OMMM, A “MANTRA” FOR EFFECTIVE CHRISTIANITY

OMMM, not really a mantra, but an acrostic to pursue successful Christianity.

OBJECTIVE (needing to be objectified), CHRIST-LIKENESS (Rom. 8:29; Phil. 2:5; Gal. 2:20).

MOTIVATION, JESUS (Jn. 14:15, 23; I Cor. 5:14-15).

MATERIAL, SCRIPTURE (II Tim. 3:16-17; Jn. 17:17)

METHOD(S), CHRIST-IMITATED (Acts 1:1; I Cor. 11:1).

These create a synergistic effect that is powerful in the most extreme way. Jesus, however, must be the key in this energizing of Christianity. He must shape it, define it, motivate it, supply it, lead it, and serve as its model in every way!
This will work if we are willing to make the commitment. It is in fact, how Christianity is supposed to function (Rom. 8:29; I Cor. 2:10-16; II Cor. 3:18; Gal. 2:20, 4:19; Eph. 3:16-17; 4:11-16; Phil. 2:5; Col. 1:24-29; I Pet. 3:15, etc.).

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HELPING IN TODAY’S CULTURAL CLIMATE

Helping people in need is imminently biblical. This is not even open for any rational discussion. Nevertheless, at the risk of being completely misunderstood, I want to address a matter of priority that seems to need clarification. I enter this post with caution, trepidation, and uneasiness, yet enter I will.

Though I am usually well behind most folks when trends dawn on me, eventually awareness makes its way into my head. Of late, a shift towards what was once styled the “Social Gospel” strikes me as an emphasis making a comeback. In the company of this return, I also sense a growing ascetic spirit floating around.

I get it that our culture in America is significantly materialistic and I also realize the need to do regular self-analyses to discover if I have become possessed by my possessions. As a Christian, these are not small matters. The Bible has much to say in this area. However, I think I see a baby headed out the window with its bath water in this one.

Maybe I am simply justifying that I have stuff. I have not sold my stuff to feed and house the unfortunate, though I have spent considerable time and money helping people in need. Not only that, I do not believe such a virtual total divesting of my stuff is supposed to be the defining mark of my Christianity. I do not believe Jesus came primarily to feed people and make them well. He could have done both of these things to every person in Judea, Samaria, and Galilee, but He did not. What He did do was preach and teach as many people as He could about matters tied to eternity.

Yes, we should share our blessings. A lack of compassion cannot walk in fellowship with the Good News about Jesus. Yet, the Great Commission is about salvation. Granted, compassion can and will open doors, but only the Gospel can open the doors of Hades to free its captives (Rev. 1:18). Well fed and housed lost people eventually die without Jesus (cf. Jn. 6:49).

I don’t intend to be guilted into a quick fix “Christianity” that either substitutes being kind for speaking a good word for Jesus or liquidating my possessions for proclaiming truth. I reiterate; Jesus saves! Churches are groups of people primarily in the business of growing in Christ-likeness so they may help the lost become saved.

I appreciate congregations, such as the one I attend, which have very well thought out assistance initiatives. But, pardon what may seem to some as mere self-justification, let Christians in their compassionate sharing be known without apology for talking to people about the Christ.

 

THE CROSS

The Word of the Cross

The grace of God and the cross of Christ are inseparable. The cross is the power behind grace, the bank account necessary for God to cancel the debt of sin (I Cor. 1:18; Col. 2:14). These truths are commonly affirmed, however, are their implications commonly applied to our understandings of Christianity? Do these truths regularly make it to the “streets” or to the “marketplace of ideas”? How practical are we with the word of the cross?

While it is certainly true that an essential aspect of God’s character is “love” (I Jn. 4:8), equally true is the fact that He is just. His justice will, therefore, be served (Rom. 3:26). The combination of these two innate characteristics of the Father insists that grace cannot be cheap. The unearned nature of grace is, as with many other gifts, paid for in full before appropriated without cost. There can be no incongruity within the nature of God. No cross; no grace!

With regard to our salvation, sinful men and women have created a problem. How, therefore, could there be salvation without first having an accounting for this disturbance in God’s creation? A correction is needed. The scales of justice ultimately cannot be imbalanced; they must somehow maintain equilibrium.

Jesus dying on the cross is the balancing factor needed in a world dangerously tilting away from God. Jesus made right what otherwise could never have been brought to stability (I Pet. 1:17-19; Heb. 9:11-14, 10:4, 19-23).

This solution required the death of a perfectly sinless human being. The cross is tied to blood, totally innocent blood. This thought, however, has caused many to recoil at what they consider to be a “barbaric” concept. William Paul Young, author of The Shack, recently voiced this belief in an interview,

 He is the God who exacts the last drop of blood from His Son, so that His just anger, evoked by sin, may be appeased. This God whose moods alternate between graciousness and fierce anger — a God who is still all too familiar to many Christians — is a caricature of the true God. This God does not exist. (Shannon, Silence on Fire, p. 110, also see Manning who stated the very same thing in Above All, pp. 58-59)

The cross with all its so-called “barbarity” must be seen through God’s eyes to make sense. Men have rejected the cross because it does not fit their notions of justice. It does not fit because it is based on man’s limited understanding of the “sin problem” (I Cor. 1:18-2:2).

Consider the nature of the “sin problem” as seen from a biblical point of view. The biblical mix of ingredients must be complete before an adequate solution can be developed and understood. In such a view, the cross not only makes sense, it is indispensable. Consider the implications of the following Scriptures (I Jn. 4:8; Rom. 3:21-31; Gen. 3:1-7; Gen. 3:15; Job 9:30-35; Rom. 8:29; I Pet. 2:24; Psa. 22; Matt. 27:46; Matt. 26:39; Rom. 6:23; Rev. 5:9-14; Jn. 1:14).

1.         God is a God of love.

2.         God is a God of justice.

3.         Humans have rebelled against God.

4.         Humans are, therefore, part of the problem.

5.         Humans cannot, however, deliver themselves from their dilemma.

6.         Yet, humans must have participation since they are the cause of the problem.

7.         God, as the creator, must also be part of the solution since His nature would not allow Him to create humans

              knowing they would sin and yet give them no hope of salvation.

8.         Someone must serve as an adequate mediator for God and man to worktogether in a solution.

9.         Sin demands death.

10.       The Incarnation led to a worthy human/God sacrifice.

Many other Scriptures could be used to support the points listed above. Clearly, if we let the Bible speak for itself, the entirety of Scripture fits together perfectly to show a plan perfectly in harmony with all salient factors. No cross; no grace.

Now that God has acted to offer correction to an unbalanced creation, how are we to take advantage of the gift? To answer this question, we are taken to “the word of the cross” (I Cor. 1:18).

The word of the cross is good news—the gospel. The first sermon presenting the gospel is found in Acts 2:14-41. Its development shows the pattern for all subsequent presentations and responses.

1.         God developed and delivered the message to be preached.

2.         The message was in keeping with God’s intentions as revealed to the prophets.

3.         Jesus was preached.

4.         His resurrection validated God’s plan.

5.         Sinners were convicted by preaching and wanted to know how to find relief from their sins

6.         They were told to change their lives and be immersed into Christ for the remission of their sins

7.         Through their faithful obedience they would receive the long awaited “promise.”

The preaching of the cross reveals God’s plan and presents how sinners are to respond. The two aspects of the plan must then be well understood. The word of the cross is too important to misunderstand.

The word of the cross contains both essential primary and secondary components. The primary side of the equation is the part God has provided in a crucified, resurrected Savior. Without God’s plan being realized in Jesus, we would not need to speak any further about salvation (I Cor. 15:3; Heb. 9:28). No cross; no salvation.

The secondary elements of the plan involve our response. As sinners we are helpless to solve our problem (Rom. 3:23, 27a). This being the case, we must understand that the “law of Christ” with all its instructions cannot save us in the primary sense any more than could the “law of Moses” save a Jew. Neither the things Christians do nor the things Jews did to access a relationship with God have the power to bring about salvation by themselves (Gal. 3:21).

Our understanding the lack of efficacy found in secondary items standing alone is of greatest importance. The Jews serve as a stark reminder to us that trusting in our works is a damning error of judgment (Rom. 2:17-29; 9:30-33). Similarly, if Christians glory in their response to God rather than in the God who made possible the response, we too fall short (Eph. 1:6, 12, 14). No cross; no salvation.

To illustrate, a window shade raised during the day can bring light to a dark room. The same shade raised during the night cannot allow sunlight to light the room. The necessity of the secondary act of raising the shade in daylight only worked because the primary factor of the sun was present. In a similar manner, all the commandment keeping in the world cannot make any contribution to our salvation if there is no cross. As Paul so powerfully put it, “But may it never be that I would boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14).

We must understand this clearly or we will misunderstand verses teaching that secondary matters of response save us. I Peter 3:21 is a classic example. This verse tells us “baptism now saves you.” The question here is not “if” but “how.” If baptism saves in a primary sense, we need no cross. However, the verse itself explains how baptism saves. It saves “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Baptism occupies the place of the window shade in our earlier illustration. It accesses something only because something is there to access.

Examining this concept in reverse, let us have a look at Hebrews 10:4. In the primary sense, animal blood could not take sins from a Jew.  It could, however, allow access to forgiveness later to be realized in Christ (Lev. 4:20; Rom. 3:23-25). In much the same manner as baptism, animal sacrifices allowed access into God’s salvation, but neither baptism nor an animal sacrifice has the power to take away sins apart from the cross of Christ. No cross; no salvation.

Our discussion of primary and secondary aspects of salvation leads to a practical evaluation of our teaching and preaching. What is the proper proportion each aspect is due in our presentations? In recent times accusations have been made that grace has not been preached sufficiently. It has been said that we dwell more on our response than on God’s initiative. I don’t doubt that this has been true in some cases, but certainly not in all. Additionally, at times, when the above accusations have been leveled, the desired response calls for our preaching to unduly minimize the biblical place of obedience of faith (Rom.1:5; 16:26). Secondary matters of response are necessary.

A common reaction against those who accuse others of not preaching grace has been to cite examples of sermons preached in the past that dealt with grace. Impressive lists have been developed to “prove” we have preached grace in the “mainstream.” The fact is, we have all heard sermons and read articles that emphasized grace. There is, however, more to the story.

In both cases, could it be true that when a person in opposition goes “over the top” in their broadsides others dismiss their entire argument because they have gone too far with the point? I suspect there have been at least some cases when taking a realistic evaluation of our present practices has been torpedoed by extreme reactions to extreme positions.

Biblically speaking, there are times when more pressing lesser matters must rise to the top of our discussions due to the concerns of the moment (Jude 3). These are judgment calls. However, like Jude, we should get more delight in speaking of our common salvation than in condemning error. We do not want to become like the church at Ephesus (Rev. 2:1-4).Conversely, we do not want to be like the church at Thyatira and allow open sin to go unopposed (Rev. 2:18-23).

There must be balance. A sense of proper proportion is not a small thing (Matt. 23:23-24). Leeway must be given in matters of judgment. Local autonomy is to be respected.

Life comes at us in unexpected ways that may well call for momentary disproportions in the subjects we speak or write about. Both primary and secondary matters of necessity must be preached! It is not always easy to know the best judgment to make when we face problems. Nevertheless, we must always keep this in mind, no cross; no salvation!

Jesus and Our Heart

Jesus, Lincoln, and Paul

            Honoring God Must include Planting Truth in our Heart. Yet, while our heart is the only suitable place from which to honor God, not filling it properly presents a dangerous void (Matt. 12:43-45). Our hearts will be filled with something. Even a determination to reform, if it does not fill the heart with Christ-like virtues, will ultimately leave us the worse for the effort.

            Truth must fill the heart if God is to be honored. Yet it is here where many stumble. Filling the heart with truth is not to be confused with simply memorizing Scripture. God would fill us up with truth personalized in the form of Jesus (Eph. 4:20-24). The new mind of repentance is to be the mind of Christ (Phil. 2:5).

            Memorizing the Bible is certainly not to be discouraged rather it should be encouraged. My point is that simply remembering Scripture is very different from the transforming Christ being present in our heart. Let me illustrate.

            I am currently reading a book about Abraham Lincoln. It is a long book and I have learned many new things about Mr. Lincoln. I have come to admire him in many ways; he was a rare man! Like me, Paul doubtless knew many things about the famous people of his day. However, would he have said of any of them what he said of Jesus, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me, and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me (Gal. 2:20)?

            The answer to my question is easily given. While Paul knew many things about many men, several of whom he undoubtedly admired, he would not have said of anyone what he said of the Christ. Knowing truthful things, even about an admired person, is much different from being radically transformed into that person’s image. To honor God, we must be walking in a transforming way (Rom. 8:29). To do otherwise is to dishonor God.

Blessed are the Pure in Heart

Catching Sight of God

            I grew up in the era of Ivory Soap. There were two unusual things about Ivory, it could float and it was 99 and 44/100 % pure. I realize that someone might well ask, “Pure what”? Or, as I often wondered, “What was the 56/100% all about”? Nevertheless, the overwhelmingly high level of purity did duly impress.

            Ivory Soap’s preponderance of purity is actually a very good illustration of the point Jesus makes in Matthew 5:8. The reason for this is that purity has much more to do with what is present than what is absent. Consider this, a heart may be largely free of impurity, and yet be empty and cold. Such a heart will not, however, remain unfilled. If pure attitudes and motives do not take up residence, an empty heart will soon be occupied with evil things (Lk. 11:24-26; Matt. 15:19). 

            In the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7), Jesus reveals His keen interest in matters of the heart. A good heart must back up our conduct if it is to be accepted by Jesus (Matt. 5:27-28). Words and deeds must be supported by a heart of integrity if they are to please the Christ (Matt. 5:33-37; 6:1).

            Purity of heart is about singleness of purpose. The pure heart is not an unsettled sea of conflicting desires; it is a place of peace dominated by united intentions. A singular spiritual focus sorts out a host of conflicting loyalties and drives the heart toward the service of but one master (Matt. 6:24). So attentive is the pure heart to the call of Christ, it consistently turns a deaf ear to all other voices (cf. Jn. 10:1-5; II Cor. 5:14-15).

            In its captivated focus, purity of heart has a strong link to holiness. To be holy is to be set apart from commonplace priorities and concerns; it is to be like God (Lev. 19:2; II Cor. 7:1). This positive, set-apart direction of the heart correctly attunes our sight through the focus of faith (II Cor. 5:7; Matt. 6:22-22-23). In this way we come to see as God sees. This corrected vision with its purity of sight allows us to see what otherwise cannot be seen (Jn. 1:18). The pure of heart are thus among a privileged few who catch a glimpse of the greatest un-seeable sight of all. The pure of heart have an uncluttered, singular look at God!

 

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD

We Need Heros

One of my favorite books is Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird. There are a number of reasons I hold the book in such high esteem, but there is one that easily rises to the top. Atticus Finch sums up my most valued attachment to the book. His character represents a challenge that continues to send chills through my soul!

In a culture whose social traditions held almost everyone in the cruel grip of racism, Atticus Finch uncompromisingly stood for justice. He towered over his cowardly peers as a man of rare courage. Atticus Finch is a hero to me; but he is a hero most especially because he reminds me of Jesus.

Jesus stood for righteousness as no man ever did or has. He stood for justice, fair play, valor, and courage. His utter indignation for every false way was surpassed only by His singular devotion to truth.

We desperately need men and women today who will dare to shun the compromise of “political correctness” and stand for truth! In 1960 with the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird, a nation torn by racial conflict paused to notice Harper Lee’s portrayal of Atticus Finch. In a time when lesser men seemed to rule the day, Miss Lee gave us a much-needed hero. Today, though the triumph of unprincipled men may be less violent and is often disguised by hypocrisy, we still desperately need heroes.

We need Christ-like men and women who will dare to make the ever-unpopular decisions of the Christ. He was willing to live a life of principle regardless of the foes He faced (Mk. 12:14). How about you and me?

The Power of Love

The Power of Love in Speaking a Good Word for Jesus

As we consider how to approach friends and neighbors with the gospel of Christ, let us continually be mindful that we are not trying to win arguments, but rather secure hearts. Of course, we do need to prepare ourselves to present intelligent and compelling answers to their questions. The thing to remember, however, is that we will be distinguished by our love for others, our love for each other, and our love for Jesus (I Cor. 13:1-3; Jn. 13:34-35; 17:21-23).  Isn’t it amazing God saw fit to design a plan of salvation that would be most effectively communicated by the one thing each of us is capable of doing well?  Our ability to love is not limited by our intellect, our wealth, or our social standing; it is limited by our lack of concern for the needs of others.

Paul well understood this reality. He taught this truth arrestingly to the Corinthians who were obsessed with the idea of obtaining status by gaining miraculous gifts.  Today, in different ways, we may also be consumed with secondary pursuits. Such things may seem to be keys to improving our influence for Christ, but as at Corinth, absent our genuine love for people, we are just wasting our time.

While the dynamics governing the human heart may be elusive, they are nonetheless knowable.  Our hearts are not captured by people who are smarter, more athletic, or generally more successful than we are, our hearts are touched by small, sometimes insignificant, acts of kindness. Such things go unnoticed by many, but are treasured by the individuals who receive them.  As we improve our ability to communicate our Lord’s gospel, let’s not forget to continue to work on our ability to love.

“If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  And if I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing” (I Cor. 13:1-3).