Archive for August, 2010

Sermon in a Sentence

Here is the sermon I preached this morning from James 2:14-19 in one sentence: Faith that is not evidenced by works is useless both to man and to God.

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Writing things down, or keeping track, helps whatever you’re doing. That’s what Drs. Mehmet Oz and Mike Roizen – authors of YOU: On a Diet – wrote in an article published yesterday in The Oregonian.

They write:

Got $2 and 10 minutes? That’s all you may need to double your weight loss on your next diet, triple the odds you’ll stick with your new Zumba routine or boost your chances for staying healthy despite having diabetes or asthma. What are you blowing $2 on? A notebook and a pen.

A pile of recent studies proves that writing down your daily progress makes a huge difference in the numbers on your scale and your tape measure.

Interesting stuff – and I know it’s true because it worked for me. After being diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes in 2002, I kept a journal of everything I ate, including the number of carbohydrates. It helped keep me on track as I lost weight.

When I read this article, I couldn’t help thinking that the same thing could be said of spiritual discipline, too. While we may not have “piles of studies,” it seems beyond question that if we track our progress, we’ll do better.

Keep track of the chapters of the Bible you read – write them down in a notebook or on a calendar – and you’ll be more likely to keep on doing it.

Write down what you pray about – in other words, keep a prayer journal. Make sure to record the answers God brings, too.

Take notes when you listen to your pastor’s sermon, or other preachers and teachers you listen to – it’ll help you learn and grow.

If someone asks you a question and you don’t know the answer, write it down and then do what you can to find the answer. When you do, write it down, too.

There it is – two of the most important tools in your toolbox: a notebook and a pen.

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What is my first instinct when something happens? What am I thinking? What will I do? An important related question is, “What should I do?”

When I hear of, or see, someone in trouble; hear good news; hear bad news; become aware of a need; receive  a compliment; receive a rebuke; lose my keys; hear of someone who is caught in a sin; read a report from missionaries; read a story in the newspaper that makes me angry or discouraged; realize that I need to repent of a sin; confronted with an ethical dilemma; need to make a decision; realize that I’m wrong; need direction; am thankful for all of the blessings I’ve received; need ideas; want help; need wisdom and insight; become aware that I need to control my selfish desires; or when someone asks me a question that’s very hard, what is my first instinct?

My first instinct should be to pray. There is no situation in which prayer is wrong or out-of-place. Quite often, it’s not my first instinct, I have to confess. It should be, but it isn’t. Too often, it’s anything other than taking time to express my thoughts and feelings to God.

Nehemiah is a good example of prayer as a first instinct. After he heard about the condition of Jerusalem after the captivity, Nehemiah “sat down and wept and mourned for seven days; and I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven” (Neh. 1:4). Among other things, he prayed about the information he had received – confessing the national sins of Israel and asking God for an opportunity to speak to King Artaxerxes about it (Neh. 1:5-11). That opportunity came in 2:2 when the king said to Nehemiah, who looked sad in front of him, “Why is your face sad though you are not sick? This is nothing but sadness of heart.” After Nehemiah explained the reason for his droopy countenance, the king asked him, “What would you request?” Then, the Bible records, Nehemiah “prayed to the God of heaven” (Neh. 2:4). In the brief space of time between a question and an answer, Nehemiah prayed.  After the work of rebuilding the walls around Jerusalem was ridiculed and mocked, Nehemiah 4:9 says, “But we prayed to our God, and because of them, we set up a guard against them day and night.”

Nehemiah’s first instinct was prayer. May it be ours, too. When we hear of, or see, someone in trouble, we should pray for them. We should also act, of course, but the very first thing should be to pray.

Just something that’s been on my mind.

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Sometimes it’s helpful to understand what something isn’t in order to know what it is. Mortification – the continual work of putting our sin to death – is no different.

In chapter five of his book The Mortification of Sin, John Owen explains what mortification isn’t. I found his comments very helpful.

1. To mortify a sin is not to utterly root it out and destroy it, that it should have no more hold at all nor residence in our hearts. It is true that this is what we aim at, but we will not be able to accomplish it in this life.

2. Mortification is not just the changing of some outward aspects of sin. There may be an apparent change of life. god however knows the heart. Someone may change an obvious sin for a hidden one. Mortification is not just the substitution of one sin for another.

3, Mortification is not just the improvement of our natural constitution. Some men have an advantage in their natural temperament over others.

4. A sin is not mortified when it is only diverted. magus left his sorceries for a while, but then he turned to covetousness and ambition. It is like one who heals a sore in the body, only to have it break out in another location.

5. Occasional victories over sin are not mortification.

Owen then gives an example of when a victory over sin may be only temporary:

When that sin breaks out sadly and seriously in a way that greatly disturbs his peace, terrifies his conscience, brings the dread of scandal, and clearly provokes the Lord to judgment. this may awaken and stir up all that is in that man, filling him with the abhorrence of sin, and sending him to God to cry out for life and help to set himself against the sin. The whole man, both spiritual and natural, is aroused. Sin shrinks. The sin in question appears to lie dead before him. It is like a soldier who draws near the enemy lines and kills an important person. The guards then awake and make strict inquiry after the enemy. The enemy, meanwhile, has hidden himself like one that is dead until the noise and tumult is over. Though for the time being he is quiet, there is in his mind the firm resolution to do more mischief at the first opportunity.

(all quotes taken from pages 26 through 30.)

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My sermon this morning focused on justification and, specifically, what Romans 3:21-5:1 has to say about it: We are saved by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone.

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What can we do to attract people to church? That’s a perennial question for Christians (especially pastors and church leaders). Sometimes we resort to gimmicks – sadly. Here are some good words from the late British preacher D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones:

One of the advantages of being old is that you have experience, so when something new comes up, and you see people getting very excited  about it, you happen to be in the position of being able to remember a similar excitement perhaps 40 years ago. And so one has seen fashions and vogues and stunts coming one after another in the Church. Each one creates excitement and enthusiasm and is loudly advertised as the thing that is going to fill the churches, the thing that is going to solve the problem. They have said it about every single one of them. But in a few years they have forgotten all about it, and another stunt comes along, or another new idea; somebody has hit upon the one thing needful or has a psychological understanding of modern man. Here is the thing, and everybody rushes after it; but soon it wanes and disappears and something else takes its place.

That is surely, a very sad and regrettable state for the Christian Church to be in, that like the world she should exhibit these constant changes of fashion. In that state she lacks the stability and the solidity and the continuing message that has ever been the glory of the Christian church.

(A tip of the e-hat to Joe Carter for this quote.)

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Satan’s favorite word is “tomorrow.”

“I’ll start that new Bible-reading program tomorrow.” “I’ll get up early and pray tomorrow.” “We’ll have family devotions tomorrow.” “I’ll tell my neighbor about Christ tomorrow.” “I’ll read that book I know I should read tomorrow.” “I’ll start putting to death my sin tomorrow.” “I’ll start a prayer journal tomorrow.” “I’ll go to church next week” (another version of “tomorrow”).

Procrastination is one of the most oft-used tools in the Devil’s toolbox. The Bible, however, puts emphasis – at least in the carrying out of these activities – upon “today.” “Today is the day of salvation,” says 2 Corinthians 6:1. The favorite word of the accuser of God’s people can be defeated by a Holy Spirit resolve to do now what can’t wait until tomorrow.

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Brett McCracken has written an article for The Wall Street Journal called “The Perils of ‘Wannabe Cool’ Christianity. I give it a hearty “amen.”

The problem, he says, is that young people are leaving the church and not coming back. The solution, among some (maybe even many) has been “a total image overhaul, where efforts are made to rebrand Christianity as hip, countercultural, relevant.” While the “emerging church” fizzled quickly according to McCracken, “the impulse behind it – to rehabilitate Christianity’s image and make it “cool” – remains.”

McCracken’s analysis is found primarily in the last five paragraphs of the article:

But are these gimmicks really going to bring young people back to church? Is this what people really come to church for? maybe sex sermons and indie-rock worship music do help in getting people in the door, and maybe even in winning new converts. But what sort of Christianity are they being converted to?

In his book The Courage to Be Protestant, David Wells writes, “The born-again, marketing church has calculated that unless it makes deep, serious cultural adaptations, it will go out of business, especially with the younger generations. What it has not considered carefully enough is that it may well be putting itself out of business with God.”

“And the further irony,” he adds, “is that the younger generations who are less impressed by whiz-bang technology, who often see through what is slick and glitzy, and who have been on the receiving end of enough marketing to nauseate them, are as likely to walk away from these oh-so-relevant churches as to walk into them.”

If the evangelical Christian leadership thinks “cool Christianity” is a sustainable path forward, they are severely mistaken. As a twentysomething, I can say with confidence that when it comes to church, we don’t want cool so much as we want real.

If we are interested in Christianity in any serious sort of way, it is not because it’s easy or trendy or popular. It’s because Jesus himself is appealing, and what he says rings true. It’s because the world we inhabit is utterly phony, ephemeral, narcissistic, image-based and sex-drenched – and we want an alternative. It’s not because we want more of the same.

Brett McCracken is the author of Hipster Christianity: Where Church and Cool Collide published by Baker Books.

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I just finished reading Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor by D. A. Carson. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Carson is one of my favorite (in the sense of respect) theolgians and authors, but this book is unlike almost all of his others. Instead of an exposition of Scripture or the explanation of a topic, this book is an eloquent biography and reminisence of his father Tom, an ordinary pastor.

Tom Carson was a church-planter, missionary, and pastor in French-speaking Quebec, Canada from the early 1950’s through the early 80’s. The book traces his ministry and the role he played in the spread of the gospel and God’s kingdom in that difficult field (which was heavily Roman-Catholic). He never wrote a book, headlined a conference, or became a kind of “Christian celebrity.” For most of his years in ministry, Tom spoke to an average of 35 people on a Sunday. He never saw dramatic, sudden growth or experienced anything like what some today would call “success.” He was, however, a faithful servant of His Lord who put one foot in front of the other day after day. He was, in the best sense of the term, an ordinary pastor.

Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor is a book for pastors to read because it provides us with a real-life example of staying faithful to the Lord and being good stewards of the gifts He’s given us and a reminder that we are ordinary pastors, too.  It’s also a good book for those who are not pastors because it will give you insight into what we pastors experience – the thoughts and feelings that run through our mind and heart, like our insecurities, joys, and concerns. While it isn’t the most important or significant book of the year, it’s an excellent one and should be read. Tolle lege!

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“For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” (Rom. 8:13)

John Owen wrote:

The Holy Spirit is our only sufficiency for the work of mortification. All ways and means apart from Him have no true effect. He only is the great power behind it, and He works in us as He pleases. (The Mortification of Sin, p. 14)

He then makes this point regarding our own vain attempts to put our sin to death without the power and aid of the Holy Spirit:

When men are troubled with the guilt of sin that has prevailed over them, they promise themselves and God that they will sin thus no more, but they seek to accomplish their own victory. They watch over themselves and pray for a short season until the pain of conviction waxes cold and the sense of sin wears off. Mortification then also goes out the door, and sin returns to its former dominion.

These ways are not sufficient. There is no self-endeavour that can accomplish mortification. Almighty energy is necessary for its accomplishment. (pp. 16-17)

Near the end of the chapter, Owen writes,

I might here bewail the endless, foolish labour of poor souls, who are convinced of sin, and yet not able to stand against its power. They try many perplexing ways and duties, to keep down sin, but, being strangers to the Spirit of God, they find it is all in vain. They combat without victory, have war without peace, and are in slavery all their days. They spend their strength for that which is not bread, and their labour for that which does not profit. (pp. 19-20)

Owens’ point is very clear – attempting to mortify, or put to death, our sin is futile and fruitless without the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. May God give us the enablement of His Spirit to combat the sin that remains in us because without Him, it’s a fool’s errand.

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