ISIS: Loving Our Neighbors and the Judgment of God

Posted by on Mar 23, 2015 in Apologetics, Contemporary Culture, Featured, The Gospel and the Christian Life

ISIS: Loving Our Neighbors and the Judgment of God

Old_Bibles-1.jpgFew issues are as volatile right now as the issue of ISIS. President Obama has stated multiple times that Islam is a religion of peace. While some strands of Islam may seek to have peace, the statement that Islam is itself unequivocally a religion of peace is a historical inaccuracy. Mohammed was a murderer who slayed not only his own people, but also anyone who got in his path that did not conform to his ideology. The true form of Islam isn’t peaceful; it’s always been violent. Any religion that views others as opponents to be dominated is not a religion that’s peaceful—it’s a religion of war. Islam desires war and to make everyone submit to what they believe. Now I realize that’s not what you hear on TV every day but it is a historical fact.

While Islam continues to be presented as a religion of peace; contrary to historical fact, the truth of the matter is there was once a man who committed terrorist’s acts against God’s people. That man was Saul who later became the Apostle Paul. Terrorists are nothing compared to the sovereign power of God. God can transform a terrorist and turn him into a bondservant of the Lord Jesus Christ. He did this with Saul, when He turned him into the Apostle Paul, a man who set the ancient Mediterranean world on fire for the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Christians have been called to love God and to love their neighbors (Matthew 22:37-40). God’s people have been called to love our enemies and to do good to those who persecute us (Matthew 5:43-48). Is it “wrong” for a Christian to pray specifically with regards to how they feel? Regardless, if one is comfortable or not praying the imprecatory Psalms, or whether they become a core of our prayers, such an approach should remind Christians that the world is full of injustice and God is just. With this understanding, the Christian can leave the wrongs that others have delivered to them in the hands of a Sovereign God.

Too often today the love of God is highlighted apart from the holiness and justice of God. The imprecatory Psalms highlight the anger or wrath of God. Furthermore, the Old Testament is replete with examples of God’s justice. Once a year on the Day of Atonement, the high priest would enter into the Holy of Holies to offer atonement for the people of Israel. Before the high priest went into the Holy of Holies, the other priests tied a rope around his ankle so if any of the prescriptions and regulations the Lord had established had been violated, the priests could pull out the high priest’s dead body.

The imprecatory Psalms are part of Scripture. God is holy and loving. The God of the Bible is a God of justice who demands retribution to be paid for man violating His law, commands, and statutes. The imprecatory Psalms reveal a God of justice. With that in mind, the reader of the these Psalms needs to know the rest of God’s attributes, along with the fact that the God of the Bible is not primarily interested in smiting people, and sending them to hell.

When the totality of Scripture is examined, the God of the Bible emerges as a God who is loving, just, and holy. His holiness demands that He deal with sin. His love compels Him to pardon sinners who come to Him in faith. While the imprecatory Psalms highlight a crucial aspect of the attributes of God, the reader also needs to know the story line of the Bible which focuses on the redemptive work of Jesus Christ.

Matthew 5:43-48 is clear that we are to love our enemies. The supreme command for the Christian is to love God and their neighbor (Matthew 22:37-40). Jesus in Luke 6:27 declares, “But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.” Christians can pray the imprecatory prayers, but they cannot act on what they are praying. For example, someone could pray, “I feel this way about this person God” (insert how they feel here about this person, people group, etc.), but they are not allowed to act on those feelings on their own accord. I would also counsel people to not tell someone that you’ve prayed for them in such a way. The Christian can pray the imprecatory prayers with the understanding that ultimately what they are desiring is God’s sovereignty to reign in that situation. Our goal as Christians should be to love God and one another. With that said the Christian is to “feel” how they feel, but they must express those feelings primarily towards God with a focus on His will to be done on earth.

One weakness of the diary approach to the imprecatory Psalms is it doesn’t take these Scriptures seriously. Imprecatory prayers are more than just a “diary approach” where people share their feelings. Instead, they reveal a God of justice. While the imprecatory Psalms passionately express how the Psalmists felt, they are also part of the Scriptures. As part of the Scriptures, they reveal an essential aspect of God’s character, namely His holiness and justice. Undergirding the imprecatory Psalms is the idea that vengeance belongs to the Lord. The Lord will mete out His justice in His time and according to His sovereign purpose. As such, while the Christian may/should pray imprecatory prayers, they also need to trust the sovereignty of God. When all of this is considered, we come to understand now that He alone will executive His justice on the wicked in His own timing for His own glory.

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The Cruciformed View of Wisdom and Power

Posted by on Feb 25, 2015 in Church, Contemporary Culture, Featured

The Cruciformed View of Wisdom and Power

The Cruciformed View of Wisdom and Power

cross_sunset.4.lrLiving in a pluralistic society where relativism is the norm it is inevitable someone is going to be offended. Those of us who live as witnesses of the Crucified Christ know all to well that mentioning the statement “Jesus is Lord” is a cultural “no-no.” If you announce this you’ll likely be labeled as “narrow-minded” or just simply someone who hasn’t progressed far enough into the changing culture. Christians must, so the argument goes, stop being judgmental and be more inclusive of others. It is unfortunate that many who claim to follow the Crucified One have bought into that argument. The word of the Cross that was once a scandalous proclamation has been simply reduced to a civilized opinion.

The message of Christianity will cause an offense. The truth claim that Jesus Christ, the Lord of the world, died in the place of sinners on a cross will ruffle the feathers of a secular world. I’m convinced one of the main reasons for this is – to be honest is the message of the cross is utter nonsense to those who don’t believe the gospel. I’ve been asked countless times, “Do you really believe that Jesus died and rose from the dead?” As if by believing in that truth claim, I’ve traded my critical thinking skills for a kindergarten fairytale. To believe in this truth, however, doesn’t require one to empty their mind. Instead, it will require one to surrender their preconceived ideas of power and wisdom.

Folly to the Perishing

Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 1:18, ” For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” It is here that one begins to see the “madness” of the Christian message. Note that the “word of the cross” produces two effects: folly to the perishing and the power of God to those being saved. This message by application puts all of humanity into two categories: those perishing and those being saved. The classification is determined by one’s response to the message.

The first effect that is produced by the gospel is folly to the perishing. The context Paul is writing into is extremely important. The Apostle is writing to the churches in the city of Corinth. A city that was as Leon Morris said, “intellectually alert, materially prosperous, but morally corrupt.”[1] Greek wisdom and philosophy filled the minds of those who walked the streets of Corinth. It is here where we must see the cultural conflict with the gospel. The message of the cross in the Greco-Roman culture was complete madness. While there may have been a few Greco-Roman stories about gods dying and rising again it was ludicrous to suggest that a god would die a criminal’s death on a cross. To advocate “that the one pre-existent Son of the One True God, had appeared in very recent times in the out-of-the-way Galilee as a member of the obscure people of the Jews, and even worse, had died the death of a common criminal on the cross, could only be regarded as a sign of madness”[2] as Martin Hengel concluded. The cross is a complete paradox. It doesn’t make any sense to those who are perishing – it is nonsense. This is why the message of the cross is hard for people to believe. Why in the world would God send His One and Only Son to die on a cross? It is this very point that circumvents our understanding of God and the way He reveals Himself to the world: the cross is the highest revelation of God’s wisdom, which stands in opposition to the wisdom of the world.

The Wisdom and Power of God

The cross challenges our understanding of power and wisdom. In a world that prides itself on human reasoning and strength the cross of Christ pushes against those ideas, redefining what true wisdom and power actually look like. It is in the message of the cross that the power of God is revealed. David Garland explains, “In this case, ‘power’, refers to the effectiveness of the cross to make God known to humankind, to accomplish salvation, to defeat evil, and to transform lives and values.”[3] This salvation wrought in the death of Jesus reveals God’s power and wisdom. The question is asked, “Why in the world would God reveal Himself this way?” The answer is simple: God is wiser and stronger than us. The reality is as sophisticated and relational humans, we seek to save ourselves a different way; a way that doesn’t involve a bloody naked man on a cross. A way that was more civilized; a way that wouldn’t offend anyone. We would write and distribute our tracts proclaiming to all that good moral deeds and tolerance are the requirements for salvation. This is the wise thing to do. That wouldn’t offend anyone. That message is more inclusive.

Yet it is through the foolishness of the cross that God is shown wiser than man. It is in the weakness of the cross that God demonstrates He is stronger than man. We could say that God has “outsmarted” all of humanity by revealing His wisdom and power through the death of His Son on the cross. As we attempt to think of a better way to save ourselves, God has already provided the most powerful instrument of deliverance. The symbol that was once a scandal has now become the symbol of salvation. By Christ taking upon Himself the wrath of God, the sins of His people, and dying in their place, He revealed, His divine rescue mission for the world. The Crucified Christ redefines His people’s understanding of God and the way He works in the world. The all-supreme Son of God condescended to the lowest point of humiliation possible – dying on a cross in the place of sinners. The power and the wisdom of God are revealed in the Crucified Christ.

Cruciformity as a Way of Life

Since the cross redefines our understanding of power and wisdom we have a choice to make. Do we surrender to this biblical understanding or do we continue living our lives the way we always have? This is where the rub occurs. One can only know God through God’s wisdom. Human means – power and wisdom – to God fall short of obtaining salvation. Salvation comes through the exclusivity of the Crucified One. This message is the means through which God saves. Listen to Paul as he said “but to us who are being saved it is the power of God..” Garland once again said:

“the herald’s task is not to create a persuasive message at all, but to convey effectively the already articulated message of another. The message is God’s and it is conveyed by means that look weak, foolish, and unimpressive to the world. Carrying a placard announcing the crucified Messiah as the glory of God in simple unadorned words makes the herald look foolish in the eyes of the world. But such foolishness reveals that God, not the messenger, is to be credited for saving those who believe the message.”[4]

The preaching of the cross is foolishness to the wisdom of the world. This ought to be a great encouragement to those communicating this message in a world that won’t understand in the first place. The means, message, and messenger are to be conformed to the Crucified One. This is the way of cruciformity, which is the practice of increasingly living our lives in conformity to the cross. In a world that proclaims its own form of power and wisdom, we must as people of cross, preach the foolish message as foolish people. It is through this foolishness that God reveals His wisdom. The offensiveness of the gospel in a pluralistic world is unchanging; even as the message is the power of the Crucified Christ to save, sanctify, sustain, and glorify His own people, for His glory.

[1] Leon Morris, 1 Corinthians TNTO (Downer Groves: Intervarsity Press, 1985), 22.

[2] Martin Hengel, Crucifixion (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977), 6-7.

[3] David Garland, 1 Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 62.

[4] Ibid.,68.

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Three Ways Pastors Should Address Cultural Issues from the Pulpit

Posted by on Feb 7, 2015 in Apologetics, Contemporary Culture, Featured

Three Ways Pastors Should Address Cultural Issues from the Pulpit

bible-199x3001How do pastors preach on contemporary cultural issues? Or should they? This is a question every pastor faces as he contemplates both the spiritual needs of his congregation, the questions swirling in society, and the weighty commission to preach the Word of God. When I pastored, I constantly wrestled with when to address certain topics, how to address them, and in what format. I’ve also observed and watched pastors of large and small churches organize their preaching. Here are a few ways I’ve seen pastors address contemporary cultural issues:

1) Textual: Personally I feel the most healthy way for pastors to structure their sermons is through the systematic preaching of Bible books. Expository preaching guides a pastor along, presenting to him every Sunday the text he is to preach, not the text he wants to preach. It helps avoid the kind of cut and paste approach we often take to favorite verses and help the hearer soak in the cultural background, the context, and the biblical author’s original intent. There is a richness to studying an entire book. What’s more, it prevents us from skipping over texts that are difficult or controversial. So how does this kind of preaching lend itself to addressing contemporary cultural issues? It simply forces us to address what the text addresses. It’s nearly impossible to preach through a book of the Bible and not hit on a contemporary cultural problems. The key for application is to not apply the text in ways the congregation is already assuming, but in ways they aren’t. We shouldn’t aim for Amen’s from people who already agree, but to find ways in which they will be provoked to think differently. So, for instance, preaching on the Great Commission in Matthew forces God’s people to think through what it means to “make disciples of all nations.” How does this affect our view of different people groups, of immigrants? Preaching through Genesis forces us to think through our views of the sanctity of human life. James confronts our attitudes toward the poor. Peter counsels God’s people about their posture as counter-cultural “exiles” representing the Kingdom of Christ.

2) Topical: Though I favor expository preaching as the majority of preaching content during regular worship, I do believe there are occasions for topical messages on cultural issues, particularly during times of heightened awareness, such as a dominant news story or special Sundays (Sanctity of Life Sunday, etc). I think this can be done in a well-thought out way. Sometimes this kind of message is called for if it is a time of crisis and the particular subject people are thinking about. There are ways to do this well, I think. First, even topical messages should be grounded in a specific text, if at all possible, to prevent proof-texting. Some issues are easier to do this on than others. With some topical sermons on cultural issues, it’s helpful to walk through the development of an idea as it moves through the canon of Scripture. I’ve also seen pastors do a topical series on cultural topics. This can be done well also, but we should guard against picking topics that conform to our own political positions or topics that we know will automatically get Amen’s from our audience. We should be holistic and address topics that the Bible clearly addresses, regardless of how they might be perceived by the audience. I think it’s also important, during a series like this, to teach the congregation that the choice of cultural issues to be discussed is not exhaustive and that the Word of God is driving the messages, not a set of talking points from a political party or movement. Pastors also need to work hard at separating their personal political opinions from what God has declared in Scripture. What God’s people need from the pulpit is to hear from the Word of God not from a carbon copy of what they get from cable news or talk radio.

3) Shoehorn: A shoehorn is a hybrid between a textual message and a topical message and it’s something I was often tempted to do as a pastor. It goes something like this: You have your preaching calendar worked out for the entire year but something big comes up and you want to address it so you find a clever way to make the text you are assigned to preach speak to the current cultural moment. I don’t advise this. People can always tell when you’ve shoehorned something into the text that isn’t there, making the text say something that it doesn’t say. Better to do one of two things: a) if you deem the current cultural moment important enough to address it on Sunday morning, offer a 5-10 minute intro before your sermon where you stop and say something like, “We are going to continue through our current series, but I felt it important to address this . . . .” b) schedule a special time for a talk on the subject or c) send an email or post a blog with your thoughts on the subject. d) if it’s really, really important, change your Sunday morning message and adjust your schedule. I think this option should be used sparingly, otherwise, you become a slave to the news cycle rather than a servant of the text of Scripture.

Other ways to address cultural issues: 

There are other ways to address cultural issues than the Sunday morning worship time. For instance, churches could schedule a series of classes or talks on specific issues. Tim Keller has done this with great success at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, building an event around a particular topic. Matt Chandler has also done this at Village Church in the Dallas Fort Worth area with forums on weeknights. I’ve seen other churches do similar things. I kind of like this format. It allows the church to go deep on particular issues in a way that may not fit for a Sunday morning series. It might also allow the church to leverage expertise from the congregation or from outside the church, giving people the opportunity to hear important perspectives from issue experts.

The church may also see fit to partner with other evangelical churches in the area to host a conference on a particularly important cultural issue or point their people to conferences hosted by other Christian organizations. Other ways to educate and inform people is through targeted teaching in small group sessions, book studies, and the use of the church’s online media (blogs, videos, podcasts).

Bottom line: Pastors should not ignore cultural issues, but should shepherd their people well by helping them think through issues biblically. There are ways to do this through faithful application of the text of Scripture.

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Three Ways Christians Should Process the News Headlines

Posted by on Feb 2, 2015 in Contemporary Culture, Featured, The Gospel and the Christian Life

Three Ways Christians Should Process the News Headlines

bible-199x3001We live in a time where we are exposed to more news headlines than at any time in human history. In the ancient days of news, anchors checked the AP newswire for stories and reported on them and people in their homes watched or people in their cars listened to radio. Today, everyone, is essentially checking the wire, all day, through social media. We also live in a time when it’s has never been easier to publicly express an opinion. Before the Internet, if something happened, you might have picked up the phone to call someone or perhaps you might discuss it at work, around the water cooler. But today we are all pundits, all with commentary on what is happening right now.

Quite often this new reality is leveraged for good. If a disaster strikes, more people can be informed than in previous generations. Social networks can be good conduits for raising money for important charity, for networking and communicating with wider groups of people. In many ways, the new paradigm has flattened leadership, forcing organizations to be more transparent and less hierarchical. All this is good.

Still, followers of Christ need to think through how they process the news, particularly how we react to the headlines that come across our screens every day. Here are three tips I think that might help:

1) Don’t react to headlines, get the full story. I think James 1:19 is instructive here. If I could paraphrase, I’d say we should be “swift to hear, slow to tweet, slow to outrage.” We often get it backwards. Two things work against us slowing down and getting the story right: confirmation bias and our need to be the first and most clever to speak. First, because we can tailor our news intake (more on that below) to our specific point of view and bias, we tend to gravitate to news headlines that confirm what we already want to believe about people and personalities we might not favor. Secondly, there is a human instinct to want to be the first to comment and to have the most clever reaction (measured in retweets). There is an inherent danger in being so reactive to headlines. If you have not read the full story and, perhaps, ready other stories about the topic, a quick reaction can make you appear foolish. It also works to divide the Body of Christ. There is nothing wrong with principled, sharp engagement with news stories. Christians need thoughtful commentary on cultural events, but we need it to be critiquing things that actually happened, not caricatures of things that happened. There’s a difference here. Before you start a brushfire online, before you email your allies with damning information about someone with whom you disagree, before you forward and post negative things, make sure you are actually getting the full story.

2) Don’t consume news from only one point of view. It’s a good habit to follow, on Twitter and in our other consumption of news, people from other “tribes” (though I hate that word now) and from other ideological perspectives. It’s good to have a mix of people in your twitter feed: advocates, opponents, and straight-up journalists. This gives you a much more nuanced view of what is actually going on. It also keeps you from tin-foil hat conspiracy theorists that seem to dominate on all sides of various issues. You should also have an operating principle of not reacting to a story unless you’ve read two or three versions of it from diverse news outlets. In other words, don’t just take the news story that best confirms what you already believe about something or someone. Get the full picture here. I can think of one story in particular that I thought was newsworthy, even worth commissioning an article for ERLC. But then I asked a few folks, read a few more articles, and realized there was more to it.

3) Try to see the human side of the news. This is especially important when news stories involve personalities, whether politicians or preachers. There’s a lot of tabloid journalism out there, both in the larger culture and in the church world (unfortunately). Remember that the person you are about to destroy online with a clever hashtag probably has a family who can google their name. Do you want to be the one who caused their daughter pain? Followers of Christ should operate by different principles. This should have two effects on our public witness: First, when expressing public disagreement, we are to consider every person, even those with whom we viscerally disagree, as people created in God’s image and worthy of respect (James 3:9; 1 Peter 2:17). We’re also supposed to be especially charitable to fellow Christians (Galatians 6:10). Finally, to knowingly spread false witness about someone by not getting the facts right says to the world that we don’t value some humans like we value others. It’s also sin. All of us are wise to consider our platforms and how we are influencing those who follow us.

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Authentic Living in Christ

Posted by on Sep 8, 2014 in Apologetics, Contemporary Culture, Featured

Authentic Living in Christ

static.squarespace.comAuthenticity is a buzz word. Do a search for authentic living and you’ll find thousands of articles explaining how to do it—from secular, eastern, western, traditional, progressive, and missional perspectives. Each of these groups offers a different liturgy (religious or not) and also a different vision for what living authentic looks like. Christians must not only know right doctrine, but must know right liturgy and right story and also the heterodox liturgies and stories to rightly make, mature, and multiply disciples. Here’s a few examples of heterodox liturgies and stories prevalent today.

Within the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual, Transgendered, & Queer) community, living authentic to your true self is a crucial element to their liturgy. It’s a crucial plot point and character maturation in the story of living authentically as a LGBTQ person—with all that includes. There’s heavy importance in coming out and also negative (mostly) implications to outing someone who’s not ready. As a Christian, it’s interesting that many Christians who struggle with same sex attraction and speak out about it openly, but aren’t out and proud are treated as Uncle Tom’s of the LGBTQ community. They’ve bucked the liturgy and are excommunicated from the community because of it.

One more example. recently the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby and in several venues, social media platforms, and blogs I saw people who were arguing against the ruling. Many of these arguments centered around the perceived restriction of authentic living by an employer. “Who is my employer to tell me how I should live in such intimate matters?” Or “Women should be able to have sex without fearing that it will negatively impact their lifestyle.” Or “If my employer doesn’t provide me all options of contraceptive, then I don’t have access to contraceptives and that impedes my freedom.” There’s an implied point that authentic living as a modern person includes freedom of sex without responsibility and repercussion. Authentic living is cooked down to sexual freedom. In this liturgy, freedom of sexual exploration and exploitations without consequence is the truly authentic vision of the good life.

There’s something strong and wrong in these liturgies and stories. Even when irrational, even when proven to have negative consequences, people embrace these lifestyles and argue for them because the liturgy has engaged their hearts. There’s truth, in some way, that we are meant to live an authentic life—although Christians would argue this must be tied to Jesus Christ. But authentic living as defined by our current society would be chaos. A society ruled by the passions of what makes me feel authentic is dangerous because it’s subjective. There’s no foundation for right and wrong—only what I perceive as authentic to me as an individual. And who are you to tell me otherwise?

Christians cannot combat these affective liturgies and stories with rational arguments alone. We must engage the hearts which once won will win the head. James K. A. Smith in Desiring the Kingdom says, “Lived worship is the fount from which a worldview springs, rather than being the expression or application of some cognitive set of beliefs already in place” (136). Think about it. How many times have you heard, “Christians are such hypocrites because they believe x, but live this way.” In most cases, what we love shows by how we act and makes more of an initial impression on people than what we say we believe.

The early Christological debates of the church underscore the truth that our hearts guide our head. The ancient church had always worshiped a Triune God. They had always worshiped Father, Son, and Spirit as “one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the persons, nor dividing the substance . . . But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is all one, the glory equal, the majesty co-eternal” (The Athanasian Creed). But the doctrinal clarity wasn’t there. It took centuries to formulate clear, succinct statements of faith for what the church had been practicing clearly and succinctly, for what had already grabbed their hearts in the liturgy and worship of the church. The affective worship of the church liturgy played a crucial role when came time to decipher orthodoxy from heresy.

What we must understand today is not only that authentic living is living in Christ (it absolutely is), but that we must make that truth beautiful—it must stab our hearts. We must tell it in stories that affect the heart. We must practice it in our liturgies (ecclesiastical and daily). Smith is helpful again on this point.

“While secular liturgies are after our hearts through our bodies, the church thinks it only has to get into our heads. While Victoria’s Secret is fanning a flame in our kardia, the church is trucking water to our minds. While secular liturgies are enticing us with affective images of a good life, the church is trying to convince us otherwise by depositing ideas” (127).

A few years back I was dialoguing with a young man who had rejected his parent’s Christianity and practicing the liturgy of the new atheism. During one of these conversations, he says: “My parents use to tell me that Christianity made things move like a car. If I didn’t continue to live rightly my ‘check engine light’ would come on and life would break down. Things have been better than ever since I’ve embraced atheism.” Among many problems, the parents were laying siege to the head, when the new atheism liturgy was conquering his heart. The new atheists were hard selling a picture of the good life to his heart—one which his parent’s rationalistic approach to Christianity couldn’t match.

I argued in a recent article that we must eat stories for life as Christian disciples. Part of that argument rests on the way God presents the gospel. Israel is enslaved in Egypt. She’s been in bondage for nearing 400 years. God has been mostly silently. Israel is disgruntled, angry, and skeptical. She’s bought whole scale the liturgy of Egypt. The Egyptians have sold Israel a defunct and moldy vision of the good life. Even after God redeems Israel, they occasionally murmur, “In Egypt, we had leeks, onions, and garlic.” That’s a head nod to the implicit liturgy of Egypt. It’s like saying, “Those were the good life. The slavery was a small price to pay for those.”

How does God redeem Israel? God comes in and gives them a proper lesson on doctrine, right? He swoops in and gives them the ten commandments. He says obey and things will work out for you. Not at all. He steps into their slavery and decisively redeems them. And he doesn’t just snap his fingers and have them appear in the Promised Land. He redeems them in a way that demonstrates that the Egyptian liturgy and its deities were a pile of steaming poop. He acts out a story that has kept the attention of young kids, adults, and everyone in between for millennia. We watch it go down slack-jawed. “He did what?”

He goes for Israel’s heart before he ever goes for their heads. And when God finally goes for their heads, when he finally gives the ten commandments and the rest of the law, he repeatedly says something like: “You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this today” (Deut. 15:15). Or hear Moses, when he reminds parents to rehearse this story to their kids so they don’t forget that God acted for his people (Deut. 6:1-2 see also Deut. 15:15):

1 “Now this is the commandment—the statutes and the rules—that the Lord your God commanded me to teach you, that you may do them in the land to which you are going over, to possess it, 2 that you may fear the Lord your God, you and your son and your son’s son, by keeping all his statutes and his commandments, which I command you, all the days of your life, and that your days may be long. 3 Hear therefore, O Israel, and be careful to do them, that it may go well with you, and that you may multiply greatly, as the Lord, the God of your fathers, has promised you, in a land flowing with milk and honey.

4 “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. 7 You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. 8 You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. 9 You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

10 “And when the Lord your God brings you into the land that he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you—with great and good cities that you did not build, 11 and houses full of all good things that you did not fill, and cisterns that you did not dig, and vineyards and olive trees that you did not plant—and when you eat and are full, 12 then take care lest you forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

He starts off with their affections. “I’ve acted for you. I’ve redeemed you. Now love the Lord your God with all your heart”—which is immediately followed with “And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart” (v. 6). Or paraphrased: Love me because I’ve loved you and placed that love on your hearts. Notice after this affective start, how he couches the teaching in tangible, earthy terms. God is painting a picture of the good life. He’s saying, “Teach your kids what I did—when you sit, lie down, or eat in the house (that I gave you freely). And when you get into the land—with its cities, homes, food, clean drinking water, wine, and olive oil (that I gave you freely)—don’t forget I redeemed you out of Egypt.” Love me because I’ve loved you and placed that love on your hearts.

That’s a tangible picture of what a Godward vision of the good life looks like. Even after redeeming them, even while laying hold of their mind, he’s conquering their heart, their affections.

Paul follows this pattern in his letters. Take note of Romans 6. Paul is arguing for authentic living in Christ—against the crummy liturgy of “the body of sin” (v. 6). He paints a picture of the Godward good life by drawing on imagery of death, burial, and resurrection and contrasting that with the liturgy of slavery under sin and the liturgy of grace in Christ. In The Contours of Pauline Theology, Tom Holland draws these imagery out making them clear,

“As Moses, in the Exodus out of Egypt, took the people of God, for they were united with him through baptism, so Christ takes those who have been baptised into union with him from the realm of sin and death. This baptism into Christ took place in his exodus, in his coming out of the realm of Sin and death. It was a baptism into his death that all believers experienced, in the same historic moment” (151).

And in his commentary Romans: The Divine Marriage, Holland elaborates on Romans 6,

“Paul already dealt the possibility of an accusation of guilt being brought against the church for entering into another marriage relationship (Rom 6:7; 7:1-4). Satan will accuse Christ and the church that their union is not lawful. Should the call go out: “if anyone can show any just cause why they may not lawfully be joined together in matrimony, let him now declare it, or else hereafter for ever hold his peace” he is read to cry out: “She is mine. She is already married.” It is into this awful scene that Paul confidently declares: “It is God who justifies!” The judge of the whole earth will accept there is a charge to answer, and Paul states why this is so in the next verse [i.e., we have died with Christ and have risen to new life]. Of course, if Satan cannot persuade believers that it was unlawful for Christ to take his people as his bride then he will find other means to charge them. The answer to all charges, whatever they may be, is: “Christ has died and is rise! Hallelujah!” (287).

What we miss so often when reading Romans, a book that’s majestically logical and structured, is that there’s a story here that grips the heart and its affection. In Romans, Paul is saying, “You were in an abusive marriage where you were treated as a slave and prostitute (Rom. 6). God became man and came to rescue you (Rom. 3-4). He put the old body of sin to death so that the old marriage was once and for all dissolved by our death in Christ and we are now raised in Christ a spotless bride (Rom. 6). Remember you have everything you need in Christ—you are justified, sanctification, glorified, and elected in him (Roms. 8). Oh Christians, see what God has done for you. How then should we live? (Rom. 12-ff).”

That’s authentic living in Christ. It’s doctrinally rich, but it’s driven through the heart. It takes seriously the truth that the Church is a story-formed community. A community where the law is built around love—love your God and your neighbor. Where God has put the law on our hearts (Deut. 6:6). Where God is concerned first with who and what we love because he knows if we love right, we’ll live right. Right affections will lead to mature disciples that multiply other mature disciples. And a church that returns to its root as a community centered on who and what we love will easily answer the corrupt liturgies of our culture. So let’s not forget to fight for the hearts of people, while we teach them to obey everything the Lord commanded (Matt. 28:18-20). Let’s remember how we have been redeemed and our common story (“God became man and did what?!” That’s truly a masterpiece of affective storytelling). Doing these things will help us disciple better as we engage skeptics and believers. We’ve got a better story, so let’s tell it and let’s aim for the head through the heart.

 This post first appeared at Mathew’s blog and is posted here with his permission.
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Three Ways to Pray and Support Persecuted Christians

Posted by on Sep 8, 2014 in Contemporary Culture, Featured, The Gospel and the church

Three Ways to Pray and Support Persecuted Christians

Pray-for-the-Persecuted-chains-1024x358

From Asia to Europe, Africa to Latin America, Christians are facing persecution for what they believe. We live in an increasingly hostile culture that no longer values the foundation upon which it was built—that is biblical Christianity. As I have been thinking and praying about this topic more and more recently, I have become increasingly burdened as I watch the growing situation in Iraq (with ISIS), and the increased persecution of Christians all around the world.

According to Open Doors USA, Christians are the most persecuted religious group worldwide. An average of at least 180 Christians around the world are killed each month for their faith. The U.S. State Department reports that Christians, in more than 60 countries, face persecution from their governments or surrounding neighbors simply because of their belief in Christ. Christians Solidary Worldwide reports that one of the worst countries in the world for persecution is North Korea. With the exception of four official state-controlled churches in Pyongyang, Christians in North Korea face the risk of detention in the prison camps, severe torture, and in some cases, execution for practicing their religious beliefs. North Koreans suspected of having contact with South Korean Christians or other foreign missionaries (such as those from China), and those caught in possession of a Bible, have been known to be executed. Open Doors explains that in forty-one of the fifty worse nations for persecution, Christians are persecuted by Islamist extremists.”[i]-

The statistics I quoted above paint a disturbing picture about our world and where it is headed. Thankfully, God’s people don’t have to despair, since we are a people with the hope of the gospel—a message that is the hope of the world. The Church has continued and thrived in the face of persecution from its earliest days and will continue to thrive as it is faithful to the gospel.

Expect Persecution

Jesus stated that in this world we would experience trouble and persecution (John 16). Paul told Timothy that anyone who desires to live a godly life in Christ will experience persecution (2 Timothy 3:12). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught the disciples that, “blessed are those who are persecuted” (Matthew 5:10-12). He also said to pray for our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48) and modeled the truth of how He expects His people to handle persecution on His way to Calvary. The persecuted church testifies of our need to get out of our “comfort zone” and proclaim the victorious work of our Risen Savior.

Be Aware of the Situation

Christians here in the United States (and elsewhere) can support our fellow brothers and sisters being persecuted by gaining knowledge of what is going on around the world. I recommend checking out Voice of Martyrs and other organizations like it that are doing heroic work for the sake of the gospel.

Pray for the Afflicted

Second, the Bible tells us in Hebrews 13:3 to pray for those in prison. Hebrews 13:3, “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body.” The preacher of Hebrews here gives his readers a profound lesson about those who were experiencing mistreatment and imprisonment.

Be There as a Friend

There are three ways we can seek to fulfill this verse. First, we can be there for others when life gets hard. The presence of a friend has been a boon of encouragement and strength to me in my Christian life.

Give Assistance as You’re Able

Second, we can provide direct help. Paul thanked the Philippians for sharing with him in his affliction by giving him money to carry on his ministry in other places (Phil. 4:14-16). By giving to him financially, they also encouraged him spiritually.

Most Importantly—Pray

Finally, we can care by praying. Paul’s closing words to the Colossians in Colossians 4:3-4 were an appeal for prayer. They could not visit him and money would have been no help at that time. By remembering him in prayer, they could support him powerfully. Following’s Jesus’ example, who did not come to be ministered to but to minister, we should lose ourselves in the sustained, sympathetic, and loving care of others.

As Christians, we are commanded over fifty times to “one another” each other (love one another, prayer for one another, etc.). It is my hope and prayer today that you would join with me in praying for our persecuted brothers and sisters in Christ. Praying for one another is one way we can practically show the world that we love Jesus and one another (John 13:35). Get involved and speak up—your voice matters.

Photo Credit: Pray For the Persecuted Chains

[i] “Quick Facts About Persecution” ERLC, accessed August 1, 2014. http://erlc.com/issues/quick-facts/persecution/

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