A couple of days back I was joined on my morning bicycle ride by two deer. As I rode by, they started running alongside, one on either side of the street. It was a bit unnerving, actually. The one on my right kept darting sideways and I fully expected her to cut in front of me. I could see the headline in my mind: Bicyclist kills deer, totals bike. Fortunately, she darted quickly in front of me and crossed the street to join her compatriot on the other side. Ah, the joys of frolicking with woodland creatures.
Monthly Archives: June 2010
Bill Hull has written a thought-provoking book, Christlike: The pursuit of uncomplicated obedience. The goal of the book is to clarify the aim of a disciple’s life. He starts by describing five gospels that have a significant following and are being preached in the United States.
- The “forgiveness only” gospel – This gospel limits grace to the forgiveness of sin; it teaches that faith is agreement with a set of facts, and it allows discipleship to be optional.
- The “gospel of the left” – This gospel focuses on helping people in need (social gospel) and abandons the spiritual side of the gospel which relates to the soul. It tends to accommodate and capitulate to the surrounding culture.
- The “prosperity gospel” – Its distinctive is the belief that prosperity is both spiritual and physical. “To be more precise, it teaches that the physical blessing of health and wealth are as sure as the saving of the soul.” It can lead to exploitation of the disciples and a sense of entitlement.
- The “consumer gospel” – This is by far the most pervasive and popular of the five gospels being preached in the USA. “This gospel combines the appeal for forgiveness with the abdication of any obligation of discipleship. It emphasizes the confession of sins for salvation. Everything else is off the table–following Christ, a lifelong commitment to discipleship–they are all optional. The idea that the Christian life is one of being a ‘living sacrifice’ is secondary to salvation. This gospel rushes naturally into the waiting arms of self-interest.”
- The fifth gospel, and the one the author argues is the true one is the “gospel of the kingdom” – This is “a gospel where faith is real in obedience, a gospel where grace is active not passive, a gospel that equates following Jesus as believing in Jesus.”
Bill Hull makes an insightful comment when he states,
Most American Christians adopt one of the (first) four gospels. . . Usually, it means some hybrid of the four. The most common hybrid is a melding of the forgiveness-only gospel and the consumer gospel. This most often creates disciples who live by formulas and who interpret the Christian message as primarily a narrative about their own needs. The world is in orbit around the individual’s need for personal peace and affluence.
I think he has clearly articulated the issue. It helps explain why ministry is so challenging today. Discipleship is countercultural.
When speaking of whether or not a person can lose their salvation, D. Edmond Hiebert stated, “Well aware of his own weaknesses and failures, the Spirit-guided believer can rejoice in the assurance that his own safekeeping does not depend solely upon his own efforts.” Hiebert then quotes David Smith, “Our security is not our grip on Christ but His grip on us.”
from The Epistles of John: An Expositional Commentary, by D. Edmond Hiebert
I wonder what God thinks when . . . ?
- we are more concerned about the instruments used in church than if our hearts are in tune with God
- we won’t participate in worship because they don’t sing my favorite songs
- we don’t ask what God’s favorite songs are
- we are more concerned about the worship music than we are about whether worship actually took place
- we talk to our friends and ignore newcomers
- we look around to see if our friends are present, but never look to see if God is present
- we sleep during the sermon
- we listen to the Word of God but do not practice it in our lives
- we leave church the same way we came
- we say we believe in God, but live as if he didn’t exist
- we are more concerned about pleasing people rather than pleasing God
- we never ask God to do anything harder than “bless the missionaries”
- we grudgingly give God one hour on Sunday morning and ignore him the rest of the week
- we resist change, regardless of whether it is good or bad, but simply because it is different
- we vent in blogs rather than pour our hearts in prayer
- we give up and say, “that’s just the way things are,” rather than begging God for revival
“How long, O Lord? When will you send revival?” There are days when that prayer is ever on my lips.
A former professor once described pastoral ministry as living in a state of frozen tension. You always want your life, family, people, and the church to be further along than they are. You see where they are and where they need to go, and you become impatient that the growth process takes so much longer than you would like it to.
I can certainly attest to the truth of that longing and frustration. This week was certainly a case in point.
- On Friday, one of our deacons was facing triple bypass heart surgery. I went to the hospital to pray with him before his surgery. I was concerned about him and his family. The surgery was “textbook” and the patient is doing fine.
- Another attender of our church was also facing heart surgery on Friday, though even more serious. This person had a tear in the aorta, which resulted in kidney failure and was heading for liver failure. The doctors gave a 30% chance of survival. During a 10-hour surgery, they replaced the aorta. Again, I was concerned about the individual and the family.
- On Saturday, I learned of a marriage where one party was involved in an affair and on the verge of leaving the marriage.
- Saturday evening, I completed watching Walk Thru the Bible Ministries’ DVD series, the Seven Laws of the Learner . The Law of Revival challenges pastors and teachers not to be content with dispensing information, but to call people to repentance and revival.
- Sunday morning, I heard of former friends whose child was involved in an abusive relationship and suffering the consequences of poor decisions.
- Sunday morning, I also heard of people who were upset with a decision made by the elders about not having people sit in the balcony during the summer.
With 48 hours worth of weighty, life-and-death issues, plus a few seemily trivial ones, weighing on my mind, I stepped into the pulpit to preach a message on 1 John 5:6-12. The point of the passage is that when it comes to the identity of Jesus Christ, the evidence is overwhelming. Therefore, if we want to enjoy eternal life, we must believe the evidence. John is very clear in verse 12 that if you believe in Jesus you have life, and if you do not believe, you do not have eternal life. As I closed the message, I presented the gospel and gave folks an opportunity to ask for forgiveness and receive Christ as Savior.
With weighty issues on my mind and a serious message to deliver, I was struck by how many people were nodding off and sleeping during the sermon. Granted, there are some who work nights and are doing well to be in church, let alone stay awake. There are others who have physical ailments which make it difficult to stay awake. But come on!
It struck me as an apt metaphor of the need for revival. While people around us are desperately in need of Jesus Christ, forgiveness of sin, and the hope of heaven, the church is asleep.
“How long, O Lord? When will you send revival?”
Yesterday, Carol, Amanda, and I went to see Toy Story 3. Very enjoyable movie – fun for kids and adults alike. Seeing that Woody, Buzz, and the gang still treasured having Andy’s name written on their feet reminded me of something I wrote back in 2002.
People have a variety of ways of marking their possessions. A rancher brands his cattle to set them apart from the other herds on the range. Businesses and organizations register their domain name on the Internet to identify themselves and draw people to their website. Libraries use bookplates to set their books apart.
When it comes down to it, we have become pretty sophisticated in developing ways to mark our stuff. As kids, we wrote our names on our baseball mitts. When we went to camp, our mothers put labels inside our clothes.
As adults, we write our names inside our date books, and even on the startup screens of our computers. If necessary, we add passwords to prevent others from accessing our documents. We want to make it clear what belongs to us.
In the Toy Story movies, Woody, Buzz, and their friends treasured having Andy’s name written on the soles of their feet. It meant that they were loved, cared for, and that they belonged to someone who valued them. They were a treasured possession. In the second movie, when Woody was repainted and Andy’s name was covered up, Woody went to great lengths to remove the paint and make his owner’s name visible once again.
Just like Woody, we have that same desire to belong. We wear corporate logos to show what company or group we work for. We sport team hats and shirts to identify with our favorite baseball or football team. We want to make it clear where our loyalties lie.
In Ephesians 1:13-14, the apostle Paul explained that because God loved us, he placed his mark of ownership on us. “Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.”
Paul used two key words to describe our unique relationship with God. By “sealing” us and giving us the Holy Spirit as a “deposit,” God wrote his name on our souls. He identified us as his own. That identifying mark speaks volumes about belonging, protection, and security.
Seals were widely used throughout the ancient Near East from the fourth millennium b.c. through the Roman period because they provided both identification and prestige to the owner. An individual announced his ownership by attaching his seal to his possessions.
The impression made by the seal had the same legal validity as an actual signature, as is still the case in the East. Indeed, the importance attached to this method is so great that without a seal no document is considered authentic.
That is what God has done for us. He has tagged us, he has left his mark on us, he has written his name in our hearts, and we who have the seal know it. “The Spirit himself,” says Paul in Romans 8:16, 17, “testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ.”
The seal not only assures us that we are his—it also assures us of his protection. Later in Ephesians we find the same word as we read that with the Holy Spirit of God we are “sealed for the day of redemption” (4:30). Not only are we owned by our Lord, we are also under his protection until the great day of redemption. Just as we guard and protect our stuff, God watches out for his possessions.
The second concept Paul uses to express the fact that we belong to God is the word “deposit.” Along with his mark or seal, the Holy Spirit serves as a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance.
In the Greek and Roman culture of Paul’s day, it was customary to make a deposit, an “arrabon” as they called it, on the purchase of a possession. The arrabon was a down payment which announced that more of the same would be coming—the first installment.
Today we often call it “earnest money” or a “down payment.” Thus we understand that the spiritual life given to us by the Holy Spirit is an arrabon of what is to come.
No one in his or her right mind walks away from the down payment. Instead, after writing a check for the down payment for your first home, you begin to make plans about redecorating, moving in, and getting to know the neighbors. You anticipate the day when you take possession.
When you give the down payment for a new car, you imagine what it will be like to drive down the street. You anticipate heads turning to take a second look. You are confident you will be the envy of all your friends.
Much as you put money down and sign a contract to buy a car or a house, God gave us the Holy Spirit as a deposit or down payment to guarantee our salvation. The deposit means that God will complete the purchase, so to speak, when he redeems us as his possession.
When we became a Christian, God wrote his name on our souls and declared that we belonged to him. He promised to care for us and protect us until the day when he brings us into his presence.
Why not tell a friend what it means to you to know that you belong to God? Wear his name proudly today.
1 John 5:3 uses a rather curious phrase to describe God’s instructions. John says that obeying God is no big deal.
“For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.” (ESV)
I’m surprised at how many Christians feel weighed down and discouraged in trying to live the Christian life. Many give up and/or never try, concluding holiness is neither possible nor realistic. Some people are resentful towards God for setting standards for elders, deacons, and teachers (1 Timothy 3; Titus 1; James 3). There are those who think it unfair that God expects husbands to lead their wives and children and for wives to submit to and respect their husbands. Some people view Scripture as an intrusion into our lives, one that places unfair and unnecessary restrictions.
That is not the perspective of the apostle John. He says that God’s commandments are no big deal. Not that he doesn’t think they are important, but rather, he doesn’t see them as an oppressive, crushing burden. Demanding, Yes; Oppressive, No. Challenging, certainly; Crushing, not in the slightest.
Our family moved to Seattle in 1990. Since most of our relatives lived in Southern California, we became well acquainted with I-5. In fact, we know every rest stop, McDonalds, and In-N-Out Burger from Seattle to Los Angeles.
In December, we drove up and down I-5 to attend our son’s graduation from Biola University. Last month, we drove I-5 again to attend our daughter’s graduation from Biola. In two weeks, I will drive I-5 one more time to help my get my daughter’s car to L.A.
Now, I could whine and complain about having to drive I-5 one more time. I could moan about the amount of time and the cost of gas. Or I enjoy the drive, the beauty of God’s creation, and the good company and conversation. Over the past 20 years, driving I-5 has been a pleasure because it meant time with family. Road trips are a chance to spend concerted time with my wife or one or more of my children. It means listening to books, talking about values, and enjoying shared experiences.
Driving I-5 is not a burden because it allows me to build and strengthen my relationship with my family. In the same way, the commandments of Scripture are not a burden because they help build and strengthen my relationship with God.
In an essay entitled, “Prayer and God’s Work,” in The Complete Works of E. M. Bounds on Prayer, Civil War pastor and chaplain E. M. Bounds stresses the importance of personal holiness.
This is being Christlike. This is following Jesus Christ. This is the aim of all Christian effort. This is the earnest, heartfelt desire of every truly regenerated soul. This is what is to be constantly and earnestly prayed for. It is that we may be made holy. Not that we must make ourselves holy, but we must be cleansed from all sin by the precious atoning blood of Christ, and be made holy by the direct agency of the Holy Spirit. Not that we are to do holy, but rather to be holy. Being must preceed doing. First be, then do. First, obtain a holy heart, then live a holy life.
He continues his theme by saying,
The present-day church has vast machinery. Her activities are great, and her material prosperity is unparalleled. The name of religion is widespread and well-known. Much money comes into the Lord’s treasury and is paid out. But here is the question: Does the work of holiness keep pace with all this? Is the burden of the prayers of church people to be made holy? Are our preachers really holy men? Or to go back a little further, are they hungering and thirsting after righteousness, desiring the sincere milk of the Word that they may grow thereby? Are they really seeking to be holy men? Of course men of intelligence are greatly needed in the pulpit, but prior to that, and primary to it, is the fact that we need holy men to stand before dying men and proclaim the salvation of God to them.
Towards the end of the essay, he adds this thought,
The world judges religion not by what the Bible says, but by how Christians live. Christians are the Bible which sinners read. These are the epistles to be read of all men. “By their fruits ye shall know them.” The emphasis, then, is to be placed upon holiness of life.
Personal holiness is not a theme talked about very much today. But if we want to see God move in our lives and churches, we need to start praying for it, and committing ourselves to pursuing it. I know that I need it in my life.
AP Sportswriter Tim Dahlberg has written a great article on the passing of John Wooden, “Here’s to John Wooden and a life well-lived.” It is an encouraging article well worth reading.
My parents moved to Southern California in 1965 when I was ten years old, right at the beginning of the UCLA Bruin Basketball dynasty. Needless to say, I grew up a UCLA basketball fan. I dreamed of playing for the Bruins, even though I was one of the first cuts from my high school “C” team. While in college, I read his book, They call me coach, which not only profiled the basketball dynasty, but also explained his Pyramid of Success, the principles by which he lived and coached. I also discovered that Coach Wooden was a follower of Jesus Christ. He was a man of principles and convictions and one who impacted his generation and culture.
Thanks, Coach Wooden, for providing an example of how to live well. Thanks for finishing strong.
Joni Eareckson Tada was the commencement speaker for the Biola University 2010 Undergraduate Commencement Ceremony on May 29, 2010. Joni has spent the past 43 years in a wheelchair as a quadriplegic, the result of breaking her neck in a diving accident at the age of 17. Needless to say, she speaks with great authority, credibility, and compassion on the subject of suffering. Being a parent of one of the Biola graduates, we listened in rapt attention to Joni’s words.
In her commencement address, Joni made the statement, “Suffering is a sheepdog that drives us to Calvary.” God allows suffering to enter our lives as a way of drawing us closer to himself. Joni said, “My broken neck is no different than your broken heart or your broken dreams. They are a sheepdog that drives us to Jesus.” Suffering teaches us to depend on Jesus and draw strength from him.
While I have not experienced suffering to the same depth and degree that Joni has, I can attest to the truth of her words.
In 1989, I was asked to resign from my first ministry position because I was told I wasn’t a leader. (I hadn’t done anything wrong, but neither had I done enough right, and the church decided to make a change, namely me.) On that fateful day, suffering nipped at my heels and forced me to cry out to God, “How do I become a leader?” It hounded me to become a student of the subject of leadership. I started reading everything I could on the topic and to add various experiences which would stretch me and help me grow as a leader. I would not be where I am today had the sheepdog of suffering not hounded me to seek God for greater growth.
In August 2009, I experienced severe vertigo. One of the lingering effects is that my balance never returned to what it was. Over the past nine months, the sheepdog of suffering has driven me to depend more on God for strength.
When I cannot walk in a straight line, the sheepdog of suffering reminds me to listen to God’s voice. “And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way, walk in it,’ when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left” (Isaiah 30:21). When I despair that I will never be normal again, suffering comforts me with the promise, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness,” (2 Corinthians 12:9a). It helps me respond with the apostle Paul, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9b-10).
While I might prefer that suffering be an elective course, God chose to make it part of his required curriculum. But he also sends his sheepdog to accompany me and keep me headed in the right direction . . . straight to the cross where I can find strength and help, and above all, God’s grace.