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Archive for August, 2011

What is the Christian faith to you? What does it actually mean in your life? Is Christianity integral to your living, a moment-by-moment recognition that you are Christ’s possession and your life is to be lived for God’s glory, or is Christianity relegated to the “religious” compartment of your life, something that keeps you somewhat tied to a church but really doesn’t impact your daily living?

How you answer this, it seems to me, goes a long way in determining how serious you are about the faith you profess to hold. In reality, it goes to the heart of the gospel. Is Christ simply your Savior who gets you out of an eternal jam so you can avoid hell and go to heaven, or is Christ your Savior and Lord, your master who not only will take you to heaven but who determines how you will live during this life?

The “Savior-only” perspective is characterized by those who like the idea of being religiously minded. After all, a lot of blessings come from religion. It’s the mind-set that sees prayer as a good-luck charm to keep bad things from happening. For many in the South, it’s sort of a good-ole-boy “thing: “mom, God, apple pie, football, and NASCAR,” all being pretty much synonymous.

Speaking of NASCAR (I’m really not picking on racing fans—really!), this all-too-flippant-view of the faith was vividly illustrated in the “invocation” offered by Joe Nelms at the Nashville Superspeedway a couple of weeks ago. Pastor of the independent Family Baptist Church in Lebanon, Tennessee, Nelms made Christianity the religion of buffoons as he thanked God “for Roush and Yates partnering to give us the power that we see before us tonight, . . . for Sonoco racing fuel and Goodyear tires that bring performance and power to the track.” When you thought he couldn’t get lower with his “all-about-me” prayer, he said, “Lord, I want to thank you for my smokin’ hot wife tonight, Lisa, and my two children, Eli and Emma, or as we like to call the ‘The Little E’s.’” Nelms’ buffoonery became blasphemy as he ended his prayer with “in Jesus’ name, boogity boogity boogity, amen.”

Many loved Nelms’ display, laughing that it was “the greatest prayer ever.” That is not surprising when you see how little Christianity really affects folks’ living. The words of Jesus are haunting: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does 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 in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’” (Matthew 7:21-23 ESV).

Contrast Nelms’ silliness with this perspective from John MacArthur: “Over the years I have ministered quite a lot in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and other parts of the former Soviet Union. The church in those countries, repressed by Communism for so many decades, is nonetheless vibrant and dynamic today.One of the significant things that struck me when I first began to minister there was the terminology that virtually all Russian-speaking believers use to describe conversion. They do not speak of accepting Christ as one’s personal Saviour. They would never say merely that someone ‘made a decision for Christ’ or that the person ‘invited Jesus into his or her life.’ The language they use is simple and entirely biblical: the new believer is someone who has repented. If a person shows no evidence of repentance, he or she would not be embraced as a Christian, no matter what sort of verbal profession of faith was made . . . . By contrast, we live in a culture of such shallow religion that most of what goes by the name of ‘Christian’ in Western society has little or no emphasis on repentance of any kind. The call to repentance has been deliberately omitted from the most popular gospel presentations of our generation” (cited in Iain H. Murray, John MacArthur: Servant of the Word and Flock [Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2011], 152.)

Those who have truly followed Christ have paid a price for their journey. They understand the gravity of declaring allegiance to Christ. Instead of using Christ to promote themselves or merely to escape a place of eternal punishment, they count the cost, repent of their sin, and trust in the crucified and resurrected Lord.

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The idea that the local church is more than an organization which people join and for which there is little, if any, accountability is a foreign one to the twenty-first century American church. Tom Ascol commented on the high tolerance for sin in the fellowship with these observations: “The corporate discipline of the church has gone the way of the Mastodon in the thinking of most Southern Baptists. There was a time when church discipline was recognized by Protestants in general and Baptists in particular as one of the distinguishing marks of a true church. The teaching of Jesus in Matthew 18:15-17 was not only regarded as inerrant, the steps which he outlined there were actually practiced by the churches. Today it is tragically common to have church members living in open immorality with absolutely no response from the congregation of which they are a part.

“Thus it hardly even shocks us to read Hollywood badgirl and former Playboy pinup Shannon Doherty describe herself in TV Guide as ‘just a nice, Southern Baptist, Republican girl.’ Of course she is! Why should shameless immorality stand in the way of being a church member? Somewhere along the line, Southern Baptists have lost their moral nerve. The world’s relativism (‘nothing is always right or wrong’) and sentimentalism (‘because I love you I will let you’) have displaced the Bible’s moral absolutism and genuine love that cares enough to correct.

“John Dagg, the first Southern Baptist theologian to produce a systematic theology textbook . . . , argued that ‘when discipline leaves a church, Christ goes with it.’ If Dagg is correct, what does that say for the state of our churches today?” (Thomas Ascol, “Southern Baptists at the Crossroads: Returning to the Old Paths,” The Founders Journal, Winter/Spring 1995, 3).

Jesse Mercer was one of the most renowned of Georgia and Southern Baptists during the first four decades of the 1800’s. Historian Charles Mallary noted: “Mercer firmly held to the necessity of church discipline. He maintained that ‘all divisions are the fruit of contention and strife, originating in pride and ambition, the agitating of “unlearned questions,” or departures from the true faith and order.’ He continued: ‘I consider the causes of these divisions, which have rent our churches and spoiled our beauty, as a denomination, are to be found in the neglect of a godly discipline, and the consequent results’” (Memoirs of Elder Jesse Mercer, 248).

Avoiding church discipline has always been the easy way for churches. L. Fletcher, in the December 12, 1855, issue of Kentucky’s Western Recorder, recounted how believers are to “Let their light so shine before men as to exert a healthful and saving influence upon the community around them.” He reminded readers that Christians reveal their love for the Lord by their obedience. He noted pointedly that “as Baptists, we glory in proclaiming to the world that the Word of God is our only rule of faith and practice. And yet, we fear that very few of our churches either believe or practice all the teachings and requirements of the Son of God!”

The cause of Fletcher’s concern was the failure of some churches to exercise church discipline. “Our principles and practice when legitimately carried out and rightly understood, commend themselves to the judgment and understanding of all honest and unprejudiced minds; but, when there is a glaring discrepancy between what we profess and practice, our doctrines become unsavory and our name a reproach.” Churches which refuse to discipline members of known sins greatly hinder their influence in the world for the cause of Christ: “Can we think it strange that, under such circumstances, we have so few revivals of religion, or that so many that profess conversion under the high pressure system of protracted meeting, return again to the beggerly elements of the world?”

Fletcher reminded his readers that discipline is not for revenge, but “with a view to the well-being of the offender, the purity of the church, and the honor of Christ.” His concluding remarks need to be broadcast to Baptist churches in our day, churches unfortunately more concerned with numerical success than with biblical faithfulness: “Let all our churches, instead of glorying in the number of their membership, go to work with the pruning knife of discipline, and disencumber themselves of their unfruitful branches, and thus purge out the old leaven of unrighteousness that has hitherto paralyzed their influence for good, and then they will become as beautiful as Tirzah, comely as Jerusalem, and as terrible to evil-doers as an army with banners.”

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The April 22-24, 2011 issue of USA Weekend featured an article on Joel Osteen entitled “My gift is encouragement.” Writer Cathy Lynn Grossman accurately notes that “quite possibly no one smiles more, ear to ear, day after day, than Pastor Joel Osteen.” She continues, “He is the blue-eyed beaming Texas preacher known worldwide for exuberant declarations of health, prosperity, wisdom, confidence, and courage.”

There are some things about Osteen that I like. He hasn’t felt the need to don the “it-doesn’t-matter-what-you-wear” jeans and casual shirt attire of preachers seeking to relate to people. Osteen still wears a suit and tie, dressing as though worship were a serious activity.

Osteen is a positive person, and that is attractive. No one like a sour puss, someone whose constant dour expression can snuff out the candles of an octogenarian’s birthday cake with one quick glance.

Another positive is that Osteen has not given into political correctness by failing to call homosexuality a sin. He does soften his declaration by saying that homosexuality is not “God’s best for a person’s life,” but at least he doesn’t characterize deviancy as something to be celebrated, as do many theological liberals.

Despite Osteen’s appeal, his preaching entails critical problems. Grossman, while praising Osteen, unintentionally reveals a key issue with Osteen’s brand of preaching: “Small wonder that Osteen, 48, has built up the nation’s largest congregation by far, thronged by people in Houston and global visitors who come to hear about hope and God’s love—not his wrath. Let others carry spears in the culture wars and veer into politics: Osteen is the Lord’s Pollyanna, looking on the bright side of all trouble and travail.” Magnifying God’s love at the expense of his wrath, Osteen’s hearers fail to get the message of what makes God’s love “love.”

The description of Osteen as Pollyanna points to the superficiality of Osteen’s message. There really is little there but nice sounding but relatively meaningless platitudes. “We are victors, not victims.” “Magnify God, not your problems.” Grossman writes, “In Osteen’s sermons, bad times can be reimagined as opportunities. Someone left you? Lost your job? Thank God! You didn’t need that person. A better job awaits. ‘God wants to double your blessings as he did for Job,’ he says.”

Misusing Scripture is the norm in Osteen’s preaching. “I tell people, ‘You are created a masterpiece.’ If you are missing the mark, that’s what sin is. You are missing the best of what God offers you.” Actually, “for we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10) comes on the heels of “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, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). It is the regenerated follower of Christ who is God’s “masterpiece,” not the unsaved individual who is looking for a divine fix for his problems.

All of this points to the central problem with Osteen’s brand of Christianity: it is man-centered, not God-centered. Everything is about making life better, more pleasurable, more useful, more worthwhile, more meaningful. The centrality of the glory of God is absent. Christ’s dying to reconcile God to man is not in the picture. Richard Niebuhr’s criticism of early-twentieth-century Protestant liberalism could justly be leveled at Osteen prosperity preaching: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” In his book Become a Better You, Osteen writes, “As long as you’re doing your best and desire to do what’s right according to God’s Word, you can be assured God is pleased with you.” In essence, Osteen preaches “another gospel” and stands under the condemnation of Galatians 1:8, “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.”

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