What Do You Do When An Invitation to Receive Christ Is Being Given If You’re Already Saved?

How about praying for anyone who is under conviction of sin? How about praying for the Holy Spirit to overcome any spiritual blindness in anyone who in the congregation or meeting who may be unsaved (II Corinthians 4:4)? How about asking God to reveal Christ through the gospel to anyone who has not received Christ as Lord and Savior (II Corinthians 4:6)? How about praying for anyone who does put his or her faith in Christ for the first time to become rooted and grounded in Christ (Colossians 2:6-7) and become a faithful disciple of Jesus for the rest of his or her life (Matthew 28:18-20)?

It’s not a good time to sit around waiting for the end of the service or meeting, and perhaps thinking about lunch, or what you will be doing the next day. Rather spend the time participating in the spiritual warfare for the souls around you. And if you’re a pastor or teacher giving an invitation, it’s a good idea to request this kind of prayer from the long time believers who may be in attendance when you’re explaining the gospel and perhaps giving an invitation. So often we forget that the very act of sharing the gospel and giving someone else directions on how to enter the kingdom of God through repentance and faith in Christ is a time of spiritual warfare that needs to be bathed in united prayer.

Give Some Guidance and Consideration to the Biblically Inexperienced

In one Sunday evening service, not long after I took up the pastorate of a new church, I started to give the Biblical reference for my sermon. I said something like, “It’s in the book of Ephesians, just past the middle of the New Testament. If you opened the Bible to Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, Corinthians or Galatians, keep on going toward the back of the Bible. If you’ve turned to Philippians, Thessalonians, Timothy or Hebrews, go back the other way, more toward the front of your Bible.”

A number of the long time churchgoers in the congregation laughed at that. I let them know that it wasn’t a joke, that there were those who came to our services who didn’t know the Bible well enough to find some of the books. I asked them never to laugh at that again, since we didn’t want to have someone feel ashamed of not having learned something that the long time churchgoers had learned perhaps in their childhood. It’s my experience that many times new believers and the spiritually curious don’t get a lot of help with some basic Biblical navigation. Many times their spiritual hunger and curiosity would find greater satisfaction if they simply had some basic guidance, given with kindness and consideration, during the course of normal preaching and teaching. Many times more experienced believers forget how precious the Bible can be to a new believer, especially if that person has had little or no exposure to it before, and provide too little basic guidance on how to navigate through the written Word of God.

I’ve noticed that in many churches there isn’t much guidance given to someone who isn’t already familiar with the Bible on where to find the text for the sermon, and many times there isn’t any common sense guidance given during the normal course of preaching and teaching on where to find the text for a sermon or lesson. Projecting the text on a screen is helpful, but there is more guidance that could be given. Most books of the Bible are short enough that someone could read them easily in an evening, and it can only be commendable for someone listening a series on a book of the Bible to be interested in reading that book on his or her own. Here are some suggestions:

  • If there is a church purchased Bible in the pew of a church, give the page number of the text in the church bulletin or project it on the screen. Biblically inexperienced listeners may not have the order of books in the Bible sufficiently memorized to be able to find a text, but they know how to turn to a page number.
  • From time to time remind people in the congregation that the vast majority of Bibles have the page numbers for the individual books of the Bible in the front of the Bible. Let them know it’s OK to look there for a reference, since it can take years for someone to get sufficiently experienced with the order of the books to be able to find some references quickly. This seems obvious to someone who has experience with a Bible, but it might not occur to someone who has never used a Bible until recently.
  • Provide some coaching when letting people know the Biblical text for preaching or teaching on where to find the books of the Bible. In this day, I think that this would apply even for the larger and well known books such as Psalms, Isaiah and the four gospels. This is extremely inoffensive and many are grateful when it is done with kindness.
  • Occasionally let people know in a kind and perhaps humorous way that King James English is not inspired, and that there are more modern and understandable translations available. My experience with using the New International Version during my own preaching and teaching is that many times someone would come up to me and say something like, “I can understand that Bible that you’re using better than the one I have. Where can I find a Bible like that?”
  • Occasionally let the people know that there are study editions of the Bible and books like Bible dictionaries and commentaries that can provide greater background information on the Bible.
  • More experienced believers should be aware of anyone nearby fumbling through a Bible to find a text. A bit of help quietly and kindly given will often find a grateful heart.

This may seem like very basic guidance, but it’s easy for someone who has been in church and followed the Lord for years to forget what it’s like in those first few days and months of seeking to learn God’s Word. New believers in Christ often seem to be born with a deep hunger for the Word of God, and often they will keep on going into the Word once they get some guidance. Their inexperience shows in those days, and it’s not because of ignorance or stupidity, but because of lack of exposure to the Bible previously. Quite frankly, professional people with advanced degrees may never have come to a realization that Jesus and the apostles didn’t speak in King James English or that a Bible has a table of contents. It’s not that they are stupid, uneducated people, but they simply hadn’t been exposed to the Bible before or thought about these things before.

‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’ – Where Did They Get THAT Idea?

Some months ago I heard Chuck Colson mention ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’ as the practical religion of American teenagers. The term is the coinage of Christian Smith, an author connected with the University of Notre Dame. Here are the five basic tenets:

  • “A God exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
  • God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  • The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  • God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  • Good people go to heaven when they die.”

It’s noteworthy that many evangelical youth are included in this survey. Also, I would not use the term, ‘deism’ myself to describe their view of God. I would rather call it a weak and feeble theism. Moreover, as someone who grew up in a liberal mainline church, I would describe this as pretty much the same kind of religion which I found there. My own conjecture is that this is the kind of religion that happens in churches when Christians soft pedal and water down the gospel of Jesus Christ and neglect Biblical authority for fear of offending someone.

Googling the term can bring up a large number of references across the web. A number of the proposed remedies among evangelicals tend to be academic rather than practical, or blame ‘seeker friendly’ approaches to church services. I think that at least some of the blame can be to a ‘seeker friendly approach,’ but not all, and that much can be done to correct this impression among evangelical churches that this is a viable form of Biblical Christianity.

First, I think that when the music in our churches addresses God as distant that it give this impression of a weak, inattentive and distant God. In the past few years I’ve noticed a number of songs seem to address God as if he was hard of hearing, or as if it were hard to get his attention. In some cases I think that the song writer may be misapplying part of the Psalms which deal with lament as if they were praise. At other times I think that the song writer is just stringing together phrases and worship clichés for their emotive value or reusing them from other songs they have heard, and that the songs may become popular for the energy of the music rather than the scriptural truth and depth of the lyrics and their correspondence with universal Christian experience. But what is the impression of God that we give when we sing these songs?

Some other songs seem to thank God for his provision in a way which can easily be interpreted by someone without a strong Biblical view of creation, providence and salvation as simply thanking God for my stuff. (That was actually what one teenager came up with when questioned on what he was thanking God for.) These would be the songs that would express thanks and praise to God simply for ‘supplying all my needs.’ In this situation praise and thanksgiving is simply too general to be understood in a Biblical way by those participating in the worship singing. Again, what is the impression that we give when we are not specific enough in our praise and thanks for all the glories of salvation brought about by God through his Son?

A simple way to deal with this is simply to evaluate each song on whether it communicates a Biblical view of God, his nature, his creation, provision and salvation. It’s just as dangerous to present a watered down and dumbed-down view of God in the practice of worship as it is to present a heretical view. I think that evaluating each song on this merit may result in some songs rightfully being discarded as unfit for corporate worship in a church of Jesus Christ. Some might be paired with songs with stronger and deeper Biblical content. Even more, understanding the possible effect of vague and superficial worship lyrics may result in the restoration of more hymns and Biblically stronger worship songs from the past to the regular cycle of worship songs than previously. A question for discussion among the pastoral staff and elders of a church each quarter might be, “Have our worship services faithfully represented the God of the Bible in all that was said and done? If so, how? And if not, how?”

Second, I think that there are a number of times when the preaching, teaching, media programs, practical decisions and even conversations among Christians treat the statements of Christian psychiatrists and psychology as having more weight and commanding more respect, belief and obedience than scripture. I frankly think that this problem is so bad among our churches that if I were to enter a pastorate today, four passages I would preach on within the first two months would be Ephesians 2:1-10 (on salvation by grace through faith and salvation resulting in a life of obedience) II Timothy 3:16-27 (on the inspiration and sufficiency of scripture), Luke 6:46-49 (on the call to obedience of Jesus to his disciples) and Matthew 28:18-20 (the Great Commission to make disciples and teach them to obey everything that Jesus has commanded – in his personal teaching and through his apostles).

Here are some reasons why I think that psychology trumps scripture in so many:

  • Change in a person’s life seems to be treated as the result of a therapeutic program and principles often couched in psychological terms and backed with a scriptural citation. This often strongly resembles popular psychology. What happens if a pastor contradicts the pronouncement of a Christian psychologist if he can show that the scripture being used to back the program of principles is in fact badly misinterpreted? Is the program therefore treated as something unworthy of belief and obedience, or is the pastor’s statement dismissed and ignored?
  • Many of the problems now being addressed by psychology – anger and lust, to name two – are addressed by scripture directly, and believers have historically found deliverance from many of them through confession to God, prayer, adherence to scripture and the power of the Holy Spirit. Is someone who testifies to deliverance from these problems in these ways dismissed as if he or she has swallowed snake oil?
  • Some of the scandalous sins which believers may fall into call for church discipline, according to scripture, if the person is unrepentant, rather than a round of psychological treatment. For instance, I was astonished to hear on a Christian radio program of a case where a woman was clearly acting in a slanderous and divisive manner against a perceived rival in the women’s ministry of a large church. The pastoral staff kept on calling them into ‘reconciliation’ meetings – ten of them in total. Whatever happened to Matthew 18:15-17 and Titus 3:10-11? The woman causing the division eventually left of her own accord – but according to scripture, she should have been asked to leave after three disciplinary meetings.
  • Psychological treatment may involve a lengthy digging into the past to uncover why a behavior may be happening. It’s amazing to me how little scripture addresses this kind of introspection as any kind of solution. It’s also amazing to me how many times I and other pastors have found that simply calling for a sinful behavior to stop and then to address a possible stronghold in past experiences has yielded immediate results, as compared to an introspective form of psychological treatment. If Jesus has truly delivered us truly from sins which have enslaved us (John 8:31-32), is it truly necessary to hash over the past on something which Jesus has already given victory?
  • An emphasis on psychological treatment tends to ignore the real spiritual warfare at times necessary to overcome problems. For instance, the overcoming of problems which involve the thought life, such as lust, will often the recognition that all that comes into one’s mind may not be from one’s own mind. It involves the recognition that Satan does intend to corrupt the thoughts of believers from the simplicity and purity of Christ (II Corinthians 11:3), that he can produce mental images (from knowledge of the images one may have already viewed) as well as suggest thoughts (Luke 4:5), and that the believer has the capability and responsibility in Christ to take every thought captive to him (II Corinthians 10:5). Yet I’ve heard Christians advise overcoming pornographic addiction by a form of Skinnerian operant conditioning (putting a rubber band on one’s wrist, and snapping it every time a person has one of those thoughts). Whatever happened to recognition of temptation and refusing those thoughts and images in the name and authority of Jesus Christ (Luke 10:19)?
  • An emphasis on psychological treatment tends to ignore the scriptural motivation and ability to change given from love to Christ (John 14 ) and through the Holy Spirit. The motivation seems to come back to personal happiness and the power to personal willpower – neither of which are sufficient to achieve scriptural sanctification into the image of Christ (II Corinthians 3:18).

Finally, I think that we give this impression when we water down or soft pedal the reality that there is a real scandal of the cross in this world, and that suffering, rejection and persecution for the sake of Jesus is part and parcel of the Christian life. The truth is that Christians can be amazingly loving – far beyond ‘nice’ — and yet suffer for Jesus in this world, and that is the mark not that there is something wrong with them but that there is something right with them, namely, following Jesus. They don’t need adjustment to a lost and dying world which hated and crucified Jesus.

Some Observations About Atheists I’ve Known


There are some observations about atheists that I’ve known that I will share below. It’s not a philosophical or apologetic counter argument to any form of atheism as a philosophical system or construct. Rather, they are observations about the atheists themselves. Many times their atheism is an overdramatized and over-intellectualized facade, and I think that many Christians fail to recognize this. Many times they also seem to think that Christians are more aware of their sins and moral transgressions than they really are.

First, I’ve noticed that many atheists I’ve known are marijuana users – potheads in fact. They seem to fear that Christians are out to take their marijuana away from them. My take is that many Christians are totally unaware of this possibility when dealing with atheists.

Second, I’ve noticed that many atheists have deep problems with Biblical sexual morality, to put it delicately. They seem to fear moral condemnation from Christians for many of the ways in which they have violated Biblical sexual standards. Again, many Christians may be unaware of the loud self condemnation of the atheist’s conscience in this regard. There is in fact a quotation I’ve found from Bertrand Russell (which I’m unable to locate at this moment – check Paul Johnson’s biographical sketch of Bertrand Russell in his book Intellectuals) that his ethic and practice of ‘sexual freedom’ was the personal rationale behind his atheism.

Third, they’ve often had some flirtation with Christianity, perhaps in their teenage years, and may in fact be rejecting a childish or adolescent perception of Christianity. They may not have in fact read the Bible at all, though they may try to refer to what the Bible says as if they were really knowledgeable about it. They may in fact be referring to what someone else told them at some time what the Bible said, and are at a loss if they are asked to find it, so that you can make sure that they are not taking it out of context and misinterpreting it.

Fourth, their flirtation with Christianity may include some kind of deep disappointment with God in some way. It may have been the loss of someone to death, or the failure to get an expected answer to prayer. These are the situations which many Christians find great comfort from God and the vindication of their faith through hard times. This should point out to the Christian that the atheist may be an example of the professed believers who are like the seed sown on hard ground in the Parable of the Sower, who fall away because of affliction (Mark 4:17 – Greek thlipsis).

Fifth, though they claim to reject God and the Bible, they are often quite superstitious, and open to and actively engaging in all sorts of New Age and occult practices and beliefs. Moreover, they are often gullible and fall for pseudoscientific beliefs such as aliens building the pyramids and being the source of ancient myths, despite their claiming to stand against Christianity in the name of science. This shows that their scientific stance is a facade that they only bring up against Christians. They may also have very little knowledge of the actual claims and methods of science, and hold to a quasi religious view of science best called scientism.

Sixth, they may have strong Marxist leanings, and be avid readers of authors such as Karl Marx, Mao Tse-Tung and Saul Alinsky. They may claim not to be Communists, but this may simply be a claim not to be official members of the Communist Party. I’m not sure that this is because they actually find Marxism credible, but that it forms a kind of escape from their own problems into romanticized revolutionary politics. I’ve noticed that in the past few years there has been little critique of Marxism, especially governmental wealth redistribution and dependence, class conflict and revolutionary politics from Christians over the past twenty or so years, and Jay Richard’s book Money, Greed and God or Anthony Bradley’s Liberating Black Theology would form a good starting point. Unfortunately, too many Christian leaders and seminaries have fallen into the trap of seeing scriptural calls for justice in terms of the Marxist calls for social justice in recent years (Marxist eisegesis), and this may account for a soft pedaling of a strong scriptural critique of Marxism when it can be critiqued in the course of a normal cycle of preaching and teaching of the Bible.

Finally, though they may claim moral superiority over Christians, they are often astoundingly ignorant on the tremendous personal and intellectual dishonesty, hypocrisy, greed and financial irresponsibility of many of the leading atheist spokesmen. For example, the material garnered in Anne Row Seaman’s (herself an agnostic) biography of Madalyn Murray O’Hair outdoes the worst of any fallen evangelical preacher that an atheist may claim to find offensive and hypocritical. Furthermore, Charles Finney’s tactic of turning this back on the detractor by showing that this criticism of Christians does not come from any concern for the cause of Christ but out of a hypercritical and hypocritical heart can be tremendously convicting if pursued with kindness, calmness and boldness.

Quite frankly, what we evangelicals have neglected in our preaching and teaching over the years may in fact speak to the heart concerns of atheists as people. What we need to do is always present Jesus as a Savior from real, deep and intractable sins which none of us could ever overcome on our own, and ourselves not as the judges of others but as ambassadors of his grace and mercy. I think that too often the gospel is not presented in the power of God, as the gospel of an almighty Savior and more as a possible change of opinion which Jesus wants someone to consider.

When was the last time any of us heard the testimony of someone who was enslaved to drugs in any of our churches? Yet Jesus has freed countless thousands from the chains of addiction. When was the last time you heard the gospel presented which mentioned subjection to drugs as something that Jesus could and would save someone from? Maybe we need to show the film The Cross and the Switchblade from time to time again, and share David Wilkerson’s book The Cross and the Switchblade and Nicky Cruz’s Run, Baby, Run within our churches.

When was the last time that any of us heard occult sins and occult bondage being addressed in our evangelism, preaching and teaching? These practices can and often do lead to oppression by malicious spiritual influences (demons), and I can well believe that many atheists experience night terrors, miserable oppression and bitterness, terrifying and horrible images momentarily flashed into their minds and deep hatred of God and Christians inflicted by these wicked spirit beings. They may well find themselves utterly astonished to know that the Lord Jesus can free them from all these things. One scripture that is good to memorize for personal evangelism on this regard is, “For this Son of God appeared, that he might destroy the works of the devil” (I John 3:8 – Dale’s sight translation of the original Greek). Another one is Colossians 1:13-14: “He has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Dale’s sight translation of the original Greek).

When was the last time that any of us heard about how Jesus provides forgiveness and healing and conquering grace for sexual transgressions as regular part of our evangelism, preaching and teaching – in a direct, plainspoken and compassionate manner?

Was it the 1970’s when we last heard regularly about Jesus freeing drug addicts, occult slaves and sexual captives? Wasn’t that what happened a lot during the spiritual awakening among baby boomers that was called the Jesus Revolution by some? And wasn’t that because Jesus Christ was clearly presented in his glory as a Savior who could do exactly as he did in the lives of so many? Did the gospel or the Savior change, or did the emphasis in our message change?

One last utterly amazing thing that I’ve observed about the atheism of atheists: it often vanishes like a puff of smoke when they hear the gospel of Christ in the power of God, and they experience the power of Jesus Christ to free someone from the guilt and power of their transgressions.

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What’s In It For ME? Another Neglected Passage in Preaching and Teaching

“Gehazi, the servant of Elisha the man of God, said to himself, ‘My master was too easy on Naaman, this Aramean, by not accepting from him what he brought. As surely as the LORD lives, I will run after him as get something from him’” (II Kings 5:20).

As I was reading this passage yesterday morning, I realized that I had never heard any preaching or teaching on this passage, save possibly once about 22 years ago in a Sunday evening service. I don’t remember even hearing this passage referred to as a scriptural illustration, when another passage is the text of the sermon, though it could well be used as such, or any other passing allusion to it in any preaching and teaching. Yet in this passage there is an account of a man, the assistant to a great prophet, shaking down a new believer for an outrageous contribution to be diverted to his personal account. Is anything more relevant to today than this? Here are some ‘expository thoughts’ on how this passage could be used in preaching and teaching.

First, there is a great contrast of Gehazi the Israelite assistant of Elisha against Naaman the Aramean warrior general. It could well be said that Gehazi was the practical pagan in this situation, while Naaman was everything that Gehazi as an Israelite should have been. Gehazi was in this situation the man of unbelief and disobedience, though he had lived in proximity to Elisha the man of God. Though he saw the reality and power of the God of Israel through the ministry of Elisha, and probably through the ministry of Elisha’s mentor Elijah, little of their faith and obedience influenced his actions in this situation. Yet Naaman became the man of faith and obedience in this situation, though his pedigree as an Aramean and his background as a pagan would seem to have predicted differently. Naaman had been marked by his past as being distant from the things of God, but became someone who received the grace of God by the obedience of faith as demonstrated in this passage.

Second, this passage shows what really happens with what some may excuse as ‘white lies’ (who’s it really going to hurt?) and their consequences. Gehazi told a big lie to Naaman when he passed on a message purportedly from Elisha (II Kings 5:22). He then told a big lie to Elisha when he denied running after Naaman to shake him down for a contribution (II Kings 5:25). This passage shows a common pattern of lying, of telling a lie to defraud and another lie to cover the first lie. There are some passages in scripture where the lies of people of faith are simply reported without condemnation, though they are not held up as something for believers to imitate or to excuse the deliberate lies of believers. Another passage which shows the casual, sanctimonious lie and its consequence is the lie of the old prophet to the young prophet in I Kings 13:19, or the lies of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah (Genesis 12:13, 18, 20:2 and 26:7).

Third, this passage is an egregious example of someone trying to make a profit or get a commission from the grace of God – something Paul described as making merchandise of the gospel (II Corinthians 2:17). Here Gehazi is pursuing personal profit with a false religious veneer – the great temptation of those who handle material things and money in the church of Jesus Christ. Elisha rebuked this seeking after rich clothes to make himself look good and money to invest in real estate and in a good life for himself (II Kings 5:26). This passage could therefore be brought in as a Biblical illustration for passages such as I Timothy 6:3-10, where Paul wrote about people who think that “ . . . godliness is a means to financial gain” (I Timothy 6:5).

Smaller profits, but with the same grasping tendency, come with the much underreported and much under-rebuked sins of church pilfering. It’s worth noting that Judas, as the treasurer of the disciples, was often dipping into the till (John 12:4-6), and got the other disciples worked up when his motive was to get some for himself.  While I don’t wish to dwell on the sins of my brothers and sisters, I do believe that many believers are spiritually stymied because they have allowed money and items given for the work of God to stick to their fingers when they passed through their stewardship; like Achan, they saw something that they felt that they needed or wanted and grabbed it out of what had been devoted to God (Joshua 5:20-21). For example, Jim Cymbala, in his book Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire reported that there were these kinds of problems in his small church, such as pilfering from the offering by church officers, before revival struck. I think that it does bear asking church leaders and church members whether there are things in their possession which were never given to them and which were given for other purposes, or whether they have misused finances for their own advantage. Certainly confession and financial restitution when this has happened has often been a mark of genuine revival.

Next, this passage shows someone who was close to a genuine man of God taking advantage of someone else because of prejudice against that person. Gehazi very definitely saw Naaman’s pedigree as an Aramean as the basis that he was someone whom he could rightly take advantage of. Apparently he thought that Naaman deserved to be taken advantage of because he was from a different nation and a pagan background. Yet Naaman became practically an Israelite in faith because of his newfound devotion to the God of Israel, and shaking him down for a contribution was at least as bad as defrauding a fellow Israelite.

This passage also shows an egregious example also of taking advantage of someone who has experienced the grace of God and whose generosity was motivated by love and gratitude to God. It’s hard to find any words to describe how reprehensible, wicked and hypocritical it is for anyone – especially someone who might be in church leadership and has to stand before others in the church in a position of preaching and teaching — to see someone else’s love to God as a an opportunity to manipulate and exploit that person. It’s hard to see how there can be any love to God in a heart which sees someone else who has come into a fresh and life changing experience of the grace of God as a chump and patsy, as someone who is gullible and exploitable upon any kind of false pretext.

Next, this passage also shows Gehazi taking advantage of someone else who had abundance by fraud. Of course Naaman had more than he needed because of his position and authority. Of course he would never miss what he actually gave to Gehazi. But these definitely did not excuse his spiritualized fraud. The law of Israel had forbidden theft by fraud, and this passage definitely contradicts any excuse that it might be justified because the person defrauded will never miss it. This shows another pattern of defrauding that happens among the people of God – seeking personal gain at someone else’s expense. In fact, a whole scriptural pattern of defrauding could be summed up in the phrase seeking personal gain – money, prestige and reputation primarily – at the expense of someone else – theft through lies rather than through force and intimidation. In contrast, for all his faults, Abraham would not allow himself to be prospered at someone else’s expense (Genesis 14:23).

Even more, this passage shows that Gehazi had been following not the standard not of godliness in all things, big and small. His position as the servant of Elijah may well have been as his apprentice for future ministry, as his possible successor, as Elisha had been to Elijah and Joshua had been to Moses. Yet this passage reveals that his standard of righteousness was anything that he thought that he could get away with was all right. This standard of unfaithfulness in matters of honesty and obedience in matters both large and small has doubtless been the beginning of the shipwreck of many ministers and many promising leaders in the church. It is in contradiction to the explicit expectations of Jesus himself: “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with very much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with very much. So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own? No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” (Luke 16:10-13 – when was the last time you heard this passage mentioned in preaching and teaching? ).

Finally, Gehazi was marked with the disease that Naaman had had previously. This was the mark of the disease of his soul and the discipline of God upon his life. While certainly many brothers and sisters in Christ have often jumped to harsh judgments about the causes of hardships in the lives of other believers, nevertheless hardship is a time to ask God to search one’s own heart and life (Psalm 19:14 and 139:23-24, Hebrews 12:7-11). This application of the passage is not intended to be the basis of a self righteous judgment that someone could stand up and thunder down on another believer, in contradiction to Matthew 7:1-10, but rather as an application of the passage that each believer should search out in his or her own heart and life when under hardship that could reasonably be the discipline of God.

I think that too often believers themselves do not consider that the source of their hardships may be the discipline of God. In my personal reading, I’ve started back in with The Gulag Archipelago, and it’s noteworthy how Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn wrote about how he came to this practice in his own life, on the advice of a fellow convict in the Soviet gulags. He noted with apparent deep regret how the conduct of the backstabber that led to his own imprisonment was not that different than his own exploitation of his position as an officer before he was arrested. He noted how many times afflictions do seem to replicate the sins that we ourselves have committed. “You know what commands we gave you through the Lord Jesus. This is the will of God, your sanctification . . . not to transgress and act out of greed in a practical matter toward one’s brother, because the Lord is the avenger of all these things . . . “ (I Thessalonians 4:2-3, 6 – Dale’s sight translation). It’s worth consideration, then, how many of the hardships we may have may come from incidents where we might have acted like Gehazi, with lies, greed, self aggrandizement and self indulgence, and God is allowing us to experience the consequences of our own sins. Many times our disappointments are well deserved, if we look at our own conduct first. Our own confession and restitution is the scriptural response when we realize this.

A pastor who preaches on this passage and applies it might reasonably expect to step on some toes in some congregations. It’s therefore reasonable for the pastor to draw the application but do it in a way that avoids pointing a finger at someone, especially if you know of real life cases of people in the congregation who have acted like Gehazi in one way or another. This realization should then drive the pastor to prayer so that he may be bathed in the love, wisdom and power of the Holy Spirit, so he would preach and teach on this passage as if he were Jesus Christ himself opening up this passage to his congregation.

All scripture references taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION, copyright 1973, 1978 by the International Bible Society and used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.

Neglected Passages in Preaching and Teaching: Philippians 1:27-30

There was a time when I heard yet one more preacher on the radio bring up the case of the woman at the well from John 4, and I groaned inwardly when I heard him start yet another take on this incident. It seems to me like many pastors nowadays overuse this passage to make some point. Shortly thereafter I came up with a list of passages that I think would wake many congregations up with a start, as they would say to themselves, “I’ve never heard anyone preach on that before!”

One of those passages is Philippians 1:27-30: “Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and se you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm, in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved – and that by God. For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him, since you are now going through the same struggle that you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.”

I’ve only heard a pastor preach on this passage once in my life, and it was at my explicit suggestion. Yet it is very germane to the current situation in which believers find themselves in a postmodern, often explicitly anti-Christian culture nowadays. It’s more important to believers to stand together for the gospel now than ever before in my lifetime. Intimidation, marginalization and vilification are the tactics more than logical argument than ever before. And it’s about time that Christians stood together for the truth of the gospel more than ever before.

This passage also brings to light the reality that suffering for Christ, in terms of suffering rejection, legal harassment, injustice and even martyrdom, is part and parcel of following Christ. One of the extraordinarily strange things, in light of all that the New Testament says about persecution by rejection, slander, ostracism and rejection by multiple authors, is that believers in our day seem to think that any believer who is being given a hard time by unbelievers has something wrong which they are responsible to fix – in other words, the believer who does not fit in with the world without Christ is a fix-it project for other believers. The New Testament is firm that the opposite is true – that it is the world without Christ which is wrong in the first place. And the believer who is being given a hard time by the non-believers in his or her life is more likely doing something right – following Christ — than something wrong.

All scripture references taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION, copyright 1973, 1978 by the International Bible Society and used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.

Apologetics Is Not Evangelism, and Evangelism Is Not About Winning the Argument

I’m learning of some situations where some evangelical Christians seem to be treating their witness as winning an argument with someone and establishing the truth of Christianity against someone that rejects the Biblical message in some way. I’m thinking that it may be due to the unfortunate ‘It’s my responsibility to fix other people’ and ‘straightening out’ tendency among many Christians. While I definitely believe in apologetics and indulge quite heavily in it, it needs to be repeated often that apologetics is not evangelism. Rather, it is about establishing the reasonable basis of the Christian faith, and it can be a ministry to the believer as much as it is to the unbeliever. And one should never approach either apologetics or evangelism with an attitude of “I’m going to change them to my way of thinking.”

While the Bible does tell us to give an answer about the hope that is in us, and to persuade men and women in the fear of God, there is a place for simply sharing the complete gospel and trusting in the power of the Word and the Holy Spirit to change hearts. Sometimes it is a good tactic to ask simply to be able to explain the gospel and then work through objections later. It may well be that the other person is rejecting something which isn’t the gospel at all.

Billy Graham eventually worked his explanation of the gospel into four basic questions of life, and the gospel of Jesus Christ has the most sufficient, satisfying and livable answers to these questions. Here are his four questions:

  • Who am I?
  • Where did I come from?
  • Where am I going?
  • Is there any meaning to my life?

I think that we’re all born with wanting the answers to those questions, and presenting clearly how the Biblical gospel of Jesus Christ answers those questions can override objections based on my views against yours and refute all rivals.

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The Lost Generation of Church Going Young People

This is a description of a generation of young people whose parents attended church and who attended church with their parents.

  • They attended church as part of a family social convention, perhaps even from the time of infancy.
  • The parents acted one way at church and another way at home.
  • Young people who started to attend church or a youth group who weren’t a part of a family that attended the church were generally shunned, ignored, or ostracized if they were seen as a threat to the social prestige of the children of the parents who were church leaders.
  • The ride home from church with their parents could and often did become a hostile critique of others who attended church, the pastor and his sermon, and some who were related to regular church attenders but who rarely attended themselves.
  • Youth programs were generally social occasions, with singing and guitars, games and perhaps some kind of devotional from some kind of program. Attendance was more to get together with friends whose parents also attended the same church.
  • Traditional church music was old fashioned, with organ, piano and an operatic style of vocal delivery. Most of the words of the music were pretty hard to understand, and the style spoke to no one under 30 years old. Congregational singing tended to be a few good singers with a number of others standing around looking at the words.
  • Music that made an effort to be ‘contemporary’ and be hip and trendy to young people used guitars – sometimes acoustic, sometimes electric — and maybe some other instruments but the style was generally 5-10 years behind secular styles and seemed to be church cliches set to music.
  • There seemed to be an unacknowledged social competition among the parents as to who was doing better financially, who had the most prestigious job, who had the best looking spouse and who had the best looking, most talented and most popular children.
  • People who were even slightly out of place would be treated with disdain and gossip behind their backs and left out of many activities. Young people often saw the same kinds of ostracism that they saw in their high school social scene.
  • Most young people never heard an explanation of the gospel clearly enough to make a personal commitment of faith, and most were profoundly ignorant about the Bible, and most heard more about political and social action in the services and programs than anything else.
  • Social relationships among the adults in the church sometimes gave way to affairs, divorces and remarriages. The young people rarely closely saw a stable, loving marriage which they wanted to emulate.
  • Church leadership was more or less dependent on popularity, chutzpah, heavy financial support or position within the business community. Church leaders were members of a kind of financial advisory board concerned with operations and activities. Meeting the budget, getting bequests and trusts and building and renovation programs got a lot of attention and generated a lot of heat when there were disagreements.
  • No one on the pastoral staff had anything but the most superficial personal contact with anyone who was not a church leader. It would have been quite a surprise to any of the young people to know that any of the pastors had any personal concern for their salvation or spiritual growth or even to know that any of the pastors knew their names and were praying for them. Someone who would have taken a loving personal interest in them might have won them to Christ at an early age and helped them on the path to discipleship quite easily – but such a person would have been met with suspicion and opposition from the other adults in the congregation.

Is this the description of any contemporary evangelical church or denomination? Not at all! It is my compilation of my memories of how it was for myself and others of my age group who attended mainline, theologically liberal churches in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Any resemblance to the experience of young people today in any church is not coincidental – though I leave the reasons for such a resemblance to the prayerful consideration of anyone who sees such a resemblance.

Reaching the Secular University

Recently I’ve been wondering how seriously evangelical churches have been over the past generation in reaching the secular universities in the United States and the Western world in general. My concern is less about the parachurch organizations such as InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and Campus Crusade for Christ, but rather with evangelical churches, denominations and church leaders. I’m wondering if there has been a people blindness to the secular universities among some. Here are some questions that I would put to denominational leaders and pastors:

  • How many evangelical churches make the secular universities around them a regular focus in prayer?
  • How many evangelical churches seek to include secular universities as a focus in a church evangelistic program?
  • How many denominational leaders see cities, towns and regions with a secular university in their midst as a strategic place to plant new churches with a substantial emphasis on outreach to the university?
  • How many denominational leaders see the need for church redevelopment in small, ingrown churches which are in proximity to a secular university to include a substantial emphasis on outreach to the university?
  • How many evangelical churches, when seeking a location for new facilities, consider moving their facilities closer to a secular university as giving greater opportunities for ministry and outreach to the university community?
  • How many denominational leaders and pastors see a possibility for satellite churches and campuses adjacent to a secular university to provide outreach and ministry to the university?
  • How many evangelical churches treat the ‘college and career’ group as a simply another post high school youth group with pretty much the same format and curriculum?
  • How many evangelical churches in close proximity to a secular university see that something is missing if their congregation is primarily families who have no relation to the university?
  • How many evangelical churches in close proximity to a secular university have a staff member with a primary mission as leading outreach and ministry to the secular university?
  • How many pastors of evangelical churches in close proximity to a secular university know the leaders of the parachurch ministries such as InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and Campus Crusade for Christ, encourage them to attend and to be involved in local churches on Sundays, develop relationships with them, seek to minister to them, include them in the church fellowship and treat them as brothers and sisters to show love and support in prayer?
  • How many evangelical churches in close proximity to a secular university see outreach and ministry to the faculty and staff of the university as important as ministry to the students?
  • How many evangelical churches in close proximity to a secular university seek to sponsor and promote special outreach events with speakers on apologetics and relational issues and quality Christian artists include the secular university in their focus and promotion?

I’m certain that there are many churches, pastors and leaders who can point to efforts that they have made on outreach to the people in the secular university who are their close neighbors. Nevertheless, I do wonder if many pastors, leaders and churches have a significant blind spot in their vision for ministry and outreach if they do not see the secular university which is nearby.

Bertrand Russell and the DaVinci Code

It is the consensus of evangelical New Testament scholars that fully developed Gnosticism, such as developed in the late 2nd century A.D., was a syncretism between some elements of New Testament Christianity, pagan mythology and occult practices, and the secular philosophy of Neo-Platonism.

Most pastors engaged in New Testament study as part of their preaching and teaching ministry may not be familiar with Neo-Platonism. It was in fact the primary secular philosophy in the New Testament world, along with the Stoics and Epicureans whom Paul encountered in Athens. In addition, most pastors may not have access to a translation of the primary work of Neo-Platonism, the Enneads, or have the facility in ancient Greek to read through the original text (a nice PDF is available online) or the time to do much study in Neo-Platonism.

Enter Bertrand Russell, the well known secular and atheist philosopher, to the rescue. His work, A History of Western Philosophy, has a very good summary of Neo-Platonism. His discussion is excellent, and he relies not only on the best history of ancient philosophy available at the time but also seems to have read through the significant works in the original language for himself.

An understanding of Neo-Platonism can be helpful also in understanding Paul’s warnings against the mixture of popularized philosophy and pagan and Jewish religious practices in the letter to the Colossians. It also helps to highlight the reasonableness of the traditional views, from the early church fathers Ignatius, Irenaeus and Hippolytus onward, that Gnosticism represented a heretical departure from early Christianity, and not a legitimate variation from the period of the New Testament, which is the view presented in The DaVinci Code.

Russell’s History of Western Philosophy does make a good addition to the standard evangelical works which document the history of philosophy, such as that of Colin Brown. It can usually be found in used book stores and bargain book displays as well. His style is readable, the work is well documented, and he gives generally sound presentations and critiques of various philosophical positions, notwithstanding his atheism and disparagement of Christianity. I don’t think that it’s a work that a pastor need fear would undermine his faith, but rather might aid his understanding where his preaching and teaching ministry may need to address issues from secular and popularized philosophy.