Archive for June, 2012

Does a belief in hell have anything to do with how we live?

A large study done over a period of 26 years concludes that people who believe in the existence of hell  are less likely to commit crimes. On the other hand, those who believe in the existence of heaven (but not hell), are more likely to commit crimes. The study, which surveyed 143,197 people in 67 countries, found that criminal activity – homicide, robbery, rape, kidnapping, assault, theft, drug-related crimes, auto theft, burglary, and human trafficking – is lower in societies where more people’s religious beliefs include an element of punishment as well as reward.

It makes perfect sense. People who live life Coram Deo – before the face of God – know that we will all be held accountable for all of our actions here on earth. We may get away with something in this life, but we know we won’t in the next. Because He is omniscient, we know we won’t be able to fool God or escape His notice. God’s forgiveness of our sins through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ – the gospel – is all the more precious when seen in light of God’s perfect knowledge and justice.

On the other hand, those who believe that only heaven exists – and consequently that everyone will end up there – have no incentive to live upright lives. If their bad behavior goes unnoticed and unpunished in this life, they think they’ll never have to answer for it. What would you do if you knew no one would ever find out? What would you do if you knew you wouldn’t be punished even if someone found out?

What we believe, especially about punishment and reward, influences how we behave.

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Yesterday, I had the privilege of listening to a sermon by Pastor Dan Gannon of Renton Bible Church. Here is a summary of his sermon called “How To Control Your Tongue” (part of a series in the book of Proverbs): Controlling the tongue is an absolute necessity for a disciple of Jesus Christ, but it’s much easier said than done.

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The Lord Jesus Christ asked His disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” in Matthew 16:15. Certainly we need to know things about Him, but what about our feelings about Him? Joshua Harris, in his excellent book Dug Down Deep, explores this tendency in his own life. If we’re honest, we have to admit that we have the same tendencies.

Jesus is the center, the focal point, of the Christian faith. But it’s odd how averse we Christians can be to studying and defining a clear doctrine” of Jesus. That just doesn’t seem relational.  We don’t want to study Jesus. We want to experience Him.

I see this tendency in my own life. When I think about Jesus, I’m not inclined to ask, “What truth does the Bible tell me about Jesus? What does Jesus want me to think and believe about Him?” Instead I’m more inclined to try to work my way into a certain emotional state. To “feel” a certain way about Jesus.

Several paragraphs later, he says:

I think many Christians are more interested in chasing a feeling about Jesus than pursuing Jesus himself reviewing  and thinking about the truth of who he is.

The irony of this feeling-driven approach to Jesus is that ultimately it produces the opposite of what we actually want. Deep emotion in response to Jesus isn’t wrong. It can be good. But to find it, we need more than imagination and introspection.

One of the most valuable lessons C.J. (Mahaney – my note) has taught me about the Christian spiritual life is that if you want to feel deeply, you have to think deeply. Too often we separate the two. We assume that if we want to feel deeply, then we need to sit around and, well, feel (author’s emphasis).

But emotion built on emotion is empty. True emotion – emotion that is reliable and doesn’t lead us astray – is always a response to reality, to truth. It’s only as we study and consider truth  about Jesus with our minds that our hearts will be moved by the depth of his greatness and love for us. When we engage our minds with the doctrine of his person and his work, our emotions are given something to stand on, a reason to worship and revel in the very appropriate feelings of awe and gratefulness and adoration.

Knowing Jesus and feeling right emotions about him start with thinking about the truth of who he is and what he’s done. Jesus never asks us how we feel about him. He calls us to believe in him, to trust in him. The question he asked his disciples is the same one he confronts us with: “Who do you say that I am?” The real questions when it comes to Jesus are, Do you believe he is who he says he is? Do you believe he’s done what he said he came to do?

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“As the LORD lives, what my God says, that I will speak.” (2 Chronicles 18:13)

Those were the words of Micaiah the prophet when he was asked by a messenger of Ahab the king of Israel to tell the king what everyone was telling him. Ahab, along with Jehoshaphat the king of Judah, assembled four hundred “prophets” to ask them, “Shall we go against Ramoth-Gilead to battle, or shall I refrain?” (2 Chronicles 18:5). To a man, they told the king that he should go to battle against Ramoth-Gilead and that he would be successful – exactly what he wanted to hear. Jehoshaphat asked if there was any other prophet who might inquire of the LORD about the matter. There was, but Ahab didn’t like him  – “There is yet one man by whom we may inquire of the LORD, but I hate him, for he never prophesies good concerning me but always evil. His name is Micaiah, son of Imla” (2 Chronicles 18:7).

“Then the messenger who went to summon Micaiah spoke to him saying, ‘Behold, the words of the prophets are uniformly favorable to the king. So please let your word be like one of them and speak favorably” (2 Chronicles 18:12). In other words, tell the king what he wants to hear – all of the other “prophets” do.

Micaiah’s response is instructive for those of us who preach God’s Word. He said, “As the LORD lives, what my God says, that I will speak” (2 Chronicles 18:13). Micaiah wasn’t going to follow the crowd and  tickle the kings ears. He  would speak what the Lord told him, no more and no less, whether the king liked it or not. Micaiah’s ultimate allegiance was to God, not the king or the “prophets” or even himself. Preaching like this is God-glorifying, faithful, and pleasing to God.

“As the LORD lives, what my God says, that will I speak” must be the attitude of a preacher.

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This morning, I had the privilege of preaching on Numbers 27:15-23 and Deuteronomy 34:1-12 (God chooses Joshua to be the successor of Moses, and then the death of Moses). Here is a summary of my sermon in one sentence: God equips His people for His work.

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When David went out to fight Goliath, after the giant had taunted the Israelite army for forty days, who was the underdog and who was the favorite?

If we listen to what the world says about these kind of things, Goliath was the clear favorite. He had professional military training. He was an experienced soldier and killer, which was why he was their captain and champion. He had the confidence (or arrogance) to taunt Israel’s army for nearly six weeks without any response. He was nine-and-a-half-feet tall (we can’t forget about that)! David was young (we don’t know his exact age), a shepherd, and not a professionally trained soldier.

But if we listen to God’s Word instead of the world, David is not in any way, shape, or form the underdog – he’s the prohibitive favorite and Goliath is the underdog! When David first approached Goliath on the field of battle, he said, “You come to me with a sword, a spear, and a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have taunted” (1 Samuel 17:45). None of Goliath’s advantages mattered because his enemy was God, not David or the Israelites.

As people whose hearts and minds aren’t completely renewed (not yet anyway!), we often see things upside down  – the opposite of what they really are. Humanly speaking, David challenging Goliath looked like a fool’s errand. From God’s perspective, Goliath with his taunting and blasphemy was the real fool on an errand of certain doom.

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Two authors have written on two different statements – clichés, really  – we hear from other Christians on a regular basis. I’ve always been bothered by both of them. They contain some truth, but not all of it. These clichés need to be busted and these two posts help us do it. Statements like these exist because we don’t take time to think about what we’re actually saying. Stop and think!

The first cliché is “I’m just a sinner saved by grace.” According to this post by Trevin Wax, that’s not the whole story.

The second cliché is a statement Christians often make to non-Christians, “I’m just like you. We’re really the same.” The Main Things blog offers some clear thinking.

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I had the honor and privilege of preaching on Numbers 13 and 14 this morning – the account of the men sent in to spy out the promised land (Canaan), ten of whom persuade the rest of the Israelites that they shouldn’t go in to conquer it, while two of them (Joshua and Caleb) urge them not to rebel against God and to obey His command. Here is a summary of my sermon in one sentence: Believing in God and believing God and two entirely different things.

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Jehoshaphat, king of Judah, was about to be involved in a war. The Moabites, Ammonites, and Meunites were gathered together and ready to attack Judah. When he became aware of the situation, he didn’t panic – he prayed. Like the man of God he was, he sought the Lord. He ended his cry to the Lord by saying, “O our God, will you not judge them? For we are powerless before this great multitude who are coming against us; nor do we know what to do, but our eyes are on You” (2 Chronicles 20:12, emphasis added).

“Lord, we don’t know what to do, but our eyes are on You” was the appropriate thing for the king to pray that day. Humanly speaking, they were outnumbered by their enemies and defeat seemed like a certainty. They didn’t know which way to turn or what to do, but they knew the true and living God who had made a covenant with them. They were also convinced that the Lord God was bigger and stronger than any foreign army or coalition of armies.

This is a prayer and an attitude we should imitate. When we “get to the end of our rope,” and we don’t know what to do, we can keep our eyes on God. When a problem seems insurmountable, we can keep our eyes on God even if we don’t know what to do. When we need wisdom and guidance, we can pray, “Lord, I don’t know what to do, but my eyes are on You.”

The prayer of Jehoshaphat may not be as well-known as another prayer of an Old Testament man whose name begins with “J,” but it’s just as important, if not more.

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Joshua Harris makes a great point about Scripture in his book Dug Down Deep: 

The doctrine of Scripture teaches us about the authority of God’s Word. Scripture must be the final rule of faith and practice in our lives. Not our feelings or emotions. Not signs or prophetic words or hunches.

What more can God give us than what he’s given in Scripture? The question is, will we listen? Will we obey when we don’t like what the Bible has to say?

This is a moment when our belief about Scripture meets reality.  What we say we believe makes very little difference until we act on our belief. I suppose most Christians would say that the Bible is the authoritative Word of God. But until this authority actually changes how we live – how we think and act – talk of the authority of Scripture is nothing but a bunch of religious lingo. We’re treating the God-breathed Word of God like a lot of hot air. (pp. 65-66, emphasis is the author’s)

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