The Gospel, Simply

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If I Had To Preach At A Wedding…

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Weddings are like graduation ceremonies in that your expectations for the sermon/speech are pretty low. The speaker has the impossible task of captivating an audience that is impatiently waiting to get to the fun part of the event. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case with my brother’s sermon at a friend’s wedding last week.

He highlighted the couple’s admirable commitment to their relationship by guarding their purity before the wedding. They did what seems to be rarer these days by not hooking up and shacking up. They trusted God with each other and their relationship and they’ll be blessed for it.

It got me to thinking: what would I say if I had to give a message at a wedding? What should a wedding sermon sound like?

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.

Genesis 1:27

We start at the beginning, creation. He made us male and female, equal in His eyes and yet distinct from each other in how we manifest the meaning of humanity. I think of a loose connection with the unity and diversity of the trinity, where we affirm that there is one divine essence and yet three distinct persons. Male and female are both humans and yet they bring something unique to the human experience.

Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.

Genesis 2:24

Or, to quote the theologian Wayne Fontana, “The purpose of a man is to love a woman and the purpose of a woman is to love a man. So come on baby, let’s start today, come on baby, let’s play the game of love, love, la la la la la love.”

And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

Genesis 1:28

We read in Malachi 2:15 that the Lord created marriage to establish a Godly seed in the earth. He wanted all men everywhere to call upon the name of the Lord. Your marriage has no higher purpose and it will primarily be fulfilled through the fruit of your union. This basic idea seems to be lost on almost everyone, including Christians. Marriage is not about living or financial arrangements. It’s about pursuing God’s purposes for our lives.

Young people who are single and establishing themselves often have big ambitions to be great or do amazing things in life. Or they may want to simply have the option to go in whatever direction they choose. It doesn’t occur to them that they can effect tremendous change in their own children. No celebrity or famous person will occupy the position you hold in your child’s life. We know the great men of history but we don’t know the parents who devoted themselves to care for their children. If you want to change the world then have children, and lots of them.

Turn, O backsliding children, saith the Lord; for I am married unto you: and I will take you one of a city, and two of a family, and I will bring you to Zion.

Jeremiah 3:14

christ-and-his-bride

Most important in marriage is the symbol of our relationship with the Lord, who is the bridegroom of His people. Husbands are to their wives what Jesus is to His church. Wives are to their husbands what the church is to our Lord. Even the wedding ceremony reflects this as we watch the bride (the Church) coming down the aisle to be presented before her bridegroom (our Lord) whiter than snow.

Let us be glad and rejoice, and give honour to him: for the marriage of the Lamb is come, and his wife hath made herself ready.

And to her was granted that she should be arrayed in fine linen, clean and white: for the fine linen is the righteousness of saints.

And he saith unto me, Write, Blessed are they which are called unto the marriage supper of the Lamb. And he saith unto me, These are the true sayings of God.

Revelation 19:7-9

In this church age we are betrothed to Christ and we await His coming so that we may enter into the wedding ceremony. We will then be joined together in a holy and eternal union of peace and joy.

The Bible is permeated with language about marriage and weddings. Many of the lessons it gives use these examples to illustrate the things of God. In getting married you will come to have a greater understanding about the Lord and your relationship to Him. May your union be like the union of Christ and His bride. May this wedding revive our hope of our coming union with our Lord as a people.

Amen.

How Much Does Heaven Cost?

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I often heard people say that you can’t buy your salvation and while that is true it is also somewhat inaccurate. Jesus put a price on the kingdom of heaven when He gave us two parables to describe what it is like.

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto treasure hid in a field; the which when a man hath found, he hideth, and for joy thereof goeth and selleth all that he hath, and buyeth that field.

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man, seeking goodly pearls:

Who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it.

Matthew 13:44-46

There’s a legitimate point that my parents and other elders had and I get it. But my economic training tells me that we have to qualify that statement. While you can’t buy heaven you can put a price on it. I know. I need to explain.

There are two economic principles that we need to consider. First, the Subjective Theory of Value says that something is only worth what a customer is willing to pay for it. It has no objective price that applies to everyone.

Opportunity-Cost

The next economic principle is opportunity cost. The opportunity cost of a resource is the next-most-valued use of that resource. For example, you are spending your valuable time reading this blog when you could be doing something else. Whatever you could be doing is your opportunity cost. Since you’re still reading this that tells me that your alternative options are not more valuable to you, at least not at the moment.

We now see some things in Jesus’ parables that weren’t apparent at first glance. When the man found the treasure he sold everything he owned to buy the field. He was also willing to give up any alternative use of his time and the field to acquire that treasure.

The same is true for the merchant who found valuable pearls. He was willing to part with everything he owned to get that pearl.

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How many stories can you think of about people who take drastic measures to pursue a dream? There’s Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, Warren Buffett, etc. They all were on the verge of financial ruin, some even bankrupt, at one point but they took big risks to succeed.

There’s no doubt about their commitment. If we can risk it all for something as fleeting as business then we can see the value in the everlasting kingdom of heaven. Jesus is clear: in exchange for the kingdom He wants all that you have.

Jesus said that those who look back when they put their hand to the plow are not fit for His kingdom (Lk 9:62). For those people the opportunity cost is greater than following our Lord so they prefer the alternative. He wants followers who prefer the kingdom more than anything.

If someone looked at your bank account would they see that your priority is the kingdom? How about if they looked at your schedule? What’s the kingdom worth to you and is it obvious to anyone?

Jesus wants disciples who’ve decided to follow Him, no turning back. The cross is always in front and the world is always behind them. Even though none go with them they still will follow. No turning back, no turning back.

The Dead Don’t Praise God

Psalm 88 is a psalm of suffering. It depicts the suffering of the people of Israel in exile. Christians can see the suffering of Christ depicted in it. Its language is universal and its applications are limitless which makes its relevance timeless.

I am reckoned among those who go down to the pit; I have become like a man without strength, 

Forsaken among the dead, Like the slain who lie in the grave, Whom You remember no more, And they are cut off from Your hand.

You have put me in the lowest pit, In dark places, in the depths…

You have removed my acquaintances far from me; You have made me an object of loathing to them; I am shut up and cannot go out.

My eye has wasted away because of affliction; I have called upon You every day, O LordI have spread out my hands to You.

Will You perform wonders for the dead? Will the departed spirits rise and praise You? Selah.

The psalmist is in a dilemma because the same God who is faithful, just, righteous, merciful, generous, and mighty to save leads him through trials that cause him to despair even of his life (remember Paul and his despair?). But he makes an important point about the dead that we see in other scriptures too including Ps. 6:5; 30:9; Is. 50:10; Hab. 3:17,18.

Dead men are silent and they can’t praise God. He appeals to God for the sake of His own glory if for no other reason. The psalmist’s picture of death is a gloomy one indeed.

As Christians we need to complete the picture by adding a gospel perspective. This Christian view of death is found in 2 Ti. 1:10; Heb. 2:14; 1 Cor. 15: 17,18, 51-57. It is one full of light and hope.

As Jesus said in Matthew 22, the Lord is the God of the living, not the dead. We who were dead are now alive in Christ. The psalmist’s problem goes away because there will always be people alive to praise God and give Him the glory and honor that is due Him.

3 Ways The Church Undermines Marriage

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This is not a post about how Christians are to blame for gay marriage becoming legal. It’s also not a sanctimonious rant by a blogger sitting in an armchair. These observations come from personal experience.

1. Financial stability > Marriage

Many Christians undermine marriage by focusing on the financial obligations. The problem here is that Christians put financial security ahead of marriage. You don’t get married until you’re in a steady job, usually after you graduate from college. I’ve gotten the impression as I grew up that marriage wasn’t worth it if you had to struggle. They’re the ones that like to remind you that love doesn’t pay the bills.

2. Success > Marriage

This one is closely related to the first since financial stability can be seen as a prerequisite for success, if not a success itself. The focus here is on maintaining a certain standard of living that includes a house, car, spouse, two kids, and maybe a pool in the backyard. It’s a chasing after a lifestyle.

People often told me that I should complete my education before getting married. Why get married when you have so much on your plate already, nevermind having to support a family? Even sociologists will tell you that it’s better to graduate, get married, and have kids, in that order. But if you hold off on getting married until after you graduate then aren’t you making education a higher priority than marriage?

3. Fun > Marriage

The culture says that only after you’ve sucked all of the juice out of life should you settle down and get married. It’s where you go to die slowly, like a long-term hospice program. It’s a life full of responsibilities, stress, problems, etc. How dreadful!

What do these three problems have in common?

These perspectives on marriage focus on the short term. Rarely do people talk about the legacy they will leave to future generations. That’s probably because they don’t believe they will have one. Their focus is on this life.

In 1900 there were over 1,000 descendants of the famous preacher, Jonathan Edwards, who lived in the early 18th century. Among them were doctors, lawyers, university presidents, medical school deans, law school deans, senators, and a vice president. The impact they had on this country and the world was possible because Edwards and his wife were faithful. They hoped in that which they could not see and they bore much fruit.

I think it’s inspiring to know that I will be remembered by my descendants hundreds of years from now. It makes me ask myself: what do I want to be said of me and my life?

Property Isn’t What You Own

Solo Snatch Consider a peaceful lake. You can go there to water ski, canoe, or just lay on the beach. What you don’t see is the potential energy that is stored in that massive body of water. That is, until an engineer builds a dam. I use this example because it’s a great way of illustrating what capital is. The lake represents an asset like your home or car and the electricity generated is the surplus value, or “capital.” That dam is the mechanism which turns a dormant lake into power that you can use to watch TV or read this blog. Likewise, our legal system of property takes assets and extracts surplus value.

Moreover, property, like energy, is a concept; it cannot be experienced directly.

Economist Hernando de Soto writes in his book, The Mystery of Capital: “Moreover, property, like energy, is a concept; it cannot be experienced directly.” It’s easier to understand property as the physical item that you own rather than as an abstract concept but it confuses the two. The house is what the property refers to but property is about the house’s legal representation. Let’s look at a concrete example. In the cities of Tunisia, where the recent Arab upheaval began, millions of people live and work outside of the legal system. Merchants occupy stores in the market and sell goods but they have no license or title linked to their business. On paper, the businesses don’t exist. So what? I’m glad you asked. The biggest problem is that they have no access to credit because they have no collateral to put up. No one can trust you because they have no way of verifying who you are, what you do, and what you own. You can’t expand your business and thereby increase your income. So you’re stuck and most likely poor. We can see that it’s a social institution because it shows everyone what belongs to you. It provides a way for all of us to know who owns what. I can invest in a firm without ever seeing any of the employees because I can trust the public records. So what does this have to do with the Bible?

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Command the people of Israel, and say to them, When you enter the land of Canaan (this is the land that shall fall to you for an inheritance, the land of Canaan as defined by its borders)…

Numbers 34:1,2 God provided a “deed” to the land for each tribe of Israel. If the people had been faithful to the covenant then they would have been secure and prosperous in the land. Instead, they violated God’s law and each other by stealing from their neighbors. If we also are righteous in how we assign property and obey the rules of that system we will be blessed. Indeed, we know that through free enterprise system billions of people have been lifted out of crushing poverty over the last 200 years. Property is not just about money but also justice and God is certainly just. These laws ensure our well-being. They don’t oppress. Likewise, God’s laws don’t enslave us but liberate us.

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 119:102-104

Spiritual Side-Effects Of “Alternative Medicine”

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Some Christians, if they knew more about the religious connections of alternative medicine, wouldn’t want to participate. Some people I interviewed started off as enthusiasts for different alternative medicines. But once they found out about the religious dimensions, they didn’t want anything to do with it.

Alternative medical treatments such as acupuncture and chiropractic are not just popular in the broader society but also in the church. What many Christians don’t know is that these practices are rooted in religious worldviews that are not biblical by any means.

I know how touchy this subject is because I’ve had many Christian friends who have used these treatments. I don’t have to be obnoxious about it but there is no alternative to getting informed and informing others because it’s a threat to your spiritual well-being.

Candy Gunther Brown is a professor of religion at Indiana University and has written about this in her recent book “The Healing Gods: Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Christian America.” 

The most interesting thing she says, in my view, is that Christians who adopt these religious practices end up adopting the underlying ideas. It’s horrifying to think of what is happening to Christians in churches that provide yoga classes.

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.

What Being A Christian Really Means

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When you think of legalism you think of right-wing fundamentals imposing a demanding set of rules to follow. Today we have to deal with a different kind of legalism, one that has the face of “love” but still devoid of Christ.

I normally don’t pay much attention to articles like this one by Cherise Luter but a few things jumped out at me.

It’s frustrating to hear when someone rejects the gospel because no one could answer their questions. It’s even more annoying when they think they’re too smart for God or the church.

Then I read this:

At 25, I was still dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (one of the levees broke a block from my apartment) and adapting to my new home in Houston. I was angry and in a lot of pain. I did everything right. I followed all the rules, I’d think bitterly.

My whole life, I had hung around the right people, stayed away from the wrong people, went to church every weekend, and even sang in the choir. I thought my religion would be my saving grace, but instead, I suddenly found that I had no real relationship with the God I’d claimed to serve. I had to make a change. I had to get real with God.

So I threw all of my questions at God. And God had a comeback for each of them: Just love.

This part of the article got my attention because she raised the same questions as Job, though I’m not sure she realized it.

Why do bad things happen to “good” people?

Job’s “friends” came to him and said that he must have done something wrong to cause his children to die. Job defended his integrity, though, almost to the point of prideful arrogance. How could this be his fault when he was above reproach?

After they went around in a few circles for a few dozen chapters God enters the dialogue and asks Job 66 questions, back to back.

When Job poses his questions to God, similar to Cherise’s, God doesn’t answer him with,”simply love.”

Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?

Gird up now thy loins like a man; for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me.

Job 38:2,3

God is certainly righteous but He is not stumped by Job’s questions. He has to remind Job that there’s lots that he doesn’t understand but takes on faith. Job can’t possibly comprehend the big picture.

The one thing he can be certain of is that God is sovereign and in control. That’s not a faith based on knowing nothing. It’s about knowing the most important thing. We read in Proverbs that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge: but fools despise wisdom and instruction.”

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Cherise sadly ends the article by arriving at a Christ-less Christianity, one in which the gospel is missing. Where is Jesus? What mention is there of His sacrifice to atone for our sins? How about the imputation of His righteousness to us?

It also bugs me that Cherise is certain she can love people the way God desires. The kind of love that God wants us to show each other is challenging and unappealing to our nature. It’s something that we can only do with the help of the Holy Spirit.

I fear that Cherise has substituted one form of legalism with another. All she has done is to lower the bar so that she knows she will come out ahead. That’s just a rigged horse race. My hope and prayer is that she encounters the only gospel there is and puts her trust in Jesus as her savior and redeemer.

It is only by the grace of God and the blood of Jesus that we can approach the heavenly throne. As the hymn says,”Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling.”

Your Job Is Not Your Calling

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He hath led me, and brought me into darkness, but not into light.

Lamentations 3:2

I’ve learned a lot about the meaning of God’s calling in my life last year. That time was the most difficult in my short life. i spent most of 2013 looking for a job and a sense of direction.

Being unemployed with no prospects is a horrible feeling. Every day a door was slammed shut in my face and the failure became unbearable. The only way to avoid it was to not try at all, which didn’t help much.

Surely against me is he turned; he turneth his hand against me all the day.

Lamentations 3:3

Thinking about the future filled me with despair. My life seemed to unravel the more nothing happened. I believe God was crushing every aspiration. It was as if every desire was on a board and God was erasing them one at a time right in front of me.

In our occupation-centric society we define ourselves by our jobs. It’s usually the first or second question we ask someone we’re getting to know. I felt the pressure to graduate college and find a lucrative job from myself and others.

I asked myself: what meaning is there in life if I could achieve nothing I desired? I began to realize that the only way life can be meaningful is if I am walking in the will of God.

Even though my life was a complete failure God would redeem it. Success is now defined by what He accomplishes in and through me. Only in this way will I understand that He must get the glory.

Success is now defined by what He accomplishes in and through me.

At that point I decided that God had to be in complete control of my life. If I needed it then He would have to provide it. If I don’t get it then it’s because He doesn’t want me to have it. God is good.

I had a new perspective on life but everything didn’t change right away. God kept me waiting and kept pushing me farther out on that limb. Months passed but He provided a job but the transformation already happened.

I learned that God did not call me to be successful. He didn’t even call me to a particular job. My calling is to follow Jesus, to believe on the one whom the Father sent. I didn’t need to find my calling. I needed to do it.

Who hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began

2 Timothy 1:9

Did it matter that Jesus was a carpenter or that Paul was a tent-maker, as opposed to fishing or herding sheep or building boats? While we are called to work hard and be productive the Lord’s main concern is not my job.

Paul made tents to support himself even though his calling was to preach the gospel. His job was incidental to his calling, or his ministry, not central. I had that backwards for a long time.

But then how do I decide whom to marry, which job to take, where to worship, or in which city to live? I’d say that it’s not up to us to fulfill God’s plans. If it were we would be in big trouble.

If I’m trying to find out God’s purpose for me then I’m trying to take back control. Books that teach me how to know God’s calling for me are talismans I use to get what I want. Doesn’t that sound like paganism?

However, if He is going to accomplish anything in my life then it’s up to Him to make it happen. I am totally dependent on Him and incapable of accomplishing anything apart from Him.

This is a huge weight off of my shoulders because I don’t have to worry about anything. I can trust in the power of God. It isn’t up to me to make my life meaningful or happy or successful. The Lord will ensure that. I just have to wait on Him.

“Customer Announcement: We Have A Lost Child In The Culture”

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Are young people fleeing from the church?

I would guess, based on my observations, that 18-30 year olds are the smallest age group at my church. When I hear that anywhere between 45% and 75% of young people who grew up in the church leave by the end of their first year in college it only supports my concern that there’s an exodus of young people.

I would guess, based on my observations, that 18-30 year olds are the smallest age group at my church.

Having come across a few articles now that push back against this narrative I’m more skeptical and curious. And this is to my shame because I studied economics in college and I, of all people, should know that data doesn’t automatically give you the big picture. In fact, many researchers have looked at the data and have come to a different conclusion.

Bradley Wright pulls the data from the General Social Survey on those who identify as Evangelicals by age. The chart he produces shows that the percentage of people who are Evangelicals rises during the 1970s and declines in the 1990s, most sharply for the 18-29 age group. Today we are back to the same levels as the early 70s.

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Bradley also looks at how many Americans are Evangelicals or “Born-again” Christians. (As a pedantic side note I’d say that “born-again” and Christian are synonymous. If you’re not born again you’re not a Christian, but I digress). It hasn’t changed much in the last 40 years. There is a decline in religious affiliation (and a rise in the un-affiliated, or “nones”) but that is mostly affecting nominal mainline Christians and Evangelicals.

Ed Stetzer has also analyzed the data and does not believe it supports a pessimistic view. In commenting on the Pew Forum’s 2012 study which showed a rise in the number of people who have no religious affiliation (the “nones”), he said this:

The reality is that evangelicals have been relatively steady as a percent of the population over the last few years, however there is still great cause for concern here– and for action.

Conservative churches and institutions are holding up better but they still face challenges as more Americans move away from a biblical worldview, including church-going, Bible-reading Christians. There has been a growing movement of “New Calvinists” which has produced organizations like The Gospel Coalition and Together 4 The Gospel. Daniel Darling mentions that Southern Baptist Theological Seminary enrolls more students into their Masters of Divinity program than any other similar school.

The church has always thrived in hostile environments and will continue to do so. Jesus did say that He will build His church. I think we can take this as an opportunity to preach the gospel and show the stark contrasts between the cultural and biblical perspectives. If only a few more believers behaved as if they were confident that they are already victorious then we’d see some amazing changes take place.