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Monday, February 15, 2016

Life and Godliness

To whom much was given ...
What is really necessary to please God?

I’m not thinking of salvation here but of service.

The fundamental “work” God requires is “to believe in him whom he has sent”. Faith is foundational to pleasing God, but the faith that pleases God has always historically manifested itself in works. It can be no other way. Leaving aside the thief on the cross, it is pretty clear that love displays itself in obedience.

So faith precedes all works that matter to God, of course.

But what information is required about God in order to please him? Initially we must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him, or we would never bother in the first place. But beyond that, what?

Much Will Be Required

In our day, pleasing God may involve a great deal more than it involved for the ancients: “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more”. The Lord spoke the lesson of that particular parable to all, but Peter seems to have correctly discerned that it was specifically applicable to those who were committed to following the Christ, who counted themselves his servants.

Those who know more are responsible to live more obediently. So we who have an entire Bible before us in our own language — in multiple translations, available so inexpensively that many of us own 20 or more, along with study aids unparalleled in history and access to language expertise that the ancients could never even dream of — are most responsible of all.

If in fact the apostle Peter was correct that “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence”, then today we are certainly set — at least as far as information goes. The knowledge base of the modern believer has never been more substantial.

How Much Knowledge?

And yet there existed men who pleased God long before the entire Bible was written. A couple of posts back, I mentioned the adequacy of an incomplete translation for the purposes of “life and godliness”, and I believe that statement is defensible. Bob Seidensticker fusses that in our day we may be unable to perfectly reconstruct the Greek originals of the New Testament. But a moment’s thought should tell us that word-for-word reconstruction, while desirable, is far from a necessity for believers.

We must understand that Peter was not referring to having comprehensive knowledge.

After all, if the chronologies constructed by Bible historians are even close to correct, when Peter wrote of having “all things” that pertain to life and godliness through our knowledge of Christ, he didn’t have comprehensive knowledge either. At that point, Peter himself could not have yet read the gospels of Matthew and John, the book of Jude, John’s epistles, Hebrews or Revelation. That’s assuming that he had been able to keep up to date with all of Paul’s letters, of which we have no guarantee. He almost surely was not carrying copies of these letters around with him. More importantly, Peter assured his readers they already had everything they needed for life and godliness at a time when they likely had even less of the New Testament than Peter had.

No, comprehensive knowledge of Christ is not what’s necessary to please God.

Combined With Faith

I believe what’s really necessary is that we receive with faith whatever knowledge we have been given in our day and act on it.

Think about Abel. What did he know? There was no law, let alone a Bible, in Abel’s day. How could he have possibly known the importance of bringing “the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions” in speaking figuratively of the atoning death of Jesus Christ that would not take place for millennia? Was it spiritual instinct? Oral tradition? And yet we read that:
“By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts.”
I would say Abel had all things that pertain to life and godliness through his knowledge of the One who called him. Shadowy knowledge. Imperfect knowledge. Maybe even instinctive knowledge. But he had enough. His faith responded to the information he was given, and “he was commended as righteous”.

Short version, he pleased God.

In A Mirror Dimly

In fact, throughout most of human history, knowledge of Christ has been terribly incomplete, even among those who served him. Noah didn’t have the law when he built the ark. Abraham didn’t see three crosses on a hillside when he took Isaac up Moriah to sacrifice him, but somehow his faith anticipated resurrection: “Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.”

Mind boggling!

I trust the scholarly reconstruction of our Greek New Testament more than any other historical document, not just because I am a Christian who believes in providence but because even secular historians acknowledge these manuscripts to be the best preserved of any ancient documents. If we cannot rely on the accurate transmission of scripture, then we cannot rely on any ancient record. History is effectively a blank and we have no means of understanding it.

But even if it were to be demonstrated that there are some minor deficiencies in the transmission of the Greek New Testament, it is a non-issue for the Christian. Faith responds to the information it has, not the information it doesn’t. And it would seem not all that much information is actually required. So show me which bits you say don’t count, if you can, secular scholars: I’m happy to believe the bits that do.

Pleasing God has much more to do with HOW we receive truth than with HOW MUCH truth has been revealed to us.

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