March 18, 2014

Let God be God

Part of a series of articles, entitled 20 years a Christian, recalling some of the important lessons I have learned in nearly two decades as a believer in Jesus.

Last week I wrote about how much of my early Christian life was characterized by an endemic man-centeredness. Salvation was simply about man going to heaven. Worship was about man being made to feel good inside. Ministry was about what man could do to get people saved. And being saved was, of course, ultimately up to the will of man to accept or reject. Some of these things I may have felt uncomfortable saying out loud, and in so many words. And I never would have imagined, at the time, that my practices and ways of thinking actually put “the creature rather than the Creator” at (or at least very near) the center of the Christian universe. But it was so – and not only for myself, but for many an American evangelical.

But, as I wrote last time, God used a sermon called Ten Shekels and a Shirt to snap me out of it. The preacher, Paris Reidhead, absolutely dismantled my worldview … and replaced it with a glorious vision of a Christianity with God on the throne – a Christianity in which people repent, not merely to get out of hell, but because God is worthy of our obedience and holiness and praise; a Christianity in which people come to Jesus, not simply to get something out of Him and then go their way, but to live their lives in His power and for His glory; a perspective on ministry that serves the Lord, not for the purposes of success and self-gratification, but because Christ is worthy to be proclaimed, and served, and loved … regardless of the outcome.  O yes, we receive tremendous blessings, and comforts, and promises in Christ!  Never mistake or minimize that fact!  But Christianity, Reidhead showed me, is about something far bigger, even, than that! Christ died, and the Christian faith has been established, and the whole universe exists, first and foremost, for the glory of God!

That sermon came into my ears – and its truths became more and more clear to me – in the summer before my final year of seminary. And, of course, in seminary one finds himself wrestling with the age old question of whether man’s salvation is rooted in God’s predestination, or in man’s free will. And so I had begun to hear some pretty good biblical arguments that pointed to God’s sovereignty in salvation; that showed me that we only ever choose God because He has first chosen us, and predestined us to believe. But, man-centered as I was, it was hard for me to admit that it was so. It was hard for me to let go of the desire that a man or woman should, at least in some small way, be able to say of him or herself (in the words of the English poet, William Ernest Henley):

              I am the master of my fate:
              I am the captain of my soul.

And so I was one of those people who read certain verses in the Bible (about election, predestination, etc.) and said to myself: ‘Well, that obviously can’t mean what it looks like it means.’

But when I heard Mr. Reidhead preaching about Christianity, and the world, and all of existence revolving, not around the happiness of man, but around the glory of God … the penny began to drop! Because (unlike some good Christians who hold to free will because they earnestly believe it to be the most scriptural position), I had been holding on to my views about man’s free will and self-determination, not because I saw them in the Bible, but rather because they fit with my larger philosophy – a worldview which often placed man on quite the pedestal. If you think of Christianity, in other words, as primarily being about man’s salvation, and man’s happiness, and man’s eternal bliss … well then it will be very difficult for you to conceive any possibility of man not also being the determining factor in the receipt of those blessings (no matter what you may turn up to the contrary in Romans, Ephesians, or Peter)! But, now that I was being stripped of that man-centered philosophy; now that the glory of God began to fill up the windshield of my worldview … it began to occur to me that, if those passages about election and predestination really did mean what it looked like they meant, then so be it! If Christianity really is all about the Creator (and not, first of all, His creatures), then God can do with His creatures anything He chooses! I still had to make a biblical determination, of course, as to exactly what He has chosen (or not chosen) to do.  But if I should discover that 'anything He chooses' includes predestining certain people for salvation (and not predestining others), then so be it! He is God, after all! We exist for His glory, not our own!

Now, as with my prior man-centeredness … I am not sure I could have put all of this new line reasoning into so many words back in my final year of seminary. But that is what was stirring in my heart. I was learning to let God be God! Having been shorn of the man-centered worldview that had kept me passing over all those verses about election and predestination, I was now free to actually hear what the Bible had to say. And, with my new view of God firmly in place, it didn’t take long before I was convinced that all those passages do mean what they look like they mean. And I was not only okay with that, I rejoiced in it! Because it glorified God, not man! I chose Jesus, yes … but only because He first chose me! And in embracing that fact, I was finally letting God be God!

March 11, 2014

St. Patrick, Jesus, and the Good News

Do you ever ask yourself the really difficult questions? You know, those deep philosophical queries that take you all the way to the core of the meaning of life? Questions like: Why does everybody wear green on St. Patrick’s Day? And why do I get pinched if I don’t? And why are the Irish so lucky, anyway? Well, this little leaflet may not fully answer those questions. But I can say this: there is no such thing as luck! God is orchestrating everything in this universe—from the orbit of the planets (Isaiah 40.22) to the exact time when a sparrow falls out of a tree (Matthew 10.29). He controls it all! And the story of St. Patrick is an example of this truth—a great illustration of God’s loving hand designing our days for good …

Contrary to our childhood imaginations, Patrick of Ireland was not a quirky little Irishman who went around pinching people and searching for four-leafed clovers! It is also highly unlikely that he wore a funny green suit. In fact, Patrick wasn’t even Irish! So who was this man who has a holiday named for him?*

Patrick was a modestly educated boy who lived in late 4th century Britain. Though his father was a deacon, and his grandfather a pastor in the local church, Patrick was unimpressed with Christianity, unconcerned with eternity, and unacquainted with Jesus Christ. That is, until he was sixteen. That was when he was captured by pirates and ferried across the Irish Sea to become a slave of those ‘barbarian’ people called the Irish.

For six years Patrick served as an enslaved farm-hand. But there on the Irish hillsides, desperate and alone, he began to call out to the living Christ whom his grandfather had preached. There, in the midst of harsh slavery in a pagan land, Patrick became a committed follower of Jesus! Gone were the trappings of mere outward religion; and in their place came a genuine trust in the life and death of the historical God-man, Jesus Christ. God allowed this young man to hit rock bottom, so that he might finally turn his eyes heavenward!

Isn’t that a wonderful illustration of how “God causes all things”—even the lowest moments of suffering—“to work together for good to those who love God” and are “called according to His purpose” (Romans 8.28**)?

And God’s goodness did not end with Patrick’s conversion to Christ …

After six years of slavery, Patrick escaped and was eventually reunited with his family in Britain. It must have been a glorious reunion! His parents must surely have thought that neither they nor their son would ever have to think of those pagan, unchristian Irishmen again. But God made them think again! Patrick began to sense that God was summoning him to return to the land of his captivity … this time, not as a slave of the Irish, but as a servant of Jesus Christ—a missionary!

And that is exactly what Patrick did! He went and gave himself to the people who had so demeaned and abused him, and laid out his life in missionary labors among them—just like his Lord had done four centuries before! Within decades, under Patrick’s preaching, Ireland began to glow for Jesus! Thousands of people became followers of Jesus, and little congregations began to be planted here and there among the Irish hills!

To this day, many thousands of Irish believers can trace their history to God’s grace in sending such a man to their island. Talk about ‘the luck of the Irish’!

But what did this ancient saint teach? What message did Patrick bring to Ireland? And has it any relevance for today? Well, quite simply, Patrick taught the Bible! Indeed, his writings are chocked full of Bible quotes! Let me mention just a few of Patrick’s biblical quotations,^  expounding myself on the meaning of each verse as I go along:

  • “There is no other” God (Isaiah 45, v.5) – only one true God … who reveals Himself (as Patrick was eager to point out) in the persons of the Father, the Son (Jesus), and the Holy Spirit.
  • “He who sins is a slave” (John 8, v.34). And I hasten to add that all of us are, by nature, thus enslaved—knowing what we ought to do and so often failing to do so; knowing that there is a God (who made us, owns us, and loves us), and yet failing to honor and obey Him as we know we should.
  • “Those who do evil … are to be damned” (Romans 1, v.32). Simple and sobering. We deserve to die for our dishonoring of God.
  • And yet, Jesus Christ “gave his own soul for [us]” on the cross (1 John, 3, v.16)—taking the death penalty that we deserve, so that we might be rescued from it ourselves; so that we might be forgiven, and granted “everlasting life which is in Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 6, v.23).

Now that last point is really good news, isn’t it? Yes, we have sinned our way out of God’s good graces … but we do not have to earn our way back in! Jesus has done that for us – by “[laying] down His life for us”! And so forgiveness and heaven are a gift! “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6.23). That is the good news young Patrick discovered as he sat enslaved and alone on those ancient Irish hills! That is the good news he preached to the Irish in the fifth century AD. This is the good news that Jesus and the apostles preached in the first century. And this is the same good news that will rescue 21st century men and women, too!

So let me ask you: Have you recognized your Maker? Have you realized that “your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God” (Isaiah 59.2)? And have you turned from those sins and placed your eternal hope squarely into the nail-scarred hands of Jesus? This is what Patrick, all those centuries ago, urged the Irish to do! And this is what I urge you to do today: stop running from God; stop hiding from God; stop ignoring God; stop defying God … and, like young Patrick so long ago, turn to Jesus for mercy. And when you do, He will forgive all your running, hiding, ignoring, and defying!

And (for us religious types), let us lay aside the idea that we must earn our way back to God with all our religious activity (penance, mass, confession, good works, etc.). And let us believe, rather, that salvation really is a “free gift”! And if we will; if we will simply trust that, by His sinless life and sacrificial death, Jesus Christ has earned our way back to God for us – then God will forgive our sins, too! For “whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3.16)!


*My sources for the life of St. Patrick are his own The Confession of Saint Patrick. Translated by John Skinner. (New York, NY: Image Books, 1998); and Philip Freeman’s Patrick of Ireland. (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2005).

**Aside from those scriptures quoted directly out of Patrick’s own writings (and placed in bold print), all other Scripture quotations are taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE®. Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by the Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. Italicized emphasis within scriptural quotations is inserted by the tract’s author.

^These scripture quotations are drawn from Skinner’s The Confession of Saint Patrick (which includes both Patrick’s actual Confession, as well as a letter of rebuke he wrote to a group of barbarous soldiers).

March 10, 2014

Ten Shekels and a Shirt

Part of a series of articles, entitled 20 years a Christian, recalling some of the important lessons I have learned in nearly two decades as a believer in Jesus.

Perhaps the single biggest mile marker in my close to twenty years of Christian growth came during the summer before my final year in seminary. By that point I had been a Christian for several years, and had already been pastoring a small rural mission church for several months. I was orthodox on the most elementary truths of the gospel, but still fairly man-centered in my basic worldview.

What do I mean by man-centered? Well, I would have nodded my head in agreement with the biblical truths that God has designed the universe, and even the plan of salvation, for His own glory. I would surely have said ‘amen’ when reading that God is working all things so that His Son “will come to have first place in everything.” I mean, who really wants to argue with that, right? And I wouldn’t have argued with it … in theory, at least. But where the rubber met the road, I so often had man, not God, in the place of preeminence. I thought of corporate worship in terms of what people would like, and what would draw a crowd, rather than what would be pleasing to the Lord. I thought of the gospel primarily in terms of getting people out of hell (a good thing, of course!), but with very little thought about the fact that people are saved, actually, so as to be trophies of the grace of God! And I thought of the salvation transaction as hinging almost purely on people’s choice of God, rather than the other way round. And so, though I wouldn’t have said it this way … man was pretty near close to God at the center of the Christian solar system. 

Much of my theology revolved around “the creature rather than the creator.” And, had God not intervened, my track through the ministry would have been a very different (and stunted) one indeed. Who knows how many false converts, and gimmicks, and idols, and pygmy Christians I would have had to answer for at the judgment day (as if I don’t already have enough on my account)! I think I would have been an utter disaster as a pastor, actually.

But, as He so kindly does, God did intervene! He introduced Tobey and me to another seminary couple, Scott and Heather Duley. And toward the end of the second year of seminary, they put a cassette tape in our hands (yes, we still had tapes back then!) of a sermon called Ten Shekels and a Shirt* – preached in the 1960’s by a man named Paris Reidhead (see link below). Reidhead took as his text the story (from Judges 17 and 18) of a young religious professional in ancient Israel who farmed his services out to the highest bidder, and was willing to mix a little bit of Bible with a good bit of his employer’s personal preferences until he had something that resembled worship of the one true God, but was actually just a manmade concoction of whatever worked best for himself and his employer. 

Maybe (like me) the Levite and his boss were so knee deep in man-centered religion that they didn’t even realize how muddy they had made their garments. But Reidhead exposed their selfishness and man-centeredness with devastating clarity, and made shattering application to the modern religious scene.  And I was looking myself in the mirror!  But, after listening to the sermon several times thru over the next few months, the course of my life and ministry was dramatically altered. I could no longer go about exalting man in the name of God! It was like I had been given a fresh pair of glasses when reading the Bible. All those passages about God being first began to make perfect sense … and to delight my soul, and to find all sorts of needful applications in my theology and practice! In those same months, God began sending other teachers and tapes to re-affirm the truth with which Reidhead was bowling me over. And, though I still frequently struggle to put it all into practice (self-absorbed as I often continue to be), I have never been the same. Suddenly, I realized that Christianity really is about God!

In God’s providence, that cassette tape was one of the best gifts anyone ever gave me. So thank you, Scott and Heather. Thank you, Paris Reidhead. And thank you, most of all, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit … for steering me into the path of a God-centered worldview. Thank you for teaching me that Christianity (and life, and the universe) really is about God!


*If you’d like to listen to the sermon (and I highly recommend it), you can find it at After further theological development on my own part, I would not say everything exactly as Reidhead says it (for instance, there could be more nuance in describing the positive relationship between God’s glory and our joy). But the main thrust of the sermon (detailed above) is worth every minute you will spend listening (and re-listening!).

March 4, 2014

Christian Community

Part of a series of articles, entitled 20 Years a Christian, recalling some of the important lessons I have learned in nearly two decades as a believer in Jesus.

I told you last week that I became a Christian in the summer of 1994, just before the beginning of my senior year in high school; and that, even before that, my parents had brought me regularly to church, even from the womb. But it wasn’t until my sophomore year in college that I really began to understand the importance of all those “one another” passages in the New Testament; the importance of Christians doing ‘life together’ as Bonhoeffer put it.

It was during that second year of college that I moved permanently away from home for the first time. And so I could no longer just default to my parents’ church, and to the routine that I had always known. I now had to find a church for myself, and to seek out Christian friends of my own volition. And when I got to campus, I remembered a man in my home church, who had gone to the same university as I was now attending … and how he had said to me some years before: ‘When you get to college, go to the Baptist Student Union (BSU). It will really be a blessing. In fact, I wish that’s what I had done when I was in school.’ Good advice (as is often the case when an older Christian is willing to admit what they wish they’d done differently)!

So there I sat in my dorm room that first weekend, with the BSU already in the back of my mind. And then, in the first few days, a young man knocked on my dorm room door, passing out fliers for the upcoming BSU picnic! And so I was in. I couldn’t make the picnic, but determined to go the following week to a worship and teaching gathering on a Tuesday night.

When I arrived, there was a table set up where you could sign up to be in a small group Bible study. To this day, I am not sure why I was so ready to sign up that first night … but I put pen to paper to say I was interested. I don’t know what I expected a college Bible study to be, but I certainly got more than I bargained for (and in a good way)! The next week a very large and intimidating-looking man (the ministry’s director) walked up to me at the weekly meeting, asked me if I was Kurt Strassner, handed me a sheet of paper with a couple of Bible verses written on it, and said: ‘We meet in my office at such and such a time each week. Have these passages memorized for next week’s meeting.’ Well, he was about six-foot-three and shaven completely bald like a drill sergeant … so what was I to do? I showed up at his office with the verses memorized at just the appointed time!

That first semester I met with him and a couple of other students week by week – reading and memorizing the Bible, learning how to pray, and so on. Soon I was involved in a weekly prayer meeting, too (where I met Tobey!). I got to participate in a mission trip the following spring. And very quickly Christian friendships began forming that impacted nearly every day of my life. We worshipped, prayed, studied, and just hung out … together. We were not a local church, of course … but I began in those BSU days to get a taste for the kind of Christian community that the church was created to be: people doing life – both the obviously spiritual and also the daily and mundane – together! And I’ve had a taste for it ever since.

God never intended for us to do this Christianity thing on our own (see Acts 2.41-47!). Nor did He create the church to be simply a once-a-week meeting place where people sit next to one another in the pews. He made us, also, to sit across from one another – at tables, in discussion circles, in living rooms, and so on. We were made to do ‘life together’! And I thank God, all these years later, for how the Baptist Student Union gave me my first taste of what I would ever after long for (and hope to foster) in the local church – real Christian community.

Sermons from Psalms 84-90

We at Pleasant Ridge have lately been at it again in our periodic studies of the psalms.  As of Sunday, we have now heard messages on each of the first 90 psalms.  Here is the latest installment:

Psalm 85 - "Revive us again"
Psalm 88 - "Darkness"
Psalm 89 - "Faithfulness"

And here are links to some of the previous segments: Psalms 51-60, Psalms 71-83.  Nearly all the Psalms, from 31 forward, have been digitally recorded and are available on the church's website.  So check in there to find sermons not linked above.