Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Authority and the Church

We as Americans have a funny relationship with authority. Our society maintains–or at least attempts to maintain–a balance between rule of law and personal liberty. The Declaration of Independence grasps at this balance when it says:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."

Our nation was founded on the very principle that the authority of the government infringing on personal liberty is an actionable offense. It states that it is better to disband and reform the government rather than take away our personal liberty. This principle is very evident in our society today. We see it even going beyond the government infringing on our personal liberty. It extends to disputes between individuals taking away the personal liberty of another. Most if not all cases of civil rights violations are situations of one person violating someones "Life, Liberty [or] the pursuit of Happiness." I don't share this to debate the validity of how our nation is structured or the legitimacy of American Individualism. I share it because the nature of the church is at odds with the foundational worldview that is inherent in how our society operates.

Governmental leaders–as viewed from this societal perspective–gain their authority from the governed. In other words the theory is that those people in charge only get their authority because we the people say they can have it. And those people in charge can only do what we the people say they can do. If we don't like the way things are going in the country then we can vote new people into authority in order to change the laws that we don't like. So–again the theory is–that we the people in essence control the authority.

But the church is different; or at least is should be different. Yesterday I shared how the church is really the Body of Christ and that God requires us to be a part of that Body. It is important to remember that while we as the church are the Body of Christ, Christ is the head of the Church. He is the ultimate source of authority within the chuch and not the people of the church. I think that this is easy to at least understand in principle even if it is not always easy to live out. But if Christ is the ultimate source of authority then this also has consequences for the leadership of the church.

The Elders within the church do not get their authority from the people of the church. The author of Hebrews says:

"Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you."

Just as governmental leaders are answerable to the people that give them their authority, the church leaders are answerable to the one that gives them their authority. Those leaders will have to give an account for their actions to God. They will also be held accountable for the actions of the church. And because of this we are told to submit to their authority. This means that there are two eternal consequences for the leaders and people of the church. The first is that the Elders of the church will have to answer to God for any abuse of power. The second is that we will all have to answer to God for any insubordination to the authorty of the leaders of the church.

Church leadership does not follow the same exact pattern as our government. Church leaders are not answerable to the people of the church in the same exact way. (This doesn't mean that the Elders are not subject to church discipline like everyone else in the church.) What it does mean is that we run into problems when we start picking our church leaders because we like the way that they run the church. Rather the questions that we should be asking when we choose leaders is whether or not they meet the Biblical requirements for church leadership and whether or not they are going to do a good job leading us in the ways of God. We must remember that because we are sinful human beings that we may not always like it when the Elders do a good job of leading us in the ways of God. And that is not a good reason to challenge their authority.


Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

What is the Church?

My Church

It is so common to speak of the church as an inanimate object. We say that we are going to church, having a meeting at the church or even needing to clean the church. We can hear a great message at church…at least we do if we attend church. We may even share with others how beautiful church was this past week. When we find a church that we like then we may decide to become members of that particular church. And that is where the real problems start. At least from the perspective of defining what the church really is. We can refer to the church as a physical location to which we go, a physical object or building, an event that we attend and an organization where we can become members. But the church is so much more than that.

The Church–quite simply–is the Body of Christ. It is the fullness of all those that believe in and put their faith in Jesus Christ as their savior, meaning all such people for all time. In that sense the Church is timeless, which I find to be a fascinating concept. My default way of thinking tends to only include those that I actually see. It can be easy enough for me to forget about those out of my sight and it is even easier for me to forget those that are out of my time. Unfortunately we may not have such an easy time trying to determine which of those are actually a part of the Body of Christ.

If someone professes faith in Jesus Christ and is willing to be (or has been) baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Spirit, then that person is a part of the Body of Christ. And in the same way, when we put our faith in Jesus Christ we need to realize that we are now considered a part of the Body of Christ. The work of becoming a part of the Body of Christ is not something that we do on our own but rather it is the Holy Spirit that does so:

"For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body-Jews or Greeks, slaves or free-and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many."

What Paul is saying in this passage is that when we accept Christ as our savior we are baptized by the Spirit into the Body of Christ. If the Church is the Body of Christ then by default when we become a part of the Body of Christ we have also become members within the Church. And if the Church is the Body of Christ then we must live as a body. Paul goes on to say:

"If the foot should say, 'Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,' that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, 'Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,' that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.

"The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I have no need of you,' nor again the head to the feet, 'I have no need of you.' On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.

"Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it."

Paul does not mean that we are supposed to live as a body in a ideological or theoretical way. He means that we are supposed to live as a body in a very real sense. This means that we are supposed to function as a body. We cannot live as a body apart from other Christians. We cannot say that we have no need for the Church. We cannot follow Christ and reject his Body at the same time. If we are to be obedient to Christ we must be a part of the Church and this also means that we must be a part of a local congregation.


Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.




Monday, February 27, 2012

How can God send good people to hell?

I came across an interesting tidbit from my favorite Christian apologist Greg Koukl last week. His brief blog post gets at a common objection to Christianity: "How can God send someone to hell that is basically a good person." Or it might be restated as: "How can God send someone to hell simply because they don't believe in Jesus." The objection seems to hold up because there are those people that we can easily understand how God would send them to hell and there are those where we simply cannot understand it. There are those people whom are nice people that live a charitable and loving life. They are people that we would consider to be good people.

Mr. Koukl frames his answer this way:

"If you sinned only ten times a day from your tenth birthday to your sixtieth--and keep in mind we're not just talking about rape, pillage, and murder, but the full range of human moral failing, including heart attitudes and motives--only, ten sins a day, what would your rap sheet look like? You would have amassed 182,500 infractions of the law. What judge in his right mind would turn you loose with a record like that?"

That is quite a criminal record. Fortunately for us we have an advocate on our side. Mr. Koukl concludes by saying:

"Whenever you're tempted to trust in your own ability, take a good look at the standard, God's Law, then look at your own score card. To use Paul's words, the law has each of us "shut up under sin" (Gal. 3:22), it's closed our mouths, and we all have become accountable to God (Romans 3:19). Saved by our own goodness? The Law gives us no hope. Only the Gospel and the righteousness of Jesus Christ can offer us hope of pleasing God."

This is the whole point the Lenten season. It is not just to focus on our need for a savior but also that God has provided that savior for us. God didn't just pile all of our sins on an innocent man. He took them all upon himself. All we need to do is to acknowledge that Jesus Christ is that Savior.


Friday, February 24, 2012

Thunder Snow of the Snowpocalypse

Yesterday's news had me ready to run for the hills. The impending snowmageddon that was about to bury the Chicago area had the added threat of snow thunder. The doom and gloom were predicting 3-6 inches of heavy wet snow across the area with some areas getting as much as 8 or 9 or 11 inches. It did fall heavier in the far northern suburbs where they received as much as 8 inches. But in my near western suburb we received far less as you can see by the picture taken at about 6 a.m. Accounting for the edge of the ruler that is not marked–according to my very unscientific measuring method–we didn't even get an inch.

Predicting the next storm of the century has become a past-time for news outlets in Chicago. It is a great example of how news reporting has become more of a hype-driven business. I stopped taking any forecast of doom and gloom seriously a few years ago. It came after watching a number of local news channels having reporters "on location" to cover the massive snowstorm just to have the poor person standing out in the very snowless cold. I understand that meteorological prediction is an inexact science at best. But the people deciding to hype these stories should read Aesop's Fable The Boy Who Cried Wolf.

We can't forget that news outlets are also businesses and if they don't have people watching or reading then they go out of business. So they have to do something that grabs people's attention. Dire warnings of doom fit that bill very well. However, we in the church cannot make the same mistake. There are plenty warnings contained in the Bible such as that given by John the Baptist in Matthew 3:1-12:

"In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.' For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, 'The voice of one crying in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.'' Now John wore a garment of camel's hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

"But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, 'You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father,' for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

"'I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.'"

But just because there are plenty of dire warnings in the Bible doesn't mean that we should only focus and emphasize them. During the season of Lent we are to focus on our need for repentance but there a danger to it as well. When we focus on our need to change our bad behavior we have the tendency to focus on our bad behavior. If you are trying to give up a bad habit the worst thing you can do is to put yourself in situations that cause you to desire to do that behavior. It is the same way when we are thinking about repentance. We cannot just think about turning away from our sinfulness but we also need to think about turning towards the grace and righteousness of God at the same time.

It is very important for us to call one another to repentance but if that is all we do pretty soon we will start to tune out that call. The beautiful thing about the Lenten season is that it ends with the Resurrection of Christ. Yes he died on the cross for our sins but he was also raised up by God. When we repent and turn towards God we also share in that resurrection. Paul tells us in 2 Timothy 3:16 that scripture is not only good for correction and reproof but also for teaching and training. There needs to be a balance between the two.

During Lent don't just think about repentance and all the bad things that you are not supposed to be doing but also think about the grace that God has given you and all the good things that he has equipped you to do.


Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


Thursday, February 23, 2012

So what is Ash Wednesday all about?

Growing up I knew almost nothing about Ash Wednesday or Lent. My church didn't celebrate either one so I had no real basis for understanding them. When I was a kid all I knew was that it was a time that my Catholic friends would have a black smudge on their forehead and they would give up eating candy for a month. Conversations would usually go like this:

"What are you giving up for Lent?"

"Uh, what's Lent? Is that the stuff you find in your belly button?"

"No. It's a time when you give up stuff. I'm giving up eating candy."

"Why would you...I mean that's a good idea. Can I have your candy?"

It wasn't until just recently that I took the time to understand Ash Wednesday and Lent. As I was going through seminary I became more involved in the overall planning of the worship services throughout the year. When it came to planning an Ash Wednesday service it seemed like it might be a good idea to know what Ash Wednesday is all about. One of the worship planning resource books had this introduction to Ash Wednesday:

"Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent. By the fourth century the Western church determined that the Lenten period of fasting and renewal should correspond to Christ's forty-day fast (Matthew 4:2), and, by counting forty days back from Easter (excluding Sundays, which remain 'feast' days), arrived at the Wednesday seven weeks before Easter. At one time Lent was primarily viewed as a period during which converts prepared for baptism on Easter Sunday, but later the season became a general time of penitence and renewal for all Christians. Thus Ash Wednesday became the day that marked the beginning of the Lenten renewal.

"The aim of Ash Wednesday worship is threefold: to meditate on our mortality, sinfulness, and need of a savior; to renew our commitment to daily repentance in the Lenten season and in all of life; and to remember with confidence and gratitude that Christ has conquered death and sin. Ash Wednesday worship, then, is filled with gospel truth. It is a witness to the power and beauty of our union with Christ and to the daily dying and rising with Christ that this entails."*

Both Ash Wednesday and Lent focus on our need to repent–or turn away from–our sinful nature. And while it is something that we are supposed to do every day, the period of Lent gives us a much sharper and intentional focus on repenting. It is not just something to do during the Lenten season. Rather the Lenten season should give us a jump start on behaviors that should continue throughout the year. While I am still not and will probably never be an "asher," I have come to have a much greater appreciation for Ash Wednesday and Lent.


*The Worship Sourcebook, (Grand Rapids, MI: CRC Publications, 2004), 551.



Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Freedom in Christ

Just as I was planning to write on the notion of being free in Christ I came across an article on the Art of Manliness website explaining two different types of freedom. I wanted to cover the topic of freedom in Christ as a follow-up to the posts that I just wrote concerning God's plan for our lives. That series concluded with me saying:

"[W]hen we are abiding in God and his Words are abiding in us, we can rest assured that we will be making solid decisions that have good eternal consequences."

Which means that we have a freedom to make decisions as long as we are in Christ. So I wanted to explore the what it mean to have freedom in Christ and that is when I read the article "Freedom From...Freedom To." The article does a good job of covering the difference between being free from something which is negative freedom and being free to do something which is positive freedom. The terms negative and positive freedom do not speak to the relative goodness of something as we might assume. Rather the terms speak to how the freedom relates to us.

Negative freedom means that external controls on what we might want to do are absent. So for example if there was a law against owning purple dinosaurs then we would not be free from the law. However if no such law exists then we are free from the restriction of owning purple dinosaurs.

Positive freedom means that we are in control of doing those things that we want to do. So when there is no law restricting the ownership of purple dinosaurs we are free to own a purple dinosaur if we want to. We are not required to own a purple dinosaur but rather have the choice of owning one or not.

The article sums up the differences like this:

"The concept of negative freedom can be summed up as: 'I am a slave to no man.'"


"The concept of positive freedom can be summed up as: 'I am my own master.'"

This understanding of freedom is essential to understanding the freedom that we have in Christ.

The concept that needs to be understood from the positive/negative freedom discussion is that freedom must always be viewed in relational terms. This remains true with our freedom in Christ. We do not have some sort of nebulous freedom rather we have been freed from something and to something else. Paul makes it pretty clear in Romans 6 that we have been set free from sin through the work of Christ but that this freedom from sin has a second side. We have been set free from sin and to obedience to God. Every freedom has two sides to it; every freedom has a consequence.

As human beings we have two choices. The first is to reject God and the second is to be obedient to God. The first option is what we call sinfulness. We decide to be free from being obedient to God but there is a second side to choosing this freedom. We must then live with the consequence of living a sinful life which leads to eternal judgment. The second option is to choose to be obedient to God's commands. The second side to this is that we are not free to do what ever we want. Rather we are free to only do those things that fall within the will of God.

This is the controlling factor when it comes to making decisions and trying to follow God's will. We have to deal with both negative freedom aspects as well as positive freedom aspects. We can freely choose to do what ever we want to do but we are not free from the restrictions of God's commands. This is why it is essential for us to be reading the Bible in order to make good decisions.


Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Way back in the day...

You know that things a bit out of whack if you are "excited" about paying $3.20 for gas. My wife and I were heading up to get together with family in Cadillac, Michigan for the weekend. The Chicago area generally has the highest gas prices in the country and it was at about $3.70 in our suburb just before we left. On the way up we stopped in Holland, MI and bought gas for $3.20. It reminded me that, back in the day, I remember paying less than $1. Just this morning I heard that gas is at $5.00 a gallon in Los Angeles and is rising all across the country. It is a very good reminder that as we move through life things and things change that we can never really go back to the old days. Even if gas were to go back to near $1 it would not be the same as going back to the days when gas was last at $1 per gallon.

One of those things that has changed greatly since those days is our reliance on modern computer technology. It has become a pervasive (or even invasive) part of our existence. During our time in Cadillac the family rule is no technology. My cousin's house in Cadillac doesn't have a TV and they just recently put in Wi-Fi. But even with the no technology rule iPhones and iPods can often be found in use. So this weekend there was an even stricter no technology rule iPhones or iPods. The rule was clearly spelled out to all the kids–young and old alike–on Friday. The young kids were the technology cops for us older kids as much as we were for them.

"I thought the rule was no phones," was the common refrain from a youngster whenever one of us adults slipped a phone out of a pocket. It is amazing to find out how much we rely on our phones when you have little and sharp eyes pointing out your every use.

Over the weekend something amazing happened. I spent more quality time with my cousin's kids than I have in a while. He and his wife have children ranging from 10 to 4 years old. In the past it had been easy for me to just hand one of them my phone when they asked for it and let them go off and play games. It was easier for me to break the adult rule of no technology than it was for me to look a young child in the eye and say no.

Today there is social media and technology that allows us to build relationships quick and easy but there is a real lack of depth to those relationships. There is no replacement for the slow and more difficult process of building a relationship through spending quality time with someone. This doesn't mean that these advances cannot help sustain a deeper relationship but we should never allow them to become a substitute for the better way. When we use the quick and easy way there is the ability to remain somewhat anonymous. There is also the ability to hide those things that we don't want people to see behind those things that we do want people to see. When you spend large amounts of quality time with someone those hidden things cannot stay hidden for long. That is when real relationship building starts; when we build a relationship in view of our total being and not just a facade that will crumble at the first sign of a storm. Those relationships are the ones that will stand for a long time.

I might not be able or even want to go back to the days before technology existed but I can focus on building relationships the old fashioned way.


Friday, February 17, 2012

One Very Strange Day

So I was sitting there writing my blog post for the day yesterday and I heard a strange noise coming from the other room. At first I just assumed that it was one of the cats playing with something that they were not supposed to be playing with. Anyone who has owned a cat can vouch for their mischievousness. They get into the plants and eat them. They will knock things over or off of dressers just to watch them fall to the ground.

Our cats are not the most graceful cats and can make a lot of noise. One is a 20 year old white Persian, Velvet, that was never very graceful and has become even less so in her old age. The other is a 10 to 12 year old grey Tabby, Tigger, that has put on some serious weight because of the food that we need to feed Velvet to keep her from losing too much weight. Tigger labors under the illusion that she is still a young and spry cat which can cause her to be very clumsy. She has fallen off of the top of the couch and misjudged a jump up onto the bed just to fall back down. It can be quite humorous to watch her.

I realized that I needed to get up and investigate when I heard another more metallic clunking sound.

I was in the study and I knew that nothing was going on there so I decided to go into the bedroom. The cats are usually laying on the bed. They spend so much of the day lounging around in our bedroom that it really is their personal lounge and not our bedroom. Nothing was amiss in their lounge so I went into the hall. After walking through the empty hall (really there is not much to it; we live in a small condo after all), I entered the kitchen. Then it was when I looked in the dining room that I saw something that absolutely shocked me.

There was a strange woman in the dining room.

"Excuse me! Who are you?" I stammered. She looked rather shady and I wished that I was armed. I really had no clue as to who she was. She did, however, have a feather duster in her hand.

"I'm sorry. I didn't realize that anyone was home," she replied with a bit of what looked like a sneer. It was kind of creepy. She continued: "My name is Blanche White and I was hired by a woman that I am assuming was your wife to help out with the housework."

My wife and I had discussed hiring a maid service back before I entered seminary. We were both working in the business world and hated having to come home and clean. But we really hadn't talked about it since then because it just didn't seem financially wise. Apparently she went ahead and hired someone without telling me.

"Oh, ok. I just wasn't expecting anyone else to be in the house. Was that you making the clunking noise in here a few minutes ago or was it one of the cats?" I asked. I hadn't seen either of the cats lounging on the bed. Tigger avoids new people like the plague but Velvet loves everyone.

"That was me. I was dusting the centerpiece on your table and I accidentally knocked it over. Fortunately none of the glass candle holders broke."

Again she had this sneer on her face that made me feel uncomfortable. It was one of those things that was just so surreal. I looked over at the table and saw that the centerpiece did in fact look like it had recently been wiped down. It was clean...a bit too clean.

And that is how I knew that it was Mrs. White, in the dinning room with the candlestick.



Thursday, February 16, 2012

Does God have a specific plan for our lives? Part 3

Over the past two days I have been looking at whether or not God has a specific plan for our lives. I started by examining how Jeremiah 29:11 does not teach that God has specific plans to prosper us and then moved on to how Romans 8:18-30 teaches us that God does have specific plans that have an eternal scope. But that still leaves us with the question of whether or not God has a specific plan for us in regards to our making everyday choices. Does God have a specific plan that we need to figure out when it comes to marrying the right person, going to the right college, choosing the right job or our church choosing the right direction to go? So far my answer to that has been:

"At the risk of sounding blasphemous, I don't think that God really cares what we do in these situations unless there is a Biblical or moral reason involved."

Now that I have laid the foundation that God has specific plans for us that are eternal in scope I need to start to nuance what I mean by my statement.

First and foremost I need to start with what may seem like a contradictory statement. God does care about what we do in every situation. He cares intimately about us and what happens to us. Matthew 10:26-31 tells us that Jesus said this about God's concern for us:

"So have no fear of them, for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops. And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows."

God cannot care that much for us without caring about the decisions that we make. Whenever we are faced with decisions we should always look to make the best possible choice. Sometimes we are faced with decisions that contain good, bad and better choices. Sometimes we are faced with decisions that only seem to contain bad ones. So how do we know what to do?

Do we need to listen to God's voice in order to make the right choices?

It is absolutely essential that we listen to God in order to make right choices. But what does that look like? Should we expect God to speak to us through an audible voice like he did with Moses at the Burning Bush or Samuel in the middle of the night? Is he going to speak to us in the still, small voice like he did with Elijah?

It is essential that we do not confuse examples of how God has worked in the Bible with the Bible teaching us how to expect God to usually work. We understand this almost reflexively because most of us would be appalled by a church teaching that we should expect God to speak to us through witches or donkeys. So in order to gain a better understanding we turn to the Bible which, incidentally, is the Word of God. What better place to turn to hear God speak than the place where God's speech has been recorded?

Jesus tells us all that we really need to know about hearing God's voice in John 14 & 15. It would be too long to quote both chapters here so I would encourage you to read them before continuing with what I am going to say next.



Ok. Both Thomas and Phillip ask Jesus some very good questions in John 14 that are very similar to what I am looking at here. Thomas asks:

"Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?"

To which Jesus replies:

"I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him."

Phillip follows up by asking Jesus to reveal the Father. Jesus goes on to state that his words are the words of the Father and that the Holy Spirit will come to remind them of all that Jesus said and taught. We have the words of God in written form and we have the Holy Spirit to remind us of those words. If we want to know the will of the Father we need to be obedient to God's Word. Jesus then says in John 15:

"If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you."

This isn't a magic formula verse rather it means that if we are consistently within God's will as spelled out in the Bible then our prayer requests will be answered. The hard part is consistently abiding in God and allowing God's words to abide in us. So when we are listening to God's words as found in the Bible we will make right decisions. We don't need God to speak to us through burning bushes, donkeys, or even in a whisper when we have God speaking to us through his written Word.

This doesn't mean that God does not speak to people in these ways today but it does mean that we shouldn't expect God to speak to us in these ways. We don't need to sit down and try and figure out God's specific (and hidden) plan for our lives. He has already spelled his plan out for us. He wants us to acknowledge the salvation provided by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, trust in him and to be obedient to his Word. This doesn't mean that we won't face very difficult decisions that we might need to wrestle with for a long time. But when we are abiding in God and his Words are abiding in us, we can rest assured that we will be making solid decisions that have good eternal consequences.


Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.




Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Does God have a specific plan for our lives? Part 2

Yesterday I started to give a further explanation of a comment that I made in my sermon on Sunday. The crux of the matter lies with a statement that I made in regards to our making decisions and trying to discern the right path for our lives. Does God care about which person we marry, which college we attend, what job we take and so on? On Sunday I essentially said:

"At the risk of sounding blasphemous, I don't think that God really cares what we do in these situations unless there is a Biblical or moral reason involved."

Yesterday I looked at what I think is a poor understanding of Jeremiah 29:11. It is my contention that to use this verse to justify that God has good plans for us today is a false way to understand the verse. However that does not really get at the question of whether or not God has plans for us. It is my understanding that he does have a plan for us and for the whole world. But to say that is different than saying that God has a specific plan for our lives and that we need to listen to him in order to figure the plan out.

Let me start off today's discussion with explaining what I mean when I say that God has a plan for us.

The first thing that needs to be said is that God is sovereign–or in other words–God is ultimately in control of everything. There is nothing that happens in this world that is outside of his permissive will. He has either caused everything to happen or he has allowed it to happen. Paul tackles this notion of God's sovereignty in the book of Romans. Paul states in Romans 8:28-30:

"And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified."

Paul is saying that God has chosen those that would become followers of Christ and that all things would work towards his future purposes. There is no way that this could happen without God having a plan–and a specific one at that–for us and the world. Paul is also saying that God's plan is that we will be glorified. But these verses come in a section where Paul starts off by clarifying when we will see the end result of this plan:

"For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us."

Notice that the "all things work together for good" are working together for a good that will come in a time that Paul considers to follow "this present time." Paul is referring to the glory that we will see in heaven. So God does have a specific plan for us that will come to completion in the future. God also uses all of the things that happen to further that future plan.

There is also no way that those specific plans or the future cannot happen without specific plans in this present time. God does have specific plans for us today. Plans that are working towards our future good. Paul goes on to tell us that these plans bring us hope:

"For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience."

These are the specific plans that God has for us. These are the plans that bring us to a saving knowledge of Christ. He has these plans so that we can have the hope that they bring. These plans don't require us to do any special work to try and figure them out. We just need to trust that God is working them out. I find a great freedom in the fact that I don't have to rely on my own smarts or abilities to work these plans out.

So God does have specific plans for us but what does that say about our making choices in regards to our lives? Does this mean that we need to listen to his voice in order to make the right choices? Yes we do need to listen to God in order to make right choices and I will tackle that topic tomorrow.


Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Does God have a specific plan for our lives? Part 1

Suit Up

I wanted to take a few moments and give a fuller explanation of something that I mentioned in passing on Sunday. Here is what I wrote in my manuscript but it will be slightly different on the video because I don't preach directly from the manuscript:

"We are faced with decisions that we frame in terms of right and wrong. Is she the right girl to marry? Which college is the right college to attend? Should I take this job or should I quit my job? Should the church do this or do that? Should I have Wheaties or a donut for breakfast? (You laugh at that last one and I put it in there as a somewhat extreme example. But let's be honest, we do ask God these types of questions.) At the risk of sounding blasphemous, I don't think that God really cares what we do in these situations unless there is a Biblical or moral reason involved. That is not to say that some of these decisions may or may not contain good and poor choices. When you are trying to lose weight consistently choosing to eat donuts for breakfast might not be your best option."

What I was getting at is that we may have this expectation that God has a specific plan for our lives that is planned out to the very last detail. It is what we could call the Jeremiah 29:11 doctrine:

"For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future." (NIV)

From that I have heard a number of people go in this direction: "This passage is telling us that God has a good plan for your life. This means that you need to pray and ask for guidance so you can determine what that plan is." The idea is that God has a specific plan for your life and we just need to figure it all out. Then we start to pray and ask God to lead us to the right girl to marry. We ask God to tell us which is the right college to go to. Then we ask God to show us the perfect job for us. And so on and so on and taken to the extreme we are asking God if we should have Wheaties or a donut for breakfast. This Jeremiah 29:11 plan might sound familiar if you have worked through Henry Blackaby's Experiencing God book.

But is this the way that God actually works?

There are a number of things that I would like to cover in answering this question and it will need to happen over a number of postings. This means that my view of this topic will not be completely revealed until the end. The first thing that needs to be examined is whether or not Jeremiah 29:11 actually teaches us that God has a plan for us. No, it does not. "But it says so right there. Didn't you just read the verse you posted in your own blog?" you protest. Yes I did just read the verse but I read much more than just the verse. I read the whole passage. In fact I have read the chapter and the whole book of Jeremiah. The book of Jeremiah was not written to us. God was not speaking through Jeremiah to us. This does not mean that we cannot learn certain truths about God from this book but it does mean that we need to be very careful about how we are applying this book to our lives. This verse is part of a letter that God had Jeremiah send to the captives in Babylon. The whole letter runs from Jeremiah 29:10-23. So why is it that we pick just verse 11 and apply that to our lives? Why not verse 10:

"For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place."

If we did then we must also say that God is planning on having us sent to Babylon for seventy years before bringing us back to this place. But which place is this place? We start to get that from verse 14:

"...I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile."

So if we are going to claim this passage as speaking directly to us we must also say that God will send us into exile in Babylon for seventy years and then bring us back to the place from which he sent us. And as we read further into the letter we see that God will send the "sword, famine and pestilence" on the king who sits on David's throne and all our fellow kinsmen that did not go with us into exile (vv. 16-17).

Then we get to verse 20 which says:

"Hear the word of the Lord, all you exiles whom I sent away from Jerusalem to Babylon..."

Obviously this passage is not speaking directly to us. It is speaking to a particular group of Israelites at a particular point in time. There are promises and curses in the book of Jeremiah that are not made directly to us and to claim them as ours is not the right way to interpret the Bible.

This doesn't mean that we cannot learn something from this. We can learn that while it might seem like it at times, God does not forget his people. We can learn that God will fulfill all of his promises but in his own time. We can also learn that God does have an ultimate plan and that plan is meant for the good of his people. But this particular verse does not teach us that God has a particular plan to prosper us in this lifetime. This verse does not teach us that God has a plan that we need to figure out.

But just because this verse does not teach us that God has a plan for us does that mean that God doesn't have a plan for us? I will cover that in the next installment.


Scripture quotations (unless otherwise noted) are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.



Monday, February 13, 2012

God is King, God is Sovereign, God is Calling Us to Obedience

I had the honor of preaching this past Sunday at my church. The sermon was based upon 1 Samuel 3 and here is the video. One word of caution is that I had to boost the volume and there is a very loud cough at about the 35 second mark.

Normally I have been posting my sermons on Vimeo but because of their upload limits I had to post this one on Youtube. I will probably be migrating all of my sermons to Youtube in the future.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Should Christians remain friends with sinners?

First I must apologize for my inconsistent posting this week. I am preaching on Sunday and because I don't preach every week I am having a hard time finding the balance between sermon prep and blog writing. It is not that I haven't had the time to blog. The difficulty is separating the blogging from the sermon prep. I was fighting the urge to blog my sermon all week which would not have been good for a number of reasons. (I should be posting a video of my sermon next week.) I think that once I start serving full-time in a church and get into a routine that it won't be an issue.

On to the post.

I came across an interesting article this week from Alan Shlemon of Stand To Reason. He tackles the very thorny and controversial topic of how Christians should relate to Homosexuals. Specifically he looks at the question of whether or not Christians–specifically those that think homosexuality is a sin–should have friends that are homosexual:

"Part of the problem stems from the belief that if you keep your convictions about homosexuality, then you can’t stay in relationship with your friends and family who say they’re gay."

Shlemon notes that this is just not the Biblical way of looking at this issue:

"The New Testament doesn’t prohibit Christians from friending (I know, I know…that’s so Facebook-ish) homosexuals. Paul, writing about a sexually immoral man in 1 Corinthians 5:9-10, tells Christians that they are “not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world.” Notice how Paul clarifies that we don’t have to avoid relationships with non-believers (who he calls “people of this world”). After all, we can’t influence them if we’re not involved at all."

The idea that you end a relationship with someone because they are living a life that is contrary to what the Bible teaches also goes against the way that Jesus lived his life. Part of the charge that the Pharisees made against Jesus was that he associated with "tax collectors and sinners." This doesn't mean that Jesus approved of their behavior or encouraged them to continue in it. Quite the opposite. Jesus commanded people to stop sinning. It is also good to remember that Jesus tended to be harder on the religious zealots for being hypocritical than he was on the sinner. We have to balance being true to our convictions and not being a jerk.

Mr. Shlemon goes on to explain what Paul was saying in 1 Corinthians 5:9-10:

"There is a group of people that Paul warns Christians to avoid. Continuing his discussion on sexual immorality in 1 Corinthians 5:11, Paul explains, “But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of a brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one.” The people Paul warns us to avoid are Christians who engage in sexual immorality. Why? Because sin left unchecked within a body of believers is like cancer. It spreads and harms those around them (1 Corinthians 5:6-7).

"That doesn’t mean we are to end all relationships with Christians who have committed sexual sin. Paul is talking about unrepentant Christians. People who know the biblical standard but thumb their nose at it and continue in the illicit behavior. That’s the context of 1 Corinthians 5."

What is also included in that list of people are those that are guilty of greed, idolatry, revilers, drunks, or swindlers. Paul is telling us to avoid Christians that are willfully living disobedient lives. As Mr. Shlemon points out, these attitudes can erode our own sense of right and wrong.

Mr. Shlemon concludes by saying:

"In all other circumstances, there’s no reason to choose between your faith and your friends. Keep them both so you have a chance to be a positive influence in your relationships. That’s the point of being an ambassador for Christ."

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Religious Freedom Revisited

U.S. Constitution

Last month I shared an article about the ruling in the Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC case that was before the United States Supreme Court. In that particular case the Supreme Court ruled that a church had the freedom to fire an unwanted minister even if it was only for religious reasons. Those reasons are usually not valid reasons to be fired for a job but the Court realized that there is an exemption from those rules when it came to ministers in a church.

Justice Roberts wrote:

"We agree that there is such a ministerial exception. Requiring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister, or punishing a church for failing to do so, intrudes upon more than a mere employment decision. Such action interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs."

It may seem like a very cut and dry situation but it seems that some college campuses do not think so when it comes to group membership and so far the Supreme Court has agreed. In the last two weeks the State University of New York at Buffalo and Vanderbilt University (ironically founded as a Methodist school) have told on campus Christian organizations that they cannot require their leaders to hold to their statement of faith. According to a World Magazine article:

"The student-led governing board (at SUNY Buffalo) put InterVarsity on suspension in December, after someone complained that one of the group's leaders felt pressured to resign his position because he was gay. Senate members voted to lift the suspension temporarily so that the group could meet to revise its constitution, approving at the same time a new fiscal suspension that prevents InterVarsity from spending any of its $6,000 student activity fee budget.

"A lawyer advising the Senate told the students that InterVarsity could not, under the U.S. Constitution, require its leaders to agree to any statement of faith or beliefs. But the most recent U.S. Supreme Court decision on campus religious groups - CLS v. Martinez - only forbade statement of faith requirements if a school had an "all-comers" policy, which would require all groups to be open to all people."

The Supreme Court has ruled that if a school has an "all-comers" policy then no requirements can be placed upon any group. It seems a bit hypocritical to allow churches to have a religious belief exemption when it came to who they hired and fired but not allowing campus ministry groups to do the same. But there are deeper ramifications for these types of policies. They cut both ways as a article points out:

"Now a similar rule is being implemented on the campus of Vanderbilt University. But this time a Christian professor is pointing out that under the same rule, Christians would be allowed to join an organization of atheists or Muslims and exert influence.

"(Carol) Swain (Professor of Political Law at Vanderbilt) said that the university has put itself in an awkward position. If officials say that Christians cannot join an LGBT or Muslim group they will be in violation of their own policy. But allowing Christians to join these groups means they can effect change in their agendas."

But so far Vanderbilt has not put it's policy in writing and has even been contradictory as to what the policy is going to include:

"According to Justin Gunther, president of Christian Legal Society at Vanderbilt, a member of the administration said in public that if members of a Christian group were to use religious motivation as a basis for not voting for an officer, it would be in violation of the university’s policy.

"The statement contradicted statements made that evening by (Provost Richard) McCarty who said members could use any criteria they wanted when voting, as long as everyone was given an opportunity to run for the position."

What will be interesting is to see how these rules by the various universities look in their final form. There will undoubtedly be some legal ramifications as well. But the most telling aspect of this is Vanderbilt Provost McCarty's statement that faith views should not be imposed upon others. Of course that rule doesn't apply to the University or it's Provost. They are free to impose their faith views however they see fit.

Monday, February 06, 2012

An Eternal Grace

 A friend of mine sent me a devotional last week. It is based on 1 Chronicles 4:22 which says:

"and Jokim, and the men of Cozeba, and Joash, and Saraph, who ruled in Moab and returned to Lehem (now the records are ancient)."

The first 9 chapters of 1 Chronicles are lists of geneologies. The author took the time to trace them out and in the middle of it all adds the comment that "the records are ancient." Which is a very interesting thing to say as you are going through ancient records. That is where the devotional comes in:

"But not so ancient as those precious things that are the delight of our souls. Let us for a moment recount them, repeating them as misers count their gold. The sovereign choice of the Father, by which He elected us unto eternal life, before creation, is a matter of vast antiquity, since no date can be conceived for it by the mind of man. We were chosen from before the foundations of the world.

"Everlasting love went with the choice, for it was not a bare act of divine will by which we were set apart, but the divine affections were concerned. The Father loved us in and from the beginning. Here is a theme for daily contemplation. The eternal purpose to redeem us from our foreseen ruin, to cleanse and sanctify us and at last to glorify us, was of infinite antiquity and runs side by side with immutable love and absolute sovereignty.

"The covenant is always described as being everlasting, and Jesus, the second party in it, is from eternity. He struck hands in sacred covenant long before the first stars began to shine, and it was in Him that the elect were ordained unto eternal life. In this way a most blessed covenant union was established between the Son of God and His elect people, which will remain as the foundation of their safety when time shall be no more.

"Is it not profitable to be conversant with these ancient things? Is it not shameful that they should be so readily neglected and even rejected by the majority of professing Christians? If they knew more of their own sin, would they not be more ready to adore distinguishing grace? Let us both admire and adore tonight, as we sing--

"A monument of grace,
A sinner saved by blood;
The streams of love I trace
Up to the Fountain, God;
And in His sacred bosom see
Eternal thoughts of Love to me."

In the ultimate act of grace, God created us knowing just how sinful we would be. He knew that we would reject him and he created us anyway. That act of grace is just as eternal as God himself. It is a staggering thought and one that is worthy of our praise.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

An Irresponsible Use of Scripture

Without getting too bogged down in the politics of the matter, I found this video taking President Obama to task over his Biblical exegesis to be very good. We can run into all sorts of problems when we take verses out of their context. And I think that what President Obama is advocating is exactly the opposite of what this verse is saying.



I want to step aside from the debate of what the church is supposed to be doing in the world for a minute. It is a very worthwhile debate to have but just outside of the scope of the application of this particular passage. The President is quoting Luke 12:48 which is a part of the passage of Luke 12:35-48. The passage is not about what we are supposed to be doing as the church rather it is talking about the way that we are supposed to be doing it. The passage is a warning to us about taking the easy way out. We are supposed to be working hard doing the things that we are supposed to be doing as the church. I would argue that passing any of our duties off to the government would be taking the easy way out and is exactly the type of thing that this passage is warning against. So if one wants to argue that taking care of the poor is a part of the duty of the church passing the buck (literally or figuratively) to an organization that is very inefficient at doing so is probably not what this passage is telling us to do.

I do find it interesting that President Obama didn't quote Matthew 25:29 which comes at the end of the Parable of the Talents which is all about how we use our resources:

"For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away."

But of course that verse wouldn't be making the political point that President Obama was trying to make.


Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

The Jericho Road

The long and winding Jericho Road connects Jerusalem to Jericho. My pastor had the chance to walk that road during his trip to Israel this past fall. He has been sharing the pictures and stories from that trip during our Wednesday night Bible Study and it has been fascinating to read corresponding Bible stories. Often those pictures have given me a whole new appreciation for the stories. The pictures of the Jericho Road last night were no exception in how the illuminated the story of the Good Samaritan found in Luke 10:25-36

The photo on the right shows the Jericho Road. You can see the road right in the middle of the picture. is right there...that small little path that is winding around the cliffs... It is narrow and has cliffs towering above it on the right and cliffs dropping off to the left. It isn't anything like the wide paved roads that we have in the Chicago area. (I use the term paved loosely. Have you seen the potholes?) The distance between Jericho and Jerusalem is about the same distance between my house and downtown Chicago. If I were to drive that trip I would likely take I-55 which we here call the Stevenson. As far as modern expressways go it isn't all that great and is often in need of repair. But it is enormous compared to the Jericho Road.

I-55 in Chicago

 It would be very easy to travel down the Stevenson and not notice someone on the far side of the road. You could honestly pass someone by and not see them. Not so much on the Jericho road. There is no way that you could travel down the road and honestly miss seeing an injured person on the side of the road.

"A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side."

There is no way that the priest or the Levite could have missed the injured man. The point that Jesus was making was that they obviously went around. It is something that I knew was a part of the story. But my perception of what a road looks like is very different than what the Jericho Road really is like. It really drives home how intentional I can be when I decide to ignore someone. While I might be able to fool myself, I cannot fool God. There is no claiming honest ignorance. God sees right through that and it is good for me to have a very different picture of the intentional actions of the priest and the Levite. Now I just need to make sure I have the same picture in mind when I think about ignoring someone. 


Jericho Road picture courtesy Rev. Christopher Poest

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Is your pastor preaching sound doctrine?

Burning Fire

The importance of having a sound understanding of Christian doctrine–our particular set beliefs–is one of my great burning passions. And I bet that most Christians, if asked, would agree that properly understanding and conveying what the Bible teaches on a particular topic is important. I am sure that most Christians would also affirm that solid Biblical preaching is an essential part of a pastor's job. That leads to a couple of closely related questions.

  • What process does your pastor use to prepare his Sunday morning sermon?
  • What process does your pastor use to maintain proper Christian doctrine?

I bring this up because a couple of the blogs that I follow wrote about a controversy involving James MacDonald and T.D. Jakes. To be honest I don't want to dwell on it too much because I really haven't been following all of the "Elephant Room" chatter. But the headline of one article caught my eye: How the Elephant Room is Redefining the Pastoral Office.

Tim Raymond's main point in the article is that the inclusion of T.D. Jakes–who is considered by some to fall outside of what has historically been accepted as proper Christian teaching–weakens the perception that sound and proper doctrine is an important part of pastoral ministry. Raymond says:

"And for the pastor, thinking that sound doctrine is insignificant is simply not an option...One of the prerequisites to the pastoral office is that a man be able to teach sound doctrine (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:5-9). Part of the basic job description of the pastor is to proclaim sound doctrine and refute error (Titus 1:9). Pastors are charged to train up their entire congregation in sound doctrine (1 Timothy 4:13-16; Titus 2:1). Pastors are to preach the Word in season and out since the time is coming when those who do not tolerate sound doctrine will infiltrate the church (2 Timothy 4:1-4 [parallelism indicates that preaching the Word is preaching sound doctrine]; cf. Acts 20:28ff.). And the Lord’s stamp of approval on a man’s ministry is partially measured by his commitment to sound doctrine (1 Timothy 4:6)."

So how do we know whether or not our pastors are teaching sound doctrine?

Through a lot of hard work. Acts 17:10-11 says:

"The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so."

We cannot simply be content to listen to a sermon–that is the easy way which can lead us down the dangerous path of false teaching. We must be like those in Berea and take the time to carefully search the scriptures to make sure that what is being taught is true. I think that it is also important for us to have an understanding of our pastor's process of developing a sermon and how they actively work to stay doctrinally sound. It is important for two reasons. The first is so that we can be sure that our pastor has a way of remaining true to the Word of God. 

I understand that there will be some pastors that find this suggestion to be a bit too intrusive. They may feel like they are being unfairly watched or critiqued. They may feel like it is an added burden to an already heavy work load. They may feel like their process is a bit to lax to really share with anyone. But it is my contention that if someone is truly dedicated to sound doctrine that they should be willing to share and teach their method to others. Which leads me to the second and most important reason that we should take the time to learn our pastor's ways. We should do this so that we have a way of being doctrinally sound. Even if you are someone that already has a good method we should never stop learning. Being able to incorporate parts of someone's process will only make our own process better. And the results will be of a great benefit to the church.


Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.