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If you ever took a class on expository preaching, you would have heard the line about the preacher who had written a great sermon and now needed a scripture to go along with it. Unfortunately, that scenario gets played out too often. The Scriptures become something to use instead of the Word of God to heed.

The Bible gets especially abused by professing Christians who seek scriptural support for their agenda, and one of the most egregious abuses concerns their utilization of Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (ESV).

“Christian” apologists for homosexuals and transgenders emphasize the “no male and female” part of that verse. Their claim is that since Christians “are all one in Christ Jesus,” God has demolished the categories of male and female. Sexual categories are irrelevant, so if a person is born female and believes she is really male, what the person feels is more important than what her biology reveals.

Such cherry-picking of Scripture to validate one’s cause reveals naiveté at best and dishonesty at worst. First, the Scriptures affirm the categories of male and female. God created humanity in his image and defined them as male and female (Genesis 1:27). As David writes, from our mothers’ wombs we “are fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:13-14). Those who refuse to submit to the sex in which they were created are telling God that his work is flawed and they are going to fix it. The creature “corrects” the Creator.

Second, Scripture condemns attempts to invalidate one’s manhood and womanhood. This is why homosexuality is condemned in both the Old and New Testament. Romans 1:26-28 leaves little doubt: “For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done” (Romans 1:26–28, ESV).

Third, Galatians 3:28 is not speaking to gender but to status. In Christ Jesus there is nothing that distinguishes one believer from another as far as those things we use for status. A Jew is not superior to a Greek, a free man is not superior to a slave, and a male is not superior to a female. In Christ we all have equal standing. That does not change our ethnicity, social position, or sexuality, but we cannot use our ethnicity, social position, or sexuality to claim a superior position over others.

In Luke 11:28 Jesus said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” (ESV). We are to conform our will to God’s will, and we do that only as we submit to his Word. God, however, has expressly warned against misusing his Word:

“You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you” (Deuteronomy 4:2, ESV).

“Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take from it” (Deuteronomy 12:32, ESV).

“I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book” (Revelation 22:18–19, ESV).

Frankly, people who use Galatians 3:28 to affirm what Scripture condemns are guilty of dishonesty. They read into the text what they want it to say, not what the author of the text intended. Forsaking legitimate exegesis, they are guilty of eisegesis of the worst sort. And God will not hold them guiltless, for they have dared to reduce the holy Scriptures to the status of clay, fashioning it after the likeness of their fallenness, and have subsumed God’s will to their own. Claiming that the Bible says what it clearly does not say merely compounds one’s guilt for choosing to condone what God has condemned.

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That we live in strange times is akin to saying the sun is bright. Conservative Americans have seen their country’s moral universe turned inside out, especially with the 5-4 edict of the Supreme Court last summer pronouncing same-sex marriage the law of the land.

Not only is same-sex marriage now law, we are seeing that sexual freedom trumps religious freedom. Christian bakers and florists have been targeted by same-sex marriage folk in order to force those Christians to embrace homosexual weddings or face legal retribution. Under threats from the National Football League and big entertainment and big business, the governor of Georgia vetoed a state bill that would have protected ministers from having to perform such weddings. The Wall Street Journal described the bill in this way: “The ‘Free Exercise Protection Act,’ passed earlier this month, allows faith-based organizations to decline services or fire employees over discordant religious beliefs. The bill also aims to protect religious officials from having to perform marriage ceremonies or other services ‘in violation of their legal right to free exercise of religion,’ according to the legislation.”

North Carolina’s state legislature passed and its governor signed a law that requires persons to use the restroom of their biological gender. That is hardly radical, is it? The state has come under fire from liberal groups who think that transgender persons should be able to use the rest room of their perceived psychological gender, not biological.

So this is the slide into radical depravity down which western culture is descending and, in truth, should not be unsurprising. The apostle Paul wrote almost two millennia ago: “Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error” (Romans 1:24–27).

As sad it is to watch our culture’s collapse into moral degeneracy, not to mention what this will mean for our children and grandchildren, it is beyond sad to watch professing Christians follow the culture. Have breathed the philosophical air of secular education and popular entertainment, many professing Christians, including both younger and older persons, see little, if anything at all, wrong with sexual intimacy (either heterosexual or homosexual) outside of marriage, same-sex unions, or people changing their sexual identification. Others, who are more traditional about such matters, openly and proudly support political candidates who support abortion rights or who boast about their sexual “conquests.”

Why is this? Why do the folk next door who are in church on Sunday follow the popular trends of culture? Many right answers could be offered, but one stands out: the Bible simply is not viewed as authoritative over our lives. It may be “the good Book,” but it is held as a book of general guidelines instead of specific precepts.

It really does not matter how much of the Bible we know, how much we memorize, how many times we read it, or how much we revere it if we do not believe that it is the written Word of God that has authority over our thinking and our actions. Jesus’ condemnation of the religious leaders of his day could be given to many of our day: “You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men’” (Matthew 15:7–9).

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In Luke 19 we find Jesus and his disciples nearing Jerusalem. Because his disciples assumed that the kingdom of God was about to appear, Jesus told them a parable, beginning in this way: “A nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom and then return. Calling ten of his servants, he gave them ten minas, and said to them, ‘Engage in business until I come.’ But his citizens hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying, ‘We do not want this man to reign over us.’” Jesus was pointing to his death and going to heaven, but he would return one day to establish the consummated kingdom of God.

For those who reject the biblical Christ, this is the bottom line: “I will not have him to reign over me.” The bottom line really is whether we retain our autonomy or surrender it to Jesus.

Many mask their rejection of the rule of Christ by claiming they do follow him, but everybody else who follow the Bible are the ones who misunderstand the real Jesus. The real Jesus, they say, is all about love, and that’s the Jesus they follow. This love is one that allows all things, whether it is same-sex marriage or folks changing their gender or women having the right to abort their unborn baby, etc.

The Bible, of course, calls such things “sin,” but these “Christian” rebels claim that the Bible is simply a manmade book and really doesn’t carry any authority.

Amazingly, many of those who refuse to bow to Christ are in the Christian ministry. With academic degrees and ministerial standing, they undermine the very faith that they claim to follow.

One such minister is in a mainline denomination that endorses same-sex marriage and legalized abortion. Without shame he claims: “I think the Bible is wrong about most everything. It is wrong about evolution, slavery, women, and gays. It has no authority on those topics. I think the Bible is wrong about cosmology, history, our future, Jesus, and God. The texts were all written by human beings without any supernatural or special revelation. Yet I preach in a PC(USA) pulpit.” He mocks, “Run! Flee! Escape while you can into the refreshing waters of pure doctrine!”

To those who leave the denomination because it refuses to address such heresy, he taunts: “We will need plenty more break-offs before we finally give up on the oppressive notion of the Authority of Scripture. The Bible contains no truth outside of what we can discover through public means of inquiry. Don’t misunderstand. I enjoy the Bible. It is a marvelous human book. I read it and study it with all the critical means at my disposal. In so doing, I will do my part to undermine its Authority which I think is the next important step for religious freedom.”

And so we learn that his issue is the authority of Scripture. This minister enjoys the prospect of a god of his own creation, a god who basically endorses all that he himself approves, a god who is basically a mirror image of what he conceives as good. No holiness. No righteousness. No divine justice. No fear of God.

This minister and countless others discount the Bible because it doesn’t endorse such a view. It presents a holy God who requires perfection in order to dwell in God’s presence. The Bible takes issue with sin, but the Son of God came to earth to satisfy divine justice for those who will submit to Christ. But that’s the thing — this minister, who happens not to believe in the afterlife, refuses to bow.

But bow he shall, as will all of creation: “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9–11 [ESV]).

 

 

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Genesis 3:1 informs us that “the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made.” Crafty, indeed. God had commanded Adam that, while he “may surely eat of every tree of the garden,” there was only one exception: “but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:16-17).

The serpent, possessed by Satan, deftly twisted God’s words: “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?’” (Genesis 3:1). The serpent went from making God’s gracious provision of all but one tree to none at all.

The Satanic tactic of twisting God’s words continues. Though unsurprising, it has nevertheless been disheartening to witness our culture’s increasingly rapid moral decline. A United States President is caught in a public lie, members of his political party justifies the lie, a supportive media observes that nothing unusual has taken place, and the general public yawns. The yawning public reveals the position of our culture.

Our culture’s open-armed embracing of Sodom and Gomorrah has been most telling. The notion of same-sex marriage would have been laughable only two or three decades ago. It’s now difficult to see how it will not become the law of the land in all fifty states within another decade.

As disheartening as such things are, particularly distressing is the way many “evangelicals” are looking for a way out of the same-sex marriage debate. Standing against same-sex marriage will require paying a price, and evangelicals can be quite a weak-kneed lot. If only we could find some biblical justification for homosexuality and same-sex marriage, then we could save face as we raise the white flag of surrender and move on to “important” matters.

Enter Matthew Vines. Vines is a winsome twenty-four-year-old self-described homosexual evangelical Christian. He claims to believe that the Bible is fully authoritative but does not contradict homosexuality and same-sex marriage. To prove his case, Vines authored the recently-released God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships.” He argues that “Christians who affirm the full authority of Scripture can also affirm committed, monogamous same-sex relationships.”

What Vines does is reinterpret six biblical texts (Genesis 19:5; Leviticus 18:22; Leviticus 20:13; Romans 1:26-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9; and 1 Timothy 1:10) which have throughout history been understood as condemning homosexual relationships. Well, that was then, and this is now. Following the lead of theological liberals, Vines claims that the church has just gotten these texts wrong. The writers of the Bible, he claims, had no understanding of monogamous same-sex relationships. What they condemned was unrestrained homosexual relationships, and the same-sex marriage debate is something entirely different.

In essence, though, what Vines has done is reawaken Satan’s question to Eve: “Did God actually say?” How convenient it is to reinterpret the Bible so that it does not condemn the lifestyle you live. You can keep your lifestyle and the Bible. You can claim to believe the Bible while continuing to live the way you desire.

Unfortunately, what Vines has done is the way Christians too often live. The Bible condemns gossip, but we’re just sharing. The Bible condemns theft, but surely failing to report cash income is not what the biblical writers had in mind. The Bible commands us to engage in corporate worship, but it can’t mean every Sunday.

We rightly condemn instances where professing Christians relativize Scripture in order to justify their sinful choices. We must seriously examine ourselves, though, asking whether we excuse in ourselves what we condemn in others: “For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things” (Romans 2:1).

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The sin of not judging

That times have changed is a given. Consider the moral landscape of America in 2012. If you oppose abortion on demand, you are against women’s health. If you believe that only a man and woman can be united in marriage, you are opposed to basic human rights. If you go even further and pronounce that homosexuality is sinful, you are a danger to society.

What was unthinkable a few decades ago is being pushed as a human right in the twenty-first century. Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York announced in October 2011: “We need marriage equality in every state in this nation. Otherwise, no state really has marriage equality, and we will not rest until it is a reality.”

Our neighbor to the north gives us a good idea of where we are headed. From Canada comes this bit of “enlightened” thinking: “Under Alberta’s new Education Act, homeschoolers and faith-based schools will not be permitted to teach that homosexual acts are sinful as part of their academic program, says the spokesperson for Education Minister Thomas Lukaszuk. ‘Whatever the nature of schooling—homeschool, private school, Catholic school—we do not tolerate disrespect for differences,’ Donna McColl, Lukaszuk’s assistant director of communications, told LifeSiteNews on Wednesday evening. ‘You can affirm the family’s ideology in your family life, you just can’t do it as part of your educational study and instruction,’ she added.”

Many professing Christians have unwittingly bought into our culture’s relativistic approach to morality. “Jesus said to ‘judge not,’ so who am I to call homosexuality wrong? We don’t know why a woman would want an abortion, so we shouldn’t judge.” And the thinking knows no limit. “He left his wife? Well, no one knows what goes on behind closed doors. We shouldn’t judge.” “They are living together? Who are we to judge? Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” And on and on it goes.

In his Sermon on the Mount, the Lord Jesus did teach: “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you” (Matthew 7:1-2). The judging prohibited is that judging which arises out of a heart of self-righteousness and hypocrisy. It is right to judge sin as sin. The doing of sin is wrong and should be judged as such. What is wrong is looking at the offender from a position of moral superiority. “Well, I would never do that!”

Proper judging denounces the wrong because of God’s standard, not because we ourselves are morally superior to the person who committed the act. Proper judging acknowledges that the act would be wrong if we ourselves committed it. Proper judging acknowledges that we ourselves are capable of committing the same sin were God to remove protecting grace from us.

In 1 Corinthians 5 Paul laments a situation in the church in which a man who had taken his father’s mother, evidently the younger man’s stepmother, into an immoral relationship. Paul writes, “For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing” (5:3). Paul judged the offender as having committed a heinous sin: “sexual immorality . . . of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans” (5:1). Paul writes, “And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you” (5:2). The “removing,” though, was not a meting out of punishment to “get rid of” the offender: “You are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (5:5). Paul condemned the church because it had refused to judge.

The Jesus who said “Judge not” is the same Jesus who said “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment” (John 7:24).

We live in a culture that prohibits judging, though the very ones prohibiting judging judge all the time. They judge that what has traditionally been deemed immoral is now moral. They judge that those of us who hold to traditional morality are out of step with the times, that we are trying to “shove your religion down our throats.”

And yet we must not cower behind our sanctuary walls and refuse to confront the sins of our culture. While confronting those sins, however, we must not fail to confront our own. The standard is not our morality. The standard is the Word of God.

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Here I stand

On October 31, 1517, a seemingly insignificant action ignited a theological explosion in Germany that changed the course of Christianity. An obscure monk by the name of Martin Luther nailed a document of ninety-five theses on the cathedral door in Wittenberg. Luther contended against the selling of indulgences, basically a fund-raising scheme, a church bake sale on steroids.

The practice of Johann Tetzel, who sold indulgences to collect money for the bishop of Mainz, in particular provoked Luther’s ire. As Luther pointed out in Thesis 27:

They preach only human doctrines who say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory.

Announcements routinely were nailed on the church door, but Luther’s went to the heart of the abuses and excesses of the Roman church. The idea of indulgences went to the heart of what it means to be forgiven and to be declared right with God, to be justifies. The first five theses set the stage:

1. When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” [Matt. 4:17], he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
2. This word cannot be understood as referring to the sacrament of penance, that is, confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy.
3. Yet it does not mean solely inner repentance; such inner repentance is worthless unless it produces various outward mortifications of the flesh.
4. The penalty of sin remains as long as the hatred of self, that is, true inner repentance, until our entrance into the kingdom of heaven.
5. The pope neither desires nor is able to remit any penalties except those imposed by his own authority or that of the canons.

As a younger man, Luther had been deathly afraid of dying outside of God’s forgiveness. He would go to his priestly confessor, seeking absolution for what many would deem the most insignificant sins. He so wore out his confessor that Luther was told not to return to the confession booth till he had something worthy of confessing!

Luther, however, came to understand the reality of justification through faith alone in Christ alone. He recognized the biblical teaching that the person who repents and believes on the crucified Christ is justified, counted righteous, in the sight of God. “The righteous shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17).

The church’s pronouncing the forgiveness of sins not only for the one who paid the indulgence but also for deceased family members who may be undergoing punishment in Purgatory was contrary to the teaching of Scripture, so Luther protested:

36. Any truly repentant Christian has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt,11 even without indulgence letters.
37. Any true Christian, whether living or dead, participates in all the blessings of Christ and the church; and this is granted him by God, even without indulgence letters.

There would be much that Luther would refine about his theology, but on October 31, 1517, he placed his vocational security and even his earthly life in jeopardy in standing upon the Scriptures. When later called upon to renounce his positions, Luther responded,

Since your most serene majesty and your high mightiness require from me a clear, simple, and precise answer, I will give you one, and it is this: I cannot submit my faith either to the pope or to the councils, because it is clear to me as the day that they have frequently erred and contradicted each other. Unless therefore I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture, or by the clearest reasoning— unless I am persuaded by means of the passages I have quoted—and unless they thus render my conscience bound by the Word of God, I cannot and I will not retract, for it is unsafe for a Christian to speak against his conscience.

Luther would allow the Scriptures alone to determine his beliefs:

Here I stand. I can do no other. May God help me. Amen.

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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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