In Defense of the Invitation

In recent times, the issue of the public invitation has come under scrutiny.  I have pastor friends on both sides of the issue.  Knowing where they stand biblically, for most Southern Baptists, the issue is not one derived out of a conservative vs. liberal theology but more out of a particular conclusion regarding ecclesiology.  Let me state from the offset, I do not believe that a church is necessarily any less evangelistic because the leadership decides not to give a public invitation at the close of the worship service.  In fact, some of the churches that are experiencing strong numbers in baptisms do not give a public invitation.  I also think the rhetoric among pastors needs to soften a bit. We accuse each other of things that are not so.  Our churches may not be experiencing large baptismal numbers, not because we do or do not give an invitation, but because we are mean-spirited and critical of each other.  We have essentially quenched the Holy Spirit. This fact is particularly evident when it comes to the discussion of the invitation.  While it is true that some pastors have chosen not to do it because they have seen pastors they respect not give an invitation (which is, by the way, the wrong reason regardless), it is also true that many of us who give an invitation simply do it out of tradition (a response that is also incorrect).  Yet, there are many on both sides of the discussion who have chosen their particular methodology based upon biblical conviction, and we cannot argue against that process. 

I have chosen in my ministry to give an invitation when possible.  I am in a position now where I preach at a different church every Sunday.  My commitment is to respect the wishes of the host pastor.  If he does not normally extend an invitation, neither will I, nor will I insist that he allow me to do so.  I am a guest and have committed to act like one.  I have had guest preachers who ended up doing more harm than good because they would not take into consideration the culture of the local church.  As a pastor, I ended up cleaning up a lot of messes because of guests who did not think that they needed any counsel or restrictions.  I have had pastors ask me to give a public invitation for them so that they might observe it and see how it should properly be done, but I would never undermine a pastor’s leadership.   

When it comes to the invitation, we have to be honest that much of the hesitancy toward this level of public commitment is due to the fact that the invitation has been abused in the past.  I have seen, and so have you, the preacher or evangelist who manipulates people into making decisions for Christ.  Sometimes I think their motives were pure, just misguided; other times I am confident that their ego got in the way.  Ego is such a dangerous character trait.  Everyone recognizes that it is out of control except for the guilty party usually.  I do not think, however, that we should determine what we do or do not do based upon someone else’s misunderstanding or even misuse.  If we follow that line of thinking, I am not sure that we would do anything.

Therefore, let me share a few of the reasons why I offer an invitation at the close of my sermons.

            1. Because the Invitation is Biblical.  No, we cannot find a particular sermon where Paul preached and then declared, “If you’ve come on a bus, it will wait.”  (That’s a Billy Graham phrase, by the way – one of my heroes).  Yet, an examination of Acts 2:40 demonstrates an understanding of exhorting people to respond immediately to the gospel.  Peter had been preaching, then the Scripture records, “And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, ‘Save yourselves from this crooked generation’” (ESV). The words “bore witness” are connected directly with evangelism.  The word martureo (µαρτυρέω) is found 81 times in the New Testament.  Many of the NT’s usage deals directly with evangelism.  It means to bear witness and to testify (the primary way that the word is translated).  Connect that word with the word “exhort,” and I come to the conclusion that Simon Peter must have invited people to respond somehow.  Alan Streett, in his book The Effective Invitation, says of exhort that 61 of the 108 times that it is used in the New Testament, it should be properly translated “to plead or to beg.”  Five times it is directly linked with evangelistic preaching, including Acts 2 (Alan Streett, The Effective Invitation, 55-65). The fact that 3000 people responded to Simon Peter’s sermon and were baptized demonstrates that they were certainly invited to do something.  I think the text shows that the Public Profession of Faith is not the response to the invitation but the baptism.  Still yet, there is a connection with the two.  I do not have time to work through all biblical texts because there are so many, but this one gives me a clear foundation upon which to build.

            2. Because the Preaching of God’s Word is Powerful. The writer of Hebrews declares, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12).  If that text is true (which it is), then it compels me to invite people to respond to the Word.  I believe that people’s hearts are touched and convicted.  The Holy Spirit is moving, and, therefore, there is the need to immediately respond.  I recognize that sometimes people need time to digest the sermon and meditate on it.  An immediate response may be more emotional, while a tempered response results from a deeper commitment of both the heart and will.  Neither response, however, deters the need for the invitation.  Both responses are valid and necessary. 

            3. Because Church History Bears Witness to the Invitation.  The public invitation is usually associated with Charles Finney and the “anxious bench.” The actual altar call can be traced earlier to the Camp Meetings of the Second Great Awakening that took place in Kentucky and Tennessee.  I look, however, even earlier.  During the First Great Awakening, no official altar calls took place, but what was happening is that the Awakening preachers were recognizing the role of the Holy Spirit in the preaching of the Text (it’s called the Spiritual Sense of Scripture).  One of my other heroes, Jonathan Edwards, championed this cause.  When he preached his famous “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon at Enfield, Connecticut, Edwards did not give an altar call, but the result of the sermon was certainly extraordinary.  Eyewitness Stephen Williams wrote in response to the sermon, “Before the sermon was done – there was a great moaning and crying out through ye whole House – What Shall I do to be sav[ed] – oh I am going to Hell – Oh what shall I do for Christ.”  George Marsden, in his biography of Edwards, comments, “As Edwards waited, the wails continued, so there was no way that he might be heard. He never finished the sermon. [Eleazar] Wheelock offered a closing prayer, and the clergy went down among the people to minister among them Individually” (Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, 220-21). Edwards was known to use the words “invite” and “come to Jesus” in his sermons . . . “Consider how earnestly Jesus Christ invites you to come to him and trust in him.” His close friend, George Whitefield, also employed the same technique.  Though he also never gave a public invitation, he would invite inquirers to meet with him afterwards, sometimes staying up until 3 a.m. to counsel with those awakened.  Whitefield also had those who believed that they were saved to write out their names and experiences.  He would then openly read that person’s name and experience (Dan Nelson, The Testimony and Influence of George Whitefield).  Within their preaching, there was the urgency and understanding of personal response.  Salvation was personal, not corporate or familial.   

Here’s my conclusion.  Every pastor has to develop his own convictions regarding the close of his sermon.  Sometimes culture and surroundings dictate how the sermon is concluded, but do not allow what others are doing to be the only criteria by which you determine your ecclesiological polity and practice.  And do not allow criticism, or the fear of it, to change your direction.  Regardless of whether or not you give an altar call, MAKE SURE THAT YOU CONCLUDE YOUR SERMON IN SUCH A WAY THAT PEOPLE KNOW HOW THEY CAN RESPOND TO GOD’S WORD.  It may be in an altar call.  It may be in an inquirer’s room after the service (John MacArthur utilizes this method).  It may be in meeting with you after the service, with a trained counselor, or in the inquirer’s home.  But make sure they can respond.  The power of God’s Word and the conviction of the Holy Spirit demand it.  

Freedom and Responsibility: Not a Duplicitous Relationship

One of the statements I hear believers make is this one: If the Bible doesn’t strictly condemn something, then I am free to partake in it.  While those words sound good, they often lead to trouble and even disaster.  Let me elaborate.

First, there are any number of things that the Bible doesn’t condemn that we understand should be avoided by Christians, and other issues not mentioned verbatim in the Text that we vehemently believe.  We come to those conclusions by using good interpretive models that apply other passages of Scripture to particular ethical or moral issues not directly addressed in the Bible.  For example, the Bible does not condemn slavery.  In fact, one of the great attacks on Scripture by skeptics or critics is this one particular issue.  If one wanted to, a pretty good case could be developed biblically to condone slavery, but none of us would agree to that conclusion. There are other Scriptures that clarify our understanding of slavery.

The Bible doesn’t condemn abortion directly.  There’s no verse that says “Thou shalt not commit abortion.”  It says not to kill, but we have to go through interpretive measures to understand that abortion is murder.  Someone might quote Jeremiah 1:5, but the skeptic could respond that God was only speaking about Jeremiah metaphorically, not to the whole human race.  And, hermeneutically, we’d have to agree to some point.  Scholars admonish people not to take Jeremiah 29:11 and use it for personal edification without first understanding and applying its context.  We must follow that same principle with 1:5, yet we understand biblically that life begins at conception.  And we defend that interpretation.

The Bible never uses the word Trinity but entire creeds and confessions are built upon a belief in the concept of God in Three Persons.  The Trinity is a primary source of contention that Christians have with pseudo-Christian groups and non-Christian religions.  The Trinity is what defines and distinguishes Christianity from other monotheistic faiths, but it is not mentioned specifically by name in the Bible.  We still, though, believe and defend it without question. 

Thus, we have to be careful in developing the straw man argument of biblical condemnation and freedom.  It would be duplicitous to utilize a hermeneutical model to teach against racism and not use that same model in other areas.  It becomes a slippery slope when we use biblical interpretation for our passions and ignore it when it comes to things we like or want to do. 

Second, the Bible is quite clear that we are not to use freedom for personal use.  Paul said in Galatians 5:1, “For freedom Christ has set us free.  Stand firm, then, and do not be encumbered once more by a yoke of slavery.”  He also says, and we must note this fact, in the same chapter, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (5:13). The argument for Christian freedom is often used because there is a particular behavior or lifestyle choice that I want.  Therefore, I am free to seek after that pleasure because I am free.  If the reason that I say that I am free in Christ to do something because it is not strictly condemned in Scripture is so that I can satisfy my own desires, then I have violated Scripture itself.  My freedom is to be used to serve others, not myself. 

Third, if a behavior or lifestyle could lead to an addiction, then I have the responsibility not to indulge in it. I might not ever be addicted but what of those around me?  I grew up in an alcoholic family on both sides.  My mother was an alcoholic, as are my 2 sisters.  I am assuming that I am probably an alcoholic also because addictive behavior runs in my family.  The sad thing about being an alcoholic is that a person does not know that he/she is an alcoholic until one starts drinking – and then it is too late.  I do not keep alcohol in my home or have a glass of wine at dinner because I do not want to give credence to something that is destroying lives, and I want to influence my children and grandchildren toward biblical righteousness.  My sister came and lived with me on several occasions as she struggled through her alcoholism.  She is doing great now, but there were times of question in the past.  One of her greatest struggles in trying to get back on her own was finding a church that did not promote alcohol consumption.  It’s not just that she can’t drink; she can’t be around it.  When she lived at my house, we had to agree that she couldn’t work where alcohol was sold.  The addiction was too strong.  As a Christian I have learned that my freedom cannot supersede the needs of others.

Fourth, my goal as a Christian is to be like Christ.  One of the struggles I have with this whole argument is that I do not hear anyone talking about holiness and righteousness.  It’s all about personal freedom, but what we forget are the words of Paul in Romans 6:18, “. . . having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness,” and the words of Simon Peter in 1 Peter 1:16, “. . . since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’” I wrestle with those words, because the word “holy” is used to describe Who God is.  To be holy is to be distinctive.  God is not what other gods are because He is distinctive from them.  As believers, we are called to be holy and righteous, in other words, to be distinctive.  In fact, Paul declared that Christ died for us “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). Our goal as Christians is not to be cool; it is to be Christ-like.

Recent developments within the larger Christian community has shown us the dangers of Christian liberty.  The dismissal of Perry Noble is probably the tip of the proverbial iceberg.  I want to be careful at this point.  I was not in the meetings with Noble and do not know all the details of the discussion and charges. Additionally, to condemn Noble for his moral/ethical slip demands caution. I am concerned about his church leadership dismissing him for alcohol abuse when, perhaps, they themselves partake in alcohol consumption.  To me, and this opinion is mine alone, it is duplicitous and even hypocritical to have done so.  That situation, however, is why Christian liberty is a spiritual conundrum.  His dismissal reminds me of what I see in the corporate world.  In many circles, a person is expected to drink socially in order to be successful, but when that person falls into alcoholism, he/she is dismissed.  It is a duplicitous situation indeed.  Noble’s dependence upon alcohol certainly affected his ability to lead, and it damaged his marriage.  He didn’t fall, though, because he was overly driven by numbers or even because he socially drank.  He fell because he suffered from the consequences of Genesis 3.  To me, it cautions all of us and reminds us of the words attributed to the 16th Century Reformer John Bradford, “There but for the grace of God go I.” 

Freedom and responsibility are not mutually exclusive ideas; nor are they duplicitous ideas.  They are two concepts that must walk together.  We are certainly free, but we are set free so that we would become slaves to Christ (1 Cor 7:22).  Let’s stop talking about what we are free to do so that we might pursue the pleasures of life.  Let’s talk about what the grace of God compels us to do biblically – and then do it.  

Is Religious Freedom American?

            Freedom of Religion and the expressions that define it have been at the forefront of American life from its earliest beginnings.  Consider these words:

        . . . for the worke wee haue in hand, it is by mutuall conset through a speciall overruleing providence, and a more then an ordinary approbation of the Churches of Christ to seeke out a place of Cohabitation and Consorteshipp vnder a due forme of Government both ciuill and ecclesiasticall.  In such cases as this the care of the publique must oversway all private respects, by which not onely conscience, but meare Ciuill pollicy doth binde vs; for it is a true rule that perticuler estates cannot subsist in the ruine of the publique.

        The end is to improue our liues to doe more seruice to the Lord the comforte and encrease of the body of christe whereof wee are members that our selues and posterity may be the better preserued from the Common corrupcions of the euill world to serue the Lord and worke out our Salvation vnder the power and purity of his holy Ordinances.

. . . for wee must Consider that wee shall be as a City vpon a Hill, the eies of all people are vppon vs; soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our god in this worke wee haue vndertaken and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from vs . . .1

            While the English might seem difficult to decipher, these words were spoken by John Winthrop on board the Arbella, as he and several hundred people embarked upon their journey to establish a colony in America known as the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  A similar understanding can be discerned from a document known as the Mayflower Compact:

We, whose names are underwritten, the loyal subject of our dread sovereign Lord King James . . . having undertaken, for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian

faith . . . a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia do, by these presents, solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God and one of another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic . . . .2

            Those aboard the Mayflower were Separatists.  Those who came with Winthrop were Puritans.  While it is true that not all of the passengers on either voyage were Christian, they certainly understood the guiding doctrine of those who led these expeditions.  In Plymouth, no real separation existed, even though many of the settlers themselves were not Separatists.  A church was immediately established, even though they did not have a pastor and did not offer the sacraments.  In spite of these issues and the fact that it would be nearly a decade before they would have an ordained pastor, they still considered themselves as having established a true church.  They even built a fort after their first year that also served as their meetinghouse. One immediately discovers that the faith of the Separatists and the governance of their colony were intertwined without any necessary conflict.  The governance of the colony allowed for the settlers to carry on business and to survive, but the political leaders also assisted the church in protecting its territory, even to the point of intolerance of others.  All of these things took place with the fact that some within the group were non-Separatists.

            There are those who want to espouse the notion that America was not founded upon Christian principles and was, in fact, established as a non-religious entity.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Research the history of the founding of America.  From every colony to every form a government, religious freedom and religious influence were founding principles and practices. 

            Current government leaders may try to restrict religious freedom and even eliminate it.  As it was true for the founding fathers, it is necessary for people today to stand for the restoration of religious freedom in the United States.  Religious freedom does not require anyone to be religious, nor does it call for the discrimination against the non-religious.  It does protect the rights of those who wish to practice their faith, both in the spiritual and in the secular parts of society. 

            Christianity provided an indelible impression upon the founding of America and its establishing documents.  Because of persecution, both previously experienced and presently enacted, little desire existed to create a Christian federal government that would demand that all adhere to the Christian faith in order to maintain citizenship or voting rights. The nation, however, and its documents were profoundly influenced by Christianity.  It is important that Christians today both recognize the influence of Christianity on the founding of America and defend religious freedom.  This freedom is essential for those who are religious and for those who are not. 

1 Perry Miller and Thomas H. Johnson, eds. The Puritans: A Sourcebook of Their Writings (Mineola, NY: Dover Books, 2001), 195-99.

2 Catherine Millard, The Rewriting of America’s History (Camp Hill, PA: Horizon House Publishers, 1991), 19.

 

 

Becoming Fishers of Men (People)

I was studying the passage Matthew 4:19, “Follow Me,” He told them, “and I will make you fish for people!” The correct word in the Greek is ἀνθρώπων, which would be translated men, but it is a word that additionally used generically for mankind or humankind.  Jesus wasn’t just asking us to reach men but all people (Matt 28:19-20).  I had looked at that passage any number of times and always saw it from the human perspective: we need to be out reaching people with the gospel.  That idea is taught in many places in the New Testament, so I hadn’t paid much attention to the rendering of what Jesus was saying. 

Something New

As I studied the passage this time, however, something new (and what I should have seen all along) began to click.  It’s amazing how wonderful God’s Word is in times of study like this time.  The background to the passage is the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, where He shows us as the God-man that His total submission to the Holy Spirit and His command of God’s Word gave Him victory over the temptations of the flesh, the eyes, and pride.  Jesus as God, being impeccable, could not sin.  Yet He did not sin, not because He drew upon His divinity, but instead drew upon the power of the Holy Spirit in His humanity (see Bruce Ware, The Man Jesus Christ, for additional thoughts on this perspective). 

Now Matthew moves to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee.  Here He sees Peter and Andrew and simply says, “Follow me (literally, come after Me).”  The Gospel of John gives us more insight into Jesus’ encounters with Andrew and with Simon Peter.  Matthew is more succinct:  “Follow Me, and I will make you fish for people!”  Here’s what I discovered.  Jesus did not say, “Follow Me, and you will become a fisher of people,” or “If you want to follow Me you must fish for people.” No, He said, “I will make you fish (literally fishers of) for people.”  The focus is on I Will.  Christ will make us fishers of people, in fact, He will be making us fishers of people.

Chickened Out?

How many times have you gotten unnerved because you were in a situation where you needed to or wanted to talk to someone about Christ but didn’t?  You chickened out or just couldn’t seem to get the conversation moving in that direction.  We have all been there, if we will be honest.  So here’s what I learned.  The emphasis was not on me going out and trying to be a witness for Christ.  The emphasis was on Christ, not on us.  There is a two-fold perspective on witnessing here.

First, we must pursue Christ – Come after Me.  Becoming an effective witness is a process.  It doesn’t mean that you can be effective immediately upon conversion, because there are texts in Scripture (Mark 5) that teach us that fact.  To be effective, however, is something directly connected with your walk with Christ.  Go after Christ and He will make you into a witness.  It’s not about your ability, gifting, background, or the details of your conversion.  It’s about being connected to Jesus.  Do you remember what Jesus said in John 15:5 The one who remains in Me and I in him produces much fruit, because you can do nothing without Me.

Second, Christ makes us the witness – He is the One who convicts and saves.  We are the instrument through which He works.  So often we focus on us – how well we share our faith and even the details of our abilities.  This fact does not mean that we don’t seek out training or help in being better witnesses.  On the contrary, because Christ is our Enabler and our Strength, we seek out ways to be more effective.  Don’t forget, though, that it is Christ in us, not us.  Learn that one fact and it will revolutionize your witnessing.  At that point, you become the seed-sower.  Christ is the One who brings about the harvest.  He releases you from the overwhelming anxiety that you might say something wrong or not know all of the answers.  He is the answer, and He works in you.  Remember this verse, Philippians 1:6, I am sure of this, that He who started a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.  

He Is Making You a Fisherman

That’s what Jesus is doing in you as a witness.  He is making you into a fisher of people.  So work on your relationship with Christ.  Study Ephesians 4 and John 15 and check out your walk with Christ.  Connect with Him, and He will make you the fisherman you need to be. 

A Response to the Supreme Court Ruling on Marriage

What do we do now? That question seems to reverberate among many evangelical Christians as we ponder the June 26, 2015 decision of SCOTUS regarding marriage.  In a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court ruled, “The right to marry is a fundamental right inherent in the liberty of the person, and under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment couples of the same-sex may not be deprived of that right and that liberty.  Same-sex couples may exercise the fundamental right to marry.” 

While I sensed that SCOTUS would rule in this manner, it still took me by surprise.  In fact, it pretty much ruined my day.  For that moment and for the first time in my life, I was not proud to be an American.  America, in my opinion, has the responsibility of leading the world in moral, ethical, political, and economic choices.  Unfortunately, we are failing in about every area.  It is sad, but during my lifetime, I have watched as America has fallen victim to political correctness and moral infidelity.  In 1962, the dye was cast for removing prayer from school.  The prayer in question was, “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our country. Amen.”  The ruling fundamentally changed our understanding of the First Amendment.  In 1973, SCOTUS made abortion a constitutional right.  Of the many interesting issues surrounding this ruling, perhaps the most intriguing is the fact that the ruling was based upon a lie (Jane Roe had originally claimed she had been raped).  Now 42 years later, nearly 58 million abortions have been performed (LifeNews.com).    

The political issues that surround this new ruling are three-fold.  First, the Supreme Court has taken a moral issue and has made it into a civil rights issue.  Second, five unelected individuals have successfully trounced upon the voting rights of millions of Americans.  Third, a battle now ensues regarding States’ rights.  The good news is that the attorneys for the states in question have 3 weeks to file for reconsideration.  I have a feeling that Ronald Reagan just turned over in his grave when Justice Anthony Kennedy sided with 4 liberal judges.  Just the mention of that idea – four liberal judges – shows that this ruling is not about an interpretation of the Constitution – it’s about a cultural war.  The problem with this ruling is that it says that homosexual individuals have the fundamental right to marry.  No longer does a society have the right to determine the boundaries of morality within its borders.  In the court briefs, Justice Scalia asked whether ministers would be able to refuse to marry two gay men. The answer was that it has to be worked out under state laws. He said, but that could happen — it could happen that a minister would be forced to marry two gay men, in violation of his beliefs. Justice Alito then asked, “Well then why not marry four gay men together? Why just two?” 

So how should we as Christians respond?  What does this ruling say to us?  Let me offer these suggestions.  You may discover other ideas that I do not address in this analysis.

1. Christians need to get serious about what it means to be a Christian. For too long, believers have been guilty of cultural Christianity.  We have made faith a side-line to our schedules and have refused to make Christ and His Church our priority.  It’s time to get serious again. We compromise with the world because we like certain TV shows, movies, musicians, and social media outlets, yet these things are eroding biblical fidelity. And we are buying into the bias.  We need to get serious about the Christian faith.

2. Churches need to protect themselves regarding their beliefs about marriage. Lawsuits have already been filed trying to force churches to allow gay couples to use their facilities.  Churches must have a Constitution and By-laws that define marriage as between a man and a woman only, thus protecting its right of refusal. 

3. Christians had better prepare for an increased persecution. If you stand for biblical marriage and voice that opinion, get ready for the vicious onslaught of an angry vicissitude of words and actions.  Because gay marriage is now a civil right, it may become illegal to call homosexuality a sin or to say that gay marriage is wrong. 

4. Churches must prepare to have certain fundamental rights removed.  Because of the 1st Amendment, churches are exempt from paying certain taxes (understand that churches pay taxes; the exemption is only for a limited type of tax).  I doubt that churches will be forced to perform gay marriages, but if a church refuses to do so, it will lose its tax-exempt status.  This decision will force churches to either cave into political pressure, pay the financial price, and maybe close their doors.

5. Churches and Christians must get serious about the gospel. The only solution to the sin problem of our world is Jesus.  We need to get serious about the gospel.  We need to live our lives as witnesses to the world and share with the world the salvation found in Jesus.  This issue is a sin problem.  The only hope in resolving a sin problem is Jesus.

6. Christians need to vote based upon biblical values.  We have now reached the time that voting along party lines is a thing of the past.  The election of the President of the United States is critical to the future of our nation.  The president sets the moral tone.  The issue moves far beyond economics and the ecology.  Many prognosticators are saying that we have moved beyond post-modernism to a post-Christian era.  One way that we can make a difference culturally is through the voting booth.  How you vote does matter.

7. Christians cannot focus on hate.  If we end up hating homosexuals because of this ruling, we are guilty of sin.  We must never condone any behavior that is contrary to biblical standard, but at the same time, we must realize that the reason that people act the way that they act is because they do not know Jesus as Savior.  It’s not about hate; it’s about the gospel. 

8. Churches need to teach on the biblical model of the family. We have stepped away from the family because we are afraid of hurting people’s feelings.  It is not a statement of condemnation against those who are single or divorced if we teach what the Bible says about the family.  Therefore, let’s teach what biblical marriage is, what being a godly parent looks like, and how families can become strong together. 

I had someone argue with me recently that churches should not be against gay marriage because we have condoned heterosexual couples living together for years and there is no difference.  Both are sin.  While I understand this person’s logic, the problem is that 2 wrongs don’t make something right.  If some churches are condoning cohabitation, they need to repent of that action.  We cannot compromise, however, on the issue of marriage in any case.  Marriage is between a man and a woman.  Genesis 2:22-24 states, Then the Lord God made the rib He had taken from the man into a woman and brought her to the man. And the man said: This one, at last, is bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh; this one will be called woman, for she was taken from man. This is why a man leaves his father and mother and bonds with his wife, and they become one flesh.  Jesus affirmed this perspective when He said, “Haven’t you read,” He replied, “that He who created[a] them in the beginning made them male and female,” and He also said: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, man must not separate”(Matt 19:4-6).  And the Apostle Paul concurred as he wrote in Ephesians 5:31-33, For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. This mystery is profound, but I am talking about Christ and the church. To sum up, each one of you is to love his wife as himself, and the wife is to respect her husband. In each case, the quotation references a man and a woman, nothing more, nothing less. 

Let’s stand together for that truth.  I realize that emotions run high with this subject, but we cannot be swayed by emotion. 

Do not lose hope.  Jesus sits on the throne of Heaven, and He is coming back. Maranatha!!! Therefore, we must be driven by Scripture.  Speak the truth in love (Eph 4:15); love the outsider and those who disagree with you (Matt 5:43-44), and do not waver in the power of the gospel (1 Pet 3:15).  Remember, Jesus is still in the life-changing business.

When God Pursues Us

Some discussion occurs regarding the meaning of the two parables in Matthew 13:44-46  that address the subjects of the Hidden Treasure in the Field and the Pearl of Great Price.  Warren Wiersbe takes the position that it deal with God’s pursuit of us.  He writes: “At the close of this age, God will have three peoples: the Jews (the hidden treasure), the church (the pearl), and the saved Gentile nations who will enter into the kingdom (the dragnet).”  (Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible Exposition Commentary (Vol. 1, p. 46). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books).   Craig Blomberg takes the opposite position.  He explains the passage this way: “Similarly, one must not interpret the buying of the treasure as an allegory for the atonement, as if Jesus were the treasure hunter purchasing our redemption. As in a similar rabbinic parable about Israel entering the promised land, the man who finds the treasure is more naturally seen as the person seeking after God’s blessings.” (Blomberg, C. (1992). Matthew (Vol. 22, p. 223). Nashville: B&H Publishers).  In the interpretation of these 2 parables, I am more inclined to agree with Blomberg than Wiersbe.

But the fact of God’s pursuit of us is a very biblical and a very wonderful idea.  While it might not be the point of these parables, it is something that is very true.  Do you know that God is pursuing you?  This truth is especially true for those of you who might not have trusted in Christ yet and for those of you who have strayed from the path of following God.  God is pursuing you.  Here’s some reasons why we know that fact.

1. God pursues us so that we can be saved.

We could not be saved if it was not for the pursuit of God. A huge mistake that people make is to think that they first chose God, as though we as human beings are in charge of our salvation.  What the Bible teaches us is that all of us are born with a nature to sin (Psalm 51:5).  In Ephesians 2, Paul explains the depth of our lostness – we are without hope and without God (2:12).  Additionally, in Romans 3:9-20, he provides a graphic explanation of the sin problem of humanity – we are: There is no one righteous, not even one. There is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away; all alike have become useless. There is no one who does what is good, not even one (3:10-12). In fact, Romans 3:11 pretty well dispels any idea that we initiate the salvation experience . . . There is no one who seeks God.  Jonathan Edwards used this passage to explain that, any person left to his/her own devices, could not first seek God and would not seek God (he called it moral inability).  Therefore, God initiates salvation. 

2. God initiates salvation by drawing us.

John 6 is a pivotal chapter in the ministry of Jesus.  He has been performing miracles and has been teaching about the Kingdom.  But as He starts revealing more of His Divinity (the 7 signs, the 7 I AM’s), those who were following Him began to argue with Him.  Jesus has just said, “I AM the bread of life” (6:35), which led to a greater argument.  This discourse then led to Christ’s statement, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him’ (6:44).  After this time, many of the disciples stopped following Christ.  The cost was too great, but they missed the point.  God was pursuing them – and He is pursuing us.

3. God desires us.

One of the doctrines we learn about God is that He is self-sufficient (the theological term is Aseity). Norman Geisler explains that it means that God exists in and of Himself, independent of anything else. He is self-existent . . . The biblical basis for God’s aseity is found in the facts that 1) He existed prior to and independent of creation and that 2) He brought into and sustains in existence everything else that is. Yet, the Bible teaches us a mystery that God desires us.  His heart is moved by us (Psalm 149:4), we are precious in His eyes (Isaiah 43:4); He is concerned about us (Job 7:17), and He searches us and knows us (Psalm 139:1).  God pursues us because He desires us.  He takes pleasure in us.

4. God woos us.

One of the images of God in Scripture is that He is a loving, wooing, jealous bridegroom and we are His bride (Hosea 1-3; John 3:29; Eph 5:25-32; Revelation 19:7-9). He pursues us as the bridegroom who is totally smitten by His bride. He does not just desire us, but He desires us passionately. Though God does not need us, He still wants us.  And that’s why He woos us.  Look at the Bible and one finds numerous examples of how God reached out and called people, making them to be His.  Notice Abraham, Moses, Elijah, the nation of Israel (Deuteronomy 7:7), the disciples being called to come and follow Christ.  In each instance, God took the initiative and wooed people to Himself.

5. God wants you to pursue Him.

So what does God want from us?  He wants you to pursue after Him – to know Him.  Psalm 14:2 says, “The Lord looks down from heaven on the human race to see if there is one who is wise, one who seeks God.”  That’s the point of the Hidden Treasure and the Costly Pearl.  When we understand what God has done for us and that He is a treasure worth more than anything we could acquire in this life, we pursue Him.  It is a pursuit that leads to salvation, but it must also be a pursuit that is consistent in our lives every day. 

Where does God fit in your life pursuits?  It is not that we make Jesus a priority, because when we prioritize Christ, there are times that He takes second place.  To pursue God means that Jesus influences and impacts every part of our lives.  He’s not just a priority in our lives; He is our life. 

God pursues us.  That fact is unquestionable.  Are you pursuing God?  

Working Through Your Doubts

One of the ways that Satan attacks us is through doubt.  He can get you to doubt your salvation, your usefulness, your abilities, and your future.  Part of the problem, even with that one statement, is that the word your is used too much.  One of the ways that we set ourselves up for failure is when our focus is on us. 

The all-sufficiency of Christ teaches us that He is enough in every situation.  It’s not about your salvation or your usefulness, it is all about Christ and His security and His power.  This reason alone teaches us why the Lordship of Christ is so essential for you as a believer.  The world would have us to believe that Christ’s Lordship is a negative thing, but when you understand the all-sufficiency of Christ and His provision, Lordship becomes an incredible blessing.

We all have doubts of some kind or another.  In salvation, we need to distinguish and know whether or not we are followers of Christ.  I gave a number of lists for ways to determine the difference between a false conversion and a questioning doubt.  Look over these lists (they are not original with me but drawn from a variety of sources).  Make sure that you are a follower of Christ – by repenting of your sin and trusting in Christ alone as Savior and Lord – then look for the transformation that He will bring to your life. 

Satan’s Attack Causing Doubt

           1. Reminds you of your past

            2. Tells you why you can’t be saved – if you were saved, you wouldn’t have done this.

            3. Attacks the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice – Jesus can save others but He can’t save you.

            4. Causes doubt because you question your ability to be saved.

God Causing Questions of a False Conversion

            1. You justify salvation by saying: I have to be saved because I grew up in a Christian home, I walked an aisle, I got baptized, I work, I serve, I am a good person, I’ve gone to church all of my life, I’ve always been a Christian. 

            2. God brings dissatisfaction with your standing with Him.

            3. You demonstrate the evidences of a false conversion: your joy does not last (you become a critic of the church); you are preoccupied with the world (you are more concerned with the clothes in your closet than being clothed with Christ’s character); Christ does not reproduce His character in you (your attitudes are more like the world than like Christ).

            4. God shows that there is no fruit in your life: no fruit of repentance (Matt 3:7-8); no fruit of good works (Col 1:10); no fruit of worship and praise (Heb 13:15); no fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23); no fruit of righteousness (Phil 1:9-11). 

The Evidence of Fruit in Your Life

            1. Fruit of repentance (Matt 3:7-8) When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to the place of his baptism, he said to them, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Therefore produce fruit consistent with repentance.

            2. Fruit of good works (Col 1:10) 10 so that you may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to Him, bearing fruit in every good work and growing in the knowledge of God.

            3. Fruit of worship and praise (Heb 13:15) 15 Therefore, through Him let us continually offer up to God a sacrifice of praise, that is, the fruit of our lips that confess His name.

            4. Fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23) 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, 23 gentleness, self-control. Against such things there is no law.

            5. Fruit of righteousness (Phil 1:9-11). And I pray this: that your love will keep on growing in knowledge and every kind of discernment, 10 so that you can approve the things that are superior and can be pure and blameless in the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ to the glory and praise of God.

Questions from 1 John to Ask Regarding Genuine Faith 1 John 5:13 I have written these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.

            1. Do you enjoy having fellowship with Christ and His redeemed people? (1 John 1:3)

            2. Would people say you walk in the light, or walk in the darkness? (1 John 1:6-7)

            3. Do you admit and confess your sin? (1 John 1:8)

            4. Are you obedient to God's Word? (1 John 2:3-5)

            5. Does your life indicate you love God rather than the world? (1 John 2:15)

            6. Is your life characterized by "doing what is right"? (1 John 2:29)

            7. Do you seek to maintain a pure life? (1 John 3:3)

            8. Do you see a decreasing pattern of sin in your life? (1 John 3:5-6) [Note: this idea                                refers to not continuing in sin as a way of life, not a total absence of sin].

            9. Do you demonstrate love for other Christians? (1 John 3:14)

            10. Do you "walk the walk," versus just "talking the talk"? (1 John 3:18-19)

            11. Do you maintain a clear conscience? (1 John 3:21)

            12. Do you experience victory in your Christian walk? (1 John 5:4)

Jesus wants us to serve Him in the security of His All-Sufficiency.  He is enough!!

Learning to Listen to God

The Difficulty           

The first parable in Matthew 13 tells us of the sower and the seed.  We recognize that God is the sower and the seed is His Word.  It is important for us to have a heart that is open and ready to hear a word from God that comes from His Word.  The question, though, is how do we develop that kind of listening heart?  How do we listen to God?  Most of us as Christians want to be the “good soil” that bears fruit, but I think that we might struggle with the “how.”  Let me offer some suggestions at this point.

The Solution

1. Set Listening as a Priority.

            We prioritize most everything in our lives.  If I have a favorite TV program I like to watch, if my kids are involved in sports, if I have a job – I prioritize all of these things.  For some reason, though, we don’t prioritize spending time with God.  Learning to listen to God is an art, so it starts with developing the skill.  We know we should listen to God, but do we discipline ourselves to do so?  Probably not. 

            Therefore, prioritize and personalize listening to God.  Understand that it is a critical part of us knowing Him and experiencing Him in our lives.  If you don’t hear God, you can’t respond to Him.  It is probably why so many don’t pray and look to worship as a means of entertainment than engagement.  We do not get anything out of it because we do not hear God speak.

            Consider these verses:

                        Psalm 46:10 Be still and know that I am God

                        John 10:4 My sheep follow him because they recognize his voice

                        Proverbs 4:20-22 My son, pay attention to my words; listen closely to my sayings;                                     For they are life to those who find them, and health to one’s whole body.

            I like this quote from D. L. Moody: “If you have so much business to attend to that you have no time to pray, depend upon it, you have more business on hand than God ever intended you should have.”

2. Develop a Receptive Mind.

            The good soil of the sower was soil that had been plowed and cultivated.  For us as believers, the idea is that of discipline and preparation.  All soil that is to be planted has to be tilled in some way.  For those who are not yet believers, it is the Holy Spirit who speaks and draws people to Christ.  For us as believers, it means that we prepare ourselves to hear from God. 

            The Sunday sermon is not something that we only think about between 11:30 and noon.  It is something that should be affecting us throughout the week.  If we are taking the principles we learn in the sermon and in our small groups and applying them to our daily lives, we are cultivating hearts that are receptive.  If you never think about spiritual things outside of Sunday morning or never spend time alone with God in prayer, your heart starts to get hard or your heart turns more to the cares of the world than those of Christ.

3. Determine to be Obedient in Advance.

            What many of us do when it comes to listening and obeying God is that we make the decision on obeying only after we have heard the biblical terms of that obedience.  If it doesn’t set well with us, we then choose not to obey. When we follow that pattern of life, we become the hard soil that has the Word stolen from it or we become the shallow soil that rejoices until life gets difficult. 

            The secret to hearing God is deciding that you are going to obey Him even before you hear Him.  It is coming into the worship experience with a decision that what is learned today is the command for your life.  The good soil can be seen as a willing heart – an obedient heart.  It is easy to plow because it is ready to receive.  The opinions of the world, our friends, political correctness, or the cause of the day often persuade us more than does God’s Word.  What we have to determine is that we will listen REGARDLESS.  Hearing God is easy, but what God has to say to us through His Word oftentimes is not. 

The Resolve

            If you are serious about listening to God, work on a few commitments this week. 

                        1. Don’t let stuff get it the way of you worshiping with other believers every                                       week.

                     2. Take time out daily to pray and read a small portion of Scripture – at least 5-10                                      minutes a day.

                        3. Commit to memorizing 1 verse of Scripture a week – just 1.

                        4. When you listen to the Sunday sermon, seek to answer these 3 questions:

                                    What does this passage say?

                                    What does this passage mean?

                                    What does this passage mean to me?

            We all need to be good listeners.  I am thankful that God still speaks to the open heart. 

Missing God

Not in the Right Place at the Right Time

Have you ever thought about how easy it is to miss God?  I don’t mean that we miss Him in that we hurt in our hearts over the fact that He is away, but I mean that we miss Him in that He makes Himself available to us and we are not in a position to experience Him in our lives. 

I think of the receiver on a football team whose assignment is solely based upon timing.  Unfortunately, he’s not at the spot that he needs to be when the quarterback throws the ball.  His miss is not just a ball off the ends of his fingertips – he’s barely in the same time zone. 

I cannot tell you the number of times that I have had someone ask me a question that I had actually addressed in a recent sermon.  When I let the person know that fact, I am told that he/she had to miss that Sunday, or several Sundays, for whatever reason.  I wonder how many times we have missed God because of a lack of passion at the moment.

The Purpose of the Parables

In Matthew 13, Jesus reveals very clearly the purpose of Him speaking in parables.  There are essentially two:

            1. To separate those who listen to God from those who do not.  Matthew 13:13 For this reason I speak to them in parables, because looking they do not see, and hearing they do not listen or understand.  In Jesus’ day, there were a multitude of people who followed Him for 3 reasons. They were:

                        The Curious

                     The Critics

                        The Self-centered

            In all three groups, their motives were impure.  The parables eventually weeded out the crowd because they did not understand Him or know Him.  Imagine having waited your whole life for the coming of the Messiah and you miss Him because you weren’t listening.  That’s what happened to many who followed Jesus at first.  They followed Him because He fed them or healed them, but their motive was not to have an open heart to listen to Him.  And so they missed Him.

            2. To fulfill the prophecy regarding the coming of the Messiah.  Matthew 13:35 is a quotation from Psalm 78, a Maskil (a wisdom Psalm) of Asaph.  One would think that Jesus’ detractors and pseudo-disciples would have made this connection, but they did not.  So Jesus quoted in Matthew 13:35:

    I will open My mouth in parables;

    I will declare things kept secret

    from the foundation of the world.

            And, therefore, they missed Jesus.  In spite of all of the ways that Jesus fulfilled Scripture, His detractors ignored the evidence, and even denied the evidence, and missed the very Messiah for whom they were waiting.  The paradox of the entire story is that the mysteries of the Kingdom were not to be hidden from anyone, except those who weren’t listening.  And those who should have been listening weren’t listening at all. 

Are You Listening?

As Jesus spoke in parables, He teaches us simple truths in each one.  The sower teaches us about the openness of our hearts and God’s Word.  The mustard seed tells us that little can become much.  The priceless pearl says that God’s Kingdom is invaluable.  What we must do is take these simple truths and apply them to our lives.  Being a part of the Kingdom of God is not a Sunday activity.  Sunday is the peak of what we have done in living as Kingdom citizens during the week.  If the Kingdom is a priceless pearl, then nothing should ever get in the way of us serving, worshiping, and emulating our King. 

Thus, we have to ask ourselves the question, “Am I listening to Jesus today?”  Don’t be one of the first three groups who followed Jesus and missed Him. You see, there was a fourth group who did not miss Him:

            The Committed

That’s who Jesus wants us to be.  And when we follow Him out of commitment, we understand the simple truths of His parable teaching.

Keys to Powerful Praying

We understand that Jesus is the perfect example of the Spirit-filled man.  He was fully God Who took on flesh and fully became a man. While in the flesh, Jesus prayed.  He did not need to pray as God, but it was essential for Him to pray as a man.  Thus, we understand how prayer is unquestionably necessary for us.  If we are going to be filled with God’s Spirit in order to live a victorious Christian life, it demands that we become people of prayer. 

Nehemiah's Example

Nehemiah’s example of prayer provides a good format for us to understand how to pray powerful prayers.  Look at Nehemiah’s prayer as he wrestled with the obstacles and need to go to Jerusalem and help in the rebuilding of the walls.  He prays:

Yahweh, the God of heaven, the great and awe-inspiring God who keeps His gracious covenant with those who love Him and keep His commands, let Your eyes be open and Your ears be attentive to hear Your servant’s prayer that I now pray to You day and night for Your servants, the Israelites. I confess the sins we have committed against You. Both I and my father’s house have sinned. We have acted corruptly toward You and have not kept the commands, statutes, and ordinances You gave Your servant Moses.Please remember what You commanded Your servant Moses: “If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the peoples. But if you return to Me and carefully observe My commands, even though your exiles were banished to the ends of the earth, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place where I chose to have My name dwell.” 10 They are Your servants and Your people. You redeemed them by Your great power and strong hand.11 Please, Lord, let Your ear be attentive to the prayer of Your servant and to that of Your servants who delight to revere Your name. Give Your servant success today, and have compassion on him in the presence of this man.

4 Key Thoughts About Powerful Prayer

Here’s 4 key thoughts about powerful prayer:

1. Connect your prayer to the Character of God.

            Notice how Nehemiah started the prayer: Yahweh, the God of Heaven, the great and awe-inspiring God.   Powerful prayer focuses on the greatness of God, not just on our needs.

2. Confess your sins to God.

            One of the most difficult things to do is to get honest with God, especially with our own personal sin.  Don’t excuse it and don’t overlook it.  What sin is it in your life that hinders your prayer life?

3. Claim the promises of God.

            We don’t repeat God’s promises because God has forgotten them.  We claim God’s promises as a reminder to us of the faithfulness of God.  God has promised in His Word to return Israel to the Promised Land.  The word promise appears more than 100 times in the English Bible.  There’s actually no word for promise in Hebrew.  Instead, the Old Testament uses words like say, speak, and to live to describe God’s promises.  In the New Testament, the primary word is actually a legal term that means a summons.  W.E. Vines says that it signifies a gift graciously bestowed, not a pledge secured by negotiation.  Therefore, we receive God’s promises based on His grace.  Everett Storms has calculated that there are 8810 promises it the Bible, with 7487 of these promises being made by God to humanity. Be reminded that God is faithful, and He will fulfill the promises that He has made to us. Pray with His promises in mind. 

4. Commit to be obedient to God.

            As Nehemiah prayed, he was reminded that he (and God’s people) needed to be obedient to God.  A part of seeing God’s promises fulfilled was being obedient to His commands. Nehemiah could pray with confidence and even ask for God to make him successful in this endeavor, especially as he approached the King, because he was committed to obedience.  Powerful prayer is prayer that is grounded in an obedience to God’s Word. 

Jesus and Prayer

Did you know that Jesus connected prayer with His work here on earth?  As the example of the perfectly Spirit-filled man, the Scripture provides 4 times that He prayed while performing a miracle. 

            Matthew 17: when He cast out a demon

            Mark 7: the healing of the deaf man

            Luke 9: the feeding of the 5000

            John 11: the raising of Lazarus

Take heart.  Prayer does matter.  If we are going to be filled with God’s Spirit in order to live a victorious Christian life, it demands that we become people of prayer.  

10 Questions to Ask a Pastor Search Committee

Part of the process of serving the local church is going through the interview process.  Some denominations appoint their pastors, while many allow individual churches to select the person who will serve their church.  Regardless of the practice, pastors need to ask good questions.  For many, in their excitement to find a church and in the church’s desire to attract a good pastor, probing inquiries are overlooked. While asking good questions will not solve every problem, every pastoral candidate, especially those candidating for a church in need of revitalization, needs to be extremely careful in the interview process.  Do not completely determine the acceptance or rejection of the call based solely on problems or challenges but be aware of them.  It is wise, however, to know your challenges before you step into the pastorate.

1.  If I come to be your pastor, what is your personal expectation of me?  What do you want to see me do?                                                                                                                                                                As a prospective pastor, you need to understand the investment that the search committee has in you.  As a result, many of them will have personal expectations of the pastor beyond the expectations of the church.  Facts show that oftentimes members of the search committee will end up leaving the church because their personal expectations were not met.

2.  To whom does the congregation look for leadership or approval?  Who leads the church?           The pastor wants to be the leader, but oftentimes the congregation looks to someone else for leadership.  The pastor needs to know who this person/these people are.  Read John Maxwell’s book The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, particularly his story about Claude in Law 5, for an understanding of this principle.  The goal of this information is not for you to find how who leads so that you might manipulate a relationship with that person but so that you will be aware of your challenges. Remember that leadership is earned, not demanded, in the church.

.  Is there any one thing that you would not be willing to do even if it would mean that your church would grow (obviously as long as it is biblical, ethical, and moral)?                                            Churches have sacred cows, and the prospective pastor needs to be aware of these. This particular question will probably need to be pressed and restated.  The members of the committee will probably state that they are willing to make any change if it will help them to grow.  The problem comes when they might not realize that a change needs to happen in a particular area of which they are fond or involved.  Change is extremely difficult.  No one likes change, not even pastors!  

4.  What did you like and dislike about your previous pastors?  What were some of their biggest mistakes?  What were some of their greatest successes?                                                            Obviously, a pastor does not want to repeat mistakes, but it is also true that what the congregation might perceive as a mistake was more of personal dislike.  You want to know the successes because a wise pastor will learn to build upon the successes of the past.

5.  Is there a particular topic that could be addressed in a sermon that would be totally unacceptable by the congregation?                                                                                                                   This question will assist in discovering some of the hidden moral or political issues with which the congregation deals at present or in the past.  Most churches want to see themselves as conservative, but their personal views on certain moral or biblical issues will be enlightening. 

6.  What was the subject of your most contentious business meeting?  How do you normally conduct your business meetings?                                                                                                                        Depending on the polity of the church, most churches make at least some decisions through a business setting.  One can discover the atmosphere of the church by understanding how members conduct themselves while discussing the needs of the church.  A greater understanding into the congregation’s perspective of pastoral leadership is also gained depending upon how involved the congregation wants the pastor to be during its business sessions.

7. What is your perspective on how the church spends money?                                                                Money offers one of the most volatile insights into the church’s future and past problems.  

8. How have the church finances fluctuated over the past five years?                                                       A prospective pastor will want to examine the church budget, expenses, and debt at least over the last five years, if possible.  One can gain a glimpse into what the church has considered to be important, and what they have neglected.

9. What are some of the times that you consider that you have grown spiritually and what are you doing now to grow in your walk with Christ.                                                                                             Be careful in asking these questions, making sure that you have shared the answers for your own personal walk first.  One suggestion would be to have them write out these answers if they would prefer.  Normally, the search committee is a cross-section of people from the congregation, who represent those who are the most spiritual.  That fact, however, is not always true.  At a later time, I will be discussing the stakeholders and powerbrokers in the church.  Sometimes these leaders do not want to make these decisions because of the fallout if things do not go well.  Therefore they will lead through others.  It is important that you know where your leadership is spiritually. Being a leader does not necessarily equate with being deeply spiritual.  

10. What is your personal vision or dream for the church?  What would you desire to see happen in terms of worship, discipleship, and evangelism/missions?                                                      The question serves the purpose of aiding the pastor in discerning the current direction of the church.  If the church needs revitalization, that fact should be noticeable in the dreams of the committee.  If an absence exists in recognizing the need for revitalization, this response will give the prospective pastor insight into the general perspective of the church.  They may need revitalization but they do not know that they need revitalization, a reality that presents its own set of challenges.

Included with these particular questions should be discussions relating to the history of the church, the specific theological leanings of the committee and the congregation, the church staff and relationship expectations and supervision, compensation, and questions regarding church governance.  All of these factors play a part in assisting a prospective pastor to understand the challenges before him and to be able to plot out a course for church revitalization.

4 Steps to Applying God’s Word

When it comes to the study of the Bible, we occasionally miss the important decision to apply the Scripture to our lives.  Sometimes it may be the result of a rebellious decision: “I don’t care what the Bible says, this is what I am going to do.”  Other times, though, and probably most times, we may not really know how to take what the Bible says and put it into practice.  So let me suggest these 4 steps to take as you hear sermons or attend Bible studies.                             

These ideas are based upon James 1:19-22, 19 My dearly loved brothers, understand this: Everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger, 20 for man’s anger does not accomplish God’s righteousness. 21 Therefore, ridding yourselves of all moral filth and evil, humbly receive the implanted word, which is able to save you. 22 But be doers of the word and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.

1. Be a Good Listener.  James says to be “swift to hear.”  When the Bible is taught, preached, or read, we often miss what it means because of our short attention span.  In personal Bible study, don’t worry about how many verses you can read in a day.  Focus on how many verses you can assimilate or to which you can pay close attention.  James’ idea here is for us as believers to seize every opportunity to be exposed to and taught the Scripture.  So a part of being a good listener is prioritizing worship and discipleship.  We oftentimes are poor appliers of God’s Word because we haven’t made the commitment enough to learn God’s Word.  So to be a good listener means both to pay attention but also to prioritize chances for worship and discipleship.

2. Make the Bible Personal.  One of the key issues that prevents us from learning God’s Word is that we practice sin.  Think back to what Jesus did.  He obeyed the Father.  He submitted Himself to the Holy Spirit’s filling.  And He applied God’s Word to His temptations.  For us as believers, it demands that we take the Scripture and ask, “What does this verse say to me or about me?” This action is one of the reasons that many struggle with application.  It gets personal.  So ask yourself these questions:

            1. What does this passage teach me about God?
            2. What does this passage teach me about the church?
            3. What does this passage teach me about the world?
            4. What does this passage teach me about myself? About my own desires and motives?
            5. Does this passage require that I take action? If so, what action should I take?
            6. What do I need to confess and/or repent of?
            7. What have I learned from this passage that will help me to focus on God and strive for His glory
                                                                                   (http://www.gotquestions.org/applying-the-Bible.html#ixzz3Yv1BbWuG).

3. Keep Your Pride in Check.  The word received is actually the primary verb in these verses.  In other words, everything revolves around us receiving God’s Word.  The one character flaw that prevents us from receiving the Word and applying the Word is pride.  Have you ever heard a sermon and thought, “This sermon really applies to so-n-so,” when we ought to be realizing how it applies to us?  The word humble means gentleness or meekness.  W. E. Vine says that it is “that temper of spirit in which we accept His (God’s) dealings with us as good, and therefore without disputing or resisting.”  To receive the Word means that you have a teachable spirit.  Since the Word is the implanted Word, it indicates that the Bible is like a seed that takes root in your heart and grows.  Pride leads us to be a know-it-all.  Humility proves to us that we still have much to learn. 

4. Practice What You Have Learned.  We are not just to hear God’s Word, but we are to be doers of God’s Word.  This step takes us back to obedience.  The only thing that keeps us from doing so is when we deceive ourselves into thinking that we either don’t need to do what God says or that it really doesn’t apply to our lives.  True application is far more than just Bible knowledge (which can lead to pride).  One of the ways that we know that the Holy Spirit has taken control of us is because we want to do what God says in His Word.  Application is doing.

Don’t be discouraged if you struggle at times with applying God’s Word.  If it was easy, everyone would do it joyfully.  But our flesh rebels against those verses that really do speak to us.  So don’t give and don’t quit.  Prioritize those times to learn God’s Word and always seek to make God’s Word personal.

5 Key Understandings for What it Means to be Filled with the Holy Spirit

First Thoughts

The filling of the Holy Spirit is an essential element for us to learn how to defeat temptation and sin in our lives.  We understand this fact as we see Jesus defeating temptation, not by drawing upon His Deity, but by utilizing the resources that the Father made available to all of humanity for living victorious lives.  One of these resources is the Holy Spirit's filling.  Luke tells us that, immediately after the wilderness temptations, Jesus "returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit" (Luke 4:14).  Jesus then attended worship at the synagogue in Nazareth, where He led in the reading of the Haftarah (the reading of the prophets) and chose Isaiah 61 as His passage.   In that reading, He quotes, "The Spirit of the Lord is on Me" (Luke 4:18).  

Application

If the being filled with God's Spirit was essential for the God-man Jesus, how much more is this filling absolutely necessary for us.  But what does that filling mean?

Ephesians 5:18 declares, "And don't get drunk with wine, which leads to reckless actions, but be filled by the Spirit."  Take note of these 5 steps to being filled.

1. Surrender to God's Direction. To be filled is a command word.  This word in the text does not mean an option or a suggestion.  It is commanded of all of us as believers.  To be filled is more than just the idea of a glass filled to the rim with water.  One way that it is understood is in describing a sail that is filled with wind.  Paul actually uses this idea in 2 Peter 1:21.  To be filled means that we surrender to God so deeply that He directs our lives.  Additionally, it means that He fills us - we do not fill ourselves (be filled by the Spirit).  Where is it that God is not controlling your direction?  To be filled with the Spirit's power demands that you so empty your life of yourself that you become like a hanging sail, motionless and powerless, until the wind blows.  God takes control of your life, fills you, and moves you where He desires.  Are you open to letting God take that level of control of your life?  Luke 4:1 says, "Then Jesus returned from the Jordan, full of the Holy Spirit, and was led by the Spirit to the wilderness."  As Jesus surrendered to God's direction, so must we in order to be filled with the Holy Spirit.

2. Surrender to God's Possession. To be filled also carries the idea of infusion.  John MacArthur uses the concept of how salt permeates meat to both preserve and flavor it.  I think of a jelly donut.  The outside of all donuts taste the same, but once jelly is infused into the donut, it literally changes the taste and makes the taste unique.  As God takes control of our lives, He should take possession of us so that He infuses us with His character.  When the world takes a bite out of you, do all they taste is the reaction of your flesh, or do they taste the sweetness of the power of God's Spirit infused in you?  

3. Surrender to God's Control.  To be filled with the Spirit means that God's Spirit dominates our lives.  A huge mistake that Christians make is to give God partial control or lip-service control to certain aspects of our lives.  For example, we make excuses for why we don't forgive each other when those excuses only demonstrate that Christ is not in control of that particular area of our lives.  Added to this one struggle are our emotions, attitudes, behaviors, and actions.  What is it or where is it that God is really not in control?  To be filled demands that we surrender our all to Him.  John 5:19 tells us, "Then Jesus replied, 'I assure you: The Son is not able to do anything on His own, but only what He sees the Father doing.  For whatever the Father does, the Son also does these things in the same way.'"

4. Surrender to the Priority of Worship.  The evidence and response to filling is worship - be filled by the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making music (Ephesians 5:18-19).  When Jesus came to Nazareth, Luke says that "on the Sabbath day, He went to the synagogue, AS WAS HIS CUSTOM" (emphasis added).  In today's Christian culture, we are not filled with God's Spirit because we don't prioritize worship.  For many, worship is a "take it or leave it" proposition.  To be filled means that worship is essential to our lives.  Though we don't ascribe to a Christian Sabbath, we understand that the Lord's Day belongs to Him.  Worship becomes a response to God's Spirit that leads us to participate in worship, not just see it from a spectator's view.  It also becomes a lifestyle.  We worship on Sundays, but we recognize the necessity of worship every day.  How does worship play into your life?  Is it an activity that you schedule if it fits within your demands?  Or is it essential to your life and your can't live without it?

5. Surrender through Availability.  To be filled means that we make ourselves available to God. To fill our cars with gas, we have to go to the gas station.  Our cars don't automatically fill themselves when the tank gets low (even you guys who drive electric cars have to take it to a charging station!).  Being filled happens as you continually choose to live under the Spirit's control and filling.  To be filled means that the Spirit gets more of you each day and takes control of you.  Do you make yourself completely available to God or only partly available?  Is the Christian life a matter of convenience or conviction and commitment?  To be filled demands the commitment totally selling out to God (see Romans 12:1-2).  

Conclusion

Jesus serves as an incredible example for us of the perfectly Spirit-filled Man.  He shows us that it is possible for us as believers to have victory over sin.  Don't settle for anything less.  Don't use the excuse that you are just "a sinner saved by grace," meaning that you have resolved to live a life that struggles with sin until you die and go to heaven.  Realize that today you can have that victory - and it comes when you are filled by God's Holy Spirit.  He will empower you to live a victorious Christian life.

Victory over Temptation through Genuine Obedience

One of the things we learn about Jesus is that He was completely and fully obedient to the Father's will in everything.  He never ceased to be God, but He did choose not to use His divinity in order to overcome temptation.  Instead, He drew from the resources God makes available to humanity for victory.  The first resource is obedience to the Father's will.  

This particular doctrine is difficult to understand, and it is why so many groups reject the idea of the Trinity.  Some try to explain Jesus as being less of God than the Father is God.  Others try to say that God moved through different periods of existence as Father, then Son, and now Spirit (this idea is called Modalism).  The Trinity, however, explains that God is three persons: Father, Son, and Spirit.

As Paul describes the obedience of Christ in Philippians 2:5-8, we learn a very important truth about this level of obedience.  Jesus was to learn obedience in His humanity that would lead Him to the cross.  It wasn't just mere obedience that He was to learn.  It was absolute obedience so that He could accomplish the most difficult demand of His mission: becoming sin for us so that we might become the righteousness of God.  It is even an obedience that was understood before Christ took on the flesh of humanity.  He said in John 6:38 that He had come to earth, not to do His own will but to do the will of the One who sent Him (namely the Father).  His obedience is seen, not only in the fact that Jesus was obedient to the Father while here on earth, but He was even obedient in making the decision to come to this earth.  

Application

What we learn from Christ is that genuine obedience is not partial obedience.  If we desire to defeat temptation through obedience, we cannot decide what parts of obedience are good and what parts are undesirable.  Obedience is not trying to figure out how close we can get to sin without really sinning.  It is not trying to figure out how much we can be like the world without really being like the world.  It is about totally and absolutely submitting to the will of the Father in everything we do and in everything we are.  But that's why obedience is so difficult and why it is much easier to sin than it is to walk in righteousness.

Take a minute and examine your motives about why you do what you do.  Do you serve, teach, preach, live, breath, and walk in direct obedience to God's will?  Or do you add His will onto your decisions and desires?  The kind of obedience that empowers us to overcome temptation is absolute obedience to the Father.  

Living Out the Christian Life Daily: Positional and Practical Holiness

One of the needs that every Christian has is to understand the difference between our position with God and the practice of our faith.  This idea applies to several areas - positional and practical holiness; and positional and practical righteousness.  Holiness is the distinctiveness of the Christian whereby God has set us apart from sin and then set us apart for Himself.  Righteousness is the declaration of the fact that, in Christ, we are right with God, and then we live out this righteousness through the moral obedience that follows that declaration.  Other words that we would use here are justification (righteousness) and sanctification (holiness).

Within those 2 ideas, we as Christians must understand 2 things.

1. Positional Holiness and Righteousness. At the moment that you trusted in Christ as your Savior, God declared that you are Holy (1 Peter 1:13-16) and Righteous (2 Corinthians 5:21).  I offer a clarification between the two because holiness describes our distinctiveness as believers, while righteousness is holiness put into action.  We are declared holy and righteous by God because He imputes (places in us) these qualities and changes us.  It is literally where God takes His character and places it within us - with two parts of His character being holy and righteous.  

2. Practical Holiness and Righteousness. As a result what God has done for us in Christ, we must now live out these ideas.  He has declared that we are Holy and Righteous.  It is now imperative that we, as believers, live and act like it.  We don't try to become holy or righteous; we already are.  Therefore be what you are.  Holy means that a Christian must be distinctive.  We must live like ones who have been set apart for God (Romans 12:1-2). Thus, it negates the whole idea of trying to be like the world.  We should not be characterized by the world's identity.  We should be distinctively like Christ.

We should also then live our lives morally in ways that show that we have been made right with God.  Living out a righteous life is not self-righteousness.  It is not arrogance or pride.  It is a morality that reflects in our obedience to Scripture.  One of the mistakes that Christians are making today is trying to figure out how closely we can get to the dividing fence of the world and not step too far over.  The argument that many try to make is this one: If Scripture doesn't strictly prohibit something, then it is okay for a Christian to do it.

Holiness and Righteousness, however, teach us that the issue is not trying to figure out where moral compromise is acceptable.  These qualities teach us that we always ask the question, "How does this behavior, attitude, lifestyle choice, or reaction help me to be more like Christ?" That's Practical Holiness and Righteousness.  We want to live our lives in such a distinctiveness that people see the righteousness of Christ in us.  

So go out and live your faith every day.  God has declared that you are holy and righteous. You don't have to do anything to achieve this status.  It is yours because of who you are in Christ. Therefore, don't look for compromises.  Discover ways that you can show the world that Jesus has changed your life, and live out this life every moment of every day.

6 Presumptions Necessary for Church Revitalization

While we understand that it is Christ who is going to build His church (Matt 16:17-18), we must enter an agreement with God that the church will survive.  Yes, there are those prognosticators who have essentially given up on the established church, but Christ's promise still rings true.  One of the reasons I love the church is because she is a survivor.

Therefore, we must approach church revitalization with the presumption that God has a plan for the church and then make that presumption your own.  Let me suggest 6 presumptions necessary for church revitalization.

1. God Wants the Church to Revitalize.  That statement may seem a little redundant, but I have heard both pastors and laypeople over the years make statements that they believed it might be better for a church to die than to change.  Many times these statements occurred in the context of a discussion regarding relocation or a major strategy change, but I find it disturbing that any of us would believe that a church should die.  Do churches die?  Of course they do. Should churches die?  If we believe that the church belongs to Jesus, then to offer an answer in the affirmative becomes a much more difficult conclusion.  Therefore, I start with this presumption: God wants the Church to grow.

2. Church Health Results in Church Revitalization.  In church circles today, many writers have moved away from the church growth terminology in favor of church health. An honest appraisal of some church growth methods today would affirm this need for a change in, not just nomenclature, but practice.  I'm afraid that we have learned how to draw crowds but are we really making disciples?  Church health speaks to specific practices and beliefs that identify a more solid foundation upon which the church is built, including: an authoritative view of Scripture,  a focus on discipleship, a strong emphasis on biblical preaching, a connection to the community, a vigorous commitment to prayer, a dedication to genuine ministry, a submission to the work of the Holy Spirit, and a practice of personal evangelism.

3. Principles of Revitalization Can Be Applied to Any Church, in Any Situation. The emphasis here is not just on methodology but principle.  Look at the principles taught in Acts 2:41-47 as an example.  It is recognizing methodologically that what works in California may not work in your town.  What is important is knowing your demographic and then, through principle, finding those methods that work.  Allow biblical principles to determine your methods.

4. Church Revitalization Must Be a Work of God's Spirit. I've seen this statement in a number of blogs, books, and articles.  If God desires for the church to be revitalized, He certainly can provide the power for that result to materialize.  And if we desire for that work to remain, it must be a movement of God.  It is a challenge for all of us in the church to make sure that we are walking with Christ.  

5. Church Revitalization Occurs Because of Good Planning.  A pastor needs to have a plan in hand in order to see church revitalization occur.  It must be a work of God, but God oftentimes uses human means to bring about His purposes.  He uses the art of preaching to communicate His Word.  He uses methods of evangelism to bring people to faith in Christ, and He uses plans and processes to position a church to experience revitalization.  

6. Church Revitalization Succeeds Because of Servant Leadership. We read any number of books that talk about leadership, yet when you read the Scriptures, the emphasis is not as much on leadership as it is on service.  Biblical leaders are servant leaders.  In a church world that struggles with an incredible ego (after all, we are in the culture of the selfie), servant leadership is absolutely necessary.  Remember the words of Paul about Jesus in Phil 2:7 "Instead He emptied Himself by assuming the form of a slave." Form is "morphe" in the Greek text.  Jesus did not just look like a slave, He literally took on the inward character of one. I have often wondered if one of the reasons that we are not seeing God move as we wish He would is because of the undeniable presence of pride in the life of Christians.  

Other presumptions may exist, but let me encourage you to start with these six.  How can these 6 presumptions help you to find a greater determination for church revitalization.  God has not given up on the church.  We should not either.  

How Can I Know the Will of God?

When thinking about the will of God, it starts with understanding that God has a general plan for all believers.  This plan then positions us so that we can discover the specific purpose that He has for each of us.  This general will can be divided into 6 areas where the Bible specifically says - this is the will of God for you.  

Look at these Scriptures.  God wants you to be:

     Saved, 2 Peter 3:9

     Spirit-filled, Ephesians 5:17-18

     Sanctified, 1 Thessalonians 4:3-4

     Suffering for Christ, 1 Peter 4:19

     Saying Thanks, 1 Thessalonians 5:18

     Submitting to Authority, 1 Peter 2:13-15

These 6 areas are not the only areas needful for fulfilling God's will.  Take a look at Colossians 1:9-14, and you will discover several other areas that are part of God's will for all of us as believers.  Paul prays that we would be filled with the knowledge of His will.  Examine this text first and see how to apply these truths to your life: do you live so that you please God, are you surrendered to Him so that you experience His power, do you express a genuine thankfulness in all things, and do you understand how Christ has rescued you from sin?  

Once you've positioned yourself in these ways, here's one more step.  Read Romans 12:1-2.  The passage indicates that when we surrender ourselves as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to Him, we can prove God's perfect will for us.  Finding God's will occurs when we have fully surrendered to Him as Lord.  The mistake that most Christians make is that we want God's will to fit into our plans (that's why Paul says not to be conformed to this world).  Remember, though, how Paul describes God's will - it is good and pleasing (acceptable).  God's will is never fatalistic.  It always puts you exactly where you need to be, regardless of the circumstances of life.   

God is not hiding His plan for your life from you.  He does not play games.  So if you want to know His perfect plan for your life, surrender yourself fully to Him.  Don't hold back anything with reservation.  Remember: when you obey Christ in the general areas of God's will for all believers, you position yourself then to discover God's perfect (complete) plan for your life.  God really does have a plan for your life!

 

6 Evidences for a Greater Security in Your Salvation

This past Sunday, I talked about the fact that, when Christ reproduces His character in us, that action serves as evidence of genuine salvation.  But it's not the only evidence. Let me give you 6 evidences that can help you develop a greater security in your faith and a greater motivation to live out your Christian life every day.

1. The Bible's Promise and Authority. We understand salvation because the Bible teaches us that, through repentance and faith, we are given God's gift.  1 John 5:13: I have written these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God , so that you may know that you have eternal life.

2. The Work of Christ on the Cross. Jesus' death is enough - nothing more needs to be added to His sacrifice.  Romans 4:25: He was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.

3. The Presence of the Holy Spirit.  God placed His Spirit in our lives in order to guarantee our salvation and to give assurance of eternal life.  Romans 8:16: The Spirit Himself testifies together with our spirit that we are God's children.

4. The Action of Repentance and Faith. Once we hear the gospel, we respond to it by repenting of our sins and trusting in Christ as Savior, as we are told to in the Scripture.  Mark 1:15: " The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.  Repent and believe in the good news!"

5. The Lordship of Christ. If you have trusted in Christ as Savior, you will also make Him the Lord of your life - and decision of the will that leads to obedience.  1 John 2:3 This is how we are sure that we have come to know Him: by keeping His commands. 

6. The Response of Love. When we know Christ's sacrifice, the natural response to His love is that we love others in the same way: Unconditionally.  1 John 3:14: We know that we have passed from death to life because we love our brothers. 

Take time to check out each of these characteristics in your life - including the fact that Christ reproduces His character in you.  When Satan attacks, run to the Scripture.  God's Word should always be the foundation for our lives.  

4 Ways to Know if I am a Healthy Christian

I just finished the series Healthy Church this past Sunday morning.  My hope is, though, that we don't stop striving to be healthy Christians.  Any of you who have been involved in running or working out know that, when you take a break from your workouts for a period of time, it takes a whole lot longer time and effort to get back into shape than it does to get out of shape.  

That idea also seems to apply to us spiritually.  When we stop working out spiritually, it seems like we slowly fall into a spiritual laziness that results in a slow loss of spiritual fervor.  And then once we are out, it is so difficult to get back where we used to be.  So how do we get in shape spiritually and stay in shape spiritually?

Take this quick evaluation: How Energized Are You in Your Faith?

     1. Are you  active in worship and is it  both a priority and a way that you engage God? Hebrews 10:25

     2. Do you derive your energy from a consistent time of prayer and do you genuinely listen to God - not just tell Him your needs?  Ephesians 6:18

     3. Does the Word of God convict you and change your attitudes and behaviors on a regular basis - or do you find yourself making excuses or exceptions for what you do?  Hebrews 4:12-13

     4. Do you serve others and encourage them to greater service and discipleship?  Romans 12:6-13

One of the keys of being a Healthy Christian is to get into shape and then stay in shape.  Don't accept anything less than becoming the believer God wants you to be.  Remind yourself of these 4 questions and stay energized in your faith.

5 Passions of a Healthy Church

Kenneth O. Gangel of Dallas Seminary mentions 5 balanced passions that indicate a healthy Great Commission Church.  These include:

1. Winning the Lost

2. Building the Believer

3. Equipping the Worker

4. Multiplying the Leader

5. Sending the Called Ones

We probably look at those as "no-brainers." But ask yourself this question: How I am helping my church and my own personal journey to be healthy.  We realize that numbers don't always indicate health.  Something that grows fast is not always something that is healthy.  Cancer grows rapidly, but none of us want to be told we have the C-word.

In the church, though, numbers can be good indicators - are we growing and are we reaching people?  It also challenges us to take a look at where we are spiritually.  Are we showing consistent growth in our walk with Christ and in participating the Great Commission work of our local church?  Healthy Churches have Healthy Christians who are demonstrating and fulfilling these 5 passions.

So how are you doing in your walk with Christ?  Is it solely you and you alone - or do you see a spiritual/numerical increase, in that, others are coming to Christ because of your witness and are being discipled?  Or is it the proverbial - us 4 and no more?  We have our group and it is staying the same - and I am staying the same.  We are not growing and I am not growing.

Take this challenge - how can you help participate in these Great Commission passions?  Remember this fact: Healthy Churches have Healthy Christians and Healthy Christians demonstrate Healthy Growth.