Recently I preached a two part series on “Finding the Will of God” at Nansemond River Baptist Church. You might be surprised at my take on the matter from 2 Peter 1. So many people want to find God’s will but go about it in a completely incorrect way. God’s design is much clearer and straightforward than most of the faux-spiritual hoops we try to jump through.
“Finding the Will of God” (Part 1)
“Finding the Will of God” (Part 2)
You see, this is Paul’s farewell to the Ephesian church. A church that occupied the majority of his last missionary journey and where his protégé was an elder. His farewell to the Ephesian elders is filled with tears and heartache. He is convinced that he will not see his friends again and his conviction proves true.
In his farewell I am reminded of true gospel ministry. A ministry that is sacrificial rather than demanding, honest rather than flattering. It is rooted in humility and thoroughness. Such ministry has a deep foundation in truth and is developed in meaningful relationships: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
All that to be said, I find it interesting that the very last words Paul speaks to the Ephesian elders regards the dangers from within the church that will come. Communication in that day and age was spotty and travel was dangerous, there was a high likelihood they would not receive any future instruction from Paul and he left them with these words:
Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.
As I thought about these last words I was reminded that the danger for Christians is more frequently from within the church than without. This is no excuse to abandon the church but rather a call to guard the health of our faith community.
Dangers from without are easier to spot. They are different and distinct. Such is the case with many “overt” sins. Maybe this is why Christians often point to “outsider” sins (e.g., homosexuality, drunkenness, etc.). They’re easy to spot! But just because they are more visible does not mean they are more dangerous.
Sin that grows within the community of faith is much more difficult to identify because it takes Christian language and even Christian scripture and cleverly mixes it with false teaching. I finally settled on two major dangers that are present within the church that often receive Christian justification: traditionalism and existentialism.
Imagine a wide, asphalt highway with two great ditches on each side. If the highway is the firm sure ground of Biblical truth, then two ever present dangers are the lure of traditionalism on one side and the elevation of feeling on the other. The difficulty in navigating the highway of truth is that we are often tempted, by distraction or danger, to swerve off of its sturdy path.
When you ask people to make godly decisions they too often have no Biblical foundation on which to base their choices. As a result, the default mode is often traditionalism. Such traditionalism is seen in the kind of thoughtless repetition of doing things a certain way because they’ve always been done that way. Much like Einstein’s definition of insanity, traditionalism is unable to look outside of personal experience to find a better option.
On the other extreme is the particular modern lure of “feelings.” Most people have no solid criteria by which to discern right from wrong and good from bad. As a result, they are at the whim of their feelings. They tell me they “feel” like they’re in love or it just “seemed” like the best thing at the time. That tickle in your stomach is probably just gas. This too shall pass.
I think tradition can be a vibrant connection to our Christian heritage and feelings directed toward God are lovely but both our traditions and our feelings must serve in submission to the truth of God’s word. “We have the prophetic word made more sure” (2 Peter 1:19). Our feelings and our traditions can easily be co-opted by suave communicators. They can quickly make you think that God is all about making you feel good or the Bible is a book that justifies the way things have always been done. The only light in such darkness is the revealed word of God, to which we would “do well to pay attention” (2 Peter 1:19).
Next time you have to make a decision ask yourself, “what does the Bible say?”
This promo video is of Jeff Vanderstelt, a pastor at Soma Communities, is very challenging. I would hope that I would personally view all things through the lens of the gospel. In addition, I hope I am teaching and equipping my church to think this way.
For more thorough and involved teaching on this subject, see this post by Justin Taylor.
I have again been reminded of a way to functionally undermine the authority of the Scriptures. Bible teachers or Christians frequently proclaim their allegiance to the Scripture and its truth yet often only vaguely reference its contents out of context or (worst) (mis-)use the text to suit their own ends; in these moments they demonstrate that all the talk about authority and sufficiency is smoke and mirrors, propaganda, and hypocrisy. I also see people consistently elevate and emphasize secondary material in the text above things of greater importance. Sometimes, wholesale theological fabrications are held in higher esteem than the gospel.
All of this reminded me of an excellent message by David Nelson delivered at SEBTS during convocation a few years ago. His message (“How to Undermine the Authority of Scripture”) gave four ways to functionally undermine the authority of the Bible:
1. Make loud claims about the inerrancy of the Bible and then fail to teach it all.
2. Insist that what is not in the Scripture is in the Scripture.
3. Neglect to teach what is in the Scripture or fail to give it the proper emphasis given by the Bible.
4. Make loud claims of the authority of Scripture and then fail to live a truly Christian way of life.
I would highly recommend listening to the entire message.
I’ve heard a lot of talk recently about the declining morals of modern American culture. It is basically assumed that the morals of the ’50s were vastly superior to whatever values still remain. Anecdotal evidence usually cites the terrible entertainment on television (think Jersey Shore instead of Leave it to Beaver) or changing sexual ethics (think premarital sex and homosexuality).
I would like to caution us not to be unnecessarily concerned. First of all, sin is trans-generational. Changing technology and access to information have made certain forms of sin more visible in the wider culture but sin has always existed. People in the ’50s had moral lapses. In fact, a view of morality that focuses merely on externals has to pick and choose what is and is not the essential determiner of right behavior. The ’50s mights seem more upright in regard to conservative views of sexual ethics. However, if the standard has anything to do with institutionalized racism then the ’50s might be seen as significantly worse than today. This all depends on whether external morality is the sole basis for which one wants to judge a culture. If the ’50s are a bad barometer of external morality then the Bible fares much worse (adultery, incest, homosexuality, murder, lying, stealing, etc).
I’ve seen a great deal of positive movement in my generation toward care for the environment, concern for the poor, economic equality. All the while, my friends have maintained a strong commitment to defending the unborn and other “traditional” causes of conservative evangelicalism. In addition, all of the focus on external behavior can easily devolve into outright hypocrisy. My generation is much more concerned with authenticity, humility, and honesty than any pretense of performance or righteous charade.
I suspect there is a bit of historical naïvity and unsubstantiated nostalgia when certain people discuss the past. Whatever the case, external morality misses the point. The gospel realizes that no amount of “good behavior” warrants salvation and that real life change only comes from Jesus Christ. People do not need behavior change, they need to go from spiritual death to spiritual life. Focusing on external behavior is like giving a dead man Tylenol. Standards of external morality will change based on cultural situation, we need a basis for behavior that is rooted in the character of God and not the fashions of the day.
Whitney and I just returned from a nice vacation. The whole experience was relaxing. I genuinely love spending time with Whitney. Hours in the car are simply fun as we talk about life. There were a lot of important questions asked, as well as a lot of laughter. I hope to share more pictures of our time in Savannah, GA and Orlando, FL over the next couple of days.
Either way, it is good to be home. I am particularly excited about worship with our church family here in VA. As is our habit, while out of town we visited another church unannounced. We just dropped in to study the Bible and meet some new brothers and sisters. Our time of worship was a little disheartening.
We walked into a gorgeous building in the heart of downtown last Sunday, a beautiful fall day. A nice gentleman greeted us at the door. When we stepped inside the foyer the building was eerily quiet. As we walked into the “sanctuary” I noticed an ornate, traditional room with finely crafted columns and embellished windows. I imagine it could hold 1,000 or so people. Sadly, as I looked at the room in front of me, most of the pews were roped off and I saw maybe 50 people spread out around the massive chamber. I know numbers are of little significance but in the middle of a bustling southern city, the one place I expected to find life, was filled with a listless and deteriorating faith community.
The service was standard fare: a few songs, a mediocre performance sermon and we left. There was no community. There was no life.
There are lessons to be learned about stewardship, resources, buildings, property, and institutions. I think the central thing I was challenged by was the need for a church to be a center for missionary activity. The church must go into the community. In the case of this church, they had built impressive resources and a massive institution but the community which they were called to impact with the gospel was left unaffected.
Christianity would be better of if it had fewer adherents rather than more. The reason is simple—the Church is the best kind of wine until water gets added. The more water one mixes with wine, the less wine there really is. Water down the wine enough and before long there isn’t anything left of it but a little smell.
I often feel the same way. Being a Christian in name only is not being a Christian at all. I would much rather spread the gospel with those who see it as good news than those who have grown familiar with the amazing story of Jesus. There are too many counterfeit Christians who distort the gospel yet they seem to get all the press.
I recently read the allegations regarding Eddie Long, Atlanta-area mega pastor. These allegations regarding sexual immorality are saddening though not much surprises me anymore. Long has been under investigation in the past for financial impropriety.
I am not interested in humiliating or insulting Long nor am I making a judgment regarding his innocence or guilt. However, I recently came across a thread on Facebook regarding this topic and wanted to provide a little bit of Biblical guidance. Read for yourself what some were saying:
I agree that we should examine ourselves and be slow to judge. God is the ultimate judge. However, this idea that we are NEVER to judge or never to make moral statements regarding the sin of other Christians is ridiculous (and unbiblical). Judgment is an integral part of being a Christian and being part of a faith community. Think about Paul, he spoke very clearly about how to deal with immorality within a church (see 1 Corinthians 5)! We are called to judge the Christian within the church! Furthermore, we must banish any nonsense that the “pastor” is God’s anointed and is beyond judgment. As a pastor, I pray that my brothers and sisters (my coworkers in the gospel) will be firm in holding me accountable.
Sunday I taught an overview of the small book of Jonah. We looked at the role and shape of Jonah among the minor prophets. In the antihero of Jonah, I tried to demonstrate the love of God for the nations.
To the very end of the story Jonah never embraced God’s call. In the words of VeggieTales: “Jonah was a prophet and he never really got it.” Jonah, the seemingly good news prophet ends up being the bad guy.
His selfishness, nationalism, and pride prevented him initially from obeying God and ultimately from enjoying the love and mercy that God extended to the Ninevites. Jonah didn’t want God to show mercy on his enemies.
Jonah was not willing to sacrifice his reputation, comfort, or life for the story and glory of God. The call to go is bigger than my reputation, my comfort, and even my life.
In conversation with one of the pastors at my church I was reminded of the importance of seeing God for who he really is and myself for what I really am. It is so easy (like Jonah) to think that God must act the way I want him to. He must love who I love and punish who I hate. Just like Jonah fostered an us versus them mentality between the Israelites and Ninevites, I often foster an us versus them mentality. With the recent anniversary of 9/11 I am reminded how many Christians still view Islam as the enemy.
I am reminded that our power and hope is in the gospel. It can break any chain of Islam. As a Christian I am called to demonstrate the scandalous love of Christ.
In 2004, five Southern Baptist Missionaries were serving in Mosul, Iraq (geographically analogous to ancient Ninevah). They had moved to Iraq to share the glory of the gospel with the Iraqi people and serve them by researching opportunities to provide clean water. The five missionaries (Larry and Jean Elliott, David and Carrie McDonnall, and Karen Watson) were ambushed by gunmen. Carrie McDonnall was the only survivor. Prior to leaving for Iraq, Karen Watson had written a letter to be read upon her death. She knew the risk of going to such a difficult place.
I wasn’t called to a place. I was called to Him,” she wrote. “To obey was my objective, to suffer was expected, His glory was my reward, His glory is my reward.”
Anticipating her death may cause others to question the need for the humanitarian work in Iraq to continue, Watson clearly said one of the most important things is to “preserve the work. Keep sending missionaries out. Keep raising up fine young pastors.”
In making a few requests for a funeral service, Watson said to keep it simple and preach the Gospel. “Be bold and preach the life saving, life changing, forever eternal GOSPEL. Give glory and honor to our Father,” she wrote.
Watson quoted The Missionary Heart, which says in part, “Risk more than some think is safe,” a line that resonates with the endeavor she undertook in a war-torn country. She listed some of her favorite passages of Scripture, including 2 Corinthians 15:5, which says, “And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.” Another was Romans 15:20, which says, “It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known.” In closing, Watson wrote, “There is no Joy outside of knowing Jesus and serving Him.”
I have been reminded of late about the massive misunderstanding that most Christians have regarding the nature of the church. One common fallacy of which I have recently encountered has massive implications for the way one lives and behaves. It is routinely propagated that one must behave in a particularly pious way “at church.” “Put on your Sunday best,” someone might say. Others balk at a pastor’s knowledge of popular media or his reference to popular culture while teaching. They say that it has no place “at church.” The manifestations of this Biblical mistake are never ending.
Ultimately some would have you believe that certain physical space is sacred and other physical space is secular. Like Moses and the burning bush, when you step onto the church’s property you are “on holy ground.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The reality of the New Testament is that believers are the ones who are holy, by means of the blood of Christ (1 Cor 3:16–17; 1 Cor 6:19; 2 Cor 6:16). The church is not a building (Eph 2:11–22) but a people.
On the one hand, what you do and say with the church should not be disconnected from what you do and say by yourself. Granted, the purpose of a church meeting together is different than when you are alone—mutual edification can only occur with others. However, there should be little difference in the manner of my living when I am with other believers and when I am by myself. If what I wear throughout the week is not appropriate for “church” then it is not appropriate for the grocery store. You might not want to wear a baseball uniform or pajamas to church (different purpose) but neither must you wear a specific “church uniform.” If God does not require a suit to go the baseball game then he does not require one when I gather with other believers. This thinking should extend to what I watch on television and the content of my conversation. As far as I can tell, the Biblical definition of sacred and secular is purely an inward category. Holiness is a function of our calling from God, not our location (Eph 1:4; Col 3:12; 1 Pet 1:15).