Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Are People Without Christ Really Lost?

It used to be that skeptics toward Christianity would ask this question, but increasingly I hear Christians asking this same question. The motivations of the two groups are different. Honestly, every person asking the question does so for his own reasons, but the typical reason a skeptic would ask it was combative--he wants to justify his unbelief; he doesn't want to believe in a God who didn't create the world the way he would fashion it. That really is the root of the issue, that each person has rebelled against his Creator and wants to be the god of his world. However, this isn't directly about that issue.

It appears that now members of the household of faith are asking this same question. In one sense it confuses me because the Bible make the way of salvation so clear. Any Christian ought to be ready and able to answer the question of the Philippian Jailer [Acts 16:30], "What must I do to be saved?" Paul and Silas answer this in the next verse [Acts 16:31], "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household." So the means of salvation is crystal clear, and that's why this question confuses me as it comes from a Christian.

On the other hand, I think I understand where it's coming from. There are billions of people in this world who are born, live out their whole lives and then die without ever even hearing the name of Jesus. There is a sense of empathy in the question, "Are people without Christ really lost?" The questioner looks for a glimmer of hope within the reality observed on this planet. I believe it also relates to the way Christians apply the character of God today. They know that God is merciful [Psalm 103:8]; after all, God has shown them great mercy. And so the real question is, "How can God show love, mercy, grace and peace to a people who can never hear of Jesus if Jesus is the only way of salvation?"

Ephesians 2 helps with the biblical perspective on this issue. However, instead of toning down the nature of God's judgment (is that not the answer the question seeks?), it really sharpens the contrast between God and man, and between those who are lost and those who are found. After the fall, all humanity was alienated from God. Then he called a people to himself through Abraham. At that point in history, Gentiles [non-Jews] had very little hope. Paul admits this in Eph 2:12. But by God's grace, the blood of Jesus draws Jews and Gentiles into the family of God [Eph 2:13, Eph 2:4-8]. In other words, humanity has always been in this predicament. The way of the world today still rhymes with history. The problem in mankind hasn't gone away. The person who never hears of Jesus is still hostile toward God. Because each person has forsaken God, without his intervening action, none of us has hope. And yet, there is real hope in the blood of Christ, offered for the whole world [John 3:16, Eph 2:19].

In the end I think the question posed, "are they really lost?" is still the wrong question. God has indeed provided a means for all of the people of the world to hear of Jesus. He has given the world the Church--you , if you are Christ's, and me--sent with the command to go and make disciples [Matt 28:18ff]. We must be goers and senders. It's the way of showing Christ's love to this world.

There is a deeper problem yet. I believe there is still a self-justification angle coming from the Christian who asks this question (perhaps we're not unlike the unbelieving skeptic). The problem is that we know the Great Commission, yet stay in our comfortable middle-class Christian lifestyles while wringing our hands about those who might not hear about Jesus. Let's be honest together (I confess I struggle here too)--isn't the truest question a combination of the following:

  • Do I really have to obey Jesus when he calls us to make disciples of all nations?
  • Must I forsake my comfortable lifestyle to reach the lost?
  • Can't God use something or someone else to bring people the gospel?
The fundamental reason that person has not heard the gospel is because we're unwilling to take up our cross and bring them good news. And then we want to blame God for being unfair. We want God to save them without inconveniencing ourselves. But he has made us the vehicle to spread his gospel. Eternity is at stake; we must be obedient.

It would be worth the investment of your time to watch the following videos or listen to the audio.

If you do, let's talk and see how God might be working in our lives to shine the light of God's glory and grace to the world.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Three Categories of Ministry

J.D. Greear spoke in a workshop at the 2013 Gospel Coalition Conference about creating a sending culture in the church. He has a great message to share, and even though I don't agree with every last thing he says, I truly appreciate the heart behind the message.

Starting near the beginning of minute 35, he makes a great observation about the ways a church can interact with various ministries. Here is my attempt at a transcription, with apologies to legitimate mustard wielding hot dog donors:
We have to empower our people to be leaders. We've got to empower people as leaders. As church leaders, we've got to take a servant role toward our people. Listen to this, if John 14:12 is true, we understand that the best ministry ideas are in the congregation. Do you believe that? The best ministry ideas are in the congregation, not in the offices of the church. And we have to dedicate our ourselves to serving our people--developing them. Most of us as church leaders are more naturally inclined to recruit volunteers for our ideas. But there's a big difference in recruiting volunteers and training leaders. We want volunteers to be cogs in our machine. But rather than just thinking of how to get them on to our teams, we need to think about  how we become a part of theirs. To serve them, for these 39 out of 40 miracles [that were recorded in Acts as happening outside the church].
We've developed as a church staff--let me tell you how we put this into practice--we developed three categories of ministry. We call it own, catalyze, and bless. 'Own' are ministries that we think up in the church office. We're responsible for them. We fund them. We recruit for them. That's one category. On the other end of the spectrum is 'bless'. That's the person that comes up to you after the service that's like, "Hey, I've got a great idea. I want to give out hot dogs at the fair and I want to write in mustard 'John 3:16' on them." And you're like, "That sounds great. Let's have a word of prayer. Come back to me and tell me how that worked out." Alright, so that's on the other end--'bless'. In the middle is this category that I don't think we're really that good at, that we've got to get good at--'catalyze'. And the reason we're not good at it is 'cause it's scary. It's where I don't want to 'own' it--I'm not going to take it from you--you're still the leader in it, but I'm going to bring the resources and the authority of the church and all that stuff behind you to let you lead it. I never want to lead; I want you to lead it. And we're going to catalyze your ministry by doing some things that we can do infrastructure-and-funding-wise, but we're not taking it away from you.
So here's the question for you to consider. How much is that happening in your church?

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Philippians 2:1-11, Exalted Suffering

I had the opportunity to preach recently*, and given the scope of Philippians 2:1-11, I felt compelled to mention that I could not touch on every aspect of interest in this passage. That's still true in the context of this blog, but there were a couple of themes too fascinating to pass up. This post will focus on one of those themes--the connection between Phil 2:1-11 and the Suffering Servant passage in Isaiah 53

Philippians 2 shows us the mind of Christ (v7-8), "who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross."

Here is our salvation! The passage doesn't speak directly to our justification, but the full scope of gospel accomplishment, from beginning to end, is with Christ. He assumed humanity and absorbed our death.  The Christ Hymn of Philippians 2 reflects the glory of the atonement even if it's not explicit.

By taking the form of a servant, Christ has borne the likeness of Isaiah's Suffering Servant (Isa 53:11). Compare Philippians 2:7-8 with the first six verses of Isaiah 53:

Who has believed what he has heard from us?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men;
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

Even though the Christ Hymn doesn't explain the formula of salvation by grace through faith, the truth is there in two forms.

1. Philippians 2:6-11 was an early church hymn. It was a confession of church--that Jesus Christ truly was the Son of God who died on the cross. Sola Fide is implicit in the song because those singing it have put their trust in Christ. [1 Cor 12:3, Rom 10:9]

2. The connection to the Suffering Servant imports all of that context into the Christ Hymn. Each of us deserves God's punishment, for it's our sin that alienated us from God. But Isaiah 53 teaches us that the Man of Sorrows shouldered the weight of God's crushing justice for us. We can have peace with God because his wrath was diverted away from us, the straying sheep, and poured out on his Son instead.

As precious as personal salvation is, the real point of the Christ Hymn is to exalt Christ. It's all about Jesus Christ, and his exhibition of the most godly nature--genuine humility--is why he was exalted to the highest place. Paul explains that it was Jesus' willingness to descend to servanthood and death that highlights his coronation:
Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil 2:9-11).
God the father took what was low and made it high, brought the dead to life, and entirely turned the world on its head. There is now no higher name than Jesus of Nazareth, the great I AM.

It is here that the connection with Isaiah 53 is cemented. For in that chapter, just as in Philippians 2, the Suffering Servant does not see affliction only. The shame of God's curse is not a dead end. Just as Jesus is raised up in his hymn, God speaks of blessing to his Servant in Isaiah.

Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him;
he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for guilt,
he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.
Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;
by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
make many to be accounted righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,
because he poured out his soul to death
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and makes intercession for the transgressors.

Despite a bleak outlook, God's Servant sees his offspring and prolongs his days. Pouring out his soul to death cannot be the end, for this man "divides his spoil with the strong" and "the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand."

For all Christ has done, its end is to the praise of God's glorious grace (Phil 2:11, Eph 1:6). Christ is glorious, and God the Father is glorious! O may our souls be stirred to sing doxology--here are some suggestions: Behold Our GodJesus Messiah, Majesty (Here I Am), How Great Is Our God

*These resources are linked here if you desire fuller context; the intention is not self-promotion. [mp3manuscript]