It’s not a gift, it’s a command (John 4)

Some years ago when Tom Savage was the student ministries pastor here, he told me about the first pastor that he had worked with in what was, I think, a Southern Baptist Church near where he grew up in the DC / metropolitan MD suburbs. He marveled at this man’s gift for evangelism. Tom said that visiting in a home with this fellow, it seemed like he went from chatty small talk into leading them to Christ in about 90 seconds of time.

Back in high school I had a “gal pal” with whom I had worked at the same Christian camp in south Jersey. We later ended up working in Cape May at the same Bible Conference and were often together around town in the evening. She had a passion for lost people, a capacity to know no strangers, and the Biblical knowledge to converse with anyone – even at age 17. We would meet total strangers on the boardwalk, talk about the Gospel, and some would respond in faith. It was an amazing time of life.

These are people with great gifts. Most of us don’t just naturally do this; we find ourselves worrying too much about not looking pushy or overbearing on issues deemed personal and private. It is best to just let the folks with this sort of gift do most of the evangelizing, right? After all, that’s their job; it is what God gave them to do.

While we recognize that some people have a special ability that has been given them, and though that skill looks about as easy for them as eating ice cream is to the rest of us, the fact is that we all have a responsibility to be people who share the Gospel message of Good News with other people.

When Jesus ascended back to heaven, he didn’t say, “And those of you who have the special gift of evangelism will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, and unto the ends of the earth, while the rest of you simply tithe your money to support these people who are actually doing the ministry.”

We need to think of outreach and evangelism as a COMMAND, more than we think of it as a GIFT.

Let me say three things in preparation for this week’s theme – “Myth 4: Sharing the gospel is best left to pastors and missionaries”

We need to be aware … In John chapter 4 we encounter the story of how Jesus had struck up a conversation with the most unlikely of people – a sinful Samaritan woman. He was energized by it, confusing the disciples who did not understand where he had gotten anything to eat.

“My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. Don’t you have a saying, ‘It’s still four months until harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest.

We need to be aware that of the two groups of people in the world – those who are of God’s family, and those who are yet to receive the message and respond in faith – the latter is like a vast field at the point of readiness for harvest. And God wants us to be reapers for his glory. But we don’t tend to see it this way, as we tend to believe there is no such work around us … that everyone is totally happy in their sin and contented with their lives as they know it. Not true.

We need to care …

The Bible teaches clearly of a literal hell and lake of fire that is the eternal abode of those who do not know Christ. Hellfire preaching is out of vogue in 2015, but the truth remains unchanged.

Earlier in that same chapter four of John’s Gospel, Jesus said …

Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.

And the same writer – John – penned near the end of the Bible in Revelation 20 …

Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.

As we will talk about on Sunday, think of all the things you would do to prevent someone from suffering a pending accident of some sort – even people you don’t know at all. So why would you not be willing to go to extreme efforts to communicate God’s truth with people whom you do know and love who are in danger of eternal separation from God?

We need to share …

How many people who love you genuinely and care for you deeply and earnestly do you hate because they have been too overbearing in your life?  I’ll bet you can’t name any. It is difficult to despise someone who obviously loves you and has made that clear in their concerns for you, even if you don’t agree with what they have said to you when expressing that concern. You may think their viewpoints are a little bit nuts, but you just can’t dislike someone who so genuinely loves you.

It is easy to hold the truth to ourselves and never really get around to sharing it. We need an intentional plan and a thoughy-out ability to be ready on those occasions where, God willing, the quality of our lives and hope in Christ in a crazy world will even lead to discussions upon the questioning of others.

In 1 Peter 3 it says …

Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.” But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect …

Always be prepared … so are you prepared?

Our study this week, along with the accompanying class at 11:00, makes a shift and turn into a truly practical category of knowing and planning what to say and how to say it. So don’t miss it.

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Sanctification as Re-Directed Worship (Romans 8)

“What people revere, they resemble,” writes G.K. Beale, “either to their ruin or restoration.”  Worship, we’ve often emphasized, is both the expression and formation of our love.  Worship shapes us in often unseen ways.   I often point out the way that people can pick up accents through no other method than time and exposure.

This has a profound influence over the way we conceptualize sin.  Yes, sin is an inward disposition, but what can be said about its nature?  In the fourth century A.D., a writer named Augustine described what he called the ordo amoris, or “logic of the heart.”  In today’s terms, we might conceptualize the human heart as something of a pyramid.  Love for God belongs at the apex of the human heart.  But in our natural state, we tend to replace God with some other idol.  An inordinate devotion to money will render you a prisoner of greed.  An inordinate devotion to sexuality will render you a prisoner of lust.  And an inordinate devotion to self-interest will render you a prisoner of Sin.

The gospel promises freedom from all of this.  In our previous post, we talked about how sanctification—the means by which God changes us into His likeness—can be described in three ways: positionally (a changed status before God), progressively (a gradual change in our moral character), and perfectly (a total renewal that comes only in the resurrection of our bodies).  All—repeat all—forms of sanctification are the work of a God who reaches into our world through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  Because of this, we are renewed.  Made whole.

It’s for this reason that Paul can tell his readers in both Ephesus and Colosse to:

put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, 23 and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24 and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4:22-24)

We can’t escape the fact that this is a direct command.  So if sanctification is a work of God, then what role could we possibly have?  The answer is somewhat mysterious, but we know from the verses above that while we can never earn God’s favor, we can nonetheless exert effort in response.

Here’s what I’m saying: if Sin is a form of mis-directed worship, than our movement away from sin—away from self, away from idols—is a form of re-directed worship.  At first glance this smacks of effort—but the gospel provides both the motivation and the means:

MOTIVATION: BEING A CHILD OF GOD

Because we have been forgiven through the blood of Jesus, we are no longer God’s enemies but the children of God:

So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. 13 For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. 15 For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. (Romans 8:12-17)

Too often Christianity becomes a form of what we might call “fire insurance”—good for avoiding Hell and judgment, but little else.  If God is only my judge, then forgiveness might make me grateful, but will never warm my heart towards him.  A judge—a teacher, professor, employer—who overlooks my poor performance only makes me want to flee his presence, lest he or she change their minds and I get “zapped” like I deserve.

But if God is my father, that changes everything, because now I want to spend time with Him and live more like Him.

MEANS: CULTIVATING GOSPEL JOY

In his excellent book Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation,  James K. A. Smith makes a distinction between what he calls “thick” and “thin” practices.  Thin practices have little bearing on our character, but are instead “instrumental to some other end. They also aren’t the sort of things that tend to touch on our identity” (p. 82).  Brushing one’s teeth, for example, has little to do with personal desire or character development.  Thick practices, however, reveal and shape our deeper vales.   “These are habits that play a significant role in shaping our identity, who we are. Engaging in these habit-forming practices not only says something about us, but also keeps shaping us into that kind of person” (p. 82). Cell phones, for example, could potentially reveal practices (texting, Facebook apps, etc.) that teach us to value convenience over true relationship, and in so doing orient us away from others and toward self.

What we need, then, are practices that shape our character away from self and toward God and neighbor.  In Christian circles, we might highlight several of these practices:

  • Staying devoted to God’s Word—that is, the Bible.
  • Devoting oneself to corporate worship. Why go to Church?  We attend a weekly service not as a ritual, but an expression and celebration of the Church body of which we are a part.
  • Realized community—showing love and compassion to others through face-to-face interactions rather than relegating others to texting and social media.
  • Sharing our faith with outsiders, which reminds us of the need to reach our world with the love of Jesus, and to sharpen our understanding of the gospel as we seek to relate God’s truth to a world full of darkness.

Finally, we must—in all things—remember the role of the Holy Spirit.  Much of this is the result of a supernatural intervention from God.  In that sense, most of our practices are about not getting in the way (!).

We conclude, then, with a quote from a John Bunyan poem:

“Run, John, run

The law commands

But gives me neither feet nor hands

Tis better news the Gospel brings

It bids me fly

It gives me wings”*

 

Myth 3: Personal holiness will come when I’m older (1 Peter 1)

Ours is a strange world, hovering in some strange tension between self-improvement and authenticity.  We want to “do better,” but in equal measure we want to be accepted “just the way we are.”  In the church world, such a tension is felt between religious conservatives and progressives.  The former long for moral improvements and seismic cultural shifts.  The latter long for a place that welcomes broken people to let down their mask and be just “be real.”  After all, we often insist, the church isn’t a museum for saints, it’s a hospital for sinners.

Now in every real sense this statement is absolutely true.  But when we use this analogy, we neglect something vital: that you go to a hospital for a specific purpose—to get better.  So while the church must indeed welcome the broken and hurting, we must equally have the courage to bandage their wounds and push them toward change.

But how?

Most of us bristle at the notion.  It sounds painfully difficult.  It also sounds terrifying to admit that you need to change an area of your life—who wants to admit to being weak?  And so this week’s “myth” is that “personal holiness will come when I’m older.”

But when we look at the pages of scripture, we find a people who didn’t think time was such a luxury.  Peter—one of Jesus’ closest followers—would later write a letter to encourage the early Christians while they faced cultural opposition and persecution.  He opens his letter by reminding them of the hope in Jesus Christ—whose second coming would set things right in the world.  But then Peter turns his focus on the present implications:

13 Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 14 As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, 15 but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, 16 since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” 17 And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, 18 knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. 20 He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you 21 who through him are believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.

 

22 Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, 23 since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; 24 for

 

“All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, 25 but the word of the Lord remains forever.”

 

And this word is the good news that was preached to you. (1 Peter 1:13-25)

Peter’s deep concern is for the character of the members of Christ’s church.  We’re speaking, of course, of a Christian doctrine known as “sanctification.”  The word comes from the word sanctus, meaning “holy.”  To become “sanctified” means to become conformed to God’s righteous character.  In Christian theology, we (generally) say that there are three broad types of sanctification:

  • Postional/definitive sanctification: When we choose to follow Christ, we are declared righteous by a holy and just Judge. This means that in God’s eyes, we are already perfect.  We enjoy the same reputation and relationship as Jesus—God’s Son—and indeed we too are considered to be “adopted” as Sons of God.
  • Progressive sanctification: But in reality we are keenly aware that our lives are far from perfect. We need to gradually allow our character to become more like God’s as we learn to lovingly obey Him.
  • Perfect sanctification: Finally, Christians have confidence that one day we shall be entirely made holy when we are resurrected as perfect, sinless beings to occupy God’s new earth.

This week we’ll talk briefly about the nature of positional or definitive sanctification—Monday we’ll look more closely at progressive sanctification.  What we need to recognize, however, is that the gospel is the motivation for all forms of sanctification.

What do I mean by that?  Too often we acknowledge that our sin is forgiven by God’s grace—but we only get better by performance.  But positional sanctification in particular demands that we firmly grasp the radical nature of the gospel.   Positional sanctification means that we have a new position as the adopted sons of God.  But this sanctification is also definitive, meaning it happens once-for-all-time at one’s moment of conversion.  Bruce Demarest of Denver Seminary observes that we should be rightly shocked at the sheer number of Bible verses that portray sanctification as one-time definitive event.  And, I’d add, this shock is partly due to our tendency to view life through the lens of performance.  But Peter’s writing is actually helpful in pointing out two things:

CHARACTER OF GOD

First, you’ll notice that God is described as a Father (v. 17) who gives His precious Son for our sake (v. 19).  This again reflects our new position as members of God’s family—but it also reflects the fact that our sanctification is first and foremost a product of God’s love and not our obedience.  Yes, we are called to obey God (a topic we’ll return to on Monday with progressive sanctification), but we must get the order right.  What order? It’s tempting to think: “If I ‘get it right,’ God will bless me.”  Or, conversely, we feel disqualified and far from God when we inevitably fail.  The result is a roller coaster of failed attempts at spiritual change.  But God has already blessed me—immeasurably so—through the gift of His Son.  What more could I ask for?  Therefore my obedience stems from my new position in God’s family.  I am blessed, therefore I obey out of what Martin Luther once called a “grateful remembrance.”

BASIS FOR CHANGE

Secondly, let’s notice that Peter emphasizes the fact that we set our minds not on works, not on sermon content, not on self-help projects, not on worship albums, but on the grace that came through Jesus and—more specifically—the grace that will come with Jesus’ return.

This is what fundamentally separates Christianity from every other major religion and self-help program.  Our faith is not primarily about what we’ve done: it’s about what God has done for us in the sending of His Son.  The same God who sent His Son, who raised His Son from the dead will also equip and encourage each of His followers.

This is massively different from the various self-help schemes that abound in the world—and sadly that abound even within Christendom.  So if personal holiness is something you’ve been “putting off,” this may indicate that you’ve been thinking of the gospel all wrong.    If you aren’t experiencing joy in your Christian journey, it may well be that you’re using your moral character as the basis for God’s approval rather than a response to God’s approval.  If we change our thinking on this issue, then Christian growth becomes less about trying to “do better” but rather an expression (yes, even a behavioral expression) of hearts shaped by love for Jesus.  Positional sanctification teaches that personal holiness doesn’t come “later”—it’s something you have now.  The only question is, will you allow this truth to overflow your heart with joy?  And will that joy be reflected in your forward progress?

Myth 2: Praying and reading the Bible are habits for nuns and spiritual mystics (Deuteronomy 6)

You are an Independent Free Agent (Deuteronomy 6:1-9)

So where are we dependent as Christians, where are we interdependent, and when are we independent? It probably seems like as pastors that we talk about all three of these ideas at various times, and that would be true.

Our theme for the second of the six weeks of the Momentum series has been to address a second myth that we have surfaced: Praying and reading the Bible are habits for nuns and spiritual mystics.

When we think of spiritual mystics and professionally religious types of people, there is a tendency to think that those people are the ones who are particularly given over to what we might also call “the spiritual disciplines.”  And to some extent, yes, those who work professionally with the Scriptures have a highest standard of expectation in this regard. But there is no doubt from all biblical teaching that God wants to have an open flow of dialogue with us: from Him through the Word of God, and from us back to Him in prayer.

It is in this sense that I am speaking to you of being an independent free agent before God. We are dependent upon God and His Word and the work of the Spirit living through us, and we are interdependent upon each other as we serve one another with the gifts that God has distributed throughout the body of Christ. But we are independent to manage our own spiritual development through knowing God in His Word and communicating with Him through prayer.

Today, in the modern enlightened age, there is not the same need that people had over the centuries to be dependent upon a monk, a priest, a pastor or whomever to teach them what they needed to know and could not learn independently on their own. You can read, you can gather printed resources, and as never before, you can surf the world in a nearly limitless way. (Although a point to be made about surfing is that you need to be aware that there is everything out there – good and bad. You need discernment, which adds more fuel to today’s argument for being a person who is knowledgeable in biblical truth.)

The Scriptures throughout picture this discipline of Bible reading and prayer as a daily sort of thing, as necessary as anything else that sustains your life. It is a daily “as you go about life” routine more than a “when you get together with other Christians” event. So many people today only read the Bible or pray at those times they are around other believers, and that is not the vision at all that God has for us.

A great picture of God’s vision is seen in the passage in Deuteronomy 6 – a passage that I’ve often described as the John 3 passage of the Old Testament. In the same way that we see John 3 as embodying the central message of Christ’s mission with John 3:16 as the core, the Jewish people saw this chapter as the central definition of who they were as God’s people, with 6:4 as the central verse.

Verse 4 defines God uniquely (and truthfully) as compared to the polytheism of all the nations around them – who had rejected the true God years before. Israel had the one true God – there was no pantheon of competing Gods to have to worship and appease. No, this one true God had given his commands to them, and if they would love him, know and follow his commands, life would go well for them.

And we see the daily element in this. It was not just something that happened when they hung out with Aaron and the Levites at the Tabernacle place of meeting. No, it was an everyday thing that permeated life. It was to be a regular daily conversation that happened, particularly in the family system, from the time of rising to the time of going to bed.

If we hear from God through His Word, if we commune back with Him through prayer, and if this is to be a pervasive part of our lives, then we need to make plans to prioritize it in our lives.

The bad news: this takes some work and discipline. The good news: It is not that complicated or difficult to do, and IT WORKS!

Deuteronomy 6:1-9

6:1 – These are the commands, decrees and laws the Lord your God directed me to teach you to observe in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess, 2 so that you, your children and their children after them may fear the Lord your God as long as you live by keeping all his decrees and commands that I give you, and so that you may enjoy long life. 3 Hear, Israel, and be careful to obey so that it may go well with you and that you may increase greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, just as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, promised you.

4 Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 5 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. 6 These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. 7 Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 8 Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 9 Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

What Part of “Nothing” Don’t You Understand?” (John 15)

As I sit down to write this weekend preview devotional, I am immediately aware of a particular problem I wrestle with: I don’t like learning curves. There is little “joy of discovery” for me with new things like technological devises, for example. I just want to use them, but I hate the time it takes to figure out how to get to that point.IMG_0259

After 19 winters in Maryland of heating with a coal stove, last week I bought and had a brand new wood stove installed. Reading the directions (the three most annoying words in the English language), I saw where I had to “break in” the stove by first building three small fires, each one progressively hotter, and then letting it cool completely back to room temperature. But tonight, we are on the maiden burn – going for it with a full load of wood. So if any of this writing does not make sense or seem to hang together, it is probably because I had to get up and make some sort of adjustment.

Lots of people don’t like reading directions and owners’ manuals. We’d rather just try it on our own and experiment our way into gaining a successful knowledge as to how something works. Call us the Nike generation: “Just do it.”

A great many Christian people try to live the Christian life in a very similar fashion – just do it … don’t bore me with the details. We have a wonderful owner’s manual called The Bible. It has everything we need. Beyond that, we can talk 24/7 with the inventor/creator of the program of life through a communication channel called prayer.

But who wants to spend time doing that?

This week in our “Momentum” series we will be talking about busting Myth #2: Praying and reading the Bible are habits for nuns and spiritual mystics. 

We live in a wonderful time of unlimited resources. One of my Antietam Battlefield buddies John Michael Priest writes in the forward of his book “Antietam: The Soldiers’ Battle” that …

“… the Civil War was the first conflict fought by armies that contained large numbers who could read and write … nor is it a coincidence that the Civil War was the first to produce monuments in public squares and on the battlefields to the common soldier and his regiment.”

Prior to this time the masses of the people where more often illiterate, and in their churches and faith communities they were dependent upon the educated clergy to read, study, and share the truths of the Scriptures. A role of art such as is seen in cathedrals, and even in the caves of East Asia – as in Cappadocia, where people worshipped in literal holes in the ground – was that paintings and sculpture were educational tools to depict biblical messages.

Hopefully Chris and Tim and I bring to you, through our messages, a level of more advanced expertise, observation and interpretation than is readily obvious, but none of you need to be entirely dependent upon us. On printed pages and at the touch of a few fingers, all the resources of the world are available to all of you. And God is as present and available in prayer to you as he was to Peter, Paul, David, Abraham or any of the great figures of Scripture.

Though you are not dependent upon us, you still are very dependent – that is, upon God and His Word. It is as necessary for a successful spiritual life as is oxygen and breathing, along with the nourishment of food and water.

Consider this well-known passage from John 15 (to be followed by a deep, deep analysis) …

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 2 He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. 3 You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. 4 Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.

5 “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. 6 If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. 7 If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”

I would love to take you through this with a deep word-by-word exegesis from the Greek text. But proving that is not really necessary to get the big idea, let me just ask this:  “How successful can you be in life without reading the manual and being personally connected to the creator?”

Or again, “How far can you go by just doing it without knowledge and connection?”

“Apart from me you can do nothing.”  As we would say in New Jersey when in a snarky communicative mood (which was most of the time), “So just what part of the word ‘nothing’ don’t you understand?”

There is no way around it; to live a successful Christian life, you need the Scriptures and you need prayer.

 

 

Myth 1: A disciple is someone who “has it all together.” (Matthew 7, Titus 3)

A major goal throughout this series will be to tear down and deconstruct the various cultural “myths” we tend to believe as Christians.  Where do these myths come from?  Well, they’re mostly bits and fragments that emerge from the evangelical sub-culture.  If we’re not careful, we can allow these myths to craft a form of Christianity that is less an avenue of conversion but an enemy to conversion.  And—if you think about it—what better tool could the devil have in his arsenal than to convert God’s people to a form of Christianity shaped more by culture than it wields the power of the gospel.

The first myth we’re tackling is a simple one: that a “disciple” means someone who “has it all together.” What is a “disciple?”  A disciple—at its most basic—is a student, usually of one particular person.  Jesus wasn’t the first to have disciples.  His cousin John the Baptist had disciples.  Many rabbis (Jewish religious teachers) had groups of disciples that spent their days at their sides.  And long before that, Greek philosophers had students who would literally follow them around, listening to their teaching.  It was known as the peripatetic school—from a Greek word that literally meant “to walk around.”  So to be a student had more meaning than today.  It wasn’t about waking up and attending a class for an hour or so.  It was a lifestyle of staying close to the side of the teacher.  It was therefore about intellect as well as character.

Of course, in today’s thinking, we have a mental portrait of what we think a student of Jesus should be.  Probably someone overtly “religious,” a sort of “Ned Flanders” type who has it all together: right answers, church attendance, and a list of good deeds under his belt.

But the Sermon on the Mount is arranged such that it concludes with a warning against religious hypocrisy.  In this passage, Jesus tells the crowds:

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ (Matthew 7:21-23)

In his commentary on Matthew, D.A. Carson observes that in Jesus’ day, the word “Lord” would not have been widely understood.  But at the time Matthew was writing—some 30 years after Jesus’ resurrection—the people would have understood the word “Lord” as having the same import as the word LORD in the Old Testament.  So for a person to call Jesus “Lord” meant they understood their theology quite well: Jesus was God in the flesh.

But their devotion didn’t stop at the level of intellect, but penetrated to the level of emotion.  They didn’t just call Jesus “Lord;” they called Him “Lord, Lord.”  In Semitic culture, the repetition of a name was meant to convey emotion (Luke records a story wherein Jesus conveys His concern for a woman by repeating her name: “Martha, Martha”).  This was an expression of emotion.  These were folks who raised their hands during worship and wept during prayer.

So these folks had an intellectual knowledge of Jesus, they had an emotional connection to God, but finally, they had a track record of obedient service.  They “cast out demons,” they did “mighty works.”  These were the folks who taught Sunday School and volunteered for short-term missions work.

What portrait do we get?  We get someone who had a set of right beliefs, emotions that leaned toward God, and a list of good religious deeds.  And it’s at this point that you and I should start to feel ourselves break out in a cold sweat, because if we’ve spent any time in a church then there’s a very good chance that we, too, possess intellectual knowledge, emotional conviction, and a devotion to service.  But Jesus says these kinds of people aren’t worthy to be called His disciples.  But why?  The answer is hinted at in the next section:

24 “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. 26 And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. 27 And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.” (Matthew 7:24-27)

It’s natural to assume that Jesus was using the word “rock” in the same sense as other Biblical writers.  David, for instance, referred to God as his “rock” and “fortress” (Psalm 18:2).  So what is Jesus saying?  To obey Jesus—to truly be a follower of Jesus—means to trust not in the shifting sands of my own achievements (intellectual or otherwise), but rest solely on the character of God.

This is why Jesus’ reference to suffering is such a big deal.  “Crises reveal character,” wrote C.S. Lewis.  Suffering strips away all of the things we naturally cling to, exposing our true source of confidence and trust.  Our happiness can be swept away like the sands beneath a flood.  But trusting in the gospel—in the rock-steady character of God—leaves us prepared for anything.

This is why Paul would later write a letter to Titus, encouraging him in his ministry to stand strong in the face of the shifting sands of cultural opposition and false religious teaching.  In Titus 3, Paul starts by encouraging Christian character in the political sphere:

Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, 2 to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people.  (Titus 3:1-2)

This seems generally wise, of course, until we realize that Paul understood the basis for this—and all human conduct—as rooted in the gospel:

3 For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. 4 But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior,7 so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. 8 The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people. (Titus 3:3-8)

Titus 3:5 will become sort of our “theme verse” in these next several weeks.  This, this is the rock on which we stand.  The tragedy of contemporary Christianity is that we’ve dismissed the gospel as elementary when it should be elemental.  We’ve convinced ourselves that the gospel is about a sinner’s prayer at the beginning of our spiritual life, and then we move on to the serious work of becoming a “good” person.  But if we don’t allow the gospel to shape every aspect of our lives, then we effectively step off the solid rock and into the shifting sands of human experience and self-righteousness.

In the coming weeks, we’ll explore how the gospel changes the way we approach such things as the spiritual disciplines, evangelism, personal holiness, etc.  Discipleship isn’t about “working harder” or “being really hard on myself.”  Instead it’s about trusting in what God has done for us—and trusting in what God can do with us, and through us.

The Momentum to Carry Through with our Calling (Titus 3)

Welcome back to the TSF Devotionals and our third year of creating written materials to accompany the teaching ministry. This is our 12th sermon series to provide such resources.

You will notice that this series is called “Momentum: Overcoming the myths to making radical disciples.” It will run for a total of six Sundays, and here is a brief description:

The Church is a family of disciples that makes disciples.  God designed the Church to have momentum—to be a body in motion—to live out Jesus’ mission here on earth.  But what is a “disciple?”  And how do we “make disciples?” To be a disciple is to be a follower of Jesus. Yet many struggle to know just what this means.  We’ve come to accept a series of “myths” about Christianity: that Christianity has a positive influence in a person’s life, but being a “disciple that makes disciples” is only for spiritual giants and professionals.

When I was a boy growing up in the mountains of northern New Jersey (yes, there are mountains in that state!), the front porch of our home overlooked a valley with a stream running through the center of it. That creek also ran through the center of a country club called “Harkers Hollow.” It was beautiful year-round, and in the winter it was a perfect place for sledding.

The goal was to get a ride all of the way down into the valley near the stream. To do this, you had to have a good bit of speed in the first half, because there was a brief hump and flat spot until you picked up speed again down to the bottom of the valley. To make a full ride, you needed enough momentum in the first half to carry you to the second half.

That illustrates a challenge of the Christian life. It is wonderful to be saved and to know Christ and spend a lifetime personally growing in the Scriptures. But there is a hump to get over and another gear to be engaged. We are to move on from being disciples who receive to becoming disciplers who give. Too many never have the momentum to get them over the hump.

This series will address this issue. It is six weeks long for a specific reason – it is coordinated to go along with a six-week teaching series at 11:00 on the issue of growing to the point of sharing your faith and being a discipler of others. This program is called “T-35” – based upon Titus 3:5 – and is something we want EVERY person at TSF to go through at some point. The end product will be an ability to share your faith in a clear, accurate, and effective way to any person whom the Lord puts across your path.

Titus 3:3-7 says this …

3 At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. 4 But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.

It says twice is verse five that “he saved us.”  It wasn’t something good that we had done. The moment of salvation is a moment of realization that there is nothing good we can do, but that rather we need a cleansing and rebirth that can only come from God.

Each of us has a story as to how, in the course of time and through the varied circumstances of life, the Spirit of God brought us to this realization. That story is a story to be shared with others. It may be a piece of what God uses to draw someone else to Himself, and at a minimum, it is an encouragement to others as to God’s grace and His work.

Do you right now have a somewhat-sorta-kinda-thoughtful testimony of your own story that in two to three minutes helps a questioner understand the Gospel and how that has changed and defined your whole life and eternity … and how it could do the same for them?  At the end of six weeks you can walk away with this in hand and in mind.

So journey with us … through these sermons, these readings, the 11:00 classes … and you will really be prepared to give a reason for the hope that is in you.

(For this series we will only be writing on Fridays and Mondays … a Friday preview of the weekend theme, and a Monday summary.)