Monthly Archives: July 2013

Lessons in not listening

This reporter’s “conversation” with Muslim writer, Reza Aslan, is a decent example of how Christians should not engage people of other religious backgrounds. Watch the video; make your own applications.

(Thanks Nathanael Matanick for posting this link)

Sermon ||”The Servant Jesus”|| @ Reality LA

I have been on a three-week vacation with my family, away from most social media during that time. I’m back! I am working on some future content, but in the meantime, here is a sermon I gave yesterday at Reality LA from Matthew 12:15-21.

James Abbreviated: Chapter 3

Continuing our series, James Abbreviated, let’s tackle chapter 3!

You should read the first post in the series because it sets up every chapter to come. The intent is to show God’s desire for his people to grow to a mature faith, birthed in the kiln of our trials, and shown by the right way we treat one another; all seen in the Christ-like balance between immersion in the world to love our neighbor, and the setting apart for holiness unto God—something only the wisdom of God can help us navigate.

James chapter 2 and 3 are a thoughtful unfolding of James 1:27: “Pure and undefiled religion before our God and Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” We saw in the last blog post that chapter two is an exposition of the command to look after orphans, widows, and more broadly, those who are in distress. Interestingly, as the chapter progresses, it emphasized this call to show mercy, specifically on those in the family of God. A good summary of chapter two is, “If you are a Christ follower, you will love all of Christ’s people”

Now, in chapter 3, James gives an explanation for the first half of v 27, namely, “to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

There are many great points made in James chapter 3, but I suggest one that emerges as the most definitive of the chapter (in bold). As usual, I will offer what I think are the supporting verses, with key verses in italics.

Holiness is manifest in your speech

James 1:1-12 “Not many should become teachers, my brothers, knowing that we will receive a stricter judgment, 2 for we all stumble in many ways. If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a mature man who is also able to control his whole body. 3 Now when we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we also guide the whole animal. 4 And consider ships: Though very large and driven by fierce winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. 5 So too, though the tongue is a small part of the body, it boasts great things. Consider how large a forest a small fire ignites. 6 And the tongue is a fire. The tongue, a world of unrighteousness, is placed among the parts of our bodies. It pollutes the whole body, sets the course of life on fire, and is set on fire by hell. 7 Every sea creature, reptile, bird, or animal is tamed and has been tamed by man, 8 but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 We praise our Lord and Father with it, and we curse men who are made in God’s likeness with it. 10 Praising and cursing come out of the same mouth. My brothers, these things should not be this way. 11 Does a spring pour out sweet and bitter water from the same opening? 12 Can a fig tree produce olives, my brothers, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a saltwater spring yield fresh water” (HCSB).

While this section of Scripture is easy enough to understand on it’s own terms, I always wondered how it fit in to the rest of James.

For example, how does “experiencing trials” (1:2) relate to the tongue? Or “keeping oneself unstained by the world” (27b)? Or the sin of favoritism (2:1)? Fortunately, chapter 3 is easy enough to understand that most people can apply it to their life niche. Pastors and school teachers may think of their vocation when reading the stern warning of “stricter judgment” found in vv. 1-2. Some are reminded of the fiery hell that is our tongue in vv. 3-6 when we gossip or lash out verbally. Maybe others just think of the zoo when they read of horses (v 3), sea creatures, reptiles, and birds (v 7) :-) But verse 11 sharply refocuses our attention by providing us with a summary of chapter 3:

“Does a spring pour out sweet and bitter water from the same opening?” (v 11)

I’m bringing our attention to verse 11 as the key verse because it unifies the first 12 verses of James’s warning over the destructive nature of the tongue, words, and speech. James defines the tongue as lit by hell itself—it’s not on fire, it is a fire (v 6); he implicates anyone that teaches verbally (v 1); he describes the tongue’s ability to destroy other people (v 8); and after launching into more analogous indictments against human speech, his deep theme emerges: “Does a spring pour out sweet and bitter water from the same opening?” (v 11). James is prosecuting the human heart as the real culprit behind our sinful speech, for if we were holy, only sweet water would pour out of our springs; likewise, bitter waters flow from dead faith (2:26). These first seemed like a bunch of unrelated proverbs, but from a bird’s-eye view of the text, James’s point is overt: holiness of heart is manifest in holiness of speechOur words do not save us, but they do identify us.

This, of course, flows seamlessly from chapters one (God matures our faith with trials, in and through right relationships with Christ’s people) and chapter two (Christ followers love all of Christ’s people).

Now, this brings us to the sudden shift at the end of chapter 3:

Who is wise and has understanding among you? He should show his works by good conduct with wisdom’s gentleness. 14 But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your heart, don’t brag and deny the truth. 15 Such wisdom does not come from above but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where envy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every kind of evil. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peace-loving, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without favoritism and hypocrisy. 18 And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who cultivate peace.

James is setting up an ultimatum.

This may seem disconnected from the rest of the chapter, but remember, we are looking at everything from a view of 30,000 feet so we can leave with a broad and unifying theme that holds these chapters (and book) together. With that in mind, read that paragraph again (vv. 13-18) and see if you can spot some repeating words, phrases, thoughts, or themes.  Read the rest of this entry

We Still Need The Grace of God

“For the grace of God has appeared with salvation for all people, instructing us to deny godlessness and worldly lusts and to live in a sensible, righteous, and godly way in the present age” – Titus 2:11-12 (HCSB)

Law and Grace (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I began preaching five years ago. The first four years were at Adorn college gathering, but eventually overlapped with our regular Sunday morning gatherings. Most of these sermons had a specific culmination: the grace of God.

It started when I read C.J. Maheney’s book, The Cross-Centered Life; it lodged itself in my mind when I read Elyse Fitzgerald’s Because He Loves Me; it bled through every imperative from Paul, every action by Jesus, every Davidic stanza penned in the Psalms; it was in every letter, gospel, and epistle; and summarily codified in the legendary one-liner attributed to Timothy Keller: “You are not loved because you are valuable; you are valuable because you are loved.” The grace of God. My love for God experienced a new vitality after this scandalous, but uniquely Christian concept intercepted my religion. This unnerving notion that God accepts me, and continues to accept meapart from what I do.

It also affected my preaching. In the aftermath of some of those sermons, I received emails, tongue-lashings, rebukes, scolds, and reprimands, with the intent to warn me that the God of grace is also the God of holiness; the preaching of too much grace is liable to start a Christians Gone Wild euphoria, unless we lay down the Law; for “if we keep telling people God will accept them in Christ regardless of what they do, they will have no incentive to pursue holiness.”

Legalism is well-intentioned.

There are grace-abusers (Antominians) who use Christ as a get-out-of-jail-free card, however delusional their sense of salvific security is. But over-correcting grace by relying on the Law is reprehensible, giving substance to Paul’s warning: “After beginning with the Spirit, are you now going to be made complete by the flesh?” (Gal 3:3, HCSB). Our response to Antominianism must be better than this.

Now, I am not for the abolishing of God’s Law.

Neither is Paul.

Or James.

Or Jesus.

Holy living is inextricably linked to Christianity.

But this wasn’t my problem. Motivation was the problem I wrestled with in the earliest years at Adorn. How do we get people to practice holiness? In an effort to figure this out, I spent a lot of time shouting from the pulpit (I still do!), spelling out the rules (I still do), and exhorting the congregation to consider the call of God on their lives (I still do this too). But what was missing in some of those early sermons and conversations, and most powerfully transformed lives when it was eventually taught, was the grace of God. So…

I began to preach grace.

It was almost experimental at first. And I felt bad doing it, like I was giving away hundred dollar bills. I especially emphasized grace as a necessity in Christians. Some left the church. But we kept right on exploring the concept of God’s grace together. We grew in holiness, mission, relationship, and enjoyment of Christ, and by the same grace that regenerated us to begin with. Like Paul, we discovered the mystery of the gospel. Our struggle with holiness was not from overemphasizing grace, but under-emphasizing it!

Counter-intuitive??

I thought so. Our gut reaction is to obligate people (and ourselves) to try harder. Even when we are saved “by grace,” we are quick to revert to a list of requirements needed to keep our salvation intact. No wonder the gospel makes little sense to so many (1 Cor 1:18); it is not the plan we would have come up with. It’s not even the plan many Christians believe! Rescuing ourselves is our favorite addiction.

But God’s grace has an insatiable appetite. It doesn’t stop at our conversion, but is also “instructing us to deny godlessness and worldly lusts.” (Titus 2:11); it is the power behind my initial justification and my ongoing sanctification; it is what enables us to obey the Law of God. Paul was right. We still need to grace of God. And the more of God’s grace we experience, the more it begins to intersect with our day-to-day lives. God’s grace teaches us to “to live in a sensible, righteous, and godly way in the present age” (v 12). How incredible this would be!

We often think of global missions as radical (it is!), but extending grace to others as God has to us in Christ is also pretty crazy. Try it this week! Next time you get into an argument, or are unjustly treated, or have a little disagreement, or are just plain irritated with someone, consider these potent words from Paul:

Let your speech always be with grace” (Col 4:6, NASB).

The person at the receiving end of your grace may not be transformed before your eyes. But you will be.

James Abbreviated: Chapter 2

This is the second post in our series, James Abbreviated!

This one shouldn’t be as lengthy as the first one, but you will need to read the first post in the series because it sets us up for every chapter to come. The summary of chapter one went something like this: God desires for his people to grow to a mature faith, birthed in the kiln of our trials, and shown by the right way we treat one another; all of which is the Christ-like balance between immersion in the world to love our neighbor, and the setting apart for holiness unto God—something we need the wisdom of God to help us navigate.

Before we move on, I want you to take special notice of the underlined sections of that summary towards the end. I got these two ideas from James 1:27,

“Pure and undefiled religion before our God and Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”

The first half of James’s sentence (“to look after orphans and widows”) suggests the immersion in the world to love our neighbor, while the second half (“keep oneself unstained by the world”) is where I got the setting apart for holiness unto God. I’m bringing this up, because I think James chapter 2 and chapter 3 are a thoughtful unfolding of these two concepts. James chapter 2 unpacks the imperative to look after orphans, widows, and more broadly, those who are in distress. What is interesting is that as the chapter progresses, it focuses our call to show mercy specifically on the family of God.

Here are the two main points that stand out in James chapter two (in bold), followed by what I think is the supporting passage, with key verses in italics.

Christians must look after their own poor

vv.1-8 “My brothers, do not show favoritism as you hold on to the faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. 2 For example, a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and a poor man dressed in dirty clothes also comes in. 3 If you look with favor on the man wearing the fine clothes and say, “Sit here in a good place,” and yet you say to the poor man, “Stand over there,” or, “Sit here on the floor by my footstool,” 4 haven’t you discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? 5 Listen, my dear brothers: Didn’t God choose the poor in this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that He has promised to those who love Him? 6 Yet you dishonored that poor man. Don’t the rich oppress you and drag you into the courts? 7 Don’t they blaspheme the noble name that was pronounced over you at your baptism? 8 Indeed, if you keep the royal law prescribed in the Scripture, Love your neighbor as yourself , you are doing well. “

This lengthy paragraph suggests three things:

  1. James addresses a church of believers (not just anyone). He uses Mediterranean strong-family terminology: “My brothers” (v 1, 14); “my dear brothers” (v 5); “a brother or sister” (v 15).
  2. James brings up a specific discrimination in the church. He points out that certain believers were giving preference to other believers based on their affluence; and points out the irony of the act, accusing the discriminate believer of “dishonoring that poor man” (v 6).
  3. James condemns discrimination in the church. We see this in his quotation of the Great Commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (v 8), and roundly exposes favoritism as the antithesis of the Law (v 9).
  • These three points show us that favoritism in the church, especially in relation to those who are poor, lowly, or discriminated against, is a shameful transgression of God’s heart.

But watch how James connects this ongoing thought to the rest of the chapter…

Read the rest of this entry

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