Saturday, December 22, 2012

Christmas and God's Vindication

It was unworthy of the goodness of God that creatures made by Him should be brought to nothing
through the deceit wrought upon man by the devil; and it was supremely unfitting that the
work of God in mankind should disappear, either through their own negligence or through
the deceit of evil spirits. As, then, the creatures whom He had created reasonable, like the
Word, were in fact perishing, and such noble works were on the road to ruin, what then
was God, being Good, to do? Was He to let corruption and death have their way with them?
In that case, what was the use of having made them in the beginning? Surely it would have
been better never to have been created at all than, having been created, to be neglected and
perish; and, besides that, such indifference to the ruin of His own work before His very eyes
would argue not goodness in God but limitation, and that far more than if He had never
created men at all. It was impossible, therefore, that God should leave man to be carried off
by corruption, because it would be unfitting and unworthy of Himself.
-Athanasius of Alexandria, On the Incarnation

By the majority of accounts, Athanasius was a 1st class pastor and bishop in addition to being a premier scholar in his day.  It's not hard to see how his passion for ministry was well-suited to his theological perspective by any examination of the quotation above.  For Athanasius, the very impulse by which God seeks to right the wrongs of sin and death in the physical universe isn't just for His own vindication.  But God's divine determination to demonstrate His holiness and His great love for us are ball and socket of one and the same joint.  

Christmas is celebrated all over the world, but in the Church, we worship God for taking on flesh.  This is the doctrine called "the Incarnation" (and it also includes something called "The Hypostatic Union" which is creatively explained by Shai Linne).  The Spirit-God, according to His own wisdom and purpose made the physical universe.  And in doing so, Athanasius argues, He was making a commitment to care for and maintain it.  Although He created an image-bearer to act as His agent on earth, God was still ultimately sovereign and would ultimately respond, as it were, to the blunder of man and the belligerence of the Enemy. 

Despite man's sin, God was unwilling to "let corruption and death have their way" with man and the universe.  So, God entered into His creation to ultimately right it's wrongs and history a monumental chapter change in the story chronicling  the outbreak of God's Kingdom in Christ's birth.  God had already been active in the steady march against sin, but in Christ, He had turned up the momentum and was surely set on defeating the Devil, sin, and death itself by the Cross and Resurrection.  John Donne in the Book of Uncommon Prayers puts it like this:  "His birth and his death were but one continual act, and his Christmas Day and his Good Friday are but the evening and the morning of one and the same day.  From the [cradle] to the cross is an inseparable line.  Christmas only points forward to Good Friday and Easter."    

This Christmas, I am encouraged.  I am reminded that God is entirely engrossed and engaged in overcoming the deepest problems in my life.  Because of Christmas, I know that God is not just winking at sin in my body, but is sure to defeat it.  And since I am His, I'm to cooperate with Him as a dutiful son, industrious "about my Father's business".  Despite my own failures, I know that He will not fail, nor will He forsake me; for He cannot forsake Himself, nor will He suffer losing me to another.  His glory is my comfort and assurance for He is committed to His glory and to His elect.

Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth.  Good will to men on whom His favor rests.  

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Haiti Missions Trip Recap 02: Spreading the Word

Why didn't Jesus just come as an adult and go straight to the cross?  Wouldn't that still have been an act of supreme love?  In Acts 3, we find Peter and John in the Temple, healing a man who was lame.  Acts 19:11-12 tells us that people who merely came in contact with Paul's handkerchiefs and aprons were cured.  Surely these are sufficient for demonstrating to the world the One Who is Yahweh-Rapha, "the Lord Who heals you".  After all, didn't St. Francis of Assisi give us those inspiring words, "Preach the gospel everywhere and use words if necessary"?

I started thinking about these things after our 2nd work day in Lambi Village.  It was then that I had several conversations with village residents who said that they were Christians but didn't own a Bible.  I shared my concern with one of the pastors on the team who agreed that we should definitely be looking to do both: provide practical support that meets a felt need AND distribute Bibles while ministering God's word to persons at every opportunity that we are able to do so.

The leaves change colors in autumn, but hearts seem to bud and open like flowers in spring.  Every year between Thanksgiving and Christmas, there appears to be an increase in active expressions of generosity, kindness, hospitality, and cheer.  I certainly welcome that kind of shift, but I wonder: is it Christian, or is it cultural?  After all, Christians aren't the only ones who participate in the kind of charitable giving and volunteering that we have become accustomed to during the holiday season.  The truth is, many have come to accept the idea that in such cases, "actions speak louder than words".

But I beg to differ.

Let's look back at the questions we started with.  If we saw Jesus on the cross, never having taught/preached as He did.  How would we know Who He really was?  Is He a martyr, criminal, or the Son of God?  Without His teaching, we would have never guessed at the last option.  Were Peter, John, and Paul magicians?  Were they physicians?  Were they Greek gods manifested in the flesh or were they humble servants of Jesus, the dead man Who came back to life, that were commissioned to continue His work in His name?  Without their teachings/writings, we wouldn't have assumed that option either.  And something else is true: without their words, none of them would have suffered the persecution that they had to endure.

Jesus wasn't put to death because He healed lepers, gave widows back their dead sons, or fed thousands on  a five loaves of bread and two fish.  Peter wasn't imprisoned for making a lame man dance.  The mobs didn't stone Paul, attempting to kill him because he freed a slave girl from her demon possession.  All these good works were welcomed and the men through whom God performed them would have been equally received if it were not for the gospel of God's work in Christ and it's life-changing power through the Holy Spirit.  The miraculous and merciful actions of Jesus and the early church were not alone, but accompanied by a message that was offensive to most of their hearers.  They preached it anyway, and if we don't how can we be counted as faithful?

"Faith comes by seeing, and seeing by watching the things I do without mentioning the name of the one who loves me".  Dear reader, if you are one of the many who would say, "I can do evangelism [which is defined as proclaiming the gospel] by doing good deeds and honor God without communicating a single word", I would ask you to find the "verse" quoted above in the Bible.  Until you show me that, I'll believe this one:  "Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God" (Romans 10:17).

Again, it's Christmas time.  Let's be zealous for the good works that accompany the season.  It is certainly true that God has called us--even fashioned us for such things.  But as we do the works, woe unto us if we preach not the gospel.  Why would we do good works without a mention of our Father in heaven and specifically make known that our works are done to honor JESUS?  Have we chosen to conform to the world out of fear for their rebuke when we should have considered it God's reward to suffer for the gospel's sake?  Christian courage demands better of us.  For all that He's given us and sacrificed, wouldn't it be good to give Him the gift of a bold, wise, and specifically gospel-centered witness at this blessed time of year?

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Evil Among Us

Yesterday's tragedy was one of those powerful reminders of why it's SO hard to say goodbye to (moral) absolutes.  No one who heard of the fatal shooting where so many little children died is confused about the nature of what was done.  No one is wondering if the shooter was "misunderstood" or "meant well" or "had good intentions".  No one is willing to give the shooting itself a shoulder-shrugging as if unsure of the ethical implications.  One word describes it all: evil.

There is fear.  There is shock.  There is sadness.  There is pain.  There is confusion.  There is anger.  For all that people feel about the absurd loss of life, clearly all these emotions spring from the evil nature of what was done.  I'm not going to say much about the murder suspect.  His actions have spoken for him.  But I do have a question:  For all the outrage over the evil that has happened among us, is there any outrage in our day-to-day lives about the evil within us?

Are you defensive already?  Quick to say, "Hey, I'm no angel, but I'm not a mass-murderer either..."?  That's not in question, nor is it my accusation.  I'm just wondering why it takes a spectacular showing of evil in someone else to illicit righteous indignation... but the evil in our own hearts is quietly excused?  The evil we speak, love to hear, and seek to watch- the evil things that we happily engage in alone or perhaps with "consenting adults"- why are these so callously forgotten when the obvious sins of others are manifest?  

This is still Christmas time.  And if Christ came for anything, it was to destroy the works of the devil.  Yesterday's horror story--grim as it was/is-- cannot erase the objective reality of Jesus' incarnation to bring peace where the evil in men's hearts preferred war with the Maker.  If there is any true comfort anywhere in the world, it is in the gospel which proclaims a Savior Who "comes to make His blessings flow, far as the curse is found".  Not just the curse found among us, but the curse found within us.  

I am so grateful for redemption from the curse.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Haiti Missions Trip Recap 01: The Incarnation

At some point in late July or early August TNMBC Senior Pastor Patrick J. Walker and Pastor Angelo Berry tapped 10 men on the shoulder.  Of course, this is figurative language for the challenge they put forth for some to take hold of the opportunity afforded by partnership with Lott Carey and Grace International to be a blessing to the Haitian people for the glory of God at Lambi Village.  The slogan was "100 Men, 10 Homes" and the idea was to help rebuild the lives of Haitians who lost homes during the 2010 earthquake.  I knew I was going and with a little re-shuffling, TNMBC ended up sending 9 men including two Haitian-Americans: myself and another brother from Cambria Heights (Queens), NY- Ricardi Damille.  More on him later...

One of the first things I understood about the trip was that this was a work-based missions trip.  There are all kinds of missions trips and this would be my second one centered on building/construction.  I knew that the labor itself would be an expression of God's love as demonstrated by Jesus on the cross, but not exactly the proclamation of it.  As Ephesians 2 teaches us, we are saved by grace through faith- not of works.  But the same chapter also informs us that even before we came to Christ, God had already drawn up plans for our lives that included specific works--good works-- that would distinguish and mark us as masterpieces; His very own handiwork (Ephesians 2:10).

To me, life itself is nothing more than the unfolding and discovery of God's dream for how my life should glorify Him.  So, I can say that I truly felt led to go.  I was ready for the grunt work.  I welcomed the sweat.  Lord knows, I ate a pound of dust everyday going to and from the work site via the dusty roads between Carrefour and Leogane.  While I was prepared to follow through the day-to-day rigors of construction that the mission called for, I am truly grateful for moments orchestrated by Providence when the greater mission emerged.  With Ricardi's permission, I'm glad to share one such experience at this time.

The team had already spent half of the day under the Haitian sun at heavy labor when one of our team members took ill.  I happened to be walking up a hill with Jonny Jeune, our host and construction engineer for the village.  When we spotted our brother who was obviously suffering from some kind of heat exhaustion, Jonny quickly decided he should go back to our living quarters.  He wisely asked Ricardi, fluent in Haitian Creole, to accompany our brother who is also an elder pastor.  They headed back to the hotel together.

Once the pastor was comfortably seated, Ricardi went to find some water to bring him more relief.  However, when he requested water from the owner's son, the young man mumbled something to himself and walked away completely dismissing Ricardi's plea on behalf of the pastor.  Not sure what to make of it, Ricardi returned to the pastor to care for and keep an eye on him.  At that time, an employee of the hotel observed Ricardi speaking with the older pastor and immediately left the vicinity only to return with cold, bottled water and this apology,

"Oh sir, please forgive us!  We didn't know that you were with the foreigners!"

You see, Ricardi had made his request to the Haitian hotel owner's son in perfect Creole but was then heard speaking perfect English with the American pastor.

Please understand that under normal circumstances, virtually any U.S. citizen would receive preferential treatment.  Even for people like Ricardi and myself, although we are 100% Haitian-blooded, we are still American citizens by birth and are therefore thrust into the ultra upper-class in terms of economic freedom and political protection in Haiti.  But because Ricardi looked like a Haitian, spoke like a Haitian, appeared to be begging (asking for water) and was in work clothes doing heavy labor like many Haitian males, he didn't at all resemble a man of comparably privileged origins.  And because he looked like a common Haitian, he was treated accordingly and suffered the humiliation of being ignored and cast aside.  Why?  All because his appearance didn't match his actual station in life and also because he had assimilated and "fit in" so well.

"He grew up before Him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground.  He had no beauty of majesty to attract us to Him, nothing in His appearance that we should desire him.  He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.  Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not"  --Isaiah 53:2-3

As I reflected on Ricardi's experience, I couldn't help but think of God's divine Son taking on flesh and blood for our sake.  So many would sell their own parents for a chance to rub shoulders with the rich, famous, and powerful.  But how many people walked right past the Son of God every day without knowing it.  Even worse, how many who saw Him at work with awesome and wise teaching not to mention mighty acts of miraculous power still chose to reject Him?  And why?  All because he didn't look like the kind of person who was important.  In fact, Jesus looked so normal that even with His message and miracles, people couldn't get past His "average-ness".  Christ, the Almighty Foreigner in our midst, was disregarded, despised and doubted because He looked too familiar and spoke our language too well.

I'll say a lot more on this blog about other experiences I and others shared in Haiti from Dec. 1st to the 8th.  But I wanted to start with this one because we are in the Christmas season.  I thought it was fitting to think about the sacrifice Jesus made long before He got to the cross: the sacrifice of relinquishing status, position, and honor to become like us.  Calculate the miles I and my teammates may have traveled and consider what comforts we passed up and missed out on.  Combine all that we missed we may have given up in terms of distance from family/friends and multiply that by whatever we may have paid and others donated in terms of cost to go to Haiti, etc. Put it all together and it's virtually nothing- not even a drop in the ocean- compared with what Christ endured for our sake just in coming to the world.

In closing, my deacon brother Brad Lee told me something on the way back from Haiti that his basic training sergeant told him, "I won't ask you to do anything that I myself wouldn't do."  With respect to evangelism and specifically this missions trip, a lot has been made of the fact that Christians have a duty to "Go" and fulfill the Great Commission.  But how many have considered the fact that Jesus asked us to "go" and had a right to do so because when He was asked to "go", He did it.  The True Missionary and the Real Evangelist is none other than Jesus Christ.  And because He came, we can certainly go.  Because of all He went through, we can certainly endure all things with His power.  Man, I love Christmas!

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Holy Ambition

Took my heart away from money
Ain't interested in fame--
And I pray that'll never change
Ambition is priceless
It's something in your vein...
by Olubowale Victor Akintimehin, aka "Wale"

What do you think of when you hear the word ambition?  What does it look like and what picture/scenario comes to mind?  Is it someone in a suit at work early and staying late hours?  Is it a medical or law student scheming to sabotage other students grades so that they can be ranked #1?  Is it an athlete staying in the gym after others have left or a coach with glazed over eyes still reviewing film from last week's game?  Is it a young, impoverished child idolizing and imitating gangsters and gang-bangers (there's actually a difference) for their ill-gotten gain?

One online dictionary defined ambition this way, "an earnest desire for some kind of achievement or distinction, as honor, power, fame, or wealth and the willingness to strive for its attainment."  This definition caught my attention because it makes clear that ambition, while closely associated with the idea of desire, is not in itself the thing being chased after.  But ambition is the thing that determines how fierce and faithful we are in the chase itself.  Ambition is not what we race for, it's what determines whether we will run the race well or not.  It was an important insight for me because most of the images associated with ambition have been negative and self-glorifying to the harm of others.  But clearly, ambition need not be a detriment nor must it be strictly secular.

The Apostle Paul writes,
"and thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else's foundation, but as it is written, 'Those who have never been told of Him will see, and those who have never heard will understand."
Romans 15:20-21

In verse 24, he makes known his desire to pass through Rome on his way to Spain, which to anyone alive at that time would represent the western-most part of the world!  Paul's burning passion, the thing that ran through and in him was preaching the gospel, specifically where Jesus was not yet known.  And this was not for some kind of "Me First-ism" or a self-righteous means of glorifying himself above other evangelists.  His stated reason for this entrepreneurial focus on gospel proclamation is to honor the prophecy that he quotes from Isaiah 52:15.  So Paul is propelled into preaching either because he sees his ministry as a fulfillment of that scripture or because he is entirely confident in God's providential power to bring the verse to it's manifestation.  Either way, the Apostle to the Gentiles is a fantastic example of a man with ambition but for the sake of God's glory and "Advancing the Kingdom Agenda".   

What about you, friend?  What's in your vein?  What is your ambition and how does your passion reflect your love of and loyalty to God?  Many say that they have made themselves available to God to be used by Him.  That may sound spiritual, but it also may indicate a rather passive approach towards Christian service to me.  Where is there any evidence of your own willingness to take hold of a Christ-centered, Holy Spirit-empowered, God-honoring task?  If it's not there, or if you're not sure, it's certainly worth the time to seek God in prayer and in His word to discover the glorious purpose for which you were created and a holy ambition to carry it out.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Will of God... Thanksgiving

“Be joyful always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances for this is THE WILL OF GOD for you in Christ Jesus.”
1st Thessalonians 5:16-18

“Thank you”. It's one of the first things we are taught to say. Not only one of the first but one of the most repeated lessons we must learn from our parents/guardians. As infants, we were not only unable to say it, but probably beyond our capacity to understand what thankfulness really is. After all, weren't we “entitled” to food, shelter, and clothing? Children must be reminded to express gratitude because it isn't natural to them. As cute and adorable as they are, they are also self-centered and sin naturally.

Are adults really any better though?

We rarely think of gratefulness as a spiritual discipline (if you think about how hard it is to be grateful at times, you'll agree that discipline is the right word!).   But a life of thankfulness towards God is embedded in all of the Holy Scriptures. Whether it is the sacrifices of Abraham (Gen. 12:7, Gen. 14:18-20), the psalms of David (Psalm136), Jesus thanking God before breaking bread (Matt. 14:19) or the letters of Paul (like Thessalonians)- giving thanks to God is the natural expression of the God-centered life. When we forget to thank God, it's usually because we are too focused on self.

“The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men... for although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God NOR GAVE THANKS to Him...”
-Romans 1:18-25 (read for context)

Yes, when God's wrath is poured out on humanity, it is in part because of their lack of gratitude towards Him. We often forget to thank Him because He's been so faithful that we come to expect good from His hands because of how good he's been over the years. That speaks to His love for us, but also, our human tendency to prioritize self over God.

Giving thanks for ALL circumstances seems difficult to imagine. But this IS the will of God for those who are in Christ. Think of Paul, who wrote much of the New Testament from a prison cell. He was even thankful for his imprisonment. Why? Because it reminded him that although he was locked up, the gospel was still unchained ( 2nd Timothy 2:8-10). The church could continue without him so he gave glory to God by encouraging the next generation of leaders like Timothy. 

"I thank God this Thanksgiving Day for clarity", said Pastor Henry Gaston during our TNMBC Thanksgiving Day service.  I thank God for clarity too.   He has revealed His will with total simplicity so that we are not stumbling in the darkness.  The will of God for you and I on this and EVERY day is to give Him thanks.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Nature of Saving Faith

The Roman Catholic cartoon above lampoons the protestant doctrine of "Sola Fide": justification by faith alone.  The image concedes that faith is the engine behind works but claims that protestants disconnect faith in God from works.  Unfortunately this kind of misrepresentation convinces many who assume that when one makes a distinction between two things they are also and invariably disconnecting those two things.  

They're wrong.

Consider the body: muscles and tendons are distinct.  You would be wrong to say that muscles are the connectors and tendons contract/elongate to make motion possible.  Clearly, each has its own function but neither is found alone- they're symbiotic.  Think of blood: you would be wrong if you thought that white blood cells carried oxygen and red blood cells fought against disease.  Again, blood has distinct parts (don't forget plasma!) and while we can discuss the elements that constitute blood, we're not separating them.  We simply recognize differing roles although they are united.

Considering the 2nd chapter of James, we understand that many have confused the writings from verse 14 to 26 as being in contradiction to the writings that have come to us from God through Paul (especially in chapter 4 of Romans).  But this is an oversight due to poor comprehension of the passage in James.  Let's look at some of the verses as rendered from the NIV:

"What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds?  Can such faith save him?  Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food.  If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?  In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.  But someone will say, "you have faith; I have deeds."  Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.  You believe that there is one God.  Good!  Even the demons believe that--and shudder."

It's clear that James is talking about a person who has not merely made a distinction, but also a disconnection between faith and works.  Not only that, but the kind of faith that's in view here is not the vibrant, dynamic brand that reveals the rich deposit of trust and confidence in God.  James is talking about mere mental assent which only qualifies a person to be in rank with a demon.  For a fuller discussion on the different types of faith, I recommend the article entitled, "Faith Defined" from Ligonier Ministries.  The "faith" that is simply mental assent says, "I believe" but stops there.

The nature of saving faith is revealed in works that come from and are in line with trusting the message that comes from God; specifically the gospel.  The Apostles as a group along with the earliest disciples went about preaching and teaching on the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.  They didn't merely huddle in corners memorializing their Master.  The obeyed His command to go and make disciples as expressed in Matthew 28:18-20.  Their deeds were fruit, rooted in faith, not severed from faith.  This is the pattern in Christ: faith produces deeds.  Saving faith says, "I believe, and God empowers me with the grace to do". 

But James explains that this pattern isn't merely a New Testament thing, it's simply a God-thing.  It's always been the case that those who believe will "do" from their believing.  They always act on their faith.  James, like Paul, points to Abraham who believed God enough to offer Isaac as a sacrifice.  Genesis 15:6 makes it clear that Abraham believed God's promise to give him innumerable descendants.  And yet, he trusted God enough to offer up his one and only son.  Hmmm... sounds a little familiar...might be pointing to a message that we must believe too... and then live in a way that lines up with that belief.

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Will of God... Sexual Purity

The following is a re-post from the TNMBC Young Adult Bible Study Group on Facebook from June 9, 2011

"It is God's will that you be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality;"
1st Thessalonians 4:3

A college student I know was very happy in her dating relationship.  As far as she was concerned, everything was perfect.  Her boyfriend was very attractive, excelling academically, active in young adult ministry at his church, well-liked by her parents, etc.  So she was very serious when she asked me how to know whether or not it was "God's will" for them to be together.

She certainly hoped so  because one of the wonderful qualities of their relationship was that they had already discovered that they were "sexually compatible".  Okay...

I had to share the passage above in order to explain why from a biblical perspective, she and her boyfriend were NOT "in the will of God".  She was very shocked to discover this since she was very convinced all was well.  After all, they were in a loving, long-term, and monogamous relationship and had always been 'very careful' in their sexual exploration (not very careful to obey God's law... but very careful in other ways, apparently).  

What I ultimately discovered was that she was looking for some kind of sign or confirmation that God had already given the green light on a decision she had already made.  And this is the major temptation for us all:  as fallen and sinful humans, we are naturally rebellious and routinely seek out an excuse or a rationale to exalt our post of view as right even when the Bible clearly teaches otherwise.

In another passage, the Apostle Paul says, "But among you there must be not even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity... (Ephesians 5:3).  When he says, 'not even a hint', there's not a lot of breathing room, is there?

The issue is bigger than sex.  It's about sanctification.  Sanctification is the process by which the Holy Spirit empowers us to be less and less under the power of sin by making us more and more like Jesus in thought, behavior, and character.  Being holy means being separate, and set apart for God's purposes.  In a generation where seeing it all and doing it all by/before age 18 is acceptable and applauded, the Christian is challenged to stand out and invite ridicule for what many call "out-dated and old-fashioned".  

But if you're a believer in Christ, it's personal.  You were bought and ransomed from sin at the cost of Christ's blood.  You are no longer your own, therefore, you honor God with your body.  It's God's will.

Flee from sexual immorality.  All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body.  Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?  You are not your own; you were bought at a price.  Therefore honor God with your bodies.
1st Corinthians 6:18-20

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Gospel of God vs Gospel of Man

"We cannot escape our destiny nor should we try to do so.  The leadership of the free world was thrust upon us two centuries ago in that little hall of Philadelphia.  In the days following World War II, when the economic strength and power of America was all that stood between the world and the return to the Dark Ages, Pope Pius XII said, "The American people have a genius for splendid and unselfish actions.  Into the hands of America God has placed the destinies of an afflicted mankind."  We are indeed, we are today, the last best hope of man on earth."
-- Ronald Reagan, The Shining City Upon a Hill, 01/24/74

How many times have we heard lines like the one above from U.S. Presidents?  I remember the first time it really struck me.  I was sitting on the couch in my shared apartment in Silver Spring, MD during the 2000 presidential election season.  I heard George W. Bush say something like, "America is the greatest force for good in the world".  My friend who I was living with at the time was not a Christian, nor was he a U.S. citizen.  It struck him as a bold comment to make.  I was wondering, "Isn't the Church the greatest force for good in the world?"

But today, I'm pretty sure that both candidate Bush and I were wrong.  America isn't "the greatest force for good in the world".    Neither is the church.  Nor is it free elections, a laptop for every child, universal healthcare, reversing global warming, the free market, a return to traditional values, etc.  All modern U.S. presidents at one time or other have put forth some grand statement that puts individual freedom, international cooperation, or America itself as "the greatest force for good.  So what's the right answer?  It's the gospel.

But which one?

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which He promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son Who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of God in power the Spirit of holiness by His resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Romans 1:1-4

We all know that the word gospel means, "good news" and many have heard that the Greek word itself is euangelion.  But what many don't realize is that the first century readers of the New Testament would have recognized euangelion or gospel from a completely different context: Roman imperialism.  Yes, the term was a familiar one that would have indicated any of the following among other things:

1.  Yet another victory for Caesar or his agent over a military enemy or new conquest
2.  The arrival of Caesar to your hometown or region
3.  The crowning of a new emperor which would mean that the previous Caesar was now divine

So the gospel of Rome was fully and firmly founded in the faith that her emperor was godlike and had power to not only preserve the empire, but to extend it.  And that extension was certainly for the greater glory of Rome to be sure.  However, it was also for the betterment of mankind.  You see, the Romans saw other peoples as barbarians and savages who needed to be conquered so that they could learn the ways of enlightened Rome.  Sound like anything you've heard over the years?

Caesar Augustus, who had one of the longest and most peaceful reigns over the empire had coins with his face and this inscriptions on those coins like:  The Savior of the World, Augustus- Son of God, Salvation is in no Other Name, etc.  When you compare this to Acts 4:12, you come to some shocking conclusions about the counter-cultural, in-your-face nature of the Apostles' preaching and teaching.

So this isn't just about Rome and the USA- but the truth is that every nation, has a "gospel".  The goals of every administration in government and the platform of every political party- all of them are announcing what they believe is good news for all people.  It's the gospel of the City of Man- humans and the nations they build are exalted above and independent of the sovereign God- the only true God.  They may never say so openly, but what else can we conclude when national leaders point to their country as "the greatest force for good"?  Oh yes, be assured that the City of Man speaks of god, but it's a god who helps them, serves their purposes, and never rebukes but always rewards the City of Man with divine "blessings".

But Paul brought forth a totally different gospel.  It's not the gospel of Rome, not Caesar's gospel, not the gospel of Athens and Greek wisdom, not even the gospel of Moses and the law- but the gospel of God.  And that gospel is not without a King.  It is completely consumed with Christ- the true Israel and thus, the true Son of God.  Eternally existing in the form of God but born as a man and now revealed as divine via resurrection.  This King also conquered-- not by killing others, but by dying to self and denying His rights.  He was glorious but lived for the glory of another- His Father.  He was ruler of all but came not to be served, but to serve for the benefit of His servants.

That's good news!

The gospel in our Christian usage has simply swallowed up the Roman version of it.  And no wonder, for it is the Father's announcement entrusted to believers to declare the rulership of Christ over sin and death via the cross and now among His people/Bride, through the Holy Spirit.  Think about what kind of boldness was necessary for Paul to write a letter to believers living in Rome- the very heart of the empire- announcing the gospel of God, not the gospel of Caesar.  What are the implications for believers... especially those living in capital cities today?

In closing, I know it's Election Day 2012.  And I'm not here to diminish what goodness there is in the relatively peaceful transition of power that takes place every four years in this country.  It is, in fact, something to celebrate.  As one who has lived overseas, I have a very special appreciation for this aspect of American living.  But I do want to encourage you to consider how important it is not to be deceived into embracing Americanism, one-world globalism, the world is getting better through scientific advancement-ism, we can solve our problems by working together-ism, etc. as the "gospel" of what will make the world better.  The promises (electoral or otherwise) made by the City of Man may be well-intended but are ultimately empty and doomed to failure.  It is the City of God that we look to as the "best hope of man on earth".  

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Why Politics Still Matter For Non-Political Christians

"So far, I don’t see evangelical Christians being very shrewd about the political world, shrewd enough to protect their own interests with a candidate who can’t win without them. And that’s the reality. Romney can’t win without you; it’s not that you can’t win without Romney. May we never forget the order of things! And may we never stop thinking carefully about what “winning” is. Winning isn’t the election of a Republican. Winning is the advancement of the gospel, the sewing of a biblical vision of the ‘good life’ in American life and culture, the strengthening and spread of the cause of Christ through His Church, a peaceful and quiet life in all godliness and holiness. That’s a far loftier goal than either electing Romney or defeating Obama, and it doesn’t depend on who “wins” the election when neither candidate really represents you."
--Thabiti Anyabwile 

I am truly grateful to Brother Tyrell Samuels who let me know about the wonderful article where the above quotation is found.  I'm also grateful and encouraged that Pastor Anyabwile, while somewhat disgruntled at the selection between the major political parties, wasn't endorsing a total retreat from politics altogether.  Instead, he confessed his own need for a "new political sojourn".  Many Christians are  feeling a lot like a certain 4 year old girl who has gotten a lot of press lately-- we're all tired of President Obama and Gov. Romney's campaign.  But hopefully you'll find a few reasons to stay engaged with the process during AND between elections.

1.  A nation's politics reflects a nation's respect for the truth.  Think about it.  Would we be seeing half-baked commercials if either major party actually respected the public?  The American voter has been treated to two major distortions that have a smattering of truth in them: A) President Obama doesn't think entrepreneurs "built" their own companies  B) Gov. Romney was lumping/mingling war veterans and the mentally disabled in with his statement about "the 47 percent".  

But we live the time of "gotcha" politics-- it's not about discovering what a person really means in context.  Politics is about how to snatch your opponents words to make them fit YOUR narrative.  This means that the politicians and their handlers know that most citizens are either too lazy, distracted, disinterested, etc. to research a claim for themselves.  Or, it could mean that they are certain they don't have to convince "the base" with truth.  Just give them reminders of what they're already indoctrinated to believe (Republicans will kill old people and love the rich, Democrats will make us look weak in Foreign Affairs and destroy business, etc).   

As Christians, we dare not be deceived into thinking that this kind of problem is self-contained in politics.  When people totally mangle the Scriptures because they've always heard but never read "judge not, lest you be judged" for themselves, it's the same disease but in a different realm.  A fever at work is a fever at home too.  Therefore, if we're willing to stand for truth in our churches, demanding contextual accuracy in the pulpit, we ought to demand it from public officials as well.

2.  National politics is a main contributor to the use and abuse of language.  "A woman's right to choose".  "All military options are on the table".  "Government shouldn't choose who you should or shouldn't love".  "Perhaps I misspoke."  We could go on and on.  There are dozens of phrases that are now "political-speak" and Christians had better be aware of those statements.  If nothing else, the disciple of Christ who is hoping to broaden their influence for Christ needs to stay on top of these mind-bending statements so that they know how to counter them.  For example...

One of my least favorite among the jargon is the statement, "A woman has a right to do as she pleases with her body."  This is political-speak for, "If a woman wants to end the human life in her womb, she has a right to do so."  But the earlier statement is used because of the implications for the so-called "pro-life" position.  If you're against elective abortions (an elective abortion means that the abortion procedure is  not necessary to save the life of the mother), it means you want to control a woman's body and think that she shouldn't have a say over her own body.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

As a "pro-life" libertarian-leaning individual, I firmly support a woman's right to do what she wants with her body.  I'm against that woman harming the body of another- specifically the human body that is naturally housed within her as a result of sexual relations.  I don't need a Bible verse to prove that a fetus (which is the Latin word for "infant")  is alive-- that's why they have to kill him/her.  I don't need a pastor to know that the baby is a human (human parents can't make anything else).  So unless someone can produce evidence that an unborn child committed a capital offense, they shouldn't be executed- especially without due process.

I'll mention this in passing:  I am equally displeased with the idea that a candidate can be "pro-life" and at the same time endorse preemptive military strikes.  The kind of carnage produced by unnecessary, unconstitutional wars (no declaration of war by congress), doesn't come from a truly pro-life perspective.

3. Political images are carefully chosen to make arguments that could not be won with words.  If you live in Maryland like me, you've recently been flooded with flyers regarding Question 6 and "marriage equality".  My wife and I had noted how the first flyers were simply beautiful pictures of the First Family and some quotations about "the freedoms we hold dear".  No actual content on the issues, just pictures and the imperative: Vote  Yes on Question 6!

But then I saw a more recent flyer.  It had a picture of newborn twins and presumably the same twins as children.  The two pictures talking about how much the same they are being born minutes apart and that the law should treat them equally.  But then, the twins are adults in the third and final picture.  It is then that we are told one of them is denied her dream and because she's a lesbian, the laws are unfair for her.  Therefore, we should vote "yes" for question 6.    

It's a stroke of genius because what's said in pictures could not be successfully argued with words.  The photos in that arrangement with that narrative backdrop implies that the lesbian was "born that way".  And so, through no fault of her own, her behavior and choices already locked in, she needs my vote to set her free to marry.  When you have a good photographer and a decent writer, you don't need a scientist.  

Remember the Zeitgeist movie?  Much of the power in that presentation was the similarity of imagery between mystery religions and early symbols associated with Christianity.  In modern America, images aren't merely evidence.  Pictures are proof.  I know Zeitgeist is already considered old, but trust me, there's another documentary coming that will go viral and shake many.  

So as I see it, the political realm is a crucial one for Christians to participate in because it's a barometer for where the nation is and is headed.  I'm going to vote because God could have given me Haitian parents who were in Haiti at the time of my birth.  But He didn't.  He gave me Haitian parents who lived in NYC so I know I'm a U.S. citizen by His sovereign choice.  I don't think He made me a citizen so that I wouldn't vote.  That's my conviction.

The vote is a public expression of a private opinion.  So, if you choose not to vote and have good reasons, I would urge you not to keep those reasons to yourself.  Have the courage to influence the various circles you are in and be willing to both speak and listen.  If you are a Christian determined to vote, I challenge you to worship God (not the government) with your vote.  Honor Him by having a free conscience, being assured that the platform of the candidate you choose is as close to God-honoring, biblical principles as possible.  Don't worry about which candidate wins, make it your aim to vote to the glory of God.     

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Gospel Humility

It's amazing how many accusations Christians have to learn to defend against.  Some require lots of study and detailed attention.  But then there are others that should be dismissed on the face of it.  I've heard so many times that Christians are "arrogant" or "prideful" or "bigoted".  To be sure, this mostly comes up in reference to our claims about Christ (His claims about Himself, really).  So if you haven't been accused of it, maybe it's a function of what you're not doing, rather than evidence of your good character.  I'm just saying...

In those moments when/if so accused, I always ask my accuser something like this, "Is there any other religion you know of where the first condition of belief includes the admission that they are so sinful and so unable to please God that their only hope is that God has to pay their sin-debt Himself?"  Well, that usually makes my point.  But I'm interested in a passage that definitely encourages/reminds Christians to not only tell others of humility, but to walk in it as well.

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
1st Corinthians 1:18

If a supremely powerful king had subjects who routinely attempted to usurp his authority, denounce his ordinances and messengers, went so far as to even deny their king's existence and even be so envious of the king's son to point of murdering him... could you really believe that this son of the king could come back to life declaring royal forgiveness and conferring life, honor, and future glory to those who follow him?  Following a dead man?  Oh yeah... he died but literally came back to life. 

I've taken a chance at offending for the sake of reminding ourselves of the truly outrageous claim that is presented in the gospel.  Distilled as a story about a king and his son, I think it's plain to see why the natural mind is repelled and unbelieving of this foolish message.  Perhaps this is why so many are quick to re-define the gospel as "God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life".  The gospel puts us in a posture that calls for humility.  Sinful man with a high opinion of himself and a low standard for "living right" doesn't find God's love "foolish".  But the Cross?  That's some foolishness right there.

Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles...
1st Corinthians 1:22-23

Even more foolishness.  You know what the people are asking for-- if you want to reach them, don't you have to give them what they want to hear?  If they are already resistant to your message, shouldn't you find ways to introduce it that is more desirable for them?  What if they don't listen?  After all, why would they want to hear the old story- haven't they heard it before?  Spice it up, dress it up!  Get some video!  The people love crowds, so build a mega church and since they love sports, why not have church in an arena every Sunday? 

Let's face it fellow Christian, preaching is foolishness.  If God really wants to get His message across, I mean, c'mon!  He has the whole sky!  Sky writing is cool when planes do it- imagine a FLOCK of Eagles (I know they don't flock- that's part of the miracle!) spelling Ephesians 2:4-5 in every language.  Or if He arranged for sunbeams to appear in different colors and used them to write, "My son is Jesus- so scrap all the other religions.  I am God and I approve this message.  Thank you."  Of course, this message could also appear at night with stars and occasional comets (for accent).  Why am I reading books and attending conferences on apologetics when God has the sky?!?  But according to His wisdom, He has ordained ordinary human words to get this very foolish (to natural man) but divine message across.

Brothers, think of what you were when you were called.  Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.  But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.  He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things...
1st Corinthians 1:26-28

If any believer is beginning to "think more highly of himself than he ought", the above passage will bring him/her back to reality.  The scripture couldn't be more clear: when God went searching for recipients of grace, He wasn't looking for an all-star team.  In fact, He purposely by-passed those who appeared qualified in order to guarantee that all would know the root and fruit of amazing things done in His name were established by Him and not our experience, exercises, and exploits in the faith.  As it is written,"Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord."

So, if you are a Christian but have forgotten that God's grace is the only reason you do anything right, come back to reality.  If you are a Christian overwhelmed with the scope, volume, and weight of your walk and work in Christ because you are acutely aware of your inadequacies, be encouraged: God set it up this way for your good and for His glory. 


Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Gospel Basics in the Book of Acts

Consider the diverse majors offered in our colleges.  Think of all the various professions.  Imagine whatever skills, specialties, and talents a person may have or hope to master.  Whatever you come up with, you will not escape the bottom line necessity to master three skills: "reading, 'riting, and 'rithmatic".  If a person only learns to read pictures/signs, write by tracing/drawing valuable symbols, and count their own money, they will at least have done the minimum to prove my statement true.

In many ways, the same can be said of the gospel.  There are certain things that we cannot avoid if we want to share the message of the cross.  Likewise, if we are serious about evangelism, there are topics we will naturally become fluent in and discipline will make us comfortable talking about (even though most won't want to hear you).  In the book of Acts, there are three such topics ("there's always three") that I will call the Three R's for the book of Acts due to how readily they reoccur.

Resurrection...  It's inescapable.  Anyone just casually reading through Acts can't help but recognize how often Peter, John, Paul, etc. refer back to the resurrection.  On one level, Christ being raised serves as the seal of approval of the Father upon Him.  A risen Jesus, as Peter would argue, is proof positive that Psalm 110:1 has been fulfilled and that Jesus is in fact, both Lord and Christ.

And at a more raw and gut level, the resurrection serves as a divine rebuke.  Think of it- when the question is asked how a lame man stands healed, here is the answer given:

It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed.  
Acts 4:10 (emphasis added)

The earliest recording of apostolic preaching includes using the resurrection as a hammer.  It jolts the listeners to recognize the terrible wrath of God against their sin: the crucifixion of Christ.  It also informs them that their work of putting Him to death has been undone by the One Who raised Jesus: none other than God.  This sets up the need for the next R.

Repentance...  The flow from resurrection to repentance is most clearly seen in Peter's address from Acts 2.  Upon pronouncing Jesus as "both Lord and Christ" by evidence of the resurrection we read this response from those in attendance:

"When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, "Brothers, what shall we do?"  Peter replied, "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins..."
Acts 2:37-38

The call to repentance is all through the book.  And while Peter is busy prosecuting the Jews for their sins, Paul isn't letting Gentiles off the hook.  In the context of their idolatry, Paul explains to the crowd in Athens,

"In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent."
Acts 17:30

But today, repentance is a dirty word in many pulpits.  "Why beat people up and remind them of their sins?  They already know their not perfect" many say.  And while that may make sense to some, we have to continually demand an honest answer from ourselves to this question:  am I making this up as I go along or am I taking my marching orders from the Word of God?

Think about it-  once commissioned to spread the gospel to all the world, the tiny band of the faithful Jesus left behind adopted the most ridiculous strategy ever:  tell people how bad they are... they're sure to come running.  It's not exactly a strategy for church growth (numerically) but it is the truth because there's no need to repent unless you're a sinner.  It's totally counter-intuitive, but then again, do we still believe that God's ways are not our ways or are we forcing our way and calling it "Spirit-led"?

Relentless Resilience... In chapter 4 they were warned.  The fifth chapter records the flogging of the apostles.    Stephen became the first martyr in chapter 7.  In chapter 8, the church leadership stays in Jerusalem while vast numbers of believers are forced from their homes due to persecution.  Peter is called on the carpet and has to manage a near schism of believers in chapter 11 and is soon imprisoned in chapter 12.  Paul is dragged out of the city of Iconium and left for dead in chapter 14.  The very next day, he and Barnabus leave for the city of Derbe and preach there.  I've barely covered half of the book!

How did they overcome all these odds?  Why did they persevere and persist in their faithfulness to Christ and to the gospel of God?  The Holy Spirit had convinced them of the truth and meaning of the Resurrection and had been transforming them through a lifestyle of repentance.  The external reality of Jesus' life and the internal change that is brought through repentance gave them the incentive and immutable impulse to keep going despite the trials before them.

Is your life in Christ lacking the fervor and passion resembling the relentless resilience of the early believers in Acts?  If so, you'll do yourself a service by revisiting the doctrine of the resurrection and seeking the grace of God to repent from sin and turn toward Him.

Friday, October 12, 2012

A Question of Focus

"O Sovereign LORD, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?"  And Abram said, "You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir."
-Genesis 15:2-3

Haven't we all been there?  We move in faith, taking God at His word so we walk in obedience as best as we can.  As far as we can tell, we have dotted our I's and crossed our T's but God's promise(s) seem so far out of reach.  Abram had left his father, his city, and all he knew because he believed God.  He had a reasonable expectation for God's blessing- in this case, a son- and land to boot.  But the circumstances of life didn't seem to justify the trust he had placed in El Shaddai.

Abram (aka Abraham) is known to most by his venerable title, "Father of the Faith".  As such, many of our biblical and non-biblical definitions of faith are brought to light when we consider his life as Moses records it.  Anyone reading Genesis 15, especially the first 7 verses, will have to come to terms with a practical truth of the Christian life: Questions do not indicate an absence of faith, but usually lead lead to deeper trust in God.

Let's be real.  Abram was an old man at 75 when he left Ur.  And he didn't move south to retire- in moving southwest to Canaan, he was taking on the greatest challenge he had ever undertaken.  Honestly, how does a man, his barren wife, and his nephew take possession of a vast land in such a fashion that he actually secures it for his (non-existent) descendants?

Thousands of years removed from the man and his struggle, many Christians glibly reply, "by faith, of course".  Such persons discredit themselves and Abram.  The truth is, God didn't give Abram the details of when/how he would take the land.  He didn't tell Abram about the Canaanites living in the land.  He didn't warn Abram that there'd soon be a famine in the "promised land" after arriving.  He didn't mention that Lot would become a POW, requiring an octogenarian Abraham to become a warrior and lead a rescue party to execute a prison break.

If Genesis 15 is any indication, Abram didn't endure all this without asking questions.  His faith wasn't defined by an ability to avoid the facts.  He wasn't living life pretending that the bad stuff didn't matter.  Abram wasn't afraid to respectfully ask God questions that really mattered:  Where's the son you promised?  What assurances can you give me that this great plan of Yours will come to pass?  An honest reading of the chapter will reveal that God didn't scold Abram for asking questions, but gave him answers that encouraged him to keep trusting.

For this reason, I have consistently encouraged my friends, partners, and students to consider the distinction between asking God questions and questioning God.  In the first case, we give due honor to Him Who has all the answers.  In the second, we exalt ourselves in thinking that God owes us an answer for who He is and what He has done.  Whoever has ears to hear, let him hear.

I sign off with a parting word of encouragement.  Genesis 15:1 says,

The word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision:  "Do not be afraid, Abram.  I am your shield, your very great reward."

The renderings from the NIV and KJV suggest an awesome thought: the reward for faith and obedience is God Himself.  While it's true that God promised a son, land, descendants beyond measure, etc, the true blessing and reward is knowing God.  Therefore, when we can't see the temporal promise we had hoped for, we must turn our eyes to the eternally secure blessing that comes from relationship with the Almighty, Omniscient, ever-righteous, ever-loving Maker of all.

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Gospel's Triple Conjunction

"Abram believed the LORD and He credited it to him as righteousness."  Genesis 15:6

One of the greatest comforts I experience as a Christian is the unity of the Holy Scriptures.  The Bible, despite it's having 40 or so authors, being written over multiple centuries, penned in different languages, still reflects a unified thought.  It presents a holy God, dealing with sinful man graciously, and ensuring a route to salvation by grace through faith.  In both Old and New Testaments man's right-standing with God depends on God's mercy and not man's efforts.

Genesis 15 lays down the principle of faith and the priority of a divine promise.  When the Creator speaks, His creatures ought to believe.  Try to understand Abraham and you will probably come the same conclusion as me: I've never been called to believe something more unbelievable in my own life.  And yet, it's not the actual promise that holds weight.  It's the One Who makes the promise- He is the one who matters.  Whether God promised children to a barren couple or a child to perfectly healthy parents, what makes the saying trustworthy is the trustworthiness of the speaker.  Yes, we ought to believe God.

In John 6:28-29, we find the following exchange,

Then they asked Him, "What must we do to do the works God requires?"  Jesus answered, "The work of God is this: to believe in the one He has sent."

It's simply amazing.  One would imagine that God's major issue with His people was their lack of obedience. Either they did what He commanded them not to do, or they failed to do what He commanded of them.  For sure, God is always displeased with disobedience.  Looking at the question and answer, however, we find that man's emphasis is not shared by God, Who has always maintained that His people's problem has been faith.  Ultimately, disobedience is rooted in unbelief.

Notice how the question reveals the principle concern of man: "what shall we do..."  The pride of fallen humanity is to do enough to earn one's keep.  Sin-craving, self-serving man says, "If it is to be, it is up to me".  But notice that Jesus' answer begins with the Prime Mover: "the work of God".  What is required for man to be acceptable to his Maker?  God must work on him.  How is the man to believe in God?  That is God's work, not the work of the believer.  The religions of men begin with men, but relationship with God begins with God.

Finally, let's consider a few verses from Romans 4.

"Now, when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation.  However, to the man who does not work but trusts God who justifies the wicked, his faith is credited as righteousness."
-Romans 4:4-5

Here is the crux of the matter: God, by definition and due to His holiness, cannot be a debtor to sinful man.  When men desire to do enough to be seen as worthy in God's sight, they have an aim that they would never overtly admit to: they want square and even dealings with the Immortal, Invisible, Only Wise God whereby they look Him eye-to-eye and demand rewards as a worker on payday.  While that is blasphemous and impossible, it is amazing how God's glorious grace is able to penetrate sinful hearts and cause the seed of faith to grow and bear fruits of righteousness.

Moses is the one through whom God gave us the law.  Jesus is the Son of God and the chief dispenser of God's grace through the cross and resurrection.  Paul is among the chief interpreters/expounders of Jesus' teaching.  The Bible accurately maintains their witness as a spectacular, brilliant, obvious testimony of the gospel-- a triple conjunction if you will-- that God justifies sinners by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, according to the scriptures alone, to the glory of God-- alone!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Truth > Experience

9/11.  It's just two numbers with a slash between them.  But you will seldom find two numbers, if spoken in that order, that will have a greater emotional impact on a person.  After all, who gets emotional about numbers?  But 9/11 has been used as a trigger for fear, revenge, nationalism, xenophobia, a rationale for war and enduring military presence in hostile nations... and all this is just how 9/11 is viewed in the U.S. let alone the world at large.

For all the things that 9/11 has come to represent, one must always remember that it's actually nothing more than an event.  As the very structure of the numbers themselves indicate, two great skyscrapers (and a lesser building) in NYC came tumbling down by the work of terrorists, the Pentagon was attacked, and a plane crashed somewhere in PA.  These are historical facts.  The effects of 9/11 on citizens in the U.S. and elsewhere, while related, are NOT the same thing as the event itself.  This is a crucial distinction that must always be remembered: the actual account is not the same as those things that resulted from it's occurrence.

"The core of the gospel, the historical facts of what God did in Christ, is often down-graded today in favor of a more mystical emphasis on the private spiritual experience of the individual.  Whereas faith in the gospel is essentially acceptance of, and commitment to the declarations that God acted in Christ some two thousand years ago on our behalf, saving faith is often portrayed nowadays more as trust in what God is doing in us now... [The gospel] is the good news about Jesus, before it can become good news for sinful men and women.  Indeed, it is only as the objective facts are grasped that the subjective experience of the individual Christian can be understood."   --quoted from Graeme Goldsworthy, The Goldsworthy Trilogy, pp.20-21

So there you have it.  One of the major mistakes made when presenting the gospel is confusing what Goldsworthy calls "the fruits of the gospel" with the gospel itself.  In other words, many are guilty of presenting "peace of mind", "joy in my heart", "the excitement of ministry", etc. as the gospel.  We ask people, "Don't you want to experience the love of God?".  Or we invite our neighbors to "try Jesus" and know "the peace that passes all understanding".  There are many variations of this approach.  The bottom line is, so often we are inviting people to the RESULTS of Christ's work on the cross and in His resurrection, but we are not giving sufficient emphasis to the cross nor the empty tomb itself.

For all the things that Christ has won for us- fill in the blank with whatever promise is now ours in Him- none of it is true unless first He lived a sinless life, died on a cross for our sins, was buried, and then was raised bodily from the dead.  Jesus and His work is the focus of the gospel- not us, nor our blessings.  So in all our efforts to evangelize and fulfill the Great Commission, I propose this maxim: Lead with the Promiser, not the promises.

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Ark of Safety

By faith, Noah, being divinely warned of things not yet seen, moved with godly fear, prepared an ark for the saving of his household, by which he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness which is according to faith.
Hebrews 11:8

The idea of Jesus in a disguise has some humor in it.  But then again, the 2nd Person of the Trinity was in a disguise for 33 years appearing as a mere human.  One more day of concealing His glory while talking to two disciples on the road to Emmaus wouldn't hurt.  Luke 24 records that instance and leaves a challenge that is no laughing matter.  The following verse calls us towards a Christocentric or Christ-centered interpretation of the Old Testament.

And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.
Luke 24:27

So today's question is, what can we discover of Christ and the gospel in the story of Noah?

1.  The heart of Christ.  The heart of God is broken over sin (Gen. 6:5-6).  But we cannot imagine this to be a paralyzing disappointment that renders the Almighty an emotional basket-case.  When sin grieves His heart, we can expect the Triune God to do two things:  execute justice against sinners but also give grace to some.  Which leads to our second point--

2.  Grace leads to righteousness.  Some in my Sunday School class had a hard time accepting this biblical truth.  When I asked, "Why was Noah spared over and against others?" they strangely read right past verse 8 and focused on verse 9.  Yes, Noah was a righteous man in his generation, but the grace of the LORD precedes that reality.  By way of parallel, the Christian (on his/her own merit) is no better than the pagan.  But practical holiness is a result of positional holiness-- I am found in Christ by grace, then I am found holy.  It's never been the other way around- Old and New Testament saints all have the same testimony.

3.  True faith leads to works.  The writer of Hebrews tells us that Noah built the Ark by faith.  So, let's put it together: Noah receives grace, he then believes God, Who commanded him to build an ark.  It sounds like a LOT Ephesians 2:8-10.  Once again, New Testament doctrine sheds light on Old Testament stories.  Also, while we always distinguish between works as the fruit and faith as the root, we know that the whole plant itself is meant to be one indivisible life.

4.  God's salvation is perfect.  The specification of the Ark have been a matter of intense scrutiny and curiosity for centuries.  How could four men build such a vessel?  Could any such construction truly be sea worthy?  But we respond simply: if God supplies what He commands, then they most certainly could build it.  And if they built it to God's satisfaction, it is secure for its purpose.  The Ark, while keeping all those inside of it safe, had to endure the elements which represented and carried out the awesome judgement of God.  Isn't that what Christ does for those of us "in Him"?

5.  New world, new covenant, new covenant sign.  Quite literally, Noah and his family stepped off of the Ark into a new world.  Nothing was the same before the rains.  God established a covenant of peace and the rainbow became the sign of the covenant's confirmation and God's promise.  Similarly, the gospel announcement points to the peace between God and man that Christ purchased on the Cross.  The new covenant sign of communion commands us to proclaim His death now, in memory of the past, and in anticipation of His future return.  And for sure, He will make all things new.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Lest I Forget, Part 2

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures...
1st Corinthians 15:3-4

I'll always remember my first CCO Jubilee Conference.  It certainly marked a paradigm shift for my understanding of the gospel.  The Friday night speaker challenged us to look deeply at the verses above to discover the "big story gospel" and to grow out of a fixation on the "truncated gospel story".  As my man Avery would say, "Unpack that, E".  Indeed, let's.

Christ died for sins... Our new 8 Year Discipleship Plan starts with an 8 week series of lessons on the Trinity.  The next quarter following the Trinity was on "Man and Sin".  This was carefully thought out because without understanding the nature(s) of Christ and a good grasp of sin, we cannot fully appreciate the depth, power, and beauty of the gospel (our focus for quarter 3).  

Or simply put, the italicized phrase in this paragraph means so much more when we realize that Christ is both God and man.  And because His life is of infinite value, it is more than sufficient to atone and pay for the sin debt that each believer incurs over the course their life. There is an amazing transaction here that is known as "double imputation" that is the heart of the gospel and provides true peace of mind for true Christians.  That's the core.  But there is also a background...

How do we know what sin is?  Wouldn't we have to go back to the first sin?  And how can we understand the suffering and distortion that sin has produced in our world without looking at the state of man and God before sin?  We call the first sin "the Fall".  But did humanity fall from the second step of the front porch... or did we fall from the 71st story window?  We need a good understanding of the fellowship of man with God in Eden and the harmony between all earthly creatures to grasp the terrible consequences of sin.

Knowing the "big story gospel" means that we consider the following:

1.  The goodness of God's creation
2.  The fracture that sin brings between man and God, man and his fellow creatures, man and the earth itself
3.  The redeeming, curse-reversing power of Christ's death, burial, and resurrection 
4.  The removal of sin and restoration of all things under God in Christ.

In short, the big story gospel is told in the phrase, 'Creation-Fall-Redemption/Restoration'.  

The bulk of 1st Corinthians is given to an exposition on the doctrine of the resurrection.  Paul explains many things about the resurrection of Christ:  

1.  It is meant to be understood as a historical fact.  Christ's resurrection was as real as His death and burial.
2.  It is not a stand-alone doctrine; it is central to forgiveness of sins and validity of the faith itself.
3.  It assures the resurrection for Christians.
4.  It demonstrates Jesus' domination of and dominion over death.
5.  It points to the superior nature of the new Spirit-dominated or "glorified" body over our mortal bodies.
6.  It establishes the certainty that our corrupted bodies will be transformed.
7.  It provides sufficient motivation to continue serving God because our future reward assures us that our labor is not in vain.

It's fascinating that passages of scripture that are heavy on doctrine are also heavy on encouragement.  Jesus' teaching on the Holy Spirit from John chapters 14:15-16:33 is 76 verses in total.  But it ends with, "I have told you these things so that you may have peace... take heart! I have overcome the world."  And so in this chapter of 58 verses, Paul encourages believers to "give themselves fully" to God's work since we know the payoff is so rewarding.  

Many of us live our Christian lives without the peace and zeal that is a natural by-product of good, sound doctrine.  Sometimes, it's because we are truly ignorant of those great doctrines.  But I am convinced that the more common reason is that we forget to infuse biblical doctrine into all of life.  Therefore, let the infusion begin, lest we forget.

Chorus from "Lead Me to Calvary"

Lest I forget Gethsemane
Lest I forget Thine agony
Lest I forget Thy love for me
Lead me to Calvary