Life and Ministry in Evil Days

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“Be very careful, then, how you live – not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil” (Eph. 5:15-16).

Urgency, desperation, these words describe how I feel. Certainly the early Ephesian church served Christ during desperate, evil days. Their trouble began with riotous businessmen. The Gospel of Jesus Christ threatened the livelihood of those making and selling idols of the god Artemis. Idol making was big business. The Ephesian temple to Artemis was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world and housed the world’s largest bank. As the church in Ephesus grew, idol selling plunged, and that brought trouble to the church.

The churches in our nation are facing trouble too. We live in evil days. In June our nation witnessed the celebration, normalization and institutionalization of sexual perversion with the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage. Failure to participate in the celebration can cost you your job, your business, even your ministry, as those serving in the Kentucky prison system have learned. Ministry inside the church house is safe for now. But those serving as chaplains, or serving in educational institutions, are at risk.

Added to this, nine videos were released this summer showing Planned Parenthood workers discussing and negotiating the sale of aborted baby body-parts. The moral swamp that is PP has its snout deep in the federal trough, receiving over $500 million annually from U.S. taxpayers.

This summer we have witnessed the verbal and physical assault on police officers. As I write, four police officers have been murdered in the last nine days.

Then, this morning, I saw a video of ISIS hog-tying four men, suspending them over a fire, and roasting them in the flames. We are witnessing the eradication of the Church in much of the Islamic-dominated world. Maybe I watch too much news, but I feel as though it’s been a summer of evil.

So what does all of this mean for Northwest Baptists and for you? First, it means that we need you. Your community needs you. Our neighbors need your love and witness and confidence that, despite how things might seem, Jesus wins. Indeed, He has already won. “The prince of this world now stands condemned,” said Jesus (John 16:11). When Jesus Christ rose from the grave He shouted to the world, “I’m in charge. I am history’s champion. And anybody else who lays claim to your life, or seeks to dominate your life, is an illegitimate authority.” Our God is never at His wit’s end. Our God never wonders, “What shall I do?” He knows what he is doing, and our confidence in Him is what the Bible calls “faith.”

Second, as the text in Ephesians says, we must be careful, exercising wisdom. We must pray, speak and act with wisdom. Wisdom requires that our minds be saturated with God’s Word and that we be Spirit-filled. Living for Jesus in an evil world is impossible apart from abiding in Him. This enables us to make “the most of every opportunity.” Believers and churches that create and seize gospel opportunities are those who will win the day. With every problem there is a gospel opportunity – an opportunity to pray, love, and speak truth.

Yes, at times I feel desperate. But more than that, I feel a sense of urgency. Time is short. Heaven is real. But so too is hell. We must be about our Father’s business.

Are All Sins Equal?

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Are all sins equal? Do different sins carry differing consequences? These questions have long been discussed, and answers have been suggested, perhaps none more creatively than that of Dante Alighieri in his 14th Century classic, Inferno.

In a frightening description of Hell, Dante imagined that different sins merited different levels of punishment, with the worst reserved for three particular traitors. Dante pictured the devil as having three horrible faces, and in each of the devil’s mouths there is a sinner. In the left and right mouths hang Brutus and Cassius, who murdered Julius Caesar in the Roman Senate. Brutus and Cassius appear with their heads pointed out and their feet inside the devil’s mouth. In the center mouth, lodged headfirst, with his twitching legs protruding from the devil’s mouth, is the betrayer of Jesus Christ, Judas Iscariot. The devil chews on his victims, continually, and throughout eternity, tearing the traitors to pieces, but never killing them.

Dante certainly had a vivid imagination! And though there is no biblical support for the details of his description of hell, the issues of differing consequences for various sins does find support in the Bible. The Bible shows that God does consider some sins to be worse than others. Some sin brings greater guilt than others. And some sins do us more damage than others.

First, consider the sin that Jesus calls “unforgiveable.” In Matthew 12:31-32 Jesus said, “I tell you, people will be forgiven every sin and blasphemy, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him. But whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the one to come.” Resistance to the witness of the Holy Spirit about the person and work of Jesus Christ rules out the possibility of faith and repentance. No sin is more tragic and lethal than this.

Second, consider the sin that brings death. In 1 John 5:16-17, John tells the church to pray for a brother whom you see committing a sin, but only if it is a sin that “does not bring death.” John says, “There is sin that brings death. I am not saying he should pray about that.” Commentators have long debated the nature of the sin leading to death. Quite possibly it is the same sin that Jesus referenced as the unforgiveable sin. Whether this is so, clearly the text indicates that some sin is less consequential than others (or than one other).

Third, the Scriptures often indicate that different sins bring different consequences. Moses told the Israelites that their sin in worshipping the golden calf was a “great sin,” one of the consequences of which was a plague sent by God (Ex. 32:30-35). In 2 Samuel 12:7-23 we read of the terrible consequence that David suffered after his sin with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Uriah. The consequence included the death of his son conceived in adultery. In Luke 12:41-48 Jesus speaks of varying levels of punishment based on the level of knowledge a steward has. Jesus also said that whoever causes the downfall of a child who believes in Him, “it would be better for him if a heavy millstone were hung around his neck and he were drowned in the depths of the sea” (Mt. 18:6).

Fourth, we see in Scripture that deliberate and willful rebellion against God can bring greater levels of consequence. Romans 1:18-32 indicates an increasing level of depravity in human beings as God gives them over to the consequences of sin. In Matthew 18:15-17 Jesus says that if a brother sins against another, and he refuses the increasing levels of accountability brought by the church, that he will ultimately be treated like an unbeliever. In 1 Cor. 5 Paul said to “turn over to Satan” a particular brother who was stubborn in his sin.

Because Jesus Christ forgives and cleanses us of all our sin when we place our faith in Him and experience salvation, we are tempted to disregard our continued sin and how God might deal with it. Moreover, because all have sinned against God, and because the “wages of sin is death,” (Rom. 6:23), we sometimes fail to consider that the consequences of our sin can vary, both in this life, and in the life to come. Without Jesus Christ, all sinners are spiritually dead and eternally lost. But there are different levels of severity, and consequence, between the sin of sloth and that of mass murder. If a hungry person steals a loaf of bread, he is a sinner and a lawbreaker. But we judge, and I would suggest that God weighs the sin of a sadistic killer, differently than that of the bread thief. Clearly, throughout Scripture, God prescribed more severe consequences for certain sins.

The church is often accused of focusing on certain sins, especially sexual sins. There is validity to this accusation, I’m sure. But there is good reason for the church to warn about sexual sins, and that is because they are frequently committed, and they carry damaging consequences. In 1 Cor. 6 Paul says, “Flee from sexual immorality! ‘Every sin a person can commit is outside the body, but the person who is sexually immoral sins against his own body.’” He goes on to say, “Your body is a sanctuary of the Holy Spirit who is in you” and “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6: 18-20). In this text the Scriptures describe sexual immorality as particularly damaging because of the relationship between the believer and the Holy Spirit. Elsewhere we read of how families, marriages, and children are damaged, even destroyed, through sexual immorality. Dwelling on an immoral thought is sinful, but acting on such thought carries greater consequence, at least in this life.

Again, every person without Jesus is spiritually lost and dead in sin. But this fact does not negate the varying levels of consequences that sins carry. Scripture shows that in God’s estimate some sins do us more damage and produce more weighty consequences. We must learn to think of sin biblically. We must hate sin wholeheartedly, especially where we see it in ourselves. And, we must not succumb to the temptation that many Christians have today, of not recognizing that some sins do more damage than others. Yes, it is true, that we are all sinners. But it is also true that some sin will destroy your relationships, damage your body, and harm your witness for Christ, more than will others. Because of this, all sins are not equal.

One final thought. The reality that some sins are more damaging than others must not produce a judgmental or prideful spirit in those who have refrained from certain sins. Paul’s said, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” – and I am the worst of them” (1 Tim. 1:15). If I regard someone as “worse than me,” or “less than me,” how can I love them in unfeigned humility? I cannot. Therefore, the purpose of this essay is not to help us identify who is worse than whom. The purpose is to help us acknowledge and deal with the sin and guilt in our own lives lest it destroy us. And, a second purpose, is to keep believers from getting wobbly in the knees and winking at the kind of sin that is destroying people’s lives, even while our nation celebrates certain of these sins.

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.

A Divine Appointment with a Same-Sex “Married” Man

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Kevin is a bright, friendly young man that my wife and I met by divine appointment on a long flight last week. Though I am cautious about ascribing activity to God, Paula and I both believe that He wanted us to meet this young man who is in a same-sex marriage with another man. Here’s how it happened.

About a month ago I bought a new book by retired Southern Baptist missionary William “Bud” Fray. Bud even signed the book for me. I love missionaries and Bud Fray served long and well in Africa. I took his book on a trip last week, reading it on the flight over. My wife wanted to read it on the return flight, and that’s how we met Kevin. When he saw the title of the book, Both Feet In, he said that his father told him he should read that book. Kevin’s father is a Roman Catholic who lives in Florida, but this Catholic man read a new book by a Southern Baptist missionary, published by a small publisher (New Hope), and told his homosexual son that he ought to read it! This opened a huge door for Paula and me.

It turns out that Kevin attends church each week, a Catholic church. His same-sex partner is a Methodist chaplain who “preaches” weekly. I asked Kevin what his faith meant to him and what it does for him. He spoke mostly of the importance of the rituals, which have long been a part of his life. He also said that he finds serenity in an hour spent away from technology and going through a religious routine that has been unchanged since his childhood.

Paula and I shared with Kevin what Jesus means to each of us, describing who Jesus is and what He did to bring forgiveness of sin and the hope of eternal life. At some point Kevin brought up the subject of homosexuality, basically saying that he had come to terms with “who he is.” He was not argumentative or militant in the least, but he did repeatedly referred to his partner as “my husband.” When he learned that I am a Baptist preacher, rather than get defensive or turned off, he seemed to think that God had brought us together so that I could “answer some questions that he has.”

At one point he did ask me what my view on the matter of homosexuality is. I told him, “Really, my opinion on the matter isn’t important.” I continued by saying, “I learned long ago that if I could talk someone into something, someone smarter than me could talk them out of it.” I then asked him if he had ever read the New Testament. With enthusiasm, and perhaps some embarrassment, he said, “No! I haven’t. I’ve read verses. When the priest speaks I read the verses he reads. But I’ve never read it.” So, rather than tell him my view of homosexuality, I encouraged him to read the New Testament. I said, “Kevin, read asking God to show you Jesus. Pay attention to who Jesus is and what He did for you and me. What I think isn’t important. But what the Bible says, and who Jesus is, is of the greatest importance.”

Kevin really liked that. We gave him Bud Fray’s book. We exchanged business cards. And he said that he will let us know when he has read Bud’s book and the New Testament. I pray that Kevin will be delivered from unbelief as the Holy Spirit guides him into truth through the Scriptures.

Repentance is never easy. It is not easy for me. Pride and selfishness can so easily rise up within me. The Cross of Christ challenges and confronts these things in me. The temptation to self-sufficiency, prayerlessness, and a host of other vile and ungodly filth are ever “crouching at the door” of my heart. Kevin will have to deal with his own sins and weaknesses. But the Gospel of Jesus Christ is powerful! He can penetrate and pierce the thickest and toughest of human hearts. He can enter the minds of human beings, minds dedicated to bane and stupid and disgusting things, and transform them for His noble purpose. Rescuing and purchasing sinners from the dark domain of this world’s prince, and bringing them into His bright kingdom, is what Jesus does daily. He can do for Kevin what He did for me.

This was my first such conversation since the U.S. Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage. I must confess, I can get very angry when I think about many of our nation’s leaders and where they have taken us. When I read about, and listen to, those advocating for the normalization of sin, and demanding that we celebrate such sin, I want to punch someone. I’m just being honest. But when I visited with this same-sex married man, the first I have ever met, rather than feeling anger, I felt deep sadness for him. Here is guy who is very likeable, not militant, and I don’t say this lightly, but my heart broke for him. My wife felt the same way.

We are praying for Kevin. We will have some level of correspondence with him. He needs Jesus. He needs rescuing. He needs some Christian friends to love him and help him when Jesus reveals to him what repentance will mean. Come to think of it, those are things I needed too.