The Lonely Paul

Paul paintingSometimes you don’t always appreciate the full context of the biblical books when you read them – but I’ve just been given a fuller appreciation for Paul through his letter to the Galatians.

I’m preparing a little teaching series on Barnabas, and I am reading an article on his role in Galatians. In Galatians, you’ll recall, even Barnabas gets sucked in by the Judaizers (see 2:13), essentially leaving Paul – who is young in his ministry – on his own. So think of how lonely Paul felt! He had preached this powerful gospel to the Gentiles, only to have Peter, the other apostles, and Barnabas – the guy who stood up for him after his conversion and partnered with him in his gospel ministry to the Gentiles (see Acts 9:27) – abandon him.

In the light of this, I’m sure Paul must have done a lot of wrestling about the gospel he was preaching and the ministry he’d been called to.

All this was brought to my attention in an article by Richard Bauckham, who has been Professor of New Testament at St. Andrews, Scotland, but is now a researcher at Ridley Hall, Cambridge. Notice what he writes:

Paul’s evasion of reference to Barnabas in Galatians, his sorrow and embarrassment over his partner’s defection, highlight his loneliness in the crisis which called forth this letter. This was the first great crisis of his apostolic career. The very existence of a Gentile mission as Paul understood it was called into question, and with it Paul’s own existence as an apostle of Christ on the basis of the Damascus road experience. We can scarcely be wrong if we suppose that Paul’s response to this crisis involved an intensification of his apostolic consciousness, such as we find expressed in Galatians. His awareness of direct divine commissioning had determined his activity from his conversion onwards, but in the extreme loneliness of the crisis at Antioch he was thrown back on this as never before, deprived both of the partnership of Barnabas and of recognition from the Jerusalem apostles. Characteristically he finds the validation of his Gospel in his personal experience of Christ, of which he says more only in 2 Corinthians, and his confidence in the “marks of Jesus” with which he is branded Christ’s slave (6:17).

Talk about seeing Galatians in three dimensions and highlighting its relevance! And sometimes Paul is viewed as one who was very arrogant and opinionated – but this picture gives me a greater sympathy for him and his situation, as well as admiration for his convictions, even in the face of loneliness and hostility.

Ephesians, Racism, and the Church’s Opportunity

bricks-459299_1920I’ve been thinking a lot about the book of Ephesians lately and its relevance has particularly struck me over the last 24 hours. In brief, the book of Ephesians, as a number of Paul’s letters do, addresses the rift between Jews and Gentiles, and Paul does his best to work through the challenges.

But buried in the middle of the letter, Paul makes one of the most profound statements in all of Scripture: the unity that can, and should, exist among all of God’s people (aka “the church”) from every walk of life is actually the very thing that demonstrates “to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places” “the manifold wisdom of God” (3:10) – wisdom that “from the beginning of the ages has been hidden in God” (v. 9).

So check this out: the very thing that reveals God’s wisdom to the universe is when people from diverse backgrounds – in Paul’s case, Jews and Gentiles – come together in fellowship and mutual love. After all, it is not all that impressive when people who are alike love one another (as hard as this actually is); what is most remarkable is when people who are so different are so united.

Could this message not be more timely? It may not be specifically Jew or Greek these days; in fact, here in the United States, 50 years after the civil rights movement, and 150 years after slavery ended, racism continues to be a damning problem. Might the church have the opportunity to reveal, not only to the world, but to the onlooking universe, that people from diverse backgrounds can actually live together not only in toleration, but in love? And might this demonstration be the precise mechanism by which God’s wisdom is revealed – His character vindicated?

The devil is trying hard to divide us – because he has a vested interest in making sure God looks as bad as possible. He’s desperately trying to divide us into camps – Democrat, Republican, White, Black, American, Syrian, British, Progressive, Conservative, Liberal – knowing that the more we set our stakes down in camps, the harder it will be for us to demonstrate a united (though multifaceted) picture of God.

We can refuse to allow division to win the day, however. We can choose, instead, to show that God’s love is powerful enough to make us loving – even toward those who are so “different.”

Of course, none of this can be accomplished apart from the cross. That is one of Paul’s main points in Ephesians as well: God is seeking to reconcile “them both [Jew and Gentile] in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity” (2:16), and to ground us deeper and deeper in His love (3:14-21).

Beautifully, amazingly, though the current political and racial climate may look bleak, Paul encourages us: God “is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus” (3:20-21).

We often cite this last verse when it comes to our personal “wish list,” but the original context is what God is trying to do in, for, and through the church as a body (notice the plural pronouns “we,” “us,”): He’s trying to ground us in His love so that we experience a unity that demonstrates His “manifold wisdom” to the universe – thus showing forth His glory “in the church.”

We stand at a critical crossroads – but God has called us for “such a time as this.” Instead of fracturing, those who are honest of heart will press together, recognizing the awesome opportunity that is before us as we work jealously for God’s honor and Christ’s vindication.

So let’s allow God to work His power in and through us!

Your Methodology Is Showing

Photograph 068 by Ashley Schweitzer found on minimography.com

It’s been a long time coming, but I have come to a conclusion that I should have arrived at long ago: methods matter.

A lot.

For some, this may not seem like all that profound of an idea; others—especially those who share a love for the message of justification by faith like I do—may be a little skeptical.

I always used to assume that the only thing that mattered—the only thing—was the message. If we could just get the message right, then everything else would fall into place. If we could just have the opportunity to preach the message of God’s boundless love to a large enough audience, then everyone would be swept up in its current, and revival would break out. And I used to roll my eyes when people would talk about methods and innovation and the like.

But no longer.

I won’t recount the whole story as to how my thinking shifted on this, but the bottom line is that methods are critically important.

To begin with, there is no such thing as a methodless presentation of the gospel. Preaching is a method; writing is a method—and these are the two main methods we have traditionally used. To be clear: there is nothing wrong with these methods, per se, so long as we recognize that they are just that: methods—and so long as we realize that if our gospel message is to be coherent, the methods we employ must be consistent with the message we proclaim.

That is to say, the methods we use either validate the message we proclaim or they contradict it. Methods are the unspoken body language that are often louder than the message itself. As I shared last week, most of the time our methods are so loud that people can’t hear our message.

As an example: I make a big deal about the fact that Christ took on our fallen human nature. He incarnated Himself in our situation, taking on our flesh and blood and meeting us where we are—rather than expecting us to reach Him where He is. This is good and important and pivotal.

But the methods I employ often contradict this with the audience I am seeking to reach: many people, especially from younger generations, do not find it all that meaningful to travel to a building and listen to someone talk at them for 60 minutes. They would rather sit in a café and have a conversation about it. Yet in my presentation about Christ’s meeting us where we are, I am not willing to meet people where they are.

I am thus making the gospel literally “unbelievable” since I am insisting on my method instead of being willing to utilize their method. And we do this sort of thing over and over again.

The reality is, message and methods are two sides of the same coin. Our praxis must be consistent with our proclamation. Some of us have done a great job with the content, but we’ve failed to realize that the content must be presented in fresh ways that are in the language of those we’re trying to reach.

If we ignore the importance of methodology, insisting that the only thing that matters is the message, we run the risk of spiritualism—not realizing that the message must have flesh and blood.

This is essentially what Jesus meant when He said we can’t put “new wine into old wineskins” (Mark 2:22), lest the old wineskins burst and we lose both wine and wineskin. Instead, we must continuously put the new wine—the eternal message of God’s boundless love—in new wineskins—the changing methods that complement the message we’re proclaiming.

For so long, though, I had to turn a blind eye to such Scriptural ideas—as well as Ellen White’s explicit counsel. Just look up the term “new methods” in her writing and do some reading.

Here are just two:

New methods must be introduced. God’s people must awake to the necessities of the time in which they are living. God has men whom He will call into His service,—men who will not carry forward the work in the lifeless way in which it has been carried forward in the past” (Evangelism, p. 70).

“Whatever may have been your former practice, it is not necessary to repeat it again and again in the same way. God would have new and untried methods followed. Break in upon the people—surprise them” (Ibid., 125).

These are quite the eyeful! Yet we seem stuck in the same traditional rut, betraying the fact that maybe, just maybe, we haven’t really embraced the message of God’s liberating grace, or understood its full implications. If we did, it would it secure us enough in God’s love so that we would be freed to take risks and refuse to condemn others who may not do things the exact same way we do.

It’s no wonder that Paul said he sought to be “all things to all people” so that he could “by all means save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22). He, of course, didn’t compromise when it came to God’s law, but he was willing to employ whatever method necessary in order to share and show the message of God’s boundless love.

This may sound extreme to some, but Ellen White draws out this idea explicitly: “When the practices of the people do not come in conflict with the law of God,” she wrote, “you may conform to them. If the workers fail to do this, they will not only hinder their own work but they will place stumbling blocks in the way of those for whom they labor, and hinder them from accepting the truth” (Review and Herald, April 6, 1911).

This is a bombshell! Sometimes we may think people are rejecting our message when they may simply never actually be hearing it because we are using “practices” that are so deafening.

So if we are so serious and concerned about our message, we must be insistent on utilizing methods that will not be distracting to those we’re trying to reach. We mustn’t therefore set up a false dichotomy between message and method.

Of course, there is a caveat: just as we cannot be message-centric to the neglect of methods, we cannot be method-centric to the neglect of message. There are many who do indeed go to the other extreme. They place all the emphasis on utilizing the new and latest and most innovative methods, thinking that if we can just get the methods right, it will all happen.

But this is equally troubling. It is essentially formalism (as opposed to spiritualism, which is what the “message-only” approach is).

But as someone said recently whom I heard speaking: you can build a sailboat and put it in the water—but you can’t make the wind blow. Thus, we can have all the most innovative and relevant methods, but if those methods are devoid of the Spirit and devoid of the motivating love of Christ, then it’s a dead-end street.

I write all this as an explanation as to why I have been writing about methodology so much recently—especially ecclesiology and missiology. Basically, I’ve finally become a practitioner and not just a theorist. When I finally got serious about pastoring, and especially as we’ve been laying the groundwork to plant new churches, I realized that our message must have some body-language, else it won’t be effective.

And I also realized that when we set out to plant a new church that we would be starting with a blank canvas, and thus have the awesome opportunity to fill up that canvass with whatever the Spirit wanted. I didn’t just assume that the way we’ve always done it is the way that it always has to be done.

And I came to the poignant conclusion that if an alien were to land on earth and read the book of Acts in order to start a new church, they probably wouldn’t come up with what we’ve come up with (which is an ecclesiology that may have “worked” in the past but is neither eternally normative nor presently effective).

So, going forward, this blog—and other things I write for other platforms—will be equal parts message and equal parts method. At least that’s the goal.

Table, Not Pulpit

FullSizeRenderWhat if, instead of church life revolving around the pulpit, it revolved around the table?

That’s a question I’ve been pondering lately—and encouraging others to do the same.

Of course, Jesus went to the synagogue every Sabbath (Luke 4:16), but the Gospel writers spend just as much, if not more, time talking about all the eating He did—and the ministry, teaching, and service He did through it.

Check this out. Luke alone records all the things that happened while Jesus ate:

  • 5:29ff—Levi throws Him a great feast
  • 7:36ff—One of the Pharisees provides Him a meal, where Mary anoints Him
  • 9:10ff—He feeds the 5,000 after teaching them
  • 14:1ff—One of the chief Pharisees feeds Him on Sabbath, where He heals a man with dropsy
  • 15—The Scribes and Pharisees complain that He eats with sinners, which prompts three parables—the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son—about what He was doing
  • 22:8ff—The last major experience He shares with His disciples before His crucifixion is a meal—“the last supper”
  • 24:13—After His resurrection, He eats a meal with the two disciples that He met on the road to Emmaus

It is obvious: eating was a significant part of Jesus’s ministry—as it should be for us. In fact, Caesar Kalinowski has made this fascinating observation. He notes how there are three instances in Scripture where the Gospels record that “the Son of Man came . . .” Notice those three instances:

  • “The son of man came not to be served but to serve, and give His life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45)
  • “The son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10)
  • “The Son of Man came eating and drinking . . . ” (Luke 7:34)

“The first two are statements of purpose,” he notes, “But the third statement identifies Jesus’ method. How did Jesus come, serving and seeking and saving the lost? He came eating and drinking” (Small is Big, Slow is Fast, p. 83).

What would happen if we practiced “table evangelism” and “table church”? What would happen if the “fellowship meal” that we sometimes tack on after the “main event” of the “church service” was considered more to be the “main event” than just an add-on? It does, after all, create an optimal environment for organic fellowship and community, where great conversation can emerge and opportunities for service can surface.

So let’s think table more, not pulpit.

The Power of Small

photo-1414322058660-a4c56ab6c1e2I was reading this morning from the chapter in The Desire of Ages on the “road to Emmaus.” There was nothing explicitly that mentioned it, but something suddenly occurred to me: Jesus’s ministry was so effective to those two disciples because of just that – there was only two of them.

This realization was sort of the continuation of a series of realizations I’ve been having lately as it relates to the church, the gospel, and ministry. I’m not at all the first to arrive at this conclusion. In fact, I’m kind of a slow learner. But the truth is when it comes to ministry, when it comes to spreading the gospel, if we want to become big we need to become small.

Another poignant manifestation of this idea was brought home to me last week as I attended Exponential – the largest gathering of church planters in the world (where some six thousand people attend). Everything there is big: a big auditorium, a big crowd, big names. Dozens of pastors from megachurches get paraded onto the stage as they share their stories of how they grew their church from 15 to 15,000. And we all applaud and marvel at God’s power.

I have nothing against growth. We are, indeed, seeking to grow and advance God’s kingdom. But this type of sentiment was juxtaposed against some of the seminars I attended where the presenters were talking about more modest pursuits: things like discipleship and missional living.

It was there that I realized: it’s not about growing megachurches, it’s about growing microchurches. I don’t want to make my church bigger, I want to make it smaller.

This sounds counterintuitive to some, I know, and it goes against everything we’ve believed in the past. We are trying to make our churches bigger, trying to get more people to show up to our worship services. In some ways, being a part of a big crowd validates our commitment to the cause it’s propounding. It thus almost undermines our insecurities, we suppose, because if there’s a lot of people attending a program or event, it must be worthwhile – or so we think.

But I’m not sure that’s the way Christ operated: He looked for quality over quantity. He realized the power of small. He recognized that it was in the smaller circles, the one-on-one relationships, that real change occurred. He realized that His public preaching could only go so far. In fact, Ellen White shares this mind-blowing thought about Christ’s method of ministry. Don’t miss it: “His work was largely made up,” she writes, “of personal interviews. He had a faithful regard for the one-soul audience” (Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 229).

The “one-soul audience”? Isn’t that powerful?

To a large extent, we have glorified – perhaps even idolized – the large, public gathering, thinking it is the height of church life. But this allows for 99% of the church to sit passively while the other 1% – the pastor – gets to do ministry. Meanwhile, the pastor has no idea as to whether what he’s saying is making much of a difference, and it is not realistic for him to ever ascertain whether it is since he cannot do “personal interviews” with everyone after every sermon.

Perhaps we need to shift our thinking when it comes to church life, though. Perhaps we need to think less of the large worship gathering and think more of “little companies” (a term from Ellen White that my good friend Jarod Thomas reminded me of) that can serve as the real engine for Christian growth. These “little companies” are a lot more suited for true Christian development to occur. They are a lot more nimble, a lot more customizable and accessible, a lot more able to address the needs of real people in real places.

And, wonderfully, they require the active involvement of the 99% rather than just the 1%.

We have a lot to unlearn, though: we rely almost exclusively on the preaching of the Word at church, or at weekend conferences, and then we wonder why people aren’t growing.

It’s simple: we have bought into the allure of big rather than the power of small.

But check this: I would dare say that 25 people who are discipling 50 others can effect more change than one person who is preaching to 1000. In fact, Ellen White seems to say this very thing. Notice:

My ministering brethren, do not think that the only work you can do, the only way you can labor for souls, is to give discourses. The best work you can do is to teach, to educate. Whenever you can find an opportunity to do so, sit down with some family, and let them ask questions. Then answer them patiently, humbly. Continue this work in connection with your more public efforts. Preach less, and educate more, by holding Bible-readings, and by praying with families and little companies.

“To all who are working with Christ I would say, Wherever you can gain access to the people by the fireside, improve your opportunity. Take your Bible, and open before them its great truths. Your success will not depend so much upon your knowledge and accomplishments, as upon your ability to find your way to the heart. By being social and coming close to the people, you may turn the current of their thoughts more readily than by the most able discourse. The presentation of Christ in the family, by the fireside, and in small gatherings in private houses, is often more successful in winning souls to Jesus than are sermons delivered in the open air, to the moving throng, or even in halls or churches” (Gospel Workers, p. 193).

“Preach less and educate more,” she says. Listen to people’s questions. Have fireside chats with them. Interact with humility. Instead of having monologues, have dialogues. Through these conversations you can find avenues to the heart, and they will “often” result in more success “in winning souls to Jesus than [through] sermons delivered.”

Such an approach has the power to really effect change precisely because it involves more people in ministry. When we rely on big, however, it limits ministry to a specific program at a specific time and a specific place led by a specific person. But when we embrace small, it allows God’s kingdom to invade our communities – precisely because a whole army of Christians already lives, breathes, works, and plays in those communities.

So are we going to embrace the power of small?

Are we going to get small so God’s kingdom can get big?

Ellen White: “Missional” Before It Was Cool

BelieveProphetsI, along with a handful of others, am currently gearing up to plant a new church in Bangor – which is easily the biggest reason why my blog, and, really, all my writing pursuits, has been neglected lately. And though I am still trying to find the proper balance between my local pastoral/planting ministry and my writing ministry, I must say that I cannot remember a time in my ministry when I’ve been more excited. God is on the move!

As I’ve been preparing to launch a new church, I’ve been reading a lot of material and listening to a lot of podcasts on the “nuts and bolts” of planting particularly – but, really, ecclesiology (the study of the church) in general. It has been very informative and eye-opening!

One thing that has caught my attention, and has been very helpful in evaluating how we “do church,” is the basic distinction between “attractional” and “missional” models to church. Though they are, of course, generalizations, it’s interesting to use these two approaches as “filters” by which one can evaluate the way a particular church approaches evangelism and mission – both historically and presently.

There is plenty of material one can find that explains the differences between these two approaches, but the long-and-short of it is that “attractional” approaches essentially view the church as programs that one puts on in a building – and then people are invited to participate, whether actively or passively, in those programs. In short, “church” is defined, whether explicitly or not, as programs that take place in a building.

A “missional” approach, however, views the “church” not as a building or a program but a living, breathing, active people. Under this model, a person doesn’t go to church; the person is the church (or is a part of a body of people that constitutes the church). Thus, “church” takes place as much in the workplace, in the school, or in neighborhood as much as in a building that is referred to as “the church.” It is a living body of people who go to others to live and show the gospel, rather than a program that takes place at a specific time and at a specific place that people are invited to come witness.

Further, it seeks to understand the culture in which it resides so as to be able to express the gospel in ways that are relevant and make sense to that culture.

By and large, this second approach is very much in vogue today. Many evangelicals, and of course Adventists, are recognizing the merits of this approach as America becomes more secular and more people are less willing to set foot in a church building. Also, the traditional ways of expressing the gospel – of sitting through an hour-long worship service where a person speaks from up front – are becoming less and less relevant to many people.

Thus, “church,” or the way we’ve defined it to people, has become meaningless and unappealing. And many people reject “church” without realizing that they are simply rejecting a version of “church” that has been the de facto definition of “church,” despite its lack of biblical support.

What has been interesting to me, however, as I’ve been reading through a lot of material on “missional” approaches, is how a lot of it has been second nature to me. It’s almost like I’ve kept saying, “You’re just now figuring this out?” No offense! I don’t say this because I have access to some secret superior knowledge. It’s just been funny to me because the evangelical world seems to now only be discovering what Seventh-day Adventists have known all along. But it has come across as a revelation to them.

That’s because a century before evangelicals caught on, a little old lady wrote the book on “missional church.” Her name was Ellen White – and, in fact, she wrote many things in many books that were missional in nature, though perhaps her book Ministry of Healing is the most systematic explanation of this approach.

For example, here’s just a sampling of a few quotes from her which are missional to the core. This first one is the very first line in Ministry of Healing, and I love it!

Our Lord Jesus Christ came to this world as the unwearied servant of man’s necessity (p. 17)

Elsewhere, she explains:

While He ministered to the poor, Jesus studied also to find ways of reaching the rich. He sought the acquaintance of the wealthy and cultured Pharisee, the Jewish nobleman, and the Roman ruler. He accepted their invitations, attended their feasts, made Himself familiar with their interests and occupations, that He might gain access to their hearts, and reveal to them the imperishable riches (p. 25).

Further:

Though He was a Jew, Jesus mingled freely with the Samaritans, setting at nought the Pharisaic customs of His nation. In face of their prejudices He accepted the hospitality of this despised people. He slept with them under their roofs, ate with them at their tables,—partaking of the food prepared and served by their hands,—taught in their streets, and treated them with the utmost kindness and courtesy. And while He drew their hearts to Him by the tie of human sympathy, His divine grace brought to them the salvation which the Jews rejected. (p. 26)

Again:

The badge of Christianity is not an outward sign, not the wearing of a cross or a crown, but it is that which reveals the union of man with God. By the power of His grace manifested in the transformation of character the world is to be convinced that God has sent His Son as its Redeemer. No other influence that can surround the human soul has such power as the influence of an unselfish life. The strongest argument in favor of the gospel is a loving and lovable Christian. (p. 470).

In The Desire of Ages, she offers this very missional perspective:

[Christ’s] work began in consecrating the lowly trade of the craftsmen who toil for their daily bread. He was doing God’s service just as much when laboring at the carpenter’s bench as when working miracles for the multitude. (p. 74)

Then, there’s this bombshell:

When the practices of the people do not come in conflict with the law of God, you may conform to them. If the workers fail to do this, they will not only hinder their own work, but they will place stumbling blocks in the way of those for whom they labor, and hinder them from accepting the truth. (Review and Herald, April 6, 1911)

Lastly, there is this quote, again from Ministry of Healing, which is really the missional statement par excellence – and one that just about every Seventh-day Adventist will be familiar with.

Christ’s method alone will give true success in reaching the people. The Saviour mingled with men as one who desired their good. He showed His sympathy for them, ministered to their needs, and won their confidence. Then He bade them, “Follow Me.” (p. 143)

It’s hard to get any more “missional” than all these quotes – especially the last one! And this is just a small sampling! Ellen White was as missional as one can get – and we should be too.

Of course, one might legitimately wonder why, if Ellen White wrote it a hundred years ago, we would resort to reading current authors who may not hit the nail as squarely on the head as she does. It’s a legitimate question. However, I don’t think we should have an either/or attitude. I read Ellen White voraciously; in fact, I’m going through Ministry of Healing again right now – after just finishing Acts of the Apostles (as a side, if you want to see another strongly missional statement, just read the first paragraph in that book. She defines the purpose and mission of the church and nowhere does she say anything about buildings or programs. The church is, according to her, “God’s appointed agency for the salvation of men,” and “was organized for service.”).

But I also find that contemporary authors sometimes write many of the same things in very succinct and practical ways that are “how to” in nature. That can be very helpful – at least for me, since I tend not to be an “X’s and O’s” kind of guy.

So I’m most grateful for the writings of Ellen White – and I’m grateful for the contributions of contemporary authors as well, many of whom are outside my particular community of faith. Both have been a blessing.

To the reader, I would say this: don’t neglect Ellen White on these things. While many people today are saying many of the same things, there is a richness in her writings that is not present in today’s counterparts – chiefly because she was, in fact, inspired – and ingredients that you may not get elsewhere. But I would also say that there is also benefit in prayerfully considering the methods of contemporary authors – filtering out the wrong and irrelevant, of course – as they very practically explain approaches to the contemporary situation.

The Selfishness of Salvation

FullSizeRenderYou’d probably be hard-pressed to find a person who thinks it’s acceptable for a Christian to be selfish. Selfishness is the antithesis to Christianity, implicitly at odds with it. Even non-Christians recognize this and are often quick to point out when the life of a Christian contradicts this principle.

This idea is, of course, underscored repeatedly in Scripture. “Do nothing from selfishness,” Paul wrote to the believers in Philippi (Philippians 2:3, NASB), adding in his first letter to the Corinthians that love “seeks not its own” (13:5, KJV).

Christ Himself perhaps put this concept in the boldest of terms, proclaiming that “whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25, NKJV). Though we perhaps don’t take this verse as seriously as we probably could, we still recognize the poignant call to abandon all self-interest.

Scripture is clear: simply put, in the heart of the Christian there is no room for selfishness.

And yet something strange happens when we discuss the most basic of Christian ideas: when it comes to framing the concept of salvation and eternal life, we typically express it in the most selfish of terms. Indeed, we often start people on their Christian journey on an implicitly-selfish road, only to try to pull the rug out from under them later on by telling them they shouldn’t be selfish as Christians.[i]

But such messages work at cross-purposes, since the whole foundation of their Christian experience rests upon a selfish motive to begin with.

Think about it. The average “gospel” presentation goes something like this: you’re a sinner who deserves death, but if you want to be saved and live forever you need to believe in Jesus. Salvation is thus always presented as something to attain from God for the benefit of self—and faith is the currency by which you acquire that benefit from God.

Just yesterday, I heard a well-meaning radio preacher who illustrated the whole concept in such terms. Comparing salvation to a woman who jumps out of a burning house and into the net that the fireman is holding below, he proclaimed that God has done all for our salvation but we must still take the “leap of faith” in order to be saved.

Such a scenario appeals to a person’s most primal emotions: fear, panic, self-preservation. But such emotions are implicitly at odds with the motive and way of Christianity.

In fact, one might go so far as to insist that presenting salvation within such a framework is anti-Christian altogether. “All pagan religions are self-centered in their appeal,” Robert Wieland has noted, “and since almost all Christian churches accept this pagan-papal doctrine, they get locked in to what is basically an egocentric mind-set” (Grace on Trial, p. 29).

Not to be outdone, secular psychologist Alfie Kohn, writing within the context of childrearing, posits that such an approach is actually “by its very nature dehumanizing” (Punished by Rewards, p. 25). Furthermore, the great challenge with using rewards as a motivator is that “the more rewards are used, the more they seem to be needed” (Ibid., p. 17). And thus, within a Christian framework, we are simply setting people up to live in an endless cycle of requiring future benefits in order for their faith-journey to be sustained.

With such a paradigm—and with faith as the currency I use to acquire benefits—my faith is only as strong as the benefit is in its appeal. And as soon as I can no longer detect an obvious benefit, my faith ceases to be active. Thus, Wieland notes, “when we distort faith itself to become egocentric, the gospel is paralyzed” (Powerful Good News, p. 33).

This is all an echo of what Ellen White has poignantly proclaimed repeatedly throughout her writings: “Love to God is the very foundation of religion,” she wrote. “To engage in His service merely from hope of reward or fear of punishment would avail nothing” (Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 523).

So, too, does it echo Jesus’s words quoted above. His followers, He shockingly declared, should not desire to save their lives. Personal salvation should not be the impelling force. On the contrary, Christ’s followers should desire to lose their lives—an idea that stands at incredible odds with the presentations we typically give.

So what’s the solution?

Instead of presenting the gospel as something that will yield a future benefit, let’s present it as something that has already benefited. “To the death of Christ we owe even this earthly life,” Ellen White explained (The Desire of Ages, p. 660, emphasis added). This transforms faith from being an instrument by which we attain rewards to an instrument by which we express gratitude. And gratitude, unlike self-interest, is an unstoppable force that enables the Christian to reach infinite heights.

Paul unpacked this when he explained to the Corinthians what the motive of his ministry was. “For the love of Christ compels us,” he proclaimed, “because we judge thus: that if One died for all, then all died” (2 Corinthians 5:14). He recognized that by His death on the cross, Christ had already accomplished something for him—that Christ’s death was his death, thus already absolving him of the debt he owed by virtue of his life of sin. And he found such a thought to be compelling—to the point that all who recognized this glorious reality would “live no longer for themselves [that is, motivated by self-interest], but for Him who died for them and rose again” (v. 15).

Such distinctions are critical, especially for those living at this juncture in earth’s history. Those who stand in the last-days will be ridded of all selfishness. They will not stand tall for God as a calculated way of hedging their bets. Heaven will not be looked upon as the greatest retirement plan so long as they continue making regular faith-deposits. To consider it such sets a person up to be an easy victim of the enemy’s tactics.

On the contrary, God’s people in the last-days will love “not their lives unto the death” (Revelation 12:11, KJV). Standing firmly on the sacrifice of Jesus—grateful that He “emptied” Himself (Philippians 2:7) and, for all intents and purposes, gave up eternity for them—they will live ever for Him, regardless of the temporal or eternal consequences. Indeed, those living in the last-days will experience this mind-boggling idea that Ellen White laid forth in Steps to Christ: “We should not make self the center,” she instructed, “and indulge anxiety and fear as to whether we shall be saved” (p. 71).

We thus need to move beyond a gospel that makes “self the center.” Instead of framing salvation in transactional terms that confirms listeners in their primal selfishness, let’s lift up the heart-melting message of Christ’s self-emptying sacrifice and the benefits we’ve already been granted by Him as a result, thereby setting us on the path of gratitude.

[i] I realize it may not align with the Dictionary definition of “selfish,” but I would simply define selfishness, and the definition with which I am working in this piece, as the desire for personal benefit as the end goal. It is thus possible to want to be saved for unselfish reasons—e.g., to grant Christ the reward for His sacrifice as the end goal—but this is very rarely the framework within which salvation is presented.

Why Do Adventists Rebel?

3243868_b80ef2e9Like many of my fellow Seventh-day Adventists, I feel great sorrow about the level of spirituality that characterizes the church today – including in my own life. As one examines the landscape of Adventism, it would be hard to argue with the idea that, overall, the church looks more and more like the culture around it (I will resist using the term “worldly,” because I find it to be somewhat ambiguous).

Some could argue, of course, that the culture around us – as a general concept – is not bad, per se, and I would agree to a large extent (after all, the word “culture” is a morally-neutral word in an objective sense). However, the reality is, we as a people have become more and more enamored with the ways, practices, and fashions of Hollywood and have lowered the bar when it comes to our “standards,” to say nothing of how many of our views about sexuality have become troublingly liberalized.

For some, this is all a good thing. I am not completely convinced.

At the same time, it is also evident that, theologically speaking, the Adventist message has become more and more watered down and seems to be hardly discernible from evangelical perspectives. Our “peculiar” teachings are irrelevant to many and even a point of embarrassment to some. We hear more sermons about God’s love and grace than about sanctification and overcoming sin.

So why is this? Why does it seem as though Adventism and Adventists, whether in worship or in practice, look a lot less “unique” than we did 50 or 100 years ago – save for the fact that we go to church on Saturday?

And what do we do about it?

Many have offered various proposals: we need to preach the “straight testimony” and call sin by its right name. We need to stop reading evangelical authors. We need to emphasize the standards again and help our people know what it is that we believe and what makes us unique.

While all these proposals may have some level of truth, they fail to really understand the pathology of the problem. They fail to recognize what lies at the root – and, subsequently, what the solution is.

Here’s a thought: Adventism became more “worldly” not because people simply decided to get more rebellious. Adventism became more “worldly” because we failed to produce a gospel that was more attractive to them than the “world.”

At the same time, Adventist worship services became more amped up not because attendees wanted to be idolatrous but because our traditional services (saying nothing of the actual style) were genuinely lifeless, dry and – at their root – devoid of the Holy Spirit.

Similarly, Adventists became enamored with the love and grace that evangelicals offered not because they simply wanted to live a life of disobedience but because they were desperate for an escape from the guilt and shame they felt – something that Adventism had failed to deliver.

This last thought is an idea that became more clearly articulated in my own mind after listening to a series of sermons by the late J.W. “Bill” Lehman. He noted that we cannot underestimate the power of guilt and the lengths to which a person will go to escape from it. Every person experiences guilt and shame – and if they are not presented with a gospel solution to such guilt, they will either go looking for it elsewhere (hello evangelicalism) or deny the sin that produced the guilt in the first place (hello secular humanism).

Thus, in the absence of a clear articulation of grace within Adventism, Adventists don’t want to hear about obedience, sanctification – and especially not perfection. If there is, after all, no balm for the times we fail to obey, we’re just going to throw the whole program out altogether.

This last critical point is, I think, the root of it all. Laxity in standards, liberality in worship, all these other things, are coping mechanisms in the quest to escape from guilt and shame. We thus go to great lengths to medicate and numb the pain.

This is not to deny, of course, that some of us have rejected the standards and theology of classic Adventism simply because we are rebellious. But, among other things, I choose to ascribe the best motives to people – just as I’d hope they would do with me!

At the same time, we know, based on history, why we are where we are. We, as leaders, rejected the message that would lead to Adventism embracing its unique identity, rather than running away from it. The message of Christ’s boundless love and grace – which presented Christ not only as the solution to the feelings of guilt and shame, but would eventuate in the sanctification that our conservative brothers and sisters crave – was turned away. And we’ve been wandering ever since.

So the solution to our compromise is not to try to get more strict in our enforcement of standards or to ban evangelical books or to preach the “straight testimony” from our pulpits. Such tactics would simply address the fruit and not the root; they would deal with the external and not the heart. They would rob our people of the only medication they have found that works – leaving them to search for other sources of pain-relief that are perhaps more lethal. Indeed, we would leave them as the man that Jesus spoke of in Matthew 12:43-45 who had a demon cast out of him, only to have seven more inhabit him because he was left empty and not filled with something better, “the last state of that man . . . worse than the first” (v. 45).

Instead, the solution is to acknowledge our rejection of the gospel, repent of it, and then univocally present the message of God’s love and grace that would attract people away from the theology and practices that so trouble us.

In short, no one has ever experienced lasting change because they were told what they were doing was wrong. Such an approach can lead to conviction but not to victory. The only way lasting change can be realized is to present something better, something more beautiful, something more attractive.

Indeed, let’s light a candle instead of cursing the darkness.

Pondering Genesis

FullSizeRender 5This morning, I made a rather impromptu decision to try something that I’ve wanted to do for a while: read the entire Bible through during the month of January. I remember, back in 2007 when I took a preaching class from him, Dwight Nelson mentioning that he tries to do this to begin every year. It gives quite a bird’s eye view of Scripture.

So that’s what I set forth to do this morning, reading the first 41 chapters of Genesis. It took me about 90 minutes. And it was well worth it!

To me, reading the Bible this way is exciting, providing more to sink one’s teeth into than simply dropping in and out of a few chapters from the Old and New Testaments for 365 days, hardly able to get any momentum.

Though there are many “big picture” ideas I gleaned from my reading this morning, one of the insights that jumped out at me the most was tracking the sexual morality of the Biblical characters. To be more specific, Joseph’s amazing behavior in Genesis 39 is presented in drastic relief compared to the patriarchs – God’s patriarchs – that came before him.

To a large degree, the book of Genesis is shaped – almost exclusively so – by the sexual misdeeds of its main characters, all of whom constitute God’s chosen people. Abraham impregnates his wife’s maidservant Hagar (chap. 16); Lot does the same with his two daughters (19); Esau marries an Ishmaelite to get back at his father, in addition to practicing polygamy (28); Jacob marries sisters and impregnates both their maids (29-30); Reuben sleeps with one of those maids (35); and, of course, Judah – from whose lineage the Messiah eventually would come – has sex with his daughter-in-law, thinking she’s a prostitute (38).

This is not even to mention the intentions of Pharaoh with Sarai (12), Abimelech with Sarai (20), or Abimelech with Rebekah (26); nor is it to mention the men of Sodom with the two angels (19), or Shechem’s “violation” of Dinah (34).

By the time one gets through chapter 38 of Genesis, one is overwhelmed with the amount of sexual promiscuity recounted. It forces the reader into grappling with how to reconcile such behavior with the fact of those same people’s chosenness. How can these people both engage in such sexual promiscuity and yet be God’s chosen – and continue to be God’s chosen even after their sexual deviance?

Essentially, by the time chapter 39 rolls around, I had resigned myself to the recognition that these men lived a long time ago – and, in fact, a long time after the perfection of Eden as well. Simply put, they lived in a time of great moral darkness, a time when in “ignorance” God “winked” at their misdeed (Acts 17:30, KJV) – both because they had ceased to walk with God as Adam and Eve did and because they were still 2000 years from the full-blown light of Calvary.

So when the story of Joseph comes around in chapter 39, the reader would perhaps be excused in anticipating another defeat to the goddess of sexuality – especially when the narrative is so poignantly set up. Moses sets the scene (made even more poignant in the Hebrew, which I have read in the past when I’ve slowed down): Potiphar’s wife “cast longing eyes on Joseph” (v. 7); she spoke to him “day by day” (v. 10), inviting him to “lie with” her (something repeated three times – vv. 7, 10, 12).

Again, the reader would perhaps be excused if the battle is conceded in one’s mind. Heretofore in Genesis, God’s men have succumbed to sexual sin and yet somehow remained God’s men. God has continued to affirm His promises to them, even after their failures (22:16-18; 32:29).

But everything changes in chapter 39. One chapter after Judah cannot contain his sexual impulses, his kid-brother Joseph not only displays incredible relative morality (he was not simply trying to hedge his bets vis-a-vis his boss, Potiphar); he rises up and acts in the light of the “Audience of One” in which He was living. When no one else was looking, Joseph stuck to principle, offering one of the most poignant questions at any point in earth’s history: “How then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” (39:9).

Joseph’s singular decision stands in stark contrast to not only his forefathers, but the morality of his time. Indeed, he made a decision that “travels,” a decision timeless in scope; a decision that somehow acknowledged the Person to whom he was ultimately accountable.

What an an inspiring example! Though I’ve read it many times before, I never cease to be amazed by Joseph’s principled behavior. Somehow, some way, he, by God’s grace, chose to break the cycle of sexual promiscuity that characterized his family – during a time in which “relative” morality made concessions.

Of course, the specific temptation may not be the same, but the principle is: when the chips are on the table, and the sin is there for the taking with no one looking, will I remember the “Audience of One”?

“Will We Hate Back?”


I remember a cartoon that my former Greek professor, Dr. Mark Regazzi, taped to the door of his office at Andrews University some 14 years ago. I’m assuming he taped it there in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center a year or so before I saw it, because I was in Scotland when that horrific atrocity occurred – where I remained for the next ten months.

Whatever the case, when I returned to Andrews the next September, it was still there, hanging on his door. The image of it still lingers in my mind, all these years later. It was of a father and son, sitting on a couch in their living room, watching something on TV. And the son turns to his father and asks this simple yet perceptive question: “Will we hate back?”

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The message was clear: would we resort to the tactics of those who perpetrated crimes against us, returning hate for hate?

It was, of course, an artistic reminder of that which Martin Luther King, Jr. had said some three decades before: “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”

Fourteen years after the 9/11 attacks – and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the overthrow of our worst enemies, Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden – and the events this weekend in Paris remind us all too poignantly about the chilling effects of returning firepower for firepower, hate for hate.

Look, I recognize that in this day and age of global jihad and mass genocide that there are no easy answers – from a political perspective – when it comes to a nation’s response to such horrific tragedies. And I recognize that it may be overly naive to think that if a nation chooses to stop hitting back then these terrorists will just leave us alone.

What I do know, however, is that 14 years of trying to obliterate terrorists hasn’t worked. It’s just emboldened them. In fact, over 6,000 years of world history acutely demonstrates to us that violence – no matter how justified we may feel in using it – has never been able to squelch the terrorism that resides in all our hearts, and it certainly hasn’t made this world any safer. On the contrary, our world has never been more unsafe!

What makes us think that it will suddenly work now?

The reality of this hit home for me again as I read the words of Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who some think may be the mastermind behind the the Paris attacks. The 27-year-old native of Belgium shared these revealing words a few years ago: “All my life, I have seen the blood of Muslims flow. I pray that Allah will break the backs of those who oppose him, his soldiers and his admirers, and that he will exterminate them.”

And yet, we keep moving forward, thinking all we need is bigger guns, more powerful bombs, better intelligence – believing that continuing to make “the blood of Muslims flow” will somehow stop the terrorists.

But it just continues to provoke them, strengthening their resolve.

What if we took him at his word, called his bluff, and stopped causing the blood of “Muslims to flow”? We’ve not yet tried this tactic – and the others haven’t worked anyway.

Again, I realize this all sounds utopian and naive. I also realize that I’m not sharing anything that the average student at a liberal arts college hasn’t already heard or thought about.

More than anything, I also realize that there are no political answers to spiritual problems – and that such violence will never fully be extinguished so long as a shred of sin remains in the heart of even a single human being. Heaven is, of course, the ultimate and only true answer.

Beyond all this, however, what really has me most troubled is the posture that we Christians, supposedly governed by the motive of love, take in response. It’s one thing for godless politicians to want to hit back; it’s another for Christians to lead the charge.

And yet the sad reality is that, at least here in the United States, conservative Christians are notoriously the most eager to go to war.

Yes, we want vengeance. Yes, we are outraged by innocent lives being taken. But we Christians should have the bigger picture in view, recognizing that whatever happens on this earth is not the final word. “Beloved, do not avenge yourselves,” Paul reminded, “but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Romans 12:19).

“Do not avenge yourselves.” Do we, who take pride in heralding the commandments of God, take this one seriously?

Similarly, why do we pursue safety as though it were the ultimate goal? And why are we so eager to give up freedom in exchange for it? Nowhere do I see in Scripture any admonition to covet safety. In fact, just the opposite. “Whoever desires to save his life,” Christ declared, “will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25). Even more poignantly and relevantly, God’s last-day people are identified as those who “loved not their lives unto the death” (Revelation 12:11, KJV).

Why do we thus cling so desperately to temporal safety and preservation of life, as though “in this life only we have hope” (1 Corinthians 15:19), with no possibility of a resurrection and eternity?

The decision is thus before us: will we love back? Will we choose to live in the light of eternity, seeing the big picture, and spread the principles of God’s kingdom of love?

The natural heart cannot produce this love, of course. Indeed, as Ellen White reminds us, “Love is the basis of godliness. Whatever the profession, no man has pure love to God unless he has unselfish love for his brother. But we can never come into possession of this spirit by trying to love others. What is needed is the love of Christ in the heart. When self is merged in Christ, love springs forth spontaneously” (Christ’s Object Lessons, p. 384).

Let us, therefore, allow self to be merged in Christ, letting His love take root in our hearts.

Then, the response will never be hate – for it cannot be.

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