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.

 

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What if the worst does happen… then what?

Modern-day, western Christianity says if we really love God, if we have enough faith, we’re protected by a force field that nothing truly bad can penetrate. Should something terrible manage to get through, this fiction continues, we can pray it right out of our lives.

My real life experience has proven otherwise. Bad things happen. And sometimes the only way out is to walk through.

No matter how many crosses or garlic cloves actors use to ward off movie vampires and murderous mummies, in life there is no Christian talisman. The cross, after all, is synonymous with a torturous death that had to be endured before it could be overcome.

Jesus is frank:

In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.(John 16:33b)

Should we encounter a nightmare scenario, it won’t mean that evil has won. Those who trust God may have to walk through the valley of the shadow of death, but Christ walks with us to the other side.

Our relationship with God doesn’t have to crack under the strain of hard things. It can survive and deepen. Job is the Old Testament example.

By God’s own testimony, Job was blameless. (Job 1:8) Yet, God allowed this guy’s life to fall apart without warning and without cause. (Job 2:3) In a single day, he lost his wealth, his children. On some other day, his health was attacked. There had been a “hedge” of protection around his life. (Job 1:10)  Clearly, for reasons that are inexplicable beyond His Sovereignty, God sometimes allows the enemy to get at us.

We know that Job kept faith, though he had so many questions. God brought him to a deeper understanding of Himself and restored Job without ever explaining why things happened as they did.

God still causes His people to triumph through tragedy.

  • A friend’s only child, a son, was murdered. She endured the court trial, saw his killer convicted and jailed. Despite profound loss and grief, she somehow kept believing and trusting God. Decades later, she still says with conviction that “God is good.”
  • A family’s home caught fire while they slept and burned to the ground, a complete loss. Everyone escaped alive, including a visiting missionary couple later said to be accidentally responsible for the blaze. Think this family struggled with having missionaries set their house on fire? Still, their faith and their marriage survived a life in ashes.
  • A man who had been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer stood in church to proclaim that a year later he is cancer-free. A miracle to be sure. Yet he had not escaped suffering. He had endured cancer treatment and had, by God’s grace, prevailed.

In this Holy Week, when we Christians remember how Jesus Christ became our Savior, it’s worth noting that the captain of our salvation was made perfect through suffering, the very thing most of us spend a lifetime trying to avoid.

Christ “tasted death for every man” (Hebrews 2:9), a torturous, humiliating, excruciating death. Nobody dragged him to the cross. He went willingly, drinking to the last drop the worst the world had to offer. Three days later, He got up fully alive, overcoming the very thing that sought to overcome Him.

No matter what happens from now on, Jesus Christ has fully prepared those who trust in Him for what happens next. “No, in all these things, we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.” (Romans 8:37)

 

 

No Labels!

 Someone said in conversation this week that they consider me a “liberal” Christian, which I suspect means I practice “Christianity Lite.” This amused me. My husband is convinced I’m a natural conservative!

Actually, I’m neither. I listen to the pulpit. I think, ponder, pray, debate and study the Scriptures to see if those things are true.

So how’d I get a liberal label?

Maybe because I resist the idea that everything in the Christian faith is black and white. Obviously, the essentials of the faith are unambiguous and non-negotiable. But there also are things that are less clear cut. Not “gray” areas but things requiring wisdom and sensitivity to the Holy Spirit as to life application.

Or maybe because I’m a vocal critic of the nonsensical behavior of self-proclaimed conservative Christians:

  • Randomly cold-calling strangers at their front doors with the three spiritual laws
  • Standing outside “women’s health clinics” with bullhorns and poster-sized pictures of shredded babies shouting that abortion is murder
  • Arguing with queer theory people about whether sexual identity is fixed. (Note: Please don’t take me to task for referring to homosexuals as “queer.” My college-age insider assures me the LGBQT community now embraces the term as a means of self-identification.)

I’ve seen people do these things, and I’m pretty sure it brought no glory to Christ.

Christianity lived well, it seems to me, is not a matter of leaning left or right but of holding love and truth in a balanced tension. This is accomplished only by walking in the Spirit, something every believer is instructed to do.

We struggle because living this way requires reliance on God rather than hard-fast rules for human interaction.

I will admit that, over time, I have become more liberal in extending grace. Not because I have become soft on sin, but because I have learned this:

There is a wrong way to be right.

Nothing in Scripture instructs Christians to categorize ourselves as liberal or conservative. We are told:  “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith.” (2 Corinthian 13:5a)

THE faith is historic Christianity; not the modern-day version that is speculating about whether Jesus married and had children or rewriting gender references in hymns and Bible versions or redefining the nature of man as “basically good.”

Historic Christianity is the faith first delivered to the apostles and affirmed in the Christian creeds. A sampling:

One God, the Father, Creator and maker of the heavens and earth. Man a sinner in need of a savior whose name is Jesus, the Christ, Son of God and Son of Man. Foretold by the prophets, born of a virgin, suffered under Pontius Pilate, crucified, dead and buried; descended into hell, rose bodily on the third day, ascended into heaven and seated at the right hand of God to one day return to planet Earth to judge “the quick and the dead.”

It’s possible to give mental assent to all that and still be a hard, graceless person. It’s equally possible to be a kumbaya personality dedicated to the social gospel while conveniently forgetting that our citizenship is in heaven and we await a savior from there.

The Jesus of Scripture is neither. He eats and drinks with sinners. He visits their homes and welcomes tax collectors, zealots, prostitutes, Roman soldiers, the blind, and the lame – basically, all the undesirables — into his company. His message is frank, powerful and uncompromising. Yet, He is loving, compassionate and forgiving.

He heals people who don’t even know His name. He pardons the guilty. He’s upfront about the price to be paid for following Him. If people choose to walk away, He lets them go. There’s no coercion.

I don’t know anybody else like that.

Jesus doesn’t do liberal or conservative. He came to save every kind of sinner, from the inside-out. Jesus only had issues with Pharisees, the religious conservatives of His day, who didn’t think they needed saving. Their beautiful labels spoke of life, but Jesus said they were whitewashed tombs filled with dead men’s bones.

Labels can be misleading. Intel had it right. It’s what’s inside!

 

Happily Ever After?

“This better work into a happily ever after.  I’ve put a lot of work into this son of a bitch.”

Now that’s some statement on which to build a life.

I overheard it while working out the other night. Two twenty-something girls were chatting obliviously beside me as I pounded the treadmill. The black-headed one was eager to share with the blonde the details of a lusty encounter with Mr. Right, who apparently was living with someone else.

She explained that he was “so sweet.”  He’d said how much he cared, how he’d been thinking about her all day. He  was not sleeping with this other female; they weren’t intimate, he insisted. He said it was “complicated.” He needed time. She believed him.

“He is such a nice guy” they agreed. He wouldn’t lie. Miss Black Head said she trusted him, and she was willing to wait.

While she apparently was willing to wait for Mr. Right to move out, move in, marry her or whatever, she hadn’t been willing to wait on the sex.

In an eager whisper, she described to Miss Blonde on the treadmill beside me how she’d ripped off her clothes in a moment of abandon and the two had gone at it. When he called later and “emotionally vomited” all over her, she’d thought: “You gotta be kidding. It was just sex.”

She wondered aloud: maybe she should have waited at least another day for them to get together? Clearly, he had  not been ready.

Miss Blonde, the confidant, was sympathetic. Ponytail swinging as she picked up the pace, she acknowledged that “the only thing that’s  kept me is my religion.”

Miss Black Head giggled at that, congratulating her friend on her self-control and adding that she had none.  “I just go for it!”

Pausing briefly, she motioned toward a boy across the room. “Isn’t he cute?! He has a nice butt.”

I did not make this up. Actually happened within ear shot,  actually within reach-out-and-touch distance of me,  a complete stranger.

No shame. No worries. No morals.

It made me sad. These women are nobody’s marriage material. Clueless pawns of culture, they probably consider themselves liberated feminists, free to have sex with whomever they choose, “just like men.”  Naive and nauseating.

Marriage and family were God’s idea, but few people have any regard for marriage’s sacredness any more. Girls routinely “hook up” and still don a white dress on their wedding day, a fashion statement rather than a symbol of any purity. Increasingly, marriage is shunned altogether in favor of cohabitation. The Spring 2014  issue of Duke magazine quotes sociology professor Christina Gibson-Davis as saying:

The emergence of cohabitation as an acceptable context for childbearing has changed the family-formation landscape. Individuals still value the idea of a two-parent family but no longer consider it necessary for the parents to be married.

I soon will have been married 27 years and can testify that marriage is tough even with God in the mix. No self-control, no sensitivity to the emotional consequences of intimacy or concern for the other person beyond getting your own needs met is not a recipe for a happy marriage.

Without God, these young women may get a man to the altar, but they will never have a real marriage no matter how hard they work at it.

“Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it.” Psalm 127:1

No Boundaries?

We are not free to do as we please. Boundaries, limits, standard requirements are a reality of everyday life. These are necessary evils for the sake of law, order and public safety.

Before 9-11, I could pick up people arriving at the local airport directly at their gate, embracing them moments after they stepped off the airplane. No more. Security checkpoints keep me at a distance. I’m lucky to be allowed near baggage claim.

When I visited the hospital during a friend’s cancer surgery, I was not free to barge into the operating room for a firsthand look at the procedure. I had to sit in the waiting room until someone emerged to share the outcome. To do otherwise would have meant risking eviction.

I can’t drive any way I want.  On American roads, I’m required to “keep right.” Sure, it’s possible to ignore the road markings, be a non-conformist and drive left of center. It’s also potentially fatal. There are posted speed limits, too. I can drive faster and, regrettably, sometimes do. I don’t recommend it.

Boundaries are not crossed without penalties: tickets, lawyer fees and, occasionally, morgues.

Knowing the consequences of disobedience, most of us respect imposed limits as the rules of the game. So why do we normally law-abiding people live like outlaws before God, rejecting the notion that He has any right to set boundaries for our lives?

The answer, as I see it, is that we have no fear of the Lord. We give grudging respect to civil authorities, which are actually established by God,  and conform as necessary. Biblical authority, on the other hand, has become meaningless – even to so-called Christians.

I had coffee with a young man the other night who is a poster child for this pervasive yet cancerous attitude. He’s a “nice guy,” educated, gainfully employed, decent looking, polite, a church-goer. He also is willfully disobedient to Scripture, by his own admission, and quite probably lost.

This guy dates my daughter.

He considers himself a Christian even though he is not willing to live by biblical truth, an historically contrary notion which he considers a small thing.

With his head, he agrees that the Bible is right, insists that he “respects” God and biblical values. With his heart, however, he refuses to respect the boundaries God has set for Christian living when they conflict with what he wants to do.  Indeed, he rejects the notion that he has any obligation to do so.

The times in which we live are not unlike the book of Judges in which it is said, “In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 21:25)

We attend church, crack our Bibles now and then and mouth the occasional prayer. But none of that has any relationship to how we live or make decisions. We know where the boundaries are drawn, but persist in living outside the lines. This has been done before.  Ezekiel 33:31 says: “My people come to you, as they usually do, and sit before you to hear your words, but they do not put them into practice. “

Hearing but not doing is hypocrisy.

“The Lord says: ‘These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught.’” (Isaiah 29:13)

As I reminded the young man at coffee, Christians are not free to live as we choose. We live in committed relationship with a holy God who loves us and desires to make us holy.  God has established standards, boundaries, limits for His children. These are for our good. If we love Him, we conform our lives to  His wishes.

I liken the Christian life to a marathon race. I ran the Outer Banks Half-Marathon once. Training required a lot of personal discipline, self-denial, patient endurance. To be competitive, I did things I normally would not choose to do: changed the way I ate, ran at odd and inconvenient times and for longer distances than I ever imagined possible. I did this, not because I liked it, but because my goal was to run well and finish the race.

The race had an established course with a starting line and a finish line. On race day, I was required to run within clearly marked boundaries.  I couldn’t make it up as I went along and veer into the finish line at the end. I would have been disqualified.

Similarly, Christians enter into a relationship with Christ and run the race He sets before us.  Paul encouraged his fellow believers to have the disciplined commitment of soldiers and athletes who respect the boundaries imposed by their office:

“Anyone who competes as an athlete does not receive the victor’s crown except by competing according to the rules.” (2 Timothy 2:5)

What Do You Like?

Facebook is one of those places where I occasionally learn very surprising things about people I thought I knew.

A number of my Friends, for example, “Like” Mitt Romney and have declared their intention to support his candidacy for President of the United States in the November election.

This is a rather curious revelation, given that these people are quite fundamental in their Christianity. Romney, you may recall, is a Mormon. And there is some controversy about whether Mormons are Christians at all. 

Generally speaking, I like Mitt Romney, too. He seems like a clean-cut, family guy, John Q. Citizen. He’d probably make a great neighbor.

Yet, it strikes me as incongruous that Bible-believers “Like” a guy whose religion may not even line up with the Bible. Mind you, these are people who have made religious positions a litmus test for determining a candidate’s suitability for office.

That said, let me make a couple of things clear.

  •  I don’t hate Mormons. I’ve had Mormon family members. My children’s Mormon school friends have slept-over at my house and vice versa.
  • I don’t fault Mitt for being a Mormon. We have religious freedom in this country. We are free to practice any religion we choose or no religion at all. That’s the American way.

The real issue is this: For Christians, Christianity is supposed to inform our politics, not the other way around. My Facebook friends seem to have put their “Like” of Romney’s politics ahead of their love of traditional Christian belief, which contradicts core Mormon tenets.

Consider three points of disparity, corroborated by the official site of The Church of Jesus Christ Latter-day Saints:

Baptism in the Bible is said to depict our identification with Christ’s atoning sacrifice, signifying our death to sin and resurrection to new life in Christ.

  • Salvation: Can we choose to follow Christ after death? Mormonism teaches that after death and judgment “those who never learned about Christ’s teachings or received his ordinances will have an opportunity to do so.” (see Postmortal life (Afterlife) topic).

The Bible teaches the decision to accept Jesus Christ and His atoning sacrifice for sin must be made on this side of  the grave. “Now is the day of salvation, now is the accepted time.” (2 Corinthians 6:2) After death, our fate is sealed. “It’s appointed to man once to die and then the judgment.” (Hebrews 9:27)

  •  Marriage: Mormons believe that temple marriage “seals” families for eternity. In contrast, Jesus considered marriage temporal. Confronted with a woman who had married seven husbands, Jesus was asked whose wife she’d be in the resurrection. He said the question revealed error and ignorance of Scripture and God’s power.

For when they shall rise from the dead, they neither marry, nor are given in marriage; but are as the angels which are in heaven.” 

We Americans are free to support the political candidates of our choice. Christians, however, have dual citizenship and a higher allegiance. Our responsibility, as Christ’s ambassadors, is not to represent ourselves but to “Like” what Jesus likes — even on Facebook.