Come Sunday: believe God

 

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It’s possible to do “church” without ever knowing or believing God.

That’s my first takeaway from the Netflix film “Come Sunday,” the recently released movie about former Pentecostal evangelist Carlton Pearson’s rejection of hell and the need for repentance and salvation.

My second takeaway: It takes a certain arrogance for a man to think: “I am smarter than God, qualified to be his judge or tutor.” I’m not, and neither are you.

Pearson was a charismatic fourth generation preacher and a gifted musician. His life and business was Pentecostal Church Inc. About 15 years ago, he says he had a “revelation” and stopped believing in a burning hell of eternal torment or a god who would “send” anyone there.

Pearson calls the message he once preached “indoctrination” and now shares a “gospel of inclusion.” Nobody needs to be “saved” because everyone is saved, he says; they just don’t know it.

Carlton Pearson
Carlton Pearson

For the uninitiated, this is not historic Christian doctrine which says through the “foolishness of preaching” God chooses to save those who believe. The Bible, the official book of Christian faith and practice, presents hell as a literal place; though some disagree on whether it’s a place of continual torment or annihilation.

The church is the “body of Christ,” people who’ve entered into right relationship with the living God through trusting Christ as the atoning sacrifice for their sin. This intimate, supernatural union enabled by the Holy Spirit starts with believing God. Clearly, despite years of doing church, Pearson does not believe.

Because I don’t want that to be my story or yours, let’s rehearse some fundamentals:

  • To know God is to know His character. Psalm 107:3 says of God, “He revealed his character to Moses and his deeds to the people of Israel.” Moses had the relationship. The  people were spectators. God’s character is love, justice, mercy. To imply that God would unjustly condemn people to destruction is to charge God falsely. “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?”” Genesis 18:2
  • God loves people so much He sent a savior. Jesus died for all because all have sinned and all need a savior. Christianity 101: For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but should have eternal life. For God sent not His son into the world to condemn the world but that through Him the world might be saved. (John 3:16-17)
  • Hell was never intended for people. “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. (Matthew 25:41, my emphasis)

Anyone who follows the devil is going to hell, including faithful church workers who don’t know God.

Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’ Matt 7:21-23

  • Heaven is the destination of believers.  According to Jesus, the only “work” God requires is “to believe in the one He has sent.” (John 6:29) Belief and confession matter. Preaching should facilitate belief. “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? (Romans 10:14)
  • Salvation requires active acceptance. Everyone is invited to receive salvation. It’s an open invitation marked RSVP.  Two thieves were crucified with Jesus Christ. One mocked him; the other asked Jesus to remember him when He came into His kingdom. Jesus replied to him: This day you will be with me in paradise.

It’s not incredible that salvation requires response. Even winning the lottery requires acknowledging the win by presenting a winning ticket before it expires. God has given us a lifetime opportunity to confirm acceptance of what Jesus did on our behalf at the Cross.

  • God loves everyone, not everyone loves God. I believe God assumes salvation for all, writing our names in the book of life mentioned in Revelation. That doesn’t mean everyone is saved. On the contrary, God has given us freewill to choose our eternal destination. People who choose not to believe God will have their names blotted out of the book of life. Their destination will be the lake of fire.

I don’t always like or understand God’s methods, but I don’t get to rewrite the script to fit my version of reality. The full counsel of Scripture is that the wicked are turned into hell and guilty sinners are made righteous by the knowledge of God through Jesus Christ, who alone is the atoning sacrifice for the sin of unbelief that otherwise dooms us all to hell.

Pearson is preaching a different gospel. It sounds compassionate and enlightened. Don’t believe it. It is not the truth.

 

Stay on Mission

mission from god   A Facebook friend was bemoaning the fact that a particular church denomination has lost its focus on evangelism. No kidding? Clearly, most of the American church has relegated evangelism to a back burner. I’m not even sure we know what “evangelism” is anymore.

We have spent so much time fighting the culture wars that many of us have forgotten “The Great Commission,” the reason the church is here.

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matt 2:18-20

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Acts 1:8  (Emphasis is mine)

Jesus followers are to be His witnesses and to make disciples. That mission has zero to do with saving the culture. Jesus died to save people. He has made us “fishers of men.”  J. Vernon McGee, founder of Thru the Bible, often quoted these words: “We are called to fish in the fish pond, not to clean up the fish pond.”

The early disciples were witnesses. That was their identity. They received the Gospel, the Good News, and it became their life’s work to share it. Their relationship with Jesus  transformed and permeated their lives. People perceived that they had been with Jesus. That created an opportunity to speak about the hope they had in Him.

Today, we don’t have to “go” far to be on mission. God has sent people from all over the world to America’s doorstep, many from countries where evangelism is prohibited. They are our neighbors, co-workers, doctors, hijab-wearing clerks, and professors in Sikh turbans.

Are we actively seeking to be kind, to build relationships and bridges so that we might have an opportunity to share our faith? I know a few Christians who are.

Yet too often American Christians are among the loudest voices for closing the borders to immigrants considered dangerous foreigners who are taking our jobs and plotting terrorist attacks while building unbelieving temples in our backyards. When we do reach out, we can be culturally insensitive, confusing evangelizing with “westernizing” people.

America still sends the most missionaries, second to South Korea, but I also personally know American missionaries who struggle to maintain consistent financial support and, at least one couple who had to return stateside from Japan after their sending church decided to “go in another direction.”

The passion of the American church is less spreading the Gospel and more  circling the wagons to “save” America by returning to isolationist dogma and religious tradition. It saddens me as it does my Facebook friend, a “retired” pastor who is still making disciples and building churches on foreign soil. Reactionary responses have replaced reliance on God for wisdom and discernment.

It wasn’t always this way.

I became a believer in the age of Evangelism Explosion (EE), an approach to introducing people to Christ that was founded by the late Presbyterian minister D. James Kennedy. EE helped people learn to personally share their faith. Once Kennedy founded the “Center for Reclaiming America,” the focus shifted more to preserving America’s Christian foundation.

Baptists spent the ’80s and ’90s fighting among themselves about religious orthodoxy: whether the Bible is “inerrant” – without error – and whether liberal or moderate or fundamentalist factions were the true Baptist standard-bearers. Voter guides highlighting “Family Values” candidates became popular and, I believe, sowed discord among the brethren by bringing politics into the pews.

In contrast, Paul instructed Timothy to stay away from divisive discussions:

And a servant of the Lord must not be quarrelsome, but he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, and forbearing. He must gently reprove those who oppose him, in the hope that God may grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth. Then they will come to their senses and escape the snare of the devil, who has taken them captive to his will. 2 Timothy 2:24-26

Arguing over non-essentials is not evangelism. Patriotism is not evangelism. Neither is hit-and-run witnessing that does not also connect people with baptism and biblical teaching in Christian fellowship and community.

On mission, stay on message:

“Yes, all have sinned; all fall short of God’s glorious ideal; yet now God declares us ‘not guilty’ of offending him if we trust in Jesus Christ, who in His kindness freely takes away our sins.” Romans 3:23-24 (Living Bible)

And let’s not forget to live a life that demonstrates what we say we believe. Being genuine in a world of shams and scams is an unmistakable witness for Christ.

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Let the Winds Blow

winds  A couple of days ago a nor’easter raked the Atlantic Coast with high seas and storm to gale force winds. I went into the yard of my North Carolina home this afternoon to survey the aftermath. Limbs were strewn all over, some as much as four feet long, stripped from pine, cherry and Bradford pear trees.

Hard to believe I was in this yard a couple of weeks ago on a suddenly 80-degree winter day, picking up only a few relatively small limbs scattered about.

Today, I was confronted with heavy, rotted limbs fallen everywhere. They were leafless but seemed firmly attached, before the winds came. Roughly 5000 Fitbit steps and many wheel-barrow loads later, the debris is cleared. Everything that could be shaken has been removed. What cannot be shaken remains.

That’s a metaphor for the life of the believer.

Like my trees before the storm, our lives can look green but be filled with dead things we cling to because we don’t realize they’re dead. That is, until life’s winds begin to blow. Trouble comes and our attachments to the dry, dead stuff of this world are loosened. Our pretensions, our busyness, our little attitudes all fall away.

Get a lay-off slip and suddenly we can prune the dead-weight from the budget with ease. Get a bad medical test result and overnight our health is the most important thing in our world. Get a text alert that our child’s school is on lock-down with a potentially active-shooter on the ground and family – not work, so important moments earlier – becomes the priority.

I don’t like storms; they portend disaster. Yet, God allows them. He speaks in the shaking. He knows we often don’t recognize the dead weights and besetting sins we need to cast off. He also knows that even when we do recognize them, we often lack the will to act.

I long knew which trees in my yard needed pruning. The work was not a priority. My arborist’s last visit came with a hefty bill and I was in no hurry to invite him back. I kept putting it off until a more convenient season.

We do that. We know we should. And we would, but we don’t.

  • We’re in a questionable relationship. We know we should probably end it, but we don’t.
  • We know our finances are over-extended and we should probably live less large. We do nothing because we like the high life.
  • We know our church-life is religious theater. We have no interest in a real relationship with God because of what it might cost us. We keep playing the role.

Whatever our story, God loves us enough to sometimes send a storm. The Bible speaks of God as a gardener and Jesus Christ as the true vine. Jesus says: “Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away.” If we’re not bearing fruit, we’re cut away. Cuttings end up in the fire. God doesn’t want that.

So, like a nor’easter, the winds of life come to violently shake away the dead wood so that Christ followers are prepared to receive a kingdom that is unshakable.

The shaking will come. Hold firmly to the word of God, and let the winds blow!

“Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear. For our God is a consuming fire.” Hebrews 12: 28-29

Things Aren’t What They Seem

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The Bible declares “Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.”

That’s not what it looks like at first glance.

Yes, Jesus Christ did miracles. His own birth – born to a virgin – was a miracle. Yet, Jesus’ own family members all weren’t convinced He was the Messiah. He was despised, rejected by the official religious establishment, convicted in a mock trial and turned over to the Romans who executed Him by crucifixion. Buried.

The ride-or-die disciples, who had left everything to follow Him, ran for cover.

This story does not have the ring of “Power” and “Wisdom.” Could be yours doesn’t either.

We’ve all had times when we thought following God’s plan would lead to a certain outcome, only to end up someplace we never expected to be.

  • You accepted a promising promotion only to be assigned the Manager from Hell.
  • Your child went to a great college only to return home overwhelmed before winter.
  • You exercised, ate right, denied yourself and your health still went South.

Things look bad. It’s disappointing. It hurts to get up in the morning. But know this: tough, tight places are where God’s wisdom and power make the difference – if you trust Him.

God seldom works the way I might hope, where I get to avoid all the unpleasantness and have it my way.

Yet, even when the worst happens, I promise you that God’s wisdom and power prevail. With God, things are not what they seem.

Sending a baby to save the world seems like a bad idea. Babies often didn’t survive childhood in Jesus’ day. Investing just three short years of ministry in a dozen guys who had never traveled much is not how I’d spread the word to the world.

Conquering through weakness, death and disappointment is something only God can orchestrate. We mortals spend all our lives trying to avoid those things. God makes all of it serve His purposes, for all things serve Him.

Seen through natural eyes, Jesus’ ministry looked like an absurdity that ended in failure. Maybe parts of your life look like that now. Remember, your story isn’t over any more than His is.

Jesus got up from the grave.

And those frightened disciples, who ran and hid, were empowered by the Holy Spirit to take the testimony of Jesus to the world, a seeming impossibility. We modern Christ followers are proof that it worked.

Trust God. The path may lead straight through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, but it’s only the shadow. God is with us. He is Faithful.

For the Scripture says, Whoever believes in Him will not be disappointed.

Romans 10:11

Conquering Death: Faith not Fences

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Most of us are too busy living to spend time contemplating death and dying, but avoidance is not a long-term strategy for dealing with death.

Death has a way of intruding without warning, commanding immediate attention. We drop everything, travel, make phone calls, send flowers and cards to acknowledge that someone loved has gone. Though life goes on, death has left its calling card.

Death is constant; we notice only when it touches us. As I write, the World Death Clock ticks steadily at the rate of 1.8 deaths every second, an estimated 32 million deaths this year so far.

Three weeks ago, I got an early morning call that a family member had died suddenly. Not yet 40, he left behind a wife and two young children. Days later I sat in a church two states away reviewing the life of a dear man I knew only by proxy.

The grief was palpable. Death was front and center, open casket on the big screen. Fast forward: cemetery, repast, flights home, resume life. No disrespect. It’s what we do. Keep it moving lest death get in our heads, touch our hearts.

Fencing out Death

A church on my daily commute recently decided that death should take a holiday, at least visually.

This one-church-in-several locations congregation, the kind that sends out colorful postcards with hip slogans, merged with a declining mainline church. The merger of people, buildings and grounds included a neat, century old traditional cemetery with flower-topped, granite grave markers in various sizes and shapes.

Apparently, a cemetery with looming gravestones didn’t fit a “life is good” image. Church leaders summarily hid the grim reminders of mortality behind a substantial wooden privacy fence – with gated access for those wishing to pay their respects, of course.

Trying to hide a cemetery only draws attention to it.

The subsequent unflattering publicity revealed that people whose family members are buried in that cemetery didn’t want their graves behind a fence. Driving home this week, I noticed the privacy railings have been removed. The reality of death has come back into public view between open horizontal slats.

It’s a good thing. Death is as much a part of life as sunrises and sunsets. The writer of Hebrews said, “it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment.” (Hebrews 9:27)

Fear Not

A cemetery is a reminder that, despite all distractions and protestations to the contrary, “A man’s days are numbered.” (Job 14:5) Nobody lives longer than the time God has set.

Understandably, death gives people the creeps. Nobody wants to die. The church’s mission is to help people face this uncomfortable reality with biblical faith.

Like Jesus Christ standing at Lazarus’ tomb, the church must confront death by teaching people that God has given us eternal life and this life is in His son. (1 John 5:11)  Jesus conquered death, dying in our place and rising from the dead. Likewise, the dead in Christ will be raised. This is the hope of the gospel.

Since the children have flesh and blood, He too shared in their humanity so that by His death He might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. (Hebrews 2:14-15 NIV)

Resist fear in all its guises and embrace faith instead. Trusting Jesus Christ is the only hedge against death and opens the door to a whole new life!

“Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die.’ Do you believe this?” John 11:25-26

 

 

 

Restoring Twisted Things

forks I’m roaming through the thrift store the other day, in search of nothing in particular, and I spot this long handle fork. Four prongs, the fourth one leaning left and crooked down. But the design is sleek and stylish. And the price is right: 10 cents!

You might be wondering why anyone would buy a bent fork. Well, I carefully examined this banged up, jet black fork with its out-of-line prong. The inscription on the back read: “WM Rogers IS.” Didn’t mean much at the time, but I know enough about silverware to realize that a black fork has some actual silver.

That little fork had potential. With a little attention, I could envision it poking olives or lemon wedges on a well-set table. For a dime, I was taking absolutely no risk!

I bought that bent fork. Silver, a relatively soft metal, can be bent back into shape with a bit of effort. Having realigned it,  I applied some silver polish and some elbow grease…. and Voila! There’s the lovely fork pictured above.

Often a thing of value is marred, discolored, misshapen and devalued. This fork, silver or perhaps silver-plated, sold for a measly dime. And now it has become my treasure!

Twisted things can be straightened. Dark things can recover their shine. I did this with a simple fork. Jesus does this with souls.

We are not very attractive investments, messed up as we are by the world, the flesh and the devil. The good news is Jesus chose us anyway. He sees beyond what we are to what we can become through His transforming love, mercy and grace.

Life may beat us up and toss us aside, like a bent fork. But we are still valuable to God. Jesus shops thrift; am pretty sure He found me in the bargain basement. He is the master of restoring souls.

And the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. (1 Peter 5:10)

 

Some through the fire, but all through the blood

 

As I visit churches in different Christian denominations with varied worship styles and sermons that swing between topical and expository, verse-by-verse teaching, I am often struck by the one thing most  have in common: the absence of the presence of the divine.

In our sanitized version of Christianity, we do church as though we can waltz into God’s presence by means of fine-tuned worship, hip videos and carefully rehearsed prayers. Jesus, our home-boy, is going to show up to give us all a high-five. No blood necessary.

Not so. Jesus’ atoning blood sacrifice is central to the faith and key to coming into the presence of God. But you will almost never hear that from a modern pulpit.

We moderns have almost lost sight of the centrality of Jesus “in whom we have redemption through His blood, even the forgiveness of sins.” (Colossians 1:14)

The church once preserved this trail of blood that runs from Genesis to Revelation in the old hymns of the faith: “Are You Washed in the Blood,” “I Know it was the Blood,” “Nothing But the Blood of Jesus” can wash away our sins.

God, on the other hand, puts blood front and center in worship.

In Leviticus the priests begin their service by presenting an array of specific bloody offerings and burnt sacrifices. Unblemished goats, oxen, rams, lambs, kidneys, livers, hides, flesh, even heads, are reduced to ashes.

The priests slaughter these animals, piece by piece, burn the fat, pour blood around the altar. Clearly, they had to be covered in blood head to toe by the time all the sin offerings and peace offerings were done.

The priesthood was a bloody business. The blood is about dealing with sin before approaching God.

“In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be made ‘clean’ with blood. Without the spilling of blood there is no forgiveness.” (Hebrews 9:22)

The priest had to present an offering for his own sin before going to God with an offering for the sins of the people.  “This is what the Lord has commanded you to do, so that the glory of the Lord may appear to you.” Lev 9:6

We 21st century Christians are reluctant to admit our sin so it follows we are not eager to embrace the blood that as its remedy. Every week somewhere in America, uncleansed and unforgiven priests and people routinely gather for choreographed “worship” without ever seeming to notice that our God who “is a consuming fire” does not show up. (Hebrews 12:29)

In contrast, the Levitical priests ministered by way of the blood and “fire came out from the presence of the Lord” (Lev 9:24) and consumed the sacrifice. The people saw His glory and fell on their faces.

When was the last time you saw that in your assembly?

The path to the presence of God is paved in the blood of Christ, to which the blood of lambs and rams looked forward. No matter how educated our preachers or how great our programs: No blood, no glory!