Friday, April 28, 2017

The Church:Cleaning our own house.

In the finale to a three-part message on 1 Corinthians 5 regarding sexually immorality within the Church that I will be preaching next week, Paul explains the necessity for the Church of expelling from their fellowship those who claim to be Christians, but who remain mired in immorality.  While beginning preparation for next week's message I was reading the commentary of Adam Clarke (1832) on vs. 9-13.  At the conclusion of the passage, Clarke wrote this:

If all the fornicators, adulterers, drunkards, extortioners, and covetous persons which bear the Christian name, were to be publicly excommunicated from the Christian Church, how many, and how awful would the examples be! If however the discipline of the visible Church be so lax that such characters are tolerated in it, they should consider that this is no passport to heaven. In the sight of God they are not members of his Church; their citizenship is not in heaven, and therefore they have no right to expect the heavenly inheritance. It is not under names, creeds, or professions, that men shall be saved at the last day; those alone who were holy, who were here conformed to the image of Christ, shall inherit the kingdom of God. Those who expect it in any other way, or on any other account, will be sadly deceived.

How many, how awful, would such an expulsion be?  That is indeed a sobering thought.  How many people would be left in the Church if those still living in immorality but claiming His name (not those who do not yet believe, nor claim to) were told they must leave the fellowship of God's people until such time as they had repented of their sins?  

The important question for the Church is this: How do we build a holy people, a people dedicated to living in Christ-like discipleship, if some in our midst are intent upon pulling us in the opposite direction through their continual choice of sin?  This was a problem that plagued the history of Israel in the Old Testament, and one that is certainly not new for the Church either.  Let us pray that those who claim the name of Christ, falsely, will see the folly of their ways, will be convicted by the Holy Spirit, and will repent, for the Church's task in the world is too vital to be diluted by in-name-only Christians.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Sermon Video: Sexual Immorality among God's people - 1 Corinthians 5:1-5

There are few issues more frequently discussed or arousing more passionate responses than those relating to sex and sexuality.  Both the Old Covenant given under Moses, and the New Covenant initiated by Jesus, contain significant portions dedicated to defining the proper boundaries of sexual expression.  In both cases, that definition relegates such expression to that within the marriage of one man and one woman.
In his letter to the church at Corinth, Paul expresses his dismay that the people of that church have failed to live up to that standard in that they have not disciplined a member who has married his former step-mother.  In addition to pronouncing judgment on that individual, Paul also commands the church to publicly expel the offending member in the hope that "tough love" will be the necessary prompt to cause repentance.

To watch the video, click on the link below:

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

What is your authority? A historical parallel to the Protestant - Catholic/Orthodox divide

I love the way teaching my two Bible studies each week sometimes causes new ideas or connections to pop into my head in the middle of trying to explain a particular text of Scripture.  That phenomenon happened today allowing me to see for the first time what I think is a useful analogy for understanding the divide between Protestants and Catholic/Orthodox Christians over the issue of authority.

In the first century, Jesus confronted two of the groups of religious leaders within Judaism who had radically different approaches to the way in which they defined authority: The Sadducees and the Pharisees.  The Sadducees believed in the authority of the written text of Scripture alone (minus any oral tradition) and preferred to focus upon the Pentateuch (the five books of Moses) within the Tanakh (the 24 books of the Hebrew Scriptures).  The Pharisees, by contrast, accepted the authority of the Tanakh and also that of the Talmud and Midrash (the many generations worth of rabbinic commentary upon, and interpretation of, the Tanakh).

Is the parallel obvious yet?  Protestantism was founded upon the principle of Sola Scriptura (along with Sola Fide and Sola Gratia, "Faith alone" and "Grace alone"), that is the idea that Christian theology must rest solely upon the Scriptures themselves.  The Catholic and Orthodox traditions accept the authority of Scripture, but in conjunction with the teachings developed over time by the Church (through the various councils, synods, etc.)

Is it any wonder that Protestants and Catholics/Orthodox Christians have a hard time finding agreement upon a host of issues?  If the authority to which we must appeal is not the same, how can the answers derived from it be consistent?

That we have a different viewpoint of authority is no new observation, Martin Luther himself realized five hundred years ago that he was rejecting the authority of the Church in favor of that of Scripture alone.  I'm sure somebody has previously noticed the parallel between the Sadducees/Protestants and Pharisees/Catholic/Orthodox in the realm of authority, but the connection was new to my brain today, so I thought I'd share it.

Just as a reminder, Jesus had plenty of criticism for both the Sadducees and the Pharisees, something to keep in mind when we're tempted to climb up onto a high horse.  Both groups appealed to a different authority, and both were wrong in their conclusions/attitudes, both were in need of reform to reclaim the heart which God requires of his people.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Becoming a Christian vs. Being a Christian

Ignorance and confusion are not helpful ingredients when talking about religion.  With that in mind, there seems to be a significant amount of both regarding the differences between what it takes to become a Christian, and what it subsequently takes to be a Christian.  Hopefully, this comparison will help.

Anyone, anytime, anywhere can become a Christian if he/she takes one fateful step: "if you confess with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.  For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved." (Romans 10:9-10)  Race, nationality, age, gender, none of them make any difference.  What a person has done in the past, doesn't make him/her more or less capable of being saved if that person comes to God in faith.  The most innocent child among us (though still a sinner as are we all) can be saved, as can the most hardened and vile criminal, for all alike need to be forgiven, and the blood of Jesus Christ is capable of cleansing anyone.

Work is not necessary to become a Christian, in fact, trying to work to earn salvation is a sure-fire way to fail to find it.  Salvation is an act of God's grace, given to mankind through faith in Jesus.  No specific words must be spoken, no setting or place is necessary, genuine faith will be sufficient.  When one of the thieves being crucified alongside Jesus showed that he believed in him by saying, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."  Jesus responded to this man, a criminal hours away from death, by saying, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise."  The thief had no chance to earn God's favor, he had no chance to make up for his past, he simply called out to God for mercy, through Jesus, and he found it.

To be a Christian requires several things, again, these things do not help anyone become a Christian, they merely confirm what God has already done for that person through grace.  If a person lacks these character traits/qualities, the Scriptures tell us that such a person may not have yet become a Christian, which would take us back to square one, the need for an act of faith.  There are people who believe themselves to be Christians erroneously (and thus extremely dangerously) but who are in actuality not Christians at all, having evidently never believed in Jesus Christ.

The Bible calls the character traits/qualities of a Christian his/her "fruit".  Jesus was quite clear in the Gospels that someone claiming to be a Christian without any evidence of "fruit" cannot be one.  "I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener.  He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful." (John 15:1-2).  Jesus' brother James reiterated this point when he wrote, "What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds?  Can such a faith save him? by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead." (James 2:14,17)

The "fruit" required of each and ever person who would be a Christian is explained in a variety of ways.  Paul utilized a list, calling it the "fruit of the Spirit": "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control." (Galatians 5:22)  Not that any Christian has each and every one of these perfectly, but this is the character that demonstrates the fruit that Jesus warned us we must have once we have become Christians.  We haven't mastered this list, but we sure better be working on it.

The Apostle John answered the question, "Who is a Christian?" in his first epistle by emphasizing three primary qualities and repeating them each over and over.  John explained that all Christians must: (1) believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, (2) obey the commandments of God found in Scripture, and (3) show love for fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.  John explained that anyone who could demonstrate these three should have no fear concerning their relationship with God for they are impossible to achieve for anyone who is not empowered by the Holy Spirit as someone who has already become a Christian.  {This should be obvious, nobody can be a Christian who did not previously become a Christian.  Faith must come first}  The converse is also true: anyone who lacks one of these three should be rightly concerned that he/she must be truly be a Christian.

If you're interested in learning much more about what John has to say about the question, "Who is a Christian?"  I wrote a 155 page book on the subject which you are more than welcome to read, it is entitled Christianity's Big Tent: The Ecumenism of I John and can be found via the link.

Let me summarize the distinction between becoming and being a Christian:

Become: anyone, by grace, through faith, in Jesus.
Be: Obey the Scriptures, believe in Jesus, love fellow Christians (i.e. "bear fruit")

To be a Christian is no easy task, Jesus likened it to each of us taking up a cross of our own and following him.  In light of the difficulty of the road ahead, anyone who desires to be a Christian ought to be doing so as part of the fellowship of a local church where the Word of God is respected and followed and people build each other up through service and prayer.  It is beyond the ability of virtually all of us to be a Christian who bears much fruit on our own.  We need to be a part of a church.  We need to be corrected when we err, we need to be supported when we stumble, we need the opportunity to grow by serving others, and lastly, but very importantly, we need to worship God with the people of God.

You don't need to be perfect to become a Christian, which is a relief since nobody is anything close to perfect.  You don't need to be perfect to be a Christian either, which is a relief since none of us are perfect either, but you do need to be making progress.  A "Christian" who bears no fruit, is no Christian at all, that's not my idea, but a very serious warning from Jesus himself.  

Sermon Video: The Rise of the Son - Mark 16:1-8

On the first Easter morning, it was not the apostles to whom the message of the resurrection of Jesus first came, for they were in hiding, rather it was to the faithful women who had followed Jesus for years, and who stood near the cross as he died.  To these women God entrusted the most important message in the history of the world, that Jesus Christ had risen from the grave.  It is this same message of hope and joy because Jesus has conquered sin and death that the people of God today, the Church, are tasked with sharing with the world.