The Church, Abraham Lincoln, and the Great Issues of Our Day

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Someone has said that the message of the First Century Church was not, “What has become of the world?” but “Look Who has come into the world!” In reality, that is the message of the Church in each generation, in all circumstances, and all geographies – or it should be. The Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ is as true and transforming in the 21st Century as any previous era. Moreover, the message of Jesus preaches with equal truthfulness and power in Afghanistan and Albania as it does in the United States or Great Britain or Brazil. If it doesn’t preach as well, it’s not the true Gospel. The true Gospel promises spiritual liberation to Syrian refugees fleeing ISIS, and the true Gospel is the only hope a Wall Street banker will ever have.

That said, it is vital that pastors, preachers and Bible teachers apply the teaching of God’s Word to the great issues of the day and to the issues and needs of their community and congregation. Truth must be preached and lived in love, but we must apply God’s truth to the issues of the day. Failure to do so will produce reasonable questions of relevance in our hearer’s minds.  Is the gospel relevant to this issue or that, which everyone is talking about?  Does God have a word for us in this situation?  Or, even, is our pastor or teacher aware of, or interested in, the great issues of the day?

This summer, and this year, there are at least three major issues that demand the attention of those who teach God’s Word. There are others I’m sure, but certainly these are three: the persecution and eradication of Christians in many parts of the Middle East and North Africa, same-sex marriage in the United States, and the recent revelations that Planned Parenthood is selling the bodies of aborted babies. Regarding abortion, approximately 3,500 babies in the United States have been aborted every day, 365 days a year, since 1973 (more than 58 million). Thirty percent of these have been African-American babies. And that’s just the United States. In China it is estimated that 30,000 babies are aborted daily. Thirty-seven million babies are aborted worldwide each year.

I don’t have space in this article to suggest how a preacher might speak to each of these issues specifically.  But I will say that they must be addressed. The children who grow up in our churches need to know where their pastor and church stands on the great moral issues of the day. We must train our people to think biblically, and apply the Scriptures accurately when thinking and making decisions in everyday life. What does it mean to carry our cross daily? What does it mean to be an ambassador of Jesus Christ? How do these truths affect and effect our life choices?

When I was a pastor there was an election in which one of the presidential candidates, and one of our state governor candidates, took public positions on matters that were contrary to the teachings of Scripture. The presidential candidate said that he would not support any limitations on abortion, including partial-birth abortion. You might remember that partial-birth abortion is a procedure used when an unborn baby is late-term, and could often survive if born. The procedure entails the delivery of the baby from the birth canal, with the exception of the child’s head, which is left in the birth canal. The baby is then killed before the head is delivered from the birth canal. The governor candidate ran on one major issue. He wanted the state to begin a gambling enterprise, a lottery, “for the sake of the children.” The lottery income was to be dedicated to school funding.

Without naming names, or political parties, I told our church that I would never, no not ever, would I vote for or support candidates who held such positions on the issues. I further called on parents and school officials to demand that politicians not “use children” every time they wanted to pass a law involving the expansion of alcohol sales or gambling. And then I answered the objection that some might have that I was “getting political.” I told them that politics and biblical morality and worldview intersect, and when they do the church must address it. I told them the primary message of the church is not “morality.” Our message centers on Jesus and His gospel. But the Bible also addresses matters of right, wrong, and how we should live (and this is a gospel issue), and “the children who grow up in this church need to know where their pastor stands.” I said, “I don’t want anyone to question my commitment to the right to life, or state-sponsored gambling, and all that that means.” By helping our church see how politics and our Christian worldview intersect, I was able to teach our people, including our children, that the Bible does address the matters they were hearing discussed in the news and across our nation.

Presently I am reading Abraham Lincoln: Selected Speeches and Writings. I have been struck by how well he wrote, thought, and spoke, even as a young man. He was courageous and he was clear. In a speech delivered while still in his twenties, reflecting on the danger that the United States faced, he said this:

“At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it? Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Bonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.

“At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide” (Address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, Jan. 27, 1838).

Lincoln had it right. The destruction of a people, especially moral and spiritual destruction, always comes from within. That being true, God help us.

When we look back on leaders of 100 or 200 years ago, we are often greatly disappointed at where they stood on issues such slavery and race. Even great men, who did great things, could be horribly wrong on significant issues. Lincoln himself had some thoughts on race that we would find contemptible. He thought black people should be freed and sent back to Africa. He cited the story of Moses leading Israel out of 400 years of slavery, and back to Israel, as an example of the rightness of such a re-segregation. Sometimes we are tempted to judge our predecessors by their mistaken views. But I would urge that we be cautious about judging people who couldn’t quite break free from the prevailing thinking of their generation. Their ability to be wrong should humble us. No, I don’t want to judge them. My greater concern is what future generations will think of us. I fully expect that 10, 20 or 100 years from now, abortion will be eradicated from our nation. The day will come when our grandchildren or great-grandchildren will be appalled by what we did to the unborn. When that day comes, I hope they find that many of us did all we could to oppose the slaughter. More importantly, I pray that when we stand before the Lord, as we are now presently standing, that He will be able to commend us for what we have done as Christian leaders in our generation.

This Side of Glory

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“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” (1 Peter 1:12).

This amazing statement acknowledges the tremendous privilege that belongs to those who have lived on this side of Jesus’ earthly life. The Old Testament prophets “predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow” (1 Pet. 1:11b), but their knowledge was partial. They spoke out of the darkness of the light that was to come, and in this sense they served us rather than themselves. Indeed, even the angels were “in the dark” before the glory of Christ was revealed in Bethlehem and Galilee and Golgotha.

Sometimes we think of “glory” as that which is yet to come, forgetting the glory that is ours in the present. Can you imagine what life would be, with all of its suffering and struggles and victories too, if we did not have Jesus and all that He is to us? For 2,000 years, up to the present moment, believers have uttered the simple prayer, “Help me Jesus,” in moments of despair and confusion. Martyrs are today dying with “Jesus” on their lips, sometimes quoting Jesus’ own words as He faced His killers, “Father, forgive them.” The privilege of prayer in Jesus’ name, with all that means, is glory.

It’s hard to fathom how life would be were it not for knowing “The Sermon on the Mount” or the “The Farewell Discourse.” Untold thousands have been sustained by Jesus’ words, “Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and falsely say every kind of evil against you because of Me. Be glad and rejoice, because your reward is great in heaven” (Matt. 5:11-12a). Seeing how Jesus spoke to the “Woman at the Well” and the woman who wept on His feet has enriched the entire world. Which has brought us greater blessings, deposits of gold mined in the hills, or Jesus’ “Parable of the Prodigal Son?” How can we compare the beauty and glory of the most precious gems to that of Jesus’ words “For God so loved the world ….” Give me “I am the bread of life” and you can keep “riches untold.”

Recently I read a fascinating book titled The Man Who Touched His Own Heart by Rob Dunn. The book describes man’s relationship and investigation of the human heart from ancient times to the present. One thing that struck me is that early pioneering heart surgeons often despaired to the point of quitting as their patients died while they strived to develop lifesaving methods that are commonplace today. Jack Gibbon, the inventor of the iron lung, only used it a few times. His last two surgeries were on 5-year-old girls, both of whom died. He never again performed a surgery. His invention, and its perfection, has saved hundreds of thousands of lives, but he lived on the other side of “glory,” unable to fully see what his work would one day mean.

The glory of knowing Jesus and the New Testament witness brings us a “living hope,” as Peter calls it (1 Peter 1:3). It is living because it is founded upon the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. The glory that is ours because we have a living hope is greater than every other thing we could know or have. It’s better than our jobs, our families, our ministries, everything. The Old Testament prophets predicted it, as looking through the darkness, but we possess this living hope. We see clearly the glories of Christ. When our eyes are rightly focused, we see all that there is to see through the lens of Christ’s glory.

To see the glories of Christ is to know that Jesus is worth everything. Are you suffering in your service to Jesus? He is worth it. Do you lack “stuff” because you have chosen to serve Jesus? He is worth it. I’ll always remember sharing Christ with a man in Bangladesh, my youngest son Luke with me, and the man told us, “If I do this, I might get killed.”   He meant that if he received Jesus he might die. What could we say to him except that Jesus is worth it? Jesus is worth everything. This side of glory, with all that Jesus said and did, we know that Jesus is worth everything.

I think it would have helped those pioneering heart surgeons if they could have seen what would become of their work. It would have blessed Isaiah and Jeremiah, and even the angels, had they seen the glory that is Jesus. We have seen Him. His words give us life, shape our thoughts, and enrich our lives beyond expression. What a privilege is ours to live this side of glory!

Raising Preacher Boys

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We used to call them “preacher boys,” but increasingly we are seeing grown men called to preach and pastor, often in their “second career.” One pastor I met was called to his first church when he was nearly 70 years old. And he’s doing a good job! Many others were in their 40s or 50s and had retired from the military or teaching school.

The growth in the number of “preacher men” is a great thing for many reasons. These men come with real-world experience and are highly motivated to “serve the Lord.” They are not thinking career. Their passion is to obey Christ. And preacher men are often largely self-funded because they have another job or retirement income. One pastor in southern Oregon has several such men in his church. He is discipling them and training them for whatever God might have them do.

I have written before that our greatest need in the Northwest is for more pastors, especially bi-vocational pastors. This means that a primary job for churches and pastors is to identify and train-up “preacher boys,” or “preacher men,” for ministry leadership. The local church reaches more people when it has more leaders. As a convention of churches, we will reach more people for Christ as we have more pastors and more churches. Leaders reach people. It’s mathematical. One man cannot do the work of ten. Ten men of equal ability and context will reach ten times the number of people that one will. Likewise, all things being equal, ten churches will reach ten times as many people as one church.

To help facilitate the training of pastors and other ministry leaders, the NWBC has started Contextualized Leadership Development (CLD), which is a branch of Golden Gate Seminary, designed to train ministry leaders. To take CLD classes a student does not need a high school diploma or a college degree. They simply need a strong desire and calling to serve Jesus Christ. Our first CLD location was Portland, which began in January 2015 with a class on preaching. Pastoral ministry will be taught in Portland this fall. I say, “our first CLD location,” but we have other CLD centers operating in the Northwest that were started independent of the convention, which is great. Our desire as a convention of churches is to increase the number of CLD centers, and to start some in areas and among peoples that do not have a CLD center. Two of the current centers are non-English (Russian and Burmese, with a third likely to start this year in the Tagalog language).

Our biggest need in order to expand CLD was to find someone to direct the program in a part-time role. We now have that man. I am very excited about this as he will connect with pastors and Directors of Missions across our convention, helping you to create your own CLD Center. I can’t announce his name yet, but that should be forthcoming in about a month.

This week I spoke to the national CLD leader for Golden Gate Seminary, Don Beall, and Don told me something that might help many of our churches to better train their preacher boys. Many churches don’t have regular worship services on Sunday evening or Wednesday anymore. It is difficult for the pastor to give up the pulpit on Sunday morning with regularity, so that his preacher boys can learn. Don said that one church he knows has scheduled worship one Sunday evening per month as an opportunity for someone other than the lead pastor to preach. I thought that was a great idea and it’s something you might consider.

Lay leaders, let me encourage you to allow your pastor to do what it takes to train up the preacher boys and men in your church. When I was a pastor I felt the pressure to always be in the pulpit on Sunday morning and Sunday evening. But I was wrong. I should have given more opportunities to others in the churches I served. If I had it to do over again, I would seek to educate our church that a part of my responsibility is to train future pastors, and I would give them more opportunities to preach. That said, there are many nursing facilities that would love to have someone lead a worship service on Sunday, or on another day. In my first three years of preaching ministry, ninety percent of my opportunities to preach came in nursing homes. It was there I learned to “speak up” so they could hear me. And it was there that I learned not to be offended when they fell asleep!

We need more ministry leaders in the Northwest. And we need to call them out from our churches and train them up. With all of the political and moral turmoil in our nation, it is a good day to serve the Lord!

Three Questions for Bible Teachers

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“So you’ve told me what the Bible says, but what does that mean for me? What should I do about it?” These questions are asked in thousands of churches every week. Sometimes the questions are verbalized, but often they surface in the minds of hearers without them giving voice to the questions. This is a serious issue because failure to get answers to these questions frustrates the hearer, and it can leave them unable to connect God’s Word to their everyday life.

There are three questions that I try to answer for the hearers every time I teach God’s Word. If your Bible class or congregation can answer these questions when you teach, you will make the kind of impact that you desire. More importantly, you will help your people to become doers of the Word and not merely hearers of the Word (James 1:22-25).

The three questions are: What? So what? Now what? The “what” question concerns the content of the biblical text. What does the text say? What does the text teach? Every biblical passage has one meaning and the “what” question is answered when the teacher explains the meaning of the text.

The second question is “so what?” This question concerns the relevance of the truth being taught in the biblical text. The Bible teacher must do more than state what is true, i.e. what is taught in the Scripture. The Bible teacher must help the hearers understand why this truth is vital for them.

The third question is “now what?” This concerns what the hearer needs to believe, or what the hearer needs to do, as a result of the biblical truth.

For example, if we were to teach from John 3:16, here’s how we could answer those three questions. The text says, “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and Only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

Question one is “What?” What is the meaning of John 3:16? It means that the one true God, God as He is revealed in the Bible, loves the sinful people of this world. The word “world” in John’s Gospel means “the people of the world who are in rebellion against God.” God loves people so much that He gave His Son Jesus to be the Savior of the world and give eternal life to those who believe.

Question two is “So what?” Why is the truth of John 3:16 relevant and important? The answer, it is relevant because it reveals the one and only way a person can receive eternal life and escape eternal death. Jesus does not provide one way among many for people to be saved. Jesus is the one and only way for people to be saved and live forever with God.

Question three is “Now what?” What do I do with the truth I have been taught from God’s Word? The answer, I must believe in Jesus Christ as God’s only Son and as God’s only provision for my eternal life. To believe in Jesus is more than simply acknowledging who He is. To believe in Jesus is to repent of living for anything other than Him and to give your life to Him. You must believe in Jesus Christ, and you must believe in Him now in order to receive eternal life.

If you can answer these three questions for your class or congregation, you will help them connect the Bible to their everyday life. Failure to answer each of these questions will greatly inhibit the effectiveness of your teaching. But if you can interpret and explain the Scriptures clearly, and apply them in a relevant way to your hearers, your teaching will have great and lasting impact … lasting all the way to heaven itself.