More than an event; a way of life (John 4)

As we finish this “Momentum” series on sharing faith with others, we have sought throughout to debunk certain myths about evangelism and to encourage everyone that this is something you can do successfully.

The final myth is the notion that there is no time in a busy life to be involved in outreach – perhaps thinking as well that you don’t truly know that many non-Christians, and certainly not well enough to be speaking about spiritual things and matters of faith. A number of the other “myths” we’ve talked about in the series surely may tie into this as well.

A major point yesterday in the message was to say that sharing the Gospel message with others toward the end of seeing them embrace a personal faith and relationship with Jesus Christ is not so much a planned event as it is a total way of life. There is nothing wrong with seeing outreach as a planned moment in time of sharing God’s truth with someone, but rather it is better to be always prepared to seize an opportunity that becomes available.

Why might you want to learn cardio-pulmonary resuscitation? Well, you might do that because you have an interest in volunteering or serving in the field of rescue services. Or rather, you might learn it so that you can be ready whenever the need arises.

And so it is with outreach. People have a heart problem and are dying spiritually. You might learn Gospel presentation skills to be ready for a specific evangelistic outreach event, but better yet, why not learn them so that you can be ready whenever the need arises by divine appointment.

And if you are interested in divine appointments, God will bring people to you. It may be through a special thing you do – as in the way God sent Philip in Acts chapter 8 to bring the Gospel to the Ethiopian official along the road in Gaza. Or it may be that you will have people actually come to you with questions and simply cross your path, as Paul spoke of his prison experience in Colossians chapter 4. If you are simply known as a person of faith with an interest in understanding God’s Word, people will sooner or later strike up conversations with you about spiritual things, especially in a world as haywire as our globe is right now.

And so the “Momentum” of which we have been speaking in this series is to challenge you to go beyond just believing … to growing ever deeper in your faith and biblical understanding … to leading others in the faith … and finally to being intentionally prepared to take the Gospel message beyond the church walls – be it in a planned setting, or more often and more naturally in the everyday flow of life.

We are so much looking forward to hearing your stories and seeing how God is going to use you / us. We will be sharing them on Sundays. We look forward to doing some specific new community things together. And we look forward to rejoicing in the stories of others who eventually tell us how they came to know Christ through these efforts.


 

Our next communication with you in this devotional page will be in four more days, on Friday. I’ll be writing to you then about an introduction to the book of Hebrews. This will be our next study (called “Endure”) that will encompass also Good Friday and Easter over a total period of 10 weeks. During that time and through a total of 46 devotional writings, you will be able to read through the fantastic book of Hebrews, along with a few other passages that help make this wonderfully theological, yet practical, writing come alive.

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Outreach: As Natural as Living Life (Acts 1:8)

Sunday will be week #6 and the finale of our Momentum series. We have hopefully been deconstructing some of the myths that surround the sharing of our faith in Christ with those whom we know in the world around us.

The final myth we will tackle this week is that espoused by some folks that they just don’t have the opportunity to share their faith.

How can this be? That’s a good question. Perhaps some feel like it just does not fit the atmosphere at work. After all, the boss is not paying you to have theological and religious discussions.

Beyond work, many Christians end up living in a world that is often rather insular – spending most of their discretionary time with other Christians.

Some may feel incapable or not bold enough to share issues of faith, especially with a total stranger.

A few may feel that this is an item for another and later time of life, something to be done after the priority of the current focus has passed. And that focus right now is fully upon the children and maintaining a godly home life.

These objections when put together have the joint assumptions that there is not enough real opportunity, and that being active about sharing faith is a “project” to be undertaken beyond the living of the rest of life.

It is honestly difficult to imagine that for most of us our lives really do not cross paths with people who are yet to embrace a personal faith relationship with Jesus. If that is true, you really do need to get out more – for a variety of reasons!

Even so, I do understand that – at least to some extent. As I had written earlier in this series, as a pastor I can spend much of my time with Christians all day and all night. I’ve written of certain activities of life that I’ve entered into that bring me intentionally across the pathways of a wide variety of people. It has been an enriching experience. And I admit that in some ways, once I’m out “in the world,” I have a bit of an advantage in that what I do is professionally involved with religious faith, and hence the conversations begin.

But let me speak even more to the other issue. The sharing of faith is not so much an intentional “go do this evangelism thing for the next two hours” as it is looking for God to use you in the everyday situations of life to be a witness for him in specific ways. And beyond that, it is about even asking God to bring such opportunity across your pathway.

The great commission passages of the Bible – the GO into all the world verses – sound like a command to get your gear together, check off the list, set a departure time, and go to a specific place. However, the better understanding of the original language underneath that is more like this:  “As you are going into the world …”

You see the difference, right?  It is all about being prepared in the ebb and flow of natural life to have a desire to be a witness of the saving truth that is the big issue making all of the difference for us about who we are, why we live, and what it is ALL about.

As I was going into the world today, I happened upon this quote by the famous preacher of a century ago, Charles Spurgeon, who said,

“Have you no wish for others to be saved? Then you are not saved yourself. The saving of souls, if a man has once gained love to perishing sinners and his blessed Master, will be an all-absorbing passion to him. It will so carry him away, that he will almost forget himself in the saving of others. He will be like the brave fireman, who cares not for the scorch or the heat, so that he may rescue the poor creature on whom true humanity has set its heart. If sinners will be damned, at least let them leap to hell over our bodies. And if they will perish, let them perish with our arms about their knees, imploring them to stay. If hell must be filled, at least let it be filled in the teeth of our exertions, and let not one go there unwarned and unprayed for.”

Gospel-motivated evangelism (Acts 4)

Sometimes evangelism feels a bit like a diet—most of us shift nervously because we know we haven’t been “sticking to it” as much as we should have been.  Throughout this series we’ve been focusing on the various “myths” that prevent us from making radical followers of Jesus, but for some this one is the biggest.  Understandably so, because sharing our faith can often result in friends and family rejecting the gospel message—making us feel rejected along with it.

This was essentially the experience of Jesus’ first evangelists, whose community leaders responded to the spread of Christianity not with enthusiasm but with open threats.  But did they respond with anger?  Frustration?  Did they circulate petitions?  Stage boycotts?  No; they had a worship service:

23 When they were released, they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them. 24 And when they heard it, they lifted their voices together to God and said, “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, 25 who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit,

“‘Why did the Gentiles rage,

and the peoples plot in vain?
26 The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers were gathered together,
against the Lord and against his Anointed’—

 

27 for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, 28 to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. 29 And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness,30 while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” 31 And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness. (Acts 4:23-31)

Love is what separates boldness from the “clanging gong” Paul warns the church of Corinth against (1 Corinthians 13).  Too often it’s tempting to become the “clanging gong”—reacting to “the world” as though we could neatly divide it into “us” and “them.”  It’s equally tempting to respond to “them” with snarky remarks, anger over peripheral issues, or rallying behind fashionable causes that do more to galvanize the faithful than to reach the faithless.  Today’s rising generations are sick to death with forms of Christianity that “fights the wrong battles,” that is more inclined to rally behind a chicken sandwich than to love our neighbor.

In this setting, then, worship is the most culturally subversive thing there is.  Why?  Because it is in worship that we proclaim our allegiance not to the systems of this world—success, relationships, etc.—but to Jesus and His Kingdom.  This was the pattern of life for the early Church, and it may—nay, must—be reclaimed by the church of today if we are to find traction in the world we inhabit.

This also means that the gospel changes my entire motivation for evangelism.  We see this in several ways:

  • The gospel says I am accepted by grace, not performance. This means that when I approach others, my top priority is not a lifestyle issue or matters of politics.  Too often we think people need to “get their act together” before they can come to Jesus.  This emerges in subtle ways—such as the way we tend to think of some people as “closer” to Jesus than others, or we dismiss some as “never going to darken the door of a church.”  The gospel shatters our traditional categories of “hard cases,” and prompts us to see everyone as being within the reach of God’s grace.

 

  • Because of the gospel, I have the approval of my Heavenly Father. So who else’s approval do I need?  The gospel tells me that I don’t need to fear rejection by man if I have the acceptance of God.  The gospel therefore sets me free to offend my neighbor—that is, if that’s the consequence of sharing the truth in love.
  • If I am reluctant to share my faith, what do I really believe about the character of God? If God exists to fulfill my dreams, then why would I worry about my neighbors who seem to be getting on just fine without him?  But if my only hope is Christ, it impels me to share my faith boldly—and publicly.

In the eighteenth century, a prominent evangelist named Jonathan Edwards wrote a book called The Surprising Work of God.  Drawing from an image Jesus used in John 3, Edwards said that like the unpredictable blowing of the wind, we are surprised at the ways God draws men and women to Himself.  With all the wildness of the wind, the gospel takes the human heart by storm.  Our task is to be faithful, and to pray that God’s Spirit would continue to mightily work in the hearts of men and women He longs to call His own.

Myth 5: “Faith is something personal…” (Acts 4, part 1)

While it’s been a few years since we’ve talked about Tim Tebow, few can forget the example set by this NFL Quarterback—both on and off the field.  Known for his Christian faith and conservative moral stance, Tebow made waves for his frequent practice of visibly bowing in prayer.  Though inspiring to some, the act was irksome to others—some of whom mockingly imitated the practice, generating the trend of “Tebowing.”  What was to be made of Tebow’s shameless, public faith?  In 2011,former NFL star Kurt Warner had the following advice to share:

“You can’t help but cheer for a guy like that…But I’d tell him, ‘Put down the boldness in regards to the words, and keep living the way you’re living.  Let your teammates do the talking for you.  Let them cheer on your testimony.”

While most of us will never grace a football field, we too face the challenge of how to live out our faith in the public square.  In our postmodern, post-Christian, post-everything world, religion has begun to be seen as the source of countless social problems—not the answer to them.  What, then, has become of religion?  According to social analyst Peter Berger, in the last few decades the role of religion has shifted.  Once religion represented a “common universe of meaning”—that is, a system that would unite and inform a society on matters of beauty, truth, and goodness.  But in recent years we’ve moved away from a “common universe of meaning” to seeing religious belief as an “innocuous ‘play area,’” one that that emphasizes private, psychological needs, but has no real bearing on the broader culture.

What happens when Christians begin to believe this?  You and I might find ourselves saying things like:

  • Religion and politics are off-limits in the workplace. Sharing my faith would violate an unspoken social boundary.
  • My faith means a great deal to me, but I can’t expect others to share such convictions. It would be wrong to impose my views on someone else.
  • My coworkers/neighbors/friends already believe in God—so what if they don’t describe their religion in the same ways that I do?
  • No one wants to be a religious “fanatic”—or worse: a hypocrite. Being a Christian doesn’t just mean verbalizing your faith.  It means sharing your faith by living morally and showing love to others.  I don’t need to actively seek ways to tell people about Jesus.

Put negatively, it seems that we’re often motivated more by the fear of man than the fear of God.  When we say, “I don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable,” what we’re really saying is “I’m not comfortable making others uncomfortable.”  The difference is subtle, but notice that it’s motivated by self-concern rather than gospel faithfulness.

This pressure existed since the days of the early church.  In Acts 4, we see Jesus’ followers proclaiming the gospel with runaway success, only to be taken into custody:

And as they were speaking to the people, the priests and the captain of the temple and the Sadducees came upon them, 2 greatly annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead. 3 And they arrested them and put them in custody until the next day, for it was already evening. 4 But many of those who had heard the word believed, and the number of the men came to about five thousand. (Acts 4:1-4)

Given the already threadbare social fabric, it’s partially understandable that the religious leaders would react this way.  Judaism, you might recall, was barely tolerated by Rome.  Jesus’ arrival disrupted the uneasy peace that existed. Now that Jesus had been publicly executed—and his followers scandalized—both Roman and Jewish leadership presumed their problems solved.  So when Jesus’ followers began preaching about Jesus and the resurrection, the Jewish leaders naturally feared that this message would generate conflict between the Jews and the Roman establishment.

On the next day their rulers and elders and scribes gathered together in Jerusalem,  with Annas the high priest and Caiaphas and John and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. And when they had set them in the midst, they inquired, “By what power or by what name did you do this?”Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, if we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a crippled man, by what means this man has been healed, 10 let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by him this man is standing before you well. 11 This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. 12 And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:5-12)

The Sanhedrin was a group of Jewish leaders who met in the temple courts to preside over matters of Jewish ceremony and custom.

We should note that these were the same men who tried Jesus and had him turned over to the Romans for execution.  So Peter may have had extra reason for caution in speaking before this governing body.  The Sanhedrin would surely have noticed the ripple effects of several thousand people choosing to follow the same man they had killed.  Earlier, when Jesus was on trial, Peter had denied any association with Jesus.  Now, he minces no words in claiming Christ as the exclusive means of salvation (v. 12).

13 Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus. 14 But seeing the man who was healed standing beside them, they had nothing to say in opposition. 15 But when they had commanded them to leave the council, they conferred with one another,16 saying, “What shall we do with these men? For that a notable sign has been performed through them is evident to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and we cannot deny it. 17 But in order that it may spread no further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name.” 18 So they called them and charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. 19 But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, 20 for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” 21 And when they had further threatened them, they let them go, finding no way to punish them, because of the people, for all were praising God for what had happened. 22 For the man on whom this sign of healing was performed was more than forty years old. (Acts 4:13-22)

Notice that the Sanhedrin is impressed that such a movement could be started by “unlearned” men such as Peter and John.  Fishermen were by no means blue-collar workers in that day, but entrepreneurs.  Still, they would not have been regarded as having the same level of intellectual sophistication as the Sanhedrin.

So the Jewish authorities seem perplexed.  The message is challenging—but it came from an unlikely source. Still, they found themselves threatened by this movement—partly because it would shift power away from the localized center (i.e., the Temple) and also because it further rend the already threadbare social fabric.

On the one hand, the authorities could find no legal prohibition—nothing to explicitly punish them for.  Still, they threatened the apostles not to proclaim their message.  In a very real sense, this is the same thing we hear today: “Your message is good for you—just keep it to yourself.”

Religion will invariably lead to division.  Yet our culture assumes that when religion is privatized, this division disappears.  Not so.

Bounded setTraditionally, our culture has assumed that Christianity draws clear boundaries in which the “good” people are in and the “bad” are out—and that this boundary is primarily drawn on the basis of sexual ethics.

The postmodern world has rebelled against all such absolutes, but only to the point of moral collapse.  In recent years, Harvey Docx penned an essay in which he writes:

“by removing all criteria, we are left with nothing but the market. The opposite of what postmodernism originally intended. … If we de-privilege all positions, we can assert no position, we cannot therefore participate in society or the collective and so, in effect, an aggressive postmodernism becomes, in the real world, indistinguishable from an odd species of inert conservatism.”

Do you understand what he means?  “Inert conservatism” means we haven’t changed the nature of the bounded system—only its categories.  Now the “open-minded” people are in, and the “closed-minded” people are out (!).  This, Docx is saying, is just replacing one form of religious fundamentalism for another.

Centered-SetThe gospel provides another way.  Jesus promised that when He is exalted, He “will draw all men to Himself.”  The task of Christianity is to exalt Christ—in our neighborhoods, in our workplace—and allow the gospel to draw men and women closer to Him.  This “centered set” replaces traditional forms of thinking, and in some ways is quite messier.  But it reminds us of our task in helping those who are far to be brought near through the blood of Christ.  Next week we’ll explore further as we examine the way the gospel motivates us in sharing our faith.

 

 

 

You are the pro! (1 Corinthians 1)

Thank you all for putting up with me on Sunday. For the second time this winter, a cold has descended upon me, and I tried to keep a healthy distance from everyone. But the bigger problem was a late-night Saturday computer freeze that would not allow me to get my sermon notes printed, and it affected also the Powerpoint slides and a few other service items. I was up most the night trying to remedy the problem by remembering and hand writing an orderly set of notes of what I wanted to communicate. By noon I was totally exhausted, and then I left my handwritten notes at the office before writing this devotional. The weekend was a disaster, as is my health at the moment.

All to say … sorry this is later than advertised …

There is a gift of evangelism, without doubt. Some people have a unique ability to communicate the Gospel with passion. And those of us who work in the area of “professional” ministry have some measure of advantage, I suppose, in the communication part of it all.

But as a “pro” in this area, I envy you folks who are out in the world daily and have the opportunity to know and interact with people who are yet to trust in Christ. A problem with being a “church-based pro” is that I can go weeks at a time and never have a serious or deep interaction with anyone who is not already a Christian.

Early on in ministry life I realized that this was going to drive me crazy, so I made specific steps to be involved in endeavors beyond the church. In New Jersey before moving here 20 years ago, it was with a running club called “The Mercer Street Striders.”  The club meetings happened to held in a Knights of Columbus building, I actually at one time had a key to it!  Think of that – a local pastor of an independent Baptist Church, and I had a key to the K.O.C. building!

As we have said before and during this weekend of study, we all have a calling to be witnesses of the Gospel. And the big idea of the weekend is to help you understand that the power to find success as such is not to be found in ministry credentials, but in the power of the message of the cross.

In 1 Corinthians 1, as Paul begins writing to the troubled church of people who had fractured themselves into constituent groups around favorite teachers or styles, we read in verse 12 …

What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”

Paul shoots down this sort of thinking that measured effectiveness by visible evidences of such as who was the best and most eloquent speaker, or who put on the best worship service … concluding that the real power resided elsewhere …

(verse 17) – For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

The real power in the church was not in who spoke, not in how exciting their time together was, but rather was in the life-changing power of the message of the cross.

(1:18-25) 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. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

20 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

How odd to speak of the cross as powerful.

  1. The cross was the ultimately most shameful death imaginable – designed to humiliate both the person hung on it and any who would associate with him.
  2. Secular writers of the early centuries mocked the cross message that was central to the Christian faith – calling it: “a perverse and extravagant superstition” … “a pernicious superstition” … and labelling Christians as people full of “sick delusions.”
  3. The true thinkers were those who reveled in “the wisdom” of the age – as in Corinth at the time of Paul’s writing (wherein was a culture much like our own) would be popularly found in one of several rational Greek philosophies … of the Epicureans, Stoics, Sophists, or Platonists. These were the Ivy Leaguers of the day.

But again, the real power is in the truth of the sacrifice achieved at the cross, and in the spirit-infused message of this truth through the mouthpiece of an ordinary person who possessed an undeniably changed life as a result …

26 Brothers and sisters, 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. 27 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. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31 Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”

And finally, three summary points …

  1. The world will never be sufficiently impressed with the gospel from a rational and logical point of view. There is a place for apologetics to give a rational defense, but the ultimate success will never be because it is the most rational message by human standards – there is an issue of faith involved.
  2. The power of the Gospel as evidenced in the changed life of a simple person is not only deniable, it is attractive!
  3. God especially uses the power of the message of the cross through an ordinary person. This is the sort of person God has always used – simple fishermen, converted tax collectors … you know – people like you and me.

Final thought – You are the pro when you have the message of the Gospel.

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.

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.