Besetting Sins

This past Tuesday, Major League Baseball held its annual Midsummer Classic, the All Star Game. I am a big baseball fan and I love watching the ASG. This year the game was played in San Diego, so there was understandably a lot of celebrating the life of Tony Gwynn, often called Mr. Padre. Gwynn played his entire career with the Padres and then, after retirement, was the baseball coach at San Diego State University, his alma mater. He was a (relatively) local guy (born in LA) who became a hero for the local team. Gwynn was well-liked, a fierce but clean competitor who worked hard and gave his best. He was a 15-time All Star and an eight-time batting champion, ending his career with a lifetime average of .338 and 3,141 hits. Perhaps most amazing of all–he never struck out more than forty times in a season over his twenty-year career. By all accounts he was also a devoted family man. He was a first-ballot inductee into the Hall of Fame, receiving over 97% of the vote. When he was inducted in 2007 I was in the crowd–because he went in with my favorite player, Cal Ripken, Jr. Both Gwynn and Ripken had clean images, clean careers and played their entire careers for their local team. Derek Jeter may well become the last player to be join the HOF having played his entire career with one team when he is inducted, but I can just about guarantee that there will never again be two players inducted in the same year who played their entire careers for one team.

I wanted to give Gwynn his just due, but this is not really about Gwynn ultimately. Instead it is about the example that Gwynn sadly left–an an example that was clearly described in a USA TODAY article in the July 11, 2016 issue. In it, Gwynn’s 2014 death from salivary gland cancer is described. His daughter Anisha is quoted in the article saying, “We tried so hard over the years to get him to quit [using chewing tobacco].” Their efforts were in vain, however. According to the article,Gwynn’s last days were unpleasant to say the least:

Gwynn had growths removed from his cheek in 2001 and 2007 and was diagnosed with cancer in 2010. He had surgery, only for the cancer to return two years later. Again in 2013, the cycle of tumors, surgeries, radiation and chemotherapy treatments started anew. Then came the seizures. Ultimately, Tony Gwynn Jr. said, there was an inoperable brain tumor.

Gwynn was in and out of the hospital for the last two months…the right side of his face paralyzed, his right eye taped shut at night so he could sleep and a walker required for him to leave the house….

Still, the article also states this: “Gwynn refused to listen, still dipping after all the tumors, seizures and radiation treatments, up until the day he died.”

As someone who has never smoked or used tobacco in any way that was hard for me to imagine when I read it. Then. though, I began to think about how I am the same way–as are so many of us. We have a natural tendency to keep doing those things we like even when we know we should not. That is really what sin is, after all–behavior from which we, for whatever reason, derive happiness, contentment, pleasure or satisfaction.By definition sin is coming short of God’s perfect standard of holiness and righteousness. Sin is missing the mark. We sin, though, because we want to. Sin is a choice we make, and it stems from pride, from wanting to do things our own way even when we know we should not. The first sin was committed when Satan tempted Eve to eat of the forbidden fruit by telling her that it would make her like God. That was a lie, of course, but Eve thought yielding to the temptation would result in pleasure or satisfaction that would not come by obeying God’s command. And that, whether we like it or not, is why we all sin today.

Thanks to the sin of Adam and Eve we are all born with a sin nature, and when we behave in the natural we do things our own way–read, not God’s way. Everyone one of us is guilty of sin; the Bible makes that explicitly clear. Thankfully, God loves humankind enough that He sent His Son Jesus to pay the just penalty for our sin, and that forgiveness is available to all who accept His sacrifice in their place. Then, sin is forgiven and bondage to sin is severed. Some people like their sin too much, though; they do not want to repent of their sin and give it up because they think that the benefits of the sin are worth it–the pleasure and satisfaction sin provides outweighs the consequences they think. Or maybe they simply deny that the consequences of sin exist, though I assure you they do. God told Adam that if he and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit they would die and they did. They died spiritually immediately and physically eventually–and death entered the world.

Still, some–sorry, all–who accept Christ continue to sin. The frequency and severity of that sin should diminish over time but it will never go away completely. Even the apostle Paul described, in Romans 7, that he continued to do those things he did not want to do and did not do those things that he did want to do. I did not know Tony Gwynn, but I suspect it would be true that he wanted to stop chewing tobacco in a rational, detached way but he could not do it because he was hooked. Like a fish jerked from the water by a hook implanted firmly in its cheek, Gwynn was hooked on tobacco. Whether it was the flavor of it, the feeling it provided or just the act of doing it, Gwynn could not stop. In an of ourselves, none of us can. Sometimes, even when we know in a rational, detached manner that we should, we keep doing it anyway.

So what do we do about this persistent sin?

In a 2008 column in Christianity Today Kevin Miller wrote that God can still work through our “unconquerable imperfections.” Pondered Miller, “Could it be that our frustratingly persistent sins, which abound, lead us to a greater awareness of God’s grace, which so much more abounds?” Sure, that could be. However, Paul also made it abundantly clear (in Romans 6) that we are not to continue sinning in order to produce more of God’s grace. The fact that God will forgive our sins is not permission to keep committing them.

Miller also suggested that persistent sin can produce humility. “So when struggling with persistent sin, take heart. God is at work, and even your persistent failings may work to your good and his glory. Let yourself be humbled by your falls.” That, too, is true; when we keep doing those things we do not want to do we should be humbled by it, frustrated by it and grieved by it. “Wretched man that I am!” Paul laments in Romans 7:24.

This past May Gavin Ortlund wrote, on the Desiring God web site, the following:

Many Christians struggle with “nagging sins” — those entrenched, persistent, difficult-to-dislodge sins that continually entangle us in our efforts to follow Christ. Sometimes we struggle for decades, with bouts of backsliding and despair recurring. Most godly Christians, who have made true progress in their pursuit of holiness, can sing with feeling “prone to wander, Lord I feel it,” or share the lament of Augustine: “I have learned to love you too late!”

I appreciate the way Ortlund stated this because he reminds us that even godly Christians struggle with sin. Like Paul did. Ortlund does not leave it at that, however. He goes on to provide four steps for eliminating those nagging sins from our lives. The first of those steps is simple: hate it.

I have no reason to believe that Tony Gwynn hated chewing tobacco. Quite the contrary, in fact. I have no reason to believe that Lot hated the sin he was surrounded by in Sodom and Gomorrah. In fact, until his angelic visitors were in danger of being gang raped by an angry crowd we have no indication that he hated their sin at all. Even then Lot offered his virgin daughters to the mob. And when the time came for Lot to get out of town before its destruction, Lot “lingered” according to Genesis 19:16. Even after Lot and his family are dragged from the city by angels Lot pleads with them to let him go to the little city of Zoar rather than flee to the hills, and more than a few scholars and commentators think Lot was referring to the fact that Zoar’s sin was not as great as that of Sodom and Gomorrah. We are all good at rationalizing sin and thinking it is not as bad as someone else’s or some other sin we could commit.

The next thing Miller said must be done is to starve sin. Gwynn kept dipping. That means, necessarily, that he kept acquiring it, keeping it handy, having it at the ready when he wanted it. We do ourselves no favors when we say we want to stop a specific sin but we keep putting ourselves in situations to yield. Recovering alcoholics don’t hang out in bars, for example. Matthew 18:9 says that if the eye causes on to stumble the eye should be gouged out. That is a dramatic and unquestionably clear reiteration of the idea of starving sin.

Ortlund goes on to talk about cornering sin and overwhelming sin. That last part, thankfully, we need not do on our own. In fact, we cannot do it on our own. In Romans 7:18 Paul writes, “For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.” Bad news… The good news is in the previous chapter, where Paul writes, “But you have been set free from sin…” (6:22).

The point of this is not to pick on Tony Gwynn. I am just like him. To my knowledge he was not a believer. But his life, which ended with him continuing to use the product that killed him right up until the day that it killed him, is an excellent example of where we will go if we try to live life in our own strength. We will continue to do that which harms us, trading the ultimate consequence for the temporary pleasure. May Gwynn’s demise be a lesson to us that we must hate and starve our sin, yield to the work of the Savior in our lives and overwhelm that sin which so easily besets us.

What the Composer intended

The November/December issue of RELEVANT Magazine includes an essay by Michael Gungor entitled “Wrestling with Faith and Doubt.” If you read this blog regularly then you will recall that I took serious issue with Gungor back in September over comments he made about evolution and his suggestion in a Liturgist podcast that Jesus may have either been wrong or lied about Adam and Noah. I commend RELEVANT for giving Gungor the opportunity to explain himself and I commend Gungor for taking the opportunity to do so.

In his essay, he begins with the illustration of a symphony orchestra and the fact that some instruments, like the first chair violinist, may play hundreds of thousands of notes while a percussionist may play very few notes but must play them “at precisely the right time.” Gungor uses this to stress his point that “all effective groups contain both diversity and unity.” He even makes a thought provoking observation about the importance of diversity in obtaining unity, writing, “it is arguable that without diversity, there is no unity (only a much less effective uniformity).”

From here, Gungor proceeds into his observation that today “the Christendom that claims to follow Jesus is divided into tens of thousands of bickering sects and denominations, more splintered and fragmented than ever before.” In many ways this is true, and there are many issues over which Christians vehemently disagree which are not of eternal significance. There are many subjects on which the Bible is quiet, if not silent, providing only guiding principals to shape our beliefs and behaviors. When the Scripture is not explicit no one should hold dogmatically to the notion that their position is the right one; no one should claim or exert superiority over anyone else because they are convinced of their own right-ness on issues Christian liberty.

Gungor says that he thinks “a little healthy friction in a team is OK. … But friction and division are not the same thing. There is a big difference between ‘you’re not doing your job well enough!’ and ‘I’m not playing on the same team with him anymore!'” I agree with Gungor here, too. Friction can absolutely be a positive thing. I seek out differences of opinion and insights from others than I may not have ever considered. I believe that we reach the best decisions when we weigh a variety of options and possibilities in the process of deciding. I believe this, though, when there are not absolutes already provided. If we were to argue at the school where I serve that students did not need to learn geography or to take Algebra we may well be able to develop convincing arguments but it would not matter. We are an accredited school, required to ensure that students meet graduation requirements established by the state before we can grant a diploma. In other words, it matters not at all how strongly, passionately or convincingly we may be able to argue against geography or Algebra because it is not up for debate. It has already been decided for us.

Gungor transitions from his explanation on the merits of friction within a team to his argument that he has been unfairly treated, labeled and opposed since his comments on evolution and Jesus’ references to Adam and Noah. “In the last few months, I personally have been called a heretic, a blasphemer, a two-fold son of hell and a fool who is leading thousands to hell, in which I happen to have a special spot reserved for me.” His explanation of why he has been called these things is that he “like a lot of Christians” believes that God created humans by means of evolution. Gungor says that he has no problem with Christians disagreeing with him or even arguing passionately that he is wrong. His issue, he writes, is when those who disagree with him start using “words that are intended to break unity, loaded words like ‘apostate,’ ‘heretic,’ ‘false teacher,’ and so on.”

I’ll own it. I am one of those who referred to Gungor as a false teacher. Not only did I blog about it, I used his comments as the basis for an entire sermon I preached on the importance of contending for the faith, defending the inerrancy of Scripture and rejecting the subtle but deadly false teaching that can easily slip in when we open our hearts and minds to “differences of opinion.” I did not do any of that, however, because Gungor believes in evolution. I think evolution is wrong and is contrary to Scripture and I think teaching it as truth is false teaching. But I took issue with Gungor because he suggested that Jesus either was wrong or knowingly lied, and, on top of that, said he wouldn’t be “freaked out” if that were the case. The problem is, if Jesus was either wrong or knowingly lied then the entire foundation of Scripture and Christianity is demolished. If you want to read more on that, check out my blog post of September 10.

Gungor goes on to explain that the early church used words like “apostate” and “false teacher” to refer to those who preached things such as Christ never coming in the flesh, but not to refer to those who “merely had differing interpretations of Scripture.” “Even in disagreements about significant doctrinal issues such as ‘Should we follow the law anymore?’ the early Christians maintained unity,” Gungor writes. I am not sure what Bible Gungor is reading, though, because he must have somehow missed Galatians. Paul addresses those who were teaching a continued adherence to the Old Testament law is very harsh terms. There were those who were teaching that salvation required following the law, including circumcision. In Galatians 1:6 Paul calls this “a different gospel,” continuing in verse 7 with, “not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.” In verse 8 Paul says that if anyone, even an angel from heaven, preached anything contrary to the gospel message being preached by Paul, that person should “be accursed.” So strongly does Paul feel about this, so important to is the identification and rejection of false teaching, that Paul reiterates this in verse 9: “As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.” Paul reinforces throughout the letter that teaching adherence to the law is false teaching.

Gungor then reverts back to his orchestra illustration, suggesting that by dividing over things like Gungor’s statements on evolution and Jesus’ statements about Adam and Noah is akin to a situation in which “every single player in the orchestra has gone off into her own corner, playing her part to whatever tempo she deems best in the moment. And what we have as a result is a din of clamorous noise–a series of competing factions, each trying to prove they are more right about the musical score than the others.” While this is no doubt the case at times, it is not the case with the reaction of myself and others to Gungor’s position. When Gungor suggested that Jesus may have been wrong about Adam and Noah or may simply have lied because his audience believed something that was not true and it was more convenient for him to let them believe that he was the one insisting that he was “more right about the musical score than the others.” Indeed, he was creating his own score! To his original point, there is indeed a difference between saying someone in the orchestra is not playing their part right and saying you will not play with that person anymore. The reality is that Gungor’s position is the equivalent of demanding the orchestra allow him to play a different piece of music than the rest of the group is playing, to acknowledge that he has the freedom and liberty to do so and that his playing his piece while they play the score the composer wrote is both acceptable and harmonious. This is patently absurd.

Gungor ends his essay by suggesting that the ultimate goal of the Christian is found in Matthew 26–which is true. What he fails to understand is that we are neither loving God nor our neighbor when we allow false teaching to go unchallenged. To suggest that we show love to Gungor by letting him hold to–and spread–his false interpretations of Scripture is the equivalent of suggesting that it would be loving for a parent to allow a toddler to stick a fork into an electrical socket simply because the child thinks it would be fun. The parent knows the danger involved and the damage that would result, meaning that the only loving course of action is to stop the child from his intended action and to teach him, sternly if necessary, not to pursue such behavior in the future. We are not loving Michael Gungor to suggest that his beliefs on this matter are acceptable or merely a difference of interpretation on an issue of liberty. We are not loving anyone else by allowing them to be exposed to Gungor’s position without warning them that it is wrong and dangerous. I hope and pray that Michael Gungor comes to see the error of his ways. Until then, however, I will continue to call his position what it is–false teaching. Because, contrary to what Gungor thinks, that is what the Composer intended.

Live It Out, part 2

Last time I addressed specifically the importance of living out our faith so that people will see demonstrated in us that which we say we believe. Several years ago I explored this idea as it pertains to Christians in the workplace. I had seen, as you no doubt have, an abundance of material in bookstores, online, at conferences and in graduate programs about what it takes to be a good and effective leader. Even within the Christian world, however, I was finding very little about what it means to be a good employee. While we are all called to be leaders (I like to say “if you’re breathing, you’re leading”) we are not all called to serve in formal leadership positions. Nevertheless, we all have responsibilities to do our best within whatever capacity we may serve. As a result of my studies and fleshing out some ideas that had been percolating in my mind I eventually developed a course entitled “UNTO THE LORD: The Roles and Responsibilities of the Christian Worker.” Through that course I (I hope) demonstrated what Christians are called to do no matter where they work or what they do because they are representing Christ. I hope someday to turn the course into a book, but that has not happened yet. I have been pleased to see that a few books related to this idea have emerged in the past few years, so perhaps others, too, are recognizing this often-forgotten area of the Christian life.

R.C. Sproul, Jr. addresses this idea in his “Seek Ye First” column in the September 2014 issue of Tabletalk. His column is titled “The World and All” and in it he points out that Christians are all too often guilty of separating the kingdom of God from the everyday activities of our lives. He explains that when Jesus told Pilate that His kingdom is not of this world, He was not suggesting that our Christianity is to be limited to what I will call church world. “It is true that Jesus distinguished His kingdom from the kingdoms of this world,” Sproul writes. “The difference, however, is not dimensional or geographic. Rather, the difference is in terms of our weaponry. What sets apart the kingdom of God is that the soldiers of the King do not fight with swords and spears.” In other words, Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world only insofar as He was not planning to lead a rebellion against the Roman government (much to the dismay of Judas and others) and He is not calling us to use bullets or bombs to overthrow the United States government. But He is calling us to be about the business of His kingdom every day and in everything that we do.

Sproul goes on to write this…

When we forget the glorious truth that Jesus’ kingdom is everywhere, that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given unto Him, we end up dividing His realm. We think the real kingdom is where the church is, where it is doing ‘churchy’ things. When we are praying, when we are giving and receiving the sacraments, when we are preaching or hearing sermons, then we have entered into His kingdom. When, however, we are making widgets, buying groceries, or coaching Little League, then we have left the safety of the kingdom and have ventured into the world.

The truth is, of course, that His reign is universal. We do not move into and out of His kingdom so much as we vacillate between recognizing it and failing to recognize it, manifesting it or failing to manifest it. When we leave the church, and enter into that which is para–alongside–the church, we are not crossing some kind of border, entering into Pilate’s realm. Because we are still within the kingdom of our Lord, we are still to be about our Lord’s business. We are to do all that we do as unto Him.

In other words, regardless of where we live or what we do, every believer is called to full-time Christian ministry. We may not work for a Christian company or be paid by a mission board. We may not carry a Bible to work or be employed someplace where meetings start and/or end with prayer. Yet we all are called to do everything we do for God. That means whether we are stitching a wound, filling out tax forms, collecting garbage, mopping a floor, remodeling a house, selling a pair of jeans, fixing or serving food, investing money or answering phones we are just as much within the kingdom of God and called to live out our faith as if we were pastors, Christian school teachers or missionaries. Sproul writes, “The plumber, then, if he serves our Lord, is a parachurch worker. he is most assuredly in ministry. And make no mistake about it: there is a Christian way to do plumbing.”

This is a crucial lesson for all of us to learn. It is one that I strive diligently to communicate to the students at the school where I serve…they do not have to go to a Christian college or work in a church in order to live out their faith. We strive to show our students how biblical principles are connected to and relevant to every area of study, every occupation and every life choice. I am in a setting where I am privileged to have both that opportunity and responsibility. But it is not one that should be unique to me or those of us in Christian education. Every Christian should seek to apply the teachings of Scripture in their every day lives. Every Christian parent should seek to teach their children that the Bible is not just for Sundays, but is relevant and applicable every day and in every setting.

Paul says in I Corinthians 10:31, “…whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” He says again, in Colossians 3:23, “And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men.” Whatever you do is all encompassing; it excludes nothing. Wherever you are and whatever you do…live it out.

An Open Letter to My Friend

Recently, a young man who graduated from the school where I serve announced that he is gay. It is no secret to anyone who has read this blog that I affirm the Bible’s teaching that homosexuality is a sin. This young man and I have exchanged some messages on the subject and he seems, for now, to be set in his new “beliefs.”


Dear friend,

You know that I believe that the Bible means exactly what it says when it calls homosexuality an abomination. Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 use this word for homosexual acts in the King James, New King James, New American Standard, Young’s Literal Translation and English Standard versions of the Bible. The New International Version, Holman Christian Standard and New Living Translation translate the word as “detestable.” The Voice uses that word, too. Here is how The Living Bible presents Leviticus 18:22: “Homosexuality is absolutely forbidden, for it is an enormous sin.” The Contemporary English Version says, “It is disgusting for a man to have sex with another man” and The Message says, “Don’t have sex with a man as one does with a woman. That is abhorrent.” There really is no alternative explanation for what these verses mean. Some have suggested that the homosexual acts being referred to were commonly part of the worship of idols and that the prohibition against homosexuality was really a condemnation of idolatry and not of homosexuality, but this is, at best, a stretch. What it really is is an attempt by those who want to find biblical justification for their choices to find a way of interpreting Scripture that allows them to do what they want. The Bible states very clearly in many places that idolatry is a sin. If God was intending to condemn idolatry only in these passages in Leviticus He would have done so. Instead, He chose to address homosexuality precisely because that was the behavior He wanted to address.

Other attempts to say that the Bible does not condemn homosexuality include the assertion that Jesus never mentioned homosexuality Himself. While that is true, there are many things that Jesus never specifically mentioned that are still sinful. If you look through your Bible or a concordance you are not going to find anywhere that Jesus used the words abortion, euthanasia, pornography or cocaine, either. Yet there are clear instances of Jesus’ teaching that address the sanctity of life, sexual immorality and the fact that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. In Mark 7 Jesus clearly condemns all forms of sexual immorality and said that sexual immorality is but one behavior that defiles a person. Really, the list of behaviors in Mark 7:20-23 could include homosexuality in several of them. Sexual immorality, of course, but also “evil thoughts,” “adultery,” “coveting,” “wickedness,” “sensuality,” “pride” and “foolishness.” I could elaborate on how homosexuality fits into each of these, and maybe I will do that sometime.

Paul includes homosexuality in I Corinthians 6 when he presents a list of behaviors that are not pleasing to God. While there is an effort among some to suggest that Paul is referring specifically to either male prostitutes or to men who kept boys for the purpose of homosexual sex, the Greek word refers to passive and active partners in consensual homosexual sex.

In Romans 1 Paul calls homosexuality a shameless act and says that homosexual behavior is contrary to that which is natural, meaning that it violates God’s intentional design for humans. (This, by the way, would be why homosexuality falls into the category of “foolishness” above). Paul addresses homosexuality again in I Timothy 1:8-10. Not only does he specifically name homosexuality in addition to the broader category of sexual immorality, he states that such behavior is “contrary to sound doctrine.”

You suggested that I watch Matthew Vines’ video entitled The Gay Debate because, you said, he presents “a different view, and one that is actually very logical.” The problem here is two fold. One, if it is a different view than what God Himself has given us in His Word, it cannot be right. If it contradicts what the Bible says it is necessarily wrong. The second problem is very similar in that it is not possible for something that contradicts the Bible to be logical. There may be ways of creating an understanding of things that seems to be logical but it will all be based on falsehood, meaning that it cannot withstand scrutiny or serious examination. I should perhaps mention as well that there is nothing logical about homosexuality; there is no way to explain it that makes any logical sense.

You go on to state that being gay is not a choice. “It is not my choice who I am attracted to,” you wrote. “It just like the color of one’s eyes, it is unchangeable.” This is an erroneous assertion, as well, and one that I have addressed many times in this space so I will not go into it again now. If you want to know what I think about it, it is not hard to find. I will keep it very succinct and simply say this–even if who you are attracted to is the way you were born, engaging in homosexual acts is still a choice. (Please note my emphasis on “if,” because I do not agree with that position at all; I am simply stating that even if that position were accepted, the behavior itself is still optional).

Now, before I close, I need to state that I am a sinner, too. We all are. Scripture is also explicitly clear about that! I do not believe that there are categories or levels of sin. When I sin through choices I make my sin is just as offensive to God as yours is. I don’t think homosexual behavior is more offensive than lying, stealing, gossiping, coveting or heterosexual sex outside of marriage. One thing that I think is often different in the case of homosexuals, and that I see right now in your own actions, is a decision to proclaim to the world that you are embracing that sin and asking everyone else to accept it. If I were to announce to everyone that I have decided that stealing things I want is an uncontrollable urge I have and is just the way God made me I would fully expect to be taken to task. If I were to embrace a decision to engage in extramarital sex and ask all of my friends and acquaintances to accept that decision, I would expect them to not only refuse to do so, but to call me repentance for my behavior. When you announce that you have made a conscious decision to live a life of sin you are in a dangerous position. You are also sending out a plea for anyone who really loves you to share the Truth with you in love in an effort to bring you back to the straight and narrow.

No one should wish you ill or harm, no one is pleasing God by calling you names or issuing threats. But no one who loves God and loves you can also let you persist in this choice without trying to bring you back to the Truth. We love you too much to do that.

The Day Between

These days there is not much notice or attention generally given to the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Many churches hold Good Friday services to remember the death of Jesus on the cross. Communion is often a part of this service. Oftentimes these services are solemn, which is appropriate given the event they commemorate, but they also include–and tend to end with–a note of hope, looking forward to the service on Sunday when we celebrate Christ’s resurrection. It is because we know Christ rose again that we can both commemorate Good Friday with gladness and appreciation and that we can, for all intents and purposes, ignore Saturday, “the day between” Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

Imagine, though, what that day between was like between the very first “Good Friday” (surely no one then considered it good, with the possible exception of the Pharisees) and Easter Sunday. That Saturday was the Sabbath day, and we know from Luke 23 that the women who would be the first on the scene on Sunday, to discover the empty tomb, rested according to the Sabbath tradition (indeed, the Law). I imagine it was an incredibly sad day, though. There likely would have been no motivation for anyone who had followed Jesus to do anything. They had probably had trouble going to sleep, thinking about the horrible events of the preceding days, and once they had drifted off they are unlikely to have slept peacefully. One the dawn broke and sunlight pierced the room there was probably no desire to get up. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary did get up early and go to the tomb to take the spices they had prepared because they loved Jesus so and wanted to be sure that His body was properly dressed. But they surely walked through tears and with heavy hearts. Apparently none of Jesus’ other followers ventured out because Luke 24:9 tells us that when the women returned from the tomb they told “the eleven…and all the rest” about what they had seen and heard.

As everyone who is familiar with the Gospel accounts knows, however, no one believed the women. Luke tells us that “these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” We know that Peter and John then ran to the tomb to see for themselves but we also know from Luke that Peter then returned to the group “marveling at what had happened.” I like the way The Living Bible presents this verse; it says Peter returned “wondering what had happened.” The Message says Peter “walked away puzzled, shaking his head.” In other words, despite the fact that he had seen the empty tomb for himself, Peter still did not remember that Jesus had told him, and all His followers, that He would rise again on the third day. Either that or he just did not believe it.

In I Corinthians 15 the Apostle Paul writes that if Christ has not been raised from the dead our faith is futile. Easter, Christ’s resurrection, is the event on which the entire Christian faith hinges. It is the defining moment, the difference maker. Christ’s sinless life, the miracles He performed and His death on the cross would have all been incredible but meaningless if He had not risen from the dead. The futility, the hopelessness, that defeatism is exactly what Peter and the other followers of Christ were feeling on that very first “day between.”

Today, however, because we know the rest of the story, the day between is of little consequence. It is just another day. We do not fear it, we do not mourn, we do not dread getting out of bed or wonder what may happen to us if we venture out. That’s because…and only because…we know that Easter is coming tomorrow. We know Christ rose from the dead. And because we know, we have hope, and our hope is not in vain.

Beware Appearances (Part 1)

The 2014 issue of Tabletalk from Ligonier Ministries contains an article by John MacArthur entitled “Appearance Is Everything?” MacArthur begins the article recounting a letter received by his ministry from an advertising agency that contained this message: “Let’s face it: appearance is everything. Let us help you enhance your image.” Initially MacArthur thought that the agency must not have realized it was writing to a Christian ministry. After further reflection, though, MacArthur came to this conclusion: “that is precisely the impression many unbelievers get from the state of evangelical Christianity today: appearance is everything.Truth and reality often take a back seat to image.”

That is a sobering thought. When I read it reminded me of something else I read a couple of months ago, so I dug it out. The December 14, 2013 issue of WORLD contains an article by Sophia Lee on the television show The Preachers of L.A. I have never seen the show, but Lee describes it as a reality show on the Oxygen network starring six mega-pastors. According to Lee’s review, “They claim to live for God, His people, and His kingdom. But halfway into an episode, it becomes clear that they are the gods–though they sure do love the people for their adoration, and they’ve built a nice earthly kingdom for themselves.”

MacArthur’s article is not about super-rich pastors of mega churches and I do not intend to turn this post into that, either. Indeed, MacArthur’s focus is more on the appearances Christians tend to present individually in their day-to-day activities. Lee’s article is about the appearance presented by individual mega church pastors but also about the appearance presented by mega churches and parachurch ministries. I would like to address Lee’s point first and MacArthur’s second.

Later in her article Lee mentions three former pastors who now “own a consulting company, called Church Hoppers, which helps struggling churches balance three components: business, marketing and systems.” Interesting, is is not, that the three-fold purpose of this church consulting group includes nothing about biblical principles, sound doctrine or theology. In fact, Lee proceeded to ask one of the partners of Church Hoppers about what they do if the church they are consulting with has a problem that is theological. “We’re not going to go in and try to change their theology,” Lee quoted Jerry Bentley saying. “I think churches are there in the community to meet the community’s needs.” Lee elaborated by explaining that Church Hoppers exists to “help churches give ‘customers’ what they want.”

First of all, there is a real problem when “customers” is the word used to refer to or think of individuals attending church or considering attending a church. This mentality is what led to much of the error of the seeker-friendly movement. This mentality is what leads many churches to put food courts and bookstores and other “amenities” within the confines of the church. Food courts and bookstores and playgrounds and coffee shops are not wrong in and of themselves, I might add, but the motivation for including them must be questioned. Churches need to plan and design their ministries first and foremost based on what people need, not what they want. After all, what people need and what people want are polar opposites if you believe in the total depravity of man. In their sin nature no one wants to hear sermons about sin or hell or the need for a Savior. That is exactly what sinners need, though.

I feel quite certain that the Apostle Paul would have run the other way had anyone suggested to him that he should consider improving his image, that he should carefully consider what the “customers” were looking for. Paul, after all, received the message loud and clear, on numerous occasions, that what he was offering was not what very many people wanted. He never wavered in his mission, though, because he was all about pleasing God not pleasing people. He was so committed to that mission that after being stoned and left for dead he got up and walked back into the town! I rather doubt market analysts would recommend that response.

Church Hoppers focuses on “business, marketing and systems.” I would suggest that churches focus instead on the Basic Message of Salvation. When churches remain faithful to the Word of God they will have effective ministries and their church will grow. The church may not grow in attendance, in offering, in building size or in publicity, but those are not the measures of an effective church. Therein, of course, lies no small part of the image problem–image isn’t really worth much. After all, some of the largest, richest, flashiest and most well-known “Christian” ministries are teaching things and promoting things that are contrary to the Word of God (and not teaching things that are in the Word of God, I might add).

I should state that I am not anti-image. In fact, appearance does matter, I think. I believe that churches and Christian ministries should be good stewards of what the Lord has entrusted them with, and that includes presenting and maintaining a clean, well-cared for and pleasing physical plant, regardless of whether it is new or old, big or small, expensive or cheap. So do not read this to indicate that I oppose nice buildings, comfortable seats, attractive decor or well-manicured lawns. I do not…not by a long shot. Quite the contrary, in fact, I think that Christian ministries should present very impressive appearances if by “impressive” you mean worthy of respect. But the impressive appearance should come as a result of doing all things to the glory of God, not as a result of bringing glory to ones self or ones ministry. When that becomes the motivation the impressive appearance becomes an idol.

Let us remember the old adage that appearances may be deceiving, and appearances must not be where our focus lies.

Next time I will address the appearances MacArthur writes about, the appearances on the individual level….

Based On…

I know movies based on books tend to take liberties with the author’s work, and the book is almost always better than the movie. (The only exception I can think of is The Firm. As implausible as the ending of the movie may have been, the ending of the book stretched credulity ever further, making it the only instance of the movie being better than the book that I know of). Still, movies based on books usually have the main points of the book in them.

Last night I watched the movie Alex Cross, a movie that, according to the credits at the end, was based on James Patterson’s book Cross. For those familiar with that particular book or Patterson’s Alex Cross series in general the movie will be a huge disappointment. Why? Because the movie is “based on” the book in the loosest possible sense. The movie uses some of the same names as the characters in the book, and Alex Cross in the movie is a psychologist and police detective, but there the similarities cease. In the books Cross grew up in and now works in Washington, D.C. In the movie it’s Detroit. In the book his partner is his childhood friend who is taller, heavier and more intimidating than Cross, and is black. In the book his partner is shorter, lighter, wimpier and white. The discrepancies only go on from there. I have never used this space to write movie reviews, though, and I don’t plan to start now, so why bring this up?

As I was bemoaning the pathetic effort by the film makers and wondering why James Patterson would have even allowed this movie to be made it occurred to me that there are an awful lot of things out there that are purportedly “based on” the Bible yet bear precious little resemblance to what the Bible actually says. This is surely cause for sorrow for God and it is cause for caution for us.

Anyone watching Alex Cross who had never read James Patterson’s books would not know that the movie was not faithful to the written word. Anyone in that category who then saw the book in a bookstore or library would assume they knew what the book was about; their opinion would have been influenced by what they had seen. Similarly, there are many people who have not read the Bible for themselves but have heard, read or seen things that claimed to be “based on” the Bible. These individuals will form their opinions of the Bible, of God and of Christianity as a result of whatever it was they saw, read or heard “based on” the Bible. That is a scary thought!

Flip through the “religion channels” on your television, browse the “Religion” section of your local bookstore or, listen to preachers on the radio, whatever your preference may be, and you will find plenty that claims a biblical basis but is nowhere near what the Bible really says or means.

This has two lessons for those of us claiming to be Christians. First, we need to test everything claiming to be “based on” the Bible against the Bible itself. In Acts 17:11 Scripture records that the believers in Berea, upon hearing from Paul and Silas, examined “the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so.” In other words they did not just accept that Paul was telling the truth; the tested his messages against the written Word of God. We must do the same thing, with sermons, books, songs and whatever else we encounter that claims to be “based on” the Bible. Second, we need to be extremely careful anytime we say, do or promote something that we are claiming is “based on” the Bible. In the Amplified Bible 2 Timothy 2:15 says that believers need to be “correctly analyzing and accurately dividing [rightly handling and skillfully teaching] the Word of Truth.” There is no excuse for carelessly handling God’s Word, and such careless handling would include asserting that something is based on Scripture when in reality it is not.

The moral of this story: Beware of, and examine closely, whatever is “based on.”

In all circumstances

Tomorrow we Americans will celebrate Thanksgiving. This is a great holiday…perhaps by favorite, though it would be a tight race with Christmas. I love Thanksgiving for the food, of course, but I love the time of fellowship with family and friends, and I particularly appreciate the reminder to pause, reflect on all that I have to be thankful for, and give thanks to God. If you’re at all like me, you probably take your many blessings for granted sometimes, forgetting to give thanks.

As Thanksgiving has approached this year I have been particularly reminded of the importance to give thanks in everything, not just in the things that seem pleasant or desired at the time. I suspect I am not the only one who struggles to do this.

The apostle Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica, “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (I Thessalonians 5:18). This is undoubtedly the ultimate verse on this subject, but it is not the only one. James even specifies that which is most difficult to give thanks for in the moment when he writes, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds” (James 1:2).

Paul, of course, had experienced plenty of “circumstances” in which it would have been very difficult, humanly speaking, to give thanks. Beatings, imprisonment, stoning, shipwreck… These are not the ingredients for a thankful spirit! Yet Paul had learned that God was still in control in those situations, and He was still working through them for His glory. James was writing to the first century Christians that had scattered because of persecution; surely their initial thought had not been to “count it joy.”

When the sun is shining–but its not too hot or humid; when there is still plenty of money in the checkbook after all the bills are paid; when everyone is healthy and smiling; when our favorite team is winning; when ________ (fill in the blank with something that makes you happy)…in those times it is easy to give thanks. So easy, in fact, that I think we sometimes do it cavalierly. It’s easy to give thanks for our food when we have plenty more in the pantry or the refrigerator, or, even if we do not, can easily go to the grocery store or a restaurant to get exactly what we want. I have to wonder, though, whether thanks that comes so easily–so automatically–really means much.

I am not suggesting that the words “thank you” are meaningless; they are not. Actually, I cannot think of many words that have greater meaning. But the way in which the words are said has a great impact on their significance. There are other words like that…”love” and “sorry” come to mind immediately. We trivialize them if we use them carelessly.

Back to my original point, then, sincere thanks given in the midst of circumstances that, on their face, do not seem thanks-worthy is a profoundly powerful thing. I can think of several situations that I have heard about in recent months that do not seem like reasons to give thanks, but upon further contemplation, there is always something for which to be thankful. And while thanks offered in hindsight is meaningful, how much more meaningful is thanks given “in the moment.”

Perhaps one of the greatest examples of a situation that seems lousy at best but turned out to be wonderful was shared with me in recent months. A friend of mine was bucked off of a horse, into a fence. He is a big, strong guy, but it was obvious that he was hurting. He was taken to the hospital, and tests were run. The only immediate damage was a broken rib. Still, not much to be thankful for really. However, in the course of running tests to make sure all the internal organs were alright, it was discovered that there was a cyst on his kidney. This led to more tests, of course, and eventually surgery to remove the cyst. Subsequent tests confirmed that the cyst was indeed cancerous. Yet, because it was discovered so early, it was able to be completely removed and the likelihood of any recurrence is only 4%. The doctors said that if another few years had gone by there would have been absolutely nothing they could have done for him. Amazing how all of a sudden getting bucked off of that horse turned into one of the most thanks-worthy events of his life!

I would never suggest that every one of life’s events will have ramifications that are that consequential. I am not even suggesting that we will always be able to decipher the good in every circumstance. What I do know, though, is that Paul did not say that we are to give thanks in every circumstance for which we can identify a silver lining. James did not say to count it all joy when we meet trials and see the value in them for our own improvement. Nope…there was no qualifier in either instance. The bottom line is simple: give thanks, count it joy…in all circumstances.