Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Fourth Sunday of Advent: He came to give joy

'4. Advent' photo (c) 2011, Barbara - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/(This is the fourth post in a four-part series that seeks to help Christians observe Advent, that season celebrating the coming of our Savior and leading to Christmas Day. This series is designed for use on each Sunday of Advent, but it can be used at any point -- and this one will have to be, since it is late, for which I apologize.)

God the Son came to earth as an embryo in a virgin's womb and as a baby born in a stable to give His people the kind of existence they otherwise could never possess.

He came to give life to those who trust in Him. The apostle John testified to this truth in his first letter, saying, "By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him" (I John 4:9).

We were dead in our sins, as the apostle Paul wrote in Eph. 2:1, but God, "being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved)" (Eph. 2:4).

The Son came to give us life, but it is not just any life or life only as opposed to physical death. During His public ministry, Jesus proclaimed this reality, saying, "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly" (John 10:10).

This abundant life could be described as a life of joy. It is not an abundant life based on the possession of things or the absence of pain. It is not an abundant life based on self-fulfillment. It is a life centered on Christ Jesus -- knowing Him and making Him known, valuing Him pre-eminently.

John Piper has famously written, "God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him." He has gone on to make the point that God's glory and our joy are not at odds.

God the Son came to give His people joy. True joy can only be found in Another, not in ourselves. That One in whom true joy is found is the One whose coming we celebrate at Christmas. That joy is in an unchangeable, indestructible King who rules over an unshakable kingdom. As citizens of that kingdom, we can experience a joy that always rules despite our circumstances.

May we realize that anew this Christmas and place our hope for joy in Him and not in any of the trappings of the season.

Here is Chris Tomlin's version of "Joy to the World," which we have sung the last two Sundays.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Third Sunday of Advent: He came to glorify His Father

'4. Advent' photo (c) 2011, Barbara - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/(This is the third in a four-part series that seeks to help Christians observe Advent, that season celebrating the coming of our Savior and leading to Christmas Day. This series is designed for use on each Sunday of Advent, but it can be used at any point.)

Christmas represents not only the human-ward work of God the Son to save sinners but His God-ward work to glorify His Father.

This was the testimony of Jesus on the eve of His crucifixion. He prayed that night, "I glorified You on the earth, having accomplished the work which You have given me to do" (John 17:4). He could speak even before He died of fulfilling what the Father intended for Him to do in coming to earth. God the Father sent God the Son to earth with something to do. The purpose behind that mission included the glory of the Father.

Jesus testified to this purpose earlier in His ministry. Jesus compared His coming death to a grain of wheat that must die before it bears fruit. He said in John 12:27-28a, "Now My soul has become troubled; and what shall I say, 'Father, save Me from this hour?' But for this purpose I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name." His Father responded by confirming with a voice from Heaven, "I have both glorified it, and will glorify it again" (John 12:28b).

God the Son came to earth to glorify God the Father. That meant He must not only live a rightoues life but die a propitiatory death -- a death that satisfied fully God's wrath against sin. His Father sent Him to die.

And the Son gladly and willingly became a human embryo and baby in order to die as a man for His Father's glory.

In The Pleasures of God, John Piper explains it this way:
[T]he depth of the Son's suffering was the measure of his love for the Father's glory. It was the Father's righteous allegiance to his own name that made recompense for sin necessary. So when the Son willingly took the suffering of that recompense on himself, every footfall on the way to Calvary echoed through the universe with this message: The glory of God is of infinite value! The glory of God is of infinite value!
God the Son's mission even at His birth was to give His life to ransom sinners. And the fulfillment of that mission brought great glory to His Father.

Here is "Born to Die," a song by Bebo Norman that fits with this theme:

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Preach this to yourself: No condemnation

If we would prevent gospel amnesia in our own lives, we should preach the gospel to ourselves -- including its benefits.

One of these glorious benefits is described by the apostle Paul: "Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 8:1, NASB).

This means God does not condemn those of us who have trusted in Jesus to save us from our sins. It is not that we will be condemned if we don't embrace the gospel of Christ. It is that we have been rescued from the condemnation we already were experiencing. Paul teaches this truth in other passages, and Jesus testifies to it.

In Rom. 5:18, Paul writes: "So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men." Our condemnation was the result of the sin of one man, Adam. As his descendants, we are under condemnation.

In Eph. 2:3, Paul says, "[We] were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest." God's wrath was upon us just by virtue of being human beings with a sinful nature.

John 3:17-18 is a great Christmas passage in which God the Son explains a reason He came to earth as a man -- and points to the condemnation all humanity lives under. He says, "For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God."

As sinners by nature, we are condemned; we are under wrath; we are judged. That all changes when God saves us by His grace because of the powerful gospel work of His Son. Now, we are no longer under condemnation -- forever. Nothing can reverse that verdict.

That is the kind of benefit we should regularly remind ourselves of. At Christmas, we can remember -- God the Son came to deliver us from the condemnation that dominated us. That is cause for rejoicing in Jesus and His gospel.

* -- Photo source.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Second Sunday of Advent: He came as a baby

'4. Advent' photo (c) 2011, Barbara - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/(This is the second in a four-part series that seeks to help Christians observe Advent, that season celebrating the coming of our Savior and leading to Christmas Day. This series is designed for use on each Sunday of Advent, but it can be used at any point.)

It is a story that could only be described as myth or fable except that it is recorded in the perfect Word that has the perfect God as its author: The Creator of the cosmos becomes a man. Even more stunning, He does not take on flesh as a full-grown human being. He becomes human the way all humans do -- by conception -- with one all-important difference: He has no earthly father.

The God who has made and regulates all things becomes an embryo. Early -- really early -- in His gestation, another unborn child and his mother recognize He is the long-awaited Messiah (Luke 1:39-45). In a virgin's womb, He matures as other unborn children do. His body takes shape and grows until the nine months of pregnancy come to their end, and His humble mother delivers Him in a humble location. He arrives in the outside world through the labor and pain of a young mortal.

As J.I. Packer wrote in his book Knowing God:
[T]he Almighty appeared on earth as a helpless human baby, unable to do more than lie and stare and wriggle and make noises, needing to be fed and changed and taught to talk like any other child. And there was no illusion or deception in this: the babyhood of the Son of God was a reality. The more you think about it, the more staggering it gets. Nothing in fiction is so fantastic as is this truth of the incarnation.
Yet, this same person who humbled Himself to become an embryo and to die a criminal's death as a man is the One whose exaltation to the highest place is assured. Phil. 2:9-11 describes God the Father's elevation of His Son this way:
For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
This is the story of Christmas -- a baby born in a Middle Eastern town is Lord of all.

Here is "Gather 'Round, Ye Children Come," a song by Andrew Peterson that fits with the theme of this post:

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Preventing gospel amnesia

Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are in our thoughts as a family these days. We are growing in our knowledge of and concern about these devastating afflictions because of the apparent conditions of loved ones. I may write about this subject in the future, but there is another one it brings to mind for this post.

As destructive as these neurological disorders can be, there is another form of forgetting that can be overwhelming spiritually for a Christian. It is gospel amnesia, as some have labeled it.

When we fail to realize the gospel of Jesus is indispensable not just to being saved from our sins but to all of our Christian life, we are suffering – in essence – gospel amnesia. When we fail to remember the gospel of Jesus during both the exhilarating and mundane moments of life, we are suffering gospel amnesia. When we fail to remind ourselves of the gospel in both the advances and setbacks of life, we are suffering gospel amnesia. When we replace the gospel with counterfeit and powerless substitutes that maximize human work and minimize Christ’s work, we are suffering gospel amnesia – or worse.

Don Carson explains in his book The Cross and Christian Ministry what can happen when a person, church or movement declines into gospel amnesia:
I have heard a Mennonite leader assess his own movement in this way. One generation of Mennonites cherished the gospel and believed that the entailment of the gospel lay in certain social and political commitments. The next generation assumed the gospel and emphasized the social and political commitments. The present generation identifies itself with the social and political commitments, while the gospel is variously confessed or disowned; it no longer lies at the heart of the belief system of some who call themselves Mennonites.

Whether or not this is a fair reading of the Mennonites, it is certainly a salutary warning for evangelicals at large.
One thing we cannot afford to do as followers of Christ or as a church is to assume the gospel. Assuming the gospel – its definition and its significance – can lead to forgetting the gospel, if not disowning it.

That is disastrous for a Christian and a church. And that is why we, as a church, spend time each Sunday in explaining the gospel in our singing, reading, praying and preaching. And that is why those of us who follow Jesus must remind ourselves of the gospel regularly. And that begins with making sure we know the gospel.

What is the gospel? In brief, the gospel is the good news that God has extended unmerited favor to sinners. The sovereign and holy God who has created all people has every right to judge sinners – and every person is a sinner -- for their rebellion against Him and His rule. Yet, He has poured out His judgment on His Son, Jesus Christ, who lived a perfectly righteous life but willingly died as a substitute for sinners. God the Son’s death on a cross totally satisfied God the Father’s punishment of sin for all who repent and trust in Jesus for salvation.

From that all-sufficient work by Christ the Lord flow vast benefits for eternity – benefits I plan to rehearse in future posts.

* -- Photo source.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

First Sunday of Advent: He came to save His people

'4. Advent' photo (c) 2011, Barbara - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/(This is the first in a four-part series that seeks to help Christians observe Advent, that season celebrating the coming of our Savior and leading to Christmas Day. My wife, Linda, and I did a 31-day devotional booklet to observe Christmas as a gift to Covenant Community Church in 2004. This blog series is designed for use on each Sunday of Advent, but it can be used at any point beginning today.)

We begin Advent with this assurance from God Himself -- Jesus accomplished exactly and totally what He came to do. We know this from the first chapter of the New Testament.

When Joseph learns his betrothed, Mary, is pregnant, he decides to give her a bill of divorce privately, but an angel intercedes. The angel tells him in a dream, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:20b-21).

The meaning of His name -- "Jehovah saves" -- explained a purpose in His coming. He would "save His people from their sins." Who are "His people?" All those whom His Father has given Him. Jesus Himself testifies to this fact.

He told a crowd, "All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out. . . . This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day" (John 6:37, 39).

He prayed to His Father, “Father, the hour has come; glorify Your Son, that the Son may glorify You, even as You gave Him authority over all flesh, that to all whom You have given Him, He may give eternal life. . . . I glorified You on the earth, having accomplished the work which You have given Me to do" (John 17:1b-2, 4).

Jesus accomplished what He was sent to do -- "save His people from their sins." His thoroughly accomplished work purchased a people for Himself, a people consisting of all those His Father gave Him. As those given by the Father to the Son and saved therefore by the Son, we can rejoice at Christmas. Jesus came to save us, and He accomplished exactly and totally what He came to do.

Here is "Come to Save Us," a song by the group All Sons and Daughters that fits with this successful mission of Jesus.

Friday, November 7, 2014

What should we think of the 'right to die?'

Brittany Maynard took her life last Saturday. She had announced her intention to do so long before she made suicide the final act of her earthly life. In the process, she became a public advocate for the "right to die" and physician-assisted suicide.

Death is a great enemy for all of us. To know a 29-year-old woman is suffering gravely with terminal cancer is to recognize she and other human beings have experienced pain most of us cannot identify with or have not experienced yet. We should grieve for her, her widowed husband and her other family members. But should we -- as those who follow Christ and seek to live under the authority of God's Word -- affirm assisted suicide as an appropriate alternative for a human being or a wise policy option for a society?


Here are four reasons I believe we should oppose the "right-to-die" or "death-with-dignity" movement. I write, of course, from an intentionally Christian perspective for Christians, but I believe these truths are important for a society as well. It is vital we, as God's people, think biblically about this critical issue.

(1) The "right to die" -- manifested in assisted suicide and, in countries where it is legal, euthanasia -- violates the sanctity of human life. The biblical perspective is that each human being is made in the image of God and has intrinsic worth from conception until natural death. Interfering in that continuum at any point -- whether in another's life or your own -- is to contravene that sacred truth. Every human life is worthwhile, no matter its age or condition.

(2) The "right to die" defies God's sovereign rule. The Creator is also the Sustainer and Controller. He has made each person in His image. As Creator, only He has the right to determine when a person's life ends. When a person seeks to kill himself, he seeks -- maybe unknowingly -- to wrest control from God; he seeks to throw off God's rule; he seeks to exercise his self-rule in the face of the one true Ruler.

The day before Brittany Maynard's suicide, John Piper wrote this for Christians: "Not only do our lives belong to God by virtue of being created in his image, but now we are his — in life and death — by virtue of the purchase of Christ. We are doubly not our own. Our life and our death belong to God. He gives, and he takes. And he has put a double seal on that unique divine right: You are mine, by birth and by blood. You do not live, and you do not die, on your own terms." (You can read his entire post here.)

(3) The "right to die" undermines a society's responsibility to protect human life. We don't typically enact laws that give permission for an individual to kill someone, even himself. The unspoken, but inferred, message of the "right-to-die" movement is -- some lives are not worth living. In Western Civilization, we thought we buried that wicked ideology in the grave of Nazi Germany. It has been resuscitated, however, and is gaining acceptance in our day.

(4) The "right to die" too easily becomes the requirement to die. This can happen as a society with an aging population becomes more accepting of assisted suicide. This can happen as a government facing declining resources struggles to meet health-care challenges, especially for the elderly and infirmed. This can happen as family members recognize the cost to them of caring for the aged and terminally ill. As the "right to die" takes root and spreads its poisonous vines, the expectation grows that the terminally ill, disabled, infirm and elderly will recognize their responsibility to family and society and choose assisted suicide. Some European countries are ahead of us in this regard. Assisted suicide has given way there to euthanasia, even involuntary euthanasia -- even on disabled newborns.

How should we respond as those rescued by the One who conquered death? Here are three recommendations, briefly mentioned in this case:

-- Oppose government efforts to legalize assisted suicide.

-- Promote the kind of pain management by caring health-care professionals that alleviates suffering.

-- Be the church, the caring community that presents biblical truth while serving people as they suffer.

* -- Photo source.

Friday, October 31, 2014

The verse that awakened Martin Luther

(This is one of two Reformation Day posts I am republishing today. This one on the Bible verse God used to bring Martin Luther to understand justification by faith is from 2011.)

Today is Reformation Day. While Halloween is observed by many, we – as evangelical and Reformed – have reason to celebrate what this occasion represents. On Oct. 31, 1517, Catholic monk Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther sought a debate on the practice of indulgences in the Catholic Church, but his action that day helped produce something much greater. He ignited a conflagration that swept through Europe and continues to burn today. It is known as the Reformation. As it has been described, it was a recovery of the gospel that had grievously been lost by the church.

The Reformation truths restored included the sole authority of Scripture, the headship of Christ over His church and salvation by grace alone. At the heart of the Reformation – and of Luther’s transformation into a courageous reformer – was the doctrine of justification by faith alone.

The key verse God used in Luther’s spiritual awakening was Rom. 1:17. Church historian Bruce Shelley describes it this way in his book Church History in Plain Language:
A new and revolutionary picture of God began developing in Luther’s restless soul. Finally, in 1515 while pondering St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans Luther came upon the words: “For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith” (1:17, KJV). Here was his key to spiritual certainty: “Night and day I pondered,” Luther later recalled, “until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that ‘the just shall live by his faith.’ Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise.”

Luther saw it clearly now. Man is saved only by faith in the merit of Christ’s sacrifice. The cross alone can remove man’s sin and save him from the grasp of the devil. Luther had come to his famous doctrine of justification by faith alone. He saw how sharply it clashed with the Roman church’s doctrine of justification by faith and good works – the demonstration of faith through virtuous acts, acceptance of church dogma, and participation in church ritual.
We can give thanks today for God’s gracious work in and through Martin Luther and many others. May we guard the gospel so our church never loses it, and may we proclaim it clearly to others.

The five 'solas' of the Reformation

'Luther's 95 Theses' photo (c) 2008, Keren Tan - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/(This is one of two Reformation Day posts I am republishing today. This one on the five solas of the Reformation is from 2012.)

Happy Reformation Day!

As evangelical Christians, we should rejoice in this day and what it represents. On Oct. 31, 1517, a Catholic monk named Martin Luther nailed his “95 Theses” to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany. That event helped set off the Reformation, which continued for decades and still affects us today. We will celebrate the 500th anniversary of this history-changing event in five years, God willing.

That reform came at great cost to Luther and many others, and we continue to benefit from their sacrifice and the truths they recovered, stood for and proclaimed. The issues that produced the Protestant and evangelical movements remain important today.

The truths of the Reformation are often summarized as the five solas. That word, sola, means “only” or “alone.” The five are: Scripture alone; Christ alone; grace alone; faith alone, and the glory of God alone.

The use of the word “alone” is important. For instance, the Roman Catholic Church did not deny Scripture had authority; it said Scripture was not the sole final authority.

I was reminded of the ongoing importance of the Reformation and its impact on our lives at a recent Capitol Hill briefing I covered as a news reporter. A panel of three evangelicals and a Roman Catholic gathered to discuss criminal justice in the United States.

One evangelical spokesman, a Southern Baptist, said early in his presentation, “Southern Baptists consider themselves people of the Book. Our question always first is: What does the Bible have to say about an issue?” The next speaker, also an evangelical, affirmed that view.

The representative of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops followed and said, “[W]hile the Southern Baptists and evangelicals might be people of the Book, Catholics are people of the papal encyclical and the bishops statement.”

Many in the audience laughed, but that brief account demonstrated one of the differences that still remain between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism.

As we think about the Reformation ignited by Luther on this date 495 years ago, let us remind ourselves of these truths:

-- Scripture alone is our final authority, not Scripture plus an individual, council, church, tradition, experience or document.

-- Christ alone is our mediator with God, not Christ plus any human righteousness or accomplishment.

-- Grace alone is the way of salvation, not grace plus any human work or method.

-- Faith alone is the means of justification, not faith plus any human merit or infusion of Christ’s righteousness.

-- The glory of God alone is the purpose of life, not His glory plus that of any other.

As those saved by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone, may we hold onto these truths as we recognize our ongoing need for reformation in our own lives.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Scripture's testimony to the church's importance

One of the struggles we seem to have in American Christianity is to gain a proper understanding of the significance of the church. We have to overcome the erroneous concept the church is a building or a meeting. We have to surmount the privatized nature of much of evangelical Christianity.

Fortunately, the tide has been turning in the last decade or two. Christians increasingly seem to understand the value and significance of the church to God – and to their lives.

The local church is integral to every Christian. To begin to understand the value of the local church, it helps to understand the value of the church in its fullness – what is referred to as the universal church.

Apart from many scriptural references that do not use the word "church" while clearly referring to it, here are four truths based on the New Testament's use of that word that demonstrate its importance:

1. The church is loved by Christ, who died to save her. “Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25b).

2. The church belongs to Christ and is built by Him. “[U]pon this rock I will build My church” (Matt. 16:18b).

3. The church is the body of Christ, who is her head. “And He put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:22-23).

4. The church is the means by which God shows His wisdom to spiritual beings. “[T]he manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph. 3:10).

May a growing comprehension of what the church is fuel a deepening love in us for Christ and His church.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

'The lost virtue of modesty'

I preached a sermon regarding modesty on the last Sunday of August and followed with two blog posts you can read here and here.

Much more could be said to Christians about modesty, and Kevin DeYoung made a great contribution to that effort with "The lost virtue of modesty," an Oct. 2 blog post at The Gospel Coalition site. The pastor of University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Mich., eloquently made some excellent, biblical points in his post. Among the standout lines in his post:

-- “Modesty accepts that our bodies also live in community.

-- “The absence of modesty in one party does not justify the absence of restraint in another.

-- “Immodest dress tells the world, 'I’m not sure I have anything more to offer than this. What you see is really all you get.'"

The complete text of DeYoung’s post follows. I commend it to you highly.
I don’t know if modest is hottest, but I do know that modesty is biblical.

It is one of the marks of the confusion of our age that so many teenagers and young adults are more ashamed to dress with modest reserve than to very nearly undress entirely. Even after we give full throat to the necessary caveats – being pretty (or handsome) is not a sin, working to improve your appearance does not have to be vanity, the line between modest and immodest is not always black and white – we are still left with the undeniable biblical fact that God considers modesty a virtue and its opposite a vice.

Here are five biblical reasons Christians should embrace modesty as a God-designed, God-desired good thing.

1. Modesty protects what is intimate. There is a certain strand of feminism which says women should be proud of their sexual prowess and that any insistence they cover up what they don’t feel like covering up only serves to reinforce patriarchal notions that men have the right to determine what women do with their bodies. But the Bible’s call to modesty is not based on the supposed naughtiness of the female form. God’s good command to cover up is not meant to punish, but to protect. As Wendy Shalit writes, “The pressure on girls today to take sexy selfies comes out of a culture that routinely equates modesty with shame, instead of recognizing it for what it really is: an impulse that protects what is precious and intimate.” The common refrain of the bride – “do not stir up or awaken love until it pleases” (Song of Solomon 2:7) – is a call from one woman to a group of single women to save sexual arousal and sexual activity for its proper time, with the proper person, in the proper place.

2. Modesty accepts that our bodies also live in community. What does that mean? It means that while it sounds nice to say, “It’s my body. If I want to let it all hang out, that’s my business.” This is to forget that our bodies exist in a wider network of relationships, just like our speech does, and our actions, our will, and our desires. How we dress is not determined by how others wished we would dress. And yet, it would be sub-Christian to act as if the spiritual state of those around us was inconsequential.

Before going any further, let me state this as clearly as possible: men are responsible for their adultery, for their fornication, for their pornographic viewing, for their lust, and for their (heaven forbid) sexual assault, regardless of how a woman dresses. The Bible does not enjoin modesty on either sex because the opposite sex is simply incapable of keeping its pants on and its thoughts in check. Listen men: if Potiphar’s wife were to barge in and dance a bare-bellied jig on your kitchen table and strip you down to your birthday suit, you would still not be excused in committing adultery with her. The absence of modesty in one party does not justify the absence of restraint in another.

Having said all that, does not the law of love suggest that we should want to avoid enticing others into sin? The phrase “with lustful intent” in Matthew 5:28 is translated by some scholars (D.A. Carson among them): “so as to get her lust.” The meaning, then, instead of being about lust in the man’s heart, would be about the man wanting to get a woman to lust after him. Whether one accepts this minority position or not, it’s still a fair application to think that Jesus’ statement forbids us from having a heart attitude that lusts and a heart attitude that wants to be lusted after. Some people want to see pornography and others want to be pornography. Maybe not in a literal sense, but there are men and women who crave the power, the attention, and the status that comes from being noticed and sought after. This entices others to sin and is in itself sinful.

3. Modesty operates with the Bible’s negative assessment of public nudity post-Fall. From Adam and Eve scrambling for fig leaves (Gen. 3:10), to the dishonorable nakedness of Noah (Gen. 9:21), to the embarrassingly exposed buttocks of David’s men (2 Samuel 10:4), the Bible knows we inhabit a fallen world in which certain aspects of our bodily selves are meant to be hidden. Indeed, this is precisely what Paul presumes when he speaks of “our unpresentable parts” which must be “treated with greater modesty” (1 Cor. 12:23). There’s a reason momma called them private parts.

4. Modesty embraces the strong biblical admonition to refrain from sensuality. Sensuality (Gk: aselgeia) is a distinguishing characteristic of the flesh and one of the marks of the pagan world (Gal. 5:19; Rom. 13:13; 2 Cor. 12:21; 2 Pet. 2:2, 18). Does the word give us exact instructions on where good taste trips over into sensuality – how long skirts can be, what sort of bathing suit to wear, or whether beefy men need to run around shirtless when its 60 degrees in Michigan? No. But surely we can agree that it is not uncommon for men and women to dress in ways which only add to the look and feel of our culture’s ubiquitous sensuality. If the word aselgeia suggests sexual excess (TDNT), we would do well to consider whether the desire behind our deportment is to starve this sensual beast or to sate it.

5. Modesty demonstrates to others that we have more important things to offer than good looks and sex appeal. The point of 1Timothy 2:9 and 1 Peter 3:3-4 is not an absolute prohibition against trying to look nice. The prohibition is against trying so very hard to look good in all the ways that are so relatively unimportant. The question asked of women in these verses – and it certainly applies to men as well – is this: will you grab people’s attention with hair and jewelry and sexy clothes or will your presence in the room be unmistakable because of your Christlike character? Immodest dress tells the world, “I’m not sure I have anything more to offer than this. What you see is really all you get.”

Let me state the obvious: the Bible has no pictures. There is no inspired how-to manual for getting dressed in the morning. There are matters of culture, conscience, and context which surely come into place. I have no checklist to check off before you head out the door.

But if the Bible is to be believed, this whole business of modesty is not irrelevant to Christian discipleship. Our bodies have been bought with a price. Therefore glorify God with your body (1 Cor. 6:20). Which means we don’t show everyone everything we might think is worth seeing. And it means we won’t be embarrassed to keep most private those things that are most precious. Shame is a powerful category, in the Bible and in our own day. The key is knowing what things we should actually be ashamed of.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Suddenly, same-sex marriage is here

Same-sex marriage quickly became more than a "what-if" scenario this week in our state. It is now a legal reality.

The U.S. Supreme Court's Oct. 6 announcement it would not review any of the marriage rulings before it from lower courts immediately wiped out laws or constitutional amendments in Virginia and four other states that limited marriage to a man and a woman. Same-sex weddings began taking place the same day, and marriages of same-sex couples from other states became legal in our state and others.

In addition, the Supreme Court's action paved the way for the legalization of same-sex marriage in six other states in federal appeals court circuits that include the five states directly affected. An Oct. 7 ruling by another appeals court opened the gates for legalized same-sex marriage in five more states. As a result, the stage is set for same-sex marriage to be legal in 35 of the 50 states, as well as the District of Columbia.

With a single line, the country's highest court ended the hypotheticals for people in Virginia -- the earthly home of my wife and me, as well as the church I pastor. The theoretical became actual.

So what does this mean for Covenant Community Church and others who are following Jesus? Much more could be written, but here are a few thoughts:

1. Our witness to marriage must not change. The government's newly expanded definition of the union does not change the original definition. As those claimed by God through Christ, we must continue to affirm marriage as given by the Creator in making human beings -- it is only between one man and one woman.

2. Our witness will be challenged. This could be both personal and legal. Our view of marriage as those who believe in biblical authority likely will become less acceptable among others as they get used to the new marriage regime. It will be uncomfortable to disagree with those we love who seek our affirmation of their same-sex wedding and marriage. Clashes between the legal rights of same-sex couples and the religious freedom of convictional Christians will play out in courts. Christians with wedding service businesses -- such as photographers, florists and bakers -- have not fared well so far in other states when declining to work at same-sex ceremonies. It is uncertain what the effect may eventually be for churches and pastors.

3. Our witness must be bold and compassionate. We must prepare ourselves to say, "No," to family and friends who want us to attend their weddings. To be witnesses at a same-sex wedding -- which describes those who attend such a ceremony -- is to support something we know not to be a wedding or a marriage as defined by God. It also is to commit ourselves to holding the couple to their vows. We -- as those saved by the One whose gospel is pictured by marriage -- are not free to lend such support to what God has refused to affirm. In this and other situations that likely will confront us, our boldness should be seasoned by grace, love and gentleness. We are to love people, not the winning of arguments. We are to give them the reconciling message of Jesus and His saving work. We are to love and treasure Christ enough to be willing to suffer the consequences of obeying Him, in spite of the cost relationally and financially.

Covenant Community Church, and every other New Testament church, is called to this hour. As co-laborers in the same fellowship, we have the opportunity to encourage, support and pray for one another. We face difficult times, but we face them in unity with one another. As we do so, may Jesus and His people become even more valued by us.

* -- Photo source

Friday, October 3, 2014

Marriage and the church of Jesus Christ

Right now, there seems to be no end to the distressing news about marriage.

For our society, it came last week in the results of a new study.

For our nuclear family, it came this week in the news that a friend of one of us recently entered into a legal marriage to his same-sex partner. And several of his friends -- who are, or were, professing evangelicals – applauded the wedding and marriage.

The new report from the Pew Research Center included the following troubling trends:

-- The percentage of American adults who have never married is at an all-time high. One in five adults 25 years of age and older fits this description. In 1960, only nine percent of adults in that age range had never married.

-- Only 46 percent of Americans say society is better off if people make marriage and children a priority, while 50 percent say society is just as well off if people have other priorities. This way of thinking is stronger among younger adults: 67 percent of those 18 to 29 years of age affirm the latter perspective, and 53 percent of those 30 to 49 agree with it.

These trends provide more evidence of “the marginalization of marriage in American life,” R. Albert Mohler said on his podcast Oct. 2. Mohler is president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

“We’re involved in a massive social experiment in the present to see if you can have a society that does not respect marriage – that does not have marriage as the central relational expectation,” Mohler said. “No previous society known to human experience has been so organized, but in our post-Christian, postmodern, post-whatever age, a considerable number of Americans have decided that marriage is now one of those things we can well do without.”

This is not an insignificant issue for the church of Jesus Christ. Marriage is a gift to all human beings. God, not humanity and not human society, established it. It is to last as long as a man and a woman who have made vows to each other live. It is important to the children marriage produces, and it is important to the societies they fill. Its fullest meaning is its portrayal of the ultimate marriage between Christ and His bride, the church.

As the church, we are to affirm God’s definition of and intention for marriage. We are to defend it and explain it before a watching world. We are to present it to the people of God as the beautiful, one-flesh covenant and vital means of sanctification it is designed to be. We are to honor it, while also honoring singleness biblically. We are to remember the church – made up of the married, never married, divorced and widowed – is eternal. Our marriages are not. We are to remember our primary mission is to make disciples, not husbands and wives – though disciples who are married should be gracious, loving and faithful husbands and wives. Yet, we are to promote the true meaning of marriage and the sacrificial service that makes marriage joyful and rewarding while pointing to the beauty of Jesus.

This is a challenging time for the church on the issue of marriage, but we can take heart that God remains in control and we are blessed to be His representatives in this culture. May we represent Him with compassion and boldness as those who have nothing of eternal significance to lose because of His gospel.

* -- Photo source

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Benefits of preaching the gospel to yourself

I have encouraged the saints of Covenant Community Church frequently in recent years to rehearse -- or preach to themselves -- the gospel of Jesus. I have learned that from others, and I have found it beneficial to my own life.

William Farley has written a new book on why Christians should adopt this practice and how they can do it. (By the way, one of Farley's previous books is an excellent one on parenting titled Gospel-powered Parenting.) Super-blogger Tim Challies posted yesterday on Farley's new book, Hidden in the Gospel, and excerpted Farley's seven benefits of preaching the gospel to yourself. I commend them to you:
1. Those who preach the gospel to themselves are regularly and repetitively exposed to the glory of God.

2. Those who preach the gospel to themselves grow in humility.

3. Those who preach the gospel to themselves are most likely to gain deliverance from that three-headed monster of guilt, inferiority, and low self-image.

4. Those who preach the gospel to themselves accelerate their sanctification.

5. Those who preach the gospel to themselves are increasingly “abounding in thanksgiving” (Col. 2:6).

6. Those who preach the gospel to themselves are increasingly hopeful.

7. Those who preach the gospel to themselves are repeatedly led to worship.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The power of lines and verses in hymns

John Piper has often said, “Books don’t change people, paragraphs do — sometimes sentences.”

Something similar may be said of Christian hymns, something like: Hymns don’t affect us as much as verses or lines do.

Now, I would say my adage regarding hymns does not work as well as Piper’s on books. After all, books are much longer than hymns. The contrast between the impact of a sentence or a paragraph against an entire book is much greater than that of a verse or line against a hymn.

Yet, I thought of the power of verses and lines in hymns after I read Tim Challies’ recent blog post on the 10 greatest hymns of all time. You can read the post here. It is an excellent list. Several of the hymns would be on a top 10 list I would compile.

In this post, however, I want to call attention to some verses, or portions of verses, from hymns that particularly stand out for their beauty and power. These hymns would likely be in my top 10 list of favorite hymns, but it is not these hymns in their entirety that have earned places of recognition here. Instead, it is the verses or lines quoted from these hymns that have affected me and brought me to quote them.

I will begin with lyrics that have caused me to request these first two hymns be sung at my memorial service.

1. Before the Throne of God Above
This hymn’s lyrics, written in 1863 by Charitie Lees Bancroft, form a powerful testimony to the all-sufficient work of Jesus for His people. The second verse, which is my favorite, reminds me not to focus on my inadequacy but on the perfect adequacy of Christ:
When Satan tempts me to despair and tells me of the guilt within,
Upward I look and see Him there who made an end of all my sin.
Because the sinless Savior died, my sinful soul is counted free.
For God the just is satisfied to look on Him and pardon me, to look on Him and pardon me.
These words in the last line – “God the just is satisfied to look on Him and pardon me” – may be unsurpassed among hymns in explaining briefly the substitutionary work of Jesus.

2. In Christ Alone
This modern hymn by Stuart Townend and Keith Getty, published in 2001, is one of the most-sung hymns in English-speaking churches and, The Gospel Coalition’s Collin Hansen reports, “has become an anthem for underground churches throughout the world.” It is difficult for me to choose a favorite from the last three verses of this poignant hymn about our union with Christ. For today anyway, my favorite is verse four:
No guilt in life, no fear in death, this is the power of Christ in me;
From life's first cry to final breath, Jesus commands my destiny.
No power of hell, no scheme of man, can ever pluck me from His hand;
Till He returns or calls me home, here in the power of Christ I'll stand.
3. Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted
Our church sings this 1804 hymn by Thomas Kelly during our Good Friday service each year. It is a sobering reflection on the suffering of our Savior. Verse two’s reference to “the stroke that Justice gave” is a vivid declaration of a holy God’s punishment of sin:
Tell me, ye who hear Him groaning, was there ever grief like His?
Friends through fear His cause disowning, foes insulting His distress;
Many hands were raised to wound Him, none would interpose to save;
But the deepest stroke that pierced Him was the stroke that Justice gave.
4. And Can It Be?
Charles Wesley may be my favorite hymn writer. Of all his great hymns, none may surpass this one he wrote shortly after his conversion in 1738. The first verse profoundly expresses the amazement all of us, as Christians, should have that God the Son would die in our place:
And can it be that I should gain an int’rest in the Savior’s blood?
Died He for me, who caused His pain? For me, who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! how can it be that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
5. Hark! the Herald Angels Sing
Yes, another Charles Wesley hymn. And yes, a Christmas carol. Some of the best theology in Christian hymnody is found in songs about the incarnation of Christ. In the last half of the third verse of this 1739 hymn, Wesley describes a purpose of God the Son in entering the world as a baby boy:
Mild He lays His glory by, born that men no more may die,
Born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth.
What are your favorite verses or lines from hymns?

* -- Photo source

Friday, September 12, 2014

The gospel and modesty (Part 2)

As Christians, we don’t take our signals from the world. This is certainly true when it comes to modesty. While this virtue has a cultural context, ours is an immodest culture. There was a day when American culture maintained a common understanding of basic modesty. That day no longer exists.

The church needs to give careful attention to this issue. How we dress, act and speak – whether modestly or immodestly – reflects on our testimony as followers of Christ and on the name of our righteous Lord.

Here are some questions I hope will prove helpful for our consideration as Christians:

-- What is our goal in our dress, language and actions? Is it the glory of God?

-- Whom do we dress to please? Is God our primary audience? Do we seek to catch the eyes of the opposite sex? Do we seek to impress friends of the same sex?

-- Do we try to bring attention to ourselves by our dress, actions and speech?

-- Is our goal to serve others in this area? Are you, as a lady, sensitive to your brothers in Christ? Are you, as a man, sensitive to your sisters in Christ?

-- Are we permitting other believers to hold us accountable regarding modesty? Are you, as a young lady, seeking your father’s wisdom? Are you, as a young man, requesting your mother’s insight? Are you, as a husband or wife, asking for your spouse’s counsel? Are you, as a single adult, soliciting advice from a fellow Christian?

-- Do we extend grace to others who may not meet the same standards we hold? Or do we nurse critical spirits toward those who fall short in our eyes? Do we take pride in how we dress or act in contrast to others?

-- Do we live with the constant recognition we are clothed with the righteousness of
Christ and our acceptance by God is based solely on Jesus and His work? Do we see personal modesty as an outworking of God’s grace in our lives rather than an effort to gain His favor?

May we pray for one another and encourage one another as we seek to dress, act and speak in ways that demonstrate we are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (I Peter 2:9).

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The gospel and modesty (Part 1)

News broke in the last few days a hacker had managed to access and make public photos reportedly from the cellphones of more than a hundred celebrities – some of them in the nude. The reports came on the heels of a sermon I preached last Sunday on modesty, my latest in a series on gender and sexuality.

In that sermon, I mentioned modesty has become even more of an issue for Christians in the age of social media. We need to be careful not only about how we dress, act and speak in public appearances but in what we wear, how we pose and what messages we post on Facebook and other online venues. The believability of our testimony and the name of Christ are on the line in those settings. We need to think about our Savior and His gospel when we take part in social media.

Here are some points I made during Sunday’s sermon, which focused on Titus 2:11-14:

-- We should think about modesty in a gospel-centered way, not a rule-centered one. In their book Modest: Men and Women Clothed in the Gospel, Tim Challies and R.W. Glenn write, “Modesty apart from the gospel becomes a self-made religion that can give some appearance of being the genuine article but that is in the end of no value (none!) in our battle with the sinful and inordinate desires of our hearts. If we reduce modesty to certain rules of dress, we are completely separating the concept of modesty from the person and work of Jesus Christ.” (Their book was a great help to me in compiling some of these points.)

-- Modesty can vary by situation and culture. What is modest at the pool would not likely be modest in corporate worship. What is modest in corporate worship in America would not be modest in public in Saudi Arabia.

-- Modesty is not just an issue for females. Males can violate modesty by their dress, behavior and words.

-- While Titus 2:11-14 applies to all of life for a follower of Christ, I believe it can be applied in these ways regarding modesty: (1) The grace of God enables and instructs us to embrace modesty. (2) The return of Christ motivates us to embrace modesty. (3) The substitution of Christ sets us apart to embrace modesty.

-- Modesty, based on this passage in Titus, is to be not only gospel-focused but (1) Christ-focused, (2) heart-focused, and (3) service-focused.

-- Pride, ignorance and/or insensitivity can fuel immodesty.

-- Two questions for Christians when considering this issue: (1) Whom do you dress for? (2) Whom have you invited to advise you and hold you accountable in this area?

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Handling disagreements in the church (Part 2)

My first post on handling disagreements within the church focused on two recommendations:

-- Make certain your differences count.

-- Think, listen, speak and act with humility.

You can read that post here.

Here are two more thoughts on how church members should handle disagreements with fellow believers in their fellowship:

3. Seek to understand the other Christian’s beliefs. Some disagreements are based at least in part on misunderstanding. It is both unsettling and unhelpful for a church member to accuse another of believing something that distorts what he truly believes. As Christians, we can become deeply invested emotionally in disapproval of a particular belief. As a result, we sometimes have a difficult time backing down and humbling ourselves when we find out we have falsely accused someone who is in covenant with us in the church. Too often, apologies and requests for forgiveness are not forthcoming. The fellowship between two or more Christians suffers as a result, and so does the church’s health. If we think we disagree with another disciple, we should make certain we understand what he or she actually believes before we go any further. We should go to that person in a non-confrontational, non-judgmental way and kindly ask for clarification, demonstrating we truly want to understand his position. “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves,” (Phil. 2:3).

4. Think and speak charitably. Our attitude, words and behavior should be filled with grace and love while we discern if there is a legitimate disagreement, while we address any disagreement and while we determine what to do in light of a disagreement. Hopefully, we will be able to walk together afterward. Differences over non-essential doctrines should not divide and should be accompanied by a demonstration of one of the marks of true Christianity: “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Differences over essential beliefs may require separation, but they also should be accompanied by love.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Preaching: 'A picture of the gospel'

I am grateful as a pastor when writers communicate eloquently the significance of preaching in the life of a church. David Mathis, executive editor of Desiring God, posted Sunday a profound piece – titled “When Grace Is in the Pulpit” -- on the proclamation of God’s Word and the church’s response to it.

As Mathis points out, preaching is not all there is by any means to corporate worship, but it is a vital part. He writes, “The other elements of the gathering follow the rhythm of receiving from [God] and responding back to him, but in preaching we move into the posture of simply receiving, whether it’s a full half hour or just 15–20 minutes.” Our congregation would add, “Or 45-50 minutes.”

You can read all of the post here, but I have pulled out some of Mathis’ comments below I think might be particularly help for a congregation:
When we put ourselves under the preaching of God’s word, it is one of the precious few moments in life today when we close our mouths, and confront the temptation of responding right away, and focus our energy and attention to hearing with faith.

The act of preaching itself is a picture of the gospel. As the preacher stands behind the Book, doing his level best to re-reveal Jesus to his people, our Lord is put on display, not for give-and-take and the mingling of our efforts together in some mutual enterprise. Rather, we sit in the seat of weakness and desperation. What we need is not some boost from a trusted fellow to get us over the wall, but the rescue of the Savior for the utterly helpless.

The best of preaching serves the worshiper in the joy of self-forgetfulness, and preacher-forgetfulness. Preaching that goes on and on about the preacher himself, or is always angling at how the hearer should apply this or that to daily life, does so at the expense of tapping into the very power of preaching, namely, a preoccupation with Jesus. True Christian preaching swallows up the listener again and again, not with self or the speaker, but with Jesus and his manifold perfections.

The great goal of preaching, as well as the sacraments and the various other spiritual disciplines, is this: knowing and enjoying Jesus. The greatest incentive for attentive listening as we gather for corporate worship and sit under the preaching of God’s word is that we may know him (Philippians 3:10).

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Are we remembering the persecuted saints?

As many as 40,000 of our fellow image-bearers remain stranded atop a mountain in northwest Iraq while we go about what can only be described by most of the world as comfortable, even luxurious, lives. If they remain on the mountain, they face death by dehydration. If they descend the mountain, they face death from Islamic militants.

Most of those stranded are Yazidis, a minority religious group in Iraq. Some reportedly are Christians. They fled to Mount Sinjar as the ruthless forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) neared their homes. Some children and adults already have died from thirst. Some men and women did not escape execution and rape by the extremists.

Tens of thousands of other Iraqis also have become refugees to avoid ISIS’ murderous campaign. The mass exodus of Christians from Iraq – which is more than a decade old -- may be near its end game. An estimated 1.2 million Christians lived in Iraq before Saddam Hussein’s regime fell in 2003. Now fewer than 200,000 remain. ISIS drove all Christians from Mosul, the country’s second largest city, a few weeks ago. The militants are determined to rid the entire land of Christians and other religious minorities.

This is only the latest example of a sobering reality for followers of Christ: To be identified with Jesus is to invite mistreatment, imprisonment, torture and execution. An average of 180 Christians around the world are killed each month for their faith. Christians in more than 60 countries face persecution from their government or neighbors.

In response, we can feel powerless to help the people on Mount Sinjar or our fellow saints in not only Iraq but countries such as Iran, Pakistan, North Korea and Syria. We may viscerally react with grief and disgust at reports of atrocities, but we move on to more immediate concerns in our lives that we acknowledge pale in comparison. We may ask: What can we do?

Last Sunday, one of the young ladies in our church read aloud Heb. 13:3 before we prayed for persecuted Christians and others in need. That verse says, “Remember the prisoners, as though in prison with them, and those who are ill-treated, since you yourselves also are in the body.”

The context appears to indicate the writer is referring here to Christians who are imprisoned or mistreated. Certainly we should defend, care for and pray for any who are threatened or brutalized. But there is a special expectation that we, as followers of Christ, would remember our brothers and sisters in the faith.

How do we remember them? With the assistance of others, I offer these as some ways:

1. To remember a persecuted Christian is first to keep him or her in mind. The oppressed in other countries have testified one of their greatest burdens or fears is they would be forgotten during their suffering. We should not forget those who are enduring affliction on the basis of their identification with the same Savior with whom we are identified.

2. To remember a persecuted Christian is to identify with his or her suffering. Heb. 13:3 says we are to remember prisoners “as though in prison with them.” This verse seems to call for us to think about what it would be like to be a fellow prisoner with that saint. It also says we are to remember the mistreated since we also “are in the body.” That seems to mean we -- who also have a physical body and know something of what it means to be in pain – should identify in our bodies with the suffering of our brother or sister. We should take time to agonize with our fellow saint.

3. To remember a persecuted Christian implies we are to care for, help and tend to the needs of the one who is suffering. If we are near, it can mean visits to prison or caring for the family of the prisoner. If we are far away, it can mean writing or otherwise communicating with our fellow saint.

4. To remember a persecuted Christian is to pray for him or her. We remember that Christian to God. There is nothing greater we can do for a suffering saint than pray for God’s gracious provision in his or her life. We can pray for deliverance from persecution, as well as endurance during it. We can pray for a bold gospel witness by the persecuted and for the breaking up of the hard soil of the heart in the persecutor.

May we remember the persecuted, and may God prepare us for any persecution to come in our own lives.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Handling disagreements in the church (Part 1)

One of the many blessings of having our children become adults is to be able to worship with them and their churches when we visit them in cities far from us. We have been able to experience something of life in the churches they have joined and, in some cases, have come to know their pastors.

Our daughter and her husband have been members of the same church since shortly after they were married in 2005. Because our son is in the Air Force, his wife and he have been part of several churches as they have moved from station to station the last 11 years.

Now, the churches they are members of – another move just took our son and his wife away from their church home – are facing challenges. Disagreements mark both churches, though both are biblically faithful, gospel-focused bodies. The existence of these churches does not appear in question, but they now face the tests brought by divisions among saints.

This news has reminded me how vital it is for a church’s leaders and members to handle disagreements properly. After all, this is about the name of Christ and the witness of His body on earth.

Covenant Community Church knows something of this experience. Our church has experienced some painful differences in the last year. A theological disagreement – one the elders and a majority of members did not believe should divide us – nonetheless resulted in some members removing themselves from the church.

As a pastor, I look back at the departure of members with regret, sometimes realizing I could have handled issues better than I did. There have been times I should have addressed more quickly what appeared to be growing dissatisfaction on the part of some members. In at least some cases, I don’t think there is anything the other elders and I could have done to prevent the separation. I also recognize some members could have handled their concerns better than they did.

How should church members handle disagreements within their fellowship, regardless of the nature of those disagreements? Here are some of several recommendations I plan to share in this post and a sequel:

1. Make certain your differences count. Too many divisions in churches are based on things that really shouldn’t matter. Church members battle over the cosmetic appearance of a building. They fight over what style of music should be used in corporate worship. Members decide their felt needs are not being met. They get their feelings hurt over real or perceived slights. Those issues call for biblically based, grace-filled solutions, not acrimony and division. They also call for servanthood. All members, including elders, must remind themselves their purpose is to serve, not to be served. We are all followers of Jesus, the King of kings who came not to be served but to serve (Mark 10:45). What are issues, when properly understood, that may call for division? Certainly, the gospel and essential biblical doctrine are two of those.

2. Think, listen, speak and act with humility. Though we are saints, we all retain a sin nature that infects all we do. None of us perceives God, His Word or His people perfectly. We should remind ourselves regularly of these limitations as we dwell on how we disagree with other Christians – or think we disagree with other Christians -- and as we begin the process of expressing those disagreements. Disputes and divisions in a spirit of pride can make a recipe for personal disaster – and possibly corporate disaster. The apostle Peter says it well: “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble’” (I Peter 5:5).

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Fatherlessness and the church

'Father/Son A and B' photo (c) 2008, heymarchetti - license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/Sports columns aren't typically known for underscoring the importance of fathers, but then Rick Reilly's final column as a sportswriter wasn't typical. At age 56, the 11-time National Sportswriter of the Year opened his farewell column last week this way:
I am the son of a drunk, a man who was much too concerned with where his next whiskey was coming from than where I was going.

He didn't discipline me. Didn't advise me. Didn't father me. . . . [M]ost of the time he didn't even know where I was. And my trembling mother was much too terrified of him and his sloppy temper slamming home to worry about what I was doing.

So when I got a regular byline in the town paper before my 21st birthday, I was as wild and unruly as the mop of hair on my head. I had a voice and a license to use it, but not one lesson in how. I hurt people just to make a name for myself. Just because I could.

My first beat was the Colorado women's basketball team and I came out slashing. Until, one day, a retired coach named Sox Walseth came up to me. His hair was white, with matching caterpillar eyebrows, and he wore a cardigan. He put a hand on my shoulder and said, "Son, you're not going to get very far writing articles like the one you did today. These people shouldn't have to read the cheap shots you're taking at them. You can do better than this."

I looked right back at him, stuck out my bottom lip, and began to cry.

I was so starved for a father that this man I hardly knew was suddenly thrown into the job. I'm sure he was as confused about what was happening as I was, but he took me to his chest and hugged me.

As I sit here and write my last column as a sports writer, I see now how that moment changed my life.
It brought tears to my eyes as I read it. (That will not suprise my family.) Reilly's account demonstrates once again the kind of power the loving, faithful presence of a father or father figure can have, as well as the kind of power the unloving, faithless absence of a father can have.

A father can be either a bridge or a barrier to understanding God as Heavenly Father. It certainly is true in Christian homes. It seems as if it can be true even in non-Christian homes. It can be true both for sons and daughters.

Reilly's painful experience of the 1960s and 1970s has mushroomed into an epidemic of fatherlessness and father absence in America. An estimated 33 percent of American children live apart from their biological fathers, and that figure is expected to grow to 50 percent by the next century at the current rate. The fallout from this trend is well documented in a number of social indicators.

What does this plague of fatherlessness mean for the church? Well, of course, it is a reminder Christian fathers should be faithful and loving husbands and dads. But it means more than that. It means the adult men in our churches have the opportunity to be spiritual fathers to boys and girls, young men and ladies who have not known the love, acceptance and guidance they longed for from the men whose genetic makeup they share.

This will cost us as Christian men. It will cost the church. But isn't that what it means to be a Christian man? Isn't that what it means to be the church? After all, we follow the God who became man and served us at great cost to Himself. He suffered and died for spiritual orphans who had no loving father. May we die to our own interests and comforts in order to be the kind of father figures who can provide a bridge to our Heavenly Father.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Truth and grace on the transgender issue

'10070031' photo (c) 2012, moodboard - license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/The transgender issue is quickly gaining attention in our culture. I addressed it when I began a preaching series titled "Gender, Sexuality, and the Purpose and Power of God" June 1. The text that morning, Gen. 1:26-27, says God made man -- which refers to human beings not just males -- in His image and closes with these words: "[M]ale and female He created them."

God has not changed. He still makes each of us either male or female. And we are to embrace how He has made us. Yet, as a race infected by sin, some people identify themselves as a gender different than their biological sex. As the transgender movement gains acceptance, increasingly confused children and adults find encouragement to believe they should live as a gender different than that given by God and even to change their bodies to fulfill that identity.

The Southern Baptist Convention, meeting this week in Baltimore, approved the first resolution in its nearly 170-year history specifically on the transgender issue. You can read the entire resolution here. It is a statement filled with both truth and grace:

-- It affirms gender "is determined by biological sex and not by one's self-perception."

-- It expresses "love and compassion" to people who struggle with a conflict between biology and gender identity.

-- It invites all transgender people to trust in Jesus and welcomes them "to our churches and, as they repent and believe in Christ, receive them into church membership."

-- It recognizes transgender people as image-bearers of God and denounces abuse directed toward them.

-- It also opposes efforts to change a person's "bodily identity" by gender reassignment surgery and other treatments.

I made some of the same points near the close of my June 1 sermon. Based on my manuscript, I put it this way:

1. We should not be surprised that such misguided thinking as that of transgender people is found in human beings. They, and we, live in a fallen world where the sin nature blinds us and causes us to believe lies. But we also should not surrender on this reality of Scripture and creation: God has made us male and female.

2. We should not see those who have what is described as a gender identity disorder as mutants or freaks. They, like all other human beings, are made in the image of God.

3. We should love, care for, serve, evangelize -- and hopefully -- disciple them. They, like all other sinners, need the gospel. And once they have received the gospel of Jesus, we should help them see, as Russell Moore has said, that part of repenting and following Jesus is not rebelling against their Creator but accepting the gender they were given by God.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Why we sing in corporate worship

'St Ebbes 11:45 Service' photo (c) 2011, Jimmy and Sasha Reade - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/(Here is an excerpt from a 2012 post on the church's singing in corporate worship.)

Christianity is a singing faith, and for that -- I think -- we should all be thankful. The Bible -- which governs how we worship -- calls for singing by God's people corporately in both the Old and New Testaments.

While more could be listed, here are some reasons Scripture indicates we should sing as a church:

(1) We should sing to give God glory.

"Sing the glory of His name; make His praise glorious" (Ps. 66:2). These commands from the psalmist are to all the earth, so it certainly applies to those who belong to God as His redeemed children. We give him glory in song by declaring how glorious He is and by making our praise of Him glorious.

(2) We should sing to declare God's attributes.

The same verse, Ps. 66:2, conveys this message by speaking of "the glory of His name." God's "name" in Scripture refers to who He is -- in other words, what His nature is, what His attributes are. The psalmist says God's people should make His attributes known in their singing.

(3) We should sing to proclaim the atoning death of Christ.

"And they sang a new song, saying, 'Worthy are You to take the book and to break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth" (Rev. 5:9-10) The apostle John's vision showed those around the throne singing about the blood sacrifice of the Lamb of God and its far-reaching impact. We will sing as one great choir about the cross-work of Jesus one day in Heaven, and we can do it now corporately on earth as the church.

(4) We should sing to instruct and encourage one another.

"Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God" (Col. 3:17). Singing, as the apostle Paul explains, has a discipleship function during corporate worship. As we sing, we act as teachers and encouragers to those with whom we are worshiping. We should recognize our singing is for the building up of our fellow saints, and their singing is for our building up.

(5) We should sing to express our heartfelt affection to God.

In this same verse from Col. 3, Paul says Christians in worship should sing "with thankfulness in your hearts to God." In Eph. 5:19, he says believers are to be "singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord." Singing is a means of expressing ourselves to God. As we sing together corporately, we tell Him of our gratitude for what He has accomplished on our behalf and express to Him joyful affection for who He is and what He has done.

Friday, May 9, 2014

The resurrection and this perilous cultural moment

'Easter Morning 23' photo (c) 2011, Waiting For The Word - license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/We – the church of Christ – celebrated the resurrection of our Lord the Sunday after I last wrote for this blog. That previous post focused on a discussion some of the Covenant Community Church family participated in the prior Sunday evening regarding the cultural moment we find ourselves in. It is a time of growing intolerance for the biblical view of marriage and for the freedom to express that view.

In the days since that post and Easter, I have thought about what the resurrection of Jesus has to do with how we approach the issue of society’s redefinition of marriage. My conclusion? It has a lot to do with it.

By God’s providence, I reached on Easter in my preaching series through I Corinthians that great chapter on the Resurrection, Chapter 15. I preached on the first 19 verses of that chapter on Easter Sunday. I plan to cover the remainder of the chapter this Sunday.

In I Cor. 15, the apostle Paul explains the indispensability of the resurrection. There is no gospel and there is no salvation without Jesus rising from the grave, he says. Paul continues through 58 verses informing the believers in Corinth about the significance and details of Christ’s resurrection and theirs. He points to the Lordship of Jesus over all things, including death.

Paul closes this magnificent and encouraging chapter by saying in the final verse: “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord.”

Those are encouraging words for those who trust in a resurrected Lord and believe in the future resurrection of the body. In fact, we might call them “marching orders.”

After providing the most extensive biblical teaching on the resurrection, Paul urges his readers – saints whom he dearly loves – to not back down. Based on what he has written in the first 57 verses, he tells them to continue doing what they are doing. He exhorts them to remain faithful in doing what Christ has ordained for them to do.

How can Paul say this to those who were in a perilous cultural moment in the First Century and those who are in a perilous cultural moment in the 21st Century? He can say this because the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth actually happened and our resurrection will actually happen. The resurrection of Christ changes everything for us. We no longer need fear anything, including persecution from a culture that opposes our beliefs. He also can say this because our work in His behalf – not to gain God’s acceptance but to live out the acceptance He has already granted us through the righteousness of His Son – will not be “in vain.”

To say our “toil is not in vain” is not to say we will see the fruit of those labors quickly or even in our lifetimes. But God’s words promise our labor will not be "in vain." For all who are in Christ, we can live with this assurance: Our toil on behalf of Christ and His gospel – a gospel that necessarily includes the resurrection – will be worthwhile. May we stand strong in this cultural moment with that certainty.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A hope for the church in this perilous cultural moment

I had the privilege of doing something with some of my brothers and sisters Sunday evening I think we increasingly will be doing in the months and years ahead.

By way of explanation, I will quote a tiny segment from the "The Lord of the Rings" movie trilogy. In "Fellowship of the Ring," the band of nine are waiting in the mines of Moria for Gandalf to discern what direction to take when Frodo -- bearing the burden of seeking to destroy the One Ring -- tells him, “I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.”

Gandalf responds, “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in this world Frodo besides that of evil. Bilbo was meant to find the ring. In which case, you also were meant to have it, and that is an encouraging thought."

So it is for all who name the name of Christ today. We live during a time we would never choose for ourselves and our descendants -- a time of grievous sin and growing hostility, a time seemingly unprecedented in America for its attacks on the meaning of marriage and the freedom to practice religious faith. Yet, as with many saints of the past who have lived in such perilous times, we can say with certainty God has chosen this time for us and us for this time.

That is why gatherings like ours Sunday evening -- when 16 of us in the same church discussed our concerns for this cultural moment, encouraged one another and exhorted one another -- will be increasingly important in the days ahead. We appear to be in the early stages of a time when hostility, and likely persecution, will be experienced widely by those who follow Jesus. Some disciples will experience it more personally, often because of their line of work. But all of us will live with the reality that what we know to be true about marriage -- and, as a consequence, the gospel and the Word of God -- are no longer welcome by many, if not most, of our fellow Americans. And a disapproving government will likely wield its power against us.

As a result, I believe the church and its regular gatherings will become in reality in our hearts and minds what Jesus died to make it -- a community of the cross, a fellowship of the redeemed. If so, we will see the demarcation between the church and the world more clearly than ever before. We will prize the church as the body of Christ more than ever before. We will value the gathering of the family of God more than ever before. We will see each opportunity to be together as a time of refreshment and revitalization amid what may be consistent torment or even suffering. And we will walk together in love with our brothers and sisters for the building up of one another, for the cause of the gospel and for the glory of God.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Invisible God in a visual medium: 'The Fellowship of the Ring'

The film trilogy of "The Lord of the Rings" includes no explicit reference to God. Yet, it is possible to sense the divine providence that pervades it and to perceive the portrayals by different characters of Jesus' offices of prophet, priest and king that mark it. Of course, the world view of J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of the three-volume work, helps viewers be prepared for such biblical themes in the films.

One scene eloquently points to providence -- a providence we, as Christians, understand is that of the sovereign God. It occurs in the first movie, "The Fellowship of the Ring," when Frodo Baggins and his eight companions find themselves in the Mines of Moria. While they wait for Gandalf to discern which tunnel to take, Frodo and the wizard talk about the purpose in Gollum's continuing existence and the providence in the hobbit bearing the weight of the One Ring. Here is that clip in the next segment of this series, "Invisible God in a visual medium."

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Thoughts on the World Vision developments

'10/06/2009 - Lucky' photo (c) 2009, Phil Wiffen - license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/Yesterday's quick and contrite reversal by World Vision U.S. on its new same-sex marriage policy proved to be welcome news for most of those who identify themselves as evangelical Christians. Only two days after announcing it would hire people in same-sex marriages, the relief organization resorted to its previous policy after widespread opposition from influential evangelical leaders and, undoubtedly, sponsors. Its president and chairman said the board had made a terrible mistake and asked for forgiveness. As forgiven people, evangelicals should extend forgiveness to World Vision and pray for it and other Christian organizations to remain faithful to Scripture.

While we can rejoice in the ability to move forward regarding this incident, here are a few thoughts on this week's developments that are by no means exhaustive:

-- This was, and is, important. It is not just a minor annoyance when a Christian organization finds as acceptable sexual relations outside the covenant relationship designed by God. In its initial decision, World Vision showed a misunderstanding of or departure from the gospel and the authority of Scripture, the latter which the board acknowledged in its letter seeking forgiveness. It is difficult to understand how the board could think it would not encounter the widespread opposition that greeted its acceptance of same-sex marriage among employees.

-- To oppose World Vision's acceptance of same-sex marriage was, and is, not to betray needy children. Some bloggers who seemingly identify themselves as evangelicals sharply criticized at least some evangelicals who wrote posts taking issue with World Vision's initial policy change. These critics seemed to indicate the biblical admonitions to feed the hungry absolutely trump the biblical admonitions to reserve sex for true marriage. They made it sound as if the bloggers who disagreed with World Vision cared little for the destitute but much for targeting gays and lesbians. Yet, the blogs I read -- by such evangelical leaders as John Piper, Al Mohler, Russell Moore and Kevin DeYoung -- demonstrated graciousness and heavy-heartedness, as well as truthfulness and biblical faithfulness. As some of these blogs pointed out, how faithful are evangelicals to God and how much good are they doing if they relieve suffering in this life but approve policies that tell sinners they are okay to continue in practices the Bible says are indications they will suffer eternally if they do not repent?

-- To withdraw support from World Vision is not necessarily to withdraw support from evangelical relief and witness. World Vision is the best known of the international evangelical relief organizations -- kind of the 800-pound gorilla in the field. It is not the only one. That seemed to be the implication, however, from some who criticized those who disagreed with World Vision's original policy change. Compassion International and Food for the Hungry come quickly to mind. Singer Shaun Groves, who works with Compassion, provides what appears to be a balanced explanation of the difference between Compassion and World Vision in which he says, "Compassion always works through the local church to develop one child at a time into an adult who can transform their community some day. World Vision, sometimes in partnership with local churches, develops communities in a way that positively impacts the lives of children." You can read his explanation of the differences -- and he expresses support for World Vision -- here. Included in his post is a video by World Vision explaining its work.

-- This is about the gospel of Jesus. Several bloggers made this point eloquently after World Vision announced its original policy change. Piper explained it this way: "Make no mistake, this so-called 'neutral' position of World Vision is a position to regard practicing homosexuals (under the guise of an imaginary 'marriage') as following an acceptable Christian lifestyle. . . . Over against this, the apostle Paul says they will not enter the kingdom of heaven. It is that serious. If it were not, God would not have given his Son to be crucified for our rescue. Therefore, World Vision has trivialized perdition and the cross."

-- This is not the end. Hopefully, it will be for World Vision. Having humbly corrected its error, the World Vision board may be cured permanently from considering such an action. But we live in a culture where same-sex marriage has made stunning gains in the last nine months in courts, legislatures and public opinion. The pressure continues to mount for Christians to acquiesce to the spirit of the age rather than stand strong against the cultural winds. Christians, churches and evangelical organizations face a growing outpouring of human contempt and, likely, government sanction without obeisance. May we not bow before these or any other pretenders to the throne of God.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Invisible God in a visual medium: 'Chariots of Fire'

Portraying God, His work or His gospel on film appropriately and effectively seems to be a tricky proposition.

For instance, how do you portray the one true God, who is invisible, in a visual medium? Only with movies about the God-man, Jesus?

How do you portray God's attributes? Only in nature?

How do you present the gospel in a visual medium when it requires words to explain the gospel? Even movies that portray the life, death and resurrection of Christ, which is at the heart of the gospel, may not explain all of the gospel -- such as what those works of Jesus accomplished, the sinfulness of mankind and the saving gift of God through repentance and faith? Do you depend on dialogue only to do so in a medium that is first and foremost visual?

How do you show the mysterious work of God in a person's inner being?

I think the challenges can be partly met, but flawed attempts litter the celluloid landscape. Some rely on the verbal to a fault in a visual medium. Some come off as heavy handed or preachy. Some try to wrap everything up in a tidy package with a beautiful bow on top, as if Christianity is some American version of the health, wealth and prosperity gospel. Some are too cautious and leave the viewer confused about the meaning.

I believe some directors and writers have succeeded -- maybe not for an entire movie but at least in profound and significant segments. Some have succeeded without being Christians. I post today a sequence that I believe succeeds. It may turn out to be the first in a periodic series I am labeling: "Invisible God in a visual medium."

"Chariots of Fire" is one of the movies I thinks succeeds in some powerful ways in meeting the challenge. Based on a true story, the Academy Award winner for Best Picture of 1981 focuses on two British sprinters preparing for the 1924 Olympics. One is Eric Liddell, a strong Christian who went on to serve as a faithful missionary, dying in China as a prisoner during World War II. The film eloquently shows his determination to live in obedience to God -- in this case by not competing on Sunday.

The two-minute-plus clip below is not only my favorite sequence in "Chariots of Fire," but it is my favorite sequence in any movie I have ever seen. As Liddell reads portions of Isaiah 40 before his sermon in a Paris church, the film juxtaposes the description of God's sovereignty with the weakness of Liddell's teammates who are competing on Sunday. It is a profound cinematic portrayal of God's greatness, man's frailty and His Word's power.