Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Uncomfortable Blessings

A pastor friend recently told me that he experienced intense criticism from his church about a recent sermon on giving. Of course, criticism is part of the role. What pastor doesn't receive nitpicking and grumbling on a weekly basis? But this criticism was different, as it was coming mainly from his deacons and elders.

He had preached a sermon on giving and the blessings that come from the Lord when we give generously. He titled his message, "Give more, get more".

That's when the accusations started flowing: "This is no different than the Prosperity Gospel", "I was disgusted by this message which condoned greed", "When did Joel Olsteen become our pastor?"

But this message comes directly from the pages of Scripture, and even the lips of Jesus Christ. Throughout the Old Testament we are told that God rewards faith that expresses itself in generosity. In Deut 15:10, which speaks about taking financial care of your disadvantaged brother in the Lord, Scripture tells us to "give generously to him and do so without a grudging heart." But it is the next phrase that should catch our attention, "...then because of this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to."

Did you catch that? God promised to bless the common, average Israelite citizen with material blessing and success at their employment, investments, and endeavors if they lived a lifestyle of generosity.

Malachi 3:10 goes even further, with God even urging the Israelites to test out this blessing principle for themselves to see if it really worked. "'Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this', says the Lord Almighty, 'and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it.'" The LORD goes on to promise that the crops of a generous person will be protected from pests and bad weather.

These are not the only passages, as we find this principle throughout the Old and New Testaments. Jesus directly tied our blessings from the Father to our level of generosity. He said, "give and it will be given to you...for with the measure you use, it will be measured to you" (Luke 6:38). In other words, 'give more, get more.'

So why are Bible-loving Christians ignoring, or in many cases, denying this message? It's a classic case of over-reaction...wishing so much to do away with the Health-n-Wealth madness that we are willing to jettison entire sections of Scripture to accomplish our goal. One recent article online even rebuked the Christian community for referring to success at work or the ability to purchase a new car as "blessings". The author boldly stated, "calling myself blessed because of material wealth is just plain wrong" (emphasis his). As 'proof', the author cites the hundreds of millions of Christians throughout the world who are living in poverty. Is God not blessing them?

The author of that article, just like the elders at my friend's church, have put their finger on a real issue. What they have recognized, and what the Prosperity Gospel seems to deny, is that God also sends difficulty to believers. We are promised the certainly of persecution (2 Tim 3:12) and that this suffering is "according to God's will" (1 Pet 4:19). Paul says the he and the believers in his day were "afflicted in every way" (2 Cor 4:8). He would go on to declare that instead of desiring greater wealth, he was "content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities" (2 Cor 12:10).

But how can both principles be biblical? One seems to promise us material blessings if we follow the Lord faithfully and give generously to those in need and other ministries. The other principle promises, and even promotes, suffering and hardship as the mark of a true believer. Who then do we side with?

Let me suggest that the author of the article I cited above, as well as the elders/deacons at my friend's church, have committed the same error as the adherents of the Prosperity Gospel. Both sides have chosen to set aside one set of Bible passages in favor of another. As a general rule of thumb, when your particle theology forces you to ignore or deny certain parts of the Bible, you have a bad theology.

Much better is the theology of Job. He was a man of great faith who strove to live his life in righteousness. For this, he was rewarded greatly by God, owning thousands of cattle, many properties, and had a large, healthy family. But then he was also tested greatly by God, experiencing financial ruin, the tragic loss of his children, and personal physical suffering. It was during this moment that his wife came to him and offered him horrible advice, "curse God and die" (Job 2:9). Job's response shows us his theology: "shall we accept the good from God but not the trouble."

Good comes from God. It is his blessing. Praise him for it. Did you receive a raise at work as the result of a work ethic based on pleasing God in all you do? Then praise him. Were you wise with your finances last year and able to set aside enough money to buy that new car? Then praise God, for it is His blessing. Have you tithed faithfully and given to the work of the Lord sacrificially, and still have enough money to pay your bills and get away for a week during the Summer with the family? Then praise the Lord, for this is from the Lord.

But so is trouble, and therefore it is also a reason to praise him. Of course, trouble & suffering only mean that the blessings has been temporarily postponed. To Job, as well as Paul, God always blesses. Often that blessing comes partly in the here-and-now, but at times that blessing is postponed until heaven. This is why present suffering doesn't worry the Christian. Jesus told the disciples that the poor and the persecuted (who had faith in Christ) would one day receive God's kingdom as a reward (cf Luke 6:20; Matt 5:10).

Those who hold to the Prosperity Gospel fail to realize that suffering & poverty are often part of God's design for his people. They forget, or rather deny, that the same passage in Deuteronomy that promised material wealth to God's people (Deut 15:10) is followed by a verse which promises that many of God's faithful people will always remain poor (Deut 15:11).

Other believers, reacting against the Prosperity Gospel, seem to forget that all good things comes from the Lord.

For my part, I know my God blesses me and I often receive those blessings now. Currently my family is in good health, we live in a beautiful home, and I make an average salary that provides for our needs. We are even able to take an occasional vacation and somehow manage to pay for all the kid's various extra-curricular involvements. For this I praise God.

But there have also been times when we lived on staples from a local food bank, received government assistance to buy baby formula and peanut butter, and needed financial help from God's people. At some point in the future it is very possible one or more of my family members will develop a serious health issue or perhaps we will come to financial ruin.

Doesn't matter. I'm only asked to be faithful and generous. If he chooses to give me a portion of my reward now, or save it all for eternity, what do I care? My God is good and he can be fully trusted.

After all, the blessings are only a secondary benefit, kind of like balloons at a party. The real benefit is that I know God and have a relationship with Him.

This is why both a new car and martyrdom are utterly insignificant and shouldn't concern us in the least. I don't obsess about getting the former or avoiding the latter. I just accept what my loving Father sends my way.

I know who I am. I know where my eternal home is. I know what, and who, waits for me there.

In the meantime, I just going to be generous because my Father is generous. I don't have to worry about being selfish or greedy. I don't have to hoard, and I am free to give generously. Why? Because I can't out-give God. The more I give, the more he gives me.

That's what Father's do.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Drunk Women & the Gospel

I had only been pastor at Indian River Baptist Church for a few weeks when the Youth Group held an off-site event. Meeting in the home of one of the deacons, it was an evening of playing board games, watching football, and singing praise to God. We were so new to the church that I was still in the stage of simply attending events rather than leading events, as we were still trying to meet people and learn how the church did things.

After the event, all the teens piled into various vans and headed back to the church. I decided to leave several minutes before everyone else to make sure the church was opened up and ready for their arrival.

That's when my problems began.

When I arrived at the church, I was confronted by several parents waiting in the parking lot. Apparently not all of them were aware the activity was going to be off-site (we later found out that some youth, who were not regular attenders, had lied to their parents about where the activity was to be held). Though most were reasonable, one particular woman was irate. 

And drunk.

Staggering out of her vehicle, she got within inches of my face, cursing, threatening to sue, and making personal insults. It was a very one-sided conversation, as she would ask a question, then proceed to cut me off before I could even answer her.

Then came the slap. In the darkness of night I didn't even see it coming. Whap! Solid contact. More cursing. A little bit of shoving. I still hadn't even been able to get out one complete sentence.

Another slap. I believe I saw stars that time. Now her friend jumped out of the car and she began cursing at me too. Apparently the drunk mother had exhausted herself and staggered back to the vehicle, just as the van with the teens pulled into the parking lot.

Walking over to her car (her window was rolled down), I leaned down and said, "Ma'am, I ask your forgiveness for how I've offended you. I understand that every parent wants to protect their daughter. I'm not sure what happened tonight, but if we've dropped the ball I guarantee you we will address it."

I think she mumbled "whatever". But that's just a guess.

Then looking at her friend, I said, "Now, if you want to protect your friend as much as she wants to protect her daughter, then you'll take the keys and drive the vehicle home."

Responding in grace to difficult situations isn't easy. Being graceful when getting slapped by a drunk and irate woman, in public, is even harder. But as it happens, Christ directly addressed this situation. In Matthew 5:39 he says "But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also."

I think this was intended as a metaphor for any difficult situation, though perhaps in my case the Lord allowed me to experience that verse literally because I often tend to be a bit dense when it comes to biblical application. The point is that in any situation, and perhaps most importantly in the difficult ones, we cannot lose site of the goal. The evil person who is doing us harm is important to God. He (or in my case, she) is lost and needs Christ's salvation. If I respond in anger, even under the guise of "self-dignified righteousness", then I compromise the Gospel message. I push that individual further away from the Cross.

I learned two lessons that night. First, make sure youth leaders get signed permission forms from the parents. Second, I must consciously choose, in every moment, to keep the Gospel as my number one goal.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Country Club Christianity

We've all seen them.

We walk into a church building and with minutes, perhaps seconds, some odd fellow approaches us. You know who I mean. This is the person that doesn't seem to understand personal space or even basic hygiene. Just those two issues combined will make any encounter something less than affable. Worse yet, imagine an entire congregation is filled with people who break the curve on the emotional intelligence scale. On the low end.

During my seminary years I was occasionally asked to preach the Sunday morning service at a rural United Methodist church. It was so small that the denomination has threatened to shut it down. To avoid this, the leadership went down to the local adult home for the mentally disabled and promised to drive them to church every Sunday, the result being that half of the 30 people in attendance were mentally disabled. Some were sweet and loving. Others were bitter and grumpy. None understood basic social conventions or expectations. I always enjoyed these mornings, partly because I had no idea what to expect (but mostly because of the great love the rest of the Body showed to these dear individuals).

As the apostle Paul preached throughout the Roman empire, he attracted people form all social classes. Some were quite educated and wealthy (e.g. "chief women", Acts 17:4,12), but many other came from the poorest and most marginalized of social classes. This is clearly evidenced when we remember that Paul refers to the deep poverty of his congregations (2 Cor 8:1-2) and frequently appeals to believers who were slaves (1 Cor 7; Col 3:22). Though Paul did not appeal directly to any special 'class' of humanity, it seems the Gospel found a particular audience among the 'lest desirables' (from a worldly point of view). The New Testament churches contained the wealthy and educated, but were chiefly comprised of the lower commercial and working classes, laborers, freed-men, and slaves.

Are you looking for a church that is populated by professionals? Suburbanites? College educated? Fellow farmers or factory workers? People like you? Or are you open to a church that shines the light of Jesus Christ and welcomes, warmly, all who come in? Do you simply tolerate sharing a pew with these 'others', or do you joyously share your life with them? Warren Wiersbe once said "the Gospel light attracts the strangest bugs".

It attracted you.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Blue Jeans & God's Glory

This last Sunday was a first for me. I preached a Sunday AM sermon wearing blue jeans.

OK, now all my generic Evangelical friends are rolling their eyes. Their pastor has probably worn blue jeans for years, maybe even shorts and flip flops. After all, with the advent of Rick Warren and the Hawaiian shirt, isn't this issue passé? Unless one attends a mainline church in an über-professional environment, or maybe a fundamentalist church someplace other than Kentucky, hasn't the Church moved past this issue?

Maybe. But also maybe we never got the memo in my little town of West Liberty.

Don't misunderstand. I've never been a formalist. While I've worn suits throughout my entire time in pastoral ministry, I did it as an accommodation. For some reason, in 2 out of the 3 churches I've ministered at, most folks found some sort of significance in "wearing one's best" to church. For some stranger reason, some committee in the nascent years of Evangelicalism decided "one's best" was what lawyers wore to court when defending drug dealers. Thus the preacher and the Sunday morning suit began their long and storied relationship.

Also, don't misunderstand the opposite way. I'm not anti-suit. In fact, I quite like it when women look like ladies and men look like gentlemen. There is something dignified and proper when a young man puts on a suit, polishes his shoes, and resolutely stands by the door on a frigid Sunday morning just to be able to open it for those coming into the church. And especially now that the thin tie fad of the 1960's seems to have died the final death, I admit a well chosen tie is the ne plus ultra of the business-formal look. Well, that and cuff links. So, to be sure, suits still have their place in our society and our churches.

So why am I even talking about this? Isn't this whole conversation just silly?

Well, yes. It is silly. But then again, this is a blog and those two belong together like potlucks and Southern Baptists.

Actually, the blue jeans were merely an object lesson. A subtle way of introducing a more important conversation; namely, Christian freedom. Jesus promised his followers a real and radical freedom. "If you abide in my word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free," (John 8:31,32). Freedom from sin, death, and judgment. But also freedom from the burden of the Law and the unbearable weight of man-made traditions. The New Testament, if its clear on anything, is clear on the fact that the believer is "not under the Law but under grace" (Rom 6:14) and that "we are now released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code" (Rom 7:6).

This means we are free from the crushing burden of the Old Testament law (fulfilled for us in Christ). It also certainly means we are free from those silly add-on traditions invented by humans. Jesus had scathing words for the Pharisees who added these burdens upon the people and Paul equally warns against those who force upon the church human traditions (Col 2:8) or religious structures (Gal 4:9-10). Such persons create a list of rules, a set of things we must not do ("do not handle, do not taste, do not touch, ", Col 2:21) and a set of things we are required to do ("the commandments of men", Mark 7:7). 

Jesus calls this "vain worship" (Mark 7:7).


Last time I checked, that wasn't the best compliment of one's worship. My guess is you'll never see that on a church's website ("Join us Sunday for some exciting, lively, and vain worship led by our praise band").

So what does all this have to do with blue jeans? Is wearing a suit now automatically placed in the category of vain worship and legalism? Can we only be freed from that by wearing blue jeans?

No, that's just replacing one legalistic standard for another.

Anyone who imposes an extra-biblical standard is a legalist. Pure and simple. Peter warns us about such people, saying they "promise freedom but are themselves slaves of corruption" (2 Pet 2:19). That's because such standards always fail. They never produce holiness. They always produce sin and pride. Paul tells us that such rules may "indeed have an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion...but are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh" (Col 2:23).

This means I can never make a rule about the length of my daughter's skirt that has the ability to promote in her a spirit of modesty. I can never make a rule about what my boys wear to church that can effect an attitude of reverence for the King. There is no rule I can invent about what movies that we watch which has the power to produce holiness in my family.



To produce those things I must take them to Christ. Nowhere else. Only Christ.

So next week it's probably back to wearing suit pants. Back to accommodation. Back to the familiar. But that's OK. Wearing blue jeans was never the goal. The larger goal was recognizing, at least for myself, that a suit has nothing to do with offering God reverence, praise, and respect. It added nothing to his honor. Nothing to my worship. Neither did the jeans.

Just fabric covering a naked body, which covers a redeemed heart. A heart that is free. Free to live for Christ. Free to bring him glory!

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Lord of All Creation

Below is a prayer I wrote last year while on vacation in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, giving to you in part because I yearn for warmer days:
To the Lord of all Creation,
A two week reprieve from the demands of everyday life spent with my family, several days of which we are in a little cabin in the woods of Northern Michigan. Father, your Creation is glorious. We willingly endure the sting of camp fire smoke in our eyes and the incessant pestering of mosquitoes in order to breathe in the stars. The loons sing a beautiful melody. The dragonflies dance. Even the wind plays its part in the song. While the ingenuity of man is an amazing thing, what work of art have we created that compares to the evening sun glistening on the water, or what song have we composed that is more pleasant that the sound of a River Trout leaping above the water? Have we created a building more magnificent that the stately oak or towering pine?
A good book, a chair that has seemingly been granted the calming power of the fabled Halycon, the laughter of three growing children, and the wife of my youth----surrounded by all You have created. The trees reach further up, growing each year as if trying to touch their Maker. The proof of Your divinity, power, and love is here for every man to behold. I stare at a simple stalk of grass and am amazed at Your providence and wisdom. Its green color proves its vigor and life. It stands tall and erect, proud of its place in Your Kingdom. Its head has already gone to seed, ensuring a new generation that will carpet the feet of those you have blessed with your image. It has the strength and tenacity to grow in the most difficult of conditions. Though the storms may blow and the drenching rains come, it merely bends and never breaks. Not even the long death of winter can deal a fatal blow.
I praise You for what You have created. Honor and glory and praise and power are Yours. You are Lord of all Creation, its Maker and Master, its Sustainer and Provider, its Painter and Architect.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

You're a worm, I'm a worm

A rather animated woman marched towards me after the service. Judging by the pointed finger and stern look, I assumed I was about to experience something less than pleasant.

Without so much as an introduction, she blurted, "That idea that God would send someone to Hell forever just because they died in their sin is old doctrine. You should be ashamed of yourself for preaching that old nonsense. God is love. He LOVES us [she actually screamed the word 'love]. You should be telling people to accept themselves as beautiful and wonderful, not making them feel guilty for sin."

Now I do regularly preach about sin (what it is, how Jesus saves us from it, how we can battle temptation,etc), but oddly enough I hadn't even mentioned sin that day. Or Hell. Or judgment. My sermon was about Jesus' feeding of the five thousand which demonstrates both Jesus' sovereignty as well as his love towards humanity.

What this woman was responding to was my closing prayer, where I acknowledged to the Lord that we were sinners who deserved Hell, and thanked the Father for loving us enough to send Christ to save us and change us.

Instead of arguing with the woman, I decided to ask some questions:

Josh: 'Why do you think people's most important need is to accept themselves?'

Angry lady: 'because people feel broken and miserable. They have no self-esteem and need to be built up.'

Josh: 'Why don't people have self-esteem?'

Angry lady: 'because the world tells them they have no value.'

Josh: 'OK, who is the 'world'? Isn't that other people?'

Angry lady: 'Yes'

Josh: "Considering this is the universal assessment of all humanity, have you ever considered the possibility that they are right? Are you open to the possibility that there is something fundamentally flawed with all of us, and that this inner sense of unworthiness we all have is based in fact, not error?"

People are desperate to convince themselves they are OK. Self-help books fly off the bookstore shelves. Counselors routinely tell their paying clients to "believe in themselves". Liberal pastors tell us that sin isn't offending a holy God, but rather committing "psychological self-abuse" by not valuing ourselves.

Yet no matter how hard people try, the feeling of unworthiness cannot be shaken off. Down deep inside, people know something is wrong. Yet people come up with all sorts of solutions to dull this feeling. Some believe the answer is by losing weight, getting a higher paying job, having a family, or going to a counselor. Others believe we need to pretend its all a myth, much like the abused child who shuts his eyes and tries to 'believe' the bad man away.

But Scripture has a different answer. In the Old Testament, God revealed a very important message to the people of Israel. He said, "fear not, you worm Jacob, you men of Israel, I will help you" (Isaiah 41:14).

Did the sovereign God of the universe just call us worms?


Yes, he did call us worms, and it's a truth we need to understand. The whole point of this verse is to remind humanity that there is something wrong. Down deep inside, something is broken and dysfunctional. We are not the lofty and important creatures we think we are. Instead, we are just worms. Pathetic. Useless. Unable to do anything to rise above our station or become something different.

But it is because we are broken that God has determined to help us by sending Christ to save us from our misery.

Let that last line sink in. It is because we are broken that God has determined to help us

Jesus would later tell us that "it is not the healthy that need a doctor, but the sick" (Mark 2:17). God's love is so amazing that even though we are broken and unworthy, he has chosen to pour his love on us through Christ. But here's the catch. If you don't want to be treated, you die because of your disease. Those who believe we should never mention sin and instead 'value ourselves' are much like the cancer-ridden man who denies treatment. Despite what all the medical tests clearly demonstrate, he tells himself nothing is wrong and all is well. The hospital stands ready to fix and to heal, but the patient is unwilling. Not only unwilling to be treated, but unwilling to even admit there is a problem. That scenario ends only one way.

Scripture gives us another alternative. God tells us "if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 Joh 1:9). Stop trying to mask the problem. Enough with the silly self-help techniques. God has promised to lift you out of the dirt and make you a son and daughter of the king of Kings.

Friday, January 31, 2014

The Art of Tickling Ears

"For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. 
Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number 
of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear."
2 Timothy 4:3

This past Summer I had a nasty run in with a poison ivy plant, resulting in the worst outbreak I've ever experienced. I tried steroid shots, pills, creams, ointments, sprays, warm baths, and about a zillion home remedies. Everybody had an opinion about what I needed to do to get rid of it (one brother, in all seriousness, recommended gasoline). But, the one common piece of advice everyone gave was "Do not scratch!"

Yet, scratch I did. And scratch, and scratch, and scratch. I eventually got over the outbreak, but my arm still bears the scars of that encounter. The scars are not from the outbreak, mind you. There from the scratching.

The apostle Paul talks about an incessant 'itch' that many people have. It's a desire to hear only what they want to hear. They want their church to be a certain way and the pastor to only say certain things. They want to redefine Christianity according to their own preferences and beliefs, picking and choosing those aspects of Scripture that they like, and either denying or conveniently ignoring those aspects they find disagreeable. Paul calls this "itching ears", which can only be scratched by finding a pastor or teacher that says what they want to hear).

Over the last decade of church ministry I've had lots of people demand I say certain things. I've had mothers demand I preach about the appropriate length of shirts. I've had people leave the church because I wasn't "hell, fire, and brimstone" enough. I've seen others go because they were sick of hearing about sin and wickedness, preferring a more "positive" message (presumably, one that doesn't ever mention sin). I've had first time attenders seek me out after the service, promising to become members if only I would promise to consistently preach on social justice. I've heard the same promises from people demanding I speak regularly on End-times prophecy, the dangers of Roman Catholicism, and the evils of the Charismatic movement. I've had Calvinists demand I never use the phrase "choosing to accept Christ", and Arminian-leaning folks demand I always present the 'Romans Road' at the end of each service. One believer demanded I regularly preach from the pulpit that only Baptists are truly biblical. Another angrily insisted that I must consistently preach against the evils of taxation and big government!

Sometimes, when they don't get their ears tickled, they slam their Bible shut, walk out the door, and find a church that scratches the itch.

Over the last decade, I've learned how to respond a little better to such demands. Now I almost always say, "at our church we go about things fairly simply. We just open God's word, find a section on it, and talk about what it says."

Then I usually add this, "I promise you that I will talk about whatever that passage is talking about. Nothing more, nothing less. Our goal is to hear from the Lord and understand his Word. We will believe whatever it says, and strive to do whatever it demands. I cannot, and will not, make you any other promises."

Open God's word today. Don't search for something you agree with and ignore everything else. Just read it and submit to it. Let it take you, change you, and shape you. Our ears don't need to be itched, but our hearts desperately need to be changed.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Obedience of Faith

"...we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the 
obedience of faith, for the sake of His name, among all the nations."
Romans 1:5

Once I was invited to speak at a conference in a large city. While walking downtown on my way to the convention center I stumbled across a rather large LGBT activist parade. Among the floats, costumes, and banners was a group of homosexual men, complete with leather short-shorts, skin-tight tank tops, and painted nails, holding a banner that said "Christian, Gay, & Proud".  

"Are you part of the parade?" one of the men asked.

"No, but I'm curious about your banner" I replied.

The spokesman for the group told me they were from a local church populated mostly by members of the LGBT community. He said that had come to realize that Christianity was all about "self-love" and that only by accepting themselves for who they were could they ever understand God's love.

Then came my question: "But what about all the things the Bible says about homosexuality?"

Another spoke up, "Some things in the Bible are just misunderstood. Some other things are outdated. The important thing is that we love Jesus."

Loving Jesus is an important thing. I agree.

But what does that mean? Is there a way to determine if love is true and genuine? Considering that 50% of marriages end in divorce, all of which started with professions of undying love, isn't it obvious that claiming to love and actually loving are not always the same thing?

In John 14 Jesus defines for us what it means to really love him. Look closely at the language he uses:
  • "if you love me, keep my commandments" (v.15)
  • "whoever has my commandments and keeps them is the one who loves me" (v.21)
  • "if anyone loves me he will keep my word" (v.23)
  • "whoever does not love me does not keep my word" (v.24)

John, the one who recorded Jesus' words noted above, apparently paid attention. Later in his life he taught the same message to his congregation. In one letter he said "by this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep his commandments" (1 John 2:3). In another letter he wrote "and this is love, that we walk according to his commandments" (2 John 6). In the book of Revelation John identifies the saints as those "who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus Christ" (Rev 12:16; see 14:12).

Paul is saying something similar in Romans 1:5. Noting that he had been called to preach Christ to the Gentiles (that is, non-Jews), he defines this ministry as bringing about the "obedience of faith". Real faith in Jesus, or perhaps we should also say real love for Jesus, always involves obedience. A believer doesn't pick and choose which sections of Scripture he will obey. The Christian is one who seeks obedience, desires obedience. 

Notably, Jesus didn't command the disciples to 'go forth and evangelize the world', but rather "go forth and make disciples...teaching them to obey all that I have commanded" (Matt 28:19-20). Jesus isn't looking for people who are attracted to various parts of his message or aspects of his way of life. He is not a spiritual buffet where we leave behind what we do not find palatable.

He demands to be Lord, Savior, God, Leader, and Master.

Are you obeying Jesus in regards to how you are speaking about others?
Are you obeying him in regards to your sexuality?
What about your marriage?
Your speech?
Your anger?
Your money?

Believe it or not, to be a genuine follower of Christ requires that we actually follow him.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Victory in Jesus

I need to confess something.

I love hymns.

And I'm not just talking about the classic 'high-culture' hymns like those written by Martin Luther or Isaac Watts (though I do love those). Nor am I referring to the wonderful hymns that arose from the Great Awakening and its aftermath, such as Wesley's "Where Shall My Wandering Soul Begin?" or Carl Boberg's "How Great Thou Art".

No, I'm confessing to enjoying the old fashion, "low church" hymns used in the rural churches and hill country. You know, the kind that your grandma from Kentucky requested to be sung at her funeral.

Yes, this is totally uncool. It's not exactly as if you turn on the local popular Christian radio station and hear "There's Power in the Blood". What hip 20-something or 30-something wants to listen to that when their driving to work, right?

Well, I confess that I do.

Don't misunderstand. I also love contemporary worship songs. I like me some Getty, Hillsong, and Matt Redman. I enjoy praise bands, electric guitars, and drum sets. Worship is supposed to be contemporary, because worship (by definition) involves living, breathing redeemed human beings worshipping God in the here-and-now. I don't want to worship like Martin Luther in the 1500's, or Isaac Watts in the 1700s, or Fanny Crosby in the 1800s, for the simple reason is that we don't live in the 1500s, 1700s, or 1800s. I want to worship like a Christian believer living in 2014, using our language, culture, musical instruments, and styles to the praise of God.

Its just that I also like singing the old stuff.

I guess part of it is that I grew up with these songs. A bigger reason is that I've come to appreciate the expressions of faith and hope of the prior generations and am not so naive as to think my own generation is the only one capable of beautiful expressions of worship.

In our church's worship service last night, as I was sitting next to my 13-yr old son, the worship leader had the congregation sing Victory in Jesus. It certainly wasn't hip. On the scale of coolness it probably registers in the negative. But it didn't matter. I sang it from my heart. So did my boy.

I heard an old, old story
How a Savior came from glory,
How He gave His life on Calvary
To save a wretch like me;
I heard about his groaning,
Of his precious blood's atoning,
Then I repented of my sins
And won the victory.

The song tells a story about its writer, a man who heard the saving message of the Gospel and gave his life to Christ. But more importantly it tells the story of the Savior. That's a story that never gets old. When we sing contemporary worship songs I hear renditions of this story from modern-day writers. When we open the hymnal we hear this same story from sages in the past. Christian rap singers, Bluegrass artists, Classical vocalists, full scale orchestras, and Reggae bands can all share this same Gospel story.

Some like to fight about which musical style is most appropriate in church services. To me that's a little bit like my kids fighting over which kind of flower to buy their mother for Mother's Day. Does it really matter? Isn't the whole point the expression of love? Is Mom really going to get offended if her children offer her dandelions instead of daffodils?

You can decide whether Victory in Jesus is a lowly dandelion or an elegant daffodil. Honestly, I don't care. I was just glad that last night my boy and I were able to offer it to our Lord.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Remember the Poor

"They asked us to remember the poor"
Galatians 2:10

In preparation for this Sunday's sermon, I've been reading through the first two chapters of Galatians. The entire section is a call for the church not to abandon the Gospel, but to hold firm to its truths. In Galatians 2:7-9 Paul is describing his own ministry of preaching the Gospel to the Gentiles. Of course, this was controversial in Paul's day as the Jews and Gentiles didn't exactly get along.

But here Paul is defending his ministry, saying that even the other apostles recognized the legitimacy and necessity of what Paul and Barnabas were doing. He says that James, Peter, and John "perceived the grace that was given" to him (v.9) and endorsed his ministry. For all involved, the ministry of evangelism (and thus church planting) was the foremost ministry of the church.

OK. Being someone who loves the Gospel I get this. I can understand why preaching about Christ is important to Peter, James, and John. I understand why they were excited about what Paul and Barnabas proposed to do.

But then I noticed the next verse (Galatians 2:10).

Before sending Paul and Barnabas on their way to preach the Gospel, the three apostles gave one stipulation: "Only they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do."

Remember the poor.

I grew up in deeply conservative circles that were suspicious of anything that looked like 'social action'. Evangelism was simply (and only) preaching the Gospel. Now, I also knew conservative believers and entire churches that were generous and helpful to the poor, but sadly the loudest voices in the ultra-Fundamentalist movement were often those decrying such efforts. At the very least, "missions" and "benevolence" were seen as two distinct categories. One was necessary, and the other a good idea if you had the time and resources.

Another error also exists. Currently we exist in an Evangelical world that equates providing clean water or teaching sustainable agricultural techniques as  being "missions". One is often considered a missionary if he serves overseas as a doctor, engineer, or social advocate, regardless of whether or not he ever shares Christ.

I see the apostles shunning and strongly repudiating both of the above views.

Missions is always Gospel-centered. It always involves something we say. The oft-cited (but highly dubious) quote from Francis of Assisi may sound faithful, but the Gospel writers would have reacted in horror (he supposedly said, "Preach the Gospel always, and when necessary use words"). Words are always necessary. Elsewhere Paul asks rhetorically, "and how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching" (Rom 10:14)?

But just as much as the missional activity of the church requires (always) the preaching of the Gospel, it also requires more. Peter, James, and John believed a concern for the poor was important enough to make it a mandate for Paul and Barnabas. 

Paul took this council to heart, because he frequently exhorted the Gentile church to help out the poor believer in Judea (Acts 24:17; Rm 15:25-27; 1 Cor 16:1-4).

Think about that! In what is perhaps the earliest recorded commissioning of a missionary, the apostles refuse to endorse or approve the missional activity unless it includes a component of trying to help relieve the physical & emotional sufferings of the poor.

Or to put it another way, any church today that does not have a ministry to the poor does not have the blessing of the apostles.