Tuesday, December 01, 2020

But God Remembered

The Genesis flood was a disaster of epic proportions. While we have seen the powerful affects of water in our own lives and lifetimes. the idea of a flood that covered the entire world up to the tops of the mountains is so incredible that it is, for some people, not credible. They don't even think a worldwide flood happened.*

But God said it did and so we should believe it did.

But in the midst of that disaster, "God remembered Noah" (Gen 8:1). 

This is not a statement of God's mental ability to store and recall information. It is not a testament to God's sudden recollection of something he was supposed to have done. 

It is a statement of God's grace. God, in the midst of judgment, showed mercy to Noah and his family. To remember them was not to recall something that had slipped his mind. It was to show mercy to them in a time of trial.

And so it is with God to this day. His memory of his people is an act of grace, both of remembering them in their difficulties and trials and of not remembering them in their sins.

In Jeremiah 31:34, in the New Covenant that God makes with Israel he says, "I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more." That promise is repeated in Hebrews 8:11 and Hebrews 10:17, both of which talk about the death of Christ that brings forgiveness to us.

God's "not remembering" does not mean that God no longer knows it; that would be impossible since God knows all things. It is that he chooses not to act like we have done it. 

So both in God's remembering and his not remembering, God is filled with grace towards his people in our weaknesses. He who remembers us in trial chooses not to remember our sinfulness because Christ has paid for it.

Today, take hope in God's rememering, both the things he remembers and the things he chooses not to remember.


*One of the ironies of flood deniers is their argument that "All ancient cultures have some sort of flood narrative because they copied it from each other." It does not seem to cross their mind that these ancient cultures have a flood narrative because it actually happened to their ancestor and was passed down through the generations.

Saturday, June 06, 2020

Government, Pandemics, and the Church

The current situation of a national health crisis combined with government mandates about public meetings have created an interesting situation. In recent days, the issue has been complicated and exacerbated by racial tension and rioting in the wake of the George Floyd death.

Most of the basic facts are known, so I won’t rehearse those here. What I would like to do it lay out a brief outline of issues related to this situation as it relates to the church.

Most states issued some sort of shutdown orders that included churches. Churches typically took one of three responses, two of which look very similar. Some churches continued to meet in defiance of the orders. Some churches stopped public meetings out of concern for public safety and community testimony. Some churches stopped public meetings in order to comply with government orders.

What should the church have done? Was this a time for civil disobedience? Should the church have “honored the king” and submitted to the governing authority in line with 1 Peter 2 and Romans 13? Or should the church have obeyed God rather than man in line with Acts 5?

Among those who claimed we should obey the government, the most often stated reason was that the government was not asking us to disobey God. Thus, civil disobedience (obeying God rather than man) was not a legitimate option. Furthermore, it was argued that the orders were “generally applicable,” meaning that churches were not being singled out; everyone was under the same order.

I confess that that neither argument makes sense to me. For the first, God has commanded the church to meet. The government commanded the church not to meet. There is, to me at least, a very clear demand by the government to not do what God has commanded us to do. I am not here appealing to Hebrews 10:25 and not forsaking the assembling. A temporary absence from church for health reasons is not forsaking. We should actually encourage that so as to limit the spread of disease. If you had a church member who vomited all night on Saturday night, you would encourage that member to stay home on Sunday. You would not consider that forsaking. I rather appeal to the whole pattern of the NT, including the very name “church” which means assembly. You are not the church unless you “church” (to partake of a now frequent and sometimes disturbing practice of verbing a noun). So when the government said, “Do not meet,” they were commanding disobedience to God.

As for the second argument of general applicability, there are two points of consideration. First, biblical commands to meet are never, to my knowledge, based on whether they apply to everyone. I don’t see anywhere that God says, “Don’t meet if no one else is.” Second, the US constitution carves out a right for religious freedom that it does not carve out for others. While the courts have generally upheld “generally applicable” as a reasonable restriction, such a view seems to render the First Amendment protections for religious expression meaningless. I think the framers included it so as to single out religious expression (and freedom of the press and assembly). In other words, the only reason for the First Amendment is to prevent general applicability from being a reason to forbid worship, peaceful assembly, or expression. 

As I mentioned above, the recent protests have complicated and exacerbated the issue by showing that churches aren’t being treated the same as others. Protests were allowed but churches were not? Large groups of people could assemble in close quarters and without masks in many cases but churches could not? Both are protected by the First Amendment. In Michigan, my state, the governor (wisely, in my view) from the beginning included a paragraph that her order was not to be construed as taking away freedoms guaranteed by the constitution. In other words, it never really applied to churches. She further clarified that churches would not be subject to penalty, meaning it was nothing more than good advice. It was never legally binding on the church.

So what should we have done?

I am of those in the second category. We did stop meeting. We had a livestream each Sunday that we tried not to make a regular service and we had a livestream teaching on Wednesday evening. We did this because of public safety and community reputation. I talked to people in the medical field, front line workers in hotspot hospitals, who told me, “Larry, you have to stop meeting. This is serious and this is dangerous.” So we did. I talked to pastor friends who said, “Larry can you imagine what happens when your church shows up in the news as a place where the virus was caught? You can’t risk that.” So we stopped meeting.

So what of the government orders? Does Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2 apply here? My short answer is No, because the orders were forbidding what God commands. My conscience leads me to conclude that we must obey God rather than man. 

I would submit that most of my pastor friends who stopped meeting because of the governor’s orders, did not stop because of governmental authority primarily. These same people would freely and gladly reject that authority if meeting was forbidden for a different reason. They stopped meeting because they thought the order was reasonable and correct. In other words, they stopped because they agreed, not because they thought the government had authority over the church. As soon as the reason for banning meetings was something they did not find convincing, they would have resisted it.

What if the government's orders had been different? What if the government had said, "Churches can meet in groups of 50 or fewer (or 25 or 100 or some percentage of capacity)"? I would say we should honor that order and live under it because we are not commanded to meet in groups of a certain size. 

Of course the danger here is to meeting as a subset of the congregation is not really the church. Multi-site churches are actually different churches. Multi-service churches are actually different churches. I don't have a problem with either. But let's call them what they are. A church is an assembly, a group of people who assemble. If you don't assemble, you are not a church. 

Another danger in this is that it set a precedent. The government declares an emergency and the church just rolled over and said, “Okay.” Again, I think churches should have stopped meeting for a time. But I think they should have done so for different reasons than governmental authority.

The government has no authority to forbid what God commands. Pastors and churches do have the responsibility to be wise, to do things right and honorable in the sight of all men, to love their people and their communities. And sometimes that means not meeting so that a dangerous virus is not spread.

Lastly, I would appeal for grace to those who see it differently. Do not condemn those who believed they should start meeting before you think you should. Do not judge those who believe they should continue the shutdown. To their own master they stand or fall. God has not revealed a date for reopening. So do not play God over those who see it differently.

Monday, May 25, 2020

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row, 
That mark our place, and in the sky, 
The larks, still bravely singing, fly, 
Scarce heard amid the guns below. 

We are the dead; short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, 
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields. 

Take up our quarrel with the foe! 
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high! 
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
John McCrae

Thursday, April 16, 2020

A Famine of Preaching?

The prophet Amos prophesied of a day when God would “send a famine on the land, Not a famine for bread or a thirst for water, But rather for hearing the words of the LORD. God said at that time, “People will stagger from sea to sea And from the north even to the east; They will go to and fro to seek the word of the LORD, But they will not find it. 13 "In that day the beautiful virgins And the young men will faint from thirst.” (Amos 8:11-13).

Martin Luther referenced this passage when he said, “There is no crueler blow of the wrath of God than when he sends a famine of hearing his words (Amos 8:11). Likewise, there is no greater favor from him than the sending forth of his Word, as it is said, ‘He sent out his word and healed them, and delivered them from their destruction’ (Ps. 107:20)” (Martin Luther in His Own Words, Kilcrease and Lutzer, p. 17).

It strikes me that perhaps some, maybe even much, of modern evangelical preaching is not the blessing of God but the judgment of God. I fear that for many preaching of the Word has been turned into a self-help session, a coping mechanism with no underlying foundation of a biblical worldview, no coherent explanation of God and his character and work in the world, no explanation of the brokenness sin has brought, no explanation of what it means to repent. It is therapy rather than formation. It is self-help rather than self-denial.

Michael Lawrence asks and answers it this way: “Do non-Christians want a purpose-filled life? Of course they do. The problem is that, as idolaters, they want that purpose to center on themselves. And they’ll be happy to even employ God and Jesus for filling that self-centered purpose.”[1]

There are many good preaching pastors who open the Word weekly and preach it as the voice of God that satisfies a deep spiritual hunger with spiritual food. Let us be one of those. Let us be those who listen to those. Let us refuse to be satisfied with less.

Just because people don't like it is no reason to abandon it. At the end, preachers will be held to a higher standard than "How many showed up?" or "How quickly did your church grow?" Preachers will be judged by these verses:

Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths. But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. (2 Timothy 4:2-5)

[1] Lawrence, Michael. Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church: A Guide for Ministry. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010. Print. 9Marks.

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Jesus Keeps His Sheep

This past Sunday, I preached from John 10:22-42. In that passage, we saw the promise of preservation that Jesus gives to his sheep. Those who are his are protected by him and they can be assured that he will never let them go. It is one of the wonderful securities of the Christian life: Christ holds us fast.
The reality of the Christian life, however, is that at times people struggle with assurance of salvation. They wonder, “Am I really saved?” If you have ever wondered that, you are not alone. The good news is that the Bible gives us at least three ways to help us to answer this question.
First, there are the promises of God, such as are found in John 10:28: “I give eternal life to them and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” This promise is repeated many times over through the Bible as an assurance that those who belong to Christ in salvation will never not belong to him. We are eternally secure in Christ. When the doubts come, remember God made promises and he always keeps his promises. Trust his promises.
Second, there is the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit. Romans 8:15-17 puts it this way: “For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, "Abba! Father!" 16 The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him.” One of the works of the Spirit who was given to us in salvation is to assure us that belong to God; we are sons of God with all the things that brings along with—sufferings as well as glory. This is a more mystical testimony of a sort. It is one that can be misleading to us at times. Nevertheless, it is one means of assurance that the Father has given to us.
Third, and flowing from the second, is the life that we lead. One of the first assurance verses most of us heard after coming to Christ for salvation is 1 John 5:13, which says, “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.” Much emphasis was placed on knowing and rightly so. It is the focus of not only the verse, but of the whole book. Less emphasis was placed on the “things that were written … so that you may know.” The book of 1 John (written by the same guy who wrote the gospel of John and John 10) is written with tests of salvation, which is described as “fellowship with him.” One of the means of assurance is the tests of 1 John: tests of fellowship, of finding forgiveness with God, of walking in light, of obedience, of love, of purity.
Many years ago I was having a serious struggle with assurance of salvation. Nights of worry; repeated prayers in case I had messed up the last one; a few conversations with people; more fear. In the midst of this one wise man reminded me of 1 John 5:13 and told me this: “Larry, go read 1 John and see if that describes you.” So I did.
God used that in my life to bring his promises and the testimony of the Spirit to life in me. I didn’t measure up perfectly to 1 John. In fact, reading it was a reminder of how much I didn’t measure up. But the fact is that it resonated with me. That was the kind of life I wanted to live, the kind of life I was pursuing however imperfectly. It was my pursuit. It gave me assurance. Ironically, it was not assurance based on my own living up to the tests, but assurance based on God’s promises to keep me and change me. That night was the night the gospel began to grow in me like it never had before, and it grows to this day. I am more convinced than ever that if Jesus didn’t do enough to save me, there is no salvation for me. I am more convinced than ever that nothing I do can earn salvation, or help my salvation. And I more desirous than ever to live in obedience and follow after Jesus. That gives me hope.
Remember the sheep hear his voice and follow him. 1 John is about following him because we have heard his voice. The reason I say this flows from Romans 8 and the internal testimony of the Spirit is because in Romans 8 those who “by the Spirit … are putting to death the deeds of the body … will live. 14 For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God” (Romans 8:13-14). To be led by the Spirit is to obey, and the Spirit uses that to testify that we belong to the Father.
When you are convicted of sin, take great hope because that is one of the signs that you belong to him. When you obey, take great hope not that you are saved by your obedience, but that your obedience is a reminder that you were saved.
Our Savior will hold us fast, and he will change us into his image. Rest in him.