Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Time to Take a Stand

You may or may not know that this past Sunday was the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church.  Churches all over the world united in prayer for those Christians scattered literally all over the world who face regular persecution as a part of their daily life and faith.  According to this site, there are more than 60 countries in the world with strict religious laws on the books, most of them designed to frustrate Christians.  It's something that we believers in the west are virtually unaware of.  Thank God for religious freedom.  Seriously.  It would be worth your time to Google "Christian Persecution" and just spend some time reading about those who suffer for Christ.

After church this past Sunday, a woman at our church approached me and asked me if I thought that the United States government should come to the aid of persecuted Christians throughout the world.  That question led to others, and we had a brief conversation on the topic.  Since that conversation, I've been thinking more about it and have amended the thoughts that I shared with her (which, to be honest, were rather off the cuff).  So what should governments do to protect or advocate for persecuted Christians across the world?

As I've thought about it, Romans 13 shows that God puts governments in place for essentially two reasons: 1) enforcing the rule of law, and 2) punishing evildoers.  As far as I can tell, this would apply when a nation's citizens (regardless of their faith) are being unjustly persecuted on account of their faith.  The government should enforce the law and punish the evildoers, thereby rescuing those who are persecuted.  The question becomes difficult, however, when we consider that there are Christians who are not, say, Americans who are being persecuted throughout the world.  Should the United States government intervene in those cases?

As of this moment (and I say so, because I could potentially be persuaded otherwise), I would say no, the United States should not seek to punish evildoers outside of its borders or come to the aid of persecuted Christians in other countries (at least in regards to Christian persecution - a just war is a whole other issue).  Rather, I would say that our government should pressure the government of the nation where the offense and persecution is being perpetrated to take action on behalf of those being persecuted.  It's not our job to punish evildoers in other parts of the world.  This is not happening currently in our country, however.  Our government seems oblivious to Christian persecution in other parts of the world - even when it comes to Americans.

So then, as I read the Bible, I think it is our government's job to protect its own citizens, and to advocate and come to the aid of its own citizens (again, regardless of faith, but the vast majority of persecuted religious people in the world are Christians).  It is not our government's job to come to the aid of people persecuted for their religious beliefs in other countries.

That being said, I take the polar opposite position when it comes to the church's role in defending and and advocating for persecuted Christians throughout the world.  The church should must come to the aid of those who are suffering, particularly its sons and daughters.  The church is not bound by geographical or political boundaries, nor is there a biblical restriction placed on it to only protect and support a certain people in a certain place in a certain situation.  In fact, it's just the opposite.  The church is commanded to care for the needy, stand up for the oppressed, fight for justice, and provide aid wherever needed.  Unlike the government, the church is a "universal" entity that exists where there is someone who names the name of Christ.

A good question for churches (including my own church) to ask would be, "What are we doing to stand with our brothers and sisters all over the world who are being persecuted because of their love for my king?"  We (the Western Church) need to start thinking about how we can engage in this war.  What can we do?  We can all certainly pray.  What else?  Could we support an indigenous missionary who ministers to persecuted Christians?  Could we send aid in the form of money or supplies to people who are putting their life on the line when they go to church?  It's time to take a stand.

Monday, November 4, 2013

"But God..."

Buckle up, because this is a long post.

Last month I was privileged to fill the pulpit at Riverview, as I do on occasion, and I preached on Ephesians 2.1-7.  Riverview usually records the sermon each week and makes it available for download from our website, and I usually post the audio here as well, but on this week the audio from the recording was very choppy and virtually impossible to listen to.  So then, I figured I'd put a transcription of the sermon here.  Enjoy.

Whether it is before conversion or after, I think it's probably common for someone who is either int he process of being converted, or who has been converted, to sit back and be in awe of the gospel.  It's a remarkable thing to think of the great exchange that happens when we believe the gospel.  Our middle school Sunday School class talked about this "great exchange" just last week.  In the gospel, Jesus transfers his perfectness - his righteousness - to our account, and in exchange, we transfer our sin to his account.  And so, we then reap the benefits of his perfect righteousness before God, adn he reaps the just desserts of our sin.  He receives the wrath of God on our behalf, even though he's never done anything to deserve it, and we receive everlasting life from God, even though we've never done anything to deserve it.  That, in a nutshell, is the gospel.

And if you think about that long enough, not only will you be in awe of the love and mercy of God, but you'll eventually come to this question: Why?  Why me?  We wonder why God saved us.  We feel we are not worthy.  We feel inadequate.  Personally, I can't wrap my mind around why God would want to save me.  That is, if he knows everything about me, what made him choose to open my eyes and give me faith to believe?

Some of you this morning have probably even felt that way: there is nothing about me that could make me look desirable or pleasing to God, or make God want to forgive me.  And to be very frank with you, the Apostle Paul wants to affirm that notion within you: you're right, there's noting about you that is lovely or that makes God want to save you.  In fat, it's quite the opposite.  In our scripture for today, Paul gives several reasons why God shouldn't save people.

You heard that right: Paul tells us in these verses why, if we're keeping score of things, God shouldn't save people.  His description of the unregenerate state of human beings is the stuff that zombie movies are made out of.  In an unregenerate state, human beings are the spiritually walking dead.

But as we'll see, God does indeed save people, even though they are unworthy of his love and affection; even though they have all, at one time or another, turned away.  But then we're still left with this question: Why does God do this?  Why does God save people who are utterly undeserving of being saved?  Why me, God?  Why did you save me?

We can feel this way because most of us have felt the way Paul describes the unregenerate life in verse 1: "And you were dead in trespasses and sins."  It's interesting to note here that Paul doesn't say "You were sick with sin," or "You had a sin problem," or "Your sin was a hindrance, a pain in the neck, or a chronic illness."  Paul wants to paint such a bleak picture of the state of an unbeliever that the best metaphor he can conceive of is death -  a state from which there is no recovery, no hop, no remedy.  There is nothing that can be done by any earthly power.

Think for just a minute about what it means to be dead: to be absent of all signs of life; to be decomposing; to be powerless to change your status.  Dead is dead.  And this spiritual death is the result of sin.  This is what sin does and it leaves people in a hopeless state of death.  And sinners have as much ability to save themselves from this sin as a corpse has of reanimating itself.  Don't miss this, because it's important to understand the gravity of your situation: sin brings about death, and dead is dead.  There is no earthly hope for you.

And Paul gives evidence of this reality.  He points out patterns that existed int eh lives of the Ephesian believers before they came to faith in Christ.  It makes sense that dead people would exhibit the characteristics of dead people.

For the past 18 months or so I have volunteered as a chaplain with the West St. Paul and Mendota Heights police departments.  My main duty is to accompany police officers on death notifications, and then to minister to the families of those who have died.  Sometimes my job boils down to telling a family member about a loved one who has died in a traffic accident, or sometimes there is an unexpected death at a home, and a body is discovered.  And it is my job to be with the family at the scene so the officers can go and do their job on the streets.  Having been called out to these death scenes, I can tell you that being in the same room with a body that has been dead for a period of time is an experience that you are not likely to soon forget.  Without getting to graphic, there is a grim reality that comes with death that assaults all of your senses, and it is an experience that is pretty much unlike anything else.  You see, dead bodies have characteristics of deadness.

And so people dead in trespasses and sin bear the characteristics of dead people lost in sin.  Have you ever had a dead mouse in the house, but didn't know where it was?  You maybe couldn't find it, but you knew it was there.  How?  The smell.  The smell of death.  Jesus said, "The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks," and "what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person.  For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, and slander."

How can we know that lost sinners are dead?  The same way you know there's a dead mouse - the smell of death: dead thoughts and words and deeds come from a dead heart.

With the Ephesians, their spiritual deadness was exhibited in a few ways.  Paul says in verses 2-3 that they were "Following the course of this world...the prince of the power of the air...the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience."  And they were living "...in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind..."

What does all that mean?  it means that in our deadness, we are without the light of God, and so we pursue dead things.  We follow the ways of a world that does not honor God.  Instead of being obedient to God, we are obedient to Satan, the prince of the world.  And we do whatever gratifies our bodily desires.  The bottom line is this: the Ephesian believers, before they were converted, were engaged in gross, over sin in their thoughts, their actions, their relationships, and every other part of their lives.  And this sin condemned them and bore witness to their spiritual deadness, just as it does to those who come before God today who are likewise lost and dead in sin.

And so, this state of spiritual death, as evidenced by characteristics of death, leaves the unbeliever in a certain state before God.  What is this state?  "Sons of disobedience" (V. 2) and "By nature children of wrath..." (V. 3).  There is some relational language here, not unlike the kind you will see in Ephesians 1.  Ephesians 1.5 says "In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ..." and 1.11 says, "In him we have obtained an inheritance..."  What is the inheritance that the sons of God through Christ are entitled to?  Salvation!  Eternal life!  The glories of the riches of his mercy!

People are entitled to an inheritance because of their positions - because of whose child they are, and because of whom they call "Father."  Those who are Christ are sons of God and stand to inherit the goodness of his grace.  But here we see a different grouping of sons: sons of disobedience and children of wrath.  What do these children have as their inheritance?  What can these sons expect to receive from their father?  Romans 2.6, 8: He will render to each one according to his works: for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.  There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek."  And Romans 6.23a: "For the wages of sin is death..."  The sons of God will inherit the spiritual blessing of God - the sons of disobedience and the children of wrath will get an inheritance as well, but it will be one of judgment and condemnation.

So when you sit back and wonder at why God chose to save you, or if you ever feel unowrthy of your salvation, allow me to echo the apostle Paul and affirm that notion in your brain: You are not worthy of your salvation.  Before you came to Christ, you were dead in trespasses and sin, and you followed after the ways of the world and after your own sinful lusts.  There was nothing about you that would make God say, "Oh, that one's nice, I think I'll take that one."  And for those of you here today who are not in Christ, this passage is describing you: you are dead in sin; you are a son of disobedience and a child of wrath and God's judgment abides upon you.  And if you feel the weight of death on you this morning, and if you realize that you are so hopelessly lost in sin, then stay with me, because there is good news for you this morning.

Verse 4 begins with two of the greatest words in the Bible: "But God..."  And to really get a grasp of them, we need to go back to grade school grammar.  The word "But" refers to a contrast.  In other words, in spite of everything Paul has said about the dead nature of sinners, what he's about to say is going to fly in the face of all of that.  And the word "God" is the subject of this very long sentence which comprises the next few verses.  And the subject of a sentence is what performs the action - all of the verbs - in the sentence.  In other words, God is the one who makes us live together with Christ; God is the one who raised us up and seated us with Christ in the heavenly places.  The emphasis is that it is God who is doing all of these things.

Notice that the text says "But God..." not "But you..."  There's nothing you've done to make this a reality in your life.  In fact, as the previous verses say, you've done everything wrong, and if anything, you've given God all the reason in the world to cast you into hell for all eternity.  But because God is rich in mercy, and because he loves us with a great love, he does these things for us.  Even while you were dead in trespasses and sins!  "By grace you have been saved" it says in verse 5 and again in verse 8.

These words are so monumental because they signal that salvation is a free gift of GOd and cannot be earned. Why is that a good thing?  Because if it had to be earned, you wouldn't be able to earn it!  Look at yourself in light of God's word - in light of the law of God: you all short at every occasion!  You are utterly hopeless when it comes to earning your salvation!  It's not just that you've sinned, it's that you've never done anything but sin.  You were dead in trespasses and sin.  And you have as much ability to earn your salvation by your good works as a dead body has in bringing itself back to life.

So then what does God do?  he makes us alive together with Christ (v. 5).  That which was once dead in sin is resurrected and made alive.  That which once resembled a corpse now resembles a living, breathing, human being who no longer follows after the prince of the power of the air, but follows after Christ.

He raises us up and seats us in the heavenly places with Christ (v. 6).  No longer are we sons of disobedience and children of wrath, but we are now sons of God and heirs of the promise, seated at the table, sharing in the inheritance of Christ.

And then we get to verse 7 which, I believe, is the main point of this passage.  It tells us why God does his work of saving people.  It tells us why - if we are confused or if we feel unworthy - God would want to save walking corpses of sin.  So the next time you ask "Why me, God?  Why did you save me?" you can come back to this verse sand know the truth.  God saved you "so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus."

That's it.  That's why God chooses to save people.  You see, if you are stuck on the idea that you're not worthy to be saved, you've got something backwards.  You don't realize that your salvation isn't about you - it's about God!

Psalm 25.11 - "For your name's sake, O Lord, pardon my iniquity, for it is great."  Why does God pardon iniquity and make dead sinners come alive?  For his name's sake.

1 John 2.12: "I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven for his name's sake."  God forgives sin for the sake of his name - for the sake of his reputation as a good and loving and kind and merciful God.

And this is a pattern we have already seen in Ephesians 1: "In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will to the praise of his glorious grace..." (Eph. 1.5-6).  "In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory." (Eph. 1.11-12)

God saves and resurrects dead sinners to show the world that he is the only one with the power over sin and death, and that he alone has the power of resurrection and life.  God saves you so that you, a walking zombie who is rotting away in sin, might be made alive again, and so all the world might see the miracle of this resurrection and praise the only one worthy of being praised: not you, but God.  And God does this so that no one else gets the credit - he wants all the world to see how amazing and glorious he is.  And in seeing what God has done with a dead person like you, they also might put their hope and faith in Christ, so that God may receive even more glory for his goodness.

This is why it's not based on your works, because if it was based on something good that you did, then God wouldn't get all the credit.  God would still get some of the credit, but even if you did one thing to merit God's favor, then we would have to say yes, God is good to save, but not that good, because you kind of deserved it anyway.

But we're not going to praise you in any way because you don't deserve it - you were a walking corpse of sin, and the only thin you deserved was wrath. But instead God gave you life.  This is why it says that salvation is by grace through faith - not by works so that no one may boast.  Because the only one who gets to boast is God, because God is the only one who does anything worth boasting about.  And God is not in the business of sharing his glory with anyone.  He wants it all for himself, and he is worthy of it.  It is by grace you have been saved.

Listen: if you're here this morning and you look into your own heart and you see the characteristics of death, now this: there is nothing you have done that God cannot forgive - no sin that is too be or unforgiveable.  He is ready and able to give you new life, to raise you up from death.  And if you think that you're too bad for God to save, you're attempting to rob him of his glory.  What you need to realize is that this isn't about you - it's about God and his goodness and his kindness, and his mercy, and how great he is - not about how bad you are.  We already know how bad you are.  You're dead in sin.  But the Bible says that God makes dead things come alive.

And if you've ever pondered the gospel and asked yourself the question "Why me?" know this: your salvation isn't about you, it's all about God.  Asking the question "Why me?" is starting at the wrong place.  Instead of asking "Why me?" we should be asking why God does these glorious things, like raising dead sinners to new life in Christ.  And the answer to that question is found in scripture, and is found in our text for today: so that all the world would see his glorious grace and kindness in Christ Jesus.  God didn't save you because you were such a good person that he just couldn't resist.  No, he did it because he is full of love and grace and because he is worthy of your praise, and the praise of all the universe.

And you also need to know this: God doesn't love you less because you still struggle with sin.  For those who are inChrist, there is nothing you can do or not do that will move you further from or closer to the love of God in Christ.

I know that there are some here this morning that carry around guilt for their sin on a daily basis.  You don't feel that you deserve forgiveness.  You don't feel that you do enough right.  Let me tell you this as lovingly as I can: if that is describing you, you're forgetting the gospel.  You're right, you don't deserve forgiveness; you don't do enough right and good things.  But remember these words: "But God.  But God loves you; but God forgives you; but God raises you up from death to life.  In spite of everything you have or haven't done, God chose to save you anyway.  Why?  To the praise of his glorious grace, so that the coming generations might know the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Jesus Christ. 

Don't let guilt rob you of the joy of being a trophy of God's grace.  Don't get me wrong, guilt can be a good thing.  It can convict us of sin; it can lead us to repentance; it can lead us to a deeper faith.  But it cannot condemn those who are in Christ.  It cannot cause believers to lose their standing before God as righteous and as having been justified.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  Are you acting and living like there is?  Get rid of your guilt and glory int he gospel, that all of your guilt has been transferred to Jesus and he has sufficiently born the punishment that was due your guilt, and that there is not one thing that can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord: neither death nor life, neither angels or rulers, nor things present, nor things to come (including future sins), nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation.

If you are in Christ, you have been found not guilty an account of Jesus Christ.  The guilt of my sin, not in part, but the whole, is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more.  Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!