Tag Archives: sanctification

Call upon Me, and I will deliver you

This stretch of days in my devotional book seems to be addressing the need to surrender to God in order to defeat the power of sin in our lives.   Each day is just awesome. I commend this devotional book to you if you don’t already have it.   I’m sharing yesterday’s reading if not for you, than for my own edification.  Typing it out and saving it here helps me.   Blessings.

June 28

Call upon Me…I will deliver you, and you shall glorify Me. (Psalm 50:15)

Christian man, by grace – that is to say, by the Holy Spirit of God – you have believed, and live.  You are a limb of Christ, who is your life.  But you are a sinner still; always, actually and potentially.  For whatever the presence of the Spirit in you has done, it has not so altered you that, if He should go, you would not instantly revert to unholiness.  Do you, if I may put it so, use your regenerate self in an unregenerate way, meeting temptation and the tendency to sin by yourself alone, with only high resolves, and moral scorn of wrong, and discipline on body or mind?

God forbid we should call these things evil.  They are good.  But they are aspects, not the essence, of the secret.  It is the Lord Himself dwelling in you who is your victory; and that victory is to be realized by a conscious and decisive appeal to Him. “Though Him you shall do valiantly; for He it is that shall tread down your enemies.” (Ps. 60:12).

And is this not proved true in your experience? When, in your regenerate state, you use the true regenerate way, is there not a better record to be given? When, realizing that the true principle is indeed a Person, you resolve and struggle less, and appeal and confide more – is not sin’s reign broken, and is not your foot, even yours, because you are in conscious union with the Conqueror, placed effectually on “all power of the Enemy”?

~ H.C.G Moule, The Epistle to the Romans

Our Father has Great Expectations

Last night I had the privilege of hearing Julie Ziglar Norman, daughter of Zig Ziglar, share her testimony at the Women’s Care Center of Rhea County banquet. At one point she shared a story about a poor grade she received in school for a speech she gave to her class. When she asked the teacher why she received a low mark, her teacher explained,

Julie, I know who your father is. I expected better from you!

That story got me thinking about our Heavenly Father, and the expectations upon those of us who believe, and are thus given the right to be called His sons and daughters (John 1:12).

And yet, unlike Julie Ziglar Norman’s teacher, it’s rare these days to have someone in our life who calls us up and out of status quo Christianity.  It’s rare that we expect much out of ourselves,  too, even though we claim to be children of the King.

Paul had great expectations for those who would follow Jesus.  He urged Christians to live lives worthy of the calling they have received (Eph. 4:1).   He insisted that he was leaving the past behind and pressing on towards the prize ahead, that upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Phil. 3:12-14).  Paul expected big things.

Jesus, too.   It was Jesus who said, “Be perfect, therefore, as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48).   In a world where no one expects much from us anymore, and we expect little from ourselves, these words of Christ get twisted to mean all sorts of things.   And yet the truth remains:  Jesus expected great things from us.   In fact, he trusted us to such a degree that he ascended to heaven, leaving 11 men behind to continue the mission for which he gave his life.   Jesus expected they could do it.

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Of course, we don’t do it alone.  Any good that comes from us is not because of our natural ability but because of who our Father is and His grace at work within and through us.   And our Father will not expect out of us that which He is not willing or able to provide a way for us to achieve.

In this way He is unlike our earthly fathers.  As a dad of 5, I expect some things from my children. Some of them good, I hope, but not all.  Sometimes my motivation for expecting certain things is not good (like when I want them to be quiet just because I don’t want to be disturbed).  My expectations are often selfish. This is because I’m sinful, like all earthly fathers.  But our Heavenly Father is not like me (thank God!).  His motives are always pure and I can trust that His expectations are grounded in love, and my living up to them is always for my good.

However, the extent to which we believe our Father expects great things from us is, without question, the same extent to which we will live worthy of such a calling.    If you don’t truly believe that Jesus gave his life to “save us from our sins” (Matt. 1:21), to “destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8), and to “set the captives free” (Luke 4:18), then most likely you will be a self-fulfilling prophecy.   I know very well what that is like, living for years under the descriptor, “Addict,” rather than the truth, a sinner saved by grace.

I had more faith in the power of my sin than I did in Jesus Christ who overcame the world (John 16:33).

Do you know who your Father is?   He is expecting great things from you.   Today, I encourage you to look to Him rather than your sin.   Run to the cross and there you will find the power to resist temptation and grow in righteousness.     Our Father expects great things from you and I. Let’s press on towards the prize!

Zechariah and our Father: Not a Cookie-Cutter God

For many years I had a problem with God’s dealing with Zechariah.  Every year during Advent I would read this story of a faithful, righteous priest named Zechariah (Luke 1) who would become the father of John the Baptist.  Zechariah’s wife, Elizabeth, is “advanced in years” (a genteel way of saying she is old) and barren, a fact which quite naturally leads Zechariah to ask a question when the angel of the Lord tells him Elizabeth will bear a son:

How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years (Luke 1:18).

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What has troubled me for so long about this story is not the question – it’s a question any of us might ask – but the angel’s response.  Acting on behalf of the Lord, the angel strikes Zechariah with muteness.  The reason given is because Zechariah did not believe.

If this were the only time anyone dared to ask a question of God and they received this sort of discipline that would be fine.   We would know not to question God, and to do so brings consequences.   The problem, however, is that this is not an isolated event.

In Genesis 15, God tells Abram that his reward shall be very great.  Abram questions God about this and reminds him that he has no offspring, no one to be an heir.   God tells him he will one day have more offspring than the stars of heaven, and Abram believes.   But in the very next scene God tells Abram that He is going to give him land to possess and Abram’s response is, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?” (Gen. 15:8).   Essentially the same question Zechariah asks, but rather than being punished, God leads Abram to worship.

In Judges 6, Gideon is hiding from the Midianites when an angel of the Lord appears, calling him to lead an army to save Israel.   Gideon’s question is, “Please, Lord, how can I save Israel? Behold, my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house” (Judges 6:15).   The Lord’s answer is not to strike Gideon with muteness but to assure him that He will be with him.

And if this were not enough to muddy the waters, in the very same chapter where Zechariah gets scolded, Mary asks essentially the same question to the angel that came to her announcing she will give birth to Jesus!   She asks, “How will  this be, since I am a virgin?”  (Luke 1:34).  Mary gets promised the Holy Spirit to assure her.  Zechariah asks the same question and gets 9 months of silence.

Do you feel the unfairness here?

That’s what I felt for years.   Every time I read this story it bothered me that Zechariah got punished when so many others did not.

But this year is different.  This year I am seeing this as the marvelous, mysterious, merciful hand of God at work in each one of these people, and in each one of us.

What if God’s inspired word presents each of these different stories to show us that God is not a cookie-cutter kind of God and does not respond to each and every one of us in exactly the same way?     What if the Holy Spirit wants us to see that our Father in Heaven actually treats us like His children?

As the father of five I recognize that I treat each of my kids differently.   While I may love them all the same I have learned that each of them require something different from me.  One will respond well to just “the look” when he is acting in ways he should not while another will require I actually get up out of my chair.   One will be on cloud nine with simple words like “that’s awesome, son” while another will get more from a hug.    The point being, each of my children need something different from me.   My challenge as their dad is discerning what that “something” is.  I don’t always get it right.

But my Father in heaven always gets it right.    He knows exactly what I need.  He knows exactly what you need.  Every time.  And He never grows weary doing it.

Since I trust that my heavenly Father is good, and that His will for me is my sanctification (my becoming more like Christ), I can trust that what discipline or blessings come my way are God’s design for me and me alone for the purpose of maturing me in Christ.    He does not have a cookie-cutter approach to raising His children.

This year I recognized that it is the sinful nature in me that finds Zechariah’s sentence unfair.   Far too often I look at what others got or did not get based on their choices and think to myself or aloud, “That’s not fair!  Why did he get away with that?!  Why did she get that?  Why not me???!”    Far too often I compare myself with others and assume that if God is doing something in one person’s life He must do it in mine, too.    Zechariah reminds me that this is not correct.   And he does one better.   When he finally does get to speak, he doesn’t say, “Hey!  Abram and Gideon and even Mary asked the same thing I did!  What about them?”    Rather, he declares,

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people…because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace (Luke 1:68, 78-79).

Are you Inspecting or Reflecting Salvation?

In Luke 3 the word of God comes to John the Baptist who is in the wilderness.   So often this is where God breaks through to us – in the wilderness.   Rarely will we hear it or know it in the hustle and bustle of our everyday lives, particularly when we think we are doing just fine and need nothing (it’s significant, I think, that Luke first tells us about all the governors and rulers – the powerful of the land –  before he moves to John in the wilderness).   People in the wilderness know they are in need.   They know that unless Somebody intervenes into their sorry state they are forever lost.  People in the wilderness are desperate.

God hears the cries of desperate people in the wilderness.    If you are in such a place today consider that it might be God’s mercy which brought you here.    He has a word for you and needs you to hear it.  Will you listen?  Will you respond?

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John responded by going out and proclaiming that lives can and should be transformed.  He proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins – a life that is turned completely around and marching to new orders.

He then quotes the prophet Isaiah.   As only one who has been in the wilderness can do, he points those who will listen to a God who fills the valleys and topples the mountains.    This is a God who will exalt the humble and humble the proud.

He goes on to say that God will make the crooked straight and the rough spots level.    This is good news!   I am so in need of a God who won’t leave me the way He found me in the wilderness!  I’m in need of a God  who will give me a new life with a new path to walk on while sanding down the rough spots in my life!   I can testify that God is still at work doing exactly this!   While I still have plenty of rough edges to be worked out and have much growing yet to do in the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23) I have witnessed the toppling of mountains in my life which at one time seemed insurmountable.

Do you have rough spots that need leveled or your path made straight?   God can and will do it!   And it will most likely be through a path you would not have picked for yourself or  imagined.   God declares,

I will lead the blind in a way that they do not know, in paths that they have not known I will guide them.  I will turn the darkness before them into light, the rough places into level ground.  These are the things I do, and I do not forsake them (Isa. 43:16).

Praise God!   I don’t know about you, but this gets me excited!   If we will just let go of the reigns, humble ourselves to God’s word,  and give up control God will lead us to a place of new life – one we cannot imagine!  He will not forsake this!

Finally, John the Baptist reminds us that God does all this so that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:6).   God is seeking a people for Himself who will reflect the glory of His Son Jesus Christ, the spotless One who had no rough edges or crooked paths but only sought to do that which his Father did.   This is your calling and mine.  It is the will of God that you and I be holy and sanctified – set apart (1 Thess. 4:3) – and it is for this purpose:  That the unbelieving world, the world blinded in the wilderness, would see the salvation of God and come to believe that their rough places can be made smooth, too.   

May you be so moved by the word of God that you transition this day from being part of this world which is watching the salvation of God unfold in the lives of others to the part of God’s Bride which is reflecting the light of His glory for others to see.

Choose today to stop being a mere inspector of God’s salvation.  Be a reflector of it.  

It is happening all around us.  God is not forsaking His plan.   And it can and should include you.

Satan Fans the Flame of Disordered Love

so that we would not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs (2 Cor. 2:11).

I suppose one advantage of being in bondage to sin for so long is it made me well aware of the enemy’s tactics.   I hung around him long enough to have some understanding of his “designs.”    There are many tactics of Satan,  but I’d say one of his favorites is making us think our actions are normal and natural and even reasonable.  Have you ever said to yourself or someone else, “Well this is just who I am” or “I can’t help it, I’m made this way” or perhaps, “It just felt right, how could it be wrong” or even, “Love wins“?

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This is because each of us “is tempted when lured and enticed by our own desire” (James 1:14).   Satan doesn’t really need to bring anything new to the battle for our hearts.  He just needs to fan the flame of what is already there.   

For every one of us that could be a different thing.  My desires won’t be the same as the next guy or gal.   For some it might be lust, for others it might be disordered sexual desires, for some it might be food, for others it might be control, for some it might be fame, or perhaps money or it could simply be a desire to devour any kind of impurity (Eph. 4:19).   In all of us is this desire which wants to disobey, to rebel, to reach for the forbidden fruit even though we know God said no and even though there are plenty of trees from which to pick from all around.   Our radar zeroes in on the one forbidden thing.

This is the curse of sin and it stains us all.  Satan doesn’t need to do anything more than to blow on the hot embers of our desire and when we act upon them, James says this desire then gives birth to sin (we act on that desire), and as we continue to act on this desire because we think it’s just natural, normal and reasonable, it brings forth death.   The death here is a spiritual death, one described by Paul in Romans 1:

For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened…Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator…God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done…Though they know God’s decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them (vs. 21-32).

The death is a spiritual death, by which we are slaves to our human desires.    The early church father, Augustine, called our plight one of “disordered loves.”    All of us, no matter who we are, love the wrong things.   None of us are without excuse.  All have these disordered loves and fall short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23).   If we do not “come to our senses” as the Prodigal Son did and say yes to the Spirit of God convicting us of our sin, we will continue to slide down this road where we are no longer able to hear or know truth, but instead we find ourselves doing what God says not to do and even give approval to those who do (Rom. 1:32).

Satan fans the embers of human desire which feel normal to us, and as we worship the creature (our desires) we fall prey to the delusion that we are fine, even justified, in our sin.

We need to be aware that Satan is a master at making our desires appear to be natural, even holy.   The prophet Jeremiah said we will dress the wounds of the people and say “peace, peace” when the reality is, there is no peace (Jer. 6:14).   Paul saw clearly what Jeremiah saw, that our hearts are deceitfully wicked and prone to love the wrong things (Jer. 17:9) and rather than justify love for loves sake he cried out, “Wretched man that I am!  Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:24).

Scripture repeatedly warns us to be vigilant and watchful over our hearts and the hearts of others.   The Puritans did this through daily introspection and examination, naming their desires and lining them up with God’s word to see if they were holy desires or fleshly ones.   We would do well, perhaps, to adopt some of their rigors.  But being rigorous without first repenting, without first coming to our senses and realizing Satan has used our desires against us, we will not know freedom.   The good news is this:   When we humble ourselves and cry out along with Paul our need to be delivered from this body of death which loves the wrong things, we are given a new heart.  The Holy Spirit recreates us as new creatures (2 Cor. 5:17) and instead of being a slave to our desires we become slaves of righteousness (Rom. 6:15-23).

A good practice is to ask yourself often whether or not the things or people you love are ordered after the wisdom of God or the wisdom of this world.   There is a way which seems right to humankind, but in the end it leads to death (Prov. 14:12).    Don’t be ignorant of Satan’s designs on your desires.   Take delight in the Lord, and discover that His word is true, you will be a new creation, with new desires (Psalm 37:4).

Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Rom. 7:25).

God is Holy

It strikes me as problematic that there are more bumper stickers that read “God is love” than there are that read “God is holy.”    Come to think of it, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen one that reads: God is holy.

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Referring to Isaiah 6, R.C. Sproul says this about God’s holiness:

The Bible says that God is holy, holy, holy. Not that He is merely holy, or even holy, holy. He is holy, holy, holy. The Bible never says that God is love, love, love, or mercy, mercy, mercy, or wrath, wrath, wrath, or justice, justice, justice. It does say that He is holy, holy, holy, the whole earth is full of His glory.

The third Person of the God-head even has a name:  Holy Spirit.    Yes, God is also love, but when choosing a name for God’s presence in the world He chose the name Holy Spirit rather than Loving Spirit.

There is a lot to be said about what the word holy means, but at it’s core is this idea of transcendent separateness.  To be holy means to be set apart.  When the bible calls God holy it is to say that God is so distinct, so lofty, so set-apart from all else.  There is none like our God (Ex. 15:11; 1 Sam. 2:2; Psalm 86:8-10).

To be holy also means to be pure.   The trouble God went through to describe the way the temple of God was to be built, the ceremonial rites of priests, the mandate that sacrifices made to God be unblemished, the purification rituals of those who would dare come before God, all demonstrate God’s precedence upon moral purity.     The psalmist declares,

Who may ascend into the hill of the Lord?
And who may stand in His holy place?
He who has clean hands and a pure heart,
Who has not lifted up his soul to falsehood (Psalm 24:3-5)

The importance God places on the holiness of those who would be called His children is not confined to the Old Testament.  Paul says this about God’s goal for us,

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him (Eph. 1:3-4)

And to the Corinthians he reminds them that sexual impurity makes one unholy,

Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.

We glorify God by becoming holy, as He is holy.   For the Christian it is not an option, but a command: Be holy, as I am holy (Lev. 20:26; 1 Peter 1:16).

So if holiness is what God is, and is what God wants us to be, why don’t we hear more about it?  Why don’t bumper stickers reading “God is holy” sell?  My hunch is because “love” is something we all want, and the sentimentality behind it sells.   Today, love is popularly understood as an emotion (we “fall in” and “out” of love) rather than it being the robust, active decision as seen in God, and meant to be embodied by Christians.   In the bible, love has more to do with obedience than feelings, but in our culture today love, however you want to define it, wins.

The word “holy,” by contrast, has fallen out of popular use and is not as easily reduced to a feeling.    I believe this has something to do with the fact that the Holy Spirit is still at work in the world, and our conscience knows that to speak the word “holy” we are talking about God, who is unlike us, yet calls us to be like Him.   Love may be what we want, but holiness is what we need.

Sadly, by evacuating our talk of God as holy along with His desire for us to be holy, while simultaneously using “love” for everything from what I had for dinner last night and to describe God, we miss the God revealed to us altogether who is far more marvelous than we can imagine.    It is only when we grasp the truth of God’s holiness – how separate and transcendent He is from us –  that we can even begin to appreciate what it means for Him to come to us in Jesus, and die for us “while we were yet sinners.”   That God is holy should makes us come undone, as it did Isaiah (Isa. 6), or make us drop like we are dead, as it did John, the disciple whom Jesus loved (Rev. 1:17).

Meditate on the awesome holiness of God.   It will radically transform what it means to you when you see those “God is love” bumper stickers.

God’s Will For Your Life is not Addiction but Sanctification

It might surprise you to know that God has described quite plainly what His will is for you and I.    In 1 Thessalonians 4:3 we read,

For this is the will of God, your sanctification:

God’s will, or desire, is your sanctification, or holiness.   Or, to put it another way, God wants us to look and act like Jesus. 

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Broadly speaking that is what sanctification is: to be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:29).   In this letter to the Thessalonians, however, Paul goes into some detail about what this sanctification looks like.   He says that a person becoming more like Jesus will be someone who

  • abstains from sexual immorality, (4:3)
  • will know how to control his or her own body, and (4:4)
  • will not be controlled by lust like those who do not know God (4:5)

It follows, then, that the person who is sexually immoral, cannot control his or her own body and is controlled by their lusts (desires) is not conforming to the image of Jesus Christ and therefore outside of God’s will for their lives.   Paul goes on to say in this same passage that God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness, and therefore

whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you (1 Thess. 4:7-8)

There was a time in my life where I was enslaved to the desires of my body.  I could not say “no” to what my eyes wanted nor to what my heart desired.   I would wake up each morning hoping that today would be a “sober” day but deep in my heart I knew that it most likely would not.   If the opportunity presented itself for me to act out in some way I knew resistance was futile.

What kept me from finding real freedom for so many years was in large part due to my acceptance of the lie that I suffered from an addiction.    I bought into the wisdom of this world which convinced me that I was an addict and if I would accept this, I could find ways to manage that addiction through programs of recovery.    But I would always be an addict.  Sobriety became the goal of my life, and my identity was wrapped up in what I was running from.    “Hi, my name is Chad, a sex addict.”

The reason this sounds so right is because it’s partly true.   I was an addict.  But it wasn’t to pornography or sex or anything else.   It was to sin.   I was addicted to myself.   The Scriptures speak to this in Ephesians, where Paul describes those like myself who walk (read:  have a lifestyle) in the “futility of their minds.”   Such people are darkened in their understanding and have been “alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.”   He writes,

They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity  (Eph. 4:17-19).

That was me.   Here Paul describes everyone who is addicted to something.  We are addicted to sin, and we love the darkness more than light (John 3:19).

No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him.

But I am a pastor!  I spent 7 years of my life in theological training!  I adopted 2 children!  I visited the sick and fed the hungry!    Surely my addiction to pornography is not that big a deal to God, right?    How easy it is to convince ourselves that our good deeds will in some way cover up the unholy lives we live in private.   I was, at my core, a “worker of lawlessness” and though I said, “Lord, Lord,” I had no right to lay claim on Jesus, nor to expect he would claim me as his own (Matt. 7:21-23).

Realizing my plight – that my addiction is sin, and sin separates me from God – was the beginning of freedom.    Realizing I was not a good person who sometimes does bad things but a worker of lawlessness, ignorant of the things of God and greedy to practice every kind of impurity opened me up to receive grace.  Not the mushy sort of grace that is so often sold to us today but the rugged, transforming, powerful grace of God which was in Christ, who “destroyed the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8).

The glory of this revelation is this:  God’s will for us is that we be holy.  God’s desire for us is that we be freed from our enslavement to the desires of our flesh and walk in newness of life.   “For everyone who has been born of God,” says John, “overcomes the world” (1 John 5:4).    Jesus did not die on a cross so that you and I can be maligned by an addiction for the rest of our earthly lives but so that we, broken people, might become saints and manifest the glory of God in our bodies thereby showing a disbelieving world that God has in fact defeated sin and death.

The introduction of children of God should never begin with “Hi, my name is ___________, a ____________ addict,” but with “Hi, my name is _____________, a new creation!”  (2 Cor. 5:17).

The degree to which we self-identify with the former vs. the latter is perhaps the degree to which we doubt God’s will for us is our sanctification, or that it could possibly take place here, today.    By the powerful, rugged, transforming grace of God I can say I have been set free from an addiction to sin and empowered by God’s Spirit to be made holy.  I still have a long way to go, but I see now how I wasn’t even getting off the starting block when I was unable to say “no” to my desires.    If God can do that for me, I know He can, and desires, to do it for you, too.

His will for your life is your sanctification.  Thanks be to God.

 

Postscript:  An important read by Steve Gallagher, founder of Pure Life, distinguishing the difference between the person who is truly wrestling with habitual sin vs. the one who just gives over time and time again:  How Can I Be Saved And Still Be Doing This?

Also, by Kevin Watson: What Does the Bible Say About Sanctification?

 

 

Can Methodism Be Reborn?

Below is an edited version of an email I sent out to some pastor friends of mine a few months ago.   In my devotion time this morning I was in Psalm 85, which echoed a prayer I have been praying for the Church for many months.   It reads,

Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?  Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his saints; but let them not turn back to their folly.

Surely his salvation is near to those who fear him, that glory may dwell in our land.   (Psalm 85:6, 8-9)

What is true for my church, the Methodist Church, is true for many others, I believe.   I hope the following is of some benefit to you, and the churches we love and serve.

I’m reading a wonderful little book I picked up at the library today entitled, Methodism Can Be Born Again, by W.E. Sangster, whom I had never heard of until today (an extraordinary Methodist preacher in Britain, as it turns out).

I wanted to share some insights I have gleaned from this book with you as a way to perhaps encourage some dialog with people more learned than myself and experienced in parish life.   Or, perhaps this will serve you in some other way on a personal level or be something you feel will serve someone else.   Either way, I pray you are blessed.
What I find so wonderful about this book is that it is written in 1938, and as such, prophetic in its diagnosis and treatment of Methodism’s decline.   After examining some of the reasons commonly given for decline in both attendance and ardor by those within and without the church (i.e. the War, loss of biblical authority, competing attractions on a Sunday morning, radio (ha!), a transient society, and a spirit of secularism), he goes on to write this, which I quote:

Endless discussions as to the true diagnosis must give way to some radical cure.  We know enough to make a beginning.  At least, we know enough to know where to begin.  We must begin with ourselves.  General criticism of “Methodism” must give way to clear, incisive and detailed criticism of a Methodist.   Rigorous self-examination is demanded.  When a man thinks he has “explained” the parlous condition of the Church by reference to the radio, Sunday movies, new building areas, or whatever other cause is our long category takes his fancy, he thinks also that the responsibility for the situation is not his, and that there is nothing to be done about it.

I couldn’t agree more.  A pair of books I read at Pure Life, Calvary Road and We Would See Jesus (by Roy Hession) argue that revival must begin within our own hearts.   We cannot lead anyone where we have not first been.   The Cleveland District superintendent, Joe Green, reminded me of the conviction of the late Scottish preacher, Robert Murray McCheyne, who wrote,

The greatest need of my congregation is my own personal holiness.

Sangster goes on….

On that dark betrayal night, when our Lord said to His disciples, “One of you shall betray me,” John did not say, “Is it Peter?”   Peter did not say, “Is it John?”   They all said, “Lord, is it I?”

To that point, I believe, the grace of God is constraining Methodists at this time of celebration [he is writing near the bicentennial of Wesley’s Aldersgate experience].   The pew has been blaming the pulpit: the pulpit has been blaming the pew.  The pew says that the preaching is lifeless and irrelevant: the pulpit says the people are absent or prayerless.  Back and forward the blame has gone, and nothing will be done till the utter folly of this mutual recrimination is seen as folly, and pulpit and pew alike humble themselves before the Cross, confessing their own sins, and saying, “Lord, is it I?”

He moves into addressing the cultural malaise towards denominational-ism and the heightened attitude of church-goers forgoing identification with any one group, preferring being spiritual but not religious (remember, he’s writing in 1938!).    He laments our sacrifice of our distinctiveness as Methodists for a more tolerant, unified, catholic Church.   Of this, he writes,

If we are right in our supposition that some do not regret the loss of our distinctiveness in the belief that it will aid the triumph of true catholicity, their satisfaction is surely misplaced.  Catholicity is one of the things that can always look after itself.  To get near to God is to get near to those who are near to Him.   It is a blessed by-product of the holy life.  It need not be strained for, either in lopping off the characteristic differences of the denominations, or by copying customs, precious to others, yet learned for no deeper reason than the desire to be alike.  If we all aim, with a single eye, to get near our blessed Lord, we shall get near to one another.  The hill of Calvary is not as large as all that.  Those who can touch the wood can touch each other.

I’ll conclude with his 4 questions in the middle of the book, each of which the rest of the book aim to answer.   As he analyses the Oxford Group Movement (Groupers) of his day and what they have in common with Methodism’s genesis, he asks,

1. Can Methodism recover fellowship?  (meaning, our distinctive class meetings which urge one another towards Christian perfection, or holiness).

2.  Can Methodism recover assurance?  (meaning, a positive, robust message of the Gospel characterized by a great confidence in the God of our salvation.  In a confused world the Methodist preachers were sure.  I love this line:  “The pioneers of the Evangelical Revival never began a sermon with the phrase beloved by modern preachers, ‘I feel I have a feeling which I feel you feel as well.'”)

3.  Can Methodism recover her passion for holiness?  (John Wesley, he reminds us, believed that sanctification was the chief reason God raised the Methodists up.   Losing this note in both our preaching and practice is, in my opinion, our death sentence).

4. Can Methodism recover her zeal for personal evangelism?  (meaning, the early Methodists, enlivened by the power of cancelled sin in their personal lives could not keep it a secret.   Religion has become too much a private matter, he says (1938!!) and winning souls is no longer the objective of the pastor nor the layperson – instead, maintenance of a machine is the goal).

I believe the answer to all four of these questions is YES and AMEN!   I hope you feel the same.   I pray that it will be so, and I pray it begins with me.

God Wants to Make You New, Not Better

My pastor’s sermon yesterday at Riverstone UMC touched on the power of the Holy Spirit to change our lives.  One of the Scriptures he read was Acts 1:5-8, which is Jesus’ promise to send the Spirit.   Jesus said,

You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you

More and more professing Christians today seem to lack power.  I know this was true in my own life for many years and as I look around at the rates of addiction, divorce, depression, suicide, relational woes, church splits, gossip, fears, anxiety and so on within the church world I am left to conclude one of two things:

1)  Jesus overstated his case, or,

2)  The Holy Spirit hasn’t come upon many of us.

I have no reason to call Jesus a liar but I think I have every reason, based on what I see in my own heart, to believe many of us approach the things of God with an attitude that says,

I’ve got all I need, thanks.

And in so doing we grieve the Holy Spirit.

The greatest news on earth is that even while we are here we can be made into new creations through Christ (2 Cor. 5:17).  This is tremendous news for the addict who thinks he or she must forever identify themselves with their addiction or be chasing after the idol called recovery.     God doesn’t just want to make you better.  He desires to make you new.

And He has the power to do so.

It’s my testimony that God meets us in our deepest need and becomes that need fulfilled.    Christ truly is our “all in all.”    It’s also my testimony that God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble (James 4:6).   We must come to God as empty vessels, with nothing in our hands but our brokenness and a willingness to surrender all that was and is about us.

God can’t fill us if we already think we are full.

So how do we walk in the power Jesus promised us as Christians?

What I am about to say would have greatly offended the “me” of a year ago but I have come to see it as truth and power.

First, we must humble ourselves before a holy God and reckon our addiction not as a “hang-up” or a “struggle” or a “thorn in our flesh” but as sin which offends God and makes a mockery of grace.    Jesus did not hang on a cross for us to be saddled with an addiction for the rest of our lives but he came to “destroy the works of the devil.”   No one born of God makes a practice of sinning (1 John 3:8-9).

The beautiful thing about naming it for what it is – sin – is that sin, unlike “addiction,” has a cure.   The same power that rose Christ from the dead will make a home in the  one who truly repents and agrees with God that the reason we continue to stumble is because we love our sin more than we love God.

When I was in the pig sty of my addiction I was still convinced that God and I were OK.   Nothing could be further from the truth!  In the same way that God had departed from King Saul in his sin (1 Sam. 16:14; 18:12), God departs from the one who continues to walk in the flesh.

The second thing we must do is stay needy.    We must learn to stay at the foot of the cross, which we now see as our only hope.    As we fix our gaze upon Jesus we will find it natural and necessary to let go of the things of this world which used to fill our lives as well as find the energy and will to invest ourselves in the lives of others, extending the same mercy to others that we have been so graciously shown on the cross.

This is the beginning of walking in the Spirit, which is power and life, versus walking in our flesh, which is death.   I know that in my own life, the extent to which I denied these truths is the same extent to which I lived a defeated Christian existence.    I had no power.   I had no self-control.    I had no will to please God or serve others.

But all that has changed, praise be to God, and I know the same can be true for you, too.

God doesn’t desire to make you better.  He wants to make you new!

The Power of the Gospel To Set An Addict Free

Below are some reflections I have been working on for some time now about the power of the Gospel to change a life.  I’m ashamed to say that for many years as a professing Christian I did not have faith in that power or give much respect to those who claimed it for themselves or others.  I know I’m not alone in that.   I know that much, if not most, of the church world today lives as what Stanley Hauerwas called in the opening convocation service at Duke Divinity, “practical atheists.”   We live as tough there is no God – a real Presence and Divine Power who is actively engaged in the affairs of this world and our lives.   

For me, that Power became intimate as I got lost in the Scriptures and read them with a determination to live.    Rather than reading them as a means to teach others, write a sermon, win an argument or publish a blog, I was reading them because my life depended on these words.  I desperately wanted them to be what they claimed to be!   

They did not disappoint.   In fact, it is because I am so thoroughly convinved that the Bible contains what we need for “life and godliness” I enrolled last month for a Masters in Biblical Counseling with Baptist Bible College.  I was accepted last week and begin in August.   I’m excited to learn more about how I can effectively use Scripture to help others like myself.   With school beginning soon and my primary ministry being at home, I don’t forsee spending much time blogging, but I want to be available to men who need a word of encouragement or prayer.    Amy will the primary voice here, and with good reason!  She has a powerful testimony of God’s healing power in her own life and I pray daily that God would be glorified through her desire to give back what she has received.   

I pray the following reflections gives you hope that you, too, can be free.

“[I] left Christianity behind as I rarely see transformed lives.”

I appreciated her honesty when she left that comment on my testimony.  It’s not only honest, it’s true.  When was the last time you, church person, saw a radically transformed life?   When was the last time you thought of yourself as radically transformed?   But I’m getting ahead of myself…

I was a hair’s breadth away from joining her exodus a year ago.   When I arrived at Pure Life in November I was at the end of my rope.  Having been through one divorce already (back in 2001) because of my addiction I was now facing another.   I had tried everything I knew to try.   I was an avid supporter and member of SAA (Sex Addicts Anonymous) for years, attending 1 to 3 meetings per week while working the steps.   I (and my wife, both together and separately) had gone to numerous counselors.   We even forked up over 6 grand to spend time in Houston (twice) with a therapist who specialized in sexual addiction having studied under Patrick Carnes.  

And I prayed.   A lot.  

Needless to say, when I showed up at Pure Life I was a hopeless wreck.  I knew nothing could fix me.   I knew I was destined to be forever tormented.  I knew that I would die an addict, and probably soon.    In fact, I had already made up my mind that after this 7 month stint (actually, truth be told, I didn’t think I’d last one month, let alone seven.  I was sure I’d quit or they’d kick me out), if I was still the same Chad who arrived I was done.

Forget about just walking away from Christianity.  I was prepared to walk away from life.

Perhaps you, friend, are reading this and can relate.  Perhaps you, friend, have spent more tears than you can count and have bruised hands from slamming the steering wheel while crying out to God, “Why!?!!  Why won’t you fix me!!   Where are you??!!”

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come:  the old has gone, the new is here!”  (2 Cor. 5:17)

Those are words I have heard countless times. I’ve even preached them.  But for reasons I can only chalk up to the mysteries of God, they went into me the night I heard them on my 3rd day at Pure Life.   The man who read them, who was sharing a bit of his own testimony, followed up with this statement: 

Men, God didn’t bring you here to make you better.  He brought you here to make you new.

Friend, do you believe that?  Do you believe God can make you new? Well, I didn’t.  But I wanted to.  I desperately wanted to believe that I could be transformed.   I desperately wanted to see God show up and be real in my life. 

But before God could do anything I needed to be humbled.   I needed to reckon with the reality that Paul’s promise of new creation is conditional.  It is a given fact so long as the first part is fulfilled:   If anyone is in Christ.  

If you are in Christ, you are a new creation.

Was I in Christ?  My lack of transformation presented me with a few options:

1)       Paul was wrong

2)     Jesus doesn’t really transform lives

3)     I was not as “in Christ” as I thought

The first 2 were easier to stomach than the 3rd.   After all, I had built a reputation on the proclamation that ALL were in Christ!   ALL are saved!   ALL are children of God!  My popularity was soaring (along with my pride) and I was convinced that God was behind the message because everything I wrote or said was being eaten up! Surely the number of blog hits or Facebook fans or Retweets one gets is a sign of God’s approval.  Right? 

But the truth is, if I really believed the first two options than I have no reason to call myself a Christian.   Everything seemed to hang in the balance of option #3. 

If I was already in Christ, then Christ’s word is null and void for my reality proves that I am anything but new.

Or,

I was not in Christ, and did not yet know with my heart what I thought I knew with my head.

Let me pause here a moment.   Perhaps, friend, you are like me and weighing the extremes of those two options.  Perhaps you are like me and already thinking of other possibilities.   You, like me, are saying something like, “But wait! I’ve given my life for the cause of Christ!  I have been a pastor, gone to seminary, studied the Bible most of my life.   I was a pastor’s kid and was raised in the church.  I have a Christian blog and write lots of things about Jesus. I do this and that and this and….”  

Jesus warned that there will be plenty who present a biography just like mine, and yet, He will send them away as complete strangers.

All of this and much more was beginning to knead its way into my heart over the course of several months.   What made me break was something that from all appearances seemed a small thing.  It was the end of December and we were given a couple sheets of paper written by revivalist Charles Finney titled, “Breaking Up the Fallow Ground.”  We were challenged to take it seriously and spend some time writing out our own responses to each of the prompts in the letter.   Never being one to back down from a challenge, I took it, and spent the better part of a day in the chapel, alone, writing out page after page of stuff I never before considered.   20 pages later, the evidence of my wretchedness was written before me.   I saw how truly far from Christ I was and how easily seduced I was by pride. 

I was undone.  For the first time in my life I experienced what Paul calls “godly sorrow.”  It’s unlike any sorrow I have ever known.  I saw my sin and all its ugliness.   But I also saw God and all His holiness.  I saw a powerful God who died for me, for even me, while I was yet a sinner.   I saw Jesus on the cross, bearing my sin and shame.   I saw my Savior by whose stripes I am healed, who came to set captives free, who has the power to break the hold of the sin on my life and anyone who will seek Him.  

That was the day I know I became a child of God.   That was the day of my salvation.   I became new! 

I think it’s fair to say that the degree we do not experience transformation in our own lives is the same degree to which we are not in Christ.    If you are someone who self-identifies as a Christian, as I did, yet find your life is not all that different to what it was like before you became a Christian, like mine, then friend, perhaps you are not as “in Christ” as you like to think.    Which is not uncommon, as the comment I began this post points out.   Sadly, what constitutes for being “in Christ” among Christians these days, particularly in America, is little more than showing up to church for an hour on Sunday (isn’t God pleased with me!), saying thanks before eating dinner, and praying for a safe trip to the beach.  

 We are blind even though we claim to see.  Jesus’ indictment of the Laodiceans is apt for us today: 

For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked  (Rev. 3:17).  

The Bible teaches us that there is divine power available to us, at work within us, to teach us all we need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3).    Really Peter?   Well, yes.   But again, it’s conditioned upon the “knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence.”   We have to know Jesus.   Really know him! 

Peter seemed to have caught a glimpse of this early on in his walk with Jesus.   He was the one who, after Jesus told the crowds that He is the bread of life – very different from the bread of this world which only perishes – said, “Only you have the words of life, where else can we go?”   You’ll recall that many walked away from Jesus that day.  We would much rather depend on the bread and wisdom of man rather than the Bread of Heaven.  

“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life”  (Jesus, in John 5:39-40). 

I spent a lot of time and a lot of money going to everyone and everything but Jesus for life.   Today, because of my time spent at Pure Life, the driving force in my life is to know Jesus.   Today I can say with Paul that I desire to know nothing apart from Christ and him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection (Phil. 3:10).     Knowing Jesus, and knowing that I am known by Him, and striving to nurture that relationship above all else, is the difference between living a life in victory over sin versus one fraught with addiction, strife and defeat.

My prayer today is that others would know Jesus.   I pray that we as a Church would once again believe in the supernatural regenerating work of the Spirit of God – the same Spirit that rose Christ from the dead is at work in us!– and believe that the Word of God is able to make us wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, making us thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:15-17).

Do you believe that?   Will you echo Peter’s confession that we have no where else to turn for only Jesus holds the words of life?  Or will you continue to search for life through anyone or anything but the Author of it?  

In closing, I need to share that I am so grateful for the time God granted me to seek Him at Pure Life.    There may be other places which allow for this, but I don’t know of any yet.   Given my pride, arrogance and very liberal leanings (cynicism) upon my arrival, I was looking for any reason to bolt, and would have had any of the staff or counselors given me enough reason.    Yet they consistently showed the love and humility of Jesus.  The stuff that I only wrote about, they modeled day in and day out.  While the world offered me all sorts of gimicks, models, therapies and programs, the men at Pure Life, who are themselves living testimonies of the transforming power of God, consistently pointed me to the Cross.    It is there that I found the answers I had been seeking.

Friend, if you are reading this with new bruises on your hands from the steering wheel, I hope you’ll find a glimmer of hope in these words, and salve for your soul by running to the only lover and maker of your soul – Jesus.