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.