Cultural Pessimism and Gospel Optimism

For evangelical Christians, it is tempting to become pessimistic or even cynical about the state of things these days. Relativism seems to reign when it comes to morality and spirituality. There is pessimism about whether there is such a thing as absolute truth. Ethical norms that once seemed unassailable are regularly questioned if not totally jettisoned. Confusion is common regarding gender and sexuality and the place of marriage in society. Christianity is tolerated as long one doesn’t suggest that Christianity is the only true religion and Christ is the only true Savior. We lament the loss of the Judeo-Christian consensus that once permeated our culture. We are living in a post-Christian society. It is easy to feel agitated, desperate, and even defeated.

Evangelicals find ourselves feeling much like Paul walking the streets of Athens and being deeply troubled by the plethora of idols (Acts 17:16). But, like Paul, in midst of this smorgasbord of deities, there is also reason to be encouraged. Even as our culture is looking more and more like Corinth or Athens in the first century, we have reason to be hopeful. Why? Because of the gospel. The gospel flourished in the first century culture of the Roman Empire which was anything but Christian. Though the church had no political clout and no real cultural standing, the message of the church penetrated and largely transformed the culture.

The gospel is powerful. Consider how the apostles thought about the gospel.

  • They were not ashamed of the gospel because it is the power of God for salvation for every culture (Rom. 1:16).
  • The gospel is the wisdom of God and the power of God (1 Cor. 1:18-25).
  • The gospel is a message of truth which brings salvation (Eph. 1:13).
  • The gospel transforms idolaters into Christians (1 Thess. 1:4-10).
  • The gospel is about the eternal plan of God to save sinners (2 Tim. 1:8-10).
  • The gospel is not bound even when its messengers are in chains (2 Tim. 2:9).

Much more could be said about this. But a small sampling of apostolic statements about the gospel demonstrates the reason why the church must not despair when darkness is encroaching. Darkness is penetrated by light through the clear and loving presentation of the gospel by those whose lives give evidence of gospel-driven change.

Because cultures change, the church must adapt in appropriate ways to communicate the gospel. But the gospel does not change. It is still the saving truth about the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is still the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, even in our declining spiritual climate.

No Drifting toward Holiness

People do not drift toward holiness. Apart from grace-driven effort, people do not gravitate toward godliness, prayer, obedience to Scripture, faith, and delight in the Lord.

 We drift toward compromise and call it tolerance; we drift toward disobedience and call it freedom; we drift toward superstition and call it faith. We cherish the indiscipline of lost self-control and call it relaxation; we slouch toward prayerlessness and delude ourselves into thinking we have escaped legalism; we slide toward godlessness and convince ourselves we have been liberated.

D. A. Carson, quoted in “Reflections,” Christianity Today (7-31-00)

Not Afraid to Die

This is a powerful post by Jill Kelly. She is the daughter of former NFL quarterback Jim Kelly who is battling cancer.

http://www.jillk.org/journal/2014/08/10/im-not-afraid-to-die/

Man’s Infinite Concern

IMG_20140804_114324On a recent trip to Boston, MA my family visited the graveyard in Salem, MA. The big draw of this graveyard is the memorial to the twenty people who were executed in connection with the famous witch trials in Salem. As we walked between the rows of gravestones, the grave of Alice Orne caught my attention. She died in 1776 at the age of 30. The distinguishing feature of her gravestone was this rhyme:

This stone has something great to teach, and what you need to learn
for graves my friends most loudly preach man’s infinite concern.

How does a gravestone teach “man’s infinite concern?” Few things will give you a sobering sense of your own mortality like a slow stroll through a graveyard. The gravestones tell the story of all kinds of people. Husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters are there. Soldiers, doctors, lawyers, sailors, clergymen, merchants, and housewives are all there. The rich and the poor are there. The young and the old are there. But all have one thing in common – they are dead.

Man’s infinite concern is to prepare for the great equalizing experience of death. It is an infinite concern because the soul lives forever in eternal joy or eternal sorrow. The infinity of God will be experienced by all who die. Those who die in Christ will experience the infinite love of a Redeemer. Those who die without Christ will experience the infinite wrath of a Judge.

The gravestone reminds us that our opportunity to prepare for death is limited to the days of our life. As the writer of Hebrews says, “It is appointed to man once to die and then the judgment (Heb. 9:27).” As I walked through that graveyard, the graves did indeed “preach” to me the importance of trusting in the One who is himself the resurrection and the life. Jesus said, “Whoever believes in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live (John 11:25).”

When Your Mind Wanders, Where Does It Go?

A text message from my son was an unexpected, unintended (by him anyway), and gentle rebuke from God. I am sitting in my office doing prep work for a men’s study that meets later in the week. I hear a familiar “pop” from my smart phone signaling a text has arrived. It is from my son. He’s riding in a truck with the bridge construction crew on the way home from the job site. Here’s the text conversation.

Jared: Someone needs to do a discipleship class on the Trinity.

Me: Why do you think so?

Jared: Well I think everyone knows the big roles of each member but maybe not the detailed roles or complexities of how they interact, or at least I don’t to a degree.

Me: What got you thinking about that?

Jared: Just riding home when everyone’s speaking another language your mind wanders lol.

Me: Got it. It’s a good subject to ponder.

Jared: I was just thinking that the Holy Spirit is responsible for the action of sanctification but does Christ play a part and if so what and then I thought that would be a good class to go to.

The blessed person delights in God’s law and meditates on it day and night (Psalm 1). The Lord instructed his people that his word should be on their hearts and in their conversation throughout the ebb and flow of their daily routines (Deut. 6). Paul exhorts us to let the word of Christ dwell in us richly (Col. 3:16). We are to set our minds on things above (Col. 3:2).

Now I know that my son’s brain doesn’t spend all its free time pondering the complexities of the interpersonal relationships of the Godhead. But the virtual conversation did make me think about where my mind goes when it is not occupied with a specific task or project. During drive time it is easy to listen to sports talk or music. Why not think about God? Why not meditate on Scripture? Why not ponder the Trinity?

A Wise Perspective on Dealing with the Times

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 may have the distinction of providing the most ancient lyrics ever to hit number one on the Billboard charts. These verses form the bulk of the song “Turn, Turn, Turn” recorded by the Byrds in 1965. Popular acclaim notwithstanding, the author of Ecclesiastes gives us a perspective on the ever-turning experiences of life. With 14 pairs of opposites, he presents us with the times which are common to humanity. There are times to be born and die, heal and kill, plant and pull up, dance and mourn, and so on. It is a poetically stated commentary on reality. 

As the writer continues, he gives us some important insights related to his catalog of our turning times. First, he tells us that God makes all things beautiful in its time (3:11). In other words, God is up to something through the twists and turns of our times that will result in his beautiful purpose being fulfilled. Second, he tells us that God has put eternity in our hearts. There is a kind of innate sense that there is more going on in our multi-faceted experience than just the passing of time and events. There is an echo of eternity in our hearts. What is happening is in some way related to eternity. But, he continues, the echo doesn’t give us a play-by-play understanding of what God is doing. We don’t see clearly what God is accomplishing from beginning to end. This is the mystery of God’s providence. He is at work. Of that we can be sure. But we don’t always see exactly what He is doing.

Given the turns of our times and God’s providential working through them to accomplish his beautiful purpose, how should we live? What is our posture toward the turn, turn, turning of our times? He states three things we should do which are supported by the scaffolding of the doctrine of God’s providence (3:12-15).

  • We should be joyful and do good. We should not allow the mixture of pleasant and unpleasant times (birth vs. death, dancing vs. mourning) to make us sour in spirit and apathetic. Rather, because we know God is at work in our times, we should be joyful and do good. An active spirit of glad goodness is the proper response.
  • We should take pleasure in God’s gifts. The writer says we should eat, drink, and take pleasure in our work. A good cheeseburger, a cold glass of iced tea, and a hard days work are gifts to be enjoyed (along with many other things). 
  • We should stand in awe of God. God’s purpose is enduring and unchangeable. We can’t make it better. We can’t thwart it. God’s providence in all the turns of our experience is cause for us to still ourselves in worshipful awe.

We cannot predict or control with certainty what will happen to us in this new year. Will it be life or death, planting or pulling up, dancing or mourning, or all of the above? We don’t know. But we do know that God is working out his purpose in all these things for His glory and the good of His people. So, we determine to serve Him and do good, to enjoy His gifts to us, and to worship Him no matter how our times turn, turn, turn.

God Loves Re-Gifters

Imagine piles of gold, silver, bronze, and gemstones. Think of a lumber yard full of wood and iron materials. This is what the Chronicler describes in 1 Chronicles 29. King David and the people of Israel had given vast amounts of these materials for the construction of the temple. The monetary value of these materials has been estimated in the billions of dollars. This cache of wealth had been given freely and joyously.

David offers a dedicatory prayer for all these materials which had been given for the temple project. One of the notable emphases of this prayer is how David and the people gave to God what God had already given to them. David prays:

“But who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able thus to offer willingly? For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you. (1 Chronicles 29:14 ESV)

O LORD our God, all this abundance that we have provided for building you a house for your holy name comes from your hand and is all your own. (1 Chronicles 29:16 ESV)

In other words, David and the Israelites were re-gifters. Re-gifting is considered a faux pas, especially if you get caught. You know, that awkward moment when you open a gift from a friend or relative and realize you gave them that same gift last year. Embarrassing.

But, when it comes to our giving to God, re-gifting is our only option. As David reminds us in his prayer, everything we have belongs to God. All we have come to possess was given to us by God. He owns everything and rules over everything. So, the only gifts we can give to God are those he has already given to us. Far from being a spiritual faux pas which God would deem unacceptable, God delights in such re-gifting.

Essential to a life of real stewardship is the realization that our time, talent, and treasure is a gift from God entrusted to us during our brief stay here on earth to be used and invested for God’s glory. So, let’s re-gift freely, unashamedly, and generously.

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