Core Ideas of the Gospel of Jesus Christ

Does God Gamble?

does-god-gambleGambling is not even a possibility for God: he already knows the outcome of every competition, the answer to every question. But there is a moment in the Bible when God makes a bet with the Devil!  It’s found in the most ancient book of the Bible when Satan taunts the Almighty and questions the sincerity of a holy man named Job.  The devil insists that upright man of faith doesn’t seriously love God but simply plays along for the benefits. In fact, he’s so convinced that he makes a wager: take away all blessings the guy has enjoyed and he will quickly walk away from his faith.  The sudden deaths of all his children and the loss of all his possessions leave Job’s walk with God completely intact.

So Satan makes a second wager. “Okay, but take away his health and I guarantee you he will curse you to your face!”  God permits his faithful servant to be physically afflicted within an inch of his life because He places so much confidence in Job’s personal allegiance. Wow!

People are wrong when they suppose the story of Job is written to explain why bad things happen to good people.  Neither Job nor his friends could have ever understood why he was stricken: the reason was a wager in heaven they could not have detected or explained! The real question raised by Job’s story is this: Who wins the bet?

The answer comes in Job 2:10.  When Job is covered from head to toe in agonizing, oozing, festering boils, his agony leaves him writhing in pain day and night.  What’s more, the mysterious condition costs him his respected status in the community.  Friends turn their backs and abandon him.  His grieving wife encourages him to curse God and die.  And to all of this, the man of God replies, “Must we receive only good things from God and never anything bad?”  The narrator then summarizes, “In all of this, Job did not sin.”

So God wins the wager- of course!  In all his misery and disgrace, Job clings to his confidence that God is good and loving.  Yes, he complains; but in all those cries of frustration, his concern is only that God doesn’t understand.  He pleads for some way to stand before God and make his case; to clarify anything God has somehow misunderstood!

Job’s tireless pursuit of God answers the other big question raised by the story: do believers really love God or do we just play along for the blessings?  There is no doubt that Job’s faith is fourteen karat, the real thing.  And ours?

Sometimes you and I make Satan’s case. We are attracted to popular titles and slogans that promise faith will make us happy: God’s Best for You; Your Best Life Now; Every Day a Friday!  We seize upon the fantasy “If God is in this, everything will go smoothly!”  When friends enjoy prosperity, we slap them on the back and say, “You must be living right!”

Except that Job was living right.  So was the Apostle Paul.  So was Stephen, the first martyr; and William Tyndale, who translated the New Testament in hiding; and Lottie Moon, the missionary who died of malnutrition because she gave her food to orphans during a famine in China.

The first and best blessing from Heaven is God Himself.  It is He who gives us life, meaning, and purpose.  It is Christ who holds the forces of the universe together by the power of His Word.  And it is He who makes Heaven heavenly, ensuring that all those other wonders of eternity can satisfy us.

In the face of a life seeming to collapse all about him, Job insists, “God is enough.” Whatever happens here, he confesses, when the skin worms destroy my flesh, in my flesh I will see God!  Job is one of the first people in the Old Testament to truly understand resurrection.  He’s also one of the very first to truly understand faith.  Blessings are just a by-product of faith: the presence of God is the prize!

To hear Pastor Cole’s compelling message, click Is God Enough.

And lift up the Cross!

 

 

 

God Likes Millennials

millennialsMillennials are truly the generation that gets no respect.  Everyone seems to agree they are entitled, cynical, and obsessed with their image on social media.  What’s more, they do strange things with their hair, run away from commitment, and are confused about sexual ethics. (They also like selfies too much, but don’t pretend you don’t.)

So I could assert that God loves them, but critics would reply, “Sure, but God loves everybody.  Duh!”  So let’s put it this way: God likes Millennials.  And there are wonderful qualities we should all appreciate in their generation.

For instance, Millennials know that God doesn’t live in a building.  You might demur, noting “We all know that.”  But in fact, quite a few of us in previous generations have behaved as though God does live in church buildings and waits for us to drop in on Sundays.  Until recently, most churches have ministered out of a fortress mentality: “everything that matters happens here in this building.” And saints have retreated to the holy bunker not only to worship; but to pray, to plan, to eat together, even to celebrate uninspired Christmas parties. Didn’t Jesus say something about a lamp hidden under a bushel?

We’re changing now because Millennials asked, “What’s so special about this stuffy old building?  God is out there… and so are the neighbors we’re supposed to love and care for!”

Paul tried to alert us to this reality centuries ago. Speaking to the pagan intellectuals on Mars Hill, he explained, “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands.” (Acts 17:24) Rather, he pointed out that even some of their own Greek poets had rightfully supposed the Creator God is all around us in the cosmos he fashioned, and that it is “in him we live and move and have our very being.”

That long-suppressed truth completely demolishes the false construct practiced by so many believers: that life is segmented into church life, family life, career life, recreational life, and consumer living.  On one hand, it means we should get over the myth that spiritual things only happen at church.  And on the other hand, we must embrace the fact that God is out there working all around us, and if we really love him, we must join him.  He’s at work in your office on Capitol Hill.  He’s on the scene in your classroom.  He is involved in the truck stop when you pull your rig off the road for dinner.  No more church life versus my life: it’s all God’s life.  Am I in or out?

I long ago stopped complaining about how liberal the Millennials are:  we were all lefties when we were their age.  “If you’re not a liberal when you’re young, you don’t have a heart. If you’re not a conservative when you’re older, you don’t have a brain.”  Time and faith bring profound changes.  So I’m confident we’re going to see some spiritual giants rise among this disrespected generation. They won’t be perfect, but they will rescue the church from hypocritical attitudes we tolerated too long.  There’s a lot to like.

For the companion message from Acts 17, click:No Interruptions, Only Invitations

And lift up the Cross!

living-in-the-mysteryPredestination may be the most offensive word in the Bible.  I know what you’re thinking: the Bible is full of words that offend one faction or another. What about incest, submission for wives, or the use of abomination to describe sexual activities now accepted by law?  The difference is that the mere mention of predestination can instantly create emotional rancor among saints who otherwise agree on nearly every other scriptural idea. For some reason, it can get church people riled up. It can send otherwise serene pastors into denunciation mode.

You don’t have to be a Calvinist (I’m not,) to recognize the idea that God selects some people in advance is clearly taught in Scripture.  “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined…” That is the clear teaching of Romans 8:29. There’s no question about God sealing some in advance.  The real debate centers on what is meant by “those he foreknew.”

  • Some suppose it means God knew them in an exclusive way.   That is, God knew some with a familiarity or a preference he did not express for others. Reformed theologians support this with verses like Romans 9:13, “Esau  I hated, but Jacob I loved.”
  • Others understand that an omniscient God can know in advance who will someday trust him, so he predestines those people- the ones already on track to someday choose him. Advocates of this viewpoint point to  John 3:16, the promise that God loves the whole world so much that Jesus came to die for them all.

It’s important for the saints to remember that there are serious men and women of great faith and integrity on both sides of the issue.  There are no ulterior motives on either side; no one attempting to distort clear teaching in order to water down the truth or justify some old sin now in fashion again.  The recognized voices in both camps root their convictions entirely in scripture.

I happen to be one of those who believe that God knows in advance who will eventually trust him, and that he somehow seals them ahead of time.  But I have huge respect for Christian thinkers who don’t agree: there’s absolutely no doubt that John MacArthur and John Piper and David Platt are godly warriors who would love to see the whole world saved. In fact, some of the most outstanding leaders of the Great Awakening could be called Calvinists. The celebrated sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, was preached by Jonathan Edwards, an evangelist who was convinced God selects some and deselects others.  He preached to everyone he could get to listen because he had no idea who was elect and who was not.

At Providence, we’re halfway through a series of 12 messages called “Fire and Spirit.”  The main point is that the God of the New Testament is not ashamed of the Old Testament. There are profound mysteries at the heart of our faith.  We can’t boil it down to an outline or a pithy slogan or a tidy formula: the mind of God is too vast for you or me to understand.  That’s why it’s so important that you and I learn to trust God at all times and be comfortable with mystery: the things we can’t comprehend yet.

And when I find that other holy men and women read a particular Bible verse in a way that differs slightly from the way I read it, my first response must not be “What’s wrong with you?”  The central ideas of Jesus Christ and His Gospel are so clearly expressed and so broadly accepted, it’s okay if you and I don’t completely agree on every mysterious idea that awaits us in God’s Word.

No matter what you or I believe about the Elect, only God knows who they are. Neither proponents of Calvin nor advocates or free will can detect them in advance: only after the fact. What’s important for now is that we all cooperate to get the Gospel to every creature. We all agree on that.  Let’s begin there.

To hear Pastor Cole’s companion message on Living in the Mystery, “click here.

Lift up the Cross!

Barefoot Worship

moses-and-god

This doesn’t sound very romantic or culturally sensitive, but it’s a fact.  When Moses takes his famous detour to a burning bush and finally encounters God, the Lord doesn’t reward the old man with benefits: he gives him a job. (Exodus 3: 1 – 15)

I think many of us in church life today have regressed to the smarmiest form of bait-and-switch evangelism.  We invite our friends to church, hyping the chance to make new friends or find someone to date.  Then there are all those other benefits: good cheer for the down and out, relationship tips for the lonely, great coffee for those in need of caffeine. Behind all this is our hope that one benefit or the other will lead them to God.

But that’s not how it happens in the Bible.  Jesus doesn’t heal every sick person in Israel, or feed every hungry mouth, for that matter.  The select signs and wonders he performs are geared to raise questions in the minds of all the other people. Christ understands that true worship begins with Mystery.  The greatest questions are about God and living water, not emotional urges and financial needs. We are asking for disappointment when consumers come to our churches in search of benefits. (Then most hurry away once again.) Moses begins his worship quest with questions he cannot answer.  Why isn’t that bush consumed by those flames?  Is that really what an angel looks like?  True worship is driven by mystery.

We minimize the power of God when we pass him off as a mere psychologist who can bring closure to the grief-stricken; or a relationship coach who can enhance one’s marriage. And we prepare our friends to behave like immature children: always asking what God can do for us next, never pondering our place in His Grand Design.  Benefits are a by-product. The point is God, knowing Him and actually being known by Him.

So it’s significant when God actually calls out to Moses by name.  Yes, this indicates He is not a stranger; that he knows this sheep herder who is coming his way.  But he doesn’t read the mind of Moses and offer to help him with his anger problem or relieve him of that stinking job tending sheep when he’s been educated in geometry and astronomy back in the palace at Egypt!  No, God simply says, “I’ve decided to free my people who are trapped in bondage in Egypt, and I’ve selected you to go and talk to the Pharaoh.”

That’s really what we all need in this world: an eternal Father and and a magnificent mission.  Consumers get the goods, but they never accumulate enough possessions or pleasure to fill the hole in each of their hearts.  Faith and Purpose do that, and who knows it better than the Creator who designed our souls and our brains, and hardwired us with DNA?  Significance follows life-giving relationship and service.

So don’t invite your co-workers and neighbors to worship because it will help them with their melancholy or offer them a short-cut back into the dating scene.  Tell them the truth: God is better than the Bomb.com, and church services can be an opportune place to search for Him.  Ask  them to join you in worship because you sense they’re looking for something valuable, and you suspect the answer to their questions starts with a capital G. And, by the way, there’s great coffee there… if they still need it.

To hear the companion audio message, Take Off Your Shoes, click here.

And lift up the Cross!

 

 

 

 

 

 

WHY is Not a 4 Letter Word

natural-selection

Why can lead to very, very painful questions, can’t it?  Why do bad things happen to good people?  Why was my child born with Down’s Syndrome?  Why was my fiancee’ murdered? Why me?

Followers of Christ can welcome ” why” questions, even the most heart wrenching ones. Here’s why: asking why reveals what you really, seriously believe about the origins of life and how we got here.  Just when it seems like everyone you know is celebrating Darwin and embracing the random evolution of the life on Earth, another victim asks why some tragedy has struck, and godless explanations of life on earth get shot to Hell.

If advanced human life is simply the chance result of random, unguided evolution, there is no meaning in life. Don’t even ask.  Love is not a commitment or a calling: it’s a chemical reaction. Family is not a divinely ordained institution: just a group of individuals linked by DNA. And if evolutionary biologists are correct, tragedies are just tough luck.  There is a real possibility that you could be in the wrong place at the wrong time, but there’s no chance it matters.  All you do is pass along genetic material, not even knowing if yours is the good stuff or just junk DNA your descendants will have to overcome!

People who respond to tragedies with “why” questions intuitively know they are created by God, even the ones who insist they are atheists.  The only justification for asking why something bad has happened to you is this underlying conviction that the world was created in an orderly way by a God who is rational and good.  The combination of intelligent design and a loving Creator means there must be a reason why unfair things happen to undeserving people.  In fact, only the idea of divine creation explains the universal belief that some things are not fair and everyone should realize it.  Without a creator God, the ethos of the slime pool is eat or be eaten: it’s lonely at the bottom of the food chain… just not for long.

Your brain looks desperately for meaning in major life events for the same reason it automatically searches for familiar shapes among the clouds in the sky. (That cloud looks like a bowl of spaghetti, doesn’t it?)  Your brain is the product of an orderly creation by a rational God who built meaning into every corner of life.  At my core, I sense I was made by God and He is good.

Genesis 1:31 explains that God finished his work of Creation, paused to gaze at human beings frolicking among the beasts in the Garden, and concluded, “This is very good.” Everything was fulfilling it’s purpose.  And that purpose was light years more elevated than the survival of the fittest.  In the real world, the fittest sometimes give up their lives so the vulnerable can survive.  Evolution can’t explain that either.

If human life is only a matter of chance and time, your family crisis is no more meaningful than a dead sparrow on a windshield.  Extinction happens, folks.  Only faith can give devastated victims a comforting hug and reply, “I don’t know why.  I only know that God is good.” And that resonates with a broken heart.

Why is not a four letter word.  It’s powerful evidence that most of us know more theology than we ever assumed.  Build on it to nudge shattered friends and neighbors toward the One who also gives meaning to life’s joyful moments.

To hear the companion message, GOD + 0 = EVERYTHING, click here,

Lift up the Cross!

childlike-faith

Kids take the winding path when adults choose the short cut.

Children wish they could make time move faster, but grown ups want to slow it down.

Little guys would rather play than eat. Big people want their meals on time.

And none of those distinctions were in the mind of Christ when he coached his budding apostles, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3)  When the Lord called for childlike faith, he had a specific quality in mind which he explained with his next statement: humility.

That is, kids realize they’re  small and need the care of more powerful individuals. That’s why toddlers become so clingy and insecure when one parent is away: they want as much adult care as possible.  As a result, little kids are comfortable being out of control.  Sure, there are those terrible two’s and occasional tantrums, but kids spend most of their time living comfortably under the authority of bigger people.

New Testament faith is the cultivation of that kind of dependence among the children of God.  Have you ever noticed how often people of faith are compared to children in the Bible?  I’m thinking children of Israel; the warning about causing one of God’s little ones to stumble; the directive to call upon your Father who is in Heaven.  Have you ever wondered why the model prayer set forth by Jesus includes a plea that God will provide us with our daily bread each day?

Childlike faith is the recognition of my scale in the universe: small, lacking in resources, and dependent on outside intervention from someone more powerful. Turning to God is not a last resort for people of faith; it’s the first line of defense in a world that seems seriously out of our control!

I have come to believe that’s why awe and wonder are so lacking in the Christian Faith of this particular generation.  Awe is a combination of love, fear, and surprise that leads to reverence.  An awesome motion picture leaves the audience sitting in stunned silence.  An awesome rocket launch leaves masses gazing quietly at the empty sky. Moments of wonder leave us feeling small; speechless in the presence of something vast and beyond our reach.

The trouble with grown ups today is that we have fallen in love with devices we believe can give us complete control.  My smart phone gives me mastery of my calendar, my photographs, favorite music, plus instant access to all my friends wherever they are.  Alexa orders flowers for my wife and turns the AC up or down!  That sense of personal power is a carefully curated illusion, but an illusion all the same.

In fact, cherished relationships can crash and burn quite suddenly- often completely apart from our actions.  Circumstances change, health conditions spiral downward, finances go south, best laid plans hit the wall, and cars come crashing through restaurant windows. Just last month a friend diagnosed with Stage IV cancer early in December was gone to be with God by Christmas Eve!   In the most important areas of life, the only thing I can affect is my own behavior; which can often seem useless at best.

Childlike faith doesn’t chafe at the authority of God.  Neither does it need to understand what God is thinking when he takes a particular course of action. Children learn to deal patiently with major decisions whose only explanation is “because I said so.”  So do children of God.  Because unless we are converted to childlike faith, we will never enter the Kingdom.

Take some time to be dazzled by the presence of God and the timeless power of His Holy Word.  Go out of your way to offer God true worship this week.  And lift up the Cross!

For last week’s message, The Trouble with Grown Ups, click here.

 

Is God Safe?

mount-sinai

Should churches be required to have warning labels?  Without a doubt, many of the secular elites who dominate the media believe that we should.  Warning: use of this product can result in unacceptable attitudes and incorrect behaviors including intolerance, superstition, changes in habits, personality changes, discriminating thinking, unwillingness to compromise, conservative values, strong convictions, ethical thinking, and a belief in moral absolutes.

Maybe that’s why so many of our friends in the Faith seem so eager to portray the church as harmless, just a place where nice people drink coffee, enjoy good music, and talk about relationships.  Many have described this as the “dumbing down” of Christianity.  It strikes me as a flashy but desperate attempt to repackage God.

And it begs the question: is God safe, really?  Jesus warned his budding followers that his ideas would turn their families against them.  He promised his disciples that they would be hated, hounded, reviled and persecuted simply because of him.  He encouraged people who wanted to believe that they should first count the cost: ideas have consequences. See Matthew 10: 34 – 38; Luke 14:28; Matthew 10: 16 – 25.  There are many places around the world in our own era where followers of Christ are persecuted, forced into hiding, arrested, and even put violently to death.

The same New Testament that teaches God is love also asserts our God is a consuming fire (1 John 4:8; Hebrews 12:29.)  Jesus strongly advised his disciples not to be afraid of the people who wanted to kill them.  Rather, he admonished them, “Fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!” (Luke 12:4)  Hint: it’s not Satan.

That flies in the face of well-intended saints who reassure us, “God doesn’t send anyone to Hell. People send themselves.”  Jesus does not agree.

There’s no doubt the New Testament is very different from the Old.  We don’t rely on the Law but the Spirit; don’t build temples because each of us lives in one; don’t relate to Mount Sinai the way we relate to Mount Zion.  God doesn’t shroud himself in darkness and warn us not to come in, the way he did in the Holy of Holies.  But despite the dramatic difference between the two Covenants, it’s the same God.  God is not ashamed of the Old Testament, the way we sometimes seem to be.

What has changed is the way we are able to approach the Creator God of Eternity.  It’s different because of what Jesus Christ has accomplished.  He has become the covering for our sins and selfish defiance of His Father.

That means that going to worship is not at all like visiting the mall.  What happens in worship and devotion makes true believers less comfortable with the evil ideals of our secular culture, not more at home here.  And the hottest thing in a church building should not be the Starbucks coffee.  I’m praying for the rediscovery of awe and wonder among the saints and our churches all across the USA in 2017.

To hear Sunday’s exploration of this idea, Lost in the Mountains , click here.

Lift up the Cross!

 

 

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