Tuesday, January 17, 2017

It's Complicated

            You likely know what I’m referring to when I say “it’s complicated.”  It is a reference to relationships in all their, well, complexity.  Why we do what we do in relation to others; how we go about it; and, where it is all going is sometimes, even oftentimes, subject to us struggling to define a particular relationship or situation to another person as “it’s complicated.”

            When it comes to the church, nothing is quite as it seems.  Nice and apparently good people say some of the most off-the-wall and even mean-spirited things you would ever want to hear.  Conversely, some of the most gossiping and loose-tongued persons within the fellowship are so capable of doing amazingly good works that the only thing we can say with any confidence is that “it’s complicated.”

            There is a reason it’s complicated.  Sin, death, and hell rule over the human condition like a perpetual wet blanket.  Whenever we want to simplify situations and people by categorizing them into good people and bad people; whenever we have the propensity to place labels on others in order to keep things black and white; and, whenever we make gross generalizations about a group of people in sweeping blanket statements; then, we are severely underestimating the impact of humanity’s fall into sin (including our own) and have simplified a situation that is in reality rather complex.

            One of the problems we encounter in any group of people, including the church, is that there are two dimensions to sin, not just one.  Western Christians typically discern sin as intensely personal – as a verb in which we do or not do certain sinful acts.  And this is true. “All of us have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory” (Romans 3:23).  Yet, if we stop there we are only seeing sin in one dimension.  Sin is also a power, a dominion under which all of humanity exists.  In other words, we might think of lower case “sin” as individual deeds of sinfulness; and, upper case “Sin” as a constant pervasive realm of evil that is continually oppressing us.  “Jews, as well as Gentiles, are ruled by Sin” (Romans 3:9).  So, then, sin resides both in the human heart and in human institutions.  Sin is both personal and systemic so that when we look at the complete landscape of the human condition in all of its foulness and degradation, it’s complicated, man.

            Sin is such a ubiquitous and pervasive reality that the Scriptures can say “No one is acceptable to God!  Not one of them understands or even searches for God… There isn’t one person who does right” (Romans 3:10-12).  This situation exists primarily because of the vast realm of Sin.  Therefore, when we turn to the answer to this terrible and egregious calamity of s(S)in, the crucifixion of Jesus on the cross, the atonement of Christ has taken care of it all – dismantled the dominion of Sin and taken away its power of death, as well as absorbed all personal guilt for individual human sins.

            Let’s bring this theological and anthropological understanding back into the church setting.  Praying for lost people and proclaiming salvation for individuals who have guilt over personal sins is a must.  But having people saved from guilty acts is not the whole story of your church.  If we fail to pray against the persistent problem of Sin as a realm and dominion, then Sin is going to come back and bite us because it is still there, still exerting its power.  Saving faith must turn into sanctifying faith in which people realize that the dominion of Sin must be continually overcome by applying Christ’s redemption to both personal and corporate life.  The late Dallas Willard used to say:  Grace is opposed to earning, but not opposed to effort. 

            People are enslaved to Sin.  They must be set free through the death of Christ by turning from sin and following Jesus, as well as putting a great deal of effort into forsaking the old masters of cultural obsessions and systemic compulsions of evil.  In short, we must become slaves to God’s righteousness in a great transference of allegiance.  “You gotta serve somebody,” said Bob Dylan.  And that somebody needs to be God and not Sin.  Oversimplifying sin will only get us in trouble.  Sin is terrible and complex.  Let’s make sure we are forsaking it in all of its sinister manifestations so that we might pursue God in all His goodness.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Faith and Action in the Church

You can no more show me your works apart from your faith than I can show you my faith apart from my works. Faith and works, works and faith, fit together hand in glove.” –James 2:18

            Never are we told in the Bible that we make a profession of faith in Christ and then go on our merry way doing whatever we feel like doing and leaving Christian service to others.  Faith is not a checklist of right beliefs to sign-off on as if it was nothing more than some fire insurance policy against hell.  The reality is that the knowledge of salvation and the redemptive events of Jesus mean nothing unless we put that knowledge into practice.  “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Corinthians 8:1). 

Don’t try and say, “I’m okay; you’re okay.”

            There are always folks in the church who try to justify their lack of action and failure to help others.  When people make statements like:  “I’m not wired that way,” “That’s not my gift,” “We pay our pastor to do the ministry,” “This church is not meeting my needs,” “Let the next generation deal with change,” then they are essentially saying:  “You can do the work while I show up and complain.”  I hope that it goes without saying that this attitude and approach to the church is not good and betrays a failure of real faith.  If anyone is in the habit of complaining about something, but does nothing to be part of the solution – that person needs to get an active faith because there is no room for armchair Christians in the New Testament who spout off about how it should have been done and how it ought to be done, but do nothing themselves.  Each and every believer in Jesus Christ has been called to ministry.  Every one of us has been gifted by God for ministry, and God expects us to use those gifts to build up the Body of Christ.  The church suffers when we do not all participate in service with the abilities God has provided.

            In fact, the role of the pastor-teacher in the New Testament is to train others in the work of ministry.  You will not find anywhere in Scripture that only certain individuals serve and everyone else watches, like it is some kind of sporting event.  Check out what the Scripture says:  “To each one of us [Christians] grace [a spiritual gift] has been given as Christ apportioned it….  It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:7-13).  Wherever there is division and immaturity in the church, there you will find a group of people who are not using their God-given spiritual gifts and choose to complain instead of serve.

Don’t try and do it all yourself.

            It is not the job of pastors, ministry leaders, missionaries, or any kind of leader in the church to do everything, but to invest in training disciples to do the job.  Far too many pastors and leaders complain incessantly about the lack of service within their ministries but are doing nothing to put their efforts into training others for the work of ministry.  A biblical culture is one that is continually offering discipleship and mentorship to believers and sends them out and off to do ministry work.

            Therefore, there are two groups of people in the church that need to put action to their faith:  members who only sit and soak but do nothing to jump into serving the Body of Christ; and, leaders who do not act to put primary energy into equipping the saints to do the work of ministry.  When members do not serve, and leaders do not train, both groups hurl complaints toward the other and nothing ever gets done.  It is high time that everyone in the church take responsibility for action in a biblical way so that the church’s unity, purity, and peace is upheld because of the maturity that occurs through active service.  May it be so to the glory of Jesus Christ and the sake of the gospel.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Faith Is More than a Feeling

“Isn’t it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense?” 
(James 2:17, The Message)

I recently bought a shirt.  The first time I put it on, a button fell off.  You know, when I buy a shirt, I expect it to hold up under normal conditions of wear and tear.  But if I wear it once and it tears, or I wash it the first time and it falls apart in the washer, that shirt did not stand up to the test of being an active shirt.  We have reasonable expectations that things will hold up to real life conditions.  If I have a new car that breaks down after a few hundred miles, then I call that car a lemon because it did not stand up well to normal driving conditions.  In the case of a shirt or a car or any other product, if it does not accomplish its intended purpose, I get another one.

            When it comes to our “faith,” if it continually does not stand up to the normal rigors of living the Christian life, then I need a new life because my faith is not active.  A strong robust faith in Jesus Christ does not just come by looking good in the store or at the car lot; genuine faith is active and can stand the muster of adversity.

            Real faith is not just a matter of words and feelings; it is a matter of deeds and actions.  “What good is it if a person claims to have faith but has no deeds?” the Apostle James asked the church.  This is meant to wake up his readers so that they will realize that true faith is always active.  “Can such faith save him?”  (James 2:14-17).  No, it cannot.  That is the point.  A faith that is not active is not really faith at all.  But, you might wonder, I thought works did not save us.  No, they do not.  The Apostle Paul typically talked about the relationship between faith and works before a person has a conversion to Christ, whereas James talks about the role of works to faith after we have professed faith in Christ.  Paul said that works cannot bring us to Christ; James said that once we come to Christ, works are a necessity.  In fact, Paul put it all together in Ephesians 2:8-10 – “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.  For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

            James is not discussing how to become a believer in Jesus, but how a believer in Jesus ought to live.  And he does this by giving an illustration of the relationship between faith and works.  If someone is in need and expresses a sentimental feeling, even if that feeling is sincere, without backing it up with action – that expression is only that – it does not help.  I once came home after a long day at work on Valentine’s Day.  I picked up some flowers at a drive through flower shop.  I walked into the door and handed my wife the flowers with an “I love you.”  Then, I sat down in a heap and turned on the TV.  What was her response, you ask?  It was not very favorable toward me.  But I felt real feelings for her, and gave her some flowers, even though they were not very good looking ones.  What was the problem?  I did not really put any thought or action behind Valentine’s Day, and she knew it.  My words of “I love you” just did not sync well with my actions. 

            If we want to be people of faith in Jesus, our actions will perfectly sync with our words.  For example, when we say “I will pray for you” it needs to be much more than an expression of concern – we need to actually spend the time and commitment it takes in praying for them.

            Faith is more than feelings.  Faith cannot exist or survive without deeds.  Works are not an added extra to faith any more than breathing is an added extra to the body.  We need them both in order to live the Christian life. 

--If we say worship of God is important, what will our actions be like? 
--If we say the Bible is important, what will our actions be like? 
--If we say that everyone needs the good news of Jesus Christ, what will our actions be like? 
--If we say that family is important, what will our actions be like? 
--If we say that our youth are a priority to the church, what will our actions look like?

            Christianity is much more than a sentimental religion.  Real faith in Jesus is always expressed through both loving words and loving actions.  What is the Holy Spirit saying to you?  Is there a potential action he wants you to do?  Will you do it?  How will you do it?  When will you do it?  Real faith stands up when it is tested.