July 10, 2015

Keep the Fire Blazing

A good bonfire is meant to be seen from space. A fire that you can barely see is hardly worth having. The same is true for our spiritual lives. Paul wrote to Timothy and told him to “fan into flame” the gift that he had been given by God (2 Tim. 1:6). Some think this gift may have been Timothy’s ministry itself, a spiritual gifting, or simply the work of the Spirit in Timothy’s life helping him to serve God with a spirit of power, love, and self-discipline.

The phrase “fan into flame” can be translated as “keep constantly blazing” (Wuest). It does not necessarily mean that the fire had gone out or died down, but it points to the fact that Timothy had to work to keep the fire going all of the time. It is an ongoing task. Fires burn out and die unless there are maintained. 

This applies to our spiritual lives as well. What will happen to our flame if we do not attend to the fire? For a regenerated believer, God will never let the fire go out completely—but it may smolder.

Do you ever feel that your spiritual life is smoldering? Sometimes it doesn’t seem to be giving off any heat. Instead of being visible from space, there is hardly a trace of smoke. What do you do?

How does a person attend to a literal fire? 

There is more than one way that a fire can go out. A fire needs fuel. A fire needs oxygen. A fire needs heat. Take away any of those and the fire goes out. The same is true for our spiritual fire.

We need to keep fueling our faith with the Word of God. Our faith needs to feed off the fuel of God’s promises in Scripture. That is why Paul could have hope as he awaited execution in a Roman prison—because his faith was fueled by the “promise of the life that is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 1:1).  Keep fueling your faith with knowledge of God’s promises and character.  

We need dependence on the Holy Spirit as oxygen. Fuel needs oxygen to ignite. In the same way, the Holy Spirit causes His Words of Scripture to ignite in our hearts. Just as a fire needs both fuel and oxygen, the words of Scripture and the work of the Spirit always go together. Fires burn hot when they get the wind they need. If your spiritual life is smoldering, pray for God’s Spirit to blow on your embers.

We need to keep the fire stirred by Christian work, ministry and service. Maybe your spiritual life is cold because the embers need to be stirred up. Maybe you are dormant because of a lack of activity. Get involved with something. Volunteer. Serve. Speak. Do something and see if it gets the flames going. 

And just as coals burn hotter when close together we need Christian fellowship to keep our fire hot. When coals are spread apart, they get cold. (Heb. 10:24-25)  

Don’t douse your fire with buckets of sin. Wet wood doesn’t burn.

I don’t want to get allegorical, but these are some of the things that the Bible calls us to do regardless. The key point is that we need to attend to our spiritual lives constantly. When we don’t keep watch, or when we don’t put forth any effort, the fire will not blaze as it once did.


June 27, 2015

On Marriage and Gender

Recalibrating our Thinking on Marriage and Gender

Our society has lost a stable understanding of marriage and gender. Our collective understanding used to be informed by the biblical worldview and an understanding of creation's design and purposes. However, for most people that worldview has been replaced by arbitrary opinions that are the ever-changing concoctions of human invention. This will not end well for us.

Here are outlines and videos for three recent messages on marriage and gender that are especially relevant for the situation we find ourselves in today. Regardless of current laws, it is vitally important that we recalibrate our thinking on these issues from a biblical worldview. For the good of society and our families we need to be equipped to help others think clearly on these matters.

[Jesus] answered, 'Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, 'Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'?  So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.'" -Matthew 19:4-6


Ways the World Gets Marriage Wrong - part 1
  • The world thinks that marriage is a human invention.
  • Marriage is a human institution given to us by God. It is not a human invention, so we are not free to change it however we wish. On the other hand, marriage was given by God to all humanity and that is why we recognize non-Christian marriages of a man and a woman as real marriages. 
  • The world does not remember why marriage is between one man and one woman.
  • The Biblical pattern for marriage is one man and one woman (Genesis 1-2). Jesus Himself affirmed this in Matthew 19:4-6.
  • It is grounded in the design of this world. (1) There is a natural chain linking marriage --> sex --> conception --> raising children. The reason most people no longer understand marriage is because they have lost the awareness of this natural chain. (2) In addition, of all the possible combinations that we could consider for marriage, the combination of one man and one woman is the only combination that produces life. Therefore, the historical definition of marriage was the only one that was not arbitrary.
  • Marriage is designed by God to picture the relationship between Christ and the Church. (Ephesians 5:22-33)

 


Ways the World Gets Marriage Wrong - part 2

  • The world thinks marriage is just a contract, not a covenant.
  • Marriage is not just a human contract. If marriage was just a human contract we could adjust the terms however we wanted. Instead, marriage is something sacred. Real marriage is something that God does. Jesus said, "what therefore God has joined together" (Matt. 19:6). 
  • The world think marriage is primarily about the personal happiness and fulfillment of adults.
  • Marriage used to be understood as that which unites a man and a woman and any children that might result from that union. The new idea of marriage is merely a public recognition of a romantic relationship of two adults. 
  • The world forgets the purposes of marriage. 
  • The public purposes of marriage: (1) for children: Marriage keeps moms and dads together so that children grow up being cared for by their own mother and father in an intact, stable family. (2) for women: Marriage protects women from men who would sexually take advantage of them and abandon them without taking responsibility for their children. (3) for men: Marriage  civilizes men and forces them to act responsibly. These purposes are good for any society and are not specifically Christian.  
  • The biblical purposes of marriage: Biblical purposes of marriage include (1) the glory of God, (2) procreation, (3) the raising of children to love and serve the Lord, (4) God-pleasing intimacy--without the sin of fornication, (5) companionship between a man and a woman--cohabitation without scandal, (6) complementarity, (7) sanctification, (8) to picture the relationship between Christ and the Church.

    


Ways the World Gets Gender Wrong

  • Many in the world assert that gender is a spectrum rather than two distinct categories.
  • The Bible teaches that there are two distinct genders. (Genesis 1:27; Jesus' words in Matthew 19:4)
  • Biology teaches that there are two distinct genders. Gender differences are rooted in our chromosomes. The presence of a Y chromosome indicates that a person is male and the absence of a Y chromosome indicates that a person is female. This is objective and true even for those with developmental or genetic anomalies.      
  • Most of the world thinks one gender is better than the other.
  • The Bible teaches that both men and women are created in the image of God, equal in dignity and worth.
  • The world thinks there are no important differences between genders--and if there were that would be a bad thing. 
  • The Bible teaches that men and women and different, and are so by God's good design.
  • The world thinks we have autonomy over our gender.
  • As sinners we crave to be our own law-makers. Instead, the Bible teaches that God is sovereign, not human beings. Our genders are given to us by God and are a matter of fact, not feelings. It is good to be a man, and it is good to be a woman. Embrace the gender of the body that God gave you. 

 



June 2, 2015

Thoughts on Finishing My PhD

Or, “ You Think You're a Big Boy, That's So Cute”

Many people have congratulated me on recently finishing my PhD. I defended my dissertation in January and I walked in May. I really appreciate everyone’s kind words, and I will admit that it was a ridiculous amount of work.

However, there is something that happened in our family a few years ago that really helps me put that in perspective. When my son Luke was still the baby in the family, we told him that he needed to start learning to pull up his own pants “like a big boy.” It worked. This was perfect motivation because, like most little boys with an older brother, he wanted desperately to be a big boy.

We didn’t think much of it until weeks later when Luke came storming into the living room with his fists clenched in anger and his lip quivering. As he stood there crying and huffing, we asked him what in the world was wrong? He stomped, “Eric told me I’m not a big boy!”

This had us perplexed until we remembered that we had told Luke that he needed to pull up his pants like a big boy. He had latched onto that. And now, since he could indeed pull up his pants all by himself, obviously he was a certified big boy. In his mind, he had arrived!

I remember looking down at my son as he stood there arguing in tears that he was a big boy. I smiled and laughed to myself. There he was, knee high to me, barely out of diapers, and crying because someone told him he wasn’t a big boy—which, by the way, is not a very ‘big boy’ thing to do. I remember thinking to myself, Oh,  you can pull up your pants and you think that makes you a big boy… That’s so cute.”

That got me thinking about God up in heaven and some of the accomplishments that we have in life. And I knew that eventually I would finish the PhD program and get my doctorate. It is easy for things to go to your head sometimes. But I imagined God looking down on me one day and thinking, Oh,  you got your degree and now you think you’re a big boy… That’s so cute.”


(You can click here for a short video of me telling this story.)

May 8, 2015

Steps to a Clean Heart

It has been rightly said that the whole Christian life can be summed up in three “G” words: Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude. We can see these three themes in Psalm 51, written by King David after he repented of his sins of adultery with Bathsheba and the slaughter of her husband Uriah (2 Samuel 11-12).  When I taught a trilogy of messages on Psalm 51 (one, two, three) I split the passage using those three themes.


As Christians, we don’t hide the fact that our deepest need is for a clean heart before a holy God. Even as Christians, we fail and fall short. However, Psalm 51 is an ideal passage for study and meditation concerning the Biblical way to deal with an unclean heart.  In this Psalm we can discern at least eight “steps” for getting our hearts right with God after moral failure.

1.      Approach God, focusing on His character. (v. 1)

Notice that David comes to God focusing on His “steadfast love” and His “abundant mercy.” Unless we work to remind ourselves about God’s revealed character, we will either come to Him in the wrong way, or we will be too afraid to come to Him at all.

2.      Honestly admit the truth about your sin. (v. 2-6)

David denied his sin for at least nine months. He tried to cover it up. He tried to ignore it. David was miserable during that time. In Psalm 32:3-4 David admitted, “For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.”

Here in Psalm 51, David faced up to his sin. He uses three words for sin. Transgressions means to cross a boundary in rebellion. Iniquity is from words meaning “twist” and “go astray.” It indicated perversity, depravity, and waywardness. Sin means missing the target; failing to do what is right.  

David admitted that he really sinned (v. 3). He admitted the serious nature of his sin—that all of his sin is really against God. Yes, David sinned against Bathsheba and Uriah, but he wrote, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (v. 4). All sin is rebellion against God. David also acknowledged the depth of his sin problem—he sins because He was conceived and born as a sinner (v. 5). He admitted that, at the root, his heart is sinful. Sin is so deeply ingrained in us that only God can scrub it out. And unless we acknowledge the truth about our sin that will never happen.
                             
3.      Appeal for cleansing, depending on the blood of the Lamb of God. (v. 7)

David asks God for cleansing. Literally, he is asking God to “un-sin” his heart. In fact, in verses 7-12 David asks God to grant twelve distinct requests. This is an example for us. Cleaning is there for the asking but it does not come without asking.

As Christians, we might wonder how David could ask for forgiveness apart from Jesus. However, verse 7 says, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean.” If you are wondering why David mentioned the hyssop plant, remember that the most famous use of hyssop in the Old Testament was during the original Passover. The Israelites were told to use hyssop to apply the blood of the sacrificed lamb to the doorframe of their houses so they would be spared from the Destroyer. Hyssop points back to the Passover, and the Passover lamb points ahead to the true Lamb of God. When John the Baptist saw Jesus coming he cried, “Behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29) If you want cleaning, you must depend on the blood that was spilled in your place by the true Lamb of God.

4.      Desire inward renewal and a cleansed heart. (v. 8-12)

It isn’t enough just to be pardoned of our guilt. David knew that his sins of adultery and murder flowed out of his sinful heart. David knew that unless God would change his heart he would be right back at it like an unreformed criminal set free from prison. Genuine heart change is something only God can do.

Genuine repentance means not wanting to have the desire for that sin anymore. You may still struggle with that desire as a temptation, but you don’t want that desire anymore. We don’t pray, “God forgive me of that, but let me keep the love of that sin in my heart.”

5.      Promise to teach others the lessons you have learned. (v. 13)

Genuine repentance and forgiveness makes us willing to tell others the stories of our sin and the consequences—so that we can warn them and plead with them not to make the same mistakes. We accept that our sins were seriously bad; and we also accept God’s forgiveness which frees our tongues from being paralyzed by guilt. This puts us in the right position to help others from falling into the same pits.           

6.      Praise God for His character and compassion. (v. 14-15)

Psalm 51 was written by a man who was forgiven of adultery and murder. Amazing Grace was written by the former captain of a slave ship. The loudest praise comes from the lips of the largest forgiven sinners.

7.      Continuously keep contrite heart before God. (v. 16-17)

God would rather have us slaughter the pride in our hearts than slaughter animals for sacrifice. We are not forgiven by being sorry for our sins—even by being genuinely sorry. Forgiveness only comes because Christ died for us. But to accept that, we need a broken and contrite heart.

False repentance is merely being sorry about consequences. Genuine repentance means being deeply grieved about offended the King we realize we should never rebel against. A contrite heart isn’t just something for the start of the Christian life. For all of our Christian life we need to stay humble and contrite before God. It is a part of gratitude.

8.      Pray for others. Move your focus outside of yourself—to others and the glory of God. (v. 18-19)

David concludes Psalm 51 by praying for the good of Zion and for God to delight in burnt offerings given to Him. The last “step” of going to God for a clean heart is to move our focus from ourselves to others. This is spiritually and emotionally healthy. A heart bent by sin is twisted back and looks only at itself. A cleaned heart looks outward and upward.




Footnote: My thinking on these steps was spurred by James Boice’s commentary on Psalm 51. I used his wording for what I call step five. 

April 14, 2015

How I Grew My Mega-Church By the Age 35

A lot of young guys in ministry read books that could be titled How I Grew My Mega-Church by the Age 35. These books get published, bought, and read because these are examples of success. These are the models of how to accomplish great things. They stir the hearts of young guys in healthy and unhealthy ways.

I have a few of these books on my shelf too. But when I think about where several of these pastors are today, I think a title for the sequel could be How I Blew Up My Ministry by the Age 45. I’m sure these sequels wouldn’t sell as many copies to starry-eyed hopefuls, but they should be required reading too. Don’t follow a blueprint until you see how well the building lasts.

Maybe the best book for young guys in ministry to read is The Tortoise and the Hare. Slow and steady. Win the race. 

1 Cor. 9:24-27

March 26, 2015

Killing Lazarus

I don’t remember ever hearing a message about “the plot to kill Lazarus.”

What happened earlier is more familiar. The death and resurrection of Jesus’ close friend Lazarus is recorded in John 11:1-44. Jesus heard that Lazarus was dying but waited an extra two days before he headed off to see him. But the time Jesus arrived Lazarus had been dead four days and was already starting to decompose. As the KJV puts it, “by this time he stinketh.” The extra time had allowed many people to arrive to mourn Lazarus’ death. Then Jesus commanded the stone in front of the cave to be rolled away. Jesus prayed out loud to the Father and said that this was so “that they may believe that you [God the Father] sent me.” Then Jesus commanded Lazarus to rise from the dead and come out. And he did. 

The raising of Lazarus is a familiar story but I had never paid much attention to the “plot to kill Lazarus” tucked away in the next chapter:

“When the large crowd of the Jews learned that Jesus was there, they came, not only on account of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests made plans to put Lazarus to death as well, because on account of him many of the Jews were going away and believing in Jesus.” –John 12:9-11

It takes a lot of nerve to plot to kill a guy just after he was brought back from the dead! What was the reason that people wanted to kill Lazarus? Was it because they had something against Lazarus personally? No. People wanted to kill Lazarus because his physical resurrection was undeniable evidence that Jesus was who He claimed to be. That miracle was very public and obvious. Many people knew Lazarus had been dead. Now they could see he was alive. People were coming to faith in Jesus because they saw the signs of life in Lazarus. The enemies of the light wanted to put an end to that.

If that is the case with Lazarus, what should we expect?

There is such as things as physical resurrection, but there is also spiritual resurrection. Physical resurrection is when someone is physically dead but is brought back to physical life. On the other hand, spiritual resurrection is when someone is spiritually dead and is brought back to life spiritually. This happens at the moment of salvation. Ephesians 2:1 says that we “were dead in the trespasses and sins” in which we once walked. Ever since Adam's rebellion, each of us come into this world spiritually dead—separated from the life of God because of sin. Even Christians were “by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Eph. 2:3) Thankfully, God did something about this. The next verse says, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved.” This is spiritual resurrection. Salvation is being made alive again.

When God raised Lazarus there were obvious signs of life. He wasn't just laying there anymore. People could tell that he was no longer dead. In the same way, people should also be able to see signs of life when someone receives spiritual resurrection. It doesn’t outwardly look the same for everyone, but at salvation God starts the process of changing us from the inside out. We receive a new heart. New affections start growing—new loves. Sins we used to love become bitter. The things of God that we used to find dull turn from black and white to color. Some people are able to say goodbye to deep sinful habits. Others start to struggle against them—when there wasn’t even a struggle before. People find themselves wanting to read God’s Word, go to church, and pray and worship…not because they have to, but now because they want to. These changes are noticeable.   

Our lives should be a testimony to what God has done. It takes a miracle to physically raise someone from the dead and it also takes a straight-out miracle to raise someone to life spiritually. That new life did not come from the corpse. Corpses don’t do anything. God did it and God gets all the glory. Whether the changes seem big or small, fast or gradual, people see them. Some people will be happy with what they see. Others won’t.

Are you living a life that God’s enemies would be worried about? Or not? Does your life give evidence to the world that Jesus Christ saves and changes lives . . . or does your life, so far, give little or no evidence of Christ’s work?

They wanted to kill Lazarus. If we are living changed lives we should expect that some people won't like it. Darkness hates the light. Sin hates a contrast. Sinners like other people to sin with them because it helps down out feelings of guilt. Those who hate Jesus won't like it. Satan certainly isn’t going to like it. He doesn't want more people to put their trust in Christ. Satan doesn’t want people to look at your life and see undeniable evidence of Jesus’ power to give new life. The enemies of the light want to cover that up. Expect that. Prepare for that. But don’t let it happen.


February 6, 2015

Don't Be a Baby: Marks of Spiritual Maturing

Jesus taught that we must be born again. We start our Christian lives as spiritual babies but we shouldn’t stay there. But unlike physical growth, spiritual growth does not happen automatically. Too many Christians grow up to be “adult babies.” Paul complained about this with the Christians at Corinth. He wrote, “But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready” (1 Cor. 3:1-2; see also Hebrews 5:11-14).

It may not be possible to pinpoint your spiritual age, but I think that there are markers that we can look for. Just as we see certain things happen in the physical growth of a baby, we can also look for certain markers as a baby Christian grows toward maturity. Here are a few:


      Learn to feed yourself.

Babies need milk to grow, but eventually they need to move on to solid food. A Hebrews 5:14 states, “solid food is for the mature.” But another mark of spiritual growth is being able to feed yourself rather than being spoon fed.  

“Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation” -1 Peter 2:2

“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.” –2 Timothy 2:15


      Stop messing yourself.

We expect that babies are going to mess their diapers. In time, however, that should stop. In the same way, new Christians need to stop messing their lives as they did before they knew Christ. None of us reach perfection in this life, but we need to start trying to keep clean.

“For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do—living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry.” -1 Peter 4:3


      Stop crying when you don’t get your way.

How do you react when things don’t go your own way? Do you pinch a fit or do you see yourself growing in peace, patience, gentleness and self-control?

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” –Galatians 5:22-23


      Stop hitting.

Paul taught that the fighting among the Corinthians Christians was a mark of their immaturity. If we hit—with our fists, our words, or our actions—we are acting like bratty children.  

“infants in Christ . . . for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way?” -1 Cor. 3:1,3


      Learn to walk.

The Bible often uses walking as a metaphor for the Christian life. After we become Christians, we need to start living the way that Christians ought to live.

“…walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.” –Colossians 1:10


      Lean to speak.

We need to learn to open our mouths to talk about Jesus Christ and our relationship to him. We need to learn to use our words for good. We need to learn to verbalize our faith and have the confidence to speak and pray in front of others.  

“Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” –Ephesians 4:29


      Learn right from wrong.

Children need to be taught what is right and what is wrong. Christians need to learn what God says is right and wrong. If we don’t do this, we will listen to the world and keep believing that evil is good and good is evil.

“But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.” –Hebrews 5:14


      Learn to get dressed.

There are two parts to this: Getting undressed and getting dressed. Christians are called to “take off” the practices of the old self and to “put on” the practices of the new self.

“Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator . . . Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” –Colossians 3:9-10,12


      Take responsibility for yourself.

As kids get older they need to learn responsibility so that one day they can live without Mom packing their lunch every day and reminding them to do their homework. As Christians grow, they need to take responsibility for their own Christian lives. If someone still has to “make” you go to church and read the Bible and to serve, it isn’t looking good for your spiritual maturity!

 for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord.” –Ephesians 5:8-10


      Take responsibility for others.

Not every person is mature enough to babysit or to be a good parent. A sign of even more maturity is that a person not only takes care of his or her own self, but now also takes care of other people. God wants us to move beyond our own needs so that we can help other people to grow toward spiritual maturity.

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus”   
–Philippians 2:3-5


      Be able to reproduce!

Part of physical maturity is being able to reproduce. The same is true spiritually. A mature Christian should be able and willing to explain the message of salvation to another person. God wants to use you to help make new baby Christians!

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations . . .” –Matthew 28:19


      Learn to make wise decisions.

Eventually kids leave the house. They need to be able to make good decisions on their own. (Although sometimes wisdom means knowing when to ask for advice!) Growing in wisdom means being able apply the right Biblical principles to your situation in life. It means planning long-term for the best goals. It means seeing the difference—not only between right and wrong, but between good, better, and best.  

 Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.” –Ephesians 5:15-17


This is a very incomplete list, but these are some of the marks that show that a person is growing toward Christian maturity. 

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