Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Them's Fightin' Words!

[This entry follows a sermon preached at Gray Road Baptist Church. The title is "Why We Speak to Nations", and you can find the audio by clicking on the title.]

This past weekend, our congregation had a missions conference. Missionaries gave testimonies about work being done in Bangladesh, Papua New Guinea, Chile, South Africa, and here in Indianapolis. We had the opportunity to be encouraged by these men and women, and we had the opportunity to encourage them in return. I think this kind of exchange may be what Paul wanted when he wrote to the Roman believers. His desire in seeing them was to preach the gospel among them (Romans 1:15) and also to "be mutually encouraged by each other's faith" (Romans 1:12).

We closed our conference by seeking to answer this question: "Why do we speak to nations?" In doing so, we thought about God's revelation of Himself in words. We also thought about the role of words in the ministries of the prophets, the Lord Jesus, the apostles, and even the pastors who would follow after the apostles. We finished by being reminded that the words of the gospel carry inherent, inexplicable power, and they explain the way in which sinful mankind can be reconciled to a holy God. Christianity is a wordy faith, and if we want to be part of God's gathering of souls from every nation, tongue, tribe, and people, then we must be wordy Christians. We must continue speaking to nations.

This big picture of remaining involved in God's mission is important, but there may be a tendency to disconnect such ideas from today's experience of living. How does the importance of words intersect with my life today? This is an important question.

The answer that comes immediately to mind is that today we are living in a war zone. I don't mean physical wars between nations. I mean what Paul expresses in Ephesians 6:12, "For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places."

First, notice who the war is between...the war is not between God's angels and Satan's demons. This is not some epic battle that happens 'above our heads.' No, the battle is between Christians and "the spiritual forces of evil." We are actively engaged in this battle. The difficulty for many evangelical Christians is that we live as if such warfare is not happening at all, and if you ask a soldier on the front line, I'm certain they would tell you how dangerous such an attitude is.

Second, notice the position from which we fight. If you look back at Ephesians 1:20-23, you will see the great victory that Christ has achieved over "all rule and authority and power and dominion" (v. 21). The great Captain of our Souls has already defeated all that we will battle in this life. You have probably heard that we "fight a defeated foe" or "we fight from victory not for victory." That's what Paul is telling the Ephesians, and it is actually part of his prayer life on their behalf...that God would often bring this truth to their minds and hearts. This is why, in chapter 6, Paul applies that reality to their hearts by telling them that the Lord is their strength (v. 10). It was the Lord's strength that defeated their enemies through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and it is the Lord's strength which will enable them to now stand.

Third, notice our means of fighting. In verses 14-17, Paul talks about the defensive portion of our preparation for battle, and I will only mention them briefly. We are to be girded with the belt of truth...a belt which holds everything together. We must wear the breastplate of righteousness. This is not the imputed righteousness of Christ, for Paul is writing to those who are Christians...they have already been given His righteousness. This is the righteousness of life...of daily living...of obedience. We must wear the shoes of the gospel, carry the shield of faith, and wear the helmet of salvation.

Then, he moves on to the offensive. We know how to protect ourselves against the "flaming darts of the evil one" (v. 15), but we are not to simply avoid spiritual injury. We are to fight! This battle is one fought with words, and thus, we have found the relevance of the importance for words in our lives. These words are those given to us by God...the sword of the Spirit...the Scripture (v. 17). By reading, studying, and knowing the Word of God, we are better equipped to wield this great weapon against our enemy. By doing this, "we destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ" (2 Corinthians 10:5).

Our weapon, then, is one that is used to destroy weapons that would come against us. Arguments, lofty opinions, and various thoughts come against us every day...from our media, from liberal scholars, from our friends, and sometimes from within our own brains. The enemy loves to tempt us with his various Trojan horses, but inside each resides the poison of evil spiritual forces...ready to destroy sound doctrine, ready to alter our gospel, and ready to lead us into indifference. The only weapon that can fight against these is the Word of God, and the only way we will aptly use this weapon is to know it...to practice handling it...to train ourselves for such encounters (which happen more than we realize, by the way).

The other word weapon is prayer. It is an act of warfare to call on our God to empower us to withstand the attack of the evil one. It is an act of warfare to pray for those who are the preachers and teachers of God's Word. It is an act of warfare to pray for God to save family members and friends, for what we are asking is that they be delivered out of the kingdom of darkness and transferred into the kingdom of God's Son (Col. 1:13). We use words to call out to God, and He empowers us through His words for us. So, our weapons are the words of God to us (the Scripture) and our words of dependence on God (prayer).

Let's face it...we're in a battle that we cannot endure apart from words. Yes, Christ has already defeated sin, death, and the devil, but until the consummation of all things, we live in a world where our enemy's efforts still echo in the lives of believers. He has always been a thief who wants to steal, kill, and destroy...and his defeat did not change his aim. If it were not so, we would not be told to prepare for battle in such strong language.

In this life, we will face temptations to believe our good works make us more acceptable to God, and such pride must be defeated through the words of God to us and our words to God. We will face trials, tribulations, diagnoses, and disappointments through which we are tempted to toss aside faith because 'it doesn't work.' The battle will only be won through the words of God to us and our words to God. Our relationships with spouses, children, family, and friends will all be affected by the presence of sin and could fall apart...we may even be tempted to think that avoiding reconciliation is the best possible thing we could do. The only way to save them is through heeding God's words to us and calling out our words to God.

Our worldwide mission is a word mission, and personal mission is a word mission. Nations, tribes, and tongues will be conquered through words, and our soul's battle with the spiritual forces of evil will be won through words. So, the next time we open our Bibles to read and to study, we must not see it as a merely intellectual exercise but as the polishing of a weapon we need to survive. Maybe the next time we open the Bible, we should first remind ourselves...them's fightin' words!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Pride and the Fear of Man

[This entry follows a sermon preached at Gray Road Baptist Church, titled "Jesus' Authority Rejected". Click on the title to listen to the audio.]

The two sentences that grounded our study of Mark 11:27-12:12 are these: (1) Jesus' authority is rejected by men. (2) Those who reject Jesus' authority will be rejected by God. This is what we see in the religious leaders confrontation of Jesus. In response to Jesus' claims of authority over the activity of the temple (11:15-19), they ask, "Who do you think you are?" That's just my paraphrase of Mark 11:28.

The religious leaders would not admit the divine authorization of John the Baptist's ministry or of Jesus' ministry because doing so would mean that they had to humble themselves and believe. Pride is destructive, and the Scripture is clear that the proud find themselves at odds with God and His purposes (James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5).

How is it that we can battle against the often-mentioned sin of pride? What's so wrong about pride? Just this past Sunday, former president Jimmy Carter, when asked about his presidency, says he was proud of himself and what he accomplished. Is there something wrong with that? If you teach a good lesson, help a stranded motorist with some gas, offer free babysitting to a single mom who needs a few hours alone, or adopt a baby, why wouldn't you feel proud of yourself? You've done something good, something right, something meant to serve God and serve others. Why not feel pride?

A recent book by Jerry Bridges called Respectable Sins: Confronting the Sins We Tolerate included a chapter on the issue of pride. He writes, "One of the problems with pride is that we can see it in others but not in ourselves" (p. 89). In that chapter, he deals with the pride of moral self-righteousness, the pride of correct doctrine, the pride of achievement, and the pride of an independent spirit. With regard to these kinds of pride, Bridges notes, "One thing that may strike you is that some of the practices I've identified as sin in this chapter are usually not regarded as sin at all. That's because they are so common and so accepted among Christians that we don't think of them as sin."

In other words, pride is deceitful. It's so deceitful that we think it is only when my pride leads to actions that offend or hurt another person that it becomes potentially sinful (notice, it only becomes 'potentially sinful'...how deceiving!). You see, pride is often not as perceptible as adultery, theft, slanderous speech, or several other sins. Pride is not a neon sign blinking in the night...pride is unseen, it's hidden, it's beneath the surface of many things we say and do. It's beneath our thoughts of ourselves and of others. John Stott writes, "Pride is more than the first of the seven deadly sins; it is itself the essence of all sin."

Pride can hide itself beneath actions that are benevolent or seem loving to others ("He'll thing I'm such a good person"). Pride can slither its way into the ink of a pen that writes a check for the church offering plate ("The pastor will know I'm the most generous person in this congregation"). Pride can worm its way into a raised hand and closed eyes in the midst of the congregational singing of hymns ("They'll see how spiritual I really am"). It is a sneaky beast, and it must be slayed...but how?

One of the key answers to this question is to learn to recognize the stench of pride. We have to learn to ask ourselves why we do what we do. Am I teaching this lesson or preaching this sermon so my gifts as a teacher/preacher will be recognized or to communicate God's Word to God's people for their benefit? Am I motivated to give so that I will be known as a giving person or because I want to honor the Lord and support His work? Does my motivation in my words and deeds tend toward my recognition and exaltation or toward the glory of God and the benefit of others? We can even try to deceive ourselves in answering these questions, but this is one critical step in fighting pride.

Apart from examining and testing my heart, there are things we can do to feed humility and starve pride. Let me list the seventeen suggestions given by C.J. Mahaney in his little book, Humility (p. 171-172). I will add comments to a couple of the suggestions.

1. Reflect on the wonder of the cross of Christ. What better way to humble ourselves than to be reminded of what was necessary for us to be redeemed from the pit of sin! We were helpless, hopeless, weak, and dead in our transgressions and sin, but God has called us out of darkness and into the kingdom of His glorious Son!

As each day begins:
2. Begin your day by acknowledging your dependence on God and your need for God.
3. Begin your day by expressing gratefulness to God. Gratefulness means that we the beneficiaries of God's work rather than His benefactors.
4. Practice the spiritual disciplines - prayer, study of God's Word, worship. Do this consistently each day and at the day's outset, if possible.
5. Seize your commute time to memorize and meditate on Scripture.
6. Cast your cares on Him, for He cares for you.

As each day ends:
7. At the end of the day, transfer the glory to God. This can be done for everything accomplished in a given day. All the strength and energy we have to accomplish the work we do is supplied by God Himself.
8. Before going to sleep, receive this gift of sleep from God and acknowledge His purpose for sleep. I remember hearing the author speak about this in an interview once. He said that sleep humbles him because he is a creature who needs rest, who needs sleep, and who cannot endure. God never needs to sleep or slumber. Sleep distinguishes us from God.

For special focus:
9. Study the attributes of God.
10. Study the doctrines of grace.
11. Study the doctrine of sin.
12. Play golf as much as possible. (Not all will understand this one, but I do!)
13. Laugh often, and laugh often at yourself.

Throughout your days and weeks:
14. Identify evidences of grace in others.
15. Encourage and serve others each and every day.
16. Invite and pursue correction. This is not easy to do, and it is avoided like the plague in today's culture. Yet, it is necessary for iron to sharpen iron and for none of us to grow sinfully confident in our own abilities.
17. Respond humbly to trials. Rather than shake our fist toward heaven and presume that we know better than our sovereign God, we should find ourselves humbled by His providential governing of all things and our inability to understand them.

Pride is a nasty, cancerous disease that is easily contracted by Christians who do not guard themselves against it. So, let us resolve to regularly take stock of our own hearts and lives...examining our motives in all things. In addition to that, let's be proactive in feeding our humility and starving our pride. "One's pride will bring him low, but he who is lowly in spirit will obtain honor." - Proverbs 29:23

Monday, September 13, 2010

Perseverence in Prayer

[The following entry follows a sermon preached by Glen Lockwood at Gray Road Baptist Church. It's called "Powerful Prayer", and you can click on the title to listen to the audio.]

This week's blog entry was written by Pastor Glen Lockwood. Pastor Lockwood wrote the following words:

In my mind, the greatest illustration of persistent, persevering prayer in the Bible is the story of Daniel’s praying in Daniel chapter ten. Suffice it to say that the purpose of his prayer has to do with the future of Israel. He is deeply concerned about his people, and so determines that he will pray. He did not eat at the king’s table during this time, but subsisted on a meager diet.

The Scripture tells us that he prayed for twenty-one days, and it seems that these days were devoted only to prayer; certainly most of each day to prayer. But no answer came. There was no indication of an answer. Yet he persevered; on and on he prayed, and after twenty-one days the answer came. What is startling is what the angel who comes to him tells him. From the first day Daniel began to pray he (the angel) was dispatched by God to come to Daniel, but was held up by an evil angel all that time. After twenty-one days God sends Michael the archangel to help him, and he finally is able to come to Daniel.

The lesson is simply this: When we begin to pray for something that Satan opposes, we can be sure that we are setting off a battle in the spirit realm. If we persevere in prayer we can win the battle; but if we grow weary and stop, our prayer will not be answered and Satan will win. Perseverance is the key to answered prayer! What if Daniel had decided that God wasn’t going to answer and he had quit after two weeks? There would have been no answer. For more on perseverance in prayer, read Luke 11:1-13 and Luke 18:1-7. When you’re tempted to quit, pray more! Never give up!

Just recently I was reminded of the following incident by a member of the family involved. Several years ago a lady called me to ask what she could do about her grown child, who, although a Christian, was not living for Christ, but was involved with the world. I told her the story of Daniel and that if she prayed earnestly and would not give up, she would win the battle and see her child restored. For three months she prayed and pled with God, and she won! God changed that child’s life.

Let me say it again: Earnest prayer, consistent with God’s Word that will not let God go, prayer that is persistent and unyielding, will always win. Begin now! The door to the Father’s throne room is open wide. Go to Him!

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

A TV Commercial, Authority, and Evangelism

[This entry follows a sermon preached at Gray Road Baptist Church, titled "Jesus and Authority." Click on the title to listen to the audio.]

There is a commercial on the USA network in which different actors from various shows say something unique about themselves. Things like "I am Irish," "I am an adoptive father," "I am an olive-skinned fellow," etc., fill this one-minute ad, which is meant to express the diversity of mankind. The commercial ends with an invitation to all these various types of people by saying, "Characters welcome."

What I find most interesting about this commercial is that as these distinctive traits are rattled off, the actors delve into religion. One claims to be a Jew, one a Christian, one 'spiritual' (whatever that may mean), and then a woman says, "I believe in all paths to God." In our relativistic society, this is nothing new. She is simply trying to be "open minded" by trying to include all the viewpoints just mentioned and many others that are not. What could possibly be wrong with this?

I'll answer that in a minute...first, let's be reminded of what's happening in Mark 11. Jesus rides into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, effectively proclaiming Himself as God's Messiah...the One He had been promising since Genesis 3:15. Then, He curses the fig tree, expressing a parable which points to the end of Israel as the Jews knew it. Next, Jesus clears the temple, effectively saying that this religious practice will become obsolete and will cease. Jesus is making some clear statements of authority...He's the Chosen One to save mankind and reconcile God and man...He has the authority to curse people for their spiritually fruitless activity...He has authority over what religious practices are valid or invalid.

Now, back to this "Characters Welcome" commercial. "I believe in all paths to God" may sound like a warm, fuzzy, personal opinion, but it is actually a statement of authority. A statement like this does not actually embrace every religious system...it rejects every religious system. It comes against any religion in which right and wrong are taught and upheld as absolutes (Judaism, Islam, Christianity, etc.). It says that all these "right/wrong" religions are actually wrong. In trying to remove all claims of authority from religion, this viewpoint actually asserts an incredible authority...the authority to overthrow all religion as we know it! "I believe in all paths to God" is not a passive position...it is an act of warfare!

It actually gets worse when we ask, "Where does this statement of authority come from?" In other words, on what authority was this woman basing her conclusion? The scary answer is that there is no external authority to which she turned for such a conclusion. She turned to the authority of self...she set herself up as an authority superior to all others. She saw the landscape of religious life and said, "I don't think so...I think I'll determine the proper way to relate to God, and it's not found in any authority outside of me, myself, and I." It is this kind of pride that comes before a fall...an eternal fall into the hands of an angry God.

I wish I could say that this kind of audacious claim to authority was rare, but it is not. I wish I could say it was limited to unbelievers, but it is not. It is the kind of claim any Christian is making when he/she is a hearer of the Word but not a doer. For example, when the Scripture tells us to forgive one another as God, in Christ, has forgiven us (Eph. 4:32), we are not at liberty to decide whether that "works" for us. We cannot set aside the teachings of the Scripture at will. When we do, we are essentially saying, "I believe in all paths of Christian living," rather than the one outlined in the pages of holy scripture.

The kind of claims that Jesus makes as He curses the fig tree and cleanses the temple leaves no room for authority negotiations. The Bible leaves us with only two options...we will submit to the authority of this Jesus, or we will rebel against the authority of this Jesus. We will repent and believe in this Jesus on the basis of His authoritative claims, or we will reject Him because we treasure ourselves and our own authority more. Submission, repentance, and faith lead to everlasting life, according to the Bible. Rebellion and rejection lead to eternal destruction. That is the authoritative claim of the Bible...and of Jesus.

So, as we are sharing the gospel with friends, family members, neighbors, etc., we must remember that we are not trying to add a great, appealing, mouth-watering dish to an already full buffet of religion. Instead, we must realize that if they don't eat of this Bread of Life...if they don't submit to the gospel of Jesus Christ...then not only will their souls starve in this life, but their souls will face eternal death in the life to come.

Let's not try to convince our friends of "what we believe"...because my personal authority is no greater than theirs. Let's simply learn how to clearly explain what God has said about Himself, mankind, sin, salvation, faith, Jesus Christ, etc. Let's simply give men and women the gospel and pray for God's intervention. After all, on that day...when judgment comes...we will not be filling out self-evaluation forms and judging ourselves against one another. We will be standing before the God who will authoritatively reward and punish us based on our response to Him in this life.