Divide the Word, Not Believers

So I just finished a debate – if you can call it that – with a man who forcefully argues for a hyper-Calvinism position on the atonement. We sat down to have coffee a couple of weeks ago and somehow got into a debate on Romans 9. Let me say upfront that there are many good Christians who are hyper-Calvinists; and there are many good Christians who are not. I belong to the latter category. The conclusion of the story, I assume, based on his comments on FB, is that he has broken fellowship with me. In our discussion on Romans nine, I presented a reading of the text that disagreed with his. On FB, without articulating what I actually said about Romans nine, he told anyone reading that I vehemently oppose God’s sovereignty in salvation, I dishonor God, and that I despise the sovereignty of God. When I called him a Calvinist he said I was disparaging him and that he does not accept such titles – he even said I was disparaging Calvin. I thought I was being accurate based on his argument. He thought I was being divisive. One of the things I took away from his comments where he accuses me of dishonoring God is that because I disagree with him, I am therefore dishonoring God. To dishonor God is a serious thing. It is to be living in sin and rebellion against God. To accuse someone of dishonoring God because of theological differences is a scary place to be. You might as well make the claim “To disagree with me is to disagree with God.” Where did we ever get the idea that disagreement over theological arguments is A. equivalent to attacking God; and B. grounds for accusing a brother in Christ for being in sin; and C. grounds for breaking fellowship? Friends this is not Christianity. This is insanity.

As far as my reading of Romans nine, in a nut-shell I believe Paul is explaining why God’s promises to the Jews have not failed. It seems that the point of contention comes from the verse that reads, “Jacob I loved but Esau I hated” (Rom 9:13). Hyper-Calvinists insists that this means God chooses who gets saved, and conversely, God chooses who goes to hell. I think that is a misreading of the text. That verse is a quote from Malachi 1:2. It is my contention Continue reading

God Gives Life

Jesus is the good shepherd who came to give us life, and to give it to us in abundance. Life is precious. Of course, you wouldn’t know that by listening to modern political theory that encourages abortion and teaches that life is to be seen through a utilitarian lens, or by watching the majority of television shows where violent death is seen as a form of entertainment, and certainly not by playing one of the many video games kids now entertain themselves with. Such things only cheapen the value of life. But the reality is that those things exist because sin exists. The Bible says that the wages of sin is death. In the presence of life sin is like a corrosive acid that eats away at the value of life, producing only death.

But one of the awesome truths of our existence is that we were created to live forever with God. We were created immortal, if you will. However, because of sin our lives were stripped from us; and what we experience as life, outside of God, is but a shadow of what we were created to experience. Sin is the reality that severs us from God’s life giving power.

In the world we can find things to Continue reading

Unleashing the Power!

Much mischief has come to the church from people operating on manmade expectations. People like busyness, and they like productivity. But, some people seldom consider the impact that is being made for the Kingdom of God. I had a conversation with a man who told me about all the wonderful stuff his church was doing just a couple of years ago. However, he forget to mention the crisis that took place during that time: the number of people who left; the conflict in the church staff; the dishonest way certain committees attempted to manipulate church circumstances; the many people who weekly attacked the pastor after every sermon – and oh, there was the deacon who left his wife and kids and ran off with a woman in the choir half his age – oh those good old days! But, the church had programs, and appeared to be productive!!

And people wonder why churches cannot reach their communities. We have forgotten the gospel. The gospel is not about busyness and programs and productivity. It is about life transformation. It is about becoming a new creation in Christ. It is about righteousness and Godliness. It is about having the entirety of one’s life turned upside down – or should I say, turned right side up. It is about learning to live for God, as one learns to love God. That may not be very flashy. It may not have the outward appearance of being “productive,” whatever that means in the economy of God’s kingdom. But, it is the very heart of the gospel.

Paul said “I am not ashamed of the gospel for it is the power of God unto salvation….” The church that expects to see power again (we once called that revival) must make the gospel the center of church life. I don’t want the “good old days” to come back to the church. I want the power of God to rock the foundations of the church!

A couple of weeks ago there was an earthquake about sixty miles from where we live. A friend’s house now has a nice long crack on his basement floor because of it. The power of that earthquake reached far beyond its epicenter and impacted by friend’s house sixty miles away. The church will reach its community only when it learns that the gospel can unleash the power of heaven. When it does, homes and lives and families far from the church will feel the impact.

The reality is that the church that does not know the power of God must substitute true transformation with superficial busyness. A pox on that house! Let us get back to the gospel! And maybe God will have mercy and pour out the fullness of His Spirit, so we can once again see lives transformed through the gospel of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ!

The Christ Within

One of the more difficult things to do as a Christian is to follow God. It is rather easy to believe in him; but following has proven to be more challenging. When Jesus calls a person, he never calls someone to simple belief; he always calls one to become a follower.

Unfortunately many people have a hard time understanding this. They go to church, serve on committees, participate in the programs of the church, and believe that all is well with their spiritual condition. But so do Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Scientologists and a host of other “churches.” Is all well with their spiritual condition?

The reality is that our spirituality is not defined by what we necessarily do. It’s not even defined by what we believe. It is ultimately defined by WHO we follow. Jesus warned against false Christ’s. They abound in the world. Some are readily obvious. Others are harder to discern. One in particular is the hardest.

The false Christ that is the most challenging to discover is the false Christ found within oneself. Consider for a moment who you follow. Are you following the Jesus revealed in the Bible? Are you submitting to his commands? Are you shaping your life according to his teaching? Do you recognize his authority? Have you relinquished control of your loves, desires and dreams to him? Are you allowing him to shape you? Do you allow him to move you out of your comfort zone? Do recognize that he will sometimes do things you don’t like, or feel comfortable with? Will you follow during such times? Or in reality are you going through all the things you do at church because they are the things YOU like?

If you have ever left the church because the programs no longer met YOUR needs, then you are most likely following the false Christ within. If you have left the church because you do not like the music, then you are most likely following the false Christ within. If you have ever left the church because the youth minister did not give your kid enough attention, then you are most likely following the false Christ within. If you left the church because you no longer have the control you feel entitled to, then you are most likely following the false Christ within. In short, if you serve, worship, and or participate in any other aspect of church life because they suit you and or meet your needs, then you are most likely following the false Christ within.

The question we all need to ask ourselves is this? Am I doing this for me, and am I making decisions based on what I want? Or am I truly following Jesus Christ? Am I serving Jesus, or am I serving myself? This is not an academic issue. It gets to the heart of what it means to be a Christian. A Christian is a follower of Jesus. And Jesus said, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

Who are you serving? The Lord Jesus Christ, or the Christ within?

What Lies Beneath

Churches are funny places. When I was young I made it my goal to stay away from them. My experience with church people was not positive. When I grew up I (thankfully) met Jesus Christ. He really is alive! In Him I found a new love and joy. He did something, however, that was unexpected. He sent me to the church. He called me to be a pastor. I have been in that position for ten years now. At times I still want to run from the church as fast as I can.

Over the last ten years I have noticed something. There is a difference between churched people and saved people. Sure, saved people are in church, but not all churched people are saved. When Jesus preached the gospel of the kingdom, many joyfully followed and became believers. However, the churched people of the day became bitter enemies. He offered life, love and liberty, and above all salvation. The churched people only saw a threat.

Today little has changed. Churched people still see Jesus as a threat. The reality is that there are only two types of people in the world: those who have bowed the knee to Jesus as Lord and savior, and those who have not. There are many churched people who have not. They like the idea of Jesus. They love the idea of being saved. They like to hear how loved they are. But when Jesus actually shows up, bitter enmity quickly surfaces. I have seen what appeared to be nice people turn into ferocious antagonists with a drop of a hat. What caused seemingly nice people to change so drastically? The Word.

The Bible never flatters us. It only reveals us. Just beneath the surface of us all lies our true nature. Unfortunately many people have covered themselves in a thick layer of religion. When they go and look in their spiritual mirrors they see the elegance and refinement of religion. Religion can be so beautiful. But religion is not spirituality. It is the gloss that shines. I once spilled lacquer on a concrete floor covered in dirt. It was the shiniest dirt I ever saw! As an old rock song says, “Not all that glitters is gold.”

If a person does not have Jesus as Savior and Lord, then when the thin layer of religion is removed, what is revealed is a heart that steadfastly refuses to have Jesus rule over them. Religion can be calming, soothing and comforting. But when Christ shows up he begins to remove the varnish to reveal what lies beneath.

People want the comfort of religion and they want the serenity of hearing about God’s love for them. But what they don’t want is to have an encounter with what lies beneath, deep within the heart. When the heart is revealed, it instinctively lashes out. The heart wants self-justification. But when the Word works past the varnish and touches the heart it causes pain. It’s like when a doctor pulls back the bandage and touches the wound – it hurts!

The heart that has yet to be saved is a heart that has yet to be healed. And when the Word touches the unsaved heart, it is in fact touching a heart that is infected with the disease of sin. So the touch causes pain. The problem with religious people is that when they feel the pain, they blame the physician. So they recoil in horror and lash out at the instrument of God’s Word. But the reality is that as they lash out, they deny themselves the only thing available that can heal the wound.

The funny thing is that if a person will let the physician touch the wound, while it will initially hurt, it will certainly heal. The thing to do, is to acknowledge that it hurts; but then one must understand why it hurts. It hurts not because the doctor is touching it, but because it is diseased. Once a person can understand that, they can then acknowledge their need to be healed. The moment one acknowledges their need, the physician’s touch changes. The aching pain is replaced with a soothing caress. The heart transforms from being diseased to being made whole and complete again.

Salvation can be a painful process, but the results are the most wonderful thing in the world.  It’s too bad so many people will not let the Lord heal their broken hearts. Instead they cling to their varnish – but they do so in vain.

The living God is not a God of religion. He is a God of life.

Fight the Good Fight!

Have you ever felt jealous for the person of God? Perhaps someone said a disparaging remark about Jesus; or perhaps someone made fun of God. When that happens, how do feel about it?

In 1 Kings Chapter 19, Elijah was upset about all the false worship that led the nation of Israel to spiritual ruin. He just killed 450 priests of Baal and then fled to the Mountain of God as Jezebel sought to kill him. When the Lord asks Elijah about it, Elijah said, “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword…” (1 Kings 19:10).

In the face of spiritual rebellion Elijah responded by standing up for the integrity of God. In chapter eighteen, Elisha challenged the false priests to a spiritual duel. The result was that God’s name was vindicated and the false priests destroyed. When he was asked about it by God, he responds by telling God he was jealous for Him.

Not too many people have the spiritual courage to stand up to the scoffers of our age. People like Elijah are few indeed. He saw the name of God being blasphemed by false prophets and priests alike, and he was enraged.

While I do not think we need to slaughter those who mock God today, we do need to be sensitive about the integrity of our great God and Savior, and be willing to defend His name against the mockers and scoffers of our age. A feeling of jealousy for God is a good thing.

The apostle Peter said “But in your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). Notice the relationship between regarding Christ as Lord in your heart and defending the integrity of His person as Savior to those who would otherwise attack Him.

Christ is the hope of the world. The reason Elijah was so upset about the false prophets was that they were not only attacking the integrity of God, but in so doing, they were also leading the people away from God into spiritual ruin.

Christ is worthy of our jealousy, and the salvation of many may very well depend upon it.

“Fight the good fight of the faith!” (1 Tim. 6:12)

A New Creation

The celebration of Easter has passed, but the reality of its truth lives on. The Bible says, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4).

I like that phrase, “newness of life.” When we come to Jesus for salvation, we are given a new life. This life comes from the Holy Spirit who dwells within us and empowers us to overcome sin, to love and worship God, as well as to love one another. As the Bible says elsewhere … in Christ we are a “new creation.”

One of the best things about begin a “new creation” is that we have a new identity with God. As a “new creation” we are His child. He no longer looks at us through the lens of the law (which can only condemn); but He looks at us through the lens of Christ, who came to save. This means God is for us! No matter what happens, God is always on our side.

Another benefit of being a “new creation” is that we have a new relationship with sin. Before we come to Christ, we are enslaved to sin. The Bible makes it very clear that we are in bondage to sin and can do nothing outside of its authority. This does not mean that unbelievers can do nothing good; it simply means that the alloy of sin is intertwined with every part of their life – good works included. The result is that they are not able to do God’s will. But when we come to Christ for salvation, the chains of sin are removed; in their place a robe of righteousness is given. The result is that we are set free to do God’s will.

Still another benefit of being a new creation is that we are set free from death and judgment. Jesus paid our debt on the cross. The incalculable debt we owed God as a result of our sin is now paid in full! Therefore, death can no longer claim us. In its place we are given the assurance of eternal life. The Spirit of God that dwells within us can never die. Jesus promised, “Because I live, you also will live” (John 14:19).

There are many more benefits of being a new creation in Christ. But the great truth is that because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we ARE a new creation in Christ; and as a result we CAN walk in newness of life!

Embrace Him

I’ve been preaching through the book of Luke on Sunday mornings and evenings. For my part, it has been a great study. Oftentimes we have an understanding of who Jesus is and what He did. For the most part we know the big picture: He died for our sins and rose again on the third day. But often we are unaware of the many facets of His teaching that should impact our lives.

A slow, thorough reading of the gospel reveals that Jesus’ demands on our lives are very high. His expectation for our kingdom involvement is rather startling. He warns … “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do the things which I say” (Luke 6:46); “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me” (Luke 9:23); “No one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62); “He who is not with Me is against Me, and he who does not gather with Me scatters” (Luke 10:23); “I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3); “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27).

There are several more verses like those in the gospel of Luke; but even that short sample reveals that Jesus’ demands on our lives are complete. Jesus is not interested in part-time followers. He is not interested in casual believers.

The reason is because He knows what is at stake. Unlike us, He understands the deceptive nature of the Enemy, and the eternal loss of not living in the Light. He came to die in our place for a reason. Nothing short of eternity is at stake.

We may think all is fine, but Jesus is screaming from eternity. He is yelling with all His might so that He may get our attention. He loves us so much that He wants us to hear and understand. He wants us to embrace Him with every fiber of our being. He wants to save us to the uttermost.

He said, “But take heed to yourselves, lest your hearts be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness, and cares of this life, and that Day (the day of judgment) come on you unexpectedly” (Luke 21:34). Please don’t let that happen. Jesus died for you because He loves you more than you will ever know. There is no reason to be distracted by the “cares of this life.” If we are caught off guard, it is despite the efforts of Jesus to get our attention.

The simple answer is to embrace Him, live for Him, love Him, obey Him, and follow Him. Let Him be everything to you. You are everything to Him.

The Essential Ingredient

When reading about the last days in the Bible, it is obvious that those times will be perilous. The sobering reality is that those times are the product of spiritual degeneration. Unfortunately the church will not be immune from the surrounding depravity, but God has warned the church ahead of time (2 Tim 3:1-9).

It is the Lord’s desire that the church remain strong and vibrant. Historically, when the culture has denied God and walked away from Christ (as we are witnessing today) the church has ironically become stronger. God has done some of His best work through a church struggling with its surrounding spiritual climate.

I believe the reason is because all pretenses for hypocrisy are removed. When the culture claims to be Christian, many pretenders flood the pews. But with the collapse of a Christian culture, they have no reason to seek approval by claiming to be something they are not.

The good news is that when the church grows in this environment, it begins to grow the way God intended … by conversion. People join the church because they truly have been saved, and as a result, are fully committed to following Christ – no matter the cost.

A great example of this can be seen in China. After the communists took power, they threw out all Western missionaries. However, their absence did not prevent God from working. They planted the seeds and God showed up to reap a harvest – and what a harvest! Today the underground Chinese church is probably the strongest single church in the world, claiming over 100 million strong – and this is an environment hostile to the gospel.

Their strength, however, is not only seen in their staggering numbers as much as in the spiritual vitality of its members. If one wants to see a living embodiment of a church that resembles the books of Acts, one to need look no farther than the Chinese church.

What is the lesson for us in all that? Several, I suspect, but an important one stands out. Our spiritual vitality, and therefore ability to succeed as a church, is not dependent upon cultural acceptance and our ability to adapt to it (with all its many crude forms: dress, music, property, etc.), but upon a willingness to be authentic before God. As has been said by others, “Never underestimate what God can do through one person fully committed to Christ.” In a hostile culture one has to do some serious soul searching before committing to Christ. Once that commitment is made, it’s made to Christ no matter the culture.

The reality is that God can change the world through a single person whose sole desire is to glorify Him by accomplishing His will. Cultural accretions only hinder the gospel. Personal commitment to the gospel transforms culture every time. Although our culture is rapidly falling away from the things of God, our personal commitment to Christ will have the result of transforming our culture for Christ.

Boasting in Him

The bible says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast (Eph 2:8-9).

One of the more difficult biblical concepts to understand is grace. Initially it seems easy enough, but when it needs to be put into practice, the difficulty becomes apparent. The only way we can understand grace is to see how God applies it to our lives. When we begin to understand that, then we can begin to exercise it towards others.

The difficulty comes when we learn that grace is never given because we deserve it. We received grace from God despite who we are. The verse reads, “And this is not your own doing.” God’s love to me was not earned nor deserved. It was simply and freely given.

Initially we want to balk at that concept. “Surely,” we think, “There is something about me that sets me a part.” But God simply replies with, “No.” God will not allow us to boast. God’s love is centered not on us, but on Christ. To properly understand grace we need to learn that its center of gravity is Jesus. Grace flows out of the abundance of love that the Father has for the Son.

The first step, then, in properly understanding grace is to accept that “I” do not deserve it, but it is given only because Jesus is the center of God’s affections. In other words, grace is Christ-centered. The Father’s love does not flow directly to me, but through Christ to me. If Christ is absent in that equation then the love of the Father cannot be received.

Faith is the catalyst that allows me to receive God’s love. When I have faith I am trusting that Jesus made things right between me and the Father. He did this for me on the cross. By dying for my sins and rising from the dead on the third day He removed my sins which barred the door to God’s presence. My sins were removed and forgiven only because Jesus took care of them for me, outside of any effort on my part.

Therefore, the Father’s love for me was made available at the expense of another. When I agree with that, then, and only then, can I receive. This puts us in the rather awkward position of having to take something without earning it. But if we are to receive, we must be in that position. We must raise empty hands and ask God to fill them, pleading the blood of Jesus on our behalf.

When seen in that light, faith is not only trusting that Jesus made things right, but it also includes the confession of His work on our behalf. In other words, true faith does boast, but only in the person and work of Jesus.

This is what separates the wheat from the chaff. Those who are truly saved will gladly boast of Jesus and all that He has done. They not only trust in Him, but they boast of Him. This is the key to being able to exercise grace to others.

It begins with the understanding that we have nothing to give. It becomes available to give when we recognize the source is Jesus. We become able to give when Jesus is the center of our affections, even as He is the center of the Father’s. We become affective in giving only when we boast of Him.

Here, then, is the posture we must find ourselves if we are ever to learn to give grace to others. Only when we are seen as beggars on our knees freely receiving, can others receive from us. Grace flows directly from Jesus. Only when Jesus can be seen filling us, can others receive His grace through us.