CHRISTIANITY 101

A lonely destroyer captain ran his ship with strength and compassion, but he kept almost entirely to himself. He had one curious ritual that puzzled his fellow officers almost beyond endurance. Each day before coming up to the bridge, he would unlock a special drawer in his desk, take out a strongbox, unlock it, remove a small piece of paper, read it carefully, return it to the box in the drawer and lock it again.

During one particularly fierce battle, the skipper was killed. After the funeral, his executive officer led a mad dash to the captain’s cabin, opened the drawer, pulled out the box, unlocked it and took out the mysterious piece of paper. He carefully looked at it while his companions
breathlessly waited. The captain had written six simple words: “Port is left, starboard is right.”

It would be wonderful if we could make all of life as simple as this. Decisions would be easier to make, directions clearer. In religious matters, the Pharisees had made Judaism too complex and legalistic with all their 613 rules. What was Judaism originally except a relationship with Yahweh, a personal God?

Legalism does the same thing today. You supposedly prove you are a Christian by keeping a list of rules, but who has the right list? The list varies from group to group. People need to know that Christianity is more than a list of rules and “Thou shalt nots.” It is a relationship with a personal God and a relationship with His family, the church. Could it be said of your life: “I love God with all my heart?” How do you show it? Do you love your spouse? How do you show it? In the Spanish language, worship means adoration. You cannot worship a God you do not love and adore. That’s why worship services are dull. We do not love God with all our hearts.

Legalism has made that relationship extremely complicated. Jesus simplified it. He distilled everything down to two commandments in Matthew 22:34-40. “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” Notice that Jesus then said in verse 40: “On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” Everything depends on your love relationship with God and others.

The Apostle John also repeated a similar idea: “And whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do those things that are pleasing in His sight. And this is His commandment: that we should believe on the name of His Son Jesus Christ and love one another, as He gave us commandment” (1 John 3:22-23). Notice again the simplicity of Christianity. Jesus said ALL the law was summed up in the two greatest commandments.

Simple does not mean easy, however. When Jesus spoke of adultery, he said it was not enough not to commit the outward act. Even the lustful thought brought condemnation. Not murdering was insufficient. Even hatred was equivalent to murder.

Who then is a child of God? For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God” (Romans 8:14). And Galatians 5:18: “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.” Keeping a list of rules is easy to do. You check items off a to-do list and then pat yourself on the back. Maintaining a relationship is more difficult. It requires constant communication with the person in that relationship.

To be a child of God, you have to follow the Spirit’s leading. He will never lead you to do anything contrary to the written word of God. That is why you must be familiar with the word. You must know the precepts and principles of the word.

Christianity is simple, but it is not easy. That is why believers must remain in constant contact with God daily. It is not enough to attend church sporadically, or even just once a week. Communication with God means a daily basis. We are fortunate that most of us have multiple copies of the Bible to read. We can attend church regularly and openly without fear of persecution. Take time every day to read God’s word and talk to him through prayer.

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Misunderstood Apologetics

People often misunderstand apologetic for apologetics. An apologetic person usually expresses sorrow for something said or done. It can mean a written or spoken expression of regret or remorse. However, an apology did not originally mean what people usually think it means today. It originally meant to give a verbal or written defense for a cause, an action, or a doctrine.

The Apostle Peter wrote, “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear” (First Peter 3:15). He used the word apologia for defense. We are to give a defense of our faith, not to apologize for it as many think today. Peter urges Christians to be able to defend their faith whenever someone asks them about the hope that is in their lives.

When we as Christians give a defense or justification for our faith, we are engaging in a discipline known as “apologetics.” Dictionary.com defines apologetics as, “the branch of theology concerned with the defense or proof of Christianity.” Perhaps you are thinking that apologetics is some kind of difficult practice that only trained theologians can do. Often it involves the classical arguments for the existence of God, proof of the reliability of the Bible or creationism. While that certainly is apologetics, any time you tell someone why you are a believer in Christ, that is apologetics. You are giving a justification for what and why you believe.

Maybe you feel somewhat intimidated today thinking of standing before a professor or scientist and giving a reason for the hope that is within you. Often critics of Christianity will ask you to prove the existence of God. Can you defend the Christian faith? Are you up to the challenge, or would you remain silent when someone asks you to “prove” Christianity is true?

You cannot “prove” God in the empirically scientific sense like critics demand. Then again, neither can they disprove him in the same way. You cannot prove God by subjecting him to a test tube or petri dish. It requires a different kind of science.

Think of a murder trial. In this scenario, you have a victim, a defendant, and a body of evidence. In addition to the judge, you also have a defense attorney and a prosecuting attorney. Both attorneys have the same evidence, the same victim, and the same defendant. The difference is the presupposition or starting point.

The defense attorney “presupposes” the innocence of the defendant. If the attorney did not believe in the innocence of the defendant, then why take the case? Likewise, the prosecution presupposes the guilt of the victim, otherwise, why bring a case against the defendant? Both attorneys will use the same evidence to try to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt to the jury so that they will render a verdict. (Let me say here that I am not a lawyer and I have not played one on TV either. This is just a general observation.)

The purpose of the trial is to examine all the evidence and interpret it in such a way as to support the presupposition of the attorneys. They cannot change or alter the evidence. They cannot hide evidence. They need to make it all available for both sides. They present their case in a way that gives the most reasonable understanding of the evidence. Then they submit all that to the jury by way of testimonies and argumentation so that they see guilt or innocence beyond a reasonable doubt.

It is interesting to note the expression “reasonable doubt.” A murder cannot be proved scientifically as it is impossible to recreate the murder under controlled circumstances as required by “empirical science.” It cannot be observed. The best anyone can do is to present the available evidence and give it the most probable interpretation. The jury then has to decide which interpretation is the most credible. Then they vote. They determine the guilt or innocence of the defendant based on the arguments of the attorneys and their presuppositions.

Apologetics means giving a written or verbal defense of a belief. Usually it refers to trying to prove the existence pf God or the reliability of the Bible. Atheists, agnostics, and believers all have the same evidence. All have a presupposition. Where they start with the evidence will determine where they end with it, what conclusions they will draw. An atheist presupposes that God does not exist, so he or she interprets the evidence to support that presupposition. The agnostic presupposes that it is not possible to know if God exists and interprets the arguments to support that belief. Likewise, the believer presupposes that God does exist and interprets the evidence accordingly. Ultimately, each person must decide which case is the most probable.

What about you? Which way will you vote? Will you vote to believe that God exists? If so, that will affect every aspect of your life. As for me, I will never apologize for being a believer in Christ, but I will tell you what I believe and why.

RESOLVE NOT TO BE A CHURCH HOPPER

Resolve not to be a water bug that never penetrates the surface. Get involved in church instead of church hopping.

How are you coming with your New Year’s resolutions so far? Are you making progress, or have you given up already? One resolution worth making is deciding to attend church regularly. In a church fellowship, you can develop relationships with others who are going through the same life events you are facing.

One reason people give for not attending church is that they cannot find one that is a “good fit.” Therefore, they hop around from church to church like a water bug. Water bugs can walk on the surface of the water because their feet never break the surface tension between the water molecules. Their feet never penetrate beyond the surface, so the water holds them up as they scurry from place to place. Finally, a fish comes along and devours them.

In “Made to Count,” authors Bob Reccord and Randy Singer wrote:

“Recent polls show a dramatic increase in “Church hoppers”—those who flit from one church to the next like a water bug, never fully landing and immersing themselves into a local body of believers. Something is never quite right. The preacher preaches too long, the members are not very friendly, the music is ‘not my style.’ There’s got to be another church that will better meet my needs. And so the water bug goes, from one church to the next, landing for a flicker here, a moment there, constantly in search of the perfect fit and missing a vital part of their calling. They need to understand an important truth about the church. The church does not exist to serve them. That mindset—consumer Christianity or ‘McChurch’ as some call it—is simply not scriptural.” (https://amzn.to/2RGyhaC) 1.

Instead of church hopping this year, why not penetrate the surface and actually get involved in a church? Go below the superficial level and get involved in the lives of the people there. They are not perfect. The music will not be perfect. The pastor is not perfect, but then again, neither are you. All of us are in the process of becoming more of whom Christ designed us to be. We will never find that perfection in this life, but as Paul said, we need to press on toward the upward calling in Christ Jesus (See Philippians 3:14).

While some would argue that church attendance is not necessary for salvation, the writer of Hebrews exhorted us not to forsake the assembling together with other believers (Hebrews 10:25) Apparently it was a first century problem as well. Many in our country claim to be followers of Christ, but they never attend church except on special occasions like weddings and funerals.

In Revelation 21:9 and 22:17, the Apostle John calls the church the bride of Christ. Reccord and Singer also ask the question of how you could say that you love a friend but can’t stand his or her spouse. Your friend would say, “You must find a way to love my spouse as well if we are going to be friends.” Yet many people want to say that they love Christ, but they can’t stand church. That is like saying, “Jesus, I love you, but I can’t stand your bride.” Christ loved the church and gave his life for her (Ephesians 5:25). The church was important enough to Christ for him to lay down his life for her. The least we can do is to learn to love her, too, despite her imperfections.

Paul compared the church to the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-20) All believers have a part in that body. The part you play is an important part of the church. Attending church allows you to exercise your spiritual gifts. If you have the gift of teaching, how can you exercise that gift if you are not involved in church? If you have the gift of exhortation, you need to be involved in the lives of people you can encourage. You will also find encouragement in your own struggles. “As iron sharpens iron” (Proverbs 27:17), so we sharpen each other. We need others if we want to stay sharp. Without you and your spiritual gifts, the church is incomplete.

If you only flit from church to church, you will never really know what is beneath the surface. Stay sharp this year. Get involved in church.

  1. Bob Reccord and Randy Singer, Made to Count: Discovering What to Do with Your Life, (Nashville: W Publishing. 2004) 91. https://amzn.to/2RGyhaC

WHY WE NEED CHRISTMAS

Most of us recognize the opening to the famous Christmas poem: “T’was the Night Before Christmas,” by Clement Clark Moore, first published in 1823. Its real name is “A Visit from Saint Nicholas.” Many of our Christmas traditions comes from this poem.

We are familiar with stockings hung by the chimney with care and visions of dancing sugarplums. We know about mother in her ‘kerchief. We relate to Saint Nicholas coming down the chimney and then dashing away from a snow-covered roof in a sleigh pulled by reindeer. Each year it gives us a warm, fuzzy feeling like the fur he wore from head to foot.

This is what many of us relate to at Christmas. Nothing in this poem has anything to do with the biblical concept of Christmas. It is perhaps a story about generosity and gift giving, but none of this relates to the birth of Christ at all.

Others would say that the concept of giving gifts come from the three magi opening their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Think about the last nativity scene you saw. Usually it takes place in a stable. There you see shepherds and sheep and wise men and camels. What’s wrong with this picture? If the wise men came from the East, i.e. Babylon, they could not have arrived at the same time as the shepherds. It would take months to make that journey. Nor is the number accurate. No mention is made of their number or their names. That is tradition, not Scripture.

Another tradition we often take for granted, if not for gospel truth, is the “angelic choir.” This concept comes from the line in the carol, “Angels we have heard on high, Sweetly singing o’er the plains.” Luke’s account mentions nothing of a choir. The heavenly host of Luke 2:13 means a heavenly army, not choir boys. No wonder the shepherds were sore afraid. When an army gathered around a city in those days, it meant that you were about to be destroyed. They would send an envoy to ask if you wanted to surrender peacefully or die in a siege. This army came in peace. They did not say that there would forever be peace on earth. They were saying that they did not come to destroy the earth, which they very well could have done.

So much of what we celebrate as Christmas tradition in our culture is mere sentimentality spread through Hallmark movies and Christmas cards. The danger of sentimentality is that it obscures reality. Why do we need Christmas? Retailers would say we need it to boost the economy, but there is a deeper, more valuable reason.

The angel summed it up: “Unto you is born this day…a Savior, which is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11). We need Christmas because we need a Savior. Christ came because we could not save ourselves. We need someone to save us from sin and death. Romans 8:2 says that we are subject to the law of sin and death, but the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus sets us free from that law. Judaism could not do it. All Judaism could do was point them to Christ and the need of a Savior.

For centuries, the Israelites had looked forward in faith to the coming of their Messiah. The angel announced that the Messiah (the Christ) had been born. Today we look back in faith to Christ as the promised fulfillment of those Messianic prophecies. Many Jews did not look at Christ in faith, and they missed the significance of their Messiah.

Today we risk missing the Messiah because we are too wrapped up in the babe lying in a manger and not a Savior hanging on a cross. We feel that there is some good in us. Like Scrooge, all we need is a large dose of sentimentality that will turn us from a miser into a benefactor. Maybe we just need to do a few good deeds so we can earn our angel wings like Clarence in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Never forget that Christ came to save you from your sins. He came to do for us what we could not do for ourselves. At Christmas, God gave us the greatest gift he ever could. He gave his Son to be the sacrifice for our sins. Have you received his gift yet? If not, you can do so today. If you have, don’t forget to thank him for it.

 

Learn more about sharing the good news of your Savior here:

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WHY CREATION MATTERS

While visiting a church where I was to be the guest speaker a couple of years ago, I helped myself to a cup of coffee during the Bible study hour. I could not help but overhear the adult class meeting in the open room nearby. They were discussing a friend who had lost her faith due to watching programs on public television. That network notoriously runs programs to explain “what really happened” in the Bible. As a result, she came to reject the Bible as a collection of fairy tales and “just so” stories.

Excusing myself as I entered the room, I said, “I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation.” They invited me to join them, which I did. I continued. “It’s not difficult to believe that many so-called Christians lose their faith.” “What do you mean?” they asked. “I mean that if you stumble over the very first verse of the Bible, you will have trouble accepting the rest of it.” Genesis 1:1 says, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” I asked them, “How many of you believe in a literal six twenty-four-hour day creation?” They seemed stunned.

Today many Christians believe they are too sophisticated to accept that simple premise. They rationalize. They compromise. The call it a secondary, non-essential doctrine. In fact, the teacher of that class responded, “The Bible does not teach that God created everything in six days.” I had them all turn to the Ten Commandments. In laying down the guidelines for the Sabbath, God told the Israelites: “In six days Yahweh made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is within them, and on the seventh day he rested” (Exodus 20:11). Nothing here indicated billions or even millions of years. A straightforward reading indicates six literal days. The teacher was shocked. If this were not true, there would have been no basis for the Israelites to observe the seventh-day Sabbath.

John 1:3 says, “All things came into being through him (the Logos, i.e. Christ), and apart from him not one thing came into being that has come into being.” Let that sink in. First of all, Christ is not a created being. He brought everything into existence, but he did not bring himself into existence. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have to do mental gymnastics with this to show that Christ was the first created being. This passage does not support that interpretation, which has gone around since the first century heresy of Arianism.

Colossians 1:16 says, “All things in the heavens and on the earth were created by him, things visible and things invisible…all things were created through him and for him.” The New World Translation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses blatantly adds the word [other] to change the obvious meaning of the passage. They claim that although the word is not found in the original text, it clarifies the meaning; but it actually distorts the clear equating of Christ with Jehovah, a claim they cannot tolerate.

In the last Gospel presentation made to mankind, the angel says, “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come, and worship the one who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and the springs of water” (Revelation 14:7). The glory of God is related to his nature as Creator.

At that time, people will be given a choice to worship the Creator, or the Beast. Revelation 14:11 says of those who choose the Beast: “the smoke of their torment went up forever and ever, and those who worshiped the beast and his image did not have rest day and night.”

By downplaying the doctrine of Creation, you are actually robbing Christ of his glory as the Creator. Creation is not a secondary, non-essential doctrine at all. If you doubt the truth of the very first verse of the Bible, you will have trouble all the way through it. However, if you do not stumble at the first verse, you will have no trouble believing that the God who created the universe controls it and sustains it. You will have no trouble believing that the Creator can intervene in his creation at any time, and that he is directing it toward a purposeful end. When that end comes, what side will you be on? Will you stand with the Creator or sit with the assembly of scoffers? (Psalm 1:1). Will you worship the Christ of Creation or the beast of destruction?

 

 

IT CAN’T BE THAT EASY

That was how the young couple I was training in FAITH Evangelism responded. They had accompanied me to make an evangelistic presentation to a family. The teenage daughter, after hearing the presentation, decided she wanted to repent of her sin and trust Christ. After a simple prayer, she became a follower of Christ.

When I asked for feedback about the training experience, the young man said becoming a follower of Christ couldn’t be that easy. We want to make it a difficult process. We add rituals, ceremonies and festivities to show we are sincere. A Syrian officer named Naaman contracted leprosy. A Jewish servant girl told him to go to Israel to see the prophet Elisha to get healed. Elisha sent a servant out to greet him and tell him to go dip seven times in the Jordan River and he would be healed. Naaman went away angry. However, his servant stopped him and said, “My father, if the prophet had told you to do something great, would you not have done it? How much more then, when he says to you, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” (2 Kings 5:13).

One criticism of “Sola Fide,” or faith alone, is that once people “pray the prayer,” they can live any way they want. “Once saved, always saved” or perseverance of the saints does not mean that at all. Once people believe in Christ, a change needs to occur as a demonstration of that faith. Both the Apostle Paul and Apostle James point to Abraham to prove their points. Paul says Abraham was justified by faith alone. James said that his deeds justified him. There is no conflict. It is not a case of faith or works, but a faith that works. Abraham was credited with righteousness twelve years before he was circumcised and four hundred years before any one of the laws was given to Moses. He could not have kept the Sabbath, Passover, or any feasts, yet he was considered righteous because he believed. So how did he demonstrate his faith? He packed up and moved to a land that God had not yet even revealed to him.

When God approached Noah to tell him that he was going to destroy all flesh, he told Noah to build an ark large enough to carry all the kinds of land-dwelling animals. God gave him the dimensions and told him how to prepare for the coming deluge. How did Noah demonstrate his faith? Genesis 6:22 says that “Noah did according to all that God commanded him.” He went from being a farmer to being a ship builder. As James stated, he showed his faith through his actions.

As Jesus approached the town of Jericho, he encountered a man named Zacchaeus up in a tree. Zacchaeus desired to see Jesus, but the crowd would not permit it. Jesus told him to come down and take him to his home. There Jesus participated in a hospitable meal. Zacchaeus said, “Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold.” Jesus responded, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham.” What did Jesus mean by “a son of Abraham”? Wasn’t Zacchaeus already Jewish? Galatians 3:6-7 says, “just as Abraham ‘believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.’ Therefore, know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham.” True sons and daughters of Abraham are not those who keep Jewish rituals and festivities, but those who simply believe what God says.

Notice the changes in all three of these lives. Abraham left the place where he felt at home and moved to a place that God had not yet revealed to him. Noah’s belief in what God told him motivated him to begin building a ship. Zacchaeus’ faith motivated him to restore those whom he had defrauded and give generously to the poor. Their lives drastically changed.

Believers often use Ephesians 2:8-9 to justify spiritual inactivity: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” Yet they forget to add verse 10: “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” We are not saved by works, but for works.

LED BY THE SPIRIT

The Judaizers in Paul’s day brought false charges against him much like the Judaizers of this century. Because he taught that people are saved by grace, not through observing the law, the Judaizers accused him of teaching lawlessness. Paul wrote the epistle of Galatians to deal with the deceptive effects of the Judaizers bewitching the Galatians with their distorted gospel.

Salvation is only through faith in Christ, not religious works. Paul points to Abraham as an example. Romans 4:3 quotes Genesis 15:6, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him as righteousness.” In Galatians 3:17, Paul writes, “the law, which was 430 years later, cannot annul the covenant that was confirmed before by God in Christ.” Clearly Abraham was not saved by keeping the law or by circumcision. Passover, the feasts, and the sacrifices did not come until after the 400 years of slavery in Egypt.

The Life Application Study Bible lists three distortions of Christianity: Judaized Christianity, Legalistic Christianity, and Lawless Christianity. Judaized Christianity’s definition of a Christian is: “Christians are Jews who have recognized Jesus as the promised Savior. Therefore, any Gentile desiring to become a Christian must first become a Jew.” This is what the Hebrew Roots movement wants to do today. They say that Christians must observe the same rituals and festivals that Jesus and the apostles did. The New Testament never teaches that Gentiles must become Jews first, in fact, it teaches quite the opposite.

Legalistic Christianity defines Christianity this way: “Christians are those who live by a long list of don’ts.” Good behavior earns God’s favor. Lawless Christianity says, “Christians live above the law. They need no guideline. God’s word is not as important as our personal sense of God’s guidance.” True Christianity teaches, “Christians are those who believe inwardly and outwardly that Jesus’s death has allowed God to offer them forgiveness and eternal life as a gift. They have accepted that gift through faith and are seeking to live a life of obedient gratitude for what God has done for them” (Page 2149).

The Judaizers’ claim that true Christianity leads to lawlessness shows that they did not understand the basis of salvation. Paul summed it up well: “Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16). You received the Holy Spirit when you accepted Christ. The Holy Spirit will not guide you into lawless activities. In Galatians 5:18 Paul wrote, “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.” Later he enumerated the fruit of the spirit in verses 22 and 23. The Holy Spirit will not guide you into the works of the flesh mentioned in verses 19-21.

Accepting Christ means that we have a new master. We are no longer slaves to sin. We no longer live lives of lawlessness. Accepting Christ means that we have repented from our old way of life and have been raised with Christ to walk in newness of life (Romans 6:4).

2 Timothy 2:19 says, “Let everyone who names the name of Christ depart from iniquity.” True Christians must turn away from sin and let the Spirit produce fruit in our lives. So what law do Christians follow? In the Old Testament we find three categories of laws: Ceremonial law, Civil law, and Moral law. As Christians we are certainly to keep moral law. Being free from the law does not mean that we are free to murder, steal, or commit adultery. Laws against those things still apply to Christians today, but the Jewish Ceremonial law no longer applies to Christians. Its purpose was to point toward Christ. These laws are no longer necessary after Christ’s death and resurrection. Although not binding upon us, they teach us a great deal about a holy God. We can learn from their principles, but we do not have to become Jews first.

The Judaizers in Galatia had convinced the Christians to return to the “weak and beggarly elements to which [they] desire again to be in bondage. [They] observe days and months and season and years” (see Galatians 4:9-11) like the Jews had. Paul felt as though he labored in vain since they were returning with the Judaizers to the Jewish ceremonial law which Christ had fulfilled.

Walking with the Spirit is more difficult than being able to check off a list of religious activities. Walking with Spirit requires a relationship, not merely external behaviors.