True Conversion

J.C. Watts found success as a college and pro football quarterback, and in politics as a U.S. Representative from Oklahoma.  In between those seasons of his life, he made a startling discovery about himself.

Watts left pro football to become a youth minister.  It was a return to his roots, being raised in church by Christian parents.  That return led to his discovery.  He said, “Like so many, I had put my faith in church work.  I could check a lot of boxes.  A guy came to our church and challenged us to think what we had put our faith in.  I called my pastor that night and said, ‘I think I have this all mixed up.’  I prayed for salvation and was baptized.”  He placed his faith in Christ and experienced a true conversion.

Jesus told a story (Luke 18) about “people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous” but were sadly mistaken.  One man prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people (sinners)…I fast twice a week; I pay tithes.”  The other man prayed, “God be merciful to me, the sinner!”  The former was like the old Watts, checking all the religious boxes.  The latter recognized his soul’s great need, and God’s great mercy.

A true conversion to Christ is quite different than beginning religious activities.  It is entirely possible to be the best church member or a sincere minister (like Watts) and miss the point.  C. S. Lewis addressed that reality in an article he published just before Christmas 1959 in the Saturday Evening Post.  He imagined a demon talking to other demons.  “All said and done, my friends, it will be an ill day for us if what most humans mean by ‘religion’ ever vanishes from the Earth.  The fine flower of unholiness can grow only in the close neighborhood of the Holy.  Nowhere do we tempt so successfully as on the very steps of the altar.”

It’s shocking to think that people could have just enough religion to inoculate them from the real thing.  A true Christian conversion has much to do with who you are, who Jesus is, and what He did.  “All have sinned,” the Apostle Paul warns.  Jesus is God the Son who came to rescue you from your sins by giving His life as a ransom.  That transaction is yours when you answer His call to repent and believe.  Paul described his conversion saying, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me, and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God” (Gal. 2:20).

If you discover you have never been beyond religion or the steps of the altar, go to Jesus for your own true conversion.  “Come to me,” He says.

Basket or Lampstand

People put their lamp on a high lampstand last month by gathering in Washington DC for “The Return.”  The purpose of the event was to call for individual soul-searching and pray for a return to God.

What a counter-cultural thing to do.  This cultural moment has no time for a God who interferes with our personal preferences or the majority rule of America’s democracy.  We live in an age in which a federal judge who has impeccable credentials in academia and on the bench is called a “(unprintable) nut,” according to a late-night TV personality.  Why?  Because the judge’s life and practice are informed by her faith in God.  No matter that most of the Supreme Court justices claim the same faith.  The problem is that “the dogma lives loudly within you,” a criticism leveled by a U.S. Senator.  Apparently, faith is OK as long as it dies quietly under a basket.

The dogma does live loudly in believers, informing our treatment of people and our conduct at work.  “Do your work heartily, as for the Lord” (Col. 3:23). This has particular meaning for a judge who must be about justice, mercy, and equity, values near to the heart of God.  That used to be OK.  America was once united around the ideas of liberty, virtue, and faith.  Even our non-believing founding fathers understood that the Judeo-Christian ethic was a central organizing principle.  Without a common understanding of virtue, liberty is not sustainable.

Look, this is not about the politics of the moment.  My point is to encourage believers to live with courage and with the light of Christ.  He said, “Nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand” (Matt. 5:15).  America has historically been welcoming to people of all faiths or no faith, so live as though that’s still true.  As we live the ethics of Christ Jesus, loving our neighbor, providing for the infirm and needy, working for the public good, then God is glorified and our nation blessed.  We want our non-believing neighbors to know that we want God’s best for them in a nation “under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

That doesn’t mean you won’t endure insults on behalf of Christ.  “But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed. And do not fear their intimidation, and do not be troubled, but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence; and keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ will be put to shame” (1 Pet. 3:14-16).

So get rid of the basket.  Use the lampstand.

A Trustworthy Statement

Who can you trust these days?  What lies behind that question is the basic human need to rely on people and information.  Without trust, things fall apart.

It is a delight to have people you can trust in your life.  They are honest, dependable, and consistent.  They keep confidences and act with integrity.  The problem is that people can fail and every time you experience a betrayal, your trustworthy bar is raised. It’s a lonely life when that bar is too high for anyone to clear.  And if you’re honest, sometimes you can’t even trust yourself.  Rash thinking, unchecked emotions, and bad habits betray your best intentions.

We would like to trust the institutions that make society work, like the legal system.  But what do we make of FISA court abuses resulting in unwarranted surveillance of American citizens?  Or the district attorney failing to act in the Ahmaud Arbery case, requiring the state investigators to step in?  Or the IRS seizing a citizen’s assets with no criminal charges filed and no verdict pronounced?

Surely we can trust science!  Yet we hear rumors that scientists initiated the current pandemic by creating a COVID virus in a lab.  In 2018, a scientist used CRISPR technology to edit the genes of twin girls without knowing the unintended consequences of those edits.  Are scientists constrained by ethics, free from biases of their own thinking and influence by the governments and mega-companies that fund them?  Can we trust scientists and their followers who treat the profession as the sole arbiter of truth?  That’s not science but scientism, a religion.

Despite human imperfection, you can still find examples of trustworthiness.  Couples celebrate 50 years of marriage.  Schoolteachers instruct children with care.  Pastors stay true to their message.  Business managers keep their word.  Employees are honest and dedicated.  You can even walk out of your own valley of disloyalty, though it can be a long and scrutinized journey back to trustworthiness.

In a world where betrayal, dishonesty, and incompetence can appear without warning, your best hope is to trust this:  “For we also once were foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another. But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy statement” (Titus 3:3-8).

Value People

I long to hear just one politician begin a sentence with, “My honorable opponent and I disagree…” Political discourse rarely rises above acrimony and invective. But it helps me show you something.

The usual political topics are crime (riots, mandatory sentencing), the pandemic (initial response, shutdowns, vaccine), the economy (trade deals, unemployment) and injustice (race issues, police reform). These topics are weaponized to wound political opponents. But notice that all of these issues are about people. People need safety, health, income, and justice. Politicians may be after a vote, but their appeal is based on this: People are valuable.

You know people have intrinsic value beyond their vote. You react in horror when a person is killed, but not when the exterminator arrives at your house. Could a mindless, valueless, material universe produce beings with minds that understand value? Indeed, the logical outcome of that belief system is to deny that any universal reason exists to consider people any more valuable than a cockroach. If the universe created itself, you are free to choose your morality and values. Yet somehow you still value human life.

Ravi Zacharias once told of sharing breakfast with a man who declared that no evidence of God exists, so life is only material. The man also shared that his wife battled a disease that could end her life. He clearly loved and valued his wife of many years. Zacharias tenderly challenged him, “How can she have such value, if all life is nothing more than chemicals?” The man realized the power of that logic and left encouraged.

How is it that human life is valuable, and we know it? It is embedded within us by our Creator, who is apart from the material universe. “In the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Gen. 1:27). The only creature God values enough to make in His image is a human. That’s why “He loved us and sent His Son to be the (payment) for our sins.” Our challenge is, “If God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:10-11). Our capacity to love and value one another is from God.

God values you and knows you by name. That chases away loneliness because “the Lord is near to the brokenhearted” (Psa. 34:18). It offers you purpose, to love and serve the One who values you. You have an eternal destiny which is yours to claim, by faith in the One who loves you.

So, instead of reacting in angst to today’s cultural and political invective, let it remind you of the underlying assumption: People have value because God exists. Let it move you to a divine expression of your humanity: Be like your Creator and value people, even those on the other side of the political aisle.

 

Naming Wisdom

Let’s talk politics.  Sorta.  The people in elected offices and we electors who put them there need wisdom in a huge way, and soon.

Here are some vexing topics of late.  #MeToo. Kneeling for the flag. Injustice. Racial unrest. Antifa.  Murders.  American cities looking like war zones.  COVID.  Economic shutdown.  Immigration. Impeachment. North Korean nuclear bombs.  China’s ambition for world dominance and persecution of religious and ethnic minorities. Russian meddling. Hurricanes. Concurrent with all of this disturbance is the runup to the next U.S. election, with each side warning of cheating and apocalyptic outcomes.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” as Dickens opens “A Tale of Two Cities,” set during the French Revolution.  He adds, “It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.”  He could have been describing our current cultural upheaval, which some would like to be a kind of revolution.  If so, I pray it’s more about the best of times and the age of wisdom than the alternatives.

We need leaders wise about the long term and unintended consequences of ideas.  John Stonestreet likes to say, “Ideas have consequences; bad ideas have victims.” If we are wise, we will seek leaders with good ideas, and thereby love our neighbors and fellow citizens by not making victims of them with bad ideas.

Make no mistake.  Wisdom is from God.  Ideas that seem wise at the time can turn out to be otherwise.  Such ideas are “worldly” wisdom.  “Where is the wise man?  Where is the debater of this age?  Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (1 Cor. 1:20).  The world offers so much to deceive you into believing a lie.  That leads to confirmation bias, only considering evidence that furthers the lie.  “A fool does not delight in understanding, but only in revealing his own mind” (Prov. 18:2).

The Bible explains wisdom.  By contrast: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Prov. 1:7).  By relationship: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” (Prov. 9:10).  And by Name: “You are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30).

I recently had the privilege of chatting with author Os Guiness about his recent book, Last Call for Liberty.  In it he writes, “America, America.  Do you know what time it is?  Do you understand the meaning of this moment?  Freedom is at stake.”  I asked, “Is there a tipping point when America can no longer return to its founding ideal of liberty?” He hesitated then offered, “Yes. When America’s leaders tolerate evil.”

God help us. Seek His Wisdom. By name.

The Reveal

Drew Brees (NFL quarterback) appeared on television earlier this year, but people didn’t know who he was.  Until the reveal.

He filmed an episode of “Undercover Boss” as an owner of Walk-On’s Sports Bistreaux.  In disguise, he worked as a dishwasher.  After experiencing stories of hard work and loyalty among the employees, he and co-owner Brandon Landry surprised them with college scholarships for their kids.  The climax of the show is the reveal and generosity of the owners.

The sad truth is that many people are yet unaware of the greatest reveal in history, and it wasn’t made for TV.  Every two years, Lifeway Research conducts a “State of Theology” poll, asking people to respond to survey statements.  This year’s poll finds that 52% of Americans and 30% of evangelicals believe “Jesus was a good teacher, but he was not God.”  Also, 65% of evangelicals believe “Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God.”  God has revealed Himself quite differently than those two statements.

The Bible portrays a scene in heaven in which the “Ancient of Days” treated the “Son of Man” as God (Dan. 7).  Jesus frequently identified Himself as that Son of Man.  The Messiah is “Mighty God” who would be born as a child (Isa. 9).  Jesus “was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through Him” (John 1:2-3). Jesus is “before all things, and in Him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17).  Jesus told naysayers, “Before Abraham was born, I Am” (John 8:58), staking his claim to the given name of God.  Jesus is God the Son, not a created being.

The grand reveal of all time happened when the eternal Creator took on a created body and walked amidst His creation. The early church confronted the Arian heresy that denied that fact.  In his day, C. S. Lewis tried “to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him:  ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ ”

Please take this kindly.  If you don’t know that Jesus is God the Son, your Creator, it means you don’t know that the need of your soul is so great that it requires God Himself to be your Savior.  It means you don’t understand Christmas – God appearing in the flesh.  It means you can’t appreciate the cross – God atoning for your sins, and Easter – God conquering death for you.  It means you haven’t experienced the depths of God’s love and desire for you to be with Him forever.

Imagine knowing a generous and influential person who never revealed himself.  I’m not talking about Drew Brees, but Jesus.  And the question is not “Who was He?” but “Who is He?”  The reveal is quite good news!

Mine or Thine

Whoever says the Bible is boring never read the dramatic events recounted in the book of Esther.  It’s about loyalty and royalty, love and hate, life and death.  The plot twists as a man asserts his will against God’s.  It doesn’t turn out well for him.

Haman was king Xerxes’ right-hand man.  As such he expected everyone to pay homage to him, but Mordecai would not.  Haman was infuriated.  He convinced the king to schedule an ethnic cleansing of Mordecai and his people.  While waiting, Haman’s wife and friends goaded him into building a gallows for his nemesis Mordecai.

What Haman didn’t know was that Esther, the queen, was Mordecai’s cousin.  Mordecai urged her to intercede with the king, suggesting she attained royalty for “such a time as this.” Her risk was that anyone who entered the king’s court without a summons risked death.  She went anyway.  When the king did receive her, she invited him and Haman to two banquets.

At the second auspicious event, she announced that her life and her people were in mortal danger.  Shocked, the king demanded to know who would do this.  “A foe and an enemy is this wicked Haman!” she said.  Xerxes then condemned Haman to die on the gallows he built, and issued a new edict to protect Esther’s people.  Haman was hoisted on his own petard.

God is not mentioned by name in the book of Esther, but it’s about His will and sovereignty.  Human foibles and willfulness cannot interdict His divine purpose and interventions in human history. Job said it like this: “I know that You can do all things, and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted” (Job 42:2).  Esther acted with humility and accepted God’s will, risking her life for others.  Haman acted with pride and rage, asserting his will over others.  She witnessed God’s deliverance.  He learned that “pride goes before destruction” (Prov. 16:18).

Thomas a Kempis wrote, “The humble are always at peace; the proud are often envious and angry” (The Imitation of Christ).  That leaves you with a choice.  Believe things must always go your way and suffer malcontent, or humble yourself before God and enjoy the path of peace and purpose.  That is not easy, and requires a new way of thinking.  “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2).

Would you trust God to transform your will and desires?  Can you say with Oswald Chambers, “I am determined to be absolutely and entirely for Him and for Him alone” (My Utmost for His Highest)?  Does your life declare, “Not Thy will but mine” or “Not my will but Thine”?

Habitual Courage

An act of courage is admirable.  The habit of courage is a virtue.

WWII hero and conscientious objector Desmond Doss pulled 75 wounded men off Hacksaw Ridge in 1945.  John Lewis demanded equal voting rights in 1965 by walking into the nightsticks across the Edmond Pettus Bridge in Selma.   Two American soldiers and a friend subdued a terrorist on a Paris-bound train in 2015.  One explained, “Our training kicked in after the struggle.”  These men had formed the habit of facing difficulties well when the testing point arrived. That virtue arises from the recognition that difficulties are certain, that sacrifice and perseverance are honorable.

Courage must be a habit because other virtues like justice, honesty, and love depend on it. C. S. Lewis wrote, “Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality.”  So what does the habit of courage mean when you are tested?

It means defying the popular sentiment, taking a stand on an issue because it is right even if your own tribe disagrees.  Before Jesus’ resurrection, Joseph of Arimathea, “a prominent member of the Council, gathered up courage and went in before Pilate, and asked for the body of Jesus” (Mark 15:43).  He surely risked his prominence by loving the One his colleagues rejected.

It means rejoicing in the providence of God and the hope of a glorified body (Phil. 3:21) even as you suffer with a discouraging health diagnosis.  Jesus healed people to reveal who He is and to offer hope for this life and the next.  He healed the paralytic saying, “Take courage, son; your sins are forgiven” (Matt. 9:2).  He said to the woman who touched his garment, “Daughter, take courage; your faith has made you well” (Matt. 9:22).  With courage, you face life honestly and fix your hope on eternal healing.

It means refusing to deny what is true amidst a culture that confuses truth with personal choices.  It means living a restrained and accountable life that serves and sacrifices for your fellow man.  It means applying the radical justice of Christ, who teaches you to love your enemy, do good to those who persecute you, and ask for the Father’s will to be done.  How else will people know there is something different about you, “and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16)?

Jesus knew the realities of your life when he said, “These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).  His good news is your buttress when the testing winds blow.  In those moments, your faith in Jesus will reveal a high virtue, the habit of courage.

J. I. Packer

Sitting on the porch in the cool of the morning, they pondered what the day might bring.  Theirs was a typical porch for those days, near enough to the road to overhear the travelers’ talk, and to chat with them.

As the morning stirs to life, the travelers appear.  As they pass, they discuss with the porch-dwellers the condition of the roads, where they lead, and what a traveler might see along the way.  To the porch-dwellers, it’s all theoretical talk since they are not on the journey.  To the travelers, these are far more practical topics.  The day, the weather, the roads call for understanding, decision, and action.

J. I. Packer used this allegory to explain his approach to writing the popular book, Knowing God (1973). It is one of his most notable contributions. In it, he unpacks for the seeker and believer how practical theology affects you as a traveler in life.

For example, he considers God’s wisdom made available to you.  “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psa. 111:10). “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him” (James 1:5).  Packer writes, “It is like being taught to drive.  You do not ask yourself why the road should narrow or screw itself into a dogleg wiggle just where it does, nor why that van should be parked where it is, nor why the lady in front should hug the crown of the road so lovingly; you simply try to see and do the right thing in the actual situation that presents itself.  The effect of divine wisdom is to enable you to do just that in everyday life.”  Quite practical.

Packer could have been a theoretical theologian.  He was an Oxford-educated systematic theology professor.  But the emphasis of his life was to offer knowledge and tools for people to understand and enjoy God in everyday life.  In one of his last interviews he said, “As I look back on the life that I have lived, I would like to be remembered as a voice – a voice that focused on the authority of the Bible, the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the wonder of his substitutionary sacrifice and atonement for our sins.”  During Packer’s long life, he unpacked these deep truths of God in dozens of books.  Yet he famously summarized it all as “God saves sinners.”

You may like sitting on the porch and pondering the world’s problems.  But life is experienced as a journey, and the Bible offers you practical help along the way.  So taught Dr. Packer, who left the land of the dying for the land of the living in July 2020.  He was 93.

 

 

Taken Captive

See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ (Col. 2:8).

This warning could not be more applicable to movements afoot in America today.  Those movements clamor for free healthcare, food, real estate, and abortion.  They would dispense with the traditional family, capitalism, police, and jails.  They divide the world into two classes – oppressor and oppressed.  Ironically, the success of those campaigns would ferment more oppression because they have misdiagnosed the problem.  That happens when you don’t get the Big Story right, or if you believe there is no Big Story.  It’s just us, them, and destructive chaos.

By contrast consider Benjamin Watson, a pro football player.  In 2014, his social media post after the events in Ferguson, Missouri went viral.  After identifying with the emotions of the moment, he diagnosed the problem.  “Ultimately the problem is not a SKIN problem, it is a SIN problem,” he wrote. “SIN is the reason we rebel against authority. SIN is the reason we abuse our authority. SIN is the reason we are racist, prejudiced, and lie to cover for our own. SIN is the reason we riot, loot and burn.”  Whether you call it sin or not, you can see that something is wrong in the world.  That is because: (1) The source of morality is your Creator; (2) God’s morality is right for everyone, not just for those who believe it; and (3) Everyone has some sense of that morality, even if you try to suppress it.

Watson didn’t leave it there.  Having put his finger on the problem, he continued.  “But I’m encouraged because God has provided a solution for sin through His Son Jesus and with it, a transformed heart and mind—one that’s capable of looking past the outward and seeing what’s truly important in every human being.”  Watson knows the Big Story.

Justice and transformation are the language of the Christian worldview.  But if you borrow that language, indict other people or the system as the ultimate oppressor, and seek transformation by public policy, then you have fallen into the “empty deception according to the traditions of men.”   In a recent commentary Cal Thomas spoke about the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  “Any real solutions to our societal problems must have it (the gospel) at the center.  Any purported solution that omits it is no solution at all.”

Do you agree with an almost-octogenarian commentator and a NFL football player?  Who informs your opinions?  Are you a captive to the whims of this cultural moment? Only by faith can the oppressed be set free and the oppressor transformed.  That is the truth according to Christ.