Sunday, March 23, 2014

So, What's the Difference?

While reading through 1 Timothy it is obvious that Paul strongly warned his young pastoral protégé to watch out for false teachers. In fact, in 1 Tim 1:3-11, Paul reminded Timothy that he had been left in Ephesus, in part, to “command certain men not to teach false doctrines.” It seems that Ephesus was rife with individuals who bucked Paul’s apostolic authority and were leading the church into heresy.

On Sunday, March 23, 2014 I preached on the text above. (The entire message is available at In so doing, I raised two ways in which the modern church presents a partial gospel (which is no gospel at all). The first is the propensity to attempt to get people to “pray the prayer.” Akin to a shaman’s totem, we act as if there is some sort of magical incantation that inoculates a person against an eternity in hell. If we can just get them to “pray the prayer” they will be alright. Unfortunately, it is simply not true. There is no place in the Bible that commands someone to “pray and ask Jesus into their heart.”  

That does not mean that God doesn’t answer a prayer of repentance. It means that the prayer of repentance is followed by a life of repentance. It means that those who call on Christ and are saved by God’s grace continue to live by His grace.  It means that the promise of God to continue the work He began in us (Phil 1:6) shows itself in a transformed life. When we act as if “praying the prayer” is the goal, we proclaim a partial gospel that denies the call of Jesus to, as Dietrich Bonheoffer said, “come and die.”

The second way I mentioned we proclaim (or tolerate) a partial gospel is our uncritical analysis of popular preachers. Some of the most famous preachers today would fall into the category of “false teachers.” Specifically in the message I mentioned Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer. My complaint with these two is not stylistic; it is theological. Osteen’s comments are well known. His reticence to preach about sin alone is problematic. How can one know they need a Savior without knowing that their sins have separated them from God? In Meyer’s book The Most Important Decision You’ll Ever Make, she argues that Jesus paid for our sins in hell and not on the cross (second printing, 1993, p 35). If these two are mistaken about such fundamental aspects of the gospel, it is clear they are not a good source of biblical and theological instruction for Christ followers.

I was asked after the message whether my perspective on Meyer and Osteen also applied to secular teaching and/or teachers. Specifically, I was asked, what is the difference between listening to a motivational speaker and a person like Meyer or Osteen? It is a good question that deserves an answer.

Simply put, I have gained much from “secular” leadership speakers and writers. I credit Jim Collins, Malcolm Gladwell, and Patrick Lencioni. Though I do not know the spiritual condition of any of these men, I do know that they are not purporting to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. Rather, they are seeking to share their expertise in the area of business leadership. As they do, I evaluate their teaching in light of biblical principles in order to know which principles I can apply in my life and which ones I cannot.

So, someone may say, why not do that with Osteen and Meyer? Why can’t we just ignore the stuff that is wrong? Because Meyer and Osteen do, in fact, purport to be bible teachers / preachers. They are claiming to speak for God when they preach / teach. As such, they are held to a higher standard. Isn’t that what James said in James 3:1? In that passage he writes: “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” 

Claiming to speak on behalf of God (which is what EVERY preacher does) means that there is no preaching / teaching that is inconsequential. Certainly that is not to say there is not room for disagreement on minor issues of doctrine and theology. I’ve written about that here. Clearly, issues central to the gospel (like man’s sinfulness or the atonement) are not up for debate. The inability of Meyer and Osteen to be clear on these issues alone is an indictment of their ministry.  

So, who should Christians listen to? Well, I’m not about to provide an “approved” list of preachers/teachers/commentators. Doing so would be arrogant and could lead to a type of legalism that I find repulsive to the gospel. Instead, let me provide you with a “top five” of my favorite preachers / teachers. People whose podcast I listen to regularly and benefit from greatly. 

The Briefing is a daily podcast with commentary on social, political, and religious issues of the day by Dr. Al Mohler. 

2. Truth for Life (
Truth for Life is the bible teaching and preaching ministry of Alistair Begg. If I could only listen to one preacher the rest of my life, it would be Alistair Begg. 

3. Renewing Your Mind (
Renewing Your Mind is the teaching ministry of R.C. Sproul and Ligonier Ministries. Dr. Sproul has been a leading voice among evangelicals of the Reformed tradition for over 40 years. 

Let My People Think is the teaching ministry of Ravi Zacharias that emphasizes apologetics and the reasonableness of the Christian faith.  

5. A New Beginning (
A New Beginning is the teaching ministry of Greg Laurie, pastor of Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, CA. 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First

Last week I attended a conference in Florida. The conference featured preaching by several men who have been influential in the development of my pastoral ministry. I anticipated the conference greatly as the last few months had been quite draining. Pastoral ministry can do that. Providing pastoral care for Christ followers often means walking with people through some of the most traumatic stages of their lives. Repeat that several dozen (or several hundred) times and the effect is very real. And, of course, that is only one aspect of ministry.

As I sat on the plane waiting to push back from the gate, the flight attendant said something that caught my ear. Indeed, it sounded like something far more profound than I would have expected in a safety talk. The flight attendant was talking about what would happen if the cabin were to lose pressure. She said that, if that were to happen, an oxygen mask would drop down from a compartment overhead. We were to take the mask and put if over our nose and mouth and breathe normally. What she said next seemed to be why I was on the plane. She said, “be sure to put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others.” It seemed to me that was why I was on the plane.

It seems that in a low oxygen environment, you have to make sure you can breathe so that you can think clearly enough to assist someone else. Despite the instinct to want to help your child or someone else in need, without oxygen yourself, you will be rendered helpless. For pastors, this is instructive. We must put on our own oxygen mask before assisting others.

For me, putting on my own oxygen mask meant going to my first conference in about 8 years. The conference was designed to challenge and encourage my walk with Christ. More than that, it was a chance to break out of the regular routine and spend some focused time hearing from other great preachers and scholars. Literally, it was a chance to feed my soul.

Looking back, I wonder why I had waiting so long between attending conferences like this. Several reasons come to mind that I do not think are unique to me. So, I thought I would share three of the reasons I had not attended a conference in a while in the hopes of encouraging others to put on their own oxygen mask so they are better equipped to assist others.

1. I don’t have the time.
We are busy. We are all busy. You are not alone, nor are you unique because you are busy. In fact, it is your busyness that necessitates that you take some time to slow down and allow the Lord to use others to pour into your life. None of us have the time, but we all make time for things that are truly important. Ask someone who has been diagnosed with cancer where they found the time for chemo treatments and doctor visits. They made the time because their life was on the line. So is yours. Make the time.

2. I don’t have the money.
This is a very practical problem. Ministers typically do not receive large paychecks and, in the current economy, many churches are curtailing expense accounts. Add to that the fact that conferences are not cheap. Conference organizers have significant costs for producing the event and that cost is usually passed along to attendees. There are options, however, to fund a conference trip. Consider driving instead of flying. Then, consider attending with one or two other pastors. Splitting the costs of hotels and travel will help considerably. Finally, consider sharing your need with several key leaders in your church. You might be surprised at how generous they may be in helping making sure you are ministered to.

3. I don’t know which conference to attend. 
Once again, this can be a practical problem. It is especially a problem if you have attended a handful of conferences in which celebrated pastors share all of their “victory” stories. You know, those stories that make you feel like you will never measure up, that your church will never “get it,” and that make you feel more inadequate than refreshed? Yeah, I’m not talking about those conferences. I’m suggesting you seek out conferences where the focus is on the preaching of the Word. Putting on your own oxygen mask is not about trying to find a “better way” to do ministry. You don’t need a new paradigm or a radical new insight. You need to hear from Jesus in his Word.

I’ve given you my top three reasons…eh, um….excuses for not attending a conference in several years. Now, I want to hear from you. What other reasons do you have for not attending conferences on a regular basis?

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Abortion...What Can You Do?

Since 1973 over 55 million babies have been aborted in the United States. When you consider that the population of the United States is currently 314 million, the number of aborted children is approximately 1 in 6 of the current population. I find it helpful to think of it this way, because I can easily count up 6 people in a restaurant and be reminded that abortion has taken away one of them. Try it sometime….it is haunting.

More than a generic holocaust, the greatest impact has been in the African American community. It is sad that more African American pastors are unwilling to speak out about abortion. I can only surmise they fear political ramifications. Sadly, there is a close alignment with many in the African American church and liberal political policy. Yet, it is African American women (and children) who are disproportionately affected by abortion. Consider that in 2012, there were more African American babies aborted than born in the state of New York. That statistic does not come from a right wing political group or a pro-life activist, it comes from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. They report that during 2012 – among African Americans – there were 31,328 abortions in the city of New York and only 24,758 live births. Where is the outrage?

You may think that such numbers are sad, but, you think: what can we do? Simply put, you can support your local crisis pregnancy center. In the city where I live the health department reports that approximately 8% of teenage girls experience a pregnancy; that is nearly 1 in 10. Add to that number college age girls who experience an unplanned pregnancy, and it is clear that my city has a large population of abortion vulnerable young women. This is precisely the group of people that are ministered to by a local pregnancy center.

In my area, the local pregnancy center is moving toward becoming a fully medical facility. Being a medical facility will mean that the pregnancy center will be able to offer free ultrasounds to any woman who wants to verify her pregnancy. In addition, pregnancy tests, options counseling, life skills training, parenting classes, and many other needs are met by a local pregnancy center.

So, how can you help?

1. Pray. 
Those who serve in your local pregnancy center are engaged in a spiritual battle, not a culture war or a political debate. Prayer changes things.

2. Give.
In order for a pregnancy center to “go medical” and provide all their services for free, they need people to stand with them financially.

3. Volunteer.
Pregnancy centers rely on volunteers to provide client counseling, teach classes and many other tasks essential to their operation. Give of your time. You never know the impact you will have.

4. Share.
Let others know about the good work that is being done by your local pregnancy center. The best form of “advertisement” is word-of-mouth.

5. Pray.
Did I say that already? Let me say it again. Pray for women who experience unplanned pregnancies, their families and the pressures they are under. Pray for those who are wrestling with post-abortive depression and guilt.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Read the Book, Skip the Movie(s)

I've been asked by several faithful, gospel-concerned folks if they should see the new Son of God movie. Others have asked my thoughts on the upcoming Noah movie. As a general rule I do not tell other believers what they can and cannot do when it comes to matters of conscience. Having spent some time among legalistic Christians, I do not want to speak on an issue unless the Scripture speaks – either directly or in principle. So, if you hoped to get a “don’t go see it” or “yes, go watch the movie” directive, you will be disappointed. That is the Holy Spirit’s job. Rather, I will share with you a couple of reasons that I have decided against seeing both films.

First, any depiction of Jesus falls short of the real thing. It seems to me that if the Jesus of the Bible was accurately portrayed, half of those in the theater watching the film would want him crucified by the end of the film. After all, isn't that what really happened? Add to that the second commandment warns us against making idols (graven images). An idol is something that stands in the place of something else. We think of it as little wooden or metal images that represent a god. When it comes to film, the idol is just as real. We have an actor standing in the place of the real thing. That should give us pause. For many of us who saw the Passion of the Christ, when we think of Jesus, we think of Jim Caviezel. We cannot help it. And, that is one of the key problems with idols. We end up focusing on the pale imitation rather than the real thing.

Second, artists take too much poetic license with biblical material. I’m not attempting to be overly legalistic here, I promise. But, anytime there is a film adaptation of written material, there is the temptation (and general practice) of making the literature work better on film. It happened in a very popular movie recently. In Lone Survivor – the book – the rescue of Marcus Luttrell is pretty tame. He is walked up the side of a mountain by his host. He has tea with the man he was sent to kill. And he is found by Army Rangers who are scouring the mountain looking for him. In the movie, however, that just “doesn't play.” In the movie, Marcus is rescued as helicopter gunships strafe the village where he is located. The same thing happens in Son of God. Jesus didn't have a 13th woman disciple in the Bible, but he does in the movie. He didn't go into Lazarus’ tomb and cradle him to raise him from the dead, but he does in the movie. Jesus didn't look like a Calvin Klein underwear model and speak with a British accent, but he does in the movie. And on and on it goes.

But, you may protest, couldn't this movie be a tool to introduce people to Jesus? Well, I suppose. God can – and often does – use all sorts of things to speak to people. I remember one time he used a donkey to speak to Balaam. Though I am not sure that is his preferred method. If you decide to use this film to introduce people to Jesus, remember that the Jesus you end up pointing them to in the Bible is not the one they saw on the movie screen. The one in the Bible talks a lot more about sin and judgment and the fact he is God in the flesh than the one on screen does. The Jesus in the Bible demands your life. He demands that you leave everything and everyone for his sake. The Jesus of the Bible feels far less like a buddy than the Jesus in Son of God. Ultimately, my fear is that your friends may want Diogo Morgado’s Jesus to be their Savior rather than the Jesus of the Bible.

The issue of artistic license certainly applies to the Noah movie as well. Pre-release reviews have indicated that about the only thing in common with the biblical story is a guy named Noah, a boat, some animals and rain. Other than that, the depiction of why God destroyed the earth, God’s call on Noah’s life, God’s deliverance of Noah, and the like are far from biblically accurate. Indeed, several reviewers have indicated the theology is downright pagan.

Going to see either of these films does not make you a good Christian or a bad Christian. I’m afraid that too many Christians will see these movies for all the wrong reasons. The pressure of other Christians – especially through social media – who tell you that Christians need to see these films in order to prove something to Hollywood can be tremendous. Such people have their priorities mixed up. Our allegiance isn’t to Hollywood or to a Christian subculture that wants cheap imitations of Hollywood. Our allegiance is to the Jesus of the Bible. Our allegiance is to Christ, who I meet (and see) by faith, not on film. At the end of the day, I guess it comes down to the fact that I want my understanding of Jesus to be informed by the Bible, not Hollywood. So, I guess I’d say, read the book, skip the movie.

Monday, March 3, 2014

One of These Things (is not like the other)

When I was younger I really liked that Sesame Street segment that asked you to identify which “one of these things is not like the other?” Typically there were four items with one that was slightly different. As a song played, the viewer had to decide the commonality among items and, by default, which one was “not like the others.” So, fpr example, there might be four bowls of cereal on a table. Three were all the same size, while one was significantly larger.

We could play a form of “one of these things is not like the other” with three things in our culture: instant replay in sports, gun control laws, and the “n-word.” Our game is a little different, however. In our game, we note that there is one common bond between all three things, just as all four items on the table were bowls (in our example above). And, just as one bowl was a little larger than the others, one of our items differs slightly from the others.

Every major sport in the United States now utilizes instant replay in some form or fashion. The goal for using instant replay can be summed up with the phrase “to get it right.” We’ve all seen bad calls in sporting events. And whether we viewed that bad call from the arena or from our sofa, we wished the officials had seen what we (apparently) had seen. But, is getting the call right the only thing going on?

Although the debate over gun control was thrust back into the national spotlight after the tragic events at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, the attempt to find the most effective way to minimize gun violence is very old. In the United States, the British sought to control colonists by restricting the amount of gunpowder available to them. A hundred years later, frontier town sheriffs sought to lessen gun violence by banning guns in town. These efforts, as well as current laws, are all an attempt to lessen violence. But, there is a bigger problem that hamstrings these efforts.

Most recently, and the thing that inspired this post, is the current fascination with attempting to legislate the use of the “n-word.” This month (Mar 2014) the NFL Competition Committee will convene to consider instituting an automatic 15-yard penalty for on-field use of the "n-word," with a second infraction resulting in ejection from the game. The NBA, too, is facing significant pressure to address the issue. In the midst of all this attention, ESPN ran a special story about Marge Schott on the tenth anniversary of her death. The story highlighted Mrs. Schott’s frequent use of the “n-word” and her views on race. The goal of all these “n-word” rules is obvious and clear: to promote civility and treat others with decency. But, again, I wonder, is there something more fundamental that will hamper this worthwhile goal?

As I think about these three issues, it seems to me that all three have in common a fundamental misunderstanding of the human condition. That is the way in which all three are alike. They all wish to deny the truth of the biblical description of mankind. According to the Bible, Adam and Eve disobeyed God’s command to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The result was a corruption of human nature that separates us from God. The result is that we are unable to obey God and, worse, we are unwilling to do so. The point is that the Bible teaches that the problem is inside of us. It is in our nature. And no matter what kind of restrictions we place on the outside, we cannot change the inside. That fact flies in the face of assumptions that are behind all three of the issues discussed in this post.

Both gun laws and the attempt to legislate human language is an effort to reverse the effects of the fall of humanity without the gospel. Gun laws are developed with the (false) assumption that people are able and wiling to follow the law. The problem is that we have not figured out a way to create legislation that makes people good. The best we can do is attempt to manage evil behavior. And we do not do that very well. Why? Not because we have a lack of laws or because they are poorly written. No. We do not manage evil behavior very well, because the problem is on the inside. And until the inside changes, all the laws in the world cannot protect the innocent.

The attempt to legislate human language has the same problem. The Bible testifies to the power of language. The Proverbs 18:21 tells us that “life and death are in the power of the tongue.” The old notion that “sticks and stones break our bones but words will never hurt me” is patently untrue. With that said, all of the penalties and fines in the world will not change the human heart. Jesus said that it is “the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them” (Mt 15:18). Reigning in the tongue is treating the symptom. The problem is the heart.

Instant replay is a little different. While the other two issues are driven by a denial of the human condition, instant replay is an effort to live as if the results of the fall can be overcome with the right technology and the intelligence to employ it correctly. Every time a call is missed, we are reminded that we live in a broken and fallen world. Those reminders point us to the need for help. We need someone to fix the broken mess. We need someone to fix us. But, rather than turning to Christ, we turn to technology.

In short, our culture’s obsession with making rules in order to force people to behave better is an attempt to reverse the fall without the gospel of Jesus Christ. For all of the good intentions, all three efforts fall woefully short. The reason calls get missed, the reason people commit violent acts with guns, and the reason people use their mouths to disparage those made in God’s image is because we are sinners, separated from God. We don’t need more laws. We don’t need penalties and fines. We don’t need instant replay. We need the grace of God in Christ.