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Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Freedom of Life in the Spirit

It turns out that as humans we really like rules.  We are far more comfortable with objectivity than we are with subjectivity.  Think about it.  When you need to make a decision, are you not seeking for an objective way to make that decision?  We make lists of criteria for making the decision or we establish Pros and Cons and some of us even go to the extreme of assigning numerical values to the various decision factors.  We feel comfortable when Choice A evaluates out at 12.2 and Choice B evaluates out at 11.9.  We can make a decision then because we have objectively evaluated the options and have determined the right solution.  We want definitive choices.

The other day I was talking to a friend about – of all things – the biblical qualifications for being a Deacon.  If you really read Paul’s instructions to Timothy, none of the qualifications can be objectively determined.  They are all subjective.  The right way to determine whether a potential deacon candidate is qualified is for a spiritually mature set of men to subjectively evaluate that candidate’s life against the qualification.  They should be able to look at the candidate's life and agree - "Yes, he is qualified" or "No, he is not qualified" – except we don’t like to do anything subjectively.  Therefore, we create objective criteria.  When the qualification that says a deacon must be “faithful to his wife” (1 Timothy 3:12) we say he must not have been divorced.  When it says they must be tested (1 Timothy 3:12) we say he must be a tither.  When it says he must “not [indulge] in much wine” (1 Timothy 3:8) we say he must never take a drink at all.  All of these things are good things that all Christians ought to be able to live by, but they are not accurate interpretations of the qualifications of a deacon.  We just are unwilling to make a subjective determination because we are hard-wired to be concrete and definitive.

The same is true of our aspirations to live holy lives before God.  When it really comes down to it, we sometimes have a problem with the freedom we have in Christ.  Exactly how do I live holy?  What do I do?  What do I not do?  We naturally desire to fall back into a set of rules and regulations.  Just tell me what I am supposed to do, right?   Even the WWJD Christian culture phenomenon of the late 90s and early 2000s was all about trying to come up with a set of objective criteria for living out our Christian faith.  Some people go as far as to put a heavy emphasis on the law, stating that even though we don’t live under the law, we ought to still look to the law as our guideline for what we do – and what we don’t do.  Can I say they are wrong?  Not really, but at the same time, I can't say that  it will result in holiness - and it might just lead to frustration and more failure.

The problem with this approach is that it is still all about behavior modification.  The reason that the Mosaic law was considered by Paul to be a curse and a slave master is that any set of religious rituals, rules, or written obligations leads to only one place –frustration and failure.   Christ fulfilled (and therefore put to death) the law because we could not achieve righteousness through it.   The law is just behavior modification.  Any intentional or unintentional replacement of the law that is also based on objective criteria is just a different slave master leading to the same place – frustration and failure. 

Even the very noble effort of following the example of Jesus Christ is futile religion IF the goal of following his example is to develop a code of ethics by which to live.  Thomas Jefferson did this.  He removed all of the supernatural aspects of the gospel and created the "Jefferson Bible - The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth" - which was basically a set of life principles to live by based on the life of Christ.  When you remove the supernatural, however, you also remove the true power of transformation.  The Bible does encourage us to follow the example of Christ, but the goal of following that example is to show us the nature and character of Christ - his DIVINE NATURE and his DIVINE CHARACTER - not to give us objective criteria on how to make moral and ethical decisions.  We study the life of Christ to learn about the character of Christ so that we can be transformed on the inside to be more like Christ, not so that we can know how to enforce proper behavior.

Living a life in the Spirit – that is, a supernatural life under the control of the Holy Spirit – is not about following rules or regulations.  It is not even about behavior modification.  It is about character transformation.   How many times have you been faced with a situation in which you knew the right – that is the Christian – thing to do; except that you really did not DESIRE to do it.  After a few moments of intense internal debate, you make a decision.  Maybe you made the right decision, but maybe you made the wrong decision.   The point is, the decision that you made was nothing more than behavior modification because deep down, you still wanted to do the wrong thing.  Even if you did the right thing (which was a good decision – don’t get me wrong), you really have not experience true spiritual growth.

When we study the life of Christ and realize that his actions in a given situation are not the same as we would normally act in a given situation, the ultimate goal is not for us to change our behaviors.  Granted, the immediate goal is to change our behavior because we definitely should do the right thing.  However, the real goal is for us to transform our desires and wishes so that the next time we are in that situation, we will not have to CHOOSE to behave like Christ, we will DESIRE to behave like Christ.  That is when we know that real transformation has taken place.

In this past Sunday’s sermon (Listen at:, I explained how we can achieve this kind of real transformation by gazing into the glory of God.  When we see God (or Jesus who is the perfect image of God) in his true form and character (or at least as clearly as we are able this side of eternity), it has a transforming effect on our lives.  However, because we see God so dimly, that transforming effect can be slow.  In fact, it takes a lifetime.  So what do we do in the meantime?  Until we are fully transformed at the resurrection, we will always fail.  We will never fully be holy.  We can try and try and try (again, more behavior modification), but we will never fully get there (because behavior modification ALWAYS fails).

There is hope and encouragement for us in this – the Freedom that comes through life in the Holy Spirit.  – and there is no greater chapter in the bible that speaks to our life in the Spirit than Romans chapter 8.  It begins with one of the greatest promises in scripture: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1).  Why is that?  How is it that no matter how often we fail at being holy, we will never experience condemnation if we are in Christ?  “[Because] the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom 8:2-4).

Those who are in the Spirit are immune from the condemnation that comes as a result of failure.  This is because even though “the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness” (Rom 8:10).  Yes, we work hard to be holy.  We make the decision to do what Jesus would do – even though we still don’t want to.  We gaze intently into the word of God so that we can better understand the character of God so that we can be truly transformed.  We work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12).  But when we fail, when we choose what we want to do instead of what Christ would do, and when we fall short of the glory of God, we can know that there is more than enough grace to cover over our failures.

How can this be?  It is because in God’s eyes you are already holy.  Yes, I know you are NOT holy and neither am I, but that is not how God sees those of us who have been covered by the blood of Jesus.   As far as God is concerned, we are already sanctified.  Hebrews 10:10 says that “we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”  In other words, our striving to be holy – our sanctification process – is so that we can become in reality what God has already declared us to be through the blood of Jesus.  If you think about that, you will find in it great freedom.

But wait, there’s more.  Romans chapter 8 tells us more about this.  “Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us” (Rom 8:33-34).  Did you catch that?  No matter who may bring charges against us for our failures (like Satan – who will be the first to point fingers at us when we fail), the only one who has the authority to condemn us for those failures is Jesus Christ.  But where is Jesus Christ right now?  He is at God the Father’s right hand side.  And what is he doing?  He is arguing in our favor.  The only one who can condemn us for our failures is actually arguing on our behalf!  Now that is freedom!  This is exactly what Jesus meant when he told Nicodemus that “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17).

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:35-39

Do you realize what that means?  It means FREEDOM!

Freedom not to be concerned that you might make the wrong choice.
Freedom to fail – not that you want to fail, but that it is OK when you do.
Freedom not to be ashamed when you do fail.
Freedom to seek God and know him more personally, rather than spending all your energies trying not to break the rules.

Freedom simply to live for God.

Monday, July 20, 2015

I Was Born This Way

“I was born this way.”  How often in the last several years have we as Christians heard this phrase used to defend what the Bible has clearly called sin?  More importantly, how sad is it that such a statement has been used to justify an interpretation of the Bible that justifies sin.  After all, if I really was born this way, how could it possibly be wrong?  If God made me this way, then surely he wants me to live this way.  It can be a tough argument to defend against – until you understand the doctrine of being Crucified with Christ.

It may be true that “I was born this way” but it is most definitely not true that God made you (or me) that way.   Both the doctrine of being Crucified with Christ and the doctrine of being “born again” are premised on the fact that humanity has become something that God never intended.  God did not make us this way; sin made us this way.  God knew in his infinite wisdom that granting man the free will of choice would result in his decision to rebel against God.  He also knew in his infinite wisdom that once sin entered the world, the very flesh and blood of his perfect creation would become corrupted – becoming something that he never intended – having within it a sinful nature – and that as a result mankind would become a slave to that sinful nature.  And yet still he created mankind because he loved us and wanted to have a relationship with us.

Fortunately, God loves us enough not to leave us in such a depraved state, which is why he sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to die for us.  This past Sunday our sermon was about being Crucified with Christ (you can download and listen to that sermon at  The beauty of the doctrine of being Crucified with Christ is that it is God’s answer to problem “I was born this way.”

Being born in sin should never be an excuse to live a lifestyle of sin.  We were all born into sin.  We all have a propensity to be enslaved by sin; and for most of us, there is that one sin that enslaves us more than others.  For some it is drugs.  For others it is alcohol.  It may be your sexual desires or your sexual orientation.  It may be your self-control or it may be your pride.  Whatever it may be for you, we are all essentially born that way. 

Fortunately, when we give our lives in faith to Jesus Christ, we are actually “Born Again.”  As we discussed in the sermon, scripture is clear that our Old Man (our former person or the person we used to be) has died – being crucified with Christ (Romans 6:6).  In its place we have become an entirely new and different person.  1 Corinthians 5:17 says “If any man is in Christ he is a new creation; the old is past away, behold all things have become new.” 

In other words, that person – the one was born “that way” - is gone the moment they receive Christ.   The sin nature that they were born with is dead.  Yes, as long as we are on this earth and until we receive our full inheritance as children of God – that is, our glorified bodies – that sin nature will still be present in our flesh.  However, it was put to death through our faith in Christ and so it no longer has control over us.  It only has life as we choose to give it life.  Therefore, once you are born again as a believer in Jesus Christ, you have the power within you to overcome whatever urges or desires you were born with.   You have been given new desires and new urges.  Sure, for some people it may take time for your new desires and new urges to grow in strength enough so that you overcome the old desires.  For others though, that change is immediate and instantaneous.  Either way, It is shameful and disgraceful when the Christ’s church fails to recognize that our sin nature has been crucified and so begins to justify certain lifestyle sins by saying it must be OK because “they were born that way.”

The problem that the Christian community in America has had over the last several decades when it comes to dealing with lifestyle sins is that we have been trying to judge and force people who are enslaved to a particular lifestyle to restrain their behavior.  You cannot restrain from behaving a particular way when in fact you are enslaved to that behavior.  We have then made it worse by judging them for being enslaved to something that they have no control over.  How wrong is that on our part!  Do we not recall that before we came to Christ we, too, were enslaved to sin?  Perhaps it was not the same sin, but we were no less enslaved and we were no less condemned.  However, as Jesus says in John 3:18, our condemnation was primarily the result of our disbelief – and therein lays the secret to how we really ought to be addressing the issue of lifestyle sins.

Rather than condemning a behavior that lost and sinful people have no control over, we ought to be addressing the issue of unbelief in their life.  It is the gospel that has the power to save and transform lives and so it is the gospel that we should be using as a tool to fight against all forms of sin – not just lifestyle sins.   Regardless of what sin enslaves you, it is the gospel of Jesus Christ that can set you free.  Unfortunately for some people, they are blind to the fact that they are enslaved to sin.  We cannot win these people for Christ by pointing out any one specific sin in their lives.  We can, however, win them (or at least some of them) for Christ by pointing out that “God demonstrated his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).  We are all sinners and we all need Jesus.  That is the message for all who are lost and dying in their sinfulness.

I have several “friends” who are enslaved by lifestyle sins.  They know exactly what I stand for.  They know how I feel about their lifestyle.  They also know I will never judge them or condemn them and I have full respect for them as people and as professionals.  However, they also know that I want them to have a faith in Jesus Christ.  So far, they have rejected that, but I have not given up hope for them.  I believe in the power of the gospel.  Perhaps one day they will see their need for a savior and when they do place their faith in Jesus Christ, old things will pass away and all things will become new.  They will see things differently then.  At that time, we will be able to deal with their lifestyle sins.  Until then, I will just keep sharing – and demonstrating - to them the gospel and the love of Christ.  And so it should be how we address all who are lost.  I, too, was born that way - well not “that” way, but I was born enslaved to my own besetting sins.  Now, however, I have been born again.  Old things are gone – behold, all things are new.  Unless I choose to give them life, they have no hold on me.  Glory to God, I have been Crucified with Christ and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me (Gal 2:20).

Monday, July 13, 2015

Pictures of Redemption in the Old Testament

During this past Sunday’s sermon (Click Here to download the sermon audio), I gave everyone an extra-credit homework assignment to go read the first three chapters of the book of Hosea.  Hopefully, you have done that already.  If not, I encourage you to do so.

Hosea is a beautiful picture of God’s redemption of us in our unfaithfulness.  To show Israel a living word-picture of their unfaithfulness to God, God commanded Hosea to marry a prostitute. He was commanded to remain faithful to her and to continue loving her despite her unfaithfulness.  This was to be a picture of God’s faithfulness to Israel (and really to all of us) despite their unfaithfulness to him.  Hosea was forced to watch as his bride became more and more unfaithful until finally she became bound up in slavery because of her prostitution.  It was then that God told Hosea to go rescue her, redeeming her from her slave owners by paying the ransom due for her bondage.  He was then told to gently woo her, continuing to show her kindness, until finally she returned his affections and lived with him in peace.  This beautiful picture of love and redemption demonstrates how God has loved and redeemed us – wooing us gently while we were in bondage because of our unfaithfulness and redeeming us from the slavery of our sinfulness until we also returned his affections.

This is only one of many living word pictures in the Old Testament that help us understand what it means to be redeemed by the Blood of the Lamb.  In fact, there are provisions specifically in the Mosaic law that are pictures of redemption.  For example, in his infinite wisdom, God had enough foresight to realize that fallen people would wind up in difficult financial situations, sometimes requiring them to either sell themselves into slavery – or to end up in debtor’s prison.  Therefore, the Mosaic law made provisions for a kinsman redeemer – someone from the unfortunate person’s family – who could redeem them from their slavery.  Likewise there were provisions for someone to be ransomed from debtor’s prison.  And if there was no kinsman redeemer – or no one who would pay their ransom, then God still made provisions for their redemption through the concept of the Year of Jubilee.  Once every 50 years, all slaves were to be redeemed by God’s direct command.  They were set free to have a second chance at their lives.  In the Year of Jubilee, all land possessions granted when the people of Israel crossed the Jordan into the Promised Land were returned to their original owners.

Even when it came to punishment for crimes committed, there were certain crimes – otherwise punishable by death – for which the perpetrator could actually redeem his own life by paying the appropriate ransom (See Exodus 21).  Jesus Christ was the ransom paid for our lives.

Sometimes, though, it wasn’t their lives that had to be redeemed, but rather their property.  God made provision for this as well, which is the basis for the story of Ruth.  The book of Ruth is another beautiful picture of our redemption.  Naomi and her daughter-in-law, Ruth, end up in a desperate situation after both of their husbands die.  They lost their homes, their property, and everything else.  They were essentially hopeless, relying on the good will of fellow countrymen.  In essence, they were beggars.  However, Naomi’s kinsman redeemer, Boaz, takes notice of their situation – and of how dedicated Ruth is to her mother-in-law.  He rescues Naomi and Ruth from the poverty caused by their widowed condition and redeems their lost property.  Their property is restored, along with their joy and happiness.  In fact, Ruth ends up marrying Boaz and becomes the great-grandmother to King David.  Jesus Christ is our kinsman redeemer, rescuing us from our hopeless condition and restoring to us that which was lost – our righteousness, our place in God’s family, and our inheritance – eternal life.  We have hope once again because he cleared our debt and purchased our salvation with his own life.

Another interesting picture of redemption in the Old Testament is the temple tax.  This tax was established in Exodus 30:11 and the whole point of the tax was so that each person would “give a ransom for his life to the LORD” so that God’s plagues would not come upon them.  This ½ shekel tax is a picture of the ransom that Christ paid for you and I on the cross.  How strange that the ransom of the temple tax was so small – and yet the true ransom price to be paid – that is, the life of God’s only begotten Son – was so immeasurably large.

Speaking of the ransom price, it actually turns out that a ransom payment was required to redeem every firstborn son in Israel.  In establishing the Mosaic law, God actually demanded that all firstborn be dedicated to God – and not just firstborn of the livestock.  God also demanded all firstborn humans to be dedicated to God (see Exodus 13 and Numbers 18).  These firstborn, therefore, had to be redeemed by either the sacrifice of an animal or the payment of a sum of money in order for them to remain in the homes of their biological parents.   It is a picture of the price that God paid – his only begotten Son – for our redemption.

And of course, we cannot forget how God redeemed the Children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, sending plague upon plague on the nation of Egypt until finally God demanded the lives of every first-born son in Egypt.  The children of Israel were protected from these plagues and were delivered out of slavery.

Even the story of Job – despite all of the pain and anguish and suffering that he experienced – shows us a picture of redemption.  In the midst of all of his sorrow, Job is faithful and cries out “I know that my Redeemer lives, and in the end he will stand upon the earth.”   Indeed Job was ultimately redeemed, having everything that had previously been lost restored to him two-fold.

Redemption is a critical doctrine of the Christian faith.  If we don’t fully understand redemption, then we fall into the trap of putting too much emphasis on the Love of God and not enough emphasis on the wrath and justice of God.  Salvation is NOT free.  God’s love is NOT sufficient for us to avoid the punishment of Hell.  We must be redeemed – and that redemption comes at a very high cost.  Often, we don’t think about what it really means – or what it really cost - for God to redeem us from all to which we were enslaved and in bondage.  However, to make sure we truly understand it, God filled the Old Testament with pictures of that redemption so that we can see and understand the great vastness of his love and mercy for us – and the price he paid to ensure we don’t have to face his wrath.  We just have to know where to look in order to see it.

Monday, July 6, 2015

One In Christ - Citizens of the City of God

Well I debated for a brief moment whether or not this week's blog should be about our citizenship in the New Jerusalem (in other words, an elaboration on Sunday's sermon - click here to listen to that sermon) or about my trip to Uganda. But after a brief bit of internal debate I decided that the two were really one and the same. My trip to Uganda actually demonstrates the points made in the sermon that all of us who are in Christ are really one people.

The people of Bwera, Uganda could not possibly be more different than you and I - at least from the world's perspective.   We live in modern homes complete with every essential and just about every available amenity.  They live in mud huts not usually larger than 300 square feet in size - many without doors.  We have jobs and 401ks - or if we don't then we have welfare. They are for the most part subsistence farmers barely surviving and the average person on welfare in America would be considered wealthy in their culture. We turn on the kitchen sink and flush the toilet without thought.   They hike roughly a mile one way to the river for their water and we will not even discuss their sanitary situation except to say that the best case scenario is a hole in the ground separated from the rest of the home by a bamboo partition.  Many do not even have that luxury. We drink our water without thought of its cleanliness - and when we do get sick, we have ready access to medical care.  They are a people who suffer from many (preventable) sicknesses.  Most of their sicknesses are related to contaminated water, general unsanitary conditions, and malaria.  Unfortunately, regular affordable medical care is simply unavailable.  And it is not that the care is too expensive.  Very small amounts of money to you and I bring untold medical access... The problem is that they don't even have that small amount of money.

Why is it so bad?  I will get to that in a moment...

But first, let me say that despite these drastic worldly differences, I've never felt so welcome and at home as I did with the believers in Bwera Uganda.  We have everything in common.  Our common love in Christ made for an immediate bonding and affection between us that was just as shocking to them as it was to us.  Bishop Tom Kiiza told me that his people just kept saying how kind and loving and accepting we were - while our team kept saying the same thing about them.   Our oneness in Christ created an immediate bond between us.  There were no civil rights stigmas between us, so there was no white or black, no African or American, no rich or poor - just Christians ministering to one another.  We were one people- the people of God.  We were just as blessed by them as they were by us.  The unity among the diversity was to me an example of what it will be like in the resurrection.  Together we were a foreshadowing of the City of God.

So why are they still in such horrid physical conditions?  Because they are exiles and sojourners in a hostile world.  Enough money has been poured into Africa over the last half century to more than solve world poverty.  The problem is that Africa is part of the world system, full of human failings such as corruption. If America had not been founded on Christian principles, we might be in the same boat as they.  How does the proverb go?  There but the grace of God....

There are lots of good, Godly people in Africa trying to make a difference.  They are being salt and light in their dark world.  They promote spiritual growth, education, sustainability, and the common good - all Christian principles- but they are doing so in world that is by nature hostile to God and the common good in general.

Our team from Designs for Hope ( did what we could do in a small amount of time with a relatively small amount of money. We did a free 3-day health clinic to ease some of their sicknesses.  We provided water filtration to help them avoid some of their future sicknesses.  We visited schools to promote education and share the gospel.  We provided bicycle generators to help their pastors and evangelists further the gospel.  And we held theological training to foster ongoing spiritual discipleship.

As fellow workers in Christ, this is how two drastically different people work as one people to advance the gospel of Christ.  We may be citizens of the US while they are citizens of Uganda.  However, that is secondary to the indisputable truth that we are first and foremost a single race - the children of God - citizens of the City of God.