How to Avoid Apostasy? Belong to a Good Church.

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“Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” (Hebrews 3:12-13)

One of the recurring themes in the book of Hebrews is the caution against apostasy. Believers are admonished over and over again to guard themselves, to persevere, and to not abandon the faith (2:1-4; 3:7-4:13; 5:11-6:12; 10:19-39; 12:14-29). These “warning passages” confront us with the reality of our own weakness and remind us that the new birth is not a one-time prayer or easy-believism. The Christian life is a daily war.

Christ freed us from the dungeon of death and set us on a pilgrimage to the homeland we forgot about. But our former captor, bitter and scheming, is still trying to drag us back into chains every step of the way. Although Scripture elsewhere assures us that God will preserve His true church until the end, Hebrews makes it clear that many who claim to profess the name of Jesus can, and have, and will, abandon the journey.

This results from what Hebrews 3:12 calls “an evil, unbelieving heart”, which causes us to “fall away from the living God.” “Evil” and “unbelieving” are connected here. Unbelief isn’t a simple disbelief in the existence of God but a lack of trust in the promises of God, particularly those found in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Trust and obedience are knitted together. A lack of trust in God produces a lack of obedience to God. Back when our enemy first sought to enslave mankind, he provoked rebellion by getting our first parents to doubt what God said (Gen. 3:1-6). That is the sequence of the serpent’s seduction. Doubt what God promises, and we neglect what God commands.

Fortunately, the author follows up the warning with the solution. Christ has divine means by which He guards and sanctifies His church, and the text encourages us to stay aligned with those means. Hebrews isn’t meant to leave us in a state of eternal uncertainty. It’s meant to challenge us, and then equip us with the tools we need to be victorious.

So what are these tools? How do we keep our faith strong and vibrant? Verse 14 provides the answer: we need to be reminded, rewashed, and refreshed in this faith “every day.” A body without food becomes sick. A building without upkeep falls into disrepair. A flower with no water or sunshine will shrivel up and die. Our faith, likewise, must be nurtured on a regular basis.

And the conduit of this nurturing is found in the author’s charge to “exhort one another” (vs. 14). Faith is more than just me and Jesus walking together down the beach. It’s more than a one-on-one dinner date with divinity. Faith in Christ puts us in the context of a community, the people of God, and it’s through the corporate community that each individual is kept strong.

The perseverance of our faith is tethered to our involvement with the people of God, the church. The church is where the gospel is preached, praises are sung, prayer is offered, the sacraments are received, discipline is administered, and confession is made. Each of these resharpens our focus on the object of our faith, Jesus Christ, and brings us into closer relation to Him both corporately and individually. Through preaching, the truth of Jesus is taught. Through worship, the beauty of Jesus is adored. Through prayer, the intercession and provision of Jesus is pleaded. Through the sacraments, the gospel of Jesus is dramatized and the presence of Jesus is manifest. Through discipline and confession, the people of Jesus are kept from straying towards the cliffs of apostasy and rerouted back onto the straight and narrow.

Through the ministry of the church, the Holy Spirit continually immerses us in “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude :3). It keeps us grounded. It keeps us strengthened. It keeps our hearts from straying into unbelief and sin. As long as it is called “today”, which is every day until Christ returns, we must “stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb. 10:24-25)

If you want to avoid apostasy, join a biblical church. Be involved. Regularly participate in its services, outreaches, events, Bible studies, and home fellowships. Be a part of the beauty and blessing that is the local church so that you will not “fall away from the living God” (Heb. 3:12).

Give Thanks…to Whom?

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“The worst moment for an atheist is when he is really thankful and has no one to thank.” – G.K Chesterton

What are you thankful for?

That’s the question to ask this time of year. Last Friday night we had our youth group write what they were thankful for on a big dry erase board at the church. On Thanksgiving day, some families pass around a basket, drop in a kernel of corn, and share what they’re thankful for. Indeed, these are good and vital practices of reflection, especially in today’s fast-paced, consumer-crazed culture. “What are you thankful for?” is an important question we must continually ask ourselves.

But there is a bigger, more important question at stake here: WHO are you thankful TO?

If a box of chocolates is left on our desk, we want to find out who the giver is in order to thank them. If we receive a heart transplant, we might enshrine the person whose heart we received by hanging their picture above the mantel or reaching out to their family. There’s a desire, a compulsion, to do so. Because we naturally feel thankfulness when we benefit from something good, and we need to direct that thankfulness somewhere.

Most people, at some point or another, recognize the good things in their life like the company of loved ones, the pleasure and sustenance of food and drink, the beauty of art, the provision of a good job, or even the thrill of just being alive. We look at all these things and know that our possession of them does not rest solely within our own power or accomplishment. We feel an intrinsic sense of indebtedness.

But to whom?

For the atheist, this burning sensation of the heart has no explanation. Their good fortune is the result of nothing but coincidence. The same coincidence that caused everything to come from nothing. The same coincidence that caused life to randomly appear. Within the giant, random void of the universe, my microscopic life just so happens to feature a few enjoyable things along the way to dull the insignificance of my existence.

The outlook isn’t much better for the agnostic or the deist. Sure, there’s a higher power out there somewhere, but it’s not actively involved in the world. Certainly not in my world. There might be a vague force that has had some impact on my life, like “fortune” or “providence”, but it’s not an intimate, personal involvement. I wasn’t given my home, my health or my family—something can only be given when one party actively and intentionally bestows it to another—I was just lucky enough to have fate, or whatever power controls things, swing my way.

In these worldviews, thankfulness cannot exist because there was no benevolence or generosity for which you can be appreciative. The good things in your life are nothing more than cold, dumb luck.

Even for the polytheists of old, one’s thanks was divided among the gods. You had to give one portion of thanks to the god of the sun, and another portion of thanks to the god of the rain, and another to the god of the harvest. There was not one source of harmonious blessings, but a plethora of deities competing with one another. Polytheism produced segments of thankfulness here and there, but not the full, rich gratitude we feel for all that we have at once.

For the theist, that intrinsic thankfulness has a real and singular outlet. There is a God who made us, who sustains us, and who has blessed us with everything that we have. There is someone on whom we can bestow the undeniable and overpowering gratitude that grips out hearts every time we look into the faces of our loved ones, lay our head on a soft pillow, or take another breath of life. We realize that what we have is a gift, and we have a living, personal source to thank for it.

But for the Christian, thankfulness goes even deeper. Indeed, the gospel of Jesus Christ provides the greatest cause for thanksgiving. We worship a God who not only made everything and provides everything, but who gave the fullness of Himself in order to provide us with the ultimate blessing. Not only does He bless us with the common grace of the rain and the harvest, but He personally paid the highest price to bless us with the crop of special, saving grace. Not only are we given bread, but the Bread of Life. Not only are we given drink, but streams of Living Water. Not only are we given life, but eternal life, and the life of Jesus Himself, who is Life.

Giving thanks without faith in an involved, personal God is like wanting to sing but having no voice or wanting to run but having no legs. The deep, sensational urge within you has no channel. The grand appreciation you feel has no source. But for the Christian, thanksgiving makes sense. What could be more natural than to look at our life, see its beauty, and praise the God from whom all blessings flow?

3 Things More Demonic than Halloween

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In my last post I mentioned predestination and Donald Trump as areas of contest between Christians. I suppose you could go ahead and add Halloween to that list as well. Every year when the Jack-O-Lanterns and fake cobwebs come out, believers are confronted with the same questions: Should we celebrate Halloween? How much? How little? Is it a harmless neighborhood costume party, or is it a satanic participation in the occult?

The concern of many, with which I sympathize, is over the extent to which light-bearing Christians share in a day devoted to the darkness of death, magic and evil. To many Christians this is the very thing Paul warned about when he said, “I do not want you to be participants with demons” (1 Cor. 10:20).

The Word of God deals quite frequently with the demonic and it often comes in the form of possessed madmen or pagan witchcraft. But not always. For as dark as ghouls and ghosts can be, there is a deeper darkness that perhaps we overlook. The face of evil is not always so easy to spot. Satan himself, the master deceiver, often lures us incognito as “an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:14). We must be on our guard against darkness in disguise, for that is the evil that truly grips and corrupts our hearts without us even realizing it.

Here are three kinds of demonic activities that you won’t see on the Halloween costume rack, but they’re perhaps more deadly than all the vampires and werewolves put together:

1. False teaching.

“Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons.” (1 Timothy 4:1)

Theology is not a petty issue. A correct understanding of Christ, the gospel, and the nature of God are at the heartbeat of the Christian faith. To miss the truth of God is to miss the person of God, the crux of our salvation, and the very source of our spiritual life.

In typical “angel of light” fashion, bad doctrine is rarely obvious. Some heresies can be smelled from a mile away but most are small and subtle, wrapped in just enough truth to sound convincing. That’s what makes them so dangerous, like poison in a glass of champagne. This is why Peter warned against “false teachers…who will secretly bring in destructive heresies” (2 Pet. 2:1).

Paul told Timothy that the spirits behind these heresies are “deceitful”. That is, they rope people along into thinking something is true when the reality is that they’re headed down a broad road of destruction. Just like Satan “deceived” Eve in the garden (2 Cor. 11:3).

If we care about protecting our churches, our families and ourselves from the demonic, we must care about doctrine. We must study the Scriptures with great care, we must be cautious about which pastors and preachers we expose our families to, and we must pay close attention to what kind of “Christian” music is playing on our radios. If you care about the decorations that adorn the front of your home, I plead with you to care even more about the kind of teaching that fills the inside.

2. Selfishness.

“But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic.” (James 3:14-15)

We all admire the success of others. We all have personal goals we want to reach. But when these are taken to their ugly, distorted extremes we end up with pride, bitterness, envy, and arrogance. We become saturated with ourselves and this infestation usually causes us to mistreat and misuse others.

When this happens we have fallen under “wisdom” that is not only “earthly” and “unspiritual” but straight up “demonic.” This love of self was at the core of Satan’s pre-creation fall, and those who fell with him now spread that same toxin.

To safeguard ourselves from true spiritual evil, let’s stop pining for what we don’t have and start giving more thanks for what we do have. Let’s stop gossiping and slandering, especially in our congregations. Let’s stop placing our own impulses and emotions in the spotlight and instead focus on serving one another with the loving humility of Jesus.

3. Carnality.

“Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! She has become a dwelling place for demons, a haunt for every unclean spirit, a haunt for every unclean bird, a haunt for every unclean and detestable beast. For all nations have drunk the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality, and the kings of the earth have committed immorality with her, and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxurious living.” (Revelation 18:1-3)

The identity of “Babylon” in the book of Revelation is up for debate. Some scholars say it represents apostate Israel. Some say first-century Rome. Some say it’s a future, literal Babylon restored to prominence. Others say it represents the corrupt world systems throughout history. Whatever the case, the point is the same: this kingdom is a haven of “demons” and “every unclean spirit.”

What is the manifestation of this demonic influence? Drunkenness, sexual immorality, riches, power, and luxury. Indulgences of the flesh. This describes a place that is hell-bent (literally) on fulfilling every carnal craving imaginable. It’s a place where sensuality is unrestrained, money is king, and comfort takes precedence over morality.

Is our career driven by the love of money? Do we watch movies or TV shows that border on the pornographic? Do we substitute the standards of Scripture for our own subjective appetites and desires? Do we participate in—or even defend and justify—that which God calls abominable? We may never step foot in a graveyard or haunted house, but we must be careful to not create a demon-haunted Babylon right where we are.

Some evil is easy to spot. But if we’re not careful it can be little more than a decoy to distract us from the truly demonic activity in our hearts and lives. Sometimes the scariest monster is the one within. Watch your doctrine. Watch your pride. Watch your lust. Unmask the devil’s phony charade and recognize darkness where it does the worst damage, and expose it with the glorious light of Christ.

“Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, ‘Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.’ Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil.” (Ephesians 5:8-16)

This Momentary Goodbye

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Last week one of my co-workers retired. The day was bittersweet, with both excitement for them and yet sadness for the end of our time together. When the hour finally came to say goodbye, the office dialogue featured the typical “Stay in touch” and “I’ll still come visit” lingo I’ve heard countless times between departing neighbors, friends and church members.

Isn’t it funny how we say things like that? When I talk with an old friend on the phone the conversation never ends with, “It was nice talking to you, bye!” but usually something along the lines of, “This was great, we’ll have to talk again soon,” or “Let me know next time you’re in town and we’ll grab coffee.” We can’t just say goodbye. There must be the hope of something else to come. Our farewells are laced with the anticipation of future reunion. And when tragedy strikes–when we lose someone we love–not seeing them feels like the most unnatural emptiness in the world. We know that such a void is surely not the way things are meant to be.

But that isn’t limited to our interaction with people. We hope our favorite movie will get a sequel so the story we care about will go on. When our favorite sports team’s season ends we say, “Just wait until next year!” If someone bakes a delicious dish we ask for the recipe so we can make it again later.

We don’t believe that good things in life should come to an end. There must always be some flicker of hope that somehow, in some way, we will encounter them again. That they must continue. When good things come to a close we don’t use terms of absolute finality, only terms of postponement. To think that such things can really and truly end is too heartbreaking.

But perhaps there’s more going on than just the materialistic hope of re-experiencing pleasure. Perhaps this tendency reflects a deep spiritual truth embedded in the soul of every man. When we use this kind of language we’re expressing an innate (yet dimmed) awareness of what heaven already knows: what is good is meant to last.

God is good. Not “good” in the sense that He adheres to some higher standard of goodness outside of Himself, but that goodness is the overflow of His very nature. Goodness is not what He does, it’s who He is. God is also eternal, without beginning and without end. God has always been, and God has always been good. Which means that goodness has always been, and goodness will always be. Since goodness is wrapped up in the person of God, goodness itself is unending.

It’s no surprise, then, that Scripture identifies countless goods that will never end such as beauty, grandeur, joy, love, and life itself.

Heaven is a place of inexpressible beauty and grandeur (2 Cor. 12:3-4) where the water never dries, the fruit never sours, and the light never goes out (Rev. 22:1-5). Its untold depths will never cease to awe us or fill us with newly discovered wonder. I think about fiery sunsets, colossal mountaintops, or mighty oceans, and I think about how they’ve taken my breath away. These feelings are not fleeting–they’re a taste of the eternal wonder we’ll have in the presence of God.

Love, also, will last long after the mountains are dust (1 Cor. 13:8). My most cherished memories are filled with the faces of those I care about and our times of laughter and fellowship together. I would contend that most people, regardless of culture or worldview, agree on the significance that loved ones play in our life. We all care about someone, and we all know how important that is. Yet Scripture tells us that such fellowship is not meant to end in death but is the very fabric of paradise, where we’ll enjoy unbroken fellowship with God and one other (1 Thess. 4:17).

Life itself, which we may think of as only a small window of biological functionality, is meant to be forever. It is not simply the duration of our heartbeat, but a wondrous and continual state of existence. Resurrected believers will be more alive than they could ever have imagined on earth. Life as we see it now is but a fragment of the true, full life that awaits believers in the presence of Christ (1 Cor. 15:51-57). As Gandalf put it, “End? No, the journey doesn’t end here.”

As a final example, consider how many billions of people find fulfillment in the worship of God, a god, or at least some cause or campaign they deem to be of the utmost significance. Many of them are (sadly and damnably) misguided in their worship, but the point is that faith in some higher good is the pinnacle of human hope. It swells our hearts with purpose and gives us something to live for. That feeling is not a religious invention to suppress our mortality, but it tickles at the passion, celebration and fulfillment that God’s people are meant to continually experience as they worship in His presence. In the new heavens and the new earth, the full and glorious presence of God will be the dominant reality, filling His people with the utmost satisfaction (Rev. 21:22-23; 22:3-5). This true joy, this thrill of the soul, is what the Psalmist had in mind when he wrote, “In Your presence there is fullness of joy; at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Ps. 16:11).

All these good things, which we experience in fragments here on earth, are not meant to end. And I think everyone knows that must be so. Deep inside, we all want to believe that goodness will endure. We need to believe that–we need to believe that these things, which we intrinsically know to be important, have real value beyond the here and now.

By contrast, notice how we discuss unpleasant experiences: “I’ll never do that again!” “I never want to hear that song again!” “I’ll never step foot in there again!” Whenever we see, hear or encounter something “bad” we have no problem dismissing it to the category of total annihilation. This, I think, reflects an equally strong belief that bad things can and should come to an end. While good things must somehow go on, bad things must surely cease.

This resonates with Scripture’s teaching that all wickedness will meet its eternal end in the fires of judgment. Immoral men will be cast out forever (Rev. 21:8). Sickness, pain and sorrow will be banished once and for all (Rev. 21:4). Even death itself will die (Rev. 20:14). Just as good things are meant to endure, evil things are meant for destruction. As Digory told Uncle Andrew in C.S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew: “You’re simply a wicked, cruel magician like the ones in the stories. Well, I’ve never read a story in which people of that sort weren’t paid out in the end, and I bet you will be.” If we didn’t believe this were true, justice would seem a hopeless cause.

Goodness is not meant to end. The common grace we now experience is but a foretaste of what believers will continually experience in Christ’s kingdom. Evil, meanwhile, will be cast out from His presence, never to be duplicated or relived. Even if we don’t realize it, we profess our faith in these truths in ways as simple and ordinary as telling a friend, “I’ll see you later.” We feel the need to do so. And no wonder, for those desires are created by the eternally good God Himself.