Signs of Change

same old Was talking to someone I love when the conversation turned to a topic about which we disagree: their relationship with a woman whose dossier includes an active pornographic website, multiple social media accounts under fictional identities and a criminal history.

That alone is enough to warrant disapproval from the most generous soul, but that’s not all. This vile person has worked hard to destroy relationships between the one I love and everyone who truly cares about them.

Yet, the one I love would have me overlook all that and embrace this “significant other.” Their argument: “How do you know they haven’t changed? Aren’t Christians supposed to forgive people?”

It sounds so spiritual.

Back-sliding Christians who have decided to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season, naive souls who believe in cheap grace, and people who live like the devil all have this in common:

When confronted with their sinful behavior and reckless associations, they are quick to defend with some variation of “Doesn’t the Bible say ‘Judge not’?” or “Shouldn’t Christians forgive?”

Does the Bible really say forgive on-going, unrepented sin?  Does it say ignore reality and not assess what you see?  Jesus didn’t do that. Jesus came to earth to deal with sin head-on.  Reconciling us to God required clarity about our true condition.

  • Jesus told the Samaritan woman that she’d had 5 husbands and the man she was with was not her husband. (John 4:16-18)
  • Jesus told the outwardly pious Pharisees that inwardly they were full of sin, white-washed tombs. (Matthew 23:27-28)

Christians are to “be imitators of God” (Eph 5:1), the God who makes a “distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between those who serve God and those who do not.” (Malachi 3:18)

Sin is like rotting flesh and fecal matter to holy God. God loves us, but He won’t embrace sin. We can understand that. We separate ourselves from excrement and garbage because the filth and stench attracts vermin. We flush toilets. We bag garbage, take it outside and pay people to haul it away.

Jesus came to forgive our sin, to cleanse us from all unrighteousness and to make us acceptable to God. He changes us, if we let Him. That change is not just something we say; it’s something others can see.

Signs of real change?

  • We acknowledge and confess our sins that we may be forgiven. No games. No excuses.
  • We have “godly sorrow” for having sinned. Not sorrow for being caught and punished but sorrow that we have betrayed and offended a holy God.
  • We “repent,” meaning we turn to God and turn away from sin. Repentance is a 180-degree turn. Our lives should be going in the opposite direction of sin.

To judge is to condemn a person as hopeless. Jesus didn’t come to condemn the world but so that the world might be saved through Him.  (John 3:17) Because His  offer still stands, anyone can change.  Whether we actually have changed is evidenced in how we live.

“For of this you can be sure: no immoral, impure or greedy person – such a man is an idolater – has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient” (Eph 5:5-6)

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“Nevertheless, the firm foundation of God stands, having this seal, “The Lord knows whose are His,” and, “Everyone who names the name of the Lord is to abstain from wickedness.” (2 Tim 2:19)

 

Prescribed Fire

 

 

Walking through my favorite park on a recent afternoon I happened on a large swath of forest charred black as far as I could see.

The air smelled of soot. Stretched before me was torched earth, pine tree bark blackened a few feet up trunks, limbs clinging to singed leaves.

This was no wildfire accident. The burned area was bordered by green grass, the evidence of fire only within that boundary.

Clearly, park rangers had intentionally set fire to the woods. The parched ground stood in stark contrast to the lush green woods along surrounding paths where a tangle of kudzu-like vines smothered many trees and pine needles and undergrowth carpeted the forest floor.

Ground cleared to rocks and roots stood waiting to be reborn as if saying, “Now, I am ready for the next thing.”

I read that fire management experts practice something called “prescribed burning” which “may be defined as fire applied in a knowledgeable manner to wildland fuels on a specific land area under selected weather conditions to accomplish predetermined, well-defined management objectives.”

Don’t miss that: Applied in a knowledgeable way, to accomplish predetermined, well-defined objectives.

Gazing into those smoke-scented woods, I realized this principle from the natural world of forest management has a spiritual application.

There are no random fires in God’s kingdom. Our all-knowing God has good plans for us. He sits as king eternal and manages our lives in sovereignty. Sometimes He lets a fire purposely burn through our lives.

Things get hot, go up in smoke; and we are left with ashes. It seems the flames will destroy everything meaningful and dear: our health, our hopes, our relationships, the futures we had planned.  But God-ordained fire is always controlled. Not everything is lost.

Those who trust Jesus Christ are promised: “a crown of beauty instead of ashes.” How can that be?

The power of fire is that it destroys but it also regenerates. Heat and pressure are a catalyst for new growth, releasing new seeds into the nutrients left behind. From the ashes a new forest develops. Our lives can get cluttered with things that retard our growth. Fire has a way of making space.

In the Bible, fire is a method of purification, a tool of judgment (Ezekiel 28:18) and a means of testing the value of our work. Fire also symbolizes the presence of God Himself. God stood sentry in the pillar of fire by night as Moses led the Hebrews out of Egypt.

The park fire opened a formerly dark patch of wood to penetrating light by eradicating well-established, honeysuckle, poison oak and other vines by literally consuming their roots. In this same way, God’s fire incinerates entrenched habits, mindsets and entanglements that keep Christ-followers from being salt and light.

The aftermath of a controlled fire looks bad, but the burning ultimately can accomplish a great good. Our God “is a consuming fire” (Deu 4:24) cleansing our hearts to make us more holy, in the likeness of Christ, and more fruitful in His service.

“Everyone will be salted with fire.” Mark 9:49

Lover or Liar?

LoveGod   Do I really love God?

Not “love” as some warm, emotional feeling, but love as action.

When I know what God wants me to do, and it sticks in my craw, do I do what God wants or do I follow my own heart?

When we really love someone, our heart’s desire is to please them – above ourselves.  Self-denial seldom feels good. Loving God is about choosing to honor Him, despite how I feel.

The Bible has two important things to say about Love for God.

  1. Love is measured in actual obedience.

Saying “I love God” is worthless if my actions betray a different allegiance.

Matthew 21:28-31 speaks of a father who asks each of his two sons to go to work in a vineyard. The first says, “I will not” but later has a change of heart and goes. The second says, “I will” but does not go. Jesus asks: “Which of the two did his father’s will?” The reply: the one who obeyed.

God loved the world so much that He gave the gift of His only son. (John 3:16) The Son arrived on planet Earth and fulfilled the words of Psalm 40:7-8: “Here I am O Lord, I come to do your will.”

In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus struggled with what God’s will required: being brutally beaten, abused and nailed to a cross to die. Sweating drops of blood, knowing the agony that awaited Him at Calvary, Jesus finally submitted to the will of God.

“He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.” (Matthew 26:42)

How do we demonstrate love for God? “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15)

  1. Love for God is directly related to love for people. If we don’t love them, we cannot love Him.

“But if we say we love God and don’t love each other, we are liars. We cannot see God. So how can we love God, if we don’t love the people we can see?” (1 John 4:20)

My struggle to love actual human beings who are made in the image of God is a reflection of my struggle to love God. “Whoever does not love does not know God because God is love.” (1 John 4:8 ) People can be mean, cruel, hateful. I’m still commanded to respond in ways that reflect love for Him. This isn’t possible except God’s love abides in us.

Jesus repeatedly asks Peter if he loves Him. Peter replies that he does. Jesus responds: Feed my lambs. Take care of my sheep. Feed my sheep. Follow me. In other words, show your love for Me in loving relationship to my people.

It’s easy to claim ignorance about what God wants. Yet, we know more of God’s will than we want to admit:

  • Love your neighbor as yourself. (Mark 12:31)
  • Love your enemies,
  • bless those who curse you,
  • do good to those who hate you,
  • pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you (Matt 5:44)

In the book of Revelation, Jesus rebukes a perseverant but loveless church for having “forsaken the love you had at first” and calls them to repentance. (Revelation 2:4-7)

What matters most is love!

The first of all the commandments is, ‘Listen, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. This is the first commandment. The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-31)

 

 

 

 

 

Truth over Lies

no liesChristianity is all about Truth: believing truth, speaking truth, living truth. We Christians claim to be in relationship with the God of truth, the God who cannot lie

The sum of God’s word is truth. (Psalm 119:160) The same Jesus who is The Way to God the Father, also says He is “The Truth.” Starting in Exodus, repeated in Deuteronomy and echoed in the gospels: “You shall not bear false witness…. “ (Exodus 20:16, Deu 5:20) or as the Message Bible puts it: “No lies…”

A lifestyle of consistent, unrelenting and unrepentant lies reveals our true allegiance is not to God the Father but to the devil, the father of lies.

You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” (John 8:44)

And so I am baffled by church people who steadfastly support the current U.S. president who lies like breathing. I am inundated with talk of “prophecies,” of the president’s “faith” and Christian magazine articles proclaiming Trump as “God’s choice for this time in American history.” 

My response: A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart brings forth evil. For out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” (Luke 6:45)

It saddens me, maddens me, that the lies at the heart of today’s political turmoil are oft repeated by my church-going friends and neighbors:

  1. Abortion and same-sex marriage are the most important voting issues 
  2. Undocumented immigrants aren’t supposed to have equal protection under the law
  3. Godly character is less important than having the right politics

God’s people are to be sanctified – set apart – by truth. What is truth?

Individual Accountability – God does not want me, as a believer, to have an abortion or engage in same-sex marriage. God is not asking people who don’t know Him to behave like people who do. Obedience without relationship is not salvation. Individual believers, not nations, will stand at the judgment seat of Christ and be held accountable for our personal choices. So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God.” (Romans 14:12)

One law – God’s people are to treat foreigners living among them as countrymen, not to molest or mistreat them.

  • One law shall be to him that is homeborn, and unto the stranger that sojourneth among you.” (Exodus 12:49)
  • But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God. (Leviticus 19:34)

Truth inside – Character is what we are on the inside. God “desires truth in the inward parts.” (Psalm 51:6) Men look on the outward appearance. God looks on the heart. Since we can’t see hearts or trust words, God instructs His children to be guided by His Spirit. And where does His Spirit lead us?

But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come.” (John 16:13) 

Truth is foundational. “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” Psalm 11:3

 

 

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.

 

Things Aren’t What They Seem

wisdom_power (1)

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

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)