Jesus Saves Us from Legalism

If we are honest, there is a little bit of a Pharisee in each of us. We all have legalistic tendencies. We have our own standard that we hold ourselves to, and look down on all others who cannot measure up to our standards. Many who excel at keeping rules and abstaining for immorality become prideful and feel superior over their fellow man. The heart of a Pharisee tries to attain righteousness on his or her own strength and merit.

Throughout the Bible, Jesus has some stern words for the Scribes and Pharisees, but there is probably none sterner than Matthew 23. In this passage Jesus rebukes the Pharisees with seven different woes. Although there are several different areas Jesus rebukes them of, one of the main ones is this: The Pharisees care far more about external appearances while neglecting internal realities. In other words, the Pharisees were great at looking righteous on the outside, while ignoring the state of their own hearts.

It is like this for many Christians in our day too isn't it? We know what to wear on Sunday morning. We know good Christianese, and we can use big theological words. We have more merit badges for memorizing more Bible verses than the other kid. We give more in the offering than the guy on the pew next to us. We've attained that position of influence in the church and feel superior to everyone else. You see, many of us, just like the Pharisees think our external obedience can make up for our wicked hearts. We think if we could just be good enough, God must accept us!

Jesus tells the Pharisees in Matthew 23:25-26, "For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that outside may be clean." Jesus tells the Pharisees that they've got the order backwards. You can't clean up your outward behavior and expect it to transform your wicked heart. Transformation and righteousness starts within our hearts, and moves outward to external obedience. You see the Pharisees were so busy cleaning the outward part of the cup, all the while neglecting the inside.

Your outward religion and moralism will not save you. Period. You can't be good enough. You cannot give enough. You cannot serve enough. No matter how hard you try or how clean you make your outward cup, inside you are filthy. You see, we can't transform our own hearts. We are unable to clean that inward part of the cup. This is why we need Jesus!

Jesus died in your place for your sin. He takes on all your inward and outward filth, sin, and unrighteousness. For those who have faith and trust in him, he gives us purity. He gives us righteousness. Jesus, through the power of the Holy Spirit, takes that dirty cup and makes it spotless.

Your own works cannot save you. They are nothing but filthy rags. You need Jesus. Don't fall for the lie of religion that you can clean yourself up. You can't. Only Jesus can. Don't be like the prideful Pharisees, but may everyone of us fall on our face in humility before Jesus. From the deacon to the porn addict. From the Sunday School teacher to the homosexual. From the Pastor to the drunkard. We are all unclean before Jesus, and only by his blood are we made clean. There is no room for pride, because only through Jesus can we be saved.

4 Tips for Better Bible Study

The Word of God is powerful. It is sharper than any two edged sword. It cuts down to our very being and leaves us exposed to the truth. However Bible, study is not always easy. Studying the Bible and interpreting the Bible well does take some work. Here are four ways you can improve your Bible Study.

1. Pray A lot of times we approach Bible study as a purely intellectual exercise. We rush in self-sufficiency and think the only tool we need for understanding is our minds. This is totally false. Our intellects are sinful and faulty. We need the Holy Spirit to reveal to us the truth of Scripture. "The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned." - 1 Corinthians 2:14

2. Pay attention to Context When most people read the Scriptures they often rip verses kicking and screaming out of context. They ignore the sentences surrounding it. They ignore the context and purpose of the entire book. Do not make this error in your Bible Study. Always ask yourself, “how does this verse fit into the context of the book”

3. Do not Moralize The Bible does teach morality. It teaches us how we ought to live, but it also tells a story. The true story in which God is fixing all that’s gone wrong in this world through His son Jesus Christ. Rather than thinking David and Goliath is just about you standing up to your boss at work, begin to think through a Gospel lens. All of Scripture points us to Christ (Luke 24:27). So David and Goliath is not so much about you and your boss, but about pointing us to Jesus, the greater David who defeats the enemy called sin and death!

4. Always Make Application A danger we make in studying the Bible is that we never get to application. We learn a lot of facts. We learn the historical context. We learn the outline of Paul's argument in Romans, but we never make that step to apply it to our lives. Why? Because studying the Bible is easy, applying the Bible is tough. However the only Bible study transforms us is the study that we apply to ours lives. We must put into practice what the Spirit teaches us through the Scriptures. If we do not, our Bible study is incomplete.


The Key to Christian Growth: The Spirit or Self-Discipline?

I'm always disgusted by my own desire for the things of this world at the expense of the things of God.  As I am reading a biography of Jonathan Edwards, one of the things that has really challenged me is Edward's relentless discipline in keeping his mind and heart focused on Spiritual things.  In fact, he was a man just like any other who experienced spiritual highs and spiritual lows.  In describing one week of Edward's journaled highs and lows, Biographer George Marsden wrote the following:

 In his diary he also kept track of his spiritual highs and lows. On Saturday, December 22, 1722, he noted that he was particularly "affected with the sense of the excellency of holiness" and that he "felt more exercise of love to Christ than usual." On Monday the twenty-fourth he had "higher thoughts than usual of the excellency of Jesus Christ and his kingdom." The next day he "was hindered by the headache all day." By Saturday sunset, the time when the Sabbath began, he was "dull and lifeless." The next Tuesday the dullness persisted, despite the fact that he could not think of any "negligence" of which he was guilty. On Wednesday he reflected how without the Spirit of God, no amount of resolution could help him. Nevertheless, he also believed the inverse. Without the firmest resolution, he would not find the Spirit. So when finding that the tally of his "weekly account" had fallen low, he "Resolved, that I have been negligent in two things: in not striving enough in duty; and in not forcing myself upon religious thoughts."

The thing that challenges me about Edwards is his undying pursuit to ignite his affections for Jesus, all the while knowing that they would not ignite apart from the spirit.  When seeking to ignite the fires of our own spirituality we would do well to follow Edwards in his example.  The temptation so many of us have is to dichotomize our sanctification.  We either overemphasize God's sole sanctifying effort and become lazy and undisciplined Christians or we overemphasize discipline and diligence and try to sanctify ourselves in our own strength.

I am finding in my own life that the words of the apostle Paul in Philippians 2:12-13 is true when he writes, "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act for his good pleasure."  These verses so often puzzled me.  Am I responsible to work out my own salvation or is it God who works through me?  The answer is yes.  We are sanctified by the power of the Spirit alone, but at the same time we are given the responsibility to discipline ourselves and pursue Christ with rigorous dedication and relentless pursuit. Even Edwards, a strict Calvinist, understood the balance between the two.

So what does this mean for us in our own Christian maturity?  It means that we must  be relentless in our pursuit of Christ.  We must resolve to seek Christ above all worldly things. All the while we must remember, just as Edwards had, that without the sanctifying power of the Spirit, even the firmest resolution will fall.  In my own experience, I have found that when I feel dry spiritually, I stop and pray until I sense the Spirit's power.  Discipline yourself to read the Scriptures when your flesh is weak, and it is through those efforts that the Spirit works to sanctify us and make us like Jesus Christ.  Just as God has spoken through the prophet Jeremiah, "You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart." (Jer 29:13)

Have you found this to be true in your own life? What disciplines has the spirit worked through to ignite your affections for Jesus?  Share your thoughts in the comments! I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Pastor, Expect God to Work Through Your Preaching

As my preaching and teaching responsibilities at my church seem to always be increasing, it can be really easy to find myself forgetting to approach the pulpit with a sense of expectancy.  As you work hard and prepare your sermon, you bathe it in prayer as ask God to use you through the proclamation of his word.  However, it can be so easy for us to forget that at any moment and in any sermon God can do the unexpected.  Indeed, the task of preaching is glorious and mysterious.  Pastor, God is able to powerfully work through you in the lives of your congregation.  I like what Dr. Martyn-Lloyd Jones says about this: Seek Him! Seek Him!What can we do without him? Seek Him! Seek Him always. But go  beyond seeking Him; expect him.  Do you expect anything to happen whey you get up to preach in a pulpit?  Or do you just say to yourself, ‘Well, I have prepared my address, I am going to give them this address; some of them will appreciate it and some will not?’ Are you expecting it to be the turning point in someone’s life? Are you expecting anyone to have a climactic experience? That is what preaching is meant to do.

May we never forget this.  May we never find ourselves in a rut monotony in our preaching ministries.  Through preaching the Spirit raises the dead to life.  Through preaching the Spirit can bring about revival in an instant.  Don't grow weary in your task to proclaim the Scriptures, and expect the Spirit to work powerfully through you.  Pastor, may we  praise God that he has called us to this most sacred task of exalting Jesus and proclaiming the Gospel!

The Unpredictable Holy Spirit

"The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." - Jesus (John 3:8) The Spirit of God is wild.  It cannot be tamed.  It cannot be controlled or manipulated.  It cannot be scheduled or planned.  The spirit blows where it blows, just like the unpredictable wind.  In the greek there is an obvious word play taking place as Jesus says this, because the word for wind and spirit are the exact same word.  Jesus is comparing the Holy Spirit to the mysterious wind.

The Spirit Cannot Be Controlled

We try so hard to control the Holy Spirit don't we?  We try to organize every aspect of our worship services so that emotions run high.  We plan out a dynamic change in our worship music at just the right moment in order to try to control the Spirit.  However Jesus makes it clear.  The Holy Spirit cannot be controlled.  He is wild and untamed.  The Spirit does what the Spirit wills.  Our pitiful attempts to try to control the Spirit is like trying to cage the wind.

The Spirit Cannot Be Scheduled

We like results instantly don't we? If we want our food, we want it now.  So fast food restaurants are every where.  If we want movies we want them now, thus the whole rise of instant streaming movies and TV shows.  However the Spirit of God doesn't work on our time tables.  However, so often we forget this and in great arrogance we try to plan a revival.  We set aside a week out of the year and tell everyone, "Okay this week the Holy Spirit is going to bring a revival, so be sure to be here because we have a great speaker and good music!"  The Spirit of God does often work powerfully during those weeks, but I suggest that he does not do so because we put it on the schedule, but because people come with a sense of expectancy as they hear the Word of God preached day after day.  However, at the end of the day, the only way a true revival is coming to any church or people is if the Spirit of God decides to show up. This could be at any time and any place.  The Holy Spirit cannot be scheduled.

The Spirit Cannot Be Forced

So often we attempt to force the Holy Spirit to work in someones life.  This gets incredibly dangerous when pastors begin trying to manipulate people in order to come down the aisle and make decisions.  We try to force someone to accept Christ, even though the Spirit hasn't done a work in their heart and mind to show them the beauty of Christ.  You cannot force anyone to become a Christian.  You cannot manipulate someone into following Christ.  You share the Gospel boldly and often, and pray that the Spirit would come and change their hearts.  The Spirit comes when the Spirit wills, and the Spirit works in whomever the Spirit wills.  It is a mystery of God how and we cannot force the Spirit to work in other peoples lives.

The Spirit is like the wind, it blows where it blows.  We might hear the sound of the Spirit.  We might see the Spirit work powerfully, but ultimately the Spirit of God is a mystery to us.  You cannot bottle the Spirit up and use it as you will.  May we live our lives in prayerful expectancy that the Holy Spirit would bring revival to our churches and to our communities.  The Spirit of God is powerful, and we never know when he might move.  In fact, the Spirit might work in your church or through you at the most unexpected time.  Pray that God would send His Spirit and then wait in eager expectation for the Spirit of God to come in power!

Should We Have Altar Calls?

The great preacher Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones had the practice of not having altar calls at the end of his sermons.  Today, it is a practice that takes place almost every Sunday in many of our churches today.  The practice of altar calls is a relatively new idea in the history of Christianity.  Charles Finny began to practice them as we know them today during the 2nd great awakening.  As a result, we need to think carefully about the practice.  In his book Preaching and Preachers, Dr. Jones lists out his reasons why he never did alter calls.  I share them with you in hopes that they might challenge your thinking like they did my own.  The following are the Doctor’s arguments for not doing altar calls:

  1. It is wrong to put direct pressure on the will.
  2. Too much pressure on the will is dangerous, because in the end the man may come forward because he has been swayed by the personality of the preacher, but has not been swayed by the truth.
  3. The preaching and the Word and the call for decision should not be separate in our thinking
  4. The method of altar calls carries the implication that sinners have an inherent power of decision and of self-conversion.
  5. There is an implication here that the evangelist somehow is in a position to manipulate the Holy Spirit and His work.
  6. Alter calls tend to produce a superficial conviction of sin, if any at all.
  7. By having alter calls you are encouraging people to think that their act of going forward somehow saves them.
  8. Does it not raise the whole question of the doctrine of regeneration?

The opinionated preacher from Wales is bound to step on some of our toes.  I encourage you to buy the whole book and read it.  It is fantastic.  What do you think? Do you disagree with the Doctor on altar calls? Why?  What are the dangers of practicing altar calls?  I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

The Foolishness of the Gospel

The Gospel, the good news of what Christ has accomplished through his life, death, and resurrection, is the hope of the world.  Just like Paul, I can confidently say that I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, for it is the power of God for salvation for all who believe.  Although the Gospel is the power of God and the hope for the world, the world doesn't understand it.  According to the wisdom of the world, the Gospel is utter foolishness. In 1 Corinthians 1:26ff, Paul tells us that God brought about salvation to the world in a way that seemed foolish to the world in order to shame those who claim to be wise. If we think according to the wisdom of the world, the Gospel really does seem so foolish. The Jewish people in Jesus' day were eagerly awaiting the coming of the promised Messiah.  They expected the Messiah to be a powerful King and a mighty warrior with military skill greater than David and riches greater than Solomon.  This Messiah was supposed to be the great warrior to lead a rebellion against the pagan and oppressive Roman Government. The Messiah was to be born in a palace, not a stable.  He was to be rich and wealthy, not homeless and poor.  He was to hang out with successful people, not with the sinners and tax collectors.  He was to ride into Jerusalem victoriously on a horse, not in peace on a donkey.  He was to wear a gold crown fit for a king, not a crown of thistles and thorns.  He was to rule and reign in power on his throne, not hang in defeat on a tree.

The ministry of Jesus was foolishness in the eyes of the world. Why wouldn't anyone want a suffering servant for a Messiah? God chose to do what was foolish in the eyes of the world to reveal the wisdom of God.  God brought victory over sin and death by letting Jesus be defeated and killed on the cross.  Life has come through death.  Success has come through failure. Victory has come through defeat. The cross was utter foolishness in every way in the eyes of the world.  Yet on the third day, he rose from the grave affirming the wisdom of God!

God brought salvation in this way to humble the proud, so that no one would be able to boast and say "I've figured it all out!".  Jesus was the Messiah no one expected. For those of us who are believers in Jesus and born of the Spirit, we see the wisdom of the Gospel. Those who are not in Christ think the Gospel is foolish. Now before you Christians start getting cocky and claiming that you are wiser than everyone else, you are missing Paul's point. In 1 Corinthians 2 Paul says that the only reason anyone is able to see the wisdom of God in the Gospel is because of a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit.  The wisdom of the Gospel can only be discerned through the enabling of the Holy Spirit. It is by God's grace alone that he has revealed to you the beauty of Jesus. You didn't figure it out; God revealed it to you. Therefore, you have no room for boasting, but only drastic humility.

In the eyes of the world, the Gospel of Jesus is foolishness, but to those of us who have been born of the Spirit we see and know the wisdom of God in the foolishness of the Gospel. Therefore, in response let us seek to proclaim this good news to everyone and pray that God would reveal to our lost friends, neighbors, and co-workers the wisdom of the Gospel. As we tell them the good news, let us remember that it is a work of the Spirit, not our own wisdom or cunning who will bring our friends to Christ. Pray diligently and preach fervently.

The Power for Change

There is a sea of self help books in the book store. They are out there telling us the 10 ways to change our life.  In fact, it seems that the whole self help industry has sky rocketed over my life time.  Pop Psychologists like Dr. Phil seem to be every where. On our televisions, on our radios, and in our books. What is it about the condition of our own hearts that makes this self-help industry so huge? In an age where tolerance and a "be who you are" worldview is so widely promoted, you'd think there wouldn't be a whole industry of self improvement. It is almost as if we know that there is something incredibly wrong with us and we scavenge around looking for the quickest way to lose weight or the easiest way to repair our marriage or the painless way to break free from addictions, all the while we remain incredibly frustrated in our own reality. We want to cover up who we are. We want to improve ourselves so that the world can't see how filthy we really are. We need help, but no amount of will power, self-esteem, or pop psychology will fix this.  We need something more… We need the Gospel.

The Bible in Ephesians 2:1 states that we are dead in our trespasses and sins. We are so consumed with ourselves that there is literally no life. We are nothing but a corpse. We are Lazarus rotting in the grave. The stench and foulness of our condition is gross and disgusting. We try to fix ourselves, but there is no life.  If we are successful in change, we replace our sin with another sin, normally an arrogant pride, or we stay miserably addicted to our sin. Within in ourselves there is no power for drastic heart transformational change. The only hope comes from the same power that raised Christ from the dead, the resurrecting and regenerating power of the Holy Spirit.

When Jesus died on the cross, he defeated the power sin has over us. When the Holy Spirit comes upon us at the moment of conversion, we are given a brand new heart. A heart in which sin has no power. Ezekiel talks about this incredible transformation called by theologians, regeneration.

 "A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.  And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances." -Ezekiel 36:26-27

This miraculous heart change is a mystery to us. I do not pretend to fully understand it.  Jesus made it clear that "The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit."

I do know this however, that the only hope and power for change comes from the gracious gift of God found in Jesus. When we place our hope and trust in Jesus for Salvation this miraculous event takes place in our hearts. If you are not a believer in the Lord Jesus, He is your hope for transformation and new life, not Dr. Phil. Trust in Jesus today. If you are a Christian, you are not dependent on pop-psychology, you are dependent on Jesus for the power and source of change as you work out your salvation, "for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose" (Phil 2:12-13).

As you begin to make your New Years Resolutions, be sure to trust in Jesus not yourself. You will fail, Jesus will not. However always remember, that even if you do fail, and lets be honest most of us will, your right standing with God isn't based on your performance, it is based on the blood of Jesus Christ. In Jesus you have a perfect righteousness credited to your account, therefore you have the freedom to fail, and that means the gift of 2nd chances, and 3rd chances, and 4th chances…

What are Your Gifts?

How has the Holy Spirit gifted you? I don't know if you have ever sat down and thought about that question, but if you haven't, you should. Knowing your gifts is crucial to understanding how you will love and serve the body of Christ. Lately, I've been thinking a lot about my own spiritual gifts and how I can prioritize my time doing what the Holy Spirit has gifted me in the most. As one of the pastors at Forest Hills Baptist Church, I'm constantly thinking how our church can take all the varying gifts of our congregation and put our volunteers in place for maximum kingdom impact. This idea of church members working together in their gifts for the sake of the Gospel is demonstrated by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12.

Paul uses an analogy and compares the church to a human body. Paul says that like each member of the body is unique and serves a specific purpose, so should the church resemble this structure. As a leader, this means putting people where they are most gifted. For example, you don't want to put someone with the gift of hospitality in charge of the church budget, rather you'd want to maximize their gifting by placing them in a home group ministry or on the welcoming team.

When each member of the church are using the gifts the Spirit has given them, it truly is a miraculous thing. All different people, with different personalities, and different talents and abilities, coming together for one purpose and one purpose only, the advancement of the Gospel

What has the Holy Spirit gifted you? How can you maximize your gifts for the greatest kingdom impact in your local congregation?

As a leader in your church, how can you restructure things so that your volunteers are able to fully use their gifts?