redemption

A Mystifying and Unexpected Event

lightstock-washing_feet.jpg

Servant leadership. It’s talked about a lot in books, conferences, and social media by church leaders and business leaders too. But it’s not so common. Talking about it and living it out are two entirely different things, as we all know. Sadly, the chasm between talk and action can be pretty wide.

Chapter 13 in the gospel of John opens with Jesus knowing His hour had come. It was the time of the Passover, a national festival and memorial. It would be the last Passover Jesus would eat with His disciples but one He would fulfill prophetically to provide redemption for all humanity (Luke 22:15-16).

John’s narrative makes clear what is meant by His hour had come (John 13:1-3), which prefaces an unexpected and still misunderstood event—Jesus washing the disciples' feet. The first five verses paint a paradoxical picture—the Son of God—sent from heaven—stoops down to wash the feet of His closest followers.

Have you ever pictured how this took place?

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One Throne—One Gospel

Christ before Pilate-Mihaly_Munkacsy-public domain

Christ before Pilate-Mihaly_Munkacsy-public domain

It's easy to oversimplify and generalize truth. Doing so can make it seem shallow or trivial. But my observation is that teachers who teach well take difficult to understand truth and make it simple. This enables people to gain a good understanding of what's taught and internalize it.

My basic philosophy of learning is that unless a person (myself included!) struggles to think something through, they won't fully understand it or internalize it. Simple questions and challenges to see truth from different perspectives are useful in stirring up productive thought.

I've been writing on a certain track of thought with previous posts (see links below) and want to bring it to a conclusion—there is only one throne and one King of Kings believers need to submit their life to and this is based on the simplicity and depth of the gospel of Jesus.

Believers need to submit their life to only one throne and one King of Kings

A short review

The presentation of gospel truth—the good news of God's redemption for all humanity—is most often given in bits and pieces within a western cultural context. I wrote about this earlier.

A cursory reading of the New Testament (NT) reveals the gospel is presented in five narratives—4 Gospels and a history of the early church (Acts).

The remainder of the NT books explain this gospel narrative and give an understanding of how the truth of the gospel and its theology impact daily life within the church and among people outside the church. 

The larger narrative of God's Story, as it unfolds throughout the Bible, is important for those unfamiliar with the theology of redemption. Even Revelation, the last book of the Bible, is a heavenly narrative of how God's Story will conclude at the end of the Age.

The larger narrative of God's Story is important for those unfamiliar with the theology of redemption

Worldviews and the gospel

Consider again how truth is processed by different people with different world-views. Generally speaking, western thought presents bits and pieces of information strung together until the whole picture is seen.

In MOTROW, information and truth are understood as a whole, while bits and pieces are only seen as part of the whole. When the truth is presented in bits and pieces a disconnect between what is believed and how one lives often happens.

The post-modern mindset is similar to MOTROW when it comes to understanding truth. This mindset may still approach things in a linear fashion, but there's a freedom to associate other truth or information to a belief. This leads to a belief system like Moralistic Therapeutic Deism mentioned in a previous post.

Are you performing well?

A common emphasis in American Christianity is on what is termed a performance-based Christian faith. This is the idea that I need to do something as proof of believing in God or being a Christian. I need to give something to show my commitment to God.

This is often spurred on by well-intentioned calls to the altar—to accept Christ, to recommit your life to Christ, to serve Christ, and so on.

As mentioned in an earlier post, altars are for offering sacrifices and gifts. I see this as an expression of self-focused performance, especially when repeated many times in different services.

Are these responses or calls to some altar of self-sacrifice genuine? Yes, often they are. But the question ought to be, are they necessary?

A common emphasis in American Christianity is termed performance-based Christian faith

Only 2 vows necessary

I realized long ago that there were only two vows a person ever needs to make—one to follow Jesus and the other being joined in marriage. Both are all-inclusive and exclusive. Neither requires any additional commitments because they are all-inclusive commitments.

The call to follow Jesus is simple and requires no further clarification—Matt 16:24; Luke 14:26-27, 33. God's view of marriage, repeated four separate times in the Bible, is just as simple—Gen 2:24; Matt 19:5; Mark 10:7, Eph 5:31.

Some may argue, "But there's more to it than that!" But I ask, does God see it that way?

Reading through the book of Hebrews, I'm reminded of the great access provided for believers in the New Covenant established by God's grace—direct access to God's presence.

This access requires nothing of ourselves as believers—no giving, no doing, just coming into His presence—

Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Heb 4:16)

There are no minimum requirements for entering and remaining in the Kingdom of God. The only thing God asks is that we come to Him—Matt 11:28-30.

Access to God requires nothing of ourselves as believers—no giving, no doing, just coming into His presence—His throne of grace

What compels you to seek God?

So, back to the question—altar or throne? How are you compelled to come to God? Are you offering Him something rather than yourself? Or, are you coming to Him in all circumstances, good or bad?

When my children were young and I was a young pastor, I had an open door policy for my children and wife when I studied for messages. I can become so absorbed in studying that I block everything and everyone out.

My wife would remind me of my need to make myself accessible to my children and her., so I didn't elevate my work or my interests over them.

This is how I see a believer's access to God's presence. I can come at any time, in any condition, in any situation and His door is open. I don't need to offer anything or ask special permission.

The Lord Jesus and the Holy Spirit are our promised intercessors (Rom 8:26-27, 34) ready at all times to hear us and be our advocates. Nothing and no one stands between believers and God.

How are you compelled to come to God? Are you offering Him something rather than yourself?

Guilt or grace?

Even as a young believer, I felt manipulated to respond to altar calls. I don't like being manipulated with emotion, nor do I want to just do something because it's expected or because I feel guilty about something. 

I'm not against altar calls per se, just the manipulative way they can be used and the assumptions made based on responses to these calls. I'm especially concerned about the self-effort I see people exerting to get into God's good graces. It's just not necessary.

God didn't ask Abraham to offer his son Isaac more than once. God accepted it and declared Abraham as righteous by faith (Gen 15:6; 22:1-18). Jesus only died once to justify those who trust in Him (Heb 9:12-14), this is made clear in several places in Hebrews.

Is there any need for doing something additional? If you think so, you don't understand God's grace. God doesn't manipulate us nor does He use guilt or shame to bring us to Him.

God doesn't manipulate us nor does He use guilt or shame to bring us to Him

Confidence in God and His grace

I laid my life at God's altar and I made a vow to my wife over 45 years ago. I don't need to make any more vows or make any sacrifices to gain the Lord's acceptance.

I approach God's throne with confidence when I am in need, though I still fall far short of perfection. My perfection—my sense of completeness—is only found in my Lord and Savior Jesus. I had nothing to offer long ago and still don't, but He has all I am.

What about you?

Are you going to God's altar and waiting for Him to accept you? Or, are you going boldly before His throne of grace at any time whatever your need? (Heb 4:14-16)

Jesus calls each of us to deny our self and take up the Cross, and then follow Him in faith. He doesn't ask us to make more vows at an altar of self-sacrifice. He invites us to come to Him because of His grace, and as the traditional hymn declares—Just as I am.

God doesn't ask us to come to an altar of self-sacrifice but invites us to come to Him because of His grace

Links of previous related posts—

Many Altars but One Gospel

Altar or Throne?

Altar or Throne?

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Last week I started looking at what may seem an anomaly but is more typical than we'd like to accept. By we, I mean Christian believers who hold the Bible as authoritative in matters of faith.

Over many years, a cultural shift took place within the church in America. It impacted both beliefs and practices. This shift has been addressed by many, and in one instance given a term—moralistic therapeutic deism.

This cultural shift impacts the church in a powerful way because what people believe in their hearts is directly connected to how they live.

Professed beliefs don't always line up with what's held in the heart. You've likely heard the expression, "do as I say, not as I do," but the reality is that actions speak louder than words.

What people believe in their hearts is directly connected to how they live

A disconnect

Perhaps the question to answer is—Why is there a disconnect between what is believed and how one lives? What people say they believe and what they do and say in their daily lives are often incongruent. They may talk like Christians but they live like agnostics and atheists.

It's similar to what cross-cultural missionaries contend with when sharing the gospel within another culture than their own. Beliefs are often traditional, even cultural, but don't seem to have much impact on daily life.

An article I read by Dr. Philemon Yong said this about how westerners present the Gospel and why it can lead to an animistic belief—

"The gospel comes not as a story that has a beginning, middle and end. The parts, though true, are not always connected. Worse yet, the content of the beliefs is never defined, and the relation of the gospel to specific cultural practices is often left untouched, leaving the hearer to decide for himself what it means for him to now follow Jesus."

Along with articles noted in a previous post, it's not hard to see similarities to how the gospel is often presented in the US with similar results.

Is there a disconnect between what you believe and how you live?

What gospel have you heard?

How have you heard the gospel shared with you? How do you share it with others? Was it something like—"Jesus died for your sins!"—or—"God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life!"?

Phrases and statements like these are certainly true, but they are just fragments of the whole truth of God's redemption. I've posted about this on many occasions (see links below) and wrote a book prompted by this concern.

When we reduce the gospel to a phrase focused on what's needed to get into heaven, we minimize the work of Christ's redemptive work on the cross. We also ignore the gospel Jesus preached (Matt 4:17; 5:1–7:28; Luke 4:18-19; 9:1-2).

Do we preach the gospel Jesus preached or a minimized version?

Why this matters

In western culture, thinking is more linear—a line of thought in a logical and systematic thought process. Piecing separate bits of information together to understand a larger truth comes more naturally for well-educated people in a western culture.

Non-western cultures, as in Asian, Mideastern, or African nations, think more globally or holistically. The parts are seen in the whole but not extracted or extrapolated apart from the whole. The details of the whole aren't separated out to consider but seen as part of the whole.

This fits with how eastern cultures put less importance on individuality, which is typically emphasized in western cultures. Non-western cultures elevate the value of a group, family, community, or national identity over individual interests.

People who are non-analytical thinkers don't piece things together the same way as analytical and linear thinkers. Consequently, the less analytical thinker hold bits and pieces of truth that can also be associated with other information or beliefs.

Global thinkers don't piece things together as analytical and linear thinkers do

Altar or throne?

When you come to God, are you coming to His altar or His throne? Perhaps you wonder if there's much of a difference. There is!

Altars are erected as places of offerings, often sacrificial offerings. Thrones are places of authority. Things offered on altars typically cost a person something. There's effort involved in presenting what's offered.

People sit on thrones—people in authority. Those who approach whoever sits on the throne acknowledge the authority of the one who sits on the throne. Their acknowledgment is shown by some type of submission, allegiance, respect, or honor.

When you come to God, are you coming to His altar or His throne?

Christian altars

As a young believer, I remember calls to "come to the altar" to give my life to Jesus or rededicate it to Him. At other times, calls to come to the altar were for repentance, healing, dedication to some service for God, or whatever else the speaker exhorted people to do.

In my early days, I responded to these calls because I thought it was expected. As I matured in my faith, I realized I didn't need to respond to these various altar calls because they often didn't apply to me.

The throne of grace

I also realized that Jesus' call to follow Him was an all-inclusive commitment (Matt 16:24-26). I didn't need to make individual or special commitments, I just needed to follow through on my initial commitment to follow Jesus.

I realized Jesus' call to follow Him was an all-inclusive commitment of my life

This singular and continuous commitment is reinforced in the book of Hebrews—

...let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 
Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16 ESV)

How do you approach God?

Let me ask my earlier question again. When you come to God, are you coming to His altar or His throne? We are told in the book of Hebrews that the tabernacle under the Old Covenant was a copy of what was in heaven (Heb 8:5-6).

The layout of the tabernacle had the altar outside. This is where sacrifices were made. Only the blood of atonement was brought inside to the innermost room and only once a year by only one person (Heb 9:7-8, 11-15).

That innermost room—called the Most Holy Place—represented the very presence of God above the mercy seat with its golden cherubim (Heb 9:4-5). Jesus made His atoning sacrifice once for all (Heb 7:27; 9:12, 26, 28; 10:2, 10, 12, 14) in the very presence of the Father.

No sacrifices needed or required

God neither desires or requires any further sacrifice from us—those of us who trust in Him by faith because of His grace. Jesus invites us to follow Him in a simple way. If we choose to follow Him, He says we need to deny our selfish nature and die to our self and live for Him (Mark 8:34-37).

Personally, I accepted the sacrifice of Jesus as perfect and complete, and that I could not nor need not offer any further sacrifice to Him. I chose to commit my life to Him many years ago and I affirm that commitment on a daily basis (Luke 9:23).

So, how do you approach God? Are you bringing Him a sacrifice of some kind or trusting in Jesus and His perfect, once-for-all atoning sacrifice?

Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace!

Connecting Your Story with God's Story

Photo by  Phil Coffman  on  Unsplash

Photo by Phil Coffman on Unsplash

I heard many dramatic testimonies of God's work when I was a young believer. It was the early days of the Jesus People Movement, an exciting, dynamic time.

Story after story recounted how God set people free from dark deeds and lost lives. Each time I heard these stories, my own life story paled in comparison.

I wondered if my story had much value.

How about you? Have you ever wondered if you have much of a Christian testimony?

The tale of the Christian testimony

I wasn't raised in an evangelical Christian home, but I did have a belief in God. I went through confirmation classes in an Episcopal church but soon questioned the church and Christiin general.

As the 60's rolled in, I rolled with them. But still, I was never in a gang, nor strung out on heroin, and never went to jail. In short, my life before following Jesus wasn't dramatic or sensational.

Don't get me wrong, I was no saint, and my life was not exemplary of any virtues. But my pre-Jesus life wouldn't be featured in magazines or on any talk shows.

Your life story doesn't have to be dramatic or exciting to be worth sharing

The value of our life story

I've thought about this over the years. My four children grew up in church—from the nursery to youth group. They don't have exciting testimonies. Neither does my wife and I, but we all have valuable life stories.

It's time to put aside stereotypes and unnecessary expectations when it comes to sharing our life stories. It doesn't have to be dramatic, nor difficult.

Each person's life story has value because each person has value. You and I have value in other people's lives, and that's not just positive spin.

Ok, so you're not an evangelist nor a rock star. Neither am I. But how your life story connects with God's story is worth hearing. It's real and genuine because it's true.

Each person's life story has value. It's real and genuine, because it's true.

Connected stories

So, how can you share your life story so it connects with God's story, to connect others with Him?

Here's some simple guidance to do this—

God's story

Look for stories in the Bible you can relate to and that resonate with your own life. They could be in the Old or New Testament, a parable, or part of a larger story.

It's helpful when stories have an element of redemption in them.

Then, learn these stories by heart and in your own words (IYOW). These biblical stories should flow out of your heart in a natural way.

Your story

Keep it short and simple. You can always share more details when people ask for them. Going on and on with details turns people off, and shuts down discussion.

Keep your life story short and simple. You don't need to be the center of attention.

Write out a brief outline, reduce it down, and focus on how you started following Jesus.

Here's a guide to help you— Guidelines-LifeStory

Life story of other people

You need to ask people for their life story. Then, you need to listen, really listen.

We can be so focused on what we want to say that we ignore the person instead of connecting with them. Listening well is important!

People will share their story, and be open to hearing ours when they know we care about them.

People will be open to hear our life story when they know we care about them.

When we gain people's respect and trust we can share God's story with them.

How to connect

  • Pay attention to who you come in contact with in daily life
  • Consider people with whom you have some influence in everyday life
  • Be attentive to what's going on in other people's lives
  • Be considerate and compassionate with others
  • Look for an opportunity to connect God's story to another person's story
  • When you've made a connection it opens the door to share your story
  • Let God make the connection by His Spirit—don't force it!

What's your experience in sharing God's story and your story with others?


When you do make a connection with someone and want to share your story of faith and the gospel with them—remember to explain Christian terms and Bible verses in your own words (IYOW)! Here are a couple of posts related to how and why to do that—

IYOW—a Useful Acronym

The Illusion of Obscure Language

The 3 R's of the Gospel

Photo credit:
Photo credit:

Some things just can't be improved on. Not that people don't try.

The 3 R's of education—reading, (w)'riting, and (a)'rithmetic—are still essential to a sound, practical education. Various approaches and strategies of learning have been tried, but the basics, and even the old one-room schoolhouse environment, have great merit.

Fads and trends come and go in most areas of life, especially when it comes to diets. The basics of good nutrition, limiting calories, and regular exercise are still fundamental to good health.

So it is with the Christian faith, especially its core—the gospel. Different paradigms and approaches are popular for a time, but the redemptive story of God's love is still the most simple and powerful element of Christianity.

Sharing the gospel

Over the years, I've heard sure-fire ways to share the gospel. The idea being that someone would have to believe once they heard one of these approaches. The problem is one size doesn't fit all.

Another difficulty is being so focused on the approach, we fail to connect with people in a personal way. They sense this and resist or outright reject what we offer.

When I was wandering in spiritual lostness, and under the influence of a mind-altering substance, I was approached by a couple college guys. I was in a different reality and mindset than them.

After sharing their plan of salvation with me, they tried to fend off any resistance I might have. They told me, "You can still have a sports car and be a Christian!" I was not in the least interested since I subscribed to the popular mantra of the day—turn on, tune in, drop out.

As addressed in my book, evangelism and sharing the gospel are too easily reduced to, "Jesus died for your sins." While this statement is true, it doesn't tell the whole story—the gospel story of redemption.

The 3 R's of the gospel

The essential gospel (my version) has three elements— He (Jesus) came, He died, He rose. These three essentials are also expressed in what I'll call the 3 R's of the gospel—relationship, redemption, and restoration.

Although these are echoed throughout the Scriptures, the Apostle John sums up these three elements in his first epistle—

  1. Relationship— 1 John 1:3
  2. Redemption— 1 John 1:7
  3. Restoration— 1 John 2:1-2

Relationship

Relationship with God has always been at the heart of the gospel. For starters, humanity was created in God's image (Gen 1:26, 27). Abraham, the man of faith, was a friend of God and seen as righteous because of his trust in God (James 2:23). And faith itself is about relationship—

Without faith no one can please God. Anyone who comes to God must believe that he is real and that he rewards those who truly want to find him. (Heb 11:6 NCV)

Jesus called His closest followers friends (John 15:15) and was condemned for being a friend to tax collectors and sinners (Matt 11:19)

Relationship with God should always be a priority when sharing the gospel. Relationship is at the heart of redemption.

Redemption

Redemption reveals the heart of God. This is expressed in the first eighteen verses of John (John 1:1-18), which summarizes the whole book of John.

It's easy to get caught up with terminology and definitions when explaining redemption. A simple way to describe it is the act of rescue and reconciliation. This is expressed in 2 Cor 5:17-19.

If our intent in sharing the gospel isn't reconciliation, then we're missing the point—a point illustrated by the three parables of Jesus in Luke 15.

Restoration

I sum up the idea of God's work of restoration as the end which is the beginning again.

What was lost in Eden is restored by Jesus on the cross. The redemptive work of Jesus restores humanity to a state of innocent relational trust, which Adam and Eve knew in the beginning.

This points us toward the end of the age, as seen in the book of Revelation. We look forward to the Lord's return for His restoration of all things (Acts 3:19-21; Rev 21:3-5).

Keep it simple and true

Much more could be said but isn't necessary. Sharing our faith and God's story of redemption should be both simple and true, not clever.

God desires a relationship with all people, and we, His creation, were created for that purpose. Relationship with God comes through faith—trusting in Him and His work of reconciliation on the cross.

Deep down, everyone knows they need restoration. King David declared, "He restores my soul" (Psalm 23:3). This is what a world wandering in darkness seeks, and we followers of Christ are charged with sharing it with them (Matt 28:19; Mark 16:15; Acts 1:8).

When was the last time you shared the gospel and your story of faith with someone?