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Unyielding Faith: A Series in Galatians

September 10, 2020

Of all the challenges Christians face in the world today, there is perhaps none more tragic and potentially devastating than the temptation to move on from the gospel of Jesus.

It’s so easy. We know we start with Christ—salvation is by grace through faith. But it doesn’t take long for things to get complicated. Our faith begins to feel stale or rote, and we go looking for some spiritual breakthrough. We feel pressure to perform for God, as though his approval is based on our spiritual growth or maturity. We’re drawn by the ideas of those who claim to have a better way. We become wary of criticism or opposition from those around us, which means distancing ourselves from or even abandoning elements of our faith.

And so, we reason, while we’re grateful that the gospel got us on the road, we think we can take it from here. We view the gospel like training wheels, and we’re ready to ride the bike now, excited about the new horizons ahead. Without even realizing it, we slowly begin to yield our faith in the gospel of God’s grace.

This was the same temptation that the churches in ancient Galatia found before them in the middle of the first century. Having begun with the gospel, they thought they were ready to move on. And there were some influential voices encouraging them to do just that—move on from the gospel of grace and take up the Law of Moses. Add to your faith in Jesus circumcision and works of the law—then you’ll both please God and keep the Jews who persecuted the early church off your back.

What they didn’t realize was that moving on was actually moving backward—right back into the slavery of the law and the insufficiency of the flesh, as though Jesus had never arrived. What looked like moving forward was really yielding to a false gospel that not only disrupted the Christian community, but threatened to sever the Galatians from Christ.

And so at the heart of Paul’s letter is his passionate plea for an unyielding faith: never move on from the gospel of Jesus. The Christian faith is one of grace from beginning to end. And only the gospel of Jesus holds forth the grace necessary not only to get us started with God, but to sustain us, grow us, guide us, and bring us all the way home.

I invite you to join us this fall at Stonebridge Church (meeting at Calvary Baptist, Sundays @ 6pm) as we explore the book of Galatians and God’s call to an unyielding faith.

  • Sept 13: “Pressure to Yield” (Gal. 1:1-10)
  • Sept 20: “A Message from Heaven” (Gal. 1:11-24)
  • Sept 27: “Who Is the Gospel for?” (Gal. 2:1-10)
  • Oct 4: “In Step with Gospel” (Gal. 2:11-16)
  • Oct 11: “Not Guilty” (Gal. 2:15-21)
  • Oct 18: “Detours in Faith” (Gal. 3:1-6)
  • Oct 25: “Delivered from Debt” (Gal. 3:7-14)
  • Nov 1: “An Unbreakable Promise” (Gal. 3:15-22)
  • Nov 8: “Heirs of God” (Gal. 3:23–4:7)
  • Nov 13: Guest: Christopher Yuan
  • Nov 22 : “Your Path or God’s Path?” (Gal. 4:8-20)
  • Nov 29 : “A Tale of Two Cities” (Gal. 4:21-31)        

Advent Break

  • Jan 3:  “True Freedom” (Gal. 5:1-12)
  • Jan 10: “The Law of Love” (Gal. 5:13-15)
  • Jan 17: “Walk By the Spirit” (Gal. 5:16-26) 
  • Jan 24: “Open Your Eyes” (Gal. 6:1-10)
  • Jan 31: “Only One Boast” (Gal. 6:11-18)

Some Reflections on the Recent Mask Mandate in Cedar Rapids

September 4, 2020
Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash. https://unsplash.com/@mbaumi

As COVID-19 cases continue to spike in parts of Iowa, the mayor of Cedar Rapids recently instated a mask mandate for the city. Until further notice, facemasks will be mandatory throughout Cedar Rapids in public places whenever social distance cannot be maintained.  

As you might guess, this is proving to be a controversial move. Not only is this issue part of an ongoing power struggle between local mayors and the state governors, mask-wearing has become almost thoroughly politicized in our country, with opposing views being largely representative of partisan allegiances. If you’re for Candidate A you’ll take this position; if you’re for Candidate B, you’ll take that one.

At a more nuanced level, some question the effectiveness of masks, fueled in part by inconsistent messages from medical personnel and public health departments over the last several months. Some feel that mandating masks is an attack on our civil liberties, fueled in part by clear examples of government overreach in recent months. Or worse, a diabolical plot to lull us to sleep and secretly usher in a socialist or communist government, driven in large part by conspiracy theories.

At the same time, some see mandating masks as an urgent health concern that requires swift government action, compelled by the lingering grip of COVID in the U.S. Others simply feel it is the right thing to do to stem the pandemic, motivated by genuine concern for those with higher risk levels. Still others treat it as a defining test of one’s virtue and credibility, encouraged by mask-shaming trends and emboldened by cancel culture.

And local churches are not exempt from this clash of passionately held views. With the question so closely tied to the political polarization in our country, it’s not uncommon for it to spill over into relational conflict and foster division and factions. It’s no stretch of the imagination to anticipate that churches will lose people on both sides of issues like this in protest over the same response.

So what are we doing at Stonebridge, and what does it look like to navigate this issue with both the truth and grace of the gospel?

Allow me to share candidly for a moment.

First, here’s something I don’t love about pastoral ministry: knowing that some people are going to be unhappy no matter what we do with the city’s mandate. The old sentiment, “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” rings true in its theological sense here: we will receive condemnation regardless of how we land. Not just criticism, but condemnation. Accusations of spiritual and moral failure that make us at odds with God.

I share that not to try and shut down criticism or discourage feedback; that’s always welcome. But condemnation is something different. And about that I’ll simply say this: there’s already an Accuser of the brethren (Rev. 12:10). That position is taken, and he doesn’t need any help heaping condemnation on God’s people, especially when it has nothing to do with our faithfulness to Christ.

Second, and on a more positive note, I think our recent look at 1 Corinthians 13 is applicable here: love as the pivot foot of the church. Regardless of where we land personally on this issue, is our interaction with one another marked by patience, kindness, contentment, humility, respect, selflessness, gentleness, forgiveness, truthfulness, tolerance, faith, hope, and enduring commitment (1 Cor. 13:4-7)? If our primary bond is Jesus, and not politics or positions on mask-mandates, then the answer should be a grateful yes. If it’s not, then why not? Is it because we love our position and its implications more than we love our brothers and sisters in Christ?

Third, that brings us to some reflections on the actual position we’re taking as a church right now: operating in compliance with the city-wide mandate. Here I’ll pivot to question-and-answer style, with the answers reflecting my own personal opinions or convictions. (Buckle up!)


Does the mayor really have the authority to make this mandate? He seems to think so, and made his case in relative detail in the full proclamation. The governor doesn’t think so, and so the issue will likely wind up in court. But even if there’s a legitimate debate to be had, for now I’m not convinced it’s our debate. Others may certainly disagree, but I personally don’t see this as a hill worth dying on right now. Our relational and public capital is better spent working with our civic leaders to serve our community after a derecho than working against them on what (in my opinion) amounts to a minor inconvenience for a season. 

Aren’t those in authority just trying to control us? I don’t think so. No doubt some nefarious personalities find their way into politics, bent on their private agenda to take over the world. And no question that power can go to people’s heads. But I’m pretty convinced that most civic leaders are genuinely trying to serve people, even if I don’t always agree with the way they’re trying to do it. And while there are varying opinions as to the true scope and severity of the pandemic, generally speaking, I believe the primary motive is wellbeing, not control.

Isn’t this an infringement on our civil liberties? Ultimately, the legal experts will have to sort that out. And again, there’s plenty of room for disagreement. But personally, no, I don’t believe this is an infringement on personal civil liberties. If it were unconnected to the current state of the pandemic in Cedar Rapids, or applied inconsistently across industries, then I might view it differently. But generally speaking, mandating certain practices in promotion of public health is not in and of itself an infringement (e.g., seatbelts). Moreover, for most of us, the impact is relatively minor: a temporary inconvenience for the sake of protecting the health and wellbeing of others. And where the impact is more significant, exceptions abound.

What about an infringement on our religious liberty? If churches or religious organizations were being singled out (as some states have done with certain COVID policies), then that would raise alarms. As it is, both our state and local leaders in Iowa have gone out of their way to avoid directly compelling religious organizations. Even the mandate itself includes an exemption for those whose sincerely held religious beliefs prevent them from wearing a mask. In that light, Romans 13 remains strongly applicable to our situation: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (13:1). If the governing authorities over us are not compelling us to sin against God, then we are called to obey them (whether or not we agree with them or trust them; see also Rom. 13:1-6; Tit. 3:1-2; 1 Pet. 2:13-17; contrast with Acts 4:18-20; Dan. 3; 6). And within our particular government, we’re also invited to express our disagreement, challenge systems, and work toward change.

What about some of the conspiracy theories floating around on the internet? Shouldn’t we be worried? Allow me to be candid once more: the way that so many Christians blindly peddle conspiracy theories via social media today is not only embarrassing, it’s usually breaking the ninth commandment (“You shall not bear false witness”), and it’s ultimately detrimental to our witness. If we’re bearing witness to demonstrably false information with such passion, why should they believe us when we bear witness to Christ? Of course conspiracies can be real, but most of the ones related to COVID are false, many of them born in the troll farms of foreign enemies, and God warns us not to be duped (Isa. 8:11-15). And while I’m at it: No, Bill Gates is not the antichrist, and no, the vaccine is not the mark of the beast. Let’s spend more time in the Word and less on YouTube.

Aren’t you worried about the slippery slope—masks today, something else tomorrow? The slippery slope is often real, and we do well to pay attention to it. If public policies become unreasonably disconnected to facts and reality, then there’s a more robust conversation to be had. Personally, I don’t think we’re there yet.

Why didn’t we require masks sooner? The short answer: because up until this point they have not be required by local health officials. Since reopening in June, we have sought to follow the guidance of public health officials in terms of social distancing, room capacity, cleaning, and with that, strongly encouraging masks during our services (at least coming and going and any interaction with people outside your immediate family). We even began requiring masks during the 10:45 service in July, in order to provide an environment for those in the congregation who were at higher risk or had less comfort going out in public. Our goal all along has been to promote health and safety while acknowledging and respecting diversity of opinion. And that remains our goal, even as we operate in compliance with the city mandate. Our practice might be changing, but hopefully our respect and honor toward one another doesn’t.

What if I don’t want to come to Stonebridge events because of the mask mandate? We recognize that this is a possibility, and again, want to emphasize patience and charity. We don’t believe this is an issue worth dividing over. But while we don’t ask everyone to agree, we do ask that everyone who comes complies (with the notable exceptions spelled out in the mandate). If that’s not something you feel you can do, let’s talk. We love you; we’ll figure something out. Beyond this, I would simply ask that we not let our allegiance to a particular position sideline our commitment to one another in Christ.


In all of this, what really stands before us is an opportunity to rally around the gospel. A chance to emphasize the bond of our commitment to one another in Christ. And a chance to display the character of Christ to the world, not only with regard to masks, but especially in how we treat each other. As Jesus said in John 13:34-35: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

A Prayer for a Nation on Fire

May 30, 2020

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Julio Cortez /AP

Gracious Father,

In this hour of darkness, we pray for our nation.

Our people are hurting, our cities are burning. For there is a fire that has plagued this nation since its inception, the smoldering hatred of racism.

How long will our headlines read: another unarmed black man killed by white people with no consequences?

How long must people of color fear for their lives while participating in the most ordinary of tasks—running, bird-watching, sitting in your own home, answering your own door?

How long will our systems, rhythms, and social expectations privilege some races and classes over others?

How long will those with power prefer order over justice?

We lament the violence and wanton recklessness of the riots destroying neighborhoods and cities, and pray for protection and safety for those so directly impacted. Evil cannot drive out evil; only good can do that (Rom. 12:21).

We denounce those who would take advantage of the searing wound of racism to stir up trouble or use this moment as an opportunity for selfish gain.

But let us not be deaf to the cries of our brothers and sisters of color. This has gone on too long. Enough is enough.

Would your Spirit move in this country to restore a baseline of decency and brotherly kindness that recognizes the intrinsic value of every person of every color and nationality at every stage of life, for all humanity is made in your image.

Would your Spirit bring a movement of repentance in our nation, such that we as a people can no longer tolerate racial bias and prejudice, not only in personal human hearts, but in our human systems and institutions that have long allowed this sin to smolder and offered shelter to those who feed it oxygen to renew its flames.

Would your church be a voice of justice and a place of safety, a people ready to stand against all expressions of sin, ready to comfort all those wounded by its flames, ready to lock arms with our communities to address these wrongs, and ready to offer the healing salve of the gospel of God’s salvation.

For in Jesus, we confess that there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all (Col. 3:11). “For [Christ] himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility . . . that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility” (Eph. 2:14-16).

In Christ alone is there hope for lasting peace with God and neighbor, a peace that endures beyond this moment and this world and spans eternity. As our nation burns from the fires of racism and the fires of riots, may your Spirit bring that peace, and may your people be moved by your gospel.

With a heart of mercy, may we weep with those who weep and hear their cries for help.

With a heart of indignation, may we stand with the oppressed and say to the powers of evil, ‘No more!’

With a heart of repentance, may we own our part in the problem, plead for mercy and forgiveness, and be part of the solution.

With a heart of compassion, may we lay down our lives to serve our neighbors and come alongside the vulnerable.

With a heart of conviction, may we speak God’s word in truth and love, and may those words comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

With a heart of joy, may we hold forth Christ as the greatest treasure this world affords.

Hear these prayers in the righteous and compassionate name of Jesus. Amen.

 

Gospel Guardrails for Spiritual and Relational Health

May 4, 2020

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Photo by Karsten Würth on Unsplash

When it comes to helping people understand how the good news of Jesus transforms us personally and guides our relationships, I often use the illustration of guardrails on a highway. The gospel provides two critical guardrails to keep us faithful and fruitful in life: the sinfulness of sin and the sufficiency of grace (cf. 1 Tim. 1:15-16). In other words, sin really is sinful, because God really is holy. And grace really is sufficient, because Christ’s blood really is enough.

Emphasizing both of these realities in our lives and relationships helps us live faithfully before God. It frees us to deal honestly with sin (both our own sin and the sin committed against us) because we have an adequate solution in Christ. Lose sight of either guardrail, and your life and relationships are likely to end up in one ditch or another.

To illustrate what’s at stake here, think about what happens when we lose sight of these guardrails. In fact, there are at least eight painful and destructive ways to land in the spiritual or relational ditch when we miss or minimize just one of them—either the sinfulness of sin or the sufficiency of grace.

The first two come from losing sight of my own sinfulness:

1. Prideful self-sufficiency. The motto of prideful self-sufficiency is: I can do this on my own. “I don’t need the gospel, because I have the strength and strategies to make the Christian life work on my own. I’ve read the right books; I know the right methods. I’m certainly not as bad as those people—look at all the ways they compromise their faith. I’m sure glad I’m not like them.”

This is self-righteous pride. I minimize my sin and maximize the sin of others because my view of identity is still caught up in how well we all perform for God, rather than our union with Christ. I can’t acknowledge or even see my own sin, because then I won’t look as good to God or others. This is a prideful heart that, regardless of what the mouth says, doesn’t really believe it needs the gospel.

2. Shameless self-indulgence. The second way that minimizing my own sinfulness can lead to spiritual and relational carnage is by giving myself to shameless self-indulgence. Here the motto is: It’s not that sinful. “I don’t need the gospel, because my heart and my actions aren’t really that ugly. How sinful is it, really, to prioritize my job over my wife and kids?” “Everyone else looks at porn every now and then; isn’t God’s grace sufficient for that? After all, God made me with sexual desires, and at least I’m not sleeping with someone. It can’t be that bad, can it?”

And so we justify our sin. I tell myself it’s not that sinful, because I still like doing it. Or perhaps because I can’t bear the guilt and shame of admitting that I’m doing it. Either way, I disregard the holiness of God and take my eyes off the first guardrail, which will eventually destroy my relationships by making everything about me.

There are two other spiritual and relational dangers that come from losing sight of sin, this time the sinfulness of someone else, whether it’s my spouse, children, parents, colleagues, neighbors, or friends:

3. Naïve over-regard for someone. The motto here is: They can do no wrong. “They never do anything wrong, or at least nothing that I can’t handle.” “My friend would never say that.” “My children would never do something like that” (i.e., “because if they did, that means I’m not as good a parent as I think I am”).

These are the rose-colored glasses of love and admiration for a mentor, hero, or someone in whom we find our identity. We have some vested interest in protecting the pedestal we’ve placed them on, which of course only sets them up for failure down the road when they do in fact do something hurtful and come tumbling down. We hold onto false expectations, putting our hope in someone who can’t deliver what we want from them (since only God can). Moreover, we deprive them of the opportunity for transformation, which comes from having to deal with one’s sin, however painful or dislocating it may be.

4. Evasive disregard for someone’s sin. This is second tragic result of overlooking someone else’s sin, and the motto again is: It’s not that sinful. “Their sin isn’t so bad”—the pornography addiction, the alcohol abuse, the constant cutting words. “Everyone is just overreacting; it’s not that big a deal.” “My marriage isn’t that bad; so we have a couple problems, nothing we can’t handle.” “My children aren’t that bad; sure, they could be making some better choices, but they love God . . . I think.”

Here, instead of justifying our own sin, we justify the sin of someone else in effort to escape the reality and weight of it. Perhaps because we don’t know how to address it, or because we can’t imagine bearing the pain and shame of it. Perhaps because the results would be too damaging if word got out.

But as with every other attempt to downplay sin, in time it will be found out. Moreover, when we minimize sin, we necessarily marginalize grace. If we can’t be honest with how ugly our own sin is, or the sin of those we love, then we will withhold from both the very means of change God has given us—the grace of the gospel.

So what happens when we lose sight of this second guardrail—the sufficiency of grace? Again, we see two possible results of minimizing grace in our own lives:

5. Legalistic performance. Here the motto is: I’m a sinner, and I have to make it up. “I’m fully aware of my sin, but God’s love and favor for me are contingent on my being good enough,” whether it’s loving my spouse well enough, having my daily quiet time, obeying my parents, going to church, or telling others about Jesus. “If I can just stop doing certain bad things and start doing other good things, I’ll grow in my walk, and God will be happy with me.”

This is to miss the essence of the gospel, that Christ has done for us through his life and death what we couldn’t do under the law, and to turn our relationships and love into a cold duty, rather than a warm delight.

6. Hopeless despair. The second (and inevitable) result of overlooking God’s grace for oneself is hopeless despair. The motto: I’m a sinner, and I can never make it up. “I now realize that I will never be good enough. I will never measure up no matter what I do or how hard I try; and so why try any longer? I give up.”

So we turn inward in depression, or maybe outward to other things that we think could fill the void—the things I can conquer, like food, pornography, romance novels, internet relationships, adultery, entertainment, eating disorders, any variety of addiction or abuse which destroy us and those we love.

But just as deadly for our relationships is losing sight of the sufficiency of God’s grace in someone else’s life. Here again we see two tragic results:

7. Vindictive manipulation. The motto here is: You have to make it up to me. “You hurt me and let me down, and now you have to make it up. You have to work your way back into my good graces. But I’m always going to hold the bar just an inch or two higher than you can reach, so that I can keep you in debt to me and make you feel the pain you’ve caused me to feel. Don’t worry about performing for God, I’m the one you have to worry about. And I will withhold forgiveness and peace until I’m convinced on my terms that you deserve it. And just in case you try to do the same thing to others, I plan to warn them and tell them what you did. To protect them, of course, and so they can pray for you. And (if we’re honest) so that you suffer.”

This is vindictive manipulation. Instead of extending to others the grace we have received from God, we set ourselves up as judge, jury, and executioner.

8. Unforgiving resentment. The other way to withhold grace toward others is to take the passive aggressive route of unforgiving resentment. The motto is: I won’t say anything, but I’ll never forget. “I may not make a big deal of your sin. I may not even tell you that you hurt me. But I will not forget it. I might smile and nod when people praise you to me, but I know the truth. I simply add each new offense to that secret list of grievances that I’m carrying around in my pocket, until one day, when you really blow it, the whole thing is coming out.”

This is cancer for human relationships. It slowly and secretly eats away at trust, affection, and devotion, often without symptoms, until it is (humanly speaking) too late. Moreover, these last two examples take us full circle, back up to downplaying my own sinfulness. I can only stand in judgment over someone who has sinned against me if I believe that I’m a far less sinner than he or she.

But what happens when the framework stays in place? How does a constant awareness of the sinfulness of sin and the sufficiency of grace guide and guard our spiritual health and relationships with each other?

It doesn’t mean we will see less trouble or conflict. In fact, we will likely be more aware of and sensitive to it, as our eyes are opened to our own sin and the sin of others. But it does supply us with the resource we need to deal with conflict and sin, rather than managing it or sweeping it under the rug. The only resource that can actually bring lasting humility, repentance, forgiveness, and health—the grace of God through the finished work of Christ.

Let the gospel be your guardrails for spiritual growth and relational health: sin really is sinful, and grace really is sufficient.

“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” (Tit. 2:11-14 ESV)

 

Five Marks of Spiritual Fruit to Guide Your Prayers

April 27, 2020

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Photo by Kevin Maillefer on Unsplash

Over the past several months our staff and elders have been reading and discussing a book by Jared Wilson called The Gospel-Driven Church. It has been a stimulating conversation starter and a helpful point of reference as we have been discussing what it looks like for the gospel of Jesus to be in the driver’s seat of our approach to ministry, as opposed to the more pragmatic or consumeristic approaches that are so common today.

Of the many ways Wilson helps us think about how the gospel ought to drive our aims, methods, and expectations in ministry, one is the kind of fruit we hope to cultivate among our people. Drawing on Jonathan Edwards’s The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God, Wilson elaborates on what he calls “five metrics of grace”—the kind of fruit that God calls us to, but can only be borne by the Spirit of God in the power of the gospel of Jesus. Not only is this a far more helpful diagnostic than simply counting attendance and giving, it’s also something that can guide our prayers as we seek to grow in spiritual health and fruit.

So here are Wilson’s five metrics (drawn from Edwards), along with some explanatory quotes. Let them be an occasion for personal reflection, and a prayer for God to bring the finished work of Christ to bear on our lives and ministries.

1. A growing esteem for Jesus Christ

“The primary and overarching concern for Jonathan Edwards was the glory of Christ. Did Edwards want to see his church grow? Yes, and by God’s grace it did. Did he want to have a widespread impact through his writing and teaching ministry? Yes, and by God’s grace he continues to do so. But that all amounts to nothing if Jesus is not at the worshipful center of everything. . . . Is your church growing in its affection for Jesus? Is he actually more important than everything else?” (55-56)

“How do you know if a church is focused on the glory of Jesus Christ above all? Let me make a few suggestions. . . . In the sermon and song, is Jesus the focal point? In the sermons you preach, is Jesus a bit player, an add-on for the invitation time, or a quotable hero? Or does your preaching and worship promote his finished work as the only hope of mankind? . . . Musically, is the church focused on creating an experience for people or on adoring the Creator? Do our songs tell the story of the gospel? Are we, the people, the stars of the show, or is Jesus?” (56-57)

“If a church is not explicitly and persistently making Jesus the focus, it is not fruitful. Conversely, if a church is making Jesus the focus explicitly and persistently, it is being fruitful since the ongoing worship of Jesus is an essential fruit of the new birth.” (57)

2. A discernible spirit of repentance

“The fundamental problem for every human being is not an unmet felt need but the unkept law of God. Our primary disconnect is not between ourselves and our best lives but between our lives and our Creator. People have lots of problems, and the church can help with many of them, but if we are not helping our people comprehend, confront, and confess their sin, we are failing them.” (57)

“Is the church preaching the dangers and horrors of sin? And then, in its preaching of the gospel, is the message of grace in Jesus Christ clear? Are people responding to the Spirit’s conviction and comfort with repentance? Do people own and confess their sin? . . . Repentance is a sign of genuine fruitfulness.” (58-59)

3. A dogged devotion to the Word of God

“A mark of a fruitful church is a love for God’s Word. Preachers preach from it as a life-giving source of food and oxygen for spiritual growth. The people study it with determination and intensity. They believe the Word of God is sufficient and powerful and authoritative.” (59)

“An approach to teaching and preaching that minimizes the use of the Scriptures or relegates them to a less than primary role is one that functionally assumes the Bible is not living and active. It denies the power of the gospel. It treats the Bible as old and crusty, something that must be cleaned up for the crowds, softened up by our logic and understanding. . . . This is another way of saying that God’s Word isn’t enough.” (60)

“Is the Word of God actually God speaking to us? Is God speaking to us actually powerful? Is this power actually what helps people get saved, grow, and treasure Jesus more and more? If the answer to those questions is yes, then a church that does not stubbornly devote itself to the Bible, as if no other words can compare, is unhealthy and unfruitful.” (62)

4. An interest in theology and doctrine

“Having a mind lovingly dedicated to God is biblically required of us, most notably in the great commandment: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind’ (Matt. 22:37). Loving God with all our minds means more than theological study, but it does not mean less than that.” (63)

“Healthy, fruitful churches are made up of Christians who are searching out God’s ways and following the trails of doctrine in the Scriptures straight to the throne. In our day, emotion and experience are often set at odds with the study of doctrine and theology, and churches that devote themselves to one will often keep the other at arm’s length. Both extremes are unfruitful—a church that’s all head knowledge without heart and a church that’s all feeling without depth.” (64)

5. An evident love for God and neighbor

“A move of God’s Spirit will bear the fruit of evident love for God and for neighbor. . . True fruitfulness is evidenced chiefly in obedience to the commands of God, the greatest of which is loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves (Luke 10:27). If a church exists for the sake of its own survival, for the sake of its own enterprise, or for the sake of creating wonderful experiences for people, it is not fruitful, no matter how big it gets.” (65)

“The first way this love is made evident is through the way Christians love one another. . . . [A second is] love of the church corporately for its neighbors and community. Love requires knowledge, awareness, and sacrificial devotion to the needs of others. Are the leaders aware of their surroundings? Does the church operate almost as an island in a sea of outsiders? Do you feel like you’re in a bubble? If your church were to close tomorrow, would the neighborhood care?” . . . If your church does not have relationships with those outside the church body and leaves little mark in the community, it may not be a fruitful church.” (65-66)

Nurturing an Eternal Perspective

April 20, 2020

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Photo by OC Gonzalez on Unsplash

For many of us, trials like the COVID-19 crisis have fostered what’s called a “cognitive dissonance.” What we know to be true about God doesn’t seem to square with what we see or experience in the world.

For instance, we know that God is on his throne, but our world feels so chaotic. We know that God is good, but the coronavirus has brought so much heartbreak. We know that God provides, but we’re not sure how we’ll cover the bills. Our knowledge of God seems out of sync with reality. And the longer this goes on, the harder it can be to hold those two in tension without the latter dislodging the former.

This was the very trial that Asaph found himself facing in Psalm 73. Asaph was the chief musician during David’s reign (1 Chron. 16:5)—basically, a worship pastor. His theology was solid. He begins Psalm 73 with a declaration of what he knows to be true of God: “Truly God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart” (v. 1). But his theology seems to fall apart when faced with his reality. “But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped. For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked” (vv. 2-3).

His doctrine told him God was good; his eyes caused him to question that. Because from where he stood, it was the wicked who seemed to have it all together. He details this in vv. 3-12, how they have no pain until death, they don’t face the same trouble as everyone else, they are proud and brazen, always at ease and increasing in riches. If God is so good to Israel, why do the wicked prosper while the righteous perish?

Asaph focused on his present experience—what he could see and understand right now—and nearly concluded that his doctrine had been wrong. He offers his tentative conclusion in v. 13: “Truly all in vain have I kept my heart clean, and washed my hands in innocence.” If God’s goodness is measured in earthly peace and prosperity, then following God has been a waste of time.

What stayed him amid this crisis of faith was two things. First, he considered the impact his apostasy would have on the congregation (v. 15), and decided not to give up so easily. Second, and more importantly, he went into the sanctuary of God (v. 17), and that’s where his perspective took a dramatic shift. “Then I discerned their end,” he says. As he approached God in worship, God gave him an eternal perspective. And seeing the end changed his interpretation of the present.

Imagine knowing that your team would win the World Series this year before the season even starts (if it ever starts!). That knowledge of the future changes how you interpret situations in the present. A bad game, or a bad string of games, that might otherwise cause you to lose hope, exerts far less influence on your estimation of your team or your joy in their season. Knowing the end reshapes how you think about and live in the present.

So it was when Asaph finally understood that however peaceful and prosperous the wicked appear now, it doesn’t end well for them. As he declares in v. 18, “Truly you set them in slippery places; you make them fall to ruin.” The Lord will deal with their wickedness in the end (vv. 19-20, 27). And so Asaph was foolish to envy those whose “success” was ill-gained and short-lived (vv. 21-22).

In contrast, God’s promise to his people is so much better than whatever temporary comfort we might look for in this life. For starters, he is with us even when we don’t feel it: “Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand” (v. 23). Second, our relationship with him is eternal: “You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory” (v. 24). And third, he is supremely satisfying: “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (vv. 25-26).

What Asaph comes to realize through his present trial as it’s reshaped by an eternal perspective, is that God’s goodness is not ultimately measured by or experienced in the things he gives us or does for us, but in giving us himself. His presence is the treasure. “As for me, it is good to be near God” (v. 27). A treasure he has given us ultimately through his Son, Jesus Christ, the fullness of God in bodily form, crucified and risen for us.

And so one important lesson from our current crisis is the invitation to nurture an eternal perspective. Amid the frustration, disenchantment, fear, or loss, to fix our joy not on our current situation, but on our God above and our inheritance to come. To treasure God’s goodness not primarily in what he gives us, but to treasure God himself.

The apostle Paul puts it this way in 2 Corinthians 4:

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Cor. 4:16-18)

Knowing the end reshapes how you think about and live in the present.

Can Anything Good Come out of the Cross?

April 13, 2020

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Photo by Dylan McLeod on Unsplash

A Good Friday meditation, delivered at Stonebridge Church on April 10, 2020.

 

Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isa. 53:4-6 ESV)

This is the word of the Lord through the ancient prophet Isaiah, looking across the centuries to One who would accomplish all God’s will, deliver his people, and establish his kingdom. Not by conquering with the sword, but by being pierced for our transgressions. A victory he accomplished on Good Friday.

It’s strange that we call it “good” when you consider the loss, doubt, pain, and death. As people said of Jesus at the beginning of his earthly ministry, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (Jn. 1:46) so it’s tempting to say of his ministry’s end, “Can anything good come out of the cross?”

After all, before the cross was the symbol of Christianity, or a piece of jewelry to wear around your neck, it was an object of torture and execution. It was a symbol of shame and defeat, reserved for the worst of criminals. It was violent, brutal, beyond painful. Even today, our word “excruciating” comes from the word “crucify.” How can anything so intensely violent and painful be good?

The goodness of the cross comes not from what man intended by it, or accomplished through it, but what God intended by it, and accomplished through it. What the Sanhedrin and the soldiers, what Pilate and Herod and even Jesus’s followers didn’t understand that day, is that God was about to take the greatest symbol of shame in the Roman world, and the greatest act of evil in human history, and turn it into the greatest expression of love in human history, and the most profound revelation of his glory.

What happened that day was no accident. It’s not as though Jesus’ plans went sideways, or his Father slipped off his throne for a moment at the expense of his Son. The cross was always the plan. It was born in the heart of God before the foundation of the world. Hundreds of years before Roman crucifixion was even invented, the Bible describes how God’s king would give himself for his people. “He was pierced for our transgressions,” Isaiah 53. “They have pierced my hands and feet,” Psalm 22.

At the cross the brokenness and rebellion of this world come face to face with the perfection of God’s holiness and love. We see God’s holiness in how he deals justly with human sin, pouring out his holy anger against all unrighteousness and all human rebellion. We see God’s love in how he offers deliverance from that judgment according to the riches of his grace.

And what makes that possible is that in Jesus, we have a willing and worthy substitute. The eternal Son of God took on human flesh and became like us, that he might represent us in both life and death. He lived for us the life we couldn’t and wouldn’t live, in perfect obedience to his Father. As Isaiah described, all we like sheep have gone astray. And as our innocent substitute, as the true Passover Lamb, Jesus died for us the death we deserve, that God might deal justly with sin and mercifully with sinners.

That’s what Isaiah 53 describes—one who has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows, who has borne in himself the full weight of sadness and sickness and all the pain of this broken world, even as he is smitten and stricken by God. One who was pierced for our transgression and crushed for our iniquities, who dealt decisively with our sin and rebellion, taking the judgment we deserved, paying the debt in full, such that with his wounds we are healed.

And so it is, that everything wrong with this broken world finds its answer in the cross. If you’ve ever been whitewater rafting, one of the things they tell you to do when the river begins to get really choppy, is look for the V in the river, the point where all the water is converging, because that’s where the raft is going to go. And you want to point the boat toward the V. If you hit it sideways, you’re likely to flip over.1

The cross is the V of all human history. The point where all the water of human suffering, evil, sin, pain, sickness, and sorrow is all converging. The sin that every one of us has committed, the ways we color outside God’s lines: the cutting things that we think or say, the selfish moves we make, the subtle idolatries of our heart when we look to created things for that which only our Creator can give, or give to created things that which only our Creator deserves. And not just the sin we commit, but even the sin committed against us. The betrayal or injustice we’ve experienced; the pain others have caused us. The sorrow of this world. The shame, sickness, sadness, death. Even the COVID-19 crisis, with all of the dislocation and frustration, the pain of the disease, the loss of life—the suffering and sin of all humanity converges at the cross, where it finds its answer. A willing substitute who bears it in our place, and is able to deliver us from it.

Good Friday is God’s invitation to take all that is not good in your life, all that is not good in this world, and fold into the cross of Christ. To give it by faith to the one who has dealt with it, and find forgiveness, wholeness, and new life in him.

Because, of course, the cross is not the end of the story. It can only answer our brokenness and rebellion if there’s a resurrection on Sunday morning. Without the resurrection, Jesus is just another criminal. The resurrection both demonstrates his innocence and defeats the power of death. The resurrection is what brings God’s new life and new creation to bear on this broken world. We’re going to celebrate that Sunday morning.

And even before that comes Holy Saturday, a day when at Stonebridge we’re used to being out on the street corners proclaiming the good news, carrying the cross. Streets that feel hauntingly empty right now. Perhaps as empty as that first Holy Saturday, when the disciples were gathered in their homes, afraid for their lives, and giving themselves to prayer. And so we encourage you to make Saturday a day of prayer for our community, nation, and world.

But tonight, consider the cross. See in it God’s holiness and love. See your sin, your sorrow, your shame, even your sickness folded into it, accounted for, answered, addressed, dealt with decisively through the loving sacrifice of our Savior, and know that the love of God is for you.

Footnotes:

  1. This illustration comes from N. T. Wright, Christians at the Cross (Word Among Us Press, 2008) 53.

But First, Lament.

April 6, 2020

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Photo by Amritanshu Sikdar on Unsplash

This is getting old. And for some of us, increasingly scary.

Weeks ago, COVID-19 was for most of us national news but a faceless disease. Today, almost everyone can name someone they know who has tested positive. And with the disease’s spread, layoffs increase, schools and businesses extend their closures, and plans are constantly being canceled. There’s a collective sense of loss and frustration.

If you’re anything like me, your first reaction to these kinds of situations is to try to “do something.” Anything. And that’s not entirely bad. Love moves us to action. But there is very little tangible action that one can take right now beyond staying at home. And so our primary action only feeds our sense of frustration and loss.

But what I’ve discovered for these situations, when everything is so far beyond my control, is that my first reaction isn’t always the most helpful one. Sure, it’s important to do whatever we can. But first, lament.

As I mentioned briefly in last week’s post, the Psalms are full of lament—the kind of songs that give voice to the pain, grief, and frustration we’re experiencing, and bring those cries to the Lord. They’re honest and raw. For instance, Psalm 13 begins: “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?”  (Ps. 13:1-2 ESV)

Elliot Grudem, a friend and mentor, recently wrote about the importance of lament in this current crisis. He writes:

We moved from New Orleans to Raleigh two months before Katrina destroyed the areas of the city we spent the most time in and around. One of the high school students we were closest to posted a message to the state high school athletic association asking if the destruction meant his football season was canceled. A writer turned that question into a story for Sports Illustrated.

I thought about that story Sunday night as my daughter lamented the CDC news that seemed to put an end to her rowing season. Other friends texted the sorrow there were feeling for their kids whose school and activities were brought to an abrupt halt.

Like the Sports Illustrated writer did for my friends from New Orleans, I want to honor my daughter’s sadness and help her hope for something better. The best way I know to do that is to help her pray a prayer of lament.

My friend Paul Miller in his book on prayer calls lament prayers the nuclear option. It’s the often messy, loud, unfiltered prayer we cry out to God when we are out of other options. It asks God to fix the seemingly unfixable situation. . . .

Praying a lament helps you embrace your limits. It puts you in your right place, a human being with limits, praying to the omnipotent God. Cry out to him, asking him to fix the situation only he can fix. Teach your family to pray similar prayers, allowing them to pray for the things that are important to them. Teach your church to join you in those prayers.

Elliot has provided a guide to writing a lament, including a section on helping your children write a lament. It’s important to grieve what we’ve lost, as we fix our hope on the Lord above.

So, yes—don’t just sit there during this crisis. Do something: pray, give, encourage, share, serve, help. I’ll share more ideas on this soon. But first, lament.

Related Posts:

Being the Church in a Day of Social Distancing

4 Ways to Pray for Your Church during Self-Isolation

5 Conversation Topics for the Church in Quarantine

5 Conversation Topics for the Church in Quarantine

March 30, 2020

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Photo by Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash

As we begin another week of social distancing, I want to return to another suggestion from an earlier post on ways we can be the church during this season: talk.

Again, while visiting one another in person may be limited, God’s common grace has provided a remarkable variety of resources for communicating with people remotely: text, chat, FaceTime, Zoom, Google Hangouts, Portal, etc. And that good old fashioned medium, the telephone.

But what should we talk about? You don’t need to overthink it, but here are a few suggested conversation topics to help God’s people connect meaningfully during this season of isolation.

Life. Again, you don’t need to overthink it. Talk about whatever you would talk about if you were visiting in person. Update each other on how you’re doing, what you’re doing—the kind of stuff that we’re used to discussing in passing throughout the day. While small talk might feel kind of trivial, it’s also normal, and many of us are missing it. Resist the temptation to think that you have to have some grand reason for actually picking up the phone. Just call and catch up.

Fear. While it’s good to catch up on normal things, we all recognize that this season is anything but normal. Life is so disrupted, a deadly virus is spreading, and there is so much uncertainty about the future, that it’s really easy to be afraid. Discuss those fears with each other. What’s bugging or distracting you? What’s keeping you up at night? How are your family members handling this? Listen empathetically to each other, and encourage each other with the truth of the gospel—that in Christ, we have someone who is bigger than anything we might fear (cf. Mk. 4:35-41).

Grief. As the closures and self-quarantines drag on, a lot of people are experiencing loss. Families losing loved ones, workers being laid off, students unable to finish the school year. It hits us in different ways, but this is a sad time. And sometimes the church is scared of being honest about our sadness. Grief feels weak or unspiritual, as if real Christians should be able to pull themselves together and block out negative emotion. Not only is that silly and unhealthy, it’s anti-biblical. Grieving together is good for our hearts, and good for the church. Our Lord grieved at the tomb of his friend Lazarus (Jn. 11). And we’ve been given a soundtrack for our grief through the psalms of lament—the kind of songs that give voice to the pain, grief, and frustration we’re experiencing, and bring those cries to the Lord (e.g., Ps. 13; 22; 42-43; 88). Talk about your sadness and grief.

Hope. At the same time, in Christ our grief is not without hope (1 Thess. 4:13). Despite the uncertainty of this season, we know how the story ends. And COVID-19 doesn’t win. Jesus wins. He has already conquered the grave through his bodily resurrection, and when he returns we will share in that resurrection and receive an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading (1 Cor. 15:20-26; 1 Pet. 1:3-4). Remind each other of the hope you have in Christ. Preach the gospel to each other—not because you don’t know the information, but because it’s worth rehearsing, celebrating, and applying to our daily lives, fears, and grief.

Perseverance. And because we have hope, we can encourage one another to persevere in faith and obedience amid the suffering and dislocation. And we need that encouragement. The encouragement to keep listening to God’s voice in the Scripture. To keep holding fast to the gospel. To keep saying no to sin and yes to Christ. As the author of Hebrews reminds us,

Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end. (Heb. 3:12-14 ESV)

Let’s keep talking and encourage one another, that we might hold firm together.

 

Related Posts:

Being the Church in a Day of Social Distancing

4 Ways to Pray for Your Church during Self-Isolation

4 Ways to Pray for Your Church during Self-Isolation

March 23, 2020

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Photo by Amaury Gutierrez on Unsplash

While the coronavirus continues its spread in the U.S. and we all continue to adjust to the new realities and rhythms of social distancing and self-isolation, as I mentioned in last week’s post, one thing the church can do in any situation is pray. Today I want to elaborate on that and share four ways you can pray for your church during this season of self-isolation.

Pray for the situation. The psalms are filled with the prayers of God’s people crying out for help and deliverance from hard situations. “Save me, O God! For the waters have come up to my neck” (Ps. 69:1). “In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord” (Ps. 77:2). As we face a national and global crisis, it is fitting that God’s people would lift their voices to seek God’s help, protection, and deliverance from this dreadful disease.

Pray for spiritual fruit. Though it’s good to pray for the situation, we also recognize that God works through hard circumstances to bring spiritual growth and maturity to his people. “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (Jms. 1:2-4). So don’t just pray that all this goes away; pray also that God accomplishes in and through his people all he intends through this hardship.

Pray for the saints. While it’s good to pray generally for these things, it’s even better to pray them for specific people in your church. “To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints” (Eph. 6:18). Pray these things for your family and for your small group—those with whom you regularly share life. Pray them for the elderly and vulnerable, the lonely and isolated, who need God’s encouragement in a special way. Pray them for your leaders, who are making hard decisions about how to shepherd the flock in unpredictable circumstances. Pray them for your missionaries, whose life and work has been similarly turned upside-down, with even more unpredictable circumstances.

Pray for salvation. Finally, pray that God would use this season of disruption, sickness, and fear to awaken the hearts of the lost, that they might sense their need of Jesus and turn to him in repentance and faith. Pray that God, through the witness of his church, would “open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in [Christ]” (Acts 26:18). Pray specifically for those in your life who don’t know Christ, even those for whom you had all but given up hope, that God would do a great work of salvation in this time. And be ready to celebrate when he answers. Pray with expectation—that God will do it.