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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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!

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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)