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.

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Published in: on March 12, 2018 at 5:00 pm  Comments (6)  
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Becoming A Christian—What About The Repentance Part?


In my post yesterday I defined a Christian as someone who believes and continues to believe. But believes in what?

The Bible is quite clear. A Christian believes in three separate things. First he recognizes that he is a sinner and that his sin is the problem. His sin keeps him from God. Second he recognizes that the penalty for his sin is death—the physical death we all will experience, but also a spiritual death brought about by God’s judgment. Third, he recognizes that God took the initiative and sent His Son to die in our place, to bear our sins, and to attribute His righteousness to us.

In short, we admit our condition—we are essentially dead men walking. We acknowledge that Jesus did for us what we couldn’t do for ourselves—namely that we couldn’t remedy our own condition, so He did it for us.

But what about repentance?

The first part of becoming a Christian is recognizing that sin is the problem. That no matter what we might desire, we simply can’t and don’t love as we should. We don’t love God as we should, we don’t love our friends and family as we should, we don’t love our neighbors as we should, and we certainly don’t love our enemies as we should.

We can do all kinds of things to get rid of sin. We can study self-help books, go to 12-step programs, see a counselor, attend church or even confession, and in some cultures still, perform sacrifices. No matter. Our sin remains.

But even if we do learn a thing or two, if we change our habits and patterns of behavior, if we “clean up our act,” we’re still guilty for what we have done in the past. We face the consequences and we face the penalty.

Unless we accept what Jesus did for us, paying our debt when He went to the cross.

So does that mean we’re then free to return to our sinful ways? Paul says in Romans, may it never be.

The thing about confronting the sin in our life is that we do more than acknowledge it—yep, that’s me, I’m a liar. I’ll just buy into the forgiveness thing and then I can keep on lying.

Or yep, that’s me, an angry person who lashes out at anyone who ticks me off. But I’ll buy into the forgiveness thing and then I can continue allowing my anger full rein.

No, no, no. That kind of admission of sin is more nearly condoning of sin. The only way sin can be properly dealt with is with repentance—a full recognition that the sin is short of God’s mark and deserving of His judgment. And the only way that this kind of repentance is actual, verifiable, real, is if there’s also a turning from that sin.

This discussion reminds me of a conversation that aired on the radio last week. Pastor Greg Laurie was interviewing Bart Millard, lead singer of MercyMe about the upcoming movie entitled I Can Only Imagine, and the book by the same name.

Both tell the true story behind the song “I Can Only Imagine,” which Bart wrote and which became a big crossover hit. As it happens, Bart’s dad was abusive, both physically and emotionally. To top things off, his mom left, but didn’t take Bart with her. He described his dad during that time as a monster.

And then He found Christ. His whole life changed.

Bart described his last years as his dad being the man Bart would like to be.

That’s more than repentance, however, that’s believing in the power of God to change a life. But repentance is certainly part of the equation. Bart’s dad was not thinking, OK, I’m saved now so it doesn’t matter how I treat people. Quite the opposite.

Paul says in Romans that we now walk “in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter.” It’s the difference between having to do something and wanting to do it. Instead of plodding along in our failure and guilt and shame, we can confess and forsake, with God providing the power through His Spirit to not only become new creatures in Christ but to live as new creatures.

Does such a transformation happen over night? Sometimes, but not usually. Romans 7 gives a good picture of the struggle between our new spiritual nature and the sin that controls our flesh: “For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want.”

The great thing is that the end of chapter 7, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord,” leads to the beginning of chapter 8: “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

Repentance, then, is actually the means to and the proof of our new relationship with God. Paul explains: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?”

This dying to sin occurs as we identify with Christ: “Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”

Do you think I understood any of that when I became a Christian? Not at all. But I’ve come to understand more and more. I hear stories such as the transformation of Bart’s dad, and I know in a new way that what the Bible says is true.

Christ saves us from the penalty of sin and starts us on the process of living free from sin.

Define Your Terms


I ran across another atheist the other day who apparently is “an ex-Christian.” In another discussion months ago, a different individual told me she had once been “just as you are now.”

Well, how in the world would she know what kind of a spiritual life I have? Did she think that all Christians have exactly the same walk with the Lord? Or was she under the impression that because she did Christian things, that made her a Christian?

It’s hard to know what any of these individuals who no longer claim the name of Christ once thought. They certainly believed at the time that they were Christians. But why did they?

Some people think they’re Christians because they go to church. Once when I was on jury duty, I met a woman who asked me about that when I identified myself as a Christian. Her daughters had asked her, and she didn’t know how to answer. They were under the impression that they were Christians because they were Americans, but they weren’t sure if they needed to go to church in order to be counted as Christians.

Some people think they become Christians by praying a prayer or by being baptized or by taking a class and learning answers to questions about God and the Bible. None of that is undesirable. In fact all those things are good and helpful, but they don’t make a person a Christian.

Becoming a Christian is quite easy, but it’s more than saying magic words or doing a list of right things, or even giving all the right answers to specific questions.

I know former students who raised their hands pretty much every year their teacher at the Christian school where I taught, asked them if they wanted to accept Jesus as their Savior. They got A’s on memory verse tests, attended good Bible-teaching churches, and today want nothing to do with God.

So what makes a person a Christian? Not a temporary assent that I’m a sinner, that I want “Jesus in my heart.” Not memorizing Bible verses, going to church, helping in homeless shelters, giving gifts to needy children, taking communion, being baptized.

Those things can all be true about a Christian, but they don’t make a person a Christian. I’d say, it’s actually pretty easy to mimic someone who is a Christian. After all, if you go to a Christian school and you go to church, the friends you make may all do those same things. Why wouldn’t you do them too? It’s part of kids wanting to fit in. If all your friends are raising their hands, you want to raise your hand, too.

Adults do the same thing. A bunch of people jump to their feet clapping at the end of a concert, and pretty soon more and more people join them. Maybe everyone, though there could be a few who don’t think the performance deserved a standing ovation. Still, they join the crowd rather than being the lone hold out who stays seated.

But that’s beside the point.

The question is, if none of those things I’ve mentioned, make a person a Christian, then what does?

When I was a kid, I was under the impression that Christians didn’t sin. But I sinned. Which was why I went for so long questioning whether or not I was a Christian.

Finally I decided to take God at His word. He said, “If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). So if I confessed with my mouth, and I had, if I believed in my heart, and I did, then I was just going to assume God meant what He said—I was in fact saved, whether I “felt like it” or not.

So then I tried to figure out when I became a Christian. Was it the first time I asked Him into my heart? The time I went forward in a church service? When I realized on my own what John 3:18 really meant? (“He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.”)

Much later, as an adult, I can look back and see how God worked in my life all those growing up years, even when I was struggling and doubting and unsure. I’ve concluded that I became a Christian when I first asked Jesus into my heart, though I didn’t really understand much about what that meant. As I gained more understanding, however, I continued to believe.

It’s continuing to believe that makes a person a Christian.

And lo and behold, that’s precisely what the Bible says. Hebrews 3:14 says it clearly: “For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end.”

The Apostle John used the word “abide” which simply means “stay”: “Anyone who goes too far and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God; the one who abides in the teaching, he has both the Father and the Son” (2 John 1:9; emphasis mine).

The writer to the Hebrews again: “but Christ was faithful as a Son over His house—whose house we are, if we hold fast our confidence and the boast of our hope firm until the end.” (Hebrews 3;6; emphasis mine).

Then there is Matthew’s clear statement: ““But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved” (Matthew 24:13).

I could go on. There are many more verses about abiding, holding fast, persevering until the end, than I ever realized.

So who is a Christian? One who believes and keeps on believing.

The pretenders, who said they believed, obviously didn’t believe at the level that you could call abiding, or holding fast, or persevering.

All this reminds me of the parable of the sower and the seed that started to grow and then got choked out by thorns. Were those beginnings of a plant ever “Christians”? Not by the definition that the Bible gives.

Published in: on February 28, 2018 at 6:18 pm  Comments (6)  
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Christian Fiction Must Be . . . You Know, Christian; Or, The Shack Is Back


This past week, I saw the TV add for the upcoming The Shack movie. I’d seen the trailer some time ago, but was dismayed that the promotion was reaching a TV audience. And in LA. We don’t often hear about “Christian” projects here.

There’s no doubt that The Shack positions itself as Christian. After all, Jesus shows up, albeit in imaginary form. But is it Christian?

What constitutes “Christian fiction”? That’s a question we at Spec Faith have answered and revisited since our inception some ten years ago (see for example this early post by one of the founding members of Spec Faith).

Not only have writers and readers debated what constitutes Christian fiction, and particularly Christian speculative fiction, we’ve debated the rightness of and the need for good doctrine in our fiction (see for example “Reading Choices: Realism, Truth, And The Bible“). “Doctrine” encompasses both theology and beliefs concerning morality, and we’ve discussed those too (see for example “Marcher Lord Press and the Hinterlands Imprint“).

On top of these generalized discussions, we’ve also posted articles and comments specifically about The Shack. But that was eight years ago, when the book was still on the top of best-selling lists and Christians and non-Christians alike were passing it around from one person to another and discussing it over coffee.

Now the movie version of Paul Young’s book is about to come to a theater near you, and the question no one could answer back then is bound to resurface: Is The Shack truly Christian?

There are some specific issues that came under scrutiny concerning the book.

Some people stumbled over the most glaring issue right from the gate. I mean, isn’t it blasphemous to depict God the Father as anything but a Father?

I understand how portraying God as other than how He portrays Himself, can be troublesome. At the same time, I can see how others accept “God’s” explanation: that He needed to reveal Himself to the main character in a way he could receive Him.

That being said, I suggest one of the central problems of the story surfaces within the discussion of this rather peripheral issue. The Shack has little use for the Bible. Hence, God the Father is easily replaced by the needs of the character.

There are other major issues—the attitude toward the Church and universal salvation and an understanding of the Trinity.

Yet more than one Christian has reported how life changing The Shack was for them, how they wept as they read it, how they understood God’s forgiveness in a way they never had before.

So . . . is it Christian?

Can it be Christian if it shows God in ways He does not show Himself? If it does not point people to His word or His body, the Church? If it falsely claims universal salvation?

On the other hand, how can it not be Christian if it gave many believers renewed faith and deeper love for God and a deeper understanding of forgiveness?

On one hand, The Shack may not tick all the intellectual, theological boxes, but on the other, it more than makes up for that lack by the emotional, spiritual juice it provides.

In thinking about the “what makes something Christian” question, I have to look at the object itself, not the results that may come from it.

The Apostle Paul did just the opposite when he was imprisoned in Philippi and a bunch of so-called Christian brethren started preaching. Paul identified their motives as envy and strife and selfish ambition (Phil. 1:15, 17), but he basically said, so what? As long as they preached Christ, who cared that they had bad motives?

the former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition rather than from pure motives, thinking to cause me distress in my imprisonment. 18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in this I rejoice. (vv 17-18a)

Paul was only concerned with the bottom line: the result. These “brethren,” false or true, were telling people about Jesus.

So, isn’t that the best test? Shouldn’t we be applauding The Shack, if the movie is successful, because it is bringing people to Christ?

I said above that I have to look at the object itself, because my question is, Is The Shack truly Christian? Lots of things can bring people to Christ. War has been known to do so. A friend of mine came to Christ by reading a novel. Others look at the heavens and know they need to find the One who made them. After 9/11, here in the US any number of people turned to God in the midst of their fear and uncertainty.

Would we say war is “Christian” because some soldiers reported coming to Christ when faced with their own mortality? No, certainly not. God can and does use whatever means He wishes, but His use of the thing does not baptize it as emblematic of His Good News.

So I reject the idea that The Shack must be Christian because people report a deeper relationship with God after having read it.

When Paul talked about those so-called brethren in Philippi, he gave no indication that they were preaching anything but what was true about Christ. Elsewhere, however, he addressed those who were not preaching the truth.

For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. No wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. Therefore it is not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness, whose end will be according to their deeds. (2 Cor. 11:13-15)

In writing to the Galatians he also brought up the matter:

But it was because of the false brethren secretly brought in, who had sneaked in to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, in order to bring us into bondage. (Gal 2:4)

Clearly, Paul was not hesitant to call out those who were not preaching the gospel but who were masquerading as if they were fellow believers. The same is true throughout the Bible about false teachers and false prophets. Jesus Himself made some of the strongest statements about “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” about false prophets misleading many, even about false Christs.

So determining who is and who isn’t a Christian, what is and what isn’t true Christian teaching, seems like an important aptitude.

Yet I know people will hold back for fear of judging. We aren’t supposed to judge each other, are we?

We’re not.

But that doesn’t mean we’re to put our brains on hold, either. We can still think. We can still look at the story on the screen and compare it with what the Bible says. Which is, after all, the unchanging, authoritative Truth by which we know what “Christian” means.

This article is a re-post of the one I published today at Speculative Faith.

Published in: on February 20, 2017 at 5:45 pm  Comments (11)  
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The Difference Between Religious People And Christians


horse_and_carriageThis is not rocket science. In fact, I’ve written about the difference between people of other religions and Christians on other occasions, but I’ve generally left the door open when someone professes to be a Christian. I mean, I can’t look into their hearts. I don’t know what their relationship with God is. If they say they have been redeemed by the blood of Christ, then who am I to say they haven’t been?

Some time ago on the radio broadcast Truth for Life, Pastor Alistair Begg gave the clearest, simplest way of identifying the difference between religious people and Christians.

Someone who is religious believes and obeys in order to be accepted by God. A Christian, on the other hand, believes in order to be accepted by God, and obeys as a result. Put in slightly different terms, a religious person works to be justified with God, whereas a Christian works because he is justified with God.

The differences seem small and even hard to tell apart, but the two positions actually are diametrically opposed to one another. It’s the cart before the horse idea. One man has a cart and a horse, the other man has a horse and a cart. What’s the difference? Everything. The first man goes nowhere. The second has a wonderful conveyance that takes him wherever he wishes to go.

So too the religious person is stuck with his own inadequate efforts trying to make himself acceptable to God. It will never happen, in the same way that a cart will never pull a horse. The Christian, on the other hand, confessing his inability to measure up to God’s standard, and accepting the completed, redemptive work of Jesus Christ, receives a full measure of God’s grace and is accepted by the Father. As a result, he obeys God in the strength and through the power of that grace.

So who’s a Christian? Not the person who believes his work is in any way meritorious in bringing reconciliation between him and God. It really is that simple.

Prayer Changes People


Christian prayingThis past week I heard something distressing. A Christian in a leadership position handled confrontation by telling the other person that perhaps they should leave the organization. That’s the second instance of this kind that I’ve learned about. The first time was years ago and the organization was an entirely different one, but a person in leadership handled the criticism he received in exactly the same way.

Such a conclusion, especially from someone in leadership, seems so contrary to Scripture. After all, the Bible gives us instructions for handling a situation in which a fellow Christian sins (see Matt. 18). It also is full of exhortation to be reconciled with other Christians, to forgive, to be at peace with one another, to be unified.

Paul had a conflict with his partner in ministry, Barnabas, because of John Mark, who initially accompanied them on their first church-planting trip. Half way through their travels, the young man deserted them, however, so when Barnabas wanted to include him on their second trip, Paul said, NO WAY! So Barnabas and Paul parted company.

But that’s not the end of the story. Rather, Paul at some point reconciled with Mark, to the point that he told the church at Colossae to be sure to welcome him. He also said this to Timothy in his second letter: “Pick up Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for service.” (4:11b)

He went a step further in his advice, however. In verse 16 Paul says to Timothy, “At my first defense no one supported me, but all deserted me; may it not be counted against them.” Paul went from holding Mark’s desertion against him to praying that the Lord would not hold these other people’s desertion against them.

Paul was a changed man. And he ended up with a changed relationship.

The secret passed on in Philippians is for us to have the attitude of humility Christ had, which is the way we can follow these commandments:

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. (Phil. 2:3-4)

The thing is, the only way to do what is so opposite to our instinctive reaction to others is by prayer.

I had occasions when I was teaching and coaching in which somebody would rub me the wrong way—whether another teacher, a student, an opposing coach, a parent, an administrator—and the only way I could face the day was by praying for the individual. OK, sometimes I prayed for the circumstance, too, but inevitably, when I prayed for the person, God changed me. My heart. Not them necessarily. He changed me!

Suddenly, things that had bothered me in the past didn’t seem as awful as before. In my dealings with such a person, I now wanted to be on the same page, not at odds, so I communicated in a more positive, encouraging way.

In several instances, what had been a relationship fraught with friction, turned into one of closeness and caring.

That’s God answering prayer. Not in the way I might initially think.

I can pray, God, please make this person leave, but that doesn’t solve MY problem. I need to learn to love the unlovely, to be kind to the unkind, to give God room to work. After all, He says that a gentle answer turns away wrath. But if I don’t turn to God and ask Him to give me His gentleness in my answers, I’ll never see the turning His word promises.

Commonly we say that prayer changes things, and it may. But it also changes people, and from my experience, the person it changes most is the person praying.

Published in: on May 25, 2016 at 6:30 pm  Comments (4)  
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The Unprofessional Prophet


Amos was a farmer. He grew figs and herded sheep, and yet he ended up delivering some scathing prophecy to Israel. At one point the priest for the idol Israel set up at Bethel tried to kick him out of the city, claiming that he was conspiring against the king and saying he should take his prophecies to Judah.

With an open invitation to hightail it to safe territory, Amos stood his ground. He wasn’t a professional prophet. The king didn’t have him on retainer and no one had hired him to do freelance prophecies a la Balaam. Rather, God took him from his day job and said, Go, prophesy. So that’s what he did.

I love his unwavering obedience. I also love his amateur status. It reminds me that God essentially takes believers in Jesus Christ out of our day jobs and tells us to go make disciples. That appointment is for fig growers and doctors and electricians and social workers and teachers and carpenters and writers. And yes, for some professionals, too.

The other thing I’m mindful of is that Amos was commissioned to deliver bad news — Israel was to be judged and they were destined for exile. The Christian, however, gets to deliver good news — the way of escape from judgment and the hope of an eternal heavenly home.

Amos didn’t mince words. He got right to it, telling Israel that God loathed their arrogance, that those most at risk were the ones comfortably rich who closed their eyes to the need for repentance. They cheated the poor, accepted bribes, and hated reproof.

To Amos’s credit, he interceded for Israel and twice God relented of the judgment He had disclosed to Amos through a vision. But the third time, He said, enough.

Then the LORD said to me, “The end has come for My people Israel. I will spare them no longer.” (Amos 8:2b)

Still, Amos went to the people and pleaded with them to repent.

Seek good and not evil, that you may live;
And thus may the LORD God of hosts be with you,
Just as you have said!
Hate evil, love good,
And establish justice in the gate!
Perhaps the LORD God of hosts
May be gracious to the remnant of Joseph. (Amos 5:14-15)

They did not, and judgment came. But perhaps the harshest part was the famine God proclaimed:

“Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord GOD,
“When I will send a famine on the land,
Not a famine for bread or a thirst for water,
But rather for hearing the words of the LORD.
People will stagger from sea to sea
And from the north even to the east;
They will go to and fro to seek the word of the LORD,
But they will not find it.” (Amos 8:11-12)

That passage reminds me of Romans 1 where God says He gives man over to his sin because he rejects God, choosing instead to worship the creature instead of the Creator (vv 24 ff).

It’s not a happy picture, but that’s the one Amos the unprofessional prophet was assigned to deliver.

How much better is our assignment today! The unprofessional Christian gets to say, Guess what? The One you rejected is the One who loves you and who died to redeem you from your sins, if you will but believe.

I’d say we have the better part, so I wonder why it seems so hard to do the work of evangelism.

This post first appeared here in May 2012.

Published in: on May 2, 2016 at 6:16 pm  Comments (2)  
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Grace And How It Really Works


Old_Testament008As often as I write about grace—and that’s pretty often—I can’t seem to exhaust the topic. I’m often struck by some of the same things I’ve written about, as if I’ve never heard them before. For example, I’m stunned every time I realize that Christianity is the only religion based on grace. In fact, it seems the word grace is hardly in the vocabulary of anyone who is not a Christian. It’s simply a Christ-attribute and therefore a word for Christ’s followers.

There are some people, however, ones I’ve called pretend Christians, converts of those who the Bible calls false teachers, who try to co-op grace and make it into something it is not.

For instance universalists freely admit to God’s grace, but their idea is that because God extends us grace, there is no justice. A summary of their position could be, Grace. The end. In fact, according to the universalist, all roads lead to God, including the road of unbelief. Whatever happens after death happens to all of humanity. No favorites, they would say.

On the opposite side of the continuum would be legalists. They don’t believe in grace, or if they do, they don’t believe that it’s enough. God, from their perspective, needs our help.

The sad and sometimes confusing thing is that these legalists aren’t too far off. They just have things backwards. They believe (though they may not articulate it this way, their actions indicate this is what they actually believe) that a person must clean up his act before he can receive God’s grace.

The book of James makes it clear that the things we do are important. The Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus that we are saved by grace through faith. James turns around and makes the case that faith isn’t faith unless it’s got some legs.

What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself. (James 2:14-17)

So faith, the kind that’s in action, combines with grace to free us from sin and guilt and the law and Satan’s power and our sin nature and spiritual death.

The Bible is filled with pictures of this process.

* The people of Israel are escaping Egypt, but they don’t have food for the long journey on foot to the home of their ancestor Abraham. They plead and complain to Moses, and he in turn asks God what’s to become of these people. God answers with His grace. He sends manna, a “bread of the angels,” that appeared first thing at dawn and was gone by the time the sun was fully up. A miraculous provision. One they had for forty years! But here’s the thing: they had to go pick it up. And cook it or prepare it.

God also sent them quail because they were starved for meat. When many didn’t take the time to do their part—to clean the birds and cook them–when their appetite took over their actions, God sent them a dire punishment.

God gives grace, no doubt, but the people have to appropriate it and not misappropriate it.

* Years later God gave Joshua instructions for defeating Jericho. First the priests were to walk the ark around the city with all the people following. Then seven days later after repeating this walk each day, they were to circle the city seven times and the walls would fall. They fell! God’s grace in action, remarkably! Who can imagine such a thing. But that still left all these enemy Canaanites trapped amid the rubble. The people of Israel had one less difficulty—a difficulty that made conquering the city seemed impossible—but they still had a battle to wage.

* David, fresh from the fields where he watched over his family’s sheep, faced a giant of a man named Goliath. He was over nine feet tall and he was a fearsome fighter. But David marched boldly to meet this champion of the Philistines:

Then David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with a sword, a spear, and a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have taunted. This day the LORD will deliver you up into my hands, and I will strike you down and remove your head from you. (1 Samuel 17:45-46a)

As David said, God, by His grace, delivered David and David cut off Goliath’s head.

The point is simple. Grace can’t be misappropriated like the name-it-and-claim it folks want to do or like the universalists try to do. But at the same time it can’t be treated as the ugly step-sister to obeying a legalistic set of laws.

God’s grace is The Big Deal in our relationship with Him. In fact it is the Big Deal that separates Christianity from all other religions. God saves by supplying us with His grace through the faith He freely gives us. His grace is free. His faith is free. His salvation is free.

But we’ve got to own it. Claim it. Say, Yes, that grace has my name on it. It’s my free gift from God which is the means of my salvation.

It’s a narrow road, walking between two extremes. But at the same time, this amazing balance God has created helps us to spot false teachers and pretend Christians. Because people who don’t know the love of God aren’t really clear about grace. Not that any of us actually “knows how it works.” But we do trust God to do for us what we can’t do for ourselves, so that we in turn might show Him our love by doing what He asks.

Published in: on April 11, 2016 at 6:06 pm  Comments (3)  
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Spiritual Journey Or Relationship With God?


New_Testament001

Christians have for as long as I remember been concerned about speaking to others in what some refer to as “churchese” or “Christianese.” By this they simply mean the lingo associated with church or with Christianity.

All sorts of specialty groups enjoy common parlance. Writers, for example, talk about their WIPs and choosing a first or third POV, about submitting queries and proposals or preparing one-sheets for conferences. Football fans have their inside talk as well, involving OTAs and mini-camps and drafts or free agency; then there are zone reads and blitzes and chop blocks and pass interference and what is a catch.

For some reason, however, Christians have the impression that when it comes to our faith, we alone in all the world use words that carry meaning to those of us who are part of the group. Somehow, we’ve also determined that the use of “insider” jargon is bad. Hence, every generation or so, someone—a song writer or pastor or author or TV evangelist—introduces a new set of words to identify certain aspects or elements of what we do and what we believe. These, of course, turn into the new jargon.

For example, my church did away with ushers some time ago and replaced them with greeters. Mind you, they are the same people, dong the same function, but we now call them this other, different term. When we still handed out bulletins (we have since gone more or less paperless—it’s California; what can I say!), we suddenly started calling them weeklies. Not bulletins, though they still held the same information they always had.

One of the latest new jargon terms is “spiritual journey,” sometimes referred to as “our faith journey.” The idea is that we are all going somewhere spiritually. Some are seeking and their paths aren’t particularly straight. Some people are further along on their journey and are admonished to be patient with those who are back where they once were. The idea seems to be that we’re all going to get there in time, though some might be going faster and some slower.

No one says this, but I’m assuming some are on the wrong road or are headed in the wrong direction. But generally people only talk about believers or seekers as having a spiritual journey.

In reality, since all people are spiritual, we all have a spiritual journey.

Which brings me to my point. I think changing jargon can sometimes have detrimental consequences. “Spiritual journey” or “faith journey” seems to have replaced “relationship with Christ,” but I think the new phrases are poor substitutes.

As I mentioned above, all people have a spiritual journey. When the Bible uses the analogy of a broad road and a narrow road to describe our “spiritual journey,” there’s no indication that anyone is sitting it out on the side of the road. We’re all on one path or the other. So, what precisely does a person mean when they talk about their “spiritual journey”? Are they referring to their study of Zen Buddhism? Their practice of Hajj? Their participation in any of the six global humanitarian initiatives? Their initiation into and life within the Khalsa brotherhood?

“Spiritual journeys,” metaphorical and actual, are part of any number of religions and religious activities. The door is so wide that a Christian can say to a stranger on an airplane that his spiritual journey is the most important part of his life, and that stranger will have no idea what the Christian believes.

In other words, the new jargon buzz word among Christians actually distances us from … well, Christianity. Now we can sound just like everyone else. We might actually mean, when we say “faith journey” or “spiritual journey,” the process of sanctification in which God is making us more and more like His Son Jesus Christ. But what does the person outside of Christianity hear? Likely the term comes across as metaphysical—this person believes there is more to life than the physical and that’s important to them.

Wonderful, and true. And maybe it’s a starting place. But I can’t help wondering if this new bit of jargon is designed to avoid exclusivity. You know, the kind Christ says He requires:

And He was saying to them all, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it. For what is a man profited if he gains the whole world, and loses or forfeits himself? For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when He comes in His glory, and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. (Luke 9:23-26)

People walking around with crosses ought to be noticeable. And if they’re all parading along in the footsteps of Jesus, I’d think people would start to pay attention. I don’t see Jesus setting us up on a “spiritual journey” so much as He is an all-in kind of commitment to a Person. To Him. To the Son of God, the Messiah, the Christ.

So I’ll leave other people to their spiritual journeys. I don’t want to be on a path where I’m checking to see how I’m doing in relationship to everyone else. What I desperately need is Jesus. If I’m going to do what Jesus said He wants from those who come after Him, I have to keep my eyes on Him.

In short, I ought not to be paying as much attention to where I’m going as to Who I’m following.

Living By The Terms Of The Treaty


"Scene in Geronimo's camp, the Apache outlaw and murderer. Taken before the surrender to Gen. Crook, March 27, 1886, in the Sierra Madre mountains of Mexico."

“Scene in Geronimo’s camp, the Apache outlaw and murderer. Taken before the surrender to Gen. Crook, March 27, 1886, in the Sierra Madre mountains of Mexico.”

After reading a two part series of posts on Evangelicals by my friend and fellow blogger, InsanityBytes (part 1 and part 2), I decided the following article was the best comment I could give on the subject.

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When I was growing up, Saturday afternoon meant old B movies on TV, often something western. One particular story has stayed with me.

What history calls The Indian Wars dominated the West. Settlers and miners and railroad men and soldiers clashed with any number of Indian groups, from Chickasaw to Seminole.

In this particular story, a compassionate and understanding American, with a number of Indian friends, was convinced to take the position as agent for what was the equivalent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. As part of his job, he was required to negotiate an acceptable treaty with the tribes waring against the US government.

Against all odds, he was successful—except, treaties needed to be ratified by the Senate. The political climate at the time was against him, and rather than agreeing to the terms he had promised the Indians, the government sent troops to implement the Indians’ forced removal from their land.

The story stayed with me because I felt the betrayal this Indian agent experienced—as both the betrayed and the betrayer. He was let down by the government that said it would stand behind his negotiations (the stipulation he demanded as the condition for him taking the position as Indian agent). As a result, in the eyes of the people who had trusted him, he became their Brutus.

It struck me recently that professing Christians who take up with false teachers are like those politicos in that old-time movie. They say they will abide by whatever their representative decides, but when the terms of the agreement come down, they don’t really want to keep their word. They find some way of changing the rules, of canceling the treaty.

In essence, they leave their representative hanging out to dry. The world, to whom He has gone, point and laugh.

    Ha-ha, they say they love, but look at the nasty things they put on their signs when they picket the streets.

    They say they don’t love the world or the things of the world, but listen to how greedy their preachers are.

    They say they live like Jesus, but they have marital breakups, addictions, bad debt, carry grudges, sneer and snark, just like the rest of us.

When we who bear the name of Christ, do not obey Him, we aren’t much better. Our disobedience affects how others look at Jesus in the same way that a false Christian’s inconsistencies end up staining the name of Christ.

I’m reminded of an Old Testament incident recorded in 2 Chronicles 18. Jehoshaphat, king of Judah, allied himself with Ahab, king of Israel. When they were preparing for war, Jehoshaphat wanted to inquire of a prophet of the Lord.

All the other prophets said the kings would have great success if they prosecuted the war, but the one prophet of the Lord Jehoshaphat insisted they bring in, said they would meet with defeat.

And what did Jehoshaphat do? He ignored the prophet of the Lord.

Why, I’ve wondered, did he bother to ask for the man to speak a message from God if he wasn’t planning to listen?

Then too, why do people today take up the name of Christ and ignore His Word?

But that forces me to ask, do I ignore His Word, too—at least the parts I don’t like? Things like, “Do all things without grumbling or disputing”?

I guess the question I need to ask is this: how much do I care about the reputation of He who I say I’m following?

Published in: on March 8, 2016 at 7:39 pm  Comments Off on Living By The Terms Of The Treaty  
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