The Church that Doesn't

My coworkers and bosses all know that I am a regular church goer. So, back at Christmas time I was fielding the usual questions: Does your church have a special Christmas service? A day-break service? etc. I was busy trying to explain that, no, we don’t have those services. That “my” church doesn’t do those things. Then it struck me that this was far from the first time that I had answered these questions. Do you have special Easter services? Good Friday? Thanksgiving? Put those negative answers alongside the answers about musical instruments, church councils and creeds and it occurred to me that to my coworkers the outstanding feature of the Church of Christ might be that it doesn’t do anything. “Lucas? He goes to the Church that doesn’t have instrumental music, doesn’t cooperate with other churches, doesn’t give to orphanages, doesn’t have Christmas or Easter services and doesn’t have a fellowship hall.” Is this what we should be known for? What we don’t do?

Now, let me say that it is incredibly important to seek after God according to His ordinances. Doing those things would be against scripture, so we should not do them. But should we only be known for what we don’t do?

John 13:34-35 “A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another; even as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.”

Jesus says that we should be known by how we love each other. That His disciples would be known by how they loved each other. We should not be ostentatious in the good deeds we do for each other (Matt. 6:1-6) but we should be so busy doing good for each other that others can’t help but notice. Dad loves to tell the story about the time he was in the hospital and so many brethren visited him that the nurse was amazed and commented on it in a wondering voice. That is how people should know us, as the church which loves its own and does good for the world as well. (1 Timothy 2:1-2, “pray for all men” see also Jeremiah 29:7)

Surely God would rather have us known as the Church whose members are always going about doing good than as just “the Church which doesn’t . . .”

Isa. 1:16-17 “Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; learn to do well; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.”
James 1:27 “Pure religion and undefiled before our God and Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.”

Why Does God Make it so Hard to be Saved?

We have a new member at church. She was converted in her late 50s in Maryland and then moved down here with her husband, who has not been converted. She told me that one of his hang-ups is the question of why, if God really is loving and wants all to be saved, is He so picky about things? Why does He have all these rules and why does He make it so hard to be accepted? Why doesn’t He just accept everyone? This is a question that also comes up when talking to people in day-to-day life about Jesus. If they don’t fall for the popular “everyone-is-going-to-heaven” drivel taught at most denominations, they wonder why God is so picky. I taught this sermon specifically for our new sister’s husband and generally to help people have answers for this question. (Unfortunately, while I could tell I had made him think, the gentleman in question did not jump up and come forward to be baptized at the end of the sermon.)

So, why does God make it so hard to be saved? The idea that the way to salvation is hard isn’t error dreamed up by Satan to deter people from religion, by the way. Jesus Himself tells us the way will be difficult. Matt. 7:13-14 "Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” So, while the way to destruction is easy, the way to life, to salvation, is hard and only a few will find it. Also, Luke 13:23-27 “And someone said to him, "Lord, will those who are saved be few?" And he said to them, Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, 'Lord, open to us,' then he will answer you, 'I do not know where you come from.' Then you will begin to say, 'We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.‘ But he will say, 'I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!'” Here we see that not only are the saved to be few, but many who listen to the Lord and eat with Him – figuratively those who participate in some form of religious activities – will be condemned. If God really wishes that all would be saved (1 Tim. 2:3-4) then why does He make the road so hard?

I suggest that we are looking at this issue backwards. Instead of moaning about how hard the road to the narrow gate is, we should be looking instead at all God did to open the gate for us. For instance, God had a plan in place to save us before He even created us: 1 Pet. 1:19-20 “but with the precious blood of Christ . . . He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you”. Before the world was created it was already planned out who was going to be the Christ and how salvation was going to be realized (His blood). God also had a plan for who was going to be saved, those who through faith were holy and blameless. Eph. 1:4 “even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him”. So, God didn’t create us willy-nilly and then after Adam & Eve sinned come up with an ad hoc plan to save us. He loved us enough to use forethought and plan for our salvation.

Then there is the biggie: God sacrificed His Son for us. We know this, but does the concept get dulled through repetition? Feel this in your gut. God killed His Son so we could live. The most famous passage in the Bible: John 3:16 "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” How much does He love us? How much does He want us to be saved? He gave His Son. If there could be any further doubts about His love, see Romans 5 “and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (vs 5-8). Notice especially how we are described in these verses. Weak. Unable to save ourselves. Lacking the strength. Ungodly. If being godly means being toward God, having God as our focus, living our lives for God, then being ungodly means being against God. Working against His wishes. Sinners. Offenders against God. Having missed His mark. Having fallen short. Then if we were to look at verse ten, we are all called enemies of God. Weak, ungodly, sinners and enemies. That’s who we were when Christ died for us. He did that to reconcile us to Him and open the door to salvation.

Parents, let me ask you a question: Is there anything so important to you that you would kill your child to accomplish it? Moms? Dads? That’s what God did for us. That was the price to pay, and He paid it. Now, if someone did allow their child to die to save you, how would you feel about him? Imagine that you are fishing out on a boat and you and your buddy’s son both go overboard and your buddy saves you first and by the time he gets to his son, the boy is dead. If your buddy ever asked you for a favor, do you think you’d do it for him? How much did God love us?

But God’s working to save us didn’t end at the sacrifice of His Son. He would have been perfectly justified in saying “Ok, I opened the door by sacrificing my Son, now you guys get through the door on your own.” But He didn’t. He continues to work to help us make it through that narrow gate. Rom. 8:32 “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” He will give us all we need to make it. Also: Eph. 1:19-20 “and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places”. How great is His power toward us? As great as the power He used to raise Jesus from the dead and take Him to heaven. How much power does it take to do that? Could it be measured in Kilowatt-hours? What would the electric bill be? However amazingly much power it is, it is the power God is using to help us get to heaven. How do these passages affect your understanding of other promises of God? In 1 Cor. 10:13 we are told that God is guarding us and not allowing us to be tempted more than we can bear. He is using the same power to protect us that He used to raise Jesus. Do you think there is any chance Satan will sneak past that? In James 1:5 where we are told to ask God for wisdom if we lack it, do you think God is going to be chintzy when He answers that prayer? No, He will “graciously give us all things” we need, just as He gave us His Son. When we read that “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Phil. 4:13), how much is He strengthening us? With the power He used to raise Jesus from the dead and translate Him to heaven! God is working hard to help us make it to the door of salvation He opened for us with the death of His Son.

But His efforts on our part still aren’t done. Having sacrificed Jesus and promised to help us, He worked to get the word out. In Jeremiah, when God is describing how hard He had worked to try to get the Israelites to obey Him there is an interesting phrase used: Jer. 7:13, 25 “And now, because ye have done all these works, says Jehovah, and I spake unto you, RISING UP EARLY and speaking, but ye heard not; and I called you, but ye answered not. . . Since the day that your fathers came forth out of the land of Egypt unto this day, I have sent unto you all my servants the prophets, DAILY RISING UP EARLY and sending them”. This phrase comes up over and over again throughout Jeremiah: Jer. 7:13, 25; 11:7; 25:3, 4; 26:5; 29:19; 32:33; 35:14, 15; 44:4. God wasn’t sleeping in and then sending His prophets whenever He got around to it. He was earnestly working to save His people. If He worked that hard to get the word out to the physical nation of Israel, do you think He worked hard to announce His kingdom? He sent His Spirit to work directly with the Apostles, and later other prophets, on the day of Pentecost. The divine working directly with man. Second in awe inducement only to the divine becoming man and dying for the created. God also worked to confirm that His apostles and prophets were indeed from Him: Mark 16:20 “And they went forth, and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word by the signs that followed.” The signs showed that what the Apostles said was backed up by God. How much effort did God put into this confirmation? Notice the extraordinary nature of the Apostles’ power, even for miracle workers. In Acts 5 the Apostles were so powerful they were feared, even as the people lined the street with the sick hoping Peter’s shadow might fall on them and heal them (Acts 5:12-15). Paul, likewise, had people taking cloths he had touched and putting them on the sick and that healed them (Acts 19:11-12). Peter and Paul each raised the dead (Acts 9:36-43; 20:7-12). I’d say God was invested in confirming the word. Then, the Spirit directed the writing of the New Testament in the space of 50 years, an incredible outpouring of inspiration when you consider the Old Testament took 1,000 years to write. Finally, God providentially protected His word through the millennia so we could be confident in it today. (And there is no legitimate doubt about the text of the scriptures.)

To sum up, He planned for our salvation; He sacrificed His Son so we could be saved; He works to provide us all the help we could need; He worked to get the Word out and keep it preserved for us.

By comparison, how little He asks of us.

He asks that we believe when we hear the word, that we confess Him as Lord and Jesus as Christ, that we repent of our sins and be baptized for the remission of those sins and that we live holy lives before Him. That’s all. And yet people will argue until they're blue in the face that they don’t have to do those simple things. After all He’s done for us.

I’m not saying the way will always be easy. In fact, we know it won’t be because Jesus said the way was hard. We will be ridiculed, or worse, by unbelievers if we live our beliefs. We have to work to learn His word. We have to worship according to the pattern, which seems to cause arguments. The way isn’t easy, but think of how much He did to open the way for us.

Finally, think about this. If God had wanted mindless obedience, He could have created robots programmed to obey. Instead, God wanted servants who would choose to serve Him and who would jump at the opportunity to be adopted into His family. That’s what we are promised, to be the children of God. The nature of choice, though, means that some will choose not to follow God. Some will choose not to live holy lives. This is not what God wants; He wants all to be saved, but the nature of choice is that some won’t follow Him.

Don’t be one of those who make the wrong choice.

Social Justice?

This election year brought out the crusader in many people. Anti-Trump or Anti-Hillary or Anti-Both. Pro-Trump or Pro-Hillary. And all of that is fine, as long as it is civil. I, too, posted quite a few statements and links regarding the election. Again, all of this is proper since God has given to mankind the responsibility for this world (Ps. 8:5-6). We need to be good stewards of what He has entrusted us with and in our representative system, each citizen should be involved in the election process. However, there is a difference between being good stewards of God’s world and spending our life crusading for temporal, earthly things.

Paul urges us to pray for our earthly leaders in 1 Tim. 2:1-2. What, specifically, does he tell us to pray for? That our leaders would come to a knowledge of Christ and lead the nation in a spiritual revival? No. Well, what does he say? “that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life”. Paul’s prayer wasn’t for the Roman Empire as a whole, but rather for peace so that Christians could live a “quiet life in all godliness and gravity”. Wars and persecutions would upset the work of the church and that was Paul’s focus: “This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” vs. 3-4 So Paul’s prayer for the leaders focused solely on them keeping the peace so he could continue the work of the church.

Notice what Paul tells the Christians who are slaves in 1 Tim. 6:1. “Let all who are under a yoke as bondservants regard their own masters as worthy of all honor”. He doesn’t decry the institution of slavery or the plight of the slaves and definitely does not rally them to revolt and ‘throw off their shackles’ despite his own probable distaste. (The Mosaic Law teaches that slavery was degrading and that Israelites were not to enslave one another. Paul, raised as a Pharisee, would have known this.) Well, why doesn’t Paul raise himself up as a leader for slaves rights? Why does he instead tell them to continue as meek and obedient slaves? Finish the verse: “that the name of God and the doctrine be not blasphemed.” While the slaves’ situation probably bothered Paul, his major focus was on furthering the Kingdom of Heaven. If slaves started revolting and claiming it was because they were Christians, it would keep some from being willing to hear the word who might otherwise have been saved. Paul, directed by the Holy Spirit, remember, taught that the slaves should sacrifice for the furtherance of the kingdom.

The same reasoning comes up in Titus 2 when Paul is directing Titus to have the older women teach the younger about how to be good, obedient wives working in the home. Vs. 4-5 “that they may train the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be sober-minded, chaste, workers at home, kind, being in subjection to their own husbands, THAT THE WORD OF GOD BE NOT BLASPHEMED.” Could Paul have made a statement here about women’s rights? Could he have stated that Roman society kept women down more so than God intended? Sure, he could have, but he was more focused on furthering the Kingdom.

I’ve seen some people mention that the prophets taught that we should crusade for social justice in our countries. I would offer a slightly different view of those passages. God is condemning the rich and other leaders of the Israelites for oppressing the poor and taking advantage. He is teaching that the people in those positions should take care of those subordinate to them. Nowhere in any of those passages does God tell people en masse to fight for their rights. In fact, in the New Testament, the exact opposite is taught. Titus 3:1 “Put them in mind to be in subjection to rulers, to authorities, to be obedient, to be ready unto every good work”.

We should work to be good stewards of that which God has entrusted us. Living in a country with a representative government, we should do what we can to make sure our government does not oppress or take advantage of the weak and that there are laws in place to prevent others from doing such things and/or punish those who do. However, as Christians and citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, the vast majority of our energy and concern should be spent on its furtherance and its well-being.

“But seek ye first His kingdom and His righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you.” Matt. 6:33

It’s a Figure!

While I was doing the work for the holiness sermon, a light bulb went off in my head. The very concept of holiness and what it means to be holy (set apart for specific use) answered a question that has always bugged me a bit: Why is extra-marital sexual relations wrong?

The easy answer to that question, of course, is “Because God said so,” and that is correct and ought to be enough for any Christian. However, the reason why we shouldn’t do most of the things God forbids us from doing is pretty self-evident and falls under the category of “Love thy neighbor.” Why don’t we steal? Because it hurts the one we stole from. Why don’t we murder? Well, it’s hard to get much more hurt than dead. Backbiting? Slander/false witness? Fist fights (“not a striker” Titus 1)? All these things hurt the people they are done against, and thereby violate the basic standard of loving our neighbors. The world tells us, however, that consensual sexual relations between adults hurts no one. The world inundates us with the propaganda that consensual adult sex not only doesn’t hurt anyone, but is good for us. So, according to them, “love thy neighbor” doesn’t apply, so why did God make sexual relations outside of marriage wrong?

The answer is in the concept of holiness. Gen. 2:24 “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.” He shall cleave, or hold fast, to his wife and they shall become one. That kind of hints at exclusivity, doesn’t it. Notice also that he has left his parents for her. He isn’t for them anymore, he is for her. And she isn’t for her parents, but for him. That kind of sounds like the basic description of holiness, doesn’t it? The idea of them being “set apart” for each other is strengthened in 1 Cor. 7:2-4 “But, because of fornications, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband. Let the husband render unto the wife her due: and likewise also the wife unto the husband. The wife hath not power over her own body, but the husband: and likewise also the husband hath not power over his own body, but the wife.” In sexual matters, each spouse’s body is “set apart” for the other’s use, and they become “one flesh”. Paul makes it clear, though, that fornicators are also sharing their bodies: 1 Cor. 6:15-16 “Know ye not that your bodies are members of Christ? shall I then take away the members of Christ, and make them members of a harlot? God forbid. Or know ye not that he that is joined to a harlot is one body? for, The twain, says he, shall become one flesh.” So, just as married couples join and become “one flesh” so, too, do the fornicators. The difference is that fornicators are joining their bodies to those of many others, rather than being set apart for one person. In essence, the fornicators are turning their bodies into a common toy that is played with by many people. This is opposite of the concept of holiness.

So, just as God uses the relationship of marriage to teach us of the relationship between Christ and the Church (Eph. 5:22-32), He uses the exclusivity of marriage to teach us about holiness. Living holy to one’s spouse (even if one hasn’t married yet) exemplifies the larger challenge of living one’s life holy to God.

And that is why, beyond the perfectly fine “because God said so”, extra-marital sexual relations are forbidden.

Be Ye Holy

God, rather famously, expected His people to be holy. The command is repeatedly repeated in the Law. Lev. 11:44-45 “For I am Jehovah your God: sanctify yourselves therefore, and be ye holy; for I am holy . . . For I am Jehovah that brought you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: ye shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.” Lev. 20:7-8 “Sanctify yourselves therefore, and be ye holy; for I am Jehovah your God. And ye shall keep my statutes, and do them: I am Jehovah who sanctifies you.” To be holy is to be separate or to be set apart. Something that is holy is set aside for a specific use and is to be only used for that purpose. We usually think about this in religious terms, but the concept is universal. My mother has a special set of silver that rarely sees use. It has been set aside for special occasions. These utensils are not every day, common forks and knives. They are special and are only used when special company is over or on other special occasions. In a sense, they are holy to special occasions. This is what God expected from His chosen people. They were to be special to Him and His use. They weren’t supposed to be like all the regular people across the world. They were supposed to be set apart for Him. They failed in this. Isa. 2:6 “For thou hast forsaken thy people the house of Jacob, because they are filled with customs from the east, and are soothsayers like the Philistines, and they strike hands with the children of foreigners.” They hadn’t set themselves apart for God, instead they were just like all the foreigners.

We, too, are supposed to be a holy people. Notice that when Peter gives us this instruction, he tells us that we are to be holy as children of obedience and sets being holy opposite of fashioning ourselves according to our lusts. Living according to our common desires is the opposite of being holy:

1 Pet. 1:13-16 “Wherefore girding up the loins of your mind, be sober and set your hope perfectly on the grace that is to be brought unto you at the revelation of Jesus Christ; as children of obedience, not fashioning yourselves according to your former lusts in the time of your ignorance: but like as he who called you is holy, be ye yourselves also holy in all manner of living; because it is written, Ye shall be holy; for I am holy.”

All rules of righteous living boil down to the concept of holiness. If we are set apart to be God’s people, we need to follow His will. Leviticus 19 illustrates this concept. In verse two the Israelites were told to be holy, as He is holy. Then verses 3-4 instruct them to obey their parents, keep the Sabbath, and abhor idols. Why? Because, He says, “I AM Jehovah”. Then verses 9-10 command them to take care of the poor. Why? Because, He says, “I AM Jehovah”. Then verses 11-12 tell them not to steal, lie, or swear falsely by His name. Why? Because, He says, “I AM Jehovah”. They are to be holy, as He is, set apart for His use. They are to do these things because He, for whose use they are to be set apart, so directs them.

I think we sometimes consider being holy as only abstaining from evil, and that’s just not true. As He is castigating the Israelites for not being holy, God makes this plea: Isa. 1:16-17 “Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; learn to do well; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.” He doesn’t just say “cease to do evil” but also implores them to “learn to do well”. Paul tell Christians the same thing: Eph. 2:10 “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God afore prepared that we should walk in them.” We are created for good works. Mom’s silver isn’t used except on special occasions, but on those occasions it is used. It is set aside for a purpose and is used for that purpose. We, as Christians are supposed to be set apart for God’s use. Not just staying “unspotted from the world” but actively doing the works He instructs us to do. Paul tell Titus (2:14) that Jesus “gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” His people have been redeemed from lawlessness and are zealous for good works. Zealous for good works. Every time I read this passage I wonder if Christ would recognize me as one of His. It’s not that I spend my time doing evil things, it’s just that so much of my time is used for my own entertainment: football, web-browsing, movie watching, Netflix binging, etc. Occasionally I do something actively good. Does that raise to the level of being zealous for good works? If I am holy, set apart for His use, I need to be working toward the use He has for me.

As holy people we are set apart for His use, to do His will. This doesn’t mean we are fuddy-duddies or dull buzz-kills who never do anything fun. Rather we are busy people actively carrying out His will without regard to any other's.

Isa. 61:6 “but you shall be called the priests of the LORD; they shall speak of you as the ministers of our God; you shall eat the wealth of the nations, and in their glory you shall boast.”