Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Deathbed Conversions

Thoughts on Ezekiel 37:1-14.

If you have been a Christian for very long, you may have heard of "deathbed conversions". What this means is that someone has come to faith in Christ at the very end of his/her life. Maybe it's the 87-year-old man who has rebelled against God his whole life. Maybe it's the 34-year-old mom who is in the final stages of liver cancer. Whatever the case, God seems to use the reality of death to open their eyes and hearts to the gospel. It is truly an amazing miracle, but I want us to think about deathbed conversions in a different way today.

At one time in my life, I taught a Sunday morning Bible study for juniors and seniors in high school. At the end of class one week, I announced that everyone should come prepared to go to breakfast at Burger King the next time we gathered. When that day arrived, we piled into the church van and headed out. On the way to breakfast, I took them to a local cemetery. You see, we had been studying the end times, and I told them to use their imagination and picture what the resurrection from the dead would look like when Christ returns.

As we drove through the cemetery in silence, I couldn't help but think of evangelism. Evangelism? Yes, evangelism. It seems to me that all conversions are deathbed conversions. Now, it is true that not everyone who hears the gospel may be physically dying, but Ephesians 2 clearly tells us that apart from Christ, we are spiritually dead in our trespasses and sins. Whether it is preaching on Sunday morning, door-to-door evangelism on Tuesday night, or coffee with a lost friend on Friday morning, our evangelism is the calling of dead men to live.

Picture it this way. Imagine a grassy cemetery full of headstones. There are bouquets of flowers adding color to each grave. In the midst of all this stillness, silence, and death, you see a man. He stands alone, weeps, and calls out for all these dead men, dead women, dead boys, and dead girls to be raised to life. Imagine going to the morgue at your local police station. After being let in, you pull out a drawer, revealing a corpse. You look at the tag and say, "Stan, get up from there...you can have life if you'll just start breathing!" This is evangelism...telling the dead that they can live if they will only respond to the offer of life.

What's the problem? The problem is this...dead men don't crawl out of graves. Stan's not getting up out of that drawer any time soon. The unsaved masses aren't going to be saved simply because we have called out to them. They won't be saved because they've got bouquets of church membership cards, donation records, baptism certificates, and the marks of "turning over a new leaf" to decorate their spiritual corpse. Something is missing.

That something is found in Ezekiel 37:1-14. Here, we find Ezekiel's vision of the valley of dry bones. Miles and miles of bones fill the vision, and God has Ezekiel prophesy to the bones so that they might live. Ezekiel prophesies over them, and bones begin to form full skeletons, followed by muscle and skin (v. 7-8). There was still a problem. Even though they didn't look quite so dead any more, there was still no life. Next, God has Ezekiel prophesy so that breath comes and enters each body, making a massive army (v. 9-10).

Now, only a fool would think, Boy, that Ezekiel...he sure does have a powerful ministry. Ezekiel had no power in ministry apart from the great hand of God. In explaining the vision in verses 11-14, God says what He will do for the house of Israel. He is going to open graves and cause them to live. He is going to give His Spirit as the very Breath of the soul. If you notice carefully, God uses the phrase "I will" four times here. Bringing the dead to life is an act of God, not of man. This is what was missing before. Dead men don't crawl out of graves unless God gives life. Stan isn't getting out of the drawer unless, as Jesus called Lazarus, God says, "Stan, come forth." Church membership, baptism, giving, and a changed life only find their meaning once God has revived the spiritual corpse.

So, when we evangelize, we are not telling moral people they can be better. We are not telling people, "Hey...you've got a great life...it can be even better with Jesus." We are telling the dead to get up and live, and we are trusting the hand of Almighty God to save. This is why the statement "all conversions are deathbed conversions" makes sense. We are not calling people to salvation as they are on their deathbed. We are calling people to salvation while they are in their deathbed...their grave. May we be faithful callers of the dead, and may the mercy of God show itself in the raising of the dead to life. Apart from Him, we can do nothing.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Adoption: Not Just a Teenage Mother's Option

When you think of adoption, what do you think about? Do you think about a teenage mother who can't keep the child she's carrying? Do you think of those friends who have struggled with fertility issues and chose to adopt? Do you think of a friend in high school that was adopted? What is it you think of when you hear the word "adoption"?

If you were to ask me what I think about, I would immediately think of what my wife and I are choosing to go through right now. We have three amazing children, and over the nine years of our marriage, we have talked some about the possibility of adopting a child one day. We became convicted that just talking about it wasn't enough...we should actively pursue it.

Not knowing anything about the process, we started where any 21st century blogger would go for help in search of information...Google. Through searches and conversations with friends, we were connected with two ladies who have recently adopted. Through it all, we have been praying that God would lead us. Over the last few months, we have chosen to pursue adoption from a foreign country. We have also connected with a small agency that specializes in foreign adoption and a home study company to take care of the social work aspect of everything. Through pictures sent by the adoption agency, we may have already found the young girl we will adopt...she will turn one soon. God seems to be moving us forward, so we are trusting Him for the large about of money we need to complete the adoption process, and we are pressing on.

While we would love to know that you are praying for us in this journey, I know that one normal reaction to our decision is, "Why are you adopting? You already have three children!" I think this is a fair question, and that's one reason I'm writing this blog...to answer it. The other reason I am writing this is in the hope that God will use these words to motivate you to do all you can for orphans, especially those that could be described as the "unevangelized, uneducated, unmedicated, and unfed" (John Piper, Desiring God, p. 169).

So, why are we adopting?

(1) Adoption fulfills the biblical mandate to care for orphans. God is very clear that caring for orphans is to be a high priority among His people. While adoption is not the only way to care for orphans, it is surely a good way. Let's think about what the Scripture has to say specifically about orphans, or 'the fatherless'.

(a) Provision for orphans should be made by God's people. In Deuteronomy 24:19-22, God makes very clear that the Israelites were not to consume everything that they reaped in their harvest times. Instead of being meticulous in clearing the fields of all crops, they were to go over it once and leave anything missed for the foreigners, widows, and orphans. Why? Verse 22 says this will remind them of the slavery in Egypt. How? They lived on whatever was given to them by the masters of the land...by the grace of God, they had escaped. Now that they were "masters" in their own land, they were to care for those who could not produce for themselves. (See also Deut. 26:12)

The same is true for us...we live in such a consumer-driven society that the very idea that we would not use all our money for our own prosperity seems ridiculous, backward, and anti-intuitive. That's the point...that's how we're supposed to live...ridiculous, backward, anti-intuitive lives for the cause of Christ.

(b) True religion displays itself in one's attitude toward orphans. James 1:27 is the key to this statement. In the second half of the verse, James tells us that keeping "oneself unstained by the world" is part of true religion. You can say this in most evangelical churches and (if they're accustomed to doing so) receive a hearty "AMEN!" from the congregation. The first half of the verse, however, makes clear that the care of orphans and widows is looked upon by God as being the display of pure religion (i.e.- true conversion).

To be honest, apart from a few spurts of financial support through organizations like "Compassion International," I have not displayed the kind of compassion needed toward the orphans in our world. Adoption will not give us the opportunity to change all the orphans of the world, but we will be able to change the world of an orphan.

(c) It is sinful not to seek the prosperity of the orphan. Jeremiah 5:20-31 finds the weeping prophet pronouncing judgment on Judah for their sinfulness. In verse 21, he calls them a "foolish and senseless people." Why? Because they "have a stubborn and rebellious heart" (v. 23), they do not "fear the Lord [their] God" (v. 24), "their houses are full of deceit" (v. 27), and they "excel in deeds of wickedness (v. 28a).

In further explaining these wicked deeds, Jeremiah says that their wicked deed was related to their care of orphans. He says, "They do not plead the cause, the cause of the orphan, that they may prosper..." (v. 28b). "Plead" means "to strive", so Jeremiah is saying that these people are not striving for the cause of prospering orphans. Therefore, they are sinful, and God will punish them (v. 29). (See also Isaiah 1:21-23, 10:1-2)

(d) The Lord is defender of the orphan's welfare, and we should be the same. This should be pretty clear from the first three points. As the Author of Scripture, God has declared that provision for orphans come from His people, that pure religion is reflected in our attitude toward orphans, and that it is sinful not to seek the prosperity of orphans. However, for those who need more specifics, keep reading.

In Psalm 10:14, God is called "the helper of the orphan," and then verses 17-18 says that God "...will incline [His] ear to vindicate the orphan and the oppressed." Even if we were to ignore God's commands, God Himself would come to the rescue of the orphan. The oppressed and helpless are some of God's favorites. After all, that's what we were when He scooped to show grace and rescue us from our own sin.

(2) Adoption is an act of evangelism. In adopting from a foreign, we have chosen a country that has a reported Christian population of 40% (this includes a fair amount of Roman Catholicism). The rest of the nation is made up of Muslims and indigenous, tribal religion. Our short-term prayer is that God will allow us to rescue a child from the Muslim religion or tribal religion and see him/her transformed into a follower of Christ. Our long-term hope and prayer is to see this child burdened for their home country and become a missionary for the cause of Christ. I'm quite sure we will not want him/her to move so far away from us, as with any child...however, we long for all of our children to be used anywhere on the planet where God will use them to further the Gospel.

(3) Adoption is an act of rescue. Orphans need to be rescued, plain and simple. We have heard and read of stories of those who have adopted from foreign countries. Their adopted children still have fresh memories of soldiers coming into their homes, raping their mothers and killing the rest of their families, while they escaped and hid in the bush. The unemployment rate in many foregin countries has sky-rocketed, and there is no real future in these war-torn places. We know that coming to America is not the great hope and answer for these children, but a family that can nurture, educate, and guide them can be used of God to give them lives they would never have otherwise.

(4) Adoption is a physical picture of a spiritual reality. Now, I must confess, this is not the main reason we are adopting, but it is a HUGE benefit for us, for our children, for the church we serve, etc. The reality is that spiritually, you and I were living in a war-torn, hopeless, helpless world of sin. We were destined for far worse than unemployment...we were destined for hell. There is a very high cost for adopting, but it is nothing compared to what it cost to rescue us. You see, based on no merit or action of our own, God stepped in and adopted us as sons, having purchased us at the high cost of the blood of Jesus Christ, the Son. Once adopted, our child will be ours forever...there is no going back. The same is true for sons of God through the rebirth of salvation.

Our little boy or little girl will be a constant reminder of who we are in Christ, but he/she will be far more than an illustration. This will be our son...our daughter...and we will cherish the child for as long as God allows us.

These are the four reasons that we are choosing to adopt. The question is this...are you doing anything to relieve the suffering of orphans? Have you considered adoption but thought it was crazy? What would God have you do in response to all of this? Adopting is not commanded by the Scripture, but the care of orphans certainly is...please take this seriously.

For now, please pray for God's provision of money in our family's life for this adoption. Also, pray for us and our three children...that God would prepare our hearts to love, nurture, accept, and adopt this precious child. Thank you.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

The All-Too-Real Parable

Thoughts on Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23.

I have now been in the pulpit for almost 16 months, and though I am not new to serving in the context of the local church, this vantage point is certainly new. One of the things that some would celebrate about the first twelve months of ministry is that we had 8 people baptized as a result of professions of faith (3 children and 5 adults). I have to admit...I found myself celebrating it the first time I realized it. Then, I thought of where those people are now. Three of them are plugged into the ministry of our church, and we are discipling them through existing programs. I have already made arrangements to disciple the one man who remains in the church one-on-one.

What about the other five? They all seemed to have taken complete leave of the church and, quite possibly, Christ. Why? How can this be? What hope is there when this kind of thing happens? Can we really pin this on bad follow-up (or bad evangelism) by the church, or is something more significant happening here? Does the Scripture have anything to say about this?
Here is where the parable of the sower in Matthew 13 becomes all-too-real for me. As a pastor, I have great excitement when someone professes Christ as Savior and Lord, publicly declaring it in baptism. I think that should be exciting! (God, protect us from ever seeing it as "routine", but let it still be a regular occurrence in our churches.) My difficulty is that the disappearance of these young ones in faith truly breaks my heart. It ought to break every Christian's heart that this happens. Attitude toward the church is a visible indicator of attitude toward Christ...remember what Jesus said to Saul on the road to Damascus? "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting" (Acts 9:5). Jesus had ascended to the right hand of the Father (Acts 1), so He was no longer there to persecute. Who was Saul persecuting? The church...the body of Christ...in persecuting the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ, Saul was, in fact, persecuting Christ. So, when professing Christians abandon or downplay the importance of the gathered church, it ought to be a heart-breaking moment for all believers.

What is the spiritual reality behind this type of abandonment? If you haven't already, read Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23. We find the parable of the sower given in the earlier verses, while a rare explanation of the parable is given in the last 6 verses listed. Maybe this parable is familiar to you...it certainly is familiar to me...I've heard it preached over and over again. Here's a simplified version of v. 18-23:
  1. Seed on the path = no understanding, enemy steals the seed of the word
  2. Seed on rocky places = receives word with joy, but no root + persecution = falls away
  3. Seed among thorns = hears word, worries of life/deceitfulness of wealth choke it
  4. Seed on good soil = hears and understands word, produces fruitful life

Of those who at least hear, only one out of three is the real deal. The seed that is taken by the enemy isn't even understood. One soil produces an emotional response, but persecution proves that it was only emotion. One soil is a more intellectual response, but the pull of life's worries and wealth on the heart proves it to be no more than a mental agreement with the facts. The real deal affects the mind and emotions, and it can be observed in the fruitfulness of life. Now, go back to the numbers I shared with you at the beginning. Three out of eight baptisms have proven, so far, to be fruitful (at least in faithfulness to Bible study and worship, and in some cases, much more). That's a little more than 33%...so, the parable of the sower has shown itself to be true in my congregation during the first year of my ministry here.

There are two opposite sides of a pendulum that are terribly unhealthy when dealing with new professions of faith that turn away like this. One would take the parable of the sower and hold to it as if it were a church-growth statistic, dismissing the need for deeply intentional and careful evangelism, as well as the intentional discipleship of new believers. This attitude would say, "Well, only one in three is really going to produce fruit, so why work so hard at it?" (God, protect us from such an attitude...protect me from such an attitude.) Evangelism and discipleship are not statistics to be observed; they are life and death events for those encountering Christ...life for the one who is truly saved and death to the one who rejects the Gospel and its demands. Avoid being led by stats...this isn't a basketball game; it's eternity!

The opposite side of the pendulum is the "once-saved-always-saved" mentality. It is the kind of attitude that might say, "Well, they prayed the prayer and were baptized...they must be saved and have dropped out of church because (enter excuse here)." This actually leads to the same result...no real plan for careful, intentional evangelism and discipleship of new converts. After all, as long as the prayer is prayed, what else matters? (sarcasm intended) This attitude dismisses the parable of the sowers altogether, believing that sincerity in an emotional, one-time experience is all that matters. If this were all that matters, then why would Jesus make the ridiculous statement that "anyone who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me" (Mt. 10:38). That doesn't sound like a one-time experience...following means step by step, day by day obedience. We must avoid the lie that experience dictates true conversion...Jesus says the seed in the good soil produces fruit, and abandoning the body of Christ is not the kind of fruit a child of God produces.

To be really honest, this pendulum comparison isn't even why I wrote this blog. I wrote this blog because my heart is broken for the souls of five people who have made what could very well be false professions of faith. I know for certain that I am not the Judge of their souls, so I can only speak from the revelation that Scripture has given. However, the truth is that they may have placed their security in their trip through our baptism pool and a few weeks of joy in church, rather than in the Head of the Church, Jesus Christ. They could even believe that whatever they experienced was real, but now life has gone on, and they're "back in their routine". No cross to pick up, no sin nature to die to, no Savior to follow...just an experience, which means...no salvation. I wish I could convince them to come back and continue to seek the Savior they once professed, but my efforts have come up empty. Maybe my efforts weren't good enough...maybe my plea for their faithfulness was masked in too much religious diplomacy. Oh God, may it never be so again if that were the case!

The parable of the sower is all-too-real tonight. I do take comfort from from three things. One, God is sovereign over these things, and ultimately, the salvation of others lies in His hands...not mine. Two, if I will continue to sow the seed of His Word, He will faithful to save some. Three, Jesus has promised that He will not lose any of those whom the Father gives Him (John 6:37).

On the flip side, I know that some who profess Christ will fall away because there was no genuine conversion. I also know that the number of true converts could be fewer than the number of false professions of faith. I know I can't dismiss this reality, and I can't fool myself into thinking that they're okay, wherever they are, simply because of their experience.

So, at the beginning of this blog and at the end, I remain a pastor with a broken heart...longing for these lost sheep to be found by the Good Shepherd and brought into the fold, once and for all...longing to be effective, careful, and intentional in my personal evangelism and discipleship efforts...longing the same for you and your church. Keep your eyes on Jesus!