Thursday, June 7, 2018

How To Restore Someone Who Wanders Away:

My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sin.-James 5:19-20

I am the middle of one of the busiest weeks of the year but I thought it prudent to hit pause and address an issue.

If someone you love wanders away from the truths of Christianity; here are seven steps to follow:

(1) Who should go? If you have knowledge of the sin and you have a relationship with the person, you’re it! Truth is most often received through loving relationships.

(2) Get the facts. Do not go on hearsay or gossip. If someone tells you of someone else in sin, you should ask, “Have you personally checked out the facts?” Then, direct the one telling you not to talk to anyone else, but to go to the sinning person. If you are the one to go, don’t begin with accusations. First, ask questions to determine the truth. Does the issue involve a major doctrine or opinion on a minor issue? Is it a matter of immaturity or spiritual weakness, where you need to help him grow, or of defiantly walking away from God (1 Thess. 5:14)?

(3) Check your own heart. There is no room for being judgmental. “Let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall” (1 Cor. 10:12). Your motive should be to restore the straying one, not to put him in his place or to prove that you’re right and he’s wrong. Make sure that you are under the control of the Holy Spirit and displaying the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:16, 22-23; 6:1). The word “restore” (Gal. 6:1) was used of mending torn nets and of setting broken bones so that they would heal. Think of how gently you would want a doctor to do that with you, and be that gentle in dealing with a person caught in some sin.

(4) Pray. Do not attempt to restore a straying person before you pray for him (James 5:16-18). Prayer  puts you in the right place before God, dependent on His grace. Only then are you able to minister to the straying. You can’t properly talk to men about God until you’ve talked to God about men. Especially, pray for the right time and opening.

(5) Make sure that love for God and love for your brother are your motives for going. You should desire to please God and you should show genuine concern for your erring brother. Generally, if a man is in sin, another man should go to him. If a woman is in sin, another woman should go. It is not wise for a man to  go alone to a woman (other than his wife or a family member), or for a woman to go alone to talk to a man.

(6) Go directly to the person. Do not go behind his back and try to campaign for your point of view or to try to convince others to do what God is calling you to do. Go alone at first. If he listens, you’ve won your brother. If he refuses to listen, take two or three others. Eventually, it may need to be told to the church (Matt. 18:15-17).

(7) Think through in advance the proper approach and wording. Study how Nathan confronted David for starters (2 Sam. 12:1-14). Dr. Howard Hendricks tells of how the wife of a workaholic pastor, who was neglecting his family, asked him to speak with her husband. Hendricks waited until they were alone and casually asked, “Do you smoke?” The pastor was shocked by the question and replied, “Of course not!” Hendricks persisted, “Why not?” He got what he expected: “Because my body is the temple of the Holy Spirit.” Then Hendricks sprang the trap: “Then why are you abusing the temple and neglecting your family by overworking?” Pow! Be prepared for the one in sin to accuse you of some shortcoming, and do not get into a verbal war. Just stick to the issue.

If you’re sitting in your easy chair by the fire and you know of a brother or sister who is lost in the storm, God asks you to inconvenience yourself. Get up, put on your coat, and go out into the storm to try to rescue your brother. It may not be fun, but it is an expression of genuine love and faith in action. That’s what James is all about!

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

How To Make Your Church Uncomfortable:

Comfortable churches are common. In a comfortable church, people come from the same class, are the same color, live in similar neighborhoods, enjoy the same kinds of music and worship styles, get their news and political ideas from the same sources, and welcome more people like themselves.

The goal in such churches is to upset the nice, comfortable balance. And I’m going to tell you how to do it.

1. Invite the “wrong” people to church.
The best way to make a church uncomfortable is to reach out to ethnic minorities, the homeless, and people with questionable lifestyles. Invite the broken. Invite the people who struggle with drug abuse. Invite single mothers who struggle to raise their kids. Invite singles. Find people who have no money and think they have nothing to offer the church. Find people who have burdens that you and the rest of the church can share. And expect to learn from and be blessed by the “wrong” people. Begin to see others as blessings and begin to see burdens and challenges as opportunities for God to show his grace.

2. Start asking questions about your worship service.
Understand why your church worships a certain way. Distinguish what is biblical from cultural. It’s important that you and the rest of the church understand your worship services and consider changing those aspects that are culturally insensitive to outsiders. This doesn’t mean that a church needs to be “seeker sensitive” or “dumbed down.” It can reflect high church convictions and be liturgical; it’s possible to be culturally sensitive and practice much that is ancient within Christianity.

What matters is that the choices are thought out and that you are prepared to talk with people about your worship service. Be able to admit cultural preferences and be willing to change and learn from other people.

3. Forgive people who offend or sin against you.
Tell people that they are forgiven. Treat them as forgiven. Take the gospel of grace seriously, and begin to forgive people even before they repent. Don’t withhold forgiveness to manipulate a person into changing his life. Forgive the way that Jesus forgave: while on the cross, he forgave his enemies who mocked him as he suffered and died for the sins of the world.

4. Practice reconciliation.
Pursue peace. Spend time with people. Embrace difficult people; work through problems together. Cultivate relationships where you can be honest. Meet with people to talk; learn to listen. Don’t sit back and wait for people to reconcile with you. Pursue it, embrace the challenge of it, and most of all desire that people would be reconciled to God.

5. Repent.
When you say something stupid or act contrary to the gospel, admit it. Accept criticism and rebuke. Consider the perspectives and concerns from people who are different from yourself; seek to learn, change, and respond in love.

6. Love people.
Stop worrying that you might actually affirm someone in their sin because you showed some compassion. Don’t feel like you need to correct everyone all the time; let petty sins go. Don’t feel like you need to let everyone know where you stand on homosexuality, sex before marriage, or divorce. Don’t trick yourself into believing that you need to fix people. Love doesn’t allow people to destroy their lives through sin, but love is also patient and kind. Love doesn’t need to defend itself or prove that it is always on the right side of some issue.

7. Let Christianity inform your understanding of social issues.
It’s true that the Bible doesn’t teach us what policies or candidates to vote for, but the Bible does tell us who to love. The Bible does tell us to care for the underprivileged: the poor, the broken, the foreigner. The Bible does lead us beyond self-interest and toward love. It forces us to consider the well-being of others even at the cost of our personal material fulfillment. It challenges our desire to live like a king at the expense of others. It moves us to consider how our lives, actions, and silence contribute to injustice, sin, and corrupt systems in a society that exploits, hurts, and destroys the lives of others who are less fortunate than ourselves.

Even as you place your hope in Jesus Christ and trust in a kingdom of grace and justice that will come in its fullness with Christ’s return, have the courage to live like our love and concern for others—people, the environment, society—might make a difference in someone’s life. Our social activism or politics won’t save anyone, but it could still help someone and show that the message we speak makes a difference in our lives.

8. Keep the gospel in focus.
Every day we encounter messages and practices that operate contrary to the gospel. As much as we should care about ethics and social issues, we must be careful to set all of that in the context of what is most important: the God who saves us by faith in Christ. For these reasons, we need to immerse ourselves in the gospel—in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. We need to be a people who are joyful to hear the same old story about the cross, empty tomb, and compassion of God for sinners.

9. Understand that Christianity is supposed to be uncomfortable.
The goal is not to cause trouble. The goal is to live in step with the gospel. The problem with a comfortable church is that it degenerates into a social club. A comfortable church won’t resist the captivity of political ideologies that are contrary to the gospel; it won’t resist the imperialistic demands of a dominate culture; it won’t reach out to sinners and suffer with grace.

A comfortable church will eventually die. The building may remain and people may continue to gather, and Jesus might even be a nice thing the pastor talks about for 15–45 minutes. But it will be godless talk because when God shows up in the Bible, people will fall down like the prophets and say “woe is me,” and when God announces grace and mercy, people will respond in faith that results in lives of imperfect love and compassion. There is nothing comfortable about true Christianity.

Good News For Modern Parents:

Modern parents like me live in a swirling sea of advice and information. We’re desperately trying to keep up with the 10 Things Every Parent Must Know, the 12 Mistakes New Parents Make, and the 17 Habits of Highly Happy Families. But we end up feeling confused by conflicting advice, guilty about our imperfections, and afraid of damaging our children.

Modern parents are desperate for good news. Sue Palmer, author of Toxic Childhood, writes:

Most parents are frantically doing their best in a world where the goal posts are not just moving—they’ve actually disappeared. . . . In a world of tumultuous change, confidence is thin on the ground. The moral and social certainties [of previous generations] have disintegrated, and there seems to be nothing to put in their place.

About a year ago, those disappearing goal posts were really getting to me. I was craving some unchanging, timeless truths for parenting. So I reached out to the ancient wisdom of my spiritual ancestors. I opened my Bible.

I went looking for little pieces of advice, but the Bible lifted my gaze to see the bigger picture that puts life and parenthood into perspective.

Scripture has good news for modern parents! Here are the three truths that helped me the most:

1. We Were Made for More Than Momentary Happiness
Our world clamors to convince us that the goal of life is happiness. We’re constantly told, “Do whatever makes you happy; follow your heart.” When you ask modern parents what we want for our children, we respond in unison: “We just want them to be happy!”

But the more we chase happiness, the less we seem to find it. Rates of depression and mental illness among both adults and children have never been higher. If life is about feeling happy, then most of us are failing badly.

The more we chase happiness, the less we seem to find it. . . . If life is about feeling happy, then most of us are failing badly.

But the good news of the Bible is that we—and our children—were made for more. Its opening chapters show that humans were made in our Maker’s image for a bigger purpose—to honor him by living well in his creation and doing good to his image-bearers.

It follows, then, that parenting isn’t about making our children feel happy all the time, but about helping them to know and live out their God-given purpose. And according to the experts, this approach is actually more likely to give them a sense of genuine satisfaction in the long run. In his book The Happiness Trap, Russ Harris writes:

When we clarify what we stand for in life and act accordingly, then our lives become rich and full and meaningful, and we experience a powerful sense of vitality. This is not some fleeting feeling—it is a profound sense of a life well lived. (15)

2. We Don’t Have to Be Perfect
If modern pop psychology has taught us anything, it’s this: “It’s all your parents’ fault!” Naturally, when we become parents, we start to worry about what our children will be telling their therapist in two decades.

Parents and children were created to honor God, live well in his creation, and do good to others. But, as we read in Genesis 3, our first parents disobeyed God and were banished from the Garden of Eden. Sin and death now work against us.

It was there—outside the Garden—that the first children were born. In this fallen world, parents can never be perfect—we will have both a positive and negative effect on our children. And in this fallen world, we can’t stop bad things from happening to our children. These dangers can leave us feeling guilty and afraid.

But the good news of the Bible is that there is one perfect parent: God. He invites us to stop being “grown-ups” for a moment and to run to him like little kids. When we humbly confess our failings, God forgives us through the death of his perfect child, Jesus, and fills us with his Spirit to try again tomorrow. We aren’t in control of our children’s world, but our Father is. And he is working all things—good and bad—for the good of his children.

Interestingly, experts are urging modern parents to give up their perfectionism and aim to be simply “good enough.” Our mistakes can become opportunities to show our children how to navigate life in this fractured world.

3. We Don’t Have to Do This Alone
Another reason modern parenthood is so hard is that for the first time in history, we’re trying to do it alone. Many of us have moved away from our extended families and the places we grew up. Even if our parents live nearby, many of them are busy working during the week. Our relationships with our neighbors are also more transient and superficial than in previous generations.

On a day-to-day basis, then, it can feel like it’s just us—Mom, Dad, and the kids—battling against the world.

When I started reading the Bible as a desperate modern parent, the frantic story of our little family began to sink into the strong embrace of a much bigger story.

But the good news of the Bible is that we weren’t meant to do this alone. Jesus invites all people—young or old, married or single—to become children of God through faith and to join his spiritual family. When we bring our nuclear family into God’s big family of faith, we find spiritual brothers and sisters of all ages who can encourage and support us in the task of raising our children to know and live out their God-given purpose.

When I started reading the Bible as a desperate modern parent, the frantic story of our little family began to sink into the strong embrace of a much bigger story. I gradually found my confusion giving way to clarity, my guilt and fear to freedom, and my uncertainty to the confidence that comes from knowing your place in God’s big picture. And that is good news indeed.

Bring Her Out And Let Her Be Burned:

“Bring her out and let her be burned!” This dramatic pronouncement of judgment gets me every time I read it. And through long familiarity, it has become one of my favorite Bible passages. That’s weird, I know. Yet it’s not a favorite in the sense that I’d recommend it as a life verse or a tattoo or the inside of a greeting card. It’s a favorite in the sense that it speaks so truly about the state of humanity. And it speaks so truly about the way God redeems darkness for his good purposes.

Let’s set our context. Judah has married a Canaanite woman and, through her, had three sons. Years have passed and the oldest, Er, has taken Tamar as a wife. But Er is so overwhelmingly wicked that God puts him to death, and his bride passes to Onan, the middle brother. Onan is even worse than Er and he, too, is judged and killed by God. Now, according to custom, Tamar should become the wife of Shelah, the baby of the family. Judah promises this will happen once Shelah is old enough. But the years go by and it becomes apparent this is a promise he does not intend to keep. I guess it is easier to see Tamar as a bad luck charm than to admit the evil of his own boys. Tamar is destined to suffer the pain and shame of childlessness. Or is she?

Tamar hatches a plan. According to the principles of the culture, it is her right to have a child by Shelah, but since Judah will not grant this right, she will find a way to gain it herself. Knowing that Judah has recently lost his wife and is perhaps eager to find some “comfort,” she dresses as a prostitute (including a veil to mask her identity). She waits for him to pass by and sure enough, he soon does. He spots her, he makes an offer, she accepts, and he “goes in to her.”

Tamar soon realizes she is pregnant and it is not long before it becomes obvious to others as well. The townsfolk are abuzz with news of her great immorality and reports soon reach Judah: “Tamar your daughter-in-law has been immoral. Moreover, she is pregnant by immorality.” It is in this context that Judah makes a snap judgment: “Bring her out, and let her be burned.” But Tamar gets the last laugh. She has kept proof that the father of her child is none other than her father-in-law. He can claim no moral high ground. In fact, he is forced to admit, “She is more righteous than I.”

As I read this story every January (as part of my annual Bible-reading plan) and at various other times, I see such an indictment of not only Judah, but of all humanity. Here is some of what I see.

We see other people’s sin so clearly and our own so opaquely. From a great distance and with the scantest information we can judge another person’s least transgression. Yet we can rack our own hearts and minds and often barely come up with a single way we are anything less than perfect. What we see so well in others we simply do not see in ourselves.

We judge other people’s actions with the harshest of measures but treat our own with the softest.

We see other people’s sin as so serious and our own as so insignificant. We judge other people’s actions with the harshest of measures but treat our own with the softest. After all, we tend to grow fond of our sins, and especially those besetting sins. But all the while we hate the sins of others, and especially sins that annoy, harm, or inconvenience us.

We want others to act toward our sin with patience and understanding even while we act ruthlessly toward theirs. We can make any number of excuses for the fact that indwelling sin remains. We can describe a long and happy progress in which we’ve slowly but progressively put a sin to death. Yet with others we demand they put their sin to death today. Right now. The slow progress that encourages us in our own battle against sin exasperates us in someone else’s.

There is much more we could say, perhaps about Judah’s refusal to take responsibility for Tamar when she was out of the public eye but his leap to action when her sin threatened to bring him shame. It is worth pointing out, though, that the Bible speaks no judgment on either character. It neither condemns nor affirms Tamar’s actions. It does, though, tell of the happy ending to the story when she gives birth to not one but two sons. It tells of an even happier ending she, herself, could not have expected, for her name appears in the genealogy of Jesus Christ when it records, “Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar.” God brought good from evil, blessing from injustice.

Heaven Would Be Hell Without God:

The 1998 movie What Dreams May Come portrays heaven as a beautiful but lonely place for Chris Nielsen (played by Robin Williams) because, although his children were there, his wife wasn’t. Remarkably, someone else is entirely absent from the movie’s depiction of heaven: God.

That movie’s viewpoint mirrors numerous contemporary approaches to heaven which either leave God out or put him in a secondary role.

The Five People You Meet in Heaven, a best-selling novel by Mitch Albom, portrays a man who feels lonely and unimportant. He dies, goes to heaven, and meets five people who tell him his life really mattered. He discovers forgiveness and acceptance — all without God and without Christ as the object of saving faith.

This is a portrayal of a heaven that isn’t about God and our relationship with him, but only about human beings and our relationships with each other. A heaven where humanity is the cosmic center, and God plays a supporting role. The Bible knows nothing of this pseudo-heaven.

Numerous people claim to have gone to heaven and seen loved ones and even Jesus, yet almost never do they react as the beloved disciple, the apostle John, did: “When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead” (Revelation 1:17).

Surely no one who had actually been in heaven would neglect to mention what Scripture shows is its main focus. If you had spent an evening dining with a king, you wouldn’t just talk about the place settings. When John was shown heaven and wrote about it, he recorded the details — but first and foremost, from beginning to end, he kept talking about Jesus, the Lion and the Lamb, with infinite gravitas and beauty.

Honeymoon Without a Groom?
Jesus promised his disciples, “I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (John 14:3, NIV). For Christians, to die is “to be present with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8, NKJV). The apostle Paul says, “I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far” (Philippians 1:23, NIV). He could have said, “I desire to depart and be in heaven,” but he didn’t — his mind was on being with Jesus.

Heaven without God would be like a honeymoon without a groom or a palace without a king. Teresa of Avila said, “Wherever God is, there is heaven.” The corollary: Wherever God is not, there is hell.

The presence of God is the essence of heaven. John Milton put it, “Thy presence makes our paradise, and where thou art is heaven.” Heaven will be a physical extension of God’s goodness.

Samuel Rutherford said, “O my Lord Jesus Christ, if I could be in heaven without thee, it would be a hell; and if I could be in hell, and have thee still, it would be a heaven to me, for thou art all the heaven I want.” To be with God — to know him, to see him — is the central, irreducible draw of heaven.

Heaven’s Greatest Miracle
The best part of heaven on the new earth will be enjoying God’s presence. He’ll actually dwell among us (Revelation 21:3–4). Just as the Holy of Holies contained the dazzling presence of God in ancient Israel, so will the New Jerusalem contain his presence. The new earth’s greatest miracle will be our continual, unimpeded access to the God of everlasting splendor and perpetual delight.

What is the essence of eternal life? “That they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). The best part of heaven will be knowing and enjoying God.

Sam Storms writes, “We will constantly be more amazed with God, more in love with God, and thus ever more relishing his presence and our relationship with him. Our experience of God will never reach its consummation. . . . It will deepen and develop, intensify and amplify, unfold and increase, broaden and balloon.”

Reservoir That Never Runs Dry
Because he is beautiful beyond measure, if we knew nothing more than that heaven was God’s dwelling place, it would be more than enough to make us long to be there.

Of course, we will enjoy all the secondary gifts God gives us, but they will be derivative of God himself, and our happiness in them will be happiness in him. Jonathan Edwards said, “The redeemed will indeed enjoy other things . . . but that which they shall enjoy in the angels, or each other, or in anything else whatsoever, that will yield them delight and happiness, will be what will be seen of God in them.”

“They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights. For with you is the fountain of life” (Psalm 36:8–9). This passage portrays the joy that God’s creatures find in feasting on heaven’s abundance and drinking deeply of his delights. Notice that this river of delights flows from and is completely dependent on its source: God. He alone is the fountain of life, and without him there could be neither life nor abundance nor any delights.

Ultimate Wonder
We may imagine we want a thousand different things, but God is the one we really long for. “O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (Psalm 63:1). God’s presence brings satisfaction; his absence brings thirst and longing.

“The best part of heaven will be knowing and enjoying God.” Tweet Share on Facebook
Our longing for heaven is a longing for God — a longing that involves not only our inner beings, but also our bodies. Being with God is the heart and soul of heaven. Every other heavenly pleasure will derive from and be secondary to his presence.

All our explorations and adventures and projects in the eternal heaven — and I believe there will be many — will pale in comparison to the wonder of being with God and entering into his happiness. Yet everything else we do will help us to know and worship God better.

God’s greatest gift to us is now, and always will be, nothing less than himself.

The Power Of A Simple Apology:

This past week was a hard week.

In much ways, it was a week like any other - same job, same tasks, same length of days. So what made it a hard week? I made some mistakes and had to apologize to several people. And that is hard.

Apologizing is hard because it goes against our grain. Our natural bent is to think we have it all together and to let our pride insulate us from our faults. But when you say “I am sorry” and you acknowledge that you have done something less than stellar, you have to come face to face with the fact that you don’t have everything down perfectly. It can take it out of you emotionally to have to say “sorry.” It can bring disappointment, not just with how you view yourself, but also in how you think others view you. It can bring friends along with it, so that past failures and mistakes are remembered and cause added torment.

But being able to say “I am sorry” is important. Precisely because it is a counter to the sin of pride, we need to be able to do it. The humble person can say “I am sorry” and mean it and not let it destroy them. They can do it because they recognize they are not perfect and that acknowledging that doesn’t make them any less than they were before. And we need this humility, because from it we can recognize that need for a savior. Andrew Murray put it like this: “Humility is the only soil in which the grace root; the lack of humility is the sufficient explanation of every defect and failure. Humility is not so much a grace or virtue along with others; it is the root of all, because it alone takes the right attitude before God, and allows Him as God to do all.”[1] Saying “I'm sorry” helps you develop humility which helps you combat pride and also helps you have the right attitude toward God. And all that from a small phrase.

It is also important because it shows others that you hear and value them. A simple “I am sorry” can go a long way when someone is upset with you. Now this is not an insincere apology. Those wear thin pretty fast and don’t do any good. But a true, contrite heart combined with an apology can go a long way with many people. This is what I had to do a few times last week. They appreciated it. They appreciated me not running from their challenges or concerns. They appreciated me owning that I had caused offense or had messed up. They appreciated it because it showed that I valued them over my pride. Our relationships can be served so well by saying sorry when it is called for.

If we can see the value, shouldn’t we be willing to live with humility and apologize when it is needed? And we need to mean it. This is not like the commercials for the kids board game Sorry!, where a kids makes a player move back and says “Sooorrry” to the camera with an insincere smile. We honestly know we have hurt someone, messed up, made a mistake, or just dropped the ball. We recognize that we could have done better and that those affected deserved better. And we sincerely tell them we're sorry.

Sola Fide and Personal Evangelism:

This past October, we marked the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. That is, the anniversary of the period in which there was a dramatic recovery of the principles of the Christian faith. The Reformation has long been marked by what have been called “The Five Solas.” Sola is Latin for alone, and the Five Solas are Latin statements that emerged during the period of the Reformation that summarized the reformers’ theological convictions:

1. Sola Scriptura: Scripture alone
2. Sola Fide: Faith alone
3. Sola Gratia: Grace alone
4. Solus Christus: Christ alone
5. Soli Deo Gloria: To the glory of God alone

Taken together, these statements really do give us a rallying point for the gospel. They are beautiful in their simplicity – just like the gospel of Jesus Christ. But, up until recently, I had only really thought of sola fide in personal terms.

That is, I am justified by faith alone. There is nothing I can do that will make me right before God. Indeed, it is by faith alone in Christ alone that God credits to me the righteousness of Jesus.

But it was pointed out to me that sola fide also dramatically impacts our evangelism.

If indeed salvation is by faith alone, then there is no measure of right living or personal effort that can clean me up and make me more acceptable before God. This means that no one – no one – is beyond the reach of the gospel.

Or to put it more positively – if salvation is by faith alone, then every person we come in contact with is within a single moment of faith of being made a child of God. Everyone. Every single person.

The ardent atheist.

The apathetic moralist.

The rebellious teenager.

The embittered senior.

The addicted.

The neglected.

The religious.

No matter how far away from God someone might appear, they are, in truth, right on the edge of God’s family. The only thing keeping them from entering in is not their appearance, not their background, not their habits, not their lifestyle – it’s ultimately the same thing that keeps any of us away from the grace of Jesus.

It is faith.

And this is why we can share the gospel with confidence. It’s not because by our eyes someone is “almost there.” It’s because everyone is almost there. That “lost cause” is closer to Christ than you think.