Two gospel thieves

Gospel Centered
“Just as Christ was crucified between two thieves,” so the gospel “is ever crucified between two opposite errors”
(Tertullian, early church father).

“If our gospel message even slightly resembles ‘you must believe and live right to be saved’ or ‘God loves and accepts everyone just as they are,’ we will find our communication is not doing the identity-changing, heart-shaping, transformative work…” of the gospel.  (Tim Keller, Center Church).

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14 NKJV).

I designed the above graph with the cross of Christ at the center to illustrate the way the gospel challenges both sides of the coin of human religion (this was inspired by Tim Keller’s graph in his book, Center Church). I describe it is as one coin with two sides because although both approaches seem radically different, they both have in common their avoidance of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord and their desire to retain control of their lives. These two sides of the coin are like gospel “thieves” as Tertullian described them, misrepresenting and robbing the gospel of its appropriate focus on the person and work of Christ.

On one side is the legalistic/religious approach that takes the idea of truth and holiness to the extreme. It says that one must obey the truth and keep the rules/laws of God in order to be saved. On the other side is the relativistic/irreligious approach that takes the idea of love and grace too far. Believing that all are accepted by a loving God (if there is a God), they say that everyone has the right to follow their own sense of right and wrong.

The first approach emphasizes truth without grace. The second, grace without truth. But truth without grace is not really truth, and grace without truth is not really grace. However, the gospel is neither religion nor irreligion. The gospel is about a relationship to Jesus Christ who is “full of grace and truth.”

The gospel is good news that Jesus has already accomplished our salvation reconciling us to God and satisfying both His holiness and mercy. The true gospel hangs between the two gospel “thieves” offering two striking corrections:

  • “I am more accepted and loved than I ever dared hope.” (vs. legalism)
  • “I am more sinful and flawed than I ever dared believe.” (vs. relativism)

By believing and receiving the Person of Jesus Christ as both Savior and Lord, who is full of grace and truth, we rightly respond to the gospel and put away the two gospel “thieves.”

 

This is a reprint of my blog entry from April 5, 2013.

The upside-down, inside-out effect of the gospel

upsidedownworld“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17 ESV).

“Jesus answered him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God’” (John 3:3 ESV).

“And he said to all, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me’” (Luke 9:23 ESV).

The gospel is the good news that Christ died for our sins, was buried and rose from the grave, and that anyone that would believe this news would be saved. This news, like all news, is either believed or not. But unlike other news, believing it has a surprising effect…

… It turns our world upside-down.

Many of us misunderstand the gospel. We come to it evaluating whether it will be helpful, make us happier, or more successful. Like reading the latest best-selling, self-help book, we hope to follow the model of Jesus’ life that we see in the gospel as a kind of guide for living. Or we see the gospel as a kind of worthy addition to our investment portfolio, helping us to become more prosperous. But the gospel works according to a different economy.

When the rich young ruler came to Jesus asking what he “must do” to “inherit eternal life,” Jesus gave him some upside-down instructions. He essentially told him that since he was rich, he should become poor, since he was young and strong, he should become weak, and that since he was a ruler, he should become a follower. The young man went away disheartened. The gospel demanded too much. He had hoped to add the gospel to his worldly endeavors, but instead the gospel demanded his letting go of everything in order to follow Jesus.

The religious Pharisee, Nicodemus, had a similar experience. When he encountered Jesus, he was told that his religious heritage and birthright as a Jew was insufficient. He was told he had to be “born again.” The gospel challenged his religious approach that only worked on him from the outside-in, barely scratching the surface of his life and failing at any heart change. Jesus spoke to him of being born of the Spirit, of a gospel that would go to work on him on the inside. The gospel that Jesus described…

… turns our lives inside-out.

The gospel introduces us to a kingdom economy where addition takes place by subtraction, living begins with dying, and greatness comes from following and serving. As Jesus described the effect of responding to the gospel on our lives, he said that it would look like self denial, cross-carrying and following him.

This is the effect of the gospel, that it turns us upside-down and inside-out. And in so doing, the gospel puts everything in our upside-down world…

…right-side up again.

 

This article first appeared in my blog dated April 19, 2013.

Is my work sacred?

sweatbrow“Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ” (Colossians 3:23-24 ESV).

We have mistakenly divided our work today as either belonging to the sacred or the secular realm. We tend to identify the work of pastors, missionaries and other work done on behalf of the church as sacred. We view this as special work that is devoted to God. All other work is viewed as secular, or worldly work, as if it were somehow less important to God. This sacred/secular view of work is a misunderstanding of God’s intention for our work.

The apostle Paul rightly understood how all work is to be considered sacred when it is done from a heart that desires to glorify God. Whether he was making tents in the marketplace or preaching the gospel on Mars Hill, Paul viewed both as sacred work when done with a view of “serving the Lord Christ.” This is the view that needs to be preached from today’s pulpits.

How might we gain a proper theology of work to correct our view today? Here are a few biblical principles to consider:

1. God works. God is the Creator of all. The Scripture teaches that he worked for six days and then rested on the seventh day. After each day’s work God examined his results and declared them “good.” He was satisfied with His work. In John 5:17 Jesus said, “My Father is always working, and so am I.” God created all and then He sent His Son to do the work of redemption to save us from our sin.

2. God made us to work. Work is not the result of the Fall. It was part of God’s original plan. God designed Adam and Eve to do the work He had prepared for them. In Genesis 1:28, God said, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” They were to work at being parents, to govern the earth and the animals. Adam was instructed to “tend and keep” (Gen. 2:15) the garden. And God brought before him every animal that he might name them (Gen. 2:19). This naming was more than picking a name that had a nice ring to it. The language that Adam spoke was the one taught him from God. My thought is that it must’ve been so accurate as to put the exact picture in one’s mind when spoken. When Adam saw an elephant, the name would’ve been one carefully and scientifically considered, so that Eve would immediately know what he meant. The name captured the essence of the creature. God made us in His own image. He works and He made us to do work too.

3. Sin negatively affected our work. Work isn’t the result of the Fall, but it was certainly affected by it. Eve was designed to bear and nurture children as a partner to her husband. Her work was to continue, yet with sin’s curse it would be with pain, sorrow and unfulfilled desire (Gen. 3:16). Adam’s work to tend and keep the fields was to continue too. Yet, he would work by the “sweat of his brow” and the land would not yield to his authority as originally planned, offering up “thorns and thistles” when he planted grain (Gen. 3:17-19). The effect of sin on our work has led to two sinful attitudes concerning our work:

  • Laziness. We don’t want to work. We want comfort without effort. We see people who have nice things and we think they got lucky. So, we buy lottery tickets. We want what others have, so we steal. We get a victim mindset and feel that society owes us.
  • Workaholism. We put making money ahead of God and others. We work too much and rest too little. We eventually endanger our souls, our families and our health.

4. Work provides value for self and others. Work is God’s provision for us. He has given us the creation, but we must work in it to supply our needs. We are to work, so that we might have housing, clothes and food. The apostle Paul taught, “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thess. 3:10). We are to work as parents raising our families. Doing this work not only provides for our needs, it also has a moral impact on our identity and self esteem. We find meaning and pleasure in our work. We are able to join God in saying, “That was good.”

5. All work that glorifies God is sacred work. The word sacred is synonymous with the word “holy.” It means to be “set apart” for special use. Any work that we do for God’s glory and we use to provide a platform for the gospel is sacred work. This is why Bach used to sign his compositions with the letters S.D.G. (“Soli Deo Gloria” – “All glory to God alone”). Whether we work in a factory or on a farm, whether we work with our hands or our minds, we can do it with all our hearts unto Christ our Lord and give Him the glory for it.

6. God invites us to participate in His redemptive work in the world today. When we send missionaries to the field in a foreign land, they must learn the language and culture and they must find work to do, before they can even begin to share the gospel. They may work as teachers, doctors, nurses, businessmen, engineers, etc. But they view this work as a “platform” from which to share the gospel with others. We don’t have to be international missionaries to view our work as a platform for the gospel. We can be missionaries at home and do this too. Christ is looking for those who will join Him in His work. As Jesus said, “The harvest is great, but the workers are few. So pray to the Lord who is in charge of the harvest; ask him to send more workers into his fields” (Matt. 9:37-38). God invites us to not only pray this prayer, but to answer it with our participation in sharing the gospel through our work.

7. God has plans for our future work. Early retirement has become popular in modern times in the Western world. The accumulation of wealth has led to an expectation of living out our last days on earth in leisure. But rather than playing golf and fishing for the last 20 years of our days, what if we gave our “retirement years” to God? What if we took our Social Security checks, packed our bags, and started serving God full time at our churches, in our communities and around the world? Besides, when we graduate to heaven, that’s just the beginning of our work. Heaven isn’t an eternal retirement. It is a time of infinite joy when we may fully join the Father in His work. Why else do you think He says that, “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks” (Isaiah 2:4) in that future Day when Christ returns? Why else would we need “plowshares” and “pruning hooks,” if there wasn’t going to be more work to be done?

Is your work sacred? It is, if you are working with all your heart, not as for men, but as for Christ our Lord.

 

 

 

Is reconciliation required?

BrokenFriendshipWhat do we do when a relationship is fractured by an offense? How do we find forgiveness and reconciliation?

And what do we do when we are faced with the problem of the unrepentant offender that will not or has not reconciled to us.

We might even question God, saying, “Do I have to forgive them? Am I required to reconcile to them when they are unrepentant and still actively offending me?”

First, these are two separate issues. Forgiveness and reconciliation are not the same. Listen to the definitions of these two words (Paraphrased from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary):

Forgiveness – The state of having given up resentment or claim to requital from an offender. To have granted relief from payment or indebtedness by an offender.

Reconciliation – The act of causing two people or groups to become friendly again after an argument or disagreement. To have restored a friendship or partnership, so that harmony is regained.

With these definitions in mind, we may understand that the Bible offers different, yet related, instructions for forgiveness and reconciliation. Let’s restate the two questions, offering brief answers followed by biblical support:

  1. Is forgiveness of others required? Answer: Yes, always.
  2. Is reconciliation with others required? Answer: The attempt is required. The outcome is not.

Forgiveness is always required. When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray, he taught them to say, “And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Matthew 6:12). If we don’t forgive, how can we pray the way the Lord taught us? We can’t.

We are always to forgive because God has forgiven us. We forgive whether the offender asks for it or not. Forgiveness is drawn from the limitless supply given to us in Christ. As the apostle Paul told the Ephesians,

Ephesians 4:32 (ESV) Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.

Forgiveness is the grace that oils the grinding gears of our human relationships. It keeps us right with one another as Christ has made us right with God.

Reconciliation is to be attempted (Unless it is either unwise or impossible due to circumstance). The truth is, we can forgive someone without them even being in the same room. But it takes both parties sitting at the same table to reconcile. We should attempt to reconcile, but we cannot determine the response of the other party. The only outcome we can control is our own attempt at peace. As the apostle Paul told the Romans,

Romans 12:18 (NIV) If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.

What does an attempt at reconciliation look like? We have the teaching of Jesus to help us with this. He gave very specific instructions, I’m sure knowing that we would need it often. The following Scripture passage is often used by church leaders to help an offending member be reconciled, but a careful reading reminds us that it is addressed first to the one who was personally offended.

Matthew 18:15-22 (ESV) 15“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” 21Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.

Here is a summary of the steps Jesus taught for finding reconciliation with one who has offended us:

  1. Go privately to the person and name the offense. If you are reconciled, then you have found harmony again. This offense is not to be named again. But if not..
  2. Go again with a witness.The witness should come from your common fellowship (church, family, friends, etc.), showing that the offense affects a larger body of people. Notice, that the Lord is still advising us to limit the number of people that know about this. We are not trying to punish the offender by exposing his sin. We are trying to help him repent and be restored to fellowship. But if he will not repent and be restored…
  3. Tell it to a common fellowship (“Church” is the translation of “ekklesia,” which could also be translated “assembly”). If this does not involve a church member, perhaps the gathered assembly might be your family or circle of common friends. In this case, you are letting the others in your common fellowship know that the offender refuses to reconcile.
  4. Break fellowship with the unrepentant offender. You are basically allowing them to have what they have chosen. They have been made aware that continued offense without repentance and reconciliation has led to this break of fellowship. Now they are to be released. Yet, we must be ready to welcome them back, if they desire to return and repent.

Notice that all of these meetings are to be in person (Not texting, emailing, phoning, etc.) Notice again, that in verses 21-22 that Jesus taught us to forgive as many times as needed, but He did not teach that we have to stay in relationship with an unrepentant offender. Forgiveness is our Christian duty. We must always forgive. But sometimes we have to forgive without being able to reconcile.

Christ’s death and resurrection are God’s means of forgiveness for all of humanity, yet not everyone is reconciled to God. Many remain separated from Him. I’m sure that this grieves the heart of God because for His part, He has done all, in Christ, to make things right between us.

We are to be like God in this. We are to do all that we can to reconcile, but sometimes the only way to find peace is to let the person go their own way. Yet always praying for them that the possibility for reconciliation may someday come.

(I’m aware that this is a brief response to a very complicated issue. There are often extenuating circumstances that I did not address in this article.)

 

The greatest gift exchange

0829-leisure“For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23 NKJV).

Do you remember “leisure suits?”

My grandmother Combs used to buy a suit for all her grandsons every Christmas. She was a very smart shopper and would have most of her Christmas shopping finished for the following year’s holiday, by shopping the after-Christmas sales every year. She even kept a locked bedroom at her house that she called the “Christmas room,” because that’s where she kept next year’s presents, most of them already wrapped.

She carefully chose matching shirts, ties and socks to go with the suits and wrapped them separately, so that the ensemble was revealed in stages every Christmas. This progression was somewhat taxing for the grandsons because we were all anxious to open the gifts that might contain toys. Plus, she invariably insisted that we take a break and try the suits on, which always aroused sounds of young boy groanings and parental corrections.

Looking back, I understand why she wanted us to try them on. Buying suits for her growing grandsons required her to make an educated guess as to their annual growth rate. She made us try them on to see if she guessed right.

I invariably disappointed her. I was a late bloomer. I don’t think I grew much at all between the ages of 9 to 14. Every year, we had to exchange my suits because they were always too big. Then at age 15, I shot up eight inches in one year. I finally grew more than enough to wear my Christmas suit.

So, that was the year that she finally guessed right. It was also the year she decided to follow the new fashion trend of the ’70s. That year, she bought all the grandsons, polyester leisure suits (with matching wide ties and white belts of course).

And my leisure suit was yellow.

Because of her previous failings, she always included receipts, so I could exchange the suit. But there was no need for a gift exchange that year. Not only did the suit fit perfectly, but I was ready to do some “styling and profiling,” wearing that yellow suit with a fat tie, wide white belt, bell bottomed slacks and stacked heel shoes (Imagine the sound of BeeGees’ disco music playing in the background here).

It’s fun to remember Christmases gone by, with stories of yellow leisure suits and gifts we received from our parents and grandparents. But remembering those past Christmas times exchanging gifts that didn’t fit, reminds me that the greatest gift exchange of all has been offered by God through Christ.

Christ offers to exchange our…

  • …sins for His righteousness. The apostle Paul wrote, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Christ took our sin and offers His righteousness to us.
  • …separation for His Sonship. On the cross Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). In that moment, Christ experienced our separation from God the Father. He took this in exchange, offering His relationship as Son to us. As the gospel according to John said, “Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12).
  • …death for His eternal life. Our need for this exchange is explained by the apostle Paul in Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” This death that Jesus died in our place is further explained in Hebrews, “But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (Hebrews 2:9). This is the great gift of God! That in His mercy, Christ died our death, so that we might receive His life!

This Christmas, may our focus be less on what gifts we need to exchange from under the tree, and more about the greatest gift exchange that is offered because of the Cross.

Have you received the greatest gift exchange?

Why we’re doing “Rockin’ Christmas”

Rockin' Christmas“All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’” (which means, God with us)” (Matthew 1:22-23 ESV).

Some have been wondering why we’re doing an event that has such a secular feel to it. With a promotional title like “WCC’s Rockin’ Christmas,” a tagline saying, “A Holiday Experience That Will Rock Your World,” and well, the program itself, that begins with secular Christmas music and feels so performance driven… Some are saying, “This doesn’t feel at all like church!”

Our answer: It’s not supposed to feel like church.

We’re not trying to reach “church people.” We’re trying to invite people who celebrate Christmas, but don’t go to church. We want this event to be something that WCCers can invite their family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers to as a gift to them at Christmas. We promise that they will hear Christmas music that is both popular and familiar, all presented with excellence. We hope to entertain and inspire. But most of all, we hope to offer them the greatest gift of all…

… a clear presentation of the gospel within the Christmas story.

Which, by the way, includes the reality that God sent His Son as Immanuel (God with us). Christ Jesus left the eternal worship service taking place in heaven and came to us. He revealed the Father to us by becoming one of us. He communicated the love of the Father to us in a language we could understand. So, now we’re hoping to communicate the love of Christ to our community in a language that they can understand.

Our “Rockin’ Christmas” event is our way of offering the true gift of Christmas to our community. So, when you’re thinking about who to invite, consider that person who celebrates Christmas, but doesn’t go to church. That’s who this event is really hoping to touch.

Whose birthday is it?

gold_frankincense_myrhh“And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh” (Matthew 2:11 ESV).

When I asked the children at a Sunday service, “Who gets gifts on your birthday?” Their answer was a loud, “I do!”

Then I asked them, “Since Christmas is the birthday of Jesus, who should get gifts?”

They shouted in response, “Jesus!” The logic was inescapable even for a child.

The gospel according to Matthew reported that Magi came bearing gifts for Jesus. These men were probably Persian or Babylonian wise men, students of the stars and of ancient Middle Eastern writings. Perhaps they had access to the writings of Moses, that king Nebuchadnezzer of Babylon had acquired when he conquered Israel and looted the Jewish temple. Maybe the Babylonian wisemen who were their forefathers had been saved by Daniel’s interpretation of Nebuchadnezzer’s dream and ever since, the Magi had been students of the Hebrew writings which we call the Old Testament.

Certainly, there is a prophecy concerning a coming king found in the Torah that said a “star will come out of Jacob” and a “scepter will rise out of Israel” (Numbers 24:17). If the Magi were students of these writings, the appearance of a new star over Israel would have led them to conclude that the prophesied Messianic King had arrived.

It seems ironic that these foreigners would travel to the land of the people of the Book looking for a prophesied king, when those to whom the Book and the King truly belonged, failed to recognize his arrival. The Magi traveled a great distance bearing gifts while the people of God went about their daily business unaware of the significance of the season. The Magi brought Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh while the people of faith brought him nothing.

As people of faith today we often make the same oversight. We get caught up in the busyness of Christmas and forget to acknowledge the one for whom the season exists. It doesn’t have to be this way. We can offer Jesus the same three gifts that the Magi did centuries ago.

We can offer Jesus the gift of gold. Gold is a gift fit for a king. We can acknowledge Jesus as the King, the Lord of our lives. We can give him the gift of gold. How? Jesus said if you’ve done it for the “least of these,” then you’ve done it for him. We can show that Jesus is king over our possessions by giving to the “least of these” this Christmas. We can submit to Christ as Lord and King over our time, talent and treasure.

We can offer Jesus the gift of frankincense.  Frankincense is a gift fit for a priest. This aromatic resin was highly valued. The odoriferous substance was used throughout the Jewish temple as a main ingredient in the holy anointing oil, and was burned with the meat offering. Giving Jesus the gift of frankincense means that we acknowledge him as our divine priest, the one who mediates between God and men. We can recognize Jesus as the only mediator between God and humanity.

We can offer Jesus the gift of myrrh. Myrrh is a gift fit for a savior. Like frankincense this resinous exudate was prized for its aromatic qualities. While it had many uses it was especially known as a medicine to relieve pain and a spice employed to prepare the dead for burial. When we offer Jesus the gift of myrrh we recognize that he himself is our sin sacrifice and accept him as our Savior.

Christmas is the season when we celebrate that God “so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.” It is also the season when we can acknowledge God’s gift by giving back to him. Wise men and women still offer him gifts fit for a King, a Priest, and a Savior.

Will you include Jesus on your gift list this year? After all, it is His birthday.

Is your Bible gathering dust?

DustyBible“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).

Where’s your Bible? Have you picked it up lately? If you find it, does it have an inch of dust and a couple of water-rings on it where you’ve been using it as a coaster?

“No way!” You say. “I’d never abuse the Bible like that. I keep it in the box it came in when my grandmother gave it to me for graduation. Look, it’s got my name on the front and it still has that new Bible smell.”

Here’s the thing. The Word of God is not the leather binding. It’s not the gold-gilded tissue thin paper. It’s not even the ink (whether black or red). The Bible is not a magical charm to be held up in the air to claim health, wealth and prosperity. Nor is it a talisman to put under your pillow to ward off nightmares and such.

Listen to what C. H. Spurgeon said about the right way to handle God’s Word:

“What is the right way, then, to handle the Word of Truth? It is like a sword, and it was not meant to be played with. That is not rightly to handle the Gospel; it must be used in earnest and pushed home. Are you converted, my Friends? Do you believe in Jesus Christ? Are you saved, or not? Swords are meant to cut and hack, wound and kill—and the Word of God is for pricking men in the heart, and killing their sins. The Word of God is not committed to God’s ministers to amuse men with its glitter, nor to charm them with the jewels in its hilt, but to conquer their souls for Jesus Christ!” – C. H. Spurgeon

The Word of God must be read and heard to have its effect on us. When we read and study the Bible it comes to life in us through the power of the Holy Spirit. It is no longer a dry, dusty book. It is “living and active.”

There are four steps that we can follow to experience its “living and active” effect on our lives:

  • Observation. Open and read the Bible asking questions like: who, what, when, where and how. Write down your observations.
  • Illumination. Ask the Lord to give you light to understand what He is saying. It is His Word, not ours. We don’t want our own multiple interpretations. We want His. Not, “this is what it means to me,” but “thus saith the Lord.”
  • Interpretation. After observing and meditating on God’s word for illumination. Write down what the text meant in the time period and setting it was written. Then, write down the timeless principles that you see emerging.
  • Application. Ask, “How does this apply to me and what changes do I need to make in my life?” This is where the Bible gets its nickname, “The Sword.” Perhaps if the author of Hebrews were writing today, he would have called it a “scalpel,” because God’s Word works like a surgical instrument to reveal and excise sin in our lives.

So, get those Bibles out, blow off the dust, find a quiet corner and read. Ask God to speak to you today.

Visiting the orphan with gospel hope

13

Visiting a Child Development Center in Kisoro, Uganda

“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27 ESV).

This coming Sunday is “Orphan Sunday.” Our church is joining churches around the country by setting apart the first Sunday in November to focus on the plight of the orphan. However, every Sunday could easily be considered “Orphan Sunday,” since we were all once fatherless until we were adopted into the Father’s family.

John Piper calls the doctrine of adoption, the “heart of the gospel.” He sees caring for orphans as an appropriate outworking of the gospel’s work in us.

I think this is what the apostle James meant when he spoke of “religion that is pure and undefiled.” James mentions religion not in the usual sense to describe it as false, but true religion, a religion that is “faith with works.” Perhaps one of the clearest expressions that the gospel has indeed done its work in us, is that we are doing the work of the Father for the fatherless.

But what does it mean to “visit” the orphan with gospel hope? The Greek word translated “visit” is ἐπισκέπτεσθαι (ep-ee-skep’tes-thai). The great Greek scholar, A.T. Robertson, described it as a “common verb meaning to go to see, to inspect, to have a care for, to have the habit of going to see.”

Understanding the word, “visit,” in the context of gospel hope, implies at least three actions:

  1. We can see their affliction as God saw ours. We can open our eyes to the plight of the fatherless in our world just as God saw our affliction. According to a recent UNICEF report there are 210 million orphans in the world. Much of them in Africa where AIDS has orphaned 1 in 5 children. We must stop turning a blind eye and take notice of their need. We can look without turning away because Christ did not turn away from our distress.
  2. We can go to them as God came to us. Certainly “visiting” means not only to open our eyes to their need, but also to go and be with them. God didn’t just see us, He sent Jesus, Immanuel, to be “God with us.” Christ left the glory and riches of heaven to be with us. We must be willing to leave our place of comfort to be with them. In his book, Orphanology, my friend Tony Merida speaks of the impact of going to be with the fatherless: “A burden for orphans often develops by simple exposure to them. If you hold an orphan or visit an orphan, or watch an adopted child grow up in a loving family, then I believe your heart will be moved with compassion.”
  3. We can care for them as God has cared for us. God didn’t leave us as orphans. He made a way through faith in Christ for our adoption as His children. As Jesus said, “I will not leave you as orphans” (John 14:18). We are all called to care for the orphan as Christ cares for us.

What does caring for orphans look like? It depends on how God moves your heart. But be sure of this, God’s heart is for the fatherless and when our hearts are attuned to His, our hearts will beat in rhythm. Here are a few ways you might care for the orphans in our world:

  • Consider adoption. There are 130,000 children available for adoption in the US.
  • Go to visit them with us locally. We partner with the Baptist Children’s Homes, specifically the Kennedy Hope in Kinston, NC.
  • Go to visit them with us internationally. We partner with Caroline’s Promise for our work in Guatemala. We partner with Amazing Grace Adoptions for our work in Uganda. Go with us next summer.
  • Sponsor an international child. We partner with Caroline’s Promise and Compassion to help sponsor at-risk children. For around $35 a month, you can change a child’s life.
  • Pray for the fatherless and the widow. Find out the facts. See the need. Lift up specific prayers to the Father.
  • Give to an adoption fund. Help prospective parents pay the high costs of adoption. Help us set up a fund at our church to help others adopt.

I have seen the face of the fatherless. I have looked into their eyes. They are no longer nameless and faceless. The gospel hope within me moves me to share it with them. Join us.

Let’s visit the orphan with gospel hope.

“My” church vs. “His” church thinking

WCC Ribbon Cutting Day 043011“I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord!” (Psalm 122:1 ESV).

As Americans, we are so accustomed to having things our own way that it should come as no surprise that we bring this way of thinking into the church. We tend to approach church attendance and church membership with an eye towards what will most benefit us. When we find a church that seems to meet all of our family’s needs, it’s not long before we begin to refer to it is “my church.”

Now this use of the personal possessive pronoun is not really a problem unless we forget that the church is “His church” as well as ours. For the church is not the steeple, it’s the people. It is the body of Christ of which He is the head and we are the members. So, the church is surely ours, but it is also, first of all, His.

Those who grow to understand this “both/and” thinking, that the church is both Christ’s and ours, begin to approach church differently. Here are a few marks of those with this understanding:

  • They bring their worship with them. They come prepared to give their tithes and offerings and to sing His praises and hear His Word. They are “glad” and prepared to go to His house.
  • They serve one – attend one. At WCC we offer three Sunday morning services, making it possible to attend one worship service and volunteer during another.
  • They arrive early. They don’t want to cause a disruption in the children’s classes or the adult worship, so they arrive early to worship and/or to serve in their respective ministries.
  • They leave the best parking for guests. They don’t park near the front door for their own convenience. Rather, they leave the best parking for guests.
  • They check their children into the Reel Deal and Nursery. They are aware that the children’s services are designed for children from the crib to the 5th grade. They are also aware that bringing children into the adult worship can be a distraction. They would never want to cause a seeker or guest to miss hearing the gospel because of a crying baby or disruptive toddler.
  • They take the seats down front. They want to encourage the worship band and the pastor, so they fill in the seats down front. They also want to be as close to the action as possible because they are enthusiastic for worship. (Exception: unless they have to leave early to serve in VIP or other ministries, then they sit in the back to avoid disruption.)
  • They leave the back seats for guests. They recognize that first-timers may feel nervous when they are looking for seats, so they leave the back seats for them. Members should find seats near the front and be willing to fill in the rows without taking all the aisle seats. They would never think of crawling under or taking down the back seat ropes.
  • They turn off their cell phones. They are careful to avoid disruptions, especially during the sermon.
  • They follow the “3-Minute Rule.” After the worship service, they spend at least the first 3 minutes talking to someone they don’t know before hanging out with their usual friends. They want our guests to feel welcome.
  • They make an effort to talk to our Hispanic members. They overcome the language and cultural barrier between our English and Spanish speaking members by reaching out to one another.
  • They always thank our volunteers. When they pick up their children from the nursery and Reel Deal they always thank them for taking care of their kids. They are thankful to our ushers, greeters, coffee shop workers, etc. They want their fellow WCCers to feel encouraged.
  • They hang out before leaving. They spend a little time in the foyer greeting others before rushing away.
  • They have a “Kingdom-focus” rather than a “me-focus.” They do not think of what the church should be doing to serve them better. Instead, they are constantly aware that they are the church and that they want to see God’s kingdom come, rather than their own.

These are a few of the marks of those who recognize the tension between “my church” vs. “His church” thinking. The beauty for those who put “His church” thinking first is that their own needs are not left unmet. In fact, focusing on His kingdom ahead of ours, we discover that our own needs are met along the way.

Can you think of other marks of those who recognize the church as “His” church first?