Best Blogs: A Few Good Men (and Women)

A Few Good Men (And Women)

“Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘If anyone would come
after me, he must deny himself and take
up his cross and follow me.’”
~Matthew 16:24

Soul Snacks: Does Christ’s call to discipleship seem a little extreme in comparison to the “easy believism” that passes for discipleship today? You will likely hear a lot more about a life of comfort, security and success these days from spiritual leaders than straight talk on self-denial and cross bearing.

Jesus made no of promises of an easy, breezy, carefree Christianity. Rather, he demanded complete obedience, costly sacrifice, and selfless servanthood from those who would follow him. He told them that they would have to eat his flesh and drink his blood if they wanted a part in him. He said people would hate them, misunderstand them, reject them, persecute them, and put them out of the synagogues. And he even promised that people would kill them, believing that in so doing they were helping God out.

Yet the eleven disciples (one of them, Judas, got cold feet) fully bought into Christ’s call to costly discipleship. They left everything they had and everything they knew for a life that promised nothing except a chance to advance God’s kingdom in a resistant, hostile world. They fully understood that the overwhelming bulk of their rewards would come only afterwards, in the afterlife.

And, despite Christ’s less than appealing recruitment campaign, these first disciples, followed in the years to come by countless thousands of other hungry seekers, flocked to this self-denying, cross-bearing brand of Christianity. Jesus was a tough act to follow, to say the least, but these disciples eagerly signed up—and they changed the world.

How? Simply by doing what Jesus had asked: They denied themselves, took up their crosses, and laid down their lives for his sake. Without a political voice, financial resources, social standing, and military might, this unlikely ragtag band of followers conquered the Roman Empire in less than three hundred years.

Such was the radical power of this brand of fully committed discipleship.

Do you worry, as I do, that Christ’s call to costly discipleship would empty most churches of its people in our day. Though most believers give mental assent to cross-bearing and self-denial, in reality there is very little evidence of it in their lives, or in their churches.

If Jesus rebuked Peter (Matthew 16:23) — “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men” — for suggesting Christianity without a cross (Matthew 16:24), what do you suppose he would say to us who have suggested Christian discipleship without cross-bearing?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once remarked, “Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ.” We need to remind ourselves of that truth, because you likely won’t hear it from too many pulpits today. A.W. Tozer commented that “it has become popular to preach a painless Christianity and automatic saintliness. It has become part of our ‘instant’ culture. ‘Just pour a little water on it, stir mildly, pick up a gospel tract, and you are on your Christian way.’”

We must aggressively and boldly reject that brand of faith, because that is not the discipleship to which Jesus has called us. And that is not the discipleship that I want for my life.

How about you?

P.S. “Salvation is free … but discipleship will cost you your life.” ~Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Best Blogs: Eternal Security

Eternal Security
by The Great Finisher

“God will keep you strong to the end so that you will be free from all blame on the day when
our Lord Jesus Christ returns.  God will do this, for he is faithful to do what he says,
and he has invited you into partnership with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”
~I Corinthians 1:8-9

Soul Snacks: Do you believe in eternal security?  The eternal security of the believer has been hotly debated for hundreds of years by theologians much smarter than me, so it’s not likely that I’ll resolve the issue for you.

Perhaps you’ve already taken a position on this yourself—most Christians have.  Maybe you’re of the camp that believes you cannot lose your salvation—once you’re saved you’re always saved.  Or it could be you’ve joined doctrinal sides with those who’ve found Biblical support that it is indeed possible to “backslide” and fall away from God.

I grew up in a theological tradition that supported the latter.  I like to say we believed in backsliding—and practiced it regularly.  But all kidding aside, the older I get and the longer I’ve been a Christian, honestly, I’m not sure where I stand on this issue anymore. Frankly, there are compelling arguments for both sides.  I sometimes wonder if there is a third alternative that will be revealed to us when we get to heaven. Wouldn’t that be great!

But one thing I do believe, and that is, if it is possible to lose your salvation—and I say “if” it is possible—it must be exceedingly difficult to walk away from your relationship with God and into a life of sin for the very simple fact of the truth revealed in these verses—I Corinthians 1:8-9.  You see, you are not alone; your salvation is not up to you alone.  In fact very little of it is up to you.  That’s not to say that you don’t have a part to play—you do.  In verse 9, Paul says it is a partnership that you have been called into with Jesus Christ at the moment of your salvation.  You have to believe, obey, love and serve God.

But even then, God is helping you to do that.  According to verse 8, God is giving you the strength, and he will supply the strength to fulfill your end of the partnership until the day Jesus returns and finds you blameless.  Isn’t that great news?  You are not alone in your spiritual journey; someone greater than you is at your side helping you each step of the way.

And he is committed to finishing what he started in you.  Paul says it this way in Philippians 1:6, “Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”  Now here’s the deal, when God starts a good work, he always finishes it.  He doesn’t have a workshop full of half finished projects.  He completes them all—each and every one of them.  And since you are one of his good works, you can have that same kind of confidence Paul talked about that God will take you from the starting line to the finish line of your salvation marathon.

The book of Jude says the same thing, “Now to him who is able to keep you from falling and present you before his throne without fault and with great joy…”  (Jude 24)  God is able.  You may feel weak and incapable in your spiritual walk at times; you may worry if there might be a time in the future where you would walk away from God.  But let me tell you this:  You are not alone.  Your salvation is not all up to you.  God is able to keep you from falling.  God is able to take you from start to finish and present you in the winner’s circle without fault (Jude 24), complete (Philippians 1:6) and blameless (I Corinthians 1:8).

You are not alone.  Your salvation is not all up to you.  If you can lose your salvation—if—then it must be the most difficult thing in all creation, since you will have to overcome God’s saving, sustaining, completing grace to do it.

You are not alone.  Your salvation is not all up to you.  God is able!  You now belong to the Great Finisher!

I hope that makes your day better!

P.S. “If the Lord be with us, we have no cause of fear. His eye is upon us, his arm over us, his ear open to our prayer—his grace sufficient, his promises unchangeable.”  –John Newton

Best Blogs: Be A Uniter, Not A Divider

Be A Uniter, Not A Divider

“Watch out for people who cause divisions…such people are not serving
Christ our Lord; they are serving their own personal interests.”
~Romans 16:17-18

Soul Snacks: I strongly believe that job number one for every Christian as it relates to our personal responsibility in the church is to protect the unity of the fellowship. There is no greater effort to which one can expend his energy. Likewise, there is no greater sin than to be party to disharmony and division among God’s people.

Several sobering passages in Scripture stand as eternal warning signs to us not to enter this territory. One of the most sobering reminds us that to engage in such behavior is to incur the displeasure and anger of God, “There are six tings the Lord hates, seven that are detestable to him: …a man who stirs up dissension among brothers.” (Proverbs 6:16-19)

Jesus reminded us that where disunity exists, destruction of the fellowship is not far behind, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” (Matthew 12:25)

Paul felt very strongly about disunity as well. Instructing his young protégé, Titus, in how he was to manage the local church, Paul said that division requires an immediate, consistent and aggressive response from church leadership, “Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him. You can be sure that such a man is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.” (Titus 3:10-11)

That’s how repugnant division and disunity is to God, and on the flip side, just how important unity and harmony is to him. In Jesus’ high priestly prayer in John 17, our Lord interceded for his church before the Father, praying, “I pray for all who will believe in me…that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.” (John 17:20-21)

Of all the things Jesus could have prayed for, he was most concerned about the unity of the church. And since it was that important to Jesus, we must allow it to become that important to us as well. We must be very alert to any attitudes and actions on our part, or on the part of others, that would lead to even the smallest crack in the unity of the fellowship to which we belong. We have no right to harm the unity for which Jesus bled and died to preserve.

In light of that, I would suggest a few things that will help you to become one of those true heroes of the faith who helps preserves the unity of the church:

One, realize most of the stuff which causes division really doesn’t matter in the larger scheme of things. Paul told Titus, “avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels…these are unprofitable and useless.” (Titus 3:9) Most of the stuff that divides Christians just doesn’t matter. So just let it go.

Two, realize that there is more that unites us than divides us. We have so much common ground in Christ. If we would focus on that, our differences would be minimized and our common love for Christ would be magnified. Paul challenges us to “do the things that lead to harmony and promote peace in the church.” (Romans 14:9)

And three, get tough with those who selfishly push their own agenda at the expense of maintaining “the unity of the Spirit through the bonds of peace.” As Paul said, warn them once; even warn them a second time. Remind them that God hates disunity and detests the one who foments it. If they continue, if they are a chronic divider, Paul says to “mark them.” In other words, get tough, because the unity of your fellowship is more important than the feelings and wishes of some unhealthy, selfish, immature person who is willing to risk it to get their own way.

God loves unity. And God will bless you if you will love it too.

P.S. “Into the community you were called—the call was not meant for you alone; in the community of the called you bear your cross, you struggle, you pray. You are not alone even in death, and on the Last Day you will be only one of the great congregation of Jesus Christ. If you scorn the fellowship of the brethren, you reject the call of Jesus Christ.” ~Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Best Blogs: Christianity for Dummies

Christianity for Dummies

“Everyone has sinned and is far away from God’s saving presence. But by the free gift
of God’s grace all are put right with him through Christ Jesus, who sets them free.”
~Romans 3:23-24 (TEV)

Soul Snacks:  So many people get freaked out by the complexity of religion. They’re intimidated by it, they don’t get it, they don’t want to talk about it—and even if they do want to talk about it, they just can’t wrap their brain around it enough to be able to string enough cogent thoughts together to carry on a stimulating conversation about it.

But that is absolutely not true about true Christianity. I know, “true Christianity” is redundant, but I want to distinguish authentic faith from the junked up, messed up stuff that some misguided folks have turned our faith into. Christianity is simple—so simple, even a caveman can get it. God made sure of that. Here it is in a nutshell in Romans 3. Here the Apostle Paul, master theologian par excellence, who sometimes is not all that easy to grasp, probably foresaw the need for a “Christianity for Dummies” (he was thinking of me!), so he simply, clearly and briefly spelled out the real condition of humankind, God’s offer of salvation, the essence of faith, and the core beliefs of Christianity in this chapter.

I would highly recommend, as a reaffirmation of your faith and as a great refresher for evangelism, that you go back and re-read Romans 3 in a modern translation, like The Message” or The New Living Translation. You’ll be amazed at the profound simplicity of our Christian faith.

Or I can give you the CliffNotes version:

1. The truth about you and me—Romans 3:9-12

“Basically, all of us, whether insiders (Jews who have the Law) or outsiders (Gentiles who live as a law unto themselves), start out in identical conditions, which is to say that we all start out as sinners. Scripture leaves no doubt about it: There’s nobody living right, not even one, nobody who knows the score, nobody alert for God. They’ve all taken the wrong turn; they’ve all wandered down blind alleys. No one’s living right; I can’t find a single one.”

2. The bad news—Romans 3:20

“For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are,” i.e., we’ll never attain God’s favor in this life now or in the life to come by being good enough.

3. The good news—Romans 3:21-22

“But now God has shown us a way to be made right with him [without our futile effort to be good enough for God]. We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are.”

4. Say What?—Romans 3:23-24

“Since we’ve compiled this long and sorry record as sinners and proved that we are utterly incapable of living up to the standards God demands of us, God did it for us. Out of sheer generosity he put us in right standing with himself. A pure gift. He got us out of the mess we’re in and restored us to where he always wanted us to be. And he did it by means of Jesus Christ dying on the cross to pay for our sins.”

5. How cool is Christianity—Romans 3:25

“God sacrificed Jesus on the altar of the world—you and me—to clear that world—you and me—of sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood.”

That’s it! That’s the Good News—and that news really is good! Religion is complex; Christianity is simple. Religion is about what you have to do; Christianity is about what God has done! Religion requires you to sacrifice to appease your god; Christianity required God to sacrifice his Son to appease himself. In religion, you pay; in Christianity, Jesus paid it all. Religious faith is about works; Christian faith is about belief. Religion leads to death; Christianity leads to life.

Need I say more?

Now I’m not all that bright—on par with a caveman—but I think I’ll take Christianity!  How ‘bout you?

P.S The great reformer Martin Luther wrote of his revelation that salvation is by faith alone, “At last meditating day and night, by the mercy of God, I began to understand that the righteousness of God is that through which the righteous live by a gift of God, namely by faith. Here I felt as if I were entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through the gates that had been flung open.”

Best Blogs: Long-Winded Preachers

Long-Winded Preachers

“Paul was preaching, and since he was leaving the next day, he kept talking
until midnight…Paul continued talking until dawn, then he left.”
~Acts 20:7 (NLT)

Soul Snacks: I used to be a big fan of the twenty-minute sermon.  I still am, in fact—when someone else is preaching, that is.  But the longer I preach, the longer I preach, if you get my drift.  After many years of pastoral ministry, now twenty-minutes is just a good introduction.  I’m joking of course—my intros are no more than eighteen minutes:-P

Few aspects of the preacher’s preaching are more prominently discussed than the length of his sermons.  In seminary, we are taught how to “get ‘er  done” in fifteen minutes or so, twenty minutes at the most, and violating that rule of thumb is a good indication that our sermon preparation had been sloppy.  A friend of mine says if you want to preach a twenty-minute sermon, prepare twenty hours; a forty-minute message will take you ten hours of prep time, and an hour-long sermon means you’ve spent about twenty minutes preparing.

In my earlier pastoral ministry I worked years with a phenomenal preacher.  But he was an hour-long kind of guy.  He had great stuff, he just didn’t know how to bring the plane in for a landing, so to speak.  He’d get to the end of his message, and then just circle the airport looking for a spot to bring ‘er down.  If he would have cut that hour in half, his sermons would have gone from good to great.  His preaching kind of reminds me of the story I heard about a man who went to the dentist to have a tooth removed. He asked the dentist what the cost for removing his tooth would be, and the dentist told him it would be $90. The guy told the dentist that 90 bucks seemed like a lot of money for a few seconds work. The dentist said, “If it’d make you feel better, I can pull the tooth out real slow!”

Well, I am here to defend the long-winded sermon—since I now qualify as long-winded.  Hey, it’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it.  And I am in good company.  Paul, the greatest theologian in the New Testament, perhaps in human history, preached so long that one young man named Eutychus, fell asleep while sitting on a window seal and fell three stories to his death.  Amazingly, that didn’t put a damper on the service.  Paul, without skipping a beat, went downstairs, healed the man, then came back upstairs and talked from midnight until dawn.  You go Paul!

Here’s the deal: It’s not the length of the sermon that makes it good or bad, it’s the content of the message…it’s the passion of the preacher…it’s the heart of the shepherd out of which the sermon flows that makes it effective or not.  If you read this entire passage in Acts 20, you get some great insights into the heart of Paul, the long-winded preacher:

Paul was full of faith and confidence in the Lord—“don’t worry, he’s alive…and the young man was taken home unhurt.”  (Acts 20:11-12, NLT)

Paul earned people’s respect through his suffering for the Gospel—“I have endured the trials that came to me…” (Acts 20:19, NLT)

Paul was fearless in his preaching—“I never shrank back from telling you what you needed to hear.” (Acts 20:20, NLT)

Paul was Christ-centered and cross-focused—“I have had one message…repent from sin and turn to God…the work of telling others the Good news about the wonderful grace of God.” (Acts 20:21, 24, NLT)

Paul was purpose driven—“My life is worth nothing to me unless I use it for finishing the work the Lord Jesus assigned to me.” (Acts 20:24, NLT)

Paul was faithful to God—“I declare today that I have been faithful.” (Acts 20:26, NLT)

Paul passionately protected his flock from danger—“Guard God’s people and feed and shepherd God’s flock…watch out…” (Acts 20:28,31, NLT)

Paul was pure in his motives—“I have never coveted anyone’s silver or gold or fine clothes…I have worked with my own hands to supply my own needs.” (Acts 20:33-34, NLT)

Paul practiced what he preached—“I have been a constant example…” (Acts 20:35, NLT)

Paul was selfless—“I have been a constant example of how you can help those in need by working hard.” (Acts 20:35, NLT)

It’s no wonder than when he had finished speaking and was getting ready to leave, “they all cried as they embraced and kissed him good-bye.” (Acts 20:37, NLT)

How long is the perfect sermon, you wonder?  When the preacher exhibits the same qualities that we see in Paul, his sermon can be a long as it takes!

P.S The Puritan pastor Richard Baxter once remarked, “I preach as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men.”  The next time you are listening to your pastor preach, realize that for him, he carries into the pulpit a heavy awareness that eternity hangs in the balance.