Do False Teachers Concern You?

I was in college when I read a book that captivated me. It was an apologetics book where a theology professor was writing letters back-and-forth with his atheist father, and he carefully and winsomely explained his Christian views. The problem was, some of those views were radical reinterpretations of what the Bible teaches. Because of this book there were a number of significant doctrines that I misunderstood for years. Since then, I have grown more discerning and careful about evaluating what I read and listen.

We are all called to be careful readers and listeners, to be on guard against false teachers. Sometimes it might come off as spiritual superiority (“I know better than they do, I’m not falling for it!”) or spiritual arrogance (“I can’t believe you’d read that book”). We need to remain humble even as we grow in our spiritual discernment, but one of my great concerns for Christians today is a lack of spiritual discernment.

There are authors and musicians (yes, our Christian music can easily spread false teaching) who are on the Christian best seller’s list, but they’re false teachers who should be avoided. Sure, maybe their books are really fun to read, their personalities are engaging, and some of their stuff is helpful. But the Bible calls Christians to be spiritually discerning, because there are false teachers who can lead well-intentioned believers astray.

Do false teachers concern you? Do you ask theological questions about the books you read, music you listen to, shows you watch, or teachers you learn from? Sadly, we cannot simply trust anyone who talks about Jesus and quotes the Bible.

Careful Reading
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What Makes a Good Sermon?

Ask any church goer and you’ll hear a wide range of characteristics for a good sermon. Some people are looking for compelling stories, others want to laugh, and still others are turned off by humor and desire pure teaching. Here are the characteristics that I keep in mind while preparing to preach.

1. Be biblical

This seems like a no-brainer, but there are plenty of sermons which reference the Bible but they are not built on a foundation of Scripture. Sometimes the preacher seems to have an idea what he wants to say and then uses a Bible verse here or there to prove his point. This is not a biblical sermon. If the Word of God is living and active, a double edged sword that is God-breathed, then we should keep Scripture front-and-center.

2. Be Gospel-Centered

I know “gospel centered” has become something of a cliche over the last five years, but it’s a helpful (and biblical) grid through which to operate. If a sermon doesn’t clearly lead to gospel proclamation, and if it doesn’t clearly flow from the fruit of the gospel… then it isn’t a Christian sermon in any meaningful way. Many preachers have fallen off the cliff of works-righteousness in the attempt to be relevant (“Four keys to building a great marriage,” or “How to be the best you”). Sermons should be robustly biblical and gospel-centered.

3. Be clear

What good is brilliance if it’s so blinding you can’t behold it? Instead, I have always agreed with those who claim you don’t really understand something until you can explain it to a child. Preachers spend an average of 12-20 hours each week on their sermon but the people who listen only hear the final result. Gone are the days when preachers can reasonably assume any measure of biblical literacy, so using phrases like “Most of you know this verse already” only makes to those who don’t “already know” feel stupid and small and unwelcome. If something is worth saying, it’s worth saying clearly enough for everyone to understand. I generally keep seven specific people in mind while preparing the message: a child (kids over age 7 sit through our entire worship service), a teenager, a young parent, a businessman, a tradesman, a nonbeliever (who may be skeptical but is interested enough to attend a worship service), and a senior saint who has faithfully served Christ for decades. If these people can each understand what I have down on paper, then I’m ready to preach.

4. Be helpful

This is where the rubber meets the road and the sermon connects or falls flat. Rather than trying to be relevant, I find it more fruitful to pursue helpfulness. Here are some questions I consider: “What is confusing about this passage that needs to be explained?” “Where does our culture today agree and disagree with this message?” “What challenges will people face in the call to embrace this teaching?” “What is going on in our church where this message applies to either encourage or correct us?”

If a sermon hits in these four marks, I think it will demonstrate pastoral love for the listeners, reverence to the Lord in how Scripture is handles carefully, and great joy because it is anchored in God’s provision through Jesus Christ and the indwelling Holy Spirit.

One final thing to note is this – every preacher needs to first listen to the sermon the Holy Spirit is preaching to him through his sermon preparation. If the preacher hasn’t first been moved by God’s Word through the preparation process then his sermon will be flat, one-dimensional, and either dryly-academic or hypocritical.

What is the Armor of God?

The Apostle Paul encourages Christians to put on the full armor of God in Ephesians 6:10-20. This is a common theme for children’s ministry, but it’s incredibly important for every Christian to consider the meaning and symbolism. In this post I hope to unpack the various pieces of armor along with its relevance today.

Our True Enemy
Take a minute to consider the three greatest challenges facing Christians and the Church today. Now consider this quote from John Calvin:

“Let us remember that our battle is not against flesh and blood when the painful treatment of others provokes us to revenge. Our natural disposition would lead us to direct all our efforts against the men themselves; but this foolish desire will be restrained by remembering that the men who annoy us are nothing more than darts thrown by the hand of satan. While we are focused on destroying those darts, we leave ourselves open to be wounded on all sides.”
John Calvin (Calvin’s Commentary on Ephesians 6:12, slightly edited for understandability)

The Christian enemy is not the fiery arrows, but the archer who is shooting them. If we ignore the arrows then we’ll get struck, but the enemy isn’t the arrows themselves. Instead, we guard ourselves from the devil’s schemes which seek to destroy our faith and witness while remembering the bigger picture.

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What Do Christians Think About Hanukkah?

Hanukkah is not the “Jewish Christmas,” but a celebration of God’s provision for his people and a call to resist the allure of assimilating into a faithless culture. As a Christian pastor, I am well aware that the best person to offer a brief overview of the history and meaning of Hanukkah isn’t me… so please watch this instead.

I get asked by multiple people every year, “What do you think about Hanukkah? As Christians, what should we think about it?” Continue reading

Is the Christian a Saint or Sinner?

Crowned

Every Christian continues to endure temptation and sinful desires… sometimes victoriously, and sometimes we indulge our sinful nature. How should we make sense of this?

Sometimes we can get the impression that once we become Christians our lives are immediately characterized by holiness and purity. But that’s just not the case. Sometimes, yes, the Lord graciously frees us from crushing temptations or addictions; but most Christians experience a more gradual and subtle growth in holiness.

I know some people who have seriously struggled with the question, “Am I really a Christian?” because of their lingering struggles with specific temptations (usually sexual ones). With this in mind, I believe Martin Luther’s theology of Christian identity as “Simultaneously Saint and Sinner” is extremely helpful. Continue reading

Christian Hope is Not a Wish

Sunrise

Hope is more than a wish. It’s a confident expectation that the future is bright and that good things await. A wish, however, is a shot-in-the-dark… like heading into a test that you didn’t study for, and just wishing to do well. Hope is built on a foundation; wishes float “out there” without any real substance.

The Christian life is built on a foundation of hope, not upon a wish.

The Foundation of Christian Hope
One of my favorite people in the Bible is the Apostle Thomas. After Jesus’ death, all the disciples were in the Upper Room when Jesus suddenly appeared (even though the doors were all locked, because they were afraid of being arrested). The disciples saw Jesus, talked with him, and were astounded that he was alive again. They had heard the rumors, but now they saw him with their own eyes. But Thomas wasn’t there. In days that followed, Thomas would insist that he wouldn’t believe unless he could put his fingers in the holes in Jesus’ hands. That week must have been excruciating for Thomas… feeling hopeless while everyone else is full of hope.

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Three Ways to be a Faithless Christian

Christians should be people of faith. That seems like a no-brainer. But there are many of us who live without much faith. In a way, we could often be described as faithless Christians because there’s not much need for faith in the way we live. Faith isn’t always easy (it usually isn’t), and God’s provision isn’t always comfortable (it rarely is)… will we shrink away from faith when it becomes difficult and uncomfortable, or will we lean into God because we trust him to provide?

The Bible defines faith this way in Hebrews 11:1, “Now faith is being sure of what you hope for certain of what you do not see.” That means faith points at something that you don’t currently have, something that is beyond you. 2 Corinthians 5:7 says the reason Christians can live courageously is because, “we walk by faith, not by sight.”

wanderer

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What Jesus Meant by Entering the Kingdom as Children

Boy with Bible Laughing

I am convinced one of the most misunderstood Bible passages is where Jesus tells his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3-4) Why would Jesus say we need to enter the kingdom of heaven as children?

I’ve heard many explanations about how children are obedient and respectful, and so we should be the same way towards God. At the risk of sounding like a terrible parent, this simply isn’t how I’d describe my parenting experience. Being a father is the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. Sometimes it’s downright painful. Kids have a way of knowing they’re not in control but they keep grasping for authority.

Don’t we do that same thing to God? We know we aren’t in control, but we grab every opportunity whenever a window cracks open to exert our authority and try to grab control over life. Like the child who wants a suitable explanation for every decision, we keep asking God, “Why? Why? Why?” And if his answers are unacceptable (or if he simply says, “Because I said so.”) then we stomp our feet and look for someone else to tell us what we want to hear.

We don’t enter the kingdom of heaven as children because we have become so gentle and obedient. We enter as children because of our Heavenly Father. To boil it down is this: Christians have been adopted as children of God. This is why Jesus said you must be like a child to enter the kingdom.

When the disciples tried to keep the children from coming to Jesus, I am convinced that Jesus was urging his disciples to remember their status as disciples had nothing to do with their own importance. The disciples believed they were more important than those kids. But Jesus rebuked them and set them straight. Only those who are children of God will enter the Kingdom of God. It depends on their relationship with the Father, not because of their own value.

Remember, in the ancient world, children had barely any status – their value and importance came from their daddy. The good news of the gospel is this, “But to all who did receive him [Jesus], who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). Those who lay down their status and declare their only entrance into heaven comes from Jesus Christ their Savior (remember, the end of Mt. 17 emphasizes Jesus as the Son of God)… those are the people who will be given entrance. Salvation isn’t a result of works, it is a gift of grace because you have been adopted as a child of God (Eph 2:8-10).

So next time you hear someone talking about how Jesus wants us to be gentle and cuddly little kids, you can smile to yourself and say, “Yes, we should be that too. But we aren’t. In fact, lots of times we’re pretty disrespectful children. Praise be to God that he’s a gracious Father!”

What’s the Difference Between Grace and Mercy?

The Bible is full of references to grace and mercy, and yet many Christians can attend church for years without being able to give a clear and simple explanation of the difference.

To put it simply, the difference is this: Mercy is “not receiving something you deserve” while Grace is “receiving something you don’t deserve.” We see mercy in action when we get pulled over for driving too fast but receive a verbal warning instead of a hefty fine. Similarly, grace is at work and on display when a victim’s family forgives the man who murdered their son or daughter.

Mercy is an expression of grace, but they are not the same thing. Here are a few examples from Scripture and what they have to do with the gospel.

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Why Church Membership?

Open Church Door

No one needs to be a church member in order to attend the church’s worship services. There are many places where non-members can happily serve and participate outside of Sunday morning. The local church is not like a private golf course where you need to be a member, dress a certain way, and pay your membership dues in order to participate. But does this mean that church membership is unimportant and optional?

The Bible doesn’t contain a verse specifically commanding church membership, but Scripture routinely assumes that the people of God will gather together and be committed to each other. The early Christians did not have the ability to “church shop” or have a casual relationship with their local church. In the same way, Christians who live in the midst of persecution find themselves needing to choose whether or not they’re “in” or they’re “out” of the church, the family of God.

There is a growing trend in American Christianity to minimize church membership. It is certainly possible to be a genuine Christian who is not a member in a local church, but there are many reasons why it is healthy and good for every Christian to be a member in their local church.

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