Archive for the ‘Christianity’ Category

Cradle To CrossAs we celebrate another Christmas this week, I want to take a few moments to share some thoughts with all who will take the time to read this, especially to my non-Christian friends…

Those of us who profess to be Christians don’t always act like the Christ we claim to adore. We are sometimes impatient, angry, hurtful, and even downright mean to others. We do stupid things that we ought not do. We fail to do some things we should. We disobey the commands of the Lord we claim to follow. We have days where things seem to be on the right track and where our thoughts, words and deeds faithfully represent Christ, and then there are other days when we stumble and fall far, far short. Unbelievers looking for such inconsistencies to discredit the faith and reject Christianity don’t have to look too far at times to see so-called believers acting in very unchristian ways.

To my non-Christian friends, please accept my apologies for such inconsistencies. Know that I along with another billion+ Christians around the globe deal with the same struggles you do, the same temptations, the same desires to do what is expedient or easy or pleasurable or selfish or acceptable to those around us, even when such desires are at odds with what our Lord Jesus Christ commanded and modeled in his time on earth. We are human like you.

We are imperfect.

We won’t be perfect this side of heaven, either. Since we aren’t perfect, our churches aren’t perfect. But we know that if we abide in Christ and his Word, surrendering daily to his lordship and leadership, then our lives today ought to look more like Christ than they did a year or two ago. Our lives a year or two from now ought to look more like Christ than they do now. So please try not to judge us (or at least our Lord) by the momentary ups and downs of our day-to-day lives. Look at the pattern of our lives over the long haul and see if we are becoming more like our Lord. If we are – good. If we aren’t – tell us. We need to know. Please understand that we are a work in progress and God isn’t through with us yet. Also know that not all who attend a church or have some Christian background in their family or history have had a life-changing, living experience with Christ. Without that, there is no chance such a person will grow in Christ-likeness over time because they aren’t through relationship with Christ the new creation he promises to make of all who are truly his. In the midst of our imperfection, remember this…

Jesus is perfect.

He is perfect even if we are not. Don’t reject him because of our poor imitation of him. He is worthy of all of our lives, all of our focus and attention, worship and service. If his followers don’t represent him well and you are therefore tempted to reject him, please first go to the only faithful and true written source that reveals him perfectly – the Bible – and seek him. If you seek him, you will find him. Read the Gospel of John if you haven’t done so. You’ll find that his time on earth 2000 years ago was also surrounded by imperfect followers who messed up like his current followers do. But that makes him all the more different and holy and glorious and worthy. He is the focus of our faith – not us. He is the perfect one – not us. He is the object of our worship – not us. He is the one we are all called to yield our lives to that we may gain the eternal life only available through him.

I wish we Christians weren’t known so much for what we’re against as for what we are for. Our passions on social and political issues can be unhelpful distractions that shift the focus away from Christ and to other topics subject to extreme, divisive emotions. I’m as guilty as anyone in this. There are times when I know better, but I sound off anyway about some issue when I ought to just keep my mouth (and my keyboard) quiet. But I beg of you not to reject the perfect Jesus revealed in the Bible because of imperfect followers like me.

At Christmas we celebrate the coming of Jesus into the world – God himself in the flesh. He came to live a perfect, sinless life, to die a horrible, cruel death on a cross to pay the penalty for our sins, and to rise again to provide a way for imperfect, sinful people like you and me to be made right again with the God from whom we were/are estranged. He offers forgiveness of sins and eternal life to all who turn from their sin and place their trust solely in him – in what he did for us that we could not do for ourselves. All who come to him in repentance and faith then embark on that unending journey in this life to grow in holiness and become more like him. All of his followers are at various points on that journey.

It’s nice to hear the Christmas story and to imagine a sweet little baby in a manger. Who doesn’t like babies? But Jesus didn’t come to stay a baby. He came to be the Savior of all who will surrender their lives to him. He is the only way to real life. He is the only path to true peace. He is the only one perfect and worthy of all we have and all we are. He is the only one who can forgive sin and grant eternal life. He is the only one all of us will face on a coming day of judgment.

My plea this Christmas for my non-Christian friends is this: look past us imperfect Christians and look to our perfect Savior, Jesus Christ. He is worthy – not only at Christmas, but every day – now and for eternity.

ChristianBeliefs-GrudemMy pastor, Mark Williams, and I are team teaching over several months a class based on Wayne Grudem’s book “Christian Beliefs.” (See my earlier book review here.) We haven’t been recording the sessions throughout, but since I had an acquaintance on Twitter ask for a transcript or summary, I thought I would record this one and post the audio and study handout I prepared. The full audio is 53 minutes long, so grab your favorite beverage and get cozy as you listen to it. The audio follows the study notes posted below the recording, so it should be easy to follow along. There may be a few moments where comments from others in the room are difficult to hear since I was recording from my cell phone, but you should be able to hear nearly everything.

The subject of the session is “What Is Man?” In it we explore a number of Bible passages related to the creation of man, our purpose in life, and what it means to be made in the image of God. I invite your comments here or on YouTube or Twitter.

For the record, our church is Walnut Street Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, USA – a 200-year-old Southern Baptist church in downtown Louisville. You are invited to check us out on Facebook or Twitter.

Here is the audio. The 2-page study handout is below and is available here as a PDF if you like.

What Is Man?

Based on Chapter 7 of Christian Beliefs by Wayne Grudem

Psalm 8:4 – “What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?

Psalm 8:1-9 – How Majestic Is Your name

Genesis 1:26-31; 5:1-2; 9:6; 1 Corinthians 11:7; James 3:9 – God created man in his image

Why do we exist?

When a creator/inventor creates something, it is made to fulfill a purpose.

Genesis 1 speaks not just to our description of being in God’s image and likeness, but to our purpose of reflecting and representing God, filling the earth with his likeness.

Westminster Larger Catechism (prepared for the Church of England & Church of Scotland in 1647), has as its first question: “What is the chief and highest end of man?” The answer: “Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy Him forever.”

Isaiah 43:7 – “everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made”

1 Corinthians 10:31 – “whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”

John 15:8-11 – How we glorify the Father and experience full joy

To give God glory is to give him honor and praise. All creation exists for God’s glory (“The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of his hands” – Psalm 19:1), but only humans made in his image can do so consciously and by choice. We fulfill our purpose as humans only when we reflect God as his image bearers and bring glory to him.

What does it mean to be made in the image of God?

“The fact that man is in the image of God means that man is like God and represents God.” – Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 442

An image or likeness of something can never be that which it reflects, but it can point to it. It can remind us of that which it reflects and stir emotions, thoughts and actions appropriate to what/who it reflects. This is our opportunity as God’s likeness and image in a sinful world – to represent and point to God.

Partial list of aspects of our likeness to God:

God is personal, rational, spiritual, intelligent, creative, ruling, moral, relational, communicative, emotional and immortal. One made in his image will reflect these characteristics (and more).

Humans as the image of God:

Adam and Eve were created perfect (Genesis 1:26-31). Sin diminished God’s image in them and all humanity thereafter, but it did not remove it. We are still His creatures and the highest of His creation, but we are unable to mirror His holiness on our own. Through regeneration He enables us to begin the process of reclaiming His fuller image in our lives, “to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Romans 8:29). This image won’t be fully realized until we are made new in the new heaven and new earth yet to come.

Jesus as the image of God:

“He is the image of the invisible God” – Colossians 1:15

John 14:5-11 – the relationship of Jesus and the Father

“Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” – John 14:9. To know what God is like, look at Jesus.

Hebrews 2:5-9 – Jesus the perfect Son of Man

Mankind’s possible states as it relates to the image of God:

  1. Perfectly reflecting the image of God from the moment of existence. Only Adam and Eve experienced this (and then only temporarily). This is not an option for anyone since the Fall.
  2. Fallen, lost in sin, still God’s highest creation, but woefully lacking as a reflection of God’s image because of sin. This is everyone’s initial condition since the Fall.
  3. Regenerate, saved by grace through repentance and faith, becoming more like God’s image through sanctification (growing in holiness). See 2 Corinthians 5:17, Galatians 5:19-24. This is possible for all.
  4. Fully sanctified and glorified, perfectly reflecting God’s image. This is the ultimate destiny of all who are saved by God. “When he appears, we shall be like him” (1 John 3:2). This is assured for all God saves.

Our responsibilities as humans created in God’s image:

Be like God. Reflect him. Represent him. Fulfill our purpose as shown in Genesis 1.

Glorify God and enjoy him forever.

Help restore his people and his earth to the way they were meant to be.

“If we ever deny our unique status in creation as God’s only image-bearers, we will soon begin to depreciate the value of human life, will tend to see humans as merely a higher form of animal, and will begin to treat others as such. We will also lose much of our sense of meaning in life.” – Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 450

Hymn: “Thou Art Worthy” by Pauline Michael Mills, 1963

Thou art worthy, thou art worthy,

              Thou art worthy, O Lord.

To receive glory, glory and honor,

              Glory and honor and power.

For thou hast created, hast all things created,

              Thou hast created all things;

And for thy pleasure, they are created,

              Thou art worthy, O Lord.

[Note: Of course, when you listen to a recording of yourself speaking, you inevitably discover things you said unintentionally or poorly. For example, in listing the fruit of the Spirit from Galatians 5:22-23, I said “selfishness” when I meant to say “self-control.” Oops.]

LentIf any of you want to give up something for Lent, by all means go ahead and do so. I won’t think less or more of you for observing the practice. And I highly suspect few if any of you reading this really care whether I give up anything for Lent or not. That’s fine, too. Still, I’m going to explain why I won’t be doing anything different for the 40-day period know as Lent.

First, for those unfamiliar with the tradition, Lent is the period in the Christian liturgical calendar which commemorates Jesus’ 40-day period in the wilderness when he fasted and was tempted by Satan. Some church traditions (although not all and usually not churches in my Southern Baptist tradition) celebrate Lent by having individuals give up something or spend more time in prayer and fasting or performing good works for others in ways not normally a part of the person’s daily life. What is sacrificed for Lent runs the gamut if my Facebook news feed is any indication – caffeine, meat, chocolate, coffee, soft drinks, even Facebook or the Internet. Some churches have Ash Wednesday services to begin the observance, and participants in those services may leave with a cross of ashes on their foreheads.

I have nothing against liturgical calendars or centuries-old traditions. I value fasting (but rarely do it) and prayer (which I do throughout every day) and doing good works for the benefit of others (which I hope I do often, though probably not often enough). I don’t care, however, for the thought of walking around with a cross of ashes on my forehead because it seems like a giant “look at me” sign that would make me too self-conscious, but if others choose to do so and their motives are pure, then more power to them.

I haven’t felt the need to sacrifice anything for this 40-day Lenten period. Why? A few thoughts come to mind:

  • First, if giving up “X” brings you closer to God for 40 days, then you probably ought to give it up permanently. If caffeine or chocolate or Facebook or anything else seems to come between you and God the other 325 days of the year, then why would you not give it up permanently instead of just for 40 days? The Christian life of sanctification – growing in holiness – is one of perpetual growth this side of heaven, and doing something for such a short term that presumably helps your walk with God seems antithetical to a desire for continuous growth. “Well, God, I’m going to draw close to you for these 40 days, but after that you’ll just have to wait until Ash Wednesday next year to get my serious attention.” Doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it? And if you believe as I do that we don’t impress or earn favor with God by mere acts of temporary sacrifice, then a change in behavior for only 40 days doesn’t have much lasting effect personally or eternally.
  • Second, I don’t need to re-live an annual liturgical calendar to experience my faith. Christianity at its heart is a personal relationship with and commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. It is a relationship that defines who one is every moment of his/her life. It is the basis for how I see and interpret and respond to the world around me. It is who I am at the core of my very being even though I fail to live up to the example of my Lord (see previous point on sanctification). If my faith was about religion – external things I do related to what I believe – then observing Lent would make more sense (maybe), but if my faith is about a relationship with the living Lord, then it’s primarily about the heart and an ongoing surrender to the lordship of Christ which plays out in a changed life. That is of far greater significance than can ever be expressed by doing without something I enjoy for 40 days, and it is something that needs to happen every day of the year.
  • Lastly, I know how the story ends. I know that Jesus overcame Satan’s temptations in the wilderness. I know He was crucified, dead and buried. I know He was raised from the dead and reigns forever and will come again one day to bring judgment to all the earth and to usher in His eternal kingdom. And I know I’m one of His children who will be with Him in that kingdom. I don’t need to mourn because He has saved me. I don’t need to temporarily sacrifice because the ultimate sacrifice has already been made by Him on my behalf. I choose not to re-live the part of history or church calendars pretending the end is unknown because His word declares His victory as accomplished and available to be shared by all who repent of their sins and surrender their lives to Him. I can rejoice and enjoy all that He provides in this life because, as one song says, “We win, we win, hallelujah we win; I’ve looked at the back of The Book and we win!”

Yes, there are times when I hide away for a few days in a quiet place for extended times of prayer, study and reflection. Yes, I am all for living life simply as evidenced by one of my goals for 2015 to end the year with less than I started it with in terms of material possessions. Yes, I support the practice of fasting if one chooses to do so to spend more time in prayer and communing with God. But this Lenten season I’ll just continue the path that is for me an unending one of daily spending time in His word, in praying throughout the day as a way of life talking with the One who is closer than a brother to me, and in pursuit of a life of obedience and growth that won’t end this side of heaven – certainly not in 40 days.

The point of this post is not to criticize those who treat Lent differently than I do. You have my respect and support if it draws you closer to God. My point is to promote the idea of celebrating life in Christ and continually growing in relationship and obedience to Him regardless of the season. I choose to focus on the victory already won and the grace given through that victory.

May this be a meaningful Lenten season for you – not because you give up something, but because whether you give up something or not you draw closer to the Lord Jesus Christ who gave up everything on the cross so that you might experience eternal life in Him.

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A few other related articles:

 

PastorAppreciationMonthThis is Pastor Appreciation Month. Pastors should be appreciated every month of the year for the important, tireless, and unending work they do, but it’s still good to set aside a particular month to show our appreciation.

So let me take this opportunity to publicly thank my pastor, Mark Williams, and my associate pastor, Kris Billiter, for who they are, for all they do for so many people, and for the very positive impact each has on me, my family, and my church.

Mark has only been my pastor since mid-August 2014, but I cannot express how thrilled I am to have him and his great family at my church – Walnut Street Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. Mark is gifted in many ways, but what stands out to me is the powerful preaching that God brings to pass through him every week. I recently heard Mark say that 90% of his time weekly is spent on sermon preparation, and it shows. I appreciate that passion for and devotion to the Word of God. A very high view of scripture is sadly lacking in many churches today, and it thrills my soul to know that Mark understands the centrality of the Word of God in his mission as pastor.

Mark has a great family as well with a wonderful wife and two precious children. It is clear that the family is fully devoted to one another as they serve Christ and others. I look forward to many years together as a faithful servant in the church.

It pleases me that Mark is as young as he is – 31 years old – because it increases my hope in the future of our church and the rock-solid grip God can have on people of all ages who willingly surrender their lives to His lordship. With my sons’ ages 31 and 34, my manager at my work being 31, managing a small team at work of others in their 20s, and having loved my college ministry years hanging out with those much younger than me, I have an affinity for a younger generation and am excited to see them lead others of all ages.

It has also been a tremendous blessing this past year and a half just prior to Mark being called as pastor to have our associate pastor Kris Billiter serve as interim pastor while we went through the long pastor search process. Kris is about to leave us to plant a new church elsewhere in the county, so we will be sad to see him go, but he goes with our blessing and heartfelt gratitude for the phenomenal way he led us in the interim period (and in other capacities for years before). I count him as a trusted friend and I know he will be used by God for great service now and in the years ahead. I would have been glad to have Kris as my pastor should that have come to pass, but God had other plans that we all now see as better for all concerned.

I was never a pastor, but I have served as associate pastor, minister of education, youth minister and college minister in a variety of paid ministry and volunteer roles. I can’t completely understand the thoughts and daily concerns of a lead pastor since I haven’t been one, but I can well imagine the joys and the difficulties of the role as one deals with fickle human beings (like me) while trying to be a faithful servant of the Most High God.

Through the years I haven’t always been the exemplary church member and am surely not now either. I had some adversarial times with a previous pastor – a dark and difficult period for my wife and me that is thankfully in the past. I don’t ever want a repeat of those days. The pattern of my life is to respect the person and the position of pastor and that is the way it should be.

So as I ponder ways I can continue to show appreciation to my pastor, here are some things that come to mind:

  • Pray by name daily for my pastor, his ministry, and his family.
  • Be an eager, active and vocal supporter of his ministry.
  • Make my default answer to requests he may make of me be “yes” unless there are extremely unusual circumstances that prevent doing so in particular situations.
  • Be reasonable in my expectations of him as a person; He’s not superman.
  • Respect his time and the time he needs with family as well as down time to get away and recharge.
  • Serve tirelessly in ways God has gifted me for the good of our church.
  • If I disagree with a leadership decision, either accept the authority of the position of pastor (barring clearly unbiblical decisions) or at least have the respect to first approach him privately with concerns rather than publicly.
  • Seek to give more than I take in the relationship.
  • Trust that in God’s sovereignty He has plans I know nothing about, and this pastor at this time in this place is a part of that eternal plan.

I’d love to hear what other ideas you may have.

To my fellow believers everywhere, I encourage you to go out of your way this month (and every month) to show appreciation to your pastor. Let him know you’re praying for him. Be kind. Say words of encouragement. Be a blessing to him and a helper in your shared ministry at church. Love him and those dear to him as though they are a part of your own family because they are. They are a part of a spiritual family that will spend eternity together. We would do well to work hard this side of heaven on getting a great jumpstart on that forever friendship.

Thank you, Mark, and thank you, Kris, and heartfelt thanks to the many other pastors I’ve had in 57 years on this earth who have all played a part in shaping me into who I am. The ripple effect of your work is incalculable. You are loved and greatly appreciated every day of every year.

May God richly bless you and your loved ones as you continue to faithfully serve Him.

HeavenIsForRealI watched the movie Heaven is for Real Friday night. I have not read the book like some others in my family have. I knew about the story line of a young boy, the son of a pastor, who has a near-death experience and then stuns his family and others with descriptions of what he saw while on the operating table. My wife tells me the movie followed very closely the book, so I assume that to be true.

Having read several mixed reviews of the movie months ago when it was released, and having read or heard the positive reactions of friends and family to the book and/or the movie, I entered into watching it with mixed expectations. I feared that even though the overall movie was positive, uplifting and affirming of the eternal realities of my Christian faith, it would lack in some significant ways in terms of the completeness of the message delivered – especially theologically – which is critically important.

To perhaps oversimplify my reaction to the movie, here are some quick thoughts about it – first three positives and then three more substantial negatives:

The Positives:

  1. Watching a movie on this subject is far better than watching so many others that fill the big screen that are littered with violence, foul language, gratuitous sex and nothing of any real redeeming value.
  2. The movie can serve as a discussion starter about the idea or reality of heaven and what must happen in this life in order to live in heaven for eternity.
  3. The movie is based on a true story which can (but doesn’t necessarily) lend credence to the experience.

The Negatives:

  1. There was a gigantic missed opportunity in that the movie asserts that heaven is for real, yet it never presents the basics of the Christian gospel message which answers the question of how one gets to heaven. So the message becomes, “Yes, heaven is for real, and I sure hope you figure out how to get there because we’re not telling you in this movie.”
  2. The one authoritative source of information about heaven is the Bible. We can be assured that whatever the Bible says of heaven is true, and we cannot be certain about any other beliefs about which the Bible is silent. I choose only to believe with certainty what the scriptures teach about heaven, and to take with a grain of salt anything else from other sources.
  3. Neither Christians nor anyone else should give an automatic pass to someone’s near-death or other experience as true just because someone claims to have experienced it. As the psychologist in the movie pointed out, people of different faiths may have very different near-death experiences. Who, then, are you going to believe? It might make for good entertainment, but it isn’t a valid basis for theological belief unless it is supported with scripture. And if anything in one’s “experience” is contrary to what is taught in scripture, then it is to be rejected as false.

HeavenIf you want to know if heaven is for real, and if you are curious about some aspects (though not all) of what it is like, look to the Bible. If you want a very thorough, complete, and well-reasoned look at all that the Bible says about heaven, then read Randy Alcorn’s book Heaven. It is an amazing treatment of every bit of scripture that addresses the topic and will both encourage the reader while also clearing up misconceptions that have their genesis in places other than scripture.

There’s nothing wrong with seeing the movie Heaven is for Real or with reading the book. It is wholesome and far preferable compared to the overwhelming amount of filth produced by Hollywood. But a Christian evaluation of it must begin and end with how it measures up to what the Bible teaches about the subject. We cannot base our faith or theology on what makes us feel good – movie or otherwise.

I may sound like an old curmudgeon who is taking the theological aspect of watching the movie too seriously, and it isn’t my intention to discourage anyone from seeing the movie or reading the book. Just do it alongside the Bible and perhaps Randy Alcorn’s book to make sure that you come away with a clear distinction between what is soundly scriptural and what is unknown this side of heaven. God has revealed in His Word to all of us what He deems important for us to know for the present about heaven. Stories, books and movies that suggest other glimpses may be interesting and thought provoking, but we should not require them to affirm the scripture’s teaching nor to fill in the blanks of what God has yet to make clearly known to all.