Our Greatest Need

26 Jul

The missing element in many American churches today is a real and deep understanding that being a Christian means following Jesus. Christianity is about time and eternity. We have boiled down the essence of Christianity to having right doctrine or having some past decision for Christ to lean on or having life enhancement to make my earthly journey more comfortable or happy or purposeful. So I can fail to pay my taxes as long as I hold to the doctrines of grace. Or I can treat my family like trash because I trusted Jesus when I was 11 and so I’m going to heaven. Or I can commit adultery because my spouse is inattentive because after all, God wants me to be happy, right? These false approaches are entirely out of step with the New Testament, where Jesus tells us, “if you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Now to be sure, we can’t keep the commandments of Jesus apart from the power of Jesus. A living relationship with Jesus is essential and that relationship is understood and defined through sound doctrine, a biblical understanding of the gospel and it does have as a by-product a security and joy of heart that is a great blessing.  Jesus says, “Apart from Me, you can do nothing.”

Most Christians know the basics of the gospel. They know God sent Jesus to die in our place, to bring forgiveness of sins and reconciliation to God. Most know that we are saved by grace, not works. But there are certain truths which flow from the gospel that we have diminished our ignored and most of these have to do with our present lives. This ignorance of the present power of the gospel and the ensuing failure to walk in that power is the explanation for much of the hypocrisy and weakness in the American Church* today.

So by all means, let us recapture good gospel doctrine. Doctrine like adoption. We are part of God’s family now through the work of Jesus. We are sons and daughters of God. We have a secure place to grow in the family of God. God calls all His people to gather together with other believers for encouragement and worship and equipping. The doctrine of adoption forms a solid foundation for the local church. We are not a loose association of individuals. We are family. Let us recapture the doctrine of grace-empowered obedience. We are so allergic to anything that smacks of rule-keeping or legalism that we have moved to the other side and give everyone a license to do anything in the name of Christian liberty. By all means, many matters of preference are matters of Christian liberty and provide us opportunities to love and serve one another and to get along in spite of differences. But many other matters are matters of Christian obedience. Jesus commands us to seek first the kingdom of God, to serve one another, to love one another, to give generously, to endure persecution faithfully, to pray and not give up, to abide in Him, to not lust and covet, to not be ruled by the cares of this world or the deceitfulness of wealth. Dozens of other commands come just from the teachings of Jesus, not to mention other Scripture. So what do we do with those commands? If we ignore them and do our own thing we dishonor God, put ourselves on a destructive path and become a terrible witness for the kingdom. If we cry “legalism” or “works-righteousness” at this point we deny the voice of Jesus, because He tells us in the gospels alone dozens of things we ought to do. We sometimes criticize those who call themselves “Red Letter Christians,” who pay attention primarily to the words of Jesus and minimize other parts of Scripture. But are we not in danger of making the opposite mistake in the name of grace? Might we not be guilty of minimizing the commandments of Jesus in a misguided effort to uphold grace.

Here is the bottom line . . . in the Bible, grace changes us. Those Jesus saves are never left the same. Sanctification may be a messy, slow, frustrating process (mostly due to our stubborn hearts) but it is a reality. The one who began the work will see it through. So if you profess faith in Christ but see no growth in obedience to Him, no growing depth of love for Him, no progress in faithfulness, then all your sound doctrine and all your past experience and all your expectation of blessing should really be replaced by repentance and faith.

While it is undeniable that there is significant gospel ignorance in our culture, it is more true I think that we suffer more from a lack of gospel living than from a lack of gospel information. There is a connection of course and there is a sense in which many people do not thrive because they do not really understand how the gospel is to affect every day life. But many of us, I think, understand these things. We just don’t want to live by them. We are happier in our minds being our own Lord. But no man can serve two masters. And I wonder, if we have lived our lives being our own Lord here, what makes us think we will want to bow the knee to God when we pass into eternity? If we don’t really want to live under His authority here, why in the world would we want to live under His authority there? If heaven is going to be like Thanksgiving dinner with family members you barely talk to and hardly know, is it really going to be heaven?

It is interesting that in John’s gospel, both love and belief are linked to obedience (John 3:36; John 14:15). So obedience is not opposed to loving and trusting Jesus, it is an expression of love and trust. Don’t buy the lie that it is legalism to follow your Lord. And don’t buy the lie that you’re OK as long as you have right doctrine. And especially don’t buy the lie that God exists to make you the center of the universe and to give you what you want without hardship. Trust the Lord to work the full implications of the gospel into your life, so that while you are not perfect, you are being perfected and you are walking in the strength of a life lived by faith in Jesus Christ.

 

*I dislike the phrase “the American Church” because it is so broad and too general but I can’t really think of an alternative term so take it here with the reservation that I am not saying every single church or every single Christian is characterized by these things.

 

Behold Your God — Week Nine, Day Three

26 Jul

Motivation is such an important part of life. It is essential to our life having any energy about it at all. I have seen people literally die from lack of motivation. When a loved one dies, when our hopes are dashed, when things just don’t work out, when relationships fade, we are likely to give up, give in and drop out.

Unless . . . what if there is a motivation that is greater than any challenges it meets? What if there is a motivation that is high and noble and eternal and unshakable? I could give myself to that kind of motivation. And because that motivation has such a sure foundation of hope, I could live a life both full of outward activity and inward rest.

The passage in the Bible that best describes this motivation is 2 Corinthians 5. There we read . . .

14 For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; 15 and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.

16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 18 All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

What is our motivation? The love of Christ. Our love for Him or His love for us? I think verses 14 and 15 tell us it is His love for us which is the motivating factor. His love changes us though, as we see that we no longer live for ourselves but for Him. This causes us to no longer regard anyone, not even Christ, “according to the flesh.” Now this phrase is a bit difficult, but I think what it is getting at is that when we walk in the motivation of Christ’s love, we rest secure in that love. Therefore we no longer regard anyone according to the flesh, how they can satisfy us, meet our needs, fulfill our longings. In other words we don’t live toward others from a stance of selfishness but from a position of service. Why? Because we are secure in the love God has for us in Christ. We have already been loved better than we will ever be loved so while we can enjoy the love of relationships we are not rising and falling with their every up and down. While we can enjoy the good gifts God has given us, we are not resting the weight of our souls on these things. We’re not looking mainly for what we can get but what we can give. And because it is more blessed to give than receive, as a by-product we get more blessing in our lives than we would have gotten had we tried to pursue satisfying our own needs.

The new creation then, more than anything, is the making of a self-centered person into a God-centered person. The old modes of living have passed away and new world of possibilities has opened up.

This is all from God, by His grace and through His love He is calling prodigal sons and daughters from all over the world home to His house of security and joy. But He brings us home only to send us out. Thankfully, God goes with us through His indwelling Spirit. Now we are ambassadors, sent with the message of reconciliation. When Adam and Eve fell, their relationship with God was broken and their relationship with each other was broken. And the response to this brokenness was to hide. They hid from God in the trees of the garden and they sewed fig leaves together to hide from each other. When we trust Christ, we come out of hiding and actually become His open representatives to the world with a great message and an urgent plea: be reconciled to God.

This reconciliation is only possible because God has shown us His love by sending Christ to deal with our sin and to bring us to God. So it is good news because God has made a way for us to come to Him. But our message is a challenge. Be reconciled to God. There is an urgency there. This urgency exists because this reconciliation is not only about eternity but it is also about time. In my next post, I am going to try to connect some dots in the things we have been studying as I point to what I think is the greatest missing element in the life of most American churches today.

Behold Your God — Week Nine, Day Two

26 Jul

None of us can do what Jesus did. Only Jesus could come to this earth and live a perfect life and die on the cross as a substitute for sinful people. Only Jesus could be an acceptable sacrifice to God. None of us can do what Jesus did.

But every believer can live the way Jesus lived. In other words, though we can’t do what Jesus did we can live with the same kind of love and humility and boldness and purpose with which He lived. Why? Because He abides in us. Because God has given us the Holy Spirit. Because “we have everything we need for life and godliness” and because “the grace of God that brings salvation . . . teaches us to say no to ungodliness and worldly passions and to live upright, self-controlled and godly lives in this present evil age.”

We can live substantially in the way that Jesus lived. In fact, this is our calling as disciples of Jesus. “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down His life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” And “whoever claims to abide in Him must walk as Jesus walked.”

The chief characteristic of Jesus’ walk that we are called to is humility. “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus: who, being in the form of God, did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped but made Himself nothing, taking on the form of a servant. A being found in appearance as a man He humbled Himself to the point of death, even death on the cross.”

Humility. Not thinking less of yourself but thinking of yourself less. Pursuing humility is a fool’s errand. As soon as you chase it down, you become proud of your successful pursuit. Humility is a by-product of being close to Jesus. Humility is inevitable in those who really behold their God. Every time you see some one really in the presence of God in the Bible, you see humility. So if you want to be a person who lives like Jesus, if you want to be a person of humility, stay close to Jesus today.

Scripture references used in this article:  2 Peter 1:3,4; Titus 2:11-15; 1 John 3:16; 1 John 2:6; Philippians 2:5-11

Behold Your God — Week Ten, Day Two

25 Jul

The descriptions of practical atheism and practical deism in day two are very powerful.

Practical atheism is when we live as if God does not exist. Practical deism is when we acknowledge that God exists, but live as if He is no longer actively involved in the world on a personal level.

Practical atheism is a particular danger for those who are not well-grounded in the Word. If you are not consistently taking in the truths of Scripture, you will be prone to live your life based not on the truth of God but on your own notions of what is right and wrong. You will claim a profession of faith in God perhaps, but your life will not be marked by the hand of God. Practical atheists are church members who rarely open their Bibles, treat prayer like a glass case holding a fire extinguisher (break in case of emergency) and sleepwalk through gathered worship. Practical atheists believe life really runs by the ways of the world and they manage their lives on that basis to maximize their temporary happiness. Many times churches that are filled with conflict are simply churches that are filled with practical atheists, as everyone pulls against one another for the sake of their own preferences.

Practical deism, on the other hand, is a particular danger for those who are well-grounded in the Word. These deists may be very involved in church life but they are prone to think of God’s work as a thing past or perhaps a thing far future, but not as a present reality. People in the grip of practical deism are convinced that Scripture is true but are not sure it is true for them on a daily basis. Somehow, the stories of the Bible seem remote and God seems to have withdrawn. Turning away from the truth that God is unchanging, they may even use phrases like “It is finished” to put all the emphasis on what Jesus has done rather than what Jesus is doing. Committed to the sufficiency of Scripture they turn away from the life of the Spirit. Afraid of becoming too emotionally-driven or too experience-based rather than biblically-based, they are full of light but not warmth. To be sure, Jesus paid it all and what He has done and what Scripture teaches is critical. But God is real. He is alive today. He is still at work every bit as much as He has always been. And we can enter into His life and work in the world today through faith in Christ.

These two approaches to life are deadly to a church and are especially deadly within church leadership. If you have pastors who are practical deists, most of the time you will have a dead church. If you have a deacon body filled with practical atheists, most of the time you will have a divided church.

So let’s search our hearts in prayer and repent of practical atheism and practical deism. Let’s be people of light and warmth, fully committed and wholly devoted, people of the Word which is living and active.

Behold Your God — Week Nine, Day One

24 Jul

Jesus is Lord. What does this mean? It means He rules over all things for the glory of His name. It means through faith in Christ we are His servants. This week we are considering the issue of Beholding God and Our Christian Service. The foundation of all Christian service is the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Because He is Lord I am, by virtue of a saving relationship to Him, His servant. We think of service as something that makes us inferior, something of a hardship. But service in the kingdom of God is not a burden or a curse but a joy, because the same God who is my Lord is also my Father. Therefore I am a servant and a son. I can serve without fear. I stand in awe of God’s power but at peace in my relationship with Him. I am confident and comforted. The mind shift on service from burden to blessing is critical to our understanding of the Lordship of Christ. Service, though not always easy, should ultimately be a joy to a disciple of Jesus.

 

 

Behold Your God — Week Nine Introduction

23 Jul

“The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.”

“Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus; who, though He was in the form of God, did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant.”

The call of God on our lives to serve is founded on the example of our Savior, whose life mission was service. This week we will be Beholding God and Our Christian Service in light of the life of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Behold Your God — Week Eight, Day Five

21 Jul

Today’s study takes a look at the evangelistic approaches of John the Baptist, Jesus, and Paul.

While each man dealt with people in different ways, one common bond exists between all three: they each made a point of addressing the blockages of the heart which kept people from seeing the truth of God. John the Baptist cleared the way for return through his call for repentance. Jesus dealt sharply with the self-righteous and tenderly with the broken, but he called all to repentance. Paul taught brilliantly and interacted with those who worshiped other gods, but he always called them to away from their idols and into fellowship with God through the death of His Son Jesus.

The ways of John, Jesus and Paul stand in stark contrast to our approaches to evangelism. We tend to present the gospel before we help others understand the problem. This approach causes many people to tune out the message, because they do not see that they have a sin problem and therefore they do not see Jesus as having any relevance to their lives.

Another mistake we make is dealing with felt needs rather than the heart. The needs people have are real and we are often doing the loving thing by helping them with these needs. But these needs are not the end of the story. Like Jesus, John and Paul, we should be sensitive to opportunities to shift the discussion to the heart.

So let’s seek to share the gospel wherever we go with words and actions, trusting God with the results.

Behold Your God — Week Eight, Day Four

20 Jul

Today’s study highlights something I first found several years ago in reading Martyn Lloyd Jones’ book Studies in the Sermon on the Mount. Jones says that the Beatitudes are a picture of life as a Christian. There is a definite order to the Beatitudes which corresponds to the pattern of our lives when we are born again. So “blessed are the poor in spirit” is not a statement about money or feeling down but is instead about us seeing our spiritual bankruptcy and ultimate need of God. Those who mourn are not mourning over lost loved ones or life problems but over their sin. These then become the meek. This meekness comes as a result of being poor in spirit and mourning over our sin. These things result in us hungering and thirsting for righteousness. This hunger and thirst for God is the doorway to salvation and the center of the Beatitudes. The results in the life of one who has come to the end of himself and hopes in God alone are seen in the other Beatitudes. Sons of the kingdom are merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, able and willing to endure hardship and suffering for the sake of Christ.

Far from being simply an unattainable standard meant to bring us to the end of ourselves, far from being a second law replacing the Old Testament law, the Sermon on the Mount is instead a description of Kingdom People. It shows us how we come to know God and how we walk with Him.

Behold Your God — Week Eight, Day Three

19 Jul

Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” These verses at first glance seem to say that there are some who are healthy and some who are righteous. But we know from reading the Scriptures that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. We know that before God there are no healthy people and no righteous people apart from His grace. So Jesus was not saying there were people out there who didn’t need Him, He was saying there were people out there who didn’t think they needed Him, people who considered themselves righteous and healthy.

Today’s study reminds us that a big part of our efforts in evangelism is to help people see that they are not healthy and righteous before God. In order for them to see how valuable Jesus really is they must see how needy they are. We can do this by sharing our own testimony, as we show them how we came to see our need for Jesus. But even more effective than our story is the law of God itself. When we bring people to the law and show them how they fall short in thought and action, then they begin to see that their own goodness is not that good and that it is certainly not good enough to please a perfectly holy God. Then we follow with the good news of the gospel. Yes, we are spiritually unhealthy and unrighteous, but God has done something for us in Jesus to bring us to spiritual health and righteousness. I think both of these aspects are important, because God has promised us in Jesus both right standing with Him and genuine moral transformation. God saves us in order to transform us in the here and now and to bring us eternal life. That life and salvation is found in relationship with Him. This is why Jesus speaks the language of coming to Him and abiding in Him as the way to life.

The problem we face in talking to our neighbors about Jesus is that many people believe either that they are too bad or that they are too good for Jesus. Some, beaten down by their sin, think they are beyond grace. For these we can come with the good news that the God of the universe sent His Son to save the thief on the cross and the Prodigal Son, that no one is beyond God’s grace. For those who think they are too good for Jesus, the task is more difficult. The religious leaders of Jesus’ day did not come to Jesus in large numbers because they believed they were already right with God.  For people like this, we must use the law of God and trust God to awaken them to the fact that no is above the need of God’s grace.

Here in the Bible Belt, many people are convinced they are saved but they have no spiritual health. Jesus came to bring both righteous standing with God and spiritual health. So something has gone wrong. Some of these people who have had an experience of some sort in the past yet find their life going off the rails have wrongly assumed that Jesus is not really who He says He is and so they quit any sort of Christian life, or just fall back into the margins of life. Others had some sort of past experience but their hearts all along have really been captured by other things. They wanted right standing with God not for the sake of knowing God but in order to escape hell or to be accepted by a peer group or for some other base motive. So the Bible Belt is a particularly challenging place to do evangelism, because many people believe they are going to heaven when they die but are deceived. There are many people who have never really come to know Jesus. How has this happened? On one level, in any place where Christianity has a high level of popularity, there is also a high level of nominalism. When Jesus’ ministry was at its peak of popularity, thousands followed Him. But at the cross, almost everyone abandoned Him. Even before the cross, when Jesus’ teaching became more direct, many stopped following Him (John 6). So we should understand that part of our problem in the Bible Belt is a result of the widespread popularity of Christianity in previous generations. But we must also admit that part of the high level of nominalism can be explained by an emphasis in past generations on decisionism. We have in the past put such an emphasis on people making decisions for Christ in order to have eternal life that we have often failed to see Christianity as something that affects all of life and eternity. We have boiled down Christian living to church involvement and quiet times and have missed the New Testament emphasis on character transformation and true community. In our own day, as a desperate reaction against nominalism, we are making a second deadly mistake with an emphasis on marketing and innovation. The unique, but biblically-irrelevant, characteristic of our church life takes first place and becomes the drawing card for people. The leader with great charisma becomes the focus. Or the unique music. Or the soul-stirring preaching. Or the powerful marketing strategy. Or the community ministry. The problem is that these things can draw great numbers of people and bring a sense of excitement but none of them carry enough spiritual freight to bring authentic spiritual growth that lasts. Only abiding in Jesus can do that. So what happens in our day is that people who came up in a culture of decisionism long for more, so they connect with churches that are focused on marketing and innovation. They cling to the distinctives of their church experience (and tend to take a critical view of other churches) and this can sustain them spiritually for a time. But we are fickle creatures. Leaders age and their messages grow stale. The music of today is old school tomorrow. The marketing strategy is something many people see through, because they see it all the time in the rest of their lives. They know they are being played. We find the community ministry is hard as soon as it gets beyond the surface level of doing events and gets into people’s lives. We need more that what any of these things can give. So many young people, realizing decisionism doesn’t cut it, have opted for innovation. But I believe many of them will end up burned out, broken and beaten down, sitting on the sidelines as they moan about the decline of the Church, even as they have contributed to that decline by putting the emphasis where the Bible doesn’t put the emphasis.

What can be done? We must return to an emphasis on the gospel as the Bible presents it: good news that Jesus brings us to God and that God gives us eternal life with Him and abundant life right now, today, as we abide with Him, trusting Him and walking with Him day by day. This kind of life is not flashy. It is not impressive. It is not immediate. It is right. If we walk this way, we have something truly unique and valuable to share with the healthy and the sick and God will be honored in our lives.

Behold Your God, Week Eight, Day Two

18 Jul

Day two is long but is one of the best days of the study. Persevere and work through it. It is worthwhile.

Three truths are shared in today’s study which are very important.

Truth 1 — Motivation is more important than method in our evangelism. We jump to method because we want to know how we should do evangelism. But our heart for God and people is more important. A desire to share Jesus with others will lead us to more sharing than a mastery of methods.

Truth 2 — Evangelism has a horizontal and a vertical dimension, and the vertical is most important. We share about Jesus because we love people. And we share about Jesus because we love God. When we begin to see evangelism as a part of fulfilling the greatest commandment to love God and neighbor, it brings a new dimension of meaning to our efforts.

Truth 3 — This truth relates to Bible reading . . . I appreciated the section on pages 150 and 151 where several verses are given and we are told to explain the what and why of each verse. I know this is a simple thing but it is so important. Often, the Bible explains reasons and motivations for all sorts of things and these reasons and motivations give us great insight into the heart of God and the purposes of God. For example, in Isaiah 45:22 we read “Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth. For I am God, and there is no other.” The command is for people from the ends of the earth to turn and be saved. But why? Because God is the only true God. Nothing and no one else will save you. God tells us that He alone can save. It is a very elementary thing, but reading your Bible with a view toward seeing the what and the why will open your understanding of God and His ways like few other things. The key is to slow down enough to really think carefully about what you are reading.

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