Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Set Your Hope on Grace

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls...

Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming. As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.”
I Peter 1:3-9 & 13-15

I went to a small college in a mid-western town whose only other attraction consisted of the Super Walmart. Needless to say there wasn't a lot to do outside of studying and partying. Many of the students seemed to think their education should contain equal parts of each. My college was ranked 9th in the nation for consumption of hard liquor, so it was no surprise when my friends and I found a group in the cafeteria advocating for responsible drinking. They had a set of "beer goggles" that allowed a sober person to experience just how impaired drinking can make a person. It looked pretty simple. After you put the beer goggles on they would spin you around two or three times and then they threw a tennis ball to you. You were supposed to catch it and throw it back. Then they asked you to walk heel-to-toe in a straight line without losing your balance. My friends and I were pretty athletic so we felt we could do this easily even with the added disability of the beer goggles.

As soon as I put the goggles on the world warped around me. My balance was off, the floors and walls seemed to move. My perspective was completely distorted. It is amazing how difficult simple, everyday tasks can become under these circumstances. Given normal vision I could have done these tasks without even paying attention. It was more than a little funny to watch. I was completely unable to catch the tennis ball they threw to me. I think it took me two or three stabs just to pick it up off the floor, then I threw it a clear three feet to the left of the person I was tossing it back to. I reeled and stumbled through the simple heel-to-toe exercise. Even after I took the goggles off it took several moments for me to regain a normal perspective on the world.

Beer isn't the only thing that has the power to warp our perspective. When your eyes are fixed solely on this world and on this life, then the smallest of obstacles can seem insurmountable. With this small perspective every problem is distorted as the cares of the world swirl around us making everything more difficult than it has to be. But when we fix our eyes on Jesus, on eternity and what has been laid up for us there...these same problems seem much easier to overcome.

But as the passage above makes clear, setting our hope on eternity affects much more than merely the size of our problems. I believe that it is impossible to live life the way God wants you to if you don't keep the return of Jesus always in your mind. Even in the Old Testament God continually reminded His people that this world is not as it should be. It has been marred by sin along with us. Sin has turned our world into a place of pain and struggle. But God has promised that there will come a day when He will set things right. We know that this day will be the day that Jesus returns. We know that Christ promised to take us to be with Him on that day so we must remember that this world is not our home. We must remember that our great hope is not in anything this world has to offer. It is not in achievement or wealth or even in family. No we must "set our hope on the grace to be brought to us when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming." Our great hope is the grace that will be shown to us on that last day. Grace that will forgive our sins. Grace that will once and for all remove the marring effects of sin from our bodies and cause us to shine like fine gold refined in the fire seven times over. Grace that will gain our entrance into heaven. Grace that will enable us to gaze unflinchingly on the face of God. Grace that will enable Him to say "Well done good and faithful servant." Grace that will supply us with an everlasting inheritance in the house of the King of kings. Grace to allow us an eternity with the Master. Grace to be holy, because He is holy.

This is our hope and unless we enter the New Year with our eyes fixed on this, we are doomed to continue wasting our days living for this world. All that we accomplish for this world could be taken from us at any moment by death. That is why Matthew 6:19-20 says, "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal." But to do this we must first fix our eyes on heaven.

Father, fix my gaze upon Your face and upon the prize that You have set before all believers in this new year. Help me to judge my challenges in light of heaven. Help me to make choices based on their eternal impact. Help me to live on this earth as an alien and a stranger...someone who is just passing through on my way home. And may You make it so that I feel more and more at home in Your presence this year as I do my best to serve You more faithfully.

For further reading...
  • Read all of I Peter 1-4 in light of this opening passage and the idea that fixing our hope on Christ's return changes everything about our lives.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified.
John 7:37-39

This world is a spiritual desert. It has nothing to offer those who thirst for God but the mirages of false religion, personal enlightenment, and sin. They promise to quench our need for God, but they all fall far short. Thirsty souls continue to search. They run from false hope to false hope and from sin to sin hoping to satisfy their deepest need. What they find is little more than a distraction. Something to take their mind off of their thirst. Some, to avoid utter despair, embrace that distraction with all they have, for it is, at the very least, better than nothing. But this is not how it should be. God has placed wells of life giving water in the midst of this desert, and in His abundant kindness He did not make these wells stationary. The thirsty need not come upon one of them by chance. God placed these wells in the hearts of His people so they might go to where the hurting and thirsty are and give them life.

Now you may think I am being a little melodramatic here, but this is the picture that emerges from the passage. Jesus spoke the above words on the last day of the Jewish Feast of Booths which celebrated God's provision for the Israelites during their time in the desert. Now I have never lived in the desert but I imagine that a person's greatest need there is water. Jesus draws on this image to talk about what He has to offer. He says in effect, "Come to me all who are thirsty and drink..." (Isaiah 55). He continues explaining that those who come to Him to drink not only have their thirst quenched but a well of Living Water is placed within them. Presumably this well would serve two functions. First, it would serve to quench their thirst on a continual basis so that they would never again be lacking. Second, it would flow out from within them to provide for those around them. Jesus identifies clearly what this well of Living Water is. It is the Holy Spirit placed inside all believers. He is also clear about the source. It flows from within believers but it originates from belief in Christ.

This leaves us with a few questions. Are you a believer? And, the question that has been haunting me of late, is the life-giving Spirit flowing freely from within you and impacting the lives of all who come into contact with you? I fear that I have allowed my well to fall into disrepair. I write a devotional blog trying to help others spend more time in the Word not because I have mastered it but because I very much still struggle to do so myself. I have grown lax in my connections to Christ and now I run dry. What is truly sad is that this not only hurts me but it also leaves those who are perishing around me with no witness that there is something better for them. Oh, I can tell them about how great Jesus is but a thirsty soul has a knack for noticing the parched lips of one who claims to have water. They have been misled too many times. They are hesitant to believe. The best witness of all is that living well. As the presence of the Holy Spirit spills out of your life in power onto the hurting they have every reason to believe what you say. 

Lord forgive me for taking You for granted. Restore my first love. Renew my well of living water. May those who are hurting and lost in this world enter into Your presence when they enter into mine. Quench my thirst anew and send me out for your glory!

For further reading...

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

What is your life about?

An argument developed between some of John’s disciples and a certain Jew over the matter of ceremonial washing. They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan—the one you testified about—look, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him.” 

To this John replied, “A person can receive only what is given them from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him.’ The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. He must become greater; I must become less.”
John 3:25-30

When I read this passage of Scripture, I can almost hear the panic in the voices of John's disciples. You can sense their concern that John (the prophet and teacher to whom they have dedicated their lives) is losing his influence. By reading between the lines a little, one even senses that there may be a certain amount of disdain for Jesus' presumption. "The one you testified about," they say. You were so gracious to Him. You honored and exalted Him and now He is encroaching on your turf! He is baptizing and people go to Him instead of you. This of course presents a real problem for John the Baptist who is kind of pigeon-holed into a certain ministry now. He is called John the Baptist after all.

John's response to his disciple's concern is truly remarkable. Like Job he acknowledges that all he has in life comes from God and ultimately all he has in life will return to God. John points out that the same is true for Jesus. "So if Jesus is receiving influence as mine is waning, then it is because God has chosen to take it away from me and give it to Him," John says. He continues with a wedding metaphor. "Jesus is the groom," he says. "I'm the best man." Does it make sense for the best man to be angry that the groom is getting married when he is not? No, it makes no sense. The best man should rejoice and be happy for his friend. So too, John says, "That joy is mine, and it is now complete." John knows that this isn't his story. He isn't the main character, but he can find joy in playing his part well. He dare not step out of line and try to steal the lead role from Jesus. In other words John says, "It's not about me!" How hard those four words are for us to accept and live by.

But it's the last line of this passage that draws attention to our error. John says, "He must become greater; I must become less." What John wanted more than anything in the world was for God's kingdom to advance in this world. Everything else in life was secondary to that goal, even John's own personal fulfillment and social standing. His disciples had momentarily lost sight of that. We sometimes do as well. We work so hard to get ahead at work, to build a life for our family, to build a program or Bible study at church that before we know it we get caught in the trap of thinking that these things are the end goal themselves. They are not. They are merely a means to the end of bringing glory to God and advancing the gospel. Sometimes the gospel advances when you are transferred to a lower paying position or when your hopes for your family are thwarted or even when your church doesn't keep pace with the growth of the church down the street. That is when you have to ask yourself, "Why do I serve God?"

So let me ask you, why do you serve God? Do you serve God to advance the cause of Christ simply because God deserves your faithful service? Or do you serve God to make a name for yourself? Do you serve Him to get ahead in life? Let me put it slightly differently, what is the most important thing in your life?

For further reading...
  • Job 1:1-2:10- Job understood his place in relation to God.
  • Mark 12:28-30- The greatest commandment requires that God hold first importance in our lives.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Weed of Hypocrisy

While all the people were listening, Jesus said to his disciples, “Beware of the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.”
Luke 20:45-47

I came across this warning from Jesus today during my quiet time and immediately I had to ask myself, "Am I like these teachers of the law?" Am I just going through the motions? Is my heart right with God?

It's clear from Jesus' statements that even though these men seemed holy, they were not. They were very religious and were very well-respected in the Jewish community. This didn't impress God. Scripture says, "Judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God." (1 Corinthians 4:5). God sees your heart. Your intentions and your motivations matter to Him. It's clear from Jesus' reprimand that these men were motivated by evil things. The things they did which made them appear righteous were actually the very things which condemned them before God because they did those things from a wrong heart. Their long prayers, like their long robes, were just for show. They studied God's Word not out of a love for it but out a of love for places of honor at banquets and special greetings. They sought the approval of man, not of God. 

When someone makes a god out of other people's opinions, eventually their righteousness reflects the smallness of their god. In other words their righteousness stops at what other people can see. These men served a god that was not all-knowing like the true God. Their god couldn't see into their hearts or behind closed doors. All they had to worry about was appearances. For these men religion was just a means to further the ends of their own personal agendas. That's why they were able to steal from widows.

Unfortunately this profile of hypocrisy has played itself out over and over again in a million different ways in many different lives. In some circles Christians are known for their hypocrisy precisely because of men like this. Notice Jesus' warning though: "These men will be punished most severely." The same is true of all of us who fall into their trap. So let me ask you, are you doing the right things for the wrong reasons? Are you putting on a religious front and using God for personal gain? Does your life match your confession? God sees you. "Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account" (Hebrews 4:13). Heed Jesus' warning today and guard your heart against the weed of hypocrisy. Search your heart, your motivations and intentions and ask God to weed out those places where you have slipped into man-pleasing and self-service. Do it for your own good. Do it because God deserves your best.

For further reading...

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Playing Pretend

Then Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. Someone asked him, “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?”

He said to them, “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’ But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’ Then you will say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!’

There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last.
Luke 13:22-30
I don't know if you like football, but I do. Ever since my college buddies talked me into playing fantasy football with them, I can't get enough of it. I do "research" before the season starts to make sure I have a good draft. I follow all of the NFL news very closely to see how it will impact my team. I love it! (How big of a nerd am I?) And this is the part of the season when I really get excited because we are coming up on the playoffs. But the truth is that even if my fantasy team comes in first in my league, I don't really win anything. I'm not really playing football, and it isn't the Superbowl. At the end of the day we're just playing pretend... a really awesome and fun game of pretend, but pretend nonetheless.
But it's one thing to play pretend as a hobby, it's something else to play pretend with God. Unfortunately, there are people who do. They may spend a lot of time with Christians. They may be members of churches. They may even be in leadership positions at the church. But they are just playing pretend. They put on a front and try to blend in. They try to do all of the things that a Christian is supposed to do without having experienced the life-altering power of saving faith for themselves. The truth is that many of them do fool us, but they won't fool God. He sees them for who they are, and He knows them perfectly.
Jesus calls these people out in the above passage of Scripture. He issues a bold warning. There will come a day when it will be too late. "Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to." On that last day you wont be able to blend in and your game of pretend will be over. Jesus says that many will try to enter heaven this way. It's hard for me to understand why this will be the case. Why are there so many who try to fool God? So far I have come up with two answers.
First, I believe that many are confused about exactly what makes a person a Christian. Often when I have asked people if they are a believer I have received responses like "Yes, I believe in God." or "Yes, I believe Jesus died on the cross for my sins." So let me be clear. Believing in God doesn't make you a Christian; it makes you religious. Believing that Jesus died on a cross doesn't make you a Christian; that is a historical fact. Even believing that Jesus died for your sins doesn't make you a Christian; it just makes you right. Romans 10:9 tells us what it takes to become a Christian. "If you declare with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." It's not just believing that Jesus died for your sins but it is also believing that God validated Jesus' sonship by raising Him from the dead. If there is no resurrection, then "we are of all people most to be pitied" (I Corinthians 15:19). But in addition to believing in the resurrection we must confess "Jesus is Lord." I believe wholeheartedly that this amounts to a bending of the knee to Jesus. I see it as a submission of the will. We are not merely declaring that Jesus is Lord, but we are also acknowledging that as Lord He has claims on our lives. We owe Him repentance and we must surrender our lives to Him.
The second reason follows closely on the first. The truth is that some people do know what it takes to become a Christian and they are simply unwilling to surrender their will to the Lord. People often say that salvation is free. In one sense that is true. Jesus paid the price for your forgiveness. But at the same time that statement is very misleading. True faith in Jesus will cost you everything, because God demands nothing less than all you have. Check out what Jesus said about it. "Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me" (Luke 9:23). Jesus demands our all, and that is simply more than some people are willing to give.
So what are you? Are you the real thing or are you just playing pretend? If you are playing the game, then I encourage you to confess Jesus as Lord today. One day time will run out on your game. No one knows the day or hour when they will stand before their Maker and have to give an account of what they did with Jesus. Don't leave your eternity to chance. Stop kidding yourself. If the Holy Spirit is tugging on your heart today, don't fight Him. Confess Jesus as Lord and experience the real thing.
For further reading...

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

But I Don't Want To...

Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.
Philippians 2:12-13

Remember when you were a kid and your mom would tell you to clean your room or take out the trash? Chances are you responded, in a whiny tone, "But, I don't want to." This probably didn't get you very far with your parents (I know it didn't go very far with mine) but the truth is that when we whined those well-worn words our little hearts had stumbled upon an indispensable truth of life. It's hard to do things that you don't want to do. It's much easier to stick to the things you do want to do. This is true of the Christian life as well.

In the above passage Paul points out that the Christian life is not something you accept but something you live out. You accept God's salvation, but then you have to work that salvation out into your daily habits of living. He goes on to say that we should work out our salvation with fear and trembling. That's not because we serve an angry God, but because we serve a God who is holy. He is separate and completely different from us. He is pure. And He has given us this amazing gift of salvation that we could never deserve. It is a holy gift and we have a duty to treat it with the respect that it deserves. We have a responsibility to to take the forgiveness that God has given us and to live like the new creation He has made us to be. Now that God has saved us from the consequence of our rebellion and sin, we dare not choose sin again. We dare not continue to live in rebellion against God.

But the truth of the matter is that we doubt our ability to do this. That is where the trembling comes into play. And we are right to doubt ourselves for we have proven over and over again to be untrustworthy in this regard. We love sin. Our natural inclination is to choose sin over God and His ways but we also know what the apostle says in Hebrews to be true. "How shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation?" (Hebrews 2:3). So we know we must work our salvation out into our daily living but we doubt our ability to follow through on that.

Here is where the apostle Paul meets us with a helpful reminder. He knows that this order is too tall for us to fill on our own. So he reminds us that it is God working in us both to will and to act in accordance with His will. That means very simply that God works in you both to help you want to do His will and to help you to actually do His will. This may seem very simple to you but when I first learned this it was a major light bulb for me. The fact that I could ask God to help me want to do His will was just so awesome. God knows me. He knows that my desires are not right. He knows that I don't want to get out of my comfort zone and witness to other people about Him. It isn't a surprise to Him when I admit that and ask Him to change my heart. In fact, I believe it pleases Him. And the simple truth is that oftentimes the real battles of life are fought and won on the battlefield of our own desires. We tend to find ways to do the things we want to do, and we tend to find ways to avoid doing things we don't.

So, if you are like me, and from time to time you evaluate where you are spiritually only to be disappointed by all of the hard work you still have ahead of you before you are fully conformed into the image of Christ, remember to start fighting that battle with your desires. If God will fix your heart then the rest is much easier. Pray today and ask God to help you to want to do His will. Ask Him to give you a heart like His.

For further reading...
  • Hebrews 2:1-4 & 10:26-31- How we treat the blood of Christ is important.
  • Romans 7:14-25- Do you think this passage contradicts what I have said or does it simple mean that wanting to do the right thing in itself isn't enough?
  • James 1:13-15- We are lead astray by evil desires.
  • Galatians 5:16-25- How do we deal with competing desires?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

King of kings

Yours, LORD, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the majesty and the splendor, for everything in heaven and earth is yours. Yours, LORD, is the kingdom; you are exalted as head over all. Wealth and honor come from you; you are the ruler of all things. In your hands are strength and power to exalt and give strength to all. Now, our God, we give you thanks, and praise your glorious name.
1 Chronicles 29:11-13

The Bible teaches a wonderful truth that that should fill Christians with hope and joy, but often (I think because of the way we approach the topic) ends up leading to conflict and division instead. The precious truth that I am talking about is that God is sovereign! There are many different reasons why talking about the sovereignty of God is so fraught with danger, but perhaps the main reason is that we often choose to focus on the most difficult questions the doctrine raises (the portions of this doctrine that are actually least clear in Scripture) and completely ignore the larger picture that Scripture communicates. There is a place and a time to debate Calvinism and Arminianism and all that goes with them, but we need to be reminded that for both sides it is true that God is sovereign!

I would like to suggest another way of looking at God's sovereignty, a way that I think can help us avoid getting bogged down in endless debates. I want us to return to a metaphor that is much older than these debates, a metaphor that Scripture uses to talk about God's sovereignty: God as KING. Repeatedly the Bible refers to God as a king. In fact, He is not merely a king, but the King of kings. I like I Timothy 6:15 which says that God is "the only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords." I love that! God is the only Ruler. It may look like other people are in power, but they aren´t. At the end of the day when it all boils down, only God is in control.

In ancient times, a king had absolute power. Within his own kingdom there was no limit to his power— no checks, no balances, just him. The only real recourse a citizen had was to try to lead a rebellion against him, which would almost certainly end in a painful death for the rebels. Short of that, the king ruled with an iron fist. He could have you killed at the snap of a finger… or he could make you wealthy just as quickly. He could seize your land without apology, because it in fact was not your land but his land. In short, everything that fell within the boundaries of his kingdom was at his command. A king was to be feared and obeyed.

Now according to the Christian worldview, the LORD God Almighty is like this king in many ways. He has absolute power in His kingdom, but His kingdom has no boundaries. There is no limit to His rule. His kingdom is all of creation.... not simply the earth, but all of the cosmos. Because this is true, God has the right to do whatever He pleases Job testifies to this when he asks, “Who can oppose [God]? He does whatever He pleases” (Job 23:13). Paul uses the metaphor of a potter’s right to utilize his clay however he wants when he asks, “Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?” (Romans 9:21). God's sovereignty means that He has the right to do whatever He wants to with my life even now. We are but dust in the hand of God. We have no rights to claim at His throne. We are completely dependent upon Him and at His mercy.

This understanding of God might seem offensive to you, but it is basic to the Christian concept of God, and what’s more it is basic to all of the major religions’ concepts of God. It is not at all unique to Christianity. There is one major way, though, in which the Biblical concept of God’s sovereignty is unique. It is only in the Christian tradition that God is presented as the Father of a sinful/prodigal son whose love compels Him to throw all dignity aside and run in pursuit of His wretched offspring. It is only within the Christian tradition that it could be fathomed that the eternal One would humble Himself and become human, and that as a human He would be humiliated and would suffer for His creation.

You see the Christian God is a god who is King of kings and Lord of lords. He is the only Ruler. He is all-powerful. He can do whatever He pleases. And yet, He chooses to love and pursue sinners like you and me. He chooses to call us into relationship with Himself. He chooses to reveal Himself to us so that His magnificent love might result in our blessing and in His glory. This tension is one which we must always keep before ourselves. If we lose sight of God’s awesome power, if we lose sight of his complete freedom to do whatever He pleases with our lives, then we risk entering His presence in an irreverent manner. But on the other hand, if we lose sight of God’s immense love and of the great lengths that it has driven Him to in his pursuit of us, then we have lost the heart of Christianity. We are left with something to fear, but nothing to love or to worship. So if we are to have a truly Christian understanding of God’s sovereignty, we must have both. We must always remember that the King of kings allowed Himself to be tortured and killed by His own creation not for lack of power but for excess of love.

So remember this week that God is in control of His kingdom. Nothing happens without His consent. He holds your future in His hands. But remember also that this God, the King of kings, has come near to you in Jesus Christ. He has a plan for your life and He will not leave you alone. He is worthy of your trust. Though we do still suffer in this life, we know that His plan will ultimately work itself out for our good and His glory because His plan comes to completion not in this life but in eternity.

For further reading…

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

God doesn't need you...but He does want you

I have no need of a bull from your stall or of goats from your pens, for every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird in the mountains, and the insects in the fields are mine. If I were hungry I would not tell you, for the world is mine, and all that is in it. Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats?
Psalm 50:9-13

Vending machines are a marvelous invention. Think about it. Whoever invented them had to be a genius. Now I'm not saying he/she gets any awards for nutrition but they figured out a way to have a food stand that is open for business literally all the time without having to pay employees to be there all hours of the day. Plus, the machine makes sure people pay so they can't steal from you. It's certainly a step up from setting the candy fundraiser box down in the common room and hoping people are honest. However, what makes the vending machine such a great invention is also the worst thing about it. There's no one there. So when the machine malfunctions you are out of luck. The best you can do is to maybe make a phone call to the service company. Most of us in America aren't use to having no power over our situations like this, so we end up yelling at the machine, shaking it, hitting it, and generally looking like we are having a temper tantrum in front of our coworkers. We respond this way because it isn't fair. The whole system is built on an exchange of goods. The machine got our money but we didn't get our candy bar! The whole system has broken down. It's an outrage! (Okay...a little too dramatic Lance. Back it up.)

When Asaph wrote Psalm 50 (that's right David didn't write all of Psalms) the people of Israel had fallen into some bad habits in their relationship with God. They started to think of the one true God the same way that the pagan nations thought of their idol gods. In short, they thought of God as a divine vending machine. They turned humanity's relationship with God into an exchange of goods and they did this by simply believing that God needs us. You see if God needs us to go to church or to give money to His causes or to sacrifice bulls and goats to Him, then we have bargaining power. We begin to think that if we give God what He wants that He should give us what we want. We still do this today in more subtle ways. We think that if we go to church and live a good life that God owes us certain things. He should protect us and our families from health problems and financial problems and many other things. When something bad does happen to us we find ourselves praying and asking God, "Haven't I done everything I was supposed to God? I go to church. I try to be a good person. Why did you let this happen to me?" At times Christians even lose their faith in God because they simply can't understand how He allowed something tragic to happen to them after they had served Him so faithfully. They don't understand where the system of exchange broke down. They held up their end of the bargain but God didn't deliver and there they are yelling and shaking the divine vending machine and having a heartbreaking temper tantrum that might lead them away from their God when they need Him most.

The truth is that they never fully understood God. God doesn't need us. Look back at Psalm 50 above. He says, "every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills... If I were hungry I would not tell you, for the world is mine, and all that is in it." In the same way that God didn't need Israel's sacrifices, He doesn't need ours either. God doesn't need your money or your worship or your talent. God is self-sufficient and independent of us. Since God created all that exists it is silly to think that anything in creation could add to Him. Everything in creation sprung into being out of the overflow of His provision. How could it add to Him now? I believe that this concept of God's independence is fundamental to who He is. In fact, it is evident in His name. In Exodus 3:14 God tells Moses to tell the Israelites that His name is "Yahweh" which can be translated several ways. The most common translation is "I AM WHO I AM." However, Wayne Grudem points out that it can also be translated "I will be what I will be."* Either way it is clear from His name that God is independent of us. He doesn't need us and He isn't going to change for us.

Because God doesn't need us, He can never owe us anything. And that's the kicker. If God doesn't need anything that we have to offer then He really has no reason to put up with us. We can't go to Him and make any demands. The relationship has to be based on grace. He created us because He wanted to not because He needed to. Sometimes I hear people say that God created people because He was lonely. Not only is this nowhere in Scripture but it also completely misunderstands the constant fellowship that God enjoys within Himself among the three persons of the Trinity (the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and it makes God dependent upon us. The truth is that God doesn't need you, but He does want you. I Timothy  2:4 says that God desires for all men to be saved. And Isaiah 43:6-7 drives this point home by highlighting the real reason God created us. "Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth— everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.” God made you for His glory. He desires your salvation. He desires for your sins to be removed so that He can have fellowship with you, but He does not need it. God could have existed for all of eternity without us or this world and been perfectly content and at peace. He chose to create out of the overflow of His goodness, love, and power. He chose to make a way of salvation out of His abundant grace. And He chose you because He loves you and wants you to be saved.

In verses 14-15 of Psalm 50 God tells the Israelites what it is that He wants from them. "Sacrifice thank offerings to God, fulfill your vows to the Most High, and call on me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you will honor me.” God wants us to serve Him out of gratitude for what He has already done for us, not so we can earn favors from Him. He reminds us that we need Him in the day of trouble, not the other way around. God has never once called me and said "Lance, I am in trouble. I need your help." But I have called to Him for help many, many times. This week be thankful that we have a God that is so much bigger than us that He does not need your help. Because if He did need you, He wouldn't be big enough to solve the problems that you need Him for.

For further reading...
  • Acts 17:24-27- Check out how Paul explained this concept to the Ancient Greeks.
  • Isaiah 40- An excellent chapter on God's power and independence.
  • Psalm 50- Read the whole chapter.

*It should be noted that much of this talk and this series draws information from Wayne Grudem's textbook Systematic Theology (the above quote is from p162). I am also leaning on notes taken from my Systematic Theology I class taught by Dr. Bruce Ware at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Nowhere to Run

Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.
Psalm 139:7-10

"Am I only a God nearby,” declares the LORD, “and not a God far away? Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them?” declares the LORD. “Do not I fill heaven and earth?” declares the LORD.
Jeremiah 23:23-24

Last week we looked at the first six verses of Psalm 139 and we saw that God is close at hand. He knows us completely, and He has invited us to know Him as well. This week we begin by looking at the next few verses of Psalm 139 in which we find that God is not only nearby but is also far away. God is omnipresent. That is to say that He is not limited by space. In fact, God created space (Genesis 1:1). This means, among other things, that God has no body.  The Bible sometimes uses anthropomorphic language to describe God (that is language that makes Him seem more human), but we must remember that God is not a human. He is completely other than we are. He is transcendent. So in Exodus 3:20 when God says "I will stretch out my hand and strike the Egyptians," He is not claiming to have a literal hand. He is trying to help us understand by using terms we are more familiar with.

Sometimes we can tend to think of God's omnipresence in terms of God being really big so that He fills up space. With this understanding some part of God is everywhere. But that is not really what omnipresence means. It is not that one part of God is here and another part of God is there. God is wholly present everywhere in space. I think that Colossians 1:17 gives us a hint of how to understand this when it says that "in [Christ] all things hold together." He is what holds our world together (some have even made a case for this at the atomic level). He exists independent of our world and He holds it together...all of it. So He is just as present in China as He is in my shoe. In neither place can I hide from Him.

Someone might ask, "But how do you explain the fact that at times we sense God's presence in a worship service or something and others times we don't?" I like the way that Wayne Grudem puts it. "It is not that God was not present elsewhere, but rather that here He especially made His presence known  and here He especially manifested His character and brought blessing to His people." In other words God is always present even when we don't feel Him, but I do think that there is a special presence that He gives us at times. This is not more presence strictly speaking (because He is wholly present everywhere), but rather is a stronger sense of His presence. Sometimes this is felt by individuals alone while other times whole groups attest to it.

Assuming that you are still with me and that you haven't slipped into a theological coma, why does this matter? For many reasons! Here are a few. It shows us that there is no special place of worship. God can be worshiped anywhere. We must not think that He is only present in the sanctuary and that we leave God behind when we leave worship services. God is with us wherever we go (see John 4:19-24). This means that Christianity is much more than just something that you do at church. If God is everywhere and He sees you everywhere you go then Christianity must be a way of life. It is surrendering of your life to Jesus and entering into relationship with this omnipresent God. It also means that you are never alone. No matter how alone you feel, you are not alone. Sometimes God can seem very far away. It can feel like He has forgotten you, like He couldn't possibly know what you are going through. But this is not true. He has always been by your side and He always will be. You cannot escape Him. Which brings me to my last point: if you are running from God...if you feel the guilt of your sin weighing you down and you sense the Spirit of God drawing you toward repentance, don't fight Him. You can't get away from God. You have nowhere to run.

For further reading...
  • Psalm 139- A beautiful Psalm to help you think about God's nature.
  • Amos 9:1-4- You can't hide from God.

*It should be noted that much of this talk and this series draws information from Wayne Grudem's textbook Systematic Theology (the above quote is from p176). I am also leaning on notes taken from my Systematic Theology I class taught by Dr. Bruce Ware at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Only God Knows

You have searched me, LORD, and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you, LORD, know it completely. You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.
Psalm 139:1-6

"Only God knows." Have you ever said that? "Only God knows what is going on in that boys head?" Or maybe, "God only knows why I can't seem to catch a break." It's an expression that we sometimes use but when was the last time you really stopped to think about it. What is it that only God knows? And if there isn't anything that only He knows, is He still God?

According to Scripure God knows everything. I John 3:20 says, "If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything" (emphasis mine). The $5 theological term for this is omniscience. God is all-knowing. But that still doesn't answer the question. Is there something that only God knows? Although, it is true that God is the only one who knows everything, Scripture points out that God takes particular pride in the fact that He knows the future. In fact, it seems that it matters to God that He knows the future when others do not. Throughout Isaiah chapters 41-48 God makes it clear that knowing the future is a perogative for Him alone, something that marks Him out as unique and authentic over against the false gods of the pagan nations (see Isaiah 41:21-24, Isaiah 42:8-9, Isaiah 45:20-21, Isaiah 46:5,9-10, Isaiah 48:3-11, 14-15.) Over and over again in Scripture God sends prophets to reveal to His people what the future holds. Often His people didn't listen, but never, not once, did His word fail to come to pass.

Okay so God is omniscient. He is a super-genius, and His knowledge is far beyond what we can know, but why does that matter? It matters for many reasons, but let me highlight just two. First, it matters because it means that God is trustworthy. Can you imagine giving your life wholly to a god who might lead you down the wrong path because He didn't know exactly what would happen? I am able to follow God with confidence because I know that nothing in my future will surprise Him. Though there may be unpleasant things on the road ahead, God sees them coming. There are no divine uh-ohs. He is prepared, and as long as I follow Him obediently, I can make it through any challenge ahead.

Second, not only does God know everything but He knows everything there is to know about you. Hebrews 4:13 says, "Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account." God knows you completely. He saw you when you were formed in the womb (Psalm 139). He knows what you need before you ask for it (Matthew 6:8). He even knows the very number of hairs on your head (Matthew 10:30). God knows more about you than you do. To me, the fact that God chooses to love me, knowing all that He does about me, is dumbfounding. I am reprehensible in so many ways. I am weird in so many ways. I am still sinful in so many ways. And God sees them all. He knows all of my warts, all of my shortcomings. He knows all of the reasons why I don't deserve His love, yet He still loves me! What a wonderful God we serve! God knows you completely, and He has chosen to show you His love by sending His Son to die in your place on the cross. Isn't it time that you got to know Him a little bit better?

For further reading... 
*It should be noted that much of this talk and this series draws information from Wayne Grudem's textbook Systematic Theology. I am also leaning on notes taken from my Systematic Theology I class taught by Dr. Bruce Ware at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

God the Father Almighty

Then Job replied to the LORD: "I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted. You asked, 'Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?' Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. You said, 'Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me.' My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.
Job 42:1-6

I know a young boy who is completely in love with superheroes. He watches all the cartoons, and owns almost every superhero toy on the market. He loves to talk about Spiderman, and he thinks Batman is “awesome!” I’ve even heard him claim to have super powers himself once (namely the power of super-speed). Understandably, this little boy’s infatuation with superheroes filters over into his understanding of God. Having learned about the miracles of Jesus at a young age, he conceptualizes God as some type of superhero. For a four year old this may not be a bad metaphor, but I hope that his understanding of God will grow with him over the next ten or twenty years. Unfortunately, this hasn’t been the case for all of us. Maybe it’s because we haven’t been taught. Or maybe it’s because we weren’t paying attention. Either way, we have an excellent chance today to return to the essentials of the faith and to look at God’s all-powerful nature with fresh eyes.

Genesis 18:14 asks the rhetorical question, "Is anything too difficult for the Lord?" The implied answer is, "No!" Christ says that with God all things are possible (Matthew 19:25-26). God even chooses to refer to Himself throughout Scripture as "God Almighty" (Gen 17:1 et. al.). The fancy theological term for the idea that God is all-powerful is omnipotence. Now it isn't uncommon when you start talking about this aspect of God's nature to have someone drop a weird scenario on you like the following..."If God is all-powerful then could He create a rock so big that even He couldn't move it?" In reality this question and all of the others like it reveal a misunderstanding of both what it means to be all-powerful and the rules of logic. The first problem with the question is that it contains an error in logic. It is logically impossible for this task to be completed by an all-powerful being. That is not a limit on God's power, it is a limit on logic. But secondly the question also shows a misunderstanding of what it means to be omnipotent. The question implies that if God is omnipotent then He ought to be able to do ANYTHING that we come up with (no matter how absurd). That is not the case. Dr. Bruce Ware defines God's omnipotence in this way- "God is able to perform anything that is consistent with His nature as God."* In actuality there are plenty of things that God can't do. He can't lie. He can't break promises. He can't steal. He can't do these things not because He is too weak to do them but because they are incompatible with His nature. The fact that God can't lie does not reveal a limit on his power but an excellence in His character.  

Although Scripture speaks clearly about the fact that God has all power, in many ways it is His creation which best helps us to understand how powerful God is. Psalm 19 begins with the following, "The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world." This is no less true in the age of science. In his book The Ragamuffin Gospel, Brennan Manning offers the following "If you were to hold out a dime at arm's length, the coin would block out 15 million stars from your view, if your eyes could see with that power." When you pause to think about how awesome our world is, the fact that it was made simply by the word of our God is dumbfounding. And in an age that focuses almost exclusively on the nearness of God, it is nice to be reminded that at times we should "be still, and know that He is God" (Psalm 46:10). 

I challenge you today take five minutes of your lunch break, go outside and listen to creation declare the power of your God. Every leaf on every tree, every blade of grass, every animal, every tiny insect is a testament to God's power. He can do all things! Nothing is too difficult for Him. So let me remind you of what Christ said "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light" (Matthew 11:28-30). This is the God we serve!

For further reading...
*It should be noted that much of this talk and this series draws information from class notes taken from my Systematic Theology I class taught by Dr. Bruce Ware at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. I am also leaning on Wayne Grudem's textbook Systematic Theology

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

How do I deal with the death of a loved one?

Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his faithful servants. 
Psalm 116:15

JD Yopp (pictured above) passed away on Monday night around 9:30. Now that may not mean much to you, but JD was my grandfather. We called him Pop. With only an eighth grade education, he taught me more about life than almost anyone else. He taught me about hard work, family, how to drive a tractor (and a stick shift), how to split wood, and how to die gracefully. Which brings me to the topic for today's post, death. How do we deal with the death of a loved one?

Scripture has quite a lot to say about death, yet the most basic truth that it conveys about the topic is also one of the least known. If we are to come to terms with death we must understand first that death is the result of sin. Romans 6:23 says "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." And Romans 5:12 says, "Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned." We are often told that death is a "natural" part of the life cycle. All of nature experiences death in some way or another. While it is true that death is "natural" in that it occurs naturally and is a part of our now fallen human nature, that does not mean that it was "natural" before the Fall. Scripture teaches quite clearly that human nature and the earth itself went through dramatic changes as a result of sin (see Romans 8:18-25), so it should not surprise us that things are different now than they were before the Fall.* (A footnote for those who want to go deeper.)

But why does this matter? What difference does it make that death is the result of sin? Well, first of all, it helps us understand why the death of a loved one can be so hard for us to accept. We were not built to cope with death. We were not intended for death. Thus, whether we are dying or mourning the loss of someone we loved, we can expect death to be hard for us. However there is good news. When God chose to do something about man's sin problem, He determined that He would undo not only the stain of sin but the effects of sin as well. This is why Jesus rose from the dead. Since death is the result of sin, by conquering death Jesus conquered the power of sin and death in our lives (Hebrews 2:14-15 & I Corinthians 15:54-56). More than that, the Bible calls Jesus the firstfruits of resurrection (I Corinthians 15:20-23). He was the first one to be resurrected to eternal life but He will not be the last. He opened a door that those who believe in Him will also walk through. That is why Scripture says that we should not mourn as those who have no hope (I Thessalonians 4:13). For Christians, death is leaving this world and going home. Christians are called to live as foreigners and exiles in this world (I Peter 2:11-12). We are supposed to be looking forward to the home that Jesus has been preparing for us ever since He rose from the dead (John 14:1-4).

That does not mean, however, that we do not mourn. Sometimes, Christians lose sight of that. We still mourn, but we do not mourn for the believer who has gone on to be with His Lord, we mourn for ourselves. We mourn the loss that we experience because that person is no longer around. But we mourn in hope. Hope that our believing loved ones are in a better place, hope that they will receive their full resurrection bodies like Jesus at His second coming, and hope that we will one day be reunited with them. And those believers who die, die in hope. Our great hope is to go be with Christ now (II Corinthians 5:8) and then to be resurrected physically like Him at His return (I Corinthians 15 especially verse 19). It is much harder to cope with the death of a loved one who rejected Christ. Then we truly mourn without hope. For Scripture teaches that it is appointed to man once to die and then to face the judgment (Hebrews 9:27). Those who die apart from Christ are also resurrected but not to eternal life (Revelation 20:13-15). They are resurrected to eternal judgment. It is a truly awful thing to to consider their fate. The one hope in that situation is not for the deceased but for the living. We can only pray that their passing will serve as a warning to those who have yet to bow the knee to their Savior.

For further reading...

*You might be thinking though, "How could we have life without death?" Well, this weekend my uncle, who is a pastor, commented to me that he thinks Enoch gives us a glimpse of what God's original plan for mankind may have been (Genesis 5:23-24). We wouldn't have died, we would have simply been taken to be with the Lord. I cannot be certain that is true, but I must say that it sounds good to me.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Punishment and Praise

But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
Romans 5:8

WoW's First Ever Guest Blogger! Bo Irvin

I was recently listening to a sermon on the book of Jonah. As I sat and listened, I tried to count the number of times I have been taught the story of Jonah, oh, and the whale.  While some of you may be unfamiliar with the story, I had the fortunate privilege of being raised in a church where we might hear the story once a month.  I’m continually amazed at how the book of Jonah, though small in size, continues to be one of the most relevant books of the Bible for the present day reader.  Two questions came to mind during the sermon that pricked my heart: Am I running from God’s will (Jonah 1-2)?  Am I running from God’s love (Jonah 3-4)?  Now, let us briefly dive into each of these questions.

Are you running from God’s will?
As I listened to the pastor read through the first few chapters of Jonah, the above question was a natural one to ask in relation to the calling God has given each of us.  Are you truly listening to God's direction for your life or are you attempting to lead life your own way?  In these first two chapters we see several key points in Jonah’s journey that are applicable to all of us: God calls Jonah to preach; Jonah flees from God; God catches up with Jonah; and finally Jonah responds to God with praise.  Sound familiar? How often do we, at least I, react like Jonah when God is attempting to guide us into the path that is most glorifying for Him?

What intrigues me the most about Jonah's story is not that he heard God’s message, or that he ran from God, or even that God caught up with Jonah to finish what He started, but that under these circumstances Jonah expressed praise to God.  Because of his disobedience, Jonah was being punished by God.  He was in the belly of the great fish, yet he responded to this punishment with praise to God.  God’s sovereign work is clear in Jonah's story. There is no other way he could have survived if God was not for him.  Much like Jonah, how many of us have been taken through the most difficult storms in life only to end up on our knees, praising the miraculous work of God?  Many of us have conquered some of the greatest challenges and difficulties life could bring, but we have done so only by the grace of God (not by our own strength).  We must shout praise to God as He, and only He, can save us like He saved and restored Jonah.

Are you running from God’s love?
As I pondered whether or not I was running from God’s will for my life, I also began to question whether or not I was running from God’s love.  What a difficult question for each of us to ask ourselves.  I've heard the question asked a different way: “Will you love those whom God loves?”  Jonah finds himself reacting to a group of people much like I have reacted to people before deep within my heart.  Once again several key points stick out during Jonah’s journey: God again calls Jonah to preach; this time Jonah obeys God and goes; God delivers Nineveh; and Jonah resents the Ninevites.

How many times does God have to tell us to do something before it sticks with us?  For Jonah it was twice (Jonah 3:1-2).  Fortunately for him and us we serve a God of second chances! While there is so much to explore in chapters 3 and 4, I was drawn to the idea that Christians have a responsibility to help unbelievers see that this God, who judges every sin, is also characterized by second chances.  Most acknowledge that this does not mean that we can take advantage of God’s grace and count on an endless number of second chances.

How many times do we run from the call of God on our lives leaving us to question if we truly understand the love that God has for us as His children?  The Ninevites were a hurtful people which is why Jonah felt so strongly that they deserved the punishment and destruction God was threatening.  There are people in our lives every day we may have these same kind of thoughts about, but our relationship with God and our knowledge of His unconditional love should drive us to show them the same unconditional love.  I leave you with three difficult questions I struggled with following the sermon:
  1. What person(s) do you want to share the Good News with because they have been very hurtful to you?
  2. What actions or attitudes do you need to change so that others can see Jesus more clearly in your life?
  3. If you have been disobedient and have been a bad example to others around you, will you confess that sin to God?
May all Christians fall at the feet of our loving, gracious, and merciful God daily to make a great impact for His eternal kingdom!

For further reading...
  • Jonah: Read the entire story.
  • John 3:1-21: God delivers His message of second chances to Nicodemus.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

God is Good!

Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever.
Psalm 107:1

When Scripture says that God is good, it does not merely mean that He is acceptable or satisfactory; it means that He is excellent in every way. He is good in Himself. His character and His nature are of the highest quality and without flaw. There is no aspect of who He is or what He does that the word 'bad' can rightly be applied to. Conversely, the word 'good' is an apt description of His nature, actions, and character in every situation. God is good.

But not only is God good in His nature, His good nature also produces good works. Psalm 119:68 says, "You are good, and what you do is good..." His goodness goes beyond simply who He is and becomes a part of everything that He does. Nowhere is this truer than in God's dealings with humanity. Though we deserve His punishment, He offers us grace, mercy, and patience. He took our sin upon Himself, paid our debt, and bore our shame so that He could offer us forgiveness unfailing love. Psalm 34:8 says, "Taste and see that the Lord is good." I have tasted. I have seen, and now I testify that God is good!

Now you might be thinking, "God has not been good to me." "You don't know what happened to me when I was 5 years old." "You don't know what my first boyfriend did to me." or "You don't know what it's like to have no one in this world who cares about you." It is true that I do not know what you have been through, but Scripture tells us that we live in a sinful, broken world, and that because of this we all experience pain and suffering. But this world is not our home. God has promised to one day make a new world that isn't flawed in all the ways this one is. He has promised to wipe every tear away from our eyes and to put right all the things that sin has ruined. 

Until then we continue to endure the pain this world has to offer but we do not suffer alone. Scripture commonly refers to God as a protector of His children. Psalm 61:3 compares God to a strong tower and a refuge from those who would harm us. Psalm 9:9 says that He is like a stronghold in the day of trouble. Psalm 36:7 likens Him to a mother hen shielding us from disaster by hiding us underneath His wings. Of course God does not shield us from everything, but don't make the mistake of equating God with the evil in this world. James 1:17 says that "Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows." Just because the world has gone bad does mean that God has. God is good even (and especially) when the world around us is not.

So how should we respond to God's goodness? The best and right responses are love, worship, and trust.  Read some of the passages below on God's goodness and see if you feel any of these responses bubbling up in you.  

For further reading...
*It should be noted that much of this talk and this series draws information from Wayne Grudem's textbook Systematic Theology. I am also leaning on notes taken from my Systematic Theology I class taught by Dr. Bruce Ware at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Time to Get Real: Ambassadors for Christ

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
 II Corinthians 5:18-21

A few months back the new U.S. ambassador to China Mr. Gary Locke garnered quite a bit of attention when some photos emerged. These photos included Mr. Locke buying his own coffee in an airport and then later he and his family carrying their own bags out of another airport. If you are having trouble understanding why this was considered newsworthy in China it might help for me to tell you that in China even low level government officials have secretaries and personal assistants that do things like this for them. Journalist Chen Weihua explained, "To many Americans, there was probably nothing unusual about this. But to most Chinese people, the scene was so unusual it almost defied belief." It is kind of surprising that doing something so simple could cause such a stir, but it did. In fact, Mr. Locke's actions have some Chinese people rethinking how their government officials spend money.*

Gary Locke is an excellent example of what it means to be an ambassador. An ambassador represents their people, their customs, and their mission to a foreign country. It is always their goal to reflect positively on those whom they represent, even (and especially) when doing so means that they are out of step with the culture of the country they serve in.

It's interesting that Scripture calls us "Christ's ambassadors." Now I know that in the original context of II Corinthians chapter 5 Paul is talking about himself and his group of ministers/missionaries, however, in the grater context of Scripture and considering the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20), I think it is more than appropriate to apply this passage to all believers at least in some measure. The old saying holds true, you may be the only Jesus some people meet. Yes, 21st century culture is foreign and very different from the way we are called to live our lives as representatives of Jesus and His coming kingdom; but like Mr. Locke sometimes it is the ways that we are different that make our way of life most attractive.

The above passage of Scripture says that God has trusted the message of reconciliation to us, and He has. He has entrusted it to all of us. We are all called to preach the gospel and to make disciples wherever we go. We are all called to live as salt and light in this world and to be ready to give an answer for the hope that we have (I Peter 3:15). Paul even says that it is "as though God were making His appeal through us," because in a way He is. Yes, it is really the Holy Spirit working in people's hearts that changes them from sinners to believers, but God often chooses to use people like you and me to work in coordination with that Spirit. The Spirit will bless something you say or do and use that to minister to a lost person's soul and call them to repentance.

Of course we are most useful to God when we are willing to step out on faith and try to be used by Him. "God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God." Are you really going to respond to that amazing gift by just going halfway in your Christian life...just doing the minimum but never really giving God your all? It is time for you to get real about your faith. God deserves better than your halfway. Not only does God deserve better, but what about your friends and your family? They need to be told the truth about Jesus and to have a chance to escape the coming judgment. And what about you? Don't you want to stand before your Savior with a clear conscience on that last day? We won't be perfect, but join me today in praying and asking God to somehow use us to draw other people to Him. Ask Him to help you give Him your all and not to be paralyzed by fear any longer. Ask Him to give you opportunities to share the good news, then, when the time comes, step out on faith and trust Him to bless it. God can use the smallest action or word done in faith.

For further reading...
  • Ephesians 6:19-21- Paul uses the metaphor of being an ambassador in this passage as well.
  • I Chronicles 18:9- King David's advice to his son Solomon. Notice he doesn't urge his son to serve God with half-hearted devotion.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Time to Get Real: Share the Good News

Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven. 
Matthew 10:32-33

If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”
Mark 8:38

Charlie Peace was a notorious criminal in 19th century England. A known burglar and murderer, Peace was eventually sentenced to hang, and on February 25th 1879 marched out to meet his fate. As Peace undertook his "death-walk" a prison chaplain walked with him halfheartedly reading from Scripture and urging repentance. Peace responded by uttering his most famous words. "'Sir, if I believed what you and the church of God say that you believe, even if England were covered with broken glass from coast to coast, I would walk over it, if need be, on hands and knees and think it worth while living, just to save one soul from an eternal hell like that!”*

I first heard this story years ago and it has always stuck with me. The idea of a man crawling across all of England on broken glass to save just one soul and considering it a worthwhile task is powerful. The truth is that Charlie Peace, scoundrel that he was, preached a sermon that day that God in His grace is still using for His glory. If we really believe what the Bible teaches about Hell- that those who die without forgiveness for their sins will spend eternity in torment for those sins- then we should do all that we can to prevent that from happening. Indeed we have an even greater responsibility because we not only know that Hell is waiting for these individuals but we also know the solution to their problem. We know that "there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved" but Jesus Christ (Acts 4:12). How great a crime it is to keep silent about such things.

The Scriptures above speak as plainly to this subject as Charlie Peace did. We Christians have no excuse for failing to share Jesus with the world. It is our duty. In fact, Jesus used His last words to encourage us to do the same. "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20).

Yet many of us still fail to share. There are many reasons why we do not share the gospel as we should, but one of those reasons is that many of us simply do not know how. Today, I would like to show you the simplest way I have found to share the gospel. (Disclaimer: This is not my own invention. I have found it used in many LifeWay resources and assume they developed it. I share it here in my own words and adjusted to my liking.) It is as easy as remembering A-B-C. 

A- Admit that you are a sinner and in need of God's grace (Romans 3:10 and 3:23).

B- Believe that Jesus is God's Son, that He died on the cross to pay the penalty for your sin, and was raised from the dead (Romans 6:23 and 5:8).
C- Confess Jesus as Lord of your life. Turn from sin (from living life your way) and commit to live your life for God (Romans 10:9).

I Peter 3:15 says that you should, "always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have." So, I encourage you to take a few minutes and study this or another form of sharing the gospel message so that you are ready when God gives you opportunities to share. I also encourage you to commit to memory the passages of Scripture that I reference above, because you don't always have a Bible handy when you have a chance to witness. Lastly, pray that the Lord would give you an opportunity to plant a gospel seed in someone's life; and when He does, step out on faith.

For further reading...
  • Memorize the gospel plan and passages above.

* - There seem to be many variations of this story floating around. They are all essentially the same, but the quote especially seems to change a little from story to story. This Wikipedia entry seemed to me to be fairly reliable so I chose to use it over some of the other sources I came across.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Time to Get Real: The Gospel Story

If you declare with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
Romans 10:9 

In the beginning the one true God (the all-powerful, all-knowing, and ever present One whom the Bible says is by His very nature love), in order to make His love known and in order to bring glory to Himself (Isaiah 43:7 & Revelation 21:6-7), created the world and mankind in it. He created all things and without Him nothing was made that has been made (John 1:1-3). The Bible says that God said to Himself “let us make man in our own image,” and He did. He created men and women both in His image (Genesis 1:27). He made them priests and Kings: Kings, in that they were given dominion over all the earth that they might rule over it in His name to bring Him glory and priests, in that they stood before Him as the representatives of all creation bringing its praise and worship to the Creator  (Genesis 1:28-30 & Revelation 1:6). When God had finished his creation, He saw that it was good.

But it did not stay that way for long. Humanity chose to rebel against God. A serpent who was under the control of the Devil tempted Adam and Eve with the promise of equality with God. The Lord had already put all of creation under their rule, but that was not enough. Just like us today, they had an insatiable appetite for more. They desired to be equal with God, and so disobeyed God’s command and ate of the fruit of the tree (Genesis 3). The Bible says that because of their rebellion not only was the creation marred with imperfection but the first man and woman died, not physically but spiritually. Since two spiritually dead people cannot give birth to spiritually living ones, all humans since Adam and Eve have been born in sin (Romans 5:12-21). At birth we are no more able to love God or desire the things of Him than a dead man is able to walk. Thus, from that day on, all of mankind has been in rebellion against God. A great gulf has been fixed between us and Him, and that gulf is our sin. For all of us have chosen to rebel against God our own ways (Romans 3:23).

The scary truth of the gospel—the truth that we don’t talk about nearly as much as we should—is that God responds to our sin with righteous wrath. God hates sin! Though this is hard for us to understand, it would be ungodly for Him not to hate it. I know that many of us like to think of God as all loving and only loving but Scripture does not portray Him that way. He is all loving but He is not only loving. His character is much too complex and righteous for that. He exhibits wrath (Nahum 1:2-3) under the right circumstances and in the right proportions. Our sin is deserving of God’s wrath and so all humans by our own choice of rebellion have become God's enemies, deserving of Hell (Romans 5:9-11).

But herein lies the good news of God’s grace. While we were still sinners... while we were still rebelling against God's authority, He chose to love us with an indescribable love and to offer us forgiveness. God the Father sent God the Son to take the penalty for our sin (Romans 5:8). Do you remember that Adam and Eve found out that the penalty for sin was spiritual death? Well it is also physical death (it just isn't as immediate as the spiritual death). Thus, because of sin all humans die and when we die we face God's judgment where those who have chosen to join Satan in rebellion are thrown into Hell (Romans 6:23). So the Father sent the Son. In Christ the Creator took humanity upon Himself, dwelt among us and eventually died for our sins. He walked this earth and was tempted in every way just as we are but He remained sinless (Hebrews 4:15). He was wholly God and wholly man. And this man, the only innocent man in the history of the world, died a criminal's death so that we could be forgiven. He bore the shame of the Roman cross so that He might satisfy God’s wrath. He died the death that we deserved. This is the greatest news the world has ever heard.

But our story does not end there, because Jesus not only died for you, He was also raised from the dead for you (Matthew 28). At the cross Jesus paid the price for your sin, but in His resurrection from the dead He beat the power that sin holds over you: death (Hebrews 2:14-15). No longer does sin have the power to enslave you. Sin has been beaten by Christ in His death and resurrection. Those who have believed in Him have been set free. What's more, in the resurrected Christ we glimpse the great promise He has made for our future. Christ has promised to return one day and put this world to rights. All the marring effects of sin will be erased. The earth will once again be what it was created to be. So too you and I, if we have believed in Jesus, will be resurrected for life. We will be given incorruptible bodies like Christ's resurrection body and we will reign with our God (II Timothy 2:11-12 I Corinthians 6:1-3, I Corinthians 15). Those who have not believed will also be resurrected, but not for life. They will be cast into the Lake of Fire which is the final resting place of those who participate in Satan's rebellion (Revelation 21:1-8).

So what must you do to accept the incredible gift of forgiveness? Romans 10:9 says that, "If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." It's that simple. Believe that Jesus was who He said He was, i.e. God's Son. Believe that He died on the cross for your sins and that He was raised from the dead. Repent (turn) from your sin and confess Jesus as Lord (master) of your life. Surrender your life to Him today and experience true freedom.

For further reading...check out any of the passages above.