Don’t Trust Someone Who Says They Have a Perfect Understanding of Scripture (because they don’t)

DTA

A thousand apologies in advance if this post is disjointed, rambling, or otherwise incoherent. Due to a busy schedule, it has been literally months in the making.

I actually did not come up with the wording of the title of this article. It was Phil Johnson of Grace To You who said it in a radio broadcast when talking about a young man he was in correspondence with, who made this very claim. The young man said to Brother Johnson that he was writing a book about such and such, and he disagreed with him. He denied any need for correction and rejected it when offered to him. After all, he did say he has a perfect understanding of Scripture. I say he was writing about such and such because I can’t quite remember what Brother Johnson said it was about, but apparently, he was blatantly wrong, and not only that, he was trying to publish how wrong he was on this certain doctrine to the entire world. He was (and it is assumed, still is) wrong at the top of his lungs. I suppose a good alternate title for this article could be– “An Exhortation to Humility in Interpreting and discussing Scripture”

First: Two Extremes

Before the exhortation should come some context would be helpful. There are two extremes, or ditches, one can fall into as it relates to scripture interpretation. Both are ungodly and worldly. One is to be so very theologically or interperetively “humble” that you are squishy. The other is to be so very dogmatic that you are right, and there is no possibility you could be wrong, so hang any counsel from anyone else, especially if they are in disagreement. To say they are ditches or extremes, though makes it sound as if the correct view is somewhere in between.

It is, and it isn’t. Practically, the correct view is between the soft and hard view. However, there is no in between when it is pride and a false humility, which is also pride. Both are the same sin. In practice, it isn’t the road in between. It is a different road entirely.

The Theological and Doctrinal Jelly Sack

The “soft” approach, or false humility, is perhaps the worse of these two approaches to treating scripture, and subsequently, theology and doctrine. I say it is the worse of the two because it is the most disingenuous of the two. It purports humility, but practically is very proud.

This approach is often utilized by theological liberals and socinians. Since liberals are supposed to be the “nice guys,” it is necessary that in exercising pride, they be as deceptive as possible. The fact of the matter is that all humans are savage beasts, whether conservative or liberal. However, this deceptive approach baits people in by sounding very nice and open to everything, while espousing dangerous teachings and their teachers who are either hirelings or, worse yet, ravenous wolves. They believe abandoning standards communicated clearly in scripture is actually the biblical standard. They believe that since they are following the spirit of Jesus’ ministry, the actual words of Christ Himself doesn’t really matter. Besides, scripture was written by men, and is not as reliable as “personal revelation.” Such is the case when covenants and confessions and creeds are abandoned in the name of “diversity.”

I say hang their notion of diversity. We need unity.

The Theological and Doctrinal Fence Post

The “hard” approach, much like a brick or stone wall, is like a fence post (fence posts cannot be convinced of much).  I only use this term because in the self aggrandizing minds of these folks, brick and stone walls may connote unmoving strength, so let’s call them fence posts. They aren’t just any fence post though, lest they think they’re being compared to a good, strong corner post, used to stretch a six strand barbed wire fence. They are rotton wooden posts that aren’t even good for holding up any wire. They are utterly worthless, they stand alone, and if you argue with one, you won’t get anywhere at all.

This kind is so proud, they don’t even make an attempt at hiding their pride behind a lie. They openly and adamantly reject anyone offering a different insight than their own, especially if someone is biblically seeking to correct them in one of their faults.

These are the people who would claim perfect understanding of scripture, or at least claim the capability to potentially gain a perfect understanding in this life. They can argue using Scripture, though only by accepting the verses they can agree with, while wrenching verses out of context they find impossible to reconcile with their flawed views. Oddly enough, these might also abandon covenants, confessions, and creeds. Some are apt to write their own doctrinal statement, rejecting a biblical confession belonging to their own church, association, or denomination. I’m not knocking writing a confession of one’s own, that’s how they were done in the past, either by writing a confession as a new ministry or group of churches, as a person in bonds of persecution answering accusers, or as a summary or clarification of  a previous confession.  If you’re working with something that is already good, though, why change it? These confessions help us to submit to the authority of our church and to the authority of scripture, not of our vain minds. Ideally, they should eliminate pride in oneself.

And Now, the Feature Presentation.

“1LORD, my heart is not haughty, nor mine eyes lofty: neither do I exercise myself in great matters, or in things too high for me. 2Surely I have behaved and quieted myself, as a child that is weaned of his mother: my soul is even as a weaned child. 3Let Israel hope in the LORD from henceforth and for ever.” Psalm 131

To begin, perhaps a bit of context is nessecary. This psalm is one of a series of psalms called psalms of ascent, or psalms of degrees. People. They were sang by pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem for the feasts, or by the worshippers and priests on their way up the steps of the temple. Considering the length of each psalm in the group, they were also likely psalms taught to children at home, or as devotions for such events as approaching Jerusalem and the Temple.

This psalm in particular focuses on child-likeness (not childishness), and teaches a very important attitude to have before God and man. It is a statement of child like humility. It instills this attitude in children who are learning these psalms. It is a proclamation to those taking their families to Jerusalem for the feast. Perhaps more importantly, for the men in the priesthood, it showed them the same as they approached the temple.

We are told likewise elsewhere in scripture, to be meek like children. This meekness surely doesn’t include a high opinion of oneself. In fact, I believe that you’ll find some of the highest level theologians never really consider themselves masters, but always students of the scriptures.

I, in no way, want to be the one to wear a badge labeled “Mr. Humble,” so I’ll just say I know a guy who can wear that badge and I try to be like him. There are issues that are clear in scripture that are fundamental to the Christian Faith, which only heretics deny. There are also things like baptism and eschatology that are also clear, which have no bearing on salvation. I suggest these things are important, and would affect which church I’m a member of, but it’s okay if a Presbyterian is wrong on this, or if the non-denominational (Baptist crossed with Assemblies of God) is wrong on that. What is important is that we agree on the basic doctrines that make Christianity what it is, whether you’re a Calvinist, Arminian, or Molinist.

To Conclude…

When it comes to doctrinal issues, many of us are either very proud, very ignorant, or both. We are proud because, “I’m me, and I don’t believe anything that is wrong! There’s no amount of exegesis that will persuade me of this biblical truth. I’ll misquote and take as much scripture out of context as I please! I’m right, and if we differ, then you have your place with the devil!”

Otherwise, we are ignorant, which I believe is a majority of Christians who say, “Well, it has to be true- my granny, or my dad, or brother whistle britches believes that way! Surely they can’t be wrong, and if you quote that verse one more time, you’ll insult my dead grandparents’ faith, and I’ll rip your throat out. But hey! Let’s just agree to disagree!”

Of course, there’s the ignorant who are proud of it who say, “It doesn’t really matter what the Bible says about that. We are on the right side of history here, and this is how we attract people to our movement. Now, how ‘bout a Fortnite tournament and some pizza to help you forget your serious doctrinal question. Have this album from Bethel or Hillsong United!”

 

When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor…and Yourself (A book review)

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What if most people get poverty all wrong? What if the way we try to alleviate poverty makes things worse for everyone?

Several years ago, when my sister came to visit on a college break, she talked about community development and poverty in a way that mesmerised me. She described poverty as being about broken relationships and poverty alleviation as being about restoring those relationships. She talked about the need to differentiate between relief, rehabilitation, and development and the disastrous results when we don’t.

All these thoughts came from her studies in Community Development at Covenant College. Her (now former) professors are some of the world’s leading experts on poverty alleviation. So I decided to read the book her professors wrote: When Helping Hurts by Mr. Steve Corbett and Dr. Brian Fikkert. I was blown away by their insights, and it revolutionized the way I viewed poverty. To this day, I regularly think about principles in their book, which have effected the way I approach people, theology, social ills, and politics. Recently, I decided it was time to re-read it, except this time I took notes. (Which makes it much easier for me to write this book review. 😉)

Before we begin, I will note that this book is written primarily to North American Christians, though certainly anyone could benefit. It also acknowledges the fact that most North American Christians are some of the wealthiest people in the world, even if not all are wealthy by American standards. However, I’m aware that some of my readers may themselves have experienced or be experiencing poverty. For those in that category, I hope this book review can be an encouragement.

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The Book’s Purpose

Authors Corbett and Fikkert begin with the assertion that the North American Church is composed of some of the wealthiest people ever to live. Conversely, 40% of the world population struggles even to eat everyday. This book was written because North American Christians, as a whole, are failing to adequately care about an address poverty in North America and in the rest of the world. It was also written because when North American Christians DO attempt poverty alleviation, it often makes worse the very problems they are trying to solve by applying simplistic solutions TO the poor instead of working WITH the poor, thereby perpetuating shame amongst the poor and god-complexes amongst those trying to help the poor.

The call, then, is to care about and do more for poverty alleviation AND to do it in a way that gets to the root of issues, while neither hurting the poor nor ourselves in the process. As the Apostle John writes in 1 John 3:17, “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?” It is imperative for Christians to care about poverty.

Why Should Christians Care About Poverty?

Christians are called to care for God’s creation and to participate in spreading God’s kingdom IN A HOLISTIC MANNER. In other words, though personal piety and the preaching of the gospel are VITAL, they are not the sum total of what Christians are Christians are to be about. In the words of Tim Keller, “The kingdom [of Jesus] is the renewal of the whole world through the entrance of supernatural forces. As things are brought back under Christ’s rule and authority, they are restored to health, beauty, and freedom.” Jesus died to reconcile us to God, BUT ALSO to reconcile us to one another and to creation.

Before the 20th century, Christian’s led the way in ministering to the poor in both physical and spiritual ways. This changed in the 1930s when evangelicals battled theological liberals over core doctrinal beliefs. At this time, because of its supposed connection to theological liberalism, evangelicals largely abandoned the poor. The shift was so dramatic, it has been called “The Great Reversal.” (It should be noted that this happened decades before Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty,” which evangelicals sometimes blame for the church’s retreat from poverty alleviation efforts.) In other words, throughout much of the history of the North American Church, theologically-conservative Christians were deeply and practically concerned about the poor.

What is Poverty?

How you answer this question will have profound effects on how you IDENTIFY poor people, what you BELIEVE about them, and HOW YOU SEEK ADDRESS THEIR SITUATION. If you believe poverty comes from lack of knowledge, you will want to EDUCATE the poor. If you believe poverty is a result of oppression, you will seek JUSTICE through social and legal means. If poverty comes from sinful and unwise choices, you will share the GOSPEL and truths about Christian living. If you believe poverty is due to lack of financial resources, you will donate MONEY. (Does this remind anyone else of the divergent ways Republicans and Democrats speak about and seek to address poverty?)

Brian Myers, a Christian development leader defines poverty in the following way: “Poverty is the result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable. Poverty is the absence of shalom in all its meanings.” Corbett and Fikkert echo the sentiment by describing poverty as being about broken relationships with God, with self, with others, and/or with creation. When these relationships are intact and functioning in a healthy way, people are able to fulfill their purpose AND provide for themselves.

An important aspect of these definitions is the realization that ALL of us are poor in some way. All of us need to have relationships restored to healthy functioning. “One of the major premises of this book is that until we embrace our mutual brokenness, our work with low-income people is likely to do far more harm than good.” (Page 61) This cuts to the heart of the god-complexes that many American Christians possess. ALL of us are broken, and ALL of us need restoration and healing, not just the obviously poor.

It is important, however, to specifically differentiate between the broad concept of poverty and material poverty in particular, which is a lack of material resources. Usually when people talk about poverty, this is the kind of poverty to which they are referring. Though the Bible uses “poor” in multiple senses (e.g. “poor in spirit”), the Bible’s called to help the poor is talking specifically about the materially poor.

Relief, Rehabilitation, and Development

One of the most important components of poverty alleviation is rightly differentiating between relief, rehabilitation, and development. The authors assert that one of the biggest problems when North American Christian try to alleviate poverty is the application of relief principles to rehabilitation or development situations. This might look like building a person a house while they sit, able-bodied, watching. So what’s the difference?

RELIEF addresses immediate needs when a person or group of people are incapable of meeting their own needs. This might occur immediately after a natural disaster or in the cases of mentally disabled homeless people, the very old, the very sick, and the very young. In cases such as these, relief is given to the poor with little participation from the poor themselves. Situations requiring relief are not the norm, but they do exist and should be dealt with quickly. Relief should be immediate, practical, rare, and temporary.

REHABILITATION begins “after the bleeding has stopped” and its goal is to restore the person or community to their pre-crisis level of functioning. In this stage, poverty alleviation happens in conjunction WITH the poor.

DEVELOPMENT then seeks to restore both the helpers and the helped to full levels of flourishing in their relationships with God, self, others, and creation. This also happens in partnership WITH poor.

One of the most important components of rehabilitation and development is “asset assessment.” This means that instead of starting with what the poor lack, the goal is to participate in analyzing the resources the poor ALREADY HAVE. This is called “asset-based community development” which is in opposition to “needs-based community development.” The goal is to evaluate the resources, skills, abilities, ideas, and solutions of the affected population, using these as the basis for facilitating poverty alleviation. How are their communities already organized? What programs or organizations are already in place to address these needs? What skills and resources do the poor already have? This process should be done in concert WITH those needing help, which in itself starts to restore a proper relationship with self as it encourages a sense of competence, self-esteem, and empowerment.

Other principles of good relief, rehabilitation, and development include the following. When possible, allow LOCAL organizations to help the affected community, perhaps partnering with them to assist their efforts. Start by taking care of the MOST VULNERABLE PEOPLE and the MOST IMMEDIATE NEEDS, and do it in a fair and just way. Those assisting in poverty alleviation should be adequately trained both in their worldview (no paternalism; believing in the dignity of the poor; believing that God is already at work amongst the poor) and in the skills needed to do the work required. And finally, generally speaking, what people CAN do for themselves, they SHOULD do for themselves; feeling this sense of power and responsibility is actually PART OF THE PROCESS of restoring the broken relationships cause poverty.

Applications

After examining basic principles, Corbett and Fikkert turn to specific applications of these principles: short-term missions, U.S. material poverty, and global material poverty. I find it fascinating to see their philosophy applied in practical ways.

Short-term Missions

Having grown up in Southeast Asia, I myself have seen some bizarre things associated with short-term missions. From the arrogance of missionaries to the irresponsible use of funds. From culturally-insensitive behavior to paternalistic views of the local people.

But how can short-term missions be done well? Corbett and Fikkert suggest several practical ideas. First, make sure the host organization and local community are the ones initiating the request for help and are doing so in a way that is in line with good development principles. Along with this, those who will be going on the trip should have a clear understanding of what they will do and not do. Second, when recruiting team members, choose people who understand the purpose is less about saving the world and more about partnership and learning. It’s good if those interested in participating have already shown a heart for outreach and ministry in their local settings. Third, have adequate pre-field training that teaches some of the basic principles in this book including emphasizing that we are all poor. These conversations should continue WHILE ON THE MISSION TRIP and for A YEAR following the trip. Fourth, each member of the team should be required to pay part of their own expenses, perhaps raising an equal amount of money to donate to long-term missions or local development organizations. (Local organizations and long-term missionaries are generally much better equipped to make a lasting impact.)

US Material Poverty

What about in the United States? In the political arena, people often reference poverty, perhaps critiquing the way “the other side” deals with it. So what do Corbett and Fikkert have to say? In their view, the goal of material poverty alleviation is: “working to reconcile the four foundational relationships so that people can fulfill their callings of glorifying God by working and supporting themselves and their families with the fruit of that work.” Obstacles to this include BROKEN SYSTEMS and BROKEN INDIVIDUALS. Broken systems may include racism, classism, and difficulty accessing safe and affordable housing, adequate education, and basic health care. Broken individuals may lack a healthy view of themselves or knowledge of how to better their situation. The exact contributing factors will vary by situation.

To address material poverty in the United States, it’s important to implement a relational, participatory, and developmental approach. In other words, relief is not (usually) what is needed; rehabilitation or development is. This means that the materially poor should participate in their journey towards restored relationships and providing for themselves.

There will generally be several components to poverty alleviation. Often, the materially poor can benefit from the development of soft skills (such as a good work ethic, social skills, dependability, communication), hard skills (related to a specific vocation), financial education, and worldview training. It may also be appropriate to connect them with government programs such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, which enables low-income workers to get tax credits for every hour they work; this, combined with a minimum wage salary may enable a family to live above the poverty line. Non-government organizations may be helpful in making available Individual Development Account Programs, which reward monthly savings via matching. One such program does a two-to-one match for every dollar saved.

Global Material Poverty

Global poverty is a huge issue. 2.6 billion people live on less than $2 a day. Economists believe that the long-term solution is to increase the number of large manufacturing firms. Unfortunately, there just aren’t enough being started, which means there are not enough jobs. As a result, many people turn to farming or small businesses to support themselves. This is challenging for those in poverty because they lack capital and/or access to loans. The exception may be loan sharks, who routinely take advantage of poor people.

Enter the micro-financing revolution! Dr. Muhammad Yunus, a Nobel laureate and economics professor, started a bank in Bangladesh to facilitate loans for poor people. Since it began in 1976, 7.58 million poor people have taken out loans from it for a total of $7.4 billion.

Through micro-financing, poor people are voluntarily put into borrowing groups and provide capital for other group members to take out small loans with a regimented repayment plan. In this system, poor people are coming together to help themselves and each other, and there is high accountability and motivation for loan repayment. While the number of large-scale manufacturing jobs are insufficient at present, micro-financing can be key to helping alleviate global poverty. However, the main disadvantage is that it focuses primarily on the material aspects of poverty.

Corbett and Fikkert work for a Christian development organization called the Chalmers Center for Economic Development. They have developed curricula to be used in conjunction WITH micro-financing that enables a more comprehensive approach to poverty alleviation. It includes business training, information on health, financial teaching, and worldview education (focusing on the four key relationships as well as the principles of dignity, stewardship, and discipline). This way, poor people are provided material resources to start small businesses WHILE gaining skills and support in other areas as well.

There are many ways that the North American Church can support micro-financing ventures globally. They can encourage and observe existing micro-financing efforts. They can subsidize training costs. They can facilitate training of those starting micro-financing ventures. They can donate to the evangelistic components of micro-financing institutions. They can financially invest in “business as missions” ventures. They can advocate for and promote organizations that use micro-financing. And they can pray for all the above.

Response

With so much information in this book, the authors then turn to what the proper response is, both for individuals and for communities.

Individual

Individuals, first of all, are called to repentance, if such repentance is necessary. Repentance for failure to care for the poor. Repentance for paternalistic attitudes and behaviors. Repentance for being disconnected from the full implications of Christ’s renewal of creation. “Without such repentance, our efforts to help the poor will continue to be characterized by providing material resources to the poor, rather than walking with them in humble and relational ways as we call on King Jesus to fix the root causes of both of our poverties.” (page 248)

Community

Corbett and Fikkert suggest a process whereby communities can mobilize together to address material property. “The goal of the process is to create a ‘community partnership,’ a group of individuals, associations (including churches), and institutions that cooperate to use the assets of the community to solve problems and to bring positive change to the community, i.e., to pursue ‘development.'”

The book recommends the following general process. First, interview all parties in the community. Second, identify community leaders, including those within the materially poor community. Third, form a team of identified leaders and conduct more interviews amongst the materially poor community. Fourth, choose a specific issue to begin addressing, one that is likely to be an easy success. Fifth, research and assess community assets, and begin the project. Sixth, evaluate the progress and celebrate successes. Finally, decide what is next; should the community partnership pick a different issue to work on or dig deeper into the current issue? Should the community partnership expand to include others or should it stay the same? In these ways, communities can pool their resources and expertise to address real problems in a way that honors the dignity, capabilities, and responsibilities of all involved.

My Reflections

When I first read this book about 4 years ago, I was fascinated! I was also grieved to realize my own wrong beliefs and attitudes about poverty. Honestly, this was one of those books that shifted my worldview–a game changer. It opened my eyes to the idea that problems in society can be because of broken individuals AND broken systems. This was a paradigm shift for me, which ended up preparing me to learn about American racism, which I wrote about here.

Growing up as a missionary kid in Southeast Asia, I could definitely relate to some of the critiques of short-term missions. I’ve seen short-term teams be culturally insensitive and prideful. I’ve been angered and grieved over all the money that goes towards short-term missions when indigenous organizations and long-term missionaries often suffer from lack of funds. Reading this book helped to explain my unease as well as help me see a positive way short-term missions can be done.

I’ve also seen tastes of global poverty, and I sometimes wonder at the immense wealth in the US (and the way it is often taken for granted). I remember when I was in graduate school studying elementary education, I visited a local public school with my classmates. We sat in a reading resource room to debrief our experience after classroom observations. Every single wall in the classroom was filled with reading material, and at one point, I started sobbing because of the immense resources that surrounded us. I wondered if the people at that school had any idea how blessed they were. Along with this, I myself have been challenged towards more thankfulness and less entitlement.

And finally, I was challenged to donate not just to missions but to community development and poverty alleviation efforts as I realized the integral role they play in the holistic spread of Christ’s kingdom.

In conclusion, I highly recommend this book–particularly to North American Christians, but to others as well. It changed my worldview in good ways and has empowered me with knowledge to see people more accurately and to express practical care for others in productive, loving ways.

Resources

The authors of the book head up an organization called Chalmers Center for Economic Development. That would be a good resource for learning more about community development for my best practices in biblical perspective. (website) (Facebook).

I’m still learning about good community development organizations, but if you’re looking to check out specific organizations or donate to their work, here are a few I recommend. Food For the Hungry (website) and Care of Creation Kenya (website) are both good. Mission organizations I am particularly fond of are Wycliffe Bible Translators (website) and Mission to the World (website). (I grew up as a WBT/MTW missionary kid, and I think both of these organizations are excellent! 😉)

What have been your experiences with poverty or poverty alleviation? What organizations do you know off that are doing good work?

~Hannah 🌸

The World is Not Enough // 1 John 2:15-17

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Text: 1 John 2:15-17

Prayer of Illumination:

Almighty and Everlasting God, we are tired. We are worn down by the cares of this world, but Lord, you have told us to cast all of our cares on You because You care for us. Lord, we ask that you relieve us these cares so that we can faithfully carry your yoke. Your yoke is easy and Your burden is light. This morning, we ask that You would open up Your word to us so that it would set us free from the bondage of the world, and that we can live freely in the world that You’ve made for us. In the name of Your Son, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

Introduction:

What do you think of when you think of worldliness? Do you think of wild parties? Do you think of debauchery? Do you think of rock music? What do you think worldliness really is?

Are you really safe from it just because you distance yourself from those things?

Years ago, in some churches, mostly Baptist and Pentecostal churches, when you became a member you had to commit to not dancing. You had to commit to not smoking, and in some congregations you also had to commit to not playing cards and using dice.

The problem is as long as we limit worldliness to what “those people” do “out there” then we’ll never stop and examine the worldliness that we’re actually harboring in our own hearts.

  • We’re not safe from worldliness just because we live out in the middle of nowhere where there’s more cows than people per capita.

Worldliness is more than what goes on “out there.” It’s bigger than that. It’s also what goes on, and I think as we examine the passage you’ll see what I mean.

Mixing Up Our Worlds (v. 15)

First of all, look at verse 15.

“Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world” – 1 John 2:15, NRSV

Now think about John 3:16.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” – John 3:16, NRSV

How can God love the world and then tell us not to love the world? What’s going on? It’s the same Greek word – ‘cosmos.’ John isn’t changing the word, so what’s the deal?

The deal is the usage for ‘world’ in John 3:16 is different than the usage for ‘world’ in the 1 John 2:15.

  1. The Human Race, at large in need of redemption. (John 3:16)
    We are called to love the same people that God loves. If God loves the world in this sense, then we should also love the world. It’s our mission field. It’s the place where God has planted us. The world has God’s fingerprints all over it because every single person is made in the image of God including the people that we wish weren’t.

    • If we can’t use our power to get people to do, to act, and think like we do, then we feel like we have to do something about it. And if we can’t do something about it then we just give up and assume that we’re better than they are. Of course, we never say that out loud because that’s not polite so instead of saying it out loud we just act like we’re better. Why? Because it makes us feel good. That’s the lust of the flesh. Anything that feeds our ego. Pagan Society that is opposed to Christ’s Lordship. (1 John 5:19)
      Jesus is reigning now. His reign isn’t something we have to wait for. 1 Corinthians 15:25-26 says that Christ must reign until He puts all enemies under His feet, and the enemy to be destroyed is death. Christ is the one with all power, and all the Lordship, but the problem is that the world doesn’t recognize it because the world is held under the captivity of who John calls the evil one.

      “We know that we are God’s children, and that the whole world lies under the power of the evil one.” – 1 John 5:19, NRSV
      Call him Satan, call him Old Scratch, call him the philosophical embodiment of evil, it doesn’t matter, it’s all the same. As long as the world ignores what is true about Jesus, namely that He is Lord whether they like it or not, then they’ll always be blind and they are responsible for their blindness.

      James Montgomery Boice writes that John’s use of ‘kosmos’ in this section is in its ethical sense: “The idea here is of the world of men in rebellion against God and therefore characterized by all that is in opposition to God. This is what we might call “the world system.” It involves the world’s values, pleasures, pastimes, and aspirations. John says of this world that the world lies in the grip of the evil one (1Jn 5:19), that it rejected Jesus when He came (Jn 1:10), that it does not know Him (1Jn 3:1), and consequently that it does not know and therefore also hates His followers (John 15:18,19, 20, 21; 17:14). It is in this sense that John speaks of the world in the passage before us.”

      Our problem is that we mix up our worlds. We tend to hate the John 3:16 world while loving the 1 John 5:19 world. We end up doing that falling into the temptations that John mentions and then when others don’t agree or share the same affections that we do, we hate them.

      If you don’t think you do this then just discuss politics with someone you disagree with. You quickly forget that the person you disagree with is made in the image of God.

      It’s true that you don’t have to agree with someone to love them, but if we’re all honest then I think sometimes we tend to have a little less respect for people who aren’t like us, and I think that’s a symptom of mixing up our worlds.
      We end up loving the 1 John 5:19 world, and hating the John 3:16 world because we get just as enraged or triggered as everybody else except in the opposite direction about opposite thing realizing that there’s ditches on both sides to avoid, and a whole world of people who need the hope that is within us regardless of what ditch they’re in.

      I think the Apostle John speaks about the things that keep us from loving the John 3:16 world.

      Temptations of the World (v. 16)

      Notice verse 16. I’m actually going to look at this verse from the King James so some of the wording may be more familiar to those of us who grew up under that translation.

      “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world.” – 1 John 2:16, KJV

      John gives us three things to look out for and he says that everything in the world, everything that is contained in a society that rebels against the rule and reign of Christ can be summed up in these three categories. And I’m actually going to start with the second of the three categories because I think this is where the downward spiral begins.

      The Lust of the Eyes – Attractions
      What looks good.

      Everything looks good when you’re on a diet. I know this because Brittany has decided to start a diet which means I’m also going on a diet. I’m told that I’ve chosen to go on this diet of my own free will and volition. I would appreciate your prayers during this trying time in my life.

      In August of 1986, Reader’s Digest published this little story: “A man was on a diet and struggling. He had to go downtown and as he started out, he remembered that his route would take him by the doughnut shop. As he got closer, he thought that a cup of coffee would hit the spot. Then he remembered his diet.

      That’s when he prayed, “Lord, if You want me to stop for a doughnut and coffee, let there be a parking place in front of the shop.” He said, “Sure enough, I found a parking place right in front—on my seventh time around the block!” As Robert Orben said, “Most people want to be delivered from temptation but would like it to keep in touch”

      Whenever you’re tempted, you’re always tempted by something that looks good at the moment. Think about compared this passage in James.

      “Blessed is anyone who endures temptation. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. 13No one, when tempted, should say, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one. 14But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; 15then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death.” – James 1:12-15, NRSV
      Sin always starts with desire, then desire leads to disobedience, and disobedience leads to death. That’s what James 1 says. It always begins with what we think looks good.

      • We always think about lust in terms of being something purely sexual, but sometimes there are things in life that we think look good that have nothing to do with sexuality, but they always have a trap door underneath them. There’s always bad ideas that disguise themselves as good ideas.

      The Lust of the Flesh – Appetites
      What feels good.

       

      • If lust isn’t always sexual, then this idea of lust of the flesh isn’t always physical.

       

      • Good Example: On 64, the speed limit is 60 so that means I usually drive between 65 and 70. However, sometimes I’m behind someone who insists on going 20 below the speed limit. It would probably make me feel good to give them a tap on their back bumper just to give them a little encouragement, but I know as soon as I do, they may want to check their breaks, and then that would create more harm than good.

      Sometimes there are things in life that we think will make us feel better, but in end they do damage to us.

      But those are the things we crave, right? That’s what our appetite wants. Our appetite is to feed our ego. Nothing feeds our ego more than power. We want to have power.

      • If we can’t use our power to get people to do, to act, and think like we do, then we feel like we have to do something about it. And if we can’t do something about it then we just give up and assume that we’re better than they are. Of course, we never say that out loud because that’s not polite so instead of saying it out loud we just act like we’re better. Why? Because it makes us feel good. That’s the lust of the flesh. Anything that feeds our ego.


      “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.”
      – Romans 12:3, NRSV


      The Pride of Life – Ambitions
      You hear me mention this a lot so I won’t spend a lot of time on it, but I think the American Dream is deceptive. I actually don’t think it’s a dream at all. It’s nightmare.

      Because what happens is that you start out working to make a living for you and your family which is good and honorable, but then when you realize that you’ve got a nice house, multiple cars in the driveway, and a whole bunch of other amenities you keep working even though it takes you away from your family, away from your community, away from the things that are really important because you want to keep up with the Jones’.


      • The Pride of Life is that we have to have more, more, and more, and then when you have enough it’s never really enough.

      • And I don’t think it matters where you are in society, I think at some point you have to ask yourself, “Is there anything in my life that I’m working to keep that I don’t need?” It doesn’t even have to be material things either. What’s the baggage that you’re hanging on to? What’s the biggest source of pride in your life?

        • Pride is the killer of Christian joy. Joy is all about our sense of security within our salvation, but pride is about what we’ve done, what we’ve accomplished. But in salvation, Paul says that there’s no room for boasting. You are saved by grace, not of yourselves, lest any man should boast. (Ephesians 2) If you want to separate yourself from real joy, from the joy that comes with your salvation, then allow pride to consume you.


      Alternatives to the World – Doing the Will of God (v. 17)

      Finally, notice verse 17 in our passage of 1 John 2. John gives us an alternative to the ways of the world.

      • If you’re following along in your bulletin outline the last point should say, “Alternatives to the World,” not “of the world.”


      “And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever.” – 1 John 2:17, NRSV

      There was a Christian comedian back in the 80’s who turned out to be a fraud, but he used to say something I thought was clever, he would say, “Pagans tell me all the time that Christianity is just a religion of do’s and don’t’s and I always tell them, ‘yeah, but if you spend your time doing the do’s, you won’t have time to do the don’t’s that you don’t need to do in the first place.’”

      I think that’s good practical advice, but like everything else, you have to see it in context.

      John tells us that those who do the will of God abide forever. Think about our passage this morning, 1 John 2:15-17, as a tall building. Well, like any good structure, it’s got to have a foundation.

      • By telling us to do the will of God, John tells us to aim high. Go to the very top of this building, but we can’t get to the top without starting the ground floor. The groundfloor of the building that John has given us is found right behind these verses in 1 John 2:12-14.

      “I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven on account of his name. 13I am writing to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I am writing to you, young people, because you have conquered the evil one. 14I write to you, children, because you know the Father. I write to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I write to you, young people, because you are strong and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one.” – 1 John 2:12-14, NRSV
      This is what your foundation is made of.

      You can do the will of God because your sins are forgiven, and because your sins are forgiven you know God as your Father, and because you know God as your Father, Satan is a defeated enemy.

      So, what’s John talking about when he’s talking about doing the will of God? He never specifically says what it is, but if you read the entirety of chapter 2, then I think you can conclude that “doing the will of God” comes down to three things:

      1. Having your sins forgiven

        1. “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; 2and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”
          – 1 John 2:1-2, NRSV

      2. Loving one another

        1. “Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light, and in such a person there is no cause for stumbling. 11But whoever hates another believer is in the darkness, walks in the darkness, and does not know the way to go, because the darkness has brought on blindness.”
          – 1 John 2:10-11, NRSV

      3. Doing what is right.

        1. “If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who does right has been born of him.” – 1 John 2:29, NRSV

      You may hear that and think, “Well, that’s really broad, he’s not giving us enough information.” Actually, that’s the point. John is giving you all the information you need.

      • This is good news because this means that Christianity isn’t as complicated as we want to make it out to be. We don’t have to go on some crusade. We don’t have to legislate people’s behavior. We just have to our sins forgiven, love God, love each other, and do what is right, and then let God do the rest.

      And you know what the best part is. That first one has already been done for us. Remember what John says, “Your sins are forgiven.”

      Conclusion

      If your sins are forgiven, then you have citizenship in a kingdom that is not of this world which means that the cares of this world do not belong to you. They are not yours to deal with. So, this morning if you feel weighed down, if you feel like you’ve spent too long worrying about things that don’t belong to you, if you feel like you would like to love Jesus more, then talk to Him this morning.

Escape from Monkey Hill

Monkey Hill

It has been three years since Allyson and I honeymooned in New Orleans. We had a great time eating our way through the French Quarter, learning to drive in a city of only ways, and forgetting that real life existed for only a few days. But as the exhaustive planner and lover of my wife, I decided to really go all out and take her on Allyson’s All Day Animal Adventure. See, Allyson loves animals and the zoo. If she could, she would go every day. But in New Orleans, you can buy a day pass and go t the insectarium, aquarium, and zoo for a discounted price. This is a top notch zoo with live exhibits where you can see and even touch the animals. We’re newlyweds and so of course poor. But this, I’m all over this; Day 3 of Husband Jay is going to kill it.

We arrived, only to wait in line for our passes to get stamped. Now we weren’t in line for a long time, probably fifteen minutes. But it was summer and the humidity was getting to all of us in line as we patiently stood in our Purgatorial Sweat Box. As Allyson and I are joking and kidding around, I saw the family in front of us. It’s a typical touristy family parents, two kids, and a grandparent; our fellow members of the sauna like queue. But about halfway through the line the older child began getting fussy. He was probably no more than six or seven. Now would I say that he was acting bad. He wasn’t throwing a tantrum or crying. He was just a bored, hot, child ready to get in to see the animals. So he’s hanging onto the dad, and just complaining. “How long is it going to be? I’m bored? Are we almost there? It’s hot today? What can we see first? Can I play Angry Birds?” You get the idea. But then he said the thing that really piqued my interest: I just want to go to Monkey Hill. Please can we go?

And he repeated it. For about two minutes straight.

Now Monkey Hill is actually quite famous. They built it in the 1930’s so that kids in New Orleans would know what a hill looks like. There’s a five story tree house, a wading pool, and kids often roll down the grass of the hill. It’s been there forever and kids of all ages still go ape for it. It is right in the middle of the zoo and so for parents it’s a great midway point to rest while kids play. However, after a while the dad had grown impatient about the Monkey Hill subject. Then he said it.

This father bent down to his son, mustering up all the kindness and tenderness in his voice. He ruffled his hair and said, “Brandon, I’ll tell you what. If you’re good, we’ll go to Monkey Hill.”

My heart sank. Not because this guy is a bad father. I don’t think he is. I’ve heard many parents say similar things. I get that I don’t get parenting decisions because I’m not one. That wasn’t my issue. But because in it I heard the legalism I had so often struggled with as a teen and younger adult. I heard all the legalism in that moment of “quid pro quo”

I think so often, I view God as this type of Father: one who looks at me and says, “Now Jay, if you act right, then I will come and save you. But you have to make sure that you have your act together in order to get the reward.” I struggle with viewing God from a place that if when I sin, He’s coming after me and mine to get me back. Or He’s causing bad things to happen because I wasn’t as faithful as I should’ve been. So then, what do I do? I try to grit and grind my way to holiness. I study the Catechism more, I sing out of the Psalter, I make sure that I’m listening to religious podcasts. But not out of a heart longing to know God or to worship him, but because I have to make sure I’m crossing things off my list.

When I was at CBC, I made sure that I had whatever new book I was reading at the time in my backpack and read before class. Not because I just loved reading, but because I wanted people to see my Older Brother self reading it. I wanted people to go “that Jay Sawrie is just so dedicated”. I made sure all of my tweets were deep theological truths, because that’s what I thought would be God pleasing. That was the deal. I was good, so I get to go to Monkey Hill. I was good, so now God doesn’t have a reason to ditch me when I sin. I was faithful and pious, so God now owes me to never leave.

But God’s faithfulness to us isn’t “quid pro quo” but rather “it is finished” faithfulness. God’s promise to keep us is based on nothing that we have brought, are bringing, or will bring to the table. Christ died for future sins too; so that now whatever we do wind up bringing is still going to the trash heap. Our Pharisaical righteousness doesn’t earn us our place or earn our keep. We don’t get in by faith and stay in by faithfulness. When God looks at us, He sees Christ. He actively obeys and then gives us His obedience for our disobedience. He works, we get the reward. He takes the spanking, we get to go outside and play. Any attempt to add to the works of Christ by our own bootstrap pulled attempts, really just scream “Eh I’ll do it myself”.

But here’s the ironic thing. As we made the turn in the zoo and approached the Hill, right at the entrance was the sign: Monkey Hill Closed for Repairs. No one got into Monkey Hill that day. The promise of legalism is so empty, that even when we strive and work so that God will delight in us, all we find is the broken promise that this wasn’t the way after all. Legalism only leads to tears and disappointment. Because then we feel cheated. We believe that God now owes us something in return for all the merit that we brought Him. But God has not promised us anything that He has not already provided in Christ.

So then, let’s keep looking to Christ. Let us see Him and taste of Him in the Sacraments. Let us run to Him by faith. Keep hearing and believing the Gospel.

Three Guiding Principles for the Church

Sometimes it’s good to get back to basics. Doing so may reveal that we’ve gotten off track. Or it may affirm and empower us in the way in which we are already going.

With so many voices and competing truth claims pulling us this way and that, it behooves us to recall what it is that we are to be about as Christians, both individually and collectively. And when we turn to the Bible, God has given three main guiding principles. They are:

  • The Creation Mandate
  • The Great Commandment
  • The Great Commission

Let’s look at each briefly.

The Creation Mandate

Otherwise known as “The Cultural Mandate,” this is the nickname given to Genesis 1:28 which says: “God blessed them and said to them,Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.'” Christians throughout the ages have seen this as a call to cultural, familial, and societal participation. It calls people to get married and have children. To work to provide for yourself. To contribute to society. To pursue creative endeavors. To grow food. To take care of animals. To build cities. To seek the good of your community.

These ideas are echoed elsewhere in Scripture. To The Jewish exiles, the prophet Jeremiah passes on a message from God, urging them to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (Jeremiah 29:7) The Apostle Paul also reminds the Thessalonian church: “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.” (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12)

This guiding principle tells us that God assigns dignity to the mundane, to the normal parts of life. God does not call us only to evangelism or only to loving one another; he calls us also to work in the contexts of creation and our families and communities.

The Great Commandment

We see this spoken by Jesus in Luke 10:27. “He answered, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” It is the call to be guided by love in all we do–first by love for God and then by love of other people. We love God by learning about him, using our energy to serve him, and communing with him. 1st Corinthians 13 lists ways that we can love our fellow humans–by treating them with kindness, being patient, assuming the best, and speaking the truth. This principle, the call to be guided by love, reminds us that God cares not just about our knowledge, but also about our affections and motivations.

The Great Commission

In Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus commissions his disciples specifically and the church generally, saying, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Similar ideas are expressed in Acts 1:8, which quotes Jesus as saying, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

The idea is that Christ wants his church to grow—in breadth (making new converts) and in depth (creating mature disciples). Another component of “breadth” is that Jesus wants disciples of all kinds of people. Following the pattern of Acts 1:8, Christians are to evangelize and disciple those near to them (Jerusalem), those unlike them (Samaria), and those far away from them (the ends of the earth). This guiding principle reminds local church bodies to look beyond themselves in the cause of bringing people to maturity in Christ. It may require immense effort and discomfort, and yet it is what God has called and empowered the church to do! Christ will build his church, the Gates of Hell will not prevail, and he calls us to participate in such a work.

Conclusion

When the church neglects any one of these principles, it becomes unbalanced; worse, it fails to live according to the call that God has given. On a corporate level, various denominations may tend to focus on one principle while neglecting another. On individual level, a person’s culture or personality may lend itself more towards one over the others. The point is not that everyone needs to apply these principles in the same way, but rather that all three should be pursued in some way–individually, yes; but even moreso, corporately.

On the other hand, to those who feel discouraged, unsure if their tasks matter, may these principles offer encouragement. Whether you are caring for children at home, making beautiful YouTube videos, teaching missionary kids, holding the hands of the sick, praying with a co-worker, or participating in local government—what you are doing matters for God’s Kingdom! Press on, dear friends!

So, in closing, let us remember the dignity of work, the beauty of creativity, and the weight of our duties to society and family. May we be guided by holy affections and motivations. And may we live out the vision of the expansion and maturity of Christ’s church.

Let’s get back to basics, shall we?

~Hannah 🌸

Ministry Matters: Receiving Ministry From Jesus // John 3:1-15

Ministry Matters 1

Text: John 3:1-15

Introduction:

Jesus healed the sick, raised the dead, opened blind eyes, multiplied food for hungry people, and the list could go on, but all of these miracles pointed to the greatest of miracles – showing people the kingdom. Because once someone saw the kingdom of God at work on earth then they were born again. Their blinded eyes were opened. Why do think Paul went blind for three days and had scales on his eyes after he saw Jesus?

Was it simply because the light from Jesus’ glory was so bright that it blinded and that’s just what happens when you see Jesus? Maybe, but I think it was more than that. I think it was so people could relate to Paul’s story more.

Everyone may not know what it’s like to have Jesus personally come down and knock you off your horse, but anyone who has been saved can say with a surety that they know what’s like for scales to fall from their eyes as a result of seeing the kingdom.

  • That’s why Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4 that if the Gospel is hidden, it’s hidden to those that are perishing whose minds have been blinded by the god of this world. (2 Corinthians 4:3-4)

This morning, I want us to start a new series called, “Ministry Matters,” and I want us to start it off by looking at this passage because you can’t give what you don’t have. You can’t really minister to people unless you’ve been ministered to. People can’t encounter Jesus through you if you’ve never encountered Jesus.

So, we have Jesus ministering to Nicodemus, and what is it that Nicodemus needs more than anything? He needs a complete transformation. He needs renewal. He needs regeneration.

  • If you don’t know what the word regeneration means, it’s a word that us stodgy Reformed use to describe what happens when Jesus comes in cleans house which is exactly what happens when someone is born again.

So, this morning, I want us to see that Nicodemus’ needs are our needs. His questions are our questions, and when we talk to other people, they’re like Nicodemus. They’ve got questions and Jesus has answers. They’ve got problems and Jesus has solutions.

It is no mere coincidence that this passage follows John 2:25 where John tells us that Jesus knew what is in the heart of man, then that is followed by this encounter with Nicodemus and this is followed by an encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well.

We have in John 3, Jesus talking with one who represents the intelligentsia, the upper echelon of society. He’s a religious leader. He has money, power, prestige, but he does not know what it is to truly see the Kingdom of God.

We have in John 4, a woman who represents those in the lower class of society. She has had 5 husbands and now she’s shacking up with a man who isn’t even her husband. She’s broke, busted, and disgusted, all because she’s been looking for love in all the wrong places.

I think what John is doing here is illustrating his point in John 2:25. He’s essentially saying, “Jesus knows the very heart of man and if you don’t believe me, I recall a conversation He had with a man named Nicodemus, and then there was this other time with a Samaritan woman.” John is making it crystal clear that Jesus is looking beyond what we pretend to be, beyond what society says we are, beyond how everyone else sees us and He sees into our very soul and looks directly at our NEED FOR HIM.

So in this passage, we need to recognize the ways that we are like Nicodemus, and we need to see what it is exactly that Jesus is saying to us through this passage in John 3.

Ways We Are Like Nicodemus:
1. We Are Good At Being Religious
2. We Come to Jesus with What We [Think We] Know
3. We Must Listen to What Jesus Is Saying

We’re Good at Being Religious

We’ve got a lot in common with Nicodemus. First of all, we’re good at being religious. Let’s not get confused. There is a good religion and a bad religion. Good religion motivates us to serve God by caring for widows and orphans (James 1:27). There is a bad religion that even the best of us seem to fall into sometimes. It’s this kind of religion that Nicodemus is good at and a lot of us are good at. And it’s sneaky because it hides behind moralism so it looks good on the outside, but on the inside it leaves you full of dead men’s bones. (Matthew 23:27)

The good religion, the true religion that James mentions in James 1:27 is fleshed out more in the next chapter in James 2, and it doesn’t have to do with making sure your shirt is tucked in, or making sure you’ve not cussed, or making sure the Jesus fish on your bumper is on straight, it has to do with how you treat other people.

When we end up falling into Nicodemus’ religion instead of James’ ‘pure and undefiled’ religion, there’s some things that happen.

Church becomes somewhere we go, instead of who we are to be.
In the deep south, Bible belt culture of Arkansas, we’re good at being religious. Church is all most of us have ever known so we’re good at attending church, but we’re bad at being the Church. I know because I’m bad at being the Church. I’m going to be brutally honest. It’s much easier to ask someone where they go to church than whether or not they know Jesus as their savior.


Worship becomes the songs we sing instead of the life we live.
We always say, “Worship starts at 11 AM.” Now, we all know what that means. It means that the corporate worship service starts at 11 AM, but in reality, Worship starts when you become born-again and it continues all through eternity.

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” – Romans 12:1, NRSV

The King James says, ‘reasonable service.’ Paul is saying that it only makes sense live as a sacrifice. Paul says earlier in Romans 8 that we are being killed all the day long (Romans 8:36). So, if you’re facing death, (and we all are because that’s what it means to be human) then you might as well live as a holy and acceptable sacrifice to God. You’re gonna die anyway you might as well lay yourself on the altar. 

  • That’s what it means to live a life of worship, but unfortunately we get in this habit of believing worship is simply what we do on Sunday morning.


Jesus becomes a good teacher rather than the God who saves.
So, when church becomes somewhere we go, instead of who we are, and worship becomes the songs we sing instead of the life we live, Jesus becomes a good teacher rather than the God who saves.

Nicodemus had no idea who he was talking to. “We know that you are a teacher sent from God.” He was right. Jesus was a teacher sent from God, but he was only half right. And that’s the only truth the devil likes, those truths that are half true, but they’re still whole lies.

Nicodemus was speaking to the very God who placed each star in the sky and called it by name. The same God that, by the Word of His mouth, called the universe in being, knew Nicodemus intimately, and knows us intimately inside and out, and He still loves us.

 

We Come to Jesus with What We Think We Know

Next, not only are we good at being religious, but we have a tendency to come to Jesus with what we think we know.

One of the most striking things about this passage is that the first things Nicodemus says is, “We know that you are a teacher sent from God.” And then Jesus proceeds to unravel everything.

“Nicodemus said, “We know.” Then he began to rehearse the things he knew (or thought he knew) and with which he wanted to begin the discussion: (1) that Jesus was continuing to do many miracles; (2) that these miracles were intended to authenticate him as a teacher sent from God; and that therefore, (3) Jesus was the one to whom he should listen. Unfortunately for Nicodemus, Jesus replied that such an approach to knowledge was wrong and that Nicodemus could therefore know nothing until he had first experienced an inward, spiritual transformation. “You must be born anew,” Jesus told him (John 3:7).
– James Montgomery Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith


Do you know what this means? It means that it’s not that tell you who Jesus is, it’s the Spirit. All throughout the Gospels, there were people who saw the miracles, and yet they still wanted to kill Jesus. Even though they saw the miracles, they were still blind. They’re the kind of people that Jesus talked about when he said, “Seeing, they do not see… hearing, they do not hear.”

There have been atheists who have said, “I’ve read the Bible cover to cover and I just don’t see any evidence for God. I just see a bunch contradictory fairy tales.” Why? Because they approach God with what they think they know because their eyes haven’t been opened to see the kingdom.

“Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
– John 3:3, NKJV

When you’re born again your eyes are opened and the whole world looks different, and you begin to see God at work. You wonder why people don’t believe in God, it’s because God hasn’t opened their eyes yet.

So far, what we have in common with Nicodemus is that we’re good at being religious, we come to Jesus with what we think we know, and finally, like Nicodemus, we need to hear what Jesus is saying.


We Must Hear What Jesus is Saying

As we go from verse 5 on down to the rest of the passage, Jesus starts alluding to some Old Testament passages that Nicodemus should know, but he’s not picking it up.

Jesus even tells him in verse 10, “How is it that you’re a teacher of Israel and yet you don’t even know these things?”

So, we’re going to see the first allusion to the Old Testament in verse 5.

Born of Water and Spirit
“Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” – John 3:5, NKJV

Jesus knows that Nicodemus had memorized the law and the prophets so He wanted to use imagery that Nicodemus would understand.

The only possible meaning is that Jesus has to be referring to the imagery of water found in Ezekiel 36 where God promises to vindicate his name and sanctify His people by sprinkling them with clean water.

“I will show how holy my great name is—the name on which you brought shame among the nations. And when I reveal my holiness through you before their very eyes, says the Sovereign Lord, then the nations will know that I am the Lord. 24For I will gather you up from all the nations and bring you home again to your land.

25“Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. Your filth will be washed away, and you will no longer worship idols. 26And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. 27And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations.”
– Ezekiel 36:23-27, NLT

Jesus is taking Nicodemus back to this portion of Scripture because although the Old Testament never uses the words, “born again,” Ezekiel 36 shows us what it means.

  • When I was 15 years old I remember my grandfather, a Pentecostal evangelist, preaching a sermon from Ezekiel 36 entitled, “Open Heart Surgery.” As a prop, he had a Build-A-Bear teddy bear, and a rock that he had painted red to represent the heart of stone, and then he had a little plush heart to show the ‘heart of flesh.’ He spent an hour preaching faith and repentance to a packed house at a campmeeting in Reeds Spring, Missouri. 

The Son of Man Must Be Lifted Up
“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” – John 3:14-15, NKJV

Jesus alludes a second time to a passage of Scripture that Nicodemus should be familiar with, Numbers 21. As a matter of fact, “familiar” is an understatement. Nicodemus should be intimate with this passage because as someone who is a teacher in Israel he is required to memorize the Old Testaments scriptures front and back. Not only that, but these people being bitten by snakes were his people. His was immediately recalling this.

“Then they journeyed from Mount Hor by the Way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; and the soul of the people became very discouraged on the way. 5And the people spoke against God and against Moses: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and our soul loathes this worthless bread.” 6So the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and many of the people of Israel died.

7Therefore the people came to Moses, and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord that He take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.

8Then the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live.” 9So Moses made a bronze serpent, and put it on a pole; and so it was, if a serpent had bitten anyone, when he looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.” – Numbers 21:4-9, NKJV

I imagine that when Jesus is saying this, that, at least for a split-second, Nicodemus is picturing this incident from the scroll containing the Book of Numbers. He’s had to memorize it, he’s had to hear it taught, it’s been passed down from generation to generation.

God’s people becoming rebellious and complaining and then they are bitten and killed by these snakes.

It’s passages like this that skeptics of the Bible look to and say, “If God is so loving, then why did he send serpents to bite and kill His own people?” When we approach something like this and say that God is not loving because he does something like this, then we start with the assumption that we, as mortal, finite beings, are the ultimate standard of what love and justice is.

That’s where we go wrong. We start trying to interpret the Bible with our own feelings and preferences. So, we must always start with God.

Sin offends God. It’s not about the offense or the sin, it’s about who’s been offended by this sin.

And ultimately, in spite us offending Him with our sin and rebellion, He gives us Jesus. Jesus takes our wrath on Himself, and if we look at our sin as it’s laid on Jesus’ shoulders, then we will live.

Think about the philosophical implications of that for a minute: The Israelites had to confront the confront the very thing that was afflicting them, but they couldn’t do it on their own terms. If they did it on their own terms, they would die, but if they just obeyed Moses, and ultimately God, and did things God’s way, then they would live. And what was required of them wasn’t hard, all they had to do was look, and that’s all you have to do. All you have to do is look at Jesus.

“Behold the man upon the cross, my sin upon His shoulders.
Ashamed I hear my mocking voice, call out among the scoffers
His dying breath has brought me life, I know that it is finished.”
– How Deep the Father’s Love For Us

“Just as the bitten Israelites were healed by a look of faith, so the sinner may be saved by looking to Christ by faith… The moment a sinner does that he is saved, just as God said to Moses, “It shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he looketh upon it, shall live.” – Arthur W. Pink

Conclusion

How Do We Become Born Again?
Look to Christ in faith! In Isaiah 45, we have the most loving command that God has ever given humanity.

“Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God, and there is none else.” – Isaiah 45:22, KJV

All you have to do is look to Him and be saved!! Then God follows this command with, “for I am God, and there is none else.” He’s saying that there’s no one else who can save you! There’s nobody who can provide an atoning sacrifice!!

John never tells us the conclusion of Nicodemus’ story, but it does tell us the conclusion of the story those who have been born again and those who have not been born again.

“He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.” – John 3:36, NKJV

If you want life, eternal and abundant, then it’s yours in Christ.

I’m going to pray for us, and we’re going to sing one more hymn together, and as we sing, these altars are our open. Let Jesus minister to you this morning, and let us pray for you.

Closing Prayer

Heavenly Father, we are Yours. As the old hymn says, “You have opened the life gate that we may go in” and we are grateful. This morning, I pray that You would grant us faith and repentance. Give us life and power by Your Spirit, and we’ll give You all the praise, glory, and honor. In the name of Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

A White Evangelical Responds to “Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America”

a WHITE EVANGELICAL RESPONDS TO

(Editor’s Note: This article contains references to race-based slavery and racism, which could be distressing to some readers.)

Living in Mississippi has provided a unique opportunity for me to dive into the issue of race in America, because you really can’t live in Mississippi and not face the reality of a racialized society! Though much of my learning occurred through following a diverse group of people on social media, I kept hearing people reference a non-social-media medium (a book!) for learning about this topic—and specifically a book called Divided by Faith by sociologists Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith. And so this month, I finally decided to give it a read. Spoiler alert: I loved it, I was challenged by it, and I quickly knew I wanted to share my findings with whomever would care to read them. And thus this article came to be. In it, I attempt to summarize the book, share some personal reflections, suggest ways for white evangelicals to respond, and pass along some additional resources.

Historical Overview

Emerson and Smith begin with a brief definition of terms such as “evangelical” and “racialization” and then make a case—using a myriad of statistics—that race is the defining societal divide in America. “Evangelicals” are defined as those who believe the Bible to be God’s Word, urge personal salvation through Jesus Christ, and self-identify as evangelicals. They define a racialized society as “a society wherein race matters profoundly for differences in life experiences, life opportunities, and social relationships.” (page 7) And more specifically, “[i]n the post-Civil Rights United States, the racialized society is one in which intermarriage rates are low, residential separation and socioeconomic inequality are the norm, our definitions of personal identity and our choices of intimate associations reveal racial distinctiveness” and in which we are always aware of the race of people with whom we interact. (page 7) They then spend several chapters recounting the story of race and Evangelicalism throughout American history, starting with the 1700s and going through the present day (or rather the 90s, since the book was published in 2000). I’ll share some of the highlights.

In the 1700s as Europeans colonized what would later become the United States, people from West Africa were kidnapped, enslaved, and brought over to work the land. At first, there was no particular concern for the religious beliefs of the slaves. But partway through the 1700’s, attempts to “Christianize” enslaved people began. At first there was some confusion about whether converting to Christianity necessitated temporal freedom from slavery, but religious leaders quickly allayed those fears. For example:

Cotton Mather forcefully argued that the Bible did not give Christian slaves the right to liberty. Just as forcefully, he argued that neither the canons of the church nor the English Constitution made a connection between christianization and temporal freedom. (page 23)

In fact, Evangelical leaders argued that enslavement was good for Africans because it gave them the opportunity to convert to Christianity. (Some Christians hold this view to this day, and it is repugnant!) The social stratification of masters and slaves was understood to be God’s design for a peaceful society. These ideas were diligently catechized to the enslaved Africans, with Frederick Douglass later explaining, “I have met many religious colored people … who are under the delusion that God requires them to submit to slavery and to wear chains with meekness and humility.”

The American Revolution brought a fresh look at race-based slavery. People wondered if the principles behind the fight for freedom from England applied also to enslaved peoples. Thus began the rise of the anti-slavery movement among evangelicals. They were largely moderates and “gradualists,” believing that slavery would slowly be put to rest overtime as both masters and slaves were converted to Christianity. As Emerson and Smith point out, “Evangelicals of this time … held that by changing individuals, social problems would eventually dissipate.” (page 29) This movement had minimal results and petered out in the early 1800s.

The 1830s saw a rise in Evangelical “immediatists,” who demanded direct and immediate action to end what they saw as the great injustice of slavery. One such evangelical was Pastor Charles Finney. He connected his faith with abolitionism, going so far as to deny communion to parishioners who were slaveholders, believing that it was impossible simultaneously to own slaves and to be a Christian. (Personally, I think what he did was awesome!) However, as the movement gathered steam and begin to emphasize amalgamation of the races, Finney distanced himself. He saw slavery as a separate issue from race, and did not support amalgamation or integration. (This line of thinking paved the way for Jim Crow laws.) Emerson and Smith see Finney as representative of the views of many Evangelical abolitionists of the time.

If the well-educated and progressive Finney willingly spoke out against slavery, but not racial prejudice and segregation, it is reasonable to suppose the grassroots evangelicals, though perhaps viewing slavery as wrong, were often prejudiced, continued to view African Americans as inferior, and were generally opposed to the integration of the races. Although calling for people to be freed, they did not call for an end to racialization. (page 33)

Not all evangelicals took exception to slavery. In the mid-1800s, a robust defense of slavery was developed using so-called biblical, evangelistic, social, and political support. Enslaved Africans were also frequently reminded of the supposed rightness of slavery. For example, when slaves attended church with their masters, preachers would share an additional sermon reminding them of their “Christian duty” to submit to their masters.

After the Civil War and during Reconstruction, with slavery officially outlawed, white northern evangelicals sent money, teachers, and missionaries to the South to “raise up the Negro.” Condescending? Yes. But still a generally positive endeavor. Overall, Reconstruction was a time of social and political success for freed slaves. However, Southerners soon began to fear for their way of life, wanting to get back to what they saw as “Christian America,” and therefore imposed laws to restrict and oppress black people. This was the start of Jim Crow laws and institutionalized segregation. Northern evangelical interest declined, and most of them left Southerners to deal with “race problems” on their own.

In response to legislated segregation, African American people started their own churches while white Christians largely denied that there even was a race problem. In other words, even while Jim Crow laws actively worked against equality for African Americans, white Americans believed that equality already existed!

In the twenties and thirties, evangelicals were generally critical of violence between the races, though not of segregation. In 1919, the Commission on Interracial Cooperation began.

The goal during this period was to provide a better racial environment. … It advocated an end to lynching, portraying African Americans in a more positive light, and better facilities, such as school buildings for African Americans, though still within the context of segregation. Indeed, the commission never attacked segregation itself, but simply strove to improve race relations and the lives of black Americans within the institutional context of segregation. (page 42-43)

The Civil Rights Movement highlighted the extent of differences between black Christians and white evangelicals. Most evangelicals were critical of the Civil Rights Movement while most black Christians supported it. Those white Christians who did support it tended to be non-evangelicals such as mainstream Protestants.

Billy Graham is an interesting case study of the Evangelical mindset of the time. He was for improved race relations, but believed that organized efforts were harmful, especially because he perceived them as being connected to Communism. (Sound familiar? I guess this argument has been around for decades.) On the one hand, Graham removed the segregating rope between blacks and whites at one of his southern Evangelistic Crusades. But in another instance, he stated that he tried to work within the social framework of each city he visited. He invited Martin Luther King Jr. to pray at one of his Crusades, yet declined to join King’s March on Washington, believing King’s methods to be flawed. In response to the “I Have a Dream” speech, Graham remarked that black children and white children would hold hands in harmony only when Jesus returned.

To understand this, we must account for the premillennial view that had come to dominate the American evangelical worldview and played a role in limiting evangelical action on race issues. According to this view, the present world is evil and will inevitably suffer moral decline until Christ comes again. Thus, to devote oneself to social reform is futile. (page 47)

Graham, like most white evangelicals of the time, opposed racism generally, but viewed organized social reform as fruitless, unnecessary, and perhaps even dangerous.

The 80s and 90s brought a new wave of racial reconciliation efforts by evangelicals through organizations like Promise Keepers and people like Curtiss DeYoung and Tony Evans. Most whites who spoke against prejudice, urged personal repentance and reconciled relationships between individuals, while African American Christians generally focused on changing what they saw as oppressive structures, and unjust laws. The difference in approach is highlighted in the words of Pastor Cecil “Chip” Murray:

White evangelicals need an at-risk gospel. … Calling sinners to repentance means also calling societies and structures to repentance—economic, social, educational, corporate, political, religious structures…. The gospel at once works with individual and the individual’s society: to change one, we of necessity must change the other.

I’ll close this historical overview with a quote, which, though challenging, highlights Emerson’s and Smith’s overall analysis of evangelicalism and race relations throughout American history.

Because evangelicals view their primary task as evangelism and discipleship, they tend to avoid issues that hinder these activities. Thus, they are generally not countercultural. With some significant exceptions, they avoid “rocking the boat,” and live within the confines of the larger culture. At times they have been able to call for and realize social change, but most typically their influence has been limited to alteration at the margins. So, despite having the subcultural tools to call for radical changes in race relations, they most consistently call for changes in persons that leave the dominant social structures, institutions, and culture intact. This avoidance of boat-rocking unwittingly leads to granting power to larger economic and social forces. It also means that evangelicals’ views to a considerable extent conform to the socioeconomic conditions of their time. Evangelicals usually fail to challenge the system not just out of concern for evangelism, but also because they support the American system and enjoy its fruits. They share the Protestant work ethic, support laissez-faire economics, and sometimes fail to evaluate whether the social system is consistent with their Christianity. (pages 21-22)

Evangelicals’ Thoughts on Race Today

Emerson and Smith conducted an extensive telephone survey of 2,000 people to determine present-day thoughts of evangelicals on racial issues. They then conducted 200 in-person interviews. The results were enlightning. Smith and Emerson asked people to describe the race problem in America. Many people admitted there was a race problem, describing it as a problem of discrimination or violence between individuals. Other evangelicals denied the race problem altogether, instead suggesting that those who talk about race are the problem. Very few referenced structures, laws, or societal values that contribute to racialization.

When asked about the reasons behind economic inequality between blacks and whites, the two most common explanations given were 1) lack of motivation and 2) flawed cultural values among blacks. Fewer evangelicals ascribed economic disparity to 3) lack of access to quality education and/or 4) discrimination. In other words, evangelicals tended to blame economic hardship on African Americans themselves as opposed to historical, structural, or systemic problems. Most black Christians, on the other hand, pointed to structural issues or discrimination as the main problem.

As sociologists, Emerson and Smith explain that the cultural tools a person or group has affects the way they identify problems and solutions. They point out three cultural tools evangelicals use that heavily influence their views of race, which are: 1) accountable freewill individualism—“individual initiative conquers all;” 2) relationalism—“attaching central importance to interpersonal relationships;” and 3) antistructuralism—“inability to perceive or unwillingness to accept social structural influences.” Applied to racial issues, this cultural framework necessitates holding African Americans accountable for their struggles (accountable freewill individualism) and focusing almost exclusively on personal reconciliation (relationalism and antistructuralism). To begin to explore societal and structural components of a racialized society, white evangelicals would have to reexamine these core beliefs.

Emerson and Smith end the book by discussing various sociological principles that describe ingroup dynamics and contribute to de facto segregation today. They close by calling for an honest look at comprehensive solutions to the issue of racialization.

My Reflections

I think that Divided by Faith is remarkably well-written and well-organized. I found it easy to follow, and I appreciated the variety of information—historical, sociological, personal interviews, etc. In other words, I was never bored. I appreciated that this work was neither a puff piece nor a hit piece, instead seeking balance and honesty, focusing on facts over value judgments.

I learned a lot about various historical movements and historical figures. I was particularly interested in learning about the great Evangelist Billy Graham as I’ve seen a lot of diverse perspectives on his relationship with Civil Rights; this book seems to carefully lay out both the positives and negatives. I was also fascinated by Emerson’s and Smith’s exploration of how the white evangelical worldview affects the way evangelicals understand and address racial issues. Their sociological insights into group dynamics that prop up prejudice and racialization were also helpful.

In general, this book helped me honestly examine the past—my past, if you will, since I am both an American and a white evangelical. I’ve always known some of the positive ways that evangelicals have fought for human rights and civil rights for African Americans, but this book helped me honestly face the negative actions evangelicals have taken as well as the discriminatory societal structures that evangelicals have helped to maintain. And so I feel both thankful and grieved. I now acknowledge that taken as a whole, white evangelicalism has done more to hurt race relations than help. This is a sobering realization to come to. But sometimes truth leads to lament, and sometimes lament is the first step to change. (Side note: this increases my empathy for those individuals, particularly African Americans, who have chosen to distance themselves from the term “Evangelical,” even while maintaining theologically-conservative Protestant beliefs.)

On a personal level, as I read some of the quotes by modern-day evangelicals, I was humbled to realize that just a few years ago I might have said some of the same things—things like “the breakdown of family structures is the main cause of problems in African American communities” or “playing the race card is as big a problem as racism.” I’m embarrassed even to type those sentences, and my heart is rightly grieved. And I am truly sorry. For me it’s been a process, starting 3 years ago, of seeking to comprehensively understand racial issues in America.

I am profoundly thankful to have read this book! I highly recommend it to any American—especially to white evangelicals—or to anyone who wants to understand why race continues to be a defining aspect of the American story.

What is a White Evangelical to Do?

Maybe this information is new, and you’re feeling like a deer in headlights. Or maybe you’re familiar with these perspectives, but you’re not sure what practical actions to take. Either way, here are a few suggestions. First, accept uncomfortable emotions; don’t reject new ideas just because they feel scary. Second, know that lament and anger are appropriate responses to sin and injustice, and can be impetus for change. As Benjamin Franklin said, “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.” Third, get educated; read a book like Divided by Faith (purchase on Amazon or read the first 30 pages for free on Google Books here). Fourth, sit under the teaching of minority voices: on social media, by listening to sermons, and by engaging in conversations (with a focus on listening to learn). And fifth, financially support minority-led organizations.

Resources

Here some of the people and organizations that have been particularly helpful for me as I’ve learned about racial issues in recent years.

Two of my favorite African American pastors are:

  • Elbert McGowan at Redeemer Church in Jackson, MS. Listen to his sermons here.
  • Dr. Mika Edmondson at New City Fellowship in Grand Rapids, MI. Listen to his sermons here.

The following are some theologically-conservative people and organizations I recommend financially supporting as a practical way to support African Americans and racial reconciliation.

  • The Witness: A Black Christian Collective is an organization that puts out articles and podcasts on all things related to race and faith. Donate here.
  • Reformed Theological Seminary offers the African American Leadership Scholarship, a 50% tuition break for qualifying African American students who are training to be pastors, professional counselors, and leaders. Donate here with a note that your donation is for the AALS fund.
  • Kyle J. Howard is a Christian Counselor who works with and creates resources for those affected by racial trauma. Donate here.
  • Peace Preparatory Academy serves children and families in the heart of urban Atlanta. Donate here.

As always, thanks for reading!

-Hannah

Check out some of of my other articles: