“Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed––not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence––continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.”
As we begin the month of February, I would imagine that most of our New Year’s Resolutions have fallen by the wayside. Whether it was naïve optimism or extreme egotism, our commitments made with excitement on December 31st now lie on the curb in the company of uncollected Christmas trees.
With such annually unsuccessful effort aimed at self-improvement, I have to wonder why we bother at all. Why do we even try to get in shape, lose weight, watch less tv, read a book, or start a new hobby? Why not be satisfied with who we are? Surely this would be more biblical than the alternative, correct?
This is the question Marshall Segal asked recently in an article entitled, “How Christian is Self-Improvement?” Segal noted how often the resolutions that we as Christ’s disciples make are made “in our own name…in our own strength, on our terms, for our personal gain and benefit.” For Segal, “resolutions are so popular because they tap into something fundamental to humanity: We are by nature lovers of self (2 Timothy 3:2).” And I believe he’s right.
For most, New Year’s resolutions reflect personal determinations to be carried out in our own strength for our own ends. Instead of working to deepen our relationship with Christ or to become a servant to others, we seek to improve our self; our self’s standing and therefore our personal worth in the world’s eyes. As Segal stated, “Christian resolutions and disciplines are not about self-fulfillment or self-preservation, but about increasing our capacity to die to self in the name of love,” namely God’s love.
Immanuel, as 2018 progresses may we resolve to improve our self’s standing before Christ. May we commit to depend upon Him for our daily bread, to rely on His strength in the face of temptation, to seek His will as we face decisions and to hide His Word in our hearts so that we might not sin against Him. The Apostle Paul exhorted the Philippian church to work out their salvation with fear and trembling, may this be our goal for 2018 and beyond.
“While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born ….”
As I write this article, the sound of Christmas music is wafting down the hall. You might not find this fact surprising, considering this Voice issue’s December date, but I’m writing during the second week of November! Pre-Thanksgiving! Listening to “Rudolf the red-nosed reindeer,” and “Frosty the Snowman,” when leaves are just beginning to fall feels fundamentally wrong and yet the tunes I hear call for “Joy to the World” because “the Lord is come.” I can’t argue with that!
Over the past decade, there has been a growing trend within American consumerism, to push back the dates of significant events in order to capitalize on the occasion. Black Friday, which has come and gone (it is currently two weeks away as I write), has now been joined by a Cyber Monday, and Tuesday, shoot some businesses have gone whole hog and offered their special deals all year long! While the retail industry has pioneered ways to maximize events that were once ecclesial holidays, the Church has not. Now, this is not to say that some Christian gatherings have not capitulated to culture and begun celebrating Santa and snowmen rather than the arrival of the King of kings. But on the whole, we have limited our celebration of Christ’s incarnation to a single month in the calendar year.
Immanuel, and here I mean our church not the enfleshed Son of God, we must guard against the temptation to dissect and then compartmentalize the Gospel. Many churches celebrate the incarnation for the period of four weeks in December. Similarly, they remember Christ’s death and resurrection for an even shorter period in the spring. The Gospel, which is the power of God for the salvation of all who believe, is emasculated when not considered in totality. Humanity’s dilemma of sin has no permanent solution unless the Son of God was born, lived and then died upon a cross before His resurrection three days later, all in accordance with the Scriptures. To remember Christ the babe in Bethlehem is sweet but we must not limit our celebration to the Advent season alone, just as we cannot only celebrate the resurrection on a single day in the spring.
So, despite being conflicted over the sounds of Christmas decking the office’s halls, I concede. Christians, we need to celebrate our Savior’s birth, along with His death and resurrection, every day of the year!
“For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
The last day of October is Reformation Day, a day of spiritual significance in the church calendar, but one with special import this year as 2017 marks the Reformation’s quincentenary. 500 years ago, on October 31st, a young German monk by the name of Martin Luther posted 95 theses or concerns that he had regarding specific church beliefs. At the time this approach was common for those in academia who desired to discuss their misgivings, and so little thought was given to his actions. However, undergirding Luther’s sentiments was a biblical conviction that would come to change the face of Christendom. For Luther, the Scriptures were the sole source of authority for God’s people. The traditions of the church, while informative and valuable, could not supplant God’s Word thus he rejected a number of prevailing ecclesial practices. Luther’s theses sparked a firestorm and in the days and months that followed his life, and countless others were changed forever.
We are beneficiaries of Luther’s bold stand for the authority of Scripture. As Baptists, we possess a Protestant lineage and thus trace a number of our core doctrinal beliefs back to the Reformation. In addition to our shared view of sola Scriptura, we also recognize faith to be a personal response to the Gospel. In other words, people are not saved by the faith of their parents, or through their birth into a “chosen” nation, but rather by their belief in Jesus.
In his recent monograph, Where did the Reformation begin? David Mathis traces the origin of the Protestant Reformation to two specific themes: the Word of God and an individual’s response to its truth. Mathis notes how every one of the reformers from Luther to Zwingli and even those who came before like Huss, Waldo, and Wycliffe had a personal encounter with God through His Word and were forever changed. They did not merely read God’s Word and find solace in its pages, but they were captivated by its beauty and transformed by its truth.
Immanuel, we, like the Reformers, need to personally experience the God of the Word through the Word of God. Our faith must be our own. Jesus informed Nicodemus that, “whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.” We must have faith which, “comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17).
“Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing….”
I have many fond memories of childhood vacations at the sea. Living in a semi-arid landlocked country, water was scarce. We had rain on occasion but never very much, and the nearby lakes were perpetually low, emitting smells that reminded one of old socks. But when we went to the sea the smell was glorious. The sights and sounds were enough to rejuvenate one’s soul.
Our family vacations were truly special. No school, no work, no busyness, just time spent together enjoying all that God had made. The schedule varied from day to day with each sunrise holding the promise of adventure. Every moment was filled with new experiences and recorded as treasured memories. However, the one activity that remained constant amidst all the change was church. Every Sunday, no matter where we were in our journey, we woke, dressed, ate breakfast and then went to worship. While all else was different during our times away: the scenery, neighbors, times for waking and going to bed, Sunday remained the same.
As a child, I struggled to understand how changes made to the rest of the week brought refreshing while our Sunday schedule remained the same. To me, the activities of Sunday were no different than those of the rest of the week. Therefore, if a break from routine brought renewal, then surely Sunday’s routine should qualify. But my father, undeterred by my reasoning, reminded me that worship is like breathing. As worshippers of Jesus, who is the way, the truth, and the life, we cannot afford to stop breathing, and we most certainly shouldn’t desire it. For if we cut ourselves off from our source of life we will quickly suffer.
Sadly, I believe there are many in our country who view church just as I did, an activity no different than the many engaged in during the course of a week. Gathering with God’s people for worship is something that should be done because of the deference it pays God and nothing more. Now, there may be some who see church as providing social benefits, such as a network of friends and standing within the community, but most fail to recognize that without church the Christian cannot live!
Immanuel, we were made to worship, and to worship in community. We belong to a body, Christ’s body, therefore we cannot be separated from the body and expect to survive. Even though we may undergo times of transition, which we may liken to a transplant, we must find a new body before long otherwise we’ll suffer! For this reason brothers and sisters, “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
“But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.”
1 John 1:7
At the close of a recent worship service, one of our elders and his wife, stood before their church family and shared openly about a very difficult situation at work which had led to his losing his job. For many the transparency displayed by this couple was both surprising and not a little disconcerting. It was surprising because we live in a society that is intensely private. Our lives and experiences are our own. Our homes are private fiefdoms from which we venture forth in the morning to earn a living, and to which we retreat at the close of the day. We may share snippets of our lives with others through Social Media, but beyond those controlled views through virtual windows into our castles of solitude, we live in the shadows. To open the door, as our elder did, to his personal life, was to bring into the open things that we have been taught should remain in the dark.
As a culture marked by fierce individualism, we value independence. For Westerners, self-sufficiency is a mark of success and to this end it is vital that we never show weakness or admit to fault. Dependence upon others is a dangerous thing, and if anyone were to know about our struggles we would be vulnerable to attack. For this reason, we live behind self-made facades intended to display perpetual strength and success.
The tragedy of living behind such self-erected walls is that while we intend for them to protect us, in reality they isolate us. They isolate us from others and from the light. The Apostle John made clear in his first letter that we cannot walk in darkness and have fellowship with Christ. If we choose to pretend that our lives are perfect, that we never feel disappointment, or make mistakes, these walls which we’ve raised separate us from the One John recorded is “the light of the world” (John 8:12). The beauty of the Gospel is that it frees us from our self-created prisons of sin and unrealistic expectation. According to the Scriptures no one is good, and we don’t have to be, for while we were still sinners Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).
Immanuel, our walls isolate us from Christ and keep us from finding the fulfilment that He created us to enjoy in relationship with Him and one another. We aren’t saved because we deserve it, but rather because God is gracious. For this reason we ought to make every effort to live in the light. We should walk in the light, as John calls us to, so that we may have free and fulfilling fellowship with one another as the blood of Jesus purifies us from all our sin. Let us not allow unconfessed sin to trap us behind walls we were never intended to live behind!
“… your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
At the turn of the 20th century, Baptist pastor and theologian Walter Rauschenbusch wrote a book entitled, Christianity and the Social Crisis. His monograph became an instant best seller. From 1907 through 1910 Christianity and the Social Crisis was the most popular religious work in the country. It was even heralded by one theologian as the book that “ushered in a new era in Christian thought and action.”
Rauschenbuschs’ writings reflected his experience as a young pastor in Hell’s Kitchen, New York, where he had come face to face with the reality of social suffering: poverty, crime, and inequality. In his book Rauschenbusch argued that the Gospel could not be separated from life’s social struggles. Further, “whoever uncouples the religious and the social life has not understood Jesus. Whoever sets any bounds for the reconstructive power of the religious life over the social relations and institutions of men, to that extent denies the faith of the Master.” While many in the church were choosing to separate themselves from the sin so prevalent in society, Rauschenbusch urged Christians to action. His call to arms quickly led to the formation of what we know today as the Social Gospel movement.
Sadly, as with many such movements, the Gospel’s biblically stated goal of bringing men and women into right relationship with God through Jesus Christ was substituted for improving humanities quality of life. Rather than standing upon the objective truth of God’s Word, Social Gospellers argued for the autonomy of human reason. Today we would consider much of Rauschenbusch’s theology to be dangerously misleading; however, I believe that his desire to see the Church holistically engage culture with the Gospel was spot on.
Immanuel, we are called Christians because our lives ought to reflect Jesus. The Scriptures make clear that Christ lived in society, engaging the hurting, helping the homeless and feeding the hungry. Jesus wasn’t a social activist, but He was active in society. He didn’t come to improve man’s living conditions, but He lived and died that man’s condition might be improved!
As we prepare for the Fall, and all of the activities that accompany it, may we intentionally engage our community and culture with the Gospel. Let us make every effort to be tools in the hands of Jesus that His Kingdom may come, and His will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
 Walter Rauschenbush, Christianity and the Social Crisis (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1991), 42.
Glory to God alone
“… to the glory and praise of God.”
Over the past four months we have focused upon the Five Solas of the Reformation. Flowing from the fact that 2017 is the Quincentenary (500th) celebration of this theological watershed, we have looked together at four of these five theological principles: sola Scriptura (Scripture alone), sola fide (faith alone), sola gracia (Grace alone), and solus Christus (Christ alone). Today we come to the fifth and final Sola, soli deo Gloria (glory to God alone.)
The 16th century was a complex period featuring a number of significant developments on a number of different fronts. Philosophically: modernism with its emphasis upon science and reason began to take root. Politically: the distinction between monarch and serf began to erode. Economically: the invention of the printing press transformed the manner in which information was passed. And ecclesiastically: there arose a movement disillusioned by the man-centered, works based, faith of the Catholic Church.
Led by the likes of Martin Luther, John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli, the Reformation sought to free the Church from the vestiges of scholasticism, with its emphasis upon human achievement, and return its focus to God. Rather than viewing people as the central players in the work of salvation, the Reformers pointed to Scripture which proclaimed God’s place as primary. Humanity brought nothing to the table but sin, God brought salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, for His glory alone. For the Reformers, the end of salvation was not the improvement of the human condition. God did not send His Son that human beings might enjoy their best lives now. The purpose of all life is to glorify God! As the Scriptures declare in 1st Corinthians 10:31, “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.”
I believe that we are living at a time that in many ways mirrors the 16th century. The growing civil and social unrest we face flows from disillusionment with contemporary philosophy, politics and economics. The church’s popular promises of health, wealth and prosperity are beginning to be seen for what they are, empty man centered messages which cannot satisfy. Men and women in the 21st century want to live for something greater than themselves. They need a purpose more significant than temporary happiness. The Gospel is the answer.
In the Gospel, God does not save us because we are special but because He is a saving God (Psalm 68:20). He does not love us because we are lovable but because He is love (1 John 4:8). He isn’t merciful because we merit it but because He is a God of mercy (1 Peter 1: 3–4). He is supreme we are not. All God does, He does for the glory of that which is ultimate, who is God, not us!
Immanuel, may we, like the Reformers before us, recognize that we exist soli deo Gloria, and give our all to that end!
“Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.”
The church’s medieval years, or Dark Ages, were theologically troubling. Losing touch with the Patristic Fathers’ orthodoxy, and threatened by the rise of Islam, the church sought to secure its faith, and the faithful. Beginning with the monastic movements of Francis of Assisi and Dominic Guzman, coupled with the scholasticism of theologians Peter Lombard and Thomas Aquinas, the church started selling salvation as: belief in Jesus and adherence to ecclesial commands. The addition of human achievement to the work of salvation, cunningly indebted congregants to the church; who had appointed itself the sole authority in determining the authenticity and efficacy of salvific work.
By the sixteenth century, many Christians were beginning to chafe under this oppressive papal yoke. Martin Luther was one such individual who, in his search for salvation, had entered an Augustinian monastery in hopes of meriting eternal life. Adhering to the via moderna, a form of church instruction that encouraged human effort in resisting evil and seeking good thus meriting divine acceptance and justification, Luther found himself drowning under the weight of expectation. Unable to realize peace and retain confidence in his salvation, Luther was driven to study the Scriptures for himself.
In time, Luther came to see that man contributed nothing but sin and death to the work of salvation. Only Christ’s work of atonement was sufficient to save, and this work was done while we were still sinners (Romans 5:8). Man was helpless apart from God’s grace revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. In his 1520 treatise, Babylonian Captivity of the Church, Luther attacked the teachings of the church that enslaved men and women to rules not even the clergy could follow. For Luther, salvation was found in Christ alone. Jesus’ sinless life and substitutionary atonement alone are sufficient for our justification; and no amount of effort, herculean or otherwise, could contribute to it.
Immanuel, we are Luther’s protestant progeny in regards to the soteriological pillar of solus Christus (Christ Alone). As Baptists we believe that salvation comes by grace alone (sola gratia) through faith alone (sola fide) in Christ alone (solus Christus). There is no work which we may add to faith that contributes to our salvation. In the work of atonement God is active while man is passive. But like the medieval church, we face the daily temptation to stray from this Gospel. May we fight against our pride by looking to the Scriptures, and hear the words of Peter, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” Solus Christus!
“For it is by grace you have been saved”
“Amazing grace! how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me!” We sing these words so regularly that our hymnals fall open to #330. Our ears know the tune. We have memorized verses 1, 3 and 5! We even know the story behind this grand song. How former slave trader turned clergy man, John Newton, penned these words in the last years of the eighteenth century.
Amazing grace! How Sweet the Sound has a special place in Baptist worship. But as familiar as we are with its tune and words, including recent remakes, many of us miss the soteriological significance of grace! We attend church, participate in bible study, and head out on mission in hopes of securing salvation. Our lives are marked by fatigue and fear as we attempt to merit God’s favor. Despite declarations of salvation by grace, we cling to works. Disagree? Consider this: how often is your confidence in prayer tied to consistency in spiritual activity? How often do you feel the need to “make it up” to God after you sin? Immanuel, despite our rich Reformation heritage, we often fail to understand the extent of grace!
As a young man, Martin Luther was almost struck by lightning. Following his near death experience, Luther left his legal career and entered a monastery. Determined to find peace, he devoted himself to the study of Scripture and prayer. He even undertook a pilgrimage to Rome, but all of his efforts left him empty. It wasn’t until his turmerlebnis (tower experience), while reading Romans 1:17, that Luther came to understand that God saves us by His grace. The Gospel is the message of God’s gracious provision of righteousness through Jesus, a righteousness that comes sola gratia or by grace alone! Before his breakthrough Luther was overwhelmed with doubt, but in that moment, he felt, “that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.” Amazing grace!
What makes grace amazing is what makes grace, grace. We cannot pay God back. We cannot merit mercy, or secure salvation. The amazing grace of God saves wretches while they are wretches, not because of the works they perform, past, present or future. Immanuel, this is what makes grace amazing! May we not add works to the gospel for this destroys grace and enslaves us to fear. Rather, let us remember, as the Apostle Paul declared, “It is by grace you are saved….”
 Martin Luther, “Table Talk,” in vol. 54 of Luther’s Works, ed. Helmut T. Lehmann (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1958), 186.
The first centuries of the Church were marred by conflict and controversy. True to Christ’s warning recorded in Matthew 24:5, many came after Him proclaiming another Gospel, a message of salvation by God’s grace coupled with man’s effort. The great 4th Century Bishop of Hippo, Augustine, spent many years refuting this subtle heresy as preached by the British ascetic Pelagius. Schooled in both Greek and Latin, Pelagius was an educated moralist who denied that man was born sinful. For Pelagius, the human being began life with a blank slate and then could, of their own free will, either choose to be saved by the grace of God or to reject Him. Thanks in large part to Augustine’s apologetic, Pelagius’ dangerous teachings were declared heresy at the Council of Carthage in 418 AD.
After several hundred years of theological turmoil, the 5th Century Church had finally established as orthodox: the doctrine of salvation by faith alone, or sola fide. Sadly during the medieval period the Church, just as the people of Israel before them, lapsed into heresy such that by the 16th Century, the Pope was offering grace for sale. Any who were willing to contribute to papal building projects could purchase forgiveness for themselves and loved ones. Into the midst of this ecclesial corruption stepped a young Augustinian monk by the name of Martin Luther. Much as his order’s namesake, Luther was appalled at the heresy being preached by the Church. For Luther, salvation was a work of God’s grace alone as any participation by the subject being saved annihilated grace. For salvation to be complete it had to be accomplished by God.
Building upon the principle of sola scriptura, where the Word of God is man’s ultimate authority for all matters of faith and practice, Luther argued that in salvation God’s grace is evidenced by His election of men and women to faith through the heard word of the Gospel without reference to their foreseen merits or achievements. In other words, salvation comes by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. This belief stood wholly opposed to the position of the Catholic Church and resulted in Luther’s excommunication. Yet despite strong opposition, both ecclesial and political, Luther and his followers fought to restore the doctrine of sola fide with their lasting legacy being the formation of the Protestant Church tradition.
Immanuel, as Baptists who possess a Protestant heritage, we are indebted to Luther and the other reformers for their faithfulness to the Word of God in this essential doctrine. Let us thank God for His faithfulness in preserving His Church through the Reformation.
“The grass withers and the flower fall, but the word of our God stands forever”
In the year 1517, Francis I from the House of Valois was king of France, Charles V of the Habsburg dynasty was king of Spain and Pope Leo X was installed in Rome as leader of the Catholic Church. Facing the threat of the Muslim Ottoman Empire, Leo called for a crusade involving both Francis and Charles. In order to finance this massive military campaign, and to pay for the elaborate building project that was St. Peter’s Basilica, Leo instructed his extensive network of cardinals to increase their sale of indulgences. These wide ranging religious artifacts were purported, by the Pope, to guarantee forgiveness of sin if purchased by the penitent.
As the Pope’s representatives began their campaign in Germany, a heretofore little known Augustinian Monk and professor at the Saxon university of Wittenberg, Martin Luther, protested. Deeply concerned by the fact that he could find no biblical support for the sale of indulgences, Luther made a list of ninety-five things that he desired to debate. As per university protocol, Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the church door in Wittenberg. This action occurred on the day history has come to remember as October 31st and resulted in the event we now refer to as the Reformation.
This year, 2017 marks the quincentenary of the Reformation. As protestant evangelicals we are greatly indebted to the reformers, Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin among others, men with whom we may not have agreed theologically but whose courageous stand for biblical truth over tradition brought about the renewal of authentic Christian faith built upon the sole authority of God’s word. In opposition to the Catholic Church’s belief in the duel authority of the Pope and the Scriptures, the reformers stood for sola scriptura. They believed the ultimate authority for all matters of faith and practice was God’s Word.
Immanuel, as beneficiaries of the reformers stand for sola scriptura we Baptists have much to celebrate this year. As the prophet Isaiah declared created things such as the grass and flowers will fail, our bodies will grow old and die, but the Word of God never changes. Over the next few months we will study the five sola’s left us by the reformers. These five principles have impacted our faith in more ways than many of us are aware, and all rest upon and are drawn from God’s Word! May we thank God for the Reformation and for the power of God’s Word which never fails!
“Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men….”
1 Peter 2:13
Immanuel, just over a week ago the forty fifth president of our nation was sworn into office. At the start of the electoral process few, if any, projected that the candidate we now respectfully salute as “Mr. President,” would be Donald Trump. Yet in a result that reverberated around the world, the Republican candidate won convincingly, and is now official leader of the most powerful nation in the world. In light of the office he now holds, and the prestige with which it comes, President Trump’s name may be mentioned in the same breath as those of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt. Yet I am sure that there are many for whom such a thought seems blasphemous. As a man, Donald Trump is a far cry from the virtuous character who was of our nation’s first leader; and his values as contrary to those of our sixteenth. There are many in our country, as well as in the church, who feel that President Trump is unqualified to lead, and they have moral, along with scriptural support for their sentiment. Yet the fact remains that Donald Trump is our elected President. Thus, in light of this reality, Church, how are we to live?
The apostle Peter makes clear our responsibility, along with the reason. In his first letter he writes, “Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men….” As Christians first, and Americans second, our allegiance is to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Our citizenship is in heaven (Phil 3:20) where Christ is preparing a place for us, His people (John 14:2). As sojourners (1 Peter 1:1) we may submit to every authority, praying faithfully for their salvation (1 Tim 2:2), obeying the laws for which they stand (1 Peter 2:15) while striving to set the truth of the Gospel before an unbelieving world (2 Cor 4:2).
Friends, you may, or may not, have endorsed our new President but we are all called to submit to him. May we not exhaust ourselves bemoaning what might have been, instead let us fix our minds upon what is, our eyes on what lies ahead, and run with perseverance the race marked out for us (Heb 12:1).
“He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”
I like “new”, don’t you? The smell of new, the feel of new, the taste of new, what’s not to like about that which is new other than its price, right? There is something about “new” that brings joy to my heart and a smile to my face. Maybe it’s the fact that “new” is untarnished, untainted, and untouched. Or possibly it’s the comfort that comes from knowing I’ll be the first to experience and enjoy it, and that I know it works! Or maybe it’s simply the significance symbolized in receiving it, there is just something special about “new”.
And Immanuel, as we look to the New Year I hope that your hearts are filled with excitement for the fresh opportunities, unmade decisions and myriad of experiences that await. What lies in the past is old, it is gone and it is fixed, but all that lies before us is “new”. This is why the Apostle Paul would exhort the Church in Philippi writing, “But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” (Phil 3:13-14) Paul knew the joy of the new, he had experienced it, he was “new”, a new creation (2 Cor 5:17). For the Apostle there was no reason to dwell upon the “old” of the past because of all the “new” that lay before him in the present. Paul’s eyes were fixed to the future and the glorious day when God would make everything new.
Church, as we embark on this New Year, I pray that God would strengthen us by His Spirit that we may run the race He has marked out before us with joy. I pray that we would be filled to measure of all the fullness of God that we might boldly proclaim the Gospel, the message of new life in Jesus.
“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
For the Church, the Advent season is the celebration of a defining doctrine of the Christian faith; the moment in time when the Creator became as one of His creation, the infinite enfleshed Himself in finitude, the immortal clothed Himself in mortality. The Incarnation is as central to our Western understanding of Christmas, as the empty tomb is to Easter, but sadly these two events are rarely celebrated together. For many Christians, Christmas is the time to celebrate Christ’s birth to a virgin named Mary, who was betrothed to a man, named Joseph. This is the incarnation, the moment in time when God became a man. At Easter we celebrate Christ’s death and resurrection, the moment in time when God redeemed His creation from sin and made it possible for them to once again live in relationship with Him. The only connection between these two foundational faith events is Jesus. Sadly, such a limited understanding of incarnation means that for many, the only Christ they know, and celebrate at Christmas, is a baby that lies in a manger. His only power is the ability possessed by a child to make those who gaze upon it smile. This baby Jesus and the triumphant Christ of the Cross have no more in common than incarnation and crucifixion. But Church this is not the picture we are given in Scripture, this is not the Gospel! The Church Father Athanasius understood the incarnation not as the moment of Christ’s birth but as the means by which God redeemed fallen flesh. For Athanasius the incarnation of Christ was His becoming like man, that He might redeem man on the Cross. It wasn’t about a lowly stable and a helpless babe, but a bloody cross and a suffering Savior. The incarnation was God’s Son covering Himself in fallen flesh that He might redeem us by His grace through faith!
Immanuel, as we approach this Advent season may we not miss the beauty of Christ’s incarnation as it directs us to glory in the Cross, and the redemption that is ours because of our victorious Savior!
“The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry…”
1 Kings 17:14
At a time when the leaders of Israel were arrogant, their nation embattled, and their faith in foreign gods, the LORD sent His prophet Elijah to a widow at Zarephath. While famine ravaged the land, God directed this woman with a son and enough food for one last meal, to first feed His prophet. As all around her seemed lost, her friends and relatives suffering and her hope for the future nonexistent, God called for her to take a giant step of faith. “Don’t be afraid,” Elijah said to her, “Go home and do as you have said. But first make a small cake of bread for me from what you have and bring it to me, and then make something for yourself and your son.” God called for this widow to trust Him, not simply in her heart but by her actions. She was to give Him the first portion of what little she had, not the leftovers after she and her son had their fill. She had to hand over what she had to God before she could receive from God.
Friend, this is faith! It does not make sense. You cannot defend it on the basis of logic because faith is not rooted in reason. The decision facing the widow of Zarephath, logically, was simple, make a meal and then die. She had no reserves, no hope of future provision other than the promise of God. But the promises of God, church, run deeper than our deepest wells, are richer than our richest storehouses and more secure than the earth beneath our feet. God calls us, just as He called the widow of Zarephath, to step out in faith and follow Him.
Immanuel, as we turn to the coming fiscal year we must have faith that our jar of flour will not be used up and our jug of oil will not run dry if we follow our God’s leading! As we prepare to step out in faith may the experience of the widow of Zarephath encourage us all for, “the jar of flour was not used up and the jug of oil did not run dry, in keeping with the word of the LORD….” May our faith be to the glory of God!
“After that whole generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation grew up, who neither knew the LORD nor what he had done for Israel.”
Immanuel, with the fall in full swing, school back in session, and a fourth of the football season gone, it is so easy to get caught up in the madness of the moment. As we careen through life simply trying to stay ahead it so simple to forget where we’ve been, and it is even easier to keep silent about it.
One of the many blessings with which we have been endowed is that of a rich Christian heritage. As a nation our history is marked by men and women of faith who weren’t willing to compromise with the world but stood firm upon the truths of God’s Word. The people of Israel had a heritage that in many ways mirrors our own. They had begun from almost nothing, one small family and a few friends who had been brought through some trying times by the providence of God. God had richly blessed the people of Israel. He had provided for them in a desert, for over forty years. He had given them provisions, protection and His presence. But then in Judges chapter 2 we read the tragic words, “another generation grew up, who neither knew the LORD nor what He had done for Israel.” In the midst of their busyness, in the rush to settle in their new home, in their haste to become established the Israelites had forgotten the most important thing: they had forgotten the LORD.
Immanuel, we, like the people of Israel before us, have a rich heritage. We are the beneficiaries of the God honoring decisions of men and women who began gathering together some sixty years ago. We have a rich heritage of faith because we serve a glorious God. May we be vigilant to remind one another of all that God has done for us. May we never tire of teaching our children of the grace and love of God. May we not have said of us, that we allowed a generation to grow up who neither knew the LORD nor what He has done for us.
“Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.”
How many of us have ever heard said, or been tempted to say ourselves, “Man that was lucky!” or “How fortunate!” Expressions such as these are common in our culture and communicate both a sense of appreciation for whatever is being referenced, along with attributing its causation to an enigmatic entity existing as Dorothy once sang, “Somewhere over the rainbow.” As space filling, pre-packaged, phrases these expressions appear harmless enough which is why we often hear them used inside the walls of the church. Unfortunately these seemingly innocuous utterances reveal a deeply flawed understanding of God that is not built not upon biblical truth.
By attributing the outcome of favorable experiences to ‘luck’ or ‘fortune’ we are articulating our belief, conscious or unconscious, in a God who is distant and only concerned with the big picture. He isn’t interested in the details of life, and most certainly not my life. He has far more important things to be about. Unsurprisingly, such belief in an impersonal deity, or deism, is not new. One of our nation’s founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, was a deist. He believed that while God created the universe, and is therefore far greater than the universe, God is in no way concerned by, or involved in, the day to day running of life. God, like a divine clock maker, created and then wound up this world and then left it to run on its own. As men and women created in the image of God we have the ability, and responsibility, to solve our own problems because God could not be troubled with such trivialities as scoring a great deal on a cellphone, discovering your air conditioner would be replaced at no cost, or bumping into someone that you haven’t seen in years in an airport.
Immanuel, the glorious truth of the Gospel is that God is not distant or uninterested in His creation. He is intimately involved. He feeds the birds, clothes the flowers of the field, He knows the number of hairs upon your head and He sent His one and only Son to be born of a virgin, live among us, and die for us! Brothers and sisters, may we be reminded that there is no such thing as luck, or good fortune, in the economy of God. He knows and cares about everything so we have absolutely no need to worry about tomorrow, the activities of next week, or the outcome of this fall’s elections, because our God knows, cares and He is in control!
“The earth is the LORD’s and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it; for He founded it upon the seas and established it upon the waters.” Psalm 24:1-2
The social, political and economic trends in our country over the past year have felt much like a ride on a roller coaster. The car plummeting from once lofty heights, racing faster and faster in a direction no one is certain of, or prepared for, while its occupants scream in fear, hearts racing, stomachs in their throats; the violence of the sudden directional changes finding more and more frequent expression across our nation as we hear breaking stories that break our hearts for the victims and their families.
As this coaster car picks up speed, at an increasingly alarming rate, all hope for an end to this wild ride has turned to despair, and the sense of satisfaction brought on by the meal we ate before it began has now become nausea threatening to make us sick! For many Americans the temptation to abandon this ride is very real! For many Christians this sentiment is even stronger because, this world is not our home we’re just a passin’ through, right? We aren’t the cause of much of the conflict and we clearly no longer have the public influence we once held and so are not counted on to be the source of a solution. What’s keeping us in this car? Should we stay? Should we care?
Immanuel, I firmly believe that we should both care and stay; in fact I would go so far as to say, we have been divinely commissioned to both. The Psalmist declares, “The earth is the LORD’s and everything in it.” In other words, there is no piece of, or place in, this fallen world over which God does not still reign and in which He is not still at work. In the words of the Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper, “there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”
As the body of Christ, brothers and sisters, we have a responsibility to hang tight in this wild ride and to offer our fellow travelers hope. We are called, as the Israelites before us, to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which [we have been] carried….” (Jer 29:7) We have the comfort that our God is right beside us, we have joy in knowing how this ride will end and we have the peace that passes all understanding. So let us pray fervently for our nation, let us love our neighbors and let us shine the light of the Gospel during these ever darkening days that “the King of glory may come in. Who is this King of glory? The LORD strong and mighty, the LORD mighty in battle…He is the King of glory.” (Ps 24:8-10)
“The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.”
As people we hold a unique perspective fashioned by culture and molded by time. Like a rock exposed to the elements our world view is shaped by the climate that surrounds us. While sensitivity to these swirling currents keeps our eyes open to the latest and greatest, such prolonged staring often causes the conditions of the past to blur with the present. We begin to view history from our current perspective, failing to appreciate the unique elements of the past, and leading to a flawed understanding of that which we are studying. Historians have a name for this fallacy, anachronism.
Tragically as the Church we are often guilty of anachronism in our approach to Scripture. We read the stories of the Bible with an understanding of the text crafted in the 21st Century while the setting for the story was the 1st Century. Such misreading may be trivial, resulting in a laugh. At other times it may be significant leading to heresy. One common misunderstanding regards work in the Church.
As 21st Century Americans we tend to view Church like we do a restaurant. We attend to be fed, enjoy the atmosphere and to like what we purchase. As customers we expect to be served and the idea of working is offensive because we are the ones paying, right? Unfortunately our mindset in the West, weathered by the winds of capitalism, democracy and equality, sees serving as a sign of weakness and the responsibility of a select few. Yet when we look to Scripture we find that from the very beginning, before sin marred God’s good creation, work in the service of another was man’s privilege. God made man to work for Him, taking care of His creation and filling the earth with His glory. The privilege of work was given to man and no one else, and Church this purpose for man has not changed. As God’s people we are called to serve the Lord with gladness (Ps 100:2), to do whatever we do whether in word or deed in the name of the Lord Jesus (Col 3:15), in fact Scripture declares that we were made to do good works which God prepared in advance for us to do (Eph 2:10).
Immanuel, let us pray for God to lead us to the work for which He has gifted and called us, that He may be glorified in our Church!
“As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work.”
Immanuel, if you are anything like me then as we approach the summer months your heart feels lighter, the air smells cleaner, the sky is bluer and your skin sighs under the suns warm rays. After months of cold, what feels like, and this year has been literally, weeks of clouds and rain, the heat has finally arrived. And with this heat comes the promise of vacation, the chance to take a break from routine, particularly for those students among us, and enjoy some well-deserved time off. Unfortunately for many, myself included, the attitude we often evidence, of antagonism towards work, bleeds over from the spheres of academia and commerce into the spiritual, as we see the summer as an opportunity to take a break from the work of the Christian life.
Yet, when we look to Scripture, while there is much said about the importance of rest and of getting away, we are never exhorted to take a vacation from God. The times of solitude and seasons of retreat encouraged in Scripture are to be taken in the presence of God, not apart from Him. Further, as Jesus urged His disciples in John’s Gospel, we must work as long as it is day, in other words for as long as the Lord allows, because there is coming a time when no one can work.
Friends what this means for us is that as long as we have breath and until Christ returns, we must be fully engaged in the Lord’s work. There is no vacation from the blessing of corporate worship, no break from the joy of personal discipleship through bible study and prayer, and definitely no reprieve from the privilege of fulfilling the Great Commission. Immanuel, may we make this summer a season of intense and intentional ministry for the glory of God!
“Sovereign Lord … you made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them.”
In this prayer voiced by the disciples after being released by the Jewish leaders, we have textual attestation of the sovereignty of God. Of the many theological beliefs held by the Church few have caused more debate and disagreement than the Doctrine of the Sovereignty of God. For many it is a shallow spiritual panacea aimed at eliminating all traces of human responsibility. For others it is a deep doctrinal declaration that serves as a wellspring of hope in a world filled with despair.
For the disciples who spoke these words recorded in Acts chapter 4, the Sovereignty of God was a statement of fact. It reflected the truth spoken many years later by Dutch Theologian Abraham Kuyper that “there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’” As men who had recently been imprisoned and interrogated, they recognized that the religious rulers had no power over them but what God had ordained. Days later God’s sovereign power would once again be on display as, imprisoned for a second time, He would send an angel to open the doors to the jail and relock them once the disciples had departed (Acts 5:19-20).
And Immanuel, as we consider the wonder of the sovereignty of God may we, like the disciples, revel in the knowledge that no matter what trials we may face, He is able to work all things together for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28). As we face a future marked by political uncertainty we have nothing to fear because our God is sovereign and there is not a single authority that exists which has not been established by God (Romans 13:1). So let us celebrate the sovereignty of our God and like the disciples beseech our God to enable us as His servants to speak His Word with great boldness (Acts 4:29).
Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world ….”
As the media gives more and more time, if that is possible not to mention palatable, to detailing developments in the upcoming Presidential election, and in the glaring absence of a genuine Christ following candidate in the running, many in the Church are asking the question, and rightly so, “What is our political responsibility? Do we have one in our current election crisis?” Politicizing the popular Christian acronym WWJD (What Would Jesus Do), many in our evangelical community are asking WWJVF? (Who Would Jesus Vote For?)
As Americans with a proud political heritage of popular involvement, we are cognizant that the freedoms we hold have come at great cost. The freedom to vote is a privilege enjoyed by few in our world today. But as Christians in an increasingly secular society, should we be political? One of our nation’s political pillars is the separation of church and state, a constitutional amendment that is more commonly interpreted, or I should say, misinterpreted to mean the separation of politics and religion. Building upon presuppositions originating in the Enlightenment where Science reigns supreme, not Religion, many today have so marginalized matters of faith that they believe they have no bearing on real life, particularly not a presidential campaign. Are they right?
Sadly, I feel that many in the Church answer affirmatively and, using texts such as John 18:36 in which Jesus declares that His “… kingdom is not of this world …,” they choose to disengage politically, opting instead to focus their efforts on fulfilling Christ’s Great Commission. I humbly confess that until recently I was of this opinion, feeling that politics was the responsibility of citizens of this world but since my citizenship is in heaven (Phil 3:20) I was off the hook. Please don’t misunderstand, I am firmly convinced that as Christ’s church we must be about the business of the Great Commission, only I now realize that this comes with a responsibility to be political.
Unfortunately there is just not space in an article such as this to fully explicate all such a responsibility entails, but let me at least attempt a summary. First, as citizens of Christ’s Kingdom, His Church, it is our responsibility as an institution to exemplify the peace, order, joy and civility the nations crave. Under the rule of grace, and in obedience to God’s Law, we are called to first love the Lord with all that we are and then to love others in like manner. As we endeavor to these ends our efforts will, by God’s grace and through His power, permeate the society that surrounds us thus effecting political change. Second, and more directly, as ambassadors of Christ clearly called to “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Matt 22:21). We must be involved in that over which Caesar reigns, the political realm, and that over which God reigns which, just so you know, is everything (1 Cor 10:26) including politics!
Immanuel, as the Church may we work together to build Christ’s kingdom here on earth, as it is in heaven (Matt 6:9-10).
* For further reading I recommend Political Church: The Local Assembly as Embassy of Christ’s Rule by Jonathan Leeman.
March 2016- Risen
“Why do you look for the living among the dead?” Luke 24:5b
As human beings we are prone to doubt and resistant to change. We tend to linger when we ought to move, we drag our heels when we should hurry, and we often look back when a forward gaze is what is required. Our proclivity to the past is duly noted and biblically evidenced in the pillar of salt that was Lot’s wife. Drawn to what she knew, to what was familiar and therefore comfortable, she failed to fix her eyes forwards and as a result perished. As men and women who share her tendencies, we need to heed the words of the Apostle Paul to the church in Philippi, and forgetting what is behind strain towards what is ahead, pressing on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called us heavenward in Christ Jesus (Phil. 3:13-14).
But how does one do this? As the old adage goes, surely this is “easier said than done” otherwise Paul wouldn’t have exhorted his original readers in this manner? Where do we begin, what is the first step that we must take? And the answer, I believe, reveals a simple but spiritually significant irony. I believe that in order to fix our eyes upon the living we must regularly visit the realm of the dead, and let me explain.
In Luke’s Gospel chapter twenty four he records how, after Christ’s crucifixion, the women visited the tomb on the first day of the week. Upon arrival they encountered the angels who asked them “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” The words of these heavenly heralds revealed that Christ was not dead; He had risen just as He had said. The moment that the women heard those words, Luke records that they “… remembered …” (Luke 24:8) and left immediately to tell all that they had experienced to the others.
Immanuel, if we are to fix our eyes upon Jesus then we must begin, like those ladies, with an encounter with the risen Jesus, an encounter that begins at the foot of the cross and leads to an empty tomb. We must, with eyes of faith, look into the tomb and see that He is alive because then, and only then, may we know that He is who He says He is. And as we run the race that is set before us, I believe that we need to regularly visit that tomb to be reminded of our Lord’s victory. We don’t live in the past but when doubts assail, and they will, we find assurance for our faith in the words of the angels, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” He is risen!
February 2016- Perseverance
“… and I will raise him up at the last day.”
As the second month of our now no longer ‘New’ Year begins, I would imagine that most of our resolutions, made amidst the festive furor of the holiday season, have long been abandoned. Any guilt and pain we may have felt for having fallen off the wagon so soon is now a distant memory, as is the wagon which has left us far behind.
It is a sad commentary on our 21st Century society that we who are so quick to commit are the most unlikely to see through to completion those commitments. As a ‘throwaway culture’, to use a phrase popularized by Pope Francis, we show little interest in maintenance and repair. If something breaks we simply buy a new one. Tragically, this attitude of the moment pervades more than just the material, it has saturated the spiritual.
As a denomination, Southern Baptists (SBC) have been in an overall decline for the past 15 years. While the number of congregations affiliated with the SBC has risen, the overall attendance has not. In other words, while more new Church plants are taking place, the church, meaning the men and women who compose those plants, are not persevering. In 2014 over 200,000 people left the SBC and while this is not definitive proof that they have abandoned their faith, it is alarming.
Immanuel, as followers of Jesus Christ, it is becoming increasingly apparent that to be a Christian in today’s world is to live counter-culture. In a society which condones and even encourages quitting when things aren’t going your way, God’s Word declares that only those who “continue in your faith” (Col. 1:23) will be saved. The Apostle Paul makes liberal use of the athletic analogy to depict the spiritual life. He likens our pursuit of Christ to a marathon in which we must run with perseverance. (Phil. 3:14) There are no rewards for participation for as Jesus said only, “he who stands firm to the end will be saved.” (Matt. 10:22)
But what hope do we have of staying the course, we who, as we read this, likely have flashbacks to our most recent ‘New Year’s Resolution’ wreck? And the answer is God! Just as we have no hope of salvation apart from the grace of God in Christ Jesus, so to we have no hope of persevering in this grace apart from the power of God. Jesus’ words to us are these, “For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” (John 6:40) Later on in John 10:27-29 Jesus says again of His followers, “they shall never perish.”
The mystery of God’s saving and securing of His followers is indeed more wonderful than we can comprehend, yet we cheapen this work of grace when we believe that to join the team entitles us to the trophy. Only those who finish the race will receive the prize. Where then is our hope? Thanks be to God that those who wait upon the Lord “… will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” (Isa. 40:31)
Immanuel let us persevere in our faith with the full assurance of our Savior that He will raise us up at the last day!
January 2016- Where will you turn?
Now the Bereans were of more noble character … they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. (Acts 17:11)
At the end of the 18th Century, the Scottish Philosopher David Hume had created a furor within the religious establishment by his skepticism. Hume, desiring absolute certainty in all that he knew, came to the conclusion that this was impossible, particularly as regards religion. The foundation of religion is belief, belief which according to Hume cannot be empirically verified and therefore is uncertain.
As the philosophy of David Hume spread more and more men and women turned their backs on the Christian faith. Unable to argue with the logic of his enlightened reasoning, and without an objective standard of absolute truth, many in the Church were swept away by the rising tide of skepticism.
In many ways the cultural climate of Europe during the Enlightenment reflected that of first Century Palestine. As the influence of Greece and Rome spread more and more men and women began to abandon the faith of their fathers and turn to new philosophies. These systems, built upon the work of Plato and Aristotle, traded the revealed truth of God for ones conceived by the human mind. The Apostle Paul engaged these systems with the Gospel directing all who heard him to the certainty afforded in the Word of God. Sadly many who heard Paul received his message uncritically as simply the most current and trendy of new beliefs. Luke records how this was the case for the Thessalonians whom he describes as lacking noble character. They simply followed the crowd and did not possess personal conviction; the Bereans, however, were different.
Luke describes how the Bereans received the message of Paul with excitement but they tested it against the standard of Scripture. The Bereans, unlike the Thessalonians, 18th Century Europeans and many 21st Century Americans, held fast to the Word of God as the source of absolute truth. They were unwilling to abandon the Word of God and to embrace the reason of man, at the same time they did not reject outright new teachings about Truth. The Bereans actively and critically engaged their culture using reason subject to God’s revelation.
And Immanuel as we prepare to enter this New Year it is vital that we engage our culture with the Gospel. To do this requires obedience to Christ’s Great Commission. We must GO in 2016 into the communities of Salisbury, the cities of our state and beyond with the Gospel, and as we go we must be prepared to TEACH those we encounter the truth of God’s Word. We must, like the Bereans, take all the thinking that we will encounter, all the postmodern philosophy, and subject it to the revealed truth of God given in His Word. The moment that we abandon Scripture as our sole source of Truth we become like a ship adrift in a stormy sea. This year, Immanuel, let us commit to be like the Bereans and engage our culture with the Gospel, being certain to test everything we encounter against the truth of God’s Word!