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4.25.2017

Gospel in Life - Grace Changes Everything

Greetings All!

     This week's "thought" comes from one of my favorite author/preachers - Tim Keller.  It is taken from his book entitled, "Gospel in Life - Grace Changes Everything."









     As the title suggests, this book deals with how to live out the Gospel in every part of life.  It shows how to apply God's redemptive grace to every sphere of our existence, since many Christians have adopted the unbiblical idea or assumption that the Gospel is simply to "save one's soul," guide us in relation to church, or simply encourage us in our "private life, or spiritual life."  Keller challenges this idea and rightly points out that the Gospel is meant to do much more than that, as I will let him explain. Enjoy!

     "British theologian Lesslie Newbigin observes: The Gospel does not become public truth for a society by being propagated as a theory, or as a worldview, and certainly not as a religion. It can become public truth only insofar as it is embodied in a society (the Church) which is both abiding in Christ and engaged in the life of the world."  Likewise, Abraham Kuyper once wrote: "There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not say: "Mine!"
     Christianity is not simply a set of beliefs to be held in order to save my individual soul. It is also an interpretation of -- and a distinct way of understanding -- everything in the world. Both ancient Greek and modern thought, however, tend to separate faith and beliefs from the rest of life in what is known as "dualism." Dualism seals off personal beliefs and faith from the way we actually live and work in the world.
     Moreover, it leads to a widespread assumption that the only way to truly serve God is through direct ministry -- teaching (the Bible), evangelizing, discipling.  The church and its activities are seen as good and untainted, while the secular world is seen as bad and polluting. This feeling is understandable. Many workplaces are so filled with excessive competition, superficiality, politics, greed and cruelty that it is tempting to leave a secular job and just minister within the context of the Christian community. Even if we don't do that, we may simply opt to spend our life in more traditional, less difficult environments. This has effectively removed Christians from places of cultural influence.
     The Bible does not support a "sacred" versus "secular" distinction.  We cannot separate our faith from our work and life in the public sphere. Every part of our lives -- work, family, civic involvement, recreation -- is to be done for God's glory (Isaiah 43:7 / I Corinth. 6:19-20 / I Corinth. 10:31). The Bible tells us that Jesus has to be Lord of every area of our life, not just our private lives. The gospel shapes and affects the motives, manner, and methods with which we carry out every task in life. Living like this is not easy, but it offers a profound way to have an impact on the world around us.
     N. T. Wright in his book "The Challenge of Jesus" urges us to be at the leading edge of our culture. He writes: The gospel of Jesus points us, and indeed urges us, to be at the leading edge of the whole culture, articulating in story and music and art and philosophy and education and poetry and politics and theology... a worldview that will mount the historically rooted Christian challenge to both modernity and post-modernity, leading the way into the post-modern world with joy and humor and gentleness and good judgment and wisdom. I believe we face the question, "If not now, then when?" And if we are grasped by this vision, we may also hear the question, "If not us, then who?"  And if the gospel of Jesus is not the key to this task, then what is?"
     I understand the desire to withdraw from the world and cloister ourselves away in a safe Christian bubble. It is so appealing to the person pursuing godliness. I have entertained it seriously on quite a few occasions -- until I pray and God says, "no."  The fight is hard, and seems to get harder all the time!  Yet to give into the lure to escape from the world is counter to what Jesus says in John 17:15 and 18: "My prayer is not that you (Father) take them out of the world, but that you protect them from the evil one... As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world."
     It is true that the world can make us feel dirty. That's why we tend to want to run to a monastery in some beautiful country location and lock the door behind us!  But we are endued with divine authority to be ambassadors or soldiers sent out into the battlefields for Jesus.  And soldiers don't run from the battle, they train for it, and then learn in it, to be better equipped to defeat the enemies' (Satan's) schemes.
     Jesus never advocated a self-protective escapism. Love drove Him to go where the most need was -- and that was usually where the worst of sinners were. He went to the places where He could do the most good. He did NOT cloister Himself away from sinners, and the staining effects associating with them could have, but went into it knowing that His holy love would be a power and agent for change in those places -- places where most other religious people refused to go.
     It's by no means an easy calling, but Christians are called (as the saying goes) to: "Be in the world, but not of the world."  We are called to be salt and light in a dark and tasteless world. We are called to be risk-takers for Jesus, because refusing to take those risks leaves the lost at an ever greater risk of never hearing the gospel brought to them personally by someone who cares enough to go where they are at. Not unprepared or naive, but in faith, wisdom, and with needed prayer and preparation, remembering this one needed caution: Jesus always sent people out in two's, or groups, not as lone-wolf individuals, so as to minimize the potential casualties.
In the Service of the Gospel, Pastor Jeff

4.18.2017

A Place for Weakness

Greetings All,








This week I was skimming through the opening pages of a book by Michael Horton entitled, "A Place for Weakness."   It's the response of a man who has looked at much of modern day Christianity, compared it with the New Testament version, and found it terribly lacking.  A man who wonders: "What about the people who don't get healed from cancer?  The people who have no miraculous deliverance to brag about?  What about those who aren't lavishly successful, and don't go from "rags to riches"?
     In fact, after pointing out how the modern church loves to parade around, "famous athletes, politicians, entertainers, ad other icons of popular culture... as trophies of grace," he very validly asks, "Have you ever seen a janitor interviewed for his testimony?"  What about people like the poor widow who gave her last two pennies to the Lord's work, but never (as far as we know) got blessed with a hundred-fold return, or millions of dollars as compensation for her extreme devotion?   A lady who was poor, and remained poor, yet loved the Lord with all that was in her?  Are there not millions of such believers the world over?  Where is our acknowledgment of their great faith in our churches or television broadcasts?  We do speak of martyrs, but what about those so poor they, "went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute... and mistreated"?  Those who "wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground" -- yet were faithful to the end, thus earning them the title:  "those of whom the world was not worthy" and people who were "commended (by God) for their faith."  If our faith cannot look up to them -- MORE than to the STAR ATHLETE or SELF-MADE MILLIONAIRE -- then we must ask what has happened to the Christian faith that James describes as the valid kind in James 2:1-13?
     I believe Horton does make a very valid point.  And I share this thought to challenge us to separate worldly triumphalism from true biblical Christianity. Enjoy.
God of the Cross

     "We don't like to think of ourselves as losers, especially in America. Even popular religion is often exploited in what Friedrich Nietzsche would celebrate as "the will to power."  If it is going to sell in the marketplace, it must be clearly seen that our particular brand of religion will make us winners in business and politics, boost our self-confidence, and position us and our families as the envy of our non-Christian neighbors.
     In part, this is an attempt to answer the claim that religion in general, but Christianity in particular, is for the weak...  Media mogul Ted Turner, who, though raised in a conservative Christian background, now reportedly calls Christianity, "a religion for losers."  How do you react when you read these words, or encounter them in veiled remarks by friends, co-workers, and relatives who do not know Christ?  For at least a century and a half, American evangelism has spent great effort and money on public relations campaigns for Christianity in just this area of concern. Famous athletes, politicians, entertainers, and other icons of popular culture are regularly trotted out as trophies of grace. Have you ever seen a janitor interviewed for his testimony?
     Of course, there are notable exceptions, such as Joni Eareckson Tada, who has brought so much wisdom to suffering since her diving accident left her paralyzed. But we seem obsessed at times with convincing the world that we are cool, which especially in this culture means healthy, good-looking, prosperous, and, even better, famous.  Not only can one remain cool in Christ; it is this personal relationship with Jesus that, far from calling us to die, gives us that little bit extra to, "be all we can be."  At least that's what the before-and-after testimonies seem to suggest. Jesus came to recruit a team of all-stars and coach them to the Super Bowl of better living.  As the title of one religious bestseller has it, we can have our best life now, just by following a few principles for daily success.

Any Place for Weakness?

     How do we square all this with Jesus' statement that... "I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance" (Luke 5:31-32)?  Paul also gives a recurring emphasis to weakness: "On my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses... But [the Lord] said to me, My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. Therefore I boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong" (II Corinthians 12:5, 9-10).  Would Paul have made a very good spokesman for "muscular Christianity" or for the other images of success so widely praised among us? 
     In his "Varieties of Religious Experience" (1902) Harvard professor and philosopher William James distinguished between two types of religion: "healthy-minded" and "morbid-minded." Those belonging to the sick-soul camp (the morbid-minded), he said, see themselves as sinful, dispossessed, and disinherited, while the healthy-minded exude optimism. America has attracted the disinherited of the earth to our shores in order to make a better life for themselves and their posterity. It's one of the amazing gifts we have: to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps" by starting out in the mail room and ending up in the board room.  But this healthy optimism has also led to a practical denial of the dark side of life.  In religious terms it has meant that the bad stuff has got to go -- no downers, such as human depravity, and inability for self-salvation, or the need for divine rescue, and so forth... Feeling good has emerged as not only a national priority but a religious obsession for Christians and non-Christians alike...  I do not think that a biblical sense of human sin and the need for redemption from outside ourselves requires national pessimism, but a religion of human goodness will never sustain a people in times of disaster and threat. We may be able to explain the "evil empires" beyond our borders by their lack of our national values, but what happens when we experience our own homegrown varieties of terrorism, violence, and social disintegration?
     The religion of the healthy-minded is persuasive in our time... However, a religion of healthy-mindedness, which ignores the reality of the fall in all its aspects, renders itself finally nothing more than a form of therapy during times of plenty and irrelevant in times of tragedy.  What we need is not therapy, but news -- good news! ... The bottom line of this book is that the Gospel is for losers. And that, in fact, we are all losers if we measure ourselves by God's interpretation of reality rather than our own. The demand for glory, comfort, autonomy, health and wealth creates a vicious cycle of craving and disillusionment.  It even creates its own industry of therapists and exercise, style, and self-esteem gurus -- and churches -- to massage the egos wounded by this hedonism.  We become prisoners of our own felt needs, which were inculcated in us in the first place by the very marketplace that promises a "fix."  We become victims of our own shallow hopes...  Consider the fame of the great stars of stage and screen whose lives we secretly wanted to share, who are now in Hollywood nursing homes, often with only memories to comfort them. How quickly adoring fans lose their interest when the vigor of youth can no longer be sustained by surgeries and lotions and diets...
     Ironically, it is precisely where the world detects the most obvious example of weakness -- the cross -- that God triumphs over sin and death at the peak of their most deadly power. Here's the irony: Just where the highest and holiest victim of truly undeserved suffering cries, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" victory over sin and death is taking place. This is the foolishness and weakness that trump the wisdom and power of the ages."

     The discerning person will find it impossible to suggest that Horton has not hit a nail on the head.  American Christianity, out of a shame the apostle Paul did not have about his weaknesses, has worked to become acceptable to the surrounding culture by turning its back on biblical Christianity and embracing American triumphalism, as well as elements of its materialism and hedonism.  Many believers now seek their "best life now," while millions go without and the world perishes in their sin.  In fact, the Church has joined the world in its worldly pursuits, thinking we could actually do what Jesus says no person can do -- that is, serve two masters -- God and money (or the things it can buy).
     May we come to see, before it's too late, that the ultimate treasure is Christ Himself.  That He is enough.  Or as one dear saint put it: "He who possesses all things without God possesses nothing, but he who possesses God, possesses in Him all things."  We need to get it right!  Its not what we can get from God, it is simply having God that is the greatest and most fulfilling of all desirable treasures.
     May we all pause to consider what we believe, why we believe it, and where those beliefs come from -- because many don't come from the Bible.
In the bonds of the Gospel, Pastor Jeff

4.11.2017

Holy Week -- the cross and the resurrection

Greetings All,

     I just returned from a three week ministry trip to India, thus explaining why you have not received one of these thoughts for a few weeks!
     It was wonderful, as usual, with many reasons to praise God. Yet it reminded me of one of the things that occurs whenever one ministers cross-culturally, or in a setting where pluralism, syncretism, or relativism are the dominate prevailing philosophy. Therefore I wanted to share this excerpt that a friend posted on his Facebook page recently. It is so true - here in the States and elsewhere.
















      
      I know we are coming up on Good Friday and Easter, and on Holy Week I usually post a thought addressing one of those two events.  But this year I would like to change that up a bit and post this thought from J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937).  He was Professor of New Testament at Princeton University Seminary, between 1906 and 1929.  And I share his thoughts this week because it is actually the events of Holy Week -- the cross and the resurrection -- that make what he says here all the more relevant.
     Christ's sinless life of obedience, sufferings, sin-atoning death, and resurrection -- when rightly understood in their biblical framework of redemption -- are what gave Jesus, the disciples, and the apostles, the basis for proclaiming that salvation is found in Him alone (John 3:1-8, Acts 2:38-41, Acts 4:12, etc.).  The early church humbly proclaimed this because they understood the ultimate purpose behind His substitutionary life of obedience and death for sin.  The modern church, if they do understand it, tends to be embarrassed by the exclusivity of such a claim.  Machen sheds a bit of light on that, even this piece was written about 100 years ago. Enjoy.
     "The early Christian missionaries demanded an absolutely exclusive devotion to Christ. Such exclusiveness ran directly counter to the prevailing syncretism of the Hellenistic age.  In that day, many saviours were offered by many religions to the attention of men, but the various pagan religions could live together in perfect harmony; for when a man became a devotee of one god, he did not have to give up the others.
     But Christianity would have nothing to do with these “courtly polygamies of the soul."  It demanded an absolutely exclusive devotion.  All other saviours, it insisted, must be deserted for the one Lord.  Salvation, in other words, was not merely through Christ, but it was only through Christ.  In that little word “only” lay all the offence. Without that word there would have been no persecutions; the cultured men of the day would probably have been willing to give Jesus a place, and an honorable place, among the saviours of mankind.
     Without its exclusiveness, the Christian message would have seemed perfectly inoffensive to the men of that day. So modern liberalism, placing Jesus alongside other benefactors of mankind, is perfectly inoffensive in the modern world.  All men speak well of it.  It is entirely inoffensive.  But it is also entirely futile. The offence of the Cross is taken away, but so is the glory and the power."
     He is so right.  His comments were accurate then, and they still hit home today.  No one really tends to mind if a person looks to Jesus as a moral guide, or spiritual instructor, or life-example.  Jesus as a man, prophet, or spiritual guide, tends to be respected in most all places by most all people. It's Jesus as Lord, and Jesus as Savior that stirs up antagonism, opposition and persecution. The cross humbles (shatters) the pride of humanity, while His Lordship assaults the autonomy of humanity.
     We like to do what we want without being told that certain choices and options are just plain wrong, and we want to believe our efforts at gaining God's favor can make us acceptable to Him -- the first being nullified by His Lordship, the second by His death of the cross (Gal. 2:21 / I Cor. 1:20-31).
     So, as you contemplate the events that took place on that first "Holy Week" so long ago, consider this: The cross proclaims I cannot be saved apart from what happened to Jesus on it. All my best efforts fall far short (Isaiah 64:6). And His resurrection proclaims He is the Lord to whom I owe all due obedience (Romans 1:4-5).  If I miss either of those, I have really missed two of the primary messages of Holy Week.
In the Service of Jesus, Pastor Jeff

3.07.2017

Grace

Greetings All!

While visiting a conference in Pittsburgh, PA, two weekends ago, I picked up a new book entitled: "Grace" by Randy Alcorn.  It consists of 203 short thoughts (some just a couple of sentences long) describing the grace of God. It would make a great daily devotional, or could act as a supplement to another devotional.
     Alcorn offers many of his own insights on grace, while supporting most of them with great quotes from other contemporary and antiquated authors. I offer you seven selections (a week's worth, one for each of the next seven days) to give you a taste for what the book has to offer!  Enjoy.


"I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness 
could be gained through the Law, Christ died for nothing." 
                     Galatians 2:21

     "Grace never ignores the reality of sin. In fact, it emphasizes it. Paul said if men were good enough, then "Christ died for nothing." Benjamin Warfield said: "Grace is free sovereign favor for the ill-deserving."  If we don't see the reality of how ill-deserving we are, God's grace won't seem amazing. If we minimize our unworthiness, we minimize God's grace." "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me..." (John Newton).
"Yet he gave a command to the skies above, 
and opened the doors of the heavens; he rained 
down manna for people to eat; he gave them the 
grain of heaven."         Psalm 78:23-24

     "Louis Cassels wrote, "If God wants you to do something, he'll make it possible for you to do it, but the grace he provides comes only with the task and cannot be stockpiled beforehand. We are dependent on him from hour to hour.  As God didn't allow the Israelites to store up manna, he doesn't let us store up grace. He always gives us enough, but we can't deposit it for the future. We have to get it fresh every day. "He giveth more grace when the burdens grow greater, He sendeth more strength when the labors increase; To added affliction he addeth His mercy, To multiplied trials His multiplied grace" (Annie Johnson Flint)."
"In him we have redemption through his blood, 
the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the 
riches of God's grace that he lavished on us." 
                Ephesians 1:7

     "Benjamin Jowett said, "Grace is the energy of the divine affection rolling in plenteousness toward the shores of human need."  No matter what you've done, there is no sin beyond the reach of God's grace once you have accepted Christ's offer of forgiveness. Max Lucado says, "God answers the mess of life with one word: GRACE!"  God knows everything, so no sin surprises him. He knows all our worst secrets (Psalm 69:5). No skeletons will ever fall out of our closets. Jesus will never say, "Had I known you'd done that, I'd never have let you into heaven." He's seen us at our worst and still loves us. "Are you too bad to receive grace? How could you be too bad to receive what is for the bad?"" 
"All of us have become like one who is unclean, 
and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all 
shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins 
sweep us away."     Isaiah 64:6

     "For some, "human depravity" (total inability to earn our way to God) may be an insulting doctrine, but grasping it is liberating. When I realize the best I can do without God is like "filthy rags" in his sight, it finally sinks in that I have nothing to offer. Salvation, therefore, hinges on his work, not mine. What a relief!   "We could not take one step in the pursuit of holiness if God in his grace had not first delivered us from the dominion of sin and brought us into union with his risen Son. Salvation is by grace and sanctification is by grace" (Jerry Bridges)."
"Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, 
he gave it to them saying, "This is the blood of the covenant,
which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins." 
                     Matthew 26:27-28

     "No one deserves forgiveness. That's the whole point of grace. On the cross, Jesus experienced the Hell we deserve, so for all eternity we can experience the Heaven we don't deserve. The grace that is free for us was costly to God. But he offers it to us with a heart of infinite love. "I have come to know a God who has a soft spot for rebels, who recruits people like the adulterer David, the whiner Jeremiah, the traitor Peter, and the human-rights abuser Saul of Tarsus. I have come to know a God whose Son made prodigals... the trophies of his ministry" (Philip Yancey)." 
"As for you, you were dead in your transgressions 
and sins, in which you used to live when you followed 
the ways of this world."   Ephesians 2:1

     "You and I weren't merely sick in our sins; we were dead in our sins. That means I'm not just unworthy of salvation; I'm utterly incapable of earning it.  Corpses can't raise themselves from the grave!  What a relief to realize that my salvation is completely the result of God's grace. It cannot be earned by good works -- and therefore it can't be lost by bad ones.  Thomas Watson wrote, "[Divine] Acts of grace cannot be reversed. God blots out his people's sins, but not their names."  "If you and sin are friends, you and God are not yet reconciled" (J. C. Ryle)."
"Do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; 
do not worry about it... But seek his kingdom, and 
these things will be given to you as well."  Luke 12:29, 31

     "When we come to Christ, God graciously puts all his resources at our disposal. That's a dramatically uneven exchange since God has so much more than we do, and all we have comes from him in the first place.  "I am no longer my own, but Yours. Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will; put me to doing, put me to suffering; let me be employed for You or laid aside for You, exalted for You or brought low for You... I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to Your pleasure and disposal." (John Wesley)."
     I would encourage you to take one of these entries each day for a week and give it much consideration.  Grace (of the biblical kind) may not line up with the persuasions of the world, but it is the essence of nearly all God says in His Word.  Therefore, as Spurgeon once said, "If the people do not like the doctrine of grace, give them all the more of it."
     Many blessings upon your week's contemplation of grace!
In the Service of the Gospel, Pastor Jeff