Monday, February 9, 2015

PRACTICAL ATHEISM

I have often associated Psalm 14:1 with outright atheism. “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds, there is none who does good.” In its ancient context, however, virtually everyone professed some kind of religion. The author's point was not what we claim to believe about God, but how our actions reveal our hearts. If I profess faith but act in an abominable, corrupt way, in that moment I live as though God were dead. For the average American—and every Christian—practical unbelief is far more common than outright atheism, and in some ways even more insidious.

TWO MARKS OF AN EVILDOER

In Psalm 14, the writer observes two marks of evildoers. “Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers who eat up my people as they eat bread and do not call upon the Lord?”

Evildoers are marked by their zeal to take advantage of others. They eagerly profit at others' expense. It is especially vile to “feed on” God's people, who are often the poorest of the poor, and who have a special right to his protection. Evil hearts look at others hungrily, like bread to be chewed. In contrast, believers feel a loving impulse toward their neighbors, whom we see as divine image bearers. We view the saints as God's chosen people, sheep to be specially cared for—not fleeced and butchered.

A second mark of evildoers is that they do not call on the Lord in sincerity. They withhold the honor God deserves in prayer and worship, and look elsewhere for their needs. Believers, however, have an impulse to call on the Lord. We pray regularly to the Father through Christ as our protector, provider, and king. We come to him in the Spirit, presenting our needs and cares, and praising him for his unchangeable attributes, promises, and gifts.

Whatever you once were, believer, you are no longer an evildoer. Paul says, “such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor 6:11). In Jesus, you have received true knowledge. Knowing God leads you to put away selfish ambition so that you can seek the welfare of others. From now on treat your neighbors as subjects of mercy, not objects for exploitation. Through the cross we have welcome access to the Giver of every good gift. Call on him daily, trusting the Spirit to enable you for prayer and worship. You have been marked for godliness.

Friday, January 16, 2015

What to do when you’re stumped

Depending on the church, pastors receive dozens of questions every week (or day!) about the Bible, practical life, and everything imaginable. The flood only increases as technology makes it easier to fire off questions at all hours to the minister. At 2:00 AM his phone blinks, “Where does the bible say about…?” Of course, it’s natural to want our concerns to be addressed by whomever seems most qualified. Your pastor probably wishes he could address them all with equal attention! Unfortunately, no one person can tackle all that comes up in a given week.

I want to recommend a course of action for when you feel stumped, one that will grow the whole congregation and free your pastor(s) to address the hardest questions:

1. Puzzle a little
When faced with a hard question, go ahead and prayerfully puzzle over it. Take fifteen minutes, perhaps with a sheet of paper and your Bible (software that allows for searching can be useful here) and try to work it out. God often blesses the extra effort he enables. You might be surprised with unexpected insight or sudden recollection of his Word.

2. Ask those closest to you
Still at a loss? Go to your believing friends and family and ask them. There may be enough knowledge among you to construct an answer. Christians need this kind of mutual exercise. Besides, it can be enjoyable to work it out together. 

3. Ask an elder or respected layperson
Still puzzled? Go to one of your church elders and ask him. These men are specially called to address common issues of Christian life and are spiritually gifted to teach on a personal level (1 Tim 3:2; 2 Tim 2:24; Tit 1:9). Your elders might already know the answer, and if not they are willing to search it out. If you’re a woman (and depending on your question) you might prefer to go to one of the more advanced ladies in your church. Older women are expected to instruct younger women (Tit 2:3-5). If in doubt, she might go to an elder for you.

This step is important. At times you might be disappointed with the answers of elders and other members. Going straight to the pastor, however, defrauds these brothers and sisters of their God-appointed opportunity to exercise their gifts and roles—or to realize they need more exercise!

4. Ask the pastor
By now you probably have the answer you were seeking. If you are still unsatisfied, now is a good time to ask the pastor. Let him know who you asked beforehand and he will be all the more eager to lend a hand in cracking the nut.

Remember, the point is not just to free up time for the pastor. It’s to allow maximum opportunities for the church to mature. We need to personally search the Scriptures and to exercise ourselves in helping others. The pastor isn’t seeking more time for himself. He wants to maximize the time he spends on the hardest cases and he wants the whole congregation to grow in their knowledge and ability.

By Michael Spotts:. 2015
Feel free to share. Please give credit.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Two Essential Duties for Bearing Much Fruit

Jesus once said he wanted all believers to “bear much fruit” (Jn 14:8) The “fruit” he had in mind is essentially to express attitudes and actions that accord with the Spirit who lives within every believer. Now perhaps you judge yourself pretty barren, stuck on an ever-inclining treadmill of cynicism about the Christian life. You doubt you will ever progress to the point of having “much fruit.” At the start of the new year, I wish to remind you of a key part of fruitfulness.

Bearing spiritual fruit is something like farming. When a farmer sets out to raise a crop he knows certain things are beyond his power. Only God can provide sun and rain. The Lord secretly determines which seeds germinate and then causes them to blossom and ripen. On the other hand, God has empowered the farmer to use certain means. He also holds the farmer accountable to use them in faith. Harvest hinges as much on the farmer's tilling and sowing, watering and fertilizing, as it does on the sun and rain. If the farmer does his duties poorly, we say he is unskilled or negligent. But if he forsakes them entirely, we have reason to question whether he’s a farmer at all, or just a man wearing overalls.

In a similar way, there are aspects of sanctification that stand entirely beyond our responsibility. But God also empowers and commands us to apply ourselves toward certain duties. If you do them in faith, the Lord of the Harvest promises to increase your crop. As Jesus said, “Some will bear thirty, some sixty, and some one-hundred fold.” If you do them poorly, you should expect your yield to be smaller.  Just as with the farmer who never farms, the professing Christian who forsakes his duties for seasons on end should seriously ponder his place among God's servants.

What duties are necessary to bearing much fruit? In John 15, Jesus taught two in particular. Bearing “much fruit” requires that we abide in Christ’s love and keep his commands. Neither can be omitted. Without abiding in his love our “fruits” will be rotten with legalism. Without obedience to God's commands, our only produce will be thorns fit for the fire. Also beware overdoing the organic metaphor. Both abiding and obeying must be done intentionally, and will not simply happen by “letting go.” Such an approach works for cultivating weeds but little else! At times abiding and obeying can feel like arduous exertions of the will. But they come from a will that has been regenerated by the Spirit and are therefore acts of faith, not dead works.

Let us consider what it means to abide in Jesus' love. “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love” (Jn 14:9). We abide in his love by taking permanent shelter and finding present comfort in the love he showed toward his flock all his life, but especially at the cross. His life and death express a love freely given, not based on our own goodness but on his generous mercy. Moreover, abiding in Jesus' love means trusting the Father loves us and is completely satisfied with us—not because of our own works—but on account of Jesus' perfect work on our behalf (cf. Tit 3:3-8). “Father, you love them even as you love me” (Jn 17) What we see in the Son is an expression of the Father. As we abide in love our fruits will stem organically from spirit of sonship, gratitude, and freedom in Christ.

Second, we can bear fruit only as we keep Jesus' commands. “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love” (Jn 15:10) Do not be mistaken; your obedience is not a pre-condition for being loved by the Father, but it does evidence your membership in God's family, and the reality of your conversion by the Spirit. Simply put, a lifestyle of daily-renewed obedience is characteristic of all who abide in his love. “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me.” (Jn 14:15)

This teaching is not meant to undermine your sense of assurance, but to strengthen it. Where did this desire to renew your pursuit of holiness come from, if not from the Spirit who dwells in you? The Spirit is conforming you to the Son's image, compelling you from within to live as a son or daughter of the Father. The Spirit of Christ leads us to abide and obey “just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love” (Jn 15:10).

If both of these duties are part of your life, you are welcome to lay hold of a very special promise: “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish and it will be done for you” (Jn 15:7). Of course, “whatever” doesn’t mean just anything. The context is fruitfulness. Worldly people wish for the things of the world, but believers wish more and more to bear fruits of the Spirit for the Father's glory.

The promise is not automatic, but is received through asking. That means ongoing, steadfast, believing prayer. Do not expect to bear much fruit if you approach your Father in unbelief of his goodness and faithfulness. After assuring us that God “gives generously to all without reproach,” James tells us to “ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.” (Jas 1:5-7) The key to overcoming doubt in prayer is to look away from the quantity of your faith, and to focus on the quality of the One who made the promises. Every promise is “yes and amen” in Christ Jesus (2 Cor 1:20).

Look at this new year as a fresh season to bear fruit. Apply yourself in faith to the duties he commands, abiding and obeying in reliance on the Spirit. Don't lose heart. Pray without ceasing, holding onto the promise that “whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (Jn 14:13). Now I leave you with these words from the apostle Paul:
“Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal 6:7-10).

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Writing the Last Page of Your Life

If you are like me, you think about death, the decisive event and what comes next, more than you think about the actual process of dying. Perhaps death is easier to consider than dying because the final state is so unlike anything we have known. We might entertain great expectations of the afterlife, or we don’t expect consciousness to continue at all. The act of dying, however, the actual process of ceasing to live, falls more uncomfortably within our scope of imagination. The closer we come to it, the more unsettling it can seem and the less we might want to consider it. Still, we should think about dying. If not for ourselves than for others. Why? Because no one sees where you go; what they witness is how you went.

Some people are snatched from life suddenly, by car accidents or the like. In reality, you and I are more likely to depart this life over a period of weeks or months. It is a near certainty, albeit an unpleasant one, that your dying days will be anticipated and witnessed by others. Why does it matter? Because, contrary to intuition, long after our friends and families have adjusted to the practicalities of our death, the thought that will often return to their minds and shape their experience will be the manner of our dying.

The state of the deceased at the time of their departure is of great concern to those who remain. Did they go in peace or in misery? Did they have hope or dread? Did they make amends, best as possible, with God and men? Suppose a traveler boards a boat to a far-off land. If he is joyful and confident in the moment of last embrace, he gives a buoyant impression to those he leaves behind. They might never see him again, but somehow they feel more assured he's on an adventure. What if their last sight of him, however, is the weeping of an exile or one fearful of shipwreck? A certain sorrow will always color their sense of his absence. How much more, our dying farewell matters to those whom we leave on the shore of this present mortality.

Think of your life as a book. If you had to guess the end by what is written so far, what conclusion should you expect? Will you go with calm resolution, with hope of better things “ever after”? Or shall the curtains close on a wretched face, the last act of a tragedy? Do not be mistaken. When the final chapter of your life stops mid-sentence, there will be readers. Family or friends, nurses or jailers—eyes will be upon the last page of your life, and what will be written there? Will your last words sputter hatred for the brevity and pain of it all? Will your silence express a trembling over what comes next? Or shall your conclusion convey peace surpassing all understanding, a faith that testifies unmistakably to heavenly reality?

It is a good rule, if not a strict one: people die as they have lived. If you have walked with God and have known peace in Christ now, you can expect an increase in his presence then. If you have “made every effort to confirm your calling and election, you will be abundantly supplied with a grand entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet 1:10-11). The door of paradise will swing open to reveal beyond doubt that “it is far better to depart and be with Jesus.” For those secure in the Gospel, dying is coronation day. The night of death can bring knighthood in the faith, as the Spirit touches the Sword of the Word to each shoulder and dresses the saint with a mantle of unshakable assurance.

Having said this, I would be unfaithful and cruel if I held back what Scripture and personal experience have to say about those who live inconsistent and unbelieving lives. Like pots in the kiln, our final moments tend to solidify the form of our lives rather than change it. Do not be deceived about last-minute conversions. They happen, but there is no reason to assume it will happen for you. Rather, those who shun God’s company on the path of life rarely wish for his friendship at death’s bed. If you shuffled through life in bondage to sin and self-righteousness, death’s grip will most likely clamp the fetters you spent years forging for yourself. If you lived in darkness, shunning the light of God's face and neglecting the means he provides to nurture faith and increase fruits of the Spirit, expect to go baren into death. Why should you expect otherwise? It is a rare miracle for a farmer to reap other than what he has sown. Those who sow to the flesh, rooting themselves ever deeper in this passing world, reap thorns in the hour of harvest.

I encourage you to deal honestly with the inescapable fact of your dying. God has spoken in the Word, and his message is clear. Death is not natural to mankind. It is a consequence, a penalty, for having broken his perfect law of love. We have all acted contrary to his good will. Our conscience witnesses against us: “none is righteous, no, not one.” Do not be deceived, no amount of “positive feelings” or good deeds can alter the truth. In the court of our exalted Creator, self-will is idolatry and every sin is an atrocity against the divine glory meriting death. The wages of sin is death and separation from God's holy presence. Now all that remains for sinners is a dreadful expectation of judgment. If the Lord cast out the angels who sinned, how much more will he cast away those who follow their arrogant example, after having been warned?

Only the good news of the Gospel is sufficient to prepare us to face death with genuine hope. Believers rest in the knowledge that God entered among us as a man, grabbed hold of death like a snake, and removed its fangs. The Son of God lovingly submitted himself to death, going like a lamb to the slaughter, to bear the wrath due for our sin at the cross. The promise held out to us is that Jesus accomplished everything necessary to ensure salvation for his flock, and that this promise belongs to everyone who believes on him. His death is our death. His glorious resurrection guarantees our future resurrection to bodily life.

When faith ripens into firm hope, it colors our dying with vivid light from the life to come. The Christian's peaceful passing can become the final, and sometimes the fullest testimony to our confidence in Christ. By this means, many who never quite found the words to articulate their faith during life were able to speak powerfully to those who beheld their death. Their last confession became their best and ministered most. May God help you prepare to write the last page of your life, not only for yourself only, but for those who will read it.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Worthwhile work

I don't speak for everyone at Oceanside United Reformed Church, but as a deacon there I'm happy to report that Oceanside URC sustained its request at Classis to re-particularize. Lots to be done for that to actually happen (hopefully by years' end) but the news is a refreshing answer to many prayers. I'm taking time to give thanks, both to God and those he enabled (and inclined) to labor for our restoration. It's been a difficult few years but "joy comes after weeping."

Preserving God's visible church is, well, work, work, work, especially for officers. Thankfully, he sustains us. In all our labors we should have no doubt about the value of our service and moreover the wages we accrue before God. We will be better compensated in heaven for each week of service to God's church than whatever the world could pay us for a lifetime of earthly toil. For Christ's sake, the Father is even gracious to overpay our imperfect but heartfelt faithfulness. These meager efforts will be rewarded with treasures, eternal and unimaginable, superior to anything we yet know. Plug away, brother and sisters. He is worthy.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Right Way to Want Justice Against Persecutors

In light of the increased persecution of Christians in Iraq, lately I find myself identifying with the imprecatory Psalms. You know, the ones that go, “God, knock out the teeth of the wicked!” Did you know, modern Mosul in Iraq is the same place as ancient Nineveh in the book of Jonah? Like many today, Jonah was deeply offended at the idea of God—or anyone—showing compassion to a group of murderers known for violence against God’s people. Were he alive today, I imagine Jonah would call for immediate airstrikes against all Islamic strongholds. He thought it better to wipe whole cities off the map, cattle and all.

While acknowledging that murderers deserve strict justice, I ask you the same question put to Jonah. Would you be offended if God spared the lives of ISIS from military overthrow? What if God granted these butchers long lives full of relative happiness? “Do you have a good reason to be angry?” God asked Jonah (4:4). He leaves the question hanging in verse 11:
“Should I not pity... that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”
The thing is, any reason we use to argue against God’s compassion on Nineveh (or ISIS) eventually comes back against us. If we say, “God cannot be compassionate because they are too evil,” well, who decides the limits of God’s compassion? Scripture says God would be justified in damning all of us right now if he only acted on the principle of strict justice.

Besides, in some ways jihadists are more ignorant than ourselves. Having grown up in a backwards, Islamic world, they “don’t know their right hand from their left” (4:11). We sin against greater light, so in some respects our “smaller” sins are worse than theirs.

God was teaching Jonah—and us—the lesson that Christ taught his disciples: “Whatever measure you use will be meeted back to you,” (Luke 7:2). The standard you use to judge others will be used against you.

In terms of social justice, there is “a time to kill” (Eccl 3:3). God appoints authorities specifically to wield the sword of justice, especially against murderers (Rom 13:4, Gen 9:5). Justice is glorious and we pray for it. Still, mercy is more glorious and God is free to give it to whomever he wills:
“What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Rom 9:14-16).
If God intervenes to show compassion on sinners—even ISIS—let us be careful not to measure in such a way as suggests we are anything but debtors to mercy. We should want justice because it is good, not because we measure up to it. We should want justice in the same way a criminal who turns himself in wants it, trembling and praying for mercy.

Jesus warned that, “because wickedness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold.” My greatest concern for the church during times of increased persecution is not how many will be martyred, but that so much spilled blood will be allowed to extinguish our sense of compassion towards our killers. Grief and vengeance can blind our sense of mission at the moment when the gospel of free compassion is most desperately needed. At times like this we need to be most careful to guard our hearts from roots of bitterness. “For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy, but mercy triumphs over judgment,” (Jas 2:13).