A Christmas Letter from Eugene

lightstock_80104_small_user_1408323An annual delight of the Christmas season is receiving family updates from friends. Their letters share key accomplishments of family members and offer a snap shot of their life together. It’s a wonderful glimpse into their life. I like these letters.

This is not such a letter.

Oh, I could regale you with stories of triumph at Fellowship. I could list the many goals met and the rapid progress of our campus expansion. I could describe our progress in discipleship and our growing impact in Haiti. There is no lack to the good things I could share. And of course, in every instance I would give all praise to God. These are his accomplishments not ours.

But this letter is about another accomplishment; one that long precedes the founding of Fellowship.

It began with an angelic announcement and was then consummated by the Holy Spirit. God, in Jesus, was conceived. Mary contributed her flesh but God had introduced the life in her womb. By this incarnation, Jesus entered into the world he had created. In Jesus we have the mysterious union of the human and divine natures. Fully God and simultaneously fully man, Jesus is forever, uniquely both.

“The fact that the infinite, omnipotent, eternal Son of God could become man and join himself to a human nature forever, so that infinite God became one person with finite man, will remain for eternity the most profound miracle and the most profound mystery in all the universe.” Wayne Grudem.

This union is more than a Christmas novelty. It is the necessary condition for our deliverance. Jesus had to be man to offer himself as our substitute. His divinity was necessary to make his offer sufficient. It grows more complex than this but the impact gloriously simply to understand. Peter Leithart explains, You know the scene in the movie: The hero, finding that he can no longer resort to half-measures and fighting through intermediaries, decides he must take things into his own hands, and challenges the villain in hand-to-hand combat. That is incarnation.” By his incarnation, Jesus ventures into our woes and wins the day.

More than that—Jesus continues in his humanity. His body is changed, it is glorified now, but he retains his humanity. This offers us great peace because in Him we have an advocate at the throne of God who understands our experience. He has suffered as we have. He has bled red like us and endured the worst of death. Over all this sorrow he has triumphed and now He reigns in incarnate perfection. How beautifully this Victorian Christmas carol announces these truths:

“It is my sweetest comfort, Lord,

And will for ever be,

To muse upon the gracious truth

Of thy humanity.

 

Oh joy! there sitteth in our flesh,

Upon a throne of light,

One of a human mother born,

In perfect Godhead bright!

 

Though earth’s foundations should be moved,

Down to their lowest deep;

Though all the trembling universe

Into destruction sweep;

 

For ever God, for ever man,

My Jesus shall endure;

And fix’d on Him, my hope remains

Eternally secure.”

This, my friends, is the wonder of the manger. The incarnation is the joy of Christmas. God took on our humanity and has no intention of putting it off. May this glorious truth give you reason to praise Him this Christmas.

On behalf of the elders, staff, and myself, a very merry Christmas to you.

Eugene

Guilty Thoughts

Man peeks through the blinds

This morning I received an excellent question and I decided to share both the question and my answer with the blogosphere. Please note, I said the question was excellent, I make no claims to the quality of the answer.

The question relates to a statement I made during a lecture that I gave on Christian sexuality. In addressing homosexuality, I said that we need to distinguish between same-sex attraction and homosexual acts. The latter is sin while the former is temptation.

“I am wondering about the verse that says that if a man lusts after a woman in his heart, he has already committed adultery. (Matthew 5:28)  Is having thoughts about sin also a sin?  If we deny the temptation to sin (and temptation is in the mind) then have we avoided sinning?”

In the passage cited above Jesus explains the kingdom ethic—the standards of moral purity that God expects of his people. They are quite demanding to say the least! In verse 28, Jesus states that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. Is this sin a reference to temptation? Does this condemn anyone who has felt the tug of illicit attraction, whether it is heterosexual or homosexual?

No, and no.

We must not confuse temptation and sin. Temptation is the desire to taste forbidden fruit while sin is the act of eating it. There is no guilt in temptation. How could there be? Jesus experienced temptation but remained sinless. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15, ESV).

How then do we understand the mental acts described in Matthew 5 as being sin? At what point did desire become transgression? The ESV helps up with its translation by describing the sin as ‘lustful intent’, emphasizing the involvement of the will. There is a choice involved and this person has chosen wrongly. The NET says it differently, but equally well, “But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to desire her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:28, NET).

The lusting that is being denounced is not some momentary attraction; it is an active nurturing of forbidden desire. This lustful intent begins with temptation but then drifts into sin when the imagination is freed to take sexual pleasure from the occasion.

To notice someone as being attractive is not sin, it’s merely being observant. To feel a stab of attraction is not sin either, but this is the moment of temptation, it’s very dangerous and escape measures need to kick in immediately. To allow that attraction to metastasize into some form of sexual gratification is the act of sin. Our responsibility to avoid sinful fantasizing is cleverly summarized by Martin Luther. The famous German Reformer said, “I cannot keep a bird from flying over my head. But I can certainly keep it from nesting in my hair”

Temptation is common to all humanity. We are all tempted. We are not, however, all tempted in the same way. Some are especially tempted by sexual opportunity and for some of those it will be homosexual opportunity. What happens next determines whether there is guilt involved. Paul advises us well, “Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body.” (1 Corinthians 6:18, ESV). When temptation stirs within us there is no place for bravado, it time to tuck our tail between our legs and make a hasty break for safety.

Wide Open

money in tight fistI recently had breakfast with a friend and during our time together the conversation drifted into the topic of tithing. While few would know it, this man is remarkably generous to the church. Listening to him talk about his experience was such an encouragement to me that I asked him to share his perspective with others. He agreed, and this is what he wrote.

“It’s more blessed to give than receive.” Acts 20:35

My path to faithful giving has been a long one. Like most people, experiencing the passing of the basket (or plate) during a worship service was my introduction to the practice of giving. I remember, as a child, glancing into the basket and feeling a sense of awe that so much money was freely given away. As I grew older, I would occasionally throw in some loose pocket change or a bill or two just to avoid feelings of guilt. It wasn’t until I saw my mother write out a check for $400 that things began to resonate with me. Keep in mind, we were a lower middle class family and my parents were a case study in living the paycheck-to-paycheck lifestyle. It was hard for me to understand why she would give such a large amount of money to the church when that money could have been used for better things—specifically me. As time passed however, I began to understand the importance of giving.

The act of tithing is clearly communicated to us through scripture and there are many useful resources that elaborate on this responsibility. My favorite Christian authors on the topic are the late Larry Burkett and Howard Dayton. Howard Dayton’s book, “Your Money Counts” is a wonderful resource for believers on how to handle money and possessions. Dayton points out that Jesus had a great deal to say about how we handle money and possessions. Sixteen of the thirty-eight parables were concerned with the handling of money. In Chapter 9 of his book, Dayton states, “we must give with the proper attitude, which is out of love.” He further notes that when a gift is actually given as though one were giving it to the Lord, it becomes an act of worship.

Ultimately, he writes, “ the giver benefits in four significant areas: First, giving increases our intimacy with Christ by directing our attention and hearts to Him. Second, it helps to develop our character and to be more unselfish like Christ. Third, we are making eternal investments into our Heavenly account. Finally, giving with the proper attitude results in a material increase flowing to the giver.

I still have thoughts about how much easier it might be for me to keep the money and invest it, or pay down our debt, or simply use it for my family’s enjoyment. But as I write out the check, enclose the envelope, write out the address, place the stamp, and walk it to the mailbox, I remember that Jesus can do much more with the money than we ever could. This is why my wife and I have decided to trust the Lord with our money.

The question then becomes, how much are we to give? The verses that I use as a beginning point for my giving are found in Malachi 3:8-10.

8“Will a mere mortal rob God? Yet you rob me.” “But you ask, ‘how are we robbing you?’” “In tithes and offerings. 9 You are under a curse—your whole nation—because you are robbing me. 10 Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse that there may be food in my house. Test me in this, “ says the Lord Almighty, “ and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.”

Determining how much to give is a personal decision but I have found Dayton’s guidance very helpful. He cleverly points out that “giving”, as found in the New Testament, can be termed as “Paul’s Pod of P’s.” Giving should be personal, periodic, private, and premeditated. If we use these principles to guide our giving we will be a blessing to our families, our church, and the poor (Matt 25:34-45).

I pray these guidelines will help answer questions and ultimately lead you into a deeper relationship with the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. May you be blessed in your giving to the Lord and to those around you.

ISIS and the Death of a Dream

Yesterday we learned that another American journalist was beheaded by ISIS. Stephen Sotloft, an American journalist, was killed in the same barbaric fashion as James Foley. I have not seen the videos showing their murder, and I hope not to. This grotesque display of brutality, which is intentionally broadcast to the watching world, does not warrant my viewing. It does, however, demand some reflection.

Quickly moving through flashes of outrage and contempt, my mind eventually settles on the question of motive. Why would anyone do something so horrendous to another human being? What could possibly explain such inhuman behavior?

Here in the West, the conventional answer to that question is ‘environment’. People do dreadful things to others because their circumstances are so deplorable that they have lost touch with their humanity. Disenfranchised, oppressed, and beleaguered, their situation has reduced them to beasts of violence. The solution then, is to address their circumstances and grant them greater opportunity. When marginalized people are granted upward mobility, there is a corresponding decline in barbarism.

Or so we are told.

The problem with this rationalization is the growing number of recruits that ISIS is drawing from western countries. The knife-wielding executioner of Foley and Sotloft comes from London! In fact, there are so many British-born wanting to enlist in ISIS, that Prime Minister Cameron is seeking legislation that will allow the government to seize the passports of England’s radicalized youth. These young men are ready to abandon first world opportunity to participate in the fight for a caliphate. Nasser Muthana, a star medical student from Cardiff, with amazing professional prospects in the UK, walked away from it all to be included in ISIS. Obviously ‘environment’ cannot explain his motivation.

A more satisfying answer is ‘belief’. People don’t act savagely because they are desperate but because they are persuaded. They believe that the action, while drastic, is legitimized by what it will ultimately accomplish. The members of ISIS are not seeking better living conditions; they are motivated by a vision of Islamic hegemony. It’s what they believe about the next life that informs their actions in this life. Believing that jihad pleases Allah and will secure future reward, they are willing to massacre the infidel. People are dying because there is a popular belief system that justifies their death.

Grappling with this reality is hard for westerners who have drunk deep from the well of postmodern subjectivity. We have been told that all ideas are valid and all are benign. Everybody’s opinions are deemed worthy and welcome. Undergirding this perspective is the assumption that our beliefs are immaterial to our experience. What we conclude to be true has no real impact on our neighbors and so we are free to indulge in whatever belief system appeals to us. Belief dwells safely in the realm of the mind and doesn’t spill into daily living.

But ISIS is killing this illusion; they are bringing death to this dream.

What we are seeing in the news is that belief determines action. This has always been so, but it is now translating into life and death. What people believe to be true has a radical impact on others, and these beliefs are not always benign. We need to take belief more seriously. For behind every action rests a truth claim. Before every choice is a core conviction. As we believe so we live.

An old idiom claims that those who are too heavenly minded are no earthly good. The opposite is actually true. Those who think of things above are most often the most impactful below. When Scripture and The Spirit inform our beliefs we are propelled into lives of purpose. Actions informed by God’s truth are always transformative.

ISIS is a geo-religious problem that requires an international response. Our inability to understand them is also a religious problem, but one that requires a personal response. Until we come to appreciate the power of belief we will be dismayed by horror. Until we come to inform our own belief we will be without conviction, purpose, or power.

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2, ESV)

Type Positive

icon_pete_paul During the Twilight phenomena a friendly rivalry developed among the fans of the series. Devotees were divided in their preference between Edward Cullen and Jacob Black. Team Edward admired the icy cool of their favorite while Team Jacob preferred the wild strength of theirs. To love the story was to choose a hero.

Likewise, readers of the Bible can find themselves choosing favorites between the apostles. Neither Peter nor Paul are the heroes of ‘the story’, but their stories are so well recorded that we can find kinship with them—at least one of them.

Some feel fondness towards Peter because they can relate to his passion and impulsivity. Like him, they wear their hearts on their sleeves and are quick to express their love for Jesus. These people constitute Team Peter. Across the way are those who feel an affinity for Paul. The Bible describes the apostle to the Gentiles as being thoughtful, deliberate, and determined. Those who bend in that direction are likely to admire him and enlist in Team Paul.

I have been in settings where these teams have lauded the attributes of their champion as though one was superior to the other. Neither side would say it outright, but the unspoken message was that they were members of the better team. As though, between passion and perseverance, one is best.

Spoken aloud it sounds kind of silly, which it is.

Peter and Paul did not consider themselves captains of opposing teams. They did not view themselves as the embodiment of an ideal type. They knew what they were—sinners saved by grace, and in this, they were the same. They knew, all too well, that there was nothing inherently superior about their particular type of person. This awareness made it possible to defer to, and honor, one another. Paul sought Peter out to confirm his calling and Peter proclaimed Paul’s writings to be inspired. Neither type trumped the other.

We need to learn from these men! Churches are full of people and consequently full of different types. This is as God intends. The body is made of many parts that are designed to compliment one another. However, in spite of this being taught to us by the apostles, we are prone to elevate our type to a place of prominence.

The intellectual type views studiousness as the preeminent expression of faith. The effusive type would put religious enthusiasms in the top spot. The servant type reserves first place for acts of mercy. The mystical type gives preeminence to the contemplative lifestyle. The sober type elevates disciplined behavior above all else, and so on, and so forth. There are many types and each of them is susceptible to pride.

Pride persuades us that our passions reflect God’s priorities, that our strengths mirror God’s first love. This is the essence of self-righteousness. We congratulate ourselves for being the ideal type while disdaining the lesser types that surround us. I’m probably overstating the problem, but there is a problem. There is also an opportunity. If we would assume the same humility of Peter and Paul and defer to one another’s strengths we would enjoy less insecurity and more vitality.

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.
1 Corinthians 12:4–7

Essential health is collective health. The ideal is to have every type fulfilling their function in the church for the common good. This is God’s will. There are many types of people and they are all positively necessary.

The Blindness of World Vision

HidingBlind

Yesterday’s surprise announcement by World Vision president Richard Stearns has the internet humming—or rather howling. In an exclusive interview with Christianity Today, Stearns said that the Christian humanitarian organization will no longer bar actively gay people from employment, on condition that those individuals are in a sanctioned marriage.

Stearns insists that the move is nothing more than a narrow policy change that reflects the diversity amongst churches today. “I want to be clear that we have not endorsed same-sex marriage, but we have chosen to defer to the authority of local churches on this issue.” Of course, this reasoning is deplorably thin. By setting World Visions standards to accommodate those of the most radicalized denominations, the organization is counted in their number.  How can their policy change be anything but an endorsement of same-sex marriage? I am deeply disappointed, no—I am grieved. This is another death.

Because of World Vision’s illustrious past, the reactions have been swift and numerous. Here are some:

“When World Vision says “We cannot jump into the fight on one side or another on this issue,” here is the side they do in fact jump onto: We forbid fornication and adultery as acceptable lifestyles among our employees (which they do), but we will not forbid the regular practice of homosexual intercourse. To presume that this position is not “jumping into the fight on one side or the other” is fanciful.”
John Piper

“World Vision has decided that to be a practicing homosexual and a practicing Christian is no contradiction in terms. Despite the claims of neutrality, Richard Stearns and World Vision are not neutral. They believe what the Bible calls an abomination is not a big deal, not a serious issue like adultery, not a life threatening concern like malnutrition, not something that the Bible addresses clearly or warns against urgently.”
Kevin DeYoung

“There’s an entire corps of people out there who make their living off of evangelicals but who are wanting to “evolve” on the sexuality issue without alienating their base. I don’t mind people switching sides and standing up for things that they believe in. But just be honest about what you want to do. Don’t say “Hath God said?” and then tell us you’re doing it to advance the gospel and the unity of the church.”
Russell Moore

“No matter what you think about this decision, I hope you feel a sense of grief… for the children. This is a story of deep and lasting significance, because there are children’s lives at stake in how we respond. Children will suffer as evangelicals lose trust in and withdraw support from World Vision in the future. It will take time for evangelicals to start new organizations that maintain historic Christian concepts of sin, faith, and repentance. In the meantime, children will suffer. Needlessly.”
Trevin Wax

This issue is effectively sifting the chaff from the wheat within evangelicalism, and while each capitulation hurts, the church will be stronger for it. Those willing to bear their cross and follow Jesus will never walk alone. I do not fear the future, but I do grieve for today. I lament the loss of a venerable institution and I mourn over lost opportunity. Mostly, I’m sad for the children.

Dark Horse

Quarter Horse PortraitYesterday I received an email enquiry about perseverance. The focus of the question was the future of Katy Perry.

Perry, as most know, is an extremely popular performer. She is as gifted as she is popular. I may have cut my teeth on the rock scene of the 80’s but I nevertheless find her music quite enjoyable. Her lyrics less so. Perry’s songs are filled with the kind of sexually charged nihilism that has defined the pop industry. The messages she performs are diametrically opposed to her upbringing as a preacher’s kid. Therein lies the question about her future. Will someone, like Katy Perry, who claimed to be a Christian but has since strayed from the faith, be saved in the end?

It all depends on where they are in the end. For this reason we cannot know Perry’s fate since she has not finished her journey.

Let’s put Perry’s condition aside for a moment and consider the biblical truths involved. There are many biblical texts that state that those who are truly saved will persevere in their faith until their death. Jesus says, “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”” (John 6:38–40, ESV) Here Jesus explains that he keeps those who believe in him until the last day. Salvation is held by God and this makes it secure.

Commonly this truth has been described as ‘once saved—always saved’. The unfortunate effect of this phrase is that it can imply that the life and conduct of a person is irrelevant to their final destiny. Comforted with this illusion, scores of people have relapsed into the ways of the world without fear for their souls. But these people misunderstand the doctrine. The promise of Jesus is that those who are truly saved will persevere in their faith until the end. Wayne Grudem defines it neatly in his signature work, Systematic Theology.

“The perseverance of the saints: The doctrine that all those who are truly “born again” will be kept by God’s power and will persevere as Christians until the end of their lives, and that only those who persevere until the end have been truly “born again.””

So when Katy Perry announces in a Marie Claire interview that she is not a Christian and she does not believe “in a heaven or a hell or an old man sitting on a throne” there is reason for concern. Such apostasy brings into question if she ever had a genuine faith to begin with or if she was merely mimicking the faith of her family. But we cannot and will not know her destiny until the end. Until then we will join her parents in prayer—God please rescue Katy Perry.

Bookish People

gavel_57

Are evangelicals guilty of biblical inconsistency?

No—although it may seem so. Inerrantists, like myself, claim that the Bible is without error and the final rule of authority, and yet even we do not submit to every command. We do not worship on the Sabbath, bleed out our beef, or participate in purity rituals—in fact, most of the early instructions are not observed. This seemingly selective practice is not a result of personal preference. The reason for our choices are theological not cultural.

The books of Moses (Genesis-Deuteronomy) contain a regulatory system that is known as the law. This law of God was a comprehensive framework of regulations that ordered every aspect of Israelite life: the moral, civil, and religious realms were all addressed. Accompanying the law were serious consequences—obedience brought blessing while disobedience brought curses. God wasn’t toying about, these instructions were meant to be strictly followed. And yet, we evangelicals see fit to do much of what is forbidden.

The reason we do not observe portions of the Bible is because the Bible instructs us not to. The apostle Paul writes that the believer in Jesus is no longer bound by the requirements of the law. In Romans 7:6 he says, “But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.”  Jesus’ perfect life, his substitutionary death, and his glorious resurrection have fulfilled the law (Matthew 5:17). He is the ultimate explanation and completion of this regulatory system and consequently, the Old Testament law is not normative or binding for believers.

Since we no longer live under the constrictions of the law, what good is it to us? Do we simply disregard it and treat those sections of scripture with some historical curiosity? No. While the commands have been satisfied in Jesus, they still have significance for us. The law is useful to us because it awakens us to our sin, it points our attention to the accomplishments of Jesus, and it informs our ethics. The law provides us with principles and moral norms that still apply today.

As Tom Schreiner explains in his book ‘40 Questions about Christians & Biblical Law’. “What we typically call the moral norms of the law are fulfilled, at least in some measure, in the lives of believers. Nevertheless, they are not normative because they appear in the Mosaic covenant, for that covenant has passed away. It seems that they are normative because they express the character of God. We know that they still express God’s will for believers because they are repeated as moral norms in the New Testament.”

Paul teaches us, in numerous places, that those who love God will not commit adultery, murder, steal, covet, etc. He didn’t think that these commands were a return to bondage under the law but were a way to respond to his grace. Those who love God are faithful to study his word so that they might know how to please him. We are still the people of The Book.

Story Time

Everybody loves an epic. The story of larger-than-life characters in charming places awakens our imagination and sweeps us away from our daily troubles. For a moment we are wrapped up in the exploits of others and the strains of our daily living are forgotten. A good story can bring color and exhilaration to a day that has neither. That’s what a good story can do. A great story can do so much more.

There are some stories of people and places that transcend our imagination and can touch our lives. They change us. These tales do not comfort us through escapism but rather embolden us and give us a vision for the future. Wrapped up in the twists of the plot are nuggets of truth that transcend time and motivate the listener. A good story entertains—a great story inspires.

For your good, I want to invite you to story time.

This Saturday evening we will sit and listen to the story of Charles Haddon Spurgeon. The Prince of Preachers, Spurgeon was the celebrity of his age. An exceptional man, who was as colorful as he was gifted, his story is absolutely riveting. Few men have been used by God the way Spurgeon was and his victories are thrilling to hear. But while his life is entertaining, it’s his legacy that serves us best. The way Spurgeon persisted in a shifting social climate is an example to our own generation. From Spurgeon we can learn how to hold fast to the truth when powers and peers are abandoning it.

Have you noticed how angry people are? Are you angry? Do you get mad thinking about the rapid decay in our society? Does the cultural swing put your teeth on edge? There is good reason for alarm but there is no benefit in passive fury. We need to know how to walk into the future. The landscape won’t shift just because it offends us. What we need is a pilot to show us how to live in a changing world. Spurgeon is a skilled pilot.

I want you to listen and learn. There is no need to make you into a fan of the man—he has enough. I would prefer you to be receptive, to be inspired by the possibility of perseverance and courage for the future. I want you to discover the strength to deny convention and stay true to your faith. I want you to hear a story of victory.

For your own good, I want to invite you to this story time.

Spurgeon mailbox handouts

The Legacy of a Man

Celebrated and Censored F1

This Saturday, November 16, we will have Tom Nettles speak at our Evening with Spurgeon. The author of the latest biography on the great man, his work is being praised as the new standard. Dr. Nettles will present two separate addresses that evening. He will begin by sharing the amazing story of Spurgeon and then go on to talk about his relevance today. It’s going to be a wonderful time together.

As a primer, I wanted to share with you an excerpt from Justin Taylor’s blog. Below is a list of accomplishments by the Prince of Preachers.

  •    Charles Spurgeon often worked 18 hours a day.
  •    His collected sermons fill 63 volumes (the largest set by a single author in church history).
  •    He read six books a week and could recall their contents.
  •    He read through The Pilgrim’s Progress more than 100 times.
  •    14,460 people were added to his church’s membership, and he did most of the membership interviews himself.
  •    He trained 900 men to the pastorate.
  •    He founded an orphanage.
  •    He edited a magazine.
  •    He produced more than 140 books.
  •    He received 500 letters a week to respond to.
  •    More than 25,000 copies of his sermons were printed each week.
  •    He often preached 10 times a week in various churches.
  •    He did all this while suffering from gout, rheumatism, and Bright’s disease—living only to the age of 57.
  •    And his wife was ill most of that time.