March 29, 2010

They All Lived Happily Ever After

Don’t you love it when a story ends that way? The couple gets married; or the princess is rescued; or the right team makes it to The Final Four … and all is well with the world. ‘They all live happily ever after.’

Sometimes it’s easy to treat the resurrection of Jesus that way, too … merely as a kind of pleasant postscript to the story; but not really part of the main plot. You know … Jesus lived a perfect life of love – always obeying God, always helping people, confounding the religious smugness of the big shots, working miracles, never failing in anything He attempted, and even dying on the cross for our sins. What a story! And, oh yeah, at the end of the book, He rose from the dead. ‘And they all lived happily ever after.’

I think I myself have sometimes been guilty of treating the resurrection that way … as a happy tag-on to the main events that all happened prior to Easter Sunday. But every year, Easter Sunday is a good reminder that the resurrection is not just a happy epilogue to the life story of Jesus. It’s a vital part of the actual story! In fact, without it (the apostle Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 15) our faith is vain! Without the resurrection, in other words, the rest of the story would be of no value! For – just to give one example – how would we know that Jesus really was who He said He was if He had stayed in the grave? Or if the resurrection (as will be preached from many pulpits this Easter Sunday) is merely ‘a spirit of hope and new beginnings’ rather than a literal, bodily description of what happened to Jesus?

Do you see? If Christ is not actually alive today, then we are all wasting our time with this Christianity stuff! For, if His bones are decomposing in some cave outside Jerusalem, then he was no greater than any other religious leader that ever came down the pike. Maybe He was an influential teacher (like Gandhi, or Mohammad, or Mother Theresa). But if He is still in the grave, He is clearly no more than that – and certainly not the One who can save us from sin, and answer our prayers, and rule the nations, and return in glory. Not if He never rose from the dead! So the resurrection is not just a nice ending to the story … it’s the climax! It’s the proof that the rest of the story is true!

And let me point out, from Romans 6, another reason why the resurrection is so indispensable as a part of the Jesus story. Because, as Paul says of those who believe in Jesus (v.4), “as Christ was raised from the dead … so too we might walk in newness of life.” In other words, if Jesus rose from the dead, so will His people … and in a couple of different ways.

First, Jesus’ bodily resurrection is called “the first fruits” of our own bodily resurrection (1 Corinthians 15.20). After He rose from the dead, He ascended, bodily, into heaven. And from heaven He will someday return to resurrect His people from the dead, so that we will ever be with the Lord.

But also, Jesus’ resurrection means that we have new life here and now. We used to live for ourselves. We used to be “slaves to sin” (Romans 6.6). We used to kick against God’s good will for us. But now, because “Christ was raised from the dead” (v.4), we have “newness of life”. We don’t have to keep sinning. Jesus has made us new; reborn; alive from the spiritual dead.

Alas, we sometimes do continue in sin. But, because “Christ was raised from the dead”, we do not have to! If we believe, we have new life in Him. So, if you are a believer in Jesus … “consider yourself to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6.11). And if you are not yet a believer in Jesus … turn to Him now. Trust Him as the one who died for your sin and was raised so that you, too – both in the here and now, and in the there and then – “might walk in newness of life.”

Welcome Guests

So this weekend is Easter ... meaning many of our churches will have many new faces to welcome, to pray for, to be a blessing to as they join us in the pews Sunday morning. Being in a highly unchurched area, we make a big deal of trying to get our friends and neighbors through the doors and in front of the Bible on Easter Sunday morning.

This year, we are making extra efforts to try and make sure that what we are doing and saying is intelligible to them. One of those efforts is pasted below ... and 'play-by-play' of this Sunday's order of worship. I'm posting it here hoping:
A. That some of my own people might see it ... and begin to prepare and pray in advance for this Sunday.

B. That some of you who are in church leadership might be encouraged to attempt something similar. New visitors to church (especially unchurched ones) are often baffled by the various things we do. Why not make it a little easier on them?

C. That others of you who participate in worship every week might be helped by the reminders of why we Christians do what we do on Sunday mornings. Your service this Sunday will not be exactly like ours. But most of the same pieces will be in place. So may the Lord make your worship just a tidge brighter and better by remembering what you're doing and why.

So, with no further ado, here is what we are printing up and inserting into our bulletin this weekend:

Click to enlarge. Enjoy ... and worship!

March 23, 2010

It's Worse than I Thought

Sometimes, though you have read a particular Bible verse a dozen times before, you read it the thirteenth time and something new strikes you. No, it’s not that the verse changed. Nor is it that the verse ‘means something different’ to you now than it did before. Not for a moment. The meaning of any particular verse is the exact same today – for every single person on earth – as it was when Moses, or Paul, or David first wrote it. The truth is the truth is the truth.

And yet it is true, though the same truth has always been embedded in such and such a verse, that you or I may have read it a dozen times before without actually seeing the truth that was there. The same way some people walked up to me, several weeks after I got my new glasses, and said: ‘Something’s different about you.’ It took them that long to notice. And, sometimes, the same is true with noticing Bible truth.

One such example, for many people, might be Romans 5.19a. It reads as follows:

Through one man’s disobedience [namely, the disobedience of Adam, Genesis 3] the many were made sinners.

Did you ever look really closely at what that verse says? Here is a list of things it does not say, but that many Christians assume it means:
  • Romans 5.19 does not say: Through one man’s disobedience the world was put under a curse. That is true. But that is not what this verse says.
  • Romans 5.19 does not say: Through one man’s disobedience the possibility of other men sinning was opened.
  • Romans 5.19 does not say: Through one man’s disobedience the many inherited a propensity to do evil.
No, it is worse than that. Paul (by inspiration of the Holy Spirit) does not say that Adam’s sin merely made sin a possibility for the rest of mankind. And he does not say that Adam’s sin merely bent us toward sin (though it is true that we are bent toward sin the way the day lilies are bent toward the sun!). No! It is far worse than that. Adam’s sin made us positively sinful in ourselves. It’s not that we merely inherited the option to sin, or the propensity to sin. It’s that we inherited, from Adam, a nature that is, at its very core, sinful. Because he sinned, we became sinners.

Indeed, that is why we sin. Not because there are so many temptations in the modern world (though that fact certainly ‘helps’ us along, doesn’t it?). And not because we are merely bent toward sin. No, we sin because that is the most natural thing in the world for us to do. We were born twisted, crooked, warped, sinful. Indeed, the psalmist David confessed that he was, in fact, born into sin (Psalm 51.5). And Romans 5 teaches us that we must say the same. Because Adam sinned, we came out of the womb – and even lived inside the womb – with hearts whose most natural inclination is not to cry “Abba, Father”, but ‘me first!’; not to cry “praise the Lord”, but ‘look at me!’; not to bow our knees, but to stick out our chests. That is me, apart from Christ. And, without the Savior, that is you, too.

I understand that this isn’t a very palatable truth. In fact, it sounds a little unfair, doesn’t it? ‘I was brought into this world a depraved sinner – with no recourse and no way to rescue myself – simply because some person who lived 6,000 years ago ate fruit that God told him not to eat?’ Yes. ‘Well that is not fair.’ Perhaps not … in our way of reckoning.

But (as I once heard Paul Washer point out) if we refuse to accept that one man’s sin can, apart from anything we do, bring about our depravity and corruption … then, logically, we also have to refuse to accept the latter half of Romans 5.19 – that one man’s obedience (that of Jesus) can, apart from anything we do, bring about our redemption and rescue. And surely we don’t want to refuse that!

So, if we are to accept the truth of Romans 5.19b, we must also accept the truth of Romans 5.19a, distasteful as it is. We are not just open to sin. We are not just bent toward sin. Apart from the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, we are positively sinful in the very center of our beings. It’s worse than we think! But, then again, that is what makes the gospel of Jesus far better than we can ask or imagine!

March 15, 2010

All the Wrong Places

Sing it with me now:

Lookin’ for love in all the wrong places,
Lookin’ for love in too many faces –
Searchin’ her eyes …

Okay, so I don’t sound too much like Johnny Lee. Probably neither do you! But it’s still quite an interesting song, is it not? It’s the life story of so many people, which is probably why it resonated so well back in 1980 … and why I still remember it today (that and the catchy tune!).

And, when it comes to men and women looking for God’s love, the song’s title strikes an even more profound note. For isn’t it true that, much of the time, we find ourselves looking for God’s love to be demonstrated in our circumstances – in an answered prayer about our health; in His provision of a pay raise, or a fixed automobile, or a happy marriage, or a good test grade, or a _______________ (you fill in the blank)? And aren’t we often disappointed when we use these measuring sticks?

It is true that God does show His love to us, sometimes, by giving us the pay raise, or the A+, or the happy family. And we should praise Him for it! But we should remember that, for our good, God does not always see fit to give us what we think feels loving. From time to time (and for wise reasons) He allows cancer, and flat tires, and broken computers, and unemployment. And, if we define God’s love in terms of a good, happy, normal American life … then we will find ourselves, sometimes, sorely disappointed.

To put it more simply, if we define God’s love in terms of earthly blessings and happiness, then we are, quite simply, “lookin’ for love in all the wrong places.” For God does not teach us to look for His love, primarily, in terms of earthly blessing. But what He does say is that He “demonstrates His own love for us” (Romans 5.8) “in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

A good friend once pointed out, wisely, that Romans 5.8 says that, at the cross, God “demonstrates His love” (present tense) … not that God “demonstrated His love” (past tense). In other words, it is not that God one time, two thousand years ago, showed us that He loved us … but that now, as we go forward into the days of our lives, we have to look for more and more demonstrations (financial security, health, good kids, and so on). No! Romans 5.8 is in the present tense! God continues to demonstrate His love for us in the death of His Son on behalf of us poor sinners!

In other words, if I want to know whether or not God loves me … I do not begin or end by looking at my medical history; or at my bank account; or at my car, or house, or wife, or kids. Yes, I will surely see some evidences of God’s love in those places. But if I want to be certain that God loves me (even when all the other evidence seems to fail me), I look first at my rap sheet, and then at the cross of Jesus … and realize that, if God gave up His only Son to save a wretch like me, then His love was (and will be) there all the time – tumor or no tumor, job or no job, 401K or no 401K.

Yes, in His love, God provides more earthly blessings than we can count. But, if we build our understanding of or trust in His love on the basis how we feel about the level of our earthly blessings ... then we are, with Johnny Lee, “lookin’ for love in all the wrong places.”

So never forget: “God demonstrates” (present tense!) “His love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us”!

March 8, 2010


Are you old enough to remember the two-fingered peace sign that seemed to be all the rage in the tie-dyed, long-haired days of old? Or maybe the peace logo that, if you don’t look really carefully, could double as a Mercedes Benz hood ornament? Even if you’re of more recent vintage, you only have to read bumper-stickers or hang out in a few coffee shops to realize that “peace” is quite a popular word in the post-modern western world (and we should all pray for it, whether we hang out in coffee shops or not!). And, if you are in the T-shirt, bumper sticker, or trinket businesses, "peace" can be quite a profitable word, too!

But before the word “peace” was marketable; before it was popular, the word “peace” was biblical! In Christ, through the gospel … God’s people have peace on several fronts.

Having been forgiven of our sins, we have peace with ourselves. We have been washed clean from a guilty conscience, according to Hebrews 10.22. And isn’t that good news! I know longer have to wrestle with my own guilt the way I once did. There is peace in my soul! In addition, in Jesus we also have peace with one another. The dividing wall between Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free, black and white, etc. has been broken down by the gospel (see Ephesians 2.14 and Galatians 3.28).

And then, in Romans 5.1-5, Paul speaks of two more types of peace that come to us in Jesus:

In Jesus, we have “peace with God” (Romans 5.1). We were once under “the wrath of God” (Romans 1.18) because, even though we knew God (Romans 1.21), we “did not honor Him as God or give thanks.” So God was our enemy. And what an important doctrine that is! If we believe, with so much of our culture, that God is a leather-faced old grandpa who likes to magically pull nickels out of our ears and who would never hurt a flea … then the whole rest of the book of Romans will fall upon deaf ears. If God is a bleeding-heart pushover, then it’s not really saying much that, in Jesus, we have “peace with God”. For, in that scenario, such peace was never in doubt! But if God hates sin, then it is a remarkable thing that He gave His own Son to die underneath the wrath that we deserve, so that those of us who were one-time enemies of the Lord might now have “peace with God”!

The gospel does not present a mushy, fluffy God … but rather a good, kind, and yet morally perfect and upright Judge. And, therefore, to have “peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” is no small potatoes! Indeed, it is far better, even, than the “whirled peas” that so many bumper stickers visualize!

But the gospel does not stop there. Not only do we have, in Jesus, peace with ourselves, and with one another, and (most amazingly of all) with God … but in the latter part of Romans 5.1-5 we discover that, in Jesus, we also have peace in the midst of trials. Not only does the gospel bring us peace with God, but it also enables us (v.3) to rejoice in our sufferings. Why? Because those sufferings prepare us for heaven. How so? By producing in us (vv.4-5) a perseverance that leads to character … both of which together give us a strong assurance (or “hope”) that we really are going to live with God forever.

The gospel promises heaven. And difficulty reaffirms to us that heaven is really our home. And if heaven is really our home, then the stinger of difficulty is dulled quite a bit, isn’t it? If heaven is really our home, then we can make it through the difficulties encountered in this fallen world without breaking down. Our affliction is only momentary if heaven awaits. And therefore, we can have peace in the midst of trials.

So the next time you see a world peace bumper sticker … pray that the dream might someday come true. But thank God that, in Jesus, you have (even today) a foundation for peace that the world knows nothing about … not so much in the peace sign, but in the cross.

The joys of children's Sunday School

Yesterday, Tobey was teaching the parable of the day laborers to her Sunday School class when something quite comical took place!

Illustrating that God grants the same heaven both to those who serve the Lord all their lives, and to those who are repent and believe, perhaps, on their death beds ... Jesus told a story about a land-owner who hired day-laborers - some at 6am, some at 9am, some at noon, some at 5pm - to work in his vineyard. At the end of the day, the owner gave them all, equally, a day's wages. But some of them grumbled, like the Pharisees about spiritual things, that the Johnny-come-latelies were being given more than they deserved (aren't we all?).

So, to illustrate this, Tobey gave the kids a clean-up job. Some of them only picked up one or two pieces of trash, others dozens of pieces. All, however, received an equal reward ($0.25). When she asked one of the girls (who had picked up the vast majority of the trash) how she felt about getting the same amount as everyone else, she responded:

"You can have the quarter back. I should have offered to do it for nothing"!

Great attitude! Blown illustration ... especially when a second girl asked: "Can I trade my quarter in for two M&M's?"

This after, when working on their catechism questions a few weeks ago, one child responded to the question: "Who was Jesus' mother?" by stating confidently: "The vermin Mary."

Gotta love kids and Sunday School!

March 1, 2010

Give me Some Credit

Who would have thought that the word “credited” would be one of the most important words in the Bible? But it is! Paul uses this word (or it’s KJV equivalent “counted to”) no less than ten times in Romans chapter 4. So it must be that Paul (along with the Holy Spirit in back of him) really wants us to pay attention to this word. Again and again we are told that Abraham’s righteousness (as an example of the kind of righteousness that you and I may possess), was “credited” to him.

Why is that important? First because Abraham’s righteous was not earned by him, but credited to him! He was not inherently righteous, or good, or godly. Righteousness was something that came from outside Abraham’s spiritual bank account and was credited, or deposited, into it. Abraham’s righteousness was not his own, but came from God as a free gift of grace. And the same is true of any saving righteousness that you have. It is certainly not your own; not something that you worked up. For Paul just finished saying that “there is none righteous, not even one” (Romans 3.10). So if there is anything right about you, it is not actually about you! God did it! God, from outside of you, “credited” righteousness to your account.

But secondly, the word “credited” is important because it is an accounting term rather than a medical term. In other words, Romans 4 does not teach that we are injected with righteousness, but that we are credited with it! Righteousness is not something that God infuses into our spiritual bloodstream, as it were … making us suddenly good, godly people who are qualified to go to heaven. Righteousness is not injected, but credited – meaning that God credits right standing with Himself into our account, rather than infusing it into our souls. Based on what Jesus has done, He declares us right with Himself … though in actual behavior, we are not at all right. So we are not saved because we become righteous, but because, based on the merits of Jesus, God has decided to treat us as though we were righteous. He credits righteousness to our accounts rather than injecting righteousness into our souls.

Now it is true that, in Christ, we become new creatures. God causes us to be born again with new desires, and loves, and hopes, and eventually behaviors. So He does inject something into us … new spiritual life. But even with that new life, our behavior is not fully “righteous”. We do not change enough to make ourselves worthy of heaven. We do not become perfectly good. If we are to be right with God (even as new creatures in Christ), we still need a righteousness (a moral perfection) that comes from outside ourselves and is “credited” to our accounts. We need God to treat us better than we deserve.

So, even once we have been born again, our standing with God is always based on a “credited” righteousness; on a right standing with God that we have not earned … and not on what we do or become, even with God’s help. Or, to put it another way: our right standing with God is always based on what Jesus has done for us … not on what we have done for Him, even through the power of the new birth. Saving righteousness is credited, not injected; granted, not earned; externally declared, not intrinsically worked out. And aren’t we glad it is! For all the righteousness that is worked out in our actual behavior (even the righteous behavior that God enables us to perform by virtue of the new birth) is tainted by the leftovers of our sin. We could never make it to heaven solely on an infused righteousness … because sin remains. But if we are relying on the right standing that God gives, from outside ourselves and as a free gift, then our abilities and performance do not come into play. And we are safe!

So let me ask you: Are you safe? Are you relying on the righteousness that you can work up within yourself … or on the kind that is “credited”? Do you want credit for your salvation? Or do you want a salvation that is credited?