An Attitude Shift


Locusts_feedingAll things are lawful. That’s what the Bible says, and that’s apparently the way many Christians are living their lives. The fact is, however, that the Apostle Paul who penned those words under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit didn’t stop there. He went on to say that not all things are profitable or edifying.

As part of this “not all are profitable or edifying,” I was raised to believe that some things were better left alone lest they prove to be harmful or stumbling blocks.

Alcohol was one such thing. Yes, the Bible did not prohibit drinking. In fact Jesus turned water into wine, and that makes it pretty hard to make a case against drinking alcohol. And yet there were cultural considerations–how strong was the alcohol in Biblical times and what other drinks did they have available? In addition there is the knowledge we’ve gained today about the addictive quality of alcohol and the psychological propensity of some people toward addiction.

In short, we have choices people in the first century didn’t have, bad and good, and we have an awareness that we might find alcohol more than we can handle. So is it OK to drink? Presented with such a choice about any number of things–smoking, doing drugs (easier to decide because those are illegal), sex before marriage, going to movies, dancing, gambling–my church and family challenged me to error on the side of caution.

My body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, I was reminded, and a temple should be cared for, not exposed to harmful substances, whether harmful physically or emotionally or spiritually.

I suspect that kind of reasoning is foreign to today’s youth.

As I look back at the particulars of the things I was taught, I can see how some churches and some individuals turned those tenets into legalistic propositions that defined spirituality. Clearly such a misuse of cautionary behavior is wrong. And today legalism has become the great sin of the church.

But it seems to me we have tossed the baby out with the bath water (that’s really a horrible image, isn’t it?) Yes, we have unshackled our youth by teaching them that the only sin connected with alcohol is drunkenness and that sex outside of marriage is wrong but if you’re going to do it, be sure it’s safe sex, and dancing isn’t outlawed in the Bible (after all, David danced before the Lord), and on and on. But where’s the caution? Where’s the “all things may not be profitable or edifying”?

From what I can see, Christian kids are too often thrown to the locust–that is, forced to make decisions that could affect their entire lives without the cautionary wisdom that they might want to protect the temple of the Holy Spirit from harm. They’re given the facts, certainly. They know about addiction and sexually transmitted diseases and designated drivers.

But they aren’t being challenged, I don’t think, to choose what is profitable and edifying. They’re being taught how to play with fire rather than the wisdom to stay away from fire.

“All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things edify” (1 Cor. 10:23).

“Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body” 1 Cor. 6:19-20).

In the end, I chose some of the things I was taught as a young person and rejected others. What I didn’t reject was the principle that I had freedom, including freedom to choose the profitable and the edifying. I was not a slave to my lusts or to the way the world does things.

Yes, I acted like a slave at times–still do. Thank God for His mercy.

What I fear is for this generation of young people and their children who aren’t being taught that they don’t have to involve themselves with lawful things simply because they are lawful. They can choose a better way, a profitable and edifying way, that will spare them lives of heartache and missed opportunity.

God can redeem the years the locust have eaten, but I can’t help but wonder if we who should be teaching the next generation when we lie down and rise up, when we’re sitting in our houses or walking along the road are not fulfulling our responsibility. Should we not clue them in that all things may be lawful, but a whole lot of stuff isn’t profitable or edifying?

This article is a re-post of one that first appeared here in October 2013.

Published in: on November 17, 2016 at 6:31 pm  Comments (2)  
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Christians Selling Out The Church


church-in-guatemala

I read it again today on Facebook—the church let down America by voting for Donald Trump. Here’s the heart of the article, written by a friend:

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

What possessed [Paul]? What conviction gripped the soul of this Apostle to the Gentiles? I think that Paul believed if the church didn’t live this out, no one would. It is the church’s responsibility, and it’s alone, to manifest the realities of God to the earth, to be the outpost of heaven.

This is why blacks feel betrayed.

This is why women feel betrayed.

This is why Mexicans feel betrayed.

This is why Muslims feel betrayed.

Not because America let them down. But because the church did.

We may very well have voted for the pro-life candidate, but it appears as though we did it at the cost of blacks. Of Mexicans. Of Muslims. Of women. And I, for one, believe that the cost was too great.

I don’t want to get into the demographics of the vote—how women voted for Mr. Trump and therefore ought not be lumped in with those “feeling betrayed.” For the record, I feel betrayed that the Republicans let him run under their flag, but that’s a post for another day.

I also don’t want to address the idea that concern for the life of the unborn should take a backseat to concern for “blacks” or “Mexicans” or Muslims or women. There’s a lot to say about that statement, but I’ll need a separate post to deal with it.

Instead of those things, I want to think a bit about Christians ripping on the Church. I know I’ve addressed this subject before, but I think it’s reaching a crisis point. We’re not talking about progressives or atheists or people of other religions. We’re talking about people who believe the Bible and who are using the Bible to rip the Church.

We Christians aren’t perfect (though a small segment hold to the belief in Christian perfectionism, most of us acknowledge our sin and see the Bible as addressing ongoing sins—see Paul’s confrontation of the church in Corinth concerning their sin of tolerating sin in their body). I’m in no way saying that we can do no wrong or that we don’t have sins we need to address. The condemnation and warnings of Jesus given to the seven churches in Revelation, are ours too.

But in this day when the world mocks and denigrates the Church, we believers ought not join right in!

First, the Church is far greater than the collection of believers here in America. Therefore the statement that “the church” let down the list of people above is wrong. Even if American Christians had let someone down, it wouldn’t be “the church” that was at fault.

In reality, the article addressed a type of “Christian nationalism” that I agree with, but oddly, in the midst of this identification came the accusation that the Church was at fault for what happened in the American election.

Sorry, but the Church is an all-encompassing body that includes people of every tribe and tongue and nation which God is preparing as His bride.

Other metaphors describe us as His family; as His body, with Christ as the head; as a spiritual house made up of living stones with Christ as the cornerstone. These descriptions reveal our true identity. We must not be pulled into false ideas about who we are. We must not join the world in bashing the one Jesus died to save.

Besides our true identity we also know the following:

1) false prophets sneak in to steal and kill and destroy. Sometimes the world and even other believers see the false prophets as true and assume the worst of the entire flock.

2) sometimes bodies of believers can become lukewarm or can lose our first love and need to be called back to Christ, but that is not true of the entire Church.

3) therefore, no matter what happens in America, the Church is not to blame.

4) finally, our citizenship, just like that of every believer, is in heaven. This world, including our native or adopted home on earth, is temporary. We’re “just a-passin’ through.”

5) while we’re on earth we testify to the One who saved us, in part by our unity, by the way we treat one another.

So Christians bashing the Church? Not such a great witness.

In truth, Christians need to stand up for the Church, because no one else will. We need to reject the idea that we are responsible for what false teachers teach, unless we give them the pulpit and prod others to come in and hear their message. To think otherwise would be like saying Jesus was to blame for the false teaching of the Pharisees, because, you know, He was there too.

Well, no, Jesus wasn’t to blame for the fact that those religious leaders used Scripture to teach self-righteousness.

We need to keep front and center that the true Church holds fast to the gospel, that Christ died for sinners according to the Scripture, that we ourselves have received a new life in Christ because of what Jesus did on our behalf. Any teaching that contradicts those fundamentals is a different gospel.

We need to stop calling those who preach a different gospel, the Church.

And we need to stop going along with the world to bash the true Church.

Published in: on November 15, 2016 at 7:09 pm  Comments (6)  
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I’m Not Ashamed – The Story Of Rachel Joy Scott


imnotashamed

Today I went to see I’m Not Ashamed, the motion picture made of Rachel Joy Scott’s short life and tragic death when she was the first person killed during Columbine over sixteen years ago. Well, it’s not really about her whole life. It’s more of a look at her spiritual life during her last year.

[Below: an interview with Masey McLain and Ben Davies, the two actors who starred in the movie.]

Of course, many critics find fault with Christian movies because they aren’t well made or because they are preachy, and there are critics of this film too. One review I read said it exploited a tragedy to get its faith based message across:

To use the senseless death of a school shooting victim to promote one’s warped political agenda is, to use a trendy term, deplorable. One should expect nothing less from the odious low-budget film company Pure Flix . . . Their latest, I’m Not Ashamed, bends the horrible tragedy of the Columbine massacre into a false narrative of Christian martyrdom. (The Guardian)

This and another review read into the film a number of things that simply aren’t there. Here’s one issue:

The movie begins almost immediately with news footage of the shooting (including from the security cameras), with a broadcaster noting: ”What everyone is looking for now is a reason.” Anyone familiar with PureFlix films won’t be surprised that the answer is unambiguously evolution. God’s Not Dead took a whole segment to lecture against its evils; here, Dylan and Eric’s eyes light up when a teacher waves a copy of Mein Kampf in the classroom while lecturing on social Darwinism. Even if it’s true that Harris wore a shirt saying “Natural Selection” the day of the shooting, it’s still a very slippery moral slope to imply that teaching evolution rather than creationism will lead to school shootings. (“The faith-based biopic I’m Not Ashamed blames Columbine on Darwin”)

Since the movie never once mentions evolution, this criticism is an unbelievable stretch that shows the criticism isn’t about this movie at all but about PureFlix and possibly Christianity or at least about perceived Christian beliefs.

At any rate, the negative comments dealt more with what the reviewer thought the movie was saying than with the actual movie. Was it exploiting Columbine to deliver a message? Was it preaching against evolution? Did it have an implied political agenda?

I didn’t see any of that.

Admittedly, at the beginning I was aware of every possible scene or word that could be construed as awkwardly overt or preachy. I also felt a little disappointed because the trailer I’d seen had revealed so much of the opening of the movie.

But somewhere in that first half hour I forgot about critiquing. I forgot I was watching a “Christian” movie. It was the story of one girl’s inner struggle and seemed so familiar, I thought high schoolers today could understand what this girl had felt. That she was struggling to live publicly what she claimed to believe privately, is the story of identity. That she grappled with being genuine, not fake or plastic, while at the same time longing to be accepted and to fit in, is so realistic and identifiable.

Did the movie exploit the school shooting? Not at all. You could take out the few scenes that showed the shooters. You could take out the end, and you’d still have the core of the movie. But Columbine gave context to this girl’s life. The things she struggled with, the decisions she made were magnified because her life ended tragically at such a young age.

Finally, the technical aspects of the film were on a par with your average movies. The acting is spot on—believable, realistic, natural. I particularly liked the two lead actors, Masey McLain and Ben Davies.

I don’t know anything about cinematography, so I can’t comment on that, but one review criticized the sudden jump cuts from one group of students to another. Those were in the movie. But jump cuts are common in today’s film making. Maybe there are rules to make them seem smoother, or something. I don’t know. I honestly wouldn’t have given them a second thought if I hadn’t seem the comment in the review.

What amazed me was how the movie has lingered in my mind. This is one I won’t quickly forget—maybe because it was true, maybe because of Rachel Joy Scott herself, maybe because the story involves spiritual matters. All I can say—I hope it lingers in the minds of the reviewers, too.

[Below: an interview with Rachel Joy Scott’s mother who made this film possible by making her daughters letters and journals available.]

By Grace Alone, Through Faith Alone


martin_luther_lucas_cranach_1526I admit, I’ve been spoiled. I’ve grown up with so many great gifts—loving parents and siblings, an opportunity for a sound education, attendance in church from infancy on, a middle class existence that ensured I had three square meals a day and a warm place to live and many changes of clothes in my closet. I had a secure and happy childhood, though we moved many times.

Part of my growing up included my spiritual education, so I understood early on that I was a sinner in need of a Savior. I understood that I could not do enough good things to make up for the bad. And I understood that no one could help me because they had their own sin problem. No one, except Jesus. His being the only sinless person who ever lived qualified Him to be the Lamb of God who took away the sins of the world for those who believed.

So nothing I did or could do would merit me to be acceptable to God. Only Jesus, standing in my place, taking the punishment I deserved, solved my sin issue.

Because I understood the basics of salvation at an early age, I have never grasped what it would be like to live any other way.

I’ve heard Jews and Catholics and Greek Orthodox joke in a knowing way about the guilt instilled in them by their religion, or more specifically, by someone who was holding them to a strict adherence to their religion—a parent, a priest, a teacher. I’ve also heard people refer to Christians as bound by guilt.

Those seem odd to me. I don’t recall a time in my life when I’ve felt guilt-driven.

So I’ve been spoiled because I’ve believed from my youth that I’m forgiven because of God’s grace.

Christians haven’t always had this understanding. There was a period of time when grace took a back seat to doing good works as the Church defined them. No doubt those who were saved, gained that standing with God because of His grace, but they were perhaps less aware of it.

All that changed four hundred and ninety-nine years ago when Martin Luther went public with the results of his own doubts, questions, and struggles to understand God. On October 31, 1517, Luther sent a paper he’d written to his bishop: “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.” This document became known simply as the Ninety-five Theses. Whether Luther ever attached a copy of the document to the door of the church at Wittenberg is a matter of contention, as was the document itself, when it first appeared.

But from the thoughts, question, and issues Luther looked at, grew the bedrock of Protestantism and a reformation (though more slowly, it would seem) of the Catholic Church. Luther challenged the practice of selling indulgences, by which the priests grew richer because of the desire of the poor to do what they could to insure the salvation of their loved ones.

Luther contended that salvation depended on God, not on humans:

The most important [truth of Christianity] for Luther was the doctrine of justification – God’s act of declaring a sinner righteous – by faith alone through God’s grace. He began to teach that salvation or redemption is a gift of God’s grace, attainable only through faith in Jesus as the Messiah.[43] “This one and firm rock, which we call the doctrine of justification,” he wrote, “is the chief article of the whole Christian doctrine, which comprehends the understanding of all godliness.”[44] (see “Theology of Martin Luther,” Wikipedia)

Luther had much Scripture to support his position, not the least of which is Ephesians 2:8-9—“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

The work is God’s, Luther proclaimed. A worker giving his copper to the church would not save the soul of his dead brother.

When I was growing up, I’d never heard about indulgences or even doing something to help a dead person reach heaven. The works I knew about were the kinds of things people did to make themselves acceptable to God. And these works included good things: going to church, reading the Bible, giving money to the poor, going on a short term mission trip, and so on. Good things.

But just like Paul’s list of good Jewish things recorded in Philippians, this Christian list of good things amounts to rubbish if its considered the means to a relationship with God. Paul’s birth status, circumcision, religious affiliation, and even his personal righteousness, were nothing in view of the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ (Phil. 3).

Essentially Martin Luther discovered and proclaimed what Paul had learned through his own quest. The two men were similar. They both wanted to please God, and they both went about it by trying to be good enough for Him based on the good things they did. Both eventually realized that there weren’t enough good things in the entire earth to make them good enough, but that God had given right standing with Him as a free gift through Christ Jesus.

That’s grace.

Nothing earned here.

A free gift.

Undeserved.

I know that rankles American minds—perhaps the minds of others, too. But here we have two competing philosophies—an independent, “earn your own way” mentality and an entitlement, “you deserve it” belief. God’s free gift is an affront to both of those positions. We humans don’t get to take credit for salvation, no matter how you look at it. We didn’t earn it, and we aren’t so wonderful that it ought to have been handed to us based on our incredible merit.

Luther did the hard work of sussing out from Scripture this truth, and I’m incredibly grateful.

Thanks be to God for His free gift of salvation, and thanks be to Him for teaching this truth to Martin Luther so that he could make it widely known.

Satan, The Imaginary, And Halloween


Every year around this time Christians begin a discussion about celebrating Halloween, but perhaps speculative writers, more so. The conversation is justifiable, especially in light of the fact that Halloween has become a highly commercial, and therefore, visible, holiday in the US. As a result, television programs, movies, and certainly commercials have some tie in to the weird, the supernatural.

For Christians, there seems to be a great divide when it comes to celebrating Halloween. Are we taking up the cause of the enemy if we carve a pumpkin and hand out candy to Trick-or-Treaters? Should we offer alternatives—a harvest festival instead of a haunted mansion—for our church activities? Should we seize the moment and build good will in our community by joining in wholeheartedly, or should we refuse to recognized the holiday, turn off the porch lights, and decline to answer the door when masquerading children arrive?

Satan

As I see it, there are two critical issues that dictate our response to Halloween. The first is our attitude toward Satan and demons. Is he (and are they) real? How big a threat is he? How are we to respond/react to him?

Scripture gives clear answers to these questions. Satan is a real being, one referred to as the father of lies (see John 8:44) and as a being masquerading as an angel of light (see 2 Cor. 11:14).

In response to something Spec Faith co-contributor Stephen Burnett said in his article “Shooting at Halloween pumpkins”, I laid out an account of Old Testament references to Satan and his forces. Here, in part, is that comment:

Satan was abundantly active, starting in a certain garden where he brought his devilish behavior before Man and his wife. Another vivid depiction of Satan’s activity is detailed in the book of Job.

In Egypt, Moses faced Pharaoh’s conjurers. Certainly their source of power was not God, yet they duplicated a number of Moses’s miracles.

On the way to the Promised land, God instructed the people “They shall no longer sacrifice their sacrifices to the goat demons with which they play the harlot” (Lev. 17:7 a). Forty years later in Moses’s farewell speech, he described how the parents of the current generation had behaved:

      They sacrificed to demons who were not God,
      To gods whom they have not known,
      New gods who came lately,
      Whom your fathers did not dread. (Deut. 32:17)

I think it’s clear that the gods Israel continued to worship—and the ones worshiped by the neighboring people—were demons. Hence the admonishing to excise sorcery from their midst.

Unfortunately they didn’t obey but continued to involve themselves in demon worship:

      But they mingled with the nations
      And learned their practices,
      And served their idols,
      Which became a snare to them.
      They even sacrificed their sons and their daughters to the demons (Ps. 106:35-37)

Then there was this verse in I Chronicles: “Then Satan stood up against Israel and moved David to number Israel.”

I could give you verses from Daniel too, showing that Satan was active in standing against his prayers, and that he was in fact “the prince” of, or had cohorts who were, known locations. Isaiah, too, and Zechariah had prophecies involving Satan.

The point is, Satan was very active in the Old Testament.

Scripture is also clear that Satan is a threat. He is described as an adversary and as a lion seeking to devour (see 1 Peter 5:8). He’s the accuser of the brethren (Rev. 12:10), the tempter (Mark 1:13), the one who snatches away the Word of God (Mark 4:15), the one who can bind (Luke 13:16) and destroy (1 Cor. 5:5) and torment the flesh (2 Cor. 12:7), who comes against us with schemes 2 Cor. 2:11), who demands to sift some (Luke 22:31) and possess others (John 13:27), who hinders believers in their ministry (1 Thess. 2:18).

Satan is real and he is a threat, but he is not greater than God. In fact his doom is sure. Scripture instructs us to be on the alert against him, to stand against him, to resist him, but Satan is a defeated foe (Col 2:15 and Rom. 16:20). We are never told to fear him.

The Imaginary

The second critical issue when it comes to deciding how we are to deal with Halloween is our understanding of the imaginary. Dragons, vampires, cyclops, werewolves, zombies, goblins, orcs, trolls, and such are imaginary creatures from the pages of literature. Witches and wizards that wave magic wands and/or fly around on brooms are imaginary. Ghosts that float about like bed sheets and are friendly or who pop in and out of sight at will or move things about with a word are imaginary.

Are Christians ever instructed in Scripture to stand against the imaginary?

On the other hand, most of us recognize that these various creatures are or have been representative of evil. The question then becomes, are we handling evil correctly by giving attention to the things that have been used to represent it?

Along that line of thinking, I believe it’s fair to ask if we should avoid representations of snakes, because Satan entered one, lions because Scripture said he is one, and angels because he appears as one.

The greater question, it seems to me, is whether or not dressing up in costumes of creatures that have an association with evil might trivialized evil. For instance, the “red devil with horns and a pitch fork” image of Satan trivialized him so that fewer and fewer people believe he is a real being—not a good thing at all if we are to stand against him.

Halloween

These two issues—what we believe about Satan and what we believe about the imaginary—collide in this one holiday. But there’s another element that must enter into the discussion because ultimately, what we do on Halloween is done in front of the watching world. We need to ask, what does our culture believe about Halloween?

As other comments to Stephen’s post reveal, some studying the holiday see its historical underpinnings—either pagan Celtic practices or early Church traditions. But what do ordinary people today see? Are our neighbors celebrating evil? Or are they having fun dressing up as something spooky? Are they going to haunted houses because they want to invoke the dead or because they want a shot of roller-coaster-ride-like adrenaline?

While we can’t deny that a fringe element—perhaps even a growing fringe element—see Halloween as a celebration of evil, I don’t think I’m wrong in saying that the majority of people in the US view it as nothing more than a reason to party. The activities are consistent with the day but have little or no meaning, much the way most people celebrate Christmas.

How we as Christians celebrate Halloween, then, hinges on these three factors—our view of Satan, our understanding of the imaginary, and what we want to say to our culture.

Is there one right way of doing Halloween? I don’t believe so. I do believe we should avoid pointing the finger at other Christians and saying that they’re doing it wrong. Paul speaks to this issue in Colossians 2: “Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath Day” (v. 16). Those who choose to celebrate are just as clearly not to point the finger at those who choose not to celebrate.

The only way we can insure that Satan has his day is by our disunity, our unloving attitude, our angry arguments over whether or not we celebrate Halloween.

This post is an edited version of one that first appeared at Spec Faith in October 2011.

We’re Going About It Backwards


california_academy_of_sciences_san_francisco_2013_-_16Like so many other things, the Church swings and sways on a pendulum, shifting from one extreme to the next in our effort to follow the path of truth our God set down for us in His word. The Reformation, for example, was a correction that brought the pendulum swinging back to the belief in grace and forgiveness, not law and rule keeping.

Another clear shift came in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when the social gospel replaced the fire-and-brimstone emphases of the Great Awakening preachers.

The Social Gospel movement emerged among Protestant Christians to improve the economic, moral and social conditions of the urban working class. (“The Social Gospel Movement: Definition and Goals of Urban Reform Movements”)

And much needed to be improved in both America and other western civilizations. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing, and the urban poor were a growing population. How did the Church respond? First, there was no unified approach to the changes in society. Protestants didn’t even agree with one another, let alone with Catholics. Two factions formed among Protestants, the one

focused on saving individual souls; in revivals in the rapidly expanding cities, they attempted to get people to turn away from their own sins and to embrace personal salvation. The [other] party focused on the sins of society, such as poverty and inequality, and asked people to seek salvation through building “the Kingdom of God on this earth.” Through the 1880s and 1890s, the [former] raced ahead of the [latter] in popularity and public appeal.

Each of the groups was evangelical, meaning that they drew their message from the Bible, and each of them focused on redemption. But their objects of concern were very different. (“The Social Gospel And The Progressive Era”)

Around the turn of the century the pendulum swung toward those focused on correcting the sins of society. Organizations arose and articles were written.

But two world wars and a Great Depression doused the hope that society was self-correcting and the injustices of capitalism were stemmed. The pendulum swung again, back toward personal salvation.

Now we find ourselves in another shift. The pendulum is moving again toward the remedy for societal ills. We are to love our neighbors as ourselves, we’re reminded. And we are the “hands and feet of Jesus,” we’re informed. In the past we aimed to carry the gospel to foreign lands but neglected our own urban poor.

These are all true, and the swinging pendulum does, perhaps, need to move back toward the center. But there’s one major problem. We seem to be leaving out the most important component, the first and greatest command, Jesus called it: we are to love the Lord our God with our whole being.

Before we are to take the gospel across the ocean or across the street, before we are to volunteer at the homeless shelter or donate to the fund for Haiti, we are to love God.

Deuteronomy expands the response we’re to have to God by adding “fear Him”—that is, have an awe, a reverence for Him. Throughout the book, God’s people, newly escaped from Egypt, were instructed in God’s ways. They repeatedly received instruction to pay attention to their relationship with God, and then to go about serving and obeying.

They weren’t to serve and to obey first. They were to love and to fear first. But here’s the key:

Loving God and obeying His commandments don’t happen because we try harder. Loving God is a response to His first loving us. Obeying God is a demonstration of our love for Him. The elements are entwined, and we confuse the issue when we try to separate one strand from the others.

Or if we forget which is the greatest command. (“The FIRST Commandment Is To Love God”)

In other words, loving God isn’t something we can isolate from obeying Him. Obeying God isn’t something we can isolate from loving Him. Or that we can put ahead of loving Him.

In short, there ought not be a swinging pendulum. We should not over emphasize personal salvation more than serving our neighbors. Unfortunately we’re in a period of time that threatens to de-emphasize salvation in favor of caring for the physical needs of those less fortunate than we are.

One ought not exclude the other. Neither should be emphasized at the expense of the other. Both are necessary to fulfill God’s commandments. We love God and then we serve Him. We fear God and then we obey Him.

How can we love God, fear Him, serve Him, obey Him, without telling others about Him? How can we love God, fear Him, serve Him, obey Him, without caring for the less fortunate?

God’s heart is for the most vulnerable—for the orphans and widows and poor and strangers.

He has told you, O man, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you
But to do justice, to love kindness,
And to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)

But that’s not first.

Loving God is first.

Today I fear we’re going about things backwards. We are focused on programs and events, we’re challenged to do and to go, we’re encouraged to work and to serve. But where are the sermons about loving God?

Maybe more churches have pastors helping worshipers fall in love with God and His word. Maybe there’s a renewed interest in prayer groups. Maybe Bible studies are gaining traction again. Maybe Sunday evening church services are taking place in other parts of the country. I don’t know.

All I know is, if the greatest commandment is to love God with all of our being, why don’t we spend more time focused on loving God than on doing good works?

Published in: on October 28, 2016 at 7:10 pm  Comments (3)  
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Forgiveness Is Not An Option


2017-Honda-Civic-ReviewI read a friend’s blog post today about forgiveness and I realized anew how little we talk about or understand forgiveness. Our speaker Sunday said something that also struck a nerve. Actually he was quoting Charles Spurgeon. He said the fall caused us to cling to grievances and to forget benefits.

Cling to grievances. That’s a lack of forgiveness.

Scripture has a lot to say about forgiveness. Here’s a re-post of an article I wrote on the subject, taking a look at one particular Biblical example.

– – – – –

New cars come with options. When I bought my car, it didn’t have a lot of perks. Those I could add if I chose. In most cases, I decided to go with the basics because the options cost extra.

Some time ago I heard another sermon on forgiveness, and it drove home a point I have learned and re-learned: forgiving others is not optional. It’s a product of having been forgiven. It’s not a means to forgiveness and it’s not an accessory that can be dispensed with at will. But for the Christian, it’s part of the basic package.

This is one of the areas that flies in the face of all other religions and anything the secular culture believes. As a matter of fact, it flies in the face of us Christians, too. It is not natural to forgive — but being forgiven makes it possible.

Once you’ve experienced the weight of guilt inexplicably removed through no effort of your own, two things happen. One is a sense of relief and gratitude. The second is a sense of kinship. You see someone else in the throes of justified condemnation, you see yourself and you understand, that was you once upon a time.

Interesting that the Apostle Paul, from time to time, reminded the people he wrote to of just this fact. Take his letter to the Colossians, for example, in which he wrote

Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed which amounts to idolatry. For it is because of these things that the wrath of God will come upon the sons of disobedience, and in them you once walked when you were living in them. (3:5-7 – emphasis mine)

It’s good that Scripture reminds us to look at what we were — exactly what people without Christ are. We were the prodigal, squandering our inheritance, we were the eldest brother, too jealous and judgmental to go inside and welcome his brother home.

But those two brothers illustrate the difference between being forgiven and not. The prodigal was a mess and knew it. He came to his father with nothing but the hope that he could serve because he had no way of making amends. When his father ran to him, hugged him (before he’d had a bath), restored him to his place as son, and set in motion a celebration, he knew he didn’t deserve any of it.

The brother coming in from the field, however, thought he deserved better than he got. He should have a celebration thrown for him, he reasoned, because he’d earned it. What’s more, he wasn’t about to join in a celebration for a wayward brother.

One son, contrite and humble, the other son, bitter and condemning. Which one had experienced the father’s forgiveness?

Jesus’s story doesn’t say that the prodigal son forgave his brother for not coming to his celebration, or anything like that. But it does tell us that the stay-at-home brother had an angry heart toward his brother and toward his father.

So who did he hurt by holding onto his anger? His brother? His father? They, I suspect, had a great time at the welcome-home feast. Only the bitter brother was left out.

So it is with us. Those who have experienced forgiveness aren’t in a position to shake our finger in anyone else’s face, reciting all their misbehaviors. Our eyes are downcast, or closed in worship, or fixed on the face of Jesus.

Those who have not experienced forgiveness feed their anger and jealousy, and end up missing out on the joy and rejoicing they could be a part of.

It’s a nasty thing, unforgivingness. It eats away at joy, contentment, gratitude. Certain names, we don’t want to hear; certain pictures, we tear up and throw away; certain places we no longer visit; certain days, we dread.

Can a forgiven person act that way? Only until the Holy Spirit comes along and says, And you once walked in those same sins when you were living in them. At that point, we realize forgiveness isn’t an option.

This post is an edited version of one that first appeared here in 2010 and was republished in February 2012.

Published in: on September 5, 2016 at 7:18 pm  Comments (4)  
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The Christian, the Church, and Love for the “Brethren”


Elmhurst_CRC_1964_(3)When I was growing up, we used to reference love for “the brethren and the sisteren,” and I always thought that was such a fundamental Scriptural principle it didn’t need special attention.

That was before I started seeing the way some Christians treat others online. Eventually I ran into a group that defended unkind words directed at other Christians with whom they disagreed. I was floored.

Their central point was that false teachers need to be treated harshly, and to make their case they used several places in Scripture that talk about apostates and those spreading heresy. From there they looked to the way Jesus talked to the Pharisees, calling them snakes and white-washed tombs. Then there’s Paul telling the Galatians they are foolish and confronting Peter for his hypocrisy.

So are they right?

I don’t think so—not the way they use these verses as permission to mock or malign others. The handful of examples they give must be balanced by the preponderance of instruction telling Christians to treat each other, our enemies, all men, with love and/or consideration.

Some years ago, as I worked my way through the New Testament, I noticed over and over this theme of treating one another with love. In the gospels, the emphasis is on loving our neighbors and loving our enemies until we get to John. Jesus then makes His strong statements about Christians loving Christians so that the world will know we follow Christ.

John then drew the conclusion that love for the brethren (and sisteren😉 ) is one sign that a person does in fact truly follow Christ:

  • By this the children of God and the children of the devil are obvious: anyone who does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor the one who does not love his brother. For this is the message which you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another
    – 1 John 3:10-11 (emphases mine)
  • We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death.
    – 1 John 3:14
  • Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love.
    – 1 John 4:7-8
  • Starting in Romans Paul fleshes out what it means to have love for the brethren, and for all men:

  • Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor; not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer, contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation. Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.
    – Rom 12:11-18 (emphases mine)
  • Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
    – Rom 13:10
  • He gives a more lengthy explanation to the Corinthians (1 Cor 13), then includes instruction to love other Christians in a number of his other letters:

    • to the Galatians – “but through love serve one another”
    • to the Ephesians – “and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma.”
    • to the Philippians – “And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment”
    • to the church in Colossae – “Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity.”
    • to the church in Thessalonica – “and may the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another, and for all people, just as we also do for you”
    • to Timothy – “But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. For some men, straying from these things, have turned aside to fruitless discussion”

    The writer to the Hebrews continues the theme:

      “Let love of the brethren continue.”

    As does James

      “If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF,’ you are doing well.”

    And Peter

      “Since you have in obedience to the truth purified your souls for a sincere love of the brethren, fervently love one another from the heart”

    Believe it or not, these passages are nothing more than a representative sample. How can a Christian miss the fact that love for one another is central to true discipleship? As Paul said in 1 Thessalonians “Now as to the love of the brethren, you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another.”

    Does Scripture tell us to stand against false teachers? From my study, I believe it does, but not to the exclusion of the clear command to love believers and all men, to be kind, to restore others with gentleness, to pursue peace with all men, to refrain from speaking against one another and many, many more similar indisputable relational instructions.

    So how did Christians bashing Christians or Christians bashing the Church or Christians bashing sinners—on the Internet or by letter or face to face—become something we believers seem to think is just fine?

    This post is an edited version of one that first appeared here in August 2010.

    Survivor


    I’m a fan of Survivor. I saw the very first show over ten ago when it was a summer fill-in that broke out as one of the most popular game shows of all time. Yes, game shows. It isn’t “reality” TV by any stretch of the imagination. It is all about competing against a group of strangers by trying to outwit, outplay, and outlast each of them.

    The twist, of course, is that the contestants are also living side-by-side with these same people, and to a certain extend, are dependent upon them for food, shelter, fire, water, and victories so they don’t have to face the dreaded “Tribal Council” where they might be voted out of the game.

    The game changes from season to season, but recently the producers pitted the men against the women, with a twist: both teams were camping on the same beach, so they were neighbors. Because of an accident that sent one of the women out of the game with a broken wrist, the men were declared the winners of the first challenge, winning the reward—flint so they could start fire. They had been given a choice. They were in the lead when the girl hurt herself and the game was stopped, hence, by rule they were the winners, but they could choose to play it out and win “fair and square.” They chose to take the win in hand.

    But here’s the amazing thing: the women were shocked by their choice! They thought for sure the men would do the gentlemanly thing and let the game play out.

    As if!! My first thought was, Do none of those women have brothers? Are they so clueless about the competitive nature of the men who sign up to play Survivor? I also thought, How entitled of them. Not only did they think the men should have let the game play, they then thought the guys should share fire with them when they got back to camp. They even tried to steal some embers during the night but couldn’t keep the coals alive.

    Lest you think too badly of the women, the men pulled the first unethical trick. When they reached their launch spot, they had 60 seconds to unload a truck of whatever gear they thought they could use. One of the women grabbed an ax, and one of the guys preceded to steal it. Let’s say, the guys showed their true colors right there—they were playing a no-holds-barred game. But later in camp the women were still expecting chivalry. Really!?!

    During nearly every season, someone makes a point of playing the game with integrity and someone else gets their feelings hurt when they get stabbed in the back—betrayed by tribe mates who promised to take them all the way to the end. Some years the one who engineers the betrayals is considered a mastermind and ends up winning the million dollar prize. Other seasons, the leader of all the manipulation is considered a villain and despised for using those he betrayed.

    The whole thing is an interesting study in human nature. Who believes whom, who leads, who follows, who works, who whines. One thing I noticed in a recent season: when a leader talks “trust” and “honor,” then pulls the strings to betray someone, the contempt others feel for him is greater.

    Which makes me think of the Church and today’s society. When we broadcast the good news of God’s love and forgiveness, people will listen—who, after all, doesn’t want love and forgiveness? But when we who lift high the banner of Christ, turn around and behave in an unloving, unforgiving manner to our fellow Christians in front of the watching world—to our neighbors, co-workers, even our enemies—the contempt spewed upon us is great.

    Deservedly so. Christ Himself told the parable of the forgiven servant who turned around and would not forgive, and Jesus concluded by giving a dire warning.

    And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him. My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.” (Matt 18:34-35)

    Not that our forgiving others earns us forgiveness, but our having been forgiven causes us to be so grateful, we want to pass on what we have received.

    And if we don’t? Chances are we’ve missed the essence of forgiveness. Like the Survivor contestants who turn against one who talks honor but plays dirty, those who watch a professing Christian proclaim forgiveness, only to turn around and withhold it, will despise him and what he stands for.

    Some people despise Christians for what we believe, and some people despise Christians for what we’re rumored to be or do. Some people despise Christians because they despise Christ. But woe to us if we earn the disrespect of others because we withhold love and forgiveness.

    This post is an edited version of one that first appeared here in February 2012.

    Published in: on July 29, 2016 at 7:23 pm  Leave a Comment  
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    Christ’s Return


    whaleSome things we Christians believe seem extraordinary. Probably because they are. I mean, a big fish swallowing a man who lived in its stomach for three days, and also lived to tell about it? Or a type of sweet cake that appears with the morning due six days a week, for forty years! And then one day stops because a new source of food is available. How about a man born blind suddenly able to see? Or a gold coin lodged in the throat of a fish—the exact fish Peter “just happened” to catch after Jesus told him what to do.

    There are so many others, but none ranks higher than Jesus rising from the tomb He’d been buried in. This was not a resuscitation or even the kind of resurrection Lazarus experienced. Jesus came alive and received a new, glorified body—one that transcended the laws of physics and would never die again.

    His model 2.0 is the precursor to His return. It’s also the proof and precursor to our own resurrected bodies which we’ll receive one day, but that’s a topic for another day.

    What I’ve been thinking about is a question that recently got me thinking. Are Christians expecting Jesus’s return to be a surprise that will catch everyone off guard, in the same way that a thief who comes in secret surprises a homeowner? Or are there clear prophecies that mark out what must happen before Christ will come again?

    I’ve always thought the answer is, Both!

    After all, Scripture says more than once that we are to be ready, to be alert, to be like the servant awaiting for his master’s return, like the wedding attendants ready with the extra oil for the bridegroom’s appearance. And yet, Jesus gave a list of things that would happen that He called the beginning of the end: wars and rumors of wars, false prophets and persecution, earthquakes and famine, the darkened sun and the darkened moon.

    Paul seems to reinforce the idea that the day of Christ’s return will be sudden and yet will follow a set, recognizable series of events. He said in his first letter to the Thessalonian church that believers should not be like everyone else:

    For you yourselves know full well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night. While they are saying, “Peace and safety!” then destruction will come upon them suddenly like labor pains upon a woman with child, and they will not escape. But you, brethren, are not in darkness, that the day would overtake you like a thief; for you are all sons of light and sons of day. We are not of night nor of darkness; so then let us not sleep as others do, but let us be alert and sober. (5:2-6)

    So, like a thief, but it won’t overtake believers like a thief.

    In some ways this makes perfect sense. Christians who know the Bible will know the signs that indicate Christ’s return is imminent. Those who do not know the gospel of God will miss those signs or will poo-poo them when they’re told what is to take place.

    Of course, convincing unbelievers that signs do exist is all the harder because Christians don’t agree. A quick Internet search uncovered articles that named ten signs, seven signs, fourteen signs. So which is it?

    Some theologians concentrate on the signs mentioned in the New Testament. Besides the things Jesus said, we have Paul’s list in his second letter to Timothy:

    But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power; Avoid such men as these. (3:1-6)

    Of course, there’s also Revelation, but the discussion about this book of prophecy is more of what scholars say about the prophecies from the Old Testament: how much is fulfilled prophecy, how much future; how much is literal and how much figurative? In these disputed passages we find such things as nations ganging up against Israel, the establishment of a worldwide government, the gospel of God preached to every tribe and tongue, and the re-institution of the Jewish sacrifices in the temple. Oh, and the rise of the Antichrist.

    A segment of evangelical Christianity solves the question, will Christ come back like a thief, surprising us all, or like the final chapter of a well-orchestrated drama, with His triumph as the beginning of all things new, by suggesting two returns. Well, it isn’t worded that way, but that’s the essential idea. First Christ returns to take believers out of this world, then Christ returns to bring judgment on those who remain. And on the world, the universe, everything corrupted by sin, it would seem.

    There’s reason to believe this idea, chiefly given in 1 Thessalonians when Paul is explaining that those who already died will receive their resurrected bodies first, before those who are alive at the time of Christ’s return. The latter, he says, will be caught up and meet Christ in the air.

    I have to admit, I’m not convinced that this meeting in the air is a precursor to Christ’s return and not a part of it. But how it all works, I don’t know.

    I don’t know if we’ll be able to see the rise of the Antichrist and know that it is he. Some believers think Christians will be long gone by then, but I believe Scripture says there’s going to be persecution during this time, so I tend to think Christians will still be here.

    But that’s a guess. As educated as I can make it, but still a guess.

    The one thing I’m sure of is that no one will know when Christ is going to return. Jesus made that fact very clear, so from that standpoint, His return will be a surprise. Which is why we must be alert.

    But can we see that men are lovers of selves, of money, boastful, arrogant, disobedient, and all the rest? Sure. Can we see the increase in wars and rumors of wars, in famine and earthquake and disease? Absolutely. Can we see the political forces lining up against Israel and the growth of a global economy that could lead to a global government? You bet.

    So what does all this tell us about Christ’s return? I think we’re back to BOTH. We can see the signs Scripture laid out crystallizing, yet we know we won’t know the day or hour when Christ will come back. We know it’s sooner today than it was yesterday. We know it’s sure. We know we need to be alert and to be about our Father’s business, being the ambassadors for His kingdom He wants us to be.

    Published in: on July 18, 2016 at 6:13 pm  Comments (3)  
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