Wednesday, June 29, 2005

The Faith that Triumphs (Hebrews 11:39-12:3)

The Letter to the Hebrews is my favorite New Testament epistle. It could almost be called the Gospel to the Hebrews because of the way in which it relates the good news of the coming of Jesus Christ to everything of significance in the Old Testament. Hebrews chapter 11 gives us that wonderful list of the saints of old who accomplished great things by faith and those who suffered and endured great things by their faith. And the chapter ends with these words (verses 39-40):
These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised (emphasis mine). God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.
Let's consider four things we see in this text:

(1) What was the content of saving faith in the Old Testament? What is there about the faith of Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Rahab and all the rest of these Old Testament figures that would cause the Holy Spirit to inspire a New Testament writer to extol them as heroes of the faith?

(2) Faith is an attitude of the heart. There is a way of saying yes to God, so that, even though you don’t know the details of God’s plan, when the plan is fulfilled, you aren’t surprised, you aren’t disappointed; you are thankful.

(3) The Scriptures are not teaching a form of universalism. Just because these people were saved without explicit knowledge of a baby in a manger and a man on a Cross doesn’t mean that they were saved apart from that life and death of Jesus. The passage from Hebrews makes it clear: “God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.” In their looking forward by faith, they were included in God’s covenant and made to be recipients of the promises even though the promises would not be fulfilled until the coming of Jesus.

(4) Now if all these people could be saved looking forward to the vague outline of the promises of God, how much more are we without excuse who can see it all very clearly in the rear-view mirror?

So, as we begin Hebrews 12, the writer brings the train of thought right on home to us. Since we can see so clearly what Jesus has done, it should:
(1) inspire us to throw off everything that hinders us.
(2) free us to throw off the sin that so easily entangles. (Those who have wrestled with some sin over which it seems impossible to get the victory know that this is no small thing—but, God’s covenant promise—fulfilled in Jesus’ sinless life, atoning death, and life-giving resurrection have the power—if we have the faith—to break the sin that so easily entangles.)
(3) empower us to run with endurance the race that is set before us.

Just as when the Letter to the Hebrews was written, so today we face circumstances and situations that discourage and depress us and keep us from being all that God wants us to be and accomplishing what he intends us to do. And so Hebrews 12:1-3 gives us some encouragement:
Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
Finally, in light of the example of Jesus set before us, the writer admonishes us in verse 3: “Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that (however heavy the burden, however strong the hindrances, however long the race) you will not grow weary and lose heart."
(This exposition forms a continuation of a look at The Letter to the Hebrews begun in the post entitled A Faith for All Seasons.)

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Microsoft Under Fire For Censoring China Blogs

This item may seem like a departure for a blog that usually focuses on the Gospel and efforts to proclaim it in our world. But I have mentioned in previous posts attacks by the Chinese government on Christians, particularly those who attempt to share their faith.

Now, according to an article in Computer World, Microsoft and other providers of internet services in China are helping the government there to censor news and blog discussions pertaining to the most basic issues of human rights:

"Putting itself in the middle of a major Web controversy, Microsoft acknowledged that its new MSN China Internet venture is censoring words such as "freedom," "democracy" and "human rights" on its free online journals."

Does this include censorship of religious ideas? Another article indicates that it does.

The article went on to add, "China represents the world's second-largest Internet market with 94 million users at the end of 2004, a number expected to rise to 134 million by the end of this year, according to official data."

If the concept of human rights is to have any sort of universally understood meaning, we cannot allow U.S. companies doing business in China to hide behind claims that they are simply abiding by the "laws, regulations and norms of each country" in which they operate, lest the denial of freedoms there lead to the erosion of freedoms everywhere.

You can contact any of these companies via their websites. Write and let them know you care: Microsoft, Yahoo, eBay,, InterActiveCorp, Sun Microsystems, Cisco Systems, Nortel Networks, Websense Inc.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

A New Exodus? Americans are Exiting Liberal Churches

Last week, I posted an article from Britain about the numerical decline in mainline Christian denominations and the contrast with churches that are energetic and growing (How to Get the Punters in the Pews, Monday, June 6, 2005). Now comes this column by Southern Baptist Seminary President, Albert Mohler, with news of a book documenting an outright exodus from liberal mainline churches in the U.S. When will they (we) learn?

A New Exodus? Americans are Exiting Liberal Churches
by Albert Mohler
The Christian Post

"We have figured out your problem. You're the only one here who believes in God." That statement, addressed to a young seminarian, introduces Dave Shiflett's new book, Exodus: Why Americans are Fleeing Liberal Churches for Conservative Christianity. The book is an important contribution, and Shiflett offers compelling evidence that liberal Christianity is fast imploding upon itself....
"Americans are vacating progressive pews and flocking to churches that offer more traditional versions of Christianity," Shiflett asserts. This author is not subtle, and he gets right to the point: "Most people go to church to get something they cannot get elsewhere. This consuming public--people who already believe, or who are attempting to believe, who want their children to believe--go to church to learn about the mysterious Truth on which the Christian religion is built. They want the Good News, not the minister's political views or intellectual coaching. The latter creates sprawling vacancies in the pews. Indeed, those empty pews can be considered the earthly reward for abandoning heaven, traditionally understood...."

...Citing a study published in 2000 by the Glenmary Research Center, Shiflett reports that the Presbyterian Church USA declined by 11.6 percent over the previous decade, while the United Methodist Church lost "only" 6.7 percent and the Episcopal Church lost 5.3 percent. The United Church of Christ was abandoned by 14.8 percent of its members, while the American Baptist Churches USA were reduced by 5.7 percent.

On the other side of the theological divide, most conservative denominations are growing. The conservative Presbyterian Church in America [PCA] grew 42.4 percent in the same decade that the more liberal Presbyterian denomination lost 11.6 percent of its members. Other conservative denominations experiencing significant growth included the Christian Missionary Alliance (21.8 percent), the Evangelical Free Church (57.2 percent), the Assemblies of God (18.5 percent), and the Southern Baptist Convention (five percent).

As quoted in Exodus, Glenmary director Ken Sanchagrin told the New York Times that he was "astounded to see that by and large the growing churches are those that we ordinarily call conservative. And when I looked at those that were declining, most were moderate or liberal churches. And the more liberal the denomination, by most people's definition, the more they were losing...."

Read the whole story.

The column is also available on VirtueOnline, and I have archived a copy here.

Monday, June 13, 2005

"We Want God"

Did you hear about the ACLU objecting to plans by Harris County officials in Texas to name a new park after the late Pope John Paul II? According to the Houston Chronicle, the ACLU believes it is inappropriate to name a park after a religious leader. Now let me get this straight: No matter how significant a world leader someone has been, the ACLU says he cannot honored with a public monument if he happens to have been a member of the clergy??? It seems to me that this constitutes discrimination based on one's occupation, which is illegal, and discrimination against someone based on his religion, which is also illegal. But let's face it: these days the ACLU seems to exist for no other reason than to attack Christians and Christianity.

"We Want God"

Communists tried eradicating Christianity in Poland. All that changed after a historic visit by John Paul II, after he had been Pope only eight months. I was unaware of this significant event until I read a powerful and eloquent appreciation of John Paul II's legacy, written by Peggy Noonan. If you want to see a picture of John Paul II's true greatness and discover an amazing piece of history, read this article and enjoy. If the link above to the article on Opinion Journal doesn't work, you can also access the article here.

As the people of Poland said to the Communists, so the people of the United States need to let the ACLU know, "We Want God!"

Sunday, June 05, 2005

How to get the punters in the pews

From the UK comes this advice on church growth:

How to get the punters in the pews

Colin Sedgwick
Saturday June 4, 2005
The Guardian

Can anything halt the numerical decline going on presently in most mainline Christian denominations? Whenever this question is asked, one obvious clue to an answer seems to get missed. It is a fact that in every part of the country - in cities, towns, villages - there are churches that are cheerfully bucking the trend.

Very likely, there is a church near you which is energetic and growing. It could belong to any denomination; but who cares that much about denominations these days? Would it not make sense for those concerned about numerical decline to have a good look at these churches?

Generalisations are dangerous, but they are likely to have several things in common. For one thing, these churches tend to lay stress on the Bible as both authoritative and relevant - something that needs to be engaged with, not simply read and then left. This results in down-to-earth, intelligible preaching which contains a message worth hearing (even if you disagree with it) and a challenge worth considering (it is better to be offended than bored). There is meat, substance.

These churches emphasise the business of prayer as a central aspect of both personal and church life. They offer midweek prayer groups, and encourage extemporary, as well as set, prayers. Very likely, gatherings for prayer will be stressed as the most important weekly event.

These churches take seriously the business of penetrating their neighbourhood with social activities, such as toddler clubs, youth clubs, old people's groups, evangelistic courses, leafleting, door-knocking, specially arranged "seeker-friendly" services. In short, they are not so arrogant as to assume they have a divine right to exist.

These churches make a real effort to ensure that what goes on in their public gatherings is clearly explained, so the outsider is not made to feel excluded or foolish. He, or she, is told when it is appropriate to stand or to kneel, on what page a Bible passage or prayer may be found, precisely how communion is administered and who is welcome to receive it - not to mention basic things like where to find the toilets or who to deliver the children to for Sunday school.

Children are taken seriously. They are not there on sufferance, shushed into stillness at the slightest wriggle. There may well be a slot in the service when attention is given directly to them and interactive participation encouraged; even if not, they are catered for in separate groups by qualified adults.

Teenagers, likewise, are welcomed and made to feel part of what is going on. They are given the opportunity to contribute to the life of the church by, say, bringing in their musical talents. Account is taken of their tastes when services are put together - there is no insistence on a single musical idiom, so old hymns and modern worship songs can sit happily side by side. There is no tyranny of the organ, nor of the guitar, come to that.

The artificial distinction between "sacred" and "secular" is not recognised. You can wear your Sunday best if you like, but there is no obligation to do so; this is a meeting with God, not a fashion parade, and he looks in people's hearts and not on their exteriors. So jeans and jumpers are fine. Clergy will very likely be dressed informally to emphasise the priestly nature of the whole congregation.

In short, churches that buck the trend see themselves as communities, or families, not simply as buildings where people gather for an hour and then leave to go back into "normal" life. God is taken seriously but not solemnly; worshippers are participants, not spectators; there is silence, but also noise and laughter; there is structure, but also informality.

Churches like this take time to grow and build. Changes have to be embraced, traditions set aside, prejudices exposed. But with patience, prayer, love and goodwill the transformation can take place.

• Colin Sedgwick is pastor of the Lindsay Park Baptist church, Kenton, Middlesex

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

A Faith for All Seasons

32And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and the prophets, 33who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, 34quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. 35Women received back their dead, raised to life again. Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. 36Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. 37They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—38the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.

39These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. 40God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect. (Hebrews 11:32-40, NIV)

In these few verses from Hebrews we see five very important points about faith:

1. Through our faith God can and does work miracles and acts of providence to bring practical earthly help and deliverance to his people.

The preceding verses in Hebrews 11 tell is some of the miracles that were accomplished by faith: dividing of the Red Sea (vs 29), the fall of the walls of Jericho (vs 30), shutting of the mouths of lions when Daniel was in the lions' den (vs 33), and the quenching of fire by Shadrach and Meshach and Abednego when they walked through Nebuchadnezzar's furnace (vs 34). All these are what we usually call miracles. God breaks into the normal way things work and, in an extraordinary way, makes them work differently. And in every case here the people of God were helped or rescued from danger or death.

The first point is that God can and does work through faith to do miracles and acts of providence to bring practical, earthly help and deliverance to his people. Here's the second point.

2. God does not always work miracles and acts of providence for our deliverance from suffering; sometimes by faith God sustains his people through sufferings.

Another way to put it would be to say that having true faith in God is no guarantee of comfort and security in this life. Now it is absolutely crucial for you to see that the miseries God's people sustained in verses 35-38 come by faith, not because of unbelief. We see this in two ways. First, in verse 33, notice that the list begins with ". . . who by faith conquered kingdoms . . . etc.," and without a break continues into all the miseries of verses 35-38. Other people, still living by faith "were tortured . . . and others experienced mockings and scourgings, etc." All this misery is received and endured by faith.

In other words the suffering and misery and destitution and torture of God's people in verses 35-38 are not owing to God's disapproval. Rather God's approval is resting on them because of their faith. The miseries and sufferings were endured, not diminished, by faith. From the first two points the third follows.

3. Having faith is not the ultimate determining factor in whether you suffer or escape, God is—God's sovereign will and wisdom and love.

To me this is immensely comforting. It is a great relief to know that there is a higher explanation for my pain or my pleasure than whether I have enough faith. Would it not be horrible to have to believe that on top of all your suffering you had to add this: it must be because I lack faith.

And so we do not look into the face of the dying and say, or imply: "If you had faith, you would live." We will say, rather, "Trust in God, because whether you live by faith or die by faith God will take care of those who trust in him. To live is Christ, and to die is gain."

And ultimately, it is God, and not we, who decides when and how we die. He has his purposes. They are hidden from us. And having faith means we trust in God anyway and know he is good. Which leads to point four.

4. The common feature of the faith that escapes suffering and the faith that endures suffering is this: both of them involve believing that God himself is better than what life can give to you now, and better than what death can take from you later.

In other words, faith is utterly in love with all that God will be for us beyond the grave. Faith loves God more than life. Faith loves God more than family. Faith loves God more than job or retirement plans or ministry or writing books or building the dream house or making the first million. Faith says, "Whether God handles me tenderly or gives me over to suffering, I love him. He is my reward (11:6), the builder of the city I long for (11:10), the treasure beyond the riches of Egypt (11:26), and the possession that surpasses all others and abides for ever (10:34)." This leads to one final point.

5. Those who love God more than life and suffer willingly—awaiting something better than what this earth can offer—are God's great gifts to the world.

Look at verse 37 and 38, ". . . they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute [no promise of shopping sprees or cool clothes], afflicted, ill-treated—men [people] of whom the world was not worthy—wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground." What does it mean that the world was not worthy of these obscure, destitute, unsightly, seemingly-cursed people? What does that mean - the world was not worthy of them? It means they were a gift to the world (just as God gave his Son Jesus to the world) and the world does not deserve it.

Many things in this life are utterly opposite from the way they seem. And here is one of them. When the precious children of God are permitted to suffer and be rejected and mistreated and go destitute, afflicted and ill-treated, God is giving a gift to the world. He is gracing the world. He is shedding his love abroad in the world. Because in those who suffer and die in the unshakable assurance of hope in God, the world is given a message and a picture: "The Lord himself is better than life. Turn, therefore, and believe."