Spheres of Service for Christians

John Stott closes Chapter 11 of his book The Cross of Christ with a section called “Spheres of Service.”  “The community of Christ is a community of the cross and will be marked by sacrifice, service and suffering, how will this work itself out in the three spheres of home, church and world?” [Stott, 281].

That is a very reasonable question given the nature of the Christian’s life.  If a person gives their life to Jesus Christ and receives the baptism of the Holy Spirit, that Spirit can* cause a change in their life, a change which will result in a need to act out their faith in this world.  Becoming a Christian is not just a public statement; it may also be a commitment to change the world for the betterment of God’s Kingdom here on earth.  Stott discusses three spheres of change:  the family, the church and the world.  In all three areas, a righteous Christian will bear fruit** [their faith will have a positive impact].

In the home of a Christian family, love should be the main theme, what Stott calls natural human love, further enriched by supernatural divine love, between husband and wife, parents and children, brothers and sisters.  Stott points to Ephesians 5: 21 which has often been cited as “difficult” for wives because it recognizes husbands as the head of the family.  Stott does not agree that Ephesians is harder on wives than husbands; “the quality of self-giving love required of husbands is arguably even more demanding.  For they are to love their wives with the love which Christ has for His bride, the church.  This is Calvary love” [282].  It is self-sacrificial, constructive, resplendent, caring and protective.  Of course what he is saying is that being the head of the family is not an easy job.

In the church the sacrifice, service and suffering inspired by the cross begins with pastors.  Their leadership style should be inspired by Jesus Christ and He led his followers by His humility and service.  With Christ as the model, pastors see a Man who lives by His Father’s power.  Jesus was not harsh in the exercise of authority and did not focus on wielding his own power.  “If Christian pastors adhered more closely to the Christ who was crucified in weakness and were prepared to accept the humiliations that weakness brings, rather than insisting on exercising their own power, there would be much less discord and much more harmony in the church” [282].

Within the church community the key word is unselfishness.   Many in church can find themselves working hard to be the most ambitious Christians in church but that effort should be devoted to helping others [the call is to love one another rather than self].  The needs of others come first, others are valued more than self because that is the model of Christ who renounced His rights and humbled Himself in order to serve. 

Finally we turn to the world and here Stott says that Christians should have a mission mentality.   Churches can be preoccupied with their own affairs but there is a very needy world outside the church building.  Stott says that “mission arises from the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus.”   In other words, the church should be characterized by suffering service, akin to the attitude expressed by Mother Teresa who said that “Love means to be willing to give until it hurts.”  

Today, Stott claims that too many don’t understand suffering service because that has been overshadowed by the unbiblical prosperity gospel [which focuses on devout Christianity equaling personal success].  The cross calls us to “mission”, meaning that we are called to individual and family sacrifice, helping others over our own economic security, solidarity and empathy for the poor, and renouncing the idea that our wealthy culture is better than any other culture.  Stott writes that each of these ideas lead to a death of sin in us and a life dedicated to others who need our help

Related to mission in the world is the desire to work for social justice in the world.  When we see basic human rights being denied, it is our job to work to correct that injustice.   Stott lists many examples [of which I will give a few]: political injustice [the subjugation of minorities], racial injustice [discrimination against people based on race or color], sexual injustice [the oppression of women].  The church can let this injustice stand but if we love people, we care about how they are being treated.  It is our obligation to change institutional structures that inhibit the development of people.  “Christians cannot regard with equanimity the injustices that spoil God’s world and demean His creatures” [285]. 

As I get ready to conclude this post and wrap my discussion Chapter 11, I have to ask what is our “sphere or service.”  I am reminded of the great commission: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you”  Matthew 28:19-20a.  When one considers these words it sounds like Christians have a lot of work to do.

Stott would agree; work in the family, the church and the world.

*Of course, a Christian can ignore the urging of the Holy Spirit to do God’s work in the family, the church and the world.  That is why I wrote “can.”

**We often think of Apostle Paul’s list in Galatians 5: 22-23 but one can argue that “Godly work” done in the family, the church and the world is also “fruit.”

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The Quest for Power in the Church

“The worst and most blatantly self-centered prayer ever prayed” [John Stott, The Cross of Christ].  Those words by Stott describe the following sentence by the sons of Zebedee, [ the apostles James and John]: “Teacher,” they said, “We want you to do for us whatever we ask.”

I am not sure I would call that a prayer, more likely a request.  Self-centered?  You bet.

What are these apostles asking?  The words are from the book of Mark and they are asking Jesus for power. 

Power.

They want to sit at Jesus’ right hand and His left in His glory.  They want positions of honor, thrones.  Jesus knows His mission; He has come to this earth to hang on the cross, to suffer weakness and shame.  They don’t know that or don’t believe that.  Jesus says to them “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”  He knows they don’t want His future but Jesus knows what they want.

They want power.

The church is an institution and individual churches are institutions within the larger institution.  Every church has a power structure that emanates from the pastor.  Sadly, churches have many people like James and John.  Stott calls these people “go-getters, status-seekers, people who are hungry for honor and prestige, people who measure life by achievement, who are aggressively ambitious for success.” 

The problem is nothing could be further from the life that Jesus Christ led, nothing could be further from the goals that Jesus Christ had.  “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.”

Power seekers make choices that are of this world.  When they join a church, they want to run it.  They want to have the ear of the pastor.  They want to be the most important people in the church.  They want to set the tone.  They want to make sure they are at the “top of the heap”.  It is just their nature.  Stott says they have a choice between self-ambition and sacrifice and they have chosen self-ambition.  When Jesus calls for humility, that call falls on deaf ears; they don’t want that.  They only understand the opposite of that: pride.

The second choice these power seekers make is between personal power and service.  Stott writes it seems clear that James and John were not seeking “seats on the floor, or on cushions, stools or chairs, but on thrones” [280].  James and John focused on the glorious Son of God but ignored the other part of the equation—the suffering servant.  Jesus knew that He would only enter glory by suffering, but James and John did not understand this pathway to glory.  Perhaps they missed their former life where they were well-to-do members of a fishing family that had enough success to have servants.  Perhaps they fantasized about being Roman rulers or even tyrants like Herod.  The model they knew was based on people who “threw their weight around,” manipulative people, exploiters, and tyrants.  “The symbol of an authentic Christian leader is not the purple robe of the emperor but the coarse apron of the slave, not a throne of ivory and gold but a basin for the washing of feet” [Stott, 280].

The last choice a power-seeker makes is between comfort and suffering.  No one can doubt it; following Jesus was hard.  James and John had become vagrants.  That happened to all the apostles as they followed Jesus.  Maybe they wanted some creature comforts instead of moving from place to place with no real place to rest, no real place to call home.  Stott imagines they would rather have goblets of wine, sumptuous banquets and luxurious pre-banquet baths.  Who wouldn’t?  “The spirit of James and John lingers on, especially in all of us who have been cushioned by affluence [Stott, 281].  The life of an apostle was one with little security.  Comfort was not a priority; hardship was the theme of the day.  “To follow Jesus is always to accept at least a measure of uncertainty, danger and rejection for His sake” [281].

This brings us to the ways of the power-seeker.  How does a person exert influence in the church?   James and John made a direct request but most often the road to power does not  come through words. 

Money is a key factor for most power-seekers.  When a person can tithe and donate large chunks of their wealth, most pastors avoid antagonizing such a person.  Churches have to have funds to operate.  The catch is that people who make large donations expect access; they expect some decision-making ability in how a church operates.  They expect to wield power.

A second factor is community status.  High-ranking officials in a community naturally exert power in the church.  If a person has a high-profile in the community, they will have a high-profile in the church.  People who are not members of a church may look at who attends and they may be impressed that a mayor, a judge or chief executive officers attend.  The idea is that some of this prestige may rub off on them.  This makes a church a fashionable place to attend.   The high-profile person wields power.

A third factor (believe it or not) is service.  Service is what Jesus expects of His followers, but what about people who serve too much?  I have seen people who make it their job to serve at church so much that no one else is asked to do the work of the church.  What is this person’s goal?  They want to be seen by the pastor as “indispensable”.  When a problem occurs, an initiative needs to be tackled or a mission needs to be accomplished, this power-hungry service-oriented person is consulted because they have a track record of getting things done.  This type of person can insinuate themselves into top leadership in a church just like a wealthy person or a high-profile person. 

Look into their hearts.  What are their goals?  Are they truly doing the work of the church or are they enjoying the credit for doing the work?   It says in Matthew “Only God knows our hearts, and only He knows whether this person has sincerely put his faith in Christ as his Lord and Savior” [7: 1].   Many hard workers are true servants and they do not have ulterior motives.  Others have power as their motive and service is how they achieve their goal.

Stott says the selfish, power-hungry request of James and John is sandwiched between two explicit references to the cross.  That offers a contrast.  Compared to Christ’s sacrifice, their request is described as “shabby, tatty, threadbare” [281].  More importantly this single episode of two power-hungry apostles highlights the choices the church has to make on a regular basis. 

Does the church follow the “way of the crowd?”

Does the church follow the “way of the cross?”

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Having a Double Attitude…

The double attitude.

We are new; Christ has redeemed us…

We are fallen; we continue to sin…

In my previous post I stated that this double attitude would be the focus of my comments this week.  As John Stott heads toward the end of his book The Cross of Christ, his last chapters deal with how we should live under the cross.  Our identity is shaped by our relationship with Jesus; our purpose is shaped by His sacrifice.

He says we are called to self-affirmation and we are called to self-denial.

Let me ask which “call” would you rather hear?   Jesus spent a lot of his time on earth preaching about people.   People are valuable in God’s view.  How much more valuable are people than birds or beasts?   Humans are the “crown of God’s creative energy” for God made them in His own image. 

Jesus had a positive attitude toward people.  He never seemed to hate anybody or dishonor anyone.  In fact He went out of His way to accept the people that the world rejected.  In a patriarchal society, He spoke courteously to women in public.  Little children were invited to come to Him.  He delivered hope to the Samaritans and Gentiles.  Of course, He allowed lepers to come to Him for healing and He defended wayward women from stoning.  Stott writes in all His “diversified ministry His compassionate respect for human beings shone forth” [274]. 

One must also remember Jesus’s mission and death.  He did what he did for human beings.   Jesus came to serve us, not to be served by us.  “He was the Good Shepherd who came into the desert, braving the hardship and risking the peril, in order to save only one lost sheep.  Indeed, He laid down His life for the sheep.   Stott quotes theologian William Temple who writes “My worth is what I am worth to God; and that is a great deal, for Christ died for me” [from his book Citizen and Churchman].

Ok this raises a serious question.

How can we value ourselves and deny ourselves at the same time?

“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” [Mark 8: 31].

We are called to be dead to sin and alive to a life in Christ.  Self-denial is not so much the denial of luxuries [chocolates, cakes, cigarettes and cocktails] as much as it is the renouncing of our right to go our own way.   Self-denial means to turn away from self-centeredness.   In a recent study I have done on changing behavior, many Christians don’t seem to be able to assess their own behaviors accurately.  Dr. Larry Crabb writes that we love the broad road of life rather than the narrow road.  If life gets too uncomfortable, if the sacrifice is too great, if Jesus calls us to do too much, we back away.  “Jesus lived an abundant life—a life abundant in trials and sorrows, a life abundant in difficulties and pain, a life abundant in rejection and loneliness” [Crabb, Inside Out. 14].  In short, the goodness that Jesus requires must not get in the way of the good life of comfort that Christians want. 

Crabb’s book in uncomfortable because he points out that Christians are horrible in their efforts at self-denial.  We practice “Vending-machine Christianity:  Insert a dollar of ethical living and out comes a thousand dollars of personal well-being in an improved world” [Crabb, 12].  We are good at one type of denial; we are good at denying how poor we are in practicing a holy life.

According to Stott, Jesus calls us three times to die to self.  First is His call to die a legal death.  We die to sin when we join with Christ in His death on the cross.  His resurrection leads to our freedom from sin which justified sinners enjoy.  Secondly we die a moral death.  Our old nature and our evil desires die.  We are supposed to want a righteous life when we can practice continuing fellowship with God.  Thirdly, we have a physical death.  We lose our strength as we live our lives.  Even though we grow weaker in our physical bodies, Jesus’ strength is made perfect in our weakness.  

Stott writes “how have you reacted thus far, especially to the emphasis on dying to self, or rather, putting it to death by crucifying it or mortifying it?  I expect (and hope) that you have felt uneasy about it” [273]. 

My feelings about the Christian self (one that can be affirmed and denied at the same time) are complicated.  We like to make the world simple with our black or white perceptions.   The world is hardly ever black or white, right or wrong or good or bad.   People are rarely completely evil or completely good.   All people are complex, mixes of evil, glory and shame.  We cannot deny our fallen self any more than we can accept the affirming idea that Jesus came to this earth to save us.  Most of us would love to be affirmed and stop at that, but life is not always a “bowl of cherries” [excuse the awful cliché].

“Standing before the cross, we see simultaneously our worth and our unworthiness, since we perceive both the greatness of His love in dying, and the greatness of our sin in causing Him to die” [Stott, 278].

In truth, Christians should have “the double attitude”.  We are new because Jesus Christ has redeemed us, but we never need to forget we are fallen; for like it or not…

we continue to sin.

In our next post, we will continue “Self-Understanding and Self-Giving” as we discuss “Living Under The Cross.”  We will consider self-sacrificial love and spheres of service.

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Living at the Extremes…

Chapter Eleven of The Cross of Christ is entitled “Self-Understanding and Self-Giving.” In Chapter 10 John Stott called the community of the cross a community of celebration, a place of “boldness, love and joy.”*   Besides providing a place of celebration, what he is saying in Chapter 11 is that living under the cross can help Christians assume an identity.  He poses the questions “Who are we, then?  How should we think of ourselves?  What attitude should we adopt toward ourselves?  These are questions to which the satisfactory answer cannot be given without a reference to the cross” [267].

Years ago, I came to know something about myself.  I have a tendency to think too much at the extremes.  When I believe something is good, I don’t just think of it as “good.”  It is great!  When I believe it is bad, I don’t just think of it as “bad.”  It is awful!   I can also flip my feelings quickly, from thinking that a great thing is great to the idea that the same thing is awful, extremely awful.  One comment from my wife can trigger that.  The effect is very dramatic which she does not appreciate [I do try to monitor this aspect of my personality since she dislikes it so much].  Sometimes I succeed; sometimes I fail.

My wife calls me an “obsessive compulsive” even though I don’t really think I have many of the typical accompanying OCD symptoms

How does this fit into Stott’s  ideas of self-understanding and the cross?

He writes about the low self-image that many people have today.  When one considers the way some people react to the world, it is no wonder they have crippling inferiority feelings.  Children are deprived; people suffer through a lifetime of being unwanted or unloved.  Racial prejudice is a real aspect of life today as well as sexual prejudice.  The list of negative aspects of life today is long, from being trashed on social media to being discounted and disrespected in the workplace.  Does God intend us to live lives where we feel (as Stott says) “like worthless nonentities?”

Of course not.

Then let’s “flip the script.”  There is a lot of “be yourself, express yourself, fulfill yourself” preaching out there. He calls this the “human potential movement.”  Many Christians take these ideas from the command to love our neighbors as ourselves but they love themselves first and sometimes forget tolove those neighbors.   This is the idea that all people can be great!  When I was much younger, there was a popular book entitled I’m Ok-You’re Ok by Thomas Harris.  To take this to extremes, all humans are intrinsically good so everything we do is “ok.”  Does God intend us to live lives where we put ourselves first and glorify our own actions?

Of course not.

Stott writes that Jesus did not say the first commandment is to love the Lord your God, the second is to love your neighbor and the third is to love yourself.  “He spoke only of the first great commandment and of the second which was like it.  The addition of ‘as yourself’ supplies a rough and ready, practical guide to neighbor-love, because ‘no one ever hated his own body’” [See Ephesians 5: 29].  Loving one’s neighbor is tantamount to giving of oneself in the service of others [often referred to as agape love].  Sacrifice in order to serve oneself seems to be nonsense. 

Should life to be lived at the extremes?  One has either to experience self-loathing or self-love?  Sadly, my (and others) extreme thinking leads to that.  I am a merciless sinner so I wallow in my guilt and see no way forward.  I am a merciless sinner and I deny my guilt; nothing I do is really bad.  In fact, it is not bad at all.  “I’m ok!”  If I sin, I deny the guilt.  If I sin, God’s grace has me covered.  This can lead to what Stott calls an “evil suggestion.”  When sin increases, grace increases all the more so I can go on sinning so grace may increase still further.

What gets us out of these extreme positions? 

Christ’s death.

When Jesus went to the cross, He died for our sin.  Romans 6: 10 says “the death He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life He lives, He lives to God.”  We die to sin also (of course not the way that Christ actually died).  We die to sin daily through repentance, through asking for forgiveness.    We have to if we dedicate our lives to Christ but because we keep on sinning due to our human nature. 

How do we reconcile this “nature?”  Stott writes “This does not mean that we are to pretend we have died to sin and risen to God, when we know very well that we have not.  On the contrary, we know that by union with Christ, we have shared in the death and resurrection and so have ourselves died to sin and risen to God; we must constantly remember this fact and live a life consistent with it” [270; italics mine]

Wallowing in guilt associated with our sinning is not a good way to live.  However, our world is full of people who have a low self-image and that image can be built on the idea that they are not living a good life based on Christian principles.  Our world is also full of people who are so narcissistic that they think they do no wrong [and if they do, they figure they can get away with it].  I don’t think they can really deny their acts if those acts are obviously against God’s commandments. 

Why live at the extremes?  We have a Lord who has given His Son that we can be born again, living a life that is holy.  We know we will never achieve perfection but we try anyway.  We know that we will never conquer the need to sin but we try anyway.  Our faith calls us to try.

In the next posts, we will discuss what Stott calls a “double attitude;” we are new, though redeemed, and still fallen.  We move forward with life through self-denial and self-affirmation.  Are these the key ideas for our Christian identity?  We will see.

Stott describes them as “both illumined by the cross.”

*See June 23 post in St. John Studies  “Where you Will Find Boldness, Love and Joy.”

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Man’s Response

The “Call”…

To be called is to decide to have a personal relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ.  God “calls” us to do this.  Circumstances of our lives may exacerbate the call and those circumstances may be the product of our own choices, but when we are called, our value system begins to change.  We don’t want to engage in our old way of living, we don’t want to make the same old choices; we want to try to follow the ways of Jesus.  We desire fellowship with Him most of all and we come to realize that God values us for who we are, not for what we can produce and achieve in this world.

Part Four of Basic Christianity is entitled “Man’s Response.”  John Stott has introduced Christ the person in Part One, “Man’s Need” in Part Two and “Christ’s Work” in Part Three.  He is making his closing argument for the believer in Part Four; Stott wants his readers to know the basics of The Faith and how to respond when they feel “The Call.”

First of all, when an individual feels that Christ is asking for a commitment, they should realize that He is asking for a public commitment.  Stott writes “It is not enough to deny ourselves in secret” [116].  Christ knew that His church would always be a minority movement in the world if dedication to Him was a secret; He wanted His followers not to be ashamed of their association with Him.   The Apostle Paul declared that an open confession of a life dedicated to Christ is a condition of salvation.  He wrote in order to be saved “we have not only to believe in our hearts but to confess with our lips that Jesus is Lord, for man believes with his heart and is so justified, and he confesses with his lips and so is saved.”  Confession results in action.  Family and friends should know of this commitment.  Joining a church is a requirement so one can associate with other Christians.  At work or in school, the Christian should not be afraid to speak of his new belief if questioned.   All this is to help us be better Christians, to show the fruit of a Christ-centered life to others and even to witness so others can come to Christ. 

But why answer the call?  On June 30th, I wrote “Take Up Your Cross” an explanation of the cost of being a Christian.  If a person is called to do so much, what is the payoff?  Are there incentives to being a Christian?

Certainly, I had a friend tell me that he would like to be a Christian but he told me he would have to quit gambling and he loved it too much.  Another friend told me he loved another woman so much that he could not be a Christian.  The woman he loved was not his wife so he loved his adulterous affair too much to be a Christian.  I even had a friend who said he loved alcohol too much to be a Christian.  He told me “if I become a Christian I won’t have any more fun.”

Stott writes that “many people have a deep-seated fear that if they commit themselves to Jesus Christ, they will be losers” [117].  Of course there may be losses when one makes a public profession of belief.  I lost some friends who did not understand why I did not want to do the same things I used to do.  Some family members thought I was crazy for going to church so much and talking about Jesus so much.  Here is the big question though:  what did I gain?  I began to lose some of the guilt I had when I was sinning because I began to stop doing the things that caused me to feel so wretched. I gained freedom from sin.   I began to look around and see that people around me needed me.  I started giving of myself because the whole world no longer revolved around me.  As I began to slowly accept my Christian identity, service to others became natural.  Stott says it this way: “to live for God and for man is wisdom and life indeed.  We do not begin to find ourselves until we have become willing to lose ourselves in the service of Christ and of our fellows” [117].  I gained a new purpose and a new mission and identity.

Another incentive is the power of God that a Christian can bring to this world.  It is a crazy world we live in, a chaotic place that makes little sense most of the time.  The values of this world are not the values of God and His Son Jesus, and Christians exist to remind people that other options are available.  Jesus described His followers as “salt of the earth” and “light of this world” and we can be that to nonbelievers.  To live lives of peace and love in the midst of bedlam sends a strong message.  People see that and people wonder how it can be done; this gives us an opportunity to share our secret with others.  Where does the power to overcome this world come from?  It comes from God, not us.  To Him goes the glory.

This leads to the greatest incentive of all. We should live life for Christ’s sake.  Jesus said “whoever lives his life for My sake…will save it.”  Stott puts this in words that we can all understand:  “When we are asked to do something particularly hard, whether or not we are willing to do it depends very much on who asks us, and to whom we are indebted, we are glad to agree.  This is why Christ’s appeal to us is so eloquent and so persuasive.  He asks us to deny ourselves and follow Him for His own sake” [119].

Earlier I referred to a June 30th post entitled “Take Up Your Cross.”  It was all about our sacrifices for the faith.  The crosses He asks us to take up are very little in comparison to His.  He loved us so much that He suffered shame and pain that was unbearable. How can we deny or reject a call on our lives if it comes from God?.

Let’s end on Stott’s effort to get all of us to say yes to “the call.”

“If you want a life of self-discovery, deeply satisfying to the nature God has given you; if you want a life of adventure in which you have the privilege of serving Him and your fellow man; if you want a life in which to express something of the overwhelming gratitude you are beginning to feel for Him who died for you then I urge you to yield your life, without reserve and without delay, to your Lord and Savior.”*

Say “ yes “ to the call.

*Basic Christianity, p. 119.

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Those Meddling Preachers…

As I look back on last week’s post entitled “Take Up Your Cross” [June 30, 2022] I realize that John Stott’s comments on a Christian’s commitment to Jesus are generally vague.  I wrote that he thinks Christians should not follow the “ways of the world.”  Generally that means that we should not sin [much easier said than done].  Secondly, we should “deny ourselves” which means that instead of trying to manipulate life for our personal gain we should be loving and generous to our fellow man.  Thirdly, we are to “take up our cross.”  Jesus does not want a half-hearted commitment; He wants us to be as fully committed to living a Christian lifestyle as we can.  He certainly was committed.

Vague words at best.

I find it interesting in his book Basic Christianity that he follows his general comments with very specific recommendations.  I had a friend who once said when pastors go from generalities to specifics that they were going from preaching to meddling.

Well to be honest, “basic” Christians probably need specifics, new directions for living, increased knowledge of new commitments, better goals for a better life.

First of all when you are saved, Stott says that God has a call on your life.  There is a new purpose.  I like the straightforward words “our business is to discover it and do it.”  Is there a possibility that the work we are doing at the time we are saved is not the work that God intends us to do?  That could certainly be the case.  Again Stott “meddles” when he says “we must open our lives to the possibility of a change.”  When Christ enters our lives, we live for Him.  We may not be sure if He wants us involved in church work or some other type of ministry but in many forms of work [Stott uses the examples of medicine, research, the law, education, social service, government, industry and business and trade] we can put God first in serving our fellow man.   If God is our Master, our work will begin to reflect Him more and the values of man less. 

Secondly, if a Christian is married, God should be first in the marriage.  That means that both married individuals should be dedicated to a life in Christ.  Basic Christianity was first published in 1958 and life has certainly changed a lot since then.  Stott refers to marriage as a “divine institution,” one that people should not enter into in a frivolous manner.  He goes further by saying that a Christian should not marry a non-believer; “do not be mismated with an unbeliever” [114].    His language is strong: “For a Christian to marry someone with whom he or she cannot be spiritually one is not only to disobey God but to miss the fullness of the union He intended” [114].  As I report his thoughts on this, I try not to judge.  I just ask the reader to consider the wisdom of Stott’s advice.

Thirdly, the act of sex in a marriage should be what God intended for marriage.  God intended sex in marriage to be “something good and right, the expression of love, a fulfilment of the divine purpose and of the human personality.”  Too often sexuality is portrayed as a selfish act, an irresponsible act between two people.  Nothing could be further from the truth in a Christian marriage. 

Let’s really meddle.  When a person is saved, their private affairs become dedicated to God.  What this means is our money and our time belong to God.  Jesus often spoke about money, about how riches can be dangerous.  At times, it seems like He is calling His disciples to give away all of their earthly belongings.  Is that relevant today?  Stott writes, “No doubt He still calls some of His followers to do this today” but for most of us, it is a command to not worship material wealth over God.  It is the old idea that man cannot worship God and “mammon” at the same time.  It may sound peculiar but Christians should consider who really owns their money and all their material possessions.  In a Christian worldview, we hold our possessions as “stewards”, which is very different from the selfish attitude that many have about wealth.  What I own today is given to me by God.  He owns it all anyway.  What I do with what I have is the key.  When there is so much poverty in this world, we are not called to horde our money and possessions; we are called to share.

Our time is a matter of priorities.  We should work hard but not at the expense of worshipping God.  We should work hard but not at the expense of our God-given families.  Time should be set aside for church, for daily prayer and Bible reading.  Time should be set aside for service to the church and community.

Ok, some will read this and think this man is expressing 1958 values but this a 2022 world.  This “bringing every department of our public and private lives under His control” is too extreme.  I encourage the reader to stop and think about the areas of life where sin is common.  Life without a Godly purpose can be a life that is extremely self-centered.  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind and, love your neighbor as yourself” is a huge leap for most selfish people today.  Marriage today is far from the “divine institution” that Stott describes.  Should it be “divine”?  Sexuality is much more open today than it was but does that make it more special or less special?  People devote their lives to accumulating money and possessions and don’t put God first.  What is the effect of that?  I think you can imagine the answer. 

I summarize this post with the pastor’s meddling words.  “All this [life purpose, marriage, sexuality in marriage, money and time] is involved [in the Christian life] if we are to forsake sin and self, and follow Christ” [Stott, 115]. *

*What is inserted in italics are my words.

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Take Up Your Cross

As I get closer to finishing my series of comments on John Stott’s books The Cross of Christ and Basic Christianity, it is evident that both books are heading to the major reasons the author had to write each book.  We have seen in The Cross that the last part [part four] is focused on “Living Under the Cross;” for example the Church is the place where Christians can learn how to live a Christian life.   In Basic, the main reason for writing that book is “Man’s Response” to Jesus’ calling [part four] and one of the main final ideas is on “Counting the Cost.”  In this post we will comment on “counting the cost.”

Counting the cost is not an uncommon phrase for Christians.  It lays out the terms of discipleship. 

Terms?  What terms?

Too often the new Christian attends to the idea of salvation but they don’t realize that there is a “cost” for the gift of eternal life.  It is not a free ride.

Let’s look carefully at Mark 8: 34-38: “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple.  Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?  Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’  Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand?   And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace.  So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be My disciple.

Does this sound like Jesus is offering the believer a free ticket to heaven?

Certainly not…

“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” is a wonderful piece of Scripture but it has some terms. 

First of all, God does not want us to follow the world’s ways; we cannot just do what we want without suffering some consequences.  Many don’t “count the cost” of following Jesus or they  put on the thin veneer of Christianity, looking good enough to others to be considered Christian but not really dedicating their lives to Christ to the point of being uncomfortable.  Stott calls these Christians “nominal Christians.” 

What do we have to do?  When Jesus calls out that we need to follow Him, what does He mean?  When He asked His Disciples to follow Him the command was literal.  They dropped their fishing nets. They left their fathers to follow Him.  Matthew was sitting at the tax office and left everything that he knew and followed Jesus.  For us however, Jesus is not implying the physical need to follow Him, He is looking for us to surrender inwardly.  Put Him first in life above family, above ambition, above worldly concerns like material gain.

Explicitly, Stott says that we must renounce our sinning. If we don’t do this, we are not Christian.  Some may think this is merely a public pronouncement of repentance, but Christ is looking more for an inward change of mind and attitude toward sin.  A public pronouncement is not enough.

“There can be no compromise here.  There may be sins in our lives which we do not think we ever could renounce, but we must be willing to let them go as we cry to God for deliverance from wrong” [Stott, 110].  Our guide in this is not other Christians;  it is the teaching from God’s Word.   God’s word will prick your conscience, but Christ will lead you further along the path of righteousness. 

Jesus made the extreme statement that His followers should pluck out their eye if it causes them to sin, or cut off their hand or foot is they cause sin.  Does this mean that we are to practice self-mutilation?  Of course not; it is just a figure of speech, designed to make a point. 

Stott also writes that repentance sometimes means restitution.  We have to make an effort to put things right with people we have harmed.  Zacchaeus, the dishonest tax collector repaid the money he had stolen from his clients.  Actually he overpaid them.  In addition, he promised to give away half of his money to the poor for all the people he wronged that he could not reach.  This is our example.  Being human beings and prone to extremism, Christ is not calling us to be overzealous in this matter, but if we really desire to repent, we should try to do everything we can do to right our wrongs. 

Secondly, we need to deny ourselves: “if any man would come after Me, let him deny himself.”   Self-centeredness is the root of much of man’s problems and is closely related to another problem: self-will.  Granted it is hard to deny ourselves but Christ expects us to say no to sin and yes to Him.  We should give up our efforts to try to manipulate life for our own gain and let Him lead us to do the work that He intends us to do.  That may not mean gain: Jesus said “For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life for My sake, the same shall save it” (Luke 9:24).

Finally Jesus uses the phrase “take up the cross.”  That sounds extreme, that we are to take on the attitude of a man going to execution.  What this means in reality is to find yourself in a life of Christ.  Take on a new identity, an identity that is not “of this world.”  Jesus is not calling us to a half-hearted commitment.  He wants as much of us as we can give Him.  When He calls us to take up the cross, He is not lowering the standards for being a Christian, He is raising them.  “The astonishing idea is current in some circles today that we can enjoy the benefits of Christ’s salvation without accepting the challenge of His sovereign Lordship.  Such an unbalanced notion is not to be found in the New Testament [Stott, 112]. 

As Christians we are called to follow Christ privately but we are to confess Him publicly.  That confession can be mere words if we don’t take our faith seriously.  “So everyone who acknowledges Me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies Me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” [Matthew 10: 32-33].

Open confession cannot be avoided.  It is a condition of salvation.  We are not only supposed to believe, we are to confess with our lips the statement that Jesus is Lord.  Words are cheap however; we must strive to live out our faith.

What does God ask of us?  We need to renounce our sins, renounce our self.  We need to take up our cross.

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Where You Will Find Boldness, Love and Joy

On June 16, 2022, I commented on Chapter 8 of John Stott’s book Basic Christianity.  That part of his book dealt with what Stott calls the main goals accomplished due to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  One goal was to reconcile God to man and liberate man from self-centeredness and then to bring us into harmony with our fellow human beings.  Stott’s primary focus regarding harmony was on how we are supposed to get along together as we worship God [i.e. as we “d”o church].  As I reread the post, I was struck with how negative the comments were; that church was often a place where people did not act as Christians.  My closing comments indicate how critical the post was: “The church is full of hypocrites.  The church is full of sinners…the church is full of beggars trying to tell other beggars where to find bread.”

I find it extremely unusual as I transition to The Cross of Christ that Stott begins the fourth and last part of his book entitled “Living Under the Cross” with a chapter entitled “The Community of Celebration.”  It is almost the opposite of my June 16th post. 

What should church be?

Stott says the church [the community of the cross] is “not just a badge to identify us and the banner under which we march; it is also the compass that gives us our bearings in a disoriented world” [250].  He calls the Christian life “a continuous festival” with sacraments of the Gospel at the center of that life.  He refers especially to the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s supper.  Baptism is the symbolic act of being born again in a life of Christ.  The Lord’s Supper is the drama of “taking, blessing, breaking and giving of bread and the taking, blessing, pouring and giving of wine”.  We don’t administer the elements of the Lord’s Supper ourselves; we receive them.  Spiritually we feed on the crucified Christ in our hearts.  It is all an expression of our faith. 

Unlike the Old Testament idea of God being unapproachable and unreachable [except through the petition of a High Priest and the sacrifice of innocent animals], the Christian God is a reconciled God.  He sent His Son to us to show how much He loves us, to assuage His anger with us and to forgive us of our sins.  We have been made right with God [justified and redeemed].  

Two words describe the new relationship that Christians have with our Father:  access and nearness.  What is the impact of this new relationship within the church?

Stott lists three very positive things that should characterize the church.

The first word is boldness.  God is not some distant entity.  God is within us via our Holy Spirit and we can pray directly to Him.  The apostles loved to use the word parresia which means “outspokenness, frankness and plainness of speech.”  We have parresia because of Jesus.  Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice for us so we can look forward to life without fear and we can proclaim the good news with strength.  For the saving grace of our faith to get out to the world, we need boldness of speech.  The church is that special location where we not only get instruction in the rudiments of our faith but we can get inspiration to spread the word [to make disciples of all nations].

Secondly, the church is a place of love.  Whereas the Old Testament presented a God that was difficult to approach and difficult to love [Stott writes “previously, we were afraid of Him”] now we have a new relationship with God that is characterized by love.  First John 4: 19 says it best “We love because He first loved us.”  God’s love has driven out fear for we now know that love begets love.  The church is the central location for us to receive God’s love but it also is the location that inspires us to spend our lives loving “our neighbors as we love ourselves” [Mark, 12: 31].  That (after all) is our new mission as a we “Go and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” [Matthew 28: 19].

The third word Stott uses to characterize the church is joy.  This is a word which means a lot to me since I sing in a church choir.  When the Israelites returned to Jerusalem their mouths were “filled with laughter” and their tongues were filled with “songs of joy.”  Stott writes “how much more should we rejoice in the Lord who has redeemed us from a much more repressive slavery” [251].    The time we spend together in church on the Lord’s Day is intended to bring us together with joy.  Stott cites theologian W.M. Clow who writes “the great faiths of the Buddhist and the Mohammedan give no place either to the need of the grace or reconciliation.  The clearest proof of this is the simplest.  It lies in the hymns of Christian worship.”*   Buddhists don’t cry out in praise.  Mohammedan worshippers never sing.  When Christian worshippers come together it is impossible to keep them from singing.  Stott says “The Christian community is a community of celebration.”   The Jewish people celebrate the Passover to rejoice over their redemption from Egypt.  We celebrate the Lord’s Supper to rejoice over Christ’s shedding of His precious blood to set us free.   “Because the worship of God is in essence the acknowledgement of His worth, we unite with the heavenly chorus in singing of His worthiness as both Creator and Redeemer” [Stott, 252].

Maybe my June 16 post was a bit negative.  I can get that way very easily because I have been disappointed with Christian behaviors from time to time.  Mahatma Gandhi rejected the Christian faith, never again to consider the claims of Christ. He was so turned off by Christian behavior that he said the following: “I’d be a Christian if it were not for the Christians.”  I have never been so disappointed that I was ready to totally throw away my faith in favor of something else.  This post [unlike the one on June 16] points out the beautiful reasons to hold on to church and fellow Christians.  The worship of God in the Christian community should be a festival in which the boldness, love and joy shine through as we celebrate what Christ has done for us.  Stott writes “In this celebration we find ourselves caught up in the worship of heaven, so that we join ‘with angels and archangels, and with all the company of heaven’ in giving God glory”. 

I know that God wants our praise; He deserves it.  It is in church where we unite in singing praises to His worthiness as Creator and Redeemer. 

“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” [Revelation, 5: 12].

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Where You Will Find Hypocrites, Sinners, Beggars and…

“The tendency of sin is centrifugal.  It pulls us out of harmony with our neighbors.  It estranges us not only from our Maker but from our fellow-creatures too.  We all know from experience how a community, whether a college, a hospital, a factory or an office, can become a hotbed of jealousy and animosity.  We find it difficult ‘to dwell together in unity’”.*

A college, a hospital, a factory, an office…

A church?

Surely not a church.

Many years ago, I heard some wisdom about church.  If a person gossips out of church, they will gossip in church.  If a person thirsts for power out of church, they will thirst for power in church.  If a person is hateful and spiteful out of church, they will be hateful and spiteful in church.

We could go on and on.  Think of any harmful behavior that can pit people against other people and put it in the sentence “If a person is… out of church, they will…in church.”

Yes, church.

We have high expectations for houses of worship.  We think of church as a refuge from bad behaviors.  We visualize Christians holding hands and singing “Kum Ba Ya” with peaceful faces and warm hearts.  The divisiveness of American society is not welcome in the church but the reality is…it is.

People are people and just because they walk into God’s house, they don’t leave their humanity outside.

John Stott, in his book Basic Christianity expresses a deep knowledge about how church should function.  “God’s plan is to reconcile us to each other as well as to Himself.  So He does not save independent, unconnected individuals in isolation from one another; He is calling out a people for His own possession.” [102]. 

It certainly did not seem that way in the beginning.

God asked Abraham to leave his home in Mesopotamia to possess a new land and have manydescendants.  His grandson Jacob had twelve sons, representing the twelve tribes of Israel.  These people thought of themselves as separate from other peoples.  They tried hard to develop a culture apart from the influence of surrounding cultures.  Sometimes they were successful but sometimes other cultures invaded their insulated world.  When that happened God was incensed but after suffering and finally repentance, He accepted His people back.

Then came Jesus, the Messiah, the One who would explain to the world the whole kingdom of God. 

We find out that God never intended His people to be set apart.  His people would be in the north, south, east and west (every “race, kindred and language”).  Jesus clearly states “Go and make disciples of all nations.”  Stott cites the Apostle Paul who says “If you are Christ’s then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” [Galatians 3: 29].

Stott recalls Paul’s image of the human body to describe the working of God’s church.  Every member is like an organ of the body.  Christ is the head of the church, controlling the body’s activities.  Every organ does not have the same function but every organ is necessary for the effectiveness of the body and human life.  My pastor preached a sermon on Christian unity and likened the church to a puzzle.  Every member of the church fits into the puzzle as a single piece fits into a real puzzle.  All members contribute.  Together they make the puzzle complete; it takes all of us. None of us is alike however; we all bring unique skills to church and as we use them, we can make the church function as a unified institution.

It is amazing when a church works together as a unit.  The Holy Spirit courses through members and “there is one body and one Spirit” says Paul.  Outward divisions cannot destroy inward spiritual unity.  I have seen this in my life numerous times.  Take for example the worldly concern for politics.  What is important in a church?  Is it politics or should it be “we are all Christians, we love Jesus Christ and we want to move His Kingdom forward in this world.”  I have worked side by side with people who do not see “the world” as I do, but that never mattered.  I love them and they love me and we work together for God and His Son Jesus.  Worldly issues never even come up.

Why do things go sideways in some churches?  People develop anger, misbehave, disrespect others, etc.  Stott correctly states “the church is people—sinful and fallible people.  This is no reason to shun it, for we are sinful and fallible ourselves” [104].  I have had so many conversation with non-believers who say that the church is full of hypocrites, that they preach one thing and do another.  Another reason is the fact that some go to church as a requirement, not going because they want to or feel a need to.  Maybe they see other people and want business contacts.  Attending some churches may increase their status in the community [a certain congregation is “cool”].  Stott says there are multiple reasons that people put their names on church rolls but they “have never had their names, ‘as Jesus put it’ written in heaven” [104].

God knows who are His.  Some people profess faith but others actually exercise faith.  God sees down into a person’s heart.  While the professing people can go to church with the exercising people, they are not identical Christians. 

The Holy Spirit at work in the church creates love in the church.  I don’t even have to know another Christian to feel the love of God in them.  They may not be like me but the bond of Jesus is a real bond.  “The relationship which exists and grows between the children of God is deeper and sweeter even than blood relationships” [105].  This is the kinship of the family of God.   If you have ever felt it, it is not sentimental.  It is not emotional.  It is grounded in the recognition of the need for self-sacrifice.  When your heart is right with God, you want to serve others, to help others, to enrich other’s lives.   

What kills the centrifugal force of sin?   It is this kind of love in a church.  Whereas sin divides people, the uniting love for God counteracts division.  Whereas sin separates people, the uniting love for God reconciles all differences. 

Even though there will always be churches that are dead or dying and there will always be churches that are torn apart by warring factions, there will also always be churches that are getting it right.  Even though there will always be churches that can’t figure out the love of Jesus and there will always be churches that call themselves Christian and can’t provide any evidence that this is so, there will also always be churches that are providing hope and light for a dark world. 

No matter what is happening, Christians need a house of worship however imperfect it may be.  I know some people may correctly call out certain congregations for being hypocrites and that is the excuse they provide for never attending church.

I would say they are right.  The church is full of hypocrites.  The church is full of sinners.  To use an old expression, the church is full of beggars trying to tell other beggars where to find bread. 

The church may be full of hypocrites, sinners and beggars, but it is also that special place…

where you will find God.

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The Holy Spirit as Change Agent

Sunday June 5th, 2022…

This past Sunday was the day of Pentecost, the day the church celebrated the infilling of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus had been with His Disciples through three years of ministry and John Stott* states that notable Disciples did not seem to get His message.  Several times He had urged them to humble themselves like little children but Peter could not accept the idea of humility.  He was a proud and confident man all the days that he was with Jesus.  John got the same message but he truly earned the title “son of thunder” to the end of Jesus’ life.  These two did not seem to comprehend what it meant to be loving.

Then Jesus told the disciples that He was leaving them so something better could come in His place, a Comforter, a Helper, a Counsellor. “But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you” John 16: 7.   Can you imagine the consternation among the disciples?  You know they would rather have Jesus than some strange power they did not understand.

Until…

That power came.

For Peter and John the change was amazing.  Read Peter’s first letter and notice how much he speaks of humility.  Read John’s letters and attend to the fact that they are full of love.  Is this evidence that the Holy Spirit came to these two men and changed them from within?

Is that same Spirit available to you and to me?

It is.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God”  John 3: 3.

That is the beginning.

Sadly many Christians think that salvation is enough.

But it is not.  The Holy Spirit is not stagnant.  It is a Change Agent.

God does not give us the Holy Spirit because He wants us to declare our love for Him and stay the same. 

“So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.  For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want” [Galatians 5: 16-18].  What is Paul talking about here?  He is addressing the battle that happens once someone is saved and the Holy Spirit takes up residence in the new believer.  The Holy Spirit is sent into our hearts and makes our bodies His temple.  This conflict is the daily experience of the Christian as temptation is all around us: give into our worldly desires [the flesh] or obey the calling of the Spirit to a higher purpose.  Stott writes strong words when he says this is not “arid theological theorizing,” this is everyday life.  We are pulled down by sin while the Holy Spirit is trying to pull us up.  Some days we may feel good about what we have accomplished; maybe we have done more good than bad.  Other days we don’t feel so good.  Maybe we have succumbed to the flesh and have done some of the things on Paul’s partial list: “The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like” [from Galatians 5].

What’s a Christian to do?

Engage in the battle, knowing that sometimes we will fail.  When we fail we need to ask for forgiveness for our weak moments.  We need to repent, have faith that God still loves us and try to use Holy Spirit power to continue on down the road to growth in Christ.  I once had a friend who put it in plain language:  when you fall, pick yourself up, ask God to forgive you and keep walking forward in the light of His grace. The worst thing a new believer can do is wallow in guilt and stay “down on the ground”.  God knows how weak we are and Satan knows how to trip us up.  Holy Spirit power and God’s forgiveness can overpower anything that the devil can throw at us.

Engage in the battle, using what you have learned.  Jesus said in Luke 10: 27   “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’ and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”  I have always taken this verse as a challenge.  It is a call to action.  Love the Lord your God is the biggest command obviously but loving your neighbors is probably the hardest thing to do in a world that seems to thrive on hate of others.  For many reasons, expressing disdain for our fellow human beings has become a sport.  This subject is too big to expound upon but all of us know it is a real problem.  Maybe it is a very romantic notion, but the heart is seen as the center of love but the soul is essential for all types of love to be effective.  Let’s not forget the “all your mind” part.  In my view, God has given us a mind for a reason.  He wants us to use it.  In another book by John Stott [Your Mind Matters], he writes “If we do not use the mind which God has given us, we condemn ourselves to spiritual superficiality.”  For many Christians being born again is it.  Salvation is the end of the process.  What about the study of the Word of God?  What about the study of faith in so many books that are written to stimulate our Christian growth?  What about attendance in worship services and Sunday school classes?  Growth opportunities abound. There are so many resources available for Christians to deepen their faith, to grow beyond the baby stage of being saved.  In Hebrews the Apostle Paul states that new Christians should be given milk as they begin their lives in Christ, but the intent is that they should move beyond milk to meat leading to maturity. 

I love the way Stott uses such clear language to explain our challenge and our limitations in the lives that we all lead.  We want to live better lives and we strive to do that.  “If the Spirit of Jesus could come and live in me, then I could live a life like that [Jesus].  This is the secret of Christian sanctity.  It is not that we should strive to live like Jesus, but that He by His Spirit should come and live in us.  To have Him as our example is not enough; we need Him as our Savior” [102].

Finally Stott says it best: “It is through His atoning death that the penalty of our sins may be forgiven; it is through His indwelling Spirit that the power of our sins may be broken.”

Amen…

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