Wednesday, January 24, 2007

What to Look For in a Church-Part II

In the last post we discussed what is most important when it comes to church shopping. We discussed how to go about determining what is most important. The conclusion was to look at what is most stressed in Scripture. The way to determine what is most important in Scripture is to do a study on the themes of the books of the Bible. The three themes that are most prevelant in the letters of the New Testment are 1. Unity/love, 2. Persecution brought on usually by evangelism, and 3. Doctrinal purity. In this post we will discuss the first of the three themes of the New Testament epistles (letters)-Unity.

Before we do this however I want to make one observation. Notice in the last post that the emphasis was on the Bible. A good one-sentence summary of the last post could be: If you are shopping for a church, look for one that is built upon the firm foundation of the Bible. What are you to look for in a church? You are to look for a church built upon the Bible. A church built upon any other foundation is unstable. Now, what we will be doing in the following posts is discussing what a church built upon the Bible actually looks like.

The first characteristic of a church built upon the Bible is Unity. This characteristic will take a lot of explaining, because we live in a society that worships unity. Unity, in our culture, is the end all be all of our society. What is the problem then? It is not good enough to simply use Biblical words. Athiests and God-haters use Biblical words all of the time, but they pour their own twisted meaning into these words. One of the best ways of learning the reality of this is by sharing the Gospel with a Mormon. Mormon's use the same exact words that Evangelical Christian's use. Words like justification, sanctification, regeneration, glorification are constantly being used by the Mormons. This is the main reason why Mormon's have found greatest success in converting Baptists. They use the same words, but the meaning they put on these words is completely different.

You see, it would not mean all that much if I said, "I believe in God," if by "God" I meant "trees." In actuality (if this were the case) I do not beleive in "God" I just believe in trees, but I say that I believe in "God" because I am making "God" and "trees" synonymous. Almost everyone who lives in America claims to believe in "God." But their definition of who God is is not the same as ours. So in reality, although they claim to believe in God, they actually do not. They believe in something other than God and then just use the name "God" to identify it.

In like manner, almost every individual in our culture claims to be sold out for unity. Most Christians who hear this get excited and say, "Wonderful, because unity is what Christianity is all about." When I hear a person say that they are sold out for unity, my first question is, "Ok, so what is your definition of Unity." 99% of those who say they are sold out for unity are not actually sold out for unity, they are sold out for something other than unity, but then, out of ignorance, call it unity.

Let me illustrate. I go up to a man on the street named George. I say, "Hey, what is the most important element of a healthy society?"

George answers, "Unity!"

I answer, "Unity? Cool! Let me ask you though, what is unity?"

George answers, "Hmm, I guess I haven't thought much about that. But if I would have to nail it down I would have to say that unity has to do with accepting the fact that there is no absolute truth. Unity can only be accomplished when we embrace the fact that no one is right and no one is wrong. We are all on the path of learning. Unity has to do with accepting and embracing everything said by another person or group."

Do you see the problem? George claims to herald unity, but in actuality he does not herald unity. He heralds something other than unity, but then calls it unity. This really is what the call of Sola Scriptura is all about. Being Biblical does not just mean using Biblical words, but using them the way that the Bible does.

So when the Bible speaks of unity, what is it talking about? First of all it is important to point out that unity has nothing to do with being ok that you disagree with other Christians on doctrinal matters. Christians are not to embrace doctrinal/theological diversity. I am not saying that we cannot be unified with those of different theological persuasions, rather I am saying that unity does not involve embracing doctrinal diversity. I find that so many in our culture embrace such diversity.

I do not know how many people I have heard say something similar to this, "It is good for Calvinistic Christians to be around Arminian Christians so that they won't over emphasize the Sovereignty of God. It is also good for Arminian Christians to be around Calvinistic Christians so that they will not over emphasize the freewill that humans enjoy. Without these two theological camps coexisting in Christianity we would probably be in a big mess." The same sort of statements are said about charismatic and non-charismatic circles of Christianity. "It is good for Charismatic Christians to be around Non-Charismatic Christians so that they will not get too caught up in experience. Likewise, it is good for Non-Charismatic Christians to be around Charismatic Christians so they will not turn the Trinity into a Dualinity by neglecting the role of the Holy Spirit."

This logic, at the outset, sounds good. The only problem with it is that it is not grounded on the logic of the Bible. The Bible does not prize doctrinal diversity, rather the Bible prizes doctrinal purity. Think about it. If Christians disagree on Christian Doctrine (which is what has to be true if we are doctrinally diverse) then at least someone has to be wrong. God never rejoices when Christians embrace false doctrine, no matter how helpful it can be in bringing balance to the rest of Christianity. God rejoices when Christians are faithful to the Bible. Christians are never to rejoice in untruth.

If doctrinal diversity is not embraced by the Scriptures, what then is the correct response to dealing with doctrinal disagreements? Pursue doctrinal unity! What is the difference between doctrinal diversity and doctrinal unity? Doctrinal diversity is where two Christians hold mutually contradictory truths. Doctrinal unity is where two Christians believe the same things. What I am saying here will not fair to well in a culture that idolizes diversity (in thought and practice).

Christians are commanded in Scripture to "think the same thing" (Phil 2), to "Be of the same mind toward one another" (Rom 12). Unity is not had through putting our brains in our pockets. True unity has to be worked for. True unity is something that is only accomplished through blood, sweat, and tears. Being committed to doctrinal unity does not involve overlooking your doctrinal differences. It has to do with working together to come to a deeper knowledge of the truth. Do you agree with your Arminian or Calvinist brother or sister? Don't pretend that you are pursuing unity with them by putting your differences aside. Fight for unity! Fight for being like minded. This, of course, does not involve forcing your Christian brother or sister to your position. It involves working as a team to better understand the Bible for the sake of the glory of God, the edification of the church, and the salvation of souls.

Do you see how far off we can be? Our ideas are shaped by our culture in ways that we do not even realize. It is of utmost importance that we are continually going to the scriptures to be told what to believe, to be shown where we are wrong.

We are commanded in the Scriptures to be like minded. This is not an option. We are to work for unity--true unity--unity based on thinking the same things. I am not saying that unity is not accomplished till you have worked out all of your doctrinal disagreements. What I am saying is that true unity produces a desire for like mindedness. True unity drives Christians to want to think the same things.

We have all heard people say similar things, "It's not about being right. It's about love." As in any lie, there is an element of truth in this. Love surely is the greatest commandment. However, true love rejoices in the truth. True love does not sit back with a smile when he knows that his bro/sis in Christ is holding to false doctrine, because false doctrine leads to anxiety, sin, a lack of confidence in God, an earthly mindset, deciet, false practice, false assurance, broken relationships, and many other things. True love pursue's the truth in unity.

The purpose of this post was to introduce the topic of unity. This introduction only focused on one small aspect of unity. I wanted to expose one of the most common misunderstandings of what unity is. The majority of Christians who are "all about unity," are actually not "all about unity." They are are "all about" something other than unity (doctrinal diversity) and then call it "unity." In the next post, we will look further into unity, what it is, how it is accomplished, and how to identify it for the sake of finding a biblical church.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

What to Look For in a Church

My wife and I just moved from Kansas City, Missouri to New Hampshire. One of the things involved in every long distance move is church shopping. Kristal and I have been scoping out Church websites on the internet since we decided to move. I have been faced with the challenge of finding the right church 4 times in the last 6 years or so. This is my fifth. This series will most likely have many parts to it (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 etc.). There are so many very important things to consider when looking for a church.

The most important thing to consider when looking for a church is Sola Scriptura! What does Scripture lay forth as the most important and fundamental elements of a healthy church? There is a time to get picky when looking for a church, but this has very little to do with that. I am asking, "What is most important? What should I be most concerned about?" When most people look for a church they are looking for all of the wrong things. Why? Because they are not basing their idea of what is most important on the Scriptures. Their main concerns are not the main concerns of the Scriptures.

I will give two illustrations. Have you ever heard someone say something similar to this, "What can this church offer to my kids? Do they have a good children's program, youth group, young adult ministry?" This may be important to some folk, but one must remember that children's ministries and youth groups are not even mentioned in Scripture. I am not saying that youth and children are not important, but I am saying that Scripture never puts an emphasis on classes for each and every age group.

Here is another aspect of church that many are most concerned about. "Well, we really like Church X, but I just don't get much out of their worship. I want a church where the worship is alive!" Once again, this can be a very important aspect in church life, but should this be of utmost importance when it comes to looking for a church? Of course not! How much emphasis does the Bible put on the style of music? Does the Bible even lay out the specifics of worship? Not really! You will find in the Psalms some talk about praising God with all sorts of instruments. Jesus tells us that His true worshippers will worship in Spirit and in truth. But this verse has very little to do with corporate worship. Frankly, the style of worship is never laid out as a test of the health of a church. Why then are people so concerned about it? Because something other than the Bible is shaping their idea of what is most important to look for in a church. This really is sad. Because nearly the entire New Testament is geared toward informing us of what is most important in church life.

It may seem that I am leaving the discussion here for a moment, but hold on, I will come back. At this point it must be asked, "Ok Jimmy, when I am looking for a church I must look to the Bible. But how do I know what is most important in the Bible? You tell me to look for those things that the Bible emphasizes, but how do I know what the Bible emphasizes? I mean, common, it is a big book." This is an excellent question. How does one know what the Bible emphasizes? The answer to this question is very easy, but it is hard to put it to practice.

The simple answer to this question is, "Well, what does the Bible talk most about?" The greatest way of discovering what is emphasized most in the Bible is by doing a study on the themes of the Bible. What was it that Paul saw as so important that he wrote a whole letter about it? Remember that the majority of the books of the New Testament are letters. Yes, when you read the New Testament you are reading someone else's mail. For instance, the Book of Galatians is a letter that Paul wrote to the churches of Galatia. Why did he write this letter? Because there were certain problems and situations going on in Galatia that Paul deemed important enough to address before his next visit. Isn't that interesting. We go to the Bible looking for what we think is most important. We read and read and read until we find something that appeals to us. This is completely wrong. We are to go to the Bible to be told what is most important. What did Paul deem most important? What did Jesus deem most important? We must adopt their view of what is most important if we want to be Biblical.

What we American Christian's usually do when we read the Bible is we sit down and read a chapter here and a chapter there. Many do not even do this. Rather they do topical studies (they study different topics that are in the Bible. You know, things like marriage, relationships, giving etc.). The nature of a topical study is to look at a whole bunch of verses that refer to the same topic. The majority of the time these verses are pulled straight out of context for the sake of bolstering the author's point.

Do you want to know the themes of the Bible? It isn't going to happen through topical studies (as helpful as they may be). You see, when the author of one of the books of the Bible sees something as so important that he writes a whole letter about it, we should lean in close. We should have our eyes and ears glued to him hanging on his every word. Why? Because the Apostle of the Lord is speaking. He is informing us on what we should deem as most important.

We often forget that the letters of the New Testament were written by real people, to real people, about real life situations. When Paul sat down to write the book of Galatians he did not say, "I want the Galatians to know where I stand on theological issues." When Paul wrote Galatians he said, "Oh poop! The church I planted in Galatia is being attacked by false teachers that are promoting disunity in the church. I need to warn them. I need to give them a heads up." The letters of the New Testament are not theology journals. The letters of the New Testament are dealing with real cutting-edge church life.

Let me illustrate what the Apostles were doing when they wrote their letters. I just moved from Kansas City. I sat under two of the most able Bible teachers I know of. I moved half-way across the country to New Hampshire to start a church. I stay in contact with the elders of my previous church. They see me as one of their brethren. They see me as one of their students (because I did an internship under them). I end up starting a church in New Hampshire. Well, the two elders I was under at Kansas City hear that there are some very influential men who have come into the church and start causing discord. They start teaching all sorts of strange things. How would (or should) the two elders in Kansas City respond? Lets pretend that we are in 1st Century Palestine before they have phones and email. The two elders in Kansas City are concerned about the well being of the church. They are concerned about their former student. So they get out a piece of paper and pencil and begin to write me a letter instructing me what to do. The letter may look similar to this.

"Dear Jimmy and the Church in New Hampshire,
Greetings from Kansas City. Christ Fellowship Greets you.
We have heard that many terrible things are happening in your church. We know how wonderfully you started out and are terribly grieved to see what is happening. There are a few things that we suggest you do... (so they give us some ideas on how to stop the false teaching), and here are some scriptures that might help you.
Please! Oh please do not let this discord continue in your church. You must love one another from the heart. Do not look down on one another. Kick that false teacher out of your assembly. Kick him out of the service before he does anything worse.
We are praying for you. Oh and greet the saints there. Last time we visited we had such a good time. Tell Sara that we are praying for her lost family still.

Christ Fellowship"

Does this at all look familiar? Does this not have the same form and feeling of the letters of the New Testament? Of course this would look a bit different today. We would probably just call each other up on the phone to save on postage. But this essentially is what the New Testament is. The letters of the New Testament are written to churches about church life. They are not written to individuals about their personal relationship with God. Even those letters written to individuals (1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon) are still about corporate life. It could even be argued that 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus contain the most foundational church life material in the Bible. This is what the Bible is. The Bible is not a theology book. Surely the Bible lays forth theological truth, but it is always for the sake of church life in some way or another.

What should we look for in a church? Well, what did the Apostles so vehemently push for? What were those things that the Apostles could not keep silent about in their letters addressed to, get ready, Churches!

Also, it is not enough to just hold to things that Bible holds to do. We must know why the authors of the Bible see these things as so important. This is why context driven interpretation is so important. For example, the book of Hebrews speaks more about the cross than almost any other New Testament book. WONDERFUL! But why? It is just as important that we know why Hebrews talks about the cross so much as it is that we just simply know that Hebrews talks about the cross. This is how we get to the themes of the books of the Bible. It is an asking, "Why would this specific author talk about this specific doctrine to this specific church that has this specific problem?"

We have a hard time in American Christianity seeing this corporate emphasis because we live in a culture that prizes individuality. But we must see that even those scriptures which are directed to individuals have as their main thrust some sort of corporate application.

I hope to, in a later post, do a study on the themes of the New Testament letters. In short however, what are the major themes of the New Testament letters? I believe there to be three main themes. Notice that some books have more than one theme. FYI: I am not putting these in the order of importance--They are all equally important.

1. Unity (love). This really is the major or minor theme in the books of Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, James, and 1 John. It is a sub theme in Hebrews, 2 John, 3 John, Jude.

2. Enduring Persecution, and usually in the context of evangelism. This is the major or minor theme of the book of 2 Corinthians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, Hebrews, 1 Peter, Revelation. One of the main sub themes in these books are a hope for heaven based on the finished and effective work of Jesus Christ.

3. Doctrinal Purity- This is the major or minor theme of 2 Corinthians, Galatians, 1 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, Jude. The emphasis in these books is being able to discern false teaching.

These are the three things that the author's of the New Testament were most concerned about. If you are considering a chuch that cannot be characterized by all three of these things then you need to look elsewhere. I am not saying that you should be looking for a perfect church. I am saying that you should be looking for a church that emphasizes what the Bible emphasizes. These are the three main criteria I use when I am searching for a church. Why do I use this as my criteria? Because these are the things that the New Testament authors pushed for with utmost importance in their letters to churches about church issues.

In the next few posts I will be discussing each of these three areas (Unity, evangelism, and Doctrinal Purity) in greater detail.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Is God Male or Female

The title of this blog is a ploy to get you to read it. I am not really going to be talking about the masculinity or femininity of God. BUT, read on!

I realize that I am not necessarily the most consistent blogger. I may write one post in a month, but then write 10 posts in a week. Because of this I am sure that it is difficult for some to follow. Some blog sites provide the option to have an email sent to those who regularly read their blog, unfortunately blogspot does not. This helps them know when a new post has been added to the blog site. It also helps them not to forget about the blog.

So, if you like to keep up with the things I write but have a hard time doing so I have an idea.

Send me an email saying that you would like to be notified whenever I put up a new post on my blog site (my email address is I will then send out notification emails (to those who email me saying that they want to be notified) whenever I put a new post on the blog site. BRILLIANT!

Oh, by the way, God is not necessesarily male or female. God is Spirit. The Bible surely does refer to God as "Father." The Bible also addresses God as a "he." But God is also described as one who is affectionate like a woman. Remember that God created man in His image. What does this mean? What I am about to say is not all that popluar. But, what does that passage in Gen. 1 say? God created man in His image "MALE AND FEMALE HE CREATED THEM." Many scholars have said that this is what it means to be created in the image of God. From the context of the passage it certainly seems plausible. Today we want "being created in the image of God" to be something that separates us from the animal kingdom, but does it? Or maybe it does. Because the differences between a human being female and a racoon female are quite different. The differences between a male salmon and a male human being are also quite different. Maybe we as humans, with the diversity that comes from our unique human male/female distinctions is what separates us from the animal kingdom. Maybe it is our unique human male/female distinctions that reflects the character of God in a wonderful way. Maybe our unique human male/female distinctions paints a fuller picture of the character of God than could be done by any other male/female distinctions of other animals. Anyway, just some thoughts.


Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The Complexities of Lifting Hands in Worship

Whether or not one raises his/her hands in worship is not a good test of spirituality. I am not saying that lifting up your hands in worship is not Biblical. I am just saying that it is not the test of spirituality. I have lifted up my hands on occasion during worship, but I always felt uncomfortable. Of course there was a fear in me that the people around me would associate me with the Benny Hin bunch, but the main reason why it was uncomfortable was simply because IT WAS UNCOMFORTABLE. My arms get tired. After about 10 seconds of lifting up my hands my arms start to fall asleep. I have some heavy duty arms and my lats are not quite in shape enough to hold them up for extended periods of time. I guess you could call me a weakling. I guess if I really loved the Lord I would go work out my lats a bit more so I could lift up my hands in worship. I am not knocking on you if you lift up your hands in worship. I am sure that that is a wonderful way of expressing your love to God. But honesty, isn't it kind of weird?

"I Love you GOD! And This is how I am going to show my affection for you! STRETCHING STRETCHING."

I am sure that sometimes God is up in Heaven saying, "WOW! Now that's devotion. He must really mean that song. I had my doubts. I had my doubts until I saw those hands in the air."

Why is it that those who raise their hands in the air only raise them at certain times in the music. When the music hits its high note? I think it is because they want to raise their hands, but they know they can't raise them for the entire song so they have to plan it out so that they don't waste their lat capacity too quickly. So they lift up their hands when the song seems to say something about our lost condition. Then when the song transitions to something about the deity of Christ they lower their hands. Then when the song goes to the death of Christ they shoot them right back up.

I think those who do this are afraid of looking like quitters. They are afraid of looking weak, so they conveniently take breaks when the lyrics are at their low. Doesn't this say something about the teaching in the songs we sing. I lift up my hands when I totally agree! I lift up my hands when I get REALLY excited. Well what about those times when you don't have your hands raised? Do you disagree with the teaching? Is that specific teaching boring? (By the way, I am being sarcastic).

I can remember the days when I had strong lats. I can remember lifting up my hands. I would lift them up and my arms would immediately feel awkward and tired. Similar thoughts went through my head, "What if I put my arms down now? I mean what are people going to think? I have only had them in the air for about 12 seconds. They are going to think I am a major quitter." So I would hold out until the theology of the song got boring again and I would let my arms down sssllloowwwllyy, very slowly. You know, with emotion.

We have all watched people lifting weights. I love watching someone lift too much weight. Their whole body begins to bend and shake. They can't quite get it up. I wonder if my body ever did that when I was trying to keep my hands in the air for too long? The guy behind me starts to position himself behind me.

What about the one hand in the air stunt. I think people do that when they don't love God enough to lift up both. I think it is a window into their spiritual life (I am just kidding). I was never so low as to lift up one hand alone. I am going to have a baby boy in a couple of months. The first thing I am going to teach him is, "HEY BOY! It is either two hands or none." I think that should be the rule. You either really love God (2 hands) or you don't at all. There is none of this one hand stuff.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Believing God Like A Child

Sola Scriptura has been the theme of this blog site. The Bible read in context is the only sufficient way of knowing what is true and what is false. One of the things that hinders a person greatly from fully embracing Sola Scriptura is previously held beliefs.

We have all heard it. "OH! I can't believe that. That goes against everything that I have believed my whole life. I can't worship a God like." First of all, never ever say, "I can't worship a God like that." God does not always meet our expectations (Lord willing, we will discuss the Character of God in a later post).

Let me share the first time I had to come to grips with the fact that the things I had been taught my whole life might not be all that correct.

I was a Jr. in high school. I had just decided to pursue the ministry. I started getting involved in church leadership. My older brother had just become a Christian and felt the Lord calling him to the ministry. He ended up going to a small Plymouth Brethren Seminary in Iowa. At this seminary he was introduced to all sorts of teaching that seemed strange at first.

One weekend he came home and told me that God chooses who is going to be saved and who is not going to be saved. He told me that God is in complete control over everything including salvation. Upon hearing this I immediately got angry. I said, "Luke, that goes against everything we have been taught our whole life. I can't believe that."

Luke answered back, "Slow down Jimmy! Do you know what Scripture has to say about this?"

I said, "NO! But, this goes against everything we have been taught our whole life."

With incredible wisdom Luke answered back, "Ok, I don't want to argue with you about this. I have become convinced of this through the Scriptures. What I want you to do is read Romans 9-11 and Ephesians 1 twice a day for the next two weeks and then come back and talk to me."

I immediately ran to my Bible. I opened it to Romans 9. I began to read, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.' So then it does not depend upon the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, 'For this very purpose I raised you up, to demonstrate my power in you, and that My name might be proclaimed throughout the whole earth.' So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires."

I just sat and stared. I read it again. I remember thinking, "I just know that this can't be right. There has to be another way of looking at this passage." I prayed a bit and read it again. Still I had no answer. I was stunned, but I was very reluctant to embrace it.

I went to bed that night saying to myself, "It just can't be right. It just can't be right." The next morning I got up and did as Luke told me, I read Romans 9 twice and then I read Ephesians 1 twice. I was stunned again. I sat there and stared at my Bible. "This just can't be right."

All throughout the day these passages were on my mind. After school that day I went straight home and read Romans 9 and Ephesians 1 again and again. Finally it hit me like a ton of bricks. "Jimmy, who are you to stand over the Bible and decide what is true and what is not? Do you actually think that your ideas of what is fair and true are better than God's ideas of what is fair and true. Last time I checked God is the one who defines truth and fairness."

Then it hit me even harder, "Do you think that God is going to lead you astray? What He has said in His word is right and true? Are you going to love God as He is, or are you going to refuse Him love unless he conforms to your ideas of what is right and true."

Finally I gave up. I said, "God, if this is who you are, if this is how you decide to rule your world, I want you to know that I will still love, serve, and obey you."

This was two days after I had the conversation with my brother. He just so happened to stop by the house that night. I went up to him and said, "You were right. I was wrong. God chooses. God is in control of everything--including salvation."

Then I began to tell him of how I had been dealing with it all. I started asking him the tough questions. "Luke what does this mean about our unsaved friends and family? Are you going to tell me that their only hope is that God chooses to save them? I mean, isn't that hard to swallow? Oh and what about hell? Are you going to tell me that God had the ability to choose everyone but only decided to choose some? Isn't that unfair. Doesn't this conflict with what we believe about the love of God?"

Luke's answers were so very helpful. He did not feel the need to defend what the Bible had to say. He simply said, "Jimmy, these things are important, and it is good that you are concerned about these things, but when God tells you that something is true you don't reject it because it is uncomfortable or because it is hard to swallow. I cannot answer all of these questions, but this does not minimize the fact this is what God has said in His word."

This, my friends, is Sola Scriptura. Many who are reading this right now will most likely reject what I am saying without even testing it to the Scriptures. Why do we think our ideas of God are more pure than the Bible's ideas of God? What I am teaching is child like faith. Do you have child like faith? Do you need to be able to understand everything fully before you will embrace it. Child like faith says, "My Daddy tells me what is true. I don't care if it makes sense to me. I don't care if it goes against the popular slogans of modern day Christianity. I don't care! My Daddy knows better than I."

Do you have this simple belief. Child like faith is not a rejection of the intellect. It is being told what to believe (by God through the Scriptures) and just believing it come what may. Obeying the call of Sola Scriptura can be so very difficult, because it is so very difficult for us to have faith like a child. We want to dig our nose in what God has said in His word. We want to manipulate it to fit our ideas of what a loving God would do or not do.

Call your life long beliefs into question. Test them according to the Scriptures as read in context. We all love the argument that says, "I can't believe that! It goes against what I have been taught my whole life." But what happens when we start evangelizing the Buddhist or the Hindu who says the exact same thing. "Come on Jimmy! I can't believe that Jesus is God. I can't believe that Jesus died for my sins. I can't believe that there is heaven and a hell. I can't believe these things because it goes directly against what I have been taught my whole life."

What would your response be? "Well Mr. Buddhist! Well Mr. Hindu! What you have been taught your whole life may be wrong. The only way to test if it is right or wrong is by looking at it in light of Scripture."

What makes you so different? Do you think that the things you have been taught your whole life are some how above the testing of Scripture because you grew up in a Christian home? Or because you had a wonderful pastor? Your parents are not infallible. Your pastor is not infallible. Only the Scriptures are infallible. Only the Scriptures can let you know if something is right or wrong.

So let me ask you, do you have child like faith? Are you ready to reject or accept anything as soon as you see it proceed from the mouth of the Father (proceed from the mouth of the Father=when you read in His Word)? Or are you too grown up to be a child of God? I love Sola Scriptura because I am far to incompetent to come to absolute truth on my own. I need my Daddy to tell me what is true and what is false.

Monday, January 8, 2007

Cliche- "I have a personal relationship with God" Part 5

Christianity is a religion of faith. For starters, we worship an invisible God. Well, how do you know He exists if you cannot see Him? You cannot prove He exists (Oh, and by the way, this is true, you cannot prove, scientifically, that God exists. And Hey, you don't have to). It is a matter of faith.

Jesus died on the cross for our sins and bought our salvation. Well, this is well and good, but how do you know that what Jesus did was effective? It is a matter of faith.

Jesus is God! Super! but once again, you can't prove it. Christianity is a religion of faith.

A believer's hope for heaven is enjoyed by faith. The fact that we have the Spirit indwelling us is a matter of faith. The fact that we have been risen with Christ to walk in newness of life is a matter of faith.

Hope in the midst of fear and death is a matter of faith. Those of little faith certainly cannot be Christians.

What I have found in my walk with God is that my relationship with God is strongest when, like a child, I embrace the doctrinal truths of Scripture. The more I embrace doctrines like justification by faith alone apart from the works of the law, the closer my relationship with God becomes. It is not about merely observing biblical truth, but it is about embracing it--making it your very own.

Having a right relationship with God has very little to do with "feeling" His presence. It has very little to do with feeling and hearing and seeing spiritual things. It has everything to do with embracing spiritual realities by faith. Is your faith so small that you need to "feel" the presence of God in order to feel close to Him. When you go to church, do you need to "sense" the presence of God in order to have assurance that He is there? Is the Bible not enough? Or do you need glimpses of the supernatural to trust the things that the supernatural has already said in His Word?

I am not saying that God does not come in these supernatural ways. I am not saying that God will never let you "feel" His presence (whatever that means). But if your faith in Him is determined by how much you are experiencing these sorts of things then you are not basing your relationship with God on Scripture. Your relationship with God is to be based on faith, not experience. God is not near to me as my wife is near to me. I cannot see or sense His presence. Yet, I know He is near just as much as I know that my wife is near. How? Because I trust what God has said in His Word.

Do I have a vibrant relationship with God. I am not setting my self up as some sort of spiritual giant, but I answer with a resounding, "Yes!" I am close with God. I have a wonderful relationship with my Savior. Yet, I cannot say that I have experienced His presence in a physical way. I have never "felt" His love, in a physical way. Of course I have been very emotional in the presence of God, but this does not mean that I "felt" his presence.

This morning I read the book of Romans for my quiet time. I got to chapters 4-5 and was floored by the love of Christ to me as demonstrated by His death on the cross. I guess I could say that I "felt" the love of Christ. But I did not "feel" the love of Christ in the same way that I feel the love of my wife when I look in her eyes. I felt the love of Christ by faith. This morning I feasted on the love of Christ, and it was very fulfilling. But it was a feast of faith, not of sight.

We need to be careful how we communicate our relationship with God. It sets up unattainable ideas in the minds of other Christians. They feel unspiritual because they cannot say with complete honesty that they have "felt" or "sensed" the presence of God. When, in fact, those who say that they "feel" and "sense" the presence of God do not really feel and sense it in the way that we normally use these terms.

I have a wonderful relationship with God. I experience this relationship by faith. I embrace the fact that God is present and loves me by faith. I embrace these truths and make them my own, because God has told me that these things are true. He has told me this in His Word.

I will now share the most memorable experience that I have had with God.

I have been married now since May 27, 2006. In August, Kristal (my wife) started feeling sick to her stomach. She started becoming nauseous from the time she got up to the time she went to bed. We then decided to get a pregnancy test. For sure, she was pregnant! This was good news for the both of us. However, we were in for a ride. Kristal's nausea quickly got worse. Her pregnancy sickness lasted about 5 months (she is still feeling the after effects). She would lay on the couch all day long. Her diet consisted solely of Honey Nut Cheerios with extra honey.

She was absolutely miserable. At this time I was working 25 hours a week at a help desk, doing full time master's degree schooling, fulfilling the duties on an internship at my church, and doing all of the house chores that my wife was not able to do (all of the cooking, cleaning, laundry, grocery shopping etc), and I, of course, had to spend time with her. The hardest thing about Kristal's sickness was the mental stress. Leaving the apartment every morning was difficult. Everything in me wanted to stay home with her.

When at work or school it killed me to know that she was home alone. Coming home was also difficult because I knew that I was coming home to a horribly sick person. There is nothing worse than watching the one you love the most experience such discomfort and pain for such an extended period of time. The hardest thing was knowing that she was much much more miserable than I. In this period Kristal and I had many sobering conversations about the sovereignty of God.

If God is in control of everything then He must be in control of this. Why then will He not stop the sickness? Many answer by saying that God is trying the best He can, but this definitely does not come from scripture as read in context. The Scripture does not present God in such a weak and impotent way. The Bible teaches that God is in control, and that nothing happens apart from His will. The correct answer is that God is in control and He is doing this for our good.

Oh, my friends, theology is so practical. Why is God continuing to let this sickness continue to make my wife miserable? Because He knows better than me. This sickness is actually what is best (in whatever way) for me and my wife. How do you know? Because God is good. Because God loves His kids. God knows what is best for me and my wife better than me and my wife do. This is a reality that God's kids need to embrace.

Where am I going with this? Kristal's sickness had gone on about 2.5 months or so and my Intermediate Greek and Elementary Hebrew midterm exams were about 3 weeks away and I had no time to study the entire semester because I was too busy taking care of my wife. I also had to preach and teach Sunday school that weekend. At this point Kristal was at her worst. To say the least, I was overwelhmed.

It was 6:10 a.m. and I was on my way to the car because I was going to a Wednesday morning men's study breakfast. As I opened the car door I looked to heaven and said, "Why? Why God? Why won't you just heal her?"

All of the sudden I began to laugh. I should have been crying. I should have had a nervous break down, but no, I started laughing. I looked back up to heaven and started laughing. I said, "You are so stinking good! I wish I could see this situation from Your point of view. Even though I hate seeing my wife in such a state, I know that we are both in safer place here than any where else. No matter what happens, and no matter how long this lasts I rejoice in the work of the Lord. I cannot wait! I cannot wait to see what you are up to. I LOVE BEING A CHILD OF GOD! Nothing can touch me. Nothing can harm me. If God is for me, if God is for my wife, then who can successfully be against us. I AM CHILD OF GOD!"

I did not "feel" the presence of God that wonderful Wednesday morning, but, by faith, I enjoyed some wonderful fellowship with the Father. I knew that I was safe. I knew that my bride was safe. I knew that our baby (Jimmy Jr.) was safe. I knew, by faith, that God was in control. I still hated the thought of my wife being sick. I still hated the thought of leaving her alone. I so badly wanted to be there with her. I did want this, but I wanted what I had much much more. I would much rather have the knowledge of the goodness and sovereignty of God than physical health. Christianity is such a relational religion.

Do you want a personal relationship with God? Feast on the truth's of Scripture as read in context. Do you want fulfilling devotionals. Then study Scripture in context and embrace it. I love God! I enjoy a wonderful relationship with Him. This relationship has not grown as much through a whole bunch of introspective prayer times. The catalyst of this relationship has not been super duper long devotionals. This relationship has been fostered through obedience and trust. My friends, what happens when you no longer "feel" the Lord moving? What happens when you no longer "sense" his presence? First of all, when you no longer feel or sense these things does this mean that you are no longer spiritual? If you say yes, then show me, from scripture read in context, how you got that.

A right relationship with God can be enjoyed when you are up, down, cold, dry, tired, hurt, depressed, afraid, happy etc. It can be enjoyed and sustained while you are reading, praying, singing, listening to the radio, running, playing with your kids, doing the dishes, listening to a sermon, evangelizing, feeding the poor etc.

God loves His people. He wants His people to trust what He has said in His word. I am not saying that we should not seek the supernatural. But, the emphasis in scripture is simple belief. The emphasis in scripture is for believers to live an ordinary life while embracing the overwhelmingly wonderful doctrines of Scripture. The Spirit does work supernaturally. But the greatest supernatural work of the Holy Spirit is empressing biblical truth on the heart of believers to such an extent that they will put more weight on what the Bible has to say than on what their experience has to say. If anything is a work of the Spirit, believing the radical teachings of the Bible is it.

Thursday, January 4, 2007

Cliche- "I have a personal relationship with God" Part 4

What does it mean when someone is biblical? How does one become more biblical?

Let me answer this first by explaining what being biblical does not mean. Being Biblical does not necessarily mean that you hold fast to Biblical truth. Jehovah's Witnesses and Catholics hold to Biblical truth. Athiest's hold to Biblical truth (because they affirm the necessity for love etc.). Everyone holds to biblical truth.

What then does it mean to be biblical? Being Biblical has to do with holding to everything that the Bible says. Being Biblical has to do with emphasizing the things that the Bible emphasizes, and to the extent that the Bible emphasizes it.

Many today hold to the biblical idea that Christians are to have a personal relationship with God, BUT they are not Biblical about it. In other words, they put an unbiblical emphasis on it and therefore ignore or downplay other crucial aspects of the Scriptures. This fault is most evidently seen in the modern day Emergent Church movement. I have had numerous talks with people who are embracing the ideals and convictions of the Emergent church movement.

Now, the Emergent church movement is far too diverse to generalize it on the whole, but one of the overwhelming characteristics of the movement is the pessimistic view of the institutional structure of Church. The Emergent church strives to get the church back to the way it was in the NT. Therefore, they see the value of not having formal meetings, pews, pulpits. They do not dress up when they go to church. Many of them meet in houses.

Many of them even go so far that they say that going to church really isn't all that important. The important thing is that you have your own personal time with God. The Mega Church movement, in many cases, has done the same exact thing. Many Mega Churches provide the option of becoming a member through the television. The idea is that you become a member of a church, but rather than actually going to the service, you attend church by watching the service on TV. Why? Because the matter of importance is not in going to church, but in having a personal relationship with God.

I have talked to many people who refuse to go to church, because they "don't need" it. They say that their church is in their heart. Whatever that means. "All that matters," they say, "is that I have a personal relationship with God."

Are these sorts of people Biblical? NO! Of course not. Let me ask another question. Are these people embracing biblical truth? Of course they are! They are embracing the fact that Christians are to have a personal relationship with God, BUT they are unbiblical because they are putting more emphasis on it than the Bible does so much so that they ignore and misinterpret other aspects of the Scriptures.

Are Christians to embrace this idea that we are to have a personal relationship with God? Yes, of course we are, but we are to be Biblical about it.

What does it mean, from the Bible, to have a personal relationship with God? What does this look like? Guess what! The Bible does not go into great detail about this. The Bible puts great emphasis on prayer, but, according to the Bible, what is prayer? Prayer is essentially petition. Prayer is asking God for stuff! Look at the model prayer in Matt 6. Every little part of that prayer is petition except for the very beginning when Jesus addresses God as "Our Father who art in heaven."

Prayer, according to the Bible, is not straight up communion with God. I am not saying that the Bible does not teach that we are to have straight up communion with God, I am merely saying that straight up communion with God is not prayer. Prayer is pettition.

The Bible commands us to "rejoice in the Lord always." This obviously has to do with a believers joy in the Lord. Thankfulness for who He is and what He does. The Bible says in John 17 that eternal life is knowing God. What does it mean to "know God?"

Let me look unspiritual for a moment. You cannot know God without first knowing about God. Knowing God begins with knowledge and fact. You cannot know God without first learning about Him. The more you know about God the greater your relationship with God becomes.

I believe that the Bible is much more practical than we could ever imagine. I think knowing God has more to do with every day life than it does with our devotionals.

Knowing God starts out with embracing theology. "What? Man! You must be a cold hearted seminarian! Knowing God begins with embracing theology?" Yes! Knowing God begins with the recognition of who He is and what He has done. You cannot have a relationship with God apart from the knowledge of what He has done for you in Christ.

Your relationship with God begins at conversion. The knowledge of what God has done for you in Christ fuels and sustains your relationship with God. The great bulk of a believers relationship with God has to do with over flowing (intellectual) gratitude for what God has done for us in Christ. The more the believer knows about what God has saved him/her from, the more thankful that believer is. The more the believer knows about who God is the more the believer wants to know God, the more the beliver wants to know about God, the more the beliver loves God.

Why do we believe that devotionals and prayer times are the places where the believer experiences God? Where, from the Scriptures, do we have warrant to teach and believe this? The Bible, as read in context, does teach that the Spirit is present with us while we are praying. This is why we can "pray in the Spirit." We pray what the Spirit brings to mind. The Bible also teaches that the Spirit is present when we read our Bibles. This is why David asks that he might behold wonderful things in the law. But the Spirit is just as present in the work force, and while you are driving, or while you are on the phone with your grandmother.

For some unknown reason when most Christians talk about prayer and devotions they speak as if that is where they meet the Lord. Devotionals are the place where it is just them and God, and this is the place where if they are silent enough they will hear the voice of God. This place of solitude is where the believers relationship with God is the strongest. Where does this teaching come from? It is true that Jesus went off by Himself on occassion to pray and be alone with God, and it is true that Christians ought to pray continuously, but where ever does the Bible teach that this is where our relationship with God is at it's best. Where, in the Scriptures, does it say that a believer's relationship with God will only be as strong and vibrant to the degree that the believer spends time in devotion and prayer?

Why are prayer and devotional reading held in such high esteem in today's version of Chrstianity? Are they held as high in the Bible?

Here is an honest answer: The Bible does hold them in high esteem. In fact, the Bible commands us to pray. The one who does not live a life of prayer is one who lives a life of sin. The Bible also holds Bible reading in high esteem. The Bible is the place where Christian's are informed of what is right and true. The Bible is that which forms and shapes our beliefs, values etc. The Bible holds these things in the highest regard. But the Bible does not necessarily distinguish between devotional and intellectual reading of the Scriptures. Why do we make these distinctions. When the Bible is read correctly application and devotion flow out of the text. One of the greatest enemies to context driven interpretation is devotional reading (I will speak about this in a later post).

Why do we enshrine prayer and devotional reading to be that which characterizes the truly spiritual ones? Does the Bible give us warrant to do this?

The Bible does not set up prayer and devotional reading to be that which helps us gauge another believer's spirituality. 1 Cor 13 tells us that love for the brethren is that which expresses spiritual maturity. The Corinthian church was experiencing much division and grief. One of the things that fueled this division was a misunderstanding of spiritual gifts. The Corinthian church was very charismatic. Therefore the spiritual gifts of tongues and prophecy were held in high regard. Paul had no conflict with this. What Paul was concerned about was how they were using the gifts as a way of gauging how spiritual they were. The more one spoke in tongues the more spiritual he was. The use of spiritual gifts, according to the Corinthian church, was the test of true spirituality. This was causing all sorts of problems in the church. Paul confronted their problem by telling them that love, not the use of spiritual gifts, is the way to gauge how spiritual someone is.

How Spiritual are you? Well, How much do you love?

How Spiritual are you? How close are you with the Lord? How is your personal relationship with God these days? "Well Jimmy, I pray 3 hours a day. I read my Bible devotionally 3 hours a day as well?" Well, since when is that the gauge of Spirituality?

Remember that Jesus fought against the Pharisees because of they used prayer and devotion to show others exactly how Spiritual they were. In this context Jesus teaches that humility is that which exhibits spirituality. Humility expressed in prayer and devotion divorced from the compliments of men. The Publican in the temple parable (Luke 17) also teaches that humility rather than expressive prayer is that which exhibits true spirituality. Jesus surely did emphasize prayer, but he emphasized forgiveness and love just as much if not more.

A personal relationship with God cannot be had apart from prayer, but that does not mean that prayer is the primary place where this relationship is fostered.

This misunderstanding is the result of over simplying the teachings of Christainity. How is a relationship with God fostered and strengthened? It is strengthed through a life of prayer, Bible study, singing, working, community with believers, evangelism, rearing children, believing the Words of God, memorizing Scripture, working heartily for the Lord, and many other things. This is a very difficult thing for Christians to embrace, because then it becomes a bit more complicated to judge how spiritual the guy sitting next to you in the pew is.

Spirituality and a close walk with God, in the NT, seem to always have something to do with serving others. The one who walks closest with God is the one who is not all that interested on how well he/she is performing the Christian life. He does not have time to keep a close look on how well he is performing because he is too busy serving others.

What does it mean to have a personal relationship with God? If you haven't caught on yet, I haven't really answered this question with any great precision. Why? Because the Bible does not answer this question with any great precision. What I am trying to stress in this post, and especially in this blog, is that your idea of what is true and right ought to come from context driven interpretation. Most people's idea of Spirituality does not come from the Bible. It comes from the modern day slogans of pop culture Christianity.

The one who has a deep personal relationship with God will pray, but he will not emphasize prayer to the exclusion of evangelism, or Bible study or anything like this. The one who has a deep relationship with God will desire fellowship and will seek to love the brethren in practical ways. The one who has a deep relationship with God will believe certain things and reject certain things.

How does one get a personal relationship with God? It does not necessarily come through 6 hr/day devotionals. It comes through obeying the Word of God. It starts with a knowledge of what God has done in Christ. It then expresses itself in obedience to God's commands, and love for God and the brethren.

What does it mean to have a personal relationship with God? I can't necessarily nail it down. God is not here with me in human form. I can't just have a flowing conversation with Him. I can't hold his hand or look Him in the eye. A personal relationship with God has to do with knowledge and joy brought about by that knowledge. It has to do with obedience. It has to do with love. It has to do with service. It has to do with identifying with the Savior in his life and death. It has to do with so many things.

In Philippians 3 Paul says that he wants to know Christ and "the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings." You see, knowing God and having a personal relationship with Him here is directly tied to suffering.

I want to form my idea of what a personal relationship with God is by context driven interpretation. I do not want to say more than what the Bible says when read in context, but I also do not want to say less than what the Bible says read in context.

Most people will not like what I have written in this post for two reasons. First of all, some people will not like this post because a Biblical view of spirituality is not quite so cut and dry. It makes it harder to judge whether a person has a vibrant relationship with God or not. The loud guy who always raises his hands in the worship service and evangelizes like a mad man and knows evertyhing about theology may not be the most mature Chrsitian in the church, because he might not be full of love. At the same time the quiet guy right next to him who is simple minded about everything and never really says anything, but prays a lot also may not be all that spiritual. How can I say this? Well, he may pray to be known as a prayer warrior (you know, like a pharisee), and he also may neglect the command to evangelize.

And second, many may not like this because it makes it harder for them. Being godly is no longer easy. Being godly consists of giving your whole life to the Lord, not just during your devotionals. This is also difficult to swallow because then it becomes all too apparent how ungodly you actually are.

Where do we get our idea of who is close with the Lord and who is not? We need to get it from the Bible. We need to get it from the Bible read in context. It is very dangerous when we start throwing our own ideas of spirituality upon the Bible. This is exactly what the Corinthian chuch did, and it created division. It turned their church into a competitive arena where Christian's would show off and compare their great spirituality. They became a bunch of pharisees.

According to the Bible what is the greatest test of a close relationship with God? From reading scripture in context I am convinced that love and humility are the greatest tests of spirituality.

From our study, how does one pursue a personal relationship with God? By obeying the Word of God. God is not all that impressed with those who pray endlessly when they neglect other pertinent aspects of His Word. Obey God! Learn more about Him! There is no secret to spirituality. It has to do with believing, obeying, and loving God. It has to do with serving and forgiving the Brethren. This is how a relationship with God is nurtured and fostered.

Many people today are running to and fro doing all sorts of crazy things to strengthen their relationship with God. They are getting all bent out of shape and nervous because they just don't seem to be close enough to God. What is their remedy? Well, I need to pray more. I need to pray more. I need to journal more. I need to fast more.

What is the result of all this striving? First of all, if they fail at it they feel that God does not love them. Second of all, they learn to trust in their good performance rather than the Cross. Third of all, if they succeed, they start to look down on those who don't pray or fast as much as they do. They then neglect the wheighter matters of the law. You know, things like forgiveness, love, and humility.

Ideas and goals that are not formed by the Word of God are dangerous.

Context Is King! Sola Scriptura! Be formed by the Word of God alone! Even if it merkys the waters a bit. This clouding of the water may be the thing that forces you to cling to the cross. This clouding of the water may be the thing that keeps you from looking down on others.

In the next post I will share those moments in my life when I knew that I was closest to the Lord.