In, But not Of the World…

Recently, a representative from a secular organization working to address poverty approached Felton Bible Church asking to use the church’s facility space in order to host a community meeting.  The individual who came was courteous and respectful, and the request was certainly reasonable.  Unfortunately, the organization he represented was not one with whom FBC could partner, even through something as seemingly benign as allowing the use of our space.  Below is FBC’s response to the request (with names redacted, so as not to make this post inflammatory or otherwise inappropriate):

 

January 7, 2019

NAME,

Thank you for stopping by yesterday morning at Felton Bible Church.  You are welcome anytime.  Thank you also for the question about using our space for a meeting of the ORGANIZATION. Unfortunately, we cannot offer our space as a meeting place for the ORGANIZATION’s gathering in Felton.  I apologize in advance for the length of this response. What follows is my effort to respect you and your request by giving a thoughtful and considered answer.

At the outset, let me affirm what I see as our areas of common concern, and common cause.  First, we share a common concern for the flourishing of human life and human community. Poverty – especially poverty that results from systematic injustices and exploitation – is a pernicious blight on our society.  Like you, we share a concern to see such poverty addressed.  Like you, and even through your efforts, we are challenged to consider how we should be part of working to encounter and address poverty.

Second, we share the ORGANIZATION’s emphasis on morality. We applaud the choice to frame such an effort in moral terms, taking seriously words like “good” and “evil.” Doing so evidences a commendable sensitivity to core issues.

But, beyond these areas of common concern, FBC’s understanding of the world, its problems, and the solution to those problems is markedly different than the ORGANIZATION.  Our differences are substantial; substantial enough that we cannot make common cause with the ORGANIZATION itself.  Let me see if I can explain by first briefly describing the Gospel, and then by describing our view of the common concerns noted above – poverty and morality:

The Gospel – At Felton Bible Church, we give ourselves to the worship of God who made all people; God whose being, character, purposes, and work are revealed to us, and for us, in the Bible.  The Bible’s testimony is one of God’s gracious and loving work to free human beings from the terrible consequence of our sin; our rebellion against him.  That consequence is, ultimately, impending judgment in Hell, the very definition of “death.”  God accomplished this work by sending his Son, Jesus Christ – who was God himself born as a human being – to live the life of perfect obedience we cannot live, and to die on a Roman cross to pay the debt of sin we cannot pay. This account of God and his work of love on our behalf we know as “The Gospel,” or “good news.”  Felton Bible Church exists to enjoy God in love by worshipping him.  We exist to share the Gospel with all who will hear, inviting them into a life of following and worshipping Jesus Christ.  This is what makes us “Christians.”

Poverty – Now, poverty (as we understand it), and especially poverty that stems from systemic injustice and the exploitation of others, is first and foremost an issue of sin. This does not mean that all poor people are poor because they are sinners.  Not at all!  Rather, poverty arises because we live in a world broken by sin, inhabited by people enslaved to sin and Satan.  Indeed, we who follow Christ are nothing more (nor less) than former slaves rescued by Jesus from bondage to our own sin – to its presence in our lives; to its consequences, now and in eternity; and to the first sinner, namely Satan.  Therefore, we view the “fight” against poverty as a matter of Gospel work.  It is a matter of introducing people to the God who created them, who loves them in Jesus Christ, and who offers them the blessing of being his child.  This work includes demonstrating that love in tangible ways, by doing what we can to address physical realities and physical needs in this life now.

Morality – Let me borrow from my online Webster’s dictionary by defining “morality” as “conformity to ideals of right human conduct.”  Morality is the decision, the choice, the effort to do what is right, and reject what is wrong.  Our ability to talk in moral terms depends on the reality of truth; truth that defines that which is “right” and that which is “wrong,” that which is “good” and that which is “bad.”  There can be no such thing as “morality” apart from “truth.”  Among the members of Felton Bible Church, we know that God is the source of all truth.  That which is “true,” is that which conforms to his character and commands; that which reflects his love, his justice, his joy, and even his righteous anger over sin. God describes himself for us in his Word to us, the Bible.  For this reason, we look to the Bible in order to discover God’s truth and then live our lives accordingly.  Any fight against poverty that is really concerned for morality must begin with truth. It must begin with God and God’s Word.

Flowing from the Gospel, we at Felton Bible Church have a strategy for fighting poverty, though I freely admit the ongoing challenge of actually living it out.  Our strategy is first to believe the Gospel ourselves and follow Jesus as his disciples. Then, we seek to live in loving, generous unity with one another in the church, wisely giving of ourselves, our time, and our resources wherever and whenever we can, as God leads and provides. Finally, we want to overflow in generosity outside the walls of our building, and beyond the relational boundaries of our community – again, as God leads and provides.  This can and should happen in a thousand different ways, according to the individual life contexts and work given to us by God.  This strategy is, as I understand it, decidedly different than the strategy advocated and employed by the ORGANIZATION.

Let me note here that differences in “strategy” alone will not always preclude our making common cause in areas of social good alongside organizations with whom we disagree.  But, as I review the information you provided this morning, and further information available via the pertinent webpages, I find cause for concern.  It seems to me that both the ORGANIZATION generally, and the LOCAL chapter specifically (under the umbrella of the ORGANIZATION #2), define themselves socially, politically, and even religiously in ways that Felton Bible Church cannot condone and support.  My sense of this comes not only through the specific positions articulated in the ORGANIZATION’s material, but also through the partners listed and viewpoints described on the flyer, and on the webpages of the ORGANIZATION/ORGANIZATION #2.

May I conclude by saying thank you?  Thank you again for stopping by today, and for inquiring as to the use of our facility.  Thank you also for your personal commitment to our community, especially as it is expressed in your willingness to serve on the NAME OF POSITION.  That’s a tough job, and I’m sure often a thankless one. I’m grateful that you are willing to give of yourself on behalf of others.  Please let me know if you would ever like to talk further.  I’d love to take you to lunch sometime.

Respectfully,

NAME

JOB TITLE

Felton Bible Church

Luke’s “Oh So Clear” Testimony of Jesus

I love how clear God’s Word, the Bible, is about the deity of Jesus Christ.  Even without considering explicit passages like John 1, the New Testament oozes the divine nature of God the Son.  At Felton Bible Church we are currently studying through the Gospel of Luke on Sunday mornings.  Today, while working on Luke 8:26-39, I came across this statement in Luke 8:39:

“[Jesus, speaking to the man whom he has just delivered from horrific demon possession] ‘Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.’  And he [meaning the man] went away, proclaiming throughout the whole city how much Jesus had done for him.”

Ha, ha, I love it!  Luke is so profoundly subtle.  Jesus tells the man to go and declare how much God has done for him.  And the man does precisely that…only he declares how much Jesus has done.  The point is not lost on us as Luke’s readers.  This man wasn’t confused or disobedient.  He knew precisely who it was that had freed him from sinful bondage to demonic powers – it was God himself; God in the person and work of Jesus Christ!

Depend on it, Luke’s gospel is a carefully written, methodical, intricately constructed work of art.  Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, this historian par excellence makes no mistake with his choice of words.  Luke absolutely means for us, his readers, to arrive at the same conclusion as the man of the Gerasenes: Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, is fully God, and fully man.  He was then, is now, and will be for eternity, God clothed with humanity.

Preach Christ! – President Bush’s Funeral

I recently wrote this article for our monthly newsletter at Felton Bible Church.  Let me caveat what’s here by noting my respect and appreciation for President George H.W. Bush:

I wonder, did you have the chance to watch President George H.W. Bush’s state funeral ceremony on December 5th?  It was, for a host of reasons, a fascinating and moving event; and that regardless of one’s views about President Bush as a leader and political figure.  Despite the fascination, I found myself troubled by one line in particular that made a repeat appearance during the service itself and/or during the news coverage.  Repeatedly, newscasters or eulogizers reflected on President Bush as a man who lived according to this principle: “Preach Christ at all times and, if necessary, use words.”

Now, let’s acknowledge from the outset that there is a measure of truth inherent to that statement.  Certainly our Christian action – specifically the love we exude for God and people – ought to speak loudly, even apart from words.  No doubt such truth undergirds James’ thought when he writes, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?  Can that faith save him?…For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead” (James 2:14, 26, ESV).  But, despite a measure of truth, the phrase, “Preach Christ at all times and, if necessary, use words,” is deadly.  It is fundamentally flawed and marks a dangerous pit in which Satan would love to entrap Jesus’ people and Jesus’ church.

For starters, notice how this pithy slogan privileges action over words in a way the Bible does not.  How does one “preach” Christ apart from words?  The very idea of “preaching” necessitates speaking (Note: Think here of proclaiming God’s words in everyday communication, and not only of our Sunday morning worship).  There is no preaching that does not involve language; that does not involve words which engage our rational minds and sink into our feeling hearts.  God communicates not only with action, but also with words.  Communicating the Gospel (“Preach Christ”) is never an “either-or” juxtaposition of action and words, but always a “both-and” proposition.

The phrase, “Preach Christ at all times and, if necessary, use words,” is precisely the sort of statement that an idolatrous, syncretistic, “tolerant,” society like ours loves to hear.  It takes the “bite” out of the Christian message.  A world which cannot stand the name of Jesus is nonetheless quite happy to enjoy the “good works” of Jesus’ followers.  After all, what difference does it make if the school gets painted by a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Wiccan, a Mormon, an atheist, or a Christian?  A phrase like, “Preach Christ at all times and, if necessary, use words,” becomes a subtle way of subsuming “Christian” religious expression into a non-offensive, “ecumenical” statement of spiritual “faith” – one palatable to all.  A church that lives according to this will slowly sink into the morass of Gospel irrelevance; a bog of so-called “social justice” disconnected from the actual person and work of Jesus Christ.

Brothers and sisters, Jesus died not only for what he did, but also (and maybe particularly) for what he said!  Consider those who, in John 10, attempt to stone Jesus to death.  They say to Jesus, “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God” (John 10:33, ESV).  It was Jesus’ words that led to the cross, not merely his actions.  If Jesus needed words to preach the Gospel, why would we expect anything different?  No wonder Paul says this, in Romans 10, after his famous statement about salvation itself (see Romans 10:9-10, ESV): “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed?  And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?  And how are they to hear without someone preaching?  And how are they to preach unless they are sent?…Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:14-15a, 17, ESV).

We are the sent ones; sent from God into the world with a message of reconciliation between God and man.  That message emanates both from our actions and from our words.  May we never drive a wedge between the two!

 

 

Do You Know What’s Happening in China?

China 2011 115

It is my privilege as a member of Jesus’ church to care deeply about, and for, my Chinese brothers and sisters.  Of late, daily living for Christ’s church in China has become increasingly difficult and more complicated (this a general statement, nuanced by the individual context of each local congregation within China).  This difficulty has come through a broader trend, across Chinese society, of retrenchment and power consolidation on the part of the Chinese Communist Party.  Especially unregistered, non-governmental churches in China find themselves facing increasing pressure, harassment, and outright persecution at the hands of Chinese authorities.  This means that my Chinese family (Luke 8:19-21) is suffering.

Let me share with you a statement emailed by an organization I respect (China Partnership) regarding the current (that means right now, today!) experience of one congregation in Chengdu:

“Call to Prayer and Fasting for the Church in Chengdu” 

“Starting on Sunday, December 9, news broke of the arrest of Pastor Wang Yi of Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, along with the mass detention of his church leaders and congregants, the separation of their families, and the destruction of both church and personal property.  In total more than 100 congregants have been arrested.  Some have been released, but 80 people are still missing and arrests are ongoing.  The arrests and detentions have at times been physically violent and humiliating/degrading.  The viciousness and thoroughness of this attack is unprecedented in recent Chinese history.” 

“House churches across China have been united in fasting and prayer.  China Partnership is calling for Christians across the globe to stand with Chengdu in prayer.”  

We call for a global time of prayer at 8pm EST on Friday, December 14.  We also encourage participants to fast as they are able on Friday.”

China Partnership also posted on it’s blog a statement written by Pastor Wang Yi titled: My Declaration of Faithful Disobedience.  Let me encourage you to take twenty minutes (it’s somewhat lengthy) and read this document.  It is absolutely profound.  I’m privileged to sit under the teaching ministry of this brother – albeit from a distance, and through a statement he wrote for release in the event of his arrest and sustained detention.

May Jesus sustain – and build – his church in Chengdu…

The Ungodly Flip-Flop (Psalm 8)

Reading in Psalm 8 today, I find David saying this about humanity:

“What is man that you take thought of him, and the son of man that you care for him?  Yet you have made him a little lower than God, and you crown him with glory and majesty!  You make him to rule over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens and the fish of the sea, whatever passes through the paths of the seas.” (Psalm 8:4-8)

I’m struck (but not surprised) by how easily we try and overturn God’s plan and purpose for his creation.  God commissioned us as human beings to rule over creation (which, in a biblical sense, means to steward creation as God’s vice-regents for his glory and our joy) and to serve one another (Mark 10:43-44; Galatians 5:13).  We so often want and strive for the reverse.  We want to rule over one another, and serve the creation – or, perhaps, twist the creation to serve us.  For instance, a godless environmentalism is one (but not the only) example of this predilection – it seeks to rule over other human beings after first exalting nature as “God.”

Doesn’t this ungodly flip-flop appear with striking clarity during our election cycles, and routinely in our political discourse?  Not that elections or politics are bad.  In fact, rightly pursued, both are a gift to human society and an important aspect of human flourishing (to borrow a term from Al Mohler).  But whereas elections and politics should be a “race to the bottom” for humble service of one another in society, all too often both become a venue in which we strive to rule rather than serve.

None of this should surprise us.  Our flip-flopping of Psalm 8 is merely another expression of Romans 1:21-23 sin – “For even though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened.  Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.”  There it is…in our sin we want to serve God’s creation and rule one another.  We prefer this to serving one another in love for the glory of God…and ruling his creation in love for the glory of God.

What’s the answer to this problem?  Easy (tongue-in-cheek)…flip it back!  Surrender to God by surrendering to his plan, and his way, for his creation (including us!).  Surrender starts at the foot of the cross.  Service starts at the foot of the cross.  Ruling starts at the foot of the cross.

Thanking God for the ESV Bible

If you click here you will enjoy a wonderful ten-minute video describing the English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible, including something of the process that brought it into being.  While I continue to use the NASB for much of my personal Bible reading, I am profoundly thankful for the ESV.  It’s a privilege to come to God through its words, especially on Sunday mornings, week-in, and week-out.  It’s also a privilege to shepherd my children, primarily through the language of the ESV.  I’m grateful to see the faces and hear the voices of many who supported and led the work on this translation.  Part of my confidence in the result of their labor stems from the character, doctrine, and lives of the men who appear in this video.  God has been so good to the English-speaking world in the plethora of riches we enjoy when it comes to biblical materials.  May we be good stewards of his wealth!  May we also earnestly desire the same blessing for those into whose heart-language Scripture has yet to come!

Preaching Like a Child

Martyn Lloyd-Jones Picture
Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The God-used preacher of Wales and Westminster Chapel (picture taken from the “Logic on Fire” Conference DVD packet)

 

Preaching is many things I suppose, and there are many various metaphors that helpfully describe what happens during a Spirit-empowered proclamation of God’s message.  This morning I’m struck by the following: Preaching is like a budding four-year old delivering his Dad’s message in childish words that nonetheless convey the truth of his Father’s proclamation.

Psalm 131 says this: O Lord, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me.  But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me.  O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time forth and forevermore (English Standard Version).

 Lately the Lord has pressed home on me, repeatedly, the need to come to him as a little child – truly enjoying his love, utterly depending on him, and delighting in the life he’s given to me.  Funny enough, that’s actually quite difficult to do (at least it is for me)!

Preaching God’s Word is a high and lofty affair, as is any exercise of a spiritual gift for the edification of another person.  It is something that can easily become about me – my pride, my ways, my desires – and not my God.  It is the sort of “great and…marvelous” thing with which I could too easily occupy myself in a sinful manner.  Yet, what if I sit before God like a weaned child, quieted, peaceful, and calm?  And then what if, when he tells me to, I get down off his lap and run to deliver his message, albeit in my own broken and childish way, yet empowered by his Spirit?  Suddenly then, preaching becomes the loving interaction of a Father and son…kind of like when you send your four-year old off with a message and chuckle in delight at hearing the manner of its delivery.  The child delights in the trust of his Father and the chance to join in his Dad’s work. The Dad delights in the willing, excited, and childlike partnership of his son.  It’s a beautiful symbiosis of love and glory.

Oh sovereign Lord, teach me to preach like a weaned child!