One of my favorite concepts in the Bible is found in this little snippet of James, “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours” (5:17a, ESV). The KJV expresses the words “nature like ours” as meaning he was “subject to like passions as we are.” The context is prayer, saying that if a man like Elijah prayed to God and the history of the world was forever affected, so anyone else can pray to God and see His power transform. The ability, power, and glory belong not to us, but to God, whereas ours is to believe, ask, and await His answer.
I don’t like going to funerals, I suppose you, having a “nature like [mine]”, aren’t too fond of them either. Funerals are melancholy and saddening for most, while for some they are a flat-out bore. Yet they are always, in one form or another, a hypocrisy, a slap to the face of truth, and I refer not to the dead, but to the words spoken of the dead. “Friends”, neighbors, and the local mailman show up to share their “condolences”, coming out of the woodwork to speak so gloriously of the dead, you might think they were the second coming of Mother Teresa.
I remember on various occasions going to funerals in Bolivia and sitting through long speeches, watching tears roll from the eyes of friends and family of the dead, and anxiously wondering when I could go home. Sometimes I had no idea who the person was, so I asked my parents. On a couple occasions I was given a detailed life story that did not in the least match-up to the words of those speaking. Here was a “true saint”, “a lover of humanity”, “an honest father”, to be forever remembered and esteemed as a shining light in a darkening world. Surely he was now sitting next to the Father’s side, watching them from above, lovingly helping them cope with their unending grief. At least that is what I heard blasting through the microphones, as it intermingled with sobs and wailing cries. But it was all for show, it was all a lie. I remember asking my parents and hearing the truth, that in many cases the dead had been a terror in life, a drunk, an adulterer, or worse. Is there a greater irony to be had? Does death truly wipe-away all the evil done in life? What is it about death that they are now allowed to be forgiven all of their errors?
I would comment the following, not wishing to offend but rather to be honest, that we see the dead as we wish others would see us in life. We strive so hard for so much of our life to cover-up our errors, deficiencies, and sins, yet we cannot cover the eyes of God. How terribly hypocritical it is for us to speak so eloquently of the dead body – a moribund body filled with chemicals and lathered with make-up and dressed in their Sunday best. Forgive me for being so graphic, but the lessons to be learned here useful and Biblical.
There are no “good” humans, we are all lost, sinful, and despicable before our truly righteous and perfect God. Jonathan Edwards rightly stated in his sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God:
“The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath toward you burns like fire.”
The answer to Edwards’ claim can only be found in God forgiving us in Christ, yet even as Christians we are not to be released from such a reality either. We may be positionally perfect before God because of Christ covering our sins with His perfection through the cross, but we are still totally depraved, practically speaking. Now, the concept of being “totally depraved” has been terribly misunderstood and misused by Calvinism and its bitter enemies. The source of the idea is a Biblical one, while the definition belongs to Augustine of Hippo, the Christian worlds’ finest and most original Theologian after Paul, if you ask me. To be “totally depraved”, according to Augustine, means that every part of us has been corrupted by the sin that still resides in us (see: Rom. 7:14-25). Imagine you are on your way out the door to work, when you spill some coffee on your new, white dress shirt. That shirt has become unusable, and you have to change it for a another one, throwing the stained one into the hamper. Has the shirt been totally immersed in the coffee? Of course not, for it was just a stain. But has the shirt become corrupted by the stain and thus become unusable for the purpose at hand (going to work)? Yes.
All mankind has been corrupted in every part by sin: body, soul, and spirit. This means we are totally depraved, having become unacceptable to God because He demands perfection, not partial perfection. The unsaved and the saved still remain in this condition, that is why the unsaved can do something seen as good, even if it is always stained by a sinful reason. God abhors the sinner because of the sin in him and in his deeds, just as you would utterly reject a chocolate cake partially contaminated by some dog poop.
I was a sinner before coming to Christ, and I still am one, practically speaking. My sins – past, present, and future – have been covered by the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ, and that is my greatest joy! I find such delight in the fact that God loves me, and wants to use me even as I am – a great sinner being transformed by grace.
It was Augustine that said: “The Church is not a cathedral for saints, but a hospital for sinners“. This is perhaps one of my favorite quotes and is an excellent concept. So often our churches are legalistic, finger-pointing, and full of hypocritical cover-ups of our deficiencies. We must admit our past sins, repent of our present sins, and trust in Christ to cover these and those to come. Grace must be our theme, transparency our resolution, and joy in being God’s child our driving force. Well did Augustine state our reality:
“There is no saint without a past, no sinner without a future.“
Last week I taught 20 hours of Church History to some 40 students (college-age students and church leaders) in a matter of 4 days. It is one of my greatest joys to be able to teach this course, and my passion is not to get caught-up in names and dates, but in the lives of the great men & women of God. The applications and warnings taken from here are literally innumerable. While I do speak of the honorable things in their lives, I make a strong point to always emphasize their great failings and sins. Why?
1. Because Scripture, especially in the Old Testament, stresses the sins of all of God’s servants. Noah the drunkard, Abraham the liar, Samson the lusting and self-trusting, David the adulterer and murderer, Peter the loudmouth hypocrite, and so on.
2. Because “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours”. He was weak, afraid, and with a wavering faith. Great men of God are great sinners dependent on His grace (their “righteousness” dependent on their faith in God forgiving them), not in their own strength.
3. Because Church History is a timeline of great things done for God by unworthy, weak, and broken sinners saved by grace.
Many people like to remember the best in the lives of the dead, but Christians aren’t allowed to that. We must remember to learn from the virtues of great men and women of God, but take heed of their shortcomings. I purposely look for the weaknesses in order to make them teaching points for my life and that of others. Let’s try it with a few of the most outstanding names in Church History:
Augustine – He almost seemed to idolize his mother and many have questioned if it played a part in the the worship of the saints and the later errors in Mary’s place in the Catholic Church. He was critical of the Jewish people (like those of his time) and believed the Church had received the eternal promises that were specifically for them alone. Augustine taught that sex was only for procreation (he taught this because of his earlier excesses outside of marriage), himself believing that the church leader had to be single, causing untold harm for the next millennium; although he wasn’t the originator of such an idea (comes from ancient Greek religions). He also believed in the baptism of children, whereas the Catholic Church teaches that Original Sin (a concept created by Augustine but misinterpreted by the Catholics) can be covered by infant baptism – this became a part of the works-based salvation taught in the 7 Sacraments.
Martin Luther – The great reformer wrote hatefully about both Jews and Anabaptists. The hatred towards the Anabaptists is especially worrisome, as they sought-out to reform the Reformers, following the concept that “if the Bible teaches it, we will do it; if the Bible doesn’t teach it, we don’t do it” (The “Regulatory Principle” of U. Zwingli, a truth he himself did not fully practice). Many Anabaptists died under his watchful eye. Luther did not work to separate the Church from the State, killing many in the name of the church, including thousands of peasants. He did not leave the Catholic practice of infant baptism nor much of the liturgy therein.
John Wesley – He excommunicated a man and a woman from his church because the woman had rejected his marriage proposal out of love for the other man. When he did marry, he put ministry above marriage, letting her return home when she couldn’t keep-up with his relentless ministry, only returning to seek reconciliation some two-decades later to find her dead (the story has been told in many ways, but the reality is just as damning to him). John openly criticized his good friend George Whitefield, printing a periodical the Armenian to criticize Calvinism and specifically his friend Whitefield (to his credit, Whitefield only returned friendship and reconciliation). He thus divided countless Christians over a secondary doctrine, a terrible and oft-repeated error.
George Whitefield – Wrote to a Christian father about his desire to marry his daughter, saying he had no physical attraction for his daughter. While it sounded so spiritual in his phrasing, the wise father rejected the proposal, for God created chemistry, and as my dad always says: “if you can’t kiss her, you can’t marry her”. George later married, but left his wife in England and traveled extensively and unceasingly, being to all the famous “man of God” in public, but a utter failure in the his marriage, – a ministry that should-have taken priority over his ministry. It is said that some of the most well-known Christian public figures have been driven to be respected thus, because they are not deserving of respect at home. George’s wife, as a consequence, had little good to say about her husband for this betrayal and defiling of a God-made marriage (“they shall become one” and “love her as Christ loved the church…”).
John N. Darby – Excommunicated a young man from his church for fear of him eventually taking his spot as the only true church leader (he blamed it on another matter, but it was clearly just an excuse to get his wish). In his old age he became the “pope” of his church, excommunicating countless saints and churches, and creating the blueprint for the legalistic and dying “closed brethren”. He excommunicated George Muller and his church for accepting the young man, stating that unity was based on “the absence of evil”, meaning that if they did not agree with him on every point, they could not be called Christians along with him. John died as the sole head of his church, whereas church decisions were based solely on “what does brother Darby say?” A terrible end to a great life, something so often seen in church leaders who are unwilling to share power for the good of the Gospel.
These are all true “men of God”, men I admire and look up to for many things, whom He used extensively to preach, teach, and spread-abroad His Word. These are all truly great sinners, used by God not because of their greatness, but because of their brokenness, weakness, and dependence on grace. These men serve as examples, beacons of hope for change, yet also as warnings against a variety of pitfalls, theological errors, and sins. These were all men, just men, empowered by God to do great things. So can we be called and used, just as we are, for the power to change comes not from us, but from Him. The question is if we are willing to be used, if we are willing to be changed.
May this be our lesson to the wise.