The Christian Distinctive—A Reprise


When I read Kay Marshall Strom‘s Blessings of India books (The Faith of Ashish and The Hope of Shridula—see review here), what struck me so forcefully was the legalism of Hinduism. India of the 1940s was a society centered on the caste system and karma. Every social strata bowed to or benefited from the laws and traditions. They commanded attitudes toward children, gender, work, neighbors, food, and these all played out in prescribed actions.

Legalism, of course, was (and for those who are Orthodox, still is) endemic in the Jewish religion. Jesus constantly chastised the Pharisees for “straining at gnats but swallowing camels”–that is, they paid such close attention to the minutia of Jewish law and tradition that they missed the main things God asked of them–their commitment to Him and compassion for one another.

Consequently, when Jesus healed people on the Sabbath, the Pharisees criticized Him for breaking the Sabbath.

Jesus answered the charge by turning it back on them: To keep the Law, you all bypass compassion. He went to the Law itself to illustrate what He was saying, then pointed out how they treated their animals with more regard than they did hapless people who suffered from severe maladies for years and years.

Hindus and Jews aren’t the only ones who place a premium on obeying religious laws. Systemic to Buddhism is its path to liberation which includes following ethical precepts–not just by doing good deeds, but by doing them with pure intention.

Confucianism is another religious teaching that puts its followers on a path of doing:

Confucianism focuses on the cultivation of virtue and maintenance of ethics, the most basic of which are ren, yi, and li. Ren is an obligation of altruism and humaneness for other individuals within a community, yi is the upholding of righteousness and the moral disposition to do good, and li is a system of norms and propriety that determines how a person should properly act within a community. (from “Confucianism”emphasis mine)

Islam is another religion based on law.

Religious concepts and practices include the five pillars of Islam, which are basic concepts and obligatory acts of worship, and following Islamic law, which touches on virtually every aspect of life and society, providing guidance on multifarious topics from banking and welfare, to warfare and the environment. (from “Islam”)

All this law! No wonder a good number of people opt out of religion. They see the lists of do, do, do and decide that it’s too much to ask or that the rewards are too far off or that the requirements are too unattainable.

And then there is Christianity.

In a sense, Christianity agrees with all those other religions. Yes, there is a right way to behave. There are ethical ways of treating other people, and there are corrupt, nefarious, selfish ways of doing so. So Christianity’s distinction is not in doing away with a required standard of how to live.

Christianity also agrees with the secularist who says the standard is too unbearably high for anyone to reach. Rather than prodding Man to be better, to reach higher, to do more, Christianity says, no matter how much he might try to achieve the required ethical standard, he can’t make it.

It’s at this point that Christianity separates itself from all other systems of thought. Because of God’s great mercy, He mitigated the penalty for failure to live ethically and morally by taking it upon Himself.

Christian doctrine refers to this as grace.

What a huge difference to live under grace rather than under law. Rather than hoisting the burden of righteous living, a believer in Jesus Christ experiences God’s forgiveness, cleansing, redemption, and pardon.

The distinction, then, is grace—God’s free gift which He provided “while we were yet sinners.”

This post first appeared here in June 2012.

Advertisements

Light In A Dark Place—A Reprise


Particularly memorable for me is a scene in C. S. Lewis’s The Last Battle. A group of dwarfs have followed the band of Aslan-followers into a rundown shed.

Inside Lucy, Peter, and the other Aslan-followers find sunlight and growing things. It’s like Narnia of old. The dwarfs, however, huddle in a corner, afraid and wary.

The children try to coax the dwarfs out of the huddle they’re in with some fresh fruit. However, the dwarfs grouse and complain about the dark, about the smelly hay Lucy is trying to force on them. In the end, they remain blind to the beauty around them while the children who follow Aslan move further up and further in. The walls of the cottage are simply gone. All of Narnia, newer and better, is before them.

Whatever C. S. Lewis intended with that scene, I think it accurately portrays the difference between those of us whose spiritual eyes have been opened and those still blinded—by sin, and doubt, the world, riches, worries, the idol of self-effort, what have you.

The thing is, none of us can do a single thing to restore sight. We can plead with God to restore sight, but we can’t do it. Not for ourselves and not for anyone else.

So, do we pray for the blind and walk away?

Not if we take seriously what Jesus said.

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven (Matt. 5:14-16).

It seems to me our job is to shine our light—not in a closet, but out in the open where people are looking.

I think that makes some of us uncomfortable. Maybe we mix up what Jesus said about praying in secret and giving in secret with doing good works. Our prayers and our alms-giving are not supposed to be done in a way that has people noticing what we’re doing.

But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.

When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.

But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you (Matt. 6:3-6).

So prayer and giving—in secret. Good works—out in the open.

But there’s another key. When our good works get attention, they ought not earn us applause. Our good works should spur others to give God glory.

That’s the other part that makes us uncomfortable, I think. How do we get people to credit God, not us, for something we do for His kingdom?

The “ah, shucks, it wasn’t much” approach comes across as false humility and in the end belittles the good work and consequently the one receiving it and God who should receive the glory.

The Apostle Paul didn’t seem to have this problem. When he healed a lame man in Lystra, the people started calling him and Barnabas gods. Their response?

When the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their robes and rushed out into the crowd, crying out and saying, “Men, why are you doing these things? We are also men of the same nature as you, and preach the gospel to you that you should turn from these vain things to a living God (Acts 14:14-15a, emphasis added).

Perhaps we get confused about who’s light we’re shining, and that’s why it feels uncomfortable to us to deflect praise to God.

If someone handed me the keys to someone else’s car, should I stand around hemming and hawing as if somehow to refuse to take the keys that don’t belong to me is an embarrassment? Why would it be embarrassing? They don’t belong to me. It’s just a straight, matter of fact. “Oh, perhaps you misunderstood,” I’d say. “Those keys aren’t mine. They belong to someone else.”

So with praise that belongs to God.

The source of the light in this dark world is God Himself which is why the praise should be His.

This article is a revised version of one that first appeared here in May, 2011.

The Difference Between Being Religious And Being Christian


On my way home from church yesterday, I decided to stop for gas. I didn’t want to, but given that the station near my church is cheaper than just about anywhere and that I likely couldn’t go the whole week without gas, I though the responsible thing would be to fill the tank.

The problem was, when I got out to pump the gas, I locked my car, with my keys inside. And my cell phone. And my AAA card. Now that last is very significant. I hate to admit it, but I’ve had some experience locking my keys in my car before, and boy, AAA is invaluable, and the third-party service person they send is quick and efficient.

But you need to call the AAA Roadside Service representative first.

I wasn’t too worried; just annoyed with myself for doing such a dumb thing. I mean, I was at a gas station, in broad daylight. My car, sadly, was blocking one of their pumps, but I thought that would encourage the attendant to help me so I’d free up the area.

This, that, and the other happened—I won’t bore you with the particulars. The short of it is, we couldn’t find the number for AAA. It’s printed right there on the card, but remember, mine was locked in the car with my keys. And cell phone. Finally I started asking customers in the little mini-mart, and then those getting gas, if they had a AAA card. I just needed the number!

One older guy said he didn’t have one but he could ask his friend Anne. He pulled out his cell phone, so I thought he was going to put the request to the computer. No, he actually called someone. Said he needed her to stop what she was doing and get the number. She did, he wrote it down, programmed his phone, then let me use it to talk to the person I needed to. In less than half an hour, a service guy showed up and had my car open in under a minute.

Meanwhile, I had a chance to talk with the stranger who had lent me his phone. While we were still trying to hunt for the number to AAA, he said some very disparaging remarks about people of other ethnicities.

You need to know, I live in a multiracial area of interlocking communities. When I gave the AAA person my info, I wasn’t even sure what city I was in. All that to say, on any given day, you might interact with people from three or four different ethnicities who live in various nearby pockets dominated by Koreans, Tai, Hispanics, Chinese, Vietnamese, and more. So some of the people I asked if they owned a AAA card, didn’t speak English. No big deal and no surprise. They kindly allowed me to ask my question to one of their party sitting in the back seat of the car who did speak English.

But the man who was contacting Anne had nothing good to say about anyone from another race, and he had some really bad things to say. Imagine my horror when he said something about going to church! Really! I thought I was going to be sick.

And then, as the conversation continued, it came out that he belonged to the Christian Scientists. He went to his car and brought back some literature (like a used Sunday school quarterly for those of you who have been around long enough to know what those are) he wanted to give me. It had his writing in the blanks and I didn’t know what might be there. I declined as politely as I could. But he went on to tell me about the founder, Mary Baker Eddy, who really wanted a religion of love, so she started Christian Science and it was all about being good.

Two things that initially seem incongruous. First this man said some really nasty things about other people groups. The entire group of people several times, and then about an individual in a different people group at another time.

Second, he was kind to me. He even waited in his parked car until the service person was about to drive up. He came over to where I was waiting to say that AAA had called (since I had done so from his phone, he got the message) to confirm that the service guy was just moments away. The man left before I even thought to say more than thank you.

Why, I wondered? How could he be so awful and yet so kind?

And then it hit me. Religions that teach you are to be good, actually accomplish that. The man did a good deed, and I suspect he did it thinking this was his religious duty. But he didn’t have Christ who transforms lives and changes people.

I couldn’t help but compare his religion with what my pastor taught just that morning—all about community and how all are welcome at Christ’s table because Jesus came for the sick, not the well. The people who think they’re well, didn’t want to come to Him. But all who knew they were broken and in need, came gladly.

The question the Pharisees asked the disciples was, “Why does your Master eat with sinners?” They wanted religion to be an exclusive, us-not-them club. They wanted to use their religion to feel superior, to divide, to put others down.

Jesus does just the opposite. He invites the Matthews and the Nicodemuses and the women caught in adultery and the ones too ashamed to go to the well with the “good” women. He wants them to come and follow Him so that he can heal their brokenness. He wants to give them new life, living water, the bread of heaven. He wants to bring transformation to their lives.

Being religious might mean that a person does good things once in a while. Being a Christian means a person has begun the transforming process to become like Jesus Christ.

Published in: on March 12, 2018 at 5:00 pm  Comments (6)  
Tags: , ,

Is Sin Original? A look at history


It seems fitting that after writing about God’s judgment here and here, I look once more at why God needs to judge and discipline us human beings.

The general belief in Western culture today seems to tip toward the idea that man is fine, thank you very much. In fact we’re better than fine. We’re good. Or we will be as soon as we learn enough, as soon as we develop our empathy gene. Or have our selfishness instructed out of us.

The Bible gives us the accurate picture—of what we once were and what we’ve become.

– – –

This post subtitle probably chased away about half the regular visitors. 😉 Of course I could change it, but I like history and I think it’s important to learn from history. So today, a look at history.

The evangelical, Bible-believing Christians I know ascribe to the doctrine of original sin. The idea is that Humankind was created in God’s image, for communion with Him, but sin changed our condition permanently.

No longer does humans bear the untarnished image of God because we are now born in the likeness of Adam. Consequently, all our righteousness is like filthy rags. Our best effort at goodness falls far short of God’s holy standard. We are born in this condition, in need of a Savior, without the internal wherewithal to please God.

Not only does this doctrine square with Scripture, it squares with Humankind’s experience. There’s a reason we have as an idiom we all know to be true, Nobody’s perfect.

But even if that weren’t the case, the reliable, authoritative Word of God demonstrates the concept of original sin starting in the book of Genesis.

In chapter one:

Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness;

Then the command in chapter two:

The LORD God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.

Recorded in chapter 3 is Adam’s disobedience and the consequence he would face. But then this line:

Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil;

In other words, whatever else that line means, we see that there was a fundamental shift. Humanity was no longer the way God created us when He declared all He had made to be good. Genesis 4 records the first effects of this fundamental shift—Cain’s jealousy and ultimate murder of his brother, among other things.

But chapter 5 records perhaps the clearest declaration of this shift:

This is the book of the generations of Adam. In the day when God created man, He made him in the likeness of God. He created them male and female, and He blessed them and named them Man in the day when they were created. When Adam had lived one hundred and thirty years, he became the father of a son in his own likeness, according to his image, and named him Seth. (emphasis mine)

The clear implication is that Adam’s likeness and God’s likeness are no longer the same.

So what’s the point? Our culture does not believe in original sin. Ask the average man on the street and he’ll tell you Man is good, though he’ll just as likely turn right around and tell you nobody’s perfect.

Some time ago as I reread an old college textbook, Religion in America by Winthrop S. Hudson, I discovered that the roots of this cultural change (because the depravity of Man was universally understood and accepted in western civilization from some time during the 2nd century AD until the 19th century) stem from American Protestantism. Not exclusively, but in a large part.

America was a New World, with possibilities untold. Some years before independence, the colonial settlers experienced a Great Awakening that established Christianity as a way of life.

After independence the Second Great Awakening spurred believers on to hold camp revivals and send out missionaries and build more churches and colleges and schools all with the intent to bring the lost to salvation and teach the young to live godly lives.

But there began to be an added incentive. With all this hopefulness and push toward moral purity came a belief that God’s kingdom was being established physically right then and there.

And so, the shift began. Could it not be that Humanity, if given the right circumstances, could choose to live a holy and pure life in obedience to God? Could it not be that a community of such men and women would lead to a godly society? And wasn’t that the idea found in the Bible concerning God’s kingdom, when God’s law would be written on people’s hearts?

Consequently, what started as a work of God seems to have become a work of men, built upon their good works (which Scripture says are but filthy rags), to the point that men came to believe, not only in the goodness of their works but in the goodness of their being.

This is obviously a simplified, stripped down version of that period of history, but here’s the thing. Even when the two world wars in the 20th century shot to pieces the notion that the world was getting better and better, the idea that Humankind was good had become a best-loved belief. And humanism spread. Even into the church.

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

Published in: on March 23, 2017 at 4:06 pm  Comments Off on Is Sin Original? A look at history  
Tags: , , , , ,

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)  
Tags: , , , ,

Wasn’t He Supposed To Wait Tables?


Stephen and Phillip lived in the first century when the Church had it’s beginning.

Generally Stephen is referred to as the first Christian martyr, and yet when you look at the Biblical account of his life, short though the record is, you discover that his position in the church, like Phillip’s, would have falling under the category of “helps.” I suppose the equivalent in my church would have been the now-defunct position of “deacon.”

Stephen was one of the seven men chosen to take care of a group of widows who were not receiving what they needed. When made aware of the problem, the apostles told the Church that they, tasked with teaching the fledgling believers, ought not “neglect the word of God in order to serve tables.”

The plan, then, was for the Church to choose seven men “of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task.” The apostles would then be free to focus on “prayer and the ministry of the word.”

One of the seven was Philip, and yet somehow he ended up going to Samaria and preaching to crowds. At what must have seemed like the height of that ministry, however, the Spirit of God sent him back to Judea in order to explain Scripture to an Ethiopian traveling back home from Jerusalem.

After he baptized the man, the Spirit of the Lord “snatched” him away and he ended up near the Mediterranean Sea, in Azotus (present day Esdûd), one of the five chief cities of the Philistines, where he picked up his preaching again. On he went from there to Caesarea, proclaiming the gospel in all the cities along the way.

And this was one of those men chosen to serve tables.

Stephen did what Philip was doing, but more so. After Scripture notes that the apostles prayed for the seven chosen to care for the needs of the widows, it next states that Stephen performed “great wonders and signs among the people.”

Hmmm, sounds like more than serving tables.

As if that wasn’t enough, a bunch of Jews, some originally from Greece and some from Asia, began arguing with him. The problem was, they were no match for Stephen’s wisdom, not to mention the Spirit with which he spoke (see Acts 6:10).

In retaliation they persuaded a handful of men to lie and say that Stephen had blasphemed. They also stirred up the people and eventually dragged him before the Sanhedrin.

In front of this group of the most important Jewish leaders of the day, Stephen preached a sermon like few others, to the point that the hearts of those that heard him were pricked. You might say, in today’s parlance, their consciences were seared.

As a result, they attacked him and stoned him to death.

By point of reminder, Stephen was one of the seven chosen to serve tables.

Since when did serving tables become so dangerous?

Well, obviously they didn’t kill Stephen for serving tables. They killed him because he didn’t confine himself to just serving tables.

That’s the issue, I think. In today’s desire for efficiency and clarity and categorizing, we study the spiritual gifts the Bible talks about and we take tests to determine which gift we have. Then we know what our ministry focus should be and we pigeonhole ourselves into a slot.

Not that there isn’t value in discovering our spiritual gifts. But I tend to think today’s Western Christian, myself included, doesn’t think large enough. We think, I’ve got this little greeter job, or this class of seven-year-olds, or this newsletter to create. What if God wants us to preach to crowds even though the job the church has commissioned us for is to work the sound equipment Sunday morning?

Here’s the question: Why should we let our church job define our ministry? Philip didn’t and neither did Stephen, though it cost him his life.

I wonder if today we are too afraid of what preaching boldly would cost. Not our lives, but perhaps our reputation, our job, or peace in our little corner of the world.

Not that we should go out looking for a fight, but I don’t think that’s what Stephen did. Instead, he let the Holy Spirit use him how He wished, whether that meant serving tables or preaching in front of the religious elite, or dying for doing so.

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

What I DO Like About Church


Church_ServiceI’ve said more than once that I’ve been spoiled. I’ve spent the bulk of my adult life in one Bible-believing church. Without a doubt, the teaching I received there and what I’ve learned from regular time in God’s word are the causes for any spiritual growth in my life. From what my church has done right and also from what it has neglected, I have developed a few items on my “this is what I like” list.

First, Biblical, expository preaching. Many preachers use the Bible as their text. I’ve heard preachers who primarily retell the Biblical passage they’ve chosen, putting it in their own words and perhaps giving it a contemporary slant. I’ve heard other preachers who take the main topic of a text and discuss it, using all kinds of research and examples from literature or history or psychology or whatever. I’ve also heard preachers who take a topic and then find verses in the Bible to support what they want to say about that subject.

None of these are necessarily wrong. They might provide the congregation with helpful knowledge and might facilitate their spiritual growth. But from my thinking, there’s a better way.

A pastor, as I see it, should not pick and choose what parts of the Bible his congregation needs. In reality, we need the entire Bible, even the hard parts. Some hard parts, to be sure, might not seem to yield “good sermon material,” so a pastor needs to decide how to handle those sections of Scripture. I’m thinking, for example, of passages in Numbers discussing the dimensions of the tabernacle or the laws intended for the Jewish people or 1 Chronicles genealogies or even the genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and in Luke. There are lessons to be gleaned from each of those, and a pastor may want to address those in a different way than he would a New Testament letter or a study of a book of prophecy or of history.

But the point here is this: expository preaching intends to explain or describe a Biblical passage, going into some depth, and generally working through a section from start to finish.

Expository preaching still uses cross references and still looks into the historical background of the text. But the primary element of expository preaching is to let God say what He said. Consequently we don’t dodge hard verses that say things that don’t square with our theology or that clash with our cultural proclivities. Expository preaching doesn’t chase trends in the church. It doesn’t camp on one topic and hit congregants over the head with the same “thou shalt” week after week after week. The Spirit of God might want to get someone’s attention that way, but the Bible has such variety, written from the perspective of so many different writers, it’s really hard to work through a passage of Scripture and not find something new and diverse.

Second, singing that’s congregation oriented. I’m of the mindset that corporate worship should be different from a concert. Corporate worship is participatory. We should be engaged during sermons, checking the Scriptures to see if the things we’re being taught are true. We should also be engaged in any singing. Yes, there might be times when our engagement is within as it is when we listen to sermons, but I believe in congregational singing. Jesus sang a hymn with His followers the night before He was arrested, so we have His example.

Paul says we are to teach and admonition one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs (Col. 3:16). That idea leads to a second point of emphasis: the purpose of the congregation-oriented music is that we might have doctrine reinforced. Yes, singing should also be for worship, but again this is a corporate activity, so we as a congregation should do this together—praising God for who He is, for what He’s done, for the beauty of His person, for the perfection of His plan, for His creation. In other words, praise should be focused on God, not on how I feel about God.

A third point here is that congregational singing should actually be intended for a congregation, not for a small group or soloist. So I really like congregational music when I don’t have to change keys to keep on singing or to stay quiet until the music comes back into my range.

What else do I like about church? I like groups of people from our church working to serve others. We once had a vibrant ministry to prisons. I don’t hear about that any more, but maybe we still do it. We also used to participate in a program that provided prisoners gifts for their children at Christmas time. I like missions and short term mission opportunities. I like various activities and services for the poor and needy. Big churches, of course, can offer more varied ways of serving, but I like whatever effort a church makes to serve at home or abroad.

Along with that, though, I like to see people speaking out boldly about Jesus Christ. Anyone can do a good deed. I think it’s important for others to know we love and go and work and serve because Jesus first loved us. We’re not trying to earn church brownie points or, worse, heaven brownie points.

One last area I’ll mention today. I like churches that take care of one another. Churches are filled with people, and God designed us to pray for one another and to help one another and to comfort one another and to serve one another. In short, I like churches with people who develop relationships with one another—not always easy to do in big metropolitan areas in the fast pace of today’s society. But all the more necessary because of the disconnect we can easily feel away from family.

God identifies His Church using a variety of metaphors. One is that we are His children, which makes us all brothers and sisters. That’s something vital I think the church must not lose. No one needs another bureaucratic entity in our lives just because. But we need the church, mostly because we ARE the Church. We need to be with like-minded people, not so that we can settle, but so that we can be empowered to go out and serve and preach and love those around us.

Therefore if there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Phil. 2:1-8)

Published in: on May 5, 2016 at 6:10 pm  Comments (9)  
Tags: , , , , , , ,

What I Wish I Were Thankful For


Amy_Carmichael_with_children2I wish I were thankful for trials. I know James says we are to count them as joy. I know that trials produce endurance and end up shaping us into the likeness of Jesus Christ. And I’m thankful for the trials I’ve gone through that are over, not just because I survived them, but because I see God working in my life because of them.

But I’m not a fan of trials. I don’t eagerly long for or look forward to the next one or the one after that. I’d much rather hear good news and have things go my way.

I’d rather see the US experience a great revival. I’d rather see the health of the people I love improve. I’d rather get a big book contract. I’d rather my church had a perfect staff and perfect congregants and did ministry perfectly.

It would be so much easier to be thankful, wouldn’t it?

But the reality is, I’m not perfect, the US may not see a revival, my family and friends will struggle with health issues and one day die, my church doesn’t have perfect people at any position, and I may never see that big contract.

So what?

Is God greater if everything goes the way I want it to or is He the same, whether I suffer or not?

This is a critical question, because thanksgiving can’t depend on what we have. If I have plenty, I’m thankful and if I have less, I’m not? If that were true, what would be the line of demarcation indicating when we needed to be thankful and when we could start complaining?

So if thanksgiving isn’t about “counting our blessings, naming them one by one,” what is it?

I suggest it is above all a focus on who God is.

Recently I heard a poem entitled “Flame Of God” written by Amy Carmichael, a missionary to India who opened, then ran an orphanage for fifty-five years. The poem is such a rich, reverent piece, I think it gains strength by repetition. The point for this post is that Amy Carmichael clearly saw God in a way that made her want to give Him her all.

She wouldn’t have created a thanksgiving list that included stuff that made life easy or comfortable. She’d thank God for Himself, His word, prayer, His redemption. But she’s mostly thank Him for the privilege of serving Him, for the opportunity to give her life to care for the least and lost.

When asked once what missionary life was like, she wrote back saying simply, “Missionary life is simply a chance to die.” (Wikipedia)

The words of “Flame Of God” inspire me and convict me at the same time. Above all, they make me want to see God the way Amy Carmichael did.

Flame Of God

From prayer that asks that I may be
Sheltered from winds that beat on Thee,
From fearing when I should aspire,
From faltering when I should climb higher
From silken self, O Captain, free
Thy soldier who would follow Thee.

From subtle love of softening things,
From easy choices, weakenings,
(Not thus are spirits fortified,
Not this way went the Crucified)
From all that dims Thy Calvary
O Lamb of God, deliver me.

Give me the love that leads the way,
The faith that nothing can dismay
The hope no disappointments tire,
The passion that will burn like fire;
Let me not sink to be a clod;
Make me Thy fuel, Flame of God

Suffering is a part of life. I don’t think it’s wrong for the sick to pray for healing or the unemployed, for a job. I think it’s good to pray for God’s comfort in the face of grief. But should I pray for “softening things” or for “easy choices”? I think too often that’s what I do.

What I want to do instead is learn to use suffering for an occasion to thank God—for His presence, His strength, and whatever else He shows me. I’m most often mindful of His omniscience—that the things which surprise me, are no surprise to Him. That He knew all along what would happen and what I’d need. And of course that reminds me how trustworthy He is.

I don’t know that I’ll ever have the spiritual maturity Amy Carmichael displayed when she wrote “Make me Thy fuel, Flame of God.” But I’m convinced thanking God, no matter where He puts me or what He takes me through, draws me into a deeper relationship with Him.

Published in: on November 12, 2015 at 6:34 pm  Comments (4)  
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Do Christians Need To Obey The Mosaic Law?


The_Crucifixion011If you spend much time around Bible-believing Christians, you’ll undoubtedly hear something about grace. We’re saved by grace, not by works. And yet in any number of conversations, these same Christians will bring up something found in the Mosaic Law. Just this week I referenced a verse in the Law in regard to capital punishment.

So are Christians “cherry picking” when we say we’re to keep the Ten Commandments, but don’t have to worry about the dietary laws or about stoning people for breaking the Sabbath?

The notion that believers under grace are picking and choosing the parts of the Bible they want to follow is easy to understand. From the outside, it certainly looks inconsistent. But the truth is, there are passages of Scripture that are game changers.

The first of these is Matthew 5:17: “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.” Jesus fulfilled the Law. Peter explains it a bit more: “For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit” (1 Peter 3:18).

How does Jesus’s death fulfill the Law? On our own, we cannot fulfill the requirements of the Law. Jesus basically said as much in the Sermon on the Mount. Not just what we do falls under the law, but what we think—the anger or lust or covetousness in our hearts. Sin requires sacrifice. Christ’s death was the sacrifice “once for all” that fulfills the requirements of the Law. Paul fleshed this out in several of his letters. In Galatians he said,

nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified. (2:16)

Paul explained that it is Christ’s work on the cross that saved us from the Law and its requirements.

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, “CURSED IS EVERYONE WHO HANGS ON A TREE”—

Another game changer is the establishment of the Church. In the Old Testament God chose Israel to represent Him to the rest of the world, but after Christ came, His followers are God’s representatives on earth. The verses are 1 Peter 2:9-10.

But you are A CHOSEN RACE, A royal PRIESTHOOD, A HOLY NATION, A PEOPLE FOR God’s OWN POSSESSION, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; for you once were NOT A PEOPLE, but now you are THE PEOPLE OF GOD; you had NOT RECEIVED MERCY, but now you have RECEIVED MERCY.

The Church, made up of peoples of every tribe and tongue and nation, isn’t under a single government as Israel was. Their national law was to be God’s Law. But not so the Church.

Then why do Christians go on about the Bible, including the books of the Law?

Game changer number three: 2 Timothy 3:16-17:

All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.

The Old Testament, just like the New is to teach, reprove, correct, train—not so that we can work our way into God’s good graces. Rather, Scripture equips us for every good work.

Paul, in Philippians, calls this the “righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith.” We are saved in order that we might do good. We don’t do good in order that we might be saved.

It’s an important distinction.

The Bible, then, from cover to cover, reveals God: His character, His qualities, His work, His plan. It’s not a list of rules. It’s a revelation.

We who have been saved by grace ought logically to be about God’s business, doing and living the way He wants us to. In fact, game changer number four shows us that “faith” isn’t alive unless it translates into a changed life that cares about what God cares about:

You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? (James 2:19-20)

So what about those dietary laws? Mark addressed this issue when he explained something Jesus said about the legalistic Pharisees:

And He said to them, “Are you so lacking in understanding also? Do you not understand that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him, 19 because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated?” (Thus He declared all foods clean.) [Mark 7:18-19]

The issue came up later in the book of Acts, this time in the context of God making it clear that He was including Gentiles in the Church. Here’s the part of the passage that deals with the dietary laws:

Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. But he became hungry and was desiring to eat; but while they were making preparations, he fell into a trance; and he *saw the sky opened up, and an object like a great sheet coming down, lowered by four corners to the ground, and there were in it all kinds of four-footed animals and crawling creatures of the earth and birds of the air.

A voice came to him, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat!”

But Peter said, “By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean.” 1

Again a voice came to him a second time, “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.” (Acts 10:9b-15)

God wasn’t just talking about food, as the rest of the story reveals, but He was nevertheless also talking about food.

The short answer to the question is this: God revealed His heart throughout the Bible, including through the Law. We aren’t under the Law, but it can and should inform our good works which we do as a reflection of the faith we have in Christ. Jesus summed the law up by saying we are to love God and love our neighbors.

Love means protecting some against predators. Are we also loving the predators when we do so? I think so. People who get away with murder don’t realize they are sinners in need of a Savior. They think they are the gods of their own world and can do whatever they want. God’s judgment reveals the truth: He is God and we are not. If we love our neighbor who is facing God’s judgment, we ought not be silent. (We also ought not be strident and mean spirited, but that’s another issue for another day.)

To Please Or To Become Pleasing, That Is The Question


Three CrossesThe distinction I am making is between doing good works to become pleasing to God (works done because of law) and doing good works to please God (works done because of grace).

There’s nothing I can do to become pleasing to God. Not only would my motives be wrong in doing good, my efforts would be futile. My nature is sinful, and all the cleaning up I do amounts to rearranging dirt, not genuine washing.

For the person who believes, the work Christ did on the cross changes everything. Before, as Romans 7 says, the wanting to do good was in me, but the doing ended up being that which I hated—and that which God hated, I might add.

Because of the new nature God gave me, because of the Holy Spirit in me, and because of the strength Christ provides me, I can now do the good I want to do. And why do I want to do good? To earn points with God? Get jewels for my future crown? Earn a spot closer to the throne?

No. The issue is still not about be becoming good or better or pleasing. Who I am in Christ is fixed. But because of what Christ has done, my response, as is true in any love relationship, is to want to give in return for what has been given me.

In one of the most amazing aspects of God’s love for us, He who needs nothing from us, asks something of us so that we can joyously give to Him as an expression of our love. Hence, my desire—a growing desire, not a fully mature thing—is to please Jesus.

Here are some of those favorite verses that touch on pleasing God:

I Thessalonians 4:1 – “Finally then, brethren, we request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us instruction as to how you ought to walk and please God (just as you actually do walk), that you excel still more.”

II Corinthians 5:9 – “Therefore we also have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him.”

Colossians 1:10 – “so that you will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.”

Ephesians 5:8-10 – “for you were formerly darkness, but now you are Light in the Lord; walk as children of Light (for the fruit of the Light consists in all goodness and righteousness and truth), trying to learn what is pleasing to the Lord.”

Pleasing God, as I see it, is all about getting to know Him.

Young people in love do this same thing. Does he like his coffee black or with cream, pie for dessert or cake, the beach or the mountains, football or golf, Hondas or Chevys, and on and on.

Why learn all these things? In order to provide him with what he wants, in order to choose his preferences, in order to please him as often as possible.

When I stand before God washed of my sins, that should spark in me a response—more and more I should like what He likes, do what He does, speak as He speaks. When I do, I am not more pleasing to God, but He is pleased.

Photo: Three Crosses © Mellow Rapp | Dreamstime Stock Photos

Published in: on August 11, 2015 at 6:00 pm  Comments (3)  
Tags: , ,