June 26, 2015

Some thoughts on Gay Marriage

I type these words within just a few hours of the Supreme Court’s announcement regarding the legality and recognition of gay marriage in all 50 states. And I find it pastorally necessary to write for my congregation a few lines of what, I hope, are wise and biblical thoughts on this subject. I share them here, also, for anyone else who may benefit.

Preliminarily, let me say that this article is not intended to re-state the biblical case for monogamous marriage between one man and one woman. The facts of that case are quite clear to most who will read this article, and can be readily researched by those who would like more clarity on the Bible’s sexual ethic. And I must also say that I will not attempt, in the lines that follow, to discuss the political or constitutional issues that surround this decision and/or how it was arrived at. I honestly don’t know enough about these questions to offer an educated analysis.

But what I would like to do is offer some brief pastoral thoughts about what we are to think and do in these days, and how we ought to go forward in faith. And I’ll draw them around four headings …

1. God reigns. My Bible teaches me that whatever comes to pass is of the Lord. It is He who makes men blind or seeing, deaf or hearing (Exodus 4:11). It is He who has “determined [our] appointed times and the boundaries of [our] habitation” (Acts 17:26). It is He who holds kings hearts in His hand, and can change their course any time He wishes (Proverbs 21:1). And it is He who controls even the casting of a lot, or the falling of a sparrow. And so, while I know that participation in and approval of homosexual behavior contradicts His moral precepts (Romans 1:18-32), I also know that nothing happens that is beyond His sovereign control – this decision regarding gay marriage included. God still reigns. And He knows what He is doing, even when He permits sin to prevail. We must believe that in these days. The world hasn’t spun out of control because of this (or any other) decision made in Washington. God reigns.

2. Suffering may be ahead. I am well aware that, with these new laws in place, men like myself (and many other Christians whose work intersects with marriage and weddings) might be tested in the near future. What if a gay couple asks me to perform a wedding? I won’t be able to do it – not out of fear, or hatred, or a desire to discriminate – but simply as a matter of conscience. And what happens then? Many gay couples, I am sure, would respect that decision completely. But what if one couple doesn’t? And what if they seek legal redress? And what if the courts tell me that I must either perform a gay marriage, or suffer the consequences of the law? I will choose to suffer – I hope with the same kindness and grace as many of our forefathers who have suffered for faith and conscience. How real is this whole possibility? I do not know. But let us be prepared, brothers and sisters. Long have we avoided the difficulty that our brothers and sisters face in many parts of the world. But it is to be hoped that, when our time comes, we will receive our lashes with peace and patience, rather than with belligerent claims about our rights.

3. Our nation’s morality has not changed overnight. Yes, this decision by the Supreme Court creates a sea-change in terms of legal issues. But it is not as though these things are being forced on a populous in which only a minority support gay marriage. Whatever you think about the fact that it only takes 5 out of 9 unelected justices to make such a sweeping change to the law, the reality is that the percentage of justices on the side of gay marriage approximates to the percentage of the general populace who was already on the same side (according to a recent CBS poll). Now hear me well: I am not saying that majority opinion determines what is right. But what I am saying is that, before the Supreme Court ever made its decision, the horse was already out of the barn. The Supreme Court didn’t open the gates! It simply followed the horse! Which means that, whatever the justices had decided, we’d still have a significant gospel challenge and opportunity before us in these days!

And it is an opportunity! Because, the more Western culture distances itself from its culturally Christian past, the more difficult it is for people to be merely culturally Christian (i.e., to be believers in name only). Now to be sure, fewer cultural Christians makes for societal challenges. But such a situation also makes the distinctiveness of the gospel stand out in all the bolder relief … which makes it easier (on a human level) for us to make real disciples, and not just cultural church-goers. And so the church may actually benefit from these changes, in the long run – with evangelism becoming much more black and white. And that is an opportunity that we should be thankful for, even if the decision itself is morally aberrant, and culturally painful. In the hopeful words of John Wesley, upon his arrival to preach in a particularly degraded village, “This place is ripe for Him who said, ‘I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.’”

4. The gospel of Jesus Christ is our hope. I have no idea of what will happen next, in the legal and political realm. I suspect there will be pushback from political conservatives. I suspect that it will not win the day. And I suspect that the decision of the Supreme Court will be with us into the foreseeable future. The again, maybe things will play out differently than I imagine. But either way, I will not be too alarmed. Because my hope for myself, and my family, and our church, and my neighbors (gay and straight) is not in the laws of the land. For the laws of the land do not have power to change anyone's heart toward God! And so, even in the unlikely event of a reversal of these recent change, people on both sides of the divide would be just as spiritually lost as before.  And so our hope must not be in the law, or the judges, or the political process! Our hope must be in Christ, and in His gospel. And not in the gospel as a pragmatic tool to help us ‘get our nation back.’ It’s not our nation, but God’s. And the goal of the gospel isn’t to create a cultural majority that enables Christians to live comfortably … but to bring individuals back to God for His own glory! And we mustn’t forget these things with all the nationalistic rhetoric swirling around us (and perhaps arising in our own souls)! The law doesn’t change hearts; the gospel does! And the gospel is not about restoring America to its former glory; but about bringing God glory through the salvation of individuals from their sin and His wrath!

And so I say again that our hope is in the gospel of Jesus – in the good news of His sinless life, His substitutionary death, and His resurrection on behalf of sinners – whether their sins be fornication, adultery, homosexuality, gossip, short-temperedness, pride, or whatever! People come to fullness, and to forgiveness, and to Christ-likeness, and to eternal life, and to God, only through Jesus! And the laws of the land have never effected that – neither in days gone by when they were based largely on biblical values, nor today as they change. And so let the gospel be our great theme, and our great peace, and our great commission in the days ahead! Some things may change for us, to be sure. But the main things are still the main things. We still need to love and respect and serve our neighbors (gay and straight) for Jesus’ sake. We still need to share with them the same message of Christ that has been preached for all these centuries up until June 26, 2015. And we still need to believe that this simple message of Jesus “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.”

I recently listened to a talk by Iain Murray on the mission work of John Geddie and John Paton in what is now Vanuatu – a place that was described by those who visited there as Romans chapter 1 come into its full, rotten fruition. And yet, by the preaching of the gospel, hundreds (perhaps thousands) of cannibals came to Christ! And if the gospel worked there, where our human depravity had fuller reign than our own nation has yet known, then surely the gospel will be “the power of God for salvation” in our own day!

And, before I close, let me remind you that we still need this gospel of salvation in Jesus for ourselves just as much as for our neighbors. Indeed, it would be a grave mistake to allow the current degeneration of sexual ethics all around us to serve as an excuse to get on our moral high horses and to pray like the Pharisee who was so proud of how he was “not like other people.” Yes, heterosexual, monogamous marriage is the only sexual ethic for which the Bible allows. But the ethic is not our hope! For “we all stumble in many ways” – even if not in this particular one. And we all need a Savior, Jesus. And He is the only hope – both for our sinful selves, and for the mass of humanity around us who sin in different ways than we might, but who still need Christ.

In the days ahead, let us speak, and act, and love, and hope like we really believe that.

June 23, 2015

Dying Well

Those who have been around Pleasant Ridge long enough have heard me talk, more than once, about dying well … perhaps especially in relation to what a privilege it is for us to help other people do so. What a precious ministry we can have to those who are facing their last days – visiting, encouraging, reading scripture, singing hymns, praying, and so on! And all of it in the attempt to help them finish well, “fixing [their] eyes on Jesus” (Hebrews 12:2).

Indeed, if you ask me what it means to die well, Hebrews 12:1-2 is my answer. Dying well means that, even at the end of life, we “run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus.”

But what does that mean? Well, perhaps we can understand what it means to die well by defining what it does not mean.

First, dying well; running with endurance to the end of the course does not mean that we are physically stoic or triumphant, as though our bodily suffering were no big deal. Many of us will suffer greatly as we draw near to death. And a few Christians (and non-Christians, too) may be gifted with an ability to remain stoical through it all. But the capacity to block out physical suffering is not of the essence of dying well. Running with endurance is not in reference to our pressing on with outward things, but with inner faith in Jesus. I think, for instance, of a sermon illustration I recently heard (from Ralph Davis, I believe): The story of a saint of old who was suffering tremendously on his death bed – near to the point of mental breakdown. But that would not hinder him dying well. ‘I may die mad (insane)’ he said, ‘but I will die in Christ.’ And that is what it looks lie to die well – not to be stoic, or even always composed, in the face of the physical suffering of death; but to face death (and all that comes alongside it) with the assurance that no one (and not even our own madness) can snatch us out of the Savior’s hand.

Nor does dying well mean that we will have no apprehensions, fears, or disquiet in our souls about the process of dying. No! These troubles are common to many believers as well. And dying well doesn’t necessarily mean that we won’t face them, but that, in the face of them, we will cling all the more tightly to the hand of Jesus, who alone can lead us across the river. That’s what Samuel Rutherford wrote, in 1631, to a suffering friend:
Be content to wade through the waters betwixt you and glory with Him [Jesus], holding His hand fast, for He knoweth all the fords. Howbeit ye may be ducked, but ye cannot drown, being in His company … Be not afraid, therefore, when ye come even to the black and swelling river of death, to put your foot in and wade after Him. The current, how strong soever, cannot carry you down the water to hell; the Son of God, His death and resurrection, are stepping-stones and a stay to you; set down your feet by faith upon these stones, and go through as on dry land.
Marvelous and biblical counsel! The key to finishing well is not that we have no apprehensions when it comes time to cross the river of death, but that we hold fast to the hand of Jesus, and place our feet in the waters, trusting in His death and resurrection, like stepping stones, to bear us safely over!

And finally, let me say that dying well doesn’t mean that we can look back at our Christian lives with no regrets. That is what many a foolhardy unbeliever may think it means to finish well – to be able to come to the end and say: ‘I have no regrets. I’ve done my best. I wouldn’t change a thing.’ But that is not the gospel, is it? That’s no good news! Not least because, as I said, it is foolhardy! None of us has done our best! “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”; and all need to be “justified as a gift … through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus,” not through our own having ‘done our best!’ And so do not be duped by the lie of the devil that you must die with no regrets. Because if you take that as your mantra … you’ll either die with no comfort at all (because you cannot help but have regret over your sin) or you’ll die deceived, with a rude awakening when you stand before God’s judgment!

Now, am I advocating that the sins that cause regret are actually no big deal … and that we should live accordingly? Of course not! I am simply being realistic that our hope and comfort in the face of eternity must not be in our own having done the Christian life reasonably well. Because we haven’t done it well enough. Martin Luther, one of the greatest Christian men who ever lived, uttered the following as among his last words: ‘We are beggars, this is true.’ Not a triumphant statement about how much he’d done for the cause of Christ (more than almost any other man in the history of the church), but a simple statement of his own neediness – and, surely, an implicit acknowledgement of his need for the mercy of Christ!

The world sometimes likes to paint death up in pretty colors – lauding the stoicism, the courage, the triumph, the fearlessness, and often the accomplishments of the dying. But, as the great missionary David Brainerd said on his death bed, ‘It is another thing than people imagine, to die.’ Death is not, in and of itself, glamourous. Indeed, it is often ugly, painful, frightening, and even mentally debilitating. And even when there is great confidence and triumph on a believer’s deathbed, those things arise, not out of personal strength, but from a sure-footed faith in Jesus! And that is the key to dying well – holding fast the hand of Jesus! Whether our hands be raised together in triumph, or whether we cling to Him with the most trembling of fingertips … dying well means nothing more and nothing less than dying with our eyes and hope and faith fixed on Christ.

So look to Jesus; hope in Jesus; hold fast the hand of Jesus … and die well. And, until then, be about the glorious business of helping many other people do the same.

June 15, 2015


Prayer is the final item in Luke’s listing of the core commitments of the early church at Jerusalem:

“They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”

And thus it is that prayer will also be the subject of the final article in this series on what I have come to think of, from the verse above, as a blueprint for the church. Life in the first church in Jerusalem was so dynamic, so attractive, so powerful … and yet so very simple. Luke simply tells us of four key – but very ordinary – means of grace to which the disciples devoted themselves. And in the hand of the Holy Spirit, these commitments made for a mighty testimony to the goodness and power of God in the gospel! And I am convinced that something similar will happen today as churches return to these very simple Christian basics – “the apostles’ teaching … fellowship … the breaking of bread and … prayer.”

Now what does it mean that the early disciples were committed to “prayer”? Well, surely this meant that the various members of the church were committed to private prayer. Surely we can picture them following the instructions of Jesus to get alone in a private place, and to cry out to God personally. But it’s also worth noting the corporate nature of the other three bullet points in the early church’s list of core values. Surely, in those days before the printing press and the Bible app, much of the Christians' intake of “the apostles’ teaching” took place when they were gathered together in groups. And, of course, “the breaking of bread” (or the Lord’s Supper) is not a private affair. And “fellowship,” by its very nature, must involve a group. And I say all of that to say that, if the other three core commitments were all group-oriented, then it seems highly likely that the “prayer” that Luke speaks of at the end of v.42 was also often a group activity as well!

The early church (and not just in Jerusalem) was committed to corporate prayer; to praying together! The book of Acts mentions a few occasions of this sort. And, as I said last week, it also natural to assume, given the amount of time the believers at Jerusalem spent in one another’s homes, surely these gatherings, too, sometimes became impromptu prayer meetings. And it’s likely, I think, that many such prayer meetings were not impromptu, but planned!

And surely this must be the spirit of the church in every era! Surely the church’s commitment to corporate prayer – whether in homes, or weekly prayer meetings, or in special seasons of prayer – is one of her highest privileges and greatest sources of our spiritual success! Surely it is a praying church that is a spiritually dynamic church! And conversely, it is certainly also many times true that we, as churches, “do not have because [we] do not ask” (James 4:2). And so I plead with you, brothers and sisters, to give yourself to prayer with other believers! Attend your church's prayer meeting (or seek to get one started, if there is no such thing in your congregation)! Pray together when you gather in your homes! Join with your church family in prayer when urgent needs come across the electronic wires during the week. Continually devote yourself, with your local church, “to prayer.”

Spiritual growth is not a complex thing. There are no secrets or hidden keys. We desperately need, first of all, to be born again and united to Christ by faith. We need the ongoing breeze of the Holy Spirit in our sails, empowering us and keeping us moving forward. And we need, very simply, to follow the blueprint of the church in first century Jerusalem – “continually devoting [our]selves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”

June 8, 2015


Welcome to part 4 in a series of articles on that simple, beautiful summary of the core commitments of the first century church at Jerusalem (Acts 2:42):

“They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”

Here was one of the great reasons for the dynamism of that church; for its generosity, power, evangelistic success and so on. They simply focused on the main things, and indeed devoted themselves to some basic (and really quite ordinary) means of receiving God’s grace. And there is a lesson in that – especially in our ‘big event’ culture. It’s the ordinary means of grace – practiced week in and week out – that make the greatest impact in our Christian growth. And one of those ordinary means of grace is what Luke calls “fellowship” – or, as we might say it, doing life together.

Here is one of the commitments that was at the core of the Jerusalem church’s spiritual health – simply that its members did life together! And, of course, given the other commitments that we read about in Acts 2:42, I think it is to be understood that doing life together didn’t just mean sharing a meal and chewing the fat; or talking about the game or the weather. Surely the word “fellowship” implies that we do life together in the gospel; that, when Christians gather, they gather as Christians – which doesn’t mean that we don’t talk about the game, or the weather, or the grass we are trying to grow around back of our homes. Of course we talk about these things with those who are our spiritual family! But fellowship surely implies that we talk earnestly and willingly and naturally about other things, too – what God is teaching us, how we need his help, how we can pray for one another, what we got out of the sermon, and so on. And surely if Christians are gathered around the dinner tables and on the couches, doing life together … surely if this is the case, then there will also be occasions for spontaneous prayer! And certainly there will be accountability as well, and sometimes admonishment from one brother or sister to another.

Furthermore, doing life together in the gospel means offering practical help for those in need. Fellowship also means that we will be so involved in and informed about the lives of fellow church members that it will simply be reflex to weep when they weep, and rejoice when they rejoice, and grieve when they stumble – just like these things are reflex in our biological families. One phrase I have used for this, over the years, is that true Christian fellowship means that we are helpfully tangled up in one another’s lives! Tangled up – meaning that what affects you also, of necessity, affects me … because our lives are so closely interwoven. But helpfully tangled up so that our lives are interwoven in accountability, and love, and encouragement … and not in the intrusions of a busybody!

And yet, in our fear of becoming (or worse, being under the surveillance of) a busybody … we must, must, must not throw the baby out with the bathwater! We simply must be woven deeply into one another’s lives! That doesn’t mean that you will have a tightknit friendship with every person in your church's pews. That is probably not possible, even in small churches. But there ought to be a handful of people that you get to know really well over the years; and many others with whom you are regularly in contact, and in prayer; and no one, in a church of small to medium size, whom you do not eventually know by name!

This may sound like a challenge to many of us. And it is! It requires effort and hard work to truly become a church family. But it is well worth it! And it is biblical. And the church in Jerusalem considered it foundational, and normal, and joyful! “They were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart” (Acts 2:46). Let us strive to do the same!

June 1, 2015

"The breaking of bread"

This is now part 3 in a series of five articles on that marvelous summary of early church commitments, found in Acts 2:42:

“They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”

Now I realize that, by writing about “the breaking of bread,” I am taking Luke’s four bullet points out of order. I do so because this coming Sunday is the day when we, at Pleasant Ridge Baptist Church, break the bread of the Lord’s Supper – and I wanted the article to correspond to the event!

And this is, I believe, what Luke has in mind with that phrase “the breaking of bread” – he is informing us that the Lord’s Supper was a big deal in the Jerusalem Church! The church family, of course, broke bread in other ways as well – “taking their meals together” in one another’s homes (v.46). But, since v.42 also notes the church’s commitment to “fellowship” (which likely includes such daily meal times), it seems likely that, when Luke says that the Jerusalem church committed itself to “the breaking of bread,” he is now thinking of the communion table, and not just the daily dinner table.

So the Jerusalem church was committed to remembering the broken body and shed blood of Jesus by means of the Lord’s Supper. How often? Luke doesn’t tell us exactly. The word “continually” in Acts 2:42 leads me to think that communion was celebrated quite frequently in Jerusalem. And yet churches today vary, one from another, on the frequency of their own local practice … without, I think, being unfaithful to the spirit of the early church practice. I have known of churches that meaningfully celebrate the supper weekly, monthly, quarterly, and twice yearly. And, so long as the frequency is purposeful and meaningful, all is well. Both the weekly or monthly incorporation of the Supper into the regular rhythm of church life, and the more spread out remembrances which become the focus of an entire service (or even of an entire weekend in some corners of the Christian world) can fit quite well under the description of devotion.

But the big question, in my mind, is why. Why was the church at Jerusalem so serious about the Lord’s Supper? Were they simply lovers of rite and ritual? The other descriptions we have of New Testament church life would not lead us to that conclusion. And so I conclude, rather, that the believers in Jerusalem were so into the Lord’s Supper because they never wanted to forget what Jesus had done for them! They never wanted to forget the cross, and the atonement, and the price of their redemption! They never wanted to forget, in the words of the popular hymn by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend that it is “in Christ alone” that our “hope is found.” In fact, this was one of their key commitments as a church – what we today might call gospel-centeredness!

And, oh, how we in the 21st century church must learn from them! At the very core of our faith is the person and work of Jesus Christ – and particularly His work on the cross! And everything that we do must be flavored with this central reality! Of course that means that we ought to devote ourselves to the meaningful remembrance of His death by means of the communion bread and cup. But the central and simple truths of the gospel must also permeate every service, every sermon, every season of corporate prayer, and even (as my friend Gary Wilkins taught me) every set of songs. Can we gather together as a church – to sing, pray, and preach – and not find some place for singing, praying, and preaching about Jesus and His cross? “This is all my hope and peace” wrote Robert Lowry! And the early church understood that – and worked the regular remembrance of Jesus’ broken body and shed blood into the warp and woof of their church. And, oh, how we will benefit and rejoice if we do the same; if we will be purposefully, devotedly, continually gospel-centered!