cross as though Christ was paying to the devil in order to set us free from his bondage. That is very far from the truth! According to this passage, Christ redeemed us—bought us back—from the curse of the law. What does that mean?

To understand this we must first understand what a curse is. Let me give you my own “working definition” of a curse—nothing like what you would find in the Oxford and Webster’s Dictionary! A curse is a form of miserable and painful bondage that you are trapped in. You try to come out of it but you cannot. We often look at a person who has tried to maintain a happy marriage but totally failed and is now in his fifth or sixth marriage and we say, “He is cursed.” A man who has tried his utmost to get the best crop out of a piece of land by putting in the best fertilizer and using the most skilled manpower but made a loss each year will say, “This land is cursed.” (Though most likely his neighbours will say that he is cursed). In each case, the individual is unhappy and feeling frustrated because he is trying to change his circumstances for the better and completely failing. He seems destined to fail!

That is the curse that God has placed upon the human race after Adam sinned against him in the Garden of Eden. You will recall the words of God to Adam in Genesis 3:17-19. This is the miserable and painful bondage in which we are trapped by the curse of the law. The ultimate frustration is not even the physical death referred to in this passage, but the eternal death in the Lake of Fire that is taught very clearly towards the end of the Bible.

A curse is the opposite of a blessing, which is a state of happiness that you do not want to come out of. That is what Jesus came to bring to us—the state of being blessed. He came to reverse that curse and instead turn our future into a blessing—a state of happiness that we would not want to come out of.

But how exactly did Christ redeem us from the curse of law? This is what Paul ends with in the text we are examining. He says that Jesus Christ achieved this by becoming a curse for us. That is a very strange way of putting his thoughts across—“becoming a curse for us.” What does he mean by that?

Paul does not mean that Christ became yet another source of misery and pain for us as human beings. Rather by “becoming a curse for us” Paul means that he suffered the curse of the law for us. Unless you understand the death of Christ that way, you have not understood what transpired on that cross when Jesus Christ hang there and died.

When Jesus Christ went to the cross he went to suffer and die for sin. He told his disciples over and over again that “he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matthew 16:21). Yet, death had no claim on him because he was totally righteous from birth, and so the only explanation of Christ’s suffering and death was that it was done in the place of others. In other words, he suffered and died as our substitute.

The apostle Paul explains this great substitution in this way: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). In other words, God transferred the guilt of our sin to the account of his eternal Son and punished him just as if he was the one who had committed all our atrocities. Thankfully, Jesus did it in such a way that God the Father was fully satisfied. Hence, three days after he died, the grave could not hold him any longer and he rose from the dead. The full price had been paid.

Isn’t it amazing that all this was foretold in the Old Testament to the minutest detail of Christ’s suffering and death. The apostle constantly went to these documents to show that this was no afterthought on the part of God. He had foretold this many centuries earlier. “For it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’” Jesus die not die from a disease. He was not starved to death. He was not wounded by a spear or an arrow. He was crucified just as God had foretold. He is, therefore, the long-expected Messiah who was coming to deliver his people from their sins.

If the Jews had read their Bible carefully, they would have seen testimonies that the Messiah was coming to die and through his dying in their place he was going to save them. Yet, this message is not for Jews only. If you trust in Jesus Christ and his finished work on the cross, you too are able to experience freedom from the curse of the law. You too will experience the blessing of Abraham, which flows to the Gentiles as well through the Holy Spirit.

Have you come to Christ for salvation yet, trusting solely on his finished work of redemption on the cross? Never try to please God by obeying the law, because that is a dead end. If you try that route, you will only go to hell. Stop trying and start trusting. Trust in the suffering, substitution and satisfaction of Christ. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’”

Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Cross—God’s Final Vindication

In my blog post yesterday, I introduced my three part series on the cross by saying that the cross being Christianity’s chief symbol is an enigma. This is because Christianity is a religion of love, joy and peace, while the cross is a symbol of cruelty, sadness and death. Why did our spiritual forefathers, then, take this symbol and make it our chief symbol? In yesterday’s blog post, we tried to imagine a cross-less Christianity and it was a total disaster. We need the cross! In this second post, we move on to see the cross as God’s final vindication.

We often think of the death of Jesus Christ on the cross in terms of what that did for those of us who believe in him. We know that it is only in “Christ and him crucified” that we have the forgiveness of sin. And that is true! However, the ultimate triumph of the cross is not so much the fact that it will get us to heaven but rather the fact that it will bring glory to God. This is what makes the cross shine with the brilliance of the noon day sun. It sets forth God as God!

This is what the apostle Paul handles in Romans 3:25-26 when he writes concerning the death of Christ on the cross and says, “This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (ESV).

What Paul is saying in Romans 3:25-26 is that before Christ died on the cross, the character of God was held in question. Why? Because “he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished.” While this paid glowing tribute to God’s forbearance, it put a big question mark on his justice. It resulted in an apparent split personality in God because he is both loving and holy, and both gracious and just. Yet, up to this time when Jesus Christ was crucified on the cross it looked as if God had been compromising his holiness and justice for the sake of his love and grace. Is this really the kind of God who sits on the throne of the universe?

Imagine the sinners that have trooped into heaven. Think of Moses with his bad temper, David who was both an adulterer and a murderer, Solomon who was led astray by marrying so many strange women, and the list goes on. All these are in heaven, despite their glaring sins. Surely you cannot say that the blood of bulls and goats wiped away their sins, can you? You try that with your law courts once they find you guilty of a crime that warrants your imprisonment. Offer an animal to be imprisoned—or even killed—in your place. That will be an insult to your entire judicial system. God was not indifferent to the questions his grace and mercy towards sinners were raising about his integrity. How was he to solve it?

What Paul is saying in Romans 3:25-26 is that the cross of Christ is the answer. Calvary proves the justice of God. Or to borrow Paul’s words, “It was to show his righteousness at the present time”. Now that Calvary has occurred, God’s justice cannot be questioned any more. How? Let me proceed to answer this all-important question.

If there was ever a time when God should have compromised his justice it was when his own Son, Jesus Christ, who was utterly holy and blameless, took on himself our liability. Death is the wages of sin (Romans 6:23). We die because we are born sinners and we grow up sinning. Yet that could never be said of Jesus of Nazareth. He was born sinless (Luke 1:35).

Jesus also lived a totally sinless life. Again and again during the public ministry when Jesus had lived about thirty years on earth, God said of him, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17, 17:5). The thrice-holy God was pleased with his life! Even prior to his being betrayed and sentenced to die, Jesus could look his accusers in the face and say, “You are of your father the devil and your will is to do your father’s desires.... Which one of you convicts me of sin?” (John 8:44-46). They were all silent because they knew of no sin that they could charge him with. He was totally sinless and yet he paid the wages of sin.

The answer is found in the words of Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin”. This was the perfect test that would have made God change his mind about punishing sin. Here was God’s own innocent Son being identified with sins he did not commit. Shouldn’t God bend his justice a little and let his Son go free? He did not! Since true justice is blind, the moment God’s own Son was identified with our sin God did not hesitate to bring upon him suffering, shame, sorrow, desertion and even death. The Bible says, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all” (Romans 8:32, ESV).

Can anything prove more than this that God must punish sin? Here is the darling of God, who himself had never ever sinned. Yet, when he is identified with sin, the Father takes his sword of justice out of its sheath and plunges it into the side of his only begotten and beloved Son. All heaven must be silenced as the Son of God expires in death. All silent murmuring is stilled, and God is worshipped as the truly just One.

But what Paul is saying in Romans 3:25-26 is that Calvary not only proves the justice of God but it also displays his wisdom. He says, “so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” The question across history was: How could God remain just and at the same time declare sinners innocent? Humanly speaking, that is impossible.

How could God remain just and at the same time declare sinners innocent? The answer is found in the cross of Christ. Calvary displayed God’s infinite wisdom to the angels in heaven and to humanity on earth because on it God managed the impossible. He was just and at the same time he could justify sinners. On Calvary, “love and faithfulness meet together; righteousness and peace kiss each other” (Psalm 85:10). This was done when God provided a substitute in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ. As we noted earlier from 2 Corinthians 5:21, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Christ’s death on the cross was a substitutionary atonement!

The value of the death of the Son of God was sufficient to redeem a million worlds – if that were necessary. We “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3:24-25). The word propitiation refers to a sacrifice made to turn aside wrath. That is what Jesus did on the cross. Thus his wrath and justice were satisfied completely, while at the same time, any sinner who comes to God on the basis of this finished work of Christ on the cross will not only be pardoned but will also be declared righteous for all eternity.

No wonder Paul cried, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counsellor?’ ‘Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?’ For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:33-36)!

Friday, March 29, 2013

What If Jesus Christ Had Not Died

I got a gentle rebuke today from a couple in our church who are ardent followers of this blog. They asked me, "So, are we having any message from our pastor for Easter?" I told them that I would be preaching on Sunday. "No," they said, "on the blog!" I tried to assure them that I was working on something else, but they would not take anything other than something related to Easter. As I drove back home I thought they were right. Why would I want to talk about anything else when the whole world was thinking about the death and resurrection of our Lord? So, I have decided to post three daily articles that I wrote in 2010 for the Evangelical Action, a magazine of the Evangelical Ministries Trust of Australia. Here is the first one!

* * * * *
Every religion and great movement in history has had its symbol by which it has been easily identified. Islam has its crescent and star. Communism has its hammer and sickle. Nazism has its swastika. Christianity is no exception. Though in the early years Christians under persecution used the symbol of a fish to identify themselves to one another, it was not long before the cross took over as the chief symbol of Christianity. The cross became the chief symbol of Christianity simply because of the special place that “Christ and him crucified” has had in the hearts of Christians.

What is utterly amazing, however, is that the cross was the worst form of punishment ever invented by human cruelty. Here is a religion whose chief virtue is love. How does it take this most cruel form of punishment and use it as its chief symbol? The place of the skull was a killing field. How could any religion of love pride itself in such a place? It is this enigma that I hope to address.

It must be obvious to all of us that from a worldly point of view, Jesus should have come down from the cross to confound his enemies. Look at the taunting and scoffing that he had to endure. The Bible says, “Those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, ‘You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross’” (Matt 27:39-40, see also 27:41-44).

Why did he not come down from the cross and confound his enemies? After all he was the Son of God. He had the power to remove those nails from his hands and feet—Superman style—and beat all his enemies to a pulp. Why allow these evil men to take him to an early grave if he could help it? One imagines that if he had done so he could have drawn quite a following. That is what movies are made of. Hollywood draws millions of fans from across the world because of similar plots. Just when the enemies of the main actor think they have defeated him, then he returns and wins a resounding victory.

Hence, it looks like a good idea. Imagine how many people would have talked about the way Jesus surprised all his enemies by doing what no one had done before—climbing down from the cross and destroying all his enemies. Perhaps that is your thinking too. You read the account around the crucifixion of Christ and say to yourself, “What a wasted opportunity!” Since he is God’s Son, he should have used the opportunity to teach his enemies a lesson they would never forget.

Anyone who thinks that Jesus should have come off that cross and destroyed his enemies has not diagnosed the human problem correctly. Jesus did not merely come to gain a following. He came to cure us of sin. I ask: How would his coming down from the cross cure all these ills?
Isn’t this the mistake politicians make? They rise to the throne on the wave of popular opinion, but fail to see that the chief enemy of their nation is not the other leaders but sin in human hearts. Hence, no sooner are they in office than they find that their nations are the exact opposite of the ideals they propagate or their followers soon discover that even those who are on the throne are selfish, greedy and evil. Then they start agitating for yet another regime change. The problem is not the people leading the nation. It is all of us. Our hearts are deceitful and desperately wicked (Jeremiah 17:9).
In Africa, we were convinced that the colonialists were the cause of all our misery. We chased them out of our land, and voted in our own African messiahs. Well, we soon discovered that they were equally selfish. Our African leaders have since plundered our national economies and stashed their ill-gotten wealth in American and European banks. By today, there is nothing but disillusionment all around us.

The biblical diagnosis is that the human problem is due to sin in the heart, and the wrath of God against sin. This is what the apostle Paul wrote to the Romans (1:18-20). Paul makes it clear there that our failure to worship God is not due to a lack of knowledge but a suppression of this knowledge by men whose hearts are sinful. And the result of it is that God is angry. So, I repeat, the human problem is sin in the heart and the wrath of God against sin. This is the only viable explanation of our world today.

God’s wrath is being revealed by him leaving the human heart to wreck havoc. It is as if God is saying, “You do not want to acknowledge me. Fine, I will let your hearts go all the way down the sewer.” This is an aspect of God’s wrath that we so often overlook. It is represented in the phrase “God gave them over” (1:24, 26, 28). The sinful human heart has taken humanity into sexual immorality, homosexuality, and all the other vices that we see everywhere (see Romans 1:29-32).

This is the biblical diagnosis of our world’s ills. Any other diagnosis is too artificial to bring us to the right medication. Mere Superman-feats cannot heal such a disease. Orators cannot cure this disease. It needs an act of God. This is what the cross was meant to achieve—and indeed achieved.

We are now ready to get back to the cross. Why did Jesus not come down when everyone was taunting him and challenging him to do so? It was because he knew that unless human hearts are cured of sin, the same people who would follow him today would turn against him tomorrow. It would be for purely selfish reasons that they would follow him. He had to find a cure for the hearts of men and women which were deceitful and desperately wicked, and that cure was with God.

Thus, Jesus remained on the cross because his primary focus was to pay the price for sin and thus reconcile God to us. The Bible says, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,  and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:23-24). On the cross, Jesus was buying us back to God. He was satisfying the demands of justice so that the God who is against us can—by grace—become a God who is for us. Thus, with this change, God could then give his Holy Spirit to Jesus Christ upon his ascension to heaven. And it would be this Holy Spirit who would change our hearts so that we would stop being lovers of self and sin, and instead become lovers of God and holiness. That was why Jesus stayed on the cross until he breathed his last and died.

Do you see why the cross is so precious to Christians, despite its cruelty and ugliness? Do you see why it has become the chief symbol of our religion? It is because through the death of Christ our sins have been paid for, the wrath of God has been appeased, and the Holy Spirit has been sent into the world to change our stubborn hearts. Thank God, Jesus never listened to the people who were taunting him. Thank God he never came down from the cross. Thank God he remained focused on the real issue.

(Look out for PART TWO tomorrow!)

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Nonsense Of Spirit Husbands And Wives

There are some things that are just unbelievable when you first hear about them. But then the greatest shock comes when you discover that almost everyone around you believes that those things are true. This is the shock I got when I recently heard about the concept of spiritual husbands (sometimes called spirit husbands or night husbands) and spiritual wives.

My wife and I were driving from visiting a home in the evening when I turned on the car radio and tuned to a local radio station. There was a preacher speaking on a live radio programme. He was evidently campaigning for an overnight prayer meeting that was scheduled to take place at his church the next day.

What I found absurd was that his panacea for everyone who called in was, “Come to the overnight prayer meeting tomorrow and receive your deliverance.” However, as absurd as this was, it was not the most shocking. It was when he began to tell all the women who were calling in to share their marital problems that they had spiritual husbands who were behind their domestic woes. I had never heard of this and thought the guy was just crazy.

Well, I am the one who was in for a shock. The following day, while talking to some theological students from our densely populated townships in Lusaka, they were surprised that I had never heard about this phenomenon. It was common talk where they lived and ministered. So, they took time to explain it to me.

The belief is that when your marriage is breaking up due to a husband who seems to have lost interest in you, or you have serious gynaecological problems, or you are having miscarriages, then it is because you have a spirit called a spiritual husband causing all this in the spiritual realm. It is also the case if you are getting on in years and no man is seriously approaching you for marriage. It means you have a spiritual husband blocking other men. You need deliverance in order to have a wholesome marriage or for your body to function normally.

Usually, the diagnosis involves being asked about your dreams. If you have either seen yourself swimming (for the most stubborn ones are marine spirits), or missing your menstrual period, or becoming pregnant, or breastfeeding, or vomiting, or going shopping or having sex with a man who is not your husband, or having a miscarriage, or getting married, or about to get killed in a dream, then this is sure evidence that a spiritual husband has entered into your life. You need deliverance. If the “man of God” tells you that you are having dreams in which you are having sex with someone and you deny it, he then tells you that your spiritual husband wipes it off your memory through demonic manipulation.

As usual, there are many benighted souls who are ready to testify that they went for such deliverance meetings where the “man of God” prayed for them to be delivered from their spiritual husbands and since then their dreams have returned to normal and their marriages are supposedly back on track. For those who were not being proposed, after the deliverance sessions they have found spouses and are now married and are living happily ever after! Sadly, there are many, many more whose marriages would have been salvaged if they had gone through proper Christian marriage counselling. These are the ones who suffer quietly and are told that they lacked faith or they did not have a breakthrough.

Of course, this teaching is gender neutral. Men having marital problems are also being taught about spiritual wives who are affecting their marriages. The only difference is that often it is women who fall prey to such nonsense—as was the case that evening when so many of them called during that live radio programme that my wife and I listened to as we drove home.

What shall I call this teaching about spiritual husbands (and wives), which is in vogue today here in Africa? It is nonsense! Here are at least four reasons why:

1. All this is not in the Bible. We have gone right back to the dark ages where we believe everything that “priests” say without checking it with what the Bible says. As in the dark ages, stories doing their rounds are becoming larger than life. Spiritual husbands are changing shape and showing up in all kinds of places at night. Even when these false teachers use the Bible, they wrest it out of its context. One such teacher used Matthew 13:25, which says, “But while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away,” to teach that spiritual husbands come at night to sleep with women!

2. There is a superstitious view of dreams that is totally unhealthy. If I am lusting after someone I am likely to dream romantically about him or her. If I am having problems to conceive, I am likely to dream that one day I am pregnant. If I am longing for a job, I am likely to dream that one day I land myself the job of my dreams. If I have longed to meet President Obama, I am likely to dream that I am having a meal with him and his wife, Michelle, at the White House. It is sheer common sense. Dreams simply live out the wishes and fears of our lives.

3. There is a failure to handle moral issues the way the Bible handles them. Those involved in sexual sin are being told that the blame is on spiritual husbands or wives and all they need is deliverance. Responsibility is shifted from them to some powerful forces. The Bible calls people guilty of sin to repentance, urging them to find forgiveness from God through faith in Christ. Many of these women (and the men!) being counselled to be delivered from spiritual husbands (and wives) are unregenerate. They need to be saved by the power of the gospel. Yet, there is no effort to show them that it is sin in their lives that is destroying their marriages. If the Lord were to save them, he would give them a new power to enable them to joyfully live in honour of their marriage vows and obligations.

4. There is a failure to counsel people with biblical principles of marriage. Women who were calling in to that radio programme, talking about constant fights with their husbands, were not being asked whether they were observing the biblical blueprint for healthy marriage relationships. Husbands ought to love their wives as Christ loved the church. Wives ought to submit to their husbands as the church submits to Christ. No, the “man of God” would go straight into telling the women that they had spiritual husbands and needed deliverance.

Let me say it again, this teaching about spiritual husbands and wives is sheer nonsense! It is yet another lie of the devil that is being peddled by deluded souls masquerading as spiritual teachers and preachers. They are blind and they are leading others who are blind into spiritual and moral ditches. Any teaching that is not based squarely on the Bible is not worth listening to. It is nonsense!

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

In Zambia Your Arrival Is Your Departure!

This is not my usual blog material. And, having been absent from my blog for quite a few weeks now, I ought to have done better. However, I cannot help but write on this issue.

Some things are downright embarrassing, and they embarrass an entire nation. Three out of every four times when I'm flying out of Zambia, the immigration forms are entry forms, and when I'm returning home the immigration forms in the arrival hall are exit forms. Am I to understand that no one in the entire Ministry of Home Affairs knows that entry means coming in and exit means going out?

Okay, let us assume that three out of every four times, the ministry runs out of exit forms just when I'm leaving and then also runs out of entry forms just when I'm coming back. Queer coincidence? I know. But let us grant it to them. You need to give a guy a chance even if it’s a dumb excuse. Here is my question: Doesn't the entire Ministry of Home Affairs have the courtesy to put up an explanation and an apology so that visitors know that they have run out of the correct forms? There is no such notice anywhere on the tables.

Every so often a worried international visitor in the arrivals hall makes his way through many exit forms and in despair walks up to me, asking, "Excuse me sir, is that an entry form you have in your hands? Where can I find them? I seem to be seeing exit forms only." I always smile back and give an assuring answer, "Those are the right forms. In Zambia, your entry is an exit, your arrival is your departure. You are exiting the civilised world." And when the visitor looks at me with a perplexed look on his face, I conclude by saying, "Welcome to Zambia--The Real Africa!" and show him my filled-in exit form.

If any of you have friends working for the Zambian department of immigration, or for the Zambian Ministry of Home Affairs, please feel free to show this to them. If they need help, when I return, I can come and show them how to print a simple A4-size polite notice and apology, which they can put out on the tables whenever they run out of the right forms. And if His Excellency the President, Michael Chilufya Sata, can pass one of his frequent presidential directives, that the Minister of Finance gives me some tax relief for this kind favour, I can even laminate the notices for the Government of the Republic of Zambia. Batusebululeko insoni, mwebantu! [Let them save us from embarrassment, you people!]