October 31, 2007

Martin Luther and the Rediscovery of Grace

In July 1505, a careless and superstitious German college student was traveling through the countryside in the midst of a tremendous thunderstorm. Suddenly, a bolt of lightning burst from the clouds and struck the ground so near him that it knocked him off his feet. Frightened and superstitious, he cried out “St. Anne, save me and I will become a monk!” Two weeks later, having survived the storm, he kept his vow and entered the monastery. His name was Martin Luther.

As is the case when you enter the monastery, Luther had a lot of time to think about himself and about God. And the more he thought, the more he realized just how short of God’s standard he fell. He began to hate himself for it. And, in a desperate attempt to make things right with God, he dove head-first into the strict life of the monastery. He read and prayed laboriously. He spent hours in confession, desperately trying to remember every sin he had ever committed—and ended up hating himself even more because he could not remember them all! He fasted constantly, sometimes for days on end. He sometimes disciplined himself by spending freezing winter nights sleeping in the cold with no blanket. He would later say, “I kept the rule so strictly that I may say that if ever a monk got to heaven by his sheer monkery, it was I. If I had kept on any longer, I should have killed myself with vigils, prayers, reading, and other work.”

Despite all his efforts, Martin Luther could find no peace with God. He was terrified of God and saw Him only as a Judge, eager to punish. Historian Bruce Shelley describes Luther’s first service of the Mass like this:

In the midst of saying his first Mass, said Luther, “I was utterly stupefied and terrorstricken. I thought to myself, ‘Who am I that I should lift up mine eyes or raise my hands to the divine majesty? For I am dust and ashes and full of sin, and I am speaking to the living, eternal and true God?’ No amount of penance, no soothing advice from his superiors could still Luther’s conviction that he was a miserable, doomed sinner. Although his confessor counseled him to love God, Luther one day burst out, “I do not love God! I hate Him!”[1]

Now why did Martin Luther come to a place where he hated God? Why did he feel so condemned and so unloved by God? The reason is because, all his life he had heard much about God’s righteous judgment on sinners. But he had never heard that God is also the One who freely forgives. He had never heard that forgiveness of sins was an absolutely free gift! Everything that Martin Luther had ever been taught by the priests led him to believe that it is up to us to get right with God by virtue of our own good works…and Luther found himself completely unable! So, he was undone. And he hated this God whom he believed was so exacting and so unmerciful!

Perhaps this is the position some of you are in this very moment: hoping to get right with God through being good, and finding yourself incapable of being good! You are frustrated. You feel like God will never be satisfied and you will never measure up. And you find it very difficult to love a God like that!

If that is where you are, I have good news for you. After ten years of struggling, Martin Luther finally found hope and forgiveness. And he found it in Romans 1.16-17 where the apostle Paul writes:

I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first an also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, he who is righteous by faith shall live.
Luther discovered two important things as he studied these two verses:

1.It is the “gospel”—the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection—and not our good behavior, which “is the power of God for salvation.” We are saved by Jesus’ good works, not our own!

2. This salvation is available to “everyone who believes.” Or as verse 17 puts it, “He who is righteous by faith (as opposed to good works) shall live.” We become right with God, not by doing good works, but by believing in God’s Son!

Now, do you know what happens when we discover God’s mercy and grace toward sinners? Let’s let Luther describe it. Upon discovering the free gift of salvation through faith in Jesus, He said: “I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise!” When we realize that God wants to give us salvation as a free gift; and when, therefore, we stop trying to earn God’s favor, we gain peace with God. We no longer hate Him. We no longer see Him as our Condemner but as our Friend. We walk through open doors into paradise! That will happen for you today if you will but believe in God who saves the ungodly!

That is what happened for Martin Luther. And when he published his discovery on this date—October 31, 1517—God used this rediscovery of God’s free gift of salvation to begin a spiritual revival in which thousands of people found the same peace that Martin Luther found; the same peace that I hope each of you will find and share with others. Let’s pray that this would happen for someone today…

[1] This quote, the other quotes in this section, and the specifics of historical detail come from: Shelley, Bruce. Church History in Plain Language. (Dallas: Word, 1982), pages 238-239.

October 30, 2007

B.I.N.G.O. - Gambling, Common Sense, and the Bible

Tunica County, MS (where I ministered from 2000-2002), is one of the largest casino gaming communities in America. We Mississippians aren’t at the top of a lot of lists (not good ones anyway), but we seem to have developed gambling into an art form! So, living in that kind of community, it was easy to give powerful (although painful) illustrations if anyone ever asked about the propriety of gambling. Rampant crime, failed dreams, and broken lives were pretty easy to spot in the neon glow of Tunica. It was the girl next door, not the statistics in the paper, that helped persuade an open-eyed few of the ills of gambling.

Five years later, I find myself settled into another gambling hotbed—Cincinnati. No, the Ohio isn’t studded, like the Mississippi, with stapled-down casinos (although we do have one or two just a few miles away in Indiana). But Cincinnati is a place where Powerball, Pick 4, and other lottery tickets dominate the cash wrap at your local gas station. Cincinnati is on the outer fringe, too, of the nation’s biggest horse-racing hotbed. And Roman Catholic Cincinnati, to this deep southern boy, sometimes feels like one giant bingo hall. Gambling may be nearly as popular here as it was in Mississippi. It’s just much less glitzy; much more sedate; and thus, seemingly, much less problematic.

So in a place where gambling seems much more of a pass-time than a major industry (because there are no buildings and neon signs attached), people sometimes pose questions like:
Is gambling really wrong? How is it any different
than pumping money into a new plasma TV, or investing in the uncertainty of the
stock market?
Not the deepest spiritual questions our friends may ask, but worthy of answers, nonetheless. So what can we say about gambling…and more importantly, what does the Bible say about it? Well…nothing, directly. But there are some principles that keep most Bible-believing Christians away from the bingo halls and lottery tickets.

1. The problem of stewardship
Jesus teaches us (Matthew 25.18-30) that our money is not our own; that we are stewards of God’s resources, and that we shouldn’t bury them in the ground (much less pour them down the drain on Powerball…or at Circuit City)! Here our gambling friends have a point. It is just as wasteful to throw money away needless possessions as it is to drop it into those money sucking slot machines! But the solution is not to say gambling is no big deal…but to realize that all forms of wastefulness are sin…and to put down the credit card along with the bingo card!

2. The problem of addiction
The apostle Paul says (1 Corinthians 6.12): “I will not be mastered by anything.” Yet statistics and anecdotal evidence both say that gambling addiction is a major problem. As Alistair Begg says: “The gambling addict will gamble on anything. Two rain-drops are sliding down the windshield, and he says: ‘I’ll bet you the one on the right reaches the bottom first.’” The result of such compulsion? Crippling debt; empty dinner tables for children; addicted gamblers who attempt suicide 200 times more often than the average American; and spouses who do so 150 times more often than their peers. Is gambling worth that kind of gamble?

3. The problem of theft
Just listen to the advertisements purveyed by casinos and lottery commissions. Aren’t they designed to make the average Joe think he is destined to hit it big? It isn’t true. But it doesn’t have to be. The gambling industry and its higher-ups prey upon the ignorant, the foolish, and the desperate. Their industry is just a organized form of theft! And every dollar you and I plunk down supports their schemes. And not only are we party to these thieves, we are also their victims! For Proverbs 28.22 reminds us that “the man with an evil eye hastens after wealth and does not know that want will come upon him” (emphasis mine). That is just it! Gambling execs ply their trade—tantalizing you to “hasten after wealth”—to make money, not for you, but for themselves! And before many a gambler awakens to this fact, poverty, debt, and want have come upon him!

As an aside, the difference between gambling and investing is that Schwab and Northwestern Mutual are trying to make money, but not by deceiving you. Your investing consultant lays out for you percentages, projections, and history so that you can make an educated decision. But doesn’t the gambling industry do the opposite? They don’t give you the stats--because the facts would show that you are more likely to die in a plane crash than to hit it big at lotto. No, instead of stats, they show you Joey from Delhi who just won $10,000 on Powerball. Nevermind that, the day before, that $10,000 dollars belonged to a lot of other Joeys and Janes who are now a little poorer, and a little more addicted! So the difference between investing firms and gambling outfits is one of honesty, disclosure, and motive.

4. The problem of idolatry
Some people defend the lottery and bingo night because, they say, ‘the money goes to a good cause.’ Let’s not kid ourselves. If we were really concerned about causes—that public schools had enough books; that scholarships were funded; that The Sisters of the Poor were funded, we’d just outright give money to those causes. The reason people play bingo and the lottery is not for the sake of the schools, but for the thrill of gambling and the love of money! But isn’t the love of money “the root of all forms of evil” (1 Timothy 6.10)? And doesn’t Hebrews 13.5 teach us to “free from the love of money, being content with what you have, for He has said: ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you’”?

According to Hebrews 13.5, the antidote to the love of money (and the gambling that grows from it) is trusting God—that He will take care of us; that He will never leave or forsake us! So then, for those who love money, money becomes a substitute for God! We love it more than Him. We pursue it more than holiness. We trust it more than we trust our heavenly Father. That is why we gamble!

Closing Advice
I believe gambling is one of those destructive habits that must be spoken against. Are you convinced? If so, let me urge you to speak to your friends in love. Sure—give them the reasons why gambling is so problematic; explain to them (from the Bible!) why it dishonors the Lord; urge them to trust Christ for their provisions—both here, and especially in the world to come. But, by all means, do so in love! For though you may be a convinced abstainer when it comes to the lottery, the casino, the bingo hall, and the track…you, too, need a Savior! So let us be sure, while we may see the silver shavings of a scratch-and-win lotto card in our friend’s eye, that we are also willing to take the log out of our own.

October 25, 2007


Every year at this time, someone asks the question: ‘Should Christians participate in Halloween?’ It is an important question…one that demands thoughtful and biblical answers. But as we open the Bible, we discover that it does not contain any direct teaching on the subject of Halloween. And for good reason—Halloween was not celebrated in the ancient Bible lands!

We do find, however, that early Christians had to deal with similar non-Christian holidays, festivals, and cultural traditions. So, if we want to think biblically about Halloween, we should study biblical passages in which the early Christians dealt with the issues of how to practice Christianity in a pagan culture. One such passage is 1 Corinthians 10.14-31. In this passage, Paul gives instructions to the church at Corinth as to how to relate to the pagan rituals and celebrations that were part and parcel of their Greek culture. Specifically, Paul offers guidance as to what the Corinthian Christians should do with the idol feasts that were as much a part of their tradition as Halloween, football, and the 4th of July are part of ours. And I think there is great wisdom in Paul’s word to the Christians at Corinth!

So, let’s read Paul’s counsel together, then draw some parallels to our modern Halloween dilemma. Read the entire article:

October 22, 2007

To do Good on the Sabbath

This past Sunday, I read Mark 3.1-6 during my morning devotion. It is the story of the Pharisees, as usual, trying to catch Jesus in one of their carefully laid booby traps. One Saturday morning, everyone is filing into the synagogue for service. And the Pharisees notice that a man with a shriveled hand wanders in beside them. They sit next to him in the pew, wanting to keep a close eye on him—not because they have any use for him themselves, but to see if Jesus notices him; and more importantly, to see if Jesus will ‘break the law’ (actually, their manmade additions to God’s law) and heal him on the Sabbath. You know the rest of the story. Jesus does heal the man…and asks this scathing question of the Pharisee spies (v.4): “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?”

Of course, the Pharisees were silent. They knew the right answer; but their religion wouldn’t allow them to even speak it, much less act on it.

And it occurred to me as I read that some of us may actually be sitting in the same pew as the Pharisees. Now there may be a few of us who understand that there is abiding significance to the Sabbath command, and who fall into the exact same legalistic trap as the Pharisees…unable to show compassion on the Lord’s Day because our religion—our misapplication of the fourth commandment—prevents it. But far larger, I think, is a group of folks who shrug the same heartless cold shoulders at the crippled man, if for only slightly different reasons.

How many of us come to church and always sit in the same old pew with the same old people? How many of us are so focused on our responsibilities, that we rarely take the time to notice the newcomer, the stranger, or the hurting? How many of us allow an ‘introverted personality’ to prevent us from seeking out and blessing the man with the shriveled hand? Not all of us, I am happy to say! But still too many.

Isn’t it easy to be so self-focused, so busy, so insensitive on Sunday mornings that we never notice the man with the shriveled hand; or the new couple sitting on the back pew; or the young man whose eyes are glazed with held back tears; or the mentally perplexed fellow who slips silently in and out; or the international who is lonely and confused in a strange land? Or maybe it is that we do notice, but our way of doing Sunday mornings just doesn’t allow us the time or energy to go too far out of the way to “do good on the Sabbath”—to feed them a meal, to offer to pray, to open the Scriptures to them, to do much more than shake their hand and say hello.

One has to wonder how many services the man with the shriveled hand sat through before Jesus showed up and cared for him. And we also have to ask ourselves how many Sundays we must spend, with the Pharisees, in the cushy pew of inactivity before we are willing to spend the energy to “do good on the Sabbath.”

Think about it. Have you been sitting, with the Pharisees, in the seat of unwelcoming inactivity? Will you begin come to church on the lookout for the man with the shriveled hand? And will you stop waiting to see if Jesus does good to him…and actually take your place as the hands and feet of Jesus and “do good on the Sabbath” yourself?

October 18, 2007

Money Well Spent...

Some of you have graciously supported Pastor's Training Institute-Ethiopia. Others have prayed. (And others may be moved to after reading this update). As you know Anthony is in a two year process of training Ethiopian men for the ministry.

Mind two facts: 1) He is working with the most biblical denomination in the country - a very theologically poor country. And 2) He is teaching relatively untrained men through translators who are the leaders of the denomination.

This week, he is teaching 75 potential pastors through the doctrines of sin and man. Here is a quote from his latest update:

My translator even commented today that he had never considered that sin was primarily against God. He said that he thought it only affected him and maybe his family.

WOW! Is the truth Anthony shares worth the money it costs to do it...and the prayers that uphold him? This quote proves the answer is YES, yes...a hundred times yes! This revelation alone is worth more to the kingdom of God in Ethiopia than all the gold in Fort Knox is to the economy of the world. Please be in continual prayer...and consider giving.

October 17, 2007

Welcome to Philadelphia

This week I read a brief but helpful internet article about Christian community (by Tim Challies). Within the article was a wonderful quote by a fellow named Charles Drew (author of A Journey Worth Taking). Speaking about our spiritual family, the church, Drew says:

We don’t choose our brothers and sisters—God does. And sometimes (oftentimes)
those people are not terribly compatible with us—not the people we would choose
to hang out with.

He goes on to explain that God builds churches out of not-so-similar people for a couple of really good reasons:

A) To teach us how to really love (it’s easy to love people who are just like me…a little more challenging the more different they are)

B) To demonstrate that the good news is for all sorts of people

I would add that God also intends His local churches to be, each one, a colorful mosaic of various races, backgrounds, ages, and socio-economic classes in order to show the power of the gospel to change the human heart.

What better way to demonstrate the reality of the new birth than for the people of God to be known—not mainly for their social or political stances, or their programs and preachers—but for how they love each other! And what better way for God to highlight the reality of this love than to stick a bunch of people together who would never, ever be friends apart from the gospel; people who, in their unbelieving days, would probably never even have crossed paths because of their racial, social, or economic status!

While the secular world squawks about cherishing diversity, it is rarely achieved on any grass-roots level. Sure, there may be little open racism happening on our streets. And yes, one has to study the French Revolution to observe true class wars. But, in 21st century America, white people still live in white neighborhoods. Black people tend to hang out with mostly black people. The upper-middle class make friends almost exclusively within their own circles. And when is the last time you heard of an unbelieving college student going to lunch with the retiree from down the street? In the world, people love those who look like, talk like, and come out of the same sociological shoots as them. But in the church…not so. In the church, the college student and the little old lady become sisters. In the church, the white mother of five and the young black couple become family.

The Bible word for this is philadelphia—brotherly love. And Paul says (1 Thess. 4.9) that this kind of love is taught the believer by God Himself. There are some things that the new Christian has to pick up as he matures—how to tithe, the difference between justification and sanctification, and so on. But love for fellow believers is like an instinct in those who are born again. Philadelphia is “taught by God” Himself.

So if you look around at your church and realize that there are more and more people who don’t exactly look like you—thank God for that! He’s teaching you how to really love. And He’s giving you an opportunity to demonstrate the power of the gospel to the on-looking, and happily homogeneous world. What a great place to be! Welcome to philadelphia!

October 15, 2007

But Now Apart from the Law

While our Sermon Archive is being revamped, I promised to post the Sunday manuscripts here. So, here is yesterday's...from Romans 3.19-26.

October 8, 2007


Is there an echo in here? Is there an echo in here?

I only hear myself talking. Tobey would tell you that is normal around the house. But in the blogosphere? I know you readers are out there. But I don't know who most of you are.

So, how about a roll-call. Who's out there? Do I know you? If not, give a little self-introduction. Maybe this will get everyone's fingers doing a little more walking in the comment section (which allows comments from non-bloggers, by the way).

If I don't hear from you, I'll just keep up the monlogue. I don't mind. Just ask Tobey.

No Playing in the Street!

‘Don’t ride your bike in the street.’ Those words of my mother still ring in my ears today. It was just too dangerous to leave me out there unsupervised. I didn’t like the rule. I wish I would have known Zechariah 8.5 back then: “The streets of the city will be filled with boys and girls playing in the streets.” Actually, maybe I don’t wish that! I don’t think my interpretation of it would have been all that great. Plus, I probably would have been in real danger of getting run over, just like mom said. And, more importantly, I might not ever have played in the street again if I’d have whipped out that verse in my usual smart-aleck tone!

So, if it’s not a zinger to pull out on your mother, what is Zechariah 8.5 about? Well, the book of Zechariah was written during a time of disarray in ancient Israel. Yes, the people had returned home from seventy years of exile in Babylon. But Jerusalem was still in ruins. The ancient walls were just a smattering of blocks and stones laying around the edge of town, looking more like a garden-edging than a fortification. Furthermore, the Temple had yet to be rebuilt. So sacrificial worship, the people’s daily reminder of their need for a Savior, had yet to be appropriately reinstituted. These were the big, obvious craters in the Jewish landscape.

There were other things missing, too. There weren’t many old people (8.4). Most of them must have died in exile or been physically incapable of making the return trip. Neither was there the familiar and healthy sound of playing children. The streets were just too dangerous for children. With the protective city walls down, the streets of Jerusalem were fair game for wild animals and for foreign agitators. More significantly, perhaps, the spiritual walls had been broken down. The people had left the Temple languishing—a sign of their spiritual apathy. They weren’t all that interested in getting the gospel message that the Temple and its sacrifices would have daily afforded them. And when a culture’s spiritual walls are broken, the streets are no place for children. Kidnappers, pedophiles, and uncaring travelers all posed a threat to playing children. So mother’s had to keep them close by their sides, not letting them play freely for fear of what might happen to them. Sound familiar?

Can anyone debate that modern American cities are much like ancient Israel? What responsible city mom feels comfortable turning her little ones into the front yard to play unobserved? Tobey and I sure don’t. Our rules are stricter than my parents' were! That is the one thing we lament about living in the city—we will likely never be able to allow Andrew and Julia to play outside in the yard unsupervised—and this isn’t even a ‘dangerous neighborhood’! So what is the solution? Neighborhood Watch? A privacy fence? More police and less crime? All of those may be stop-gap measures. But I believe the real answer lies in Zechariah 8.3: “Thus says the LORD, ‘I will return to Zion and will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem.” And then “The streets of the city will be filled with boys and girls playing in the streets.” When we have a real spiritual awakening—when the LORD Jesus comes to Cincinnati—then all sorts of things will change, first of all lives! And what will be a happy (albeit minor) sign that lives are changing? The sound of “boys and girls playing in the streets!”

October 4, 2007


Every now and again, someone will ask me about Hebrews 6.4-6: ‘Does this passage teach that a believer can lose his salvation?’ Read it:

For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of
the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have
tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have
fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they
again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame.

What do you think? Do these verses teach that a person may lose his salvation? At first glance, they certainly seem to, don’t they? The author speaks of those who:
  • Have once been enlightened
  • Have tasted of the heavenly gift
  • Have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit
  • Have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come

That certainly sounds like a Christian, doesn’t it? And what follows certainly sounds like some of these very people may have fallen away! So looking at those three verses, it certainly seems as though the author of Hebrews is referring to true believers who have lost their salvation. And that would have to be the only conclusion we could come to…if Hebrews 6.4-6 was the only Scripture we possessed on this matter. But Hebrews 6.4-6 is not all we have. In fact, we have Hebrews 6.9 where this same author, in the same paragraph, says:

But, beloved, we are convinced of better things concerning you, and things
that accompany salvation, though we speak in this way.

In other words, those who truly possess salvation can expect something better than what is described in verses 4-6. They can expect not to fall away! This great Christian hope is taught elsewhere in the Scripture, too:

He who began a good work in you will be faithful to
complete it
(Philppians 1.6)

Those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to
become conformed to the image of His Son…and these whom He predestined He also
called; and these whom He called He also justified; and these whom He justified
He also glorified.
(Romans 8.29-30)

Clearly God promises to finish in glorification what He begins in justification! So what is Hebrews 6.4-6 about? It is a stern warning to pretenders in the church. It is a warning that it is possible to…
  • Understand the gospel
  • Experience some of the emotional relief that the gospel brings
  • Live under the influence of the Spirit on the church
  • Be well taught in the Scriptures

…and yet not be, ultimately, trusting in Jesus. And what is so scary is that those who live under these influences and ultimately reject the Savior are done for—it is impossible to renew them to repentance. So, if you’re trusting Jesus…be assured; but if you’re playing church…be warned.