The Best We Can Do Is Sin

Young Lady 01Perhaps the biggest difficulty in evangelism is getting people past the belief that they are basically good. Most people will, of course, acknowledge that they’ve done a few things that they probably shouldn’t have done, but they quickly take refuge in the thought that their good outweighs their bad. So when we tell them that Jesus died for their sin, they give us quizzical looks as they shrug off the Gospel.

Evangelism that minimizes human sinfulness and presents Jesus as a Cosmic Personal Assistant exacerbate the problem by marketing a false salvation. Such evangelism ignores the holiness of God as well as Christ’s demand for repentance. As a result, the real issue gets obscured, and Christianity becomes just another way of satisfying selfish desires.

The Gospel, to be proclaimed accurately, depends on the understanding that we are absolute wretches who desperately need God’s grace. Without recognizing that nothing good dwells within us (Romans 7:18). we have no way to appreciate the wonder of Jesus taking God’s wrath on Himself in our place. Grace, therefore, loses its significance, and we  really don’t comprehend the Lord’s stunning holiness.

Teachings on human sinfulness never feels warm and fuzzy, admittedly. I struggle daily to see how depraved I am apart from Christ, and I suspect most Christians fight similar battles. If those of us who genuinely know the Lord have trouble accepting the truth regarding our sinful condition, imagine how hard it must be for non-Christians to face their sin!

But both Christians and non-Christians must come to terms with the gruesome reality that we are children of wrath unless we take refuge in the Lord Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:3). Unless we draw strength from the Holy Spirit, our perceived good works become filthy in His sight (Isaiah 64:6). Left to our own devices, we have no choice but to sin. It’s literally the best we can do.

Thankfully, once someone sees the inescapable prison of his or her sinful condition, Christ’s mercy and grace becomes precious and beautiful. At that point, the Gospel indeed proves to be very Good News, and we find ourselves unable to stop adoring the Lord for taking the punishment that properly belongs to us. What a wonderful Savior!

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Why Do I Prefer To Call Myself A Worm?

A few weeks ago, I had an interesting conversation with the gentleman who sometimes plays the piano at church. We had sung only traditional hymns that morning (we normally sing a mixture of hymns and contemporary praise songs), and I wanted to express my absolute delight at the experience.

The conversation meandered to the subject of updated hymns. There are one or two I like, but their lyrics haven’t been altered. I don’t really object to an updated tune. The pianist and I agreed, however, that some of the adapted lyrics that have cropped up over the past five or ten years tend to water down a hymn’s doctrinal content.

He  gave the example of substituting the phrase, “for sinners such as I,” in place of the original “for such a worm as I.” As he saw it, the image of a worm more strongly communicates who we are in comparison to the holy and righteousness Lord. It emphasizes the astonishing grace Jesus showered on undeserving sinners through His crucifixion.

I agreed with him! The lyric reveals His extravagant kindness by pointing to our total depravity. Praise God, YouTube still has a rendition of the hymn with the original phrase intact.

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The Trouble With Emphasizing Our Woundedness

Michele SmithThere’s something comforting in hearing someone confess their flaws and vulnerabilities, isn’t there? If she’s as imperfect and broken as we are, she makes us feel better about ourselves. Therefore, we gravitate to her blogs, books and/or conferences, knowing that she’ll make us feel good. She’ll assure us that God thinks we’re awesome, that He wants to date us and that He validates all our feelings. As He met her in her woundedness, so He will meet us in ours.

Lately, I’ve confessed, not cute little flaws in my character, but outright sin. Maybe you feel that I’m more approachable because of my transparency. That’s flattering to me, I’ll admit, but it’s also a little troubling.

If I use self-disclosure as a means of attracting followers, the focus goes to me. That’s not going to benefit either me or my readers. It may make me feel important and influential, but it probably does little to build the kingdom of God. And the possibility that I’m building my personal empire rather than investing the abilities He gives me in advancing His kingdom terrifies me.

The apostle Paul gives a glimpse into how the Lord will judge believers. Please read the following passage with the understanding that it refers to God judging how to reward Christians, not about salvation. Jesus Christ has already determined salvation by His death on the cross. The judgment in this passage focuses on whether believers have used our natural and spiritual gifts for Christ’s honor and glory.

11 For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— 13 each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. 14 If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. ~~1 Corinthians 3:11-15 (ESV)

(No, that’s not about Purgatory.)

When a Christian uses ministry to draw attention to herself, she’s failing to build on the foundation of the Lord Christ Jesus. Her fan base may believe she’s a personal friend to each one of them because she’s been so authentic about her brokenness. They wouldn’t mind having a cuppa with her while she empathized with their brokenness.

I have no problem with a Christian blogger, writer and/or speaker extending empathy to hurting women. Please don’t misunderstand me on that point. God’s Word specifically commands us to weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15). But at some point, the empathy must lead to Christ. Sin must be confronted and the Gospel must be presented in its entirety. Above all, Jesus must be exalted.

So much so-called ministry these days revolves around making people feel good about themselves, prompting bloggers, writers and  speakers to parade their flaws and vulnerabilities without discretion. But many times their veneer of authenticity covers us a thirst for applause instead of a desire to glorify the Lord Jesus Christ. And they forfeit eternal rewards.

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We Stand Forgiven

The Gettys write such wonderful 21st Century hymns, don’t you think? The melodies encourage our voices to soar at just the right places to reigned Scriptural truths the the lyrics so eloquently express. As a descendant of Irish immigrants, I don’t exactly object to the hints of Celtic phraseology, either!

But I mostly love the solid theology woven throughout their songs. Within that sound theology, they convey amazing passion and adoration for the Lord and His grace towards us.

The Power of the Cross, arguably one of the Gettys’ most popular hymns, sets forth brilliant theology in depicting Christ’s atoning work at Calvary. It touches on several significant aspects of that event, culminating with its marvelous implications for believers. Most powerfully, the refrain continually circles back to the assuring words: “We stand forgiven at the cross.”

And I so cherish that forgiveness!

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I Make A Decidedly Putrid Message (And So Do You)

Putrid worksIn recent years, the notion that we can “be the message” has resurrected the old cliche, “Preach the Gospel–if necessary, use words.”  The social gospel movement, in particular, capitalizes on this cliche for the purpose of using works of charity almost in place of preaching the Gospel. They rationalize that, because of their acts of service, people will ask what motivates them to serve, thus opening the door for evangelism.

In an effort to discern the validity of this popular idea, we need to examine it in light of what the Word of God teaches. I’ll refer to several Scriptures, so please click the links; quoting so many of them directly in one blog post might put me in danger of violating the ESV copyright permission.

I agree that a person’s behavior, in general,  demonstrates his true beliefs.  James 2:14-26 indeed maintains that  “faith without works is dead.” Jesus Himself warned that He will reject those who call Him Lord while actively disobeying His commandments (Matthew 7:21-27). The proponents of the social gospel must be commended, therefore, for their desire to address the obvious disconnect between what evangelicals profess to believe and how we actually live. The non-Christian world sees our hypocrisy, and uses it as an excuse to reject Christ.

That said, our good behavior, in and of itself, can only (at best) lead people to ask us about the Lord (1 Peter 3:15). Of course, we should remember the broader context of this verse. 1 Peter 3:8-22 offers guidelines to Christians in the midst of suffering for their commitment to  Christ. The First Century believers to whom Peter originally wrote amazed their critics by clinging to Jesus when simply renouncing Him would have liberated them from persecution. They did far more than live good lives. They proclaimed Christ in an empire that made such proclamations punishable by death.

Their potential martyrdom went far beyond “right living.” Good behavior certainly reflects God’s standards for personal holiness, but without accompanying words about the grace of God that transforms a sinner, such good behavior degenerates into self-righteous morality that the Lord considers putrid (see Isaiah 64:6).

As a matter of fact, dear readers, not one of us leads a life that replaces the need to articulate the Gospel. We are declared righteous by virtue of the Lord’s death, burial and resurrection rather than by our deeds, meaning that our lives continue to be tainted by our proclivity to sin (see Romans 7:7-24). We should, of course, walk in obedience to the Lord, but we dare not entertain the notion that social justice is enough to win anyone to Christ.

The Gospel requires that you and I actually talk about sin, hell, repentance and the fact that only Jesus provides salvation from God’s wrath. We can dig wells, help children with disabilities and run food pantries all we want, but unless we accompany those activities with a clear proclamation of the Gospel, people will see no difference between us and members of the Elks club. And they’ll be looking at us, not at the Lord Jesus Christ.

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The Reformation And Galatians

Whittenberg DoorThe Lord used the apostle Paul to bring the Gospel to the gentiles in Galatia. Sadly, after he left that region, representatives of a group known as the Judaizers descended on that fledgling church, teaching that they needed to augment their faith in Christ by following Jewish law. They especially insisted that gentile converts undergo the rite of circumcision.

Paul was infuriated that the church he had founded had so quickly abandoned the Gospel of faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross in favor of a counterfeit gospel that required human effort to assure salvation. He wrote a scathing letter, scolding them for adulterating the Gospel with doctrines of men. We see the reasons for his frustration most clearly articulated in Chapter 5 of his epistle to the Galatians.

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.

You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth? This persuasion is not from him who calls you. A little leaven leavens the whole lump. 10 I have confidence in the Lord that you will take no other view, and the one who is troubling you will bear the penalty, whoever he is. 11 But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed. 12 I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves! ~~Galatians 5:1-12 (ESV)

I imagine Martin Luther found this passage helpful as he broke free from the demands of the Roman Catholic Church. Luther rightly saw that  Rome’s elaborate system of sacraments, Purgatory, Indulgences and Papal authority produced a gospel quite different from the Good News that Jesus Christ fully paid for the sin of whoever believes in Him by His death on the cross. Like Paul, Luther sought to turn Christians back to focusing on Christ’s work instead of imagining that they could supplement it through their cooperation.

Notice specifically Paul’s firm assertion that a Christian who supplements his faith in the Lord by depending on legalistic rituals actually nullifies the effects of faith in salvation through Christ’s work on the cross. At that point, a person essentially declares that salvation ultimately lies in our power, not in what Christ accomplished on our behalf.

The sacramental system of the Roman Catholic Church, despite their denials, easily parallels the false teaching of the Judaizers. As a matter of fact, the Judaizers claimed to follow Christ, just as the Roman Catholic Church does. In many respects, the Judaizers presented themselves as genuine Christians, thereby convincing the Galatians to accept their doctrinal error. Not surprisingly, then, the Catholic Church managed to convince Christians of similar errors.

But Paul’s firm refutation against the system of righteousness by works enabled Luther and the other Reformers to stand against Rome’s numerous conditions for salvation. Just as Paul proclaimed that circumcision had no bearing on anyone’s standing before God, so the Reformers proclaimed that sacraments couldn’t add to what Christ had already done. The Reformers returned to the Biblical teaching that Christ Jesus fully satisfied the Law by dying as our substitute.

Roman Catholicism gets some doctrines right, such as the Trinity, but it adds conditions for salvation in much the same way that the Judaizers did. These conditions made humans responsible for sustaining their salvation.

Human centered salvation, however, takes the glory away from the Lord Jesus Christ. It demands that He share His glory with us. Paul recognized that danger among the Christians in Galatia, and he refused to tolerate such a corruption of the Gospel! He therefore set a pattern for the Reformers to follow once they could read God’s Word and understand that Rome had corrupted the Gospel. His passion for Jesus Christ to receive all the glory inspired the Reformers to also develop that passion.

 
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