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The Evangelical Exchange: The Gospel for Life Coaching

The Evangelical Exchange: The Gospel for Life Coaching

I was reminded today that … well, the fastest growing churches in our land are producing guilt-ridden workaholics rather than a community of men and women who believe in Him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of [their] faith, the salvation of [their] souls!” (1 Pet. 1:9). Rather than the celebration of peace with God, I fear we promote a spiritual anxiety in people who feel like, if they are following God the way they should, their lives should be fixed by now. 

LCoachI was reminded of this tension as I read this Facebook post today. It’s from an old friend, talking about his church’s upcoming weekend services. Needless to say, the names are fictitious:

Tomorrow is going to be an epic day at our Midtown Campus! John Doe, Jim Doe and Josh Doe combining on a message about Lazarus. Jessie Doe narrating. Jen Doe communicating. Jeremy Doe leading music. Our bulletins to take notes on… they are toe tags that read: Deceased: Lazarus. Physician: Jesus. Funeral Director: Martha. Case #: John 11. We’ll be looking at overcoming obstacles, trusting for miracles, and removing entanglements. I’m so excited for how God is going to use this in my life and in the lives of others.

It sounds like quite a production. There was a day when I would have been proud to be a part of such an “epic day”.

Now, there are a few things about this enterprise that make me squirm a bit, but aren’t that big a deal. All of the terminology is strikingly not-church (campus, communicating, leading music, bulletins). Jesus being termed as “physician” (only?). Playing into our culture’s CSI-enflamed media passion for crime dramas. It’s obvious that this service has been designed with seekers in mind … so the gathering seems produced to capture the fancy of non-Christians, more than to engage its own membership in the Biblically-prescribed worship of God through Christ.

LAZWhat I find most disheartening, though, is the hermeneutic of the “message”. The story of Lazarus is a narrative story that speaks of the grandness and glory of God, the power of resurrection, and the beauty-for-ashes reality of salvation! It’s about how great God is, and how we should praise Him, be assured by Him, and believe in Him. That’s why “these things were written” (John 20:31).

But, in true contemporary Evangelical fashion (and I say this with great warmth, since I, too, have been an Evangelical for so many decades), they’ve taken this glorious story, and turned it into a self-help seminar. Jesus is the one who can help us overcome obstacles and remove entanglements … perhaps even perform a miracle if we trust in Him correctly. The “gospel” behind this version of the story is: Incorporate Jesus into your life, and He will make it run more smoothly. Your life is what matters, and Jesus is here to help.

Again, I have to admit that I would probably have taken the same tack on this passage a few years ago. That’s before I was introduced to the classical hermeneutic of “law and gospel”. Preaching the law (telling people what they should do to be pleasing to God) is a painful-yet-necessary word for those who aren’t Christians. They need to know why they should repent of their sins, and seek to be forgiven by God. But, for the truly repentant, broken soul – the Christian – what’s needed is not the law, the but comforting assuranceget to work of the gospel: God’s love overwhelms your sin, so that you are at absolute peace with God. This gospel also serves as the greatest motivator to righteous conduct.

John 11 is, as much as any passage in the New Testament, a celebration of the completed work of Jesus – the gospel! To turn this around and use this text to instruct people how they should do their faith (appropriate the life-helps offered by Jesus … not in this passage, but perhaps elsewhere) lays burdens on the lives of believers from which Jesus came to alleviate! And, as we baptize our services in the trappings of contemporary culture, affirming to our world that you aren’t supposed to be like God, but that we and God want to be just like them … we fail to tell unbelievers that what they need most is a repentant heart, not the instructions of a life coach.

I’m so thankful for those who have recently nurtured me in classical understandings of the gospel. I wish I had known these things earlier. I am genuinely sad for the lives I’ve stressed out over the years of overemphasizing “practical application” (the “so what” and “now what”). Lord, in Your mercy, hear my prayer of repentance, and continue to lead me to an authentically redemptive proclamation of the gospel.

– EO

 

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False Teaching – God’s Truth Isn’t Relative

There are so many warnings against false teaching in the scriptures.

false_360_189_90“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves” (Matt. 7:15).

“At [the end times] many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved” (Matt. 24:10-13)

“False messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. So be on your guard” (Mark 13:22-23).

“I urge you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naive people” (Rom. 16:17-18).

“Such people are false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants also masquerade as servants of righteousness (2 Cor. 11:13-15).

Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to your care. Turn away from godless chatter and the opposing ideas of what is falsely called knowledge, which some have professed and in so doing have departed from the faith (1 Tim. 6:20-21).

“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. Avoid godless chatter, because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly. Their teaching will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have departed from the truth (2 Tim. 2:15-18)

“The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will” (2 Tim. 2:24-26).

ear tickleIn the presence of God and of Christ Jesus … I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth” (2 Tim. 4:1-4)

“There were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves. Many will follow their depraved conduct and will bring the way of truth into disrepute. In their greed these teachers will exploit you with fabricated stories. Their condemnation has long been hanging over them, and their destruction has not been sleeping” (2 Peter 2:1-3).

Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God” (1 John 4:1-3). 

This is “a thing”. A big thing! We can tell, because it’s repeated over and over in scripture. It’s like the incessant nature of gravitational pull – for some reason (I would say the fall), we have this inclination to drift from the pure truths laid out by Christ. And the consequences are fatal.

Pillar and FoundationOur cities, littered with denominational church institutions of numerous stripes, stands as a testimony to this reality in our day. Clearly, all “truths” are not created equal. In a culture where truth is relative, and everyone’s truth “ought to be honored”, it may be politically incorrect to insist on doctrinal purity … but it is no less important, and perhaps never more urgent. Churches need to be more effective at being the “pillar and foundation of the truth” in our world (1 Tim. 3:15). But individual believers also need to be relentlessly thorough in their knowledge about God. 

(To be continued…)

-EO

 

 

 

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Why People Don’t Like Christians – Part 1

Christians aren’t very popular these days. Never have been, really. This is no mystery, for people who have called themselves Christians have given the world plenty of reasons for a less than favorable review.

ghandi-quoteOne of primary reasons people don’t like Christians is because they think us to be hypocrites. We regularly fail to live up to the high standards to which we aspire, and about which we preach. We compound the world’s frustration when we lobby to see those standards embraced by everyone (e.g., championing “family values”, even political legislation) when we do such a poor job of living them out ourselves.

Genuine Christianity, however, is not hypocritical. In fact, it is the only faith that isn’t.

You see, all other religions are built on the idea that we must muster up a righteous life in order to please God. In all other faiths, the assumption is a) we are good enough to live right, and b) we are committed to living right. I can, and will. If you truly can, then claim you will, and then don’t … that’s being a hypocrite.

(And some people think this is what Christianity is: A group of people who have decided to live as the Bible describes, and who tell others they should, too. Sunday services, then, are a combination ethics class/pep rally, designed to motivate people to get it together. Then, when they go out and live poorly yet again during the next week, the world brands this approach to religion as a failure. And they’re right.)

But genuine Christianity, rooted in the teachings of Jesus and the other manning-quoteBiblical writers,is totally different.

We believe that man is not good enough to live right. God describes right living in the scriptures, and affirms in those same scriptures that it’s unattainable. Sadly (for us), He also said that only the righteous are compatible with heaven. We can’t, and won’t. Wait … we can’t do what we need to to get to heaven? What hope do we have?

This is where Jesus comes in: He lived among us as the one and only man Who lived a righteous life. (Have you ever heard someone say something bad about Jesus?) He then told us how if would be possible for us to be righteous (and get to heaven), too. Quite simply, He has to do it … in us. This is what Christianity refers to as the Holy Spirit – God Himself, living in us, being righteous through us. Jesus refers to this phenomenon as being born again in the Spirit. He can, and will. It’s the only way. And this is totally different than any other religion.

You may say, “so, if Christians have God living in them to be righteous through them, why are they still so lame?” You’ve got us there. We ought to be living our lives at a very high quality, but often look no better than our neighbor, and sometimes even worse. A few reasons why:

  1. Counterfeit Christianity abounds. As I already mentioned, there are many people practicing “a form of godliness but denying its power” (2 Tim. 3:5). Sadly, they claim to be able to live well, but can’t. They’re hypocrites. I’m afraid this group makes up the majority of Christians in our churches today.
  2. Appropriating divine empowerment is a discipline. Theologian J. I. Packer says this: “The agent of [making us live well] is the Holy Spirit who works in us to make us will and act according to God’s good pleasure. Again and again we need to go down on our knees and admit our helplessness and ask to be empowered … If this sounds easy, it shouldn’t, because [it] is a battle. We never have our hearts entirely set on the things of God, so that even if our actions are right by external standards, our hearts are never quite right. It is struggle and conflict all the way.” The Spirit is available and willing, but we must “walk in the Spirit” (Gal. 5:16ff) in order to experience Him at work in us. And we often don’t.

This is why we are supposed to gather as a church. It isn’t primarily get a coffee, get emotionally “fired up” through faux rock-concert experience, and to recommit our hearts and minds to a series of best-intention propositions dispensed by a life coach. This approach to church will never fail to produce hypocrites.

No, church is so much more than that! We gather in the presence of God to recalibrate our spiritual relationship with the God Who can lead and empower us to live well. That’s why we confess our sins (primarily the sin of not living in the Spirit in the days prior), hear His Word (Heb. 4:12), receive empowering grace through His ordained sacraments, and experience the Holy Spirit through the yes-x-no-bettergiftings all our brothers and sisters around us.

People who practice this type of Christianity (e.g., real Christianity) are still fickle, still bumble, and will still likely disappoint the non-believing world by their less-than-Jesus-like lifestyles. But they’re not hypocrites — at least in the traditional sense. They know that they’re in a battle (“struggle and conflict all the way”), and they make no claims that they’ll bat 1,000%. They are not too surprised when they fail. Still, they forget yesterday, and press into today, prayerfully clinging to the God Who can bear the fruit of righteousness in them now.

On behalf of Christians everywhere, I apologize for the poor examples given by people who call themselves Christians, but are simply powerless moralists. I don’t like them either.

dont-like-selvesMy encouragement is for all to look beyond those poor representations of an incredible faith. See instead the real deal, the substance of genuine, classical Christian living. I am sure that, if our churches were full of these humble, prayerful, fruitful people, that Christianity would have a much better name in our world. You might even be interested in joining their ranks.

– EO

 

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Wrestling with Fred: “Ministers”

Frederick Beuchner is one of my favorite authors. His insights into the spiritual life, with Christ at its center, have been very formative to me. I recently signed up for a daily Buechner quote – great!

Wrestling with today’s quote from Fred …

“Ministers have their heads in the clouds, which is just where you should have your head when your mind is on higher things … Ministers are as anachronistic as alchemists or chimney sweeps … The perspective of ministers is so hopelessly distorted and biased that there is no point in listening to them unless you happen to share it.”

Hmmm…

1 Corinthians 2:13-15 comes to mind. Here, Paul says This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.” 

So, to the world, we believers are perceived as “hopelessly distorted and biased” fools. It should come as no shock that people without the Spirit will not listen. Because the cannot listen. In Jesus’ terms, they don’t have “ears to hear”.

The simple, Biblical truth is that Spirit must precede the embrace of truth. We can’t make Spirit happen – only God can. But, we are promised that “the gospel … is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16). Gospel -> Spirit -> Truth. Any alteration or deletion from this process will prove impotent.

GospelSpiritTruthI’ve been a minister for decades. Sometimes I fall into the trap of believing that I’m some kind of  divinely appointed DA for the Lord, guiding testimonies in the court of public opinion. If I do my job right, I’ll be able to lead the “jury” to my appointed conclusions. That’s why I’ve been lured into my share of (what I have found to be counter-productive) social media rants, thinking that my clear delineation of spiritual realities through Spirit-taught (Biblical) words will win the day.

Oops. Fred reminds me to embrace the spiritual, Spirit-taught realities: Don’t be surprised or angry when (not if) the Biblical truth you share is misunderstood and rejected. It will be – it’s written in stone.

Before we all resign our pulpits, let’s remember Paul’s other words in the same chapter: “We do, however, speak a message of wisdom among the mature, but not the wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. No, we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began” (1 Cor. 2:6-7). To this end we preach … head fixed in the clouds, rejoicing with the faithful, and experiencing the collective sanctification that will shape us into a community that first lives and then proclaims the gospel … through which the number of anachronistic fools will swell. 

– EO

 

 

 

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The Day the Republican Party Lost Me

MarqueeI was bemoaning U.S. politics with some old friends, one of whom has been a pastor and mentor in my life for years. He made the comment that, perhaps, the current political environment may prompt Evangelical Christians in the United States to finally disassociate themselves with party politics, and assume our Biblical posture as “aliens and strangers” in this land (1 Pet. 2:11). His idea sounded pure, freeing, liberating.

I’m not sure about anyone else, but I’ve made the leap.

I have been a registered republican for decades, with varying levels of loyalty. The main reason I identify with Republicans has been the issue of abortion. I continue to believe that our culture’s practice of removing vital fetuses is a colossal holocaust. I don’t think anyone, including a mother, should be granted the choice to terminate their innocent, vulnerable lives. I will always vote for pro-life legislation.

I also have always championed bigger freedoms, and smaller government. I want federal and state government to make as few decisions about my personal life as possible. I get tense when values are inflicted on me by politicians, especially in a land that claims to applaud individual liberties. Less legislation, less manipulation.politicsI’ve voted Republican for a long time. The primary

But something has always attracted me to the Democrats. It seems that they really want to make life better for people. I seldom think they’re answers are good ones — but I appreciate the heart. The Bernie Sanders campaign is a good example: Sanders wants to see problems fixed, and wants to take our collective wealth and redistribute it for a broader common good. Again, I like the heart … but the policy?

Republicans seldom have policy-related answers to the struggles of our American human condition – because they are committed to have as few policy-related initiatives as possible. Democrats scream, “where are your answers, Republicans?” Republicans just don’t like the assumption behind the question – that government needs to answer questions. Their primary policy MO is no policy. Freedom … the free market, the free will of the benevolent, the free thinking of people free of unnecessary tax burdens … free Cronkitepeople will choose to advance economics, care for their neighbors, and, in general, live well.

But, I just don’t believe this anymore. As a Christian, I have always believed that man is broken. Our inclination isn’t good, but rather “the wickedness of man [is] great in the earth …every intention of the thoughts of his heart [is] only evil continually” (Gen. 6:6). Man, left to himself, murders his brother, builds the Tower of Babel, breaks the laws of God, and crucifies Jesus. For our race to bank on freedom as our panacea for all of our problems … well, let’s just say it is Biblically unwise.

LoweryOur country is also less God-informed than ever. Faith in God, whether is has been genuine or just legalistic ethicism, had provided a moral center for our culture in decades past. But that is clearly eroding. The freedom we practice now is increasingly godless  … on both sides of the aisle.

So … a profoundly secular, progressive Democratic party wants to “fix” things on the basis of its own, collective, godless wisdom. I don’t like those Babel-like prospects. But an increasingly worldly Republican party  (including masses of poorly-discipled church attenders who have cashed in a robust Christian theology for two-dimensional talk-radio tweets) appears to me to be cloaking its selfishness in flags and eagles. I never hear a Republican clamoring for lower taxes so that we can give more to the poor. No, it’s about me – my freedom, my money, my guns, my health care, my license.

As God has always said, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but that way leads to death” (Prov. 14:12). Democrats say “we know the way we should all live.” I don’t share their confidence. Republicans say, “left alone, we’ll choose good.” I don’t believe that for a second.

1902345-Godless-America-0Issue by issue? Sometimes I think we need government intervention. At other times, I think the best thing is for government to get out of the way. But, regarding the great issue facing our country, I’m afraid it cannot be answered by either party. It’s our godlessness. Though more than two thirds of our population believe in god, (s)he has become a side dish, no longer central to the ways we think or live.

Then, bring in the current election phenomena. Any party that could possibly let Hillary Clinton be its nominee? I wouldn’t go there. Any party that could possibly let Donald Trump secure its nomination? I couldn’t go there.

I will still care about politics. I will still vote. But labels … well, they haven’t fit for a long time, but current circumstances have disqualified them all. I guess that makes me “an independent.” A pro-life, small government, bleeding heart independent, praying that my country will somehow miraculously find its way back into the blessing of God in the years ahead.

– EO

 

 

 

 

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God’s Stump Speech? (Ps. 147)

10341948_1136209249753147_2020847579845022647_n.jpgI saw this picture posted on Facebook today. At first blush, I felt awkward about it.

I am a believer in God. I would say that the following labels apply to me, for the most part: Evangelical. Conservative. Bible-believing. And there are many, many people in the United States that share these convictions. But sometimes the ways people communicate these convictions embarrasses me.

Take the picture. “America” – I’m guessing you mean North America, and specifically the United States of America? “Great” – what is greatness, Biblically speaking? An incredibly strong economy that has us aggressively accumulating a disproportionate share of the worlds goods? A massive military that can exert influence on others countries, whether they want our influence or not? Freedom that has, especially in the media, proven to breed licentiousness and immorality?

Some people who say they want to make America great also think that they, themselves, are pretty great. If that’s greatness, I’ve got to say … I don’t want that kind of “greatness” for America.

So, to say God can make us great, we need a refined vision of greatness.

My Bible reading today has me in Psalm 147. I don’t want this to sound sacrilegious, but it almost reads like God’s “stump speech.” It’s pretty great.

Urban development: The Lord builds up [the city] … He blesses your people within you.

Social Services: He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds … He sustains the humble.

Homeland Security: He casts the wicked to the ground. He strengthens the bars of your gates.

Immigration: He gathers the exiles. 

Foreign Policy: He grants peace to your borders.

Climate and Environment: He covers the sky with clouds; he supplies the earth with rain and makes grass grow on the hills.He provides food for the cattle and for the young ravens when they call … He spreads the snow like wool and scatters the frost like ashes … He stirs up his breezes, and the waters flow.

Economy: He satisfies you with the finest of wheat.

Priority of the Military: His pleasure is not in the strength of the horse, nor his delight in the legs of the warrior.

Religion: He has revealed his word … the Lord delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing love.

God. At times He seems like what we might call a bleeding-heart liberal. At others, a hawkish, economically motivated conservative. I doubt if He could secure the nomination of either party.

But, I do believe, life under His rule would be great. If that is what the marquee sign is promoting, I’m all in.

Oh … and by the way … it will be great. That rule is coming. Probably not in November. But maybe before! And soon.

– EO

   

 

 

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