Free Indeed

Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD, The people whom He has chosen for His own inheritance (Psalm 33:12)

This morning I saw a bumper sticker that said, “Restore America.” I don’t know if the sentiment is a faith-based one or merely the patriotism of conservative politics. I know I am on many email loops that complain about what is happening to our country, so maybe my eye is more attuned to these sentiments on various platforms, but there seems to be a lot of them these days. I am sure that if we polled each of the sources, we would come up with a couple dozen or more solutions to our country’s plight. They likely would all overlap on the plank of changing the residents of Washington, DC, but beyond that every opinion would be different.

The men and women that founded this country were people of rare courage, a courage that we don’t see duplicated in our day. The tyranny they fought against cost them “[their] lives, [their] fortunes and [their] sacred honor.” And it wasn’t just the men and women who used to be named in our history books; they included the unnamed minutemen in Massachusetts and the anonymous soldiers at Valley Forge, not to mention their wives and children that tended their homes and farms while they were away. But today, precious few of us have the courage to sacrifice the material substance that we have accumulated to stand against the re-energized forces of tyranny that have emerged in our country. What is the difference between then and now? What was the source of their courage in that day? Can it be recovered, and if so, how?

I submit that the source of that courage was the revival known as the Great Awakening that swept through Colonial America 25 – 30 years prior to the Revolution. This Revival, the chief spokesman of which was Jonathan Edwards (although there were many others), restored the spiritual foundation to the American Colonies that had led to the founding of most of them. That spiritual foundation was distinctively Christian – not Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu or even secular. Men and women were set free from the bondage of sin in their hearts and realized they were created to be free from every kind of bondage. Consider the famous words of Jesus: “If therefore the Son shall make you free, you shall be free indeed (John 8:36). Paul said it differently, but the meaning was the same: “who gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us out of this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father” (Galatians 1:4).

Men who have never been set free from sin are seldom willing to risk their lives and livelihoods to be set free politically. They are far more likely to learn to manage their bondage and make the best of it because they have no assurance, indeed no real hope, that their sacrifice would result in any substantive change. At best they would join a movement of others toward freedom, which is why we know the name of Thomas Paine and those of a few other humanists of that era (but none from any other religious system).

The cry in America for restoration will be just an impotent cry until there is a genuine revival of Christianity in America. The only source of the courage we need in an oppressive age is one that transcends time because the restoration we seek will not happen overnight and few of us  – outside of authentic relationships with Jesus – are willing to sacrifice for something that will not benefit us personally.

Worshipping and Fasting

 Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.”Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off (Acts 13:1-3 ESV)

Many churches hold up the first century church as the standard to live up to, and they are correct. Some think that if they celebrate the Lord’s Supper in a certain way or frequency, they are following the first century pattern. Some think that if they preach from the Scripture they are following the pattern to the full. Still others imagine that if they experience the signs and wonders that accompanied the apostles’ ministry, they can make the claim to be the “true church.”

Few however in our day follow the pattern set by the Church at Antioch. We don’t know how regularly they met for worship and fasting; this incident in Acts 13 may have been the only time. But personally, I think it was a regular thing.

Worship” here is mentioned because they were honoring His Person. Worship is not just a rehearsal of all the things God has done for us; it is extolling His virtues, praising His character. It’s the difference between saying to your spouse, “Thanks for the good meal” and “You are a great cook!” Both are appropriate in the right context, but  the praise goes to character. The Scripture speaks of “seek[ing] His face” (Ps 27:8) (who He is) versus seeking His hands (what He does).

“Fasting” is usually associated with an intense need. The incidents of fasting throughout the Scripture are usually connected with a threat to the well being of the nation or the individual. In this case (Acts 13:3) it seems they fasted for the purpose of getting the next step right as the Church was going forward.

As the Church in America becomes more marginalized in the society, many who are earnestly seeking revival are returning to these practices. It is not enough to merely acknowledge His provisions to us; we are being drawn to worship Him, to adopt His values, to wait for His voice. I heard recently a comparison of worship to an orchestra whose Composer and Conductor is the Lord Himself. Sometimes He calls upon our “voices” to play a supportive role; at other times to play the melody; still other times we are to remain silent.

But turning from this metaphor, He has created us in His image so that we can be His partners in the grand cause of world evangelization, “that the whole world may know that He is God.” Just as the Church in Antioch expressed their urgency through fasting, it needs to be revived in the Church again. We need to fall on our faces before Him that all men everywhere would repent and seek Him.

Wikipedia Christians

In January, 2001 Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger launched a new kind of information source called “Wikipedia.” In the 13 years since it’s inception it has become the fifth most popular website with about 500 million unique visitors each month. Of course, most know that the special characteristic of the site is that volunteers – not professionals – update the information. As such, some question the accuracy and consistency of the articles. Still, many of us use the site as a quick source of information, much like we used to trust the nerdy student in high school rather than taking the time to research a question on our own.

I fear that the Church in America is becoming “wikipediated.” As a matter of convenience or laziness, we trust others to inform us about the God that created and redeemed us – before Whom we will one day give an account.

Both Testaments testify to the accuracy and authority of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures. For more than 2 millennia the Church has judged the accuracy of its theology against the text of the Bible. The revival known as The Reformation was accelerated by Gutenberg’s printing press giving the common man the Scriptures in his own language, and even though distributors of the Scriptures were oppressed and persecuted, the Bible became the best-selling book of all time. As people read it, they were transformed.

But people no longer read the Bible. We get our theological information from our religious leaders, but we rarely check out the substance of that information. We trust the theological institutions that gave them degrees or the ecclesiastical organizations that ordained them. What we don’t realize is that many of these institutions and organizations have watered down their standards, being more concerned about “bottom line” issues than they are about Truth. We are “wikipediated.”

Or we get our theology from the media. Prime time television brought the subject of “angels” into our homes in several shows a few years back, but it is likely that very few people compared the portrayal of these characters with the Biblical teachings. I remember raising this idea to a friend of mine – a pastor’s wife – who defended their viewership with the comment, “But there is nothing else that is wholesome on TV!” Television has “wikipediated” us.

Movies are no better. I cannot count the number of times I have seen Charleton Heston portray Moses in “The Ten Commandments” and though Cecil B. DeMille used many lines directly from the Scripture, it is impossible to re-tell 40 years of Biblical history (and 4 books of the Bible) in a 3 hour movie. And that movie was produced in an era where the Bible was largely considered to be accurate. Bible-themed movies since are geared to audiences that have questioned or even rejected the inspiration and authority of the Scripture. In our day theological understanding is more conditioned by Mark Burnett, Roma Downey and Mel Gibson than it is by Peter, Paul and John. I have no beef with the producers of these movies. My beef is that we are “wikipediated.”

The answer to this trend is obvious: we must return to the Book. Like the English teacher that criticizes a term paper for relying on secondary sources rather than primary ones, God will ask us why we didn’t consult His Book. Our denomination proudly claims AW Tozer who wrote The Pursuit of God. Can we really say we are pursuing Him if we fail to consider – even, meditate on – what He said directly to us?

Of course, we are not the first. The Hebrews that followed Moses out of Egypt didn’t want to hear directly from God either (look up Exodus 20:19 – don’t just take my word for it), so they asked Moses to listen to Him and tell them what God said. They allowed themselves to be “wikipediated” – and we know what happened to them.

 

A Great Apologetic

“Elect from every nation, yet one o’er all the earth…”

This line, from the old hymn, “The Church’s One Foundation,” is one of the best apologetics of the Christian faith. Few things demonstrate more clearly the Truth of the Gospel than the unity of believers despite time or cultural boundaries.

For example, the Nineteenth Century writers who truly knew Christ didn’t seem to care how long their essays or sermons, reports or articles were. Perhaps they knew that their readers would probably have little other things to read, so they were verbose by our standards. Yet among those who truly walk with Christ, their experiences are the same and their writings resonate with authenticity. The atonement of Christ cleansed them of sin just as readily as it does the modern believer and their experience of forgiveness moved them to action even as it does believers today.

On the other hand, the writings of unbelieving men, though they may be considered by literary experts as important and even classical works, do not suggest a real knowledge of the internal work of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps there is common thread of human experience that they express well, but they lack the joyful freedom that believers find in the finished work of Christ.

The same can be said when we meet people of different cultures. Because the Gospel of Jesus transcends culture, a believer from Africa has a oneness with a believer from Southeast Asia and a genuine fellowship with another believer from North or South America. The Christian experience is remarkably similar despite the cultural differences. Since we began as a mission society, our denomination likes to remember that there will be some from “every tribe and tongue and people and nation” gathered around the throne of Jesus singing His praise when this life is over. The vast multitude will not be predominantly caucasian. Indeed if the believers alive right now as you read this blog are an accurate cross-section of the population of heaven, it is likely that caucasians will be in the minority. But it won’t matter. And I personally doubt that we will even think of racial or ethnic distinctions in that wonderful place. The only race that will matter will be the human race!

One of the principles that has guided our missionary enterprise for the past century and a quarter has been the reality that because the Gospel is transformational to every culture, the Church should be an expression of believers from that culture. We don’t plant churches that are reflections of our American Christian experience; we plant indigenous churches – the genuine expression of forgiveness and personal discipleship in those cultural settings. Then, when believers meet from other cultures, they share the common experience of service to the same Lord.

To Whom Much is Given

Thus says the LORD, “For three transgressions of Judah and for four I will not revoke its punishment, Because they rejected the law of the LORD And have not kept His statutes; Their lies also have led them astray, Those after which their fathers walked (Amos 2:4).

To a man, the Old Testament prophets preached a message of repentance to a people who said they trusted God but in reality followed after idols. Sometimes that message was a message of the tender love of God for his erring people (Hosea); sometimes it was a general call to repentance (Joel); and sometimes it was an in-your-face demand for repentance. That was Amos’ message; he wasn’t subtle at all.

The first two chapters of Amos’ prophecy pronounced judgment upon Israel and Judah and the nations surrounding them. The often-repeated phrase “For three transgressions of _____ and for four…” is a Hebrew phrase that communicates the same message as our English phrase, “The straw that broke the camel’s back…” Sin upon sin had piled up against these nations until God had to bring judgment for “the final straw,” which He names in each case.

As the judgments are pronounced for some very violent and egregious sins of the nations, similar judgments are pronounced upon Israel and Judah for much less sins – or so it would seem (see 2:4, 6). Most of us today would think it unfair that the same severity of punishment would be meted out against Judah who merely “rejected the law of God” as it was against those who “ripped open pregnant women” (1:13) simply to enlarge their borders.

To us in the conservative, right-wing movement of America, there is hardly a more vile sinner than the abortionist who employs procedures like “partial birth abortion,” except perhaps the lawyer or politician that legalizes such a procedure (and lives high off the proceeds of their actions). But in God’s eyes, there is no hierarchy of sins. The immediate consequences of the abortionist’s sin may be more apparent, but every vile consequence had its root in the first act of disobedience, the first act of justification.

Perhaps that’s why disobedience to God’s Word is a more significant sin than we in America would like to believe.

A Father’s Love

Just as a father has compassion on his children, So the LORD has compassion on those who fear Him (Psalm 103:13).

Often when I share the Gospel with people in our day, the question arises concerning the character of God. In the popular mind there seems to be the idea that a God of love cannot be a God of justice. The two qualities are mutually exclusive.But the popular idea is wrong.

Perhaps that is why our Creator placed us in families – to offer us a perfect example of the balance of these two attributes. As a father, there were times when I wrapped my kids in my arms and loved them. If You could be a fly on the wall observing us, you would conclude, “There’s a dad who loves his kids” (and you would have been correct). But it wasn’t unknown, when I released them from my hug, for my mischievous son to irritate his sister or brother or do some other forbidden action. My next move might have been to discipline that son firmly (depending upon the severity of the offense).  As the observant “fly on the wall,” you might conclude, “There’s a dad that has a wrath against sin” (again, you would have observed correctly).

Does a father stop loving when he disciplines? Does he set aside his standards when he loves? NEVER! A parent knows that he can love his child infinitely and unconditionally and still express his anger over sin. Indeed, as I used to tell my kids, “I love you too much to allow you to  think you can get away with [whatever attitude or offense he committed] when you get older. Because I love you I want you to know that this attitude will result in pain for you.”

But I also have observed over the years that there is a difference between the love (compassion) of a father and that of a mother. Though my characterization is not absolute, Mom is often there to soothe the hurts and to comfort a child; Dad is often the one to tell a child to endure a hardship for the reward that will follow. Hence, he disciplines and the child “runs to Mama.”

According to David’s Psalm (quoted above) God’s compassion for men is more properly characterized as a father’s compassion. He has standards and expectations and He knows that those standards require obedience and discipline. He doesn’t just ooze with good intentions and sentimentality.

As a man Dad recognizes that he has a task to do that gives him fulfillment and gladness, and he knows that his greatest joy is found when he is able to provide for those he loves through that purposeful work. It is this sense of purpose and fulfillment that he desires for his child – male or female – so that his discipline reflects that desire.

The God of the Bible is like that. There is a larger purpose behind His discipline and the whole correctional process. That discipline – wrath, if it must be so severe – is really a function of His love.

 

 

What Do True Christians Believe?

So…now the homosexual community is defining for us what it means to be a “Christian.”

Fox News reported on December 18 that the A&E network has removed one of the stars of the popular show, “Duck Dynasty,” because he made some remarks about homosexuality that they disagreed with. For the record, his comments were consistent with the clear teaching of the Old and New Testaments.

The article states, “‘Phil and his family claim to be Christian, but Phil’s lies about an entire community fly in the face of what true Christians believe,’ said GLAAD rep Wilson Cruz. ‘He clearly knows nothing about gay people or the majority of Louisianans and Americans – who support legal recognition for loving and committed gay and lesbian couples. Phil’s decision to push vile and extreme stereotypes is a stain on A&E and his sponsors who now need to reexamine their ties to someone with such public disdain for LGBT people and families.’”

So what do “true Christians” believe? Can one be a “true Christian” and believe the Scripture or does a “true Christian” have to reject the clear teaching of Moses (Lev. 20:13) and other Old Testament saints, Jesus (by inference) and Paul (Rom. 1:21-32; I Cor. 6:9; I Tim 1:10)? Could the Apostle Paul be a “true Christian” according to the new definition?

The real issue here has less to do with the re-definition of the word “Christian” and more to do with the rejection of the Old and New Testaments as being the authority of believers for “all matters of faith and practice.” This is not as much an attempt at silencing an individual as much as it is an attempt at silencing the Scriptures. Most, if not all, orthodox churches or denominations contain a statement similar to “all matters of faith and practice” in their Statements of Faith, because at least at some point, the Scriptures were the foundation for the teachings of that organization.

In the same interview Phil Robertson makes the statement that he loves “all humanity.” Just because he is willing to call an action “sin” does not mean that he “hates.” After all, the Gay and Lesbian spokesman called Phil, “vile and extreme.” If the GLAAD representative can disagree without being labeled a liar and a sinner, why should Phil be labeled for his opinion?

In a sense, this controversy brings to light an important decision that each of us who takes his faith seriously must consider: will I choose to believe the teaching of the Scriptures or will I allow the current trends in political correctness to shape my beliefs? Do I agree with the Gay and Lesbian representative that my belief in the Scripture makes me a “vile and extreme” person? What is the foundation of my faith? Am I willing to stake my eternal destiny upon Scripture or the opinions of our society?

By the time this column is printed, I suspect that the controversy will have blown over. If the Robertson family is as strong in their beliefs as I have been led to believe they are, they will likely stand alongside their Patriarch’s statements rather than cave to the current trends. If A&E chooses to yield to the Gay community’s opinions, they will likely be forced to remove the show entirely. But it ultimately won’t affect the Robertson clan. They have made their fortune selling duck calls, not TV shows.

In the end, though, the real question is ours. What will we believe – the Scripture or political correctness? Consider carefully – eternity really does rest on this decision.

Revival

Oh, that You would rend the heavens and come down, That the mountains might quake at Your presence… (Isaiah 64:1).

Many of us are praying for revival, not unlike what people were praying for in Isaiah’s time. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when this prayer in chapter 64 was written but almost certainly it is a prophetic description of the Babylonian Captivity. Verse 11 describes the Temple as having been burned.  The longing of the hearts of God’s people then was that He would show Himself strong again on their behalf.

Their circumstances are remarkably similar to ours. God’s enemies seemed to have the upper hand. We who stand with Him against abortion on demand and the homosexual agenda increasingly are finding our voices marginalized and the proponents of these things that God hates are on the rise. In their culture and ours the worship of the God of Israel is being replaced by pagan idolatry, at first by the inclusion of other gods alongside Him. But that will later lead to the elevation of those other gods above Him as it did at the time just prior to the Babylonian Captivity.

The only hope for the reversal of these trends in our world is a visitation from God. He purged the hearts of the Israelites who came out of Egypt under Moses by descending over Mt. Sinai in such a way that they thought the whole mountain was ablaze. Since the New Testament era began, though, He has brought revival in many different contexts, one of the most notable being the Great Awakening in Colonial America (c. 1740).

But for this to happen again, God’s people must begin to fall on their faces before Him. We must reject the pretense of Christianity and live it out with integrity and conviction. We must quit making our faith merely one of a multitude of religious activities and begin to honestly and repentantly seek Him. We must find spiritual leaders who are more concerned with God’s approval than with men’s, leaders who will quit being concerned that pews are filled and become concerned that hearts are.

I pray earnestly for such a visitation of the Almighty, but it won’t come without our sacrifice. Satan’s allies in the world of pagan idolatry will not relinquish their hard-earned territory easily. They will continue to grip our nation tightly by enslaving people by making them guilty in their sins of homosexuality and abortion while blaming God’s people for imposing a sense of guilt upon “legal and harmless” activities. When God visits again, His enemies will lash out at His Church.

But it will be worth the cost. The vast contingent of the Church that keeps one foot in the Church and one in the world will have to decide on which side they will stand. Some of our friends will likely join to wrong side, the enemies of the Church, but we will know on whom we can rely, and that knowledge will be worth everything.

Called By God

And no one takes this honor for himself, but only when called by God, just as Aaron was. (Hebrews 5:4 ESV)

The “call” of God into ministry is an important event in the personal and professional development of those in ministry. Those who have diminished the authority of the Scripture dilute the importance of this because they see ministry as a “profession” and the decision to enter this field as no different than the decision to be a doctor or a teacher. Additionally, many today reject the notion that there is a God wholly other than we are Who has a will that He makes known to men. They see Him as an extension of ourselves or some metaphysical reality, not a spiritual Person as He is described in the Scriptures.

But for us who believe the Scriptures, the call of God into ministry is of vital importance. From a practical standpoint, the unusual stresses of ministry often require a clear and compelling sense that this is “what God created me for.” Those who make the decision to enter ministry without this sense often feel frustrated and unfulfilled because they are in themselves powerless to effect the eternal change that the Scriptures indicate is our job. In almost every other field there are more tangible benchmarks to give us a sense of fulfillment; in ministry, though, most of these benchmarks won’t be seen until eternity.

The verse quoted above suggests that this has always been the case – even in the Old Testament era. But how that call comes is not always the same. Personally I can point to a specific event in which the Lord clearly “said,” “I have called you…” I know others, though, whose call is just as compelling but who had no mystical “Voice.” They simply have obeyed the Scripture in Romans 12 which told them to “Present your bodies a living sacrifice…” (et. al.).

The Old Testament law identified the “first issue of the womb” as being the Lord’s possession. Many in that era understood this to mean that they were to enter the priestly service (interestingly, a high percentage of senior pastors in America today are firstborns in their families). Still there needs to be a sense of “call” somewhere in the experience of the minister.

When a Christian young person is considering his career decision, it would seem to me that professional ministry should be one of the considerations. At the end of Romans 11, Paul is carried into a doxology praising the infinite wisdom of God, and then writes, “THEREFORE, present your bodies…” (Rom 12:1, emphasis added). God has a wonderful ability to re-direct, if that is not His purpose, and He can call from other professions, but material entanglements sometimes prevent the young person from obeying. So it is better to pursue that at the beginning of the career search.

Whatever the circumstances of the “call,” it must happen for the ministry to be effective.

Believe in Jesus

 
38 Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’ (John 7:38, ESV).

The Greek language in which the New Testament was originally written does not contain punctuation marks as we do who speak and write in English. Therefore when we read in our English Bibles and see punctuation, we must remember that they are not “inspired” in the same way as the words themselves. Most of the time the translators are very competent and the punctuation expresses the meaning of the text, but there are some places where the meaning is ambiguous or uncertain. The text above is one of those places.

Many translators connect the phrase, “as the Scripture has said,” with the statement that follows. But the problem with this is that there is no place in the Old Testament Scriptures (that part of the Word of God that had been recorded when Jesus walked among us) where this statement is made. In fact, there is nothing close to this statement to be found when we cross-reference the words and phrases of this text.

For me, therefore, I prefer to see this phrase as connected to the first clause, “Whoever believes in me as the Scripture says…” (drop the commas). Paraphrased, then it might read, “If you will believe in Me in the way that the Scriptures describe, your life will overflow with joy and satisfaction.” Personally, I think this is the sense of Jesus’ words that day.

It also answers the question, “Why do Christians today lack that inner joy and peace that the Bible promises?” Because they don’t really believe in Jesus as He is portrayed in the Scriptures.

The greatest problem in Christian theology today is our deficient understanding of Christology – who is Jesus. The Old Testament enjoins us to “Seek [His] face…” (Ps 27:8) – His Person. What He does for us will follow once we understand Who He is.

Without knowing it, many years ago I happened upon the richest meditations in the Scriptures when I found and considered the three great Christological passages of the New Testament: John 1:1-4, Colossians 1:15-18 and Hebrews 1:1-4. In their own ways, these three passages describe the Second Person of the Trinity as the Creator, as the Sustainer and as the Judge of all mankind, with each branching off these ideas in their own ways. Since the Bible contains a remarkable unity, despite the diversity of human authorship, these passages amplify rather than contradict the Old Testament teachings concerning the Messiah. Nothing in them is inconsistent with the teachings of Moses or the Prophets. The rest of Scripture notwithstanding, my life has been joyful and satisfying largely because I have chosen to believe what these passages tell me about Jesus.

Yours will be too. Believe what the Scripture says about Jesus to enjoy life as God intended it.