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February 2016

If we really care about their souls, why do we sound so angry?

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I was talking to a friend this week and she said something that made me take a step back and think. We were talking (or texting) about how we as Christians function in a society that continues to slide further and further away from God’s righteousness, and how you sometimes have to put it aside and dwell on the good, or else your entire life will be spent in misery and vexation.

She told me that she’d found herself agreeing with “the horrid Westboro Baptist group” about something, and that she’d had to remind herself about being a light as opposed to a condemner of the world.

That made me think a little. Have you ever had a conversation with someone with whom you basically agreed politically, socially, religiously or anything else, and they said something that made you want to stop and say “can you please not be on my side of this argument?

I’m betting that if you’re a Christian, you’re probably smiling a little sadly and nodding your head.

The reality is that people are flawed, no matter whether they’re Christian, Muslim, Atheist… none of those philosophies keep people from being who they are. Some are great at expressing disagreements in a kind, civil way, and some aren’t. And sometimes we look over at a brother or sister in Christ who in all likelihood truly believes they’re doing God’s work, and we think: “I know we’re using the same book, but I think you missed a few pages in there.”

Jesus and the Pharisees

Jesus had a few moments like that himself, I believe, in his dealings with the Pharisees and other religious leaders of the day. Contrary to what some (well-meaning) Christians often claim, Jesus ate with religious people just like he ate with sinners. Jesus didn’t gravitate toward people because they sinned; he gravitated toward people who expressed an interest in listening to him. Whether you were a Pharisee, Sadducee, tax-collector or prostitute, you needed to hear Jesus.

In one instance, in Luke 14, Jesus takes a dinner invitation as an opportunity to teach the Pharisee and his guests some concepts in kindness and humility. No doubt observing the important people sitting around him, he points out the importance of hospitality for hospitality’s sake, not for the sake of gaining favor and influence. One of the attendees, oblivious to this message, chimes in: “Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!”

You can almost see Jesus shaking his head as if wondering, “Are you even listening to me?” His follow-up parable makes it clear that many in attendance are in danger of never finding out what bread in the kingdom tastes like. As he tells the Jews of his day concerning the Pharisees: “Do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do.” (Matthew 23:3)

Whether our motives are good or not, we create a real issue when we allow our “teaching” to become “posturing”. We become the stereotype. The angry Christian who seems to take delight in telling other people that they’re condemned and going to Hell, presumably waving goodbye to them as he rides up the golden escalator to Heaven. The person who seems a lot more concerned about showing God how much he hates sin than showing God how much he wants the lost to be saved.

The problem is that many of us who want to be diplomatic – want to be kind in the way we address people in the world – have a tendency to hesitate in speaking up because we don’t want to be “one of those people.” I’m sure many of the Westboro members think they’re wielding the sword of the Spirit with all good intentions, but what they’re really doing is putting a damper on efforts to “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15) because anyone who speaks up about sin now has to deal with the accusation that “you people are all the same.”

Don’t some Christians paint Muslims with the same violence-condoning brush? So why are we surprised that non-Christians would seize upon the more angry, hateful elements of Christianity and say “this is what you’re all really like”?

Speak with grace and purpose

Paul – a man who once called the high priest a “whitewashed wall” in an apparent outburst of anger – makes it clear that how we speak to people about God is important.

Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person. – Colossians 4:5-6

Paul was no stranger to strong rebukes, but when he walked up to Mars Hill and spoke to a group of immoral idolaters, he didn’t start out by condemning them. He found common ground, started by convincing them that even their own writers and philosophers acknowledged some of the basic concepts (Acts 17:26-28). In fact, it seems that the only times that he really spoke in a rebuking tone were to those that he knew should know better: his fellow Christians, and his Jewish brothers who were more interested in insulting and persecuting than engaging in discussion of the scriptures.

The reason, as he says in Colossians 4, is pretty evident. When you find yourself talking about Christ with a non-believer, you may never get another chance to talk to this person when he’s in the frame of mind to listen. And there’s no telling if this person will ever have another chance to hear the gospel taught. You and I need to be a lot more concerned about saving someone’s soul than in winning an argument or venting some internal feeling of anger, indignation or self-righteousness.

Make no mistake: many people are going to be angry with you no matter how nicely or carefully you talk about the word of God. Jesus predicted it: “They hated me, and they will hate you, too” (John 15:18). Light rebukes darkness by its very existence (John 3:19-21). But we can’t give them any more justification.

“Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” – 1 Peter 2:12

“Having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.” – 1 Peter 3:16

Convincing a worldly person to turn to the Lord has always been hard, but with God, all things are possible (Mark 10:27). Let’s just make sure that’s really what we’re trying to accomplish.

Should I be growing less certain of the truth?

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One of the things you hear people say over and over is: “The more I know, the less I know.” And it certainly feels true. The more I get out of my comfort zone and am confronted by new situations, the more I realize that maybe I don’t know everything. Maybe the things I assumed – or the things that were true in one situation – turn out to be either outright wrong or at best simplistic.

I believe that intellectual humility is a good trait to have. Historically, even in the scientific field, so many human beings have been absolutely convinced they were right up until the point where they found out they were wrong. And the Bible echoes this idea – just because I think it’s right, doesn’t make it so.

  • “For I testify of them that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge,” Rom. 10:2
  • “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it,” Jer. 17:9
  • “There is a way that seems right to a man, but it end is the way to death,” Prov. 16:25
  • “For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles…” Gal 1:13-16

So there’s no question that as we learn more, we evolve in our understanding. That goes for our scholastic knowledge, our understanding of society, and even our theology. I should never stop examining and evaluating my understanding of scripture – “testing the spirits”, in essence.

The problem comes when we start to doubt the things that ought to be unshakable. The Bible talks about that, too!

  • “So that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,” Eph 4:13-15
  • “For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self- control, and self- control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ,” II Pet. 1:5-8
  • “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful,” Heb 10:22-23 22

Clearly, God expects that as we grow in Christ, as we grow in our understanding, our faith should be increasing. We should be more certain than when we first believed. And yet more and more, we hear scripture can’t be truly understood. The idea of being certain of doctrinal issues is seen as dogmatism and arrogance.

If our faith in God is growing, then our faith in His word ought to be growing as well. Do I truly believe that the mystery of God’s will for man has been “once for all revealed”? (Jude 3) That it contains “all things pertaining to life and godliness?” (II Pet. 1:3) That it will equip me for every good work? And do I trust God that He has left me a revelation which I can understand and apply to my life? (II Tim. 3:15-16)

I wonder if sometimes the problem is that the more we learn, the less content we are with what we know. Paul warned TImothy that there was a difference between being an apt teacher of the word and being one who is not content with what God chooses to reveal in the word:

“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness,”( 2 Timothy 2:15-16)

Maybe the secret of a full assurance of faith is placing it in something that’s worthy of faith, not in the ideas that result when we’re not satisfied with the word of God. The more we’re willing to simply accept the scriptures as they are, the less likely we are to move into areas where we were never meant to know everything.

The gospel message is a simple one – even though there are some theological points that are difficult to understand and take additional study and prayer. (II Pet. 3:16) While the framework of worship may have changed from the Patriarchal era to the Law of Moses and on to the Christian dispensation, God’s will for man hasn’t really changed:

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

“This one” is God’s

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And of Zion it shall be said,
“This one and that one were born in her”;
for the Most High himself will establish her.
The Lord records as he registers the peoples,
“This one was born there.” Selah
Psa 87:5 — Psa 87:6

As we worship God today and every day, think about this. As each one of is added to the Lord’s church, God sees it. God knows us each as individuals and places a distinct value on us, regardless of who we are, where we’re from, what we’ve done in the past.

Thanks be to God for His unspeakable gift.

What do we do when Satan sifts us like wheat?

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“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” Peter said to him, “Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death.” Jesus said, “I tell you, Peter, the rooster will not crow this day, until you deny three times that you know me.” (Luke 22:31-34 ESV)


None of us like to think about our lives as flawed or imperfect, that we fail to achieve our potential. But the reality is that each of us fails in our attempt to serve God as He deserves to be served, and as He demands to be served. Some of us may fail more often than others, and we may fail more often some weeks than others. But one of the great sureties in life is that we will sin.

I believe that Jesus’ statement to Peter before Peter’s “denial-denial” not only shows us how God expects us to respond to those failures, but gives us a great reason to rebound and come back stronger and more determined to serve God than ever.

In this chapter, Jesus has just instituted the Lord’s Supper, and the disciples have descended into bickering about who would be “the greatest” in the kingdom. Jesus rebukes them and at the same time reassures them that they all play crucial roles, sitting “on thrones judging the 12 tribes of Israel.”

It’s at this point that Jesus turns and addresses Peter specifically. Because he was the group’s dominant personality, its leader, its “rock” (John 1:42)? Or was it because Jesus knew that Peter’s failure would in some ways be greater and more discouraging than that of his companions? Regardless of the reason, Jesus tells him that all the apostles are about to face a great trial. (The “you” in v. 31 is plural; Jesus would seem to be saying that Satan has demanded to sift all the disciples, not just Peter. It’s not until v. 32 when the “you” changes to singular, referring specifically to Peter.)

Jesus presupposes that Peter is going to fail his test: “and when you have turned again…” Peter’s faith might fail him in the moment, but it did not desert him, and Jesus tells him to hold onto it, and to not allow an evening of weakness keep him from fulfilling the very crucial role of strengthening his brothers, all of whom would be going through the same guilt, fear and doubt as he would have to overcome.

Jesus essentially tells Peter: “They’re going to need your strength. So don’t let your coming failure consume you.”

Think about the power of that statement and the implications for us today when we face sin and difficulty in our lives. How many of us have been faced with that trial from Satan and failed? Jesus doesn’t excuse those failings, but he doesn’t dwell on them, either. He simply asks: “What are you going to do after that? How are you going to respond?” Will our faith fail us? Or will we get back on track and resume the work of serving God?

People have a tendency sometimes to react to failures like Judas did: with self-pity, guilt and a feeling of such shame that we don’t believe we can ever come back (Mtt. 27:3-5.) Jesus calls Peter – and each one of us – to remember that it’s not just about us. We have brothers and sisters in Christ who still need our help, our strength, our faith.

Elijah sat under a tree alone in the wilderness and wished for death right after God had used him to score a massive victory over Ahab and the prophets of Baal. It seemed that he was still alone in his fight, and in a time when he should have felt triumphant and ready to take on the kingdom itself, he felt dejected and alone. God’s response, in effect, was “Isaiah, there’s work to do. Get back to it! And you won’t be alone.” (I Kings 19)

Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Heb 4:14-16)

The old saying is “when the horse bucks you off, you get back on.” Jesus calls us to do the same thing. When you fail, turn from it, and get back to the work God has given you to do. Is there a greater joy than knowing that no matter my failing, God hasn’t abandoned me. I don’t have to do “penance”, I don’t have to sit in the spiritual doghouse. I just need to keep striving for the kingdom of God, and ask God for forgiveness. He is “faithful and just” to do so (I John 2:9).


Baptism is not a work

By | Christianity, Salvation | One Comment

Think about that statement for a bit. Many of you who believe as I do that baptism is essential for the remission of sins may initially think “that can’t be right! We have to be baptized. It’s a command, and when we obey it, we do something. That makes it a work!”

But consider how works are described in scripture, specifically in the context of following Christ. And ask yourself this question:

What “work” does God call us to do that we only do once?

In fact, when the Bible discusses the idea of works in context of Christianity, it’s almost always (I say almost because I can’t confirm what I haven’t found yet – so I’m going to say I’m 95 percent sure!) about things that we do on an ongoing basis (Romans 2:6, for example). They are continual actions inspired by our faith and love for God (Eph. 2:9 and others.) They serve as an outward identification of God’s people (Matt. 5:16, John 6:28, I Tim. 5:25).

We understand that good works do not cancel out sin. That is what Paul argued in Romans, when he discussed the Jews’ attempt to justify themselves before God by their observance of the law of Moses.

When the Jews (generally speaking – Paul does not mean that all Jews had this mindset) sought God through obedience to the law, they saw their righteousness and compliance as something that entitled them to God’s blessings. Worse, they believed that they could live in such a way that they fulfilled the righteousness of the law.

But the same Paul who says we are saved apart from works of the law (Rom. 3:21), says this about obedience:

“…since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.”
– 2 Thessalonians 1:6-8 ESVST

A failure to obey the gospel will result in condemnation, according to Paul. And that’s not an isolated verse. Read in Romans 10:14-17, where Paul talks about the spreading and acceptance of the gospel, and adds, “But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “ Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” (v. 16) In other words – the preaching of the gospel brought salvation to many, but not all because not all obeyed it! But in v. 17, he says “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of God.” Do you notice how Paul here uses the concept of obedience, belief and faith interchangeably? It’s because you cannot have one without the others.

How is that possible if “works” do not save us? It’s simple: baptism isn’t a work – certainly not a work we do with the goal of proving our own righteousness. We’re baptized into Christ because we know that we need the redemption that comes through Jesus’ sacrifice (Col. 2:11-13). It’s a statement of dependence and an acceptance of grace, not an act of righteousness.

Obedience is not work – not in the sense that it is done to earn salvation. It is done because when a servant is called to act, he acts (Luke 6:46). Works are a manifestation of our love for God, which we do throughout our lives, so that people may see them and glorify God. They almost always involve a benefit to those around us (Titus 3:8, 14, James 3:13 and others). They are things that some might even be tempted to brag about – as the Pharisee did in Jesus’ example of unacceptable prayer in Luke 18.

Does anyone truly argue that being baptized into Christ is an act that should exalt us before God and man? And yet, Peter says in Acts 5:32 that the Holy Spirit is given to those “who obey him” – which agrees with what he says in Acts 2:38, where we read that the Holy Spirit will be received by those who respond to the command to “repent and be baptized for the remission of your sins.”

We’re saved by the grace of God through faith, but we are called to “the obedience of faith” (Rom, 16:26), and we will be held accountable if we refuse. Rather than debating between one or the other, let’s just submit to God and do what he asks! Isn’t that what it means to love the Lord?

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