Advent and the Judgment Seat of Christ

December 2, 2016

The Advent season is upon us: Jesus is coming!

But what Jesus?

Yes, Jesus the tiny baby, born to Mary while she was still a virgin, really unable to care for Himself, really human.

Yet also Jesus the promised King, the future Judge, the One before whose Judgment Seat we all must stand, “so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Corinthians 5:10).

This Jesus was born on Christmas Day. The Final Judge.

And one day you will stand before Him.

Think about that: You! You, alone. Not with your father or mother. Not with your brother or your sister. Not with your pastor or your friend. You must stand before this King. And there, as Paul says, you must bear your own load alone (Galatians 6:5).

So imagine yourself there before Him. Your Judge knows all you ever did, all you ever said, all you ever thought. You can’t hide. You can’t make excuses. You can’t compare yourself to others. You can’t plead ignorance. You can’t claim there were extenuating circumstances. You can’t lean on your spouse or your parent or your child or your pastor or your friend.

Your Judge will expose every selfish motive and every hidden sin.

Ponder that encounter – that encounter that is sure to come.

Does that image strike you with fear?  Are you terrified to have all you’ve hidden brought to light?

With that coming judgment in mind, the Apostle Paul exhorts us, “Each one must examine his own work” (Galatians 6:4 NAS). We must test ourselves – and see if we pass the test.

But what is the test? Is it: “Did I do enough good works to satisfy God? Am I good enough to meet His standards?”

No! Rather, the test is a test of faith. Is my “faith” just lip-service? Or is there evidence that my faith in Christ is real?

So, Jesus the Judge asks: “Did you live a life of active dependence on Me, turning away from yourself and your own resources and your own wisdom and turning to Me? Did you acknowledge My power and My sacrifice on the cross? Did you show that I was worth more than all the world has to offer?”

If you are indeed saved by grace through faith, there should be no terror at the prospect of this judgment. No worry. No embarrassment.

For there is no purgatory, no remaining punishment for sins, no painful recompense for those in Christ. He already has paid the price! Instead, if you are in Him, the Father will wipe every tear from your eyes, and there will be no more sorrow or crying or pain.

Indeed, to the extent that you are worried about your sins coming to light at Christ’s Judgment Seat, to that extent, you are depending on works; to that extent, you are guilty of the sin of pride.

For if your faith is genuine, what will be outcome of Christ’s judgment?

Your Judge will proclaim, “I paid the penalty for all these revealed sins! My blood covers them all.”

And that leads to all the more amazement, all the more joy, all the more delight for you in the Savior. As you see the depth of your own sinfulness as never before, you will see the depth of His mercy as never before. In this way, even your sins will work to the praise of His glorious grace.

So the result is not embarrassment. Not suffering. But joy at His amazing grace.

Thus, at Christ’s judgment seat, there are two possible final statements from the Judge:

First: “Created to glorify Me, you instead showed that you despised Me. I cast you into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:12, 22:13, 25:30).

Fear that final judgment!

But if you pass the test, if you are in Christ, no matter what your sins might be, the final statement from the Judge will be: “Well-done, good and faithful servant – by My sacrifice, by My grace, enter into the joy of your Master” (Matthew 25:21, 23).

Jesus was born to Mary in order to make that final, merciful judgment possible. So throw yourself on His mercy! Lose all desire for the praise of men! Rejoice that Jesus was born to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10)!

Voting as a Joyous, Secure Christ-Follower

November 4, 2016

Who are you?

Where does your security come from?

Where does your joy come from?

We who call ourselves Christians must ask these questions whenever we are making decisions. Whether we are deciding how to budget our income or how to vote, we need to test our motives and passions: Are we acting consistently with who we are in Christ, with our security in Christ, with our joy in Christ?

With the election four days away, let’s think about each of these questions with respect to Christians in this world, and then draw some implications for how we should vote.

First: Who are you in Christ?

If Jesus is your Savior, if He is your Lord, you are a citizen of the Kingdom of God (Philippians 3:20). You are loved by the Father as His child (John 16:27, Romans 8:13-17). You were dead in trespasses and sins, but He has miraculously made you alive in Christ (Ephesians 2: 1-5). Having begun this great work in you, He guarantees that He will complete it (Philippians 1:6), as He makes you – together with all those in Christ – into the perfect, spotless Bride of Jesus (Ephesians 5:27).

Thus, your identity does not come from your race, your ethnicity, your class, your income, your education, your height, your weight, your physical prowess, or your intelligence. Nor does your identity come from the country of your birth, or the country of your earthly citizenship. We can celebrate our ethnicity; we can rejoice in our countries. And all these factors influence how we think and how we serve. But our identity in Christ trumps them all. Our identity in Christ is far more central than them all. Thus, as children of God we are free from the control of government (Matthew 17:24-27). So the apostles did not bow to the will of powerful leaders when commanded not to speak of Jesus (Acts 5:27-29). Nevertheless, for the sake of Jesus we submit to government when to do so does not conflict with God’s commands (1 Peter 2:13-17).

Second: Where is your joy?

As those united to Christ, our greatest joy must come from Him – not from the things of this world, not from our position in this world, not from the country of which we are a part (Philippians 4:4-5, 1 John 2:15-17, Psalm 73:25-26).  Jesus is our great treasure – worth more than all the world has to offer, so that even if we lose all in order to follow Him, our joy increases (Matthew 13:44-46, Mark 10:17-31).

Thus, your joy is not rooted in your country. Your country might fall apart, or be overcome by a foreign power, or be taken over by evil men. Such has happened to Christians time and again over the last 2,000 years. Yet you have an indomitable joy in Christ.

Third: Where is your security?

Jesus tells us that He has all authority in heaven and on earth – all authority, over every ruler, over every terrorist, over every spiritual power. Furthermore, He promises that He is with us; God will never leave us nor forsake us (Matthew 28:18-20, Hebrews 13:15). He knows exactly what we need, and will provide us with everything necessary for us to grow in Christlikeness and to serve His purposes (Matthew 6:25-33, 2 Peter 1:3). Furthermore, Jesus will return in power and great glory (Matthew 24:30); He will overwhelm all rebels against His authority, right every wrong, end all human countries and states, and establish His eternal Kingdom of peace (2 Thessalonians 1:5-10, Revelation 11:15). God Himself will wipe every tear from our eyes, and we will see Him face to face (Revelation 21:4, 1 Corinthians 13:12).

So our security does not depend on the defense policy of our government or on the effectiveness of the police force or on the equity of the criminal justice system. The IRS may run amuck and the Fed may exercise foolish economic policy. We may be persecuted; we may be convicted unjustly and sentenced to death. But, as the Apostle Paul said even when facing execution, “The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom. To him be glory for ever and ever. Amen” (2 Timothy 4:18). Not a hair of our head will perish, even if we are hated by all and put to death (Luke 21:16-18).  In Christ, we are completely secure.

What, then, are our responsibilities as citizens?

In this world, we are aliens and exiles (1 Peter 2:11), similar to the Jewish exiles in Babylon. The prophet Jeremiah tells these exiles that their sojourn in that foreign country will not be permanent, but will be lengthy – longer than the lifespan of most of the exiles. So he instructs them, “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:7). Just so for us. We and we are to work to improve the country of our sojourning in a variety of ways – but especially, of course, in bearing witness to the love and grace of God the Father through Jesus His Son.

Surely voting is one way that we exercise that responsibility. We are to seek the welfare of the United States where God has sent us into exile. By voting, we can help to bring into local, state, and national offices men and women who will serve the country well, who may improve the welfare of our city, our state, our country – and even the world.

So I am mystified by statements from some Christian leaders, arguing that we have no obligation to vote. Surely the state cannot force us to vote – let us obey God rather than man! But just as surely we are to seek the welfare of this country – and we can, we must do so through voting (and through thousands of other means).

Voting as a Joyous, Secure, Christ-Follower

So if we are to vote, how do we decide on which candidates to support?

On my ballot in North Carolina this election are candidates for 23 offices. Some of these candidates are wise and well-qualified; they will serve well. Enthusiastically support such candidates. Vote for them as a way to seek the welfare of those around you. Your hope, your joy, and your security are not wrapped up in their winning the election. But learn about the candidates and vote for those who you think will improve life for your fellow citizens.

But the big question this year is how to vote for president – an office which is consequential not only for the welfare of this country, but for the welfare of the entire world. Some Christian leaders have opined that no Christian should vote for Trump; others have said no Christian should vote for Clinton; still others have argued that no Christian can vote in good conscience for either of them.

I think these arguments are wrong. Why?

First, as we’ve indicated, our identity, our hope, and our joy are not wrapped up in any candidate. We can vote for a candidate without setting our hope in him or her, without identifying ourselves as followers of him or her.

Second, in voting we are seeking the welfare of our country, state, and city to the glory of God. That voting decision – particularly in a case like this year’s presidential election – is a judgment call. Indeed, it is a particularly complex judgment call. We should expect different Christians  - with varying levels of understanding of economic policy, foreign policy, and judicial policy, and different weights on the importance assigned to each– to differ in their judgments. Past experience will also affect the way such judgments are made. So surely how to vote in a presidential election like this is a disputable matter among Christians, a matter of wisdom. We therefore should treat it like the disputable matters discussed in Romans 14. In particular, “Let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother” (Romans 14:13). Your brother or sister in Christ had better be much more precious to you than your presidential candidate. And the way you discuss politics could indeed put a stumbling block in the way of your brother or sister. So treat this presidential election as a judgment call – and respect the judgment calls of fellow believers, even when you think they are wrongheaded.

Third: How can you make a wise judgment between Trump and Clinton?

Let me lay out four scenarios. Which is most applicable to you depends on your judgment of the candidates and what other considerations you think are most important for the future welfare of the country.

a)      First possibility: You think there is a good chance one of the two major candidates would end up on balance being good for the country. You disagree with some political stands that candidate takes, and you recognize and regret his or her character flaws – yet, on balance, with the uncertainty about the future that always accompanies voting, you honestly believe there is a chance this candidate could serve the country well. If so, vote for that candidate.

b)      Second possibility: You think both candidates are deeply flawed, and electing either as president could have serious negative consequences for the country and the world. But while you think both are potentially disastrous, you think one has the potential to be much worse than the other. You may decide to vote for the lesser disaster (but may not – see scenarios three and four also). For example, abstracting from this election: If I thought one candidate would end up killing ten million people, and the other would end up killing thirty million people, I might well vote for the one who would kill ten million. I would not be endorsing that candidate; I would not be aligning myself with that candidate; I certainly would not be setting my hope in that candidate. Rather, in wisdom before God I would be making the decision that as far as I can tell will lead to the greatest welfare for the country of my exile.

c)       Third possibility: Your assessment of the two major candidates is similar to (b) above – you think either would be disastrous. But in this scenario you want to do all you can to raise the low probability of another candidate becoming president. That would require that neither Trump nor Clinton attain 270 electoral votes, and that some electoral votes go to another candidate. In that case, the House of Representatives would choose the president from among the top three candidates in the electoral college, with each state delegation getting one vote. With Clinton’s lead in the polls shrinking and Evan McMullin having a decent shot at winning Utah this outcome is not impossible. In this case, you would vote for McMullin in Utah, Johnson in New Mexico, or any other third party candidate in states where they might win. But North Carolina is different. Should Clinton win here, she almost certainly will get 270 electoral votes. The only candidate who can beat her in this state is Trump. So in this scenario, you would vote for Trump in North Carolina as the strategy that will most effectively raise the probability of someone other than the two major candidates becoming president.

d)      Fourth possibility: Again, you think both Clinton and Trump would harm the country. You may or may not think one is considerably worse than the other. But in your judgment, the two parties are able to nominate deeply flawed candidates and then run predominantly negative campaigns because they do not believe voters will abandon them for a third party. You think the country would benefit from having more than two choices in future elections – and you think that the two parties would be more likely to work together during the next four years if they were to perceive a third party threat (as they did after the 1992 election, when Ross Perot received 19 percent of the vote). In this case, vote for whichever third party or write-in candidate you consider the best.

My friends, in Christ we are secure. In Christ we have indomitable joy. And in Christ we know who we are: Chosen, beloved, set apart for Him. No election will change any of that.

So work for the welfare of the country of your exile. Pray for this country. Vote wisely – following whichever scenario most accurately fits your judgment.

And then – with joy, with confidence – entrust the church in this country to God and to the word of His grace (Acts 20:32).   He is able to build her up and to give her the promised inheritance – and will do so. And in the end – whatever the outcome of this election – the gates of hell will not prevail against her (Matthew 16:18).

 

At Last! The Psalms!

October 7, 2016

This Sunday we begin a multi-year sermon series on the book of Psalms. If our Lord is willing, over something like 75 sermons, we’ll cover the entire book from “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked” (Psalm 1:1) to “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!” (Psalm 150:5). Most weeks, as on October 9, we’ll consider more than one psalm. We’ll also break up the series into groups of about 15 sermons, returning to Romans to complete that series after the first set of psalms, and interspersing other New Testament series with the remaining psalms.

Why the book of Psalms?

At one level, it’s about time to consider it! While we read Scripture from this book almost every Sunday, only a handful sermons at DGCC have taken any of the psalms as their text.

At another level, the book of Psalms fits well with where we are in our preaching. Both Fred and I have focused in the past several months on key doctrines of the faith – who is God, what is man? How are we not condemned before Him? Where is the world headed? The psalms help us to see and to live out what must follow from such doctrines – the emotions, the affections, the praise, the crying out – as we live life in a sinful, fallen world.

Furthermore, when you read the psalms – personally, in your family, or in corporate worship – you are linking yourself with followers of God over the last three thousand years. Over centuries and millennia, these psalms have expressed and shaped the affections and emotions of God’s people. We pray that God will do the same with us – that our prayers might be shaped by these psalms and our attitudes might become more consistent with biblical doctrine as we hear and speak and live out these psalms.

Let’s look at seven forms that this expressing and shaping of emotions takes (modified from Mark Dever’s similar list in The Message of the Old Testament):

Praise: We proclaim the greatness of our God to all peoples and, indeed, to all creation, citing who He has proclaimed Himself to be:

Oh sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth! 
Sing to the LORD, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day. 
Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples!  
For great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised; he is to be feared above all gods. 
For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols, but the LORD made the heavens. 
Splendor and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are in his sanctuary. 
Ascribe to the LORD, O families of the peoples, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength!
Psalm 96:1-7

Remembering: We remind ourselves of God’s faithfulness to His covenant, especially as shown in the history of His people:

When the waters saw you, O God, when the waters saw you, they were afraid;
indeed, the deep trembled.
The clouds poured out water; the skies gave forth thunder;
your arrows flashed on every side.
The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind; your lightnings lighted up the world;
the earth trembled and shook.
Your way was through the sea, your path through the great waters;
yet your footprints were unseen.
You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.
Psalm 77:16-20

Thanksgiving: Giving thanks in the psalms is not private, between an individual and God. Rather, thanksgiving in the psalms is always a form of public praise. Whether the psalmist is thanking God for assisting him personally or for helping the people, the thanksgiving praises God for such acts:

Some were fools through their sinful ways, and because of their iniquities suffered affliction; 
they loathed any kind of food, and they drew near to the gates of death. 
Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress. 
He sent out his word and healed them, and delivered them from their destruction. 
Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love, for his wondrous works to the children of man! 
And let them offer sacrifices of thanksgiving, and tell of his deeds in songs of joy!
Psalm 107:17-22

Trust: Praising God for who He is, remembering His covenant love and faithful deeds, and thanking Him for His work on our behalf all serve to deepen our trust in Him. So the psalms call upon us to trust Him always, especially in the midst of trials and difficulties:

Now I know that the LORD saves his anointed;
he will answer him from his holy heaven with the saving might of his right hand. 
Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God. 
They collapse and fall, but we rise and stand upright.
Psalm 20:6-8

Honest Lament:  Yet while we are in such trials and difficulties, God often seems distant and confusing. We cry out and don’t see an answer; we ask God to intervene, and don’t understand how He is at work. Many psalms reflect this confusion, this darkness; indeed, more than one-third of the psalms contain a lament. One author says there is so much lament in the psalms to “show that the experience of anguish and puzzlement in the life of faith is not a sign of deficient faith, something to be outgrown or put behind one, but rather is intrinsic to the very nature of faith” (R.W.L. Moberly, as quoted by B Waltke et al, The Psalms as Christian Lament, p. 1). Often these laments sound similar to Job’s cries:

O LORD, why do you cast my soul away? Why do you hide your face from me? 
Afflicted and close to death from my youth up, I suffer your terrors; I am helpless. 
Your wrath has swept over me; your dreadful assaults destroy me. 
They surround me like a flood all day long; they close in on me together. 
You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me; my companions have become darkness.
Psalm 88:14-18

Love for and Obedience to God’s Law:  We delight in God’s revelation of His character in His Law, and strive to follow it by His grace, knowing that in following Him we find true life, true joy.

Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day. 
Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies, for it is ever with me. 
I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your testimonies are my meditation. 
I understand more than the aged, for I keep your precepts.
I hold back my feet from every evil way, in order to keep your word. 
I do not turn aside from your rules, for you have taught me. 
How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth! 
Through your precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way.
Psalm 119:97-104

Repentance: Though we love His Law and strive to follow it, we often fall short. So we turn from our sin, confessing that God rightly condemns us and seeking forgiveness by His grace and mercy.

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. 
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! 
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. 
Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.
Psalm 51:1-4

May God be pleased to express and shape our affections and emotions through this great book, and so continue to transform us into His people who live to His glory among all the nations.

 

Cancer Cannot Separate Us from the Love of God in Christ Jesus

September 27, 2016

After preaching Sunday on Romans 8:35-39, I learned via Facebook that Anjel French has melanoma, an aggressive form of skin cancer that has spread to other parts of her body. Anjel is married to Jason French, former worship leader at one of the campuses of Bethlehem Baptist in Minneapolis and the author of some of the songs we sing at DGCC. In Jason’s post on Sunday evening, he discusses how the very truths we sang about and heard about that morning are life-giving and spirit-feeding in the midst of such serious trials. An excerpt:

Cancer is not God. It is created. It is creation. It is not self-existing. It is not autonomous. It does not have a will of its own such that it can live and move, expand or shrink, or even die apart from the will of the Creator of the entire Cosmos whom we are so privileged to call “Father,” because we have been adopted into his family through the life, death, burial, and resurrection of his beloved Son, Jesus, and are now sealed with the promise of and indwelt by the Holy Spirit.

So, cancer does not have the final say. Cancer must obey God. God has the final say and for his children, this will is always for us. It can never, ever be against us. If God commands the cancer to go, it will and must go. If God in Christ commands the cancer to remain, or grow, or shrink, or stay the same, it bends to the will of him who holds as things together—even cancer—by the word of his power. And if he wills the cancer stays, we know and believe he hides a smile behind the frowning providence, for he has written down all of our days in his book when as yet there were none of them (Psalm 139:14). Our days will not be cut short, nor prolonged. This is not fatalism. This is faith in our Father, Lord of heaven and earth.

Do pray for Anjel and Jason. And do read the whole post.

Keith Lamont Scott and Brentley Vinson

September 21, 2016

Keith Lamont Scott, 43, father of 7, is dead, killed by Police Officer Brentley Vinson, 26, a 2012 graduate of Liberty University, where he played football.

Both are African-American.

It should go without saying – but unfortunately still needs to be said – that black lives matter.

It should go without saying – but unfortunately still needs to be said – that black cops’ lives matter.

Was Officer Vinson acting out of racial hatred? Clearly not.

Was Officer Vinson acting out of a justified assessment that he and other police officers were about to be attacked? That is what Police Chief Putney – also African-American – states emphatically.

Based on our past experience, some of us tend to believe what police tell us.

Based on our past experience, some of us tend not to believe what police tell us.

Thus we can react very differently to the same set of facts.

Our local political leaders, Democrat and Republican, have handled the situation well in my assessment, calling for calm, condemning violence, acknowledging the right of peaceful protest, and assuring the city that there will be a full and fair investigation. Some of last night’s protestors rightly called for accountability – and there must be. May we all work to make sure that happens.

Yet right now, in the fog of these chaotic events, many people are speaking out, in public and on social media, after hearing what can only be partial accounts of what happened, condemning Officer Vinson, condemning Chief Putney.

Brothers and sisters, all Christians should be “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry” (James 1:19). All Christians should know that “the one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him” (Proverbs 18:17).  And all Christians should know that:

There are six things that the LORD hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers. (Proverbs 6:16-19)

If Officer Vinson is guilty of shedding innocent blood, and if Chief Putney is guilty of having a lying tongue, they should be convicted in a court of law, and in the end will be found guilty before our Lord’s perfect tribunal. So may the process play out justly. If others are acting as false witnesses, breathing out lies, trying to sow discord, they too in the end will be found guilty before our Lord’s perfect tribunal.

So may we call for justice. May we work for justice. May we mourn with the Scott family, who have to face this tragedy. May we mourn with the Vinson family, who also have to face a tragedy – a tragedy of a lower order of magnitude, but  a tragedy nevertheless.

And may we pray – together, with one heart, with one accord – that God might use even these horrible events to heal our city, to enable the Gospel to shine forth in a thousand acts of love and comfort, and to display the unity all believers of all races really, genuinely have in Christ.

 

Call to Me and I Will Answer

September 9, 2016

Jeremiah 33:2-3: “Thus says the LORD who made the earth, the LORD who formed it to establish it – the LORD is his name: Call to me and I will answer you, and will tell you great and hidden things that you have not known.”

We should be amazed at this statement. The One who made all things, the One who fulfills all His plans,  tells part of His creation – us! – to call out to Him. And He promises to answer! Indeed, He promises not only to answer, but to reveal to us what we could never know on our own, “great and hidden things.”

God declared these words to Jeremiah while he was under arrest for speaking truth. The Babylonians had besieged Jerusalem, cutting off all sources of food. Jeremiah had prophesied again and again that they would conquer the city as a judgment from God. The Lord God had rejected His people, and had ordained that even His temple – the physical picture of His presence in the midst of His people – would be destroyed. Since many officials found these prophesies treasonous, they had him arrested. Unable to scrounge for food in a city where starvation was rampant, Jeremiah was in danger of death. And the Babylonians were coming soon.

In this time of despair, God speaks to His people through His suffering prophet, saying: “Remember who I am. Remember my power and might. Remember my authority. Yes, my people have been disobedient. Yes, judgment is coming – it must come. But you, my faithful remnant: Call to me. Seek my face. Cry out to me. Run after me. For I will answer you. I will reveal to you more of who I am than you’ve ever known: more of my covenant promises, more of my plans, more of my glory. Call to me! For this is who I am – the revealing God, the God who speaks.” And in the following verses, He speaks of His plans to restore the people and to bring forth a “righteous branch” – Jesus Himself! – from the line of David.

Today, we too live in a society which rebels against God’s authority. We too can look around and be tempted to despair. We too can think that there is no hope.

But the Lord God tells us also: “I made all this. I am in control. I am working out my good and right purposes in the entirety of this creation and in this specific country. So know me! Cry out to me – and I will answer! I will tell you great and hidden things!”

So cry out to Him! Open His Word, in which all things were written for our instruction that we might have hope (Romans 15:4). Go to the Word in prayer, as a supplicant, asking for insight, acknowledging your dependence. Go to church services, asking to hear of God’s marvels in that Word. Expect to see great and hidden things about our Lord, which only He can reveal. Expect to have that Word mold your thoughts and attitudes, conforming you to the image of Christ, the Righteous Branch. Ask that it might be so, for you and for all of God’s people, God’s remnant.

And the Lord God – He who made the earth, he who formed it to establish it, Yahweh is His Name – He Himself will answer Your call through His Word, and will show you wonderful things from His Law (Psalm 119:18).

What is a Member Initiative Driven Church?

August 31, 2016

Desiring God Community Church is a member-initiative driven church, rather than a program-driven church.

What does that mean?

Let’s get to that question first by asking: Did the first-century church have programs? That is, did the leadership set up ministries in the church, decide what positions were necessary to operate those ministries, and then fill those positions from within the church?

The answer? Maybe.

Consider the church’s support of widows, first mentioned in Jerusalem in Acts 6 and discussed more fully by the Apostle Paul about 25 years later in 1 Timothy 5:3-16. Paul, writing to Timothy in Ephesus, describes conditions under which certain widows should be “enrolled” (ESV) or “placed on the official support list” (HCSB). So there must have been at least a somewhat formal organization, defining who was to be served, who was doing the serving, and what services would be offered. We don’t know how the ministry to widows began – whether by church leadership, or by an individual beginning to minister, and then as the ministry expanded gradually bringing in others to help. In any event, this is an example of a ministry that at least takes on some characteristics of a program. We want to be careful, therefore, not to think of programs per se in a negative light.

Today, many churches not only have programs, but are program driven: That is, their programs define the church. Ask why you should attend such a church, and the answer often will be a list of the various programs that are set up to serve members, or to reach the community.

What are some advantages of a program-driven church?

  • First, the leadership may have a good feel for the needs of the congregation and the opportunities in the community, and can set up ministries that will effectively meet those needs
  • Second, when people come to the church, the leaders can guide them quickly and easily into a slot in a program, and thus assimilate them into the life of the church.
  • Third, the leaders can define a plan for the future, and see that plan implemented over several years.

What are some disadvantages of a program-driven church?

  • The first is the flip side of one of the advantages: The leadership may not have a good feel for the needs of all parts of the congregation, or for the opportunities in many segments of the community. Church members may have a much better sense of these needs and opportunities – particularly in the relationship circles in which they regularly function.
  • Second, when ministry is understood to consist of participating in the church’s programs, members often will close their eyes to needs and opportunities outside those programs.
  • The third disadvantage is related to the second: In a program-driven church, it is easy to fill up all your spare time with the church’s programs. Then, even if you notice needs and opportunities elsewhere, you don’t have the time and energy to serve.

So, as stated above, we aim to be a member-initiative driven church. What does that mean?

Fundamentally, it means that all of us are taking initiative to grow as disciples and to step out in ministry in our circles of relationships, in the Charlotte area, and with unreached peoples around the world. Our leaders speak the Word to us, provide us resources, set an example, help us partner together with others, pray for us and with us, speak with us about the needs and opportunities that they discern, and help us imagine what God might do in us and through us – but we all are responsible to grow in Christlikeness and to serve faithfully and lovingly, reaching out with the Gospel and with Christ’s love.

When that happens, it is impossible to plan for what God might do. For in a member initiative-driven church, a key way the church fulfills its ministry is by everyone in the body stepping out and ministering. A member may see a need, and begin to serve. Opportunities to serve may expand. In consultation with leaders, that member may invite others to participate and serve. As the ministry grows, it may take on some characteristics of a program. But it all began with one person stepping out faithfully. And this is replicated time and again, the church’s array of ministries can become what the leaders never imagined.

We want our people to be like the Good Samaritan – on his way, presumably traveling for business, he encounters a needy man, and is a neighbor to that man (Luke 10:25-37). Or like Philip – in response to mysterious leading by the Spirit, he heads away from town on a road, and encounters an Ethiopian reading Isaiah. He takes the initiative to begin from that passage to speak the Gospel (Acts 8:26-39). Philip wasn’t participating in the Jerusalem church’s evangelism program – he was simply sensitive to the way the Spirit was leading him in his day to day life. Or – especially – like Jesus. Whether He unexpectedly encountered Jairus, or the woman with the flow of blood (Mark 5:22-43), or the rich young ruler (Mark 10:17-22), or the widow from Nain (Luke 7:11-17), or a woman wiping His feet with her hair (Luke 7:36-50), or a blind man (Mark 10:46-52), or a man with a demon (Mark 5:1-20), He loved them, He served them; He glorified the Father.

So, we thank and recognize the many of you who are taking initiative, stepping out, and serving faithfully, whether that is with international students, with neighbors, with refugee women, or with poor children. We encourage all of us: Do this more and more. Open your eyes. Grow in Christ. See the fields ripe for harvest. Pray. Go. Speak the Gospel. Live out the Gospel.

And may God be pleased to build up from our initiatives hundreds of people coming to faith, hundreds of lives changed, hundreds of people loved and served , all to the glory of God.

See That You Do Not Refuse Him Who Speaks

August 25, 2016

“A man once gave a great banquet and invited many. And at the time for the banquet he sent his servant to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’  But they all alike began to make excuses.” (Luke 14:16b-18a)

God the Father invites us to a celebration – a party, if you will. He invites us to the greatest celebration of all time: The company will be the best; the nourishment will be the most satisfying; the conversation will be the most interesting; the love will be the deepest possible.

We don’t deserve to be invited – for we have denigrated the One who invites us. We’ve spurned His invitation before. We’ve chosen to spend our time and energy seeking after thrills and accomplishments and honors, or safety and protection and health – yet the thrills get old, the honors and accomplishments fade to insignificance, what we thought was safe and guarded is lost, and health deteriorates.

Yet He invites us. He calls to us. He sent His Son to this world so that He might display His love, mercy, grace, and justice to these invitees. He has paid that high price – and now all is ready. The banquet is prepared.

But so many refuse Him Who speaks! So many make excuses! In Jesus’ story, the excuses are a newly-purchased field, a new yoke of oxen, and a new wife. What are our similar excuses today? Why do we today refuse the invitation? Here are some possibilities:

  • “It’s all I can do to put food on the table, take care of my kids, and get too little sleep! I don’t have time for that.”
  • “My life is great – why should I attend that banquet?”
  • “I doubt what you say about that great celebration. It can’t possibly be as great as the parties I attend! Here – let me get you an invitation for one of them.”
  • “God the Father wouldn’t want me at His party. Yes, I see the invitation – but there must be some mistake. He didn’t really invite me.
  • “I don’t like the others invited to the party. I can’t associate with such people.”

My friends: Don’t make excuses. The invitation is genuine. God invites you: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). The celebration is joyful beyond imagining. Whatever you must give up to attend, whatever others may think, this is the one party you must not miss.

For to turn down the invitation is to malign the God of the universe. To make excuses, to explain why other activities are more important than the celebration, is to claim that God is not glorious, that pleasures are not at His right hand, that wisdom and love do not dwell with Him.

And the Inviter says, “I tell you, none of those men who were invited [and made excuses for not coming] shall taste my banquet” (Luke 14:24). He will fill His banquet hall, and one day it will be the only joyous celebration, indeed, the only place of joy – but if you make excuses, if you refuse, you will be left out.

God speaks. The Gospel goes forth.  He invites. Don’t refuse Him Who speaks.

Search the Scriptures

August 19, 2016

Most churches have one statement of faith. We have two – a statement of faith that all members must agree to that basically outlines the Gospel, and a statement of faith governing teaching that goes in to more detail. All of the elders must agree with this more detailed statement of faith.

Why did we go a different direction? What value do we derive as a church from having that second statement of faith?

As those of you who are members heard in the What is DGCC class, the second statement serves in part as “truth in labeling.” The statement of faith governing teaching speaks to many issues unaddressed by the statement of faith for members. When you read the more detailed statement, you learn what you will hear preached on a number of important issues. You don’t have to agree with the statement to become a member, but you do have to be willing to sit under preaching that brings out these points.

When churches don’t have such a statement, there are still theological guidelines that control what is preached – they’re just unstated. Frequently they consist of whatever the primary preaching pastor believes. And it may take a while for visitors to figure out what those guidelines are. Furthermore, the guidelines are subject to change with a pastoral change.

We don’t think that’s helpful for visitors or healthy for the congregation. We want to be upfront about what we believe – thus this second, more detailed statement of faith.

But the preface to the Statement of Faith Governing Teaching helps bring out a second reason we think it is valuable:

The aim of this statement is to encourage a hearty adherence to the Bible, the fullness of its truth, and the glory of its Author. A passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples is best sustained in an atmosphere of deep and joyful knowledge of the character of God. We thus aim to teach the whole counsel of God rather than aiming to discover and teach some minimum required for salvation. In affirming what we believe on these matters, we separate ourselves doctrinally from some brothers and sisters within the universal church.  The cause of unity in the church, however, is best served not by finding the lowest common denominator of doctrine, but by elevating the value of truth through stating clear doctrinal parameters, and then demonstrating to the world how Christians can love each other across doctrinal boundaries, rather than by removing those boundaries. We commit ourselves to both elevating truth and loving our brothers.

So we’re saying this more detailed statement helps us “elevate the value of truth.” How does it do that?

After Paul tells Timothy that all Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for teaching, reproof, correction , and training in righteousness so that each man of God can be thoroughly equipped for every good work, he gives the younger man a solemn charge: “Preach the Word; be ready in season and out of season; using the Scriptures, reprove and rebuke, exhort, encourage, and comfort, with great patience teaching all doctrine” (2 Timothy 4:2, my paraphrase).

So that’s what we try to do: As we say in the preface just quoted, we aim to “encourage a hearty adherence to the Bible” through teaching “the whole counsel of God.” We don’t avoid controversial passages or issues; we primarily preach straight through books of the Bible – Old Testament and New, prophecy and narrative, wisdom and epistle, Law and Gospel – and thus have to address the whole range of issues that Scripture brings up. We believe, as the Apostle states, that this is for your good.

So through the two doctrinal statements, we’re saying, “Here in this shorter statement is what we all must believe to be united in the body of Christ; and here in this longer statement is what the elders of this church think Scripture says on a much wider range of vital, life-giving biblical doctrines. This second document is the Cliffs notes version of what you will hear from us. All these scriptural truths are profitable; and we’re going to do our best to patiently teach all of them to you over decades. Through such teaching you can be fully equipped for every good work.”

So the statement of faith governing teaching serves both as truth in labeling, and as a way to elevate the value of biblical truth.

We want to emphasize those last two words: BIBLICAL TRUTH. This more detailed statement of faith is not above Scripture; it is rather an attempt to summarize what Scripture says on a number of issues. If the statement of faith were to supplant Scripture as our authority, we would be in the wrong.

Consider Acts 17:10-11. Paul has been persecuted in the city of Thessalonica.

 The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue. Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.

The Jews of Berea question what Paul is saying. They are intrigued. They are eager. But they are not convinced that what Paul says is true. So they go back to the Scriptures. They search them. They examine them. They test Paul by the Scriptures.

The author, Luke, does not fault the Bereans for searching the Scriptures to see if what Paul said was true. He doesn’t say, “Those foolish Bereans – they didn’t believe the Apostle Paul based on his own authority!” Rather Luke commends them – they were more noble than the Thessalonians.

We want all of you in Desiring God Church to be like those Bereans. Scripture is our authority. Not the elders. So when we say something that puzzles you, something different from your previous understanding of Scripture – go to the Word! Search the Scriptures! Ponder them! It’s ok to disagree with something said in a sermon, and it’s ok to disagree with something in the statement of faith governing teaching. We want to drive you to Scripture – if we do that, we’ve succeeded in our teaching, whether or not you in the end agree with us on the interpretation.

So rather than stifling debate, the longer statement of faith brings these truths to the forefront where they can be discussed. We’re by no means saying through this statement, “Never talk about alternative understandings of Scripture.” Comparing Scripture to Scripture, we’re trying to build up from Scripture what it says about God, about man, about the plan of redemption. Some of our conclusions are widely debated in the evangelical church – and we welcome such debates among us , when together we search the Scriptures to see what is true.

How then do we see this longer statement of faith functioning in the life of the church?

Authoritative teaching at DGCC – that is, speaking without discussion – is to be done in accord with the statement. That includes preaching, and other occasions in which Scriptures are opened up without discussion. But in small groups and in Sunday School classes where there is considerable discussion, we welcome alternate understanding of passages when these discussions are aimed at honestly trying to discern what Scripture says. Indeed, as young men neither Pastor Fred nor I agreed with a number of the doctrinal positions of our longer statement of faith; we came to believe these doctrines through searching the Scriptures ourselves, and through teachers who helped us search the Scriptures. We believe that all the doctrines in our longer statement of faith stand up to scrutiny – but we want you to search the Scriptures, and not necessarily take these positions because we do.  And so we welcome, and never want to stifle, discussion.

Furthermore, I know that some positions I hold are wrong. I don’t know which ones (or I would change them!). The Lord will show me at an appropriate time – perhaps on the Last Day, or perhaps by one of you convincing me from Scripture that I am wrong. So – once again – we welcome discussion.

So, people of Desiring God Church: Be faithful Bereans. Search the Scriptures. Know the Scriptures. And spur one another on to know them better.

(An earlier form of this article served as the devotion at the August 14 members meeting.)

Manasseh, Trump, and Clinton

August 4, 2016

Which king of Israel or Judah had the longest reign?

Not David. Not Solomon. Neither Jehoshaphat nor Hezekiah.

The longest reigning king was Manasseh. He reigned for 55 years – the equivalent of 1961 until today. And yet he was a wicked, evil king:

Because Manasseh king of Judah has committed these abominations and has done things more evil than all that the Amorites did, who were before him, and has made Judah also to sin with his idols, therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: . . .  I will wipe Jerusalem as one wipes a dish, wiping it and turning it upside down. And I will forsake the remnant of my heritage and give them into the hand of their enemies (from 2 Kings 21:11-14).

Why did God leave His people for such a long time under the authority of a bad man – such a bad man that, according to Jewish tradition, he had the prophet Isaiah sawn in two? Why did the people have to suffer? Why did God subject His people to injustice, to being led even further astray from Him?

The passage tells us. It is not only Manasseh who is evil. The people also are guilty. The king influences them, but they are responsible for “sin with his idols.” And so they must bear with an evil king for all these decades.

And make no mistake: God is the one who allows Manasseh to remain in power. For “the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will” (Daniel 4:17, 25, 32).

God’s final judgment is yet to come, but is fully determined: He will send His people into exile. He will use the Babylonians to destroy the very temple dedicated to His Name. As 2 Kings 21 makes clear, Manasseh’s sins, and the sins of the people under him, lead to this horrible judgment of God (see especially Lamentations 2 for a description of some of the horrors).

But the judgment of God does not fall during Manasseh’s reign, nor during the reign of evil Amon, his son, nor during the reign of good Josiah, Manasseh’s grandson. Why the delay?

Perhaps in part because in his old age, near the end of his reign, Manasseh repents:

[The Assyrians] captured Manasseh with hooks and bound him with chains of bronze and brought him to Babylon.   And when he was in distress, he entreated the favor of the LORD his God and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers.  He prayed to him, and God was moved by his entreaty and heard his plea and brought him again to Jerusalem into his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the LORD was God.   (2 Chronicles 33:11-13)

As the Apostle Paul states in another context: “Note then the kindness and the severity of God” (Romans 11:22). Kindness and mercy toward one of the most evil of all the Judean kings; severity toward the rebellious people; kindness and mercy to their descendants, in bringing them back from exile.

We can continue the thought: Kindness and mercy to all those today from every tribe and tongue and nation who repent, who turn, who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and are saved; severity to those from every tribe and tongue and nation who continue in rebellion, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18), who reject their rightful King and only possible Savior.

Like the people of Judah, we the people of the United States do not deserve even a modicum of God’s mercy, and so we do not deserve an honest, good, principled leader of our government. At this point, it certainly does not look like we will get one this year. But if God could bring Manasseh to repentance, He can bring to repentance any American president; if God could destroy His own temple and bring down the kingdom called by His Name, He can bring down in judgment the United States of America; and if God could restore His people, showing mercy that they did not deserve, and raise up from a descendant of this very Manasseh the Savior of the world, then God can bring a sinful and rebellious nation today to repentance, and use it for His good and wise purposes to bring about the final culmination of His great  plan.

Father, in Your mercy, would you would grant such repentance?

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