Friday, September 19, 2008

Can A Christian Be Confident About Salvation?

Let's be clear right up front.  Many Christians are very insecure about their salvation.  Some have the idea that salvation is something in a constant flux, moving from something one possesses, to something one loses.  Most of this insecurity is base on the performance level of the particular individual.  The thinking is that if one is "faithful" (usually meaning something like performing at a level near or at perfection), then one is saved.  But if one's performance level dips, even a slight bit, then salvation is lost.

This may not make a lot of sense to those who accept the idea of "once saved, always saved."  But it will resonate with a great many people who struggle with their faith, with a less than perfect performance level, and who wonder daily about their stand with God.  In fact, it is quite possible that the conflict over the "once saved, always saved" idea has produced this terribly insecure mindset.  I believe we need to recover the assurance of salvation.

It is not my intent to present a full discussion about "falling from grace."  However, let's be clear about something.  When Paul wrote to the churches of Galatia, he said in Gal. 5:4 that some Christians had done just that - fallen from grace.  There is little reason to argue about the possibility, but there is good reason to discuss what it means.

An even more strongly stated passage is found in Hebrews 6:4-6.  There, the writer said that it's impossible to renew to repentance those who have fallen away.  We might not like these statements, and we might think they are insensitive or inconsistent with the prevailing modern theology, but they are there in scripture and deserve both attention and consideration.

The question, however, is this:  do these passages support the flimsy and insecure salvation that plagues so many Christians?  I have heard some people express the opinion that should one live in a saved condition, and suddenly find themselves headed toward a horrible car crash, and a fleeting evil thought flashes through their minds a split second before they wrapped themselves around a tree trunk, they would be lost.  I guess the thinking is that since the last thought was evil, and death took away the ability to repent, then that person's salvation is lost.  Personally, I think that's not only wrong, but a serious misunderstanding of the warnings found in scripture.

Here's what we need to consider.  The Hebrew writer spoke of a situation in which it was impossible for a person to be renewed to repentance.  The key word here is "impossible."  This is not a matter of sin because a person can always repent of a sin.  It's not a matter of being wrong on a doctrinal issue because a person can repent of an error.  The problem addressed by the Hebrew writer was abandoning Jesus, turning away from the faith, rejecting the only one who can save.

Something similar was under consideration in Galatians.  Read carefully the one verse most often quoted to prove that a person can fall from grace and you'll discover that we are also told exactly what those people did to fall from grace.  They were leaving God's salvation system of grace and instead were trying to be justified by law.  In other words, they were not looking to the sacrifice of Jesus to cleanse imperfect people.  Instead, they were putting their own efforts forth, depending on their own performance abilities, to be justified in the sight of God.

I will agree with the car-wreck example above to this extent:  if one is hoping that his or her performance abilities will achieve justification, then that last evil thought right before wrapping around the tree trunk will, indeed, result in being lost.  But that is not what Christian faith is, it does not accurately reflect the object of our faith, and it does not correctly explain our confidence in the promise of salvation.

The fact is we are not under a system of law that puts the demand of perfection on us.  Perfection, by the way, is exactly the kind of law that the New Testament constantly opposes.  If you're going to insist on the keeping of one command of law to be right with God, then you're going to have to keep the whole law.  The 10 Commandments is a good example.  God never said, "Hey, all you have to do is get a passing grade of 7 out of 10."  The only way to keep the 10 Commandments is to keep all ten of the commands.  Anything less is failure.  But grace is a system that provides forgiveness and justification for less than perfect people. Grace is the only system that provides for imperfect people what they cannot achieve for themselves.

Actually, two problems arise when we practice a performance-based faith.  The first is the one I've been addressing - a terrible insecurity.  This is because most of us recognize our failings, and we suspect there are many failings we don't even know about.  Those failures mean we know we are not living up to the standard, and if salvation means living up to the standard, then we become convinced that salvation is not secure.

The other problem is denial.  I've actually heard people make the claim that they just didn't have any sins!  They have to take that position because if they admitted to the presence of sin in their lives, they would have to admit to this horrible insecurity.  Desperately not wanting to suffer that insecure place with God, it's easier for them to just deny the presence of sin.  This is a very dangerous thing to do.  1 John 1:8-10 tells us that this kind of denial leaves us devoid of the truth.  If we want to be forgiven, we must be able to recognize and confess our sins.  But the great promise of this passage and others is that forgiveness is available!

The argument of some is that if we accept the idea I'm presenting here, then it will lead to a carelessness about sin, and people will be encouraged to live less holy lives.  All I can say to that is that the Bible itself takes the position I'm presenting here.  Is there the possibility that someone may play fast and loose with sin?  Sure, but so do those who end up in denial about the presence of sin in their lives.  There will always be someone who does that.  For the rest of us, we're much more interested in finding and doing the will of God.  But we know we're not perfect, even when we try.  Faithfulness isn't perfectness.  Faith is what imperfect people place in the One who was perfect.  Faith is trust, and trust leads to obeying.  The issue isn't our perfection.  The issue is that Jesus was perfect, his sacrifice was perfect, his blood is powerful enough to cleanse us, and keep on cleansing us.  That is the kind of effective saving we all need.

You want to be confident of your salvation?  Get it thoroughly in your head that you are not going to achieve it by your own performance level.  You will be saved by putting your faith in Jesus Christ.  Keep your faith in Jesus.  Always recognize your failings.  Confess those sins and repent of them.  Trust the Lord to keep his promise to save you.  You're not ever going to get everything perfect.  No problem.  The perfect God, sent his perfect Son, who gave a perfect sacrifice, all to save imperfect people.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Lessons From Football

I am not a football expert.  There, the disclaimer is firmly in place.  That said, I want you to know that I am "Nutts" about Ole Miss football.  I'm sorry, but that is an inside joke, and I suspect you'll only understand it if you are also an Ole Miss fan (or possibly an Arkansas fan - am I giving it away here?).

I did play a little football.  When I was a kid, we used to huddle outside the fence around the Ole Miss practice field hoping an errant football would get itself kicked our way.  I still had one of those practice balls until I was almost 30 years old.  We didn't buy footballs, we played with absconded Ole Miss practice balls.  Those unorganized kid teams were a lot of fun.  No coaches, nor referees, but lots of fun.  I played some in high school.  Would have played more, but I also had to work, and work often conflicted with games.  When I served in the U.S. Air Force, I played flag football.  Roughest game on earth, but it was the best team sport I've ever played.  Best team too, as we took our league championship, dominating other Air Force and Army teams.  In the championship game, we put up not only a winning score, but more than 500 yards of offense.  None of that makes me an expert.  It does make me, like millions of other guys, somebody with a love of the game, great memories, and at least a few heartbreaking disappointments.

Speaking of heartbreaks, I'll relate one.  When I was a senior at Oxford High School in Oxford, MS, we were running neck and neck with Starkville High School for the conference lead.  We played the game in Starkville that year.  We were losing the game, but I recovered a fumble close to Starkville's end zone.  A field goal would put us ahead.  You guessed it, didn't you.  We missed.  Unbelievable.  We lost the game.  Heartbreak.  Actually, I think the heartbreak was greater because a win would have made that fumble recovery a key play.  The loss makes that fumble recovery insignificant.

Mostly, though, football was great.  It's fun, it can be rough, but overall, there is little wonder that American football is the greatest sport in the world (all you soccer fans can just save your comments).  It's a game that offers up some great lessons for life.  I'll share a few that are meaningful to me, and invite anyone to offer others in the comment section.

1.  There is a reason you practice until you can't move.  It makes the actual game much easier.

2.  If you get knocked down, remember it's part of the game.  You're supposed to either get knocked down or knock somebody else down.  Get up.  The next play is about to begin.

3.  In a real game, the score means something.

4.  In football, there is room for some really big, strong guys and there is room for some scrawny, fast guys.  Whichever you are, play where you are needed most.

5.  You will not win every game.  You may not win most of your games.  There have been some teams that didn't win any games.  But there are never any teams that win that do not play the game at all.

6.  You will probably win some games you didn't deserve to win.  You will probably lose some games you didn't deserve to lose.  Deserving isn't the point.

7.  There will almost always be someone who is better at your position than you are.

8.  There will almost always be some team better than yours.

9.  Football is a game.  Repeat.  Football is a game.  This is an important revelation to both winners and losers.

10.  Football should be fun.  If it ever becomes something other than fun, you have lost the real essence of the game.

11.  On a football team, there is no such thing as an unimportant position or player.

12.  The best teams almost always have a great coach.

13.  Great players are best when they remember they are part of a team.  No great quarterback achieved greatness without others to run or catch the ball.  No great running back ever did it without big guys knocking other people down for them.

14.  A football does funny things in the wind, bouncing on the ground, or sometimes while you're holding it in your hands or arms.

15.  If you play on a team, play to win.  If you are a fan, support your team.  Do these things whether your team is winning or losing.

16.  If you win, be a good sport.  If you lose, be a good sport.

17.  If you are a player, you might make some outstanding plays.  You might also make some really dumb mistakes.  A lot of wins are made up of plays somewhere between the two extremes.

18.  Football can be frustrating.  Sometimes, nothing seems to work.  You must learn how to live through frustrations, otherwise, football will never be fun.

19.  Old football players usually have some great stories and outstanding advice for younger players.

20.  Cocky, arrogant players can sometimes back up their claims.  Sometimes they can't.  Listen less to cocky, arrogant talk and pay more attention to how they play the game.

21.  Football is a sport that teaches a lot about living life.  Pay attention and make some applications where needed.  Regardless of your football record, your life will benefit.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

I'm Excited

I'm not usually excitable. The key word here is "usually." I can certainly get worked up about some things. Sometimes that's good, and sometimes it's not! But I doubt if most people think of me as an "excitable" person. For a change, I'm excited!

Let me explain. I think we've experienced a kind of "weeding" process in our church. It's taken us three or four years for this to happen. Unlike what sometimes happens, this has not been one of those negative things. It's been positive for the most part. That doesn't mean everything has gone like I wished, but it does mean some really good things have happened.

Let me explain further. In the past year or so, we have had several people, both men and women, who have stepped up and accepted responsibilities that are big, significant, and future-changing in nature. It's the kind of thing every small church hopes for, and it is the kind of thing that will lead to growth. Much of that growth will be spiritual, but some of it will also be numerical. It's just a matter of time.

We have young couples who have dedicated themselves to the very hard task of working with our young people. I can't tell you how vital this is. To have people willing to sacrifice their time and energy focusing on youth is just terrific. Whether it's getting the kids into Bible study, or taking them to events and activities that will broaden their experiences and shape their lives, or just being there for them when trouble hits (and it will), it's going to help these young people in ways they can't imagine right now. The full results are years away, but it will be huge when it happens.

We have several men who stepped into roles as "Life Group" leaders. They went through training, still weren't sure of what they were doing, took the job anyway, and now in another week they will begin their second year leading our small group ministry. They have taken on enormous responsibility. I can't tell you how proud I am of these men. They are still learning, but they are showing concern, leadership, and personal responsibility. Not every one of the guys who went through our Life Group leader training ended up a group leader. Some just didn't want it. Was that a bad thing? No! We ended up with the right guys. These men are going to make a great difference in the lives of those who attend their small groups. They don't know it yet, but they are filling what is currently the most important roles in our congregation. They are doing an outstanding job, too. Do I sound like I'm proud of them? You bet I am!

I'm proud of our ladies, too. The women in our church are so good, so responsible, so self-motivated it's amazing. There are many things that happen like meals to the sick, meals for families who have lost a loved one, showers of all kinds, and many other things that happen almost automatically. The are so organized when it comes to these things that you just never have to worry about it. But some of them are into other things as well. They are part of the jail ministry, they put together special events and teaching opportunities like "Ladies Days," and they have specialized ministries to children. They started a wonderful ministry to the hurting called "Friends Listening Ministry." Got a problem, they'll help you wrestle with it. They "man" ("woman") the nursery, Children's Church, fix communion, feed hungry folks at pot-luck dinners, and so much more! And you watch what I'm saying, they will provide the life-blood of our Life Group ministry. Does it sound like I'm proud of them? You bet I am!

Have you heard our singers? You should. They are outstanding. I've been in Grenada at Southside for six years now. For all that time, when I meet someone from our community and tell them which church I'm with, I often hear, "Oh, that's the church with the "a cappella" singing group! They're great!" Let me tell you, I'd rather Southside be known for it's singing group than it's preacher! Because we've got such a good singing group, they help the whole church, especially when it comes to new songs or ones we don't know quite as well as others. Singing is a big deal at Southside, and if you don't believe it, come and listen.

So, I'm excited. Good things, big things, great things, positive things are in our future. It's because of our people! What a blessing to be a part of what's going on. If you live in the Grenada area, come join us. You'll be in for a treat. If you live far away you have two options. First, visit us if you travel through. Second, pack up and move here. Seriously.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Insight Sometimes Comes From Unexpected Sources

Some of the ladies from our church took a get-away trip last weekend. Along for the ride was a woman who is not a member of our congregation. She is a member of another church. During their travels, it seems they got into a rather serious and deep discussion about predestination.

The details of that discussion are not important for this article. They did a pretty good job discussing the issue, and talking about why they believe what they believe. Let's just say, the lady who traveled along with them held a view that sees God predestining individuals to be saved or lost, regardless of a person's desire to be saved. In other words, she believes if God wants to save you, then he will, even if you live a wild life and don't believe. If he doesn't want to save you, then it doesn't matter how much you believe, or how badly you want to be saved, you'll still be lost.

The insight, however, happened about something very different. This friend said to our ladies, something like this: "If you don't believe that God predestines people to saved, then you ought to be out every day talking to everyone you know about Jesus."

Wow! She got it right on the money. We might not agree with her view on predestination, but she got the point about the great commission. Why else would Jesus have given the assignment to preach the gospel to every creature? And if we believe that God has given human beings freedom to choose and the responsibility to believe or not, then why are we not more serious about giving them the opportunity to do just that? Why are we not telling more people about Jesus?

In this case, insight came to at least a few of our ladies in an unexpected way. What I heard from a couple of them says that the question posed by their friend hit a nerve. It bothered them. Why? Well because our sweet, good-hearted ladies are very much like most Christians. The "great commission" is not a driving force or motivation. It's not that they are unconcerned. It's just that they haven't realized how important it is that we sow the seed of the gospel.

There is nothing we do as Christians that is as important as sharing the gospel with others. There are a lot of ways we might minister to people, and all of those ways might be very good. Nothing is as important as the saving of lost people. Period. Nothing.

That doesn't mean everyone ought to be conducting Bible studies, though somebody should. It means that all of us can, and should, be aware that our mission is to see that people are saved. Your part in that might be as simple as inviting a friend to church, or as involved as becoming a missionary in a far-away place. The point is that both people can be a viable part of putting people into contact with Jesus Christ so that they can be saved. They still must choose, but you will have helped them face a legitimate choice.

If we really believe that individuals must choose to believe in Jesus Christ, choose to put their faith in him as Savior and Lord, then we must also believe that we have a huge responsibility to them. Yes, we ought to be telling far more people about Jesus. Every day. Every where we go. To every person we can. We are to sow seed. God will then give the increase.

Monday, August 25, 2008

100% Natural Evangelism

We just finished viewing the video series 100% Natural Evangelism by Terry Rush. I was disappointed. It was too short. Only four sessions. Personally, I think Terry should have made this series at least 2 or 3 times as long.

I will say this is hardly vintage Rush. He's calm instead of overly animated. But it's also very, very good.

The four sessions take you through Terry's own personal journey in learning how to talk to people about Jesus. It's open, honest, and revealing. I related to the vignettes about feeling inadequate and scared to death as a novice preacher. I knew exactly what he was talking about when he shared about schools bringing in the experts to talk about how to do personal evangelism, only to produce more fear and guilt because you just couldn't do it like them. I think talking about failure was terrific. The truth is there is a lot of failure, even among those who are excellent at personal evangelism.

Terry's series is a great encouragement, and I would heartily endorse the videos to others. Do not think, however, that he is going to throw a method at you, or that he's going to hand you a program to follow. You'll be very disappointed. This is a series about learning how to love people, how to trust that God is working in you and through you, and how to see your job as sowing seed, not forcing the results. You won't learn verses to teach others, you won't learn an outline to follow, or the standard personal evangelism content. You will learn that you can let the Spirit of God work in you to produce fruit, and in the fruit is the potential of new life in Christ.

I suspect that a great many who view the series will miss the point. This is not a fault in the series or the presentations. It's a fault in people who will watch the videos and just not understand. I'm of the opinion, that some may need to see these videos more than once.

If you need help knowing exactly what to teach, let me encourage you to check out my little "Real Bible Study 4 Kids." Yes, it was written to help parents teach the gospel to their children. But I believe it would be of great help to anyone. Adults can certainly adapt it to their own use, and teens would find it extremely helpful. And, if you're looking to learn what to teach another person, it would provide you with a lot of guidance.

Terry Rush's, 100% Natural Evangelism, will serve to encourage and motivate a lot of Christians to reach out to people. That's really our job. Sow some seed. God will give the increase.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Some Things Just Crack Me Up!

OK, some things crack me up! I love funny stuff, I love to laugh, and people who can see the humor in life surely enjoy it more than cranks.

My new-found friend, Matt Dabbs, has a video on his blog that I just have to borrow. As a preacher, I depend on song leaders. A good song leader is priceless! They can get people into the moment, or they can kill things deader than dead. So this little video is just plain fun.

The only thing I'm waiting for is the new game, Preacher Revolution. Please, somebody create one. Everybody could take the pulpit, wow the crowd, expound the scriptures alongside the best theologians, and show all preachers how it ought to be done. Got to be a winner!

OK, enjoy and laugh along with me.

Song Leader Revolution

Some Things Crack Me Up!

OK, some things crack me up! I love funny stuff, I love to laugh, and people who can see the humor in life surely enjoy it more than cranks.

My new-found friend, Matt Dabbs, has a video on his blog that I just have to borrow. As a preacher, I depend on song leaders. A good song leader is priceless! They can get people into the moment, or they can kill things deader than dead. So this little video is just plain fun.

The only thing I'm waiting for is the new game for preachers. Please, somebody create one. Everybody could take the pulpit, wow the crowd, expound the scriptures alongside the best theologians, and show all preachers how it ought to be done. Got to be a winner!

OK, enjoy and laugh along with me.

A Small Challenge To Men

In our summer Wednesday night men's Bible class, we studied the topic of leadership. We weren't looking at "church" leadership. We were trying to dig into the topic of leadership in general. Focusing on a list of 26 characteristics of leaders found in John MacArthur's, The Book On Leadership, one of the main things we learned is that leadership is not based on position or power. Leadership, at least in this study, came down to influence.

When a man influences others by his words, his actions, and his character, he is providing a kind of leadership that trumps possession of office or authority. That's not to say that a man in a particular office or who holds some kind of official authority cannot also lead, but it is to say that the ability to influence others is not necessarily related to those things.

From a worldly point of view, Jesus was man without position or authority. Follow me here for a moment. I know he had both from a heavenly or spiritual point of view, but he had neither as a man from Nazareth in Galilee. What he had was the ability to influence people. He did that through words and actions, backed up by his character.

You could say the same about the apostles. None had position or power. Again, understand that this is said from a worldly point of view, not a spiritual point of view. But even if you want to grant them a position of "leader" in the early church, exercising a divinely granted "authority", you still might want to consider that position and power were not the keys to success. Paul had his detractors and opponents, within the church, who recognized neither his position or authority. It still came down to the ability to establish the credentials of character, and the exercise of influence on others through words and actions.

One of the reasons this is an important topic is that men tend to run in two directions on this topic and neither achieves real leadership. One direction is that of position and power. Give a guy a position and watch him become a power broker. That happens more often than you might think. I remember years ago when we were going through a process to select elders for the congregation for whom I served as a preacher. One of the men just seemed to be a head taller, spiritually, than all the other candidates. I truly believed that he would make a good elder. But almost from the day he was appointed to that position, he became obsessed with a sense of power that ran roughshod over the church. It ultimately led to his undoing as a leader. This has happened again and again. Even among secular leaders, it is often this heavy swing toward position and power that makes a man's leadership less than it could be, or a failure altogether.

The other direction is that of abdication of leadership. A lot of men simply do not lead. They give leadership of their families to their wives. Ask them to lead in their church and you'll get a "Moses" speech about how unqualified or unable they are to do anything. Many communities suffer ill effects of social, economic, and other problems because men simply do nothing. Ever wondered about the qulity of those who run for political office? Are there no better men (or women for that matter) than the candidates running? I think there might well be, but they are hidden away.

Motivating men to lead is a tough job. It requires some leadership! Somebody must influence men to lead. Men must hear words, see actions, and be touched by the character of other men who have already stepped up to the plate and are swinging away at the job.

In an effort to be practical, we focused on one, very specific opportunity. Here's the challenge that was put to our men: on Sundays, when we meet as a church, take the responsibility to insure that every person who walks through the doors of our church building knows that they are loved, appreciated, and that our church is a "safe" place. What's behind this small challenge to our men? We want them, through words and actions, bolstered by their character, to take advantage of one simple opportunity to influence other people.

Don't think this is important? Let me ask a question. What would you think if you went to church on Sunday and a group of 20 or 25 men all spoke to you, asked about how you doing, offered to help in some way, made you feel welcomed and comfortable, and convinced you that in this church people would respect you and care for you? I'm betting it would knock your socks off. I'm betting those men and that church would have a positive, lasting influence on you.

It's a small challenge. It just might have huge results. I'm hoping our men rise to the challenge.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Start A Trend

Brethren, pray for us. – 1 Thessalonians 5:25, NASB95

In Darkness Is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness, Kathryn Greene-McCreight describes her tortured journey through ten years of extreme depression and bipolar disorder. Concerning the importance of Christian fellowship while in recovery, she writes:

This is why it is so important to worship in community—to ask your brothers and sisters in Christ to pray for you … Sometimes you literally cannot make it on your own, and you need to borrow from the faith of those around you. . . . Companionship in the Lord Jesus is powerful. – Kathyrn Greene-McCreight, Darkness Is My Only Companion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness (Brazos Press, 2006), p. 88
Kathryn Greene-McCreight said a mouthful. Sometimes you really can’t make it on your own. Sometimes you just need someone to lean on, to help you bear the load of garbage you’ve been carrying, to just listen to your pain, to cry with you, and even get mad with you. It’s not always important that the other person or persons have all the answers. At times, we might not be ready for answers, so they would fall on deaf ears anyway. Sometimes we just need the company of another human being, willing to be there for us.

I believe this is one of the powerful things about the church that often goes unnoticed until you need it. “Why do I have to go to church all the time? What’s the harm if I just show up when I want to?” That seems to be the question on the minds of many. The answer is to see that such questions betray a serious misunderstanding about church. It’s really a self-centered and selfish attitude. There is a much better reason to be an active, thriving, involved, attending member of a local church. It’s so you can help others.

I’ve said for years that if everybody takes the view that they’re only going to get involved or attend church when they need to go, or when they want to get something out of it, then it’s impossible for anybody to benefit. Only when each member understands that the primary reason for church attendance and involvement is to provide something for another person will any of us ever find what we need.

It’s the self-less, others-centered, approach that sets the stage for any or all of us to benefit when we need it the most. When you’re doing fine, go to church and let your faith and strength be a crutch for somebody who is crumpling under the burdens of life. One day, you may be in their shoes and when you need the help, that very same person just might provide what you need.

Wouldn’t church be great if everybody there took a personal responsibility to make you feel loved, worthwhile, and blessed? Wouldn’t church be great if every time you went, the whole bunch took pains to find out how you’re doing and showed a sincere interest in you as a person? You want that to happen? Great, then the next time you go to church, you do that for everybody you see. If you keep waiting for the others to start, then you’re never going to have such a church experience. Praying is a good start. Go hug some necks and find out what’s going on. Love and appreciate people. You might start a trend. Wouldn’t that be great?

This is a CrossTies Devotional article
(C) Copyright 2008, Dr. Bill Denton

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Thinking About People

I've been thinking about people. Part of that concerns some specific people, and some relates to people in general. I think it's because as I get older, I get more sentimental. Even that is more hereditary than you might think. My male relatives on my mother's side of the family are notorious for edgy emotions and the ability to cry at emotionally sensitive times. I have a cousin who heads up our annual family reunion who can't get through the fun stuff of welcoming everyone and dispensing the door prizes without crying at least once. We love him for doing that. But that sentimentality is part of what makes me think about people.

I make no apologies for claiming It's A Wonderful Life as my all-time favorite movie (go ahead and click the link and watch the movie!). Then again, just about all my favorite movies and books are those about people, where characters are the life of the work. Among my favorite authors is Maeve Binchy, whose books are a tangle of characters much like real life. Read her books and you've become part of an Irish village, part of a family, friends with lovable people. Or, if you've never watched the movie, King's Row, you've missed a great movie. But I digress.

Want to know why I think It's A Wonderful Life is so great? Because the premise of the movie is that every person makes an impact on the world of which he or she is a part. George Bailey gets the opportunity to see what would have happened had he never lived. George, quite without knowing it, had made a significantly positive impact on the lives of many people. Without him, things would have been very bad indeed. He never knew, until his personal angel arrived to show him, that his life mattered at all.

Now, there are at least two basic ways to think about this premise. The most obvious is to consider the impact of one's own life on the world. What would the world have been without you? That's pretty heavy, but it's worth considering. The other way to think about this idea is not so obvious. What would your life have been without the other people in it? Yes, you impact your world, but other people impact you.

No wonder God has a habit of working in and through people. Again and again in the Bible, we're introduced to people through whom God worked to impact the world in positive ways. All you have to do is name a few and you see this truth vividly. Adam, Eve, Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Mary, Paul. You get the idea. Not everybody is chosen to be a key player in some great work of God, but all of us are part of God's work. But do you have to have a starring role or do even background actors have a role to play?

If other people impact your life, then it's good not only to know that, but know that the impact might either be good or bad, positive or negative. We should want to magnify the impact of some people and minimize the impact of others. Of course, if you know that you are impacting other people, you might want to consider the kind of impact you're having.

What difference have you made in another person's life? Do you know? Do you care? Here's what I believe: you and I are here for the specific purpose of impacting the people around us. That's a great responsibility. It's also something for which to be very thankful.

(C) 2008, Dr. Bill Denton

Changes Coming in Dr. Bill's Random Thoughts

It has occurred to me that I picked a dead-on title for this blog. The key word seems to be "random!" I knew when I started that this was going to be one of those random things. I already write articles. I've got lots of irons in the fires (yes plural). But it has also occurred to me that I'm not taking advantage of the blog like I should. So, changes are coming.

First, at some point in the past, I tried posting my CrossTies articles to the blog. I thought this was duplicating things, so I stopped doing that. I wish I had not done that. Those articles are very appropriate posts. So, one change is that I will soon begin posting the new CrossTies articles to the blog.

Second, between CrossTies articles, there is ample opportunity to post different kinds of articles, some like the ones already found on this blog, and others that are in keeping with the "random" idea I started with.

Some of my blog readers may already subscribe to the CrossTies Devotional Article email list. If you do, and don't want two copies of the same article, you will have to choose which format you want to stay with. Personally, I encourage the blog over the email list. Mainly, it's because you will get more than just the CT articles. But you pick.

I think it will also be easier to promote the blog over the email list. Email lists were (and still are to some extent) the rage in the past, but it's obvious that blogging has taken over. Friends! You can help promote this blog, get us a larger readership, and make the CrossTies ministry bigger yet.

I still think it's amazing that we can communicate globally, so quickly, and with such ease. Thanks to all who take the time to read my articles, blog, and books. Be sure to post a comment when you read something that triggers a thought.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Phiddling With Pharisees

I’ve been preaching on Pharisees lately. Interesting bunch of people. Did you know they had a long, distinguished history as ardent nationalists, educators, defenders of Israel, and the moral conscience of the Jews? The Bible doesn’t pretend to give us a broad, balanced view of Pharisees. It’s almost as if the Bible writers wanted us to have to dig a bit if we want to understand more about these people.

Coming into existence sometime during the Babylonian captivity, Pharisees refused to allow the same fate as happened to the northern tribes when they were taken into Assyrian captivity. Basically, they disappeared, ceasing to be Jewish by melting into the surrounding people through intermarriage, adoption of their religions, and ultimately, there was no distinguishing features or identity by which to call them Jews. Pharisees were determined this wouldn’t happen to them.

They probably helped develop the synagogue system, which was really an educational effort to keep the Jewish people informed and aware of God’s law. They were determined students who wanted to know and to keep the law as well as possible. There is a lot to admire about Pharisees, for they stood up and led when it would have been easy to stay quiet and out of the way. If you look at the whole of their history, you might conclude that there are more favorable things than otherwise.

However, as is true with lots of people, their strengths created problems. This is one of those things that has intrigued me ever since I took some certification courses years ago in motivational and behavioral concepts. Usually we think of weaknesses as trouble spots. In other words, we expect an area of weakness to give us trouble along the way. But the truth is that our strengths can also cause problems. These are sometimes the more difficult kind of problem. We don’t see them coming, for one thing, and when they happen, we remain blind to the problem because we assume that a strength is just that – strength and not a source of problem.

Let me illustrate what I mean. Let’s suppose a man is blessed with the ability to make quick decisions. I don’t mean that he’s careless or just fires off decisions without thinking. I mean he’s blessed with the ability to quickly assess information, options, possible results, etc., and to come to speedy decisions. That is a positive ability in many areas of life including business, the military, and more. However, put that man into a situation that requires a deeper level of consideration, or that requires consultation with several others whose part in a project is greatly affected by what he decides, and you might discover that Mr. Quick Decider is now beset with problems. Or take a man who makes slower decisions, because he routinely needs to think through all possibilities. This can also be a strength, especially if he works in an area that requires examination of loads of information. Now, put this guy into a situation where quick decisions are a must. His strength becomes a source of problems. Most likely, neither man will easily see that his strength is the problem.

Pharisees fell into this trap. Their eagerness to know the law and to obey the law became an obsession for them. The very goal they set out to accomplish, however, became for them a source of trouble. They got into the “fence building” business, thinking that if they just moved the point of disobedience back a little bit, then they would insure against a violation of God’s word and will. The problem? Their fence ultimately became the law itself. One example will suffice. God had commanded that they remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. They were to work six days and rest on the seventh. God did not define “work.” Pharisees did. They reasoned something like this: God said don’t work; harvesting grain is work; therefore you can’t pick a single head of grain on the Sabbath lest you violate God’s will. Well, to be honest, that would have done it. Regardless of the definition of “work,” if you didn’t pick even one head of grain, you certainly would never violate the law by harvesting on the Sabbath. So, when the disciples of Jesus went through a field on a Sabbath day, picked heads of grain to eat because they were hungry, the Pharisees charged them with breaking God’s law (cf. Mt. 12:1-2).

This is important. The Pharisees did not say to Jesus, “Your disciples don’t practice the same traditions as we do. We don't understand why.” They said, “Your disciples do what is not lawful.” That is a huge statement, for the Pharisees could see no difference or distinction between the law and their traditional understanding. It had become one and the same.

You have to wonder if we do the same kind of things. How many of the “major” disagreements among Christians are really over reasoned conclusions and traditional practices (all honestly based on our understanding of scripture) but not the plainly expressed word of God? This is an important subject for us to consider. I doubt the Pharisees thought they could possibly be wrong on the issue of working on the Sabbath, but Jesus certainly thought so. I doubt if we think we could possibly be wrong on a host of subjects, but it is very possible that Jesus might think we are. By the way, it’s not so much that Jesus faulted the Pharisees for practicing these things themselves, but he did have a problem with them insisting that everybody else follow suit.

I went back and re-read some of Thomas Campbell’s, Declaration and Address recently. It’s a fascinating document. Proposition 6 sets forth the idea that Christians ought not insist that their inferences be bound on others. I wonder if we could have avoided a lot of divisions and disunity if we had followed that idea? Campbell didn’t mean we shouldn’t draw conclusions or make inferences. He just had a problem with you coming with your list and demanding that I agree with you or be out of fellowship, or me doing the same to you.

This is a huge area of concern. The proper place and realm of personal opinion is extremely difficult to define and deal with. Pharisees didn’t do a very good job. I suspect we don’t either. Unity, at least the way I’ve heard it promoted, seems to depend on you and me seeing things alike. Unity, at least the way I’m beginning to see it in scripture, is based more on mutual love and acceptance, even in the face of disagreements. That doesn’t mean some disagreements are not so huge they can be overlooked. It does mean that maybe we’ve put too much emphasis on disagreements that occur because of some humanly deduced issue, not because it was truly an expressed statement of God. In fact, of the divisions, fallings-out, and rejection of brothers and sisters I’m aware of, I’d say the vast majority were not over things God really, actually said. They are Pharisaical arguments over deduced conclusions and traditional practices.

I would love to not be like a Pharisees, but that’s not really true either. I want to be like a Pharisee but avoid the extremes that caused them to conflict with Jesus. Jesus never faulted them on their desire to know or obey God. He did fault them for turning their own words into God’s words, and their own rules into God’s rules. And there, we are all too much like them.