Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Perseverance of the saints: We're in it together

Christian perseverance is a community project, not a solo effort.

Perseverance is on the minds of many evangelical Christians in the wake of the recently announced departures from the faith by a couple of high-profile, professing Christians. Their apparent rejection of Christ and the faith offers an opportunity for us to make sure we are taking advantage of the means God has given to help us endure to the end. We face fierce opposition to our endurance, but we are not unarmed.

One of those means is the Bible. We must continue to trust the inerrancy, authority and sufficiency of Scripture. We should rehearse the promises of God in His Word. We also have the gospel. We should remind ourselves of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus -- and the standing we now have as a result. We have the Holy Spirit dwelling within us. We need to rely upon and obey Him. We have the example of Christ, who endured the cross "for the joy that was set before him" (Hebrews 12:2).

So the church is not the only God-given means for our perseverance, but it is an indispensable one.

Our brothers and sisters in Christ -- especially those whom we are in covenant with in a local church -- are gifts to help us endure. And you and I are gifts to help them endure.

The writer of Hebrews tells us, "[E]xhort one another every day, as long as it is called 'today,' that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin" (Hebrews 3:13). The purpose of our exhortations of each other is to avoid being "hardened by the deceitfulness of sin." Sin would deceive us and produce hardened hearts toward God. Exhortations to and from brothers and sisters can help keep us from abandoning the family.

Worshiping together also is a way we help others and receive help from others to endure. In the same letter, the writer says, "And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near" (Hebrews 10:24-25). Encouragement happens in community. Corporate worship helps us persevere.

Also in Hebrews, the writer tells the Christians, "See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God" or, as the New American Standard Bible says, "See to it that no one comes short of the grace of God" (Hebrews 12:15). We have a God-given responsibility to help one another endure until the race is finished.

So let's encourage one another. Let's show up for one another. Let's leave no one behind.

-- Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Monday, August 12, 2019

Restating the obvious on human dignity

Sometimes the church must restate the obvious.

Right now, one of those necessary restatements is the truth about humanity: Every human being is an image bearer of God. No exceptions.

The foundational declaration about the creation of man and woman in the Word of God says so: "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them" (Genesis 1:27).

Our church's Confession of Faith affirms so: "Each human being, as an image bearer of God, is worthy of respect and protection at every stage and condition from conception until natural death."

The church of Jesus Christ should lead the way in proclaiming this vital truth about all human beings. It is not just a declaration to be offered by political conservatives who oppose abortion. It is not just a declaration to be offered by political progressives who oppose discrimination against minorities.

We -- as the true church -- should boldly assert this reality no matter the context. Within the church, our policy positions on a variety of issues may differ, but our defense of the dignity of every human being should not waver.

Lately in the news, the victims of unbiblical views of humanity -- considered by their victimizers lives not worth respecting or protecting -- have included Hispanics, sex-trafficked girls, and babies unborn and newly born. And there are many more in our world.

Against these wicked, ungodly ideologies and acts the church must proclaim again: Every human being is an image bearer of God. No exceptions.

-- Photo by Nathan Anderson on Unsplash

Friday, July 26, 2019

Health care in the New Testament church

Spending time in a hospital this week has provided some lessons regarding life as the church of Jesus.

We received word Sunday evening Linda's mother had suffered a heart attack, and we headed out Monday morning by car for Arkansas. Since arriving Tuesday afternoon, much of our time has been spent in the hospital with this woman whom we love.

This time has offered not only the opportunity to visit with her, as well as family and friends who have come to see her, but to interact with a litany of health-care workers. Multiple doctors, nurses and aides have entered her room -- and our lives -- as they seek to serve her and to help her recover. God has blessed us with the opportunity to engage with them and to visit at length with some.

Their care for our loved one has reminded me of what life is like in the body of Christ.

Just as these professionals seek to help those who are ailing physically, those who belong to the true church endeavor to help those who are sick spiritually. We seek to provide the remedy everyone needs -- the gospel of Jesus. We seek to come alongside others in the church and help them by direct or indirect means to diagnose why they are unhealthy. We seek to provide others with doses of truth and grace to gain healing and to recover from the infirmities of sin.

At least one difference exists in the analogy. Those of us who are doing spiritual health-care work in the church are patients at the same time.

All of us need our fellow saints in the church to help us become or remain spiritually healthy. We need others to provide spiritual health care to us, and they need us to offer the same kind of spiritual health care to them.

Jesus said in Mark 2:17, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

He is indeed the Great Physician, but we -- the sick who have been healed eternally -- are spiritual health-care providers on His behalf and in His power. We need to extend and receive this care in our lives together.

-- Photo by Alex wong on Unsplash

Thursday, July 18, 2019

A season for lament

Lament is good. Sometimes, lament is necessary.

I am thankful lament to God is a biblical virtue, because I am living with it right now. In some ways, it is a season for ongoing lament.

Many reasons for lament exist regarding realities outside the church -- the proliferation of evil in multiple forms, the desecration of the image of God in human beings at various stages of life, the distortion of God's design for marriage and sexuality, the corrosiveness of public discourse, as well as the suffering and lostness of loved ones.

But there are reasons also for lament based on what is happening within the church. And those are especially my basis for lament at this time. Last night, a sadness enveloped me after I read news reports and social media posts from those outside our fellowship that reflected the attitudes of some conservative Christians.

For me, here are some reasons for lament regarding the wider evangelical and Reformed church:

-- The racial insensitivity, maybe racism, of some who appear unwilling to listen to the viewpoints and experiences of brothers and sisters of different ethnicities and skin colors.

-- The mind-set of some who seem to believe a woman's value is based solely on her roles as a wife and mother. (This has nothing to do with female preachers or elders, notions I believe to be unbiblical.)

-- The caustic, prideful rhetoric of some who apparently would rather conquer fellow Christians than communicate with them lovingly as evidence of the power of the gospel.

And that is not to mention such causes for lament as the departure from Christian doctrine and the failure to keep marriage vows that mark some in the church.

I invite you to lament with me. It is biblical, as numerous psalms testify. And it speaks to important truths about the One we worship. Former professor and now pastor David Gundersen put it this way: "[L]amenting to God implies belief in his listening ear, his fatherly care, and his sovereign power."

Let's lament our sins and the sins of others, and let's place our hope in the God who transforms hearts and minds.

-- Photo by Ian Espinosa on Unsplash

Friday, June 14, 2019

Are you growing from the gift of listening?

The New Testament doesn't name listening as a spiritual gift, but it's a gift we can, and should, give one another. And truly listening to one another could remedy much of the divisive rhetoric prevalent among evangelical Christians.

The Bible affirms the value of listening. James writes, "Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger" (James 1:19). The Old Testament also warns against a person's desire only to speak his or her mind and not to listen to understand another: "A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion" (Proverbs 18:2).

Even the commonly held wisdom of humanity speaks to the importance of listening. You may have heard a version of a saying that apparently goes back more than 2,000 years: "We have two ears and one tongue so that we would listen more and talk less."

Despite this truth, my pride longs to make sure another person hears and understands my views -- even to the extent of focusing on what I will say next while he or she is speaking -- instead of making sure I understand that person's views. Regrettably, we have far too many social-media examples of Christians who are committed to expressing the opinions they hold with their tribes but not to listening closely to brothers and sisters who have different views on secondary matters they also believe are biblically based.

When we truly listen to another person, we are saying something important:

-- Listening tells another person, "I value you and your views."

-- Listening tells another person, "I can learn from you."

-- Listening tells another person, "I want to understand you and your views."

-- Listening tells another person, "I care about you."

-- Listening tells another person, "I want to be invited into your world."

Brothers and sisters, may we cultivate and prize listening that we might grow in our understanding, that we might demonstrate love, that we might foster unity and peace, that we might display the centrality of the gospel, and that we might glorify God together.

-- Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

Friday, June 7, 2019

Does our rhetoric pass the grace and love tests?

The fruit of the Spirit is not uncharitableness, unkindness, unwillingness to listen to others' viewpoints. It just appears some evangelical Christians think they are entitled to act as if they are -- especially on social media.

Maybe you have made the same observation this week and in recent weeks even if you are an infrequent visitor to Twitter. The unhelpful rhetoric -- sometimes from both sides -- has accompanied such issues as women in ministry, social or racial justice, and a pastor praying for the president while seeking to protect his church's unity in Christ. Some pastors, ministry and institutional leaders, and other Christians act as if they have a corner on truth, even in secondary matters, that qualifies them to take no prisoners and even speak crassly when they voice the positions they confidently hold.

And this kind of dialogue -- or monologue, really -- can happen in a church as well. We should all guard against the temptation to communicate this way in person or on social media for at least these reasons:

-- It doesn't reflect the grace of God or of His gospel (Ephesians 2:4-9).

-- It grieves the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30).

-- It shows a lack of love for other Christians, thereby failing to obey Christ's command, to provide evidence of our salvation and to demonstrate what God's love is like (John 15:12, I John 4:7-12).

-- It unnecessarily divides the church over secondary matters (Ephesians 4:1-6).

-- It undermines the witness of the church (John 13:35).

When we communicate -- even the truth -- with a lack of grace, love and humility, we should be grieved. It matters not only what we say but how we say it.

May we address our differences over secondary issues with brothers and sisters by repenting of our pride, humbling ourselves, prizing Jesus and His church over our perspectives and communicating with a desire to understand another's point of view.

-- Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

Friday, May 31, 2019

Sinful choices and collateral damage

A Christian may ponder the cost to himself of choosing sin and foolishly decide it's worth the price. But how often does a Christian ponder the cost to others of choosing sin? How often does a Christian consider the collateral damage from his proud, rebellious, self-serving decision to sin?

The ones who become collateral damage may be a spouse, children, friends and even an entire church.

When the subject of King David's sin is raised, our minds likely go immediately to his use of Bathsheba to satisfy his selfish desires and his murderous disposal of her husband, Uriah. Certainly, there was collateral damage from those sinful choices. But David's decision to sin later in life resulted in far more collateral damage among God's people. As described in II Samuel 24, he decided to number the people. Joab, Israel's military commander, urged the king not to take a census, but David would not listen. The result of his sin against God? The deaths of 70,000 Israelites.

When professing Christians decide premeditatively after lengthy consideration to sin against a holy God and to reject the warnings of Scripture and those who love them, they often have already formulated rationales for why they would be justified in taking such action. You may have heard many such justifications. Here are some, each followed by what I believe to be a biblically based response that I would hope a person who hears it would heed:

"I deserve to be happy."

Actually, the only thing you -- and I -- deserve is eternal condemnation. Anything short of that is God's lavish mercy. If you don't receive what you deserve, it will be purely because of the free grace of God.

"I have to live out my truth."

Actually, if your truth doesn't match God's truth, then it's an untruth.

"I have to be authentic, because this is just who I am."

Actually, if you have been clothed with the righteousness of Christ, it is not just who you are. You are deceiving yourself.

"My family and my church will be okay."

Actually, they might be okay ultimately, but it will be in spite of your sin, not because of it. It is only because God's grace to the downtrodden is so abundant that anyone devastated by your sin will be okay.

"God will forgive me."

Actually, you are presuming upon God and His grace. Even God the Son did not do that. He warned against such presumption when He rejected one of Satan's temptations by saying, "You shall not put the Lord your God to the test" (Matthew 4:7). And if you don't want to obey God now, what assurance do you have you will want to repent and seek forgiveness some day in the future?

Oh, may God grant us grace to obey Him, reject the Tempter's snare, flee fleshly desires, trust Jesus and think of others before ourselves that they might not become collateral damage.

-- Photo by Anh Nguyen on Unsplash

Friday, May 24, 2019

Thoughts on the social justice statement (Part 4)

Let me get right to the primary point of the final post in this series -- "The Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel" would have profited from a different approach.

It would have been much better if the statement had not been just a list of affirmations and denials. It would have been much better if, instead, the original signers had produced a document that interacted with the ideas of other equally Bible-based and equally gospel-focused brothers and sisters who approach some of the issues at hand in different ways. It would have been much better if, instead, they had produced a piece that acknowledged and dealt with America's centuries-long history of slavery, subjugation, segregation or discrimination in light of the gospel of Jesus.

Of course, that approach would have been more complicated. It would have taken more time. It would have required listening to and talking to fellow saints who offered different insights. It might have called for a public symposium and a document that outlined the areas of agreement and disagreement. It would have cost more.

But it would have been worth it on this issue. Such an approach and document would have provided a greater benefit to the church in America and a more winsome witness to those outside the church in America. A process focused on truth while marked by grace and love -- as well as a document that represents views on all sides charitably -- could have offered an antidote to the harshness and unkindness that marks too much of the online communication by evangelicals.

Maybe the original signers sought to do this very thing, but the explanation in the social justice statement about its origin does not mention such an effort.

Yes, my suggestion sounds naive and idealistic, maybe even foolish. But our Lord came "full of grace and truth" (John 1:14), and we are to be like Him. And the message we proclaim is foolishness to the world (I Corinthians 1:18-25), and we are to expect some charges of foolishness -- even if they come from within evangelicalism. Shouldn't we strive not just to speak the truth but to do it graciously by reaching out to those with a common commitment to Scripture and the gospel and by seeking to understand and to represent others' viewpoints accurately no matter what side they are on?

It would have helped at this moment in time to have a document that not only strongly defends the gospel, which is vital, but also addresses with clarity the implications of that gospel for the church in a country that has long struggled with achieving justice for the vulnerable and marginalized. It would have helped to have a document that provides guidance on how the gospel enables us to love our neighbors publicly and informs our attitude and actions regarding injustice toward ethnic minorities, the unborn, the disabled, the terminally ill and beleaguered refugees.

Maybe that document will yet come from followers of Christ who are at this time on opposite sides of the social justice debate.

-- Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Friday, May 17, 2019

Thoughts on the social justice statement (Part 3)

Memory is vital, and I speak as one whose memory is more fallible than ever before. "The Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel" could have brought to remembrance some history and benefited as a result. Instead, it did not, and it lacks historical context on a subject that cries out for it.

First, I acknowledge the format the original signers chose for their statement may not lend itself to calling on specific memories. It's intended to be a theological statement, apparently without reference to a particular society's history. That is a reason this kind of statement falls short in my estimation. Such a document in another form would have been more beneficial to the church of Jesus.

But given the format chosen, it would have been much better if the statement somehow had included an acknowledgment that many Americans who have confessed Christ and have understood and proclaimed His gospel have fallen far short in their perspectives and practices regarding other image bearers of God, notably African Americans and Native Americans.

In its article on the church, the statement says, "We affirm that when the primacy of the gospel is maintained that this often has a positive effect on the culture in which various societal ills are mollified." And it often has a "positive effect" on Christians who have previously held racist attitudes and practiced racism. But often in the last 400 years those who have known and believed the gospel have failed to demonstrate it was having a "positive effect" on their treatment of people of other ethnicities.

Some gospel-professing, gospel-proclaiming people owned slaves and contended for slavery's long-term protection as an institution in this country. Some gospel-professing, gospel-proclaiming people embraced segregation and the Jim Crow era of the South that subjugated black Americans. Some gospel-professing, gospel-proclaiming people express little, if any, concern today that people of different ethnicities than their own face different, even unequal, treatment.

And we don't have the luxury of saying these transgressions are limited to Christians who lacked either a biblical understanding of the gospel or a firm grasp on the meaning of Scripture. No, the example of Jonathan Edwards won't let us make that sweeping claim.

Edwards -- considered possibly American history's leading evangelical theologian -- preached and wrote as a pastor in Massachusetts during the Great Awakening in the first half of the 18th Century. He owned several slaves in his lifetime. Although Edwards eventually denounced the African slave trade, evidence points to the likelihood that a teenage girl he bought from a slave ship captain in Newport, R.I., was a product of that trans-Atlantic trafficking. He also went so far as to defend slavery and another slave-owning pastor in Massachusetts against church members' criticism though the pastor opposed the revival in New England of which Edwards was a leading figure. (I am indebted to one of our church's members for guiding me to this information.)

The reality is some Christians who are right on the gospel have been wrong -- and some may be wrong today -- on justice for fellow image bearers based on their ethnicity. A statement on social justice and the gospel would have been wise to acknowledge this truth. Doing so also would have signaled a gracious, humble willingness by the signers to reach out to and to seek to understand those among their brothers and sisters who hold differing viewpoints.

-- Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Friday, May 10, 2019

Thoughts on the social justice statement (Part 2)

The original signers of "The Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel" make clear in the introduction their desire is "to clarify certain key Christian doctrines and ethical principles prescribed in God’s Word." They profess they count it a privilege to defend the gospel of Jesus -- as should all who have been redeemed by the only Savior.

As I said in my first post on the statement, its affirmation of the gospel is a particularly well-stated expression of biblical truth worthy of commendation.

And yet part of the article on the gospel offers another case -- like the introduction and article on Scripture -- in which readers can potentially and mistakenly surmise all those with whom the signers disagree have moved away from biblical truth.

The denial portion of the article on the gospel says: "WE DENY that anything else, whether works to be performed or opinions to be held, can be added to the gospel without perverting it into another gospel. This also means that implications and applications of the gospel, such as the obligation to live justly in the world, though legitimate and important in their own right, are not definitional components of the gospel."

Agreed, but does this mean all those who hold a different position on social justice have either perverted the gospel or made living justly in society one of the "definitional components of the gospel?" No, that is not my observation.

It's not difficult to figure out the identities of some of the evangelical leaders and teachers this statement is a response to. Certainly, there are some in the social justice movement who do not adhere to a biblical definition of the gospel, but many of those who differ with this statement's signers on social justice are just as sound as they are on what the gospel is.

I have listened to messages and read posts by some of the teachers in question, and they are faithfully focusing on the gospel and not adding to its meaning. They see the application of the gospel to cross-ethnic relations in a country historically plagued by slavery and still plagued by racism. And it's hard not to see the gospel implication and application when you read Ephesians 2. After the great teaching on the gospel of grace in verses 1 to 9, the apostle Paul explains Christ not only reconciled Jews and Gentiles -- those who had been at enmity -- to God through the cross but "made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall" (Ephesians 2:14).

My hope is we, as evangelicals, can declare our theological positions without -- even unintentionally -- giving the wrong impressions about the positions of brothers and sisters. But maybe the kind of document "The Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel" is does not lend itself well to such a goal. Maybe this kind of statement was not the best approach to help the church on this issue. I plan to say more about that later.

-- Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Friday, May 3, 2019

Thoughts on the social justice statement (Part 1)

A pastor sometimes goes through a process of deciding how much attention, if any, to give an issue that has arisen in the culture or the wider church. Such has been the case for me with “The Statement on Social Justice & the Gospel” issued in September.

I chose not to read it or to read about it – other than one or two news stories, as I recall – when it was released. I maintained that position for the next several months, seeking to avoid reading defenses or criticisms of the document. I didn’t discount the possibility I would read and comment on it. I just didn’t know if or when I would conclude I should do so in an attempt to help our church.

Meanwhile, I was made aware some in our church were discussing the statement. One or two members asked me about it. Finally, I decided I should read the statement and blog in response. Not too long after that decision, one of the men in our church suggested it was time that it be addressed within the church. I agreed.

This is the first of multiple posts on the statement, because I want to avoid a long article that addresses everything I want to say but is overwhelming to a reader. I plan to comment in these posts only on the statement itself, not on the larger debate about social justice or what has been said from any parties since it became public. I also acknowledge what I will write will fall far short of everything that could be said about the statement.

Bible teacher and pastor John MacArthur is the best known of the 13 initial signers of the statement. Other original signatories include Voddie Baucham, James White of Alpha and Omega Ministries and Tom Ascol of Founders Ministries.

In general, statements to clarify biblical teaching and Christian doctrine can be important and helpful to the church. This statement says a great deal I can affirm and any Christian should be able to endorse. For instance, its affirmations in particular of Scripture’s authority, the dignity of humanity, the gospel of Jesus, and marriage and sexuality are well-stated expressions of biblical truth and should be commended.

Some shortcomings exist in the statement from my perspective, however.

For one, it lacks precision, most notably in the introduction and first article, which is on Scripture. While this is likely not the statement’s most significant shortcoming, it should not be bypassed.

The statement doesn’t seek to define or explain “social justice,” the reason for its existence in the first place. Admittedly, it might be difficult to define. In the introduction, the statement uses the phrase “broad and somewhat nebulous” to refer to the concern about social justice.

While the statement addresses such subjects as marriage, sexuality and complementarianism, it primarily appears to be about ethnicity. And in this country, that largely means the 400-year-old relationship among black and white Americans brought about by the slave trade.

Without a definition, how are we to think about what the signers are talking about when they address “social justice?” Does it mean any more than justice in a society? Or does it refer in their minds just to the social justice movement and the wrong ideologies they see promoted within it? In their minds, does it encompass issues beyond ethnic relations? Justice for the unborn? Justice for the trafficked?

The decision not to explain “social justice” was undoubtedly purposeful. Maybe the signers felt no need to do so and chose not to wander into what they might consider “the weeds,” instead addressing justice positively and negatively in the article on that topic.

The lack of precision is more of a concern in how they handle the ideologies and people they seek to correct. Certainly, non-Christian and sub-biblical concepts are expressed in the name of social justice by those who are not gospel-centered believers. But the signers are not addressing those parties.

They say in the introduction they grieve to be “taking a stand against the positions of some teachers whom we have long regarded as faithful and trustworthy spiritual guides. It is our earnest prayer that our brothers and sisters will stand firm on the gospel and avoid being blown to and fro by every cultural trend that seeks to move the Church of Christ off course.”

Earlier in the introduction, they speak of “questionable sociological, psychological, and political theories” that are “making inroads into Christ’s church.” In the first article of the statement, they say, “[W]e deny that the postmodern ideologies derived from intersectionality, radical feminism, and critical race theory are consistent with biblical teaching.”

Are they saying the Christians they disagree with are devotees of questionable ideologies, including intersectionality and critical race theory, and not living under and guided by the authority of the Bible while they come to different positions on this issue?

It would not be a leap of logic to think some Christians reading the statement would assume so. Or they might conclude any Christian leader, pastor or fellow saint who has not signed the statement has adopted a misguided view cut off from Scripture.

Either would be unfortunate.

-- Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Friday, April 5, 2019

Some reasons we sing in corporate worship

(This slightly edited post was first published May 15, 2014, and was an excerpt from a 2012 post.)

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

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.

-- Photo by Sarah Noltner on Unsplash

Friday, March 22, 2019

The goodness of lament and the God who listens

(This post has been slightly edited since its first publication March 23, 2017.)

"How long, O LORD?" It's the cry of David in Psalm 13:1. It's the cry of other biblical writers as well. It's the cry of those who continue to await God's help or see the flourishing of the wicked, among other reasons.

It's lament.

Lament is not exalted as a virtue in a Christian culture that instead magnifies Your Best Life Now and so many other unbiblical, unhelpful emphases that mark the prosperity gospel and therapeutic faith of our day. Yet, it's a biblical, virtuous practice. It's a practice it would be helpful to adopt if we would follow the example of the people of God described in Scripture.

In our small church, we have people who can lament with good cause. The reasons are manifold: The lostness of loved ones. Physical affliction. The departure from biblical faith and/or morality of family or friends. Infertility. The suffering of family members. The burdens borne by a parent or child. The crimes against humanity we are all witnesses to.

Many of the psalms of the Bible are marked by lament. As such, they provide insight into why lament is good, says David Gundersen, lead pastor of BridgePoint Bible Church in Houston and formerly associate professor of biblical counseling at Boyce College in Louisville, Ky. In a blog post in September 2016, Gundersen wrote:
If the Psalms of Israel teach us anything, they teach us that we are sinful, that life is broken, that hardship abounds, and that the greater David who’s coming (through all his travail and tribulations) to establish his everlasting kingdom is still to come. On these grounds, and many others, they teach us that it’s good — not just OK — to lament. Because if we’re singing in the rain, the melody should often match the weather.

In this way, the Psalms show us a powerful reversal of the way we typically think about lament. We often assume that lament implies doubt. But in truth, lament is actually an act of faith. The person to whom you complain is the person you trust. Sometimes we complain to people because we know they’ll listen. Sometimes we complain to people because we know they’ll care. And sometimes we complain to people because we know they can help.

If all of this is true, then our conception of lament gets turned on its head, and we must boldly acknowledge a new reality: Psalmic complaint is a form of trust, because lamenting to God implies belief in his listening ear, his fatherly care, and his sovereign power.
May we lament with the knowledge we have a Father whom we can trust.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Are you encouraging others to endure to the end?

You -- if you are a follower of Jesus -- are God's gift to others as they seek to endure to the end in the Christian faith.

It's true. Indeed, God is the One who keeps us secure for eternity after He saves us through the blood of His Son, but He also has made the encouragement we offer a gracious means to that end for our brothers and sisters. Encouragement is not flashy. It typically doesn't draw attention to itself. It doesn't seem to be highly coveted among Christians. But it is one of the most important ministries in a church. It can even be vital to finishing the race set before us.

The letter to the Hebrews carries a particular focus on the perseverance of the saints. In it, we see the significance of encouragement in that process.

For instance, the writer of Hebrews says, "[E]ncourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called 'Today,' so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin" (Hebrews 3:13).

In this admonition, we find we all are to encourage -- or exhort, as it also can be translated -- each other habitually ("day after day") and punctually ("as long as it is still called 'Today'"). The purpose of our encouragement is so none of us "will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” Encouragement can help protect us from the effect of sin's duplicity.

Later in the letter, the writer again calls for the saints to encourage one another. Based on Christ ushering us into the presence of God and serving as our priest, we are to "consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near" (Hebrews 10:24-25).

Our encouragement is to be planned ("consider how"). We each should ask ourselves: How can I motivate others in their love and good works?

One way we do this is by gathering together with them. Corporate worship -- "not forsaking our own assembling together" -- serves as a means to encourage others. Presence produces encouragement. Absence negates encouragement, at least on that occasion and in that setting. When we meet as the church, we have the opportunity to encourage not only by our presence but by our words. Encouragement certainly takes place outside corporate worship, but we are thinking unbiblically if we minimize the encouragement that occurs in corporate worship.

In our church's corporate worship, encouragement can occur when we sing loudly enough for others to hear, when we offer praises to God aloud, when we express thanks to God aloud for the saving work of His Son.

Encouragement also can take place when we tell a brother or sister of the evidences of God's grace we see in their lives, when we identify for them the marks of Christ-likeness we recognize in them, when we write them a note affirming their growth as a disciple of Jesus.

Don't delay. Encourage a fellow pilgrim. It might help them endure to the end.

-- Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger on Unsplash

Saturday, March 9, 2019

The church: The Christian remedy for isolation

(This post was first published September 21, 2017.)

Americans increasingly can live their lives without leaving their homes and without coming in contact with other human beings. And in this reality exists both a temptation and an opportunity for the church of Jesus.

Many of us in the workforce are able to do our jobs from our homes all or part of the time -- even in our pajamas. By and large, we don't have to go to the store for groceries, clothing, housing supplies, books, toys or most other items. Blue Apron and Hello Fresh will deliver meals to our door, and Amazon will send us food and nearly everything else. As consumers, we can get along just fine, thank you, with little, if any, human contact.

We don't have to go to someone's home, meet them at a coffee shop or talk to them on the phone to carry on what might be a meaningful conversation. Instead, we can communicate via desktop, laptop, tablet or smartphone.

And our neighborhoods -- especially in suburbia -- often remain miniature ghost towns of empty streets, yards and porches as a result of the decades-long prevalence of air-conditioning and television.

As Christians, this culture of isolation can easily mold us into its image. It is a temptation especially enticing for the introverts among us or those who have been deeply wounded by others.

We must resist this pull toward separation from others. We are intended to have in-person relationships with other image bearers of God. After all, our Creator sent us not just a message but a Savior. God the Son came to us. His was an incarnational ministry. He grieved with the grieving. He embraced and blessed children. He touched and healed the afflicted. He spoke to individuals and massive crowds. He listened to His followers and those who were not His followers. We are to be incarnational in our ministry as well, spending time with friends, strangers and all other neighbors -- incarnating the gospel of our Servant King to others and being affected for good by them.

As followers of Jesus, we also must recognize the indispensable role of the church in responding to this challenge. It is as a church we learn what it means to be the family of God. It is as a church we grow together toward likeness to Jesus. It is as a church we agree to be held accountable and to hold others accountable -- even if it means being disfellowshipped because of a lack of repentance. It is as a church we remember Christ's death in the Lord's Supper and proclaim the gospel in believer's baptism. It is as a church we bear one another's burdens and share our burdens with others. This requires being present with others of the same fellowship.

Jesus has promised to build the church. It is unique. A community on Facebook or other social media can be good, but it is not the church. An inter-church mom's group can be good, but it is not the church. An interdenominational men's breakfast can be good, but it is not the church. A community-wide Bible study can be good, but it is not the church. A nondenominational Christian youth ministry can be good, but it is not the church.

In light of this truth about the church, what should a Christian do? Here are two steps every follower of Jesus should take:

1. Join a church. To become a member of a church is to signify I am making at least these statements: I demonstrate I love Jesus by loving His church enough to be identified with a local body of His followers. I see the other members of this church and myself as united not by our mutual interests but by our mutual Savior and Lord. I submit myself to this specific church for the benefit of my growth and ministry as a follower of Jesus. I agree with what this church says in its confession of Christian faith. I pledge to live as a member of a committed, sacrificial community according to this church's membership covenant. I agree I am willing to have others confront me graciously in my sin. I commit to help make disciples as a part of this church's fulfillment of its commission from Christ. I promise to consider others in the church as more important than myself and to look out for the interests of others and not just my own.

2. Be actively engaged in the church you join. The gathering of the church for corporate worship each Sunday is essential for a Christian. It is the weekly time we confess with one voice the truth about God and His gospel. It is the weekly time we sit under the preaching of the Word that gives life and corrects us. It is the weekly time we encourage one another in person. It is the weekly time we are together as the forever family -- hopefully from before the opening song until the closing of the last class and prayer time. Being actively engaged in the church you join also means participating in the fellowship's Bible studies, small groups and service efforts when possible, as well as spending time together as individuals and households. This may often be uncomfortable or inconvenient, but it is called for and crucial in the life of each Christian.

In these ways and more, the church can be the remedy for seclusion and loneliness in a Christian's life.

The church of Jesus has the opportunity in this increasingly isolated and fragmented society to show a watching world what it means to have deep, meaningful relationships based not upon our tribal preferences but upon an unchanging relationship with one another as children of an unchanging Father by the power of an unchanging gospel. The church of Jesus has the opportunity to show a hurting world of disenfranchised people how true grace and love are lived out. May we do so joyfully and sacrificially because God the Son became a member of the community of humanity to make us members of the community of heaven.

-- Photo by rawpixel.com on Unsplash

Friday, March 1, 2019

Daily intentionality in following Jesus

Following Jesus calls for intentionality. Following Jesus daily calls for daily intentionality.

Of course, you might say. I've got that, you might be thinking. Yet, how often do you suddenly realize hours into your day you have not been purposeful about yielding or offering yourself to your Master. It can happen to me if I'm not careful in the face of deadlines.

Or is it your habit to dive into each day without this intentionality and thereby find yourself battered back and forth by whatever comes your way? You live a life of constant reaction without any deliberate starting point of saying, "Yes," once again to Jesus.

We find the intentionality of Christian discipleship depicted in Scripture. For instance:

"And [Jesus] was saying to them all, 'If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me'" (Luke 9:23).

"Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship" (Romans 12:1).

"Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others" (Philippians 2:3-4).

These verses and more in God's Word demonstrate a deliberate act by God's grace is called for in following Christ. It always involves saying, "Yes," to Jesus and His claim on our lives. His claim also usually involves purposing to live with others in Christ-like ways.

These and other passages like them can guide us in intentionally submitting to Christ and His will daily. Following Jesus is not just repeating words. The words represent a reality we are to embrace, however.

It may be some days in our hectic schedules we seem to have little time. But taking this purposeful step in prayer can be done when rising, when driving, when commuting, when arriving at work, when preparing to take that first bite or drink.

Of course, following Jesus means saying, "Yes," to Him multiple times during a day in response to the thoughts and temptations that invade our minds or hearts, as well as the words and actions that come from others. But before they come our way, it is important that we take the intentional step of giving ourselves to the One who gave Himself for us.

Let's all be intentional daily from the start in following Jesus.

-- Photo by Olivia Snow on Unsplash

Friday, February 22, 2019

Neglected Christian history

February serves as a reminder of the deficiency in my education.

February is Black History Month. By failing to know black history, I not only have an inadequate understanding of American history. I also have fallen short in my knowledge of church history. My view of Christian history is more white-washed than the reality.

My personal experience demonstrates the poverty of my historical knowledge.

I grew up in a county seat town of about 15,000 people in southeast Missouri. Our community had several elementary schools, including one that was all black, Wheatley School. I am saddened and embarrassed to say only in the last year or two of my 66 years have I come to know why it was given that name.

Phillis Wheatley was a poet in the 18th Century who was a trailblazer for African-American and female writers. Only 7 or 8 years old when she was captured in West Africa and brought to Boston as a slave, she became a follower of Jesus. Though she was still a teenager, her poetic elegy to the Great Awakening evangelist George Whitefield brought her international recognition, according to the Poetry Foundation. With her poems published in New England and England, Wheatley became one of the best known poets prior to 1800.

She "applied biblical symbolism to evangelize and to comment on slavery," the Poetry Foundation reported. Her literary accomplishments motivated the early anti-slavery movement in America and later served for the abolitionists as testaments to the artistic and intellectual abilities of those bound by slavery, according to the foundation.

George Liele, whom I learned of only in recent years, provides another example of my deficiency in church history.

It is Liele -- not Adoniram Judson -- who was the first Baptist preacher to take the gospel from America to another country. Liele was the first ordained black Baptist preacher in this country and planted the first African-American Baptist church in North America, according to an International Mission Board (IMB) article.

Born into slavery in 1750 in Virginia, Liele became a Christian at the age of 23 in Georgia. Liele's owner freed him sometime after his conversion, and he began preaching to slaves in the Savannah, Ga., area before planting a church.

After an effort to re-enslave him failed, Liele and his family went to Jamaica with the help of a colonel in the British army. He preached to slaves there as well and planted a church. Liele faced persecution and imprisonment but continued to preach. He baptized 500 people in an eight-year period, and the church grew strong, according to the IMB article.

Leile's ministry affected Jamaica spiritually and socially. About 8,000 Baptists lived in Jamaica in 1814, a number that included slaves, freedmen and whites. By 1832, there were more than 20,000 believers as a result of his ministry, the IMB article reported. Liele's work as an evangelist and pastor helped produce an end to slavery in Jamaica in 1838, 10 years after his death, according to the IMB profile.

The church's history is a vibrant one not limited to the work of God in one ethnic group or skin color.

-- Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

'Lives not worth living' and the church of Jesus

The category of "lives not worth living" continues to expand to the grief of all who value human beings as image bearers of God. And its advocates seem to be expanding as well. They are at least in the openness of their intentions.

The last three weeks have demonstrated some Americans -- maybe a growing number -- believe babies who survive abortions are now included in this dehumanizing classification. At least some abortion rights proponents are committed to ensuring children who escape the lethal efforts of abortionists can be left legally to die without medical care. And a frightful number of lawmakers are devoted to protecting the right to kill until delivery any unborn child who could survive outside the womb.

For instance:

-- New York enacted a law Jan. 22 that legalizes abortion until birth for the mother’s “health,” which is not defined and has been interpreted by the Supreme Court to include essentially any reason. It also permits infanticide by eliminating protections for babies who survive an attempted abortion and by removing fetal homicide penalties, according to Americans United for Life. Of course, Jan. 22 is the anniversary of the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 that legalized abortion nationwide.

-- Virginia Del. Kathy Tran told a House of Delegates subcommittee Jan. 28 her bill to repeal abortion restrictions in the state would allow an abortion for “mental health” reasons even when the woman’s cervix is dilating and she is preparing to give birth.

-- Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia commented on Tran's proposal by affirming what can justly be described as infanticide two days later in a radio interview. He said, "The infant would be delivered. The infant would be kept comfortable. The infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother.”

While Tran's bill did not survive the subcommittee, the sanctity of human life for babies who can live outside the womb will likely not fare as well in more liberal states. Abortion rights activists are pushing legislators to eliminate even the mild restrictions permitted by the Supreme Court, which they contend is threatening to reverse Roe.

What should be the response of those who believe in the sanctity of life for all human beings from conception to natural death? Yes, we should seek to elect pro-life officeholders. Yes, we should urge lawmakers to pass pro-life legislation, such as the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act (S. 130). Yes, we should support pregnancy care centers that serve women considering abortions.

We should not, however, outsource our responsibility and opportunity as the church of Jesus. As the church created by our Lord, we have the message, the mission, the legacy and the community needed by mothers and unborn children in crisis, as well as abortionists and abortion's promoters.

As an evangelical Christian church, we have the true gospel message -- God the Son became an embryo in a virgin's womb and grew into a man who lived a righteous life, died on the cross and rose again to save the people of God. We proclaim this life-changing message to all sinners.

We have the mission given by Jesus to make disciples of all people groups, baptizing and teaching -- teaching that includes the message that every human being regardless of age, condition or location is a divine image bearer whose life is worth living.

We have the legacy of the Didache, an early document that condemned abortion and infanticide; the rescue of infants from the exposure walls in the Fourth Century; and the ending of child-killing in countries served by evangelical missionaries in the 19th Century.

We have the community -- we actually are the community -- of the redeemed, who love and serve all and are blood-bought brothers and sisters for those who are born again into the family of God.

May we faithfully follow Jesus and give ourselves for those whom our culture of death deems disposable.

-- Photo by Charles 🇵🇭 on Unsplash

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Where do we see the majesty of God?

I have reconsidered lately where God's majesty is most clearly seen.

Certainly I recognize it in the breathtaking sunsets and brilliant fall colors of Virginia, the snow-capped mountains of Montana and the magnificent waterfalls of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. Scenes of such beauty in nature definitely call for offerings of praise to God.

Yet, none of those reaches the pinnacle of God's majesty in creation. That spot is reserved for every human being, because each of us -- and no other part of God's creation -- is made in His image (Genesis 1:26-27).

In my own life, I see or have seen the majesty of God in:

-- A girl born exceedingly prematurely resting in the hands of her mother as a monitor counted down her life in a neonatal unit.

-- A boy with Down syndrome in our special needs Sunday School class who called me "doofus."

-- Older African-American men who avoided raising their heads and looking at me after decades of having their "place" in the Jim Crow South hammered into them.

-- A young female friend of our family who is blind and mentally impaired.

-- A boy in our church who cannot speak or stand.

-- A woman in a nursing home who frequently told tales indicating her mind no longer functioned coherently.

-- A 96-year-old woman, my mother, who never responded as her family spoke tenderly to her and sang hymns around her bed in her final days.

And some I have been unable to see but I knew bore God's image in the womb of their mothers -- mothers who walked past my sidewalk vigil into a clinic and left childless.

Every human being I have ever encountered was an image bearer of God, and every person I see today or will see in the future is an image bearer of God -- even those who oppose the right to life of others. Some of these foes of life may even acknowledge the majesty of the Creator in the wonders of nature, but they are blind to His majesty in some of their fellow image bearers.

We, the people of God rescued by His Son who took on flesh and blood like us, are the ones who have the treasured privilege of testifying to this truth and demonstrating it in how we treat every other human being: Every human being -- no matter his or her age, ability, condition or ethnicity -- bears the image of God and should be treated with the dignity that truth requires.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash