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God does the Work, God is Glorified

If God does the work, it means that we don’t. I don’t mean we sit idly and do nothing. But we don’t share credit with God.

That is difficult to comprehend because we have an age where there are significant professional accolades available to those who succeed at the difficult work of church planting. Appointments speaking at conferences, travelling budgets, and book deals await the most successful church planters. In the midst of such distraction, it’s hard to remember the root of things: If God does the work, it means that we don’t get the glory.

Peter and John walked passed a lame beggar at the Beautiful Gate on the way to the temple. Although Peter didn’t have money, he did have an anointing from the Holy Spirit and the faith to declare the beggars healing in the name of Jesus right then and there.

When the guy is leaping around praising God, of course everyone is amazed. They may have just passed him there begging. Peter seizes this opportunity to preach the Gospel. Before he does, though, he says something interesting: “Men of Israel, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we have made him walk?”

Now it isn’t surprising to me that he said it wasn’t by his own power that the man is walking. He acknowledged the power of God did the work. But, he goes much further than that. He power or piety. In other words, it wasn’t even their great faithfulness to God that brought the miracle. The miracle was purely an act of God’s grace.

Success in ministry isn’t about the strength of the leader or their personal spirituality. If it is to be genuine, it is a work of God. That doesn’t mean we don’t do anything. Peter worked tirelessly to proclaim the Gospel of Christ. Even in this very instance, he boldly seized the opportunity to proclaim the good news. But the power is God’s. He is the only one who brings increase. He is the only one who gets glory.

Repent and be Baptized for Forgiveness of Sin

Peter had just preached an incredible sermon. The guy who had been unwilling to admit to knowing Christ a few weeks earlier was now standing in front of a group of people telling them they crucified Jesus (Acts 2:23). He showed them how both David and Joel pointed toward the coming of Jesus and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. These Jewish people were cut to the heart. They knew they needed to do something. “What should we do?” they asked.

Peter’s answer was simple: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

We live in a strange time. Our good desire to teach salvation by grace alone, apart from works combined with our naturalistic aversion to miracles (or anything we don’t understand) leads us to try to strip water baptism of its significance. Many times, instruction about baptism focuses more on what it doesn’t accomplish rather that what it does accomplish.

I have met many people who would use the term Christian to describe themselves even though they have never submitted to Christian baptism. This short directive from Peter teaches us a better way to think about Christian baptism and what it accomplishes in our lives.

1) Repentance and Baptism is the way to obtain forgiveness of sin.

Peter tells people to do two things: Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus. He then tells them why they would do that. He tells them to repent and be baptized ‘for the forgiveness of your sins.’

It’s important not to get weird. Peter didn’t ask people to start parsing the exact moment God forgave their sins. Following his Lord’s command, that he would make disciples and baptize them, he saw repentance and baptism as completely united. When the people repented and were baptized, they were forgiven of their sins.

2) At Baptism, we receive the Holy Spirit

Peter said that after people are baptized they will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Where would he get such an idea? Peter reflected back on Jesus’ baptism, where the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus like a dove.

Jesus is the prototype for our lives. He shows us what our life is to be. Just as He received the Holy Spirit at His baptism, His followers receive the Spirit at theirs.

This is not a magic trick. The book of Acts makes that abundantly clear. Sometimes the evidence of the Spirit’s filling comes before their water baptism. Sometimes it is a while after.

The one thing that never, ever happens is the Holy Spirit falling without baptism. Although it isn’t a formula or a magic trick, water baptism always accompanied and was closely linked with the coming of the Holy Spirit. There are no scriptural examples of people in the age of the Church receiving the Holy Spirit without ever submitting to water baptism.

3) At Baptism, we join the Church

Right after the sermon, 3,000 people received the word and were baptized. It is no accident that right after this mass baptism, Luke goes on to describe the life of the Church. The baptism initiated these people into the life of the Church. After they were baptized, they joined the people devoted to the apostles teaching, the Communion meal, and the prayers. There is no incorporation into to the Body and Bride of Christ until baptism.

Water baptism is the beginning of the life of a Christian. It is our entrance into redeemed life, into the life of the Holy Spirit, and into the life of the Church. If you desire to be a part of the community of Christ, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

When the Holy Spirit Came

When the Holy Spirit came, nothing could contain Him.
Language barriers became a joke.
God’s people were willing to look foolish.
Hearts were changed.

When the Holy Spirit came, nothing could stop Him.
The Christ denyer became the Gospel proclaimer
People were cut to the heart
3,000 were baptized

When the Holy Spirit came, he built a community.
They read the Scriptures and prayed
They celebrated the Eucharist
They shared everything they had

When the Holy Spirit came, nothing could reel Him in.
Holy Spirit come.

Ministry is a Work of God

The work of church planting is both exciting and discouraging. One day, you’re seeing brand new people come to faith and getting baptized. The next day, you’re holding a bible study and no one shows up.

The mission God gives people that are a part of new churches is big. We have to meet people, gather them together, and see a team of leaders grow. Sometimes, it feels impossible.

We are not the first one to get an impossible mission though. Jesus gave an impossible mission to his disciples. Their mission must have felt impossible. They were going to be witnesses to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). They were going to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:18-20). They were going to do even greater things than Jesus (John 14:12-14).

With all that stuff to do, it is both fascinating and instructive that the first order of business was to wait. Wait until God sends His Holy Spirit to empower them (Acts 1:4-5). The mission God had given them was just too big.

It was going to be a work of God.

The growth of the Church wasn’t a work of human ingenuity, eloquent speeches, ingenious marketing, or clever leadership. The Holy Spirit came in power, with signs, wonders, and spiritual gifts that were impossible to deny.

We won’t have to struggle to get people excited to come to a group or a service if the Holy Spirit is present. Churches won’t grow by coercion. They won’t grow by sweet websites, sexy flyers, and the perfect worship service. They will grow by a work of the Holy Spirit. The work of God is so important that the apostles were called to wait for it.

As the Church, do we do our work as if we believe it is God’s job to provide increase? Do we really believe it is God’s work and not ours?

God doesn’t share the glory. And he isn’t impressed by gimmicks to get a lot of people to walk into a service. He is impressed by hearts devoted to him and lives lived in the power of the Holy Spirit, operating in their spiritual gifts, overcoming sin and drawing others into fellowship with the Trinity.

Father, help us to walk in the realization that ministry is your work. It is a work of God.

Rekindling Love for God

It is  easy to forget how wonderful the Gospel of Christ is. It is so easy to forget what I have been redeemed from.  The God of the universe took on flesh, lived, died, resurrected, and ascended for me and in my place. He lived the life I couldn’t live. He died the death I should have died, he resurrected and gave me the hope of resurrection from the dead.

And, I forget. I am so forgetful.The Gospel becomes dry. The story stops penetrating my heart and I get numb to it.

In the beginning of the book of Revelation, God addresses a church like this. They are patiently enduring and toiling for the Gospel. But, they’ve lost their first love. They’ve become forgetful.

What he tells them to do is so interesting. It is like what a marriage therapist may tell a man who feels like he has fallen out of love with his spouse. He tells them to remember how things were at first and repent of where they missed it. After all, the antidote of forgetfulness is remembrance. Remember how you felt at first, and repent of how you’ve lost your way.

Then the advice gets super practical. Do the works you did at first. This is where the Scriptures get as wise as a good marriage therapist. Feel like you may have fallen out of love with God? Feel like you lost that first love? Behave like you didn’t. Do the things you did when you felt like you loved God. Did you rise early to pray? Do that. Did you tell others about him? Do that. Did you pour through the Scriptures? Do that. Did you sing songs to him? Start doing that.

And, if you are forgetful like me, that is really helpful advice. If you feel like you have lost your first love for Jesus, don’t spend a bunch of time in your room trying to conjure up love feelings. Behave like you didn’t lose that love. Do the things you did when you felt like you were in love with Christ. And, just like in a marriage, often your feelings will follow your actions.

The Gospel is a story worth loving. It is easy to love the Gospel and the God of the Gospel. You feel like you fell out of love? Behave as if you didn’t. I can assure you, the feelings will follow.

The Just Church: Book Review

Three years ago, I was a leader of a home group through a college ministry in Dallas, Texas. We studied to book of Micah, felt very compelled that we were called to engage in the work of justice, found a cause we were passionate about (human trafficking), and tried to get started. What we quickly found is that outrage and indignation would not sustain a justice ministry. Eventually, our efforts fizzled out without any noticeable impact.

I know those members of the small group. They are dear friends of mine. I know their hearts. I know they really desired to engage human trafficking. The reason that project fizzled out had nothing to do with hardened, calloused hearts. It was because we lacked a plan to really engage in the work of justice.

This experience makes Jim Martin’s book, The Just Church really exciting for me. In his book, he lays out a plan for the beginnings of a justice ministry in the local church. This plan, if followed, could help put teeth to the tiger of indignation that wells up in any compassionate heart that hears of the injustice people suffer all over the world.

In the first part of the book, Martin lays out the beginnings of what is necessary to engage justice. He lays out principles that would be useful to a believer dealing with any area of discipleship. Perhaps the greatest challenge he issues is to believers is to be willing to ‘get into trouble.’ So much of our lives can be consumed by small, insignificant problems. In order to grow in our faith, Christians must intentionally seek out situations where they must cry out to God, knowing it is only Him that can save them. These situations bring about ‘failure points’ in our faith. Just as muscles must be pushed to the place where they cannot continue to grow, Christians must be brought to places where their faith fails, only to cry out to God, reflect, and experience growth.

Encountering the dark world associated with a justice ministry will inevitably bring about these situations. As we read the countless psalms that show us people surrounded by enemies, crying out to God for deliverance, we should realize that this is the actual lifestyle of countless people in the world. Martin calls on Christians to make their suffering our suffering and then call out to God for deliverance. As we do this, we will find ways to engage and to do so with both courage and humility.

After laying out principles that are required for a church that wishes to engage justice, Martin goes on to display his plan for beginning a justice ministry in a local church. This is a three-fold process: Encounter, Explore and Engage. These three phases are laid out in detail in his book, and Martin wonderfully balances giving enough detail to be helpful to churches and holding back enough to allow the Holy Spirit to guide particular churches to engage justice ministry according to their unique call.

The book closes with several examples of churches that have done extraordinary work in justice ministry. These churches have responded to the call of God in incredible ways, with one church deciding to take the funds from their building campaign and direct them toward an aftercare program. These churches take the book beyond the theoretical to the practical.

This book is a gift to the church. As a pastor, I believe that anyone in church leadership should take the time to deal with the ideas introduced here. If pastors are willing to walk their congregations through this process, I know that the God of justice would respond in powerful ways. May we all have the courage and humility to allow the creator and savior of the world, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, to work through us to rid his creation of oppression. To God be the glory.

Balancing Lament and Confession

Today, I was reading several Psalms. These are the ancient prayers and reflections of the people of God. Many of them started as private prayers, but they turned into the prayers that the people said together when they gathered for worship. In these prayers, we see great patterns for the way that God’s people should interact with Him. One of the patterns we see is the pattern of lament and confession. Without both lament and confession, spiritual growth is stunted.

Lament

In the Psalms of lament, the psalmists complain to God. Sometimes, their language gets pretty accusatory. They’ll say, “My soul is greatly troubled. But you, O LORD—how long?” (Ps 6:3), or, “Why, O LORd, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourselves in times of trouble?” (Ps. 10:1).

God’s people lament. They see that the world is not how it should be. They let God know. They honestly lay their anger, their broken hearts, their disappointment, their despair, and their accusations before the throne of the Almighty. He can handle it.

Confession

The Psalmists don’t stop at lamenting. They also make confessions about God. They confess that He is good. They confess that He is holy. They confess that He hears their prayers. Even in the midst of their doubts and confusion, they make clear declarations like, “The LORD has heard my plea; the LORD accepts my prayer,” (Ps 6:9), or, “O, LORD, you hear the desire of the afflicted” (Ps 10:16).

In the midst of their doubts and struggles (notice, these were the exact same Psalms), God’s people confess what they know to be true about God. He is good. He is righteous. He is holy. He hears prayers. He forgives, provides, listens, responds, heals, and saves.

Interplay of Lament and Confession

It is my conviction that if we are to learn to grow spiritually, we are going to need to learn the interplay between lament and confession. We have to learn how to lament honestly, while maintaining our confession that God is good. Many of people’s struggles in prayer have to do with missing either lament or confession.

Some of God’s people are short on lament. They are the people that you run into at their mother’s funeral and they say things like, “God is good, all the time!” You see them in the supermarket right after their dog got hit by a car, ask them how they’re doing only to hear them respond, “I’m blessed.”

Often these people lack honesty. While these confessions that they’re making may be quite true (who would argue that God isn’t always good), they are not honestly reflecting on the pain in their lives or processing that pain in a healthy way. God’s people know how to grieve and lament. They don’t lie to themselves or others. When they see the brokenness in the world, they truthfully assess it.

There is another problem that inhibits spiritual growth in many people. I think with the postmodern emphasis on ‘authenticity,’ this may be an even more common problem. Some Christians are low on confession. They have no problem lamenting, but they never get silent and low before the Lord, allowing him to speak the truth of their Christian confession into their tragedy.

These Christians are always ‘being honest’ with God. They may cite the Psalms I brought up, saying that they are being like the Psalmists and complaining to God. They are asking, “why?” a lot and getting angry. They respond to tragedies with an anger toward God. They may be afraid to ask God for things because they expect evil from God instead of good. After all, he’s given them a lot of pain lately.

Although they cite these Psalms, they rarely read them through to the end. There are some Psalms that end with a lament. However, these Psalms are very, very few in number. That should tell us something about the majority of our prayers as the people of God.

Look at the Psalms I cited. You can almost sense the psalmist pausing between Psalm 6:7 and 6:8, hearing a fresh word from God that his lament has been heard. You can sense the peace of God transforming the psalmist between Psalm 10:15 and 10:16. Their lament gives birth to confession.

When we pray, we should be honest with God. We should pour out our hearts before Him. We live in a difficult world, and things happen that anger and disappoint us. We should be bringing those painful things before God authentically. We should never have pretense before the Lord, pretending we’re okay when we’re not. We should deal with grief honestly and with integrity.

However, our prayers cannot end there. When we make our complaints, we must sit before the Holy Spirit, allowing him to speak a fresh word to us that leads us to confess His greatness. This is true spirituality. This is how the people of God pray.

Scripture and Tradtion: Raymond L. Zell

I came across this article discussing Scripture and Tradition by Raymond Zell. It is succinct, balanced, and well argued. I commend it to anyone who wants to wrestle with the interplay of these two ways that God reveals Himself to us.

http://www.protomartyr.org/scripture.html

 

May God grant us the grace to hear the voices of the Christians who have come before us. Amen.

Death and Resurrection

Today, my baby Grace and my wife left to go to a funeral for her grandfather, who passed away yesterday morning. In light of that, I thought it was appropriate to re-post a blog I wrote on Facebook a couple years ago. Here it is:

Come with me on a journey. Come to a typical funeral in most of our traditions.

Mary has just died. She was an eighty-year-old grandmother. She was a member of the church for a long time and she always baked the best cookies for the bake sales. The preacher stands up, with a few tears in his eyes. He says, “Today is a time of celebration, because Mary has gone home to be with Jesus. Mary is not in this coffin. Mary has been released from this body, which is merely a shell that held Mary.”

Funny, I don’t feel like celebrating. No one else does either.

Statements like this show that we have a misunderstanding of the future. For Christians, hope is in new life, not in death. These statements also show that we have a great misunderstanding of the body. The body is created by God, and it is good, just like the ‘spirit’ or the ‘soul.’ We are one person, body and spirit. As whole people, we are created in the image of God.

The final goal for Christians is not to be separated from our bodies and to live in some disembodied state in some invisible place for all of eternity. 

The hope for Christians is resurrection. One day, we will walk out of a grave and will worship God with bodies just like we have now, except perfect. We will walk out of a grave, never to go back into one again.

Come back to that funeral with me. Mary has died. What the preacher could say is, “The death of Mary is a tragedy. Humans were never supposed to die. When humans rebelled against God, they subjected themselves to sin and death. However, this isn’t the end of the story. God is going to pull Mary out of her grave and she will worship him forever in a body that will never decay again.”

That’s a message worth hearing.

Christ has risen indeed. Alleluia!

Good Friday Baby

I had jokingly said that I didn’t want Grace to come on Good Friday. I had said I wanted an Easter baby, not a Good Friday baby.

That is why it was almost comical when our doctor suggested scheduling the induction for Friday morning. It looks like a Good Friday baby it is.

I thought Good Friday wouldn’t be a great day to have a baby.

Then I woke up and said my prayers with Ileana.

We read Psalm 22, and I reflected on uniting with Christ, and the Church, his body, in suffering. We read Lamentations 3 and reflected on God’s goodness in the midst of suffering. We read a passage in John predicting Peter’s denial.

And it hit me like a ton of bricks.

Good Friday is the perfect day to have a baby.

Good Friday is the day when you see God bringing good out of evil and life out of death. On Good Friday, we reflect on the God of the universe feeling terrified. He walked to his death in terrified obedience to the Father. And, through the tragic events of Good Friday, God birthed a new day.

There isn’t much worse than knowing that you’re going to go through pain. It is scary to know that immense pain is around the corner. The only thing I can think of than knowing I will go through immense pain, though, is knowing that I will have to watch my bride go through immense pain. I realize that the thought of seeing her hurt terrifies me.

Jesus knows pain, though. He knows it well. If there is any day to remember that Jesus identifies with us in fear and in pain, today is the day. But, even out of the most tragic effect of the Fall, the conspiracy of humanity to murder God, God brings forth New Life.

In the same way, in perhaps the worst part of the curse, the pain in childbearing, God is going to bring forth New Life.

Today is a perfect day to have a baby.