Core Ideas of the Gospel of Jesus Christ

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Coffee with an Exorcist

THE EXORCIST PHOTORob is not a priest: in fact, he’s a police officer.  On duty, one of his tasks is training other officers to respond to subjects who are agitated, delusional, or otherwise suffering from some form of mental illness.   It’s what he does when he’s off duty that got my attention. Rob rescues people who are demon possessed.

Believe it or not, a mental health professional referred me to him.  A trusted friend of mine had described an extraordinary scene that erupted at a small dinner among friends late one evening. When I recounted what my friend had experienced, the therapist replied, “I’ve never seen anything like that in the field of mental health.  It sounds demonic to me.”  So that’s how I came to meet an exorcist at Starbuck’s on a Saturday morning.

Rob’s assault on the gates of Hell began late one night in 2007, standing alongside an automobile in a mall parking lot with a troubled young man inside pleading for help. Over the next four hours in two or three different locations, he found himself staring into the eyes of Hell.  He prayed, quoted scripture, prayed some more, and even called in a local church pastor for a while.  Around 2:00 AM, an evil spirit came shrieking out of the dazed victim, and an exhausted young police officer, soaked in perspiration, realized The Exorcist was more just pulp fiction.

Many episodes later, he draws an interesting comparison.  In the first century, people tended to perceive demons everywhere because they didn’t understand mental illness. Today we’ve been so programmed to look for mental illness and mood disorders that we don’t recognize the spiritual, the demonic when it should be apparent.

To my surprise, he doesn’t invoke mystical words or the jargon we often associate with demonology and exorcism, although he can pray in Latin. What makes this guy so compelling is the way he draws on the sermons of Jesus and core ideas of the Gospel. “Certain events or problems seem to open human beings up to demon activity,” he explains. “Things like trauma, sexual abuse, and unforgiveness.”  Even Christians can suffer spiritual oppression when we allow resentment to build up in our hearts and refuse Christ’s commandment to forgive those who offend and injure us.  “You don’t do it for the other person.” he elaborates. “You do it for yourself.”

When he finds himself face to face with someone who may be either controlled or at least harassed by an evil spirit, Rob doesn’t reach for a crucifix or a flask of holy water. “Intercessory prayer is key,” he asserts. “Always begin with intercessory prayer. Sometimes, it’s the prayer that provokes the demon to reveal himself.”

Most of us are familiar with the Gospel accounts of Legion, a wretched man inhabited by more demons that he could count (Matthew 8.)  Crazed and out of control, he lived among the gravestones, screeching and howling every night.  In a world already sensitive to demon possession, his terrified neighbors could not recognize his problem: he was their problem.  Their conventional methods, binding him with ropes and even chains, had failed every time.  Jesus of Nazareth was not afraid to peer behind that familiar one thousand yard stare to diagnose the ancient evil that afflicted him from within.  He cast them out with a simple command.

Immersed as we are in high-tech and Twitter feeds, you and I quite naturally try to boil our faith down to a short list of slogans: the gospel for dummies.  We tend to be uncomfortable with mystery- even the mysterious nature of the Holy God of Eternity. Despite biblical assurances that his thoughts and his ways are infinitely higher than ours, we’re still pretty sure we can explain anything with a smartphone and a Google search. Think again!

Author and theologian John Piper recalls his own experience in an exorcism several years ago.  And he emphasizes 2 Timothy 2:24, ” Teach with gentleness, correct your opponents in love. God may perhaps grant them to repent and come to a knowledge of the truth and be delivered or escape from the power of the evil one who had taken them captive.” Notice scripture’s use of the word perhapsit’s complicated.

Demons are not science fiction.  Even as skeptics dismiss the very idea as superstitious nonsense, they watch breaking news reports about the senseless and agonizing death some human beings inflict on strangers and ask “How could a human being ever do something like that?”  There is obviously more here than meets the eye.

The Book of Revelation foresees a new wave of demonic warfare just as the Final Countdown begins.  In other words, we won’t get out of here before all of us have encountered demons in the escalating conflict. Our victory is certain, but it won’t be cheaply won. “They overcame the devil by the blood of the lamb, for they loved not their lives even unto death.”

Be ready for He is coming!  And lift up the Cross!

The Soft Atheism of Low Expectations

THANK GOD IM AN ATHEIST

Not many Americans would call themselves atheists; only about 3% according to Pew Research.  But that doesn’t count the practicing atheists.  I’m thinking about all the people who religiously go to church on Sundays but live the other six-and-a-half days as though heaven is empty and the Bible is fiction.

I’m not even talking about secret sins that weaken our testimony. Think about all those honest, open conversations between Bible believers, those of us who call ourselves Evangelicals.

Surely, we can all agree that friends must be able to speak honestly to each other, and without condemnation.  But when another follower of Christ confides in me that he’s undermining his jerk supervisor at work, what am I supposed to do with the New Testament idea of honoring God by the way I treat those in authority? (1 Peter 2:19) Atheism says the boss is a loser: he’s got it coming.  But a godly friend ought to sympathize, “Man, I understand why you’re so angry.  But I’m wondering if there’s a place for your faith in all of this. What do you think?”  No condemnation there!

When a married woman confides that her conversations with the new single guy at the office have gone well beyond innocent flirtation, what’s a friend in the faith to do? Atheism says we’re living in a whole new world: this seems harmless enough. But a friend who is also a believer has a different take. “Can we pray about this together?  It may feel harmless right now, but are you running away from sexual immorality, or tip-toeing toward it?” (1 Corinthians 6:18)  True friendship does require honesty, right?

In this week’s message on dealing with bad bosses, Pastor Cole reminded us how often we give each other a pass for doing evil.  Instead of coaching our fellow saints with faith and wise counsel, we tend to shrug and suggest we’re all only human. But that’s what atheists believe.  Followers of Jesus counter with 2 Corinthians 5:17.  “I am a new creation in Christ: the old has gone, the new has come!” Saints encourage each other to set our affections on this above, not the things of this world.

Suggest to a child that he’s not as capable of a B-average, and you’ll soon have a D student on your hands!  Tell a teenager it’s impossible to resist fornication, and she’ll soon agree with you wholeheartedly.  Imply to a Christian friend under fire that nobody seriously expects to be holy all the time, and you’ll soon have an unholy friend in an ungodly dilemma.

Being the salt of the earth requires more than merely influencing pagans and unbelievers next door.  It means we are willing to rub off on our friends at church as well.

To catch this week’s message, click Take this Job and Love It.

Lift up the Cross!

 

 

Is Your Bible Pink or Blue?

Lost and Confused SignpostA pastor in Houston has imagined a novel new reason to support transsexual bathroom laws.  “God is a transsexual,” he insists.  But in fact, God is a spirit. That’s like calling a creature from a distant planet in deep space “international” because he isn’t from the USA. God is not between genders: He is beyond gender. (Not to mention the fact that God doesn’t require a restroom.)

Just about a month ago, some anonymous soul put seven simple words on a plain white billboard on a county road in North Carolina: “Real men provide, real women are grateful.” It created a firestorm that rushed through the social media and spawned angry debates on national TV.  Had the sign said just the reverse, “Real women provide, real men are grateful,” not an eyebrow would have even been raised. In the words of the Joker, “Why so serious?”  

This week, the Barna Group released results of a study that indicates only 39% of evangelical Christians would accept a woman as pastor.  This clearly indicates the vast majority of evangelicals are bigots who hate women, right?  Except the same survey finds that 73% of those same Christians would be comfortable with a woman as President of the USA. That virtually matches the 75% of Americans at large who feel that way.

Many Americans love and respect women, and also believe in the secular agenda that men and women are interchangeable.  Many other Americans, conservative Christians, love and respect women but accept the authority of God’s Word.  That amazing Bible not only teaches that men and women are equal in the sight of God (Galatians 3:28;) but also teaches that elders in a church should be males (1 Timothy 3: 1 – 7;) and that a husband should be a spiritual leader in his home (Ephesians 5: 22 – 33.)

Christian churches not only respect women, we rely on them.  The same was true in the first century. Jesus shocked Jewish culture by allowing women to travel with him as he ministered.  His ministry was financially underwritten by women.  He encouraged women like Mary and Martha to leave the kitchen and sit with the men while he taught them.  He illustrated the injustice of condemning a woman caught in adultery while strangely allowing her partner in sin to go untouched.

But while Jesus included numerous courageous women among his disciples and even close friends, he selected only a few men to be his apostles.  You can disagree if you dare, or you can wonder what his reasoning might have been; but you cannot call that amazing man a bigot.

There is no doubt that our divine Creator is a spiritual being who is beyond race, age, and gender.  But when he reached out to teach us how to relate to him, he instructed us to call him Father.  Perhaps it’s only a symbol designed to teach us something valuable.  But rather than demanding the right to our own version of the Bible and our own politically correct definitions, many of us believe it would be wise to let God be God.

And so we continue to live with the Mystery.

To hear this week’s message, The Mystery ofMan and a Woman, click here.  And lift up the Cross!

Learning to Live in the Mystery

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!

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 vs Childish Religion

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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