This blog is the combined effort of four senior pastors of different churches. Their desire is to point you toward living a God-centered, gospel-focused, Christian life.

Monday, December 19, 2016

The Third Way: Beyond Escape and Beyond Despair

The headlines these days are difficult to read without the loss of innocence.  One of the more contentious presidential elections in generations, the unabated battle against terrorism, the decline of moral sensibilities so that our culture cannot even say that there are only two genders—these events give us a jaundiced eye and push us in one of two directions. 

One direction is to seek to escape the news by hiding in our own smaller world, attempting to make it as prosperous and peaceful as possible.  There are several ways that we can do this.  We can insulate ourselves from the world as it is by our selective engagement with media that we agree with.  We can protect ourselves by cultivating friendships only with people who think like we do.  We can avoid facing painful things by focusing our determination to do well in our work, in our families, and in our church community.

Another direction is to get grumpy and frustrated over the whole mess, wondering if there is anything worth the effort required to maintain a sense of optimism.  We fall under the weight of despair described by Longfellow’s “I Heard the Bells” (a song written in the throes of the American Civil War)—
“And in despair I bowed my head;
there is no peace on earth I said;
for hate is strong and mocks the song;
of peace on earth, good will toward men.”

Now, neither of these directions is entirely wrong.  In fact, at least parts of these responses are biblical ways to respond to challenging times.  1 Timothy 2:1-3 tells us that we are to pray for those in high positions in our culture so that “we may lead a quiet and dignified life”.  So, it is not entirely wrong to want to escape the painful realities of a sin cursed world.  As for the second direction, the Psalms are replete with grumpiness and frustration at the apparent triumph of wickedness.  Psalm 74:1, 10 provides a good example, “O God, why do you cast us off forever?  Why does your anger smoke against the sheep of your pasture? . . . How long, O God, is the foe to scoff?  Is the enemy to revile your name forever?”  So, it is not entirely wrong to get grumpy and frustrated over the apparent victory of evil over good, either.

However, there is a third way!  It is the way that faces rather than tries to hide from the realities of evil.  It is the way that acknowledges sin in all its horror and pain, yet it is not a way to despair.  This way is rather a path to glory.  Consider the words of the Bible, and note how sin is not minimized or ignored, yet it is no reason for despair, either.

“You shall call His name Jesus;
For He shall save His people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21)
Note here that there is hope.  A Savior named Jesus is coming.  But this is a Savior from sin.  Sin is not denied or ignored.  It is faced, faced by a Champion who will deliver us from its grip.

“God is so rich in kindness that He purchased our freedom through the blood of his Son, and our sins are forgiven.” (Ephesians 1:7 NLT 1996)

Note here that there is freedom.  This is not the freedom of hiding from reality.  It is rather the victory of a new reality.  God is so kind that at high cost, the blood of His Son, He bought our freedom from the shackles of sin.  Indeed, our sins are forgiven!  Sin again is not denied or ignored, but neither is sin triumphant.  God has purchased our freedom through Jesus’ blood.

“For God sent Jesus to take the punishment for our sins and to satisfy God’s anger against us.  We are made right with God when we believe that Jesus shed his blood, sacrificing his life for us.” (Romans 3:25a NLT 1996)

Note here that there is reconciliation with God.  To be reconciled to God, we must first face the reality that we are NOT right with God.  Then, we embrace by faith this remarkable fact that God sent Jesus to take the punishment which we deserve.  His death satisfies the anger that God has against us.  We are right with God when we believe that Jesus shed His blood as a sacrifice for us.  Again, sin is not denied or ignored.  Sin tempts us to despair, BUT it is not ultimately triumphant.  Jesus Christ provides the third way, not denial of reality, not despair over reality, BUT triumphant in a new reality—the forgiveness of sins!!

Here is a hymn describing our victory in Christ.  Note how biblical the idea this “third direction” is, as nearly every line comes from some text of scripture.

Before the throne of God above
I have a strong and perfect plea. (Heb 4:15-16)
A great High Priest whose Name is Love (Heb 4:14)
Who ever lives and pleads for me. (Heb 7:25)

My name is graven on His hands, (Isa 49:16)
My name is written on His heart.
I know that while in Heaven He stands (Acts 7:55)
No tongue can bid me thence depart. (Rom 8:34)

When Satan tempts me to despair (Luke 22:31-32)
And tells me of the guilt within, (Rev. 12:10)
Upward I look and see Him there (Acts 7:55-56)
Who made an end of all my sin. (Col 2:13-14)

Because the sinless Savior died
My sinful soul is counted free. (Eph. 1:7)
For God the just is satisfied
To look on Him and pardon me. (Rom 3:24-26)

Behold Him there the risen Lamb, (Rev 5:6)
My perfect spotless righteousness, (1 Cor 1:30; 1 Peter 1:18-19)
The great unchangeable I AM, (Heb 13:8; John 8:58)
The King of glory and of grace,

One with Himself I cannot die. (John 11:25-26)
My soul is purchased by His blood, (Acts 20:28)
My life is hid with Christ on high, (Col 3:3)
With Christ my Savior and my God! (Tit 2:13)

And in the words of Charles Wesley,

“Mild He lays His glory by,
Born that man no more may die;
Born to raise the sons of earth;
Born to give them second birth.

Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn king.”

No need to hide, no need for despair, our King has set us free.

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

A Little Lesson in Bunny Trails

There are many bunny trails that a pastor goes through when preparing a sermon.  It is not always profitable.  Lots of stuff concludes in a dead end.  BUT the journey is too important; the task of sermonizing is too significant simply to hurry through. I believe in the verbal inspiration of scripture, which means that God breathed the very words of scripture.  This means that I must account for the words on the page. So, here is one small example from my study today.

I am preparing for preaching Galatians 1:6-9 for this Sunday.  In verse 6, Paul uses the word "heteros" to mean "other" as in "are turning to a different gospel."  In verse 7, Paul uses the word, "allos" to describe "other" as in "not that there is another one."  Older commentators made quite a bit of this distinction between these two Greek words, "heteros" to mean "another of a different kind," and "allos" to mean "another of the same kind."  So, these older commentators pointed out that the difference in the two words as used in these two verses had significance.  (See, for example, commentaries by Robertson, Longenecker, Guthrie, Lightfoot, George, and Burton--I won't footnote in a blog, but if you ask in the comments, I will provide bibliographic data. :) )  Newer commentators, however, are of the mind that the two words, "heteros" and "allos" are more synonymous than they are different.  While the context of course shows that Paul is talking about folks who are preaching a different Gospel, one cannot make that case simply by an appeal to the two different words used in verses 6 and 7.  (See for example the standard Greek grammar by Blass, Debrunner, and Funk [known as "BDF"], and commentaries by Turner,  Dunn, Martyn, Schreiner, and Moo.)  The evidence is in favor of the newer commentators because the word, "heteros" was falling out of use by the first century and being subsumed by "allos."  But I had to know--was there a distinction?

It would be easy enough simply to take one of these opinions and run with it.  But that won't do for the pastor who is committed to verbal inspiration.  So, I looked at every text where "heteros" and "allos" appear together.  Here is what I found:

1) Where "allos" appears first, then "heteros," there really is not much distinction in the words.

Texts where "allos" appears first, then "heteros": Matthew 16:14; Acts 2:12-13; Acts 4:12; 1 Cor. 12:8-10; 1 Cor. 15:39-41; and 2 Cor. 11:4

2) Where "heteros" appears first, then "allos," there appears to be the distinction emphasized by the older commentators.

Texts where "heteros" appears first, then "allos,": Luke 22:58-59; 23:32,35; 1 Cor. 10:29; 1 Cor.  14:17, 19; 2 Cor. 8:8, 13 and Galatians 1:6-7.

There are two texts where these general trends are debatable.  In Acts 2:12-13, it could be understood there there is a distinction made relevant by the use of two different words.  In Luke 22:58-59, it could be understood that there is not a distinction (but here is a special case where there is yet a prior person [the servant girl] referred to which is being distinguished).  I'd like to suggest that the beginning of the disappearance of "heteros" in the first century meant that when the author thought to use this word first, he was intending to use it in contradistinction to "allos."

I still don't know if I will make anything of this in my message.  Likely, I will not.  However, if I am committed to the verbal, plenary inspiration of the Bible, I would do a disservice to God Himself, to the people of God, and to the gift God has given us in the Bible if I did not take the last two hours tracking this down.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

What Can One Little Sin Do?

It probably began with a conversation with his mother, for it was Ryan Lochte’s mother who first told the lie publicly. Ileana Lochte told USA Today at around 9 a.m. Aug. 14 that her son had been robbed at gunpoint just hours earlier. Lochte himself retold this tale to NBC about three hours after his mother had spoken publicly. It doesn’t take rocket science to figure out that Lochte was trying to avoid some embarrassment when he talked with his mother. Then, after Mom went public with what she thought was the real story, Lochte felt compelled to double down on his lie and restate it to NBC, and events spiraled out of control. Brazilian authorities interviewed all involved. Video evidence was examined. Lochte’s story did not add up. It was not true.

Many have commented on the wrongs committed, including how Lochte used preconceived ideas about Rio’s crime rate as a means of hiding wrongdoing. Oh, there are lots of wrongs here. American party boys acting riotously; the manipulation and maligning of Rio’s reputation. We can enumerate those wrongs and more. However, Lochte would not have been in trouble; he would not have lost his millions of dollars in endorsements and tarnished his reputation and that of the American swim team, except for one little sin. He lied.

The Christian message is that all of us are guilty as sinners. And sin is not defined by how “big” it looks to us. It all matters, and we suffer greatly because of our sins. So we need to admit and turn away from our sin and look to Jesus and his death at the cross to forgive us. Only by admitting our failure and pleading for God’s grace can we be made whole. Sadly, up to my writing this article, Lochte cannot bring himself to say that he lied. He “overexaggerated,” he says. He wants to hold on to his pride, which is the one thing he must give up to be made whole, whether with Brazil or with God.

By all accounts, Ryan Lochte is an amazing swimmer, winner of six gold medals and numerous world records. But his life came crashing down last week because of one little sin. That sin was not that he vandalized a gas station in Rio. It was not that he was drunk. It was not that he urinated in the bushes. The sin was that he lied.

Beware of what one little sin can do.

(This post was first published in The Pantagraph on 8/27/16.  See: )

Monday, August 15, 2016

Race in America and the Golden Rule

Almost everyone knows the “Golden Rule.”  Its best form, of course, comes from the lips of the Lord Jesus, “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12).  In fact, we think that we know it so well that it almost has no effect on our thinking or our actions.  I wonder if we know the Golden Rule as well as we might imagine.
As I have pondered this in my own life, I have discovered a fatal flaw in my thinking.  I want to share it with you so that you too might avoid the flaw.  Here it is:

When I think of doing unto others, I think of “doing” only in terms of my world.  I make no attempt to enter into the world of my neighbor.

I think that this is a deep flaw.  Here’s why—If I am incapable of entering into the world of my neighbor, I will not know what I would want others to do to me if I were in that position.  So, I have no idea what to do.  I am sad to realize this. I often have done nothing to others and have been quite satisfied that I have fulfilled Jesus’ command, because I myself would not expect something done for me.  All of this is because I have spent no time trying to enter my neighbor’s world.  I simply think about my world and what I would want in my world.  But Jesus wants us to think about our neighbor’s world and what I would want if I were in my neighbor’s world.

There is one very, very touchy and important place where this hits home.  Consider the recent episodes of racial fragmentation in America.  It seems to me that everyone wants to look at the situation from their own point of view and then act only from that point of view.  So, white Christians look at the situation and are baffled.  The laws prohibit discrimination.  The social pressure is all in favor of racial equality.  Where could the racism be?

The confusion is increased when one considers the general support that white Christians have toward law enforcement.  How could it be that one could not trust a police officer?  When some people murder police officers in cold blood, does that not prove that the allegations of racial bias are illegitimate?

It is just here that I would like to urge you to enter the world of your neighbor, your African-American neighbor.  The only way that you can do to your neighbor what you wish would be done for you is to enter the world of your neighbor.  Now, this is a LOT harder than you think.  It is tempting to think that if only you talk to one or two African-Americans in vague terms about racial issues, things will be clear.  The problem is that we are so accustomed to our own worlds that it is very difficult even to hear our neighbor.  Our culture teaches us to avoid clarity on this subject, and the vagueness can be a means to avoid hearing clearly.

My own capacity for entering the world of my African-American neighbor enlarged after I became the grandfather of an African-American child.  I see things that I did not see before.  My antennae are tuned to inequities that I did not see before.  I am ashamed that I did not see things more clearly earlier.  This probably means that when I have a personal stake in something, I am more aware of how to do good.  Jesus desires that I have a more personal stake in all of my neighbor’s worlds.  I simply must make every effort to enter my neighbor’s world.  (By the way, this same principle applies, if we are to love law enforcement officers too.  We must make the effort to enter the world of that neighbor too.)

This is living the Gospel, for that is precisely what Jesus Himself did.  The Christian does not have an option of living the Golden Rule.  He has received a command from his Master Who lived this rule to the greatest degree possible.  Jesus did not content Himself with knowing humanity only from the point of view of being our Creator.  He entered our world.  He became one of us so that He could do something very, very good to us.  He died for our sins.  The whole of the law and prophets is summed up by the Golden Rule, and the whole of the Golden Rule is summed up in the incarnation, death, resurrection, and intercession of the Son of God.  He joyfully became one of us in order to give us eternal life.

 “Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.” Hebrews 2:17
“For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” Galatians 5:14

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

On Being a Pastor for 30 Years

Today, I have been a pastor for exactly 30 years. 
I have a profound sense of joy.  Joy at the privilege of being a preacher of the Gospel and God’s Word.  Joy at how I have seen the Lord hold fast on to me, when dangers, toils, and snares were within me and all around me.  Joy to see God at work and to see glimpses of His glory.  Joy to witness people place their faith in Christ alone for eternal life.  Joy for the way God’s people have allowed me to share in their lives.  Joy for the way that God’s people have been the vehicle of God’s supply to my material needs.  Joy for the opportunities to encourage God’s people in His Word in distant lands.  Joy for a wife who has built up a sometimes broken husband with remarkable grace and fullness of the Spirit.  Joy for children who love the Lord Jesus AND love His church too.

Here are some verses that I have thought about today, as I thank the Lord for the privilege of being a pastor:

Luke 17:10--So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’”

2 Corinthians 3:5 Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God,

2 Corinthians 4:5-6 For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ

Galatians 6:9 And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.

When I first became a pastor, I looked too young for the job.  Today, I look too old for it.  However, there does come a freedom with that.  As Charles Spurgeon once remarked, “My good looks are gone, and none can damage me much now.”

For all whom I serve or have served as your pastor, I thank the Lord.  Onward to the next 30 years, as the Lord wills.  :)