Sunday, May 24, 2015

Simple truth in action

Following Jesus is not complicated. In his final instructions to Titus, Paul wrote, “When I send Artemas or Tychicus to you, do your best to come to me at Nicopolis, for I have decided to spend the winter there.”

The first simple truth we see in this is that leadership is important. Titus had been left in Crete to put things in order, to identify and train elders, and to deal with false teachers who were doing harm to the churches on the island. Now Paul is asking him to do his best to come to Nicopolis, but only after his replacement has arrived. The churches would not be left without a leader.

The second simple truth we see in this text is that Paul had decided to spend the winter in Nicopolis. You say, yes, that’s ordinary. But why is it important? Well, because some well-meaning Christians then may have said to Paul, “You decided, Paul? Didn’t you pray about it?” Paul may have replied that of course he prayed, but the Lord had given him much grace and freedom in these matters. Dear reader, let’s all be careful not to be more spiritual than the Apostle Paul. I remember back in the ’70s during the Jesus movement hearing a lady in our church say that a friend of hers wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning until the Lord had told her exactly what she was supposed to wear that day. At the time, I was impressed; now, it just sounds like someone who doesn’t want to get out of bed. But no, this lady really believed Jesus had to tell her everything she was supposed to do, down to what pair of socks she should wear. She would also pray before she picked up the bowling ball when it was her turn at the lanes. Nobody wanted to bowl with her.

Read the prologue to the book of Luke and you will see that he wrote it because it seemed like a good thing to do. This is an amazing idea. It means, a thought occurs to you, you think about it and say to yourself that it seems good, and then you go do it. A lot of Christians are fearful of that because they think they will just go crazy and live any way they want. But I think the greater problem for the average follower of Jesus Christ is not that he takes initiative too often. It is that he takes initiative rarely or not at all. It’s really a lack of trust, because we have a loving Father who gives us more grace than we could ever possibly use. If God’s grace were the Pacific Ocean, mostly we are paddling around in a round plastic kiddie pool.

Paul wrote that it is God who “works in you both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” That means He does all the heavy lifting by putting His desires in us to do what will bring Him good pleasure. Paul had a desire to go to Nicopolis, and I believe he knew that desire had come from the Lord. It was a pleasant place to spend the winter, by the Adriatic Sea. By the way, this is yet another reason why it is biblical to go to the beach. Paul also wanted Titus to come hang out with him in Nicopolis as well, so they could have fellowship, and Titus could give him a report about the churches in Crete.

Don’t make following Jesus too complicated. It’s mostly simple truth in action.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Church discipline remains vital

Last week in this column I talked about the importance of steering clear of divisive doctrines, as we are instructed in Paul’s letter to Titus. One of the main reasons we must do that is because those who embrace divisive doctrines in the church will become divisive people. We are to be “eager to maintain the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace,” not eager to divide the church and separate the sheep and create chaos and confusion. Paul follows the warning in verse 9 with another warning, and with essential instructions for how the church is to deal with unrepentant divisive people. Sadly, even though church discipline is vital to both the health and the witness of individual members and to the health and witness of the church as a whole, its practice has been largely dismissed by the evangelical church today. Even worse, the modern church has embraced the mantra of the modern culture in reversing the truth of the biblical statement, “God is love” and replacing it with “Love is God.” If love is god, the reasoning goes, then we must not even speak of putting someone out of the church, as that could not possibly be a loving thing to do. And in fact, neither should we judge anyone. If love is god, then our highest calling is to love without judgment.

Though that sounds logical and nice, it in fact is misguided at best and highly destructive at worst.

In Josh Harris’s book, “Stop Dating the Church,” there’s a chapter called, “Choosing Your Church: the 10 things that matter the most.” Number nine on the list of 10 questions he says you should ask about a church before you join is, “Is this a church that is willing to kick me out?” Harris writes, “I gain a wonderful sense of protection in knowing that if I committed a scandalous sin and showed no repentance, my church wouldn’t put up with it. They would plead with me to change. They would patiently confront me with God’s Word. And eventually, if I refused to change, they would lovingly kick me out.”

The Belgic Confession of 1561 states that “The true church can be recognized if it has the following marks: The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; it practices church discipline for correcting faults. In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and holding Jesus Christ as the only Head.”

The church has been guilty at times of shooting its wounded rather than doing the hard work of restoration. Sometimes, though, it is the disobedient brother or sister who shoots the church, destroying it through divisive doctrine or sinful rampages that have been winked at by the leadership rather than dealt with according to the “pure Word of God.” The Bible gives clear instructions for how we are to exercise church discipline: the person (is unrepentant), the process (warn him twice and then remove him from the fellowship, if he persists), and the purpose. The purpose of church discipline is never punishment but always restoration. Never “putting someone in his place,” but “loving someone back into the place of obedience.” When restoration takes place, it is a glorious picture of the Gospel at work.

Church discipline has not been tried and found lacking, to paraphrase G.K. Chesterton in his classic quote on Christianity. Rather, church discipline has been found difficult and left untried.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Avoid foolish controversies

Do angels have wings? And speaking of angels, how many of them could dance on the head of a pin? Did Adam and Eve have a pet? Will there be baseball in heaven? You’ve heard the story of the two men who argued about that, and then one died. A week later, he visited his friend in a dream. He said, “I have good news and bad news. The good news is there’s baseball in heaven. The bad news is you’re pitching Friday.”

We can have light-hearted conversations about some of these questions, for sure. But should we get into arguments over them? Or write books about them? Or spend our lives to defend them? No, the Bible is clear when it says, “Avoid foolish controversies.” The operative word there is foolish. Certainly, Christians are called to “contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints.” But much of what Christians argue about is foolish, has no merit and is based purely on speculation. There is no clear biblical teaching on foolish controversies, but many insist on studying them, writing about them and worst of all, dividing over them. That’s why they are dangerous.

A foolish controversy that I haven’t heard lately but was popular years ago is the argument that Jesus’ garment at the cross, for which the soldiers cast lots, was very expensive. We have absolutely no evidence to suggest that, but this contention has been used as a proof text to suggest that Jesus was prosperous and we should be as well. Another foolish controversy, one very much present today, is that Jesus was really crucified on Wednesday and rose from the dead on Saturday. Therefore, the argument goes, we should gather for worship on that day, not on Sunday. Again, there is no biblical support for that argument. It creates heat, but provides no light.

Charles Spurgeon said this on the matter of foolish controversies: “It is foolish to sow in so barren a field. Questions upon points wherein Scripture is silent, upon mysteries which belong to God alone, upon prophecies of doubtful interpretation and upon mere modes of observing human ceremonials, are all foolish and wise men avoid them. Our business is neither to ask nor answer foolish questions, but to avoid them altogether; and if we observe the apostle’s precept to be careful to maintain good works, we shall find ourselves far too much occupied with profitable business to take much interest in unworthy, contentious and needless strivings.”

Remember, the main things are the plain things and the plain things are the main things. As I pondered these matters last week during a long run, it occurred to me that sometimes good people leave a good church because of foolish controversies. For example, is there a biblical case to be made for someone leaving a church because the church doesn’t just sing hymns? Is there a biblical case to be made for someone leaving a church because the church celebrates Christmas? Or meets in a building? Or doesn’t have Sunday School? Even more foolish, is there biblical support for leaving a church because the carpet is green instead of red? Or because the church has a steeple … or does not?

The sad truth is that when we embrace foolish controversies, which cannot be proved through Scripture, we don’t just become dangerous to ourselves spiritually. We may also become divisive in the body of Christ.

One way to avoid foolish controversies, as Spurgeon suggests, is to become intentional about pursuing good works. We should find no controversy there.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Do good works for the right reasons

Paul wrote to Titus that Jesus Christ gave Himself for us for three reasons: to redeem us from sin, to purify a people for Himself and to make us zealous for good works. He could have said, “make us zealots for good works,” because it’s the same Greek word. Zealots in that time were crazed fanatics, hair on fire, wild-eyed, absolutely committed to overthrowing the government of Rome. But we are to be wild-eyed crazed fanatics for Jesus, committed to glorifying Him through good works. But, wait. That doesn’t mean our good works have to be wild or big or even noticed by anyone, even by the ones who receive the benefit? I am sure the four guys who carried the paralytic to Jesus and then dug through a rooftop to get their friend close enough were not doing that to be seen by others. They didn’t plot the whole scheme as some kind of first century flash mob event. No. They cared about their friend and believed Jesus could heal him. They were right. How about the woman who threw the equivalent of less than one cent in the coffers at the temple? The poor lady did not leave her house that day thinking, “Boy, I’m going to make a splash at the service today!” No. She was just doing a good work because she loved God and knew that He loved her. She had no idea that Jesus would make her an object lesson for all time on sacrificial giving. But He did.

We also know from Jesus’ parable of the soils that good works, or fruitfulness, is just what Christians do. He said that the good soil that received the seed of the Word would produce 30, 60, even 100-fold. The good soil isn’t showing off. It is simply being good dirt, just like you and me. The impact of our good works is up to the Lord. He is the one who gives the increase. We are the ones who do good works, for His glory.

Paul also said, “let our people learn to devote themselves to good works.” It is a learned behavior. How many of you have children who, as soon as they could walk, spent their days walking around the house picking up toys, cleaning up messes and doing whatever needed to be done? No, that child does not exist. I used to tell people that our kids were skilled craftsmen at making messes and getting things out of the cabinets and drawers, but had no skill at all in putting them back. That was a learned behavior. I would add, parents, that when you set your mind to teaching your children how to serve in the home, you are training them for good works in the church and in the community. You are also training them not to be that guy at work who just does what’s required of him and no more, because he is there for himself, not to make the company successful. Teach your children well. Teach them that doing good works will not always be rewarded on this side. And that’s part of the process of learning to do them for the right reason. We have to experience ingratitude in the face of a good deed to learn that we do not love and serve others so they will love us back or even say thank you. No. We serve them because it is profitable for them and because it brings glory to God.