Simon Says

“Beloved, do not imitate evil but imitate good. Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God.” [3 John 1:11 ESV]

“And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.” [Eph 4:30-5:1 ESV]

“Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage–with great patience and careful instruction.” [2Ti 4:2 NIV]

NOTE: this blog is a lot like a cross-country trip by car. The subheadings are rest stops. Please don’t speed. [insert smile]

Part I: The Bar

Most of us have played the game Simon Says (at least if you’ve ever been a kid). Most psychologists and educators view this game as helpful to a child’s development physically, mentally, and socially. But I was just pondering what would occur if we had an evil Simon who, instead of suggesting harmless actions like making a happy face or running in place, gave out more diabolical suggestions, like to hit a classmate or spit on the teacher. The thought then occurred to me that in the life of a Christian, we have an enemy very much like this. I am not so much talking about Satan himself, but the prop he uses. He is often the most successful when making subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) suggestions. And the world is adrift in an ocean of suggestions. Satan is the ruler of this world: “We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.” [1Jo 5:19 ESV] He uses the world–what our society accepts as “normal”–and dangles it in front of our eyes to tempt our sinful propensity to consider and imitate what we see others doing.

How many times when we were growing up did we tell our parents that our own disobedience was not so bad because, after all, our sibling did the same thing? Or how about seeking a perk that our friends had, like staying out late on Friday nights? I can hear myself whining, “but Johnny gets to!” My brothers and sisters, I challenge you: have we really outgrown our penchant to excuse our own sin by considering how the world, our friends, or even other believers act or feel? The everbody-else-does-it-too attitude that our parents always corrected is not just youthful folly. It is part of our sinful nature. I have heard Christians in retirement age, even PASTORS, say things like, “I asked my brother how he handles sex outside marriage, and he says he has his fleshly needs.” The conclusion being that fornication is normal and it’s okay if we entertain it, too. We’ve compared notes and feel relieved that the Lord’s standards are just not plausible in real life. Is this not the same as the fourteen-year-old who minimizes and justifies his various forms of rebellion by looking to the standards set by his peers? What standard are we to hold to? Certainly not our own, as we make the bar purposefully low so we can step over it. And certainly not our peers when their bar may be what they’ve seen on TV or their latest Google search, which are both bathed in worldly attitudes and the vain philosophies of man. Our standard should be nothing less than the example of our Lord and the Word of God:

“But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. [Eph 5:3-6 ESV]

Brothers and sisters, all the sinful behaviors listed here are considered “normal” in our society and even promoted under the guise of “sexual liberation,” “self-expression,” and “the pursuit of happiness.” In other words, self-love. I don’t think it is happenstance that one of the latest coined terms these days is “influencer.” Social media, television, and the movie and music industries all play huge roles in shaping social standards and influence us in ways we may not even be aware of. They are piped into our homes through big screen TVs, stereos, computers, and video consoles. Either consciously or unconsciously we begin to imitate the behavior and human reasoning we choose to expose ourselves to. For example, the constant barrage of commercials on TV and web ads stimulates our appetite for stuff. Crime dramas can desensitize us to the real-life social ills of rape, incest, and murder. Even chick flicks on the Hallmark channel can tend to ingrain an expectation, especially for young people, that our own life dramas always end well. They may feed not just a desire but a demand for comfort and ease, or at least contribute to a feeling of personal injustice or despondence when life doesn’t cooperate–even when we rationally know life is not always a feel-good movie. All these are a bit more subtle forms of influence. The in-your-face influences are getting bolder every year, from the dark and occultic to the lewd and crude in movies and YouTube music videos. Maybe we don’t feel it intensely because we’re a lot like the fabled frog in the pot of slowly heated water that won’t jump out because he gets used to it so gradually. He doesn’t recognize at all the peril of being in a pot on a hot burner at dinner time. Brothers and sisters, our world is that pot and the devil’s hand is on the temperature control.

In the mid-eighties, in my late teens, I distinctly remember watching the old black and white movie Wuthering Heights with my grandma one night. I was engrossed in a scene where the female lead told her romantic interest that she’d let him hold her hand under her fan so that no one would see and think ill of the two. I was smiling at the sweetness of the scene yet highly amused by the antiquated courtship mores depicted in the movie. Then, all of a sudden, the station cut to a commercial of Cher dressed in one of her mostly mesh thong bodysuits paired with a leather jacket while she seductively posed and peddled the latest fitness gimmick. I was completely jarred to the core at the romantic innocence of the first image and the brazen sexualization of a body in the second. The temperature of the water went from cool to boiling in an instant!

Flash forward another thirty years and we now have stars like Madonna, J Lo, Lady Gaga, and Miley Cyrus all on board, flagships of the entertainment industry and its version of the female fantasy. Their stage outfits consist of fabric fig leaves patched to mesh, leather, and fishnet. What once would have been considered brothel attire is now lauded as “iconic.” Is it any wonder we have a Me-Too Movement? Like I’ve said, we can rationally know something isn’t real, like this false representation of the ideal woman and the resulting innuendo of her sexual availability. But many men still hope in the back of their minds that the illusion is reality, that somehow women always feel flattered to be desired by men. And some do when the man happens to have chiseled good-looks and sport six-pack abs. The flattery stops when it’s an aging politician making crude advances like an oh-so-romantic grab of one’s privates. Then real women get mad. Then twerking does not seem so sexy. I do not take sides on this. It is a two-way street involving gobs of money, a false sense of power, insatiable vanity, and a deep thirst for pleasure. It is called sin. Think about this. Nearly two millennia ago Paul said, “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.” [Eph 5:15-16 ESV] If Paul could say that of his day and time, how much more so should we walk wisely in our day so late into end times fulfillment.

Our propensity to imitate the world in attitude, speech, conduct, dress, thought, goals, focus, and values is reflected in many churches today. For example, I’ve seen women in church who wear revealing ensembles appropriate for a bar. Whether they are a believer or not, it shows at least an attitude of grandstanding one’s body at a location that is supposed to be known, even to an outsider, as a place of worship. If you think I am being too critical, I know a pastor who would agree with you. When a brother complained one time of a woman’s skirt being too short, this pastor’s flip reply was, “Well, how short is too short? Should we measure?” Yet the heart of the matter is not creating a legalistic rule (or ruler!), but rather seeing our vanity and lack of love. All we need to do is ask ourselves if what we are wearing would make a brother (or sister) stumble. Paul said, “It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.” [Rom 14:21 ESV] Out of love for others, believers should refrain from giving a visual impression of immodesty. We are to honor God with our bodies, not showcase them to the world. [1 Cor 6:20]

Now, I want to encourage young believers not to lose heart. I want to reassure older believers as well, those who may see themselves being influenced by these worldly attitudes and behaviors. Listen to the Holy Spirit’s conviction and confess and turn away from these sins. Choose to please your Abba, not yourself or the world. The Lord’s intent is always to correct for our good. He loves a humble heart: “For this is what the high and exalted One says–he who lives forever, whose name is holy: “I live in a high and holy place, but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.” [Isa 57:15 NIV] DO NOT let the devil come along, the original tempter, and berate you as being beyond God’s forgiveness or His ability to conform you to the image of His Son through the power of His grace. The scripture says, “And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says, “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.”” [Heb 12:5-6 NIV] Just like any loving parent would, God disciplines us to protect us from the heartache and harm that come from sin.

Part II: Spoiler Alert! How NOT to Build An Amazing Church Culture

“Every church has a culture. Once you have a healthy church culture, the challenge is how to reproduce it. Here’s the secret sauce.” –Slug line from a church culture how-to web site

Not only are believers tempted to imitate the world, but we are also not immune from imitating other religious folks as well. Apparently, according to the above quoted blurb and subsequent article, Paul and the troubled church at Corinth did not get a copy of The Five Step Guide on How to Create An Amazing Church Culture and this “secret sauce.” The apostle seems to have failed because he did not eliminate enough toxic people. He must have not exuded enough passion, and did not appreciate the qualities of the movers and shakers while blaming the church’s current state of failure on the dead wood (those toxic people again!). Paul missed his “breakthrough” because he did not identify the values that would accomplish his vision for Corinth, values like “make it happen” (kind of sounds like a Nike ad?). Nor did he create short, memorable phrases that could be “exported” (i.e. that would catch on) with a follow-up temptation, I mean, question like, “Am I allowing what is good to to stand in the way of being great?” Huh? I think this speaker and author has hit his secret sauce a little too hard! Really. Secret sauce? The Church is not a Big Mac nor a candidate for these success-driven strategies that hijack its true power, message and mission. This crafty influence Satan is instigating from within Christianity’s walls and from the apostate church, this entire “church culture” idea, effectively supplants the work of the Holy Spirit with a man-centered vision and his own ability to execute it. The fruit is maimed lambs and a marked straying away from the pure spiritual milk of God’s word, so much so that the standards and values of a church are elevated far above sound scriptural doctrine and authority.

A good example of this is the Bethel megachurch in Redding, California that offers a school in the supernatural to teach its members how to prophecy, heal, and work various miracles to advance the Kingdom of God and bring heaven to earth. After three years of this school and a cool eleven grand, students are then fit to use their gifts for Kingdom service and become the heavy hitters they were called to be. While the entire theology is heretical, my point in this case is: Since when do the gifts of the Holy Spirit need to be taught? For that matter, since when do the gifts of the Holy Spirit need to be bought? Didn’t Peter rebuke Simon the magician harshly for offering to pay for the gift of receiving the Holy Spirit by the laying on of hands? “Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money. But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money!” [Act 8:18, 20 ESV]

The Lord has taught me over the years, as I have grown in knowing His word, how to prayerfully dissect false teaching, of which I have been or would be completely unaware without His help. Please let me share them with you so that we can recognize the devil’s errors and always pray for the Lord’s wisdom. One of the ways that the enemy tried to temp Jesus was to offer a proof text from the bible to support an erroneous conclusion. All false teachers do this today. We need to counter such subterfuge with the entirety of God’s word, His heart behind it, the result (fruit) of the attitude or action, and the actual true biblical model practiced.

For example, when considering whether a school of the supernatural is a doctrinally sound idea, we can look to the authentic example recorded for us in the bible. Did Ezekiel go to some special school for his undergrad degree? Did he then go on to offer glowing insights and flattering promises of God’s plan to do great things through Israel’s leaders, those movers and shakers, and the whole nation? No. He didn’t mince words. He wasn’t a flim-flam man. I can’t think of any true prophet in the bible that did not correct error or warn the Lord’s people at some point to repent or face a coming judgement. Apparently, Ezekiel didn’t have the “anointing” that a Bethel education confers. He did not prophecy a glorious coming revival nor promise that the work and effort of man would reestablish God’s Kingdom. We can also ask: did the Apostle John consult a master of visions before writing Revelation? Did he do a second draft with corrections because he forgot to fact check the first draft, or felt it wasn’t convincing enough for the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief, or was told to spice it up because his publisher didn’t think it would sell? We can look for the source of the idea, too. Isn’t it rather the magic arts that stress teaching the next gen the tricks of the trade? Wasn’t it a nation steeped in false gods that felt compelled to teach Daniel all their own arts? Yet it was the wisdom that God GAVE him that proved far superior to that of Babylon’s own astrologers. Daniel’s faith caused his pagan peers and kings to stand up and take note, a faith that always pointed to the one true God.

Brothers and sisters, this is a blatant example, but there are more subtle ones. Consider the entire seeker-friendly model of doing church that has permeated the fold. Instead of preaching the gospel, the power of God for salvation to all who believe, of which we are not ashamed (?!), pastors are preaching hip and culturally-relevant sermons so as to not offend anyone by pointing out the sinful nature of man’s heart. In reality, this is not friendly or loving at all. Now, Jesus came to seek and save the lost. He laid down his life for the sheep. So should we. “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.” [1 Jo 3:16 ESV]

So, let’s check some fruit. How many popular preachers today would give up their multi-million dollar ministries and mammoth church buildings and fat bank accounts for the good of the Lord’s sheep? Not only can we see rotten fruit, but we can also see absent fruit, like love. The seeker-friendly mindset cares not one whit for the eternal welfare of the lambs. It misleads even pastors into the corporate model of running a successful organization. They are lured into studying trends, survey results, and strategies that will put them on the religious map, on the up-and-coming list. They turn into hirelings that leave the sheep open to danger because they are focusing on bringing God glory through these man-made efforts and not on God himself. Jesus made it very clear to Peter that if he wanted to show his love for Him, he was to love His sheep: “When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.” [Jhn 21:15-17 NIV] Can the Lord’s point here not be clear?

The seeker-friendly, corporate model of doing church, however, is very much concerned with packing people into the Kingdom. Ahem. I mean church. More people mean more wallets and bigger budgets so that a new building is justified, so that we can bask in each others’ adulations of how the Lord is abundantly blessing our inferior human methods. The pursuit of numbers is esteemed, speaking truth is too controversial and old, nor is it as lucrative as giving people what they want or offering what is desirable. Having a successful ministry is the in thing, so much so that faithfulness to feed the lambs is given a back seat to feeding one’s ego. Having millions of followers on Facebook is coveted, following Jesus, bearing one’s cross, is spoken of less and less. Let’s use one of the falsehood detectors I’ve mentioned to test these attitudes. Would and did Moses, any of the prophets, or the apostles seek their own or their ministry’s popularity? Would their goal have been to get as many Facebook likes as possible or have their YouTube sermons go viral? Isn’t this people-pleasing disguised as “growing your ministry?”

Part III: A Bitter Pill to Swallow

The truth is that spiritually sick people want to avoid pain. Conviction is a lot like the setting of a broken bone or taking strong-tasting medicine. Sinners do not seek out encounters that humble them to the core. They do not seek to be discomfited by the Holy Spirit for their sin, vanity, and pride. They do not seek to peer in a mirror that accurately reflects the filthy rags and poverty of soul hidden under their respectable attire and “I’m a good person” mantra. It is human nature to avoid physical or emotional pain. We don’t seek God in the natural man. We seek any balm to ease our pain but balk at His offer of genuine healing. It is true of all pain we try to comfort with things like drugs, alcohol, food, sex, or any host of other escape mechanisms. It is true even of religion, especially the diluted gospel of these last days. The phrase, “religion is the opiate of the masses” isn’t so far off the mark nowadays, is it?

This is really just another case where man has the whole notion of “seeker-friendly” upside down and in reverse from the Lord’s vantage point. Isn’t it rather true that Christ seeks us? Isn’t it His initiative? David wrote under inspiration that “The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good. The LORD looks down from heaven on all mankind to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. All have turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one.” [Psa 14:1-3 NIV] An unsaved person seeks many things, even seemingly good and healthy things like a sense of belonging and feeling loved. But all of us have an impulse to turn away from the offense of the cross, from the prideful charade of external religious activity and man-made rules, from self-effort, and from self-love. Friendly people, coffee, and donuts emptied of the cross of Christ is just another Tupperware party, folks. [1 Cor 1:17]. Jesus said, “And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” [Luk 7:23 ESV]

Really, how can using carnal methods draw people to Christ? Jesus said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” [Jhn 6:44 ESV] Brothers and sisters, this is a grievous error that we dare to subvert and replace the power of God in His work of salvation. If the intent in all our human manipulations is to reach the unchurched for Christ, isn’t it in reality just trying to make the gospel message more palatable? To make us less offensive? It is kind of like a group of church members I heard were going out on the street to hand out tracts. This is noble in itself. But these same folks were giving out candy with the tract to passersby and saying, “Jesus loves you.” They sadly wonder why they haven’t seen a revival from their efforts! Now, can you imagine Paul or Peter doing this? Milling about in the Jewish synagogues or Gentile gathering places and handing out phylacteries and a first century equivalent of a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup? Is this the gospel? Is this the gospel which Paul spoke of when he said, “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified.” [Gal 3:1 ESV] Is this the gospel of which Paul said, “Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” [1Co 1:22-24 NIV]

Now, what fruit do such human methods have? In the above example, the people on the street are assured of Jesus’ love and it is substantiated with their satisfied sweet tooth. What of sin? What of judgement? What of Jesus’ sacrificial love needed to suffer and die for us, not the proffered chocolate covered sweet sentiment? Would the apostles go about asking people (like many tracts do these days) how they can get to heaven? Did they glorify the reward, or the Rewarder? What did Jesus do? None of the apostles, nor Jesus, tried to appeal to the flesh: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” [Jhn 6:26 ESV] Our overweening concern about offending people is proved to be the people-pleasing bent of our flesh. We avoid criticism, a backlash, being disliked, a bad reputation, and more outright forms of persecution. We want to share in the glory of Christ but not His sufferings. [Phil 3:7-11]

Jesus always modeled a heart attuned to pleasing his Father, not man. We need to imitate Him. He did not placate his listeners, like so much of the New Age leaven that teaches humanity is one big happy family. Even Pope Francis has been quoted as saying that we are all the children of God. No. Jesus called the religious leaders of his day a brood of vipers, evil, and children of the devil. John said that becoming a child of God was a right given to those who received and believed in Jesus, not just any god. [John 1:12] Christian faith dares to uphold the specificity of one Mediator, not wishful generalizations in the name of unity, another false god. Did Paul mean unity in the sense that we ignore what is blatantly false for the sake of getting along? How did he view pagan religion? As one path among many to reach God? Then why even preach? This great man of faith suffered for the sake of the gospel and was beheaded for his faith in Christ not because Jesus was one of many gods, as if He has competing peers. Paul died a martyr because he knew “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” [Acts 4:12]

What about other teachers who talk about Jesus quite a bit but throw in an admixture of things that make us pause and say, “Hmm. That’s not quite right?” How did Paul handle these false teachers? He did not sit down and play patty-cake with them. Did he not say, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.” [Gal 1:8-10 ESV] Paul stuck to the Lord’s script and did not improvise to suit his own or his audience’s mood. Our Savior did not withhold hard sayings, either, like denouncing popular practices of his day such as divorce, or demanding preeminent love for him, or challenging the status quo. No. He taught things like “you heard it was said….but I say” and “woe to you scribes and Pharisees.” [Matthew 5] He turned crowds away from him with a boldness not of this world. [John 6:60-67] Our Savior was always about his Father’s business, not big business, preaching the good news, not filling the pews. [Luke 2:49]

Part IV: A Worldly Mock-Up

There is a spiritual tide taking the Church out into a very worldly sea, my friends. It is in its essence a slick marketing model. The spiritually healthy things that sinners need, like truth, reproof, doctrinal correction, and exhortation to do the right thing are often left out because they do not make sales conversions. And this marketing model is being replicated and imitated more and more. It is growing in many churches throughout more affluent countries, not because it is blessed, but because man’s sinful propensity is to jump on every bandwagon and march under every banner that seems so successful, so righteous, and so God-honoring that we must do it, too. But these things honor our egos more than Christ. We are told we can and will do great things for God if we [fill in the blank]. This appeals to our flesh. We all want to be great in the Kingdom of Heaven. But few of us want to be servants. Few of us want to suffer. Few of us want to labor in the vineyard while encountering thorns. Few of us want to wait patiently for our heavenly reward. Few of us want to bear our cross and suffer like the examples throughout scripture that we should be imitating.

For example, I do not see Paul justifying his own private luxury ship to fulfill his busy ministry itinerary. I do not see John living out his earthly life in a twenty-two bedroom mansion. I do not see Peter’s preaching engagements prefaced with a rock-band like production or opening show. No. They were not kings. They were not celebrities. They were not among the who’s who of the upper echelons. Their winsome personalities did not draw the world to Christ. Rather, Jesus said, “If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.” [Jhn 15:19 NIV] Our Lord speaks truth. He warned His disciples. They were indeed hated, mistreated, and killed by the world. The heroes of faith, those we actually read about in the bible and not in Christian media, were the ones who spoke truth, too, and were held in animosity because of it. [Heb 11:35-38]

Nowadays, we are being marketed spiritual greatness in the Kingdom sans the crown of thorns. And many are listening to this deception because all false teachers “are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. [1Jo 4:5 NIV] Brothers and sisters, it is better to be obedient to the Lord in the few things he gives us, to go unnoticed for them, and to desire only His glory–not our own popularity and success or visions of grandeur. [Matt 25:23] If we are faithful, He may give us more. That is the key. HE gives it. HE chooses the what, the when, and the how. If He impresses on us a clear need to care for an elderly parent but we would rather get out there and “do ministry,” guess what? Caring for one’s family honors God more than any of our grand ministry schemes ever could: “Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” [1Ti 5:8 NIV] It starts with humble obedience, day by day and task by task, not by entertaining thoughts about what great things God will do through us in the coming years. If we do this we will lose sight of obedience today and get carried away by all of our illusions of tomorrow. We don’t put on our can-do, let’s-make-it-happen attitudes stoked by some religious pep talk and take heaven by storm. The Kingdom does not work that way. It would be like an army’s privates telling their commanding officer that they plan to lead a key offensive against an enemy stronghold because they felt pretty jazzed and wanted to make him proud. The commander would just shake his head at the gall, naivety, and foolishness of assuming his capitulation to and blessing of insubordination and a reversal of the chain of command. Samuel told Saul, “What is more pleasing to the LORD: your burnt offerings and sacrifices or your obedience to his voice? Listen! Obedience is better than sacrifice, and submission is better than offering the fat of rams. [1Sa 15:22 NLT]

So, we see most modern “ministry” is merely religious, feel-good marketing because it appeals to the carnal nature of man. Preaching has shifted to using a bait-and-switch method of outreach that appeals to the flesh. You can be okay with God and assured of a heavenly home. These are half truths that lead one to hell. The gift is stressed more than the Giver to the point of muting out preaching on repentance from sin, practicing sacrificial love, warning about false doctrine, or preparing us to face persecution for the sake of Christ. It’s the have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too mentality found in almost any worldly ad campaign. We are following the crowd on how to “sell” our faith. We package it as nicely as we can to make it much to be desired. Heaven without hardship. A no-brainer offer. But what did Jesus warn? “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” [Mat 7:13-14 ESV] No wonder so many fall away when we sow on rocky ground. [Matt 13:20-21]

Now, we know who took the original fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil and made it so appealing. He first planted doubt in Eve’s mind, a suggestion to question the rightness of God’s command, so that the outright lie, “You will not die!,” could even sound somewhat credible. Disobedience became less weighty once the consequence of sin, death, was swept aside. All the negative aspects of disobedience were removed or not mentioned. That first slick salesman then proceeded to talk up the fruit’s amazing benefits, its key to knowledge and a god-like life. Sound like any of the overrated promises hawked today? How about something like my personal pet peeve, the “sowing a faith seed” gimmick. These TV hucksters promise you’ll get more from God back if you generously give to their ministry. You’ll see spiritual breakthrough. God’s blessings on you will flow! People long for these things. Yet what happens when the return on their investment isn’t seen? Often, bills go unpaid. In extreme cases, people may file for bankruptcy. Children can suffer for the financial need created. These are all interpersonal effects, but what about emotional? People can feel less-than for being tricked. People may become angry at God and abandon their faith when the rotten fruit falls. People can come to the wrong conclusions that God must not love them or their faith is tainted because the false promises held out are empty. See? Same tactic. Don’t mention any of the actual harmful consequences and just focus on the item’s desirability. It’s encroaching on the mainstream evangelical crowd, too. I can envision a billboard flashing the next gospel knockoff, something like: Ten Steps to Eternal Happiness–Now Showing at a Church Near You. Like a red tide, the slick methods of the world are leaching into how religion “does business.”

Most newer churches in America have coffee shops that rival Starbucks (remember when it was the old $40 Nesco coffee urns?). They have game rooms with big screen TVs and pool tables, rock concert-like worship music, holiday fanfare that uses stunts, and the like. It is no wonder that the cost of reaching the lost is snowballing with each added attraction needed to draw the crowd. One church unabashedly admits that these things are the bait to draw people in so they can “hear the gospel.” But is it the gospel these people are hearing? Or those half truths we mentioned? Or another gospel? And if the gospel in all its integrity can be heard, is this what the candy-tempted and gimmick-led crowd was seeking? A warm and fuzzy group of people, an opportunity to make new friends, an exciting modern atmosphere? Probably. And we aim to please. We have to go the extra mile to prove we’re a really cool bunch. It’s like we’re trying to make up for the bad rap Christianity gets, and justifiably so considering the human knack of determining guilt by association. Scandals like the Catholic church’s sexual abuse fiasco and subsequent cover-up, the bilking of the sheep in the name of tithing, or the psychological manipulation and dishonorable treatment of women by male church leaders. Friends, Jesus warned about the tares that would grow up with wheat. And by no means are we perfect, either. We can go the other extreme and we get stuck in the trap of selling a “perfect product” made and marketed by fallible people instead of a perfected people made and led by an infallible God, and we will despair. We should warn believers and unbelievers alike that we will all stand before God and give an account for what we have done. We need to remind the unsaved when they see hypocrisy what God will do with all the disobedient, the “workers of lawlessness.” We should expose them and their error, not bend over backwards to assure people we are not like them to the point of side-stepping straight talk about hard issues. We recuse ourselves from the dilemma by passing such topics off as too controversial, too offensive, or best left up to one’s “Christian freedom.” Lord, help us speak the truth in love.

Conclusion: Are We There Yet? YES!

So, what can we learn from all this? My hope is to reassure those that are reading the bible and asking themselves “What has happened to the Church?” that they are not alone. My prayers are for the misled sheep to gain spiritual sight so that their faith is not shipwrecked when they are stumbled. My purpose is to sift out error through the power of the Word. God’s Word is indeed a two-edged sword: it should be used to fight for and protect the children of God, but at the same time to reveal man’s sinful motives. It may be a wake-up call to some. My desire is for the lost to be truly found and not fall short of the promise. God’s heart and motive behind all He has said in his word is love, the same love that moved our God of glory to leave heaven for a foul manger, a finite body, and a cruel cross in order to restore our dignity and redeem us as His own.

Many may read this and explain it away by saying, “Well, our culture is different now so we need to use new methods, more relevant sermons, more modern means to reach the lost. Some claim the bible is no longer relevant in our modern culture. So, unlike the Bereans who searched the scriptures daily to confirm Paul and Silas’ gospel message, the answer nowadays is to disavow the power of God’s word and relegate it to obscurity instead of teaching its lifesaving truth. Wow. Isn’t this kind of like saying the bible is getting in the way of our ministry? My friends, do not fall for it. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” [Heb 13:8 ESV] So is His cross. If the gospel message was sufficient for the saving of souls in Paul’s day, if by it the Lord worked in power, if through it the Church was born, then it still retains its life-giving purpose. It remains the Church’s responsibility to preach it, regardless of our society’s criticism of our cherished book of God’s counsel, works, and words. If we feel we need to prop it up, tone it down, or tweak it to suit our own or another’s sensibilities, we are kowtowing to the masses at best. At worst, we are yielding to the spirit of the antichrist. We might even consider, too, that perhaps our ear-tickled world is nearing the point in time that Jesus referred to when He said, “Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” [Luk 18:8 ESV]

“Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.” [Heb 13:7 ESV]

“I [Jesus] can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me.” [Jhn 5:30 ESV]

“The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.” [Act 5:41 NIV]

Let us imitate our Lord and His faithful servants throughout the ages. Be encouraged to fight the good fight of the faith. Our power to do this comes from Him. We can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. [Phil 4:13] Amen.

Orthodoxy Drift: How Semantics, Euphemisms, & Coined Phrases Influence the Church–Part III

I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and will give them all these lands, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because Abraham obeyed me and did everything I required of him, keeping my commands, my decrees and my instructions.” [Gen 26:4–5 NIV]

‘”Abraham is our father,” they answered. “If you were Abraham’s children,” said Jesus, “then you would do what Abraham did.”‘ [Jhn 8:39 NIV]

This week, I’m picking up where we left off in the last post and forging ahead to the word “works” and how the semantics behind this word has caused a wide rift between Catholic and Protestant faith traditions and also seems to be shifting to what it was never meant to define, and, therefore, twisting God’s truth. As for myself, the tension between Paul and James had left me feeling very confused at one time, because my whole heart was to please the Lord, but it felt like if I “worked,” or served the Lord in any way, I would displease Him, and if I did nothing, that would displease Him, too. I was caught in a double bind. Perhaps it was only peculiar to my emotional makeup, but I think that in considering the constant push and pull engendered by this word in theological debate that it affects more folks than I imagine. I also truly believe that my struggle in this area will not be for naught, for as my good friend always says, “God wastes nothing!”

Maybe the best way to approach this is to define what the word “works” means, then discuss what it does not mean. First of all, the Hebrew word for “work” in the Old Testament is “maʿăśê” and means an action (either good or bad); an act, deed, or labor. In the New Testament, the Greek word is “ergon” and similarly means a deed, doing, labor, or work. In the Old Testament, the main idea behind the word is one’s actions, whether God’s or man’s. In the New Testament, again, it alludes to actions, as in the above cited scripture in John 8:39. The Mounce Interlinear phrases that scripture like this: “They answered him, saying, “Our father is Abraham!” Jesus said to them, “If you were really Abraham’s children, you would be doing the deeds [ergon] of Abraham.” So, the sense is always doing something, our actions. Both testaments agree. There are so many scriptures that show this that I won’t cite them all here. A good resource is the Blue Letter Bible, which lets you search a word or phrase and then look up the words in the original languages.

There is a similar Hebrew word, āśâ, that means simply “do,” that has also been tranlated “to work.” For example, Isaiah 64:5 says, “You meet him who joyfully works [āśâ] righteousness, those who remember you in your ways.” Which is confusing, because the very next scripture is translated in some bibles as, “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” The word for “righteous deeds” here is ṣᵊḏāqâ, which normally means “righteousness and justice” in a moral sense. For example, Deuteronomy 9:5 uses the same Hebrew word here:

Not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart are you going in to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations the LORD your God is driving them out from before you, and that he may confirm the word that the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. [ESV]

This is such an interesting verse because the Lord is warning the Israelites that they should not feel conceited or proud, as if their own natural morality has earned them their favored position with God. Rather, the Lord acts because the other nations are so wicked that He has deemed judgement necessary, and because He is fulfilling His promise to Abraham and his descendants. We know, from the verses that follow, that most of the Israelites were a “stiff-necked” people, stubborn: “Remember and do not forget how you provoked the LORD your God to wrath in the wilderness. From the day you came out of the land of Egypt until you came to this place, you have been rebellious against the LORD. [Deu 9:7 ESV] Moses goes on to list their faithless acts that show their lack of moral righteousness [ṣᵊḏāqâ].

So, I humbly suggest that the word ṣᵊḏāqâ should not be translated “righteous deeds,” in Isaiah 64:6, but, “righteousness,” or moral soundness, for the simple reason that the very preceding verse says that God meets those who joyfully work [āśâ] righteousness [ṣeḏeq, which is from the same root word listed above]. We can see from this that God welcomes righteous actions and justice–what he doesn’t condone is Israel’s unfaithful acts and disobedience under His rule. So, through our more modern lens, we see the words “righteous deeds” in verse 6 and associate it with Paul’s denunciation of works throughout his New Testament letters, that they are “filthy rags.” I suggest a fuller understanding is that the prophet spoke of the Israelite’s very moral fiber, their righteousness before God, or lack thereof as evidenced by their behavior, which better aligns with Deuteronomy 9:5.

The next logical questions would be, “Well, what was Paul’s definition of works?” I suggest that in his letters his emphasis is on “works of the law,” i.e. observance of the entire Mosaic Law, and often, specifically, circumcision. This seems to be a big contention back in his day, with some of the Jewish converts requiring and teaching that circumcision was still needed for Gentile believers. Paul vehemently denounces this, stating, “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.” [Gal 2:21 ESV] He is saying these Jewish converts are trying to add to initial belief in Christ, that in order to be righteous before God, to be saved, one had to also observe the custom of circumcision and the Law of Moses. This contradicts the Council of Jerusalem, where Peter there stated, “and He made no distinction between us and them [the Gentile believers], having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” [Act 15:9–11 ESV]

From this whole heresy by these Jews, Paul begins to reason out why rules and regulations do not save a person, but only our faith in Christ. He often drops from “works of the law” to the shortened “works,” which I think is confusing for young Christians. He must not mean righteous deeds done after we place our faith in Jesus, because he encourages those! He even EXPECTS that! For example, Paul’s famous line in Ephesians 2:8-9 is:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works [ergon], so that no one may boast.”

But we see in the very next verse that good works, good deeds, are part of God’s plan for us:

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works [ergon], which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. [Eph 2:10 ESV]

In the context of these verses, Paul is talking about the Mosaic Law, the “the law of commandments expressed in ordinances” (verse 15). Those works. Any works (external rules and regulations that supersede love and justice) set up by a religion that expects strict adherence or you will not be saved. Paul and the other Apostles argued that God welcomed the Gentiles, baptizing them in the Holy Spirit with the visible sign of speaking in tongues to confirm His acceptance. He did this once they put their faith in God’s Savior, not because they observed Jewish rules and regulations, or, for that matter, had done anything but repent and believe: “The time has come,” [Jesus] said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” [Mark 1:15 NIV] Once they were born again through the Holy Spirit’s power, they would do by their new nature the good things of God’s law, those things that called for a righteousness and justice in morality. They would grow in grace: “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” [Eph 4:15 ESV].

From all this we can see that in Paul’s mind, he defines “works” as rules and regulations that supposedly give us a favored relationship with God. Just as the Jewish people contradicted the spirit of God’s good law, we can do the same today. Like the Lord told Israel through the prophet Zephaniah, we can develop the same heart attitude: “Her prophets are unprincipled; they are treacherous people. Her priests profane the sanctuary and do violence to the law.” [Zep 3:4 NIV] For example, Jesus told the Jews, “But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.” [Luk 11:42 ESV] They practiced the rules, but had no moral fiber, no innate righteousness, no justice in their hearts. They stuck up their noses at “sinners” without thinking to help them to repent or show them kindness. They wanted to follow the rules. There was to be no work on a religious day, and they got angry with Jesus for healing sick folks on the Sabbath, viewing it not as mercy, but as a work. They accused Jesus of having a demon because He spoke truth that contradicted the Jews views and customs, yet He was God’s beloved Son.

Likewise, we can proudly tithe, go to church every Sunday, or sing in the choir, and we are satisfied because people see us do all these good things. Then we go home and arrange clandestine rendezvous with our lover, without thinking of love for our spouse. Then we go to work and steal from our employer. Then we go to the bar and get wasted, picking a fight with the quiet guy in the corner minding his own business. Then someone offends us, and we vow never to forgive them. Then we buy a big screen TV after refusing a meal to the homeless man on the corner. And we feel righteous? Like so many of the Israelites wandering in the desert, we behave abhorrently. We live faithless lives. For the love of God, where is the love of God? We twist what is good, namely, God’s grace, into an excuse to work our own selfish deeds: “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” [Gal 5:13–14 ESV]

So, we can see Paul is not saying that mere righteous actions after salvation contradict faith. If you are ever made to feel guilty for trying to express your love for God in doing good, tell the enemy, the father of lies, to talk to the hand. Just like Jesus “worked” on the Sabbath, we too can do good in the Sabbath rest of God. For instance, our scriptures cited under the heading show God said that BECAUSE of Abraham’s obedience and the keeping of His commands he would be blessed and shown God’s favor (the commands God gave him that came before the Mosaic Law, not the rules of some other menfolk who happened to set up religious shop). Abraham first believed the Lord–he took Him at His word. Then a beautiful obedience flowed from that heartfelt faith. Paul never indicates that any of Abraham’s actions were somehow a work. Rather, he emphasizes that God’s promise of favor came to him before the covenant of circumcision and the Law, therefore we don’t receive the Lord’s favor by performing rituals or following any rules. We receive favor by faith in and obedience to Christ. Paul argues that an outward rule does not touch the heart, that it can never engender true faith and therefore is quite powerless to change one’s life. But faith in Jesus IS life-changing, because He is THE Life-Changer! He is constantly working His grace in us to conform us into His own likeness. A rule cannot give life. It is itself a dead thing, and only produces after its own kind. Christ begets Christians (little reflections of Himself). Paul never advocates that because Abraham did nothing, that we should do nothing! Abraham would never have been a hero of faith or have been called God’s friend had he not acted out his faith.

Since I’m venturing into what “works” is not, what Paul does not have in mind, let’s discuss morality. May I state clearly that holiness is not a work–it is an expectation of conduct. Paul said, “[I] declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout all the region of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance. [Act 26:20 ESV] So many in the church today think that works include living a holy life, or conversely, excuse their lack of morality, their purposeful sin, by crying out, “Grace, grace!” Now, please don’t hear me wrong. The following is a warning to do you good, not condemn you if you repent. God is always trying to do you good! Now, the Lord himself states:

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does [poieō: to work, perform] the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works [miracles] in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers [ergazomai, a form of ergon] of lawlessness.’ [Mat 7:21–23 ESV]

“Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do [poieō] what I say? As for everyone who comes to me and hears my words and puts them into practice, I will show you what they are like. They are like a man building a house, who dug down deep and laid the foundation on rock. When a flood came, the torrent struck that house but could not shake it, because it was well built. But the one who hears my words and does not put them into practice is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. The moment the torrent struck that house, it collapsed and its destruction was complete.” [Luk 6:46–49 NIV]

So we see that moral and godly conduct is not a work. It is expected. It is fruit from the holy seed of rebirth and regeneration. Of course, this is the caveat. Morality without Christ is useless, for just like Paul reasons that if the Mosaic Law could make a person righteous, then Jesus did not need to come to earth, suffer, die, and be resurrected for our salvation. Like I stated in my last post, God has an order in salvation. The seemingly good things we try to do before salvation are works, because, for the most part, we are trying to please man or ourselves. The good things we do after salvation are fruit, because we are trying to please God.

We can see from all of this then that James is not contradicting Paul, he is contradicting those that misunderstand and misquote Paul. James says:

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.” Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds. You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that–and shudder. You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless? Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,” and he was called God’s friend. You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone. In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.” [Jas 2:14–26 NIV]

James cuts right through the ring bologna, the illogical conclusion that Paul means one needs to never do anything after we come to faith. Our faith is meant to produce a crop, to multiply, to produce fruit, not be buried like the inaction of the wicked and lazy servant (Luke 19:11-27). When James says, rather sarcastically, that even demons believe [pisteuō] there is one God, he is rather sassily saying, in modern English, “You say you have faith and don’t need anything to support it? That you believe in one God, and that’s enough? Well, you do beautifully well, ‘cuz folks, demons believe that, too. I’m just sayin’! How can I tell the difference between you two if I do not see your works (fruit)?” Brothers and sisters, our faith needs to be a living, breathing testimony to the belief that Jesus is the Savior and Good Teacher. If not, it would be like taking a physics class and learning all the theorems but never getting a job and putting your newfound knowledge to good use. If we tell someone in need to go and be warm and well-fed but do nothing to make it happen, how does our wish for them align with the outcome to see them well-fed and clothed? It would be like an artist confident that he or she can paint a beautiful masterpiece, but never picking up a paint brush! Doing good, then, is not work. Belief worth any salt will produce action.

So, James is correcting error, not Paul. We can see how semantics can be used by the enemy to lead people astray, even back then. And the enemy is still doing it today. I think for Martin Luther, his anger at the Church was directed toward the vice he saw rampant, the manipulation of the sheep, the consignment to superstition in so many “doctrines” that were unscriptural and made up by man. The leaders in Rome had fallen into the same trap and were rowing in the same boat as the Pharisees in Jesus’ day. In our present age, the pendulum has seemed to swing to the other ditch (so often the enemy gets us off track by going to extremes), so that faith is so simple you can practice ongoing sin and have it swept under the rug by grace. How does that work for a nine-year-old? Don’t they refrain from what they know is bad because they either fear being disciplined, or because they love their parents and see the good they desire for them? Guess what my next topic will be.

I just want to add that in my life, I have often felt the Lord’s good correction and his love for me behind it. But there have been times that seem like the Lord is harsh. I firmly believe that if the result of what you are thinking or feeling is defeat or complete rejection, that this is the enemy trying to dishearten you. If your thinking or feeling is that you regret your sin and want to turn from it, and you are thankful for the correction, this is the Lord’s loving hand. I feel like the enemy’s tactic is to make a thrashing seem like it is from our Abba. It’s kind of like how a good father will sit down and correct us, maybe even dole out discipline, like grounding, but the evil neighbor comes over, blindfolds us, and gives us a beating. So be aware, brothers and sisters, that the Lord only desires our good: “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.” [2Co 7:10 NIV] Our God is the Author of life! Just because as a believer we are corrected does not mean that our Father has rejected us. Matter of fact, it shows that we are indeed His children:

Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined–and everyone undergoes discipline–then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. [Hebrews 12:7–8 NIV] And again, “My son, do not despise the LORD’s discipline, and do not resent his rebuke, because the LORD disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in. [Proverbs 3:11–12 NIV] See? He corrects us because He LOVES and DELIGHTS in us! Please hear me: if the enemy is calling you a failure, a loser, a no good so-and-so, with no hope of remedy, this is spiritual battle. The proper mindset is to confess our sin and know that God is faithful and just to forgive us AND purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9) Once we do that, once we humble ourselves before the Lord, we are submitting to God. THEN we resist the devil and he will FLEE! [James 4:7] Yes. AFTER we repent and submit to God, we can tell the devil to go retire to a warmer climate and, as one dear brother I know suggested, remind him of his final fate. Amen.

Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” [Luke 10:19–20 ESV]

We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but He who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him. [1 John 5:18 ESV]

Are Christians Supposed to Make the World a Better Place?

“Jesus said…In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth.” –John 18:37

I’ve often heard people, well-meaning believers in our Lord Jesus Christ, say things like: “We need to make a difference in our world, in our country, in our community, and in our homes.” Or, “Let’s get out there and change the world.” Should we? Or do we, ever so subtly, even by something seemingly good, get sidetracked from our vocation as Christians? I often have felt a check in my spirit when I hear things like this. Up until maybe 4 or so years ago, statements like this confused and weighted me down. I would ask the Lord, “What do you want me to do? Should I start a charity for refugees, protest for the anti-abortion movement, support veterans, fight for civil rights?” The list expands with every desperate need we see in society. So the Lord Jesus has taught me something from all this that I’d like to share with you, with the hopes that it will keep you on task and at peace.

First, let me ask that you read this with care and knowing that love is the motivation. I am NOT saying we are never called to do good works. That is unscriptural. “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2:10). I merely want to draw your attention to the purpose and order of our to-do lists, which, sadly, these days are way too long. We live in a world of Marthas! Remember that it was Mary, sitting at Jesus’ feet, that chose the good part. It is a distraction and tactic of the enemy to drive a wedge between us and our Lord—always doing and having little time to build our friendship with the Lord. When we love others, we want to spend time with them, yes? How much more should we spend quiet time alone with our Lord and Savior, prayerfully reading His Word and enjoying His presence. He has called us to friendship, not a productivity initiative. We first have to receive from Him, then share it with others.

To start off with, lets talk about our purpose in doing good works. What did Jesus say? “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16). Is our purpose here to make a difference in the world? Or to bring glory to God? I beg you to see that our purpose behind our good works is to bring the magnificence of our God to light. So that we can point lost people to Him, not ourselves. So many churches have big programs and events and drives and whatnot. What gets headlined in the local paper or their own web site? Their church! I suppose the idea is to get people to church to hear the gospel. Then they get there to find lots of friendly people, coffee bars, rock concert-type music, and a message that basically says, “God loves you just the way you are.” Which is true in the sense that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” But then they say, “Hey, this church ain’t so bad!” But I suspect most folks walk away with the idea that God loves them so much that they need not change their sinful way of life. This is perverted love! What parent would allow or encourage their son or daughter to continue using something like heroin if it would destroy their life or even cause their death? Is the Lord less loving than a human parent?

I digress a bit, but the preaching of repentance is sadly missing in our seeker-focused churches we have today. But we hear, “God’s love is unconditional.” This is a lie straight from hell. I’m not saying His love is withheld if we do wrong, but it is enforced! Most unchurched people use the term unconditional love to mean that God accepts me as who I am and will allow me to do whatever I want. He will never tell me I’m doing wrong, because that’s being judgmental. ?! Listen. When you get a call at 2 AM from a police officer who informs you that your son or daughter was picked up for drunk driving and has totaled the family car, most parents say, “Oh, that’s okay. No big deal. We will buy them another car so they can go kill themselves or someone else in a head-on collision going the wrong way on the freeway of life. After all, we love them. They’re our child. We need to cheer them on!” NOT. So, anyone who argues that God’s love is unconditional in an attempt to excuse their sin, I challenge to let their own children run their home. Let’s see how that turns out. The church needs to let the Lord run His home, not placate sinners.

Repentance is the one main ingredient lacking in the gospel message today. I even read somewhere that repentance is a work and therefore not necessary because salvation is by grace. This is twisted. Please read in the Word how the apostles preached. Paul said, “[I] declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout all the region of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance.” (Acts 26:20) Even ‘[Jesus} said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”‘ (Luke 24:47)

There are many more scriptures I could list. Bottom line is that the modern church looks more like the world than a Jesus follower because its kowtowing to the society’s likes and dislikes. Sermons are more akin to a sales pitch or grand marketing scheme to draw the most conversions, because mega is “in” and truth is so outmoded. What does the bible say? “Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.” (2 Timothy 4:2-4)

It feels so good to scratch an itch. The Church needs to stop it’s co-dependent relationship with its members. The coffers may run dry, the pews may look pretty empty, but let’s let the truth be told out of love. Paul said, “To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.” (Romans 2: 7-8) What? Works? No. Holiness and righteousness are not works. They are fruit! Remember, Paul said this, the champion of salvation by grace through faith! We need to repent. Itching ears need truth or they will perish. We may even be surprised at the result when we stop striving to fill the seats and let the Lord of Hosts do His saving work.

Okay. So the purpose of our good works is to bring glory to our loving God, out of love for Him and our neighbor. The next point I want to make is the order of our to-do lists. What should be our priority? What is our purpose in this world which is passing away? What was Jesus’ purpose? “In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth.” (John 18:37) What was the disciples’ purpose? “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.” (Acts 1:8) We are to be witnesses for Christ, preaching His gospel, testifying to His truth. The Lord’s desire is to fill his house! This should be our number one priority. We can lobby for anti-abortion laws, protest for civil rights, be a champion for the homeless, but if the gospel message is not preeminent, the work will swallow up the purpose of our lives. Truthfully, if our focus gets shifted to the cause, we end up with the same sad world BECAUSE it is the Lord who changes hearts, not man-made laws or government action. The laws may change, but the individual’s heart remains cold. I am NOT saying that any of these causes are not good. I am saying they are out of order. God wants us to speak truth so that He can renew and conform us into the image of his Son. A law does not do this. Only the gospel message can. “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.” (Romans 1:16)

Brothers and sisters, please understand. A follower of Jesus is not called to make the world a better place! No amount of doing good will fix this world. Jesus did the ultimate good. He died for us and has given us new life. Did this change the world in the sense of making it a utopia? The early church was brimming with good works. How did they fare in making the world a better place? Who is the ruler of this world? Did Jesus tell us it will eventually get better over time? Or worse? Did he not ask that at the day of his coming, will he find faith on the earth? My concern is that this “better place” thinking is more of a New Age type idea, that if enough people get together and do good to one another, they will impact the world for the better and will evolve into superior humans. Do they see good results? Yes, at times. But devoid of a clear gospel message, people may have all their rights secured and their bellies filled but they are still going to hell. The fix is temporal, not eternal. We need to stay on task. The Apostles preached and testified about Jesus and worked hard making disciples. They apparently, if you look at the world then and now, did not make it a better place. They made eternity a better place!

So what should a Christian do when the world tempts us with all its needs? Look to a person’s overarching need for salvation, then let the Lord supply. Otherwise, we go bankrupt. We have not enough resources or energy or power. Our heavenly Father, on the other hand, can reach into his infinite storehouse. Listen. When we feel tugged and guilty to meet some need in our world, and feel overwhelmed with the task, that is not the Lord calling you to serve. It is a distraction. Jesus, God in the flesh, did not abolish slavery or any other “just” cause because he stayed on task. He came to seek and save the lost. It was His mission, and it should be ours. I am not saying to not get involved in any of the things I’ve mentioned. Just don’t let it distract you from the top of the list. Pray for direction. Do not feel “pushed” or burdened with guilt. It is the order of things that I contest. Any good to society that comes from our good works must ride on the coattails of the gospel message, or it loses its eternal value. So let’s focus on making eternity a better place. Let’s be about the Father’s desire to make His house in eternity full. Amen.

“Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full.” —Luke 14:23