Wednesday, January 21, 2009

We Don't Care Enough to Witness

Internet Monk wrote an article recently about the state of evangelism in the church, especially the Southern Baptist Convention. ( In it he points out that for all our efforts as a denomination, the canned presentations, training programs, “sure-fire” evangelism tools and the rest have been, at best, fruitless, and at worst, less a reflection of biblical disciple-making and more a demonstration of how various methodologies to present the truth can morph into badly designed marketing schemes, product placements, and used car pitches.

In my thirty-three years as a card-carrying member of the local Baptist congregation, and by extenuation, of the Southern Baptist Convention, I haven’t grown enough fingers and toes to count the number of different “solutions” there have been to the problem of personal evangelism (the problem being that persons don’t evangelize). Throw in the “Four Spiritual Laws” and other offerings by denominations and para-church groups other than the SBC, and the number of potential failures becomes exponential.

Not that there is anything wrong with trying. We have at least recognized for years that the average church member does not talk about his faith, at least to those who don’t already have it. All of these plans are attempts to address that issue.

I recall one summer when I learned, among other things, to evangelize “cold turkey”: to simply walk up to a total stranger and share the gospel. No one responded favorably to me, probably because I didn’t really care about anyone I spoke to. All I was concerned about was not getting pummeled with my own gospel tract and telling my disciple leader I had fulfilled my obligation. Don’t judge me just yet…you have likely done the same thing.

So I have been thinking about why these gospel-presentation-programs (“faith-in-a-box”) don’t seem to work, and why they don’t seem to result in lasting converts. It seems to come down to two things: 1) we don’t practice evangelizing our captive audience, and 2) we don’t love people.

Captive Audience. Who is this captive audience for the church? Why, our children and our congregations, that’s who. How many hapless souls have trudged through yet another faith-in-a-box program guaranteed to fire up their evangelistic fervor and to result in hordes of teeming disciples, when they have yet to even share the gospel with their own children? And what does it say to our little darlings that mom and dad are sticking them with a babysitter or in the nursery again to go visit strangers and share the gospel, when they haven’t taken the time to explain it to their own kids?

Believe me, it is tough to explain spiritual truth to the ones who are around you the most, the ones who see you curse when you slam your finger in the door, see you blow your top when you find soggy cereal in your armchair, or see you treat your spouse like a doormat. And it’s even tougher when parents don’t understand spiritual truth themselves. But if parents are able to consistently talk to their kids about spiritual matters, at every age, in every circumstance, day in and day out, then those parents will be able to talk about spiritual matters with anyone they come across.

But why, you say, do we need to evangelize our congregations? Evidence shows that perhaps as much as fifty percent of the average congregation is not saved. (Thom Rainer has several books that treat this subject, which is where this figure comes from. See, e.g., Simple Church and Essential Church; George Barna also has some telling statistics.) Too much of our programming in churches assumes that everyone present is saved, and they just need to be told how to live well. But for one who has not heard the gospel, who does not understand it, or who has not been enlightened by God, ‘living well’ translates to a salvation by works. Besides, even believers who have heard the gospel and who have been converted still need to hear the gospel, which is both the power of salvation and the power of sanctification. Our congregations need evangelizing just as much as the ‘sinners’ do.

Loving People. “Love” has become such a manipulated concept that it is almost meaningless to speak of loving people. Today “love” means you don’t criticize, don’t correct, don’t discipline, that you always say “I’m fine”, always agree, and never remove that creepy smile from your face. But biblical love is something entirely different.

One thing we frequently miss when we, as Christians, speak of “loving people,” is that to do so we must, first, SEE people. For most of us, customarily our day is filled with nameless others constantly making life difficult. Other motorists cut us off and make us late. Cashiers are slow and give the wrong change. Pedestrians smell and take up the whole sidewalk. Even other believers get our parking spot, sit in our pew, and threaten our standing in the church.

It is an amazing phenomenon that when you go through your day with your head down, avoiding glances, only looking up and around long enough to swipe your credit card at the gas pump or the checkout lane, no one speaks to you. In fact, you don’t even ‘see’ other people, but only impediments to your speedy return home to watch American Idol. Yet when we actually consider the people we encounter as people, look them in the eye, and have a genuine interest in them, even if only for the brief minutes that we are putting our groceries on the conveyor belt, people will tell you all manner of things about themselves. It is these things that people will tell you about themselves that give us opportunity to be interested in them, to speak truth into their situation, and, if appropriate, to share the gospel to that one in whom we have only just recently developed genuine interest.

Where to start? How about our neighbors. They are not simply the ones on the other side of your privacy fence, whose guests block your driveway, whose dog goes in your yard, whose teenager blasts music and plays basketball in the driveway too late, or who you hope doesn’t discover that it was you that took his newspaper that time. Our neighbors are the ones who see us leave for church every Sunday – and possibly on Wednesday – and who wonder why we have never invited them, or even introduced ourselves, or discussed important matters of the world over – or through – that privacy fence. Our neighbors wonder why we are so willing to discuss our golf handicap, stock tips, gas prices, parenting problems, and football scores but never mention what should be the most important aspect of our lives.

So, ‘cold turkey’ evangelism and canned presentations of the gospel can be beneficial, sometimes. But the primary reason that they usually are not is that the recipients know that the one peddling the gospel product to them is only interested in the sale. Instead, when we actually ‘see’ people around us, and are genuinely interested in them, we might actually love them in the way that recognizes their spiritual plight and prompts us to share with them the truth of the gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Christian Legalism and Different Gospels

So we know that Peter and Paul (sans Mary…well, not in the same way) got into it over the gospel. Peter had been hangin’ out with the Gentiles – without requiring them to be circumcised – until the Judaizers caught wind of the whole thing. Peter felt the pressure from a small, but vocal, element of the congregation and caved in. Sound familiar?

Paul didn’t think this was such a good idea, and decided to confront Peter. Publicly. Sound UNfamiliar?

We don’t seem to get many sermons on Galatians that focus on how we should fight for the truth of the gospel like Paul did. This is somewhat understandable, since there is not much dispute these days about cutting our sons’ foreskins. It’s also understandable in light of the fact that complaints of modern Judaizers don’t sound that bad to us. In fact, they sound pretty good. More on that later.

Paul reminds Peter that they are “Jews by birth” and not “Gentile sinners” (Galatians 2:15), then launches into a thrice-stated description of what some have called his “theory of justification in a nutshell”, that men are justified by faith in Jesus Christ, not by works of the law (vv15-16). Paul’s immediate meaning is clear: being circumcised does not save a man, and not being circumcised does not damn him. For Peter and his blade-happy Judaizers to insist that new believers had to be circumcised was peddling a different gospel. One that would not save.

Circumcision, once the mark of God’s covenant, had become a threat to the gospel covenant. But it was not the only threat faced by the early church, and it is not the only threat we face now.
Paul explains that Christ would not be made an agent of sin if they – Jews – in seeking to be justified in Him were found to be sinners (v17). There are a few ways to understand this. Some think he means that if others (like the Judaizers) view them as sinners because they hang with Gentiles, no problem. Others think he means that others might view them as having rejected the law, thus having become like the Gentiles.

It might be that the Judaizers were not so much concerned about specific transgressions of the law, as with the appearance that Peter and the others had set it aside as their governing principle. It is much easier for men to check their righteousness against lists of approved behaviors than to serve God with a transformed heart. So Paul can say that they should not rebuild what they have torn down. That is, they should not return to the checklist. If this is true, then Paul and Peter and the others were not ‘rejecting’ the law, or abandoning the law, but were actually fulfilling the law and finally submitting to its judgments and punishments. In Christ. By faith in His obedience to it and reception of its penalty for us.

Paul can truly say, then, “I have been crucified with Christ,” because in having faith in Christ, the requirements of the law are satisfied in exacting punishment on the only One able to bear it.

We don’t like Paul. We rebel against his teaching all the time. We prefer law both for ourselves (it gives us a measure of our obtaining favor with God) and for others (it gives us a measure of how others have failed to please God). What is the evidence of our legalism on this point? Don’t look for Baptists United for Circumcision or the Cutters’ Union. Instead, our legalism today looks much better than that.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Does Psalm 88 Belong in the Bible? Or, Does God Work Wonders for the Dead?

I ask that because Psalm 88 appears to be merely an intense, bitter lament against God. Unlike many of the lament Psalms, which indicate a turning point after the lament which results in a renewed trust in God for deliverance, and usually end on a positive note, in 88 Heman plays the role of killjoy.

His Psalm becomes a big ol’ buzzkill by ending badly: “You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me; my companions have become darkness” (v18). But, sure, despite my provocative title, Psalm 88 belongs, and also points us to Christ, as well.

The cause of Heman’s lament seems to revolve around certain relationships and God’s perceived responsibility for their falling apart. In verse 8 Heman reports “you have caused my companions to shun me; you have made me a horror to them.” Because of this, Heman views the whole of his life as one continuous stream of effluence: “afflicted and close to death from my youth up, I suffer your terrors; I am helpless” (v15). In fact, Heman waxes a bit hyperbolic by stating he is as good as dead: he draws near to Sheol (3), is regarded as going to the pit (4), like the ‘slain that lie in the grave’ (5), and is overwhelmed by God’s wrath (7, 16). One would think he might have taken the advice of Job’s wife, to simply curse God and die.

Yet hope abides in Heman and shines through the darkness of his emotional valley.

The Psalm begins with a recognition that the God Heman addressed is the God of his salvation (v1). Furthermore, Heman reports that his cry is to God, ‘day and night’, and beseeches God to hear his prayer even more. This expression of hope is repeated in the middle, at verse 13, indicating that despite his misery Heman knows that relief is to be found in the God of his salvation.

His may be honest questions, but more than likely are a bit of sarcasm dripping from Heman’s lips:

“Do you work wonders for the dead? Do the departed rise up to praise you? Is
your steadfast love declared in the grave, or your faithfulness in Abaddon? Are
your wonders known in the darkness, or your righteousness in the land of
forgetfulness?” (v10-13).

One might suppose that Heman’s answer to all these is an emphatic – and bitter – No, No, No, No, No and No.

Yet despite Heman’s sarcasm and despair, we know differently. We know that Yes, God does work wonders for the dead! Whether we think we’re dead, or wish for the grave, or are actually dead in trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2), it is precisely for the dead that God works his greatest wonders! Paul reports to his Corinthian brothers that “we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead” (1 Corinthians 1:9).

Yes, God works wonders for the dead! See Elijah raising the widow’s son. See Lazarus come forth from the grave. See Jesus’ empty tomb.

Yes, God works wonders for the dead! See God making us alive together with Christ (Ephesians 2:5). See God making us alive together with him (Colossians 2:13-14). See God bringing us from death to life (Romans 6:13).

Yes, God works wonders for the dead! And not only that, the ‘departed’ who have been made alive in Christ DO rise up to praise God. His steadfast love IS declared ‘in the grave’ – to those walking dead, spiritual zombies, that we all are before being made alive in him. His faithfulness IS declared in the realm of spiritual death that enslaves us until our release in Christ. His wonders ARE known in the darkness, and his righteousness IS known in the land of forgetfulness, because there is no darkness strong enough to hide the light of truth and there is no forgetting the righteousness of the Creator.

At some point, most of us feel like Heman, and like Paul. If not physically dead already, we think that we are emotionally dead, and that it’s all over but a lame graveside service and ignominious burial. But the fact that God has raised the spiritually dead to newness of life, and that He promises to someday raise the physically dead in Christ to a renewed body and creation, should give us great hope that God can work wonders among the deadness of any situation we face.

Yes, God works wonders among the dead.