A Must-Read: “How to Give Away Your Faith,” by Paul Little

“So you want to witness!  I did too, but I didn’t have a clue how to do it without stubbing my toe in the process.”  (17)

 Introduction

             In How to Give Away Your Faith, Paul Little shares his wisdom gained from many years of experience in personal evangelism.  Little often spoke to students about spiritual matters on college campuses around the country in seminars and more informal settings, gaining a wealth of knowledge concerning the cares, concerns, and obstacles unbelievers–especially students–have in relation to the gospel.  His experience in this area makes this book an invaluable resource for Christians in fulfilling the Great Commission.

Summary

            While many books have been written proposing methodology of witnessing and many books have been written about the proper theological content of the gospel, in How to Give Away Your Faith, Paul Little marries the two subjects in a work that is both practical and theological in nature.  Little begins his book with some practical advice to the would-be-witness: witnessing is comprised of two components, one verbal and one non-verbal.  Little notes that a Christian’s gospel presentation will only be taken as seriously by the unbeliever as it is by the believer—if a genuine Christian lifestyle is not in place, the verbal witness will likely be ineffective.  True, saving faith, Little observes, will always produce a godly lifestyle (32).

In the next chapter, Little describes various actions or attitudes which can either repulse or attract non-Christians, laying a practical foundation for becoming an “effective ambassador” for Christ.  He points out that oftentimes what Christians perceive to be a rejection of the gospel is nothing more than a rejection of the obnoxious methods used to convey the gospel, not the message itself, noting that the Christian witness must achieve a balanced enthusiasm for the gospel in order to be an effective ambassador (40).  In chapter three, Little lays out an eight step process for witnessing, drawn from his observations of Jesus’ witnessing method to the Samaritan woman at the well.  In chapter four, he continues his practical wisdom by acknowledging some of the many social obstacles Christians frequently encounter when witnessing and lays out some basic principles and guidelines for overcoming these obstacles.

In chapter five, Little shifts from his practical and methodological focus to a more theological one.  In this chapter, Little deals with the theological content of the gospel message and also offers several practical arrangements for presenting it.  His focus, however, is primarily on clearly defining what the gospel message is (and isn’t) and how to truthfully and accurately convey this message (93-95).  Chapter six is primarily apologetic in nature, offering concise responses to seven basic questions that Christians should be prepared to answer about their faith, including the infamous questions of “the problem of evil” and “what about those who’ve never heard?” (116-134)  Chapter seven addresses the relevancy of Christianity in modern culture.  Little notes that Christ fills the spiritual void in our lives, provides purpose, gives us hope over death, provides inner peace, is an ever-present friend, helps us control our fleshly appetites, and helps us integrate our knowledge in a way that puts all truth in its proper context and relation to God’s universe and plan (141-151).

In the final three chapters, Little deals with facets of the Christian walk which can affect one’s witness to unbelievers.  Chapter eight deals with worldliness and the topic of Christian liberties.  Chapter nine deals with the daily battles for faith and holiness.  Finally, in chapter ten Little exhorts the believer to focus on the spiritual disciplines of Bible reading and prayer which, he concludes, are necessary in order for the Christian to be spiritually charged enough to be an effective witness (198).

Critical Evaluation

             Paul Little’s book, How to Give Away Your Faith, contains both instruction on the content of the gospel message in addition to practical methodological advice garnered from years of evangelistic encounters.  Thus, it will be helpful in this review to critique both separately.

One beneficial aspect of Little’s overview of the content of the gospel message is that he concisely summarizes the gospel in a way that avoids the two extremes often observable in other similar works.  First, he is conscious of the fact that no book on evangelism would be complete without careful consideration of this topic; Little avoids a purely methodological work which gives no attention to the message conveyed in the gospel presentation.  Secondly, he avoids over-complicating the message in a way that would leave the reader confused or less certain of the basic message.  Little avoids the error of other authors by keeping the message simple and plain, even breaking it down into five basic facts: the person of Jesus Christ, his diagnosis of the sinful human nature, the facts and meaning of his death, the facts and meaning of his resurrection, and steps to becoming a Christian (95-101).  Although I would have liked to have seen a more explicit discussion of the aspects of “Lordship” and “counting the cost” in his discussion of becoming a Christian, his gospel presentation is essentially theologically sound.  One thing I enjoyed in his discussion of the content of the gospel is that Little also provides instruction for encouraging a new Christian.  This is a step often neglected in other works, but is critical for the sanctification of the new believer.  However, as previously mentioned, I would prefer to see more of an emphasis on lordship in this section than on “assur[ing] the believer of salvation…” (106)  Assurance is given by God’s Word and the Holy Spirit as the believer lives in accordance with the Bible’s instruction.  Providing assurance is not the job of the witness but of the Holy Spirit.  Stressing obedience and the process of sanctification, however, is something that the witness can—and should—do.

Much of Little’s book deals with the practical and methodological considerations of witnessing to non-Christians.  I found the chapter on overcoming social barriers to be especially insightful.  For instance, Little states that when offered an alcoholic drink Christians often reply, “No thanks, I’m a Christian.”  While we may feel that such a reply is a good witness, Little remarks that it actually has the same effect on the non-believer as saying, “Drinking is inherently non-Christian.  You clearly aren’t a Christian since you’re drinking.”  While unintended, this statement may come across as a “holier-than-thou” attitude and actually damage our witness to these people.  Instead, Little suggests opting out of such activities on the basis of personal preference or simply asking for a soda as a substitute (80-81).  Little’s observations in chapter three of Jesus’ method of witnessing were also very helpful, especially his observation that Jesus was able to dodge questions that had the ability to side-track the conversation (72).  While I also found helpful his advice not to use the question “Are you a Christian?” to lead into a conversation, I did not find the question he uses (“Have you ever personally trusted Jesus Christ or are you still on the way?”) particularly helpful.  While I do like that Little offers the “easy out” in the second half of this question (“are you still on the way”), the first half seems loaded with Christian jargon that might be difficult for a non-Christian to understand and is entirely subjective and difficult to evaluate.  After all, what does it mean to “trust Jesus” and how would a non-Christian know how far along “the way” they are to becoming a Christian if they don’t even know what “the way” is?  For a question that is meant to diagnose one’s spiritual condition, this question seems inadequate.  I would prefer a series of questions that is more objective: for instance, “Do you believe in heaven/hell?  Which do you think you’ll go to and why?”  These would offer an instant look into both the person’s spiritual progress and their religious presuppositions.

Conclusion

             While there are a couple relatively minor changes I would make in Little’s methods and the content of his gospel presentation, I can say that I would highly recommend this book without reservation.  This book is a monumental accomplishment as it effectively partners biblically based methodology with sound theological content to adequately prepare the Christian to be a good gospel witness.  This book is extremely accessible to laity, also, making it ideal for small group studies in a church environment.  I currently know of no other book which accomplishes what Little has done in How to Give Away Your Faith, and I fully intend on using this book as a resource in the church to which I minister.

Little, Paul E., Little, Marie, ed. How to Give Away Your Faith. rev. ed. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press,2008. 202 pp. $15.00.

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10 Things Christians Might Consider in this Political Season

I get daily emails from Crosswalk, and they are usually pretty good. This one, however, was especially well written. Since I couldn’t say it better myself, I will just repost it:

10 Things Christians Might Consider in this Political Season
Daniel Darling

So now the primaries are officially over and we have a contest between President Obama and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney for the Presidency of the United States. Inevitably, American Christians will fall on one side or the other in what will likely be a long, divisive, tough campaign to the end. So, how should we as followers of Christ act during election season? This isn’t the last word and it isn’t an exhaustive list, but here are a few things we might consider:

1) Remember to be grateful for the election. As Americans, we live in a representative republic, so we have the rare opportunity to shape our government. Partisanship and politics can be wearying and noisy and half-crazy at times, but at least we have the freedom to express ourselves and to vote. This isn’t happening in most countries around the world. So just at the point when you’re tired of looking at political signs and a bit weary of the sloganeering, remember those dissidents who sit in jail cells around the world, merely for having an opposing thought. We have a stewardship to vote, granted by God, and we should use it responsibly.

2) Don’t put your trust in chariots. Be grateful for the opportunity to elect the president you feel will best lead our country. But don’t fall into the trap that everything in history and in your life depends on one rainy Tuesday in November. Don’t be a practical atheist, white-knuckling election night, sweating every ebb and flow of the season, and acting as if you need to build a fortified bunker if “the wrong guy wins.” Advocate and work for your guy, but put your trust in the Lord. God holds history in the palm of his hand and is not at all worried sick about which party controls the levers of power in America.

3) Ignore most of the political appeals you hear from both sides. To win in modern American politics, you have to paint the other guy as something a combination of an axe murder, a village idiot, and a helpless puppet. You have to dig for an scent of scandal, blow it up in an ominous, black-and white ad, and convince people that if this guy wins you might as well move to Canada. Both sides will do this. But the truth is somewhere in between. It is a good idea to periodically tune out the election news during election season, toss those pesky mailers, and hang up your phone when you hear the gravel-voiced narrator begin his robo-calls of doom.

4) Advocate issues, avoid the petty stuff. It’s amazing how easily campaigns delve into petty stuff like how many vacations the President takes, the color of the First Lady’s dress, and the habits of the candidates while in high school. Vote for a guy because he holds positions closest to yours. Advocate issues of importance and weight. Resist being drug into the gutter and arguing for or against issues that have little or no consequence.

5) Avoid the “ends-justifies-the-means” of politics. When President Bush was in office the left smeared him unfairly, comparing him to Hitler and tarring him as a war criminal. This was unfair. So now that President Obama is in office, many on the Right feel what was good for one side is good for the other. “All is fair in love and war,” we say. This is true … unless you happen to be a follower of Christ and you’re commanded, repeatedly, to measure your words, to be kind, to love, to speak truth. Remember that even in politics, you are to act and talk like a Christian.

6) Don’t let your political differences ruin friendships. It is easy to allow political differences to drive a wedge in important friendships. But we must prize our love for our brothers and sisters in the Lord and our friendships with those outside the faith, above the strong opinions we hold. That doesn’t mean we back down, it means we find a way to get along with people with whom we disagree. Friendships within and without the church are vital for gospel ministry. Don’t let the temporal of politics get in the way of the eternal.

7) Don’t fall for conspiracy theories. Don’t forward emails that are less than true or haven’t been verified by reputable sources. Its easy to want to believe the worst about our political enemies, but God calls us to believe the truth (1 Corinthians 13; Philippians 4:8). Don’t post on Facebook or Twitter questionable stories or theories. As Christians we should be about truth.

8) Don’t allow politics to convince you to hate those whom Jesus has called you to love. Politics likes to divide things up nicely into good guys and bad guys, to see the “other side” as the enemy. If you read enough political blogs and listen to talk radio and watch enough cable news, you will soon develop a mentality that sees only those who agree with you as good people and the rest as enemies. Furthermore, it clouds the real battle. We’re told in Scripture that people are not the enemy, Satan is. And our fight is never against mere mortals, but part of a larger, worldwide spiritual conflict (Ephesians 6:2). Plus, if you convince yourself to hate certain segments, how then can you lovingly reach them with the good news of the gospel?

9) Avoid the “out there” mentality. The weakness of political engagement is that it lends itself away from self-reflection. The partisan mind constantly thinks all the worst problems in the world are “out there.” The gospel, however, forces us into sober self-reflection. It reminds us that the real problem is inside, in our own depraved hearts. The Apostle Paul, who lived under the oppression of a wicked and tyrannical government, said “I am the chief of sinners.” He didn’t point to Nero. He said, “No, I’m the biggest problem.” It’s easy to blame Hollywood, Wall Street, and the media for all of our woes, but if we were honest and allowed the gospel to penetrate our hearts, we’d realize that we are our own worst enemies.

10) Look for a better city. Politics is driven by a God-given longing for utopia, a desire for perfection, by the dawning reality that life on this earth is not how it should be. Politicians come along and promise to fix things, to build that utopian dream we all desire. The problem is that politicians are flawed. They are not saviors. And this world is cursed by sin. So like Abraham, we must look for another city, whose “builder and maker is God” (Hebrews 11:1). One day Christ will return as reigning King and will set up the ultimate, perfect Kingdom.

Well said. Let’s not forget who we are this voting season, and let’s remember who the true enemy is.

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What’s your epitaph?

As a youth pastor, I am keenly aware that my actions have a significant effect on those to whom I minister. But, oftentimes, I am tempted to think that I can isolate areas of my private life with no affect on my ministry. As a leader, minister, or parent it is tempting to think that our private sins (either of commission or omission) can be effectively isolated from our ministry or realm of influence, since “what they don’t know can’t hurt them.” But this path of thinking is not only dangerous, but flat out wrong. Having just finished reading the books of the Chronicles, i was struck by the repetitive epitaphs given for each of the kings. Of course, these epitaphs are no theological secret, but what struck me most was the close, inevitable parallel between the kings’ epitaphs and those of their people. For example, take II Chronicles 33:2-6:

And [Manasseh] did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, according to the abominations of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel. For he rebuilt the high places that his father Hezekiah had broken down, and he erected altars to the Baals, and made Asherahs, and worshiped all the host of heaven and served them. And he built altars in the house of the Lord…And he burned his sons as an offering in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, and used fortune-telling and omens and sorcery, and dealt with mediums and with necromancers. He did much evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking him to anger…

But the effects of Manasseh’s evil were not confined to himself, or even just his family:

Manasseh led Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem astray, to do more evil than the nations whom the Lord destroyed before the people of Israel. The Lord spoke to Manasseh and to his people, but they paid no attention. (II Chronicles 33:9-10)

Again, in Manasseh’s life we see a parallel between his actions and the peoples; this time, however, it is a somewhat more positive one:

And when he was in distress, he entreated the favor of the Lord his God and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers. He prayed to him, and God was moved by his entreaty and heard his plea and brought him again to Jerusalem into his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the Lord was God. Nevertheless, the people still sacrificed at the high places, but only to the Lord their God. (2 Chronicles 33:12, 13, 17 ESV)

The people continued to sacrifice unlawfully outside of Jerusalem, but when Manasseh repented of his idolatry, they did as well. A final example will sufficiently make the point, I think:

And [Josiah] did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, and walked in the ways of David his father; and he did not turn aside to the right hand or to the left. For in the eighth year of his reign, while he was yet a boy, he began to seek the God of David his father, and in the twelfth year he began to purge Judah and Jerusalem of the high places, the Asherim, and the carved and the metal images. And they chopped down the altars of the Baals in his presence, and he cut down the incense altars that stood above them…Then the king sent and gathered together all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem. And the king went up to the house of the Lord, with all the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem and the priests and the Levites, all the people both great and small. And he read in their hearing all the words of the Book of the Covenant that had been found in the house of the Lord. And the king stood in his place and made a covenant before the Lord, to walk after the Lord and to keep his commandments and his testimonies and his statutes, with all his heart and all his soul, to perform the words of the covenant that were written in this book. Then he made all who were present in Jerusalem and in Benjamin join in it. And the inhabitants of Jerusalem did according to the covenant of God, the God of their fathers. And Josiah took away all the abominations from all the territory that belonged to the people of Israel and made all who were present in Israel serve the Lord their God. All his days they did not turn away from following the Lord, the God of their fathers. (2 Chronicles 34:2-4, 29-33 ESV)

Of course, there are many more similar examples throughout Kings and Chronicles, and even throughout the rest of the Bible, for that matter. I chose these examples, though, because they closely mirror three positions that I see many churches and families in. Few churches that I know of would willingly classify themselves in the first category–as “Manessehites.” After all, “we don’t practice idol worship or child sacrifice! We worship God!” However, far more churches and families fall in this category than would admit. These churches and families, led by pastors and parents with only a thin veneer of religiosity, are headed down a one-way path to destruction. These pastors and parents, while not openly condoning idolatry or paganism, secretly endorse such through their lifestyles. Addicted to a career, money, cars, and success (or worse, drugs, alcohol, gambling, etc.), they unwittingly sacrifice their children and church on the altars of their addictions. They may attend church, pray, and even tithe, but “Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. (Philippians 3:19 ESV)” They fall prey to the lie that their private actions can be separated from their sphere of influence. It is easy to see how sins of commission (drugs, alcohol, sex addictions, etc.) could negatively affect those who know they exist (be it church members or children), but what about secret sins and sins of omission? Could a pastor’s secret and unknown addiction to pornography, or his lack of daily devotion or prayer really cause his entire congregation to fall into the same sins? The connection is less explicit, but it is there, nonetheless. A pastor whose affections are stolen away from God for his addictions is less passionate in his preaching, less convicting and bold in his proclamations against sin, since every condemnation he issues against such is inevitably directed toward himself. These pastors tend to skirt around these delicate issues with less conviction, much like David after his sin with Bathsheeba could not find the moral conviction within himself to put his son Amnon to death for his rape of Tamar or Absolom for his murder of Amnon, since in doing so he would have to condemn his own sins of adultery and murder. Pastors who fail to maintain their prayer life experience less answers to prayer, thus decreasing their convictions on the necessity of prayer. Pastors who fail to maintain their daily Bible reading find fewer new observations in God’s word, and as a result, their preaching is weak and feels recycled. Failing to find anything new and instructive in the text, they resort to substituting clever stories and illustrations for the meat of the word. A church can only survive so long before it begins to feel the effects of its pastor’s private sins. Children whose parents fail to maintain their prayer and Bible reading will not have that model of daily devotion. Children whose parents tell them “do what I say, not what I do” will quickly recognize the hypocrisy for what it is. The truth is, half-hearted devotion to God will always spill over into one’s sphere of influence, be it a church or a family. You can’t isolate your personal life. So the question is, what kind of influence do you have over your family or church? Are you sacrificing your children on the altars of your career or addictions? Are you imitating half-hearted devotion to God, such that your children will be half-hearted Christians, worshipping God, but in a manner he forbids? Or, are you, like Josiah, modeling heartfelt humility and repentance over sin, demonstrating a passion for God’s Word and serving God with all your heart and soul? Your kids and your church will show the fruits of your affections. After you are gone, will the legacy that you leave behind prompt your kids and your church to be completely devoted to God? What will your epitaph be?

All in due season

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a post entitled Don’t Give Up.  As Christians, sometimes we can get discouraged by what we see in our churches.  When we look at the church in America, we don’t have to look far to find problems.  Discipleship is shallow.  Evangelism is ineffective or lacking altogether.  Conversions are in decline.  Population growth is outpacing the growth of almost every evangelical Christian denomination.  Many, many churches are permanently closing their doors every year.  It’s easy to loose hope, to give up.  A couple weeks ago, that’s exactly where I was.  Discouraged, frustrated, ready to give up.  And that’s exactly what Satan wants.

You see, our enemy doesn’t fight fair.  He abides by no rules of conduct, no Geneva convention, no gentleman’s code.  He fights dirty.  He doesn’t march out in phalanx formation like the ancient Romans.  He doesn’t wait for his turn to take a volley like the Red Coats of the Revolutionary War.  He doesn’t even wear a uniform to distinguish himself from his enemies.  No, he uses much more covert means of warfare.  He waits in ambush under cover of darkness.  He picks of the weak and wounded stragglers who are too weary to keep up with the herd.  He turns brother against brother, friend against friend, believer against believer.  And when he has succeeded in sowing discord, strife, and bitterness in believers, he divides and conquers.

Satan has an unfair advantage…you can’t see him.  He sneaks around with his “invisibility cloak” taking cheap shots at unsuspecting believers.  And when these believers turn and fire, they realize all too late that he was hiding behind another believer.  Friendly fire is one of Satan’s most successful methods of defeating the church.  We don’t realize until it’s too late that it wasn’t our brother or sister in Christ that made that rude, hurtful comment or who sloughed off their church duties, but Satan whispering lies into their ears.

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.

Ephesians 6:12 (NASB)

I think that one of the reasons we get so discouraged and frustrated with fellow believers and our churches is that we mistake friend for foe.  We begin to think of people as the enemy, or the obstacle, to our church, and we treat them, instead of the true enemy, as hostiles. Such has been Satan’s ploy against me for a few weeks.  I began to focus on the problems.  I began to see my fellow believers as hostiles.  By the grace of God, as I was poised and ready to open fire, God began convicting me of the spiritual attack that I was under.  Then it hit me: why did I feel like I was under such heavy spiritual attack?  Because Satan only bothers attacking those he deems a threat.  I couldn’t see how I–or our tiny little church–could be deemed a threat, but it gave me some courage to continue on.

Prior to this revelation I had begun to become so discouraged that I had considered cancelling the next upcoming youth event: the Winter Jam concert.  I justified this decision with all kinds of rational sounding excuses.  “We don’t have enough adult volunteers–we’ll loose the kids in the crowd of thousands of people.”  “Their not old enough to benefit from the experience.”  “Neither the kids nor the church can’t afford it.”  But, God revealed my bad attitude to me, and I prayerfully decided to go ahead with the concert.

The kids were extremely well behaved.  I had two adults step up to volunteer.  It turned out to be cheaper than expected.  Two of the kids from the youth group were so moved by the presentation by Holt International (an international adoption agency) that they decided to sponsor a child awaiting adoption in Ethiopia as a youth group.  And best of all–one of the kids was saved that night.

Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.   For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.  So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.

Galatians 6:6-10 (NASB)

Is your church under spiritual attack?  Are you harboring bitterness and resentment toward a fellow believer?  Have you been deceived by the enemy that your efforts are in vain?  God is not mocked.  Keep up the good fight and recognize Satan’s ploy for what it is.  It’s all worth it if there’s just one who comes to know Christ.  When I look back at my attitude a couple weeks ago, I can only thank God that he did not allow me to persist in my plans to cancel that concert trip.  While I certainly can’t take the credit for what happened that night (without the Holy Spirit’s conviction, nothing would have happened!), I can say that my obedience to Christ’s calling did put those kids in the right place at the right time for the Holy Spirit to do his work.  One girl can now rest assured of her eternal destiny, and a little boy halfway around the world is experiencing the overflow of the love of Christ expressed by changed hearts here in our little church.  What a blessing it is to be the vessel God uses to accomplish his great plan.  Who knows how far the ripples will continue?  So if you are under spiritual attack right now, take heart!  Your obedience is NEVER in vain.  You may not see the fruit right now, but in due season you will reap, IF you do not give up.

Don’t give up

          The past couple of weeks at church have been somewhat discouraging for me.  Attendance—while never “high”—has been abnormally low the past several weeks.  Since Christmas, it seems that the attendance has dropped each week.  This week was the lowest.  I had three kids in Sunday School today, including one of the pastor’s sons.   Last Wednesday we had two youth show up.  (Much thanks, btw, to the faithful few!)  In addition, the church has decided to meet only in the fellowship hall downstairs to limit energy expenditure because the budget is tight.  In short, our church is going through one of those rough spots.  I know that churches go through tough times, especially in winter months, and often rebound just fine, but as a church member you should know that it’s especially taxing on your minister(s) who so desperately desire to see the church grow and flourish in God’s work.

          With all this as the backdrop, imagine my despair as I listened this afternoon to John Piper preach a message to his church about a new church plant they are a part of.  He talks about the church’s mandate to spread the gospel and the effectiveness of church planting in making new converts.  Then, he goes on to describe the church’s history and the many, many churches it has planted over the years.  I found myself crying out, “I want to be a part of that!”  I began to despair thinking that my church would probably never be a part of such a magnificent work as a church plant.  I listened as he described the two or three campuses his church has.  I imagined the many hundreds and thousands of people who regularly attend his church.  I listened as he talked about his church’s “resident church planter” program, in which ministers train for 18 months and are then released to plant a church.  I listened, drooled, and then despaired as I realized the stark contrast to my church of 15 (at least by today’s count) which can’t even afford to pay its ministers or the utilities, much less invest in such grand Kingdom work.

          Then John Piper said something that caught my ear and put me in my place: How did God start the church at Philippi?  With a woman named Lydia whom he gave the heart to do the work, a demon possessed girl, and a suicidal Roman jailor.  With only three people God grew the church at Philippi…We’ve got fifteen!  I get so frustrated sometimes at my church, at our situation.  I find myself thinking that our church will never amount to anything, never accomplish anything for the Kingdom.  We just don’t have enough people or resources.  But God chooses the things which are weak to shame the strong.  God often works through impossible situations, just like the one my church is in—and seems to thoroughly enjoy doing so!  Sure, there are things that frustrate me about my church, but that’s because it’s made up of imperfect people, of whom I often feel like the chief of sinners. But it’s not my church, it’s God’s church, and he knows what he’s doing.

          In Acts 18:9-10, God tells Paul “Do not be afraid any longer, but go on speaking and do not be silent; for I am with you, and no man will attack you in order to harm you, for I have many people in this city.”  Now I don’t presume to know God’s plans, but I have to imagine that in a city of 1.2 million, God has many people in this city that will come to know him.  We may not be the biggest, nor the best church in the city, but God has called me to minister to the people of my church.  Part of that ministry is dragging people—saved and unsaved alike—out of the darkness and into the light.  And that’s not easy work.  People get comfortable.  But my God is a God of the miraculous, of the impossible, and it doesn’t have to seem “reasonable” or “feasible” for my church to suddenly be indwelled with the power of the Holy Spirit as were the churches at Philippi, Ephesus, and—in more modern times—John Piper’s church in Minneapolis, MN.  It doesn’t even have to be “possible.”  Because “with people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26, NASB).  I just need to be faithful in my ministry and do as I feel God leading, no matter how unreasonable or unlikely it may seem.  God has changed worse people (Saul–>Paul) and I have no doubt that he can and will do so for many more.

          Unfortunately, as the church in America is in a well-documented state of decline, I’m probably not the only person to have felt like this.  You may be struggling with the same things in your church.  Attendance is down, tithes are down, bills are up, and it seems that no one has a heart for doing God’s work.  But don’t despair.  All it takes is the Holy Spirit’s moving in a handful of people.  A single match can start a wildfire.  Trust God, pray for his Spirit, and never despair of doing what is right, of serving your church.

Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.   For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.  So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.

Galatians 6:6-10 (NASB)

Guilty or Not?

Since it is the most central theme of the Christian faith, much thought goes into my presentation of the gospel. For those who are Christians, I hope you will find this presentation refreshing and inspiring, and I hope it will remind you of the awesome gift you have received through Christ. For those of you who are not Christians, are seeking answers, or just wanting a basic overview of the central theme of the Christian faith, I hope this post will be exactly what you’re looking for. Please check out my new post under Gospel: Response, titled “Guilty or Not?”

Why Do We Pray?

Much has happened over the last couple weeks that is worth comment, but I will contain my comments to one particular event which happened the last Sunday before Christmas (12/18/11). I had been leading the youth in preparation of a Christmas play/cantata that we were to perform that Sunday. We were about 10 minutes into the play, and during the second song, while I was leading the congregation in “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” Mrs. Ethel Brown (our pianist) suffered a massive stroke and collapsed into the floor. We cancelled the remainder of the service and play (which we were fortunate enough to be able to perform the following Wednesday evening) and I immediately began leading the youth in a prayer vigil. At the time, I assumed that she had suffered from a stroke, but none of us knew the severity. Mrs. Ethel (as we all call her) had suffered from two simultaneous aneurisms, one in each hemisphere of her brain, both too far interior for operation. In other words, there was nothing the doctors could do but sit and wait.

Now, at this point, you’re probably thinking exactly what the doctors told us: “There’s no hope.” One doctor, as I recall, even told us that he’d never seen someone live who suffered that severe a stroke. He told us, “I deal with facts, not hope.” (Some bedside manner he had! Quite the charmer…) So, we continued praying. Oddly enough though, not even the family was praying for Mrs. Ethel’s survival just out of a desire to keep her around. Even the family was praying for God’s will to be accomplished and for him to be glorified. Many of us prayed for God to spare Mrs. Ethel to prove to an unbelieving doctor that God–not facts and statistics–is in control. And he answered our prayers. Mrs. Ethel Brown is currently undergoing therapy and rehab. She has regained much cognitive ability and awareness, and though she still has a long road of recovery ahead, her survival is nothing short of a miracle and an answer to prayer. It gave me great joy as I was able to tell the youth on Wednesday night that their prayers had been answered.

There are many examples in the Bible of specific answers to prayer. One that caught my eye today while I was reading is David’s requests in Psalm 21:1-7. David asked for God’s blessings and length of life, and “You have given him his heart’s desire and have not withheld the request of his lips” (v. 2). I have often wondered what the difference is between prayers that are answered and prayers that are not. David tells us, though, why his prayers were answered in verse 7: “For the king trusts in the Lord…” Those prayers which are answered are those which are prayed from faithful reverence to God. In our drive-thru society, all too often we approach prayer like a fast food menu. “God, I’ll take a number 1–a happy life–and can I get some wealth and prosperity on the side? Oh, and that’ll be to-go; I’m in a hurry to get to work.” But when Jesus modeled prayer, the first thing that he prayed was praise (“Our father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…”) and a request for God’s will to be done on Earth just as it is done in heaven. How is God’s will done in heaven? Without question, complaint, doubt, or reservation.

Many people assume that if God is in control of everything that happens and knows or predestined the future then prayer is pointless. After all, if God is going to do what he has already planned to do anyhow, then your prayer is not going to change anything! But this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of prayer. Do we really wish for the infinitely wise, all-knowing God of the universe to change his plans based upon our sinfully tainted desires and finite understanding?!?! How absurd! How dare we approach the throne of God as if we were sitting in Santa’s lap reciting our Christmas wish-list! Prayer that works, prayer with the right purpose, is prayer for God to align our desires with his, not prayer that asks God to align his desires with ours. We do not pray for God to change his plan, but for God to change our hearts. David’s prayers were granted because he trusted in the Lord, and it can be inferred from other passages in the OT that God’s desire to prosper David was firmly rooted in his desire for the other nations to see Israel’s prosperity and come to serve Israel’s God. David knew that. When he prayed for blessings and prosperity, he didn’t pray from a selfish, greed driven desire to get rich and live a good life, he was praying for God to be glorified (see v. 13).

Similarly, our prayers for Mrs. Ethel to be healed were answered because it brought God glory to demonstrate his power in impossible circumstances, not because God felt sorry for her family and knew how much it would hurt them to lose her. Though God does love his children and has compassion on them during the trials of life, we all must die someday. It is simply a matter of when and how. When we pray for a loved one, or a difficult circumstance, or for blessings, let us not pray out of vain, selfish ambition, but out of a desire for God to be glorified. God may be glorified in demonstrating his power over sickness and death by healing our loved ones. God may be glorified in giving great material wealth and many possessions to his faithful servants. But, God may also be glorified through the persistent faith of his children who suffer unimaginable difficulties, loss, and poverty (See the book of Job). Regardless of the outcome, let us pray to align our will with God’s and save our wish-lists for Santa.

Sin is serious

          Today as I was reading in the Psalms, something I read brought Isaiah 53 to mind, so I flipped to the passage and continued my reading there.  Isaiah 52:13-54:3 is probably my favorite of the many Messianic prophecies in the Old Testament which speaks of how Christ’s atonement brought gentiles under the covenant blessings alongside Israel (see esp. 54:1-3, where the “barren woman”–think ‘Sarai, Leah, or Hannah’–is told to “stretch out her tent” because more “children” are coming in).  What struck me most today in my reading of this passage is how despite the fact that Isaiah never uses the words “Messiah,” “Christ,” or “Jesus,” this passage seems to be screaming all three as you read it!  When read this passage, even my youth group—comprised largely of 10-13 year old kids—agreed in unison (and without prompt!) that this passage was about Christ.

          Having recently read and studied the Levitical system of sacrifice, I was also overwhelmed by the beautiful, poetic imagery of this passage which depicts Christ as a sacrificial lamb offered as a guilt offering for the sins of the nations.  Isaiah 52:14-15a says, “Just as many were astonished at you, My people, so His appearance was marred more than any man and His form more than the sons of men.  Thus He will sprinkle many nations…” (See Ex 29:21).  The very Son of God was slaughtered as a guilt offering for the sins of His own creation.

          Sin is serious.  It has serious consequences.  So many times I am tempted to believe that my sins are “no big deal,” or that they are just simply “shortcomings” or “slip-ups.”  But it seems to me that we don’t call actions which cost the lives of others merely “slip-ups.”  If a president utters a rash statement to a foreign dignitary which sparks a war, do we excuse his “slip-up?”  How much more serious are those sins which nailed the sinless God of the universe to a cross!  I know of few words in the English language which effectively communicate the gravity of sin.  Perhaps “wickedness” comes close.  But we don’t often like to refer to ourselves as “wicked.”  That rubs us the wrong way.  But it is the unfortunate truth.  I’m reminded of an old, anonymous poem (which I’ve adapted slightly):

Man call is an accident, God calls it abomination.
Man calls it a defect, God calls it a disease.
Man calls it an error, God calls it an enmity.
Man calls it a liberty, God calls it lawlessness.
Man calls it a trifle, God calls it a tragedy.
Man calls it a mistake, God calls it madness.
Man calls it a weakness, God calls it wickedness.

          My sin cost my dear Savior an agonizing death.  To use the language of Isaiah 52-53, he was “marred, despised, rejected, pierced, crushed, oppressed, and afflicted.”  Why?  Because I “slipped-up?”  Because I made a “mistake?”  No.  Because I sinned.  Because I, in my wicked rejection of my very Creator and God, decided that my way was better than His.  And because our sin is against not simply another sinful human, but the infinitely sinless, Almighty God, the penalty is infinitely severe: death (Romans 6:23).

          But thank God that isn’t the whole story!  Isaiah 53 (and the latter half of Romans 6:23) also tells another side to the story: redemption.  God—in His infinite love and mercy—despite my sinfulness, chose to love me and save me anyways, through the sacrificial death of his Son.  What a great God I have.

He was despised and rejected— a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief. We turned our backs on him and looked the other way. He was despised, and we did not care. Yet it was our weaknesses he carried; it was our sorrows that weighed him down. And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God, a punishment for his own sins!  But he was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins. He was beaten so we could be whole. He was whipped so we could be healed.  All of us, like sheep, have strayed away. We have left God’s paths to follow our own. Yet the LORD laid on him the sins of us all.

 –Isaiah 53:3-6

AlbertMohler.com – Must We Believe in the Virgin Birth?

Great article by Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (where I am currently a student).  I am reminded of I Corinthians 1:18-28:

“For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God…but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are”

AlbertMohler.com – Must We Believe in the Virgin Birth?.

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