Oct 262011

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and the sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.

Hebrews 12:1

My teaching for the men’s group this week begins with this verse from the 12th chapter of Hebrews. The great cloud of witnesses that surrounds us are those immediately mentioned previously in the 11th chapter. Of course, it also refers to all those that have died trusting in Jesus Christ. This verse does not mean that the dead saints are “looking down” on us and they are watching us and cheering us on. The verse is a call for believers to look back at the heroes of the faith and to imitate their hope and trust in God. When you read the end of chapter 10 and all of chapter 11, you cannot help but see that these were extraordinary people, men “of whom the world was not worthy.” From 10:34, they helped their brothers and sisters in prison, and while they were out, they joyfully accepted the plundering of their property. I do wish that we were such people of faith; that we might love Christ more than our things. The saints of old did not put their hope in earthly places or things. They knew they were strangers on earth and they desired a better country, that is, a heavenly one (v. 16). By faith Moses considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt. He left Egypt, not fearing the king. By faith, God delivered some and by faith God did not deliver some (see 11:32-39).

I want to highlight this verse because yesterday, October 24, was the sixth anniversary of my mother’s leaving this world and entering into the glory of her Lord. She is part of that great cloud. I look back on her life and I thank God that He blessed me with her. I want to mention quickly two things that I desire to imitate in her life. There are many more, but I don’t want to write a book right now, and you probably do not want to read one!

First of all, my mom loved the local church. She grew up as a PK (pastor’s kid). Her father had planted a church in Birmingham, AL, when my mother was born. There was never a time in her life that she was not in the house of God! From birth to death, except on rare occasions, she was in His house with other believers. During my entire life, there has never been a time when I have not been in fellowship with other believers. The importance of the local church was ingrained in me. There was never another place I wanted to be on Lord’s Day but in the house of God. Now that I have studied church history and I’m pastoring RBC, the local church is even more precious to me. The local church is God’s plan for evangelism and discipleship. It is the “ark of safety” for believers. To use the imagery of Pilgrim’s Progress, it is that Palace Beautiful. So many today have spoken ill of the church. But Christ loves the church and He gave His life for her. I actually heard someone say, “I love Jesus but hate the Church.” No, this person does not know Jesus! A person who says they love Jesus should love that which Jesus loves, and that is His Church. Christ is building His Church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. My mom didn’t worship the church. She worshiped her Savior through the God-ordained means of the local church, the visible manifestation of the body of Christ. She was deeply committed to her brothers and sisters in Christ.

Secondly, my mom loved music. From her earliest days she learned to read music and play the piano. She also had a beautiful soprano voice. Do you remember when CB radios were popular? Her CB handle was “High C”! She could hit the high notes! I still hear her voice in many hymns that I sing today. I miss her voice. When my mother was a young girl, she and her sisters would take an afternoon and sing through the entire hymnbook! She was the choir director at church for years. After her death, we found some annual letters that she had written to the choir members. They were filled with Scripture and communicated her love for God and her thankfulness for the gift of music. When I was a boy, she tried to teach me to play the piano. Sadly, I was too restless and I gave her a hard time during lessons. I regret that today. But I do love music of all kinds, and especially music that is Gospel-centered. At the time of her death, my mother was singing in a choral group that performed with the Cincinnati Symphony. It was a great honor to be a part of that. Mom inspired me to keep a song in my heart and I try to do that every day. This morning it was As Long as You are Glorified. We sang this song Sunday, and I can’t get it out of my head. That is a very good thing and I believe my mom can be credited with training my mind for music.

I could say many more things about her, but I want to close with the rest of the verse above. Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and the sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us. What can we learn from their example? There are three things:

1. Let us also lay aside every weight. Notice that it doesn’t say “lay aside every sin” yet. That is coming. But the author directs our attention to things that may not be bad in and of themselves, but are like a weight that slows our spiritual progress. Let me get very practical here. Here are some possible weights that you might be carrying. They might not be weights for everyone, but they just might be something that takes much of your time and attention: cell phones, internet, Facebook, iPods, cameras, cars, magazines, shopping, friendships, etc. Are there things in your life now that are not necessarily bad, but are taking time away from your walk with Christ? The writer of Hebrews tells us that people of faith strive to rid themselves of these weights. Examine yourself today. What is weighing you down and hindering your progress in the faith?

2. Let us also lay aside the sin which clings so closely. How diligent are we in our struggle against sin? How are we trying to cast off things that cling to us? Sin is like a dryer sheet that clings to your clean clothes. You can go half-way through the day and you finally realize that what is itching your leg is a dryer sheet stuck inside your pants. Sin clings to and entangles us. It trips us up and causes us to stumble. One of the themes of Hebrews is that Jesus is our Mediator, our great High Priest (4:14-16). We have one that prays for us and, by one single offering, has perfected for all time those that are being sanctified (10:14). That is a verse that gives me hope in the struggle to lay sin aside.

3. Let us run the race that is set before us with endurance. Each one of us has different obstacles, but believers are called to endure. The race often seems very long and the finish line is a faint image. But the finish line will get here sooner than you think (James says “life is a vapor”). My prayer today for all of us is for endurance. Let us not throw away our confidence, but let us hold fast to Christ. Christ is the Great Shepherd of the sheep (13:20). The message of Hebrews 11 and 12 is that God designs difficulties for a purpose. Look at 12:7: “It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?” So friend, do not despise the Lord’s discipline. It is evidence of His love for you. Verse 11 says, “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”

My mom’s race ended sometime in the early morning of October 24, 2005. I don’t know when my race will be over, but I have need of endurance. How about you? O, Lord, please tear me from the love of this world. Help me never to be comfortable in this world, but to forsake the things that are hindering me in my race. Having the things of this world torn from me is painful, but please give grace and healing. I’m thankful for the life of my mom. She now lives in your presence. That confidence is a gift of your grace and I give you all the praise. In Jesus name, Amen.

Oct 202011

For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.

2 Timothy 4:3-4 (ESV)

Cotton Candy Christianity is all around us. It is all fluff and no substance. It can get a crowd excited and make them feel good and comfortable. It looks great on the outside and projects an image of health. Its pews are full and its calendar is even fuller. It is consumer-driven; that is, it gives the people what they want. You will notice in these gatherings that the people are sovereign. The focus is about “my success,” “my attitude” and “my personal growth.” Pastors are viewed as professionals who organize ways to give the people what they want. If the pastor doesn’t do what they want, they simply go somewhere else.

Let me give you an example of a pop-cultural, pop-psychological message from a new book on the New York Times best-seller list. Every week, 45,000 people gather in person to hear this same message, not to mention countless more receiving it through other media. “If you make the mistake of dwelling on those [negative] thoughts, you are preparing to have a lousy day. You are using your faith in the wrong direction. Turn it around and say, ‘This will be a great day. Something good will happen to me. God has favor in my future, and I’m expecting new opportunities, divine connections, and supernatural breakthroughs.'” The author goes on to say, “When you begin each day in faith, anticipating something good, God tells the angels to go to work and arrange things in your favor. He gives you breaks, lines up the right people, and opens the right doors. That is what allows God to show up and do amazing things.” (emphasis mine)

So you see, in this man-centered message, God is crippled and unable to help you unless you have the right attitude. If you simply have faith and the right attitude, you will get that promotion, you will close that real estate deal, you will have excellent health, your children can attend the best schools and you can snag that beach house.

The Bible is very clear that no matter what your attitude, God could have a different plan in mind that He will execute for His sovereign purposes. Let me give you two examples (though the Bible is full of them). First, from Hebrews 11:32-40. By faith, some conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, etc. Now, in verse 36, we see that by faith others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. “They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated.” In God’s sovereignty, we see here that some were rescued and others were not. Second, Acts 12 tells us that Herod killed James with the edge of the sword. Peter also is captured, but in God’s sovereignty, Peter receives a dramatic rescue. One is killed by the sword, the other is not killed by the sword. Was James killed because he did not put on the garment of praise and Peter did? Absolutely not! The author I quoted above says that when he heard birds chirping and singing he asked them, “Hey birds. Have you read the newspapers lately? Did you see the stock market last year? What was it with those birds? They know a secret (follow me here, if you can believe this). They know their heavenly father is in control. They know God has promised to take care of them, so they go through the day singing and enjoying life, regardless of the circumstances.” I wonder about the bird that flew into my truck a few weeks ago. Was God not taking care of him? Maybe that bird didn’t know that God would take care of him or maybe that bird did not sing that day and was being punished. This teaching is rubbish.

In 2 Timothy 4, Paul commands Timothy to preach the word to the Church in Ephesus. He tells him to be ready always, to reprove, rebuke, and exhort with complete patience and teaching, because a time is coming when people will not endure sound doctrine. Notice that the people are the focus here, not the cotton-candy preachers. It is the people who do not want to hear sound teaching. They want cotton-candy and ice cream rather than vegetables and hearty meat. Because they have “itching ears” they accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions. Paul says these people have turned away from truth and wandered off into myths. What an indictment on the people! In the case of the book quoted above, it tells us more about those that buy it and support it than it tells us about the author. I only downloaded the free sample of this book to my Kindle. One chapter was all that I could handle.

What is absent in these gatherings and in the author’s books are the words “original sin”, “depravity of our hearts”, “justification by grace through faith in the cross”, “the sovereignty of God in all things”, “patiently endure suffering”, “trusting God through the pain”, and “that Christ would be exalted in my body whether I live or whether I die. For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” There is no teaching on the Trinity and redemption history. When sin is mentioned, it is treated merely as not living up to your potential, rather than being a great offense to a holy God who must punish it. Anything that is perceived as negative by modern culture will not be found in these books.

Deep down, cotton-candy Christianity is rotten and weak and impotent. It centers on man and his needs rather than on God and His glory. And let me tell you: modern, American evangelicalism is full of it!

Yesterday, this New York Times best-selling author was in Atlanta to sign the new book. Only 200 could do it, no more than 2 books per person, no pictures with him, and no message written inside the cover but his name. He doesn’t need to write a message on the inside cover. The book itself contains the message that the people want to hear, and if you read, it says nothing. Maybe someday John Owen’s work, On Temptation and Sin, will make the New York Times best-seller list. Sorry! Not unless there is a great reformation of truth in our day. O God, please bring genuine revival based on Your Truth. In Jesus name, Amen.

Oct 142011

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.

Acts 1:8 (ESV)

William Carey wrote a great little treatise to challenge English Baptists regarding their obligation to do missions, not only in England and the surrounding areas but also in foreign lands. He entitled the treatise, An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to use means for the Conversion of the Heathens. In Which State of the Different Nations of the World, the Success of the Former, and the Practicality of Further Undertakings, are Considered.

How about that for a title! But more than that: the message he gave to challenge hyper-Calvinistic thinking (Carey was much influenced by his friend and great Baptist theologian Andrew Fuller) was meant to help the church see that Acts 1:8 is not to be done one area at a time, but rather should be done in all places simultaneously. We should certainly begin right where God has planted us, but really we should seek, as believers, to labor in all four areas at once: Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth. Of course, one cannot be in two places at the same time, but together we can strategize and labor to make disciples of all peoples.

I am writing this week’s blog while on a plane after spending the last four days in New York City with the Metropolitan New York Baptist Association. I was born in Nyack, New York, which is here in the city, and when I was sixteen I flew into the JFK airport. But I have not, in my adult life, wandered around the city to learn about its distinctiveness and opportunities for missions.

The Georgia Baptist Convention has been in partnership with New York Baptists since the late 1980’s. The MNYBA has done incredible work in the five Boroughs of the city. I learned from George Russ and John Ramirez, directors of the Association, that NYC is not a melting pot. What you find in NYC are distinct communities of indigenous peoples who very often do not even speak English, but only their native tongue. There are over 800 languages spoken in NYC. If you want a real cross-cultural experience, all you need to do is go to New York. There are so many distinct people groups and most have absolutely no evangelical witness. The MNYBA is doing a great work there and God is raising up indigenous pastors in the city to reach the people.

I was extraordinarily blessed by the Southern Baptist pastors laboring there. They are godly men with a passion for truth and a heart for the nations. They face great trials but they are persevering by God’s grace. But I want to make something very clear to Georgia Baptists: they do not “need us” in one sense; as though they do not know how to do ministry, or lack preachers and teachers and seminars. They do simply need partners to help reach the masses. They need those who will commit for the long-term. Those who will get their hands dirty, help with evangelism, help with discipleship, and those who will pray. We need them in Georgia just as much as they need us in NY. They have men that could help us with Hispanic ministries right here in the mountains and they would love to do it. The MNYBA and the NAMB (North American Mission Board) have structures in place for groups to come and help in the effort.

The need is great everywhere we go. The lives of so many are empty and hopeless. They need the Gospel. Whether here or in NY, thousands wake up each day and never even give a thought to the majesty of God. They do not worship Him nor give Him thanks. They are completely unprepared to meet the King. So, RBC family, we have much to learn and do. I want us to be an Acts 1:8 church: a church that simultaneously is witnessing in our Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. I pray that God would raise from our number church planters and leaders and missionaries. Very soon, our men will go through evangelism training again. I will give more information when we begin. I invite all to come and be a part. I will be sharing more about NYC at Redeemer and in the Notla River Association in the months to come. Let us be in prayer for our partners in NY and for each other.

Oct 052011

The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work and to keep it.

Genesis 2:15 (ESV)

I am not a big movie watcher although I am not against film or the arts. I am not one to say, “Go see this,” or “Go see that,” but Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia has produced yet another film that I pray will literally impact millions. It really does have a great message. Fireproof was an excellent movie regarding faithfulness in marriage – “until death do us part.” Their new film, Courageous, centers on the theme of the crucial role a father plays in the life of his family. This is a movie that causes me to say, “Go see it!”

Over the last several months, I have been reading a book with my accountability partner entitled The Masculine Mandate, written by Richard D. Phillips. Every page has helped me in some way. So it has been good to take it slow, learn from the Scriptures, and apply what I have learned in my life and family. This book stands in stark contrast to a very popular book for men by John Eldridge entitled Wild at Heart. Eldridge argues that God created the woman inside the garden, but the man was created outside the garden. Hence, a man finds his identity outside the garden in wilderness quests. Men are free to be who they are. He says, “The core of a man’s heart is undomesticated.” But Eldridge totally misses the point and the whole premise of his book misses the teaching of Scripture. Look at Genesis 2:15. The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden.

Listen to Phillips here: “The point of Genesis 2:8 (and verse 15) is that God has put the man into the garden, into the world of covenantal relationships and duties, in order to gain and act out his God-given identity there. If God intends men to be wild at heart, how strange that he placed man in the garden where his life would be shaped not by self-centered identity quests but by covenantal bonds and blessings.”

The mandate given to Adam, and to all men, is to work and keep. To work is to labor to make things grow and be productive. There should be no passivity in work. A task is given, and a man should set out to accomplish the task. It takes planning and discipline, but a diligent man reaps great rewards. God has called all men to be builders, and I don’t mean just building houses. But men are called to work and build into their wives and families. A man’s work does not end when he comes home from “work”. No, his work continues. He is called to build up and invest in his wife and family. All that he does should be intentional and with a direction to lead those closest to him in the ways of the Lord. God has placed the man as head of the home. Because of our sin nature (see Genesis 3), men are usually either too overbearing on their wife and children, or they are too passive, and the wife takes the lead. But through the power of the Gospel, God’s design for marriage and family can be restored. By God’s grace, a man can look at every moment he has to be one of building and growing and leading and loving.

To keep means to nurture and tend and protect. What a mandate God has given to men! Very often, when we think of nurturing, we imagine that it is what a woman is supposed to do, or at least what she is better suited to do. But men, that’s what YOU are called to do. Men, figuratively speaking (and literally if you have a garden), we must keep the weeds out of our gardens. A garden left untended is a mess. Nothing good grows. It takes work to weed, but it yields a better crop. Men are called by God to protect their families from things that are destructive and harmful. Men are to set an example of what real Biblical manhood is. Fathers are called to teach their sons the masculine mandate of Scripture and help them see what a man is supposed to be. A father should emulate the kind of man that he would want his own daughter to marry.

God has placed men in the garden of covenantal relationships. In all of these relationships he is called to build and keep. That includes marriage and family, leading in the church, places of employment, coaching youth sports, teaching and encouraging music lessons, choosing the educational direction of the children, and many, many other areas.

I see the Courageous movie as a means to continue the discussion of Biblical manhood and womanhood. I’m thankful for it and I pray its influence will touch many homes. The movie was the 5th top-grossing movie of the week. It grossed $9,063,147. The movie’s budget was $11 million. Not bad for the first three days. I write this, not so that we would be impressed with the money Sherwood Baptist Church and others will make on it, but to show that there is great interest in a movie that deals with fathers courageously leading their homes. Men, let’s build and keep! That is what God has called us to do. No doubt we need God’s grace and help to do it. Please pray for me and I’ll pray for you. I get one chance to build and keep my wife and kids. By God’s grace, I want to make the most of each joy and trial for the glory of Christ.