Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Preachers Then and Now: Has Something Changed?

John Wesley once suggested that, if he didn’t get himself kicked out of town after he spoke, then he wondered if he had even really preached the gospel at all.

Somewhat of a stark contrast to what passes for preaching today, wouldn’t you say?

Somewhere along the way preaching seems to have evolved into a strange form of “feel-good-ism” that I’m relatively sure wouldn’t even be recognized as preaching the gospel by many of the giant preachers of yesteryear (ouch).

I will go one step further and suggest to you that perhaps a large percentage, if not an overwhelming one, of people today (including Christians) would not tolerate the style and theme of preaching of those giants of yesteryear. Oh, I’m sure that they had their objectors and ridiculers back then too, but the more I read and observe society around me, the more I am starting to notice the differences.

For better or for worse, has something changed?

Jonathan Edwards, who some would argue was one of the greatest of all North American thinkers and philosophers, preached a sermon on July 8th, 1741 that he called, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Here’s a small portion of it:
The use of this awful subject may be for awakening unconverted persons in this congregation. This that you have heard is the case of every one of you that are out of Christ. That world of misery, that lake of burning brimstone, is extended abroad under you. There is the dreadful pit of the glowing flames of the wrath of God; there is hell’s wide gaping mouth open; and you have nothing to stand upon, nor any thing to take hold of; there is nothing between you and hell but the air; it is only the power and mere pleasure of God that holds you up.
Wow! The image of God holding the unconverted up by the scuff of the neck while the poor slob dangles over the fire of hell is quite the picture, isn’t it? I wonder how many folks would remain seated in their pews today if such a sermon were preached at them?

Today it seems if “hell” has become the dirty little four-lettered word of the church. Fewer and fewer of us seem to tolerate it anymore; fewer and fewer of us even seem to believe that such a place exists, much less that a loving God could possibly send anyone there. The faith of many today edges closer and closer to a full-blown universalism, in which ultimately everyone will be saved, regardless of their belief system this side of the grave. But, if they’re still not saved, is there a third option besides heaven or hell? Personally, I haven’t found one in my Bible.

For better or for worse, has something changed?

I’ve shared this illustration before, but it bears repeating. I remember visiting a church once that was pastored by a friend of mine. On that particular Sunday there was a visiting missionary who had taken the pulpit. I do not recall much of his “preaching” except that it had nothing to do with the gospel at all. If memory serves me correctly, there wasn’t even one scripture verse shared. Instead, all that was shared with his captured audience was trivial stuff to do with his “post-doctoral studies,” a term he went back to time and again. I felt like throwing up. However, what surprised and saddened me the most was that the congregation seemed not to notice or care that there was nothing even remotely biblical in his “preaching.” As a matter of fact, they seemed to enjoy it.
The prophets prophesy lies, the priests rule by their own authority, and my people love it this way. But what will you do in the end? (Jeremiah 5:31; NIV) 
For the time is coming when [people] will not tolerate (endure) sound and wholesome instruction, but, having ears itching [for something pleasant and gratifying], they will gather to themselves one teacher after another to a considerable number, chosen to satisfy their own liking and to foster the errors they hold, And will turn aside from hearing the truth and wander off into myths and man-made fictions. (2 Timothy 4: 3-4; Amplified)
For better or for worse, has something changed?

Preaching in many places of worship today is not at all like it once was. Then again, if the previous verses from Jeremiah and Timothy teach us anything, they teach us that there’s really nothing new under the sun; this has all happened before.

Perhaps if preachers today were to preach the kind of messages that Wesley preached, they too would find themselves kicked out of town. Perhaps the reason there is so much turn over in many pulpits is because its previous preacher was in fact kicked out of town (or at least out of that particular church). Perhaps too, that helps to explain how it is that “1,600 ministers in all denominations across the U.S. are fired or forced to resign each month” (Viola, Frank and George Barna, Pagan Christianity? Carol Stream: Tyndale, 2008).

As for the hell question, I guess in the end everyone will have to wrestle that one for themselves. Certainly there are more than enough Bible verses to support it, but many have also found ways explain away those verses. In the end, God will make the final judgment on the matter. In the mean time, hopefully we’ve made the right decision too, or we’ll potentially have all eternity to regret it ... or do we?

For better or for worse, maybe nothing has changed.

Hmm. Thoughts?

Photo Source: Unknown (via Facebook)

Sunday, 13 July 2014

More Than "Just" Forgiven

"If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:19, NIV).
What wonderful news! We are more than "just" forgiven!
Have you ever asked someone to forgive you for something, and though they said they did, you still feel that the relationship has been damaged? Or perhaps you might have "forgiven" someone for a wrong, but you still hang on to the memory (and hurt) of it? I know I have.
There was an anti-bullying email that circulated a few years ago in which the story of a school teacher's lesson is shared. Apparently, she gave each of the students a blank piece of paper. She then told them to crumple the paper up, put it on the floor, and stomp on it. She then told her students that this is how the victim of bullying feels. She then told her class to pick up the paper, and say "sorry" to it. She then pointed out that the "sorry" didn't change much in the state of the paper. Finally, she asked her students to try to make it better. They proceeded to try to open up the paper and smooth out all the creases. Obviously, though the paper was better, it still retained the scars of the abuse it endured.

Relationships can be like that paper. Once abused, it is virtually impossible to restore them. The victim always carries a scar from whatever incident damaged the relationship. When we sin, we are abusing our relationship with God. John tells us that when we confess those sins God is graceful, and forgives us, but He goes so much further than that. He "purifies us from all unrighteousness!" It's as if He not only smoothes out the paper, but gives us a whole new paper. Our relationship with God no longer bears any scars of our past wrongdoing. That's awesome!

We no longer have to carry around the guilt and shame of past sins. How cool is that!?!?

Of course, there's more to the story. We, having been recipients of such grace, must endeavour to be as graceful with our fellow man. Oh, that's a tough one. I used to foolishly say that I will forgive someone readily, but if he persists in wronging me, I will save him from needing repeated forgiveness by keeping my distance from him in the future. So I have been forgiving, but not forgetting. Now before you say that we are not commanded to forget, take a look at what Jesus taught: "Then Peter came up to Him and said, Lord, how many times may my brother sin against me and I forgive him and let it go? [As many as] up to seven times? Jesus answered him, I tell you, not up to seven times, but seventy times seven" (Matthew 18:21-22; Amplified)! He wasn't saying we only forgive 490 times. He was saying 10 times the square of whatever you think enough is. In other words, when we think we've really forgiven someone enough, we've only scratched the surface.

How were we taught to pray? The Amplified version exposes a nuance in the Lord's Prayer that is missed in other translations. "And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven (left, remitted, and let go of the debts, and have given up resentment against) our debtors" (Matthew 6:12; Amplified, emphasis mine). The purification of which John speaks was understood by the early church as being a natural part of forgiveness. If we want the purification that God offers us, it seems to me that we had better make every effort to offer that same purification to those whom we have to forgive. In fact, Jesus tells us as much: "For if you forgive people their trespasses [their reckless and willful sins, leaving them, letting them go, and giving up resentment], your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their trespasses [their reckless and willful sins, leaving them, letting them go, and giving up resentment], neither will your Father forgive you your trespasses" (Matthew 6:14-15; Amplified).
God grant us the strength to love our neighbours the way that He loves us.
By Guest Blogger: Waldo Rochow

Thursday, 10 July 2014

The Reminder: Because Sometimes We All Need One

Credit: Matthew Buckley; Flickr Creative Commons
REMIND PEOPLE to be submissive to [their] magistrates and authorities, to be obedient, to be prepared and willing to do any upright and honorable work,

To slander or abuse or speak evil of no one, to avoid being contentious, to be forbearing (yielding, gentle, and conciliatory), and to show unqualified courtesy toward everybody.

For we also were once thoughtless and senseless, obstinate and disobedient, deluded and misled; [we too were once] slaves to all sorts of cravings and pleasures, wasting our days in malice and jealousy and envy, hateful (hated, detestable) and hating one another.

But when the goodness and loving-kindness of God our Savior to man [as man] appeared,

He saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but because of His own pity and mercy, by [the] cleansing [bath] of the new birth (regeneration) and renewing of the Holy Spirit,

Which He poured out [so] richly upon us through Jesus Christ our Saviour.

[And He did it in order] that we might be justified by His grace (by His favor, wholly undeserved), [that we might be acknowledged and counted as confirmed to the divine will in purpose, thought, and action], and that we might become heirs of eternal life according to [our] hope.

This message is most trustworthy, and concerning these things I want you to insist steadfastly, so that those who have believed in (trusted in, relied on) God may be careful to apply themselves to honorable occupations and doing good, for such things are [not only] excellent and right [in themselves], but [they are] good and profitable for the people.

But avoid stupid and foolish controversies and genealogies and dissensions and wrangling about the Law, for they are unprofitable and futile.

[As for] a man who is factious [a heretical sectarian and cause of divisions], after admonishing him a first and second time, reject [him from your fellowship and have nothing more to do with him],

Well aware that such a person has utterly changed (is perverted and corrupted); he goes on sinning [though he] is convicted of guilt and self-condemned.

Source: Titus 3: 1-11; Amplified

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Romping Our Way To Heaven?

Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 7:21).

One of the things on my current reading docket is a two-volume collection of writings by A.W. Tozer called, “Tozer Speaks.” In it I found this little nugget that made me sit up and say, Hmm.

I want to make a plea for basic righteousness, justice and honesty. Many in our day have forgotten that our fathers said, ‘Let’s do right, even if the world falls, or if the sky caves in.’ Shrewdness has taken the place of honesty, and we can no longer say with sincerity that we are a righteous people. Even religion – yes, fundamental religion – seems to be built around the idea that Jesus Christ did all the dying, God does all the justifying, and you and I can just romp our way to heaven, with nothing expected of us and no questions asked. Don’t believe it! Don’t believe it! If the blood of Jesus Christ cannot cure a man of dishonesty, it cannot guarantee his entrance into the kingdom of heaven.”

What are we to make of that? Here are some of my random musings around this quote.

First of all, I noticed that Tozer used the word “Romp.” That’s an interesting word. My dictionary says it means “an enjoyable time of rough and noisy play.” It reminds me of the old children’s TV show, “Romper Room.” Have some of us taken on a haphazard and laissez-faire approach to “basic righteousness, justice and honesty?” Are we rough and noisily playing our way through this life? Are we romping our way to heaven? Is it all a game? I hope not.

Having said that, if we believe that there are no conditions attached to salvation, does that mean that there are also no responsibilities? If there are responsibilities that we each have towards our fellow man, and if we deliberately ignore those responsibilities, then maybe we can say with Tozer that we “can no longer say with sincerity that we are a righteous people.”

However, in my way of thinking, there’s another question that has to be asked first: Were we ever truly a righteous people in the first place? No, not in and of ourselves we aren’t. “There is no one righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10). Paul speaks about us not having a righteousness of our own by means of obeying the law (and maybe we’re bordering on legalism here too), but that any righteousness that we do have comes strictly by faith in Christ (Philippians 3:9).

Yes, Jesus paid it all, and God has given each of us a free will, but does that mean that we then have no responsibility to conduct ourselves within a right framework based upon orthodox Christian ethics? Is there even such a thing? Does our “freedom” mean that we are licensed to sin (Jude 4) and live our lives however we want (Romans 6: 1-2) because grace has us covered? Has “sin” become subjective and thereby subject to interpretation? To listen to some professing Christians debate various “hot-potato” topics, sometimes I wonder.

Maybe dishonesty among professing Christians is a sign that, as Tozer suggests, claimed salvation may in fact be little more than a pseudo-salvation because it ironically keeps people out of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 7:21). But that raises all sorts of other questions, and I think I’ve asked enough questions for now to give us plenty to chew on.

Thanks for listening to my rambling musings. As always, you’re welcome to share a comment or two if you wish. Peace and Blessings to you and yours.

Photo Credit: Niccolo Caranti, Flickr Creative Commons

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Rethinking Our Faith Stories

“Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” (1 Peter 3:15; NIV)

I went for fellowship with some friends over coffee the other day, and one brother said something in passing that made me sit up and think a little bit. He suggested that, “We need to always keep our testimony current.” While he didn’t elaborate further, the thought of my testimony percolated a while longer within me.

How current are our testimonies?

If you or I were asked to give a reason for the hope that we have, what would we say? Are we still using an old and outdated testimony, an “I was born in the 1950’s to Christian parents and came to know the Lord when I was twelve” kind of testimony? That’s nice, but what has God been doing in your life since then? Will that kind of testimony encourage and bless another brother or sister? Will that kind of testimony turn a hard and unbelieving heart to the love of Jesus? Just as we wouldn’t use our first resume from our high school days in applying for a job today, so too in the spiritual realm we probably shouldn’t use an outdated testimony either.

How current are our testimonies?

I have often shared things that God has done in my life, wonderful things that at the time truly blessed me. When I needed Him, He was always there. For example, part of my testimony used to include a visit to the dentist’s office at a time when I could least afford it.

It was about 1990 and we had just moved into a new community and were starting over. As it turned out, I suddenly found myself facing a dental emergency, with no dentist and no way of paying for one even if I had a dentist. Money was extremely tight. Still, I had to get the tooth taken care of, and so I looked through the Yellow Pages for the nearest dentist and made an appointment. Soon the problem tooth was repaired, and as I pulled out my checkbook (knowing that the check would probably bounce), the dentist said to me, “No charge. Consider it a gift from Heaven.” I kid you not; it’s true! He did not know me, or my financial situation, but to this day, I’m convinced that man knew God. Who but God could orchestrate that?

I still marvel at that part of my testimony, but how current is it? It’s not very current at all; it’s more than twenty years old! What’s God been doing in my life since then? Do I have anything a little newer and more current to share? How’s my walk with Jesus been this past week? How about this past month? Or even this past year? As I thought about it afterwards, I think that’s what my friend was getting at as we fellowshipped over coffee at McDonalds that day.

How current are our testimonies?

I’m afraid mine needs some updating.

As I thought about that, I randomly found myself reading Jesus’ account of the Vine and the Branches. Could that have been God further reinforcing the need for me to update my own testimony? If I am truly in a living communion with Jesus, then it’s safe to say that there as also some regular pruning going on in my life in order to make me more fruitful. Perhaps sharing some of that pain (and pruning is painful) might bless and encourage others who are also undergoing a trial in their own lives. 
“I, in contradistinction to anyone else, am the vine, the genuine vine, and my Father is the tiller of the soil. Every branch in me not bearing fruit He takes away. And every branch bearing fruit, He cleanses it in order that it may keep on bearing more fruit. As for you, already you are cleansed ones because of the word which I have spoken to you. Maintain a living communion with me, and I with you. Just as the branch is unable to be bearing fruit from itself as a source unless it remains in a living union with the vine, so neither you, unless you maintain a living communion with me.” (John 15: 1-4; Wuest’s)
Are we maintaining a living communion with Jesus? If so, then by necessity we are also in relationships with others, Christians and non-Christians alike, and charged with the task of bearing fruit, in and for, the Kingdom of God. One of the ways we do that is through sharing our testimonies, our faith stories.

How current are our testimonies?

Something to think about.

Photo Credit: Brett Davies, Flickr Creative Commons