Monday, June 11, 2012

Off of the Auction Block

How do we objectively determine the value of something? Only by whatever the highest bidder is willing to pay for it. For example, if I want to sell an item on Ebay for $100, but the most I can get someone to offer is $30 - then what does this tell me about the value of my item? It tells me its worth $30. No matter how sincerely I might believe it to be worth $100, the actual value is equivalent the highest bid. In other words, whatever the market will bear.

Let's apply this concept to who we are as human beings. The Bible says that God "so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son" (John 3:16). This act of "giving" by God is elsewhere described in the Bible of an act of "redemption." The Biblical verb "to redeem" basically means "to purchase out of the slave market of sin." The picture God is painting is that at one time, each of us were on an "auction block" of sorts - being pimped out by our former slave-driver, Satan and his cohorts - the world-system and the flesh.

"But God demonstrates His own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). When Christ gave His life to redeem us from that slave-market, He was making some very loud statements - one of which was regardign our VALUE to God. I've heard preachers say that telling someone they are valuable to God is just a bunch of "pop-psychology". They say that people need to feel and know how wretched and disgusting they are in order to relate properly to God.

Make no mistake that the Bible is very straightforward about the fact that before we place our trust in Christ, we are identified as "sinners". This means that "sin" was the core of our identity and because of this sinful nature, our behavior often flowed out of that sinfulness. While that's not a pretty picture, its an honest one. But its against this very dark backdrop that we begin to really understand the love of God for what it is!

God does not love us in some theoretical or theological sense in which He merely tolerates our disgustingness. Rather, while we were STILL sinners - right in the mix of all our grime and guilt - God loved us completely. In fact, He loved us to the point that He would rather come and die than live without us for eternity! Now THAT'S love!

What is more, the very moment we place our trust in Christ He irreversibly washes away that "sin nature" and all the guilty deeds produced by it - re-creating us so that we become as righteous as Jesus Himself is! "God made Him who had not sin to BE sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God." (1 Cor. 5:21).

So let me get this straight: God loved me while I was still a sinner. He loved me so much that He shed His own blood for me on a cross. He crucified my old, sinful nature with Himself and created within me a brand new righteous nature at the core of who I am. He not only has forgiven my sin, but made me alive together with Christ.

Boy, if you don't think these realities say something about my value to God, I'm not sure we're reading the same Bible! The grace of God is NOT pop-psychology or empty self-esteem. It is the reality that God - out of sheer, undeserved kindness toward me - paid the highest price imaginable to redeem me as His own. Does this affect my self-esteem? Of course! But it's not a self-help program. It's a mission of redemption where the highest Bidder paid hte highest price to purchase me from the auction block of sin. And it reminds me of something that religion could never teach me: Jesus didn't come to make naughty people nice - He came to make dead people ALIVE!

Jesus is the highest Bidder! He won the war for my heart. And I have this life and all eternity to love Him for it! How about you? Where do you get your sense of value? From the fleeting opinions of men or the rock-solid redemptive price Jesus paid for you?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

What Matters Most?

So I’m sitting here on the final leg of our 40-hour journey back home - in this case, scheduled to arrive in San Francisco at 3:22pm west coast time. With about four hours to go, our return trip began nearly 36 hours ago in Kigali, Rwanda. For the past several years, our church has been sending teams to this tiny East African nation in hopes of bringing the grace and love of Jesus Christ to the people God has connected us with.

If you’ve been even remotely in touch with world affairs over the past two decades, you are aware that in 1994, this tiny nation experienced one of human history’s most horrific genocides, followed by a second retaliatory wave of killing in 1997. These horrors involved the tribal conflicts between two principle entities – the Hutus and the Tutsis – a series of conflicts that were as political as they were racial.

Now 15 years removed from the atrocities which eradicated a full ten percent of Rwanda’s population (one million killed in a country of ten million at the time), the Christian church in Rwanda stands at the heart of the ongoing reconciliation process. What an incredible privilege – and also a sobering reality – to be able to work with one particular group among God’s inter-denominational mosaic of wounded healers within this nation's borders.

On average, we have been sending one to two teams per year to target various aspects of holistic ministry among this nation. The group we primarily partner with is the Evangelical Free Church of Rwanda (EFCR) – currently a collection of about 60 churches with a vision to top 100 in the next five years in some of the most remote areas of the country and among the most marginalized.

The first part of our trip centered around an annual conference we’ve been leading for pastors and their spouses. In Rwanda, the reality is that only a very small percentage of Christian leaders are ever able to receive formal training in theological and practical areas of ministry. We had left the U.S. on Christmas night and arrived in Kigali on the afternoon of Tuesday, December 27. Having helped lead the conference in the past, I arrived at the humble event center with my ministry colleagues early Wednesday morning.

As we approached the small conference room packed with over 100 Rwandan leaders eager to learn, I immediately began to fight back tears as I heard the sweet, energetic sound of their worshipful voices, welcoming our small team of Americans with the warmth and excitement we’ve grown to love about these people. Though I could not understand a lick of what they were singing, the Spirit moving among these people was more than tangible.

Our team approached the chairs on the small stage that had been arranged for us to sit in – as though we were their special guests on honor. As I looked out over the crowd, I recognized familiar faces, names and smiles of believers I had met on previous trips. Never short on grace and gratitude, my translator explained to me the essence of the song they greeted us with: “Our lives were once filled with heavy burdens, but Jesus has freed us and taken them away!”

“Really?” I thought to myself as I watched husbands and wives dance together with the unmistakable joy of the Lord beaming from their faces. From a well-resourced western perspective, a surface-level glance around the room seemed to identify burdens everywhere. Exactly WHAT burdens had Jesus lifted from these peoples’ lives? Only 15 years removed from one of history’s worst civil wars, dressed in comparatively tattered clothing and without the luxury of many of our technologies and resources, it took only a matter of minutes for God to remind me that – as usual – I would be learning far more from them than they would be learning from me during our time together.

Opening up the first training session, I placed my freshly-charged Macbook Pro on the plastic table provided for me to speak from. Realizing that the value of my computer alone was about the equivalent of the average annual income of each of the households represented in the room, I kept thinking about the message of the song they welcomed us with: “We were once heavily burdened, but Jesus has taken those burdens away.”

Jesus assured us that it is more blessed to give than to receive – and seldom am I more aware of this reality than when I am with my brothers and sisters in Africa. As always, I come prayerfully prepared to give of myself – and yet while I’m pouring out, I am simultaneously filled up with a fresh revelation of God’s grace being manifest through the very people I came to “invest in”.

At the end of the conference three days later, they reported to us about how encouraged they were – and about how we had helped them build their vision for their families, their churches and their communities. I was humbled by their enthusiasm – and prayerful that they would be able to retain and apply even a small portion of the “fire hose” of training they had received in this short time together.

After a weekend of rest and relational ministry, Monday began our second week with the first of four challenging days of work in Kareba – one of the more remote and marginalized villages near the border of Congo. Kareba is where our church has sponsored and funded a new Vocational Training Center designed to provide practical job skills such as auto mechanics, carpentry, tailoring and moto-taxi driver certification. Among the many activities of the week included the preparation and installation of a new volleyball court to be used for outreach by the school, the repair of various machines and tools needed for the operation of the school, and a visit to a high school campus also sponsored by our church where we observed some amazing advancements taking place.

People have asked us numerous times a very good and honest question: “Why would your church send teams of people to Rwanda instead of just providing them with more money? Wouldn’t the money be more practical?” In fact, early on in our relationship, we asked the EFCR leadership that very question. Their answer? “We are grateful for the resources you send us, but the greatest resource you send is YOU! We value relationship over handouts – and when you come to be with us, it does far more for the Rwandan church than sending cash ever could.”

I could say so much more – but once again the huge takeaway I bring home from this year’s trip remains very simple: grace-based relationships are what matter most in life and ministry. Not fancy buildings. Not the latest and greatest technologies. Not slick marketing or the coolest vibe.

Relationships. Community. They are the essence of the Christian life in practical terms. Jesus said, “In the same way I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” At Valley Church, I am thankful that God enables us to serve our community in culturally relevant ways. I’m thankful for the campus God has given us. I’m grateful for the technologies and resources at our disposal and for the challenge to always steward them wisely. But the thing I value most about Valley Church is the growing, grace-based community we are learning to experience together.

Beyond buildings, technology or creativity – love is always the most relevant thing. Love is something that our media-driven, socially-networked and increasingly tech-savvy culture cannot provide for a single soul. Only God can provide it. And He doesn’t do it by zapping people with a heavenly love-beam. Instead, He does it through people who choose to allow His Spirit to live the supernatural life of Christ’s love through them. I wish every American believer could experience the love I experience when I’m fortunate enough to go to places like Rwanda.

But do you know what? We don’t have to go to another continent to find it. We can have it right here, right now. In fact, we already do – because in reality, this love is not really an “it” at all. This love is a Person who has forgiven us of all our sins and infused us with the very life of God Himself. And our supreme task as a church family is to increasingly allow that Person to live His life through ours. Simple, but not always easy. I’m sure glad we have each other in the process of growing in this grace, because I couldn’t – and wouldn’t – want to live this life without my brothers and sisters in Christ.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Is Your God too BIG?

I know, I know. That title sounds halfway blasphemous and wholly ridiculous. In fact if you are a believer in Christ you have probably heard the exact opposite question posed: “Is your God too small?” This inquiry seems to surface quite often in sermons, books and conversations (the implication being that your faith in God is probably much weaker than is deserving of an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent Being).

Of course in a literal sense it makes no sense to wonder whether God is too big. If God is indeed the all-powerful, all-knowing, everywhere-present Deity described in the pages of Holy Writ – then He is far “bigger” than our wildest imaginations can conceive of. But therein lies the dilemma.

Often our acceptance of the fact that God is all of those “big” things brings with it an unconscious assumption that He is “too big” to really bother with the average things we struggle with. God, we assume, undoubtedly cares about things like keeping the planets in alignment and solving the world’s biggest problems – but He’s probably not nearly as interested in the otherwise mundane challenges we face. Things such as that disappointment you were hit with yesterday, those frustrations happening in that relationship, or the unfulfilled dreams you are tempted to abandon - are burdens you carry alone assuming they aren't significant enough to bring God into the midst of.

The arrival of Jesus in the manger…and 33 years later on the cross, affirms beyond words that God indeed cares about our perceptions of Him. The very idea of God becoming man reveals to us something HUGE about the heart of God – that He is willing to make Himself “little” enough for us to intimately connect with.

Throughout the life and ministry of Jesus, we see God intimately involved in the mundane affairs of everyday life – from solving the problem of poor planning at a wedding feast to speaking out on behalf of a sinful woman accused of adultery to inviting little children to approach Him freely (an act uncommon for a distinguished rabbi of His day). At every juncture, Jesus reveals to us the reality that God is not only casually interested in the “little things” of our lives – but intensely interested.

Jesus said in Matthew 6:26-30:

“Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?

In this passage Jesus is encouraging His followers to trust in God’s provision – but He is also pointing out the fact that the Creator cares about the little things, and deeply so!

What kinds of problems are you facing today? Are they financial? Relational? Emotional? Spiritual? Do you sometimes unconsciously feel as though inviting Jesus into the center of these things must be some kind of nuisance to Him – as though He’s got bigger fish to fry?

Whatever the burdens you carry, Jesus invites you to find the rest your soul is looking for in HIM. Ask Him to help you begin to more consciously practice His presence. Be aware that He is not only there WITH you, but also there FOR you – to bring every care and concern of your heart. You are never a nuisance to this God who loves you so much He would rather die than live without you. Rejoice in that reality and REST in Him today.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Can Unconfessed Sin Block Answers to our Prayers?

Just yesterday I was reading through some material written by Beth Moore – a popular and gifted Evangelical Bible teacher. She was teaching on the life of David, and about how the unrepentant sin of King Saul kept God from hearing his prayers. From an Old Covenant framework, I was in general agreement with what she was saying. But as I read on, she began to shift this Old Covenant reality into a New Covenant frame of reference, suggesting that unconfessed, unrepentant sin in the life of a Christian can cause God to choose not to hear our prayers. This kind of teaching is common among Evangelicals, but is it Biblical?

Allow me to preface my remarks by saying that I have a high level of admiration for Beth Moore. I think her ministry is an asset to the Body of Christ in many ways, and in no way am I attempting to cause division in the Body of Christ by critiquing her teaching in this area. Beth Moore is a passionate believer in Christ and I'm proud to call her my sister in the faith.

That being said, I have some very passionate views regarding the importance of our belief in the absolute, finished work of Jesus Christ as our Advocate, Redeemer, High Priest, Savior and King. In my opinion, what I read in Beth Moore’s workbook reflects a very typical view among Evangelicals who routinely mix Old Covenant with New Covenant. This mixture is usually not intentional deception on the part of the teacher, but is nonetheless unfortunate because it minimizes (or in some cases, even denies) Christ’s victorious accomplishments through the cross and resurrection.

Among the many things Christ accomplished for us on the cross was to bring us into an irreversible condition of unbroken fellowship with God (1 John 1:4). Beth’s views expressed in the workbook reflect an error that I have sought to expose through sound exegesis of 1 John 1, among other passages, which some Christians interpret to suggest that if we don’t confess our sins, we are somehow “out of fellowship with God” and therefore subject to Him refusing to commune with us, answer our prayers, etc. until we “get right” with Him. The problems with these ideas are too many to count when you really get honest about what the New Testament thoroughly teaches.

When Christ “fulfilled the Law” (Matt. 5:17), He did so by perfectly keeping the Law so as to become our sinless Substitute and be qualified to die as a pure and unblemished sacrifice for our sins. By fulfilling the Law, Jesus is telling us that He not only DIED in our place, but LIVED in our place. What this means is that His perfect track-record of sinlessness is now credited to us as though it were our very own record of performance. He became sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God through faith in Him (2 Cor. 5:21). Because Christ suffered separation from God on the cross, we will NEVER suffer separation from God in any form of relationship, fellowship, etc. The idea that God chooses not to hear our prayers (or “won’t” hear, as Beth states) is a mixture of Old Covenant and New Covenant realities – plain and simple.

Under the New Covenant, God NEVER turns a deaf ear to our prayers on the basis of unconfessed sin. If this were taken to its logical conclusion, this would mean that we would have to confess EVERY sin in order for God to hear us. Beth Moore and others might suggest that she is merely talking about obvious, “major” sins like the ones she highlights from Saul’s life – but God doesn’t approach the issue of sin that way. He doesn’t operate by an economy of confession. He operates by an economy of blood, because He knows that only an eternal blood sacrifice that can be applied to ALL sin (even the “little” ones we forget to confess) is sufficient to unite us in unbroken fellowship with Him. If confession of sin could restore fellowship to God, the shed blood of Jesus was completely unnecessary.

I could go on and on, but I want to get to the issue of the subjective feeling we sometimes have when it seems like God is not hearing our prayers. While this is never actually the case in the life of a believer, there are times when it sure feels that way – and SOMETIMES this perception can be provoked by sin in our lives that we haven’t dealt with properly. When we are walking in unconfessed, unrepentant rebellion, it is easy to see why God seems distant even though He is actually not. Because we’ve been given a re-created spirit in our inner being, there is a battle between our spirit, which is perfectly righteous and submitted to God, and our flesh, which is often lured away by various temptations. When we walk in sin, we are not walking in accordance with our new nature, but in accordance with our flesh. Because we were not designed to feel fulfilled, secure and at peace while walking in the flesh, we subjectively feel as though God is “distant” or not hearing us.

For example, 1 Peter 3:7 speaks about husbands loving their wives properly so that their prayers will “not be hindered.” These texts in no way imply that God will refuse to answer their prayers, because these believers are already clothed in the righteousness of Christ. What the text IS getting at is that their prayers will be hindered from their subjective perspective. In other words, their prayer lives cannot be as rich, rewarding and fulfilling when they are walking in blatant rebellion against God because pride, guilt, anger, etc. will dull their ability to hear God’s voice and be sensitive to the gentle movement of His Spirit.

So the REAL issue under the New Covenant is not that God refuses to answer the prayers of a rebellious person. The REAL issue is that even though God will continue to answer their prayers on the basis of their irreversible righteousness in Christ, they will not enjoy the experiential peace of that sweet, unbroken fellowship because their own hearing has been dulled by a sinful frame of mind. As Paul explained so beautifully in Romans 8:5-6:

For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.

As Paul told the Ephesians after spending three amazing chapters hammering home the reality of our irreversible righteous standing in Christ, he opens up chapter 4 with the words, “As a prisoner of the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” In other words, out of grateful response to the unconditional grace God has poured out upon us, we are to surrender to the Spirit’s leading in such a way that we live lives worthy of that incredible calling.

NEVER are we encouraged to live righteous lives in order to ensure that God will hear our prayers. Why? Because with Jesus Christ sitting at the right hand of the Father as our eternal Advocate and High Priest, our prayers will ALWAYS be heard by our gracious Father – no matter the current, temporary struggles of our hearts.


Feel free to chime in with your own thoughts about this...

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Sabbath-Keeping, Pork and Pagan Holidays...

Today I received an email from a student who was in my youth group when I was a youth pastor. She asked some awesome questions about the Bible, specifically regarding why Christians don't typically observe the Sabbath, various Jewish Festivals and the dietary laws regarding meat, etc. Because these are such common questions, I decided to post part of my response here in case it can be of help to you!

Let's start with the question about the Sabbath, because it also ties into the other questions about meat and Jewish holidays. To put it succinctly, all of those celebrations, rituals and commands were given as part of the Old Covenant to Israel, in distinction from the New Covenant given to the Church. The Sabbath was given as a covenental sign between Yahweh and the Hebrews.

What is important to remember when we read the Scriptures is that everything changed after the cross and resurrection of Jesus. This is when the New Covenant began. Whereas God commanded His Old Covenant people to rest on the Sabbath day, the Christian tradition began immediately among the early Church based upon Sunday being the day in which Jesus rose from the dead (i.e. the first day of the week rather than the seventh). We are now free from those observances.

For example, Paul wrote in Colossians 2:16, which is a New Covenant verse, "Therefore, do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath Day." Then he goes on to imply that those who get preoccupied with this stuff can become puffed up with pride. Paul also told Christians that they were free to eat anything sold in the meat market without raising any questions of conscience, because we are no longer bound by these Old Covenant regulations (1 Corinthians 10:25).

When speaking about the Old Covenant versus the New Covenant, the book of Hebrews actually goes so far as to say that the Old System of the Law of Moses is now "obsolete" and no longer valid for the Christian (see Hebrews 8:13). This does not mean that the Law is bad, for it obviously reflects a perfect standard of ethics in terms of the moral parts of the commandments, etc. The Law still serves a very important purpose - which is that it shows a sinner his or her need for the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, since it proves to all humanity that every single person has in many ways fallen short of God's standard of perfection (Galatians 3:21-25 explains this very nicely).

When it comes to celebrating so-called "pagan holidays" - some legalistic groups will say that since Christmas and Easter were invented by mere men, we should therefore not celebrate them. This argument breaks down in numerous ways, most significantly because of the fact that Jesus Christ has redeemed the meaning of every day of our lives - and celebrating his birth and resurrection is a noble thing no matter what day we choose. We are free to choose ANY day (or EVERY day) as believers to formally celebrate these things, and so we are free to participate in the cultural elements of our lives as we see fit, as long as we are not condoning acts of sin or immorality by what we choose to do!

The reason Jesus celebrated the Jewish holidays is because He came to fulfill their meaning. For example, the Passover was a feast which vividly pictured our human need for a sacrificial lamb - which was ultimately fulfilled in the one, final sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Isn't that awesome? Certainly we as Christians are free to observe the ancient Jewish holidays if we want to - but we should do so with an emphasis upon how each of them point us to the fulfillment of their meaning found in Jesus Christ.

One of the things Christians sometimes forget is that when Jesus physically lived on earth, it was still technically during the Old Covenant era. The New Covenant didn't actually begin until after Christ rose from the dead - so even though the books which record Jesus's life are placed in the "New Testament" in terms of how our Bibles are organized, they are actually still about people living under the "Old Testament" up until Christ's death, burial and resurrection. Does that make sense? Understanding this will help you greatly in understanding the amazing message of the Bible and the freedom we have in Christ!

A lot of Christians erroneously believe that we are to live by the 10 Commandments - but that is not really true. The 10 Commandments are designed to lead us to discover how desperately we need Christ's forgiveness and new life! Once we receive that free gift of salvation by grace through faith, we then begin to live by the Spirit - not by the law. As Galatians 3:25 says, "Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law."

So the logical question remains, "If I'm not under the Law, how do I know how to judge the standards of morality I should live by?" And that's a great question which Jesus and the Apostles answer for us repeatedly. We now live by the love and life of the Spirit. As a Christian, you have the Holy Spirit living inside of you, and you do not need the 10 Commandments to convince you that lying is wrong, or murder is wrong, or stealing is wrong, etc. You have a brand new nature, and whenever you choose to sin, the reason you feel bad is because you're behaving in a way which contradicts that new nature of Jesus Christ living in you - not because the 10 Commandments say this or that! Isn't that amazing?

This is why Paul wrote to the Galatians that "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery." (Galatians 5:1). In the context of Galatians, this "yoke of slavery" is a reference to elements of the Old Covenant Law that the Christians were being duped into believing they were obligated to keep.

Jesus didn't come to abolish the Law, but rather to FULFILL the Law (Matthew 5:17). When He fulfilled the Law, that means that He lived in perfect obedience to the Law because we would fail do so. And then - as amazing as it sounds - upon our faith in Him, Christ actually exchanges HIS perfect record of obedience for our imperfect record of sin. This is why 2 Corinthians 5:21 says "God made him who had no sin (Jesus) to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God."

Hebrews describes Jesus as our Sabbath rest - and while for practical reasons it is wise for us to take adequate time for physical rest and deliberate worship, we are not required by Law to observe a literal Sabbath day on Saturdays. The awesome reality of the Christian life is summarized by Paul in Galatians 2:20: "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me."

Thank God that the true essence of Christianity is NOT religion, but relationship - through which God lives His life through us, using our unique gifts, talents, passions and personalities to make an impact in the world. The bottom line is this: Jesus has done it all, fulfilled it all and finished it all. Therefore, rest in His finished work and live from your identity in and through Him!

Monday, May 23, 2011

An Open Letter to Harold Camping

May 23, 2011

Dear Mr. Camping:

I have never personally met you, nor have I ever given your ministry much thought until recent months. It is now May 23, 2011 and I – along with thousands of my fellow pastors and ministers around the world – are moving on with the day-to-day ministry God has called us to as many of your followers are trying to adjust from the bewilderment you’ve caused them. It is a serious thing to be a teacher of the Holy Scriptures, because God has given those of us who handle His Word a great level of influence in the lives of those He entrusts to our spiritual leadership.

At the moment I am writing this, there have only been a few vague statements released to the media by some of your assistants. I do look forward to the public being able to hear directly from you in the near future, hoping sincerely that you will take responsibility for the untold number of lives you have damaged through your reckless and arrogant false-predictions.

As a minister myself, I do not fault you for being mesmerized by the prospect of Christ’s soon return. It is a reality that I and millions of believers around the world long for. Neither do I fault you for making mistakes. I have made many mistakes in my life and ministry. I have spoken words that I wish I could take back, and have probably unknowingly damaged someone else’s faith by failing to live up to their expectations. You are a flawed human being like me and while my mistakes may not carry the level of consequence as someone of your notoriety – as a minister of the Gospel it is my responsibility be humble about my flaws and to make amends as much as possible when I have damaged someone emotionally, spiritually or otherwise (however unintentional it may have been).

That being said, the good news is that your embarrassing mistake is not without redemptive potential. You have an incredible opportunity to show the world the meaning of Christ-like humility. My recommendation is that you:
1) Sincerely offer an unconditional, public apology to your followers, the Body of Christ and the world at large.
2) Resign from your post as President of Family Radio
3) Return the money (or as much as has not yet been spent) to each of your donors.

This would go a long way in restoring some semblance of integrity to your life. In response, the Body of Christ would then have the responsibility to graciously forgive you and receive you back into fellowship as a brother in Christ. Such a display of grace and reconciliation could go a long way in the eyes of a skeptical world – showing that the love of Christ can rise above even the most consequential sins and mistakes.

I realize that there are some Christian leaders who have written you off as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” and the kind of false teacher the Bible describes as worthy of avoidance at all costs. I confess that I myself have casually referred to you in this way. Yet, I do not believe that it is my place to judge the condition of your heart – or such matters related to your legitimacy as a Christian man.

Based upon some of what I’ve read about Family Radio and words you have written and spoken, you seem to be a sincere believer in Jesus Christ. You seem to affirm the essentials of the Christian faith – such as Christ’s Virgin Birth, His vicarious death and resurrection, salvation by grace through faith, and other core Christian beliefs. I know that you and I differ drastically in our understanding of eschatology and ecclesiology, but only God knows the true state of your faith before Him.

Please consider humbling yourself and making amends both publicly and privately with those you have hurt. While this may not be possible with every one of your followers individually, following through with my three recommendations above would go a long way in restoring not only your respectability, but even more importantly, the reputation of the risen Christ among all people.

May God comfort you in the midst of what I can only imagine is a serious time of soul-searching. And may the Body of Christ treat you as graciously as we would each want to be treated if we had sinned so catastrophically. No sin or mistake is beyond the scope of the unconditional love of Christ – and I welcome you with open arms to do the right thing regardless of how difficult it may be. The Name of Jesus is worth it!


Rev. Jeremy White
Lead Pastor
Valley Church, Vacaville

Friday, April 29, 2011

Can a Person be a Christian without Good Works?

James 2 has long been a key operative text in attempting to legitimize the idea that all true Christians will inevitably “prove” they are truly saved by their outward good works. Well-meaning believers have for centuries pointed to this passage as evidence for Lordship Salvation (LS) – i.e. the idea that one cannot receive Jesus as Savior without simultaneously submitting to Him as Master. The key statements from James 2 leading to that conclusion are as follows:

“(14) What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such a faith save him?...(17) In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead…(19) You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that – and shudder…(21) Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered Isaac on the altar?...(24) You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone. (25) In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? (26) As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.”

Admittedly, these are some strong statements which at first seem to stand in contradiction to an abundance of clear Biblical promises about salvation being available only by grace through faith (including John 3:16, Romans 3:28, Romans 4:5, Ephesians 2:8-9 and dozens of others). This apparent contradiction is so strong that Martin Luther actually wanted the letter of James to be eliminated from the New Testament canon!

In an effort to reconcile this apparent contradiction between James and Paul, theologians have attempted all kinds of theological and mental gymnastics. The most popular idea among those from Reformed and Evangelical persuasions is that James is teaching that outward “deeds” are the necessary evidence in assuring that our faith in Christ is genuine rather than phony. This is the clear teaching of Lordship Salvation (LS). But is this really what the passage is saying?

While there is some variance among those who interpret this text in light of Free Grace (FG) perspective, upon careful examination it becomes clear that James’s words cannot mean that the life of every true believer will be characterized by a litmus test of “good works”. For a basic understanding of a FG perspective on this passage, I invite you to consider the following realities…

Three Huge Questions:
In considering the context of James’ words, we must ask three significant questions: 1) What does James mean by his use of the word “save”?, 2) What does James mean by his use of the word “dead”? and 3) In what sense does James use the concept of “justification”? A simple look at the overall argument of the letter is indispensable for us here.

James uses the term “save” on five different occasions in his letter, initially in 1:21, where he writes, “Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.” It is crucial to note that James is clearly addressing this letter to those who are already genuine believers in Jesus Christ. He refers to his audience with such terms as brothers, beloved, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, righteous, etc.. Additionally, he speaks to them as those who are having their “faith tested” by trials (1:2-4). Clearly, these thoughts and titles do not apply to anyone other than those who are already genuine Christians.

So if James is speaking to those who are already “saved” in the eternal sense – that is, they have been rescued from judgment and forgiven of their sins through faith in Christ – then his use of the word “saved” in 1:21 cannot be used in that same sense. Because this word “saved” is used of in terms of something that “can” happen rather than as something that has “already” happened, James is clearly speaking about an aspect of salvation other than that of receiving eternal life by grace through faith.

Combine this reality with the fact that James stated earlier in 1:14 that “…sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.” The book of James is not an evangelistic book seeking to educate people about the essence of so-called “saving faith.” Rather, it is an admonishment to Christians about the futility of persisting in sin, affirming that “sin…gives birth to death” – that is, physical death, death to relationships, death to the opportunity of a more abundant life, etc. He sets his entire letter up along the lines of practical living, not eternal life.

Having established this contextual foundation, we can move into the latter part of chapter 2 with a better understanding of James’ crucial question: “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?” Clearly, James is not suggesting that his audience use the presence of good deeds in their life as a litmus test for whether they are genuine Christians! He is using “save” in the same sense in which he has earlier introduced it – as something practical that can rescue or spare a person from the deathly physical, relational and emotional consequences associated with living in rebellion against the Source of abundant life!

The fact is that no one – whether Christian or otherwise – will experience a fulfilling life when living principally to gratify their own hedonistic desires. The pursuit of selfishness always ends in emptiness – futility – and how much MORE for the Christian who has the opportunity to walk with and rest in God!
This sheds light on James’ use of the word “dead” also. He says three times that faith without works is “dead”. To understand his usage, we must look no further than the immediate passage. In 1:15, he gives a hypothetical scenario. “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?” The word translated “good” in the NIV is the word “profit”. He is asking “what profit” is this kind of faith?

Clearly, the context points to the fact that “dead” faith means “profitless” faith in terms of practical impact. It does not suggest “phony” or “non-existent” faith, as the LS position insists. In 2:20, he confirms this analysis with the statement, “You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless?” Furthermore, James illustrates his intentions when he writes, “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead” (2:26). No one would suggest that a dead body is a phony or non-existent body. Rather a dead body is a very real body that lacks vitality. It is “profitless” or “useless” for making any practical impact in the world – as is clearly seen in the context of James’ argument.

Finally, the statements in this passage which typically cause the most confusion are related to the issue of justification. Some critics will accuse the teaching of Paul and James of contradiction based on this passage. By way of review, Paul’s teaching on justification is about God the Judge “ruling in our favor” – declaring us to be righteous based on faith in Jesus alone apart from any works of the law (Rom. 3:21-25; 4:1-5; Gal. 3:1-14, etc.).

Meanwhile, James says the following in chapter 2 of his letter: “Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous (justified) for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? (verse 21). And again in verses 23-24, he adds, “And the scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,’ and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.”

Lifted out of context, it is no wonder skeptics point to these words as a blatant contradiction of Paul’s Gospel! Yet, both Paul and James appeal to the same Old Testament verse (Genesis 15:6) in making their point. Paul says in Romans 4:2-3, “If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about – but not before God. What does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’” (emphasis added).

By their joint appeal to Genesis 15:6, both Paul and James affirm that they understand the doctrine of imputed righteousness before God – that being in “right standing” with God comes through belief (faith) alone. What James does – in the context of the practical focus of his book – is to introduce a second type of justification. This second type of justification has nothing to do with a Christian’s imputed righteousness before God – but rather, with practical righteousness before men.

In spite of his fame, Abraham made many mistakes – several of which glare at us from the pages of Genesis. Clearly James’ readers knew this and were aware that God had declared Abraham to be righteous by faith (Genesis 15) decades before he ever offered Isaac on the altar (Genesis 22). Abraham’s obedience neither initiated nor proved the reality of His righteous standing before God. That reality was assured by God’s promise alone. What Abraham’s obedience did accomplish was to show that his faith was not “useless”. It showed that his faith was “made complete” (James 2:22). The word “complete” literally means “mature”.

A maturing faith is the exact opposite of a useless, unprofitable faith. It is a faith that is actively involved in showing the world something of who God is. It is a faith that is growing in the abundant life Jesus offers. And while James points to this as an impetus for his audience to live out their faith in tangible ways, he would be horrified to know that many centuries later, Christians were using his words to insinuate a litmus test for the so-called legitimacy of faith in a believer’s life!

LS advocates routinely contrast the fictitious terms “saving faith” with “non-saving faith”, insinuating that James is talking about two kinds of faith here. But when we understand his terminology in its context, we find that the issue is not actually about two kinds of faith – but two kinds of justification. One kind is justification before God which only He sees and which is by faith alone. The other kind is justification before our fellow man – which can be observed, which is by works and which can “save” a person from the earthly consequences of rebellion – up to and including the death he warned about in 1:15.

Simply put, having basic orthodox beliefs about Christ – while a crucial part of what it means to trust Christ for eternal life – cannot “save” you from the consequences of sin in this life. Only obedience to Christ will enable a person to experience the kind of fulfillment God offers in this life to anyone who pursues and rests in Him as a response to His lavish grace.

The sole qualifying factor for our justification is faith (i.e. trust) in Christ’s sacrificial death and resurrection. When a person exercises this trust, he or she is irreversibly adopted into God’s family and is secure in that relationship (Romans 8:38-39). The Bible makes no such distinction between so-called “saving faith” and “non-saving faith”. Scripture does not delineate between “head” Christians and “heart” Christians. This is another reality we glean from the Gospel of John, in which every time the word “faith” is used, it is in reference to “saving” faith. There is no other kind of faith in Christ – period. If it were not for this solitary passage in James 2 being so grossly misunderstood, this concept would never have been inserted into the realm of Christian theology.

The Faith of Demons
Another fallacy advanced by proponents of LS concerns James’ mention of the faith of demons. Earlier we noted that part of James’ argument is stated as follows in James 2:19:

You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that – and shudder.

Many will claim that the purpose of these words are to compare and contrast this so-called “saving faith” with “non-saving faith” – which basically amounts to “mere intellectual assent” to a set of facts, according to LS. This line of reason falls short for a variety of reasons. For starters, this so-called “faith” in God is clearly not faith in the Gospel, since it is merely an affirmation of monotheism (belief in one God). Nowhere in the Bible is it suggested that monotheism is equated to the faith through which humans receive salvation. Many people believe in God (just like the demons) yet are not saved since they refuse to trust in Christ alone and His finished work of redemption.

This is another affirmation that eternal life is not in view here – and besides, the argument breaks down even further when we consider that demons cannot be saved anyway. The New Testament repeatedly affirms that fate demons is already sealed (Matt. 8:29; 25:41; Jude 6), so it is highly unlikely that the author would use demons as a hypothetical element to his argument if indeed he were talking about eternal life. What this text does show is that faith in the Christ is faith in Christ – period. If anything, the emphasis is not placed upon different kinds of faith, but different objects upon which faith can be placed.

Secondly, if the author is indeed arguing that good works are a litmus test for true assurance of salvation, it is a curious reality that Satan and his demons actually have the power to do good works in order to deceive people. If outward works are a litmus test for assurance, then perhaps we should presume that Satan and his demons are in fact saved, since they are able to perform counterfeit signs and wonders (2 Thess. 2:9-11). Additionally, we might be persuaded to believe that members of various pseudo-Christian cults – based on their high quantity of visible “good works” should also rest assured of their salvation. Ironically, many people from legalistic cults do in fact believe they are saved, viewing their good works as both a requirement and result in "proving" it.

The essential reality remains that whenever our assurance of salvation rests upon our performance rather than upon the promises of the Gospel of grace alone – we are setting ourselves up for an experience of the Christian life that is contrary to what God intends for us to enjoy. As Charles Bing rightly observes,

James 2:19 should not be used to argue that works are needed to prove saving faith. This verse shows that demons have a real faith. They believe in one God and know that God has sealed their fate in judgment, therefore they tremble. But they do not and cannot believe in Jesus Christ as their Savior. While good works are God’s purpose for us, are useful to others, and give us a good evaluation at the Judgment Seat of Christ, they cannot prove or disprove the reality of saving faith. Eternal salvation is by grace alone through faith alone—apart from any works at any time.[i]

Are There Any Other Views?
In his excellent book The Naked Gospel, pastor Andrew Farley would disagree with the way I look at this passage. Nonetheless, his view demonstrates that even if a person cannot bring themselves to agree with the contextual arguments I have just presented, there are other solid ways to view what James is saying without affirming the erroneous LS view.

Farley contends that James is indeed talking about salvation (from sin) in this passage – and has no problem with James’s assertion that we are saved by works and not by faith alone. The key, he argues, is in understanding what James means by “works”. He explains…

“Rather than assuming that works should be understood as a lifelong record of religious activity, one should consult the biblical text and let the writer himself define the term. James’s own use of the term “works” is quite different from how we use it today.”[ii]

We will get back to that in a moment, but here it is interesting to note that only a few verses later, James acknowledges that “we all stumble in many ways.” (James 3:2). James seems to be agreeing with Paul’s confession in Romans 7, that there were behaviors in his life (and every believer’s life) that often contradict the desire to serve Jesus with whole-hearted consistency. In fact, the entire book of James is a call to live a righteous life, practically speaking. If “obedience to Jesus as Master” is the automatic disposition of those whose faith can be said to be genuine, then why would James (or Peter, Paul, John, etc.) have spent so much time seeking to correct the sinful and selfish behaviors and attitudes of genuine believers in their letters? Clearly, LS misses the mark in its assertion that the truly saved will always live in increasing victory over sin throughout their experience in this life.

If “surrender” is required for salvation, another series of questions arises. How surrendered is surrendered? Is it enough to be fifty percent surrendered? How about seventy-five percent? Ninety-nine percent? At what point are we able to discern what God accepts as surrender to Christ’s lordship? Obviously nobody is 100 percent surrendered to Christ as master or we would never sin!

But now back to James 2 and the issue of James’ use of the word “works”. Farley goes on to explain his belief that by using Abraham (and also Rahab) as illustrative of genuine faith, James is making the point that they “actively responded to God’s message.” He elaborates,

“They didn’t sit back passively and claim that they believed God. Rahab decided to open her door to the spies (Joshua 2:1), and Abraham chose to offer his son on the altar (Genesis 22:3). They went beyond mere intellectual assent and did something in response to God’s message. But how many times did Rahab open the door? Once. And how many times did Abraham hoist his son Isaac to the altar? Once. Hence, works in this passage is really not about a lifelong track record of good behavior. It’s actually about the importance of responding to truth – an act that goes beyond intellectual agreement.”[iii]

While Farley’s ideas on James 2 are among very few things I took issue with in his wonderful book, I include his perspective here to illustrate that even someone who affirms the view that James is in fact talking about faith in relation to salvation from eternal judgment can also remain true to the overall awareness that James is not and cannot be demanding that works are a litmus test in determining whether a person’s faith is genuine. Simply put, works may be and often are an indicator of genuine faith, but using James to prove that they must be goes beyond the scope of the Scriptural Gospel of salvation by grace through faith alone.

I welcome your thoughts....