Monday, August 31, 2015

"God, I thank you that I am not like those people with an Ashley Madison account."

It's discouraging to see, almost daily, more and more names of recognizable figures added to the list of those who have been "discovered" to have had an Ashley Madison account. When the news came out that 37 million usernames would be released, my initial response was, "I'm so glad I never created an account on that site."

And I am glad that I never created an account on that site. But my reaction was very much like that of the Pharisee in Luke 18. "God, I thank you that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector."

The reality is that, in my flesh, I am like them. 

Don't think of yourself as having been spared if you're living in hidden sin, just not on Ashley Madison. You may not have been discovered by man, but your sin lays bare before God, which is a far scarier reality.

Through middle and high school and into college, my life was marred with hidden sexual sin. But what I've found is that my shame was a gift from God. Having what is hidden become seen is good. When my mom tried to discretely warn me that she'd seen the internet history when I was in middle school, that was good. Having what is secret become known is gracious. When, in high school, Anna saw something on my computer that I thought I'd covered up, that was gracious. Having the darkness come into the light is redemptive. In college, when I confessed a struggle with internet pornography to several accountability partners, that was redemptive. Guilt, shame, regret, and vulnerability don't feel good in the moment, but they are wonderful things if we allow them to drive us to repentance and faith in the cleansing, renewing blood of Jesus.

It may hurt our reputation for a while, but our reputation is not nearly as precious as the condition of our soul.

I'm no better than any Ashley Madison user. I've been in those pits of destruction and chased fleeting pleasures, and I've found that that's all they are, fleeting. And from a purely rational perspective, it makes no sense because no sin is rational. It's an invitation to risk your life for a moment full of lies. Sexual sin over-promises and under-delivers more than any presidential candidate you'll ever see. And there are far too many of us buying into the lie.

There's been a suggestion, I guess to make us feel better about it, that the number of user accounts on Ashley Madison, 37 million, is an inflated number because only a portion of those accounts are real people, but the reality is that there is a real person behind every fake account. And the more deafening reality is that most of the people living in hidden sin online are doing it in some place other than Ashley Madison, so it's not unreasonable to think that the number 37,000,000 pales in comparison to the true number of those wallowing in the darkness of addictions and perversions on the darkest side of the internet.

So I'm inviting you, begging you, to come out of the darkness. 

Don't take 1 John 1:6,8 lightly when it says, "If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth....If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us." The reality is that if we keep our sin in the darkness, we should have absolutely no expectation of salvation. 

But while we shouldn't take 1 John 1:6,8 lightly, please, please, please don't miss the gracious invitation of 1 John 1:7,9. "If we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin...If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."

Initial confession is hard. And beyond the initial confession, it stays hard, but it gets easier because the Holy Spirit empowers us to kill sin as He forms us into the image of Christ. Every day is a new opportunity and responsibility to continue clinging to Christ, to continue repenting from the sinful inclinations within us that tempt us with lies like, "You won't get caught," or, "It's not that bad," or even, "It's worth it."

So find a believer that you know and trust, and confess your sin. And ask them to watch over your soul by holding you accountable and by helping you establish consequences and practical helps for fleeing sin. For example, I don't have a data plan so that I won't be faced with nearly as many temptations from my cell phone as I could be. I have had accountability reporting software on my computer that tracks and reports my internet history. I've asked friends to make sure I leave my career in ministry if I ever fall back into certain sins. Perhaps cutting off data from your cell phone seems inconvenient. Perhaps risking your job for a mistake seems radical, but I want to do everything I can to make sure Satan does not gain a foothold in my life again. Don't make any provision for the flesh. Put walls up between you and your sin, and run to Christ for satisfaction.

I'm certainly not free from temptation, and none of us will obtain perfect obedience on this side of death. But I fight hard every day for purity in my heart and mind and actions. By the Spirit, we will put to death the deeds of the flesh.

My prayer is that God will use all of us who have come out of sexual sin to bring others out of it as well and perhaps even, by God's grace, prevent many others from entering into it at all. Satan wants to use the Ashley Madison hack to steal, kill, and destroy marriages and men, but God will use it to bring about repentance and faith and new life. 

In Romans 13:14, Paul says, "Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts."

Do this every day. Every day, die to your flesh, and every day, live in the righteousness of Christ that you've been given in the cross. 

You're looking at the horizon, and the sun is at the crest. Will you look to Christ and let the Light of Day give you life, or will you turn back to your sin and see the darkness of night come upon you?

There's hope in Jesus for the adulterer, the exhibitionist, the pervert, the homosexual, the porn addict, and every other person trapped in sexual sin. Come out of your sin, and come to Christ. He will make you new. 

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Greatest Church Growth Strategy Ever

Lately, the Christian blogosphere has been filled with posts about the "declining" church and, along with them, posts about what the church ought to do to reach people. Modern churches have come up with countless ways to reach their communities. They've changed their music. They've redecorated their buildings. They've tried skinny jeans and soul patches. They've held community events and given away door prizes. The church has done studies on what millennials want, and they've added programs to suit the needs of the community. They've updated their websites. They've modernized their signs. They've tried fancy. They've tried stripped down. They've tried high church. They've tried experiential worship. They've tried to be professional. They've tried to just be real.

The reality is that there are a lot of churches doing all of those things or none of those things, and some of them are growing, while some of them are declining.

Today I want to present to you the greatest church growth and membership retention strategy in the entire universe. It is timeless. It is foolproof. And, apart from it, every other strategy is completely worthless.

So here it is:

For the low, low cost of a Bible, you can find the most effective church growth strategy in human history.

"'Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ -- this Jesus whom you crucified.' Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, 'Brethren, what shall we do?' Peter said to them, 'Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.' And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, saying, 'Be saved from this perverse generation!' So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls. They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer." (Acts 2:37-41)

In the Great Commission, Jesus commanded the apostles to make disciples, baptize them, and teach them to obey His commands. And here, in the book of Acts, we see the inauguration of the apostles' obedience to Jesus' command in the Great Commission. In this passage, what does Peter want the house of Israel to know for certain? Is it the kind of music the church will have? Is it the humanitarian causes in which the church will be involved? No. What Peter wants everyone present to know is that God has made Jesus both Lord and Christ. And what happened when Peter preached this message? "Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart."

The message of the gospel of Jesus Christ is a message that has the power of salvation. Scripture teaches us that the Spirit of God works through the preaching of the Word to change people's hearts unto salvation. Paul affirms this in Romans 1:16, "For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes." Over and over in the New Testament, we see the Spirit of God rending and mending the hearts of men as they are drawn to Christ by the Word.

The primary issue in declining churches today is not that they aren't attractive enough to their communities; it is that the people in those churches are largely, if not entirely, ashamed of the gospel. They don't love Christ enough to proclaim what He has done, and they don't love people enough to share with them the one thing that could save their soul. We'll do as many humanitarian projects as we can find if we don't have to call someone to repent of their sins and trust in Christ. We'll sing in the choir if we don't have to talk to our coworker about Jesus. We'll go to Bible studies multiple times a week as long as we don't have to share what we learned with unbelievers.

It will face you with more rejection than giving away TVs. It will lead to more awkward conversations than community outreach events. It will make you seem less relevant than having a polished praise band. It will cause you to feel more incompetent than updating programs and technology. It will make you seem less loving than working in a soup kitchen. But talking to people about the gospel of Jesus Christ is the church growth strategy that the Bible prescribes, and, apart from it, we will not see genuine conversions or any growth that is actually commendable.

What do we tell people about Jesus? God has made Him both Lord and Christ! Jesus is Lord; we are called to repent from our sins and follow His ways. And Jesus is Christ; we are called to believe in him for the forgiveness of sins because he died on the cross in order to take the wrath of God for our sins. The greatest need in your community is the need for salvation. So if you love your community and want to reach your community for Christ, preach this gospel, and trust the Spirit of God to work through your preaching to pierce people's hearts.

The fact that the Spirit moves through the Word frees you from any responsibility to convince people through eloquent speech or clever rhetoric. We have come up with a thousand excuses for why we aren't sharing the gospel, but the reality is that tens of thousands of people are dying every single day on a path that will leave them separated from God for eternity in hell. In light of that reality, any excuse we can come up with for why we aren't sharing the gospel is, at best, ignorant foolishness or, at worst, heinous evil.

Stop wasting time by making the starting point of your church growth strategy figuring out how you can be more attractive to a particular demographic or how you can get crowds through the front door. The starting point of your church growth strategy should be to train your current disciples to be more faithful to Christ and to share the saving message of Jesus Christ with others. When that's your starting point, the other responsibilities and pursuits of your church will become evident by where the gospel takes you.

The responsibility of the church is not to be appealing to the world, but rather to be the faithful bride of Christ. We cannot conform our message to tickle the ears of our world, but we must be faithful to proclaim with Peter, "Be saved from this perverse generation!" All four Gospels record Jesus as having told his disciples that they would be hated by the world. John 15:18-20 says, "If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, 'A slave is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they kept My word, they will keep yours also." There will be some that do not receive the gospel, but be encouraged: there will also be some that do!

There are a lot of churches that are growing, and some of them are completely abandoning the Bible and the gospel to do so. Because of that, numeric growth isn't a very good measure of success. If our strategy is simply to bring people in and make them feel welcome enough to stay, then we're not a church -- we're a club. There are a number of effective and natural ways to grow a church, but if we want to grow a church biblically, it will always involve supernatural means. This makes us completely dependent upon the help of the Spirit, but our dependence upon the Spirit is really our greatest strength. So while numeric growth isn't a sure measure of success, faithfulness to the command to make disciples and grow disciples will almost inevitably lead to numeric growth. We would be naive to think we'll get three thousand converts every time we preach, like we saw from Peter's preaching in Acts 2. But we should pray and expect that God will indeed save people through our faithfulness to proclaim the message of salvation in Christ.

There are a lot of practices and teachings that the church has neglected, but none is more damning than its negligence of evangelism. One of my greatest fears is one day learning how many people will be in hell that I could have shared the gospel with, but didn't. Christians have been given the greatest gift in the universe, a gift that only increases as we share it with others, yet we have largely succumbed to the temptations of Satan to conform to the world and be silent about our faith. There is no other way to salvation but through Jesus Christ. This exclusivity of the gospel is something that many people find offensive, but it is something that Jesus and the apostles proclaimed boldly, not because they wanted to offend people, but because it is the truth. And if telling someone that they are a sinner who needs Christ is judgmental or condescending, then I'm incredibly thankful that there were people who were willing to be judgmental and condescending to me.

"'Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.' How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? How will they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, 'How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news of good things!' However, they did not all heed the good news; for Isaiah said, 'Lord, who has believed our report?' So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ." (Romans 10:13-17)

So look for opportunities to guide your conversations toward Jesus Christ. Be bold enough to ask people what they believe about Christ and, if they're not Christians, ask them what it would take for them to become Christians. Ask people if they would be willing to submit their life to Christ and trust him to forgive their sins. Ask people if they go to church. Ask people what they believe happens after we die. If you don't feel comfortable asking people questions like these, that's fine, but don't use that as an excuse to not talk to people about Christ. If we truly care for the people in our lives, then we need to strategically seek out opportunities to talk to them about salvation.

Then, as people come to know Jesus Christ, we cannot just leave them there. We must train them in the ways of God. We must teach them what being under the lordship of Jesus is all about. We must come alongside them and help them fight temptation and sin. We must teach them to share Christ with others. And we must do this by exemplifying all of these things with our own lives! We need to be the kind of disciples who make disciples, and we need to make disciples who end up making more disciples.

Making disciples who make disciples is the greatest church growth strategy ever, so let us aim all of our church growth efforts toward equipping our congregations to live out this strategy.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

On the Celebration and Normalization of Transgenderism

Bruce Jenner is well-known for a lot of reasons, but his gender transformation has certainly been the focus of his notoriety lately. Jenner's 20/20 interview with Diane Sawyer and the Vanity Fair cover story introducing "Caitlyn" Jenner have been two of the most significant pieces of media coverage to date on the topic of gender identity, and they have certainly shed a lot of light on the diverse experiences of transgender people. This certainly wasn't the first time that the media has covered gender identity issues, and the trend in media and culture lately has been to celebrate gender transformations and normalize their occurrences. Some of this coverage has been incredibly helpful because, in large part, the culture has been ignorant to the experiences of people who have a different understanding of their sexual or gender identity. There is no doubt about the fact that a transgender person experiences unique difficulties in this life with which others cannot fully empathize. However, from a Christian perspective, the celebration and normalization of transgenderism is incredibly troubling.

One of the most difficult questions I've ever been asked was in a seminary classroom at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Russell Moore was a professor there at the time. He asked us a question that went something like this: "If a transgender person, who has recently become a Christian, comes to you asking what repentance looks like for them in respect to their gender identity, how would you respond?"

(You can read a post from Russell Moore about his complicated "Joan or John?" question here.)

Genesis 1:27 declares, "God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them," and Jesus affirms this declaration in his teachings on marriage. The primary concern for anyone dealing with gender identity issues, or even with more complicated intersex issues, is that their questions imply that what God created was a mistake. Gender identity issues are ultimately issues of idolatry; we become gods who determine the design and purpose of our own bodies.

God doesn't make mistakes. However, the reality for all of us, not just the transgender among us, is that we have all been born with a natural inclination to rebel against the design of God in various ways. All of us wrestle with some form of sexual immorality. All of us have self-serving tendencies. And what is brought to our attention in gender identity issues is that all of us are prone to wrongly living out what it means to be male or female. This is what Paul means in Romans 1:24 when he says, "God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity," in verse 26 when he says, "God gave them over to degrading passions," and in verse 28 when he says, "God gave them over to a depraved mind." After listing several "things which are not proper," Paul continues, beginning in verse 32 and continuing into chapter 2, "Although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them. Therefore you have no excuse, everyone of you who passes judgment, for in that which you judge another, you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things." This passage teaches us that we're all in the same boat. We are all guilty of rebellion against God, and we are all needy of the same redemption, which is found in Christ alone. We must always hold the sin of unbelief higher than the sin of gender confusion because, while the gospel of Jesus Christ can save anyone, simply having a proper understanding of gender can save no one.

Christ calls all of us to repent and believe, and he calls the transgender person to do the same.

For the transgender person who has a family or who has had gender reassignment surgeries, repentance becomes a more complicated process. Sometimes it may mean living similarly to a biblical eunuch. Sometimes it may mean living in the freedom of singleness. But whatever it means on the practical level, repentance always means turning away from the ways we've rebelled and pursuing faithfulness to God's intentions for us. Those who were born as a male should pursue their identity as a male, even though they likely will not feel like a male.

The gospel can redeem anyone from anywhere. However, the celebration and normalization of transgenderism is going to make repentance for redeemed transgender people much more confusing, much more complicated, and much more difficult. This celebration and normalization is often done in the name of love for transgender people, but it can never be loving for a Christian to affirm a person's rebellion against God. So the question becomes: how can Christians best love transgender people both personally and publicly?

We have to begin by reminding ourselves to see people the way God sees them. Because of all the reasons explained above, we shouldn't accept a cultural normalization of gender transition, but what we should pursue is a cultural normalization of receiving and treating transgender people like anyone else. Transgender people are not freaks, but they are very often treated that way. That's a tragedy, and Christians are often the culprits. Christians need get past their prejudices and learn to receive sinners with graciousness and kindness, particularly when it comes to the disenfranchised. This is what Christ did for us; while we were sinners, Christ died for us. While we were his enemies, he loved us. We need to come beside transgender people and show our concern for all of their needs, displaying for them the goodness of God's love and grace and holiness.

I want to challenge us to pray for the transgender people in our community. Pray for their soul. Pray that their experiences might change. Pray for God to show you how you might be able to catalyze that change. Pray for God to give you the courage to speak the gospel of grace to them and that they would be open to receive it. And in the spirit of those prayers, I want to challenge us to be obedient to how God speaks to us on this issue. The transgender community is all too often ostracized from our culture, but there is a place for them in the Kingdom of God.

"Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God."

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

And the best Bible translation is...

It wasn't until college that anyone ever started talking to me about Bible translations. Which translation is best? I owned several translations just from growing up. I still have the NKJV Baby's First Bible in the original box. I had a CEV Bible for kids. I had an NIV for teens. For the first couple of years of college, I carried around a pocket edition NLT, and I had an NIV that I took to church. But it seemed like my friends and many of my favorite pastors, like John Piper and David Platt, were switching to the ESV. So I got one of those. As I'm looking at my shelf today, I also see an RSV, a KJV, an HCSB, a Geneva Bible, the Message, an NRSV, and an NASB.

For the rest of college, I followed the trend of my friends with an ESV. I really liked it, and I still do. However, as I began to study theology, I kept reading from non-Reformed theologians that the ESV has a "Reformed" bias and that the language in several places was slanted toward that bias. I heard someone call it the Elect Standard Version. While I'm Reformed myself and hold that title proudly, I wasn't married to the ESV. I liked it, but I didn't like the idea of people minimizing my theological stances simply because of the translation I read. I didn't want someone to assume that I was Reformed simply because I had been influenced by the language of the ESV. In spite of that, I kept using it because I wasn't sure which translation I wanted to use. And, by the way, I completely disagree with that critique of the ESV. I've never found any passage in the ESV that had a different meaning from another translation regarding Reformed doctrines. It is a translation that has earned it's popularity because of its commitment to being simultaneously very readable and very accurate.

Around this time, I started seminary, and in my first semester, I took both Greek and Hermeneutics. I began learning about translation methods and manuscripts. The KJV and NKJV are translated from different manuscripts (Byzantine-type) than most modern translations (Alexandrian-type). While some argue that the Byzantine manuscripts are better, the reality is that the majority of people who give their lives to textual criticism and translation agree that Alexandrian manuscripts are closer to the original manuscripts, and we can trust them. The translators for the KJV used the best manuscripts that were available to them at the time, and they made a really great translation. It is very accurate, and the language is beautiful. However, we have better and older manuscripts available to us now.

Translations are generally categorized as either having formal equivalence or dynamic equivalence. It's probably best to think of these two categories as really representing the two sides of a spectrum, with translations falling somewhere in between. On the far right (formal) would be the NASB. For the most part, it is translated word-for-word. On the far left (dynamic) would be something like The Message. The Message isn't truly a translation; it is a paraphrase, but that's what makes it a good representative for a far-left, dynamic stereotype. The scale of translations that I mentioned on my shelf would look something like this: (dynamic) The Message - CEV - NLT - NIV - HCSB - ESV - RSV - NKJV - KJV - NASB (formal).

As I studied Greek, I began comparing my Greek translations to different Bible translations. I discovered that the NASB was almost always exactly what I was translating word-for-word. This discovery wasn't great for my retention in Greek Syntax though because, instead of studying Greek vocabulary and paradigms, I began spending more time studying the passages from the NASB before I would take an exam! And I ended up doing the same thing in my Hebrew classes.

Some people claim that the NASB is hard to read. It's labeled as being "wooden." However, I've found it to be incredibly rich. And I decided in seminary that I'd prefer a Bible whose translators did as much translating and as little interpreting as possible. Sometimes it's hard to separate translation and interpretation, but, where possible, I want to receive a translation from a translator and an interpretation from a theologian. The NASB has become my favorite Bible because it has caused me to slow down and pay attention to the meanings of phrases and grammatical connections, and I always feel comfortable reading it knowing that I'm reading something very close to the original text. There are times, especially in the Old Testament, when the NASB has some awkward phrasing, and that really is its downside. But I love it, and for anyone who is looking to study the Bible closely, I can't recommend a translation more highly.

However, I won't say that the NASB is the "best" translation. In formal translations like the NASB, reading can often be less enjoyable. At the same time, I think there are places in more dynamic translations, and especially in The Message, that make them hard to recommend for serious theological study. But I actually love The Message for reading the narratives of the Bible. I could probably read Genesis from The Message in half the time that I could read it from the NASB, and I'd probably enjoy it more and retain it better from The Message as well.

So which translation is best?

The best Bible translation is...the one you'll read. Even though there are advantages and disadvantages to every translation, they all tell the same story centered around the same gospel of the same Jesus. Most Christians have never read through the whole Bible, and it would be far more valuable to worry less about which translation is on your shelf and more about taking it off the shelf and saturating your heart with it on a regular basis.

One of my seminary professors, Bruce Ware, encouraged us to read the Bible in two ways. Read it fast, and read it slow. Take time regularly, daily even, to read quickly through large chunks of the Bible. Then go back and slowly meditate on and pray about particular portions of what you read. So if you, like countless others, grew up with the KJV and love it, then read your KJV! If you have a hard time enjoying translations that are worded in ways you wouldn't word things, then grab an NLT or an NIV and read it! If you think you want something in-between, something with high word-for-word accuracy while remaining very readable, then read something like an HCSB or an ESV.

Don't let your Bible become a coaster on your coffee table, a dust collector on your shelf, a fixed extension of your dashboard, or a regular item in the church lost and found. Regardless of translation, make Scripture a part of your daily life, for Jesus said in Matthew 4:4, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.’”

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Why was I in a wreck? Reflections on Luke 13:1-9

Most of you know by now that I was in a car accident yesterday around 5pm. I was driving home from the dog park when I saw a white truck swerving in the grass on the right side of the road. Then he swerved back into the road and hit my car head on. I looked down and saw my right hand covered in blood with swelling that looked like a ping pong ball under the skin. I saw the contact lens from my right eye fall out. And I saw a burn hole in my shorts on my left leg from the airbag. The driver door wouldn't open, so I climbed through and exited the car on the passenger side. I looked down the road and saw the white truck, still on the wrong side of the road. After hitting me, he knocked down a fence on the other side of the road and tried to drive away. However, the wreck had given him a flat tire, so he only made it about 200 yards. I found out later that he was running because he was an unlicensed and uninsured illegal immigrant, which isn't making the details in my insurance claims any less complicated. It took me a minute to realize that my car was facing the opposite direction. I didn't feel the car spin, but I definitely did a 180. I started to feel a knot on my forehead swelling, but it didn't hurt. I was more worried about the way it was going to look. I got Chase out of the car. He was fine. The car is totaled though. Everything in front of the dashboard was either flattened or scattered across the road. I felt fine, but a few people encouraged me to sit down. When the ambulance arrived, the EMT began to put me in a neck brace, and they were bringing a stretcher toward me. I had a stubborn moment, so I stood up and shook my head to show them that my neck was fine and that my legs were working. The real reason I didn't want to get on a stretcher was because everything was happening so fast and I was thinking about the things that I still wanted to get out of my car. When I opened the car door, I realized how much everything in my car had been scrambled. My wallet was next to the brake pedal, and my house keys were in the back seat on the passenger side. They had been sitting next to one another on the center console beforehand. We took Chase home in the ambulance and then made our way to the hospital. My hand had some glass in it from the windshield, and I have some cuts and bruises above my right eye. Nothing is broken, but I definitely look like I got into a fight! And my hip has started to get sore, so you can add a gangsta walk to the picture as you imagine my appearance.

Moments like these always make us consider the goodness of God, particularly when we reflect on how much worse the circumstances could have been. But this begs the questions: do we believe that God would have been even better if he'd allowed me to avoid the accident altogether? Do we believe that he would be worse if he'd taken my life? God is certainly good, but it's not because I'm fine. God could have taken my life and would have been no less good and right in doing so.

As I rode to the hospital, my mind was drawn to a passage in Luke 13.

1 "Now on the same occasion there were some present who reported to Him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. 2 And Jesus said to them, "Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this fate? 3 I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. 4 Or do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower of Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem? 5 I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish." 6 And he began telling this parable: "A man had a fig tree which had been planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and did not find any. 7 And he said to the vineyard-keeper, 'Behold, for three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree without finding any. Cut it down! Why does it even use up the ground?' 8 And he answered and said to him, 'Let it alone, sir, for this year too, until I dig around it and put in fertilizer; 9 and if it bears fruit next year, fine; but if not, cut it down.'"

God didn't allow me to experience a wreck because I'm a worse sinner than any of you, nor did he allow me to live because I'm any better than anyone else. But my prayer is that, through this and every moment that confronts us with the fragility of life, the Lord would call us all to repentance. God uses difficult circumstances for our good. He uses them to make us more like Christ. Verses 6-9 from the passage above have been burned onto my heart as I reflect on my current circumstances. The reality is that my Christian walk has been marred by an inconsistent ability to fight the lustful tendencies of my flesh, including the condition of my heart in the moments leading up to the accident. Some song lyrics that I wrote several years ago say, "Oh what a compromise: my heart for a moment full of lies, lies that declare war against the sacrifice I've tasted in your wine. Oh, I don't know why I cannot find you more lovely." Lust is great at over-promising and under-delivering, promising pleasure and leaving its subject dissatisfied. The most astounding thing about lust is that everyone who wrestles with it recognizes its inability to satisfy but is still somehow tempted by its seductions. In moments of weakness, I've prayed a prayer that sounded something like this: "Lord, if you foresee lust ever enticing me down a path that would cause me to do something that would disqualify me from ministry, please don't allow me to be given a pastoral role in a church." However, while that was an honest prayer and a good desire, it is the prayer of a man who is not prepared to radically wage war upon his sin and does not believe that the Spirit of God is strong enough to overcome it. I recognize that the temptations associated with this fleshly body will remain until I am given a new and imperishable body for heaven, but I am not prepared to allow that to be an excuse for sin to ever have mastery over me. The song I mentioned above finishes out saying, "Why so downcast, oh my soul? My heart longs for Christ alone. Oh, I know that I will never find one more lovely."

It is far too often that our lives are marked by the pattern, as eighteenth century pastor Andrew Fuller said, "of vowing and breaking vows." But may we stop resting in our own strength and promises, and follow Fuller's lead in saying, "From this time I considered the vows of God as upon me."

Since the accident, I've experienced an encouragement in the Lord in a renewed and empowered way. I feel him digging around my roots and putting in fertilizer. The reality is that the ministry that God has entrusted, and will entrust, to me is far too significant for me to even consider allowing my flesh to ruin it. Left to my own devices, I would be the first to fall away from Christ. But, thanks be to God, believers are not left to their own devices! The Spirit of God is at work, pruning and fertilizing our souls. So may we be prepared to throw our lives into the hands of vineyard-keeper, or may we be cut down!

Christ has taken every broken promise, every failed attempt at obedience, upon himself. Let us take up a renewed commitment to repentance today, basing it not on our ability to repent, but on Christ's commitment to us. Though we are like fig trees that deserve to be cut down, hear Christ say, "'Let it alone, sir, for this year too, until I dig around it and put in fertilizer," and may this grace empower us to bear fruit.

Come, let us return to the Lord.
For He has torn us, but he will heal us;
He has wounded us, but he will bandage us.
Hosea 6:1

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Brooks Conrad and the Christian Life; Meditating on Colossians 3:1-17

On May 20, 2010, I took Anna to see a baseball game at Turner Field in Atlanta. The first pitch was at 1:05 on a beautiful sunny day, around 80 degrees, and the Braves were taking on the Reds. However, the beautiful 80 degree weather suddenly felt hot and sticky, and the relaxing baseball game suddenly felt long and exhausting when Tommy Hanson and the Braves found themselves down 8-zip in the 2nd inning. By the 9th inning, the score was 9-3. Most of the crowd was gone at this point, but I paid for us to see at least 9 innings of baseball, so we were staying! Seven batters later, everything was different. It was now 9-6, and the bases were loaded with one out for Brooks Conrad. The few thousand fans that were still at the Ted were on their feet with caps inside out and tomahawks chopping. For this at-bat, the switch-hitting Conrad was planning to face the southpaw Arthur Rhodes, but the Reds replaced Rhodes with their closer, right-handed Francisco Cordero. Conrad uses a different bat, different helmet, and different shin guard for right-handed and left-handed pitchers, so he had to go quickly switch everything out. A few moments later, with a 2-2 count, Conrad gripped the bat, bare-handed as he always does, and hit an opposite field fly ball to Lance Nix up against the wall in left field, but as Conrad rounded first, he bowed his head and realized he’d have to settle for a sacrifice fly. However, when he turned around, he saw the Braves dugout emptying. The ball had bounced off of Lance Nix’s glove over the wall for a walk-off grand slam! Braves win! Braves win!

This was probably the most exciting moment in sports history that I’ve experienced as a fan. For those who are interested, Craig Kimbrel pitched the 9th inning and got his first major league win that day. But this moment also changed the season for Brooks Conrad. Through the remainder of the 2010 regular season, Conrad was Mr. Clutch. He had at least five more game-winning hits that season, including another go-ahead grand slam. He generally wasn’t a starter on the roster, but he seemed to always come through as a pinch hitter, getting big hits in big moments.

In the playoffs, though, everything changed. Conrad had become the starting second baseman due to an injury to Martin Prado, and in game 3 of the NLDS against the San Francisco Giants, Conrad committed three errors. His final error of that game allowed two runs to score in the top of the 9th inning, giving the Giants a 3-2 lead, which would be the final score. No longer was Brooks Conrad the hero that fans loved to cheer for. He was a failure that fans loved to hate. He was the guy who cost Bobby Cox the chance to retire with another World Series ring. And after that, his career just hasn’t been the same. The Braves didn’t re-sign him after the 2011 season. He played a year for Milwaukee and a year for Tampa Bay, but in both places he spent most of his time with the minor league club. Then he played a year in Japan where he batted .175 in limited plate appearances. Last year he was in and out of the minors with the Padres. And he began this year playing for the Sugar Land Skeeters. Oh, you haven’t heard of them?

What happened to Brooks Conrad? Maybe the miscues in the playoffs really did affect his mentality as a player. Or maybe he was actually just outperforming his long-term potential. I don’t know. But what I do know is that his identity as a player was completely transformed.

Something similar happens in the life of faith as well. Jesus gives Christians a new identity, and Christians who fall into sin are ultimately failing to live out their identity in Christ. The message of Colossians 3:1-17 is all about what this looks like; we're called to lay aside an old identity and put on a new one.

Colossians 3 begins, “if you have been raised up with Christ.” The implication is that if you haven’t been raised up with Christ, then what follows is not for you, at least not yet. The passage is going to begin instructing believers to put off disobedience and to put on obedience. And while it’s always good to be obedient to God, we have to realize that our obedience is not what raises us up with Christ. In fact, we may end up on the wrong end of the final verse of chapter 2, which says, “These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence.” So before you consider the message of Colossians 3, consider what it is that raises you up with Christ and whether you’re there. Paul sets a firm foundation of this as he begins chapter 1 of his letter to the Colossians, saying that their faith in Christ Jesus lays for them a hope in heaven because of the word of truth, the gospel. Later in chapter 1, in verse 13, Paul says that Christ rescued us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of Christ, and in verses 22-23, he says that Christ reconciled us to him through his death and that we will be presented blameless if we continue in faith. Chapter 1 ends with Paul declaring that Christ is in him because he is a believer and that God's power is working in him. In chapter 2, verses 6-7, Paul says that receiving Christ Jesus as Lord is what gives us firm roots of faith and that walking in Christ builds us up and establishes our faith. A few verses later, in verses 13-14, Paul says that the debt of our sin was taken away, having been nailed to the cross. So as we come to chapter 3, we want to make sure that we are in Christ. Put your faith in Christ, giving him rule and reign over your life and trusting that his sacrifice has made you pure. Search your heart, and if you’re there, then your life is, as Paul says in Colossians 3:3, hidden with Christ in God.

Paul says if that’s true of you, “Set your mind on things above.” I remember hearing a pastor growing up say that you cannot control sinful things coming into you mind; you can only control whether you act on it. However, I want to show you why this isn’t exactly true. Have any of you ever considered the differences between Butterfly’s Bryce and JOOLA’s Mambo rubbers for table tennis paddles? I imagine you haven’t. However, questions like these ran through my head regularly for a few years while I was playing competitive table tennis in college. And the point is that I thought about it because I spent a good amount of time playing competitive table tennis, and you haven’t thought about it because you haven’t played competitive table tennis. This imperative from Paul to set our minds is a call to point our thinking in a particular direction. For those of us who have had seasons, or lifetimes, away from Christ and in sin, this trend will be harder to break, but it is vital to our faith for us, as Paul urges Timothy, to discipline ourselves for the purpose of godliness.

The rest of this passage will lay out the details of what exactly Paul means by the command to set our minds. And this is important. There is a false teaching in Christianity today that many people are buying into because of a particular interpretation of the ideas presented in this passage. These name it and claim it, or blab it and grab it, teachings suggest that God will cause what we believe about ourselves to come to fruition. And while Paul is urging Christians to believe something about themselves here, he is urging them to believe something specific. Paul is not telling Christians to think of themselves as financially successful people and to then expect riches. He is not telling Christians to think of themselves as favored people and to then expect everyone to be overly nice to them. He is not telling Christians to think of themselves as healthy and to then expect medical reports to be great. That’s not the way thoughts work. Your mentality about life can certainly change the way you experience life, but believing ourselves into financial and physical well-being is not the message of Christianity, nor is it necessarily a virtuous pursuit. Jesus was poor and hated to the point of crucifixion. If being healthy and wealthy and liked are the measures of Christianity, then Jesus failed miserably in his lifetime. So Paul wants us to think of ourselves as we truly are in Christ, not as we may want life in Christ to be like.

Paul commanded in verse 2 to set our minds on the things above, not on the things that are on the earth. In verse 5, Paul describes those things of earth, urges Christians to “consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry.” Verses 6-7 reminds us that those whose life is identified by these things are under the wrath of God. He goes on to say that we should put aside own own anger, wrath, malice, slander, abusive speech, and lying. He says that these things are a part of the “old self.” Stop thinking of yourself that way because that is not who you are in Christ.

Paul David Tripp, the Christian counselor and author, says that when Christians sin, it is because they are “identity amnesiacs.” They forget who Christ has remade them to be. Lay your sin down because that’s not who you are in Christ. However, we cannot simply blame our sinfulness on our sinful nature and be content with that. Instead, we must declare war upon our flesh, vowing by the power of the Spirit to put sin to death. In verse 5 we’re told to consider ourselves dead to those things. And the way you consider yourself dead to something is to consider yourself alive to something else. We’re not just people who are against fleshly things; we are people who are for godly things.

As you fight sin, don’t be identity amnesiacs. Remember who you are in Christ. Verse 12 reminds us that we are chosen by God, we are holy, we are beloved, and we are people marked by the characteristics of Christ. When Paul commands Christians to set their minds on things above, verse 12 and following describes those things that are above. “Put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other…put on love…let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts…and be thankful.

Our pursuit of Christ, fixing our eyes on him, is both an inner pursuit and an outer pursuit. The inner pursuit is the conformity of our heart to Christ, and the outer pursuit is the conformity of our life to Christ.

Verse 16 paints a picture of our inner pursuit. It begins, “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you.” This might be a slow process, but be diligent. Your mind may be consumed with sinful things, or even simply nominal things, and renewing your mind toward Christ will be a slow and daily process. However, it’s so valuable to persevere, to be saturated in Scripture so that you become more and more aware of the disparities between who you are and who God created you to be. And it’s not only valuable to do this yourself, but to do this together with other believers. Most of the time in the New Testament, when the Bible addresses “you,” it does so in the plural, and it’s no different here. This is an imperative for the church, namely that the word of Christ would richly dwell within us. And this note helps the rest of verse 16 make more sense for us. We teach one another the ways of God, and we admonish one another when we stumble into sin. So don't try to learn the ways of God and fight sin alone; invite other believers in your life to do this with you. Give people permission to help you become more faithful by providing biblical insight and correction.

Verse 17 urges us toward the outer pursuit, saying, “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” There are times when we believe that God does not care about the trivial, but I would argue that it is in the trivial things that the depth of our faith is most revealed. These all-encompassing statements from Paul, “whatever you do” and “do everything,” are calling us to constantly live out a particular identity.

He’s taken us from darkness into light, and he’s urging us to live in the light of the gospel. He’s made us clean, and he’s urging us to be clean.

For those of you who don’t know, six years ago I decided to change the spelling of my name. I had been burdened by the stories of God changing the names of Jacob, Abram, Simon, Saul, and others. In their name changes, he reveals their identity changes. They were no longer people who identified as rebels of God but as the chosen people of God. I changed my name from Zachary to Xaiquiri to remind myself daily of the new nature that I’ve been given in Christ. I made is odd because I wanted to use my name as an evangelistic tool so that I could share with them what Christ had done in me. I haven’t always been faithful to preach Christ with the opportunities that my name has given me, and I feel ashamed that I’ve missed those opportunities because I believe that this identity-altering gospel of Jesus Christ is the power of God for salvation. I have been, at times, an identity amnesiac.

But, with Paul, I’m calling us all to remember who we are in Christ. Set your minds on things above. Don’t think of yourself as a minor league Christian who fails to be good enough. Look to Christ and realized that you’ve been made holy and blameless. Your life has been raised with Christ, so set your mind on the things to which Christ has called you. Saturate yourself with Scripture and pursue the kind of life that you see Scripture calling you to pursue.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Thoughts About Anti-Discrimination and Religious Freedom, the RFRA, and its fix.

It almost seems like old news now, but if you've paid any attention to national news lately, you've seen a lot of backlash to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, suggesting that the law, particularly the one signed in Indiana, allows people to discriminate in the name of religion. Most agree that religious liberty is good; most agree that discrimination is bad; but it seems as if we've found a place where the two are no longer mutually exclusive. There has been some compromise in Indiana, with the law being amended to include anti-discriminatory language, but most opponents to the law don't believe that the "fix" really fixed anything, while supporters of the law believe that the "fix" may have compromised too much. I've seen Christians divided and/or confused about how to think about this dilemma, and there are far too many Christians who, because of their proper concern for the oppressed, are failing to see the cost of neglecting religious liberty. If there is any group of people who ought to be fighting for the protection of religious liberty, it's Christians. Romans 14:22 says, "The faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves." Freedom of religion is about protecting people's convictions, not what you think people's religious convictions ought to be, even if you believe their convictions to be wrong or absurd. In Romans 14, Paul declared that all food was clean; however, he recognized that there were still people who followed laws about unclean foods. But instead of encouraging his audience to spend their time convincing people that it doesn't actually violate their religion to eat food that they believe to be unclean, he encouraged his audience to help everyone obey their own convictions. This passage doesn't have a perfect application into the modern political conversations about religious liberty, anti-discrimination, and same-sex marriage, but the reality is that Christians ought to care about protecting people's personal convictions because we recognize that a person's conscience before God is of incredible importance and because we recognize the value of the freedom to engage religious ideas in the public square.

People who are in opposition to recent religious freedom laws are often against them in the name of anti-discrimination. However, you are not truly for anti-discrimination if you are in favor of telling people they have to either violate their convictions at work or get out of business. By saying bakers have to bake wedding cakes for gay marriages (since this is the so-often cited example), you're saying that no one who would have convictions about doing so should ever be allowed to become a baker. That is just as, if not more, discriminatory than being on the consumer side of the same transaction. It would be the same as if I were to walk into a Jewish or Muslim bakery and ask for a loaf of bread to be used for the Lord's Supper at a Christian church. That bakery should not be forced to provide bread for a ceremony that they find offensive. This isn't discrimination against me for being a Christian; it's freedom for the baker to not feel legal pressure to cater to my ideals. The Bible may not speak to whether a baker should bake a cake for a same sex wedding. However, the Bible does speak, in chapters like the one mentioned above, about the violation of one's conscience. We might not always like people's convictions or understand their motivations, but freedoms are not given to protect things we like and understand. They are given to protect people from having the government force them to do something that they believe is wrong. In spite of many people's opinions, religious liberty laws don't allow people to discriminate in the name of religion. In either of the cases mentioned above, it isn't a person that is being discriminated against, but rather a particular purpose for which a businessperson is refusing to create a product. If you don't like their convictions, that's ok; they wouldn't like your convictions imposed upon them either. The beauty of religious liberty is that we can disagree, and neither of us will face legal ramifications for it. However, many modern legal proposals that are operating under the guise of anti-discrimination are laws that will in actuality put people in a position to make a decision between breaking their convictions and breaking the law. These anti-discrimination laws ultimately discriminate against people whose convictions the government finds discriminatory. Any time you have opposing ideas, which exist everywhere, there is a risk of people being offended. However, the risk of being offended is so much smaller than the risk of being silenced.

So the next time you consider opposing a religious liberty law in the name of anti-discrimination, realize that it isn't anti-discrimination that you're truly supporting -- it's the condemnation of convictions; it's religious oppression; and it could just as easily be your convictions and your religion that others are trying to make legally illegitimate.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Ok, I'll take you to church; an open letter to Hozier

Dear Andrew Hozier-Byrne,

You've had an incredibly fast run to the top of the music scene! At number 11, this week was the first week that your song, "Take Me To Church," has been out of the Billboard Top 10 since the week of November 1, 2014, so anyone who has ears has probably heard you ask them to take you to church on a regular basis over the past several months. And the popularity of your song is evidence that its message rings true with so many people.

Of course, Hozier, I know you probably don't really want to go to church. The song is an indictment of the church, isn't it? You say Sunday mornings are "a fresh poison every week." You say the church is a shrine of lies where people sharpen their knives of judgment against people who don't live up to their moral standards. And your criticism obviously isn't new; the church has consistently been labeled as judgmental and hypocritical, and, in many cases, rightly so.

But Hozier, since you asked, I'd love to take you to church. And I hope, if you come, that you'll find that the church isn't about knives and lies.

I realize that you wrote the song in response to the Church's stance on homosexuality and same sex marriage. What we believe about homosexuality begins with the understanding that God's design and our desires don't always line up. Our desires are not always good. I know that you know this. All of us have desires that we know should be suppressed, like the desire to take revenge when we've been wronged or the desire to cut corners on work that doesn't interest us. But it's harder to believe or accept when it comes to things that we are central to our self-identity, things that isolate a specific group of people, or things that culture affirms.

In your already infamous song, you made some keen observations about yourself and about the nature of man. "I was born sick, but I love it. Command me to be well," you said, "There is no sweeter innocence than our gentle sin. In the madness and soil of that sad earthly scene, only then I am human; only then I am clean." I've felt all of those things. It's so natural for us to want sinful things, and the church seems to demand things of people that go against who they are. However, instead of seeing sin as an intrinsic part of who you are, my hope is that you'll one day see that our hearts are not meant to be this way.

When Christians look to the Bible for instruction on how to live, we're not looking toward an enslaving instruction that keeps us from the good things that we want. When we look to the Bible for guidance, it's because we believe that God's designs and intentions for our lives are actually for our good. We believe that God is the essence of all things true and good. We believe that God created man to live in His presence, enjoying the benefits of a relationship with the One who provides all good things. However, we also look to the Bible because we believe that the human heart is deceitful. We believe that our hearts take the good and true things that God created and twist them and use them in ways that God never intended. When we sin, we betray the God who gave us life. We've stolen for ourselves everything God gave us for a specific purpose. When we do this, we break our relationship with God, and we separate ourselves from His presence.

The problem is that if God gave us life for a specific purpose and we've used that life for ourselves, then our lives are entirely indebted to God. It would be like letting someone borrow a silk tie and watching them use it as toilet paper, or like paying someone's tuition and realizing they never went to class. In fact, the offer of our own lives to God would not even be good enough to restore our relationship with Him because our lives are tainted and sinful. You believe in standing up for justice, right? Well, if God is the source of all things true and good, then our sinfulness against Him is the most vile form of injustice. And if God is truly good, then he will stand more firmly against that injustice than anyone else. It wouldn't be right for God to simply forgive people; no good judge acquits the guilty.

Instead, Jesus Christ, God in flesh, offered himself as a sacrifice to pay for the sins of His people. Jesus lived a sinless life, but he died a sinner's death. When Jesus Christ died on a cross, he took the wrath of God we deserved upon himself, and when we put our faith in Christ, that sacrifice is received on our behalf. We are fully acquitted because a more-than-sufficient substitute was made guilty in our place.

I can't speak on behalf of the entire church, but I hope you receive it sincerely when I say that I'm sorry that your experience of the church has been judgmental and unloving. We do believe that there is a specific way that man is called to live, and we believe that that specific way to live is actually a more fruitful and satisfying way to live. However, we fail to accurately represent Christianity when we shake our fists and look down our noses at the culture around us as if we're any better. Spreading the message of Christianity shouldn't be primarily about telling people how to live; it should be about telling people where to find life.

Hozier, I don't know much about you other than having heard the lyrics to "Take Me To Church." However, I know that we have some things in common. I'm very involved in the life of the church, but even I hesitate to confess my own sins because I worry about people's judgments. At the same time, I do think it's important to talk about sin. You and I and Selena Gomez all know that the heart wants what it wants, but what I believe is that that's the problem. Our hearts want something that is ultimately treason against our Creator. And, ultimately, our hearts want something that isn't as good as what our Creator wants for us. When we talk about sin, we put our cards on the table in order to see ourselves in light of the Royal Flush. We want to see which of our hands we should fold and which of our cards we should throw away. We want acknowledge where we can improve. We talk about sin so that we can help one another continue to get better.

Have you ever noticed that all of the pleasures of this world are fleeting? They fail or they end. However, the pleasures of God are unfailing and unending. If we were to be reconciled to God, we would be able to enjoy the benefit of having the pleasure of the presence of God for eternity. You said, "My church offers no absolutes. She tells me, 'Worship in the bedroom.' The only heaven I'll be sent to is when I'm alone with you." But I promise you that the presence of God is better than anything you can get in a bedroom.

When those of us in the church talk about sin, and when we talk about how to live, we're doing it because we want everyone to honor God with their lives. We love God. We value what is good. We value what is true. We value the righteousness that Christ offers us by faith. So we want our lives to honor God by reflecting what is good and true and righteous. And we want others' lives to do the same. Sometimes we go about that in unloving ways, but I hope you can understand that, even for those who go about it the wrong ways, we believe that the most loving thing we can do for people is to help them find their lives and their identities in Jesus Christ. Christians aren't better than anybody else. We were sinners desperate for reconciliation with God, and we are joyful that we've found it outside of ourselves in Jesus Christ. And we surely still sin. Hopefully you'll find that we're striving to live the life that God intends for us, but we do fail. I wish I could tell you that you could find an accurate representation of Christianity by observing Christians, but it's all too often that you can't. Instead, I hope you'll come to realize that Christianity is about an offer of incredibly good news for you. Christianity isn't about being good enough. Christianity is about realizing that, even though all of us are guilty before God, all of us can turn from our sin, find complete forgiveness in Jesus Christ, and be empowered to live a new life for God.

I don't know if you'll ever see this letter, but my hope and prayer for you is that you'll one day see that life is truly found in Jesus Christ. So yes, I'll take you to church. But I'm not sharpening my knives. Instead, I'm looking at you the same way I look at myself every day, as a sinner who needs the grace of Jesus Christ. By giving your life to Christ, you truly can look forward to a deathless death, and I hope you'll consider doing so.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Not So, Brand: New

Not So, Brand: New
A response to Andy Stanley's sermon series

In Andy Stanley's latest sermon series, "Brand: New," he argues that the Old Covenant's "temple model" has been completely replaced with the new Christian ethic: love. And he argues that if we are going to embrace Christianity, the "Jesus model," then we must completely abandon every aspect of "temple thinking."

There are several good things that can come out of what Stanley has said. For example, a question that everyone ought to regularly ask himself is, "What does love require of me?" He encourages people to love those who can do nothing for us. He also urges Christians, and especially Christian leaders, to become humble servants who aren't too good for the poor and the dirty. He reminds us that our theology is no good if we are not loving. He reminds Christians to remember that they are not under the law. These are just some of the awesome takeaways from this sermon series that everyone would be wise to hear.

However, there's an incredible flaw in what Stanley has been teaching for the last five weeks, and it is the foundation for everything he says in the series. He describes the "temple model" as a system of religion that involves sacred places with sacred men interpreting sacred texts to control superstitious people. I wish I didn't have to explain this, but what he is teaching is a gross mischaracterization of the Old Covenant. And in mischaracterizing the Old Covenant, he comes to very wrong conclusions about the New Covenant and misses the primary purpose of Christ's coming. To make this point even stronger, in making accusations against the Old Covenant, he essentially is making an indictment on the God who inaugurated that covenant. He says that the "temple model" is about how you as an individual can get right with God and that the "Jesus model" is about loving our neighbor. But the Law was never intended to make us right before God, and Jesus' primary purpose for coming to earth was in fact to make us right before God. From the third chapter of Genesis to the third to last chapter of Revelation, the thrust of Scripture is primarily focused on what God is doing to restore man's relationship with him.

So what is the Old Covenant?

There are hints at the Old Covenant in God's interactions with Adam, but the Old Covenant explicitly begins with a promise to Abraham in Genesis 15. There was a promise of land, which we know from Hebrews 11 to ultimately be the hope of the new heaven and the new earth. And there was a promise that Abraham's descendants, which we know from Galatians 3 and Romans 9 to be those with the faith of Abraham, would become a great nation. Throughout the New Testament, we learn that the truest fulfillment of those promises was found in Jesus. By faith we are adopted as children of God and are given an inheritance. However, all the while, there has been a problem; man is sinful, and God is holy. This is a problem because sin separated mankind from the presence of God. We learn in Genesis 17 that the sign of the covenant with Abraham was circumcision; circumcision was an external sign of an internal reality, namely the circumcision of the heart. When Moses received the Law four hundred and thirty years later, it was not given to help people become righteous through obedience. Instead, the Law of Moses was given to expose people's sin and lead them to faith in the promise of God. God's covenant with Moses was filled with promises for the nation of Israel that were dependent upon their obedience, but God's covenant with Abraham was an unconditional promise. As the nation of Israel developed, the ark of the covenant and the tabernacle were introduced. Since God could not be directly in the presence of Israel because of their sin, these were the specific places where the presence of God would reside. Priests would offer sacrifices for the people of God and for themselves in order to come before God and make petitions on behalf of the people of God. Eventually, under Solomon, the tabernacle was replaced by the temple, and God's presence would dwell in a place called the Holy of Holies inside the temple. The Old Covenant was never about "sacred places with sacred men interpreting sacred texts to control superstitious people." The Old Covenant was about God's promise to redeem his people, and the temple was about God's desire to dwell among his people. Jesus critiqued Pharisees, religious leaders, in the New Testament, but that was because they missed the point of the Old Covenant, not because the Old Covenant was Pharisaical. Instead, Jesus and all of the writers of the New Testament upheld the goodness of all of the Old Testament scriptures.

And what exactly changed in the New Covenant?

The New Covenant does indeed replace the Old, not because the Old was flawed, but because the Old was fulfilled in Christ. In the New Covenant, no more sacrifices are needed because Christ was the sacrifice for sin once and for all. Baptism would replace circumcision as the sign of the covenant, and like circumcision, baptism would be an external sign of an internal reality, namely the baptism of the Spirit. In the New Covenant, God's presence would not dwell in the temple; God's presence would dwell within the hearts of believers through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The old temple was destroyed both symbolically and physically because believers are the new temple.

Why am I writing this?

Andy Stanley actually notes this aspect of the New Covenant, that Christians are temples. However, the conclusion he makes is that being a temple is what makes us valuable and is what undergirds the New Testament ethic of love. He says that the Old Covenant was about making sure our relationship with God was right and that the New Covenant is about pursuing right relationships with others. He even says several times during the sermon series something to the effect of, "Don't worry about how you treat God. God is fine. All you need to worry about is how you treat other people." This is blasphemy. Andy Stanley is right to criticize the Pharisaical qualities of the modern church like legalism, power-seeking, and theological divisiveness. However, in much of this sermon series, he is criticizing very purpose for Christ's coming, to save sinners.

Andy Stanley misses the point of both Covenants, and he completely inverts the Great Commandment. He might as well be saying, "Love your neighbor with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your God as yourself." He does, rightly so, say that our love for God is displayed in our love for others. However, his explanation of what is central to New Covenant thinking reveals that there is actually no love for God involved. In Andy Stanley's explanation of the New Covenant, love for neighbor is central and the cross is simply something Jesus did that helps us not have to worry about our relationship with God anymore.

On the contrary, when Jesus gives us the two greatest commands in the New Testament, he's not only quoting the Old Testament, but he's showing us the central ethic of Scripture across the board. Loving God and loving neighbor are not replacing the Old Testament; they are the two commandments on which all of the Law and Prophets are founded. Loving God and loving neighbor are the driving force behind every other command. Our love for God is and always has been important, and our love for others is and always has been important. However, Stanley seems to think that the first half of this is irrelevant and that the second half of this is something brand: new. Not so.

When Andy Stanley attacks the sacred places of the "temple model," he attacks the dwelling place of God among His people. When he attacks the sacred men of the "temple model," he attacks God-appointed, and yet flawed, men who sought the good of God's people, and he implicitly attacks his own calling as a pastor to lead the church today. When he attacks the sacred texts of the "temple model," he attacks the Scriptures that Jesus and all of the New Testament writers quote and affirm, and he calls into question the validity of the very text from which he is reading.

When he criticizes the church throughout history for becoming creedal and theologically-minded, he neglects the consistent New Testament warnings about false teachers and its urgings to guard our doctrine. When he tells you not to worry about your relationship with God, he mocks the practices of Jesus himself when he would retreat into times of prayer, meditation, fasting, and seeking the will of the Father. He undermines the purpose of baptism and communion which remind us of our right standing with God. He contradicts the consistent call of the New Testament for believers to work out their salvation by living obedient, holy lives. He says that the reasons people give for rejecting the church are things that Jesus called the church to reject as well, but Jesus said in John 15 that the church will be hated precisely because of their affiliation with him. There is clearly a huge disparity between how Jesus described the church and the picture Andy Stanley is painting of the church.

I don't believe it would be wise to write Andy Stanley into the New Testament category of heretics and false teachers. However, I want to say publicly that Andy Stanley has shown, especially over the last five weeks, that he is, at the very least, an untrustworthy expositor of Scripture, and I would encourage those who have followed him to stop following him. Stanley has a tremendous platform and says a lot of good and helpful things, but when you are seeking pastoral leadership, you ought to seek it from those who prove themselves to be, more than just good communicators, faithful teachers of the Bible.

Andy Stanley wants you to stop worrying about your relationship with God and start worrying about your relationship with others. This is an incredibly unloving thing to tell you. We do indeed, as he says, show our love for God by loving others. However, if we truly love God, then our love for others will be driven by the desire for them to love God as well because we understand that a right relationship with God is what is best for them. The primary mission of the Church is to make disciples by preaching the gospel and teaching those disciples to obey the teachings of Christ. This is the mission that separates the Church from every humanitarian organization and non-Christian religion in the world. And it is love that fuels this mission. We want people to turn from their sin and trust in Christ because we care about people's souls.

One of the things that Andy Stanley is right about is the fact that the church has largely been guilty of being unloving, and all of our pursuits of theological knowledge are ultimately in vain if they do not make us more loving. The church has been guilty of being more concerned with theological pride than with loving our neighbor. The church has been guilty of being more concerned with appearing wise than with operating with wisdom. The church has been guilty of accusatory judgment rather than graciousness and patience with sinners. The church has been guilty of selfishness rather than selflessness. The church ought not give up on solid theology, but the church ought to recognize that its theology is intended to propel its love.

The greatest command is not to love our neighbor. The greatest command is, always has been, and always will be to love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength. The ultimate way we love God is by glorifying him in everything that we do. And the ultimate way we glorify him in everything that we do is by displaying his character in our lives. This is why loving our neighbor is so significant. We are not in the business of love because love is the new law. We are in the business of love because we love God. We love others because, in love, the glory of the God we love and the character of the God we love and the kingdom of the God we love are on display. The church is called to love one another because we know love to be a central element of righteousness and godliness. The church is called to meet needs because we recognize that the kingdom of God is a place void of earthly neediness. When we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, and show hospitality to strangers, we are displaying the character of God. There are no hungry, thirsty, naked, imprisoned, and poor strangers in heaven, and the church is called to love people in a way that reveals the kingdom of God on earth. More significantly, there are no unrighteous people in heaven. We can die without food. We can die without clothes. We can die as a martyr. We can die alone. But we cannot afford to die without God. Every earthly need pales in comparison to the eternal need for righteousness before God, and the most loving thing we can do for our neighbor is to bring them to the cross of Jesus Christ where that need was met. This is the ethic of the New Covenant.

The Holy Spirit is working in the hearts of believers to conform them to the image of Christ. As this happens, the love of Christ inevitably emanates. If we are truly his disciples, then love for others will be the fountain of our hearts. If it isn't, then I pray that we would recognize that, repent from it, and turn to Christ for forgiveness and renewed life. A living faith works itself out in love, so may all of us pursue this kind of faith and consistently ask God to strengthen our faith to this end.

I love Andy Stanley. I really do. But my love for him leads me to pray for him that the faithful Christian leaders that I know are in his life would come beside him in correction, that the Lord would grant him ears to hear, and that the Lord would use his gifts to become a tremendous platform for the gospel. Will you join me in this prayer?