A Compassionate God

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“The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.” (James 5:11, NIV)

How badly we need these words.

God is compassionate.  God has mercy on those who cry out to Him.

Do you know this?  Do you believe it?  God is full of compassion and mercy.  When your spirits are low and your heart is afraid, when you suffer and struggle, run to Him.  He does not turn away the hurting, or reject those who cry out to Him.

Seek the Lord when you are in need.  His depths of compassion are unfathomable, His breadth of mercy immeasurable.  God is kind and gentle.  God is love.

May God be your comfort and peace in every trouble.

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A Curious Notion!

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The recent retirement of the lead pastor of a multi-site church, David Chadwick was featured in a little article at the Christian Post.  At the end, the article notes:

He said prior to his decision to resign he had started having doubts about the multicampus church model where lead pastors mainly connect with the congregation through video.

“Churches all over the country are doing it, with videos shown on the screen in other places,” Chadwick said, “Elevation (Church) is probably the primary example here in Charlotte.  You know, I just began to wonder more and more–how effective is that?

“I know I’m a good communicator…I can have people come and listen.  But doesn’t a pastor need to speak to his people?  So I began to struggle with that too,” he said.

What a curious notion!  A pastor needing to speak to his people?  Like, physically present with them?  How charmingly old-fashioned!

I speak with tongue in cheek, because Pastor Chadwick had “began to struggle” with something that should be patently obvious (though obviously it is not obvious to a large section of the American church)–that pastors are supposed to speak to their people.  Not only does that mean being physically present, but, even more, that means a pastor should actually know the people to whom he is preaching.

A pastor is supposed to shepherd the flock of God.  He preaches the Word not to strangers, but to people with whom he has a relationship.  He should know them by name, and have some knowledge of what’s going on in their lives.  The same pastor who preaches the Word of God to them should be the one they can talk to about their struggles, the one who visits them in the hospital, the one who baptizes them, dedicates their children, marries them, and buries them.  That’s a shepherd; that’s a pastor.

This suggests not only that multi-site churches are highly problematic but that megachurches are problematic too.  You can preach to 10,000 people; but you can’t pastor them.  A church need not be tiny, but it oughtn’t be huge.

I know that such a radical claim is contrary to the accepted wisdom of much of the American church.  But I think the church would be stronger if we had more moderate sized churches instead of megachurches and multi-site churches.  As a side bonus, it might help us avoid this sort of thing.  In any case, it would encourage pastors to be pastors, and churches to be real communities, sojourning together through the storms of this life.

The Longings of Prophets and Angels

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The grass, they say, is always greener on the other side.  It is easy to wish for the blessings that God has given someone else, and to forget the blessings He has given to you.  It is easy, when you are wrestling with some spiritual issue or personal struggle, to wish for a private revelation from God, as is sometimes recorded in the Scriptures.  Instead, we should reflect on how the prophets longed to stand in our shoes.

“Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow” (1 Peter 1:10-11, NIV).

We wish for the personal revelation they enjoyed, but they searched intently for the fullness of revelation that has been given to us!  The mystery of the gospel, the awesome saving work of God, has been revealed; what the prophets probed intently and longed to grasp, we have had handed us by the generosity of God.

The gospel is the greatest of all treasures.  Christ suffered for us on the cross, and rose victorious.  He reigns, He will return, and all who hope in Him will inherit joy forever.  God has allowed us to know these things, on the sureness and authority of His Word.  We are blessed, we are privileged, and we should be thankful.

“It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven.  Even angels long to look into these things” (v.12).

Even more, it is important to recognize that the personal revelations given to the prophets–thrilling as that must have been–were not for themselves.  They received the words, but not the clarity of their meaning.  God made them understand that what they had been given was for us.  On this side of Pentecost, when the Spirit has been poured out upon God’s people and the gospel is clearly preached, we have the fruit for which the prophets labored and longed.

Even stranger and more wonderful to our minds, the mysteries revealed to us are what occuply the longings of angels.

In a time of discontent, and an age so interested in personal revelations, we should remember the goodness of what God has given us.  His Word written speaks clearly and profoundly so that we may know His Word our Savior and Lord.  Knowing Him, the Son, we are brought into fellowship with the Father, by the power of the Holy Spirit.  These blessings cannot be measured, only enjoyed.

 

Africa to the Rescue!

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Earlier this week, the United Methodists voted to accept the Traditional Plan, maintaining and strengthening their stance against the sexual revolution.  This decision likely came as a surprise to many, considering that it goes against the direction America’s mainline Protestant denominations have been taking for some time now.  There’s talk about a schism, some liberals fear an SBC-like conservative shift (“fundamentalist takeover” is their preferred terminology).  Time will tell.

But, for the moment, it would seem that God has been gracious to the UMC.  His instrument in turning them from the brink, or at least slowing their course, would appear to be the sizeable part of their denomination that resides outside the U.S., notably in Africa.  I have seen no statistics on the breakdown in the vote itself, but commentators on both sides of the debate appear agreed that the African vote was decisive to the conservative victory.

But, of course, the difference between the conservatives and the liberals was not essentially ethnic, but ethical.  The divide was theological, and this became evident in some of the arguments before and responses after the decision.

The conservative position is theocentric–centered on God.  They are concerned with obedience to what God says in His Word, with holiness and truth.  They care about people, but recognize that celebrating sin doesn’t actually help people, even if it’s what people want you to do.  God must be honored and trusted, and the gospel must be proclaimed untarnished.

The liberal position is anthropocentric–centered on humanity.  They were concerned about hurting people, which is good, but they let harm be defined by the pagan culture around them.  They bought the world’s narrative about human flourishing, informed by the idea that aberrant sexual desires are identity categories analogous to race.  They seek to remain relevant in a changing world, but they haven’t learned the lesson of the other mainline denominations: seeking relevance, they traded timeless truth for momentary error, and became almost immediately irrelevant.

The key is that a human-centered theology will not actually lead to human flourishing.  Only a God-centered theology will do that.  The Creator knows what is best for His creatures.  We should trust Him.  The African Methodists are helping the American Methodists remember that.

 

 

The Unseen Lord

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Faith is a strange thing.  Peter describes the Christian’s relationship with their Lord, the relationship of faith, in these words:

“Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Pet. 1:8-9).

Faith is about belief, trust, love for someone you have not seen.  Faith means that Jesus Christ, who you have never seen with your eyes, is dearest to you of all.  Faith is not unreasoning or unreasonable, but it requires something beyond what your senses can verify.  For whatever reason, this is what God particularly desires from us: not that we are talented or beautiful or brilliant or wealthy or powerful, but that we believe Him.  Come to Him; trust Him; obey Him; love Him.

That relationship of love, faith in the unseen Lord, has an astonishingly powerful influence over the rest of life.  The unseen Lord trumps all of the trials and terrors that can be seen, and joy results.  This is the story of the early church, of apostles who sang in prison chains and martyrs who boldly faced the Roman lions.

Faith can sustain you.  If you know the unseen Lord, believe Him, and love Him, you can know joy in the midst of suffering.

The Choice

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Pray for the United Methodists this weekend.  At a special session, held in St. Louis, they will be making a decision that is likely to be critical for the future of their denomination, and for their witness in a lost world.

The issue, of course, is whether to embrace or reject the sexual revolution.  Unless they put the issue off again, they will be choosing either to hold their present biblical position regarding human sexuality, or to revise it some way or another, affirming (in varying degrees) LGBTQ+ identity.  Either result will probably mean the fracturing of their denomination, whether immediately or more slowly.

Religion News, a propaganda machine for liberal “Christianity”, has published a showcase of opinions regarding what some Methodists hope will result from the session.  It is a very slanted piece of reporting (granted, it is labeled an Opinion piece), a collection of voices that are mostly liberal to very liberal, with a couple of very gentle conservative voices included to soften the one-sidedness.  But, as a piece of liberal advocacy, the article does highlight what is at stake for the Methodists in this session.

It begins with a reminder that the denomination has already effectively caved to the sexual revolution, and only by repentance and submission to God will they be able to turn back from the precipice of paganism that looms before them.  They already have an openly lesbian bishop.  Having biblical standards regarding human sexuality on paper isn’t worth much if you ignore them in practice.

The voices that follow show the inroads of secularism and paganism in their denomination’s leadership.

Rev. Adam Hamilton says:

It requires patience, humility and grace to look at people with whom you disagree on an issue or theological point and say, “You are still my brother or sister.” It requires a willingness to say, “I don’t agree with you here, but I value what you bring to the table, and I need you.”

As though gross sexual immorality were a matter of adiaphora or theological minutia!  Hamilton regards willingness to tolerate this sort of thing as a sign of patience, humility, and grace.  The Scriptures regard that sort of tolerance as a spiritual failing, not a virtue (see 1 Cor. 5).

Rev. Alex da Silva Souto speaks in worldly terms of discrimination, framing this (as the culture has so effectively done) in terms stolen from the civil rights movement.  He says:

Which is why I and thousands of other United Methodists support the Simple Plan, which would strike from our Book of Discipline all discriminatory language against LGBTQIA+ people. After decades of systemic harm, the only solution is returning to the first rule of United Methodism: “Do no harm.” The Simple Plan proposes exactly that. We must first stop the spiritual/physical harm against LGBTQIA+ people, and only then can we have a real conversation about “human sexuality.”

Very good.  First, let the pagan culture set the agenda, then engage in theological reflection.  Step 1, surrender, step 2, sit down at the diplomatic table.  What could go wrong?

Rev. Beth Ann Cook begins insightfully.  She recognizes that there is an underlying issue:

Our theological division is not limited to the issue of human sexuality. Sexual ethics are the presenting problem for a deeper theological division in our church.

But her following comment makes clear that she does not grasp what the underlying issue is:

The Commission on a Way Forward spent countless hours looking at every possibility. There is no perfect plan. Passing any of the plans will violate someone’s deeply held convictions in such a way that they will feel unable to remain part of our denomination.

Deeply held convictions are not worth defending simply because they are deeply held convictions.  Atheists have deeply held convictions, but you shouldn’t let them guide your denominational policy.

The underlying issue is whether or not God should be believed and obeyed.  A perfect plan, in this case, is one that says God should be believed and obeyed, and that those whose deeply held convictions disagree with this are welcome the to leave.  The Traditional Plan probably approximates this closely enough.

The Scriptures are not unclear about the issues being debated here.  This is not a matter of difficult biblical interpretation.  Besides the clear condemnations of homosexuality in various biblical passages (e.g., Rom. 1:26-27; 1 Tim. 1:10), the opening chapters of Genesis lay the groundwork for a sound theological anthropology, and attendant doctrine of human sexuality.  God created mankind in His image, male and female (Gen. 1:27).  He made us man and woman, equal in dignity and glory as His image-bearers, immutably different from each other, and sexually complementary (Gen. 2:18-24).

That is, God created humanity in two genders, male and female; both men and women are fully human and equal; men and women are different, not changeable and not interchangeable; sexual intimacy is designed to be enjoyed by a man and woman within the covenant of marriage.

We could go on through the article, but it isn’t necessary.  This is the issue, often buried beneath worldly rhetoric or the laudable goal of unity.  Is God to be believed, trusted, and obeyed?

God’s Word is clear.  The issue for the United Methodists is a question of whether to believe God’s Word and accept its authority; that is a question of whether to believe God and accept His authority.  The alternative is the anthropology and sexual mores of an increasingly pagan culture.  Ultimately, then, the United Methodists are deciding between God and idols, between Christianity and paganism.

I pray they make the right choice.

And She Even Has the Hat

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It would be far too easy to laugh off the First Annual Christian Witches Convention.  Their syncretism of Christianity with paganism is absurd, their justifications for their understanding of Scripture are farcical, they’ve chosen to maximize irony by meeting in Salem, MA, and the ‘Reverend’ Valerie Love even has the hat.  It’s as though they’re trying not to be taken seriously.

But I think they are serious.  The evil they represent is serious.  The seriousness with which God regards it is shown in His words to the Israelites: “Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead.  Anyone who does these things is detestable to the LORD” (Deut. 18:10-12, NIV).

We live in a culture where the pagan practice of sacrificing sons and daughters is widespread; it should be no surprise that other elements of pagan spirituality show increasing acceptance and popularity.  The farce of this vaudevillian episode is the basic absurdity of idolatry, the grotesque folly of worshipping a statue made of wood (Isa. 44:14-16).  Such foolish beliefs seem plausible to the mind darkened by rejecting God (see Rom. 1:21-23).

But let no Christian be deceived.  The new heavens and new earth belong to the faithful in Christ; “But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars–they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur.  This is the second death” (Rev. 21:8).

Now is the day of repentance.  The cross of mercy still stands.  For those who have followed the way of paganism, who have sacrificed their sons or daughters, who have practiced sorcery, there is yet one hope: repent, believe the gospel, and be saved.  The Savior’s arm are still outstretched to you.  There is no hope in sorcery; there is forgiveness and life in Jesus Christ.  But you must choose one.

Purposeful Suffering

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When we are suffering, we sometimes ask why.  Why does God allow me to go through this?  There are philosophical explanations, but that’s not usually what we’re looking for; we’re looking for assurance of God’s love, comfort in the midst of pain.

God alone knows why He allowed this or that bad thing to happen to His children.  But the apostle Peter does give us a general idea that Christian suffering is purposeful: it refines our faith.  He acknowledges that the believers to whom he is writing “may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.  These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith–of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire–may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed” (1 Peter 1:6-7, NIV).

Faith is precious in God’s sight, and so He refines our faith like people refine gold, to remove impurities.  Notice, in fact, that faith is not compared with gold so much as contrasted with it; people regard gold as precious, but it’s just a perishable thing–faith is truly precious.  If we think it worthwhile to subject ‘mere’ perishable gold to a fiery refining process, how much more should we recognize the worthwhileness of God’s refining work upon our spiritual life!

Understanding this does not take away the pain of suffering.  But it should give us courage.  Suffering, for Christians, is purposeful.  God will use what we suffer, even the hatred we receive from those who hate God, to strengthen and refine us.  The end result will be a glorious commendation from God, when Jesus is vindicated at the last day.

Indispensable

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“Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 Jn. 5:12, NIV).  Union with Christ is the great gift of the gospel.  Knowing Christ is the key to meaning, hope, and eternal life.

Reformation 21 has been gracious enough to publish another piece of mine, this one on the centrality of union with Christ.  Head on over and take a look!

I Believe We Have Located the Problem…

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While all of us who minister do so only by the grace of God, and I am keenly aware of my unworthiness for this high and holy calling, I think some of the minimal qualifications of pastoral ministry are rather intuitive–such as believing in God.

The United Church of Canada has decided, apparently, that theism is not strictly necessary for pastors.  No doubt it is still desirable in the eyes of that denomination’s discerning leadership that their pastors believe in God; but it is not a deal-breaker.  That is the inescapable message of the news that the denomination has decided Rev. Gretta Vosper, an avowed atheist, will continue to pastor West Hill United Church, in Toronto.

The article linked above, from the liberal Religion News Service, is enlightening.  It begins, “Gretta Vosper is surprised to still be a minister.”  I’d imagine quite a lot of people share her surprise.  It’s a rather puzzling thing, until you follow the (il)logic.

How does the United Church of Canada justify this decision?  Why would a Christian denomination allow an atheist to shepherd a church?  The key is inclusivity.  The denominational leaders found themselves wrestling with the tension between two of their “core values”: “our faith in God” and “our commitment to being an open and inclusive church.”

So, by “inclusive” they mean not simply that they welcome different groups of people, but that they welcome people with a variety of doctrines (or lack thereof) into the clergy.  Aha.  That would create a conflict with your cherished belief in the existence of God.  The leaders of the United Church of Canada have found themselves in the embarrassing situation of wanting to affirm x and not-x at the same time.  I suppose the implication of their solution is that they will accept either x or not-x (please choose one); which is to say that the United Church of Canada believes nothing at all, or at least not with any real conviction.

How does a denomination get to such a pitiful place?  Quite obviously they have let themselves be swept along by the winds of western cultural trends and ideologies; the zeitgeist, rather than the Holy Ghost, has been filling their sails.  But it’s more specific than that.

The atheist pastor herself offers what may be the key.  In this she does a valuable service to orthodox Christianity, if we will heed it.  From the article:

Vosper was willing to go through with the hearing even if the ruling went against her.  She said she is fit for ministry in the church.

She said she believes what she was taught in seminary.

“Everything I teach is consistent with the theological training I received,” the 60-year-old said.  “I was taught the Bible was a human construction, and there is much wisdom in many texts, both ancient and contemporary.”

During her studies, Vosper said she learned that the Bible isn’t the only source of spiritual or moral authority.

“If the Bible is not the authoritative word of God for all time,” she says, “why does it take such a central position in the United Church?”

Well, I think she has put her finger right on the problem.  The rot took hold of their seminaries, particularly a rotten doctrine of Scripture, a loss of the orthodox doctrine that the Bible is uniquely inspired, completely true, and utterly authoritative.  Her seminary professors passed down to her a faith uprooted and blighted, and at whatever point in her journey it followed the logical course and became no faith at all.

But Vosper can perhaps take some comfort that the Bible does not enjoy nearly so central a place in the United Church as she feared.  If that were the case, they might have put more weight on the fact that the Bible starts with the words, “In the beginning, God…” (Gen. 1:1).

We have here a wake-up call for faithful Christians in the United Church of Canada–it might be time for an exit plan; a cautionary tale for the orthodox–guard your institutions, because what’s taught in seminary doesn’t stay in seminary; a warning for theological moderates who want to see more doctrinal inclusivity in your denominations–you might find yourselves inclusive’d all the way to atheism.

The good news is that this disease is easily preventable.  There’s a ready antidote to this poison.  There’s an extremely popular book that could be studied in seminaries to promote deep and widespread theism among the ministerial students.  “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17, NASB).