Saved? For What?

About two years ago I received a call from a man named Mitch. I had baptized him a few years before.  He called to let me know his cancer had come back and he didn’t have much time left. He wanted to express his thankfulness to God that I had shared the gospel with him and led him to place his faith in Christ. He was thankful to be able to face the end of his life on earth with the hope of heaven in his heart. Not long after that call, Mitch went on to be with the Lord.

Years before, however, Mitch had barely survived a terrible car wreck. He was in a coma for a few weeks. Gradually he regained strength and health, albeit not without lingering pain and other complications. Before he drove his truck off an embankment, he really didn’t care if he lived or died. He had been in a battle with cancer, which, along with life’s many other hardships, had left him deeply depressed and feeling hopeless.

When he came out of the hospital, after his wreck, his cancer was also in remission. He had come to church a few times before with his mother, but this time was different. He asked if he could meet with me to discuss baptism and committing his life to Christ. On a cold day in January of 2011, I had the privilege of baptizing Mitch by full immersion. He was buried with Christ in baptism “in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, [he] too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).

Mitch often wondered aloud with me about why God had allowed him to survive his accident. He was looking for a specific reason. Mitch wanted to know why God had saved him, and that in more ways than one, both physically and spiritually. My answer to Mitch was always the same. “Mitch, I don’t really know the particulars of God’s specific plan for your life, but I do know that you were saved for  the same reason everyone else is saved: to love God with your whole heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love your neighbor as yourself.

For the past few years I have taught an introductory discipleship study called “The Walk.” I designed the study around several basic questions. Three of the questions are: Why do we need to be saved?; What are we saved from?; and What are we saved for?

Although the Bible uses this kind of language frequently, it is not all that popular a topic in many circles, including in the church. The thought that people need to be saved can be offensive because it implies there is something wrong with us and that we are in grave danger. But we may not feel like there is anything wrong with us. Indeed, we may feel like we are perfectly fine just the way we are. But the Bible clearly indicates that something is wrong and we all do need to be rescued from something. N322.01W50

In short, we are saved from sin and its consequences. We are saved from corrupted desires and the consequences of acting on those desires. Sin is not only the bad things we do, but also the power that corrupts our good God-given desires. Just take the seven deadly sins for example: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride.

Each of these is a corruption of a good desire. God designed us to have certain desires as creatures created in God’s image. The desire for sex is good, but sin corrupts it and distorts it. The desire for food and drink is also not bad, but when corrupted by sin it can become detrimental to us and others. The desire to work and make a living is not bad, but greed can make us slaves to work and money. The desire to rest and relax is good, but sloth is not. The desire for justice is wonderful, but wrath drives us away from justice to hatred and personal vengeance. The desire to be loved and respected is not bad, but envy and pride distort those desires in narcissistic ways.

Through Jesus Christ God saves us not only from the consequences of sin, the penalty, but also from its corrupting influence, the power. The grace of God in Christ also begins to heal our corrupted desires and rescues us from an eternity separated from God. That’s why we need to be saved and what we need to be saved from? But we’re not only saved from something, we are also saved for something.

As the verse from Romans 6 referenced above indicates we are saved for a purpose, namely to “walk in newness of life” (v.4). The word “walk” here is used in Ephesians 2 as well.

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Ephesians 2:8-10 ESV (emphasis mine)

Here Paul tells is what we are saved by, through, and for. Each of these aspects of salvation must be held together in the proper order and priority. We must not put a period where there should be a comma; and we must not mix up the order here given.

We are saved by grace, what God has done for us in Christ, it is a gift. But the gift of what God has done for us must be received by faith. One aspect of the gift of grace is that by it we are remade by God in Christ. As Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.” In Christ we are remade by God. In other words, as Jesus put it to Nicodemus, we are born again (John 3). Along with forgiveness, this transformation is also the gift of God. And the purpose for which God has remade us as a new creation is for good works . These good works in no way contribute to our salvation, but they are the fruit of our salvation that “God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” But what exactly are these good works?

The key to understanding this is the word “walk“. The Hebrew equivalent of this word in the Old Testament is halak. It is used repeatedly to refer to a life lived in obedience and faithfulness to God’s commandments. I just read this morning in Isaiah where Hezekiah, one of the kings of Judah during the ministry of Isaiah, used this word in exactly this way.

“… ‘Please, O Lord, remember how I have walked before you in faithfulness and with a whole heart, and have done what is good in your sight.’ ….” Isaiah 38:3 ESV

This is a common way to speak about faithfulness to God throughout the Bible (see Psalm 119:1-3). One of the most significant places where the Bible uses this language is found in the new covenant promise in Ezekiel.

“I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.”               Ezekiel 36:25-27 ESV (emphasis mine)

Paul Young, author of “The Shack,” argues that rules just get in the way of real relationship. Well the promise here in Ezekiel, which was fulfilled in Jesus Christ, indicates that obedience to God’s rules are at the heart of the new heart God wants to give us. God’s law is not the problem, disobeying it or trying to obey it with selfish motives is. God’s rules obeyed from the heart don’t get in the way of relationship, they actually facilitate genuine relationship, with God and our neighbors.

The good works for which we are saved are those things that are in harmony with the spirit and intent of God’s commandments. Truly they are an expression of genuine love, love of God and love of neighbor.

 “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” Romans 13:8-10

To put it another way, we are saved by love, the love of God for us in Christ, and we are saved for love, the love of God in us for God and neighbor. In his “Treatise on Good Works,” the Protestant reformer, Martin Luther sought to correct misunderstandings of his teaching on justification by faith. In that treatise he said that genuine Christian  faith is a fulfillment of the first commandment and obedience to the rest of God’s commandments flows from there as a product, a fruit, of salvation, albeit not its cause. In other words, obedience is what we are saved for not by. This, said Luther, is how to understand what the good works are for which we are saved.

Mitch’s question was a good one, too often neglected. In my ministry I have worked hard to answer that question, not only for Mitch, who was spared a tragic death in a car wreck, but for all who have been saved from the deadly wreckage of sin and hell by the grace of God in Christ Jesus through faith. In some cases, in many Protestant circles any talk at all about good works has been met with suspicion at best. But we must not forget or ignore what we have been saved for! And we should not underestimate or underrepresent the grace by which we are saved.  Paul captures the fullness of it well in his letter to Titus.

 “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.”  Titus 2:11-14 (emphasis mine)

Advertisements

The Light in the Darkness: Finding Hope in Suffering

Emma and Charles had already lost a few children way too early, something all too common in their day. After the death of their 10 year old daughter, Annie, Charles couldn’t even bring himself to even attend the graveside service. Annie’s untimely death may have been the impetus that moved Charles to publish some ancient philosophical ideas he had honed with the power of the scientific method and the full weight of  the Enlightenment behind him. These were ideas, which included his religious skepticism, that he had held without publishing for over two decades, apparently out of love for his wife, Emma, and out of respect for her devout belief in God, the afterlife, and the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament. Annie’s death apparently relieved him of those inhibitions and Charles Darwin went on to publish his revolutionary materialist, naturalist views in “The Origin of Species” in 1859. Suffering and death in the world, not least that which pervaded his own life, certainly influenced Darwin’s beliefs about the randomness of life.

Suffering, and especially death, can lead one to the conclusion that life is ultimately meaningless, without real purpose. Even the ancients going on only what they could observe and experience directly of the world could come to the same conclusion. You really see a hint of this in the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes, in which you find the well-known refrain, “Vanity of Vanities! All is vanity” (Eccl 1:2).

Now I don’t believe the message of Ecclesiastes is that life is really meaningless. Life in this world lived for it’s own sake certainly is, whether it be for personal pleasure or pride or both. As Ecclesiastes indicates, pleasure is fleeting and pride only lasts as long as the memory of future generations. The pain of aging and illness will quickly rob the largest storehouses of pleasure; and most people will not be remembered at all a couple generations after they die (Do you know your great, great grandmother’s name? Add another “great”?) Nevertheless, just from observing the cycles of life, the sun rises and sets and then does it all over again, and again, and again. In our modern time we know that we are literally spinning around in circles as we swirl around the sun once every 365 days only to do it all over again and again … That alone can give you the impression that we might just be going around in circles chasing our tails until we die. And die we will. Generations come and generations go and death eventually takes us all.

And if that is all there is, then what exactly is the point of it all? Is there even a point at all? Is it all one big accident, or as Ecclesiastes indicates are we really headed somewhere after all “if we fear God and keep his commandments…”, namely to the judgment of a personal God (Eccl 12:13-14). Suffering and especially death can drive one to the former rather than the later, sadly.

If there really is an all-powerful God who cares, why is there so much suffering and evil in the world? And the question about suffering is inextricably connected to the question of meaning. Does life with so much suffering ultimately have meaning and purpose? The Bible’s answer is a definite and resounding yes. It also gives us a reason for why there is suffering.

Quite simply the Bible’s explanation is there is suffering because of sin. We live in a fallen world because there was a fall; we live in a broken world because humanity broke God’s commandment. The first three chapters of the Bible, Genesis 1-3, establish this claim: God created humanity to reflect his glory through stewardship of creation under God’s authority. When Adam and Eve, enticed by the tempter, decided to live for their own pleasure and pride instead of for God it brought the disastrous consequences that God had warned them about – spiritual death and suffering, which would eventually result in physical death.

Genesis 3 tells us that human sin lead to a painful curse that affects not only humanity but the creation itself. This is echoed and amplified in Romans 8 when it says:

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”   Romans 8:18-25 (ESV)

Interestingly, here Paul says the creation was “subjected to futility.” Futility is the same word that is translated “vanity” in the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Greek version of the Old Testament. Yet Paul tells us that although it was subjected to futility, it was not without hope. Life in this world lived for its own sake is certainly futile, but God did not leave us without hope and greater purpose. Restoration is available for ourselves and, as a consequence, for creation itself.

Suffering is the consequence of sin in a general sense. Just as all of humanity, the righteous and the wicked, all enjoy the general blessings of God, which are still very much a part of our fallen world (see Matthew 5:45), all people, good and bad, will suffer to one degree or another under the consequences of the curse and the general judgment of God on the earth and humanity. The convulsions of a fallen world under the curse because of sin affects everyone to one degree or another, good or bad. Death itself is the ever-present reminder of the general judgment of God on the world that affects everyone, righteous or not.

Recently Kirk Cameron became a lighting rod for heated criticism when he suggested God allows powerful storms like the recent hurricanes as a reminder of our need to humble ourselves, to stand in awe of God, and to repent. For this one progressive Christian pastor and author basically called Cameron a jerk and an A-hole for suggesting such a thing.

If he thinks Kirk Cameron is bad, I wonder what he would think of John Wesley, who wrote an entire sermon in response to a deadly and devastating earthquake entitled, “The Cause and Cure for Earthquakes.” Wesley was much more explicit.

“I am to show you that earthquakes are the works of the Lord, and He only bringeth this destruction upon the earth. Now, that God is himself the Author, and sin the moral cause, of earthquakes, (whatever the natural cause may be) cannot be denied by any who believe the Scriptures; for these are they which testify of Him, that it is God” which removeth the mountains, and overturneth them in his anger; which shaketh the earth out of her place, and the pillars thereof tremble.” (Job 9:5, 6) ~ John Wesley – Sermon 129:1

Wesley goes on to tie natural disasters to the curse brought about by “the original transgression,” the fall of Adam and Eve in the garden. He also considered natural disasters to be a part of the general judgment of God and a reminder of our need for humility and repentance in the face of such temporal judgments, especially to be prepared for the final judgment still to come. And lest we be tempted to think it was easy for Wesley to preach that in his day, we must realize that he himself fought against theology within the church influenced by Enlightenment rationalism and deism, even mentioning famous skeptics like David Hume and Voltaire by name. Wesley’s message was better received among coal miners than Anglican priests and bishops.

For both Cameron and Wesley, natural disasters and the suffering they bring, or even suffering in general is not without reason and purpose. Neither are they completely inscrutable. If you believe the Bible, the reason is clear, although we may not understand everything on a individual case by case basis. But, again, the question of suffering and meaning are closely connected.

In a pastoral care class I took in seminary, the professor stressed emphatically that we should never try to explain or give reasons for someone’s loss. She strongly suggested not only that we may not know the reasons, but that there really are no meaningful reasons. The best we can do she seemed to suggest is to make meaning for ourselves. I understand we certainly don’t want to jump to conclusions or to give pat answers to complex questions, but I sensed she was leaning too far toward nihilism. I asked, “Are you saying there really are absolutely no reasons at all?” After a pregnant pause, she said she was not saying that, but her hesitation spoke louder than her words.

Some want to avoid questions of meaning and purpose altogether. They suggest that we can’t know if God actually is somehow involved in disasters, pestilence, famine, and war. They suggest that we can’t be sure that there is any reason and purpose behind these things at all. In criticizing Kirk Cameron one progressive Christian said, It’s not God, it’s just science,” implying that it is just the way the world is, without rhyme or reason, period.

The Bible, in comparison to other ancient stories like the Babylonian creation story and in comparison to some modern scientific accounts, indicates that creation is not capricious and neither is suffering. The flood, for example, didn’t happen because the unpredictable gods were just annoyed by the noise of humans, nor was it just an accident of natural forces. The flood happened in response to sin and wickedness upon the earth (Genesis 6).

Of course this does not mean that every time tragedy strikes someone God must be punishing them for specific sins in their life. Ecclesiastes, many of the Psalms, the book of Job, and even the teachings of Jesus and the story of his own life show us that in this fallen world, sometimes the innocent and the righteous will suffer. Sometimes this is at the hands of sinners, Jesus being the prime example. Sometimes it will be because of accidents, natural disasters, and disease, which God allows to afflict the righteous for a season. Job is perhaps the best example of the later. Sometimes the same event may be a specific judgment against the wicked and a general time of testing through trials and tribulations for the righteous, but the general judgment of God due to the fall is the reason for it  at all. Jesus himself used a report of Pilate slaughtering Galileans and a deadly accident, a tower collapse, to remind everyone that they weren’t worse sinners than anyone else, “but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:1-5).

This really is a basic Biblical worldview and the framework that makes sense of the redemption from the curse that God wrought in Christ. I think Wesley was right when he said, it “cannot be denied by any who believe the Scriptures.”

The Bible is the revelation of a personal and intelligent God, who created the universe out of nothing, not out of necessity, but out of love. This God is transcendent, being so much greater than and independent of the universe, but simultaneously very much present and involved in all of his creation. He created us out of nothing for something very important, to be his image-bearers. Using our freedom to live by our own desires rather than the will of the One who created us throws everything out of order. But God is merciful and has provided a way for us to be reconciled to him to once again bring harmony and peace back to the world. Our sin subjected the world to futility, but not without hope. The consequences to sin were built in by God himself and those consequences are not without meaning and purpose. They are a reminder that we need to remember how small we really are and how awesome God really is, especially in mercy and grace when we do repent and return to him (just look at the context of 2 Chronicles 7:14 and think of that in light of the prodigal son of Luke 15).

As someone slips from this theistic worldview, into more deistic or pantheistic worldviews, the less likely he or she will take sin and its consequences seriously. Conversely, the less seriously we take sin and its consequences, the more likely we are to hold deistic, pantheistic, or atheistic worldviews. It is no secret that the doctrine of hell, the eternal suffering of unrepentant sinners, which Darwin rightly saw as having been taught most clearly by Jesus himself, was another factor in his ultimate rejection of the Christian faith. He wasn’t the first, and certainly not the last. What perhaps is scarier than the thought that nothing really matters is that everything really does forever. But God in his mercy through His Son Jesus Christ has made a way for the vilest of sinners to be forgiven and set free from hopelessness and despair.

Haratio Spafford owned a thriving law practice in downtown Chicago. He and his wife Anna had one son and four daughters. In 1871, roughly 12 years after the publication of “The Origin of Species,” pneumonia took the life of his young son. That same year much of his business and its assets were destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire. By the fall of 1873 his business had bounced back. Around Thanksgiving that same year his wife and four daughters boarded a ship for a trip across the Atlantic. Mr. Spafford stayed behind to deal with an unexpected business problem. He planned to catch another ship to meet his family in Europe. On that voyage, the ship carrying his family collided with another and sank. While Anna barely survived clinging to debris, his four daughters drowned and were lost to the sea. While being pulled out of the water, Anna it is said, knowing her girls had been lost, expressed confidence in the midst of deep grief that one day they would understand why.

When Mr. Spafford got word of what happened, he boarded a ship to join his grieving wife. On that voyage across the fathomless waters that had robbed him of his children, H.G. Spafford penned the lyrics to the beautiful hymn, “It is Well with My Soul.”

The creation has indeed been subjected to futility, but not without hope.

 

 

How Much Do You Think of Yourself?

Someone once asked me what I hear in my head in the dark moments of life, in those times when I get down. What I hear is often, “you’re just not good enough, you are inadequate, and you just don’t matter when it comes right down to it.” I know I’m not the first or only person to feel that way.

One of the deadly sins we all have to be concerned about is pride. As the famous proverb goes, “Pride goeth before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18 KJV). I’ve experienced the pitfalls of pride, thinking too much of myself, in more ways than one. Nevertheless, an equally present danger is thinking too little of ourselves. We are not gods, but neither are we meaningless scum. Sloth is also a deadly sin, and part of the problem with sloth is that we can think too little of ourselves. We can think we and anything we can do for the good of others doesn’t really matter. Sloth is also associated with laziness, but it could be low self-esteem that actually inhibits truly humble godly activity.

Sometimes we can get frustrated and experience deep emotional pain when we feel like we and our abilities don’t really matter. This may come from ungodly and cruel criticism from others. Someone may ridicule and mock us when we try to contribute our talents to a cause. This happens in a variety of different settings, sadly, churches included.

At other times it may be self-criticism and feelings of inadequacy when we begin to compare ourselves to others. We may see the exceptional talent of others in certain categories that bring them more attention and feel bad that we don’t have those talents and the attention they seem to draw. We may make the mistake of thinking our gifts matter less to God and the overall good of the body of Christ because they seem to matter less to people. The truth is often those who receive the most acclaim among men, will experience the most shame at the judgment throne of God.

Encouragingly, the Bible tells us in terms of differently gifted people in the body of Christ, “the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable, we bestow the greater honor ..” (1 Cor. 12:22-23 ESV). Every member is important, and we need to encourage each other and honor each other accordingly.

Yet it’s easy for any of us, even some of the most talented, to think that we don’t really matter. Sometimes it may just be a simple matter of making the mistake of thinking that because we are so small in the whole scheme of the universe we don’t really matter. You don’t have to get too high above the earth to sense just how small we really are. sun and earth

Psalm 8 indicates that David certainly felt insignificant in light of the vastness of God’s creation when he wrote:

“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” Psalm 8:3-4

Yet in spite of how he felt so insignificant in the whole scheme of things, he went on to express faith in what is revealed about humanity in God’s word in Genesis 1-2.

“Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion 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 along the paths of the seas.” Psalm 8:5-8

The Bible tells us not only that we matter to God, but we also matter to the whole of creation. On the one hand it’s hard to believe, but on the other, when we think about how minor changes in ecosystems can make a big difference, we can begin to appreciate more our place in God’s good creation. There’s this video that shows what happened when they reintroduced wolves back into Yellowstone. It not only changed the wildlife, it also changed the plant-life and even the landscape.

The Bible is telling us that human sin and rebellion against the Creator not only negatively affects human social systems, but also the earth and the rest of creation. Genesis 3 tells us that curse not only adversely affects our relationship with God and other people, but also the earth. In Romans 8 Paul reminds us that the creation itself longs for humanity’s final liberation from sin. Salvation is not just about going to heaven when we die – I believe we do; it’ s ultimately about the renewal and liberation of all of creation from the destructive forces of sin and death at work in and through fallen humanity. When humanity is completely delivered from sin and renewed perfectly again in the image of God in which we were created, “the creation itself will also be set free from its bondage to corruption” (Rom. 8:21).

Our place in the whole scheme of things matters, collectively and individually. All of us in some ways have been and are still part of the problem, but by the grace of God through faith in Christ we can also be part of the solution. God’s love encompasses everyone, therefore he does not desire “that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). And each one of us, with the gifts, talents, and abilities God has given us, matter to God, to the church, and to the world.

Let’s certainly not think too much of ourselves, but neither let us think too little. May we use our gifts wherever we are to build up the body of Christ in love and watch God transform the world as we ourselves are being transformed.

“True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.”  ~ Rick Warren

 

Psalm 103: The Character of God in the Old Testament

Those who follow me on Facebook may have noticed I have been sharing a lot of excerpts from Psalms lately. As part of my spiritual discipline I read through the Bible regularly – sometimes over the course of a year, sometimes in less than a year. Sometimes it takes me more than a year as I also occasionally read the commentary in different study Bibles. Currently I’m on the slower track and thoroughly enjoying it.

Today as I read through a few Psalms, Psalm 103 was among them. Psalm 103 has been a favorite of mine for well over 20 years. It has been a favorite for my wife basically all her life. She had it memorized at a very early age. Psalm 103

While there are many different types of psalms such as hymns of praise and thanksgiving, prayerful laments, celebrations of salvation history, praise for Torah (God’s instruction and law in written form) and psalms of wisdom that resemble books such as Proverbs and Job, there are a few themes that come up repeatedly throughout as well. Those themes include the importance and blessing of covenant faithfulness, the promise and warning of God’s judgment of the wicked (see Psalm 1 for both themes), the hope of God’s salvation reaching all nations throughout the earth through the witness of Israel, and the loving, faithful, gracious, and merciful character of God, the Creator of all and the rightful Lord of all the earth and its peoples.

We certainly need to be reminded in these sad days of increasing racial tensions that God’s purpose in choosing the descendants of Abraham through Isaac and Jacob, was to eventually bring all the descendants of Adam, people of all ethnicities and races, back into covenant relationship with the Creator who revealed himself as Yahweh to Israel. Intriguingly, in a world where it’s all to easy to value one’s own ethnic identity over others, the heart of the chosen people’s own Scriptures reveal that God didn’t choose them because of anything inherently special about them over all other peoples. Rather God specifically says he chose them because of his own integrity and gracious character not theirs. Deuteronomy 7 and 9 make it clear that God chose Israel in spite of their stubbornness and rebelliousness because of the promises he made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

That promise and the election of Israel as his treasured possession was not just for their benefit, but also for the benefit of the rest of the wayward nations. The promise to Abraham was that in him and in his seed all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Gen 12:1-3). This is why prophets such as Isaiah hold out the hope and vision of the day when people from all nations will stream in to worship Yahweh.

Isaiah 2:1-3 (ESV)
“The word that Isaiah the son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
It shall come to pass in the latter days
that the mountain of the house of the Lord
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be lifted up above the hills;
and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth the law
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.”

This is also a recurrent theme and hope held out in the psalms.

Psalm 102:12-22 (ESV)
“But you, O Lord, are enthroned forever; you are remembered throughout all generations.
You will arise and have pity on Zion; it is the time to favor her; the appointed time has come. For your servants hold her stones dear and have pity on her dust. Nations will fear the name of the Lord, and all the kings of the earth will fear your glory.
For the Lord builds up Zion; he appears in his glory; he regards the prayer of the destitute and does not despise their prayer. Let this be recorded for a generation to come, so that a people yet to be created may praise the Lord: that he looked down from his holy height; from heaven the Lord looked at the earth, to hear the groans of the prisoners, to set free those who were doomed to die, that they may declare in Zion the name of the Lord, and in Jerusalem his praise, when peoples gather together, and kingdoms, to worship the Lord.”

We would do well to remember these things whenever anyone insists that some races are inherently superior to others or that some are inherently more evil than others simply by virtue of their skin color or ethnicity. Racism and racists of any variety have no place in the kingdom of the God. Anyone who can’t stand the thought of being in a multi-ethnic, multi-racial family can’t be a true member of the family of God that Christ has opened up to people of every nation, tribe, and tongue (see Rev. 7). The Bibles reveals God as the Creator of all peoples, who seeks to be reconciled with them. And the love of God for the world and all the peoples of the world flow from God’s very own character.

Psalm 103 is one of the many psalms that refer to the character of God, which makes him worthy of the highest and most exclusive praise among the nations of the world. Psalm 103:8 says, “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” This is a clear reference to Exodus 34:6-7 where God reveals himself to Moses.

Exodus 34:6-7(ESV)
“The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,  keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”

Psalm 103 and the plethora of other psalms that refer to God’s steadfast love and faithfulness all harken back to Exodus 34:6-7. This is the central and most important description of the nature of God in the Old Testament, which may come as a surprise to those outside the church like atheist Richard Dawkins and some inside the church, who think of the God of the Old Testament as a capriciously wrathful deity, a cosmic killjoy and malevolent bully. Listen to Richard Dawkins’ description of the god of the Old Testament.

“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” ― Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

Some Christian theologians unwittingly – perhaps some wittingly – echo these sentiments whenever they set up Jesus as a “corrective” in some sense to the way God is depicted in the Old Testament. But Exodus 34:6-7, which resounds throughout Psalms is the revelation of God in the Old Testament that was embodied most fully in the person of Jesus Christ. God’s mercy, grace, and forgiveness has always outweighed his wrath, but has never negated it altogether for the unrepentant wicked. But the gracious, merciful, and generous God of the Old Testament is the one who has always provided for the forgiveness of sins and who refuses to give up on his people and his promises. God love is revealed in his faithfulness to his word, which is why God’s love and faithfulness are mentioned together so frequently. As Dr. David Watson wrote about so beautifully, the nature and character of God is the basis of any genuine “generous orthodoxy.” There is nothing capricious about the God of the Bible, who is most fully revealed in Christ. And there is nothing revealed about Jesus in the New Testament that should give anyone the idea that God’s mercy negates God’s just wrath against the wicked altogether.

It is the character of God revealed in Exodus 34:6-7 that inspires the praise and thanksgiving found in the Psalms. Psalms 103 is a further exposition of the character of God revealed to Moses. This same God is the one who can be trusted to bless his faithful people and to punish the wicked as he has always promised. He is a patient and forgiving God, and will never turn any repentant sinner away. As Psalm 103:17-18 says: “But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep his covenant
and remember to do his commandments.”  

The later, by the way, in no way diminishes the grace of God revealed in Jesus Christ. After all it was Jesus who taught that those who will be welcomed into the kingdom of God at the final judgment will only be those who do the will of God. Those who claim the name of the God while rejecting God’s claim on their lives will be turned away as “workers of lawlessness” (Matt 7:21-27). The good news is God not only provides the forgiveness we need for breaking his commandments by the blood of Christ, he also provides the power we need to live a faithful life by his very own Spirit. God’s grace provides forgiveness and empowerment for holiness. In this the promise of the new covenant is fulfilled. God’s steadfast love endures forever! What an awesome and wonderful God we serve!

Psalm 103 (ESV)
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless his holy name!
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
The Lord works righteousness
and justice for all who are oppressed.
He made known his ways to Moses,
his acts to the people of Israel.
The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always chide,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
As a father shows compassion to his children,
so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.
For he knows our frame;
he remembers that we are dust.
As for man, his days are like grass;
he flourishes like a flower of the field;
for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
and its place knows it no more.
But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments.
The Lord has established his throne in the heavens,
and his kingdom rules over all.
Bless the Lord, O you his angels,
you mighty ones who do his word,
obeying the voice of his word!
Bless the Lord, all his hosts,
his ministers, who do his will!
Bless the Lord, all his works,
in all places of his dominion.
Bless the Lord, O my soul!

 

 

The Brevity Before Eternity

Psalm 39:4-6 (ESV)
4 “O Lord, make me know my end
and what is the measure of my days;
let me know how fleeting I am!
5 Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths,
and my lifetime is as nothing before you.
Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath! Selah
6 Surely a man goes about as a shadow!
Surely for nothing they are in turmoil;
man heaps up wealth and does not know who will gather!

Time flies! Life is short! Where did the time go?!

Recently my wife and I watched the 1981 drama, “On Golden Pond,” starring Henry Fonda and his daughter, Jane. One scene shows the family celebrating retired professor, Norman Thayer’s (played by Henry), 80th birthday at their summer get-away home. Much of the movie centers around Norman dealing with the issues of aging and knowing that his remaining days are few. At his birthday party when he’s asked what he thinks about turning 80, one thing he said was he never thought it would come so fast.

Indeed, time flies! The few verses from the psalm above is a reminder about the importance of pondering that fact and ordering our life accordingly. When we are young we’re more prone to feelings of invincibility. This psalm intends to break us from that delusion.Sunset over the sound

The truth is we live our lives in this world always on the precipice of eternity, no matter how secure we may feel. Just a couple of days ago, I barely avoided a major accident on the interstate that could’ve easily robbed me and/or my 14 year old son of our lives. There have been other times as well.

Over a decade ago, as I was driving home from work, a tractor-trailer veered all the way into my lane on a narrow country road. I was at a spot where there was a steep embankment to my right. I really didn’t have anywhere to go. The thought crossed my mind that this could be it. At the last second the driver swerved enough to barely miss me. The awareness that all that separated me from greeting my wife and family and meeting my maker was a split second and a few inches hit me even though the truck didn’t.

Life is short; and it is fragile. Nonetheless, we humans are prone to denial and self-deception when it comes to this fact. Throughout the ages we have come up with ways to convince ourselves otherwise.

One such way is to see life as cyclical. This involves the idea that each human is a small part of a broader cycle of life, and the life we now live is only one of dozens, hundreds, or a countless number of lives that we will inevitably live before we finally reach the highest level of ultimate reality. There are many ways people think of their inner selves, as separate from bodily existence. We seem to readily believe that we are inherently and independently immortal and self-existent. Other versions of this belief in our own inherent immortality are much more linear than cyclical. That is people convince themselves that their own inherent immortality guarantees them a continued or eventual peaceful and joyous eternal existence regardless of how we live our lives in the here and now. In some versions of this way of thinking all that is required for a peaceful eternal existence is to just die having lived with good intentions. In other words, as long as you meant well, it matters not whether you really lived well.

Interestingly, another way we are deceived is by convincing ourselves that our present life is all there really is. This is the personal philosophy that says life is short and this short life is all there is so make the most of it by experiencing as much pleasure and comfort as possible now.

But this is not why the Bible reminds us that life is short. The Bible reminds us that life is short, fragile, and fleeting so that the brevity of it can help us to live in light of the eternity of it, as paradoxical as that may sound. The psalmist and the rest of God’s word does not intend to give us the impression that the way we live our short lives really don’t matter in the long run, or that because life is short we should “just live it up” in a hedonistic sense.

The Bible tells us our lives are fragile and short to remind us that we are ultimately not self-sufficient, dependent only on ourselves. Indeed, we are completely dependent upon our Maker. Our lives are ultimately in his hands, and whether we live a faithful life of trust and dependence upon him matters for both the temporal present in this life, and for our eternal future in the next.

The way we live now, whether a life of trust and faith in God and his ways, or trust in ourselves and our material possessions, really does matter for eternity. In other words, the brevity of life in this world, is meant to prepare us for an eternity of life in the world to come. The better we live now, the better we will live forever, unless by “better” we mean rich in things of the world, but poor in the things of God. The Biblical hope of eternal life was never meant to lead us to believe that our short lives in this world don’t matter. The hope of eternal life should inspire and empower us to live a better life not only in this world, but also for the sake of this world, which God intends to redeem and renew.

I imagine that those few verses from the Psalm above played a role in a parable of Jesus recorded in Luke 12:13-21.

Luke 12:15-21 (ESV)
15 And he said to them, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” 16 And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man produced plentifully, 17 and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ 18 And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19 And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”’ 20 But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ 21 So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”

Life is short; eternity is forever. The brevity is meant to prepare us for eternity. Are you ready?

 

The Stranger I Know

Last week I helped lead a youth mission trip to an impoverished community in eastern, NC. We spent the week working on several home repair projects in and around Plymouth, NC. Our home base was at historic Plymouth UMC, where we slept on the floor on cots and air mattresses. We got a lot of work done, helped quite a few people, and had a wonderful time of fellowship, Bible study, and fun, even in the sweltering heat and smothering humidity. In addition to the folks whose homes we were repairing, we also got to meet many people from the neighborhood where we stayed in downtown Plymouth.

Everyone we encountered on the streets was welcoming and friendly. A couple of evenings, I and another adult leader took the kids to play basketball on an outdoor court a couple of blocks from the church. There were about 15 guys from the community playing full-court when we arrived. They gladly shared the court with us. They played half-court while our kids played on the other side. I thanked the guys on the other side for sharing the court with us. I used to play a lot of outdoor pick-up games myself in different places, including Winston-Salem, NC and Greenville, NC. I know what a sacrifice they were making by playing 5-on-5 half-court. When I thanked them they were all very gracious; one in particular, specifically said, “No problem, man. We’re all family.” He and another guy extended their hands to me and introduced themselves and I did as well. Again, everyone we encountered on the streets and in the neighborhood was very friendly. Well … almost everyone.

The next morning, after that first evening on the basketball court, I and a few of the other adults were outside getting the vehicles loaded up with the tools and refreshments we would need to work on our assigned projects and make it through the heat of the day without threat of heat exhaustion and dehydration. A young man, probably in his 20’s, was walking in our direction on the sidewalk on the other side of the road. I glanced over and noticed he was making a beeline toward us as he crossed the street and he didn’t look happy at all.

As he got a little closer I and the man standing next to me said, “Good morning!” For that we were barraged with a hostile array of insults and cuss words. “What the &^$# are you talking to me for? You don’t know me! F#$^ you! Mother-^$%&%s.

To that I said calmly, “What’s wrong with saying good morning?” To that he replied, “Didn’t your momma ever tell you not to talk strangers, mother-^%$%er?!” After which he challenged me to a fight. I politely declined and wished him a good day and didn’t say anything else. He kept walking and then challenged another of our adult leaders who was crossing the road to get some tools from storage. He just threw his hands up and walked away. Finally the guy departed and made his way on down the road.

It was quite disconcerting and disappointing, but that one guy was in no way representative of that neighborhood. He definitely had a chip on his shoulder and was obviously looking to make some kind of trouble. Why? I don’t really know. He showed no signs of mental illness, just a deep-seated anger. But was he right to say I didn’t really know him?

It’s true. I don’t know his name. Nor do I know what he had for breakfast that morning, or if he had had breakfast at all. As my fellow laborer, a lay leader from another church said, he looked robustly healthy and very well kempt. I certainly don’t know what his favorite food is or his favorite song or movie. I also don’t know who his parents are, or his grandparents, or where he went or goes to school. Neither do I  know what has happened to him in his life, how he may have been treated as a child by other adults, teachers, authority figures, or his peers. There really is very little I do know about him specifically. But why is it that he still seems to remind me of someone I really do know?

In that very angry and hostile young man, I was reminded of quite a few young men I knew who seemed to have a chip on their shoulders. I was reminded of the guys I knew who were angry and frustrated for a variety of reasons: past slights or ridicule, troubles at home, difficulties at school or with girlfriends, or because of injustices in society such as racism. I was reminded of guys who used to go looking for trouble, who used to pick fights with strangers just for “fun.”

I was reminded of our beach trip after high school graduation when a friend of mine, the friend I rode with to the beach in his little red Suzuki Samurai, getting into a fight with a stranger in the parking lot just after we arrived. He hit the fella so hard he had to be flown back home to New Jersey with a broken jaw and concussion. I was reminded of another friend, who while walking by a room with about five guys in it, complete strangers, started calling them names and before I knew it was flailing away at them in their hotel room.

Yeah, that one guy we encountered on the streets of Plymouth, although he was a stranger to me, as I was to him, still seemed to remind me of someone I know. In fact he even reminded me of me.

I remember having a bit of a chip on my shoulder as well, feeling like I had something to prove that could only be proven with bravado and clinched fists. I remember having a heart full of rage and how alcohol was sometimes the lever that opened the floodgates.

That guy really was a stranger, but he was a stranger that I somehow seemed to know.

The truth is because of our shared humanity, we really do know each other. I said, “Good morning!” in a friendly way because I believe that young man is created in the image of God just like I am. We are more connected than either of us could ever imagine I suspect, and we have a shared set of experiences simply by virtue of our humanity. He is a fellow human being, created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27), and for that and that alone, I know him enough to know that he deserves respect and to be treated as someone important. That was part of the impetus that had us there to help strangers in need in the first place.

I also know that, like me, that fella is a sinner, in desperate need of God’s grace. Because of that I can identify with and relate to his inner hostility. Indeed the mind of the flesh is characterized by hostility to God, which often translates to hostility to those created in the image of God, whether they be strangers or one from the same womb (Romans 8:7; Gen 4). I can also relate to the fact that he is not only a sinner like me, but one who has been sinned against. And like me and the rest of humanity, he is tempted to respond with personal vengeance, even against those he doesn’t know, rather than forgiveness.

In short, although I didn’t know that fellow from Adam, I did recognize him as one in Adam.

While as individuals we are all modern creatures, as Professor Jordan Peterson says, we are also simultaneously very, very ancient creatures as well. Even from a biological view point we all inherit traits and characteristics – some good, some bad, some neutral – from our ancestors, some very recent others anciently remote. We inherit culture and traditions too, some good, some not so much.

In Romans 5:12-14, the Apostle Paul reminds us that in Adam we all inherit sin and its ultimate consequence, death. In Adam we have not only a shared humanity in the image of God, but also a shared depravity in which the image of God in us is marred and distorted beyond our own ability to heal it. Romans 5:15-21, however, also reminds us that in Christ all can be healed by the grace of God to be justified and restored to a new life of peace with God and neighbor in him.

I really didn’t know that guy from Adam, but I did recognize him in Adam. And in Christ I also recognize him as one for whom Christ died and one, no matter how hostile, for whom I should pray and love.

 Matthew 6:43-48 ESV “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Our brief encounter there on the streets didn’t go too well. It could have been worse. I really don’t think there is anything we could have done in the moment to have won the fa19961217_1804491256232861_5459729361105122183_nvor of that particular young man. It didn’t take long to realize that conversation was going to be futile. Nevertheless, as word about the incident got around, I paused later that morning with the group I was helping lead in a roofing project to teach them about the importance of praying for those who may be hostile toward us and blessing those who might curse us. I asked rhetorically how Jesus told us to respond, then I shared his teaching as cited above. I led our group to pray through indignation for compassion, and that God would somehow bless that young man, touch his heart and transform his soul that he might experience the peace of God that surpasses all understanding, and be able to share that peace with others.

Sometimes it is said of people that they have never meet a stranger. Sometimes we don’t know what we don’t know; sometimes we don’t know what we really do know. I think there are a lot more strangers that we really do know than we realize.

 

 

Ordination and the Next Methodism

Last week I was ordained as an Elder in the United Methodist Church along with many other Elder candidates and a few candidates for the office of Deacon. The process to becoming an Elder in full connection is a long one. I began this journey 10 years ago. The earliest I could have been ordained was two years ago, but I self-delayed the intense written and oral examinations required to be approved due to some challenging life circumstances and a few qualms about the dubious state of the denomination. At any rate, I wanted to share a few thoughts about some of the vows I took during the process of being accepted into full connection during the clergy session and in the ordination service during our Annual Conference in Western NC. And piggy-backing on what others have shared about what the “next Methodism” should be like, I also want to share some thoughts on how these vows should be and can be taken more seriously in the future. (See others’ thoughts about the next Methodism here: Kevin Watson, David Watson, David Watson again, Scott Fritzsche, & Stephen Fife.)

During the clergy session at the beginning of our Annual Conference the Bishop invites the candidates for ordination on stage to answer historical questions of examination for Methodist preachers that go back to John Wesley himself. Some of the questions also seem to be a bit hysterical too as they often evoke chuckles from candidates, colleagues, and family and friends, such as the one that asks: “Are you in debt so as to embarrass you in your work?” With the exorbitant cost of higher education, including seminary, nowadays the debt question always evokes some chuckles.19576256_1788153057866681_480327071_n

I think the next Methodism certainly needs to find more ways to help ministerial candidates fund theological education and to train students on strategies to get by with less and reduce the amount of loans. Ministry is hard enough without the added strain of a mountain of debt. Thankfully, I was blessed that I didn’t have to borrow very much for seminary. What I did borrow to help with the transition from full-time gainful employment to a part-time local pastor salary while I was a full-time seminary student I, I was able to pay off entirely last fall. Nonetheless, as we find ourselves in an evermore missionary type environment, I think we need to seriously consider finding ways of educating and training ministers more efficiently, economically, and effectively. How is it in a day when we have the most educated clergy since Pentecost, we also seem to have some of the most Biblically illiterate congregations in history? With the technology we have today, surely we can train and equip clergy more efficiently and effectively.

More importantly, however, one of the other questions, actually the very first question asked of candidates in the clergy session is: “Have you faith in Christ?” That may sound like an odd one considering it’s being asked of candidates for ministry. But we must remember this comes from the Rev. John Wesley who wasn’t sure if he had genuine and complete faith in Christ even years after being ordained in the Anglican church.

In March of 1738 – about 13 years after he was ordained a deacon! – he wrote in his journal “I was, on Sunday, the 5th, clearly convinced of unbelief, of the want of faith whereby alone we are saved.” Wesley went on to contemplate quitting preaching. He asked himself, “How can you preach to others, who have not faith yourself?” His friend and mentor Peter Bohler insisted that he continue to “Preach faith til you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.”

Wesley took his advice, but for many weeks continued to struggle with heaviness of heart over his lack of saving faith. He consulted the Scriptures and the description of faith and the experience of salvation described therein and compared them to his own experience. He remained in a state of feeling weighed in the balances of the word of God and found wanting. Wesley understood faith in theory, but he knew he did not have it in his own experience. Rather than redefining faith to match his experience, he continued to seek faith as defined and described in Scripture. He sought a change in his own heart rather than denying the truth and changing the word.

On May 24th that year, still with heaviness of heart, he hesitantly attended a society meeting on Aldersgate Street in London. That evening upon hearing Martin Luther’s description of “the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ,” Wesley wrote, “I felt my heart strangely warmed.” I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation: And an assurance was given me, that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” Interestingly, the very next thing he describes is how he then began to pray with all his might for those who had especially despitefully used him and persecuted him.

From that moment on, although he was tempted to doubt, Wesley never again doubted that he had real faith, even as he recognized the need to continue to grow stronger in that faith. And that was the moment that really ignited the fires of Methodism as a movement and the Wesleyan revival across England that spread to America and around the world.

If Methodism is to really become a movement again, and if we are really going to see revival again, genuine faith and a call to real faith will be at the forefront. Wesley realized that knowing about faith doesn’t guarantee an experience of it in the heart as the real work of God. As he listened to the message of Luther on Aldersgate street, he finally received that precious gift of faith. Interestingly, it is Martin Luther who can also help us to ensure that our candidates for ordained ministry today have genuine faith in Christ alone for salvation and how to discern what specific shape it should take.

In his “Treatise on Good Works,” to correct misunderstandings of the doctrine of justification by faith alone which are still common today, Luther explained that genuine faith will be evidenced by the fruit of good works. He said faith in Christ is first a fulfillment of the first commandment, which is: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex 20:3). In the context of the storyline of the Bible this is because there is only one true God, the maker of heaven and earth, and all other gods are really just pretenders. The gods worshipped by the nations are not really worthy of worship. Only, Yahweh, the God who rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt, and who rescued Jews and Gentiles, all of humanity, through Jesus Christ, from slavery to sin and death, is worthy of worship. Hence, we are to love him with all of our heart, soul, and strength (Dt 6:5). From here Luther said obedience to the rest of God’s commandments would flow. He used the Ten Commandments to explain what are the good works for which  we are saved (see Eph 2:8-10). It’s also important to note that John 14:6, where Christ claims to be the only way to the Father, is a direct corollary of the first commandment, as Jesus Christ was the manifestation of the one true God in human flesh (see also Acts 4:12; Acts 17:30-31).

A person of genuine Christian faith should display a serious commitment to the first commandment and the first of the two greatest laws according to Jesus (Matt 22:36-40). Moreover, John 14:6, shouldn’t be considered controversial or embarrassing or in need of reinterpretation among those of genuine faith. So if there is a candidate for ordination who agrees with the modern day Lutheran (ELCA) pastor, Nadia Bolz-Weber, that the Wiccan goddess is Jesus’ aunt, and that other gods and goddesses are legitimate manifestations of the divine, can we really say they have faith in Christ? As I shared before, I was taken to a conference to listen to Bolz-Weber speak with many other young pastors who were also provisional members (i.e. commissioned but not yet ordained). Virtually, all of them thought she was a wonderful role model for United Methodist ministers. I do not!

We need to take the original intent and spirit of that historical question that Wesley asked more seriously. “Have you faith in Christ?” doesn’t mean do you believe in Christ as you define and imagine him. It means do you believe in Christ as he is revealed in the pages of Holy Scripture. Do you trust in him and him alone for salvation?

We have pastors in some of our churches telling their congregations that they don’t really need to believe in Jesus to be saved because everyone is saved already. We have some who are telling their churches that Jesus really didn’t rise bodily from the dead. We have others who are telling their churches that Jesus really wasn’t divine. A Facebook friend of mine, stopped attending his United Methodist church in California when the pastor said the Sunday after Easter that Jesus was not really divine, and planned to preach a sermon series from the Gospel of Thomas (a heterodox non-canonical text). In 2003, in spite of denying Christ’s virgin birth and his bodily resurrection, Bishop Joseph Sprague was cleared of heresy charges by Bishop Ough, the current president of the Council of Bishops, who obviously didn’t see Sprague’s heterodox beliefs as a big deal. Have they faith in Christ? Well not in the historical sense in which that question was originally asked. Not even close!Which brings me to some other questions I was asked about doctrine and Scripture.

We were also asked: “Have you studied the doctrines of the United Methodist Church?”; Do yo believe that our doctrines are in harmony with the Holy Scriptures?; Will you preach them and maintain them? In that same spirit we were reminded by the Bishop in the liturgy during the ordination service that we are called “to proclaim the faith of the church and no other” (p. 675 UM Book of Worship). Additionally, we were asked if we believe the Scriptures, the Old and New Testaments, “to contain all things necessary for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ and are the unique and authoritative standard for the church’s faith and life” and if we would be loyal to the church, “accepting its order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline, defending it against all doctrines contrary to God’s Holy Word.”

In all of the above there is an echo of the call found in the book of Jude to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (v. 3). The reason for Jude’s call to defend the faith is because of people who had crept into the church and perverted the grace of God into an excuse for sensuality, which the context clearly indicates involved sexual immorality. As the story of Balaam in Numbers shows, the promotion of sexual licentiousness is sometimes the lure into the trap of idolatry (Numbers 25:1-9; 31:16; see also Jude 1:11 & Rev. 2:14).

In our current climate in the United States, it is possible, perhaps even likely, that a candidate who would answer that historic question in the spirit of its original meaning might be penalized or viewed as in need of correction for not being “diverse and inclusive” enough in their thinking. Through the commissioning process I was deemed by at least one person to be too rigid in my thinking because I expressed my conservative views on sexuality in particular. That person also began to talk to me about how all religions are really just manifestations of the same divine ultimate reality. He used the parable of the blind men and the elephant to illustrate his point. Gods of other religions are just as valid as the god of Christianity he said. He recommended two books to “help” me. One was “Six Ways of Being Religious”, which really doesn’t argue what he was arguing, although it obviously leans in that direction. The other was “The Future of Faith” by the liberal Harvard theologian, Harvey Cox. In that book, Cox argues against orthodoxy and the creedalism that has attended it. He argues for a more “diverse, open, and pluralistic” faith rooted more in a mystical experience of an apparently more impersonal ultimate reality. He actually includes John Wesley in his criticism of orthodoxy and its historical proponents, which he views as corrupting what he believes to be the original, “more open and diverse” version of Christianity. He also argues for a faith based less on specific content than experience; in reality Cox just presents an experiential faith with a different specific content. The diversity and inclusiveness so often promoted in Mainline circles is often just another version of the syncretism that both the Old and New Testaments warn God’s people against.

This one persons recommendations to me, which he included in his official report, were meet with approval by those on the discipleship committee and were put on their report of my interview as official recommendations for me. “Have you faith in Christ?” answered according to its original intent actually might put a candidate going before a board of ordained ministry in the U.S. and some other places in the category of “needing help and correction.” These things out not be!

The next Methodism, whatever that ends up being, if it is to become a Holy Spirit fired movement again, will have to take those historical questions more seriously according to their original meaning and intent. The faith required will require more than – albeit not less than – orthodox content. The faith required will be the kind that John Wesley, himself, received as the free gift of God on Aldersgate street a little over 279 years ago!

Click on the link below to listen to a powerful song by the Mark Swayze Band and let’s pray for that holy fire to fall upon the people called Methodists once again. Come, Holy Spirit! Bring us the faith to ignite the fire of revival once again!

https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=mark+swayzee+band+come+like+a+fire&view=detail&mid=96D4663D00D2EDBBD2E996D4663D00D2EDBBD2E9&FORM=VIRE