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Occasional Letters - The Dangers of Dating

D Newell, Glasgow

Please don’t be misled by the title, which is merely a shameless attention-grabber. I have no intention of going outside my very limited experience and offering advice on what they used to call in days gone by "affairs of the heart". No, I want to consider three areas where we have to learn to resist the temptation to dogmatize.

My first example is dating a commitment, that unavoidable business of making plans. We all do it. Yet in a fallen world human purposes at best are contingent and provisional. Even Paul had to discover that his intentions, though prayerfully considered with the good of the Corinthians in mind, had to be open to revision in the light of further information. His second letter to that awkward company of saints, amongst whom were some all too keen to find fault with him, includes an explanation of a recent change of itinerary: "I was minded to come unto you before, that ye might have a second benefit; And to pass by you into Macedonia, and to come again out of Macedonia unto you, and of you to be brought on my way toward Judaea. When I therefore was thus minded, did I use lightness? or the things that I purpose, do I purpose according to the flesh, that with me there should be yea yea, and nay nay?" (2 Cor 1.15-17). Paul had originally proposed to visit Corinth en route to Macedonia, calling there again on his return trip so that they would have a double blessing. But this he did not do. And some immediately accused him of unreliability. His answer is interesting. A common interpretation of v.17 sees it as a simple denial of inconsistency, so that the question "did I use lightness?" is amplified in the following expression, "that with me there should be yea yea, and nay nay". The meaning, in A T Robertson’s words, is that Paul was "not a Yes and No man, saying Yes and meaning or acting No". That makes good sense. But I prefer an older explanation offered in the always informative Jamieson, Fausset and Brown Commentary, which gives due weight to the contrasting word "or". The verse then means, "Did I act with levity, or (on the other hand) do I purpose what I purpose like worldly (fleshly) men, so that my ‘yea’ must at all costs be yea, and my ‘nay’ nay?" In his decision making Paul was neither shallow, always dithering, nor was he stubborn, inflexibly wedded to his purpose even though wisdom urged modification. Pigheadedness is no improvement on pusillanimity. At the close of the chapter he reveals his good reason for delay: "to spare you I came not as yet unto Corinth" (2 Cor 1.23). News of the unhappy state of the assembly had caused him to amend his programme in order to give the saints an opportunity to put matters right before he arrived.

There is a practical lesson for us. All our plans, however laudable, are subject to the Lord’s overruling. Therefore we "ought to say, If the Lord will, we shall live, and do this, or that" (Jas 4.15). That is why Paul had added "if the Lord permit" (1 Cor 16.7) to his original proposal. Second thoughts may sometimes be better thoughts, and altered circumstances may sanction a change of mind. Indeed, our sovereign God reserves the right to intervene as and when it pleases Him, which He will do conclusively when Christ snatches us away from this world to be with Himself for ever. The Rapture will automatically cancel all our arrangements, be they good or bad. Our duty is to be ready for His coming.

That leads on smoothly to my second example: the attraction of dating His coming. Some readers may object to the likelihood of anyone raised in a New Testament assembly falling into this trap. Surely date-fixing has always been fenced off as a no-go area? Nevertheless, as the year 2000 approached, I recall hearing some rather fanciful conjectures about its possible prophetic significance, presumably based on the old septa-millennial theory, which infers from the six days of creation six millennia of earth history leading up to the Kingdom age. Interesting, doubtless, but without Scriptural support and therefore best avoided.

Again, in my youth it was not uncommon to hear prophecy experts speculate on the identity of the Antichrist. Henry Kissinger (an American envoy of the 1970s who jetted around the world as a kind of presidential troubleshooter) was a particular favourite. But though pandering to intellectual curiosity may draw the crowds it does not feed the soul. These are potentially dangerous errors, not merely because they have been proved wrong, but because they bring the whole subject of Biblical eschatology into disrepute, tainting it with the date-fixing mentality of the cults. The simple way to avoid such dead ends is to bear in mind that God’s programmes for Israel and the church are distinct. The former is signposted, associated with "the times [and] the seasons" (Acts 1.7) – not surprising when one recalls that Israel’s national life was organised around an annual calendar of feasts – while the latter requires of us a constant state of readiness. That is to say, whereas Israel’s future is tied into the fulfilment of Daniel’s 70th week God’s purpose for the church the body of Christ is different. Nowhere are believers of this dispensation told to be on the watch for signs of the Lord’s return. Rather, we are instructed to look constantly and eagerly for Him. Even the Corinthians, for all their problems, were correctly "waiting for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Cor 1.7); the uniform apostolic message was that new believers were "to await his Son from the heavens, whom he raised from among the dead, Jesus, our deliverer from the coming wrath" (1 Thess 1.10, JND). Why? Because "our conversation [citizenship] is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ" (Phil 3.20). Those who are only pilgrims and aliens in this present world naturally have their hearts set upon the One who will soon take them out of it to their eternal home. Although we may live to observe some of the scene shifting that precedes the Great Tribulation, that global catastrophe which will break after we have been removed, Christ’s coming for us is always presented as imminent: He personally is "our hope" (1 Tim 1.1). So don’t date – just faithfully wait!

My final example is dating a conversion. Now, let me acknowledge from the start that, like Paul, many believers vividly recall the day they trusted the Lord Jesus, although no one has an experience as dramatic as the man chosen to be the final apostle (1 Cor 15.7-9). Paul’s spectacular encounter with the risen Christ so revolutionised his life that it became an indelible memory, validating his ministry (1 Cor 9.1) and permeating his discourse (Acts 22.3-10; 26.9-18; Phil 3.4-12; 1 Tim 1.12-16; Gal 1.13-17). But God deals with different people in different ways. Don’t be distressed if you do not have an exact moment logged in your mental diary. Those of us raised in Christian homes, where from infancy God’s Word was the very atmosphere we breathed, often cannot remember precisely when we first trusted the Saviour. I cannot. The preaching tradition which insists upon having "a date and a place and a time" of conversion can foster both needless anxiety and unjustifiable complacency. I recollect hearing a children’s chorus which ran systematically through the days of the week, encouraging its singers to bounce to their feet on the mention of their particular conversion day. Great fun, but liable to encourage hypocrisy and self-deception. It is frighteningly easy to manipulate a group of young people into expected conformity. In any case, a past incident, however memorable, is in itself no guarantee of present spiritual reality. To those in the parable who claimed, "We have eaten and drunk in thy presence, and thou hast taught in our streets", the Lord Jesus responded, "I know you not whence ye are; depart from me" (Lk 13.26-27). It cannot be accidental that John’s first letter, written with the express purpose "that ye may know that ye have eternal life" (1 Jn 5.13), never refers its readers back to a historical experience but rather concentrates upon present proofs of spiritual life: keeping His commandments, loving the brethren, knowing the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (1 Jn 2.3; 3.14,24; 4.13). Does my heart warm to the Word? Do I seek to bring my life into line with its teachings? Do I take pleasure in fellowship with the saints? These are the real tests of life. The vital thing, you see, is to have right now a Saviour in the person of Christ Jesus. As a boy, I used to sit in silent agony of soul listening to those weekly gospel preachers who leaned over the platform directly at me (so it seemed), requiring me to look back to a conversion day I just could not remember, although I knew I was saved. And then, in the goodness of God, along came a visiting speaker who arrested my attention by saying something like this: "I cannot personally remember the moment when I got saved. But then nor can I remember when I was born physically. But I am sure I must have been born because I know I am alive now". What a blessing those words were to me! Although I could not, like some, look back to a precise calendar date, I knew I had, by grace, a living relationship with God in the present, a relationship based entirely upon faith in the finished work of Christ at Calvary. Spiritual growth, not past experience, is the convincing and continuing evidence of spiritual life (Acts 2.41-42). Let us keep on growing.

To be continued.

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