Jonah And Racism


I know. The title of this article is supposed to be “Jonah and the Whale,” right? I mean, that’s what everyone know about Jonah. But I’ve recently heard a couple different pastors on the radio, and to a man they cut to the heart of the story.

Jonah is not about some miraculous rescue from the sea, though that’s a part of the story. It’s not even about a disobedient prophet who finally, when given a second chance, repented and relented and did what God told him to do. Though that also is part of the story.

The real issue for the prophet Jonah was his hatred of the Assyrians. You know, the people who lived in Nineveh, where God told him to go and preach. If God had said, Go to Bethlehem or Bethel or Jericho or Dan, I imagine Jonah would have been happy to obey, because we know from 2 Kings that Jonah did in fact prophesy certain things about Israel.

But Nineveh? Jonah didn’t want to go to the enemy. He told God why: he knew that when he preached the message of judgment, those violent idolaters who had fought against Israel on more than one occasion, would repent, and then God would forgive them. Yep, that’s why he didn’t want to go. He didn’t want them to repent. He didn’t want them to receive God’s mercy.

Again, that’s right there in the book of Jonah—in the chapter that doesn’t make it into the nice little picture Bible story books we so often see. After God saw the Ninevites change their ways and turn from their wicked deeds, after God relented of the destruction he had planned to send against them, what did Jonah do? He went up on a hill outside the city to watch, hoping that perhaps God would stay with the judgment He had planned.

Then Jonah went out from the city and sat east of it. There he made a shelter for himself and sat under it in the shade until he could see what would happen in the city. (Jonah 4:5)

While he sat there, God prepared another object lesson for Jonah. He gave him a plant that provided additional shade from the heat, but just as miraculously He sent a worm that destroyed the plant. And Jonah was angry. Why? He had liked that plant. He wanted the plant to live. He hadn’t actually planted it or cultivated it or done anything to give it life. But he wanted that plant to live.

God made the comparison: Jonah and his attitude toward the plant in juxtaposition to God and His attitude toward Nineveh.

Then the LORD said, “You had compassion on the plant for which you did not work and which you did not cause to grow, which came up overnight and perished overnight. Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?” (Jonah 4:10-11)

Jonah had no compassion for the thousands of people who God was warning about the coming judgment. His actions—going the opposite direction in order to avoid giving God’s message, becoming angry when God relented and determined that He would not destroy them after all, sitting outside the city in hopes that God would still judge them—followed by God’s confrontation of him, show us Jonah’s heart.

He wasn’t thinking along with God, here. He wasn’t rejoicing with the angels that sinners had turned from the errors of their ways. He wasn’t thinking about mercy or forgiveness. Instead, he was thinking about revenge.

My guess is that Jonah would have been happy to deliver God’s message of judgment: “Yet forty days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” (Jonah 3:4b). If, that is, he hadn’t figured out that God, being merciful, would give them a second chance.

He didn’t want them to have a second chance. One way to keep them from repenting, was simply keep them in the dark about their coming judgment. So, one ticket to Tarshish, please.

The whole story is so ironic, because Jonah himself experienced God’s second chance when he was plucked from the sea by a God-appointed fish. When Jonah repented, God appointed the fish to hurl, then gave Jonah a second chance:

Now the word of the LORD came to Jonah the second time (Jonah 3:1a)

Jonah reminds me of the man in one of Jesus’s parables who had been forgiven much but who would not forgive those who owed him even a small amount.

The story also reminds me that God loves the world. He loved the people of Israel and He loved their enemies. He wasn’t playing favorites or picking sides. He sent Joseph to Egypt, Daniel to Babylon, and Jonah to Assyria.

In essence He’s sent Christians to those places, too, as well as to many other places. That’s our “marching orders,” our perpetual assignment. And never has it been easier to “go” without really even having to go. We can preach the gospel—the good news that has to start first with the same kind of warning Jonah was to deliver—by supporting those who leave their homes and go in person. We can tell others through the internet, radio, print, podcasts, videos, so many, many ways. We can even go to our homeless or unchurched neighbors right where we live.

Our choice is simple: we can behave like Jonah or we can show the compassion of Christ, the love of the Father for those thousands who are confused and don’t know what is right.

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Published in: on September 27, 2019 at 5:00 pm  Comments (9)  
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God’s Not Good Enough


Índios

What a bizarre statement—God’s not good enough—and yet that’s precisely what some people believe. Before he passed away, atheist Christopher Hitchens said if the Christian God did in fact exist, he would want no part of such a tyrant. Some time ago I read a comment stating we are better off outside Eden [away from God].

Why would anyone hold such an opinion? Then again, why would people say they thought they might be nicer than God? Why would others claiming to be Christians say the God of the Old Testament is murderous?

Last I checked, murder was a sin, as is wielding authority in a cruel way, and not being as “nice” as the creatures He created. So, apparently, God is under indictment by some, while others simply want nothing to do with Him.

And yet, there’s a sizable group who proclaim Humankind’s innocence. God might be a monster and society is seriously messed up, but humans are innocent bystanders who get caught up in the craziness.

That thinking is so flawed, it’s hard for me to grasp. Society is made up of people. The only way society could become messed up is if people are messed up.

And God is perfect—perfectly good, kind, loving, just, omniscient, powerful, merciful, sovereign, infinite, wise, and more.

Humans are imperfect. We all know it about ourselves and about every person we’ve ever met. We make mistakes, get facts wrong, forget, become confused, lie. And yet, we think humans see things correctly and God does not?

Especially spiritual things.

So when God says, all have sinned, there is none righteous, humans counter with, “What about the innocent who have never heard?”

Apparently, all have sinned, none are righteous now refers only to people in western culture because we are the people who are privileged to know and to hear. No longer are people groups who kill their enemies and ritualistically eat their flesh, considered sinful. They are the innocent who have been deprived of knowledge about the One who can save.

I don’t understand. I truly don’t understand. Romans 2 spells out that those not blessed with the written word of God, the Law, are responsible before Him for the law written on their consciences, so that “all who have sinned without the Law will also perish without the Law” (Rom. 2:12a).

The only way, then, for a person to be considered innocent according to Scripture is for him to live a perfect life. And only One Individual in all time has done that.

Yet there’s still this idea that God would be unfair to judge those who have walked away from Him, who live in rebellion to Him, who rape and abuse and worship idols, because they haven’t been given “explicit knowledge” of Jesus, the Messiah.

Does God need to see them spit on Jesus to know they have rejected His Son? No! He is omniscient. Why is it we twenty-first century Christians have such a hard time believing that God actually knows what He’s doing? Or that He’s powerful enough to reach down among the “unreached,” and proclaim the gospel to them?

He found a way to turn the Apostle Paul 180 degrees, from a murderer to an evangelist. He found a way to bring the rebellious prophet Jonah to Nineveh to preach repentance so that they would turn to Him. He found a way to bring Paul to the isolated people on the island of Malta. He sent Philip to an Ethiopian and created an earthquake that led to the salvation of a jailer in Thyatira. What can’t God do to bring His gospel to all the world?

We act as His judge. We declare Him unfair, because we don’t know. There might be someone out there who wants to repent, we say, and it would be unfair for God to judge them without giving them a chance to know Him.

So we think God does NOT know whose hearts are His? That somehow His knowledge stops with western civilization?

The two greatest evils in our society are these: we think so little of God, and we think so much of ourselves.

But isn’t that really what the prophet Jeremiah said centuries ago (he in a more poetic way, to be sure):

For My people have committed two evils:
They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters,
To hew for themselves cisterns,
Broken cisterns that can hold no water. (Jeremiah 2:13)

When we think we know better than God, we have forsaken Him. When we think what He’s told us in His word is unfair and do a tap dance around it to get to a more user-friendly position, we are digging our own leaky wells. We will not come up with the water we need.

The fact is, we are smaller than we think, and God is greater than we imagine.

This post is an edited version of one that first appeared here in May, 2014.

Our Amazing God


Blogger friend InsanityBytes recently posted an article entitled “Moving Mountains” in which she discusses the difference between wishful thinking and prayer. My immediate thought was—God. The difference is dreaming of something and asking God for something.

That thought started me thinking about answered prayer. I’ve had atheists before challenge me to name an answered prayer. I don’t generally write my prayers down. I’d be writing all day. And a lot of times I don’t know how God has answered prayer. But once in a while, He is gracious and gives me a peek into what he’s doing with my requests. Mine and others, no doubt.

Note, these answers to prayer are not because of me. They are because of God, who laid the need on my heart (and likely on other believers’ hearts) and prompted us to pray, because He delights in including us in His work, then answered those prayers in a powerful way.

For instance? Some time ago, because of a prompt in a prayer journal I was using, I started praying for believers who live in places that persecute them. As part of my prayer, I started asking for the pastors of those churches to receive training in the word of God so they don’t get sucked into false teaching.

So not long after I started praying for this, a particular pastor here in the US said he was leaving his ministry because he felt the need to go abroad and help train pastors in places where they don’t have great study tools or easy access to schools that will train them.

Today I learned that a whole ministry has begun with one pastor here making his study tools available for use—by anyone but especially by pastors around the world. The UK arm of his ministry is heading this up and undoubtedly these “how to study the Bible” tools will equip hundreds and hundreds of pastors from China to Iran and beyond. What an incredible answer to prayer.

Another prayer was from years ago. In 1990 missionary Luis Bush with Partners International referred to the 10-40 window, by which he meant people living between 10 and 40 degrees north of the equator. Generally the countries in this window have limited access to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Ironic, since it includes the Middle East where Jesus lived.

According to Wikipedia,

Roughly two-thirds of the world population lived in the 10/40 Window, and it is predominantly Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, animist, Jewish, or atheist. Many governments in the 10/40 Window are officially or unofficially opposed to Christian work of any kind within their borders.

Back those 30 or so years ago, the idea was to pray because we could not go.

Well, a great deal has happened in that region since 1990. How many of those technological changes and regime changes and wars and revolts have allowed the gospel message to penetrate this closed window? More than we may be aware of.

But I want to highlight one specific, from God only, answer to this prayer. Many Muslims have reported having dreams that have brought them to the Bible or to someone who had a Bible and could explain it. These personal reports are especially powerful because as Nabeel Qureshi explained in the expanded edition of Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, Muslims place a great deal of emphasis on the meaning of dreams. Nabeel himself reported having several confirming dreams that convinced him God was the God of Christianity, not Islam.

He was careful to add that dreams are not replacements for Scripture. But God uses them to draw people to Himself.

And why shouldn’t He? In Biblical times, God spoke to Joseph, Mary’s future husband, in a dream, more than once. He spoke to King Nebuchadnezzar through more than one dream, and to Joseph. He spoke to Daniel through dreams, and the magi when they were about to return home.

My point is, God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Why shouldn’t He communicate with people today through miraculous means? I know this is controversial for some Christians who believe the “ecstatic gifts”—the miraculous things the Holy Spirit does—ceased to take place once we had the Bible.

But evidence seems to be on the side of increasing dreams that open people up to the truth of the Bible. And these people just happen to live in the 10-40 window. Is that not an answer to prayer of God’s people?

Why would we relegate this amazing phenomena to the the trash heap of coincidence? Why should we suspect that these people turning to Christ are lying about their dreams and about the reason they are turning to find the truth about Jesus?

Someone who does not believe that God hears and answers prayer can pooh-pooh a dramatic change in the fortunes of the people in the 10-40 window that allows people who once had no contact with Christianity to now have access to the internet, to have missionaries in their country, to travel to countries that allow Bibles and preaching. But believers should know better.

Would these things have happened without prayer for the 10-40 window? We can’t know. But we do know God hears and answers prayer. He prompts us to pray in the first place because He wants to do a work that includes us.

Think about it. We can pray for God to move a mountain, then when He does, are we going to say, Well, it’s probably a natural phenomenon that caused it to move and it would have done so even if we hadn’t prayed.

If we believe God answers prayer, why would we question the answers we can see? Sure, God does use all kinds of means to answer prayer, but that fact should not mask His involvement. He is as amazing today as He was when Jesus turned water into wine, when He multiplied the loaves and fish so they fed more than 5000 people, when He calmed the wind and waves. That’s the God who lives in the heart of every believer. Pretty amazing, isn’t He!

Published in: on February 4, 2019 at 5:37 pm  Comments (1)  
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Social Justice And The Gospel


There’s a bit of a kerfuffle in the cyberworld because of a statement Pastor John MacArthur made, and thousands of other evangelical Christians signed, about Social Justice and the Gospel.

In essence MacArthur’s statement is a call for Christians to hold fast to the teaching of God’s word and not get swept up in the rabbit trails the world would lead us down.

I’ve been listening to MacArthur most mornings for about the last six months or so. Maybe longer. I have to say, I often disagree with him. Not substantively, but in places where he is so absolute, so dogmatic, that he doesn’t leave room for honest disagreement by others who are just as serious and knowledgeable about God’s word as he is.

From my perspective, I think he comes across a little arrogantly. I say this with love, mind you. Because I do think he cares deeply for God’s word and makes a great effort to help people grasp the truths of Scripture. And hold on to them. Without error. But still, at times he can be abrasive and seemingly, callous. But he’s right more than not.

As anyone who is paying attention knows, error does and has and is creeping into some bodies of the Church. Hence, in a recent blog post, MacArthur states

The besetting sin of pragmatic, style-conscious evangelicals has always been that they shamelessly borrow fads and talking points from the unbelieving world.

I don’t disagree with him.

Our sin is no different from the people of Israel worshiping Yahweh and some Egyptian idol or Canaanite god. Sadly, we are just as prone to look around, see what people in the world are doing, and say, “Let’s do that!” Because, you know, people will like us better. People will come to Jesus more, and isn’t that our goal?

That actually puts in the best light the desire to do what the world is doing, but some groups have motives that aren’t that noble. Yet even the most upright of motive misses the point that we don’t save anyone. The Holy Spirit does. We are to do the works of righteousness, to be ambassadors for Christ, telling the world near and far that we have a Savior who will rescue us from the kingdom of darkness.

But recently we’ve headed down some of those cultural rabbit trails that MacArthur is warning us about. We’ve set the gospel aside to proclaim social justice instead.

The confusing thing is that the gospel is all about social justice, so by proclaiming it we are simultaneously, and more effectively, dealing with the glaring ills of society.

In some ways you could think of social justice as a subset of the gospel. I think it’s sort of like the Pharisees who locked on to the command to keep the Sabbath. After all, some of the prophets reamed the nation of Israel for not keeping the Sabbath—a contributing cause of God turning them over to Babylon and Assyria.

I suppose the Pharisees were determined that would never happen again, so they came up with an elaborate system of laws to make sure that someone didn’t work on the Sabbath. Their motive seems like it was good, but they were not dealing with a person’s heart. They were simply concerned about the outward appearance.

Social justice is like that in many respects. There are needs—homelessness, crises pregnancies, homosexual lifestyles, gender confusion, race relations, and more. So let’s clean up these problems, social justice seems to say.

But the real problem is in the heart. Cleaning the outside of the cup will only give a cup that looks clean, but all the germs are still on the inside and that’s what can cause real problems.

The Bible takes on the heart first, but also requires believers to take on the things that create confusion in our culture. Not by creating a Moral Majority or an evangelical voting block or some other system that copies the world. We already have our “system.” It’s called the Church.

And the Church is designed to equip the saints to go out into the highways and the byways and preach the gospel and love our neighbors and tell the world about Jesus.

Sadly, the poor we will always have with us. And yet we are to create a Church environment that makes room for the poor. We are to care for widows and orphans in their distress. We are to share Christ with the tax collectors and the Samaritan woman equally.

But we aren’t simply to clean the outside of the cup. That’s inadequate and doesn’t address eternal needs.

Back to the internet controversy about MacArthur’s statement, I think there is some disingenuous opposition and some genuine concern. Some people say, a lot of his statements give those who are racist a reason to hate and claim that they are doing so according to the Bible.

That’s a sad misreading of the text, of both Scripture and MacArhur’s. One can only reach that conclusion by ignoring the clear statements that present what the Bible actually says about Christian unity. Of course, there very well might be some people who want an excuse to hate. I don’t know that the Church can do anything to change that, apart from proclaiming the truth to them, too.

On the other hand, there are people who believe what the world is saying about feminism and homosexuality and gender, and they simply hate what the Bible says about those issues. Their criticism of MacArthur and his statement is disingenuous. They don’t really have a quarrel with him. Their quarrel is with the Bible because they don’t want women to accept roles that aren’t identical to men’s roles. They don’t want to bow to the authority of Scripture when it comes to sex.

They are like the children of Israel who made alliances with the nations they were to steer clear of, who later wanted a king rather than God to lead them, who drifted from worship until the temple was in a ruined state and the Law had been forgotten.

This is what John MacArthur is warning the Church about. When we follow in the footsteps of the people of Israel, we are jeopardizing our witness in the West.

No fear. The Church will flourish. The gates of hell won’t prevail against it. But maybe in the West, the lamp will go out. Like it did for a time in Ephesus and Laodecia and the other churches in Revelation. It just might depend on what this generation does.

What Is Cultural Christianity?


I heard a pastor on the radio talk about cultural Christianity, but I thought his answer was fairly incomplete. Basically he said that in the US many years ago most people knew about Jesus, and a lot of people were saved, even people you thought maybe you could share the gospel with.

Well, that was only partly right, I think. I think Nabeel Qureshi, author of Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus explained cultural Christianity more correctly.

Growing up as a Muslim and as a second generation American, Nabeel understood Christianity more from what he learned at home than he did from any personal encounter with Christians.

Eastern teachers have taught the Muslims that the West is Christian, that its culture is promiscuous, and that the people oppose Islam… I remember pointing out to [my parents] that the people dressed provocatively on television might not be Christian, and their response was, “What do you mean? Don’t they call themselves ‘Christian’? Don’t you see them wearing crosses?” If I argued that some of them may be Christian in name only and might not even believe in God, they responded that this simply meant they were Christians who don’t believe in God. They did not categorize religion with belief but with cultural identity. (pp 80-81, Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus)

Those who are culturally Christian do things that Christians do such as celebrate Christmas and Easter and Thanksgiving. They might even go to church from time to time. They might pray at meals, like the Reagan family does in the TV program Blue Bloods. They might wear crosses and even send their children to a parochial school. These are traditions they keep because they’ve been raised in tradition, but they have no personal understanding or belief in Jesus and His saving power over sin. Their “Christianity” is only culturally deep. It doesn’t reach their heart or change their life.

The radio pastor is an evangelist and I respect him a lot, but he was talking about cultural Christianity as if those who have the Christian tradition were in a better place than people who have no familiarity with who Jesus is.

I think the opposite is true. People who think they know about Jesus, who picture Him perpetually as a baby in a manger or as a bloody figure on a cross, don’t understand the gospel. But they think they do. So they don’t have a grasp of the fact that they need to listen to someone who teaches what the Bible really says.

Many cultural Christians actually deny Christ and turn their back on Him. Oh, I’ve tried that, they’ll say, and it doesn’t work.

Doesn’t work? What did they think a relationship with God was supposed to “do for them”? They are behaving like consumers. They went out shopping for religion, bought the one that seemed to promise the most, then found it wanting.

Christianity isn’t like that, but cultural Christianity is.

That’s the problem. Too many people, and not just Muslims, but atheists, too, think they know what Christianity is when they only have a nodding acquaintance with cultural Christianity. I like to refer to cultural Christianity as pretend Christianity, though the latter term also includes false teachers and cults and “progressives” who say they believe, but who deny Jesus in one way or another.

Christianity has become a kind of catch-all term and it breaks my heart that one aspect of it is culture that is permissive, greedy, immoral. Those things have nothing to do with God’s holiness and goodness and righteousness. It’s as Nabeel said: a great travesty that Muslims—and I would not be surprised if other people groups made the same mistake—associate Christianity with the American culture they see on TV.

The thing is, I think we in the Church need to make an effort to “come out from among them.” We need to be different, not by being weird, but by being more like Christ. No one should be surprised to learn that someone is a Christian. By our good works, by our speech, by our love, people should recognize that we not only have been with Jesus but that He lives in us.

FYI, you can pre-order Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, 3rd edition, from now until Aug. 20 and receive some bonus material at the website set up for Nabeel, who died of cancer a year or so ago.

God Speaks However He Wants


I’m privileged to be involved in the book launch for the third edition of Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus by the late Nabeel Qureshi, who had been a member of Ravi Zacharias’s RZIM apologetics team.

I suspect it isn’t the usual practice to do a full-out book launch for a third edition, expanded though it may be, as this one is. But Nabeel died of cancer not long ago, and he can’t do any of the promotion an author might naturally shoulder for a new edition of his work.

The fact is, this autobiographical account of how Nabeel became a Christian, is important. More people need to discover this book. Consequently, I’m happy to help get the word out.

I read the first edition a number of years ago based on the recommendation of our church librarian. Boy, was she right! Nabeel faced difficult questions and a near impossible decision. He didn’t shy away from revealing what he went through.

But back in February 2014, before I’d even read the book, Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus inspired me to write a blog post about the way God speaks to people. In honor of Nabeel, I’d like to share it again, with a few necessary revisions. BTW, the third edition is available for pre-order now. It will come out August 21.

– – – – –

One more story, this passed along from the Ravi Zacharias International Ministry newsletter—a Muslim came to Christ after experiencing a dream or vision (in this man’s case, three dreams and a vision). I’ve heard a proliferation of such stories, from disparate sources, all reputable.

It’s enough to convince me that God is on the move in parts of the world that we once thought were closed to the gospel, simply because missionaries weren’t welcome. But God is not limited the way we so often think He is. Yes, He chooses to use His people to declare His message, but He’s not limited by our weakness or unwillingness.

However, listening to some faithful believers—even some pastors who have studied Scripture—you’d think God was working with both hands tied behind his back and a gag over his mouth. Consequently, the only means at his disposal to bring people to Christ is humans preaching God’s Word.

I believe in preaching, and I know God works through the proclamation of His Word. But the fact is, that very Word tells us about the Apostle Paul who came to Christ, not after hearing a sermon or studying God’s law and prophets. He came to Christ because he saw a vision.

Not only that, the Apostle Peter saw a vision that led him to believe that faith in Christ was not limited to Jews, but that Gentiles were welcome also.

In addition, Scripture tells us there will be a time when

[God] will pour out My Spirit on all mankind;
And your sons and daughters will prophesy,
Your old men will dream dreams,
Your young men will see visions.
And even on the male and female servants
I will pour out My Spirit in those days . . .
And it will come about that whoever calls on the name of the Lord
Will be delivered. (Joel 2:28-29, 32a)

Yet some people believe God’s miraculous works such as prophecy have ceased. How do they resolve the places that Scripture seems to contradict this idea? Are they saying dreams and visions ceased . . . until they didn’t? But when did this ceasing begin? Certainly not before Paul’s conversion. And if it ceased when the cannon of Scripture was closed, who told the leaders of the church this fact? I mean, I think it’s a stretch to make Scripture say that the gifts of the Spirit that are miraculous would be done at some future, undisclosed date—until they wouldn’t be done, at some other distant undisclosed future date.

I know this is controversial. And it’s potentially dangerous. Because as soon as you say, God can work through visions, then you have all kinds of wack jobs claiming they’ve had visions and met with angels and received a new and more complete word from God.

Except, the people in Muslim lands who are seeing visions and dreaming dreams are being pointed to the Bible and to Jesus Christ. Dr. Nabeel Qureshi, formerly a devout Muslim who authored the book Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus has just such a story. Here’s part of the description of his conversion from the RZIM newsletter:

Growing up in a devout Muslim family, Qureshi read the entire Quran in Arabic by age five, memorized more than a dozen chapters by his teens and boldly proclaimed Islam to his friends of other religions. “We are Qureshis, descendants of the Quresh tribe—Muhammad’s tribe. Our family stood sentinel over Islamic tradition,” he describes. “Islam was the lifeblood that coursed through my veins. Islam was my identity, and I loved it. I boldly issued the call of Islam to anyone and everyone who would listen, proclaiming that there is no God but Allah and that Muhammad is his messenger.”

Qureshi’s love for Islam defined and directed his life until a close college friend defended the Christian message with compelling evidence and disrupted everything he knew about religion, faith and meaning. Shaken by the potential that Christianity might be true, he turned to God for direct guidance and was given a vision and three dreams that led him to Jesus.

“That led him to Jesus.” That’s the key, I think. Any visions or dreams that lead a person elsewhere or to a different personality, to a different gospel, to a “new” understanding, is patently false.

But what an exciting truth: God is not limited in the way which makes Himself known. That He chooses to use us in the proclamation of His truth is awesome, but we’re not the only means at His disposal. He can have a personal, direct conversation with an individual if He chooses—as Paul tells us in the book of Acts. As does the Apostle John in the book of Revelation.

Oh, that was Scripture times, someone may say. Things are different now. God doesn’t work that way any more.

Do we believe this because we think God isn’t as strong as He once was? Or do we believe it because people who claim “special knowledge” have started cults or tricked people into giving them money or convinced others the end of the world was on a certain day? Do we believe this because WE haven’t seen any visions or had any “pointing to God” dreams? Do we believe this because we say we believe the Bible but filter it based on our own assumptions or traditions that have been passed down to us?

It’s the latter that I think influences a lot of evangelical, non-charismatic, western Christians today. We are quick to judge the Pharisees for the traditions they held on to in place of God’s clear word, but I tend to think we cling to our traditions pretty strongly, too.

Time, I believe, to read God’s Word with fresh eyes and let Him speak however He wants.

A Different Gospel—A Reprise


Paul_the_Apostle006
Apparently the Apostle Paul felt strongly about the message God had given him to preach. More than once, to several different audiences he wrote about the need to resist false teaching. Nowhere was he as exercised, however, as he was in the letter to the Galatians. After a typical, though relatively short, opening, he got right to the point:

I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed! (Gal 1:6-9)

Disturbing and distorting—sounds like the Liar at work. But what should we expect? OF COURSE, Satan wouldn’t want people understanding and believing the true gospel. So one way to dissuade them is to give them an alternative.

The true gospel is not complicated. Paul laid it out in 1 Cor. 15:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. (1 Cor 15:3-5)

In this short statement of faith we learn that we have sins, Christ died for those sins, the Scriptures revealed this before hand, Christ was buried–declaring for all time that His death was real—and was raised on the third day, something the Scriptures also revealed and the disciples witnessed.

A different gospel will distort those basics.

Some different gospels mythologize the resurrection. Others add human endeavor to Christ’s death in order to deal with sin. Some say sin isn’t the real problem–man simply needs to learn to be as loving as Jesus was.

Other different gospels downplay Christ’s accomplishment at the cross for Other Things, specifically, for what He can do for you NOW. Salvation’s good, but why wait for heaven to enjoy God’s best? We can have it now if we name it and claim it. In other words, this different gospel takes what Jesus and what Paul said were signs of the gospel, and elevates those as if they ARE the gospel, or at least a part of it.

There is a different gospel that says Christ died, but if you don’t believe it to be true—if you believe in the Hindu pantheism or personal enlightenment or some other sincerely held religious expression—you’re good. Apparently in this different gospel, sin isn’t really the problem. It’s hypocrisy or not going all out for what you believe or going all out for what you believe. The real problem Mankind faces isn’t really clear, but that it will be fixed no matter what each of us believes—that’s the different gospel.

Some distort the gospel by distorting the revelation in which it is contained. Consequently it becomes easier to dismiss if there is no authoritative, true, revealed Word of God that proclaims the gospel. If what we have are fables and fairytales instead, then we can glean whatever moral we want from them and dismiss the rest.

A radically different approach that also distorts the gospel is the idea that the authoritative, true, revealed Word of God that contains the gospel, lists out the rules and regulations by which a person can overcome sin.

People believing in this different gospel might even give lip service to the fact that Jesus died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust that He might bring us to God. In practice, however, they live to toe the line, keep the rules, obey the do’s and avoid the don’ts—not because they love God and want to please Him, but because they want to impress God and earn His favor. That would be the unmerited favor He’s already extended to us through the plan of salvation.

Clearly there are many, many different gospels. In the first century, the Church leaders ran into those who didn’t believe in the resurrection, and others who thought Christ had returned a second time already. The leaders disciplined those who thought the forgiveness of sin gave them a license TO sin. They dealt with others who thought the body was evil and the spirit was good, and many more distortions of God’s truth.

The key here is this: if false teachings were not uncommon when the Church was in its infancy, why would we think things are different now? Why would we think that everyone who claims the name of Christ actually believes the gospel? It’s easy to say, Lord, Lord, but Jesus Himself made it clear that He would send away an untold number of people who called to him like that when He didn’t really know them.

Those folks had fallen prey to one of the false gospels floating around.

Paul closed his letter to the Corinthian church by saying, “If anyone does not love the Lord, he is to be accursed” (16:22). To the Galatians he said, the guy preaching a false doctrine is to be accursed.

There’s a principle of logic at work here:
if a = accursed and
b = accursed, then
a = b.

In this case, the one who preaches a different gospel does not love the Lord. So, why would we be inclined to hang out and hear someone preaching a different gospel?

This post originally appeared here in July 2013.

Published in: on June 19, 2018 at 5:09 pm  Comments Off on A Different Gospel—A Reprise  
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Are Catholics Christians?


Who is a Christian?

In our western, post-truth culture we tend to let people self-identify without calling into question the truth of their distinct personhood. So according to Saving Truth by Abdu Murray, “At the University of Washington students affirmed a white man’s self-identification as a young Chinese girl.” (p 53)

I mention this because the media, and consequently the public at large, thinks nothing of lumping anyone who self-identifies as a Christian all into one gigantic group.

The problem, of course, is that some identify as Christian because they live in a country that has been known as a Christian nation and where more Christians live than do Muslims or Buddhists or Hindus. But are they actually Christian?

Some people think being a Christian is holding to a certain list of do-this-and-not-thats. Others think that if they go to church once in a while, then they are Christians. Still others think that doing what their church leader says to do qualifies them as Christian. For Catholics that person might be their parish priest or a bishop or the pope.

None of those things define who is a Christian, however. Instead, a Christian is simply a follower of Jesus Christ. A disciple, if you will.

In the early years when the Church was just beginning, the disciples were known as those who followed The Way. Then in Antioch someone started calling them Christians.

They were Christians during those years of persecution, when Paul traveled from one city to another and declared, to the Jews first, and then to the Gentiles, that Jesus was God’s Son, crucified for the sins of the world, resurrected and ascended on high.

Tradition has it that Mark traveled to Egypt in the middle of the first century and began the group of believers that has come to be known as Coptic Christians, while Thomas traveled to India and brought the gospel to the southernmost part of the country.

During those years, there was no “catholic” church or protestant denomination. There were no “approved” list of doctrines. What defined a Christian? Simply one who believed what Jesus said and did. They were still nothing more than disciples, learning from the teaching of the Master.

But the Master had ascended into heaven. So how could they follow Him? By following what those who had been with Him said and wrote. By believing the testimony of the Holy Spirit within their hearts.

The problem was, almost at once people who claimed to be followers of Jesus started teaching things that Jesus had never said, things like, you have to be circumcised, and things like, since we have grace, we can commit whatever sin we want and it is forgiven.

To correct those errors, leaders like James and Peter and John and Paul wrote letters to individuals or churches to change their thinking and teach them what Jesus actually said and what He actually meant.

Some of these letters were at once recognized as God-breathed and were considered to be of equal value with the law of Moses, the psalms and proverbs, the prophetic writings, Eventually a Council of believers was held and Church leaders determined the canon or list of works that would be considered Scripture.

For about 250 years Christians endured persecution in the Roman Empire, sometimes severely so. In 64 the Emperor Nero scapedgoated Christians for the fire in Rome. The Emperor Domitian outlawed Christianity, making it a capital offense. In 303 the co-emperors Diocletian and Galerius instigated what came to be known as the Great Persecution.

Finally, in 313 Emperor Constantine lifted the ban on Christianity.

Nearly 70 years later Emperor Theodosius I declared Catholicism the state religion of the Roman Empire, and thus began the Roman Catholic Church, which soon spread and dominated Europe, most often by force. Were those converts actually Christians? Some undoubtedly were, but some were not, as literature shows.

The Catholic Church itself became entwined in politics and the economics of the day. The priests could be Godly spiritual counselors but they could just as easily be selfish and corrupt. In other words, they were just like every other person—some believing in God and some living for self.

In 1517 the first of the reformers started a movement to bring the Roman Catholic Church back into line with what the Bible taught, and the Protestant Reformation was born.

Not much has changed over these five hundred years. People still either believe God or they live for themselves. That includes Protestants and Catholics.

So the short answer: Are Catholics Christians? Some are, some are not.

Of course there are groups of Christians who point at Catholics and decry them as heretics. But I personally know Catholics who believe that Jesus Christ died for their sins. Their faith is in His shed blood.

But they worship Mary, some say, and the saints. They deify the Pope and believe they have certain things they must do in order to be saved.

Maybe.

Some do not “worship” Mary or the saints but they revere them. Some see the things they do as evidence of faith, not acts to earn salvation.

The actual doctrine of the Catholic Church contains things I don’t believe and I don’t think the Bible teaches, but not everyone who says they’re a Catholic even knows what their own doctrine is. Some believe what they themselves read in the Bible and some believe what they want to believe. So who among the Catholics is a Christian?

Well, the answer is the same as to the question, Who among the Lutherans is a Christian? Or, Who among the Presbyterians is a Christian? Or, Who among the Baptists is a Christian?

Only the person who puts his faith, hope, trust, belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as a means of salvation that brings him into the family of God.

Yes, family. We are one family, some worshiping with Catholics, some with Lutherans, some with Methodists, some with Evangelical Free. Some worshiping in Brazil, some in South Africa, some in Korea, some in France, some in Mexico, some in Nigeria.

Are Catholics Christians? Maybe. They can be Christians if they respond to the good news that Christ died for their sins, that He rose the third day, that He is now seated on high working as their Advocate with the Father.

It really is not a yes or no question because some self-identify as Christian when they aren’t. They want the approval of their community, perhaps, or of their family. They, in fact, don’t know enough about Christianity to say they don’t believe it, so they go along with everyone else they know.

Nowhere is “Christian” the default position. A person doesn’t get born a Christian. It’s actually an informed, thought-out, consciously chosen position. And it’s a life-changing decision because it marks the beginning of a life of discipleship, of following Jesus by paying attention to what He taught and what He explained to the very first disciples.

I guess the real question is not, are Catholics Christians, but am I a Christian.

When The Roll Is Called—A Reprise


In 1893 a pastor named James Black wrote a simple chorus entitled “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder” prompted by the absence of a girl named Bessie who was too sick to attend one of the youth meetings. For those who may be unfamiliar with the words, now in the public domain, I’ve copied them here:

1. When the trumpet of the Lord shall sound and time shall be no more
And the morning breaks eternal, bright and fair
When the saved of earth shall gather over on the other shore
And the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there!

2. On that bright and cloudless morning when the dead in Christ shall rise
And the glory of His resurrection share
When His chosen ones shall gather to their home beyond the skies
And the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there!

3. Let us labor for the Master from the dawn till setting sun,
Let us talk of all His wondrous love and care;
Then when all of life is over, and our work on earth is done
And the roll is called up yonder, I’ll be there!

Chorus:
When the roll, is called up yonder,
When the roll, is called up yonder,
When the roll, is called up yonder
When the roll is called up yonder I’ll be there!

Lyrics: James Milton Black
Music: James Milton Black

If you read the story behind the song, you learn that Pastor Black had a heart for the lost.

Sadly, there seems to be a growing belief today that there will be no “lost.” The ideas behind “universalism”—usually traced back to Origen of Alexandria (c.185-284), an influential early Church Father and writer who believed in the ultimate salvation and reconciliation with God of all moral beings, including Satan and his demons—seem to have gained more acceptance starting in the 1800s. Today it seems the majority of people, East or West, embrace some form of this view.

Some believe all religions are true (different rivers flowing into the same ocean) whereas some believe all are saved through Jesus Christ.

Chances are, if someone asks, “When the roll is called up yonder, will you be there?” the answer is most likely, “I hope so.”

I hope so? That answer is a pretty good indication that the person doesn’t know what is involved in getting there and they just don’t realize it.

The sad thing about this is that people who don’t know they’re lost have no particular interest in being found. And those who don’t believe anyone else is lost aren’t very concerned about mapping out the way back home.

For me there’s not a sadder scene in the Bible than Jesus weeping over Jerusalem, declaring that He would have gathered them to Him like a mother hen gathers her chicks, but they wouldn’t have it. They didn’t want to be gathered. They didn’t want to be found.

These are the people Paul was talking about when he said,

For many walk of whom I often told you and now tell you even weeping, that they are enemies of the cross of Christ, whose end is destruction, whose god is their appetite, and whose glory is in their shame, who set their minds on earthly things.
– Phil. 3:18-19

At the heart of the deception that all are going to heaven (whatever you believe that to be for you – 🙄 ), is the denial that God is a righteous, just, sovereign Judge; that He makes the rules and He determines the consequences and He metes out equitable rewards or punishments.

Why is it so hard to believe that the One in charge gets to do that?

This post is a revised version of one that appeared here in February, 2011.

Published in: on April 4, 2018 at 5:00 pm  Comments Off on When The Roll Is Called—A Reprise  
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Perfect People Aren’t Saved


No Perfect People

Yesterday I re-posted an article about morally flawed people, and the irony that many who accept their flaws without blinking still think they “deserve” heaven. Today, I want to address the opposite problem: people who think heaven is for good people. This article originally appeared here in May, 2013.

– – – – –

Along with an erroneous view of the Bible, some people also have misconceptions about salvation. One of the most common is that it’s the good people that come to Christ—the people who like church and gospel music, who think a good time means going to a prayer meeting. Those are the people that become Christians.

Wrong.

For one thing, there are no “good people.” If someone is devoted to religious expression but has not believed the claims of Jesus Christ, he’s using his religion to get something he wants. In other words, religious expression can be an evidence of our selfishness, our desire to manipulate—either other people or even God Himself.

Good people aren’t saved. Sinners are saved. The lost are found, the broken are healed, those at the bottom of the pit are rescued. Jesus Himself said, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick” (Matt 9:12b). In context it’s clear he was referring to messed up people—“tax collectors and sinners.”

Even today, I think some Christians have the idea that a person needs to clean up a bit before coming to Christ. Jesus seems to say the opposite. He first encountered people where they were at, and knowing Him then brought about change. In some instances, such as His conversation with the woman caught in adultery, He told her to sin no more. In other instances, such as with Zaccheus, the sinner himself volunteered to clean up his act after his encounter with Jesus.

Either way, Jesus saves sinners, not because they get rid of sin but because they can’t get rid of sin and they know it. They repent but it is Jesus who takes away the sin of the world. It is His Spirit that gives each sinner the desire to live in newness of life.

By our nature, none of us wants to worship God and serve Him [atheists call this our “default position,” not realizing that they are defining the sin nature]. We want to worship ourselves and serve ourselves. We do unto others so that they will do unto us. In other words, we largely look at relationships as trade-offs. I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine. And woe to the person who doesn’t follow through on his promise. Revenge awaits! Justified revenge, because people are supposed to come through for me (even though I don’t always come through for them).

The interesting thing is, those who think they are good don’t see any need for God. Why would they? They don’t think they need saving.

So it’s ironic that people falsely think good people come to Christ. People good in their own eyes are too busy with their perfectionistic ways to pay attention to what Christ is all about. They are making sure that they recycle, give to the charity of the month, teach their children to be tolerant of all lifestyles, and do their fifty percent of what it takes to have a good marriage.

Don’t get me wrong. When a person comes to Christ, he changes. A thief like Zaccheus doesn’t want to keep stealing. Just the opposite. He has a passion for making right the wrongs he’s done. But his new life is a result of his relationship with Christ, not a cause of it.

He didn’t come to Christ because he stopped stealing. He stopped stealing because he came to Christ.

Too many Christians don’t really understand this new life we experience. We’d like all the old desires to be gone and for some people, they are. For others, it’s a fight to the death, or so it seems. The old desires seem to raise their ugly heads at the least opportune times. Some people experience gradual and constant improvement. What they used to do, they hardly do any more. What they want to do to please Jesus, they find delights them now, too.

The process, we’re told, is sanctification—growing up into our salvation, becoming like Jesus through the supernatural transformation of His Spirit. Most of us think it’s a long process that doesn’t show a lot of results to most of those who are close enough to us to see our warts.

And because we fall down so often, because lots of people think only the good come to Jesus, we give Christ’s name a bad reputation—because clearly, Christians sin. When we think about it, it grieves our hearts because we’re dragging Jesus’s name into the mud. We’re letting people think poorly of our Savior because we wallow in the sins we say He saved us from.

Christians aren’t good people. We’re saved people, and it’s important that we let others see who we are: a people who have received mercy, who have been pardoned, redeemed, cleansed, forgiven, and who one day, when we see Jesus face to face, will be like Him. It’s just that we’re not there yet.

Published in: on February 9, 2018 at 4:33 pm  Comments Off on Perfect People Aren’t Saved  
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