Archive | October, 2017

How to talk about God (and how not to)

26 Oct

Image result for conversationA friend of mine was at Park City, the big mall here in Lancaster, at a department store jewelry counter.  Just down the counter stood a couple girls looking at crosses.  One of them wanted to get a cross necklace.  My friend overheard one girl say to the other, “Oh look, this one has a little man on it.”

It was a moment of awareness for the girl (some crosses have a little man on them), but much more so for my friend. He knew that some crosses have little men on them. They’re called crucifixes, and they are depicting Jesus on the cross.  For my friend, this was a moment of awareness for a different reason.  It was an “aha!” moment that our culture has moved farther and farther away from an understanding of the Gospel.  Years ago you could assume that most everyone knew about Jesus.  No more.  It is highly likely that at least some of your neighbors and co-workers have no idea what the Good News of salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone is all about.

During the month of October at Faith Church we’re talking about the Five Solas of the Protestant Reformation because this month marks the 500th anniversary of that world-shaping era.  The Five Solas we have looked at are Grace Alone, Faith Alone, Scripture Alone and this week, Christ Alone.  My posts so far this week have focused on whether or not God is fair by mandating that in Christ alone is found salvation to abundant life on earth and eternal life in heaven.  But I think there is something even more important than that discussion.  What could possibly be more important than that?

We know the story of Good News in Jesus. 

We can get so focused on God’s fairness to those who can’t hear the Good News.  But let us remember that we already know the story.  And here is the kicker, we also know there are people who have never heard the story. In other words, the story of Good News has a missionary impulse behind it.

That should fill our hearts with excitement.  There are people who we could share that story with.  Yes, I am talking about tribal people, and I am talking about translating the Bible in languages so people can access the story of Jesus.  Yes, I am talking about taking the Good News to Muslims.

Maybe you would take a step of faith and seek becoming a missionary yourself. We have a story of amazing Good News to tell, and perhaps God is calling you to step out in faith and take the Good News to people who might otherwise not be able to hear. Maybe it is a one-week trip.  Maybe it is a one-day trip.  It doesn’t have to be to a jungle tribe or a Muslim country, but it could be.  It also could be to an city neighborhood.

It could also be right here in Lancaster.  It could be in the community where you live. I am talking about sharing the story of Good News of Christ Alone with our neighbors and friends.  We have a message of incredibly good news, but are we sharing it?

Imagine that vasts deposits of gold were discovered underneath your neighborhood.  A mining company wanted to purchase the rights to dig deep under your property, as they did with all the other properties in your neighborhood.  All the neighbors are so excited, getting huge sums of money by selling digging rights, paying off their debts, helping those in need, and even purchasing new vehicles or upgrades to their homes.  Now imagine if no one told you about the gold or the lucrative digging rights.  How would you feel if many of your neighbors were walking around in newness of life, while you were left in the dark?

Not everyone will agree that what we think is good news is good news to them.  We Christians (and especially evangelicals are guilty of this) have been too quick to try to force feed our good news to anyone and everyone.  Years ago I worked in an office with cubicles, and if you have ever worked in cubicles, you know that everyone in the cubicle grid can hear what everyone else is saying.  No privacy on the phone.  No privacy in cubicle to cubicle conversations.  No privacy on what music is being played.  People didn’t even try for privacy.  You would sit at your desk working on your computer, and if you wanted to talk to a person four cubicles down, you just started talking to them.  Everyone else could hear.  I tended to play lots of music, but at one point I started listening to podcasts from one of my favorite speakers, Ravi Zacharias.  That dude is incredibly smart and engaging.  I encourage everyone to listen to him, just because he is so interesting, and also because he is perhaps, in our era, one of the best communicators of Good News.  I remembering playing his lectures, and playing them loud.  There was no doubt other people in my cubicle grid could hear them.  But did they want to?  I was not so subtly attempting to share the Good News with them.  One day, after hearing what I considered to be a particularly compelling lecture by Ravi Zacharias, I said out loud, knowing exactly what I was doing, “Anyone who doesn’t believe that would have to be stupid!”

I’m sad to admit that I had what I considered (and still do) very good news, but I was trying to shove it down my co-workers’ throats.  Jesus once called that trying to feed pearls to swine.  In other words, though it is valuable to me, it won’t nourish the people.  I took good news and turned it into something offensive.

My point in sharing these stories is that too often we have either kept the Good News to ourselves, which leaves people wondering if we really care about them, or we have tried to abruptly force it on people, turning it into bad news.  And that is so sad, because the good news of salvation in Christ alone is actually really, really wonderful.

The message of Solus Christus, salvation in Christ Alone, is a message that God is love – more loving than we could ever imagine. It is a message that God is just – fairer than we could ever imagine.

God’s love is so clearly seen in Christ. Consider these verses:

  • John 3:16 says it so well, and that’s why it might be the most famous verse of the Bible: “For God so loved the World that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.”
  • Romans 5:8, “God demonstrates his love for us in this, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us!”
  • 1 Timothy 2:4 says that “God desires all men to be saved.”  Doesn’t mean they all will choose him. But that is the scope of God’s heart of love.  The whole world!
  • 2 Peter 3:9, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness.  He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”  Again, not all will repent.  But God wants all to repent.

God loves all, and he has gone to such great lengths to show that love in Christ alone.  The story of Jesus is a story of incredibly good news.

You know what that means?  Let us not be silent!  Let us share the story of Jesus with gracious gusto so that all may know. If you are thinking, “Yeah, I have people in my life that need Jesus.  And I want to share the story of good news in Jesus with them.  But I don’t know what to say or how to say it.”  Or maybe it feels a bit scary or awkward, and you don’t want to be offensive.  If you feel that way, please don’t keep that to yourself.  Talk about it.  I know that I myself often feel guilty or like a failure, thinking that I could do so much more to share the good news about Jesus to my friends and neighbors.

To rectify this situation, one very practical step I would encourage you to take is to begin praying for the people that God has placed around you.  Pray that God would break your heart for the spiritual lives of those around you. Ask yourself whether you have a callous heart when it comes to the salvation from sin of the people in your life.  If so, ask God to break your heart.  Pray for a tender heart.  Finally, pray for God to give you opportunities to share about Solus Christus.

We had a wonderful training here Saturday a week ago.  It was discipleship training, but it was all about the outreach part of discipleship.  Disciples reach out.  Disciples make more disciples.  Disciples tell the story of good news.

At the very end of the training, I was so encouraged by what some shared that God was speaking to them about being disciples who reach out.  Here were some of the comments:

  1. I want to get out of the pew and go.
  2. What neighborhood can I reach?
  3. Be yourself. I am too worried about what other people will think.
  4. I want to make time to walk the neighborhood.
  5. Wait for God’s timing.

Who are you praying for?  What will it look like for you to reach out to them with the love of Christ?

Surprising ways people come to know God (and never hear about Jesus!)

25 Oct

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Is God fair?  Will he send people to hell who never had a chance to know about salvation in Jesus?  Yesterday we looked at some options for how Christians try to answer this difficult question.

Today we seek for any other biblical passages that might give us some help.  Thankfully there are some.

Last week I talked about how God speaks through nature. Remember these verses?

In Isaiah 6:3 we read that the earth of full of his glory.

In Psalm 19:1, we read that the heavens declare the Glory of God.

And in Romans 1:19-20 we read this:

[S]ince what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

Scripture teaches, therefore, that God speaks through Creation.  Of course God speaks a lot more through Scripture, but in Romans 1:19-20 Paul tells us that what God speaks through creation is enough that men are without excuse.  Meaning, when people stand before God one day, and God says to them, “Why did you not choose to believe and follow me?” those people can’t say, “Well, we never had the Bible in our language, we never heard about Jesus.”  There is enough, rather, in Creation, in nature, in the universe to point to God, without the need for people to hear the story of Jesus.

Some Christians say tribal people like the Yanomami in Brazil can know God just by nature.  It seems Paul was saying something like that.

Additionally, many reports have come out of Muslim nations in the past few decades, where God has come to individual Muslims in dreams, telling them the truth about Jesus.  Google it.  There are loads and loads of reports of these occurrences.

But what about those that mentally incapacitated?  They cannot look at nature and perceive God.  To respond to this question, many Christians fall back on God’s love and say that he will still accept the mentally incapacitated into heaven.  There is one story in the Bible that many Christian parents who have lost babies and infants look to for hope that they will again see their child in heaven.  King David lost an infant son and in 2 Samuel 12:23 he says “”Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me”.  That makes it seem like he, David, will one day go to where his son is.  We presume that David, a man after God’s own heart, as he is often described, will go to heaven one day, and that David himself believes he will go to heaven, so thus his son is already there.  That view is also in line with God’s love and mercy.

At this point you might say, “Wait a minute, don’t those views conflict with Solus Christus?”  Solus Christus means “Christ Alone”, and as we have seen this week in our continuing study of the Five Solas of the Protestant Reformation, the reformers taught that we are saved by Christ alone.  If we can see God in nature and if God allows babies or mentally handicapped people into heaven, then neither of those situations need Christ.  The same could be said of believers in the Old Testament.  Any believers before Christ’s death and resurrection.  On what basis were they accepted into heaven?  Were they accepted into heaven?

These are good complex questions, but the general answer is that when Jesus died on the cross and came back to life, this act of God was sufficient for all people, for all time.  Those true believers before Christ are accepted by God on the basis of Christ’s anticipated death and resurrection. Those true believers after Christ are accepted by God on the basis of Jesus completed death and resurrection.

We might not be able to answer all these questions, but we know this: we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.  I am not telling you what to believe today.  You have to search the Scriptures and decide for yourself.  But I urge you to search the Scriptures.

There is something is even more compelling to me in this discussion.  And we turn to that tomorrow.

What happens after death? (Will God be fair?)

24 Oct

Image result for what happens after we dieIs God unfair?  That’s the question I asked yesterday.  I bring it up because Solus Christus, the fourth of the Five Solas that we are studying this week, very much has a bearing on how we might view this difficult theological situation. If salvation is in Christ alone, by grace through faith, then doesn’t that mean that all those people who do not have the opportunity or capacity to confess Christ will die separated from God forever?  If so, it really seems like God is not being fair, punishing those for no fault of their own.

This doctrine is an emotional one.  It is called the destiny of the unevangelized.

Christians through the ages have come up with many options for explaining how God is fair.  Sometimes these options have led to very heated debates and accusations of heresy.

So let’s review some of the options and their difficulties.

First there is Universalism, which teaches that all go to heaven.  Hell is not real.  The Bible clearly says that God is love and he loves all, and so therefore universalists believe he will save all.  It sure would be nice to believe this, but this view has difficulties.  Simply put, the Bible, including Jesus, clearly talks about eternal punishment in the afterlife.  Also Jesus said a couple different times that the way to God is narrow and few will find it. For those of you from Faith Church reading this, we are a part of a denomination called the Evangelical Congregational Church, and our EC Articles of Faith affirm that there is a hell.  We do not hold to universalism.  But we do hold strongly to the biblical teaching that God is love.

Second there is a relatively small group of Christians who believe in Post-Mortem Evangelism.  This view suggests that after you die and see the options of heaven and hell, God gives you a second chance to choose.  Again, this promotes God’s grace and love, and it removes the unfair element for those who are unevangelized.  No matter what your situation was on earth, whether a tribal person, a Muslim in Turkey, a person with diminished mental capacity or a baby, when you die, you will have a fully capable mind and body to make an informed decision.  God will give you a second chance to choose him.  It might seem that this is basically universalism because who wouldn’t choose heaven at that point?  But in theory some would still choose hell.  This view, however, has some difficulties, the big one being that there is basically no evidence of it being taught in the Bible.  Personally, I’ll be shocked if this is what actually happens after death.  As with universalism, I don’t think it is true, but I hope it is.

Next is Purgatory, which is not just a Roman Catholic doctrine.  Purgatory is the name of a place kind of between heaven and hell. In the Old Testament, there is evidence of this when OT authors used a word called Sheol to describe a place beyond the grave, and it appears to work like purgatory.  Sheol seems to be a place of waiting.  What is unique about the Roman Catholic view of purgatory is that it is a place where people can essentially pay off the debt of their sin. It’s not fun, but after years of waiting, you’ve done your time, and you get to go to heaven.  The difficulty again is that this view is biblically sketchy.

The fourth view is Annihilationism.  This, too, is a minority Christian view that says that believers in Christ go to heaven, the rest are just destroyed.  Annihilated.  Where does it come from?  Well, Jesus one time, said this in Matthew 10:28: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”  This view deals with the trouble many people have with a God who would send people to eternal conscious torment in hell.  Instead of feeling pain forever, like being burned alive but never dying, or the pain of being separated from God, annihilationism says that unrepentant sinners are destroyed.  The difficulty with this view is that we should be exceedingly cautious about making doctrine based on one verse.

Another view is called Predestination/Election. God picks or elects who will saved and who will not be.  It has nothing to do with human free will.  One aborted baby might be elected to go to heaven.  One might not be.  One Yanomami tribesman might be sent to heaven.  Another might not be.  One Turkish Muslim might go to heaven, another might not be.  It is all up to God.  This view is a very strict determinism.  Many people who believe in some form of predestination or election don’t take it that far.  But some do.  The Bible does talk about predestination and election, but most Christians do not believe it is to be understood in this strict sense.  The major difficulty of this view is that the way Jesus and the apostles talk about salvation is that it is a gift that we choose to receive or not receive.

And that leads me to bring up one more view, Free Will.  Those who choose of their own free will to be true disciples of Jesus, after they die, will go to heaven, while the others who have chosen not to believe in and follow Jesus, after they die, are separated from God for eternity in hell.  The difficulty with this view is that it requires that people hear the Gospel.  This view presumes that all have the choice to follow Jesus, but as we saw yesterday it doesn’t seem like all actually do have the choice.  What about tribal people, those is other lands with different religions, or those with a lack of mental capacity to understand the Gospel?

Do any of these views help you think about God’s fairness in salvation by Christ alone?  Which view do you hold to?  Or is there another view that you prefer?

I can’t say that any of these views is completely satisfying to me.  As I tried to show, they all have their pros and cons.  Are there any other biblical passages that might give us some help to understand this?  Yesterday, I mentioned the apostles teaching in Acts 4:12 that “there is no other name by which we are saved.”  They were referring to salvation in Christ alone.  And Jesus himself said in John 14:6 that he alone is the way, the truth and the life, that no one comes to the father, except through him.

Today we have surveyed many options that Christians have employed to try to respond to the question of God’s fairness, but maybe you are thinking that we really haven’t made any headway.  Thankfully, there are more places in God’s word that we can explore to shed some light on this thorny issue of God’s fairness in salvation by Christ alone.

Check in tomorrow as we’ll look further at those passages.

Will God send people to hell who never had a chance to hear about Jesus?

23 Oct

I want to tell you about a tragedy in the Amazon jungle earlier this year.

Multiple news agencies circulated reports about a massacre in an uncontacted tribe in Brazil. Illegal gold miners were overheard bragging at a bar about how they had killed ten of the tribesmen, and they were waving around tribal artifacts to prove it.  They said the tribe attacked them first, and they killed only in self-defense.

Brazilian inspectors have begun to investigate these rumors, but thus far no final determination has been made.

That tribe is called the Yanomami, and here is a picture of their typical communal dwellings.

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The photo was taken by helicopter in 2016.  Fascinating, isn’t it?

A group called Survival International which advocates for tribal peoples describes in this report what you see in the picture. “The village, which is close to the Venezuelan border, has a typical Yanomami ‘yano’ – a large communal house for several families. Each of the yano’s square sections is home to a different family, where they hang their hammocks, maintain fires and keep food stores.”

Sadly, it was less than a year after this photo was taken that the miners were overheard bragging about the killings.  If the miners’ story is true, it is a tragedy.  Ten people murdered.

But there is a much larger potential tragedy in this story.  Those tribal people are born, live and die, just like us.  When they die, do those tribal people go to hell?

While the murder of ten people is horrible, what if every single Yanomami who ever lived has gone to hell?  Why would I say this, you ask?  Because the Yanomami are an uncontacted tribal group. Survival International estimates that there are about 100 uncontacted tribes worldwide, most in the Brazilian jungle.

What does it mean when we call these tribes “uncontacted”?  In a press release, Survival International said, “They’re not savages but complex and contemporary societies whose rights must be respected. They are perfectly capable of living successfully without the need for outside notions of “progress” and “development.”  In Brazil, at least, the Brazilian government has set up protected zones in the Amazon basin to preserve the uncontacted status of the tribes.

Further, Survival International says that uncontacted Yanomami have made clear their desire to be left alone by fleeing from outsiders and avoiding contacted members of the tribe. How do we know if they are uncontacted and they want to stay that way?  Because when outsiders fly nearby in helicopters, the Yanomami shoot at them with bow and arrows.  When the photo above was taken, the people in the helicopter counted around 200 arrow shots.  You know what those bow and arrow attacks are saying? “Go away.  Leave us alone.”

Around 22,000 Yanomami live on the Brazilian side of the border with Venezuela, and at least three of the groups have never had any contact with outsiders.

So back to the question: What happens to uncontacted tribal people when they die?

The next Sola has something to say about that.  During these five Sundays of October we have been celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation by looking at the Five Solas of the Reformation.  The word sola means “alone”.  The protesters, the reformers, who broke away from the Catholic Church summarized their main concerns and teachings in the five Solas.  The five Alones.  So far we have looked at how we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, as taught in Scripture alone.

Today we add the next one, Solus Christus, which means Christ Alone.  So let’s add that to the summary of the Solas so far:  We are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, as taught in Scripture alone.

Last week we learned that Scripture is foundational.  It doesn’t matter if the Reformers taught Solus Christus, if it cannot be sustained by the teaching in the Bible we should not hold to it. So does the Bible teach Solus Christus?  Perhaps the clearest passages are these two:

John 14:6 where Jesus himself says, “I am the way, truth and life.  No one comes to the father except through me.”

Or Acts 4:12 when the Apostles say, “There is no other name by which we can be saved.”

Do you see where the Reformers got this idea of salvation in Christ Alone? Furthermore, Christ alone means that Jesus did all the “work” of salvation.  When Jesus was born, lived, and died on the cross, he died for us, the Bible teaches. When his dead body miraculously came back to life on Easter morning, he rose victorious over sin, death and the devil.  For us!  He alone did something that we could never do.  Salvation is in Christ alone.

This is why he himself taught that he is the only way to saved from sin and death.  Christ alone is what the Apostles taught, and this is why the Protestant Reformers taught the Five Solas, that we are saved by God’s gift of grace, which we receive by placing our faith in Jesus.

One of Jesus’ earliest followers, Paul, said this in Romans 10:9-10 “If you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

Paul is describing an act of turning away from the sin in our lives, from trusting in ourselves, and turning to Jesus, trusting in him and what he did to save us. That is called repentance. It is saying, “Jesus, I believe in you, and I choose to make you Lord of my life.  I will follow you.”

When we do that, Paul says, we are saved.  God confers on us the righteousness of Jesus, places his Spirit in our lives, and begins to transform us right here and now, which is itself a major act of salvation, but in addition to that, he gives us the hope of eternal life with him.  Salvation is an amazing gift.  And as Paul says in Romans 10:9,10, we are saved when we believe in him and confess him as Lord, which means that we choose to follow him with our lives.  If you are thinking, “I don’t know that I have done that,” I would love to talk with you.  Please write a comment below and let’s talk.

But here’s where it gets troublesome: the Yanomami tribes people can’t do what Paul teaches in Romans 10:9,10, can they?  They have no idea about Jesus.  Are they, therefore, unsaved?

What about sincere believers in other religions who never hear about Jesus?  There are plenty of countries around the world where there are high percentages of adherents of other religions.  Take for example the country of Turkey.  Guess what percentage of Turkey is Muslim?  99.8% is one stat I found this week.

That means there are plenty of Turks who will be born, live and die, never having heard the Gospel of Jesus.  Will God send them to hell?  Someone could say, “How could God do that when they never even had a chance to confess Jesus is Lord? When they couldn’t believe in their heart that God raised him from the dead?”  If you look at it that way, it seems like God is not fair.

What about those with diminished mental capacity to understand the Gospel?  What about babies?  These are groups of people for whom it is intellectually impossible to understand the Gospel.  They don’t have the brain development necessary to confess Jesus as Lord and believe in their hearts that God raised him from the dead.  Does Solus Christus, salvation by Christ alone, mean that God will send them to hell?  Does Solus Christus mean that God is unfair?

Check in tomorrow as we try to answer this difficult question.

How to hear God speak through the Bible

20 Oct

 

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Many people say they do not hear God.  Many others say they do hear God speak.  I believe them.  God speaks through dreams, visions, audible voices, etc.  I’m sometimes jealous of that because I do not believe I have ever heard God speak to me in an audible voice, or in a whisper in my mind, or in an inner impression.  But I have heard God speak extremely clearly through the Bible.  God speaks in many ways, and one is not better than the other.  They are unique and different.  A person who hears God speak one way should not say they are more close to God than a person who hears God speak a different way.  The point is that God does still speak!

All week long we have been talking about Sola Scriptura, trying to understand why it was so important to the Protestant Reformers.

One important misconception about Sola Scriptura is when people say that God speaks only through Scripture.  Is that what Sola Scriptura means?  The Bible’s take on Sola Scriptura is not SOLO Scriptura.  Solo Scriptura means Scripture ONLY, that God would not speak any other way.  Those who hold to Solo Scriptura are reacting quite strongly about the possibility that God might speak through other means, usually because they have seen abuses of power.  The Reformers spoke out strongly against those abuses of power in the Catholic Church during the Medival age.  But is it right to go so far as Solo Scriptura?  Well, let’s take a look ate what Scripture itself says about how God speaks.

God speaks though his creation.

In Isaiah 6:3 we read that the earth of full of his glory.

In Psalm 19:1, we read that the heavens declare the glory of God.

And in Romans 1:19-20 we read this:

Since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

Scripture says that God speaks through Creation.  Of course God speaks a lot more through Scripture, but in Romans 1:19-20 Paul tells us that what God speaks through creation is enough that men are without excuse.  When people stand before God one day, and God says to them, “Why did you not choose to believe and follow me?” those people can’t say, “Well, we never had the Bible in our language.”  There is enough in Creation, in nature, in the universe to point to God so that men are without excuse.

Scripture is not Scripture ONLY, because God also speaks through creation.

God also speaks through his Spirit. 

I’ve already mentioned 1 Corinthians 2:12 where Paul taught that the Spirit of God helps understand the things of God.  I also encourage you to read John chapters 15-17, where Jesus talks a lot about the role of the Holy Spirit in our lives.  There Jesus teaches that the Spirit speaks in many ways.  In fact, Jesus said to his disciples that at some point in the future, government officials would take them into custody, and when questioned, the Spirit would help them know what to say.  Throughout the Bible, God speaks by his Spirit in dreams and visions.

Scripture is not Scripture ONLY, because God also speaks through his Spirit.

God also speaks through his people.

The Bible is loaded with instances where God spoke through prophets and teachers.  Ephesians 4:11-13 is possibly the most important verse that talks about this.  There Paul essentially gives the job description of pastors and teachers.  But it is not just the fivefold gifts listed in Ephesians 4 through whom God speaks.  We all have the opportunity, Paul goes on to teach in Ephesians 4, to speak the truth in love to one another.

Scripture is not Scripture ONLY, because God also speaks through his people.

Look above at the three points.  We see that God speaks through Creation, through his Spirit, through his Church.  That means Scripture is not ONLY.

So if God speaks in ways other than his word, why is Sola Scriptura so important?

Sola Scriptura is important because it reminds us that Scripture is the foundational way we hear God speak.  In scripture alone do we learn the truths of Jesus.  Through Scripture, alone, we learn what the church is to be like.  Not the other way around.  Everything we think or hear must be in line with Scripture.

In other words, “Sola Scriptura,” one scholar says, “is the statement that the church can err.”

Here is another summary of Sola Scriptura that if found so helpful: “Scripture comes into its own when read by God’s people in God’s way for God’s purposes.”

And what are God’s purposes for when we read Scripture?

James 1:22 says “Do not merely listen to the Word, and so deceive yourselves.  Do what it says.”

Jesus himself said in Luke 6:46-49 that the difference between a wise and foolish person is all about whether or not we do what he says.

We are so, so blessed in our day with access to the Bible, and with access to the many, many tools to understand it.  We can read it, dig deep into its meaning, review what scholars have studied about it.

But our approach to the Bible should not just be academic, not just reading it to learn trivia facts about the Bible. Instead, God wants us to read the Bible to know him, to know his purposes.  We read prayerfully asking God to speak to us through his word.  And then we actually make choices to live his way as taught in his word.  When we read Scripture we should determine ahead of time, humbly, teachably, to do what it says.

This requires a couple important tasks:

First, we actually need to read Scripture.  

How about you?  How often do you read the Bible?  I’m not talking about the Verse of the Day from a Bible app.  That is good and can be very encouraging.  I’m talking about something more.  We need to read more and longer sections of the Bible.  My wife and I love watching Netflix, as do many of you.  Discovering new and great TV and film on Netflix has become a cultural fascination. How many of you have participated in conversations online or in person around the topic “What should I watch next on Netflix?”  I love those conversations!  Discovering hidden gems on Netflix’s vast catalog is so fun.  In other words, many of us sit in front of a screen watching hours and hours of media content.  Is it possible that would could increase the amount of time we give to reading the Bible?

I was listening to a podcast recently where the interviewee noted that those who say the Bible is boring or irrelevant probably haven’t really given themselves to truly read and study it.  Will you?  If so, you will find it to speak powerfully, creatively and decisively to our situation in 2017.  I’ve been reading the account of Saul and David in 1st Samuel, and I feel like I am watching the 11 o’clock news.  It is amazingly relevant.

Second, we need to learn how to read Scripture.  

Let me provide a disclaimer.  You can open up any contemporary English translation of the Bible, and you’ll be able to understand it.  I use the New International Version.  But we also need to remember that the Bible is book written by 40+ authors, 2000+ years ago, in different languages, in a very different cultural setting.  As I said, we can be so thankful that scholars through the ages have studied those languages, that historical/cultural setting, as well as the genre and structure of the many books of the Bible.  What I’m saying is that there are wonderful works by people who love Jesus that can help us read between the lines and understand the Bible much more as God intended it.

Do you want to learn how to read and study it better?  I would be glad to point you to some resources that can help you.

Finally, and most importantly, whenever we read the Bible, let us determine beforehand to do what it says God wants us to do.

As we conclude this week of looking at Sola Scriptura, be encouraged by the words of Psalm 1:

Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers. But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.

Are you using the Bible in ways God never intended it to be used?

19 Oct

Image result for bible as doorstopHave you ever tried building a complicated Lego set without using the instruction guide?

Even using a the guide can be complex enough.  All it takes is to put one brick one spot off, and within a few steps you realize that your model doesn’t look like the one in the picture.  So you turn the model around in your hand, seeking to figure out where you went wrong.  Then you start pulling bricks off one by one, comparing the model to the instruction guide, still turning it around.  It can be maddening when you are unable to find out where you went wrong.  But sure enough, in time, pulling off bricks, looking at every angle, holding it up to the instructions, you find your mistake.

But what you would never do is use an instruction manual for bicycle to try to build your Lego set.  You wouldn’t even use a manual from another Lego set.  There is only one purpose for each of those manuals.  The purpose is build the set, or the bike, they were designed for.

The same goes for the Bible.  And yet we might not realize it.  Is it possible that we have ever expected the Bible to do more than it was intended to do?

What should we do with these Bibles of ours?

It goes back to what we have been looking at all week.  Sola Scriptura. Scripture Alone.  What does it mean?  I’ve taken a long time to say what it doesn’t mean in my previous posts this week.  Today I want to start looking at what Sola Scriptura means.

What did the reformers mean when they started using the words Sola Scriptura? They meant that the Bible, not tradition or a church, is our final authority.

To explain this further, they talked about Scripture as having clarity and sufficiency.  Let’s look at each.

First how does Scripture have clarity?

A church council that met in 1529, the Diet of Speyer, said that Scripture “shines clearly in its own light.”  Scholars tells us that the reformers meant four things about this:

  1. The Spirit illumines our minds to understand Scripture.
  2. Clearer portions of Scripture illumine passages that are less clear.
  3. If there is a part of Scripture that is hard to understand, it is because of our lack of knowledge of the original languages and original context.
  4. If we have been enlightened, it is impossible to miss the meaning of Scripture.

There is much we could discuss about each one of these principles, and many others have done so in book after book.  If you want to learn more about any of these four points, I’d be glad to point you in the direction of some resources.

For today, I’d like to comment a bit on the first and fourth ones, enlightenment by the Spirit.  It should sound familiar.  If you’re thinking, isn’t that what got Anne Hutchinson in trouble?  The answer is yes, she thought she had clarity and the Puritan leaders did not!  But there is something critical that Anne and Puritan leaders were each missing.  Humility.  We need the ability to be teachable.  Whenever we arrive at an interpretation of Scripture, at a moment of clarity, we need to be able to say “I think this interpretation is correct, but I may be wrong.”  The principle of Scriptural clarity must always take into account our human propensity to err.

So how do we know if we are enlightened?  In Ephesians 1:18, Paul says he is praying for the Christians in that city of Ephesus “that God the Father of the Lord Jesus may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation so that you may know him better.  I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you.”

Are you praying for that enlightenment? Are you praying for a clear understanding of Scripture?

We should pray for that clarity as we study Scripture, but along with it, may we always stay humble and teachable.

Second, after clarity the reformers used the words Sola Scriptura to refer to the sufficiency of Scripture. 

Scripture is sufficient for everything.  But like a Lego set instruction manual doesn’t work for building a new bike, does Scriptural sufficiency mean the Bible will help us figure out how to fix the cracks in our church parking lot?  Can Scripture tell us what to do if we fall off that bike and skin our knee?

We need to be careful that we don’t expect Scripture to do what God did not intend it to do.  The Bible can become an idol.  If we expect too much of Bible, and start revering it beyond what God intended, they we are guilty of creating a idol out of the Bible.  People call that the idol of Biblicism.

Instead we need to answer the question: “What did God intend for his Word to do?”

Isaiah 55:11 says “…my word that goes out from my mouth…will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”

What is that purpose?

2 Timothy 3:16 tells us that “All Scripture is God-breathed and useful to teaching, rebuking, training and correcting in righteousness.”

The Bible is not sufficient to be used for every reason we think it should be used for.  But the Bible is sufficient for every reason that God intended it for.  What is the Bible sufficient for?  One scholar I read said that the Bible is enough to learn about Christ and the Christian life. 

That means Scripture is extremely important.  God, in the Bible, has given us an amazing gift of being able to learn about him, and principles for how to live out his Kingdom in our world.

Tomorrow we conclude this week’s examination of Sola Scripture, looking at how to apply these principles to our interaction with the Bible.

The time our church was accused with the words: “That’s not worship!”

18 Oct

“That’s not worship.”

The person speaking the words was really frustrated at our church.

They were talking about a change we made to our worship service.  In that person’s view, the change had turned our worship service into something that was not worship.

What change could we make that would take a worship service and no longer make it worship?  How did this person know what worship is?  Were they right?

As I look back on that situation, I see evidence of the tendrils of tradition, sneaking their way into the hearts and minds of people unawares.

This October 2017 at Faith Church we are looking at the Five Solas of the Reformation, because it was 500 years ago this month that a German Catholic monk name Martin Luther sparked the Protestant Reformation leading to sweeping changes in Christianity.  The Five Solas are summaries of the teachings of Luther and his fellow reformers.  After Sola Gratia (Grace Alone) and Sola Fide (Faith Alone), we have begun to look at Sola Scripture (Scripture Alone).  I started by asking questions about the Bible and Sola Scriptura here and here.

To begin to answer those questions, I said yesterday, we need to attempt to understand the religious culture Luther lived in.  I am no church historian, so this summary is basic at best.

Luther was trained in the Medieval age of the church, during which time the church placed a high value on tradition alongside of or even above the teaching of Scripture.  In Rome, which was the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church, there is something called the Magisterium, the group of leaders of the church including the Pope.  What the Magisterium said in Luther’s era was given equal or greater weight than what Scripture said.

The problem is that so often the line between Scripture and tradition starts to blur.  We can assume that a certain tradition is taught in the Bible.  Luther confronted his Medieval church about these blurred lines.  He said that if a doctrine or practice is not taught by scripture, it must be seen as just an opinion.  He held the writings of the church fathers, and the creeds, church councils, in high esteem, but said they too must be judged by Scripture.  Luther taught that Scripture birthed the church, not the other way around.  Therefore Scripture should be more foundational than the church.

To demonstrate this, Luther translated the Bible into German, and some believe that was his greatest contribution.  He wanted German farm boys, for example, to feel the words of the Bible in their hearts, and that was only possible in their own language.

Prior to Luther, the Bible was in Latin.  You had to be a priest trained in Latin to read and teach the Bible.  Of course the rare Latin scholar could read it as well.  But most people didn’t know Latin.  They were Germans who knew German.  They were French who knew French.  English who knew English.  They would go to church, however, and the church service, including the Bible reading would be in Latin!  Copies of the Bible were too expensive to own, so in the Medieval age, most people did not have a copy of the Bible, and thus they couldn’t be like the Bereans in Acts 17:10-15 and test out what the priests and church magisterium said.  They just followed along.

That meant the church had tons of power.  Luther felt they abused their power.  One way they abused their power, and this really got under Luther’s skin, was the practice of indulgences.  Indulgences were pieces of paper that the church sold to people.  The paper was a certificate saying that a person had purchased forgiveness of sins.

The church leaders in Rome were trying to build a big new cathedral.  They were strapped for cash to build this monstrosity, so they sent representatives around Europe to sell indulgences.  These reps told people that paying money can get your sins forgiven.  Would it surprise you to learn that the church made a lot of money?  It reminds me of this In Living Color skit (starting at the 9:00 minute mark):

Luther seethed at this.  As he should.  The church was seriously abusing its power.  They were creating a tradition that was not supported by Scripture.

This is very reminiscent of Jesus’ concern with the Pharisees.  Jesus would say to the Pharisees “haven’t you read the Scripture?”  “Don’t you know what the Scripture says?”  Imagine that scene.  Jesus telling the Bible experts that they need to go back and read their Bibles!  (Matthew 12:3 and 19:4 are a couple examples.) How did this happen?  How could Bible teachers miss out on the true teaching of the Bible?  It happened because the Pharisees were so concerned about their traditions that they allowed the tradition to be more important than the heart of the Scripture.

But thank goodness we don’t do this anymore, right?  We don’t lay any traditions on top of Scripture.  We have the Bible in our own language.  Like the invention of the printing press made it very possible for Luther and other reformers to get the Bible in the language of the people, we have the internet making it even easier yet!  So that means we don’t have any problems with tradition and false teaching, right?  We have this Sola Scriptura thing are cared for, right?

Wrong.

That takes me back to the situation I mentioned at the beginning of this post where someone at my church said, in response to worship changes, “That’s not worship.”  Here’s what happened.

In 2006-7 we participated in a church health survey sponsored by our denomination, the EC Church.

We took the survey in 2006.  Results came back saying that we needed to work on our worship service.  So we started making little changes here and there.  One of the changes was that we opened the accordion dividers separating our fellowship hall and sanctuary.  The dividers are there in case our sanctuary is so full we need overflow space.  Normally they are closed.  As a result of the survey, we opened the dividers and invited people to sit in the fellowship hall during worship if they wanted.  Our thought was that maybe some people wanted a less formal setting.

The accordion dividers were open for one month, and then closed again.  Why?  Because some people reacted negatively against them being open.

That’s not worship?

It was in a worship committee meeting, as we were reviewing the changes and negative response that the person said, “That’s not worship.” They were adamant about it.

But think about that.  “That’s not worship?”

What did that person mean?  They meant that a worship service, in their understanding, should only take place in a sanctuary with all the trappings of a sanctuary.  And they wanted the accordion dividers closed.

Where did they get their idea of what worship is, that it can’t be in room that has pews on one side and tables and chairs on another side?  I can tell you they did not get it from the Bible.

You read how the early worshiped in the New Testament, in the book of Acts and the Epistles.  They met in homes.  They worshiped on riversides.  There were no church buildings and sanctuaries in the Christian church for a couple hundred years.  Worship is not about a building, we read in the Bible, but worship is about worshipers, people, who are worshiping the Lord.  Not a location.

So what did this person mean when they said, “That’s not worship”?

That person was talking about tradition!  They had grown up in and become comfortable with and appreciated a certain kind of worship.  There is nothing wrong with worship services in buildings that have rooms with pews and pulpits and pianos or organs or praise bands, or movable chairs, or any of the many variations that sanctuaries in church buildings have.  There is nothing wrong with it, but we cannot say that the Bible tells us to worship like that.

That person had elevated tradition over the Bible.

Years ago we did a summer reading club and read Frank Viola’s book Pagan Christianity.  It is eye-opening about how much tradition we have placed over the Bible.

Sunday School is another example.  You won’t find that in the Bible.  But I once had someone tell me Sunday School is the backbone of the church, insinuating that we better not mess with it.  That person was elevating tradition over the Bible.

I could go on and on, but instead I encourage you to read Pagan Christianity.  Perhaps we are just as guilty of elevating tradition over the Bible, though 500 years Luther warned us of this very thing.

So what do we do with these Bibles of ours?  What is Sola Scriptura?  By Scripture Alone.  What does it mean?  I’ve taken a long time to say what it doesn’t mean.  Now that we have asked the questions, showed Scripture’s primacy over tradition, we can examine Sola Scriptura, and that is where we’re headed tomorrow.