30 Minutes Avec Dieu now available as free PDF download!

30MinutesThere’s no substitute for a time each day talking with the Lord and learning from Scripture. Unfortunately, there have been few choices for a daily, 365 day devotional guide for readers of French. 30 Minutes Avec Dieu (30 Minutes with God) aims to help fill that gap, and does so from a Wesleyan-Holiness perspective.

The Wesleyan-Holiness Digital Library (WHDL) has just made 30 Minutes Avec Dieu available as a FREE PDF DOWNLOAD. You can access it by clicking here.

Some who don’t read French have asked whether the book will be available in other languages. I’m pleased to say that it is currently being translated into English, so I’ll let you know when it is done. Plans are to eventually have it translated into Portuguese as well.

May the Lord use this simple tool for the strengthening of Christlike disciples and the advance of the Kingdom.

 

 

 

Supernatural Jesus…and why it matters

stormDoes it matter whether Jesus is “supernatural”?

I ask because of the following anonymous words, reportedly taken from a social media conversation between a member of the clergy and an unidentified correspondent:

You are having difficulty accepting that I don’t see Scripture as a bunch of threats, rules and facts. I find the truth in the book, but not necessarily factual accounts. It’s hard for me to embrace a ‘magical’ God or even a supernatural Jesus.

See NazNet.com for the fuller context.

But back to the question:

Does it matter whether Jesus is supernatural?

Absolutely. It matters. If Jesus is not supernatural – but more than that, if Jesus is not fully God and fully human, as orthodox Christology teaches — then Christians are nothing more than idolaters, worshiping the creature rather than the Creator, a breaking of the First of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:3).

Yet there is ample evidence that Jesus is God. On one occasion, Jesus is portrayed as calming a storm, stretching out his hand over the troubled waters. “Peace, be still,” he said. “Who is this man?” his disciples asked in amazement. “Even the wind and the sea obey him” (Mark 4:41, NASB). A storm was a natural enough phenomenon, but what Jesus did wasn’t. What he did was supernatural, a word defined by the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “departing from what is usual or normal especially so as to appear to transcend the laws of nature.”

This is only one miraculous incident among dozens peppered throughout the New Testament Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Jesus of Nazareth is presented as one who taught, forgave sin, who healed the lame, the deaf and the blind, who cast demons out of people, and who bent the laws of how things work in the universe, changing water into wine and multiplying fishes and loaves of bread to feed hungry people.

For the sake of argument, we could concur with our aforementioned anonymous member of the clergy that it is “hard to embrace” a  “supernatural Jesus” or a “magical God.” But if we were to concur, let us be clear that we would be parting company with the first Christian eyewitnesses. In fact, miracles played a key role in persuading them that Jesus was the long-awaited Anointed One of God, the Messiah, the Christ.

On the Day of Pentecost, Peter – a fisherman who had traveled with Jesus for three years – gave the first Christian sermon ever recorded. Here’s what he concluded in Acts 2:22 (NIV):

Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know.

Later, in v. 36, he adds: “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah” (NIV).

For Peter and the early Christians, miracles were spiritual credentials, a solid proof of divinity. For more on this, see also Hebrews 1, esp. the “powerful word” by which the Son of God “sustains all things” (v.3).

As the one who desires only our good, Jesus loves us unconditionally. Yet this love is not a weak love, a mere sentimentality. It is a robust love backed up by the ability to fend off those who would do his beloved harm. The love of Jesus is not only a holy love but a powerful love, and so we pray in the strong name of Jesus.

Jesus does not have a corner on the market when it comes to power. There are many powerful individuals in our world. Likewise, angels, the devil and demons occupy – to use the term of missionary anthropologist Paul Hiebert – an “excluded middle” or forgotten realm of beings created by God as part of the natural world, spiritual beings more powerful than humans but inferior to God. Though they are sometimes referred to as “supernatural,” it’s an unfortunate designation, dignifying them with a word that should be reserved only for God. (If the devil is called “supernatural,” then at least we must say that Jesus Christ is Supernatural, to designate his surpassing greatness). As the Second Person of the uncreated Triune God, there is no equivalence between his power and that of created beings. He is the ultimate authority before which all petty authorities must bow.

A memory from my youth illustrates the ultimate nature of this power. As a 13-year-old boy, I got caught up in the Citizen’s Band (CB) radio craze that swept the United States in the mid to late 70s. Saving up my money from the lawn mowing business my brothers and I ran, I finally had enough to buy the high powered “walkie talkie” I’d wanted. The problem was, the company that made it sold me a lemon. It was defective, so I took it back to the store and asked the salesman to trade it for a new one. He refused, but I didn’t give up. I asked to speak with the store manager, but he also refused. Frustrated, I talked with my dad about the problem. He suggested that I write to the President of the company, which I did. Two weeks letter, I received a typed letter from him, containing instructions for me to take the letter and to show it to the store manager. The letter – signed and sealed by the President – gave clear instructions for the store manager to replace my defective walkie talkie with a new, fully functioning unit. His power was ultimate, exceeding that of the store manager. An hour later, I had a new CB!

Imagine that the letter instead had said something like this: “Dear Mr Crofford, I’m very sorry for your problem, but there’s really nothing that I can do about it. I may be the President of this company, but each store manager can do what they want. My hands are tied.” How impressed would I have been with such a so-called “President” of that technology firm? Not at all! Instead, I would have probably called him a PINO – President-in-name-only, a fake President, a puny President, or something of the sort.

A Jesus who is only a natural Jesus and not a Supernatural Jesus wouldn’t be worthy of me addressing to him my prayers, any more than a powerless President of a company would be worthy of me addressing to him or her my letter of complaint. Why bother? This is the logic behind the observation from the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews:

And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him (Hebrews 11:6, NIV).

Someone who “rewards” those who seek him is one who has the power to reward. When Jesus bade his disciples farewell before ascending to heaven, he made a sweeping claim:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, God and make disciples of all nations… (Matthew 28:18-19, NIV).

Living as a missionary in Africa is a huge privilege. The faith of the church in Africa by-and-large is not philosophical or speculative. The hardscrabble nature of life in many parts of the continent makes Christian faith here very  practical. With that in mind, here’s what I responded on a forum to the paragraph from the anonymous member of the clergy quoted above, with his (apparently) non-supernatural Jesus:

His comment would be largely incomprehensible to 95% of our African Nazarenes. If Christianity is not supernatural, then what’s the point? Jesus is Christus Victor, the One who – in power unmatched by any other Being – has overcome sin, death, and the devil. Hebrews 2:14-15 is amazing, and strangely neglected:

“Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, he also shared the same things in the same way. He did this to destroy the one who has the power over death – the devil – by dying. He set free those who were held in slavery their entire lives by their fear of death.” – Common English Bible

Philip Jenkins has written about the “New Christendom” that has emerged in the Global South. While I definitely see some theological inaccuracy as well as excesses in the neo-Pentecostalism that is growing quickly in Africa and elsewhere – esp. the nature of tongues and the so-called prosperity gospel – the reason neo-Pentecostalism is so attractive is because it approximates the very nature of Christ’s powerful ministry on earth as displayed in the Gospels, addressing the full gamut of human need, including both physical and spiritual deliverance.

Any denomination that overtly or even quietly adopts an anti-supernatural way of thinking is a denomination that has written its own obituary. It has relegated itself to irrelevancy. As the French proverb puts it: “Le chien aboie, la caravane passe” – “The dog barks while the parade passes it by.”

Say what you might about our doctrine of entire sanctification, it reflects a supernaturalist worldview, for we believe that only an all-powerful, Triune God -as revealed in the Old and New Testaments – is capable of the greatest miracle of all, namely, transforming the human heart. Give me that kind of faith, and – as John Wesley said when he wished for 100 godly and fully-committed Methodists – we’ll storm the gates of Hell.

May God spare us from an anemic strain of faith. Give me a muscular, robust, Supernatural Jesus and not the watered-down soup being dished out in too many quarters these days.

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Image credit: simchaztv.com

Passing the faith along: all ages on the journey together

Greg and son, Brad, at a park in Albertville, France

Greg and son, Brad, at a park in Albertville, France

We were lost in Versailles.

Sure, we had the address of the congregation we wanted to visit, but somehow got all turned around. With the 10 a.m.  service time fast approaching, my wife and two young sons followed nervously behind me. On the corner, a Roman Catholic nun waited to cross the road. In my best French, I greeted her then told her what church we were trying to locate. “Turn right at the next street,” she advised. “I think it’s just a few hundred meters down on the right hand side.” Thanking her, we followed the directions and soon found ourselves walking in the front door of the church. Simultaneously, twenty gray-haired worshipers turned to see who had come to visit. When they discovered a young family with children, their eyes lit up and smiles beamed. Unfortunately, their pleasant surprise didn’t last long. We were at the wrong church! Reluctantly, the usher directed us to the next street where he assured us we would find our denominational tribe.

God loves the elderly, yet churches that have only older folks know that their days are numbered. In nature, a failure to reproduce can spell the end of a species. It is no different for communities of faith. A failure to pass along a Christian faith to the next generation will inevitably lead to a church’s demise. Well has it been said that the church is always only one generation away from extinction. To endure, she must reproduce. This happens in two important ways.  First, we share our faith with those outside the community of faith, inviting them to put their faith in Christ, to join their story to the story of God and God’s people. A second way is by nurturing faith in our children, passing our faith to the next generation. It is this second way that concerns us here.

How can the church more intentionally and effectively pass Christian faith along to children and youth, making their commitment to the people of God lifelong and not just something they grow out of as they come into adulthood?

A lesson on the importance of inclusion comes from the Xhosa and Zulus of South Africa. When a serious matter affecting the community arises, or a dispute, the chief may call an indaba, a meeting where everyone has a voice. Traditionally, the youngest speak first, followed by those older. Finally, the elders speak.  All the while, the chief listens carefully, taking into account all points of view before rendering a verdict on the matter-at-hand. As a Xhosa, this is the inclusive leadership style that Nelson Mandela brought to the South African presidency. It helped heal wounds festering from decades of racial segregation. It brought together black, white, colored and Indian,  young and old into a national indaba that allowed a nation to begin to turn the page on a dark chapter and imagine together a brighter and more hopeful future.

Among the people of God, indabas can take the form of prayer meetings. In our church, my parents went to adult choir practice at 5 p.m. and the evening service didn’t start until an hour later. At 5:30 p.m. some of the old saints not in the choir would gather for prayer in the “upper room” over the gymnasium. Tired of running around in the hallways with my brothers, around 12 years old, I climbed the stairs to the upper room one Sunday evening and asked if I could pray with them. They welcomed a boy when they could have chased me away. I remember the prayers of those saints, as they prayed for the pastor, cried for lost loved ones, and asked God to send a revival to our church. Those prayers from Mr and Mrs Whitman, Mr and Mrs Laird and others impacted my young life. They taught me to trust God for things small and large.

The danger of the “grown up table” and the “kids’ table”

At large family gatherings at holidays like Thanksgiving or Christmas, children are sometimes segregated at the “kids’ table.” In Sticky Faith: Everyday Ideas to Build Lasting Faith in Your Kids (Zondervan, 2011), Kara Powell and Chap Clark lament that too many churches follow that kind of separation between the ages when it comes to church. With good intentions, have we allowed children’s programs, youth programs and adult ministries to function independently with little time to mix between generations? Why are we then surprised when youth find it difficult to transition to adult membership in the community of faith? The gap is huge and – while they may have come to the same building for years – they are virtual strangers to each other.

Recognizing the high church dropout rate of young adults, Powell and Clark give many ideas of how families can instill lifelong faith and church involvement in their children. For our purposes, let’s talk about inter-generational worship, service, laughter and play.

Worshiping together

We need not repeat insights about worship detailed in an earlier chapter. Here, the focus is on all ages worshiping together. North Americans used to do this better than we do now. Somewhere along the line, we’ve grown more impatient not only with crying babies but with wiggly toddlers. Yet even toddlers and young children are picking up more during a worship service than we think. As a pastor, one Sunday night I received a drawing from red-headed 8-year-old Amy after the service. She’d drawn a picture of me while preaching. The picture was detailed, including my mustache and tie, but what encouraged me most was the the Bible reference she’d scrawled at the bottom, my sermon text. That little girl hadn’t just been drawing. She’d been listening!

A church in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe included all ages in a raucous Sunday morning worship service. People came from distances and weren’t tied to the clock. Three hours together gave ample time to get up and move, as the worship team encouraged us to dance to the lively praise music. That day, I saw a 60 year-old grandma move out into the aisles right next to 5 and 6 year old boys and girls. There was no “adult table” and “kids’ table” that day. We were in it together, and having exercised well during the music and offering, adults and children sat still and listened well to a 50 minute sermon preached in English and translated into Zulu. It was a fine spiritual meal enjoyed by all ages.

Serving together

The Puritan proverb warns: “Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop.” Wholesome work gives human beings dignity, and working together side-by-side – young and old in service to others – builds character and fosters Christian community.

While in seminary, my church took a mission trip to the Bahamas. Our task was to help finish off the inside of a new church building, putting up dry wall and installing a suspended ceiling. The trip was life-changing in many ways, but one special dynamic was the broad age range of the participants. There were several grandpas and grandmas on the team, along with twenty-somethings like myself, all the way down to 16 year old “Eric.” Eric was new to the church and had no profession of faith. As he began to feel more comfortable with us, he began to open up about his troubled home life and some of his destructive addictions. For the first time, Eric felt like he had a family as he saw the love of Christ lived out before his eyes, both in our love for him and the Bahamians to whom we had come to minister. By the last day, he had prayed to confess his sins and invite Christ into his life. I’ll never forget the joy on Eric’s face when we went down to the beach and our pastor baptized him in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

There’s something about an activity where those of all ages work together that binds us together with cords of love. Youth see that Christian faith is for the long-haul and appreciate the listening ear and wisdom they receive from those much further along in the journey. It’s not showy but it is solid, and that’s winsome.

Laughing and playing together

Life was never meant to be serious all the time. Victor Borge famously said: “Laughter is the shortest distance between two people,” and he’s right.

One of the mainstays of our bi-annual family reunions is the night when we settle down after a good meal and someone starts to tell the old stories. “Do you remember when….?” And even though most everyone has heard the stories before, they never fail to evoke laughter. When they hear the harmless antics – and sometimes a bit of mischief – my nieces and nephews think it’s hilarious what their mom or dad did, and who better to tell the story than their uncle or grandma? In the same way, the church does life together, and stories of embarrassing mishaps from mission trips, Vacation Bible Schools or Bible Quiz meets get trotted out, a telling of the inter-generational story that binds us together.

In South Africa, churches love to host a braai (barbeque). Often there are games with young and old taking part. Playing and eating together as the people of God makes memories and builds relationships. Braais are an all-day affair. It’s a time to slow down and get to know each other better in a relaxed setting. It’s a place to belong.

Summing it all up

The church needs its children and youth. They are both her present and her future. For Christian faith to be both winsome and “sticky,” being intentional about all ages worshiping, serving, laughing and playing together is key. As older believers invest in the lives of children and youth, commitment to Christ and Christ’s community – the church – becomes a cherished legacy that young adults will long to pass along to their own children. Having studied the people of God, let us in the next section of Christlike Disciples, Christlike World sharpen the focus to this question: What is the church’s mission? 

Guest voice: Lessing on infant dedication

Pelham LessingThe Church of the Nazarene allows for the practice of infant baptism, but does not believe it is a saving sacrament. Rather, we believe it is a covenant sign showing the child’s acceptance into the church, with promises made by parents and congregation to bring up the child in the fear of the Lord. This is the same promise made by parents during dedication, which is offered as an alternative to infant baptism.

The theology around infant dedication is thin. I appreciate how Pastor Lessing handles the topic, adding new insights.
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A Time for Clarity: Child Dedication

by Pelham Lessing

Having a new baby in a family is one of the most exciting times for most parents. Many believing Christian parents decide to publicly dedicate their child to God. Nonetheless, there has been a lot of confusion and theological debate as to the purpose of child dedication.

It must be understood, however, that child dedication and infant baptism are not exact equivalents. Infant baptism (sprinkling) is understood in various terms to grant or symbolise salvation, to cleanse away sin, or to confer saving grace upon a child. Infant baptism is believed to be a means of grace. Infant baptism revolves around two arguments: [1] the New Testament ordinance of baptism parallels the OT ordinance of circumcision (Col 2:11-12) and [(2] the early church baptised whole household (Acts 16:15). The scope of this article does not afford me the opportunity to discuss the argument that infant baptism equates to baptismal regeneration.

Child dedication on the other hand based on the view of prevenient grace is seen as the divine or unique mercifulness that precedes human decision. Child dedication therefore is the recognition and sign of God’s special covenant with humankind, which he initiated in eternity past and demonstrated through His Son Jesus Christ. Prevenient grace also refers to the first of the threefold relationship between God and the believer represented by the Greek preposition para (para). God through the third person in the Godhead, the Holy Spirit dwells with a person prior to conversion. Convicting the person of sin, righteousness and judgment and convincing the individual that Jesus is the only answer.

The author believes the Shema (the Jewish Confessional Creed based on Deut 6:4-9) forms a crucial part in understanding child dedication. Wiersbe divides the Shema into 3 sections:

  1. Confession – verse 4, this is a declaration of the supremacy and oneness of God.
  2. Commandment – verse 5, highlights the commandment for Israel and by extension the church to love God with everything.
  3. Communication – verses 6-9, the remaining verses then outline what we are to do with God’s Word, take it into our hearts and communicate it to our children, families and community (1999:46-48).

Further to the above, in the field of practical theology and pastoral ministry, child dedication is understood in five broad ways:

Firstly, when we dedicate a child recognition is given to God as the giver of life (Psa 36:9). Secondly, parents are offered the opportunity to make a parental promise to rear the child in accordance with God’s Word. Thirdly, dedicating a child presents the parents, the [immediate] family, and the local church the honour to bless the child, that is to pray for the manifest or tangible presence and power of God upon the life of the child (Matt 19:13-15). Fourthly, it depicts the prophetic imagination of the church to which the parents belong to express its anticipation and expectation that the child will experience a high quality spiritual, intellectual, social, and physical life (Luke 2:52). Lastly, the reason we dedicate children is to give expression to our aspiration to experience God’s fullness in life: his protection, preservation, and providence.

Evangelicals acknowledge that the practice of child dedication is not a major doctrine of the faith nor is it a sacrament as taught in some churches. Although not practised in the same light as in both the Old and early New Testament period (the Law of Inheritance), dedicating a child to God in the contemporary church presents us with a wonderful reason to challenge the church at large to create child friendly communities and local churches where JESUS IS LORD. It also brings great blessing to the parents and congregation and presents opportunities to minister to extended family and friends who otherwise would not come to church.
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Pelham Lessing completed his Bachelor of ARts in Bible and Theology at Global University. He completed postgraduate degrees in ethics, theology and education and holds professional qualifications as a teacher and counselor and is registered with the relevant professional and accredited bodies. He currently serves as a full time lecturer at the South African Theological Seminary (SATS) and as an adjunct faculty in the Development Studies Department at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) where he lectures at both the undergraduate an postgraduae levels. Pelham also serves as lead pastor of Crossover Community Church of the Nazarene in Turffontein, Johannesburg.

Persons transformed: Making Christlike disciples

crossAt the center of Christianity is a cross. How strange is it that an ancient Roman instrument of torture and execution has become the most recognizable symbol in the world?

Theologians have pondered the cross for centuries yet still have not been able to fully explain its meaning. There are many verses in the New Testament that speak of the sacrificial death of Jesus of Nazareth that day long ago outside the walls of Jerusalem. Among these, some from Paul’s letter to the Romans are among the best known:

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! (Romans 5:8-9, NIV).

We were still sinners.

To be a sinner is to sin, to disobey God either by doing what God forbids or refusing to do what God requires (1 John 3:4, James 4:17). The amazing thing about Romans 5:8 is that we deserved judgment but received grace, favor from heaven that we never earned. God could in anger have said to humanity after the disobedience of Adam and Eve: “You’ve made your bed. Now, lie in it.” Yet from somewhere deep down in the great heart of this Three-in-One God, compassion welled up. A baby was born in a manger in Bethlehem, Immanuel, “God with us.” Mary – a faithful young Jewish woman who had never had sex with a man – was confused. How could she be pregnant? What was this all about? Yet this miraculous conception had a purpose. The angel instructed Mary to name the child Jesus – “the LORD saves” – for “he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21, NIV).

In the Old Testament, sin always required a sacrifice to atone, to make human beings once again at-one with God. Reflecting on the book of Leviticus, the writer to the Hebrews observed:

In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness (Hebrews 9:22, NIV).

But God demonstrated his love.

On the day Jesus died on the cross, that was far from obvious for the men and women who had followed him for three years. The evidence seemed to point in the opposite direction, that God was demonstrating hatred toward Jesus. Did not Jesus himself – borrowing the words of Psalm 22:1 – cry out:

” ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabacthani? – which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ “

Anyone hung on a tree was considered cursed by God (Deuteronomy 21:23). That their Lord had died naked and brutally beaten could only have been interpreted as divine abandonment – or was it?

As the disciples thought back over the time they had spent with their Lord, the cross finally made sense of some things that at the time were incomprehensible. They remembered the words of John the Baptist when Jesus came to be baptized in the river Jordan. Jesus’ cousin saw him coming, then announced loud enough for all to hear: “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29, NIV). As for Mary, the mother of Jesus, surely now the words of the angel made sense. Jesus himself had warned his disciples that he would die in Jerusalem and rise again after three days (Mark 8:31). Somehow, they had not been ready to hear those words. They filtered them out.

Now, what had looked like hate and abandonment suddenly began to look like love. The death of Jesus was not in vain. It fulfilled a divine purpose and was motivated by God’s love for us, for me! The innocent died so that the guilty might live.

We have now been justified.

Sinners merit God’s anger and punishment. Yet Paul says in Romans 5:9 that in Christ, we have been saved from God’s wrath. We can be  justified, forgiven, pardoned!

Transformation always begins when our broken relationship with God is restored, thanks to what Jesus has done for us.

Henry David Thoreau (1817-62) was a well-known writer and naturalist. As he neared death, his aunt came to visit with him. She asked: “Have you made your peace with God?” Thoreau replied: “I didn’t know that we had ever quarreled.” Thoreau’s response underscores the truth that we must be willing to admit that we have wronged God or else why seek God’s forgiveness? Confession is a prerequisite for pardon. 1 John 1:8-9 (NIV) teaches:

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.

From pardon to purity: transformation God’s way

To be reconciled to God brings the blessing of adoption into God’s family (Romans 8:15). Likewise, from that moment when we are reconciled, we become disciples of Jesus Christ, followers of his way. In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis taught that Christians are to be “little Christs.” This is not possible on our own, but our transformation to become Christlike disciples begins immediately once we have been forgiven and agreed to let God direct us onto a new path.

This new mindset – a willingness to forsake our sins, to let God change us since we are powerless to change ourselves – is called repentance. Placing our faith in Christ and what he has done for us at the cross, nothing short of a miracle transpires. Jesus calls this being “born again” (John 3:3), from which we get the terms new birth or regeneration. Singer Keith Green recounts his own experience of deciding to follow Jesus, saying it was “like waking up from the longest dream.” Paul insists that we become a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). With the Holy Spirit of God now living inside of us (1 Corinthians 6:18), God makes everything new.

The word that describes God’s transforming work in our heart and life is sanctification. One meaning of the term is to be set apart for a sacred use. Some of the utensils used by the Hebrew priests in the Tabernacle were to be sanctified, i.e. used only in the sacrifice of animals in the worship of God (Leviticus 8:10-11). In the same way, the follower of Jesus is to consider himself or herself as belonging totally to God. The Christlike disciple does not have the option to specify which parts of his or her life God may control. To be entirely sanctified means that all that we are and have is now under the Lordship of Jesus Christ (Romans 12:1-2, 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24). When God has all that we are, then God’s holy presence – God’s purity and love – fill us. Sin becomes distasteful as our attention focuses less-and-less on self-gratification and more-and-more on how we can love and serve others in the name of Jesus.

God wants to change the world, so he changes us first.

mopAt 16, I took my first  job, working in the produce department of a grocery store. One night, my boss asked me to mop the floor of the back room. I did the job the best I knew how, but he was unsatisfied. When this went on for several nights, he finally asked me to demonstrate what I had been doing. “Greg,” he said, “you’ll never get the floor clean if you use a dirty mop dipped in dirty water. You’ll just keep spreading the dirt around.” The next night, I changed the dirty mop head for a clean one and frequently changed out the water. Success! The floor was clean and my boss was happy.

Looking at the church today, sometimes I think about mopping floors. We’ve understood that transformation of the world is not a distraction from the Gospel work. It is Gospel work. But unless we recognize that God must first transform us, then we risk just being dirty mops dipped in dirty water, spreading the dirt around and changing nothing. We cannot assume that just because individuals have been in the church all their lives that they have encountered the living Christ in a life-changing way! Each of us must decide to follow Jesus. Pardon and purity are available, but we must individually acknowledge our sin and make our peace with God through Christ (Romans 5:1). Paul challenges each of us:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will (Romans 12:1-2, NIV).

A key part of changing the world is allowing God the Holy Spirit to transform us first, then inviting others to journey with us as we follow Jesus together. Christlike disciples make other Christlike disciples. God wants to change the world, so he changes us first.

Summing it all up

The cross towers before us, a symbol of God’s love and the sacrifice of Jesus so that we can be saved from our sins. In the cross, Jesus built a bridge between God and humanity, offering his own blood so that we can be forgiven and cleansed, set apart for God’s own use. Justification and sanctification describe the radical transformation that God works in the lives of those who turn their back on their sins and decide to follow Jesus. As we become Christlike disciples – spurning sin and hungering for God – God uses us to make more Christlike disciples. God sends us out arm-in-arm into the world. Purified and empowered by the Holy Spirit, we become agents of the change God desires in society and all creation. What a mission!

When sin grows wings and claws

This leopard stopped long enough for me to take his picture at the Nairobi (Kenya) safari walk.

This leopard stopped long enough for me to take his picture at the Nairobi (Kenya) safari walk.

It’s a moving scene from the film, “Amazing Grace.” William Wilberforce is desperate to make the horror of the slave trade concrete for those who have the power to abolish it but remain unconvinced. So he hosts an outing for selected members of the aristocracy, a short boat tour up the river Thames. What they don’t know is his real motive. As violins play, the boat steers alongside the Madagascar, a filthy slave ship just returned from the West Indies. Dramatically, Wilberforce calls out from the deck of the putrid vessel, inviting the aristocrats to breathe in deeply, to take in the stench that is slavery. Instinctively, women cover their noses with their handkerchief, shielding themselves. “Take away that handkerchief!” Wilberforce commands. “Breathe in the foul smell of slavery.”

In recent days, there have been two moments when we – like those aristocratic women – were tempted to shield ourselves from the foul smell of twin evils. The first was the hidden-camera videos of Planned Parenthood officials discussing the sale of body parts harvested from abortions. Instinctively, media put up the “handkerchief” of diversion, focusing on other health services the group provides for the poor. “Don’t look at that, look over here instead!” was their plea. But it was too late. The public knows a putrid smell when it accosts our collective olfactory sense, and the damage was already done and will continue as more videos are released in coming weeks. Estimates are that 55 million unborn have been aborted since 1973, the year that Roe v. Wade legalized abortion in all 50 states. Some stenches are not easily covered up.

The second story that smelled foul was the baiting and slaying of Cecil, a majestic 13-year-old lion in Zimbabwe. Reports are that he was lured outside of the wildlife reserve where he lived by the use of a dead animal. Subsequently, he was skinned and his head severed. Whether laws were broken is still being determined, but the public is seething. Uproar continues as the media focuses on the story, and the American dentist who has admitted his involvement in the trophy hunt has gone into hiding.

As I look at the two stories, I’m reminded of a quote from Walter Rauschenbush in his 1917 A Theology for the Social Gospel:

When fed with money, sin grows wings and claws.

In both cases – the Planned Parenthood trading in body parts of aborted babies and the slaying of Cecil the lion – money has played a role. In a video featured at Breitbart.com, Dr. Mary Gatter, President of Planned Parenthood’s Medical Director’s Council, discusses the price of fetal parts. She later jokes about “wanting a Lamborghini” in exchange for body parts. Some have argued that the videos have been cleverly edited for effect, but this has not stopped promises by members of Congress to investigate. Likewise, reports are that the American dentist who shot Cecil with his bow and arrow paid $ 55,000.00 to local hunters to assist him in the hunt, this despite the fact that there are now only 34,000 lions left in the wild in Africa.

The Apostle Paul appears to be on the same page with Walter Rauschenbusch. Writing to his young protégé, Timothy, he observed:

For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs (1 Timothy 6:19, NIV).

Admittedly, it’s hard to get past hand-wringing to workable solutions. As long as there is a financial incentive for selling parts of aborted babies, trafficking of this sort will continue. If convicted of having broken existing laws, Planned Parenthood should be fined massively so that any past profit will be mitigated. Closer regulation and monitoring should be put in place. Likewise, trophy hunting – to be curtailed – must take away the bragging rights of such hunters. The simplest way would be to deprive them of their trophy, and already Emirates Airlines has announced it will no longer transport trophy carcasses, with pressure mounting on other airlines to do the same.

The Psalmist affirms:

The LORD is good to all. He has compassion on all he has made (Psalm 145:9, NIV).

The love of money always has the tendency to undercut our compassion, whether toward human beings in utero or the rest of God’s good creation. We don’t need Lamborghinis and we don’t need animal trophies. Like Paul, let us be content if we have food and clothing (1 Timothy 6:8). In the end, the only answer to greed and the vices it spawns is not more laws but a willingness to celebrate what God has already given us, the daily bread for which Jesus taught us to pray (Matthew 6:11). Only contentment – as individuals and as peoples – can prevent our sin from growing wings and claws.

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UPDATE: This article from Factcheck.org does a decent job of answering some of Planned Parenthood’s critics. It seems to me that any money given in exchange for fetal parts is too much. And – of course – it begs the question of what other abortion providers make profit from the trade, even if whether Planned Parenthood profits from this is still to be determined.

Which church is the true church?

A note to my readers:

Life has been hectic, but a good kind of hectic, with a fruitful teaching trip to Zimbabwe last weekend.  My weekly Saturday blog did not happen, but I’m pleased in its place this week to reproduce for your enrichment a short essay from my friend, Edward Fudge.

We’ll see you again next Saturday.

– Greg

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“The right true church, part 2” – by Edward Fudge – from his gracEmail of July 26,  2015

EdFudge1The year 1054 is remembered in church history as the year Pope Leo IX excommunicated Patriarch Michael Cerularius of Constantinople and declared himself head of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. The Patriarch responded in kind and the Great Schism was under way, thereafter with East (Constantinople) and West (Rome) both contending for primacy as head of the exclusive true church. The Reformers promised the right of individual biblical interpretation, which in turn brought a multiplicity of churches. Soon, Protestantism had its own contenders for “the true church.”

Most cults claim to be God’s only true or faithful people. Mormons teach that the true Church went into apostasy shortly after the original Apostles died, but that God restored it about 1830 through the prophetic ministry of Joseph Smith, Jr. Mr. Smith is said to have translated the Book of Mormon from ancient inscriptions on gold plates under instructions from an angel named Moroni. Jehovah’s Witnesses claim that Jesus returned to earth invisibly in 1914 and set up his kingdom, with their Watchtower Society as its visible form.

The Philadelphia Church of God is but one of several offshoots of the Worldwide Church of God which claims that it alone represents God’s “government” (and New Testament Church) today, based on the unique doctrines of the late Herbert W. Armstrong whom they see as the last-days “Elijah the Prophet” of Old Testament prophecy. (Happily, the original Worldwide Church of God has denounced its cultic past and has udergone a Christ-centered reformation of its own.)

Amid all these confusing and contradicting claims, we do well to remember Jesus’ warnings concerning would-be messiahs. We do not need to go running here or there in search of the “true teacher” or the “true church.” The Bible does not envision “Lone Ranger” Christians who intentionally avoid fellowship with others. But while “church” is very important, no particular brand in the Yellow Pages has any exclusive claims on God or his salvation. Jesus — not any religious institution or ecclesiastical organization — is the door to the Father. Whoever has Jesus has life, and whoever remains in union with him is complete in the eyes of God.