It All Hangs in the Balance

Balance. This is something that we seem to be moving farther away from. While we tout an understanding of the two Great Commandments – to “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39), we seem to have functionally degenerated into a debate on which one is greater. This was never God’s point. Had man not been created, there would be no hearts, souls, or minds, to love Him. And the simple fact of the matter is that you can’t Love God with all your heart, mind, and soul without loving your neighbor. And you can’t love your neighbor as you love yourself without concern, thought, and effort for your neighbor to know the God you love. You may not realize it, but God wants your neighbor to love Him with all their heart, mind and soul, also. These commandments are symbiotic. They are in balance. They are God’s design.

Please don’t assume that by balance I mean equality. The greatest commandment is the greatest. But the second – now don’t bet upset that I name drop here – according to Jesus, is like it: similar, close, in balance. And this simple reality flies in the face of our current and prolific move away from balance. You see, you have to take one position, not two. You can’t hold one position and agree with part of another. You have to choose which one is right. They can’t both (or all) be. And while your emotional identity may be tied to the singular position of your choosing, the eternal lives of the lost hang in the balance. And when we change the balance, their lives may truly be lost.

Early in my ministry, I remember heavy debates on whether “evangelism” or “discipleship” was the most important ministry of the church, and by implication and intent, for individual Christians as well. The passionate debaters would seek sides and identify your side, whether you had one or not. Those who favored evangelism were painted with the abandonment brush – as in, “All you’re concerned about is their spiritual birth… you abandon them so that you can move on to the next spiritual birth.” I even heard it referred to as the highly offensive “spiritual stillbirth.” Those who claimed discipleship as the greatest value were often painted with the cowardice brush – as in, “You are just afraid to share the Gospel” or the failure brush – as in, “You’ve just taken that position because no one is getting saved in your ministry.” As rounds of debate came to an end, each participant would retreat to their corner, determined to prove the other wrong, rather than seeing that both sides make one whole. And the lives of the lost and the ministries of the saved hang in the balance.

Evangelism comes easier to me than most. Because of the God-invasion in my life, I became a bold and vocal Christian (though sometimes, not in the best of balance). Because He answered a broken-hearted prayer out of my fear of evangelism, that boldness encompassed the sharing of the Gospel. This became and is a passion for me. So passionate, that not only do I want others to know my Christ, I want other Christ-followers to know how to share and how important it is to live lives the align with the message they share. I remember early Tuesday morning breakfast meetings with students, teaching them how to share their faith and debriefing with them on how the previous week had gone. I remember times in our Wednesday night teaching/worship time that students who knew how to share their faith would leave the room with a friend so that they could purposefully and deliberately give that friend an opportunity to accept Christ. I remember taking ministry leaders with me so that they could learn the “how” behind the “what” – the “do” beside the “know” –  that they had studied for years; years in rooms filled with Christ-followers but no new followers.

Discipleship and Evangelism. Loving God and loving your neighbor. Balance. The lives of the lost and ministry of the saved all hang in this. They are symbiotic. This is God’s design. And here, I believe, is an illustration for why much discipleship is in name only. You see, in the memories above, I never used a program – someone else’s creation of resources that were, with the best of intentions, designed, packaged, and sold out of someone else’s experience – experience that I did not possess. You can only lead from where you’ve been. Discipleship is not merely book study – although studying books can be part of the process. If you’ve not gotten your hands dirty, you won’t be able to show anyone else how to dirty their hands. Discipleship is not passing on what you’ve read. Discipleship is not passing on what you’ve been taught. It is not passing on what you merely understand.

Discipleship is passing on what you experientially know by helping others to know it experientially.

I’ve been in churches where leaders talked about the need for evangelism. In particular, I won’t soon forget the lay-leader that spoke to the need, believed in accountability for the staff in this area, and even taught classes on how to “share Jesus without fear”. When asked to share about the last time he had led someone to Christ in his 60+ years of life, he could not think of one. That’s like asking someone about the day they got married and not being able to remember anything about it. Like asking about the birth of their child and not being able to remember anything about it. The likely truth is that such a person has not actually been married or had a child. And the lives of those who don’t know Christ hang in the balance – the balance of know and do. The balance of talk and go. The balance of faith and action. The balance of worship and witness. The balance of evangelism and discipleship.

Faith without works.
Is.
Dead.

Today, the debate terminology has changed, but the message is still the same. It is still Spiritual Us vs Spiritual Them. Even when Jesus’ instructions included to simply “leave them alone” (Luke 9_49:50), we still struggle to realize that telling those without Christ about Christ is a more important pursuit than trying to convince those with Christ that either Calvin or Arminius is correct and the other incorrect. Even though the lives of those without Christ hang in the balance of how we live and communicate today, we spend time trying to convince those with Christ about how and when they will see Him in the future be it pre, post, or a. If their lives really hang in the balance (and they really do), then please stand in front of a mirror (so as to have someone to convince) and elaborate for just a minute or two on this question: How does your understanding of Christ’s return, and your subsequent passion to convince other believers of your position, make any difference in how you love your neighbor as yourself” or in your ability to pass on this experiential knowledge to others? Your neighbor’s lives hang in the balance.

We have, unfortunately, learned to defend our doctrinal positions and Biblical knowledge much like our politicians defend theirs. We’ve learned debate techniques from our favorite Fox or CNN politicos. “My” side is the truth and has value; the other side is not true and has no value. I applaud Christian leaders that resist this pull. Theirs is the effort to maintain balance in a world that increasingly seeks to divide, debate, and destroy. Fortunately for us, God’s word provides the balance we need. Unfortunately, many of the side-seekers most often don’t follow the full wisdom of God in their pursuits. There are favorite passages, powerful passages, and reasoned conclusions based on these passages. However, there are other passages – either ignorantly or deliberately ignored – that can provide greater balance. This proof-texting builds communities and followings, but this debate about words does not build the kingdom.

As time and resources are all the more consumed by the world and culture around us, the church is feeling the squeeze to do more with less, and what often is the “more” is what is expedient or easy, rather than what is required. We have more Bible studies so that we can “know Him more”. We have worship pageantry so that we can “love Him more”. We align our purpose with these priorities – to know God more (a good thing), to love God more (a good thing). We proclaim that we worship in spirit and truth (both good things). But this leaves little to no time for loving our neighbors. Can you feel the pendulum pulled to the God side? Love the Lord your God with all your heart… (a really good thing). But as it is pulled to the God-side, it is pulled away from the neighbor side (not a good thing). Because Jesus said that this side is like the God-side. I will promise you that your available knowledge of and worship toward God will be wholly incomplete without sharing what you know with those who don’t.

Did you know that there are couples that by choice have no children? Absolutely their right. This is their choice. I am confident that these couples love each other. They, in fact, have a chosen path whereby they can give all of their love and affection to one another. They sacrifice for one another. They enjoy life together. In fact, regardless of their professions, they have greater resources to enjoy life and help others than do couples who have children. And ultimately, their heritage and lineage stop with them. This fact does not impugn their decision to be childless. It is, however, the undeniable and ultimate conclusion that the end of their lives is the end of the line.

Churches whose singular focus is on loving and knowing the Lord their God, do in fact love Him. I am confident that He loves them. They have more resources to spend on enjoying life with Him than churches who expend resources on making and developing spiritual children. And it is the undeniable and ultimate conclusion that the end of their church will be at their lives end. How has it become possible, in some circles, that Calvinism, Arminianism, Pre-millennialism, Post-millennialism, and/or Amillennialism (this is NOT an exhaustive list) consume more time and effort than evangelism?

I will never be one to say that Bible Study and Worship are not valuable; that learning of and loving God are not priorities. However, alone they are out of balance. God desires that we also love our neighbors as ourselves. In like fashion, it will never be my position that you are not entitled to your position. (Please don’t be offended, however, if I choose to simply leave you alone.)

Take a look at scripture and see which characters focused on worship and knowing God’s word to the exclusion of loving their neighbors. What characters spent more time talking about what they believed than living what they believed? What characters spent more time debating the minutiae of God’s Word in deference to the magnitude of His commands? Love the Lord your God. Love your neighbor as yourself. Go. Make Disciples. Teach them (experientially). Your ministry, and their lives, hang in the balance.

The Problem with My Neighbors

Near Neighbor Focus

If this were a fill-in-the-blank question, your initial response may have been something like, “Where do I begin?”

That’s certainly not true for all of us, neither is it true for all of our neighbors, but we can all imagine it is true for others. In like fashion, even if we don’t have a beginning place of problems with our neighbors, we are not sure if the opposite is not true. Something as simple as the frequency or timing of mowing the grass or where we keep our outdoor trash cans can cause a less than positive opinion. Move on to the color of our house, the noise our kids make, or even the unintended failure to wave a greeting in the past can all color our neighbors’ opinion of us.

We know this to be true. Those who live next to us know us better than we think they do, just like we know them better than they think we do. We see each other’s comings and goings, values, child-rearing skills, hobbies, how we spend our money, and more. And that’s part of the problem. Because we know them, and they know us, they fall into the category of the “difficult” to reach. Nearness breeds knowledge and knowledge is power: power to compare, power to resist, power to reject. A tough crowd for the gospel.

In addition, helping your neighbors is part of the give and take of getting along. They help you, you help them – quid pro quo. If nothing else, it helps to keep peace in the neighborhood. There is inherently something “in it for you” when you help your neighbor and vice versa. Just last week, I asked our neighbors to bring in our trash can after the pickup on Monday, as we would be out of town. They know they can ask the same of us (and have). It takes time and much effort for your neighbor to see that you are genuinely a helpful person. I’m not suggesting that you don’t take the time and effort, I’m just suggesting that it is part of the problem in getting to the place where you can share Christ with them.

Another part of the problem is that we don’t understand Jesus’ instructions about neighbors. While it is absolutely true that Jesus cares about those who live closest to us, He cares equally about those who don’t. There are two Biblical passages that we need to understand together.

The first is found in Luke 10:25-37. We know it as the story of the Good Samaritan, but for the purpose of this post, let’s call it the answer to “Who is my Neighbor?” And to be very, very clear, Jesus was not trying to teach us anything about those who live in closest to us. Let’s pick it up on vs 29:

But he [a lawyer], wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Then Jesus answered and said: “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a certain priest came down that road. And when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise, a Levite, when he arrived at the place, came and looked, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was. And when he saw him, he had compassion. So he went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; and he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said to him, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you.’ So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?”

And he [the lawyer] said, “He who showed mercy on him.”

Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Jesus could have very easily told a parable about the tough crowd. He could have just as easily talked about the neighbor across the street that was beaten severely when his home was broken into and robbed. He could have talked about the neighbor on the left who ignored the situation, as well as the neighbor on the right. He could have introduced the neighbor across the street that just moved in, who went to take care of the wounded man: …to .. bandage his wounds, pour on oil and wine; and he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.

But he didn’t tell this story. He told a story about a stranger – someone who did not share proximity. I believe there are at least two reasons for this.

The One who tells us to go into the whole world to share the gospel never wanted us to condense our concern to those whose space borders our own. He knew this crowd was tough. Look at Matthew 13:53-58
When Jesus had finished these parables, he moved on from there. Coming to his hometown, he began teaching the people in their synagogue, and they were amazed. “Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?” they asked. “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas? Aren’t all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” And they took offense at him.

But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town and in his own home.” 

His own town. His own home. “Neighbors”.

In almost every circumstance where Jesus showed mercy, it was to a stranger. It is true that before His time came, many he helped had heard of Him, but they were still strangers, or at the most acquaintances who had seen Him before.

The church could learn much about discipleship in this area from baseball.

Very young players learn the game by hitting a ball on a tee. They call it T-ball. They graduate from that to coach pitch. Balls are lobbed in by a coach so they can learn to hit a moving target from someone who is not trying to strike them out.

Neither of these levels are considered the “tough crowd” of baseball.

Then, you move up to the next level. You get a pitcher that wants to strike you out. But by then, you have had enough practice to be able to stand in there and deal with what comes your way. Hang in there long enough, and you can get to high school, college, the minors, and for the very rare few – a shot in the Bigs.

Each step along the way prepares you to be able to deal with what comes your way. Your previous experience makes the next crowd less tough. So why is our first step today in encouraging people to share their faith to point them at one of the toughest crowds they will face? (Family is also very tough for all the same reasons.) And often, we point them, but we do not show them.

We tacitly imply that since God cares for our neighbors (and family) it is solely our responsibility to see to that they hear about Jesus, as if in their decades of existence no one else has or will; as if they will certainly be hell-bound if we don’t tell them – it will be our fault… this is not true!

Why don’t we show them (show, not just tell) how to share their faith in less difficult situations, giving them practice and experience that will be valuable when God does provide an opportunity at the next level.

Here are just some of the other issues with focusing on near neighbors instead of focusing on those to whom you can show mercy (service, help, aid, assistance, care) without quid pro quo… doing for others in need who cannot return the favor… strangers.

It just doesn’t add up. Regardless of how big your church and community are, Christians are the minority. If you were to fill up every seat in every church in your town on a given Sunday, it would not be out of line to consider that 75% or more of your town would not be seated. Near Neighbor Focus means that up to 75% of your town will not have anyone who is working to share Christ with them, because they don’t have a Christian neighbor.

Of the 25% who are sitting in the church seats, my experience is that less than 10% of those know how or have shared their faith with a lost person. (That is, in part, because they have never had a pastor, mentor, friend, or leader that has trained them and shown them how.) That means that 90% of your town will not hear the gospel from a neighbor, because they have no Christian neighbor or their Christian neighbor is not going to tell them, even with the strong push from their church leadership.

In addition, I don’t begin to know how to factor in the percentages of those in a church who are not encouraged to share the Gospel. If we accept it as fact that there are churches that do not encourage evangelism, then it may be safe to assume that this Near Neighbor Focus will effectively influence evangelistic conversations with 1% to 3% of the “neighbors” in town.

Jesus never intended for us to condense our concern to our own neighborhood. That is not what he meant by “neighbor”.

It can be a waste of time and energy. Another way to say this is, “When do you stop?” The easy answer is “Never”, but that is not the Jesus model. Again, you are not the only person that God can send their way. Your responsibility, if you accept and act on it, is to tell. Their response is between them and the Lord.

In Mark 6:8-12, Jesus sent the disciples out in pairs to various towns. Among the instructions he gave them, was to discern when it was time to move on, to stop in that place and go to the next. He said, “And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.” (6:11)

If your near neighbor doesn’t listen, please don’t imagine that Jesus intends for you to keep banging on them until they submit. To keep spending your time and energy on someone who might hear it differently someday from someone else – perhaps a Christ follower who helps them in a real time of need with no quid pro quo. There are so many more that need your time and energy with the Gospel… it’s OK to move on.

What do you do when you’re done? Let’s say you are one of the rare ones that make it to the “Bigs” – you are ready willing and able to share the gospel with your near neighbors. Either they listen or they don’t, but you’ve done what you’ve been encouraged to do. All eight of your neighbors have heard about Christ from you. They understand the gospel message and have responded or not.

Now what? Are you done? You no longer have to share the gospel because you’ve shared with your neighbors? Hardly. You apparently have two choices.

  1. You can move to a new home so that you have new neighbors.
  2. You are now you’re at the place that Jesus taught about and ministered to – strangers and acquaintances. How are you going to do that? We should figure this out because there are so many more of them….

What are you going to do?

The church needs to be The Church. Jesus did not intend for most of us to stand alone. In fact, the church – the body of Christ – should be the source of our ministry together in the community, not just disparate individuals living out the Christ-life and alone serving and witnessing to others. The church needs to foment the spirit of and practice of the evangelistic lifestyle by modeling, training and creating the reputation for the church that aligns with Scripture.

When Jesus showed up in a place, He quickly created a presence and reputation of help and relief. Remember, he called it “mercy” in the parable? Those who traveled with Him shared in this reputation. The word of His ministry spread because of the integrity of His reputation. Those who traveled with Him shared in this reputation. Their word about Jesus was believable because of this reputation.

We live in a culture where the “church” has a different reputation. Thanks to the internet and very public fails of prominent Christian leaders; very public falls of those who preach something other than Jesus, but in His name; and the very real legalism and culture wars within local congregations, the community around us “knows” our reputation even though what they “know” may not align with what we think our reputation is. But get this if you don’t get anything else: If your church is not proactive in the community, demonstrating your real values and heart – your reputation, then you will inherit whatever reputation your neighbors believe all churches have.

As church leaders, you must lead your church to be that place of hope, grace, and relief for those in your community and beyond. You will have to double-down to overcome the reputation that you have been painted with by virtue of the fact that you are a church. Find needs and meet them. Help people in real need. Involve your members in building a reputation that your members can be proud of, so they can, like Jesus’ followers, easily say, “Come and see”, and their words will be believed because of the reputation of the church.

“Come and see” is T-ball witnessing. It is up to the church to create a reputation that will empower the witness. As a believer learns to handle the harder stuff coming in, the reputation of the church will not be as important to their individual witness. But there should always be new believers that need to first step up to the tee.

When people “come and see”, the church needs to be prepared with systems and a process whereby those with more experience can create opportunities to share the gospel.

Experienced believers may even get to the point where they can share with a really tough crowd. This may be, while Paul went to the Gentiles, all of the other disciples, for the most part, stayed with the Jews. God loves the tough crowds, too. But, in this journey, many others will hear about Jesus along the way.

Does it really matter who tells your near neighbor about Jesus, as long as they are told? Does it matter more that your neighbor is told than the neighbor 3 doors down? A church – or churches working together in a community – who provide the reputation, motivation, resources, training and experience necessary for T-ball witnessing through “Bigs” evangelism will be The Church. Many neighbors will be told. Many more than with the Near Neighbor Focus.

They just won’t all be your… neighbor.

The Cross vs The Grave

He paid a debt He did not owe

I owed a debt I could not pay.

I am the offspring of an agnostic Jew and lapsed Lutheran. I did not meet Christ through the witness of an evangelical, by reading a tract (Chick or otherwise), or being persuaded by the preaching of the Gospel or any other part of the scripture. I did not meet Christ in church, though I was there most Sundays.

Both of my parents were religious in their own ways. Dad, Jewish by birth and an admitted agnostic, believed that God “set the world spinning and then left it alone”. There were no consequences of sin in his system, even though there was the occaisional expectation of adherance to one Jewish tenet or another, while rejecting so many others. I never understood what Mom believed. Raised as a Lutheran, the church, the Bible, Jesus… I have no memory of any of this being a part of her conversation or life direction.

Jesus invaded my life at Ft. Jackson, SC as an 18 year old Army National Guard trainee. I did not know that He would. I did not ask for or expect what He did. I simply begged Him for help with the complete self-awareness that my life was such a mess, that I no longer wanted to be who I was. I was wretched, profane, lustful, angry, jealous, proud, arrogant, and friendless. I was alone and knew that I knew no way out.

I did not have labels for all of what I was. And I did not know or understand what help would come, I only knew that there was no other place to turn to for help. In an instant I was changed. No sinner’s prayer, no memorized verses – just a simple one word plea for “help”. The invasion was instantaneous and complete; the journey only just begun.

My parents rejected the radical change they saw in my life. And let me be clear, this change they saw was only a joy in my countenance and conversation. I did not know scripture. I did not have a church to recommend. At this point, no one had spoken into my life about my speech or behavior (though there was much about both that Christ would later step into). I was only changed. I did not know how to explain why, but it was painfully obvious to them.

In fact, I was one that was so “lost”, I did not know that I was “saved”. I didn’t know what that meant. Though I was in a Protestant church most Sundays, I had never heard that word in the spiritual context. A brief encounter with a storefront bible study leader gave verbiage to my voice when he showed me in God’s Word what had happened to me. It was then that the words “Jesus” and “saved” became part of my conversation. But by then, my parents were already convinced I had joined a cult. They were so convinced until their deaths, that they, on more than one occasion, tried to turn me at first, and then years later my children, away from Christ.

As I grew up, the church – because it was my only social outlet – was a big part of my life. I was there almost every week. Acolyte, youth group, choir, handbells, media… I did it all. I attended 2 out of 3 years of catechism classes, and my church “confirmed” I was a Christian by telling me I was (even though, by their standards, I was only ⅔ Christian). They even gave me a certificate. I was baptized when I was 13 because – and only because – I realized I was the only one in my Sunday School class that had not been baptized. In fact, my 3 siblings and I were all baptized at the same time because – and only because – of that realization.

I knew about God because they talked about Him a lot. I knew about Jesus because they talked about Him a lot. I knew He died on the cross because of pictures and the Easter story. And therein lies the sum total of what I comprehended about salvation from my quasi-religious parents and active church life.

Today, I know exactly what Jesus did for me. I know what I am forgiven for. And that forgiveness was provided by an experience so much harder, so much more gruesome than the cross, we do Jesus an injustice to give the cross that credit. I am not saying the cross is unimportant. I am not saying the cross was not a fulfillment of prophecy. And I am certainly not saying that the cross is neither rugged nor old.

What I am saying is, one of these things is not like the other:

Jesus died on the cross.
Jesus died for my sin.

They both happened. They are both important. They are symbiotic in a critical process. But they’re not the same thing.

The death He died for my sin, was the death I will not experience. I may experience a difficult and gruesome death, be it a cross or cancer, but I will never experience the more difficult and costly death from which I am saved – because of what he did to free me from that. And the devastation and agony of THAT death cannot be adequately compared to the temporary pain and suffering of the cross.

Jesus died on the cross so that he could die for my sin.

Jesus physically died on the cross so that he could then pay the spiritual price for my sin.

And if you think that the physical death was worse than the spiritual one, please consider that you need to reconsider.

He paid a debt he did not owe.

I owed a debt I could not pay.

My Inkling

Because of a very difficult illness suffered by my wife (and thereby, our entire family) as our kids were growing up, God gave me in our children answer to prayer that I had no words for which to ask. Each of them brought into my life a portion of God’s grace that helped save me emotionally, and save our family.

While my wife was so ill, and I was seemingly so alone, our oldest wanted to talk – to talk theology, to debate, to challenge – while in middle school and beyond. Oh, how I needed someone to talk to – and take my mind off of the lot of our lives at that time. I still cherish opportunities for those conversations.

Our middle child was full of grace and care. She was the “daddy’s girl”. She forgave me when I was gruff or angry. She just knew when I needed a hug. She understood without being asked how much we needed her help with her Mom. Oh, how I needed that unconditional care and grace!

Our youngest, our son, could make you laugh just by walking in the room or by giving any number of “looks” that can’t be reproduced by anyone else. I can’t tell you how powerfully important that was to me in those days – to be able to laugh in the midst of terrible days. And I still look forward to the looks!

Bethany, my mind; Sarah, my heart; and Jesse, my soul. God gave me in my children the protection and strength to press on; just a bit of Himself with flesh on…

Bethany graduated from high school the year before a job situation forced us to move from Georgia to Colorado. I was getting accustomed to her being gone, even though she was just two hours away. Sarah was about to be a high school senior. Her church and friends were a tremendous strength in her life. As we looked at all of the scenarios involving the move, we determined that the best thing to do was to leave Sarah in Georgia with dear friends, so that she could continue to flourish.

We moved – our full house now down to three.

I wept every day for months. My “mind” was at college. I missed her, but this was the way it was supposed to be. My “soul” – gratefully – was with us in Colorado. But my “heart” was absent. Separated. Distant. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

I missed her every day. I missed every day of her senior year. I missed every game she played, every event she was in. Every joy she experienced. Every pain she endured. And I missed her much needed grace – the hugs, forgiveness, and care. I still weep today at times for her – and for all we missed together. I miss her still.

That’s just my inkling of “forsaken”.

Jesus did not cry out when beaten. He did not cry out when nailed. He only cried out when He was forsaken. To pay for our sin, the Father had to leave the Son. For the first time – the only time – in all of eternity, they were seperated. He became alone, so you and I would never be alone again. In agony, Jesus cried out, experiencing the incomprehensible pain of this forsakenness. And then he died. And then, for what we count as a bit more than 2 days, he died again: he paid for my sin, your sin, and the sin of the entire world. This is the death that the song speaks of.

He paid a debt He did not owe.

He took on the consequences of my sin and yours. He applied to himself that which The Father would never allow into the heavenly kingdom. He immersed himself in the wretched, profane, lustful and grotesque. He covered Himself with the appalling, the horror, the pain, and the grief. He took on the mantle of the abusive, the murderous, and the decaying. He wrapped himself in the garments of the arrogant and proud, liars and cheaters; and the morally filthy and corrupt. My sin. And yours.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

Jesus did die on the cross.

And then He paid a debt He did not owe.

The cross took hours.

The grave took days.

And if you think that the physical death was worse than the spiritual one, please consider that you need to reconsider. If you think the cross was the hard task, then ask yourself – given the choice, which one would you choose?

Skip the cross and take the grave.
Take the cross and skip the grave.

Some may ask, “Then why the cross?”

Indeed, this question has been asked for centuries. If the battle for our sin was in the spiritual realm, then what difference did it make how He died. Why not a heart attack or old age? Why such a gruesome physical death if the spiritual death was what mattered.

“To fulfill prophecy” is not the sufficient answer to “Why”. Whatever the mode of His death, that is what would have been prophesied. That is not why this matters. It matters because this was His choice. And like every other event, conversation, miracle and relationship in His life, this was a purposeful and deliberate decision.

The cross does matter, so important that He endured it. I believe it to be His final parable. A picture-story so horrific, that for any with eyes to see and ears to hear, they would have at least an inkling of, to the degree possible for man, the devastating price he paid, what He has forgiven us from, and what agape love truly means.

I can’t imagine a stronger picture-parable of the ultimate sacrifice He paid. The price of our sin is high. This was no easy task, so no easy physical death would do. He spent every breath of His life, every waking moment strategically and purposefully revealing, teaching, and preparing those who followed Him to understand and pursue their calling to continue to follow him. Their understanding of the price that was paid, and the subsequent victory that was won was sufficient to move his disciples to a life-long pursuit of that call, even when long life was not their lot. And for this pursuit, He provided a vivid, tangible story-experience to empower that work; to give verbiage to their voice and ours – to give us an inkling by what was seen, of that which was unseen; that we may be able to bear witness to the depth of His sacrifice on our behalf.

I have to tell you, the cross alone, for me, is not sufficient to that end. But the war He fought for me with Death and the Grave; beaten back in the victory of His resurrection, forever will be.

The cross is vitally important to our mission. It is the picture of what He did for us.

However, I am forever grateful that he did the harder work as well.

The Meaning of Forgiveness in an Abusive World

by Eli Bernard & Bethany Persons

Words matter. Rather, the meanings of words matter and by that, we mean – words matter.

At the risk of stepping into the universe where the reader’s meaning often matters more than the author’s meaning, our attempt here is to speak to what The Author meant by this amazing word that we misuse. While focusing on the Author’s meaning can be helpful for analysis and open dialogue, comprehending it is much more vital to the “peace that passes all understanding” (Phil 4:7) in our own lives.

In the recent weeks, there has been a flurry of devastating reports about those that teach, expect, and seemingly demand forgiveness as a response to a horrendous assault. We are afraid that the way the word “forgiveness” is perceived – perhaps by those assaulted and to many who enter the conversation only through media – is as

  • a sort of magic wand, whereby the assaulted or offended waive away any consequence or responsibility of the offender “because that’s what good Christians do” or
  • a weapon used to silence the assaulted, demanding greater spiritual maturity from them than their attacker.

Forgiveness is not a magic wand and it does nothing to remedy the attack or solve problems larger than the one experienced by the one assaulted. To weaponize forgiveness in order to silence those assaulted is a reprehensible power play, worthy of any Pharisee Jesus encountered.

We do not know what the intention or heart is of those who have advised forgiveness in any of these reported or many unreported offenses. We were not there. We did not hear their tone or the full context of their comment. We only know how it reads in the media – and it is that reading that prompts this response.

  • Forgiveness does not absolve the offender of guilt
  • Forgiveness does not bring resolution to implied or apparent larger problems
  • Forgiveness does not abdicate the responsibility of the offender
  • Forgiveness does not eliminate the need for accountability
  • Forgiveness does not supersede the necessity for consequences
  • Forgiveness does not demand or imply the restoration of relationship

One of the things that we should do is strive to understand the full meaning of what The Author meant by the words that He used. And He never used the word “forgiveness” in these ways.

Visiting the Example of the Author of Forgiveness

Jesus’ death is the price that was paid for our forgiveness. He loves us and died for us. And because He forgave us, we have eternal life with Him. While this is true, it is a too-simplistic and gap-filled explanation of the magnitude of that event, and it does not suffice.

Jesus did indeed offer us – the whole world – forgiveness by his death/resurrection. But no one – no one in the whole world – received forgiveness simply because it was – and is – available.

Forgiveness is for the benefit of the offended, wounded and the assaulted – not for the ones doing the offending and assaulting.  We know that flies in the face of contemporary religious thought. But it is to the benefit of the wounded and offended to offer it, not to the benefit of the abuser/offender. The offended offering forgiveness should have no fear of the offender receiving it absent true repentance. It matters not what words they say or actions they take. Only true repentance aligns with true forgiveness. Additionally, since forgiveness does not imply or demand the restoration of relationship, the offended need not fear some obligation to the same.

Jesus offers forgiveness, not because we need it (although we absolutely do), but because He wanted to offer it. The fact that we need it does not mandate it. The fact that God wants a relationship with us is what mandates it. Certainly, we benefit from it should we receive it. But it is not possessed by anyone who does not demonstrate their desire by repentance. The unrepentant are not forgiven. As much as we need forgiveness, it is not to our benefit; it is to His.

“But wait, what about…”

  • Confessing with my mouth and believing in my heart (Rom 10:9)
  • Saved by grace through faith (Eph 2:8-10)
  • Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved (Acts 16:30-31)
  • Praying “the sinner’s prayer“
  • Asking Jesus into my heart

Without delving deeply into these for their own merits and implications, unless repentance is the attitude of the heart, then these are motions merely gone through; insufficient regardless of sincerity. To be clear, asking without a repentant heart is to ask vainly. Believing with an unrepentant heart is not the belief that leads to salvation. (James 2:19)

“But wait, where do these passages say I need to repent?”

This question illustrates a telltale failure of contemporary preaching and curriculum driven teaching. It is the whole Bible, not any one passage that gives us the whole truth. John the Baptist, Jesus and the Apostles preached repentance from the beginning of their earthly ministries (Matt 3:2, Matt 11:20-21, Luke 5:32, Luke 13:1-5, Luke 15, Acts 2:38, Acts 13:24).  We don’t forget about that just because we’re reading from a different passage. To do that is tantamount to Jesus saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near, but you won’t need to do that if you just wait until Paul writes Romans 10:9.”

To do that is tantamount to Jesus saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near, but you won’t need to do that if you just wait until Paul writes Romans 10:9.”

Let’s say that you asked me for my favorite biscuit recipe. I might tell you:

In a large mixing bowl sift together ½ tsp salt, 2 cups of flour, and 1 tbsp of baking powder. Cut in ½ cup shortening with fork or pastry blender until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Pour ¾ cup of buttermilk into flour mixture while stirring with a fork.

After rolling out, cutting, and baking the biscuits, you offer me one – one of the blandest, most tasteless biscuits I’ve ever had.

“Where’s the salt?”, I ask.

‘Oh, I didn’t think I needed to add it since it was the first thing you said. I thought I only needed to add the stuff that made them look like biscuits.”

Forgiveness is the way for the wounded and offended to release the offense, to not carry the grudge, to not hold it to the account of the offended. It is because this is how the Author understands forgiveness that eternity with Him is available – He does not hold our sin to our account. He, who first loved us, has made that possible by offering forgiveness. That is to His benefit because it is He who first wanted a relationship with us.

Forgiveness has no effect or impact on the offender until the very high and humbling price of repentance is paid. Forgiveness is good for the forgiver. The only impact on the offender is that it is available. It is not received simply based on that availability. It cannot be claimed by the offender simply to gain its benefit.

Forgiveness allows the forgiver to heal, to move forward, to live life without a grudge, to not hold on to the devastating event as if it is now the basis of who they are – the driving force that defines their life and future. Forgiveness is the path to freedom from a life controlled by the sin of others.

But, for the offender, the forgiveness offered by others imparts no such freedom. The forgiven receives no inherent or automatic benefit of forgiveness offered. No wand is waived. No magic exists. Forgiveness exists, much like a gift. The one forgiven may see it and want it – but it is not theirs simply because it has been expressed and placed in a common space.

The abuser/offender only receives the benefit of forgiveness through the path of repentance evidenced in part, by godly sorrow. The only way that forgiveness granted influences forgiveness received is the awareness of its existence. The offender must still humble themselves or be humiliated into such sorrow. The offender must be repentant of their offense, honestly and sorrowfully so. This is the benefit to the offender. True, whole-hearted, sorrowful repentance is their path to the freedom from a life controlled by their own sin.

Forgiveness is the path to freedom from a life controlled by the sin of others. 

Repentance is the path to freedom from a life controlled by my own sin.

Here is the truth.

  • Should the offender never repent, the offended can still be free from the spiritual grudge-controlled life by forgiving.
  • Should the offended never forgive, the offender can still be free from the spiritual guilt of the offense by repentance.
  • They can both be free and never know of the other’s freedom.

Unfortunately in our media-driven world, these are areas that are only truly visible to the Author of forgiveness. No one can tell if forgiveness has truly been given – but the forgiver and Author will know, and that is sufficient for them. No one can truly know that the offender has sorrowfully and remorsefully repented. The repentant and Author will know, and that is sufficient for them. They both know that the Author of forgiveness (and repentance) knows.

For the rest of us – the observers of lives thrust into the public view, we should be careful to allow time and space for both forgiveness and repentance in lives that are not our own. Should we not, we are not far from the ocular plank (Matt 7:3-5). (It may well benefit us to realize that the media cares little about planks.)

And since words matter, “repentance” does not mean remorse, sorrow, apology, fear, sadness, or any other number of terms or adjectives that are in common understanding today. The Author of forgiveness says that repentance is a complete turnaround. The offender chooses to never offend again. Those hiding the offense choose to never hide the offense again. Those who believe that their actions and attitudes were normal (“That’s just who I am”), now believe those actions and attitudes to be abhorrent and vile. That is repentance. Expand that definition with “sorrowful” and “remorseful” and you will begin to understand what the Author of forgiveness has in mind.

Let’s bring that down to today’s news. Pastors and missionaries, missionary organizations, associational and state convention employees that commit or hide such abhorrent behavior need to repent. Without it, forgiveness from the assaulted is not yours, even if those assaulted have given it. They know it. You know it. And the Author of forgiveness knows it.

It matters little if your repentance is from your own volition, or if it comes from being outed to your shame. It matters little if anyone believes you have repented. The Author of forgiveness will know. And that is not only enough, but it is also all that really matters eternally. But on this earthly coil, it will not and should not alleviate consequences. It will not and should not by necessity, restore your reputation or relationships. But it will matter – to you and to the One to whom it should.

Making Pie

It’s called the Great Commission with reason. It’s not just a good commission. And it’s not just a great suggestion. 

It is the final instructions from Christ to His followers. All of His work up to this point was to accomplish our salvation and to prepare the messengers for the never-ending task of telling the story.

He said…

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, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” – Matthew 28:19-20 (NIV)

If your small group Bible Study needs a purpose beyond “being a small group” or “meeting weekly”, how about the Great Commission as a starting place?

Making Disciples is Like Making Pie

PIE:  You take some things that are not a pie, and you make them pie. If you follow the instructions (plan of baking), then some pretty bland things become some pretty sweet stuff.

DISCIPLES:  You take people that are not disciples and you make them disciples. If you follow the instructions (plan of salvation), some pretty bad things become pretty sweet spiritual stuff.

Contrary to popular opinion, making disciples is not making believers into stronger disciples. Jesus did not make a distinction between believers and disciples. In the New Testament era, they were the same thing. So, the “making of disciples” is actually evangelism – making those that are not disciples to be disciples. It is not telling believers how to be better. It is telling unbelievers how to believe.

The word them, refers to the disciples that are being made. Baptizing them, therefore, means that baptism is something that is done to those who have been evangelized.

Discipleship, as we call it in our culture, was important to Jesus as well. Once them have believed and been baptized, we should teach them to obey Jesus’ teachings. This certainly doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be teaching unbelievers as well. It simply means that the process is not complete at the point of salvation.

Many small group Bible studies don’t make disciples, don’t see new believers baptized, and the teaching very often boils down to believers discussing things they already believe, as espoused by the newest author or literature as assigned by their church.

Jesus wasn’t giving us a checklist as he left for home. He was telling us to be in the life-changing business:  lost lives saved, saved lives grown, grown lives multiplied. Are the lives of people in your Bible study group changing?  Lost lives saved, saved lives grown, grown lives multiplied?

Who Should Go?

In most churches, the Bible Study ministry is the single largest ministry organization in the church. It encompasses more people and includes such organization, that if this ministry is not part of the “going”, there very likely is no going at all.

Certainly, pastors should go. But even here, Jesus did not make a distinction between clergy and laity. Of the very ones who received the original commission, most were “unschooled, ordinary men” (Acts 4:13). If we were to draw parallels, would these have been the seminary trained among their peers?

Perhaps the Choir should go? Perhaps the Building and Grounds Committee or the Flower Committee should go? But then, aren’t the people in these ministries also in the Bible Study ministry?  Does it really matter what church label they wear in order to go?

Who is Them?

Let’s start with who they are not. They are not members of other churches. While this generalization certainly does not refer to those that are not yet disciples, the overwhelming number of “non-disciples” is not in any church. They are in the world.

Facts about Them:

  • Them don’t attend church
  • Them strangers are easier to go to than Them neighbors
  • There are tens of thousands more of Them strangers than there are of Them neighbors
  • Them will go to hell unless believers go well

How many families visit your church, move into your church field, have kids who attend your VBS and other children’s activities, and have youth that attend your youth functions?  Most of them are THEM.  The others have the Holy Spirit as a source and guide.  If these others are seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit, they will very often be led to a church that is GOING after THEM.

What Does GO Mean?

GO does not mean wait for Them to come in. It means going to get Them, wherever Them are, and bringing Them along with you. Bringing Them in happens during the 6.5 days a week that we are not at church. On Sunday morning, by default, the church is waiting for Them to come in.

Let’s Be Chicken

The Bible Study small group should see itself as an incubator:  warm, secure, nurturing, safe, etc. Within the incubator are the “unhatched” and “newly hatched”. It is the environment that facilitates healthy birth and the beginning of a new life. Newborns are nurtured and fed until they can take care of themselves. But – and I encourage you to get a mental picture here – how old are the chickens in YOUR incubator?  Seems silly doesn’t it, to invest in the resources to facilitate new and healthy births, and then let the newborns live, age and die as if they are, and will always be, babies. Are you still nurturing and feeding the fully grown?

When Christians discover God’s plan and will for their lives, the Holy Spirit is free to walk through this newly opened doorway to move them – change them – into what He desires. They will then be empowered to step out of the incubator and participate in the full life and fellowship of the “farm family.” Maturing believers run incubators, they don’t live in them.

This kind of life change – spiritual transformation – cannot be taught. It cannot be caught. It can only be facilitated.

So, perhaps Jesus meant this…

Therefore go get THEM, and make THEM disciples [from] all nations, baptizing THEM in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching THEM to obey everything I have commanded you.

“And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”  It’s hard to imagine that Jesus meant that He would be with us as we do our ministry without going after THEM, or study His Word without THEM new disciples and disciples-to-be.

Small group Bible study is a marvelous tool for accomplishing that to which all of us are called. God’s Word and relationships are the stuff of life change, and those are the key elements of any small group.

The Great Commission is a great purpose to consider for your small group. If you accept the commission, it may very well change what you do in your small group, but it will be a change for the better!

Try this exercise.  Dialogue with those in your Bible study about why Christians do or don’t go.  Write the reasons down.  Spend enough time at this so that all agree that the list is fairly comprehensive.  Then mark out all of the reasons that are not about THEM.

Perhaps that part about “everything He commanded” needs a little more attention.