Thursday, 23 June 2016

Evangelism - Whose job is it anyway?

‘Are you missing one of the most exhilarating and fulfilling dimensions of the Christian life?  Here’s an energetic guide to everyday steps you can take to influence others for Christ.  Suddenly, what once seemed scary or daunting becomes an exciting and doable adventure that will energize your own faith while you make an eternal difference in the lives of others.’  That’s what is written on the back of an exhilarating book I recently read on sharing your faith.  Evangelism is important because we want the name of Jesus to be hallowed, people to be rescued from hell and we want to enjoy the happiness of a life lived actively for God.
In the book of Acts we are reminded that evangelism the calling of every Christian.  We read that after Stephen was killed for his faith ‘a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria … Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went’ (8:1-4).  The key leaders were in Jerusalem but the gospel went wherever God’s ordinary people went.  But, how do I do it.  I am going to give you six keys to effectively sharing your faith.

  1.  Use words
Francis of Assisi is reported to have said, ‘preach the Gospel at all times … if necessary use words.’  However, words are actually always necessary in evangelism.  The apostle Paul wrote, ‘… faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ’ (Romans 10:17).  The words of the gospel have power.

George Whitefield was a famous evangelist in the eighteenth-century.  He spoke to crowds of thousands.  But he had his detractors.  Some people loved to stand there and mimic him as he spoke.  On one occasions the ringleader of such a group was a man called Thorp.  Thorp entertained his friends as he put on an accent and imitated Whitefield’s gestures.  He was having great fun repeating Whitefield word for word, until the Holy Spirit used those words to convert him there and then.
Charles Spurgeon was a great eighteenth-century preacher.  On one occasion he was asked to speak to thousands of people in London’s Crystal Palace hall.  The day before the event Spurgeon was helping the organisers find the best place to erect the pulpit.  He tested the acoustics by speaking out ‘behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.’  Years later he discovered that a workman on one of the galleries had heard these words, was cut to the heart and been converted.
2.  Memorise a definition of the gospel
Has anyone every asked you what people believe in your church?  Don’t worry about Baptist theology—take the opportunity to tell them the gospel. 

Your presentation needs to include the bad news, the good news and a challenge.  I hope that the next time I am asked what we believe I will answer something like this.  ‘My rebellion and resistance against God is so serious that I deserve to be separated from him for ever and punished eternally.  Yet God loves is so amazing that he sent his Son to live the perfect life and die a death that takes the punishment I deserve.  Now he offers to make us his dearly loved forgiven and adopted children if we simply believe—which means to trust Jesus as our forgiver and king.
Now you may be thinking that you can do a better job than that.  So, I challenge each of you to write a short summary of the gospel, explain it to a friend who doesn’t attend any church, and ask them if they think it is clear. 
3.  Make sure that your message is complimented by your actions
Mitsuo Fuchida was the man who led the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour.  After the war he became a Christian.  One of the things that opened his heart to the gospel was hearing about eighteen-year old Peggy Cowell.  Mitsuo had wanted to show that all nations had treated their prisoners disgracefully.  But as he interviewed some of the Japanese prisoners of war that had been held in America they told her about Peggy.  She volunteered at a prison camp and showed incredible love and kindness.
On one occasion a prisoner asked Peggy why she cared for them so much.  She explained that her parents had been missionaries in Japanese Philippines, who been accused of communicating with the outside world and beheaded.  She believed that God wanted her to respond to this evil with forgiveness and blessing. 
Peter writes, ‘be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you for the hope that you have within you’ (1 Peter 3:15).  Earlier in that same letter he commands, ‘live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us’ (1 Peter 2:12).
However, be careful.  Our job is not to make ourselves look good, but to make God look good.  This means that we don’t have to pretend to be someone we are not.  We don’t have to hide our failings.  We can be honest about the fact that God is so amazingly gracious that he cherishes us even though we let him down every day.  Indeed, self-righteousness is a denial of the gospel.
4.  Remember that God directs your life
One Christian leader said, ‘when I pray coincidences happen, when I don’t they don’t

In Acts 17 the apostle Paul says that God determines the times set for people and the exact places where they should live (Acts 17:25-26).  Rico Tice takes this principle and reminds us that this truth is applicable to every detail of our lives.  This excites me!  This summer God might seat you on a plane beside someone he wants you to share your faith with.  Your neighbours are placed beside you for a purpose.  Pray that God would reveal that he has placed you in strategic places for heavenly purposes!  Pray that the Holy Spirit would guide you into conversations about the gospel.
5.   Learn to guide conversations towards Jesus

The story is told (it is made up) of the man who wanted to turn a conversation towards Jesus, so he looked at his friends earrings and said, ‘I see that you have piercings.  Do you realise that Jesus was pierced for your transgressions?’  I believe that we need to learn how to guide conversations gently towards Jesus.  Lee Strobel comments that ‘people are generally more interested in spiritual matters than we think they are.
How many of you have been waiting for people to ask you about your faith, but are frustrated that no-one has?  Kerry and Chris Shook wrote a bestselling book entitled, ‘One Month to Live,’ in which they encourage Christians to focus on how we would shape our priorities if we only had thirty days left in this life.  Who would you show more urgency in talking to if your time was short? 
Be intentional!  If you read a book that might help a friend understand more of the gospel, lend them your copy.  If you hear a sermon that might help them, get them one of the CDs.  But don’t avoid talking to them about faith.  Talk to them about your faith.  Ask questions.  Be a good listener.
I am working on this idea of transitioning with questions.  A friend of mine admires a particular Methodist minister, so a good question to open up conversation with him is ‘what is it about Tom that you admired?’  A cousin comes from a family that has atheists, agnostics and evangelicals in it, so a good question to open him us is ‘where do you fit in among the diverse opinions of your family?’  Ask people what they believe about life, the universe and everything.  But don’t be rude or pushy, for we are told to speak with gentleness and respect.      
6.  Your job is to witness, God’s job is to convert

Finally, remember that your job is to witness, and God’s job is to convert.  Even great evangelists like the apostle Paul couldn’t covert anyone.  He could only share the truth.  It is God who brings spiritually dead people to life.  When he explained the gospel to a woman called Lydia we read that ‘the Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message’ (Acts 16:12-15).
Rico Tice writes, ‘Our job is not to convert people.  It is to witness to Christ.  Conversion isn’t the mark of a successful witness—witnessing is.  Think about a courtroom.  Witnesses are there to tell the truth.  That’s successful witness.  If the jury doesn’t believe them, that’s not their fault or failure.  You have not failed if you explain the gospel and are rejected.  You have failed if you don’t try.’

Saturday, 4 June 2016

1 John 5:13-21 'Be Confident'

Ray Orland writes, ‘God not only accepts you, he wants you to know that he accepts you.  Because you will never see liberating breakthrough to new levels of personal holiness except in the reassuring atmosphere of grace.’  John wrote this letter so that we would know that God is love, and that we can be secure in his love.  He wrote, ‘these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life’ (5:13).  When it comes to faith, confidence is a good thing.
I want this confidence to spill over into your prayer life (14-17)
John tells us that God accepts us as dearly loved children purely on the basis of what Jesus has done for us.  Jesus lived the perfect life and died a sacrificial death for sin.  We simply hold an empty hand in repentance and faith (which themselves are a gift from God) and we adopted as his sons and daughters.  He goes on accepting us even though we go on letting him down (1:8), but he also changes us from within.  The work of his Spirit caused us to love the truth that Jesus is our saviour.  The work of his Spirit causes us to treat sin seriously and gradually become more like Jesus.  The work of his Spirit causes to love his people.  He wants us to hear the Spirit’s assurance that God does indeed delight in us.  ‘God not only accepts you, he wants you that he accepts you.’  He wants this confidence to spill over into our prayer lives. 
God has been challenging me about the need for intimacy with him.  I often pray because I feel I must.  I feel guilty about my lack of prayer.  Sometimes I pray to get it out of the way, and so that I don’t feel like a phoney Christian.  However, one preacher explains that ‘you cannot go very far in the Christian life without realising that prayer is not a technique but a relationship.  It is not a matter of how to get my will done.  It is a matter of knowing God well enough to get his will done.’  John writes, ‘this is the confidence we have in God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.  And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know we have what we asked of him’ (14-15).
This is about knowing him well enough to understand the sort of things he would have us ask for.  If we ask anything according to his will.  This is about knowing God well enough to know that he delights to give good gifts to his children.  This is about trusting that he knows the best way to answer our prayers.  This is about the sort of prayer that is consumed with a desire that ‘your will be done.’  We can have confidence when we pray like that.  He is not reluctant or unwilling.  However, he alone knows what is in our best interests.
Having told us that prayer is in line with God’s will John gives us an example of the sort of petition God loves to answer.  If anyone sees his brother or sister commit a sin that does not lead to death, he should pray and God will give him life (16).  When you see a fellow Christian sinning, don’t dare gossip about it (that would to fail John’s command to love our brothers and sisters in Christ).  You may need to confront them.  You always need to pray for them.  Pray for the wandering believer in the full assurance that if they are really born again then God will respond to our prayer and restore them.
But tragically some who wander are simply revealing that they were not actually born again.  Remember how John spoke about those who ‘went out from us, but did not really belong to us’ (2:19).  Some show that they are not born again because they don’t take God’s call to holy living seriously.  John speaks of a sin that leads to spiritual death (16).  Bible Commentator, Howard Marshall, points out that this is not referring to someone who is overcome by temptation against their will, who wants to love God and neighbour and be freed of sin.  God always forgives those who come to him in genuine repentance.  But a person can harden themselves to the call of God to a point that they are beyond recall.  ‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts’ (Hebrews 3:15).
We can be confident even though we live in a world entrapped by the devil (18-19)
John gives us a rather offensive picture of the world.  In John ‘the world’ refers to people in rebellion against God’s loving rule.  In love God sent his Son to die for the world (John 3:16).  The world is under the control of the evil one (19).  We live in a hostile world that is controlled by a hostile power.  Don’t be surprised when people oppose what you believe.  But be confident because Jesus keeps us safe, ‘and the evil one cannot harm you’ (18).  Nothing can separate you from the love of God.  I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God, that is Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39).
There are a wonderful couple of verses in the book of Revelation that speak of how Jesus protects us from the devil.  Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say, “Now have come the salvation and power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ.  For the accuser of our brothers and sisters, who accuses them before our God day and night before our God day and night, has been hurled down.  They overcome him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death” (Revelation 12:10-11).  In other words the devil’s power to accuse is broken by the fact that Jesus has taken all our past, present and future sin upon him, the punishment has been paid and we cannot be condemned.  Now we no longer need fear death itself.
We can be confident about reality (20-21)      
Finally, we come to the end of this great letter.  And John seems to give a random command—Keep yourself from idols (21).  It is not actually a random command.  It is a very fitting way to end this letter.
You see, John is not warning his readers about bowing down to statues made of wood or stone.  He is using the term idol to speak about anything that takes the place of God in our lives.  He is telling them not to forsake the reality of what is, for the unreality of what is not.  In verse twenty he uses the word translated ‘true’ three times.  There is a world out there that is held by a strong delusion, which offers pleasure that can’t truly satisfy and that offers a life that perishes.  But Jesus is the real thing!  Don’t be so foolish to set the sail of your life to the winds of this condemned world.  That’s what John says to these readers who were disturbed by those false-teachers who said that sin doesn’t matter and whose followers revealed that they had never been born again!
Friends, I ache for you, for I want you to place nothing in the way of being drawn into a living, loving and life-transforming relationship with Jesus.  I want no idols to stop you enjoying life in him.  I want you to know the joy of being assured that you have eternal life.  Jesus does not promise a life without sorrows (he was a man of sorrows familiar with grief).  But nothing will sustain you more, as we walk in this valley of the shadow of death, than knowing that you are loved and accepted by the gracious God who has revealed himself to us in his Son Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Galatian 6:11-18 'Keep the cross central'

As we have studied the apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians, one of the most striking verses for me was when Paul exclaims, ‘Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was portrayed as crucified’ (3:1b).  He is speaking to people who were living in southern Turkey, who had not heard of Jesus at the time of his crucifixion and that were not in Jerusalem to witness it.  So how could they have seen Jesus Christ crucified?  The apostle Paul showed them Christ crucified through his preaching!  Paul’s message centred on the cross!

C. J. Mahaney writes, ‘The cross was the centrepiece of Paul’s theology.  It wasn’t merely one of Paul’s messages; it was the message.  He taught other things as well, but whatever he taught was always derived from, and related to the foundational reality that Jesus Christ died so that sinners would be reconciled to God and forgiven by God.’ 
Up to this point this point Paul has been dictating to someone who has written for him.  Now, as was his custom, he takes the pen himself to write the ending with his own hand.  See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand (11).  He wants to highlight the importance of these last words, in the way that we might underline them or put them in bold.  He will remind them to keep the cross central.    
1. ‘Only those who are truly aware of their sin can truly cherish grace’ (12)

Remember the context to this letter.  The apostle Paul was on a missionary journey when he took ill and went to the hill country of Galatia to recover.  There he shared the good news about the life and death of Jesus and many accepted this message with joy.  However, soon false-teachers arrived on the scene and muddied the waters.  They said that you had to earn God’s acceptance.  They said that you had to keep the Law of Moses, and in particular be circumcised, if you were to become a Christian.  Paul writes to set the record straight.  Becoming a Christian is about receiving the free, life transforming grace of God made available because of the life and death of Christ.  Jesus lived the perfect life and died for our guilt so that all who trust in him could be accepted as God’s beloved sons and daughters.

But what motivated the false-teachers to take the beautiful message of God’s free gift and turn it into a message of having to earn God’s acceptance?  Paul tells us.  ‘Those who want to make a good impression outwardly are trying to compel you to be circumcised.  The only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ’ (12-13).  In particular they didn’t want to trample on the toes of their fellow Jews.  It seems that the Jews of that day had misunderstood the rituals and rules of the Old Testament.  These things were never meant as a means of earning God’s acceptance.  Salvation has always been a matter of grace.
Rico Tice tells of someone who, during a Christianity Explored course, said that they believed they were going to heaven because they give blood.  The cross offends all such thinking.  If your friends thing that they are going to be accepted by God on the basis that they are good people, who try their best and are different than rapists, then the message of the gospel is going to offend them.  The gospel is only relevant to those who see themselves among the chief of sinners.  The gospel declares that our sin is such a serious thing that nothing less than the death of God’s own Son could deal with it.  When we show people the glory of the cross we proclaim their spiritual bankruptcy.  C. J. Mahaney writes that, ‘only those who are truly aware of their sin can truly cherish grace.’
2.  We will only glory in the cross if we have humbled ourselves as hell deserving sinners (13-16) 

They false-teachers wanted to boast of your flesh (13).  They wanted to say, ‘look how many people we have compelled to be circumcised.’  They weren’t motivated by the glory of God or the good of his people.  They simply wanted to boast in themselves.  Unlike Paul, who writes, ‘May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ …’ (13).

When Mahaney is asked at Starbucks, ‘how are you?’ he replies, ‘better than I deserve!’  ‘I do it,’ he explains, ‘as a way of preaching the gospel to myself every day.’  He understands that he deserves God’s divine wrath for his sin, but that Jesus experienced that wrath so that he no longer has to.  He knows that he deserves hell, but he is on his way to heaven.  He knows that he has nothing to boast about other than the cross of Christ.  The cross puts everything else into perspective!

The apostle Paul had been like the false-teachers that caused so much trouble in Galatia.  He had been a self-righteous, religious man who boasted in what he did.  Then he experienced a life-transforming encounter with the risen Christ.  He was born again and made new.  Now the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world (14b).  He was no longer hostile to the message of the cross.  He gave up trying to but God’s acceptance.  He stopped seeking to earn his way to heaven.  He realised that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision nor any other way people want to justify themselves matters. 
Being accepted by God is not the result of giving blood, being respectable, not having a criminal record or simply being a good person.  Being accepted by God is a gift made available to us through the cross of Christ.  John Stott writes, ‘only if we have humbled ourselves as hell-deserving sinners shall we give up boasting about ourselves, fly to the cross for salvation and spend the rest of our days glorying in the cross.’
Paul then pronounces a blessing on those who live in light of the glorious gospel of grace.  Peace and mercy to all who follow (literally ‘to all who walk by’) this rule (referring to the gospel), even to the Israel of God (he is using this Old Testament description of God’s people to refer to all who now trust in Jesus).  Are you walking in light of the gospel?  Does it shape all your thinking?  Do you preach it to yourself every day?
Conclusion (17-18)
Finally, let no-one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.  His body showed the scars of being persecuted for the message of the cross.  The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit brothers and sister.  Amen (17-18).
A final word to Mahaney on this theme of grace:  ‘Never be content with your grasp of the gospel. The gospel is life-permeating, world-altering, universe-changing truth.  It has more facets than any diamond.  Its depths man [or woman] will never exhaust.”

Monday, 30 May 2016

Believing for life (1 John 5:1-12)

If you have been here over the last few weeks you should be getting familiar with John’s three tests for the genuine Christian—the behaviour test, the love test and the belief test.  A changed life, a love for our fellow-believers and a correct understanding of the person of Jesus are indispensable marks for those who are born again.  John wants us to be able to look at these things and know assurance that we really have eternal life.  He wants us to have the joy of Christian assurance!
But I fear that some of you may misunderstand the nature of these tests.   You may think that these are three things that you have to do in order to get saved—that someone is a Christian because of their good behaviour, their pleasant attitude towards those in the church and their orthodox beliefs about Jesus.  That would be to misunderstand the nature of salvation.  John is not saying that we are born again because we behave, love and believe. but that we behave, love and believe because we are born again.  These are the fruit (or evidences) that testify to God’s grace at work within us!
1. God calls you to pleasure (1-5)
My guess is that many of your friends pity you because you are a Christian.  They think that you have given up in the search for pleasure.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  God saved us that we may experience life in all its fullness.  He has called us to joy.  His ways are designed to satisfy.  'This is love for God: to obey his commands.  And his commands are not burdensome' (3).  As John Piper writes, 'God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.' ‘God’s love in his people gives them a desire to love and please him... Rightly understood and followed, God’s commandments bring believers great joy and freedom, not a sense of oppression’ (ESVSB).
Jesus asked his disciples, 'who do people say that I am?'  That's a massive question.  We believe 'Jesus is the Christ.'  Only those who believe this are born of God.  Who do your friends say he is?  If they think that he is a great leader like Gandhi, a religious leader like Mohammad, or just a myth of history then they are still lost.  We need our eyes opened to see the real Jesus!
'Everyone who loves the Father loves his child as well' (1b).  The English Standard version translates this, 'Everyone who loves the Father loves whoever is born of him.'  We love because he first loved us.  When his love pours into our lives it must flow out of us.  Love is a good and pleasurable thing.  We were made for the special love of Christ's people.
In John's writings 'the world' refers to humanity in rebellion against God.  But we have 'overcome the world.'  We are not defeated by the world's hostility.  We are not fooled by the world's lies.  We see the emptiness of its selfish pleasures.  As a friends said to me, 'this living for self thing just doesn't work.' The psalmist wrote, ‘many are the woes of the wicked, but the LORD’s unfailing love surrounds the man who trusts in him’ (Ps. 32:10).

2. You are called to reasonable faith (6-12)

The world pities us because it, mistakenly, thinks God is against our pleasure.  The world also looks down on us because it thinks that we have lost our reason.
In a letter to the Irish Times a Mr. Michael McGuire from Donegal wrote: ‘Science is based on reason, logic, intellect and proof.  Religion is not.  There is nothing wrong with this.  Religion is not based on proof.’  Similarly the Collins English Dictionary defines faith as ‘strong or unshakable belief in something, especially without proof.’
However, John opened this letter talking about what he seen and touched (1:1).  In the gospel he wrote he said, he knows he tells the truth and is to be believed (19:35).  he is not calling for a leap in the dark.
He talks about the one who came by water and blood--probably a reference to his baptism and crucifixion.  There was an early heresy that said that Jesus was only a man before his baptism but then the divine Son of God came upon him.  This false-teaching also said that the divine Son of God left Jesus before he was crucified.  John is counteracting this false-belief.  It is important that we have the facts of history right when it comes to the person of Jesus!
We take the facts of history seriously.  Christianity is no myth.  We look to reliable testimony.  But there is another witness too.  There is the inner witness of the Holy Spirit (10a).  One preacher puts it like this:  “[Faith] isn’t a conclusion reached at the end of chain of deductive reasoning or scientific evidence. It’s not that I struggle to convince myself to things that are highly dubious.  Rather I surrender to things which by divine illumination I now inwardly perceive to be glaringly self-evident … Faith isn’t like wrestling with a geometric theory until we arrive at the end and say ‘there I have worked it, there’s the proof!’  Faith is more like having cataracts removed from your eyes.  When we joyfully declare, ‘I can see things now that I couldn’t see before.’  Faith is an experience of divine revelation. It is hearing God’s testimony in your heart and surrendering to it.”

While faith may be a gift of God, people are still responsible for not believing.  ‘Anyone who does not believe God has made him out to be a liar because he has not believed the testimony God has given about the Son (10b)’  One commentator says, ‘There is ample evidence for faith, but mankind’s problem is not ignorance, so much as rebellion; not that we cannot believe but rather that we will not’ (Jackman).

Think of the implications of all this.  You long for someone to come to faith.  Then I suggest you present them with a reasoned case for Christianity.  Don’t simply ask them to take a leap in the dark.  Listen to their questions and talk through their issues.  But don’t imagine that it is your reasoning and wisdom that will make them a Christian.  They need the illumination of the Holy Spirit to open their eyes and show them the truth of these things.  Therefore prayer is an essential ingredient in our evangelism because we are dependent upon God to work! 

Conclusion (12)
Of the ten references in this letter to believing seven are in this chapter.  The ESV Study Bible explains that this belief 'is not a vague religious commitment but a wholehearted trust in the saving work of Christ.'  We have seen that this belief brings us life in its fullness and is a gift from God.  Finally, remember what depends on this belief and see the urgency of presenting the eye-opening truths of the gospel. 'He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life' (12).

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Galatians 6:7-10 'Sowing for life'

By nature people get weary.  Our enthusiasm fails.  We have a tragic capacity to get tired of even wonderful things.  On the first day of our holidays we delight in the rest and sun, but on the last day we are ready for home.  The children love the new toys at Christmas, but have become bored with them by New Year's Day.  Even Christians are tempted to get weary of well-doing. But we must not give up.  Everything depends on keeping on going.  So how do we ensure we persevere to the end?

1.   We stop becoming weary because we sow to the Spirit (7-8)

There is a sense in which the principle of sowing and reaping works in the here and now.  Sow bitterness, and you will become twisted.  Live for material possessions and you will end up empty.  Refuse to pray, and you will not enjoy intimacy with God.  Live thankfully, and your outlook will be transformed.  Jesus promises that God will reward you in full for what you do in secret.

But there is more than growth in holiness at stake here.   Note that what we are talking about has to do with heaven and hell.  It is the difference between a life that reaps eternal life or it's opposite (destruction).  'Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked.  A man reaps what he sows.  The one who sows to please the sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit will reap eternal life (7-8).

Paul said something similar in the last chapter.  After listing some of the acts of the sinful nature he said, 'I warn you as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God' (5:21).  The verb translated 'living' is in the present tense.  He is not talking there about falling into a sin or struggling with sin, but rather a lifestyle of sin.  If you think that you are a Christian but ignore Christ's call to obey, then it may be that you do not love him or know him.

'Hold on,' you might want to object, 'I though you said that salvation is a gift.  Now you are saying that it is a matter of reaping what you have sown.  That sounds like salvation by works!'  But it is not sowing to the Spirit that saves you, so much as the fact that sowing to the Spirit shows you are saved.

We are adopted in to God's family because Jesus lived the perfect life, and died a sacrificial death for us.  God's has taken our sin and treats us as if we perfectly obeyed.  We do nothing to earn God's acceptance.  We are forbidden from trying to earn God's acceptance.  Yet such a life-changing encounter changes us from with.  We receive the person of the Holy Spirit.

This is what God promised through Ezekiel.  'I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.  And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws' (Ezekiel 36:26-27).  Don't think of obeying God as a means of paying him back for what he has done for you.  Think of your obedience to Christ as a further gift from God to you,  God gives us his Spirit and moves us to keep in step with the Spirit.  He gives us new desires and the ability to obey.  He frees us from an empty way of life and we experience life in all its fullness.  Keeping in step with the Spirit will stop you from growing weary in well doing!

2.  We stop becoming weary because God keeps us to the end (9)

Remember the parable of the sower?  There is a soil that produces short lived enthusiasm that fades when the going gets tough.  But it is the soil that produces fruit that is the one that Christ is looking for.  Here Paul tells us that it is only as we keep on keeping on that we will inherit eternal life!  'Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up' (9).  The writer to the Hebrews says something similar, 'we have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first' (Hebrews 3:14).

Again, don't think of your persevering in the faith as your way of earning eternal life.  Your persevering in the faith is also God's gift to you, and evidence that you have the gift of eternal life.  God promised through Jeremiah, 'I will give them a singleness of heart and action, so that they will always fear me for their own good and the good of their children after them.  I will make an everlasting covenant with them: I will never stop doing good to them, and I will inspire them to fear me, so that they will never turn away from me' (Jeremiah 32:39-40).

 What is the 'doing good' that we are tempted to weary of?  Think back to the fruit of the Spirit, which is really about Christ being formed in you.  Think back to Christ's command to love our neighbour.  Think back to the call to bear each other's burdens.  You will be tempted to grow weary.  So depend on God to enable you to live a life that demonstrates your dependence on him.  'Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.  They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint' (Isaiah 40:30-31).

Before we finish, notice the scope of our good deeds.  I had a friend who was troubled by the fact that there was favouritism here.  We are to do good to all people, especially to those ho believe.  I think our amazement should go in the opposite direction.  We are brother and sisters in Christ.  Of course we should have a special love and care for our kith and kin.  We are a family living in a world that often opposes what we believe.  Yet our gracious Father does not call us to do good to our siblings, but also those who don't even get what our family is about or want to be a part of it.

Conclusion - The weary life

There is a way that is guaranteed to leave you weary.  It is the way some of you grew up.  You felt that you had to earn your parent's love, or prove yourself to the crowd.  It left you heavy-hearted and broken.

Some people say you don't need Jesus, that God will accept all who he judges to be 'good'.  But how good do you have to be to be good enough for the perfectly pure God who lives in unapproachable light (1 Tim. 6:16)?  What about the fact that I have failed my own standards let alone those of a holy God?  What about the fact that my conscience testifies against me?  What about all those dark thoughts?  What about all the wickedness I see in my heart?  Being told I need to be good enough for God is not good news!  I need the gift of his acceptance.

Like the false-teachers that were troubling the churches in Galatia, the Pharisees taught a religion of works.  They said you had to earn God's acceptance.  It left the people weary, insecure, troubled and enslaved.  Then Jesus came along and promised, 'come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light' (Matthew 11:28-30).

Preach that gospel to yourself so that you won't grow weary.  God accepts you freely because of the life and death of his Son, don't tire yourself trying to earn his love.  He gives you his Holy Spirit to change you from within, this is not a self-help life.  His love flows into us so that his commands are no longer burdensome.  His is the way of love, joy and peace.  He has come that we may experience life in all its fullness.  We fix our eyes on Jesus, 'the champion who initiates and perfects our faith' (Hebrews 12:2).

(1 John 4:7-21) 'God is love'

Charles and Sandra are walking along a beach on their honeymoon.  Feeling relaxed and happy Charles turns to Sandra and says, ‘I love you!’ What does he mean?
He probably means, ‘Sandra, I need you, you complete me.  You are so beautiful.  Your smile knocks me out.  Your good humour, your laugh, your beautiful eyes, the scent of your hair—everything about you transfixes me.’
What he certainly does not mean is, ‘Sandra you have the worst case of bad-breath—you would embarrass a herd of garlic-eating elephants.  Your nose is so bulbous it deserves to be in a cartoon.  Your hair is so greasy you could lubricate an old Massie-Ferguson.  Your knees are so disjointed you make a camel look elegant.  Your personality makes Genghis Khan look like a wimp. But despite all this I love you!’
What does the God of love mean when he says he loves this world?
He doesn’t mean, ‘I need you, you make me complete. Heaven would be boring without you. Your personality transfixes me.’
No! Rather he means something like, ‘Morally speaking, you have the worst case of bad-breath.  Your sins have made you disgusting.  It is as if you are people of the bulbous nose, greasy hair, disjointed knees and abominable personality.  You are morally repugnant. But I love you despite your sin.  I love you not because you are attractive. I love you because it is my nature to love’(adapted from Carson).
Cheer up!  You are a lot worse than your realise, but God is more gracious than you know!  Because of his love we can experience assurance.  We can come to him knowing that he will forgive all the evil that we have done.  We can trust him knowing that he is committed to changing us.  We must have him as our king and then he will delight in us as his children.
The cross is to be our model for loving each other (7-12)
God is love.  ‘It is not simply that God loves, but that he is love’ (Jackman).  Love is at the very essence of God’s being.  Indeed our God lives in a Trinity of loving union.  The Father loves the Son and the Spirit, the Son loves the Father and Spirit, and the Spirit loves the Father and Son.  God did not create the universe because he needed someone to love—he lives in a perfect relationship of love.  We should be blown away by the fact that God is love and in his love cares for this wicked world.
God is love.  He has demonstrated that love in sending his only Son into the world that we might live through him.  This is not a deserving world but a rebellious world. In love God looks upon a filthy people and wants to make us pure.  He sees our spiritual deadness and wants to give us life.
This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.
Jesus was an atoning sacrifice for our sins.  God has pardoned our sin against him at his own cost.  On the cross God gave his Son, who bore his righteous anger at our sin, so that we the guilty ones might go free.  ‘Amazing love, O what sacrifice.  The Son of God given for me.  My debt he paid and my death he dies.  That I might live.’
The great Welsh preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones never tired of telling people of the importance of preaching the gospel to ourselves daily.  We are to keep on reminding ourselves of the gospel.  We are prone to forget it.  A forgetful people will be an ungrateful people; an ungrateful people will be an unloving people.
For it is as we remind ourselves of God’s love, demonstrated at the cross, that we should be moved to love one another—since God so loved us, we ought to love one another.  The cross is our model for Christian love.  Look at the cross and try to justify why you won’t forgive a fellow-believer—it can’t be done!  Look at the cross and try to explain why you would not go out of your way to help one of God’s people—it won’t make any sense!  The cross is our model of love to the unlovely and goodness to the undeserving!
Indeed as one commentary points out ‘it is only when a person loves his fellow-Christians … that he fully experiences the love of God in his own heart and knows the presence of God with him.’   That is what John says in verse twelve.  No-one has ever seen God, but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. It may seem like some Christians are a hindrance to our relationship with God—they test our patience and get on our nerves.  But God is experienced through living in the community of his people.  Showing love to his imperfect people provides us with an opportunity to experience him more.
Look at those words again, ‘No-one has ever seen God…’  John has used this phrase before.  Not in this letter but at the beginning of his gospel.  There he wrote that ‘No-one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known’ (1 John 1:18).  As Jesus makes God known to the world, so when we, the body of Christ, love one another we, we make God known to the world (albeit in a less perfect way).  Our sharing in love is essential to our witness!  People ought to see God among us as they witness how we serve one another!
God’s love gives us confidence (13-18)
We have had the behaviour test, the love test and the belief test—we are to look at these areas of our lives and see evidence of God changing us.  These tests are complimented by the inner witness of the Holy Spirit.  We know that we live in him and he in us, because he has given us the Spirit.
The Spirit gives an inner witness that we are children of God (see Gal. 4:6).  When we start thinking that God is our heavenly policeman waiting to catch us out the Spirit says, ‘No! He is your Father.’  When we are tempted to think that God is our heavenly prosecutor waiting to condemn us the Spirit reminds us saying, ‘No! He is your Father.’
Of course if our assurance is to be real it must be grounded in a true understanding of the historical person of Jesus.  ‘If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God.’  You might feel that doctrine doesn’t matter, that there are more exciting things to do that listening to sermons and studying the Scriptures but if we don’t guard our doctrine we will be led astray, and being led astray will demonstrate that we are not born again!  It is through this message of Jesus that we know and rely on the love God has for us.
‘God is love.  Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him’—as we saw when we looked at the love test, a person cannot come into a real relationship with a loving God without being transformed into a loving person.  In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgement, because in this world we are like him.  The fact that we are like Christ in love is a sign that God, who is love, lives in us giving us confidence that we are saved.  John says that if we are afraid that God is going to punish us on the day of judgement then we are not aware of the fullness of his everlasting love.
Many sensitive Christians fail to grasp that they are loved and accepted by God.  Perhaps you are one of them!  You doubt that a perfect God would ever be interested in a failure like you.  You struggle to believe that anyone would love you if they knew what you were like—and God knows perfectly well what you are like.  You have grown up with parents who were impossible to please and can’t imagine that God is ever pleased at your efforts to live for him.  You have a distorted view of God thinking that he would rather condemn you than forgive you.  You are insecure and have projected your insecurity towards your relationship with God.  You struggle to love God because it is hard to love a God you are not sure loves you.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones would tell you to preach the gospel to yourself.  Daily remind yourself that God has demonstrated his love for an undeserving sinful world of people like you and me.  Cheer up! You are a lot worse than your realise, but God is more gracious than we know!  God was not attracted to us because we were morally beautiful but because he is love.  Christ has made atonement for our sins.  He delights in the change he is bringing to our lives even as we continue to struggle with sin in this life.
Conclusion (19-21)
Finally, our passage ends where it began—with the inextricable link between loving God and loving his people.  We love because he first loved us. ‘If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar.  For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.  And he has given us this commandment: Whoever loves God must love his brother.’
Do you say that you are willing to take up your cross and lay down your life for the God of love?  Prove it!  Love his people, including the insensitive ones who get on your nerves.  After all he loves us in spite of our many failings!
Do you claim that you are born again? Show it!  Don’t bear grudges.  Forgive, as we have been forgiven.  After all God has forgiven us far more than we will be ever asked to forgive another!
Do you enjoy singing God’s praise?  Demonstrate that those words aren’t hollow!  Speak words of encouragement to people in the church.  Don’t seek to knock them or compete with them.  Weep when they fall and rejoice when they do well!
God is love.  Let us demonstrate in our actions that we understand and have experienced that love!

Monday, 23 May 2016

The Grace-filled church (Galatians 6:1-6)

‘I want a place where I can go anytime, a place of retreat.  But it mustn’t be an empty place, a lonely place … I want a place full of people, but full of friends not strangers—a place where people are pleased to see me.
I need people who understand me—who know what it’s like out there.  Who know what it is like when people reject you, insult you, kick you when you are down.  So, I need people who won’t do that.  I need a place where I can just be me.
But I also need to be with people who want the best for me—which means those who will help me change, and develop and grow.  In short, I want a community—a community to be part of, to be loved in, to belong to.
And you know what?  I’ve found it.  And it has changed my life.  It is the best thing that has ever happened to me!’
So much of what this man is looking for is what the church seeks to offer.  However, he wasn’t writing about a church, but about moving to San Francisco and becoming a part of that city’s large gay culture.
A grace-filled church delights to restore the fallen (1)
Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore them gently.  He has just spoken of the fruit of the Spirit, which includes gentleness.
He is not talking about someone who claims to be a Christian, but ignores God’s call to holy living.  He has already warned such people that they will not inherit the kingdom (Galatians 5:21).  He will later write to the church in Corinth about their need to discipline someone who says they are a Christian but will not repent of their sin (1 Corinthians 5:9-13).  He also teaches that when such a person does repent, ‘you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow … to reaffirm you love for him’ (2 Corinthians 2:7-8).
But what Paul is envisaging here is a fellow-Christian who is caught in a sin that they cannot defend or want to defend.
Someone has borrowed your computer and seen you online history.  You lost your temper, and said what you really think.  Your boss has noticed deceit in your expenses claim.  You were gossiping, and were overheard.  A few embarrassing pictures turned up on Facebook.  Your closest friend has noticed your critical spirit.  You know you are in the wrong.  You want to change.  You need the help of a gentle Christian who understands grace!
Supposing you are to be that gentle restoring friend, what should you attitude look like?
Your heart will go out to this person you love.  You wish you could turn back in time and save them the pain that they have brought upon themselves.  You will not look down on them, because you count yourself as among the chief of sinners.  You have the attitude that says ‘there for the grace of God go I.’  ‘If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall’ (1 Cor. 10:12).  You watch yourself that you are not tempted to fall into the same sin.  You also watch yourself that you don’t end up with a harsh, judgemental and loving attitude towards the fallen.
Somewhere in Ireland, a pastor and his assistant went to visit the home of someone in the church who had got into a terrible mess.  On their way the pastor asked the assistant if he thought that he could ever see himself getting into the same sort of trouble.  The assistant declared, ‘no, I don’t think so.  In fact I am sure that I never would.’  ‘In that case, you had better go home, and I’ll go alone,’ the pastor replied.
A grace-filled church bears one another’s burdens (2-5)
Restoring those caught in sin is one means of bearing one another’s burdens.  Grace-filled churched bear each other’s burdens.  Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ (2).
Jesus is the supreme burden-bearer.  He gave himself up for our sins (1:4).  He redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us (3:13).  He commands us to love our neighbour as ourselves (5:14).
Some people won’t let other people bear their burdens.  Perhaps that is because you are too proud to admit your need.  But we all have burdens, and Christ has given us one another. 
In this fallen world there is a sense in which we all come from broken homes, have marriages that are less perfect than we want people to think, wrestle with temptation and sin in more ways than we wish.  We should be looking out for the lonely, the sick and hurting.  We should have ready ears and a kind word.  We should be lifting each other up to God in prayer.
The letters of Paul are full of ‘one another’ commands because he knows that Christ wants us to live in gracious community.  ‘Be devoted to one another.  Honour one another above yourselves’ (Rom. 12:10).  ‘Accept one another … just as Christ accepted you’ (Rom. 15:7).  ‘Greet one another’ (Rom. 16:16).  ‘Encourage one another’ (2 Cor. 13:12).  ‘Serve one another humbly in love’ (Gal. 5:13).  ‘Bear with one another in love’ (Eph. 4:2).  ‘Be kind and compassionate to one another’ (Eph. 4:32). 
While some are too proud to reveal their burdens, others are too proud, and unloving, to be a burden bearer.  ‘If you think you are too important to help someone, you are only fooling yourself.’  We are all delighted to be seen to help, but we might consider the person beneath us and not worthy of our time.  We don’t really care about them, and will only do what is seen.  ‘Pay careful attention to your own works, for then you will get the satisfaction of a job well done, and you won’t need to compare yourself to anyone else.  For we are each responsible for our own conduct’ (3-5, NLT)
A grace-filled church values been fed (6)
Anyone who receives instruction in the word must share all good things with his instructor.  My primary job is to feed you.  You give me a generous stipend so that I don’t have to spend time at other employment and can have the time to study and prepare.  Indeed, you also are great at encouraging me.  Thank you!
Philip Yancey grew up in the strict fundamentalism found in the southern states of America in the 50s and 60s.  Strict dress-codes were enforced.  Silly laws were in place (such as not being allowed to roller-skate).  Most troublingly the church was blatantly racist—only admitting whites.  ‘They talked about Grace but lived by law; they spoke of love but showed signs of hate.’
But Yancey did not give up on church.  Indeed, he became a part of a wonderful church community in Chicago.  This church made racial reconciliation a primary goal.  It was situated between one of the richest and one of the poorest suburbs in the city, and aimed to bring people from both together.  It had its fair share of unusual people.
‘I have seen glimpses of what can happen when community forms around what we hold in common.  A family of God emerges, one in which unity does not mean uniformity and diversity does not mean division … Now, when I look for a church, I look around me at the people sitting in the pews or chairs.  I have much to learn from the uninhibited worship styles of African-Americans and Pentecostals, from the stalwart faith of senior citizens, from the daily struggles of moms with preschool children.  I deliberately seek a congregation composed of people not like me.’
Maybe you have been the person caught in sin.  Maybe you have failed to gentle with those who have fallen.  Maybe you have gossiped about they did.  Have you been too proud to admit you need for help or not willing to help another?  None of us have loved perfectly.  So, remember grace—God does not treat you as your sins deserve but according to his loving-kindness.  Walk in step with the Holy Spirit, who produces gentleness in us.  Don’t simply look for a church filled with your sort of people, but delight in this community of fellow-strugglers that he has given us.