The Transformation of a Scoundrel

If you are a person with a past and you feel hopeless today and think you are beyond God’s help and grace, click on this link to hear the story of Judah in first person from Genesis 38.

It is a sinister tale, yet God uses the sinful actions of a scoundrel to transform him and to ultimately bring the Messiah, Jesus Christ, into the world through the events of Genesis 38. How amazingly gracious and merciful God is. Take a listen:

The Transformation of a Scoundrel – mp3

Dare to Tell His Gospel Amidst Much Conflict

The Apostle Paul on Mars Hill in Athens long ago shows us how to proclaim the gospel in a secular, hostile age.

Vesper Outline – Acts 17 – Dare to Tell His Gospel Amidst Much Conflict

The Sweet Exchange of the Gospel of Jesus Christ

There is not a better prayer that beautifully speaks of the mysterious, sweet exchange that takes place when we repent and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.

Love Lustres at Calvary

519bbajnjglMy Father,

Enlarge my heart, warm my affections, open my lips,

Supply words that proclaim ‘Love lustres at Calvary.’

There grace removes my burdens and heaps them on your Son,

Made a transgressor, a curse, and sin for me;

There the sword of Your justice smote the man, Your fellow;

There Your infinite attributes were magnified,

And infinite atonement was made;

There infinite punishment was due,

And infinite punishment was endured.

Christ was all anguish that I might be all joy,

Cast off that I might be brought in,

Trodden down as an enemy

That I might be welcomed as a friend,

Surrendered to hell’s worst

That I might attain heaven’s best,

Stripped that I might be clothed

Wounded that I might be healed,

Athirst that I might drink,

Tormented that I might be comforted,

Made a shame that I might inherit glory.

Entered darkness that I might have eternal light,

My Savior wept so that all tears might be wiped from my eyes,

Groaned that I might have endless song,

Endured all pain that I might have unfading health,

Bore a thorned crown that I might have a glory-diadem,

Bowed his head that I might uplift mine,

Experienced reproach that I might receive welcome,

Closed his eyes in death that I might gaze on unclouded brightness,

Expired that I might forever live.

O Father, who spared not Your only Son that You might spare me,

All this transfer Your love designed and accomplished;

Help me to adore You by lips and life.

O that my every breath might be ecstatic praise,

My every step buoyant with delight, as I see…

My enemies crushed,

Satan baffled, defeated, destroyed,

Sin buried in the ocean of reconciling blood,

Hell’s gates closed, heaven’s portal open.

Go forth, O Conquering God, and show me the cross,

Mighty to subdue, comfort, and save.

Taken from The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers & Devotions, Banner of Truth Trust, Carlisle, PA, 1975, pp.42-43.

 

Reformation Day – 95 Theses of Martin Luther

Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach. The Protestant...

Martin Luther

In the little town of Wittenberg, Germany on October 31, 1517, a priest nailed a challenge to debate on the church door. No one may have noticed then, but within the week, copies of his theses would be discussed throughout the surrounding regions; and within a decade, Europe itself was shaken by his simple act. Later generations would mark Martin Luther’s nailing of the 95 theses on the church door as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, but what did Luther think he was doing at the time? To answer this question, we need to understand a little about Luther’s own spiritual journey.

As a young man in Germany at the beginning of the sixteenth century, Luther was studying law at the university. One day he was caught in a storm and was almost killed by lightning. He cried out to St. Anne and promised God he would become a monk. In 1505, Luther entered the Augustinian monastery, and in 1507 became a priest. His monastic leaders sent him to Rome in 1510, but Luther was disenchanted with the ritualism and dead faith he found in the papal city. There was nothing in Rome to mend his despairing spirit or settle his restless soul. He seemed so cut off from God, and nowhere could he find a cure for his malady.

Martin Luther was bright, and his superiors soon had him teaching theology in the university. In 1515, he began teaching Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. Slowly, Paul’s words in Romans began to break through the gloom of Luther’s soul. Luther wrote

My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him. Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement ‘the just shall live by faith.’ Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning…This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven.

The more Luther’s eyes were opened by his study of Romans, the more he saw the corruption of the church in his day. The glorious truth of justification by faith alone had become buried under a mound of greed, corruption, and false teaching. Most galling was the practice of indulgences — the certificates the church provided, for a fee, supposedly to shorten one’s stay in Purgatory. The pope was encouraging the sale of indulgences. He planned to use the money to help pay for the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

Johann Tetzel was one of the indulgence sellers in Luther’s vicinity. He used little advertising jingles to encourage people to buy his wares: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” Once Luther realized the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice alone for our sins, he found such practices revolting. The more he studied the Scriptures, the more he saw the need of showing the church how it had strayed from the truth.

So on October 31, 1517 he posted a list of 95 propositions. This was the means of inviting scholars to debate important issues. No one took up Luther’s challenge to debate at that time, but once news of his proposals became known, many began to discuss the issue Luther raised – that salvation was by faith in Christ’s work alone. Luther apparently at first expected the pope to agree with his position, since it was based on Scripture; but in 1520, the Pope issued a decree condemning Luther’s views. Luther publicly burned the papal decree. With that act, he also burned his bridges behind him.

Bibliography:

  1. Adapted from an earlier Christian History Institute story.
  2. Bainton, Roland. Here I Stand. New York: Mentor, 1950.
  3. Durant, Will. The Reformation. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957.
  4. Köstlin, Julius. Life of Luther. New York, C. Scribner’s sons, 1884.
  5. Wells, Amos R. A Treasure of Hymns; Brief biographies of 120 leading hymn- writers and Their best hymns. Boston: W. A. Wilde company, 1945.
  6. Various encyclopedia articles.

Source: http://www.christianity.com/ChurchHistory/11629921/

Five Keys to Authentic Community (Romans 16:1-16)

We all desperately need community. This hit me again with great force recently as I was watching the movie “The Count of Monte Cristo” starting James Caviezel as Edmond Dantes. Abbe Faria, aka the Priest, becomes a lifeline to the weary Dantes during his stay at the prison, Chateau d’if. Abbe is a great scholar who gradually transforms the unschooled Dantes into a wise, learned and cultivated man. The beginning of the movie sets forth the power of community to endure adversity and hardship.

Romans 16:1-16 also sets forth the power of community and gospel partnerships. It highlights at least five secrets to discovering genuine New Testament koinonia. This more or less summarizes my desire for our church over the past 8 ½ years.

What are these five keys? Concern (love for one another), a Christ-centered life, the importance of the cell group, a common cause, and candor. To put it more simply our church must serve as a home and a mission. (NOTE: The above sentence and basic outline of this post comes from a talk on genuine fellowship from Sam Shoemaker. The last phrase of the church serving as a home and a mission comes from Randy Pope and Perimeter Church.)

A local church can be a place of health and beauty when it follows God’s pattern.

  • Concern (deep affection and love for one another). People matter. People were important to the Apostle Paul. How so? Note that Paul says something specific about virtually every person greeted. He enjoyed real relationships of love.

One Scripture commentator declares that Romans 16 is one of the most instructive chapters of the New Testament. Why does he say such a bold statement: “Because it encourages personal relationships of love in the church” (Emil Brunner)

Notice first of all the affection and love that Paul has for his friends. “Greet my beloved Epaenetus (v.5)… greet Ampliatus, my beloved in the Lord (v.8)… greet my beloved Stachys (v.9)… Rufus’ mother who has been a mother to the Apostle Paul (v.13). The word ‘beloved’ means dearly loved.

This list of greetings opens a door into the everyday world of the first century church – it’s a home. This chapter serves as a hall of family portraits of our brothers and sisters who’ve gone before us. It also affords us a remarkable portrait of the heart of the Apostle Paul.

The warmth of Christian friendship evident in these verses (with so many indications of warm affection) remind us that in a world of fractured families the church is so often the first family where men and women find the warmth for which they long.

(How do you and I experience this type of authentic community? Christopher Ash is the Director of the Cornhill Training Course in London, and was previously the minister of All Saints Church, Little Shelford, near Cambridge. He declares that the only way to experience this type of community is “not in being passengers but rather by being active servants alongside others.”)

  • A Christ-centered life – The gospel matters. We share life together in Christ. On what are you centered?

Everyone has a “Center”.  Everyone lives for something–something that we think will give us a sense of significance and satisfaction. We all then have a “personal center.” That which is your bottom line. Your ultimate value by which you sort through all the activities of life and set priorities?  It may be money, career, possessions, appearance, romances, approval from a certain peer groups achievement, marriage, children, friendships – or a combination of a several.  Without this “bottom line”, your life would be completely meaningless.

(In Romans 16:1-16, the phrase “in Christ… in Christ Jesus… in the Lord” is used ten times). With whom do we have the privilege of advancing the gospel? We serve together with those who are beloved in the Lord (v.8). (v. 9 – the phrase “fellow workers,” v. 10 – “approved in Christ”, v.13 – “chosen in the Lord”).

  • Cell (house church… small groups). Small groups/community groups matters. Aquila and Prisca. Notice the phrase: “The church in their house” (v.5). 1 Corinthians 16:19 “Early Christians gathered on a regular basis in the homes of leading members.

Such groups not only were intimate for the members but apparently represented nonthreatening environments in which to do evangelism.

The development of authentic community life requires significant face to face relationships. Deliberate effort. It will not happen in worship or other Sunday morning ministries.

Cocooning is the name given to the trend that sees individuals socializing less and retreating into their home more. In the 1990s, Faith Popcorn suggested that cocooning could be broken down into three different types: the socialized cocoon, in which one retreats to the privacy of one’s home; the armored cocoon, in which one establishes a barrier to protect oneself from external threats; and the wandering cocoon, in which one travels with a technological barrier that serves to insulate one from the environment. We now can live in physical isolation while maintaining contact with others through the internet.

  • A Common Cause – Advancing the gospel matters. We desire to see others come to find hope, life and salvation in Christ. Expand and grow our family… (Notice the words used in v.14-15 – brothers and saints – Process of seeing natural enemies transformed into brothers… and sinners transformed into saints).

(Epaenetus – “The first convert to Christ in Asia” (v.5)

Prisca and Aquila were tentmaking missionaries and helped Paul start the church in Ephesus and had been instrumental in the church in Rome.

This passage calls for maximum effort to further God’s cause, extend Christ’s kingdom, and make the Savior known. We should do this will the same intensity that a runner has when he has his eye on the finish line.

(What will it demand of us in building this type of authentic community?)

  • Candor (What will it take to build this type of community that truly advances the gospel?) Let’s be honest.

It will demand sacrifice and hard work (Scholars debate whether Phoebe is a servant in a general sense, or whether she served as a deacon. She served as a patroness, probably with financial assistance and hospitality. Apparently Rufus’s mother (Mark 15:21 – Rufus’ father was Simon of Cyrene) ministered significantly to Paul.

It says that Tryphaena and Tryphosa and Persis “worked hard in the Lord” (v.12). It is important to note that women had a significant place in the life of the early church and engaged in significant ministry.

It will demand risk taking (v.4). Prisca and Aquila risked their lives when Paul was in danger in Ephesus (Acts 19:23–41; 1 Cor. 15:32).

Where is God calling you to take risks?  This week we’ve seen many people risking their lives to save others.  One great gambler for God in the past was C.T. Studd. He was a man who “hazarded (gambled with) his life for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 15:26).  He once wrote:  “No craze so great as that of a gambler, and no gambler for Jesus was ever cured thank God!”  He was willing to jeopardize his own life to magnify and make known the name of Jesus Christ.  Are we?

It will demand a willingness to suffer (v.7 – fellow prisoners). Bravery, at some point you will have to stand firm for Christ against some type of opposition, belittling and ridicule.

Conclusion: God calls us regularly to reflect on what it cost Him to make us members of His family. This galvanizes us to make any sacrifice to serve Him. In fact, C.T. Studd intones: “If Jesus Christ be God and died for me, then there is no sacrifice too great for me to make for Him.”

When Discouragement and Despair Knock at Your Door

“All progress in the Christian life depends upon a recapitulation (an act or instance of summarizing and restating the main points of something)  of the original terms of one’s acceptance with God” (John Stott, The Cross of Christ, p. 27).

This delightful quote points us to an enduring remedy for all our ills, even that of spiritual depression. Every step we take in our Christianity, especially as we learn to war against inclinations to be self-critical, angry, anxious, bitter, hopeless, unbelieving, or fainthearted, depends upon an intentional revisiting of the Gospel. After all, what does a sad person need more than to be gently, yet continually, reminded of the good news? Over and over again, we’ve got to remember His suffering on our behalf: His incarnation, sinless life, substitutionary death, bodily resurrection, and ascension.

In a nutshell, we have to intentionally consider Jesus, especially during those dark hours when we’re tempted to think only of ourselves. And although every one of us needs a daily dose of Gospel-recapitulation, those of us who feel the blows of Giant Despair need it even more.

 

Healthy Church Leaders

Not long ago I had a young elder ask me to mentor him. This coincided with a devotional given to our staff by our pastor at Second Presbyterian Church, Sandy Willson. Thus, below are portions of a letter I wrote using Sandy’s outline for healthy church leaders.

First of all, thank you for wanting input, friendship, and mentoring. I find that most older guys like me have a growing sense of inadequacy that too often hinders us from this type of ministry because as you age you possess a more graphic picture of your own deceitful, idolatrous heart as well as your own inadequacy to serve the Lord and His people.

On the other side, with youth comes zeal but oftentimes not according to knowledge (Romans 10:2). At least that was true in my case years ago. Sometimes younger folk really don’t want the input of their elders due to their own insecurity and pride. However, sometimes younger people are right not to want the counsel of older folks because at times older leaders can go into lock down mode when it comes to their cherished forms and preferences that can at times hinder the future effectiveness and fruitfulness in ministry. You know the seven last words of the dying church: “We’ve never done it that way before!”

One of the best things you can do right now is to personally pursue becoming a healthy leader and helping others do the same. Here are eight characteristics of healthy leaders.

1.     Healthy church leaders serve joyfully in the grace of the gospel (Psalm 100:2; 2 Corinthians 1:24). Take time to reflect on each word in that sentence. As you grow older, it is easy to become cynical and lose hope in the power of the gospel to transform lives. As you know, sheep in the flock can make it extremely difficult to serve Christ and them joyfully. Repeatedly ask the Lord to show you how forgiven you are and you will be empowered to forgive others who hurt you. Continually remember how loved you are by your heavenly Father and you will be empowered to love others who are at times very unlovable. Recall how accepted you are in the beloved (Ephesians 1:7) and then you’ll experience grace to accept those brothers and sisters in Christ that are different than you.

2.    Healthy church leaders must account to biblical standards of doctrine and practice (1 Timothy 4:16). We must pay close attention to our hearts especially our idols. John Calvin did say that our hearts are “idol making factories” and that the minute we root out one idol another one comes to take its place. As a leader, you must hold yourself and your family to a higher standard. This causes many to shrink back. The Apostle Paul urges elders in Acts 20:28 to “take heed (keep watch) over yourselves and all the flock.” Well, this means that we need to commit ourselves to studying the Bible to acquaint ourselves with what those standards are.

Simply put, you cannot adequately care for others if you neglect the care of your own soul. You cannot shepherd the hearts of others unless you shepherd your own heart. This is true at church. It’s also true at home with your family. This is why one of the best things you can do is heed the counsel of George Muller. When he was seventy-six years old, he wrote,

“I saw more clearly than ever, that the first, great and primary business to which I ought to attend every day was, to have my soul happy in the Lord. I saw that the most important thing I had to do was to give myself to the reading of the word of God, and to meditation on it. . . . not the simple reading of the word of God, so that it only passes through our minds, just as water runs through a pipe, but considering what we read, pondering over it, and applying it to our hearts.”

We are constantly trying to find happiness in other things and people when ultimate, lasting, and true happiness is found only in Jesus. I have really tried to become more intentional about this first thing in the morning. That has meant no phone, no internet, no TV. The question that I keep coming back to in my reading of Scripture to help me with this is “What do I see in the text for which I can praise the Lord?

Another way that I have found to do this is to heed the advice of John Murray.  He challenged leaders to: “Meditate for at least fifteen minutes every day on some word of God connected with His promises to His church and then plead with Him for its fulfillment.” What would happen in our churches, if all of us leaders took the Lord seriously regarding his promises for his church and prayed diligently for their fulfillment. I never once have had an elder question my job performance as their pastor due to an anemic prayer life, but they should have since we are to give ourselves to the ministry of the Word and prayer (Acts 6:4).

3.    Healthy church leaders embrace the biblical mission of the church and the biblical ministry of church officers (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 2:42-47; 1 Timothy 3:1-7). At the core, the mission of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ. What does this look like practically for folks like us? We ought to challenge dads and moms to serve as the primary disciplers of their kids. In general, we all struggle as consumer-oriented parents who at times feel like it is the church’s responsibility to make our kids spiritual and to give our kids a heart for the Lord. Secondly, how easy it is for us elders to show up for our monthly meetings without having taken time to shepherd families and provide spiritual encouragement and prayer for those entrusted to our care.

Leadership boards in churches often function more like executive, decision-making boards and refuse to get down and dirty in the trenches with people and their problems saying, “that’s what we’re paying the pastors to do.” Yes, pastors must do this, but they should also be equipping other leaders how to do this with them. All leaders are called to shepherd the flock (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:1-4).

In order to do this well, you need to be in corporate worship. You also need to consistently involve yourself in a smaller subset of people either in Sunday School and/or a small group. The leadership in a local church is weakened when this is not the regular rhythm for all of her leaders. Certainly, there are occasions where we are “providentially hindered,” but these should be the rare exception and not frequent. Leaders must be ready and willing to prove themselves as examples by disciplining themselves for the purpose of godliness (1 Timothy 4:7). We are, myself included, so afraid of coming off sounding legalistic, that we abdicate calling for any type of discipline and sacrifice.

4.     Healthy church leaders establish biblical priorities. How difficult it is to discern the best from the good in how to invest our time, talents, and treasures both individually and corporately. I find that most Christian organizations and churches are very reactive. Why do we not take the time to seek the Lord together regarding what it is that the He wants us to do as a body of believers?

One prayer of the Apostle Paul’s that I pray regularly is found in Philippians 1:9-10… that the Lord would fill me with all knowledge and discernment to make the excellent choice. This is always the challenge of leadership: To discern the best from the good.

I have become convinced that it is imperative that church leaders gather in a retreat setting at least once a year to seek the Lord together in establishing and creating ownership for His priorities for the upcoming year. It is not only important to establish biblical priorities and goals, but also to create ownership. Rick Phillips, who is a pastor in Greenville, SC, states an important principle of leadership: “Unity always takes place within the context of personal relationships.” This is an interesting thought to reflect on! Disunity tends to happen when the personal relationships are missing or compromised.               

5.     Healthy church leaders actively participate and encourage others to do the same. One of my friends is fond of saying: “What I complain about reveals where I am in the midst of the spiritual battle. If I am complaining about stale chips and warm beer,” he says, “I am not on the front lines” in the battle for souls. When we are not actively involved, all of us tend to armchair quarterback and become critical of other leaders.

Leaders are proactive in not just diagnosing problems, but also in providing solutions. When leaders are incessantly negative and offer no solutions to problems, they should be confronted and admonished to mend their ways. This style of relating does not foster unity and encouragement. This will always be a challenge as long as we minister in a broken and fallen world. This penchant towards negativity and refusing to trust the Lord has caused more than one enterprise to tank. Remember the dreaded consequences to the spies’ bad report after spying out the Promised Land (Numbers 13:30-33, 14:21-24).

6.     Healthy church leaders trust each other.  Without trust, it’s nearly impossible to go forward in a healthy way. Work diligently to create an environment of trust. There is no other way to do this well than to spend time together with your team dreaming, planning, and praying. It is nearly impossible to trust one another if you are not absolutely sure that the other person is for you. Regularly encourage other ministry leaders, especially your church staff. Make sure that they know that you are for them especially when you are led of the Lord to confront them about one of their weaknesses or failings.

7.     Healthy church leaders  successfully address and resolve conflict. When slander, critical speech, and gossip are allowed to persist in a church, it undermines the gospel of peace and reconciliation that we proclaim. This grieves the Lord and hinders our effectiveness in ministry. Healthy leaders model for others how to resolve conflict. Urge other leaders who do not deal well with conflict not to become passive aggressive. Also, make sure that when your pastor has to wade into these murky waters that he does not go alone.

The arctic chill of loneliness will blow into your life as a leader especially when you have to speak truth to someone you love and they refuse to heed your counsel or when you have to take an unpopular stance on an important issue or ministry in your church. In the past, there have been dear folks who have held me in great contempt for unpopular decisions that had to be made. You cannot take this personally, but you must ask the Lord to search your heart for any self-serving motives that lurk within. At the end of the day, you must entrust these folks who disagree with you to the Lord and ask Him to extend mercy to them. You also must pray for the Lord to guard you from despair and cynicism. The gospel remains the power of God to save sinners. Oh for more grace to believe it and live in light of it.

8.     Lastly, healthy church leaders mentor emerging leaders. 2 Timothy 1 has much to teach us about how to prepare the next generation of leaders. The list below always is such a rebuke to me. However, it also encourages and challenges me to rise up again and get about the Lord’s business in this area with my own children as well as other men and women in the body of Christ.

Here are some of the directives of the Apostle Paul about how to equip and prepare the next generation of leaders.

  • Pray with them and for them because they will ultimately be your successor (2 Timothy 1:3).
  • Remind them of their noble tradition as well as their call to protect and proclaim the gospel of God (2 Timothy 1:4;8).
  • Assure them of your confidence in them (2 Timothy 1:5).
  • Train and inspire them by modeling what you want to reproduce in them (2 Timothy 1:8; 2:2; 4:6-8) .
  • Do not be aloof, unapproachable, and impatient with youth for these attitudes have no place in the church of Christ (2 Timothy 1:2;4).
  • Gently rebuke them when you observe in them a lack of moral courage (2 Timothy 1:7).  Only rebuke after a season of commendation (note vv. 3-6).
  • By personal example and exhortation galvanize the younger leader for the challenges that lie ahead (1:11-12).
  • Teach them to despise the perverse search for novel interpretations, raising objections and doubts for argument sake and debate (2 Timothy 1:13; 2:16; 4:2).  Rather, teach them that difficulties and questions must be handled with patience and clarity.

(This list is taken and adapted from E.M. Blaiklock’s helpful book, The Pastoral Epistles: A Study Guide. Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1972.)

Okay. I’ve written you a small treatise on healthy leadership. I hope that maybe one or two of these things will be helpful and useful in your future ministry. Remember: Where God calls, He equips. Where God calls, He provides! And that is good news for those of us who are well acquainted with our own sense of inadequacy and frailty for such an awesome task of serving Christ and His church!