Learning Grace Extended

togetherI recall the smell. It was the unique scent of Old Spice aftershave and sweat.  Living in New Orleans guaranteed sweat in July and Dad always shaved before Wednesday night church.

We drove past the house of a young man who had recently become a believer and I felt it appropriate to voice my concerns to Dad. It was a rare occasion for me to have a solo audience with him.

In my most wounded sympathetic voice I said, “I’m really disappointed in Derrick, Dad.”

Without looking dad asked, “Why?” impassively.

“He says he is a Christian and yet he had a party this past weekend that had some inappropriate even sinful activities at it.” (I refrained from gasping)

Dad looked pensive for a moment.

“I mean, how could he do that!?” I thought I’d win some empathy from dad… This may even be a Twinkie conversation! (Dad and I would have Twinkies with Peanut butter on them whenever Dad wanted to talk or just relax and talk about life.) However, as was often the case, I was resting in the kiddie pool of Christianity… Dad wanted me to dive into the ocean.

Dad, still looking straight ahead nodded his head and asked, “If soap falls on the ground, is it still soap?”

Confused I said, “of course.”

“What do you do with soap that has fallen in the dirt?”

I replied, “Clean it off and put it back on the shelf?”

Dad said, “If your friend is a believer, then he is soap… is your disappointment helping him out of dirt in any way?”

“I guess not…”

Dad responded, “We all fall in the dirt, John.  Being upset about the dirt on other people is pointless.  We must figure out how to lift one another up from the dirt… because we are Jesus’ disciples and that is part of what it means to love… You get dirty too.”  My dad had a unique way of turning a smelly car ride into a theological discourse on the nature of humanity.

“I know.”

“Is it helpful for someone to be disappointed?”

“no,” I replied realizing that I had look at my friend in pride and not compassion.

“The question is, ‘what can you do to help him?’ To point at him and say ‘dirty’ accomplishes nothing. That is what the world does.  Show the world a better way. Show them the way Jesus loves.”

That conversation began my understanding of grace in relationships. It is the root of one of my favorite things to say, “We all struggle, your struggles may be more evident than mine at the moment. We all have them.” This is the reality of the world we live in. No one deserves grace… it wouldn’t be grace if we did. If we have been redeemed by the unmerited favor of a benevolent King, then we have no excuse to withhold that grace from others. People get dirty. If you dwell on the dirt, you’ll always be disappointed. However, if you can learn to love people out of the dirt, then you’ll find happiness in your relationships. Instead of simply pointing at someone and saying, “dirty!” learn to call to them and say, “come, this way.” In this, you will begin to love those who fall into the dirt.  This is the way of Jesus.

I’m not always good at this. I still stand in prideful judgement of others. I fail to love people well. But I have a group around me who help to lift me from the dirt and wash me off with the Word. (Romans 12:9-13)  Our church strives to embody the ideal of grace extended. If you do not have a community like this, we are working hard to build one where I live. Come join us at Sovereign Grace Fellowship in Brazoria at 10:30 Sunday mornings. We meet in the Brazoria Civic Center Conference room (the old elementary school.)  There is a map on the important documents tab at the top of this page.  We all have struggles, let’s walk through them together.

The Power of the Pulpit

What can stir the affections for Christ? What is it that brings the soul to the point of contrition? What brings the heart to an understanding of Salvation? What is it that draws people to Christ? What changes the condition of the soul, inspiring life change? What is the power of the pulpit?

Most pastors believe the power of the pulpit is their personal ability to persuade people to come forward at an altar call. Preachers tend to craft their sermons and even their services around an emotional appeal that leads into an invitation/altar call. In church history, this is a relatively new phenomenon.

For almost two thousand years of Christian history people turned to faith in Christ without an altar call. There is no example in Scripture of people being ushered or called to walk to the front of a crowd to make a declarative statement or decision. Sure, they were called to repent and believe, but that was done where they stood. They were called to turn from sin and trust in Jesus for their righteousness right where they stood. And they were called to make a meaningful choice to follow Jesus without the aid of music or an aisle to walk down.

Then a man named Charles Finney (1792-1875) established “the anxious bench.” Over time this has morphed into our modern altar calls. Finney believed that you could persuade the soul of man by creating a perfect setting. If you put the music in the right place, appeal to the emotions in the correct manner, ensure the lighting is properly set, and lay out the right words, then people will come forward. And, in a very practical since, Finney was correct. If you set the stage correctly, you’ll be able to manipulate many people into walking forward. (To be clear, I’m not questioning Finney’s motives… His heart was to see people become committed followers of Christ. He was simply extremely pragmatic and humanistic in his approach.)

It is true that one can set the atmosphere to convince people to walk forward. However, history and modern church demographics have called this methodology into question. In the last several years a slew of material has been written decrying the shallow, consumeristic Christianity that is so prevalent in American churches. Easy-believe-ism is often cited as a result of a kind of altar call faith.

So what are we to do? If we are not to focus our messages around an emotional appeal that calls people to walk to the front, then what is the power of the pulpit?

The answer is simple. It is so simple that it is simply assumed by most preachers… though rarely practiced.

The power of the pulpit comes from the Scripture. The Scripture is the power in our messages.

“Faith comes from hearing and hearing through the word of Christ.” Rom. 10:17

“All Scripture is breathed-out by God and profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” 2 Tim. 3:16-17

“…devote yourselves to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, and to teaching.” 1 Tim. 4:13

“For what was written in former days (Scripture) was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of Scripture we might have hope!” Rom. 15:4

The Spirit of God through the Word of God is what changes the soul of man. It is not our clever methods or our well-crafted appeals that challenge the soul. It is the conviction that comes from hearing the Word read and proclaimed aloud. One of the most powerful things you can do as a teacher is read the Bible out loud!

So, I propose we change the way we approach our Sermonizing. It seems as though our message ought not to be crafted around an appeal to emotions, but rather, it should be the explanation of Scripture. Be clear, be plain, be honest.  If you will focus on teaching the Bible, you will see life-change in people. If you will focus on clearly explaining the Word of God and showing people the character and nature of God, you will find people living changed lives. Teach the Bible so that people see Christ! Engage the hearer in heart and in mind. Teach so that people better know Christ. Don’t try to manipulate the emotions to garner a response. Instead, focus on teaching the Bible clearly.

Further, structure your services around meeting with God. Show people Jesus, and then worship will follow. Let the climax of your service be knowing and meeting with God Himself! Make everything you do point to Jesus. He has promised that His Word will never return void.


Hiding Sin?

HIDING-BEHIND-A-TREE1I stood in my kitchen feeling the uneasiness of my young friend. It was obvious that there was something the young man was not telling me. He had a look about him. A fear that he would be rejected. A slight, almost indiscernible trembling in his demeanor. He wouldn’t look up. I knew what it was. I knew the stance. I had felt the fear and shame of hiding my sin from others. I knew the fear of exposing my wickedness to Christians, even those who were kind and gentle. I also knew the freedom of exposure.

I looked the young man in the eyes and said, “how long have you struggled with (this particular issue)?” He was shocked that I knew. His response was clear and direct. He answered me honestly and we were able to talk through his struggle.
Many of us are in the same place that young man in my kitchen was. We feel a need to hide our sins out of view from the community of faith. Perhaps we are afraid we will loose our prestige. Perhaps we are afraid we will be looked down on. Or maybe we just want to hold on to our sin a little while longer. It would probably surprise most people to know that pastors are no different. Transparency is not easy to come by and the fear of rejection is often crippling. I have watched as many of my fellow pastors hide sins from their congregations. They preach with great tenacity against sin on Sunday and then expend copious amounts of energy hiding their own failures.

In Joshua 7, Achan is caught after hiding some forbidden treasures under his tent. He attempts to hide his sin. Slowly and methodically his sin is uncovered by the Lord of Hosts through miraculous circumstance. He has multiple chances to come forward and repent, but chooses to hide. This is his response after he has been caught:

And Achan answered Joshua, “Truly I have sinned against the Lord God of Israel, and this is what I did: when I saw among the spoil a beautiful cloak from Shinar, and 200 shekels of silver, and a bar of gold weighing 50 shekels, then I coveted them and took them. And see, they are hidden in the earth inside my tent, with the silver underneath.” – Joshua 7:20-21

Note the pattern here: Achan answers Joshua, “I saw… I coveted… I took… I hid…” This is the process we all go through when we sin. First we see it, then we want it. Our desire overwhelms, so we take it. At the realization of what we have done, we hide it. There is no joy in this. There is only shame! What good does secret sin do for us? Forbidden lusts that are hidden under tents only serve to rot our innermost thoughts and hearts. They are turmoil to our souls. “What fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed?” -Romans 6:21

Enter grace. 

When that young man stood in my kitchen I was able to tell him my struggles as well. I gave counsel to him and let him know he was okay. We began a process of walking through life together as brothers in arms. The truth is that we all struggle with sin, it just so happens that your struggles are sometimes more evident than mine and vise versa. But the grace of Jesus Christ has covered mine, and it can cover yours. We fear the condemnation that may come from others. What we ought to fear is the condemnation of the Lord. If we trust Him with our salvation, why not with our sins and our hearts. Indeed, it will hurt to confess… cleansing out sin always hurts a little. But if we let it fester, it will consume us. Besides, confession of sins to each other is commanded. (James 5:16)

So I offer you an open invitation. Don’t hide your sin like Achan does. His end is death under a pile of rocks… Instead of hiding our sin under our tents, let’s find a community of believers who will walk through our struggles with us and engage in war against sin along side us. Find people who will ask you honest questions without condemnation. (Romans 8:1) Achan carries all his sin to the judgement and in the end he remains only a rotting corpse buried under the weight of his sin. But Jesus died so that you wouldn’t have to suffer the same fate as Achan. You don’t need to continue to hide your sin, Jesus paid the price for it. Bring it out from under your tent and expose your soul to the cleansing grace of Christ.

If you do not have a community like this, we are working hard to build one where I live. Come join us at Sovereign Grace Fellowship in Brazoria at 10:30 Sunday mornings. We meet in the Brazoria Civic Center Conference room. (There is a map on the important documents tab at the top of this page) We all have struggles, let’s make war on them together.