Religion

Distorting the Gospel

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“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.” Galatians 1:6-8

As you read through these three verses, the thing that immediately stands out if you are familiar with Paul’s writings in his other letters is the firmness with which Paul is writing. Paul is not coming to the Galatians with a gentle rebuke. Paul is upset, and it shows.

Usually Paul would open his letters with some form of thanksgiving to those whom he was writing. But there is no such thanksgiving found in this letter. Paul gets right down to business.

As Paul writes this letter he is a lot like a parent whose child has gone off track or has gone astray. Many of us have children. Have your kids ever done something wrong, and honestly done something so stupid that you were just flabbergasted by it?

I know I’ve looked at my kids many times and just been dumbfounded as to why they would do something like that. They know better! I’ve taught them better than that! And that is sort of what Paul is saying here. Paul is saying, “I can’t believe you! Why would you do this? You know better!”

And why is Paul so upset? These believers were turning away from the true Gospel.

For those of us who have young children, if one of our kids were to take off running towards the road we wouldn’t gently call them back. No, we are going to raise our voices. We are going to yell at the top of our lungs for them to come back. We are willing to do anything, to say anything to keep our children safe and secure. Our child’s safety is a matter of life and death. And so is the Gospel…

This is Paul’s heart as he writes these verses.

In these verses Paul is astonished, he is angry, and he is grieved. It is clear that Paul has the heart of a Pastor. Paul is grieved that the Galatian believers would so quickly turn from the Gospel of grace that he has preached to them, in order to follow those who would distort the Gospel of Christ.

And friends I can so identify with Paul here.

Nothing grieves me more as a pastor, than seeing sweet people who have a real and sincere desire to follow God end up under teaching that distorts the biblical Gospel.

As we talk about this thought of distorting the Gospel, let’s look at some ways in which the Gospel gets distorted in our day. As we will see, this happens in both subtle and non-subtle ways.

First, there is this idea that many Christians have, or they have been taught that, yes they are saved through their surrender to Christ, but THEN they also have to have the right beliefs or the right behaviors to go along with this surrender.

This sounds almost right. And you might be hearing that and say, “Well, I don’t see the problem.” And I’ll give it to you, this is almost the gospel…but, almost the gospel isn’t the Gospel.

There are also times we will hear folks say, or challenge us to “give your life to Jesus” or “ask Jesus into your heart or life” and then we will be saved. Again, this sounds biblical. But here is the problem. When we say things in this way, or believe that this is the order in which things happen, we miss the fact that it is “grace first.” Here is what I mean.

You aren’t saved by your strong belief in God, or even our level of trust in God. Your level of faith or the strength of your faith isn’t the measure of whether or not you are saved. You don’t need to manufacture strong feelings or desire for God in order to feel secure in your standing with God.

Here’s the key. You aren’t saved BY your faith. You are saved THROUGH faith. If we think we are saved “BY” our faith then that means we are making our performance our savior. But when we understand that we are saved “THROUGH” faith, we make it clear that Christ is our Savior.

The Gospel is also sometimes distorted by those that teach it doesn’t really matter what you believe as long as you are a “good” person. (As if there was such a thing. We may be good compared to other people, but compared to a Holy and perfectly righteous God whose standard is complete holiness, we fall quite short)

Now on some level this sounds good. I think a lot of us would like to believe that everyone who is a good person was saved. We all probably know some folks who we would call “good people”, yet they don’t know Christ. It grieves us to think that perhaps these people if they don’t come to know Christ may end up in hell. So, I think a lot of us probably wish that we could be saved simply by being good.

But the problem is, it’s simply not the case. The Bible is clear that we are saved by Christ and Christ alone.

Again, this way of thinking that we can be saved by doing good works, is simply not true. If it were true that we could be saved based on our own goodness then Jesus wouldn’t have needed to die. There would have been no need for the cross. But hopefully we all know that we were in desperate need of the cross. We needed to be rescued, for apart from Christ we have no hope.

But not only would this teaching mean that Christ died for no reason, but what does it say about “bad” people? If “good” people can be saved, where does that leave bad people? I guess it damns them all to hell, with little or no chance of redemption.

But this clearly contradicts Scripture and even Jesus himself, most notably Matthew 9:10-13. Jesus tells us in those verses that He didn’t come for “good” people. Jesus says that He didn’t come to call “righteous” people. Jesus came for sinners, and he came to save sinners. Sinners like you and me!

So trusting in our own works completely misses and distorts the Bible.

There are also those who would tell you, (both professing believers and even unbelievers) if you were to ask them about heaven or how they get there, they would say, “Well, it doesn’t really matter what you believe as long as you are sincere.”

But friends, being sincere won’t get you saved. I have a friend who is very sincere that she doesn’t need to believe in Jesus to be saved. But she’s just as lost as she can be. A runner can be very sincere about wanting to win a race. But if he goes the wrong way he’s never going to get to where he needs to be. You have to know the way, and Jesus and Jesus alone is the way. Sincerity isn’t enough. Only Jesus is enough.

There is also another way that the Gospel gets distorted, and I think this is probably the one that most of us are familiar with. There are a lot of churches that are very intolerant of small differences, or what I would call secondary (non-essential) beliefs.

I’ve seen this in some churches who say you can only use a particular Bible translation. Some churches say you can have to dress a certain way, or you have to have your hair a certain length. Other churches elevate certain spiritual gifts to the point of making them a condition of salvation, or perhaps maybe a higher level of salvation…

But the problem is, none of these things are in the Bible. So what these folks are doing is adding to what the Word of God says. They are being more strict about certain issues than God himself is, which I think is a problem. We must be very careful not to speak where God hasn’t, or to shout when God has only whispered. We must put emphasis where God has put emphasis, not where it suits our fancies.

As believers our emphasis must always be on the “gospel of Christ” that the Apostle Paul spoke of. This is the one and only Gospel we see taught in the Bible, and we must be very careful to neither add to it nor to take away from it. We must never, ever, lose sight of this Gospel or the Jesus it points us to.

Let Us Consider: Neglecting to Meet Together

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“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” Hebrews 10:24-25

I’m sure these are verses that we all have heard quoted many times, especially by preachers who are trying to guilt us into coming to church. Let me say right now before we go any further, I don’t want to guilt you into going to church. I tell folks all the time, even the folks that I pastor, that it is not my job to beg people to come to church. Sure, I want you to know that I want you there. Yes, I want you to know that the doors are always open. Please, know that everyone is welcome. But, I will never beg you to come to church nor will I make you feel guilty for not being there.

Does this mean that I don’t think church is important? Absolutely not. There are few things in this world and in our Christian lives that are more important than worshiping corporately with fellow believers. In fact, as this passage from Hebrews shows us very clearly, corporate worship is a command from God. We are to “not neglect to meet together…” Why? So that we can stir one another up to good works, and encourage each other.

Likewise, in Ephesians 4 the Apostle Paul gives another powerful illustration of what is accomplished through the local church. Paul says that the saints are equipped…”for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God…to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine…we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”

The picture we have throughout the Bible, ALL of the Bible, is that believers WILL gather with other believers in order to worship God and to be built up in their faith. It is through the ministry of the local church that we learn who God really is. It is through the ministry of the local church that we learn what God has done and is doing through Christ. It is through the local church that believers are built up in their faith, grow in their walk with Christ, and are shaped more into his image. It is through the local church that believers draw close to other believers and build relationships that help them to love God and love others as Christ has called them to love. It is through the local church that believers encourage each other, love each other, and build each other up.

This isn’t just a preacher talking, this is the Word of God talking.

So, no, I don’t want to beg anyone to come to church. But what I do want you to know is that if you aren’t a member of a local church, or if you don’t attend a local church and serve in a local church then your faith WILL suffer. Your Christian life WILL suffer. Your relationship with God WILL suffer. Your knowledge of and affection for the Lord Jesus will not be what it should be. Perhaps most frightening of all…If you are neglecting to meet together with other believers, you are neglecting and disobeying the clear command of the word of God, and this is called sin.

As a pastor, I don’t want to see people coming to church because it strokes my ego, or makes me feel more successful. As a pastor, I want to see people coming to church because I want to see people drawing near to Jesus and growing in their relationship with him.

I was reading this week about the persecution of Christians in many parts of the world, and I was reminded yet again what an amazing privilege we have here in the United States to worship and speak the name of Jesus freely. In other parts of the world there are believers who have to meet in secret, and literally risk their lives to speak, sing, and praise the name of Jesus. Believers in other parts of the world would literally die to do the things that so many of us take for granted, and even neglect.

I said previously that I don’t want to guilt anyone into going to church, and I don’t see it as my job to beg you to do so. Those things may be true, but I do want to leave you with this encouragement: PLEASE, for the sake of your own soul and your relationship with the Lord, find a local church. Attend that local church, join that local church, be faithful and serve that local church. This is the will of God for your life – Scripture commands it, a thriving and vibrant Christian life demands it.

I’d Rather Have Jesus

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Jesus asks the question in Mark 8:36, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?” The answer, of course, is nothing. There is no profit, no matter how much you gain in this world and in this life if you lose your soul. If you lose your soul…then you lose everything. If you lose your soul, then you lose eternity.

As I contemplate this question from Jesus and the powerful implications, I’m reminded of King Solomon. King Solomon in the book of Ecclesiastes talks at length about his pursuit of meaning, purpose, joy, and ultimate satisfaction. Solomon in the first two chapters of Ecclesiastes talks about how he pursued meaning in laughter, having a good time, alcohol, his work, possessions, wealth, wisdom, and even sexual pleasure. Yet, in spite of all his pursuits, Solomon arrived at the conclusion that ultimately all of these things he pursued were empty and meaningless. Listen to his own words in Ecclesiastes 2:9-11, “So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all ALL WAS VANITY AND A STRIVING AFTER WIND, and there was NOTHING TO BE GAINED UNDER THE SUN.”

Solomon is basically telling us in these few verses, and really the entire book of Ecclesiastes, “I’ve done it all, I’ve tried it all, and I had it all…yet in spite of all I did and all I had, I found it completely meaningless.” All of Solomon’s pursuits left him empty. He found no lasting and ultimate satisfaction in any of it.

I think the question we all have to ask ourselves in light of these revelations from Solomon is, why.  Why can Solomon not find meaning or satisfaction in any of his earthly pursuits? Well, it’s for the same reason that you or I can’t.

You nor I won’t ever have the wealth of a King Solomon. (Just guessing) You nor I won’t ever possess the earthly wisdom of a King Solomon. You nor I won’t ever have the means to pursue the many things that King Solomon does as we read about his life in Scripture. But the same conclusions that Solomon arrives at in the book of Ecclesiastes are just as true for us as they were for him. You and I won’t ever find ultimate satisfaction, meaning, or purpose in the things of this world.

Why is this? Very simply because we weren’t created to be satisfied by the things of this world.

This doesn’t mean that everything in this world is bad. Laughter and fun is a wonderful thing. Most of us could use more of it in our lives. But it’s not an ultimate thing. It’s not why we were created. A nice house, more money, a lot of possessions can be good things. Wisdom is certainly something that we should all strive for. Even sexual pleasure is a gift from God. But all good gifts must be enjoyed in their proper context and with a proper perspective. The good gifts God gives us must not overshadow the God who has given us the gifts.

Is this because God is some cosmic killjoy who doesn’t want us to have fun? Absolutely not. God wants us to enjoy our earthly existence. It’s why he gives us good gifts. But ultimately those gifts are meant to point us to the ultimate good, which is God himself. God doesn’t want us to settle for the inferior pleasures of this world when he himself offers us the greatest of all pleasures.

Psalm 16:11 says, “…in your presence there is fullness of joy, at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” We know from Scripture that at the right hand of God is Jesus. So it is in and through Christ that we find the fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore.

The overwhelming teaching of Scripture is that God is the greatest good, the greatest pleasure, and the greatest joy. Only in a life focused and centered on God will we find true and ultimate meaning, and all of this is found in Christ. These things being true, I find the words of the well-known hymn “I’d Rather Have Jesus” especially pertinent, and my prayer for all of us is that these words would truly be the cry of our hearts:

I’d rather have Jesus than silver or gold;

I’d rather have Jesus than have riches untold;

I’d rather have Jesus than houses or lands;

I’d rather be led by his nail pierced hands

Than to be king of a vast domain and be held in sin’s dread sway.

I’d rather have Jesus than anything, this world affords today.

 

May these words be true for all of us, and may we all live our lives as if it were so.

Getting Religion & Rotten Sinners

 

It has become quite the fashionable thing these days to bash religion. Sadly, this is almost as common amongst Christians as it is non-Christians. I’m sure many of us have heard the phrase, “Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship.”

Don’t get me wrong. I get it. I know what people mean when they utter this phrase. The problem is it’s simply not true, nor is it biblical. The Bible speaks of religion, and not in negative terms. Certainly, there is a wrong way to be religious, and a right way…But isn’t this true of everything? James, the brother of Jesus, in his letter to Jewish Christians says this:

“If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” James 1:26-27

So James here isn’t speaking ill of religion. What James is speaking against is false religion. People who fail to bridle their tongue. People who are outwardly religious, but don’t have the heart to match. People who claim to be religious, yet are not doing the things that Scripture commands of them. As James says in 1:22, we are to be “doers of the word, not hearers only.” Basically, James is referring to people we like to refer to as hypocrites. John the Baptist and Jesus spoke against these same people.

So, you see, religion isn’t the problem. The problem is false religion. The problem is religion that doesn’t come from the heart of one who has been changed by the Gospel of Christ. R. C. Sproul in one of his books defines religion as what springs forth from theology. Another way to say it would be religion is what we do in response to what we believe about God. So, our religion (and ALL of us are religious because we all believe something about God) is our response to God.

Jesus was not anti religion. In fact, Jesus was probably the most religious man in the history of the world. Why? Because he knew God the Father perfectly. In the same way, Jesus being sinless, his response to God was always perfect. Obviously, this isn’t the case with us. Our religion is often very defiled…Our religion is often quite stained by the world and it’s ways. Very rarely do we practice pure religion…because our hearts aren’t pure. Yet, the problem isn’t with religion…the problem is with us.

We are sinful. Sinful to our core. We never graduate from this point. The Apostle Paul referred to himself as the “chief of sinners”, and he did it in the present tense (1 Timothy 1:15). If Paul, one of the Godliest men ever refers to himself as the chief of sinners…what does that make me? In Romans 7 Paul refers to his own struggles with sin and doing what he ought to do. Paul never ceased to be a sinner in his earthly life…Neither will we. This being true, our religion won’t always look like it should. Our churches won’t always look like they should.

So yes, sometimes religion looks pretty ugly. It would be very easy to write it off and say that religion is the problem. The problem is though, like I said, it simply isn’t true nor biblical. The Bible doesn’t tell us to stop being religious, the Bible tells us what religion is supposed to look like. This picture of pure and undefiled religion is what we are to be striving for on this side of eternity. As is always true though, we don’t do it perfectly. This is why we rest in our relationship with Christ.

It is through our relationship with the one who was perfectly religious that our hearts are changed and we are able in some measure to get closer to the biblical picture of right religion.

Becoming a Bad Calvinist

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I suppose the first thing I should clear up is that the title of this post really isn’t very fair. The things I’m going to talk about aren’t isolated to the world of Calvinism. You see it throughout the religious landscape. In fact, many times Calvinists themselves are actually the victims. Yet, Calvinists are my people. Their blogs are the blogs I frequent. Their books are the books I most often find myself reading. Most of my friends are from this tribe. Even doctrinally, I certainly still consider myself within the Calvinistic fold. All of these things being true, this is the world I know, so these are the things I can speak to.

Sadly however, I have recently discovered that I am a bad Calvinist. I guess it’s been happening for a while. I had my own suspicions. The other day a non-Calvinist friend of mine actually told me I was a bad Calvinist. I think it was because he and I agreed on too much stuff…That and I like to quote The Message translation of the Bible. Of course, it was translated by a man(Eugene Peterson) who also considers himself a Calvinist.(He’s a bad Calvinist too though, from what I’ve been told.) Even though my friend accused me of bad Calvinism, I still sort of shrugged it off . It wasn’t until this past week however, that it really hit home. I really am a bad Calvinist.

Why you say? What brought me to that realization? Well, sadly, it seems that many of my Calvinist brethren aren’t happy unless they are critiquing someone’s theology or pointing out the error in it. Certainly there are occasions that warrant this, but it has become increasingly obvious that we can’t even leave the minor points, or maybe it better to say the secondary points, alone. We leave no stone unturned. In fact, we are quite quick to even turn on our fellow Calvinists! The big debate this week has been over law vs. grace. Even though each party agrees on much more than they disagree, if only they would take a minute to listen to each other, but apparently it  has become a major issue of debate. It’s simply the latest issue to be put front and center. In a few weeks there will be another.

We are even quick to point out who are the real Calvinists and who aren’t. I’ve been told on more than one occasion that since I lean Baptist, I’m not really a Calvinist. Baptists can’t really be reformed. Sure, you can have a Calvinistic soteriology, but you aren’t really and truly an honest to goodness Calvinist. Even some Presbyterian denominations are more Presbyterian than others. The old school Calvinists don’t like the “Neo” New Calvinists. Oh, and you have to use the correct translation of the Bible. It’s all gotten quite ridiculous.

A strange thing has been happening with me though. I’ve just kinda stopped caring. I used to be ready to go toe to toe on any theological debate. Like I said, there are still times for it…but when it comes to secondary issues…You know what guys? I’ll let you fight it out. I’m done. With so many people desperate for a breadcrumb from the table of grace, it seems silly for us to be fighting over who gets the biggest portion at the table.

So, there you have it. I confess it…I have become a very bad Calvinist. I pray Jesus might still have mercy on my poor wretched soul.

 

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