Tag Archives: faith

It’s Ok To Be Religious

A friend of mine recently shared an article on Facebook. The article gave reasons why the author hated religion. The author of the article was a Christian, so it wasn’t an argument against Christianity. Rather, it was an argument against religion that chokes out faith. I’ve heard these statements many times over the years. In fact, I can remember saying, “I’m not religious, I’m a Christian.”

I understand the heart behind the statement, but I find the statement itself at fault. The believer who says this is usually reacting to the world’s understanding of what religion is. To the world, religion, and especially organized religion or church, is just a list of rules that you have to keep or things you have to do in order to be a good person and get to go to heaven or paradise and receive whatever reward is coming to you. That’s why there are so many memes out on the internet about how a person can be a good person without ever going to a church. I read one recently that said, “You don’t need religion to have morals. If you can’t determine right from wrong, you lack empathy, not religion.” If we allow the world’s definition of religion, then we are constantly on the defensive or may even find ourselves embarrassed to admit that we are a Christian.

Christians who make the statement that they’re not religious are usually trying to say that they’re not legalistic. The bible speaks clearly in both the Old Testament and the New Testament about how a believer is supposed to live. There are clearly things that believers should do and things that they should avoid. That is not legalism. Legalism is when the rules become the object of our zeal and worship rather than the God who authored those rules.

Christians, can we say that we’re religious without being embarrassed or afraid that we’ll offend someone? Yes! We can!  Jesus challenged the prevailing thought on religion by describing what a life defined by religion really is. Instead of telling people that they had to eat certain foods, worship on certain days, wear clothing that looked a certain way and was made from a certain material, Jesus defined true religion by the outward living of the inward change that takes place in a man or woman who truly believes. Don’t get me wrong. Jesus was born Jewish. He went to temple. He honored the Sabbath. In fact, Jesus calls himself the Lord of the Sabbath. Jesus lived the rules laid out in scripture. But, he didn’t do them out of worship for the rules. He lived the rules to the glory of his father.

So, what does religion look like in the Bible? James tells us, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. (James 1:27)” Paul tells us, “ Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.  Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord.  Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.  Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.  Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.  Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.  On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:9-21) In Matthew 5-7, Jesus taught a sermon that would forever change the world. In it, he shows what a life changed by grace received through faith in Him looks like. This is true religion.

So, let’s not think about religion or being religious as the world does. It is not a set of rules that teach a moral standard or make a person good. It is not a set of rules that you follow to earn your way to heaven or into God’s good graces. Instead, it is a lifestyle marked by faith and lived in thankfulness to the God whose grace saved us while we were yet sinners, set us free from slavery to sin, and gives us new life, new hope, and a new record.

Faith First

While listening to a sermon by Alistair Begg, I was struck by a comment that he made. He said, “Religious activities impressed upon the soul of man from the outside in cannot cleanse the conscience.” History is marked by men and women who have tried to reach God through outward activities rather than an inward commitment.

Martin Luther is a famous example. In his attempts to come close to God, he joined a monastery, willingly suffered many physical penances, constantly went to confession and often struggled with guilt in between times of confession, studied, prayed, and did everything he was advised to do in order to be close to God. When that didn’t work, he pursued mysticism, the idea that if he just loved God and loved Him as a father, he would draw closer to God. But, he had a strained relationship with His earthly father and found that he couldn’t relate to God in that way without feeling hostility and hatred. He was even made a pastor and professor in Wittenberg in the hopes that he would find peace. All of the outward experiences and activities he tried to force on himself only led him to realize how far away from God he was.

The change, for Martin Luther, came when he was teaching the book of Romans. As aware of his struggles to know God as he was, he was shocked when he realized that the righteousness of God and faith in God were both gifts imparted to us by God (Romans 1:17). No matter how hard he worked at being righteous and faithful, he couldn’t truly be righteous and faithful without accepting those gifts from God. God gives that gift based on His own righteousness and to His glory. When we realize that God’s gift comes first, that he reaches to us first, it changes things. It humbles us to realize that the gift He gives us has been totally paid for by His Son. No activity we do can earn it. We come as beggars and we receive the King.

In his letter, James tells us that faith without works is dead (James 2:14-26). Understand this, brothers and sisters, James is not telling us to work our way to faith. God graciously and abundantly gives us faith. We surrender in that faith and live in that faith. That gift of faith comes first and with that gift comes the declaration of our righteousness. It is an inward change, it is new life, it is a new heart, and a new record. From that faith, eternal life flows. It is only when faith comes first that the outward works follow. It is then, and only then, do the religious activities matter. Alistair is right, “Religious activities impressed upon the soul of man from the outside in cannot cleanse the conscience.” Our cleansing comes through the grace of God extended in the saving work of His Son. It comes through our surrender and acceptance of the faith that He offers and the righteousness that He imparts to us. And, finally, our activities flow from that cleansed heart and life!

Thoughts on Naomi

Two weeks ago, I started preaching through the book of Ruth. It is one of my favorite books in the bible. I love this story of love, devotion, and redemption. Several times a week, I’ve read through this wonderful little book and enjoyed the story of this family. Many times over the last couple of weeks, I have pondered Naomi and her feelings at the beginning of the story.

To give you some background, there was a terrible famine that struck during the time of the Judges. During this famine, food was scarce in Bethlehem in Judah. So, Elimelech packs up his wife and two sons and moves to Moab where there is food. After they’ve been there a while, he dies. His two sons grow and marry and then, after ten years, they two pass away. This leaves Naomi alone with her daughters-in-law.

We know something of the character of Naomi in the reaction of her daughters-in-law to her after their husbands die. They love her deeply. This isn’t a Hollywood in-law situation in which the kids don’t get along with their in-laws. Instead, these girls have found a second mother in Naomi.

Hearing that the famine in Israel has passed, Naomi decides to go back home. Other than Orpah and Ruth, she has no family in Moab and the loss she has suffered is bitter. As she prepares to leave, her Orpah and Ruth pack up to go with her. When they reach the road that will lead back to Bethlehem, Naomi tells the girls to return to their families. It is a painful moment, because the girls really love her. There are tears shed and they cling to each other desperately. Both girls want to go back with her, but she prevails upon them to go back home and find new husbands who will love and care for them. In a moment of tearful farewell, Orpah turns and returns to her family. Ruth, on the other hand, dearly loves Naomi. More, she has come to know Naomi’s God (YHWH) as her own. Resolved to stay with Naomi, she convinces her to let her go to Bethlehem with her.

When Naomi and Ruth reach Bethlehem, Naomi is greeted by her family and friends. They are excited to see her, but home has given her no more peace than Moab. In Moab, she left behind her husband and sons, but here at home, she is confronted with all the memories of her youth. She remembers her wedding to the man she loved, the two sweet little boys she held in her arms, and the joyful times they had. Her heart is filled with bitterness.

When she is greeted, she responds, “ “Don’t call me Naomi. Instead, call me Mara, for the Almighty has made life very bitter for me. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me home empty. Why call me Naomi when the Lord has caused me to suffer and the Almighty has sent such tragedy upon me?” (Ruth 1:20-21)

I’ve thought a lot about this passage. Naomi is so bitter. In the Hebrew, she actually says, “The Lord has testified against me.” She feels like she’s being judged for something she did. I’ve pondered her thoughts. Perhaps she felt like she should have spoken up when Elimelech decided to move out of Israel and to Moab. She may have thought that, if she’d warned him about staying in the promised land, she may not have lost her family. Or, perhaps she was the one who urged Elimelech to leave. In her worry over seeing her children fed, she may have urged him to pick up and leave their land only to lose her family in another one. Perhaps she felt guilty that her sons married girls who believed in different gods. Maybe she just didn’t know what to think. She only knew that she’d lost those she loved the most and couldn’t understand why.

Have you ever felt like that? Have you ever wondered why you’re going through a situation that you don’t understand? You may ask, “What did I do?” “Why is this happening?” “Does God really care?” You may think to yourself that God has set himself against you as Naomi did. You may even be bitter toward God as she was.

What Naomi couldn’t see was the story about to unfold. She was caught up in God’s redemptive plan for our world. God planned for Ruth to play an important part in the history of both Israel and for the world. It is through her that the bloodline of David comes and it is through his bloodline that Mary’s is established. And, through her, passes the bloodline to Jesus. God uses Ruth, a Moabite girl who loved Him and who loved her mother-in-law, as a step to His own Son. But, that’s not all. In the very story of Ruth’s life and Naomi’s, we see God’s love and devotion for those who love Him. We see in Him our Redeemer. We see in Him the Groom who is coming to claim His bride. In the same way that Boaz acts to restore Ruth and her family, our God acts to restore us to Himself. It is a beautiful story.

The pain that Naomi felt was very real. The loss of her husbands and sons was something that she could not understand in the moment. But, later, as she looked down into the eyes of her grandson as she cuddled him, she could see the beginning of a new life. God restored joy to her. He renewed her heart, her spirit, and her life. She saw a new hope.

Naomi wondered what she did to deserve judgment. I believe that the answer would be the same we see in John 9:3. This happened so that the works of God may be shown in her and in Ruth. We don’t always understand why God allows things to happen. But, we can rest assured that God has a plan in action for those who love Him. Like Naomi and Ruth, in God’s timing and through God’s plan, we will find restored hope, heart, and life.

A Christian Response to the ISIS Situation

This Sunday, I preached a sermon on the response of Christians to ISIS and terrorism. In the past year, we’ve seen Christians driven from their homes into the mountains and left to starve, Christians abducted and beheaded, women and children sold into sexual slavery, and governments being overturned. We’ve seen atrocities committed that have shocked most of the world.  Many in the world want to see ISIS eradicated and the men, women, and children who serve it and its ideals destroyed. So, what should a Christian’s response to terror and groups like ISIS be?

I believe that there is a two-fold response from the believer. The first is an understanding and support of a governmental response. In particular, I refer to Romans 13:4b, “…But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for [the government] does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.” Governments are, by nature, designed to counter those who break the law. With ISIS and terror organizations like them on the loose, I believe it is the responsibilities of the governments of our world to step up and fight this evil. It is OK for a believer to pray for the fall of ISIS, the Taliban, and other terror organizations. We have an example of these types of prayers throughout the book of Psalms. We can and should pray that God will remove evil such as this from our world and we should support the government when it makes moves to remove this evil.

What does this look like for a believer? Some may join the armed forces and fight when action is taken against these groups. Others may do things to support our men and women in the armed forced. We may be outspoken in our desire to see our government counter these attacks. And, we should encourage our government to ally with those who are working to destroy this evil. It is OK to be angry about what is happening? Yes it is, as long as the anger you have does not turn to hate. I also believe that it is OK to defend against this evil if it comes to our doorstep. However, I believe there is also a complementary response.

The second response is a desire to see the men, women, and children who support ISIS and terror organizations like them to repent and surrender to Jesus. As much as I hate seeing what these people are doing, I pray that they surrender to Christ.

In Acts 6-9, we see the story of Stephen and Paul (Saul) unfold. Stephen is taken before a false court because of his witnessing about the works of Christ and the works he is doing. While before the court, he delivers one of the most beautiful accounts of the gospel found in scripture. What he teaches so enrages that the men in the Sanhedrin that they cover their ears and rush in anger at him. They drag him from the city and prepare to stone him. Stephen, knowing he is about to die, does not pray that they be judged or killed.  Rather, he prays that they be forgiven because they don’t truly understand what they are doing. His prayer mirrors the prayer of Christ on the cross.

As they prepare to stone him, they lay their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. Saul watches and approves of the stoning of Stephen. In fact, Stephen’s stoning whips to flame a desire to do more of the same. At the beginning of Acts 8, we are told that Saul begins to ravage the church. He is so inspired by Stephen’s stoning, that he begins a wholesale rounding up of Christians so that they may be put to the death. Because of him, the church is scattered as people flee the persecution he begins. However, the story doesn’t end there. Saul has an encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus and he was changed forever as he surrendered to Christ. The man who was the worst persecutor of the church became the one who would lead the charge in taking gospel beyond the Jews and to the gentiles. This man, who watched Stephen die and went on to be a driving force in the death of other Christians, became one of the most influential Christians of his day. He went from a man who was violently opposed to Christianity to willingly laying down his life for his belief in Jesus Christ.

Just as with Paul, we should be praying that those who are committing these atrocities will come to a point that they surrender to Christ. It is my prayer that one of those men who beheaded the twenty one Christians will, himself, become a believer in Christ and share the gospel with those who do not believe. We should be praying for the believers who come into contact with them, that they will speak as the Holy Spirit leads and that their eyes and ears should be opened.

Is it OK to be afraid of the threat these groups pose? Yes. There is a reason why God tells Joshua three times to “be strong and courageous.” There is a reason we are given armor and told to “be strong” and “stand firm” in Ephesians 6. The Christians who learned of Paul’s conversion were terrified of him. It took Barnabas accepting him and bringing him before the apostles in order for him to be accepted. Being afraid is a natural response, but God also gives us what we need to stand firm in the face of the threats facing us. While we may be afraid, we should not let that fear stop us from following where God leads us.

Is it OK to pray for the destruction of a group like ISIS while at the same time praying for their salvation? Yes. The response of the government is to destroy evil and we should pray that it be destroyed. It is understood that, when governments act and war happens, there will be people (both believers and those who do not believe) who will die. We do not want people to die, but we do want evil destroyed. We pray that evil not find a foothold but, when it does, we pray that it be destroyed quickly.

God, speaking to Israel and the evil that had crept in among them, in Ezekiel 18 says, “‘I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies,’ declares the Lord God. ‘Therefore, repent and live.'” God is speaking directly to a situation like this. He is preparing to use Babylon to destroy Judah and Jerusalem. Jeremiah and Ezekiel are both prophesying and telling the people to repent. God would rather people repent than to see them destroyed, but he will move to destroy evil when it is allowed to continue.  We acknowledge in our prayers that something must be done and we ask in our prayers that there will be those who are saved.

Finally, as we consider this two-fold response of the believer to threats such as ISIS, there must be a going of believers. Right now, there are missionaries that are staying in these countries. There are men and women who are choosing to go there in spite of the danger and knowing that their lives may well be given in the endeavor. Armed forces can fight and destroy the strongholds of these groups. They can wipe out the armed forces of the enemy. But, it takes believers who are willing to live out the message of Christ to see a heart change in the men, women, and children who espouse terrorism. Remember, all of us had this same evil in our hearts. All of us have sinned. When we surrendered to Christ, that evil and that sin was left behind in his sacrifice. So, pray for these people that they may know the truth and experience the changing work of Christ.

I hope that you’ll consider your response to these threats prayerfully and by going to God’s Word. Pray for our brothers and sisters who are being persecuted and killed for their faith. Pray that they will remain strong, that a remnant be delivered, and that their sacrifices will lead to the turning of the hearts of those who are persecuting them.

 

Three Principles of Faith for a New Generation

Joshua 1:1-9, 1 Timothy 4:12, Matthew 28:18-20

This past Sunday, I preached on Joshua’s calling. If Joshua was anything like me, I’m sure he felt overwhelmed when he learned from God that Moses was dead and that he was the new leader of Israel. Moses, after all, was the greatest leader Israel had to that point. How in the world would he fill Moses’ shoes?

God cast a vision for Joshua that he would lead Israel to fulfill the promise given to Moses that they would inherit the land promised to Abraham. As part of that vision, God promised that no one would be able to stand against Joshua. He would be with Joshua just as he was with Moses. He would neither forsake him or leave him.

I would have hated to try to follow Moses as the leader of the nation of Israel. Those are big shoes to fill! They were a hard people to lead, but they’d come to trust Moses and his leadership. Furthermore, he led them for a long time and they were used to his style of leadership. Now, God was tapping a new generation of leadership to take the reigns and forward God’s plan to its next step of completion.

God knew, when the people were leaving Egypt, that Moses would not lead his people into the land. He knew that a generation would rebel and pass while wandering in the desert. Early in their voyage, he planted a vision in the heart of two young men who spied out the land of the Canaanites. They saw a rich land. It was a land to be desired and they knew that God had promised it to them. When the people refused to cross into the land, those two young men never lost the vision of taking the land that was promised to them. God knew he would use Joshua and Caleb to lead his people into the land.

Moses had a big job to do. God used him to free his people from slavery. He used him to lead them to a place where they would be tested and refined. Through Moses, God taught his people about faith, dependence, discipline, and revealed his love and character to them. But, when it came to actually leading the people into the fullness of that promise, God had someone else in mind.

Joshua Didn’t Have to Fill Moses’ Shoes

Joshua stayed close to Moses and learned about leadership. He saw him after he came down from the mountain still touched by the glory of having seen God. He knew the struggles that Moses had, the victories, and the failures. And, when the time for leadership to change hands came, God chose him to be the new leader.

Joshua wasn’t Moses. He had a different personality, a different style of leadership, and a huge job ahead of him. There is a reason why God tells him to be strong and courageous three times and assures Joshua of his eternal presence twice.

He is about to take charge of a people who were set in their own way of doing things. They had become comfortable in receiving manna and quail daily. They’d fallen into the routine of moving from once place to another in the desert as they sought water. In fact, most of the people he was now leading knew no other way of life. Moses led their parents out of Egypt, but now they were being called to go into the promised land.

Joshua would have to lead people as only Joshua could. He would have to convince them that the faith they’d and lessons they’d learned in the desert were the same faith and lessons they’d live while taking the land. This doesn’t mean he tossed out all Moses did and did his own thing. On the contrary, in verse 8, God cautions Joshua to follow all of Moses’ teachings, to meditate on them day and night, and to not turn from them. In this, he would find the key to his success in achieving the goal God had set him. He was to live and lead in a way that honored and acknowledged Moses. He was to teach the same lessons of faith taught by Moses, but he would do so in his own way and with the unique gifts God had given him. In Joshua’s story, we find three principles of faith for each new generation of leaders.

God’s Plan For You Is Already in Place

When God called Joshua to leadership, he already had the plan for Joshua in place. He was giving a land already conquered into Joshua’s hands. All Joshua and the people had to do was be faithful in taking that land. When God gave his promise to Abraham, God knew Joshua would fulfill that promise by leading the people into the land.  Just as God used Moses to free his people from slavery, so he was going to use Joshua to lead his people into his promise.

When we think of the generations before us, we see great men and women of faith. We may even wonder if we’d ever be able to lead like they did. Yet, with the passing of time, we find ourselves in the positions they once held. And, it can be overwhelming to think that now we must be the leaders. It can be even harder if the older generation is looking on as a new generation take up the reigns.

But, we have a lesson in scripture that is seen time and again. Each generation is called to step out in faith to live the plan God has laid. Each new generation is responsible for teaching the next generation the promises of God, the salvation won in his Son, and how to live a life faithfully surrendered to him. The trappings of the faith may look different from generation to generation, but the substance of the faith is the same and it takes men and women of courageous faith in each generation to carry forward God’s kingdom plans. This is why Paul warns Timothy, “Let no one despise your youth; instead, you should be an example to the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Tim 4:12). Timothy was following Paul in leadership. He was young, but God’s plan for him was just as important and necessary as Paul’s own. He would be reaching people and advancing the gospel to a new generation long after Paul was gone.

God Is With His People

Just as God had been with his servant Moses, God promised to be with Joshua. It was a promise that covered every difficulty he’d face, every battle he’d fight, every failure, and every success. God had placed his man where and when he wanted him to be and promised to be with him. There is great reassurance, joy, and peace to be found in the sovereignty of the Almighty God.

I believe, more than anything else, that this promise drove Joshua. It was to this promise he turned again and again. All he had to do was look at his own life of leaving Egypt, God’s providence in the delivery of his people, and his sustaining presence throughout their sojourn to know God was with them. More, he had watched God guide and minister to Moses. Knowing God’s promise allowed him to step out into faith.

Be Strong, Courageous, and Faithful

God showed his sovereignty in Joshua’s life by calling him to fulfill the next step of his kingdom plan. Joshua’s response was to be one of faithful and courageous obedience. God warned Joshua that, not only would his calling be difficult, it would be scary. He is encouraged three times to be strong and courageous. In fact, the second time, he’s told to be strong and very courageous.

In following God, our strength does not come from within ourselves. It comes from faithfully knowing God and following his instruction. God cautioned Joshua not to turn to the left or the right from what he was taught. While his leadership may differ from Moses, the faith behind that leadership was to be the same. The promise is that, if he carefully follows God’s full instruction, then he will have success wherever he goes.

Further, he is cautioned not to let the Word of God depart from his mouth. He is to meditate on it (the HCSB translates this as “recite it”) day and night. This means that each day and each night, he is to read (recite) the Word, think about the Word, and make the Word a part of himself. In other words, he must desire God’s Word and actively pursue it so that he may be careful to follow what is written in it. The promise is that, if he dwells in and lives out the Word in this way, he will prosper and succeed in all he does to fulfill God’s kingdom plan.

Joshua’s life was marked by his faithfulness to God’s promise and ours can be as well. Each generation, God raises up new men and women of faith. With each generation, he furthers his kingdom plan.

Going Forward in Your Ministry

As you consider the ministry in which God has placed you, whether that is in your family, your church, your place of work or school, or the neighborhood where you live, know that God has called you to further his kingdom plan. You don’t have to worry about filling someone else’s shoes. He has a unique plan just for you that takes into account the way he created you and the gifts he gave you. He created you for just this time and just this place. As you answer his call, he promises to neither leave nor forsake you. His promise to you and his presence is eternally with you. However, you must make the decision to accept the responsibility he has given you. Serving him can be difficult, dangerous, and scary. The resistance and challenges you meet must be met with strength and courage and you find that by walking in God’s instruction and dwelling in his Word. So take up the ministry he has given you, go out and make disciples of all the nations, baptize them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Teach and encourage a new generation to walk faithfully and courageously in obedience to God. And, know that God is with you always.