Sermon Question

canstockphoto5414832I got this question after the sermon “God’s Rescue Plan” on the history of the city of Jericho.  In Joshua 6, the city was cursed because of sin, but the story actually shows not just judgment but a recurring picture of God’s plan for salvation and rescue through Jesus.



Q:  When talking about how Elijah’s ultimate successor was Jesus, you referenced the end of Malachi and how Elijah would return preparing the way for Jesus, and how Elijah returned in the form of John the Baptist.  I’d never heard this before. Could you explain for me where this comes from, or at least where to go so I can learn more about this connection?

A:  The Elijah prophecy is from the last verses of the Old Testament — Malachi 4:5-6, “See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes.  He will turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.”

This prophecy finds its fulfillment in the coming of John the Baptist according to Matthew 17:11-13, “Jesus replied, ‘To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things.  But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished.  In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.’ Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist.”

You can also see Luke 1:17, “And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous — to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”



My Name Is….

It was a blessing to have Marvin Williams back with us on Sunday, delivering a powerful message about Jesus enduring the shame of the cross so that we do not have to be defined by shame but can live in freedom.

The song, Hello My Name Is, by Matthew West reminds us to take off the labels we might be tempted to put on today and live in the truth of being a beloved child of God.

All is well,


Meditating on Scripture


In the sermon today, we heard an important reminder from Joshua 1:8 —

Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it.  Then you will be prosperous and successful.

I gave several suggestions to help you meditate on scripture that I’ve listed again here:

  • Listen to a sermon.  Send time listening to God’s word being taught and discuss it with your family or small group.
  • Post scripture.  Write scripture on cards and place them in places where you spend a lot of time during the day so that you are reminded of scripture throughout the day.  Post them in your car, by the kitchen sink, at your desk, in your wallet.
  • Talk about scripture.  When you are with family or friends, enjoying a meal or on a walk, read a verse of scripture.  Take turns reflecting on the verse together.
  • Listen to scripture.  There are lots of great ways to listen to scripture.  You can listen to verses being dramatically read at a number of online sites including Bible Gateway.  Listen to songs with the words taken directly from scripture from groups such as Seeds Family Worship, Sons of Korah (Psalms) and Forever Grateful Music.  Another great site with musical and visual art to help people meditate on scripture is The Verses Project.  Calvary Kids has put the book of James to music and teaches through a chapter each year on Wednesday nights. It’s a great way to learn scripture along with your kids.
  • Select scripture randomly.  If you don’t know where to start, let God direct you. Choose a random number between 1 and 66 (or use an online site) and read the book of the bible that corresponds to that number.  For example, 15 would be the book of Ezra.  Ask the question, “Why would God have chosen this passage for me today?”
  • Discuss scripture.  Ask your family, friends or small group these questions, “If you were to hang a scripture verse on the outside of your door for everyone who passes by to see, what scripture verse would you want to hang up and why?”  “If you were going to hang a Bible verse on the front door facing inside so you would read it before you left the house, what would that scripture verse be and why?”
  • Memorize scripture.  Don’t outgrow the power of memorizing scripture.  Our verses for this series, Joshua 1:8-9, were some of the first verses I memorized as an adult. It’s a great place to start.  Try memorizing a verse every day for a week and see what happens.

Meditating on scripture — it’s challenging, but it’s simple.



Hebrews 5:11-6:12


Today’s sermon raised a number of questions. I am glad because it allows us to continue to wrestle with what God is saying in Hebrews 5:11-6:12. It also helps me to think through ways I can be more clear when I preach.

Let me begin by stating that I believe in eternal security. Once a person is saved, they cannot lose their salvation. I affirmed that doctrine in the sermon when talking about the “in/out” language of being born again, adopted, forgiven, justified, redeemed and united with Christ. Once someone has been born again, they cannot be un-born again. Once they have been adopted into God’s family, they will never be un-adopted. That’s the doctrine of eternal security.

But that was not the focus of this week’s sermon because it is not the focus of Hebrews 5:11-6:12.

There is another related doctrine that people sometimes confuse with eternal security and that is the doctrine of assurance of salvation.

  • Eternal security holds that if you are a Christian (from God’s point of view), you cannot lose your salvation.
  • Assurance of salvation is concerned with whether you or I can know that we are Christians (from our point of view).

Being a Christian and knowing that you are a Christian are two different things, although they are usually connected.

The doctrine of assurance of salvation fits better with the journey, sports, agricultural and maturity metaphors. It is viewing salvation not from God’s point of view but from ours.

From our point of view, someone who does not continue to end of their journey with Jesus will not make it to the final destination of heaven: not because they lost their salvation but because they never truly had it in the first place. 1 John 2:19 makes this point. John Calvin formulated it this way: how do you know if someone is a Christian? If they persevere to the end.

If you abandon Jesus and the journey of faith you are demonstrating that you are not genuinely born again.

Don’t genuine believers sometimes wander away from Jesus for a season? Absolutely. But, you know that a person is a genuine believer if he or she comes back. If a person doesn’t come back, you cannot know whether they are a genuine Christian.

In the sermon I said if you have loved ones that have walked away from God, I do not want to give you false hope.  I do not want to simply tell you that if your loved ones made a profession of faith when they were younger then those individuals will be fine. But what I do believe is that “God is not unjust.” He will do the right thing. If they are genuinely believers by faith, they will end up in heaven, even though they walked away. If they were never believers, they won’t.

But if someone is not currently journeying with Jesus, then neither you nor I can know whether that person is a Christian or not. And so our job is not to give false assurance but to warn them – if they do not keep going with Jesus they will not get to their destination (not because they lost their salvation, but because they are giving evidence that they are not actually saved).

But here’s the additional point to be made from Hebrews. If you go and read Hebrews 2:1-3, 3:12-14, 10:26-31, 12:25 and 5:11-6:12 you will not find any discussion about eternal security. You will not even find a discussion like what is found in 1 John 2:19 about how people who turn away from Jesus were not believers in the first place. What you will find are warnings not to walk away from Jesus. These verses are meant to frighten people who call themselves Christians (also see Matt 7:21-23; John 15; Romans 11:17-22; 1 Cor 9:27-10:12; James 2:14-26). If we preach these passages in such a way that they don’t frighten us, then we have not preached them correctly.

The author of Hebrews believes in eternal security. But he understands that people who are constantly fed a diet of “once-saved/always saved” can draw from it an incorrect inference, namely if I pray to receive Christ it doesn’t matter what I do from that point on. I realize that it is a difficult tension, but we have to let the Word of God speak in all its complexities without using one passage to silence another.

Scripture both affirms that “even if we are faithless, he is still faithful because he cannot deny himself” (2 Timothy 2:13) and “See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original conviction firmly to the very end.” (Hebrews 3:12-14).

I know that we want to hear just the eternity security passages, especially if we have a loved one who once professed faith but now no longer does so. But we should not silence the truth of Hebrews. While I have seen God use 2 Timothy 2:13 to bring comfort to believers, I have also watched him – just this morning in fact – use the real, bona fide warnings of Hebrews to bring people who were wandering from the faith back to him.


The Little Way of Ruthie Leming

Several weeks ago, Jim mentioned this book in a sermon.  Several people have asked about the book title (it is a little tricky to remember) so I wanted to post the information.

OB-XG686_bkrvfl_GV_20130429130208The whole title is The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life.  It is written by her brother Rod Dreher, a journalist who goes from living in the “big city” back to his hometown of St. Francisville, Louisiana with a population of 2,000.  The book is the story of his journey out of a small town but ultimately his return home.

The book is his memoir but toward the end it shifts to an insightful discussion of history, family roots and community.  In our culture where many of things are not valued, it is a good reminder of why we should consider these ideals.

The catalyst to his return home is his sister’s death from cancer so the book also highlights issues of loss and grieving.  It is beautifully handled but with such vivid imagery that I would suggest a large tissue box near you for most of the book.

My only caveat to the discussion, and one important aspect that is not addressed in the book, is Jesus’ response to Peter in Mark 10.

Jesus said, “Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or farms, for My sake and for the gospel’s sake, but that he will receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms, along with persecutions; and in the age to come, eternal life.…”

The Little Way of Ruthie Leming would be a great book to read and discuss with your community.

All is well,


Reconciliation vs. Forgiveness

undividedOn June 9, I preached on the subject of reconciliation from 2 Samuel 14.  This raised a number of questions, especially related to the concept of forgiveness.  Let me try to explain further the concept of reconciliation to answer many of the questions I received.

Reconciliation is the process of restoring a broken relationship.  It is made up of three parts:

  1. the offer of a renewed relationship and the willingness to forgive any wrongs;
  2. the confession and forgiveness of sin; and
  3. the re-establishment of relationship.

Let’s look at how God handles reconciliation with us.  As humans our relationship with God is broken because of our sin.  The first thing God did in response to our broken relationship is he sent his Son as a sacrificial offering to pay for our sins.  Through Jesus, God is saying to each of us, “I love you and want to overcome this estrangement in our relationship.  I am willing to fully and freely forgive you for all that you have done, adopt you into my family and remember your sins no more.”  As I said in the sermon, God takes the initiative by making the offer of salvation, and he offers full and complete restoration of the relationship – not half-hearted reconciliation.

The second thing necessary for reconciliation with God is we have to acknowledge our sin and confess them to the Lord so that he can forgive them.  When forgiveness occurs, we experience the final step when our relationship with God is re-established.

The question is, how does reconciliation work in human relationships?  This is slightly different because as humans we are not usually completely innocent in our relationships.  However, the basic principles are the same.

If you are estranged from your ex-spouse, for example, “Step 1” in the process is to take the initiative to overcome the estrangement.  You might write a note to him or her that says, “I know that for a long time there has been a rift in our relationship.  Some of it is because of my actions; some of it is because of yours.  I want you to know that I am sorry for any ways that I have hurt you.  And I am willing to forgive you for the ways that you have hurt me.  I want us to be able to be friends.”  To make such an offer is to take the initiative to offer true reconciliation.

If, however, your ex-spouse thinks that he or she has done nothing wrong, reconciliation cannot happen.  If the ex-spouse is unwilling to admit he or she sinned against you then the relationship will continue to be estranged.  At that point the only choice is to wait for the Holy Spirit to bring conviction.  But regardless of whether “Step 2” in the process of reconciliation happens, the point of the sermon is that we need to follow God’s example and take the first step.  Even if we have offered before and been refused, we should be willing, as the Lord leads, to make the offer of reconciliation again (Step 1) just like God offers non-believers reconciliation even though his offer is regularly rejected.

Hopefully this will help clear up any misconceptions from the sermon.  I was mostly talking about “Step One” in the process of reconciliation, not the following steps.  The offer of reconciliation (Step 1) is not contingent on someone acknowledging their sin and asking for forgiveness (Step 2).

This is clear from the story in Luke 15 of the prodigal son.  The father runs to the son “while he is still a long way off.”  In other words, before the father knows what the son is going to say to him when they are reunited, the father runs towards his son.  The running is “Step 1” – it is an offer of reconciliation.  I am sure that if instead of apologizing the son simply asked for more money the father would have said, “No more money until we deal with your sin.”  Without knowing what the boy is going to say, the father runs to him.  In do so, the father takes the initiative to have their relationship completely and totally restored.



Jonah and Anger with God

undividedToday we talked about being angry with God and the fact that anger with God can lead one of two directions.  Either we try to find a way out of the disappointment and pain of anger and stifle our emotions until we become apathetic towards God.   Or we use the passion of anger to engage even more fully with God and stay engaged with Him until he shows himself to be who he is – the God of all blessing.

Anger as a fork in the road can be seen not only in 2 Samuel 6, but even more vividly in Jonah 4.  The chapter begins with Jonah expressing his anger with the Lord at what God was doing in Nineveh.  God replies to Jonah, “Have you any right to be angry?”  Interestingly, God does not punish Jonah for his anger.  Instead he tries to use Jonah’s anger to engage with him.  He causes a vine to grow over Jonah, kills the vine and blazes down heat on Jonah’s head.  Again God asks Jonah, “Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?”  Jonah brazenly replies, “I do.  I am angry enough to die.”  Again, God does not strike Jonah dead for his anger but uses it to engage him by saying, “You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow.  It sprang up overnight and died overnight.  But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well.  Should I not be concerned about this great city?”

And that’s it.  Those are the closing verses of the book of Jonah.  It is where our account of the story ends.  God was trying to use Jonah’s anger to open his eyes to see that what Jonah viewed as disappointment was actually a huge blessing.  If Jonah could see that, he would have worshipped God.  But did he?  Or did Jonah’s anger cause him to disengage from God so that he didn’t have to deal with a God who didn’t do every thing the way that Jonah wanted done?  We don’t know.  The text never says.

Instead the Bible leaves the question hanging and by doing so poses a question for each of us:  What will we do with our anger with God when he does not do things the way we want them done?  Will we allow our anger to push us away from God until we sink into a state of apathy and resistance towards God?  Or will we continue to engage with God until we end up worshipping him as passionately as we were angry with him?

Is It Wrong To Long For Death?


The issue of suicide is extremely complex.  There was a lot of information on the topic that I wanted to include in Sunday’s sermon that I simply had to leave out for the sake of time.

I did briefly mention that it is not wrong to have thoughts of longing for death, but those thoughts can be a sign that there are serious underlying issues that need to be addressed.

Let’s think through this issue together.  First, all believers to some extent should long for death because it means that we will be together in heaven with Christ.  This is Paul’s point in Philippians when he says, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain…I desire to depart, and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.” (Phil. 1:21-24)

But more than that, there seem to be specific seasons when even great men and women of God longed for death as a way to end the pain and misery of life in a fallen world.  Elijah says, “I have had enough, Lord.  Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors” (1 Kings 19:4); Moses says, “I cannot carry all these people by myself; the burden is too heavy for me. If this is how you are going to treat me, put me to death right now – if I have found favor in your eyes – and do not let me face my own ruin.” (Numbers 11:15).   Of Jonah it is said, “When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint.  He wanted to die and said, “it would be far better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 4:8). Even Jesus said, “my soul is overwhelmed with sorrow, even to the point of death” (Matthew 26:38).

Other than the case of Jonah, God does not seem upset by these requests for death from his servants.  In fact, their longing for death moves him to action based on his infinite compassion.  So it is not wrong to long for death, even to request it of the Lord.  But the key difference is that none of these men took matters into their own hands and attempted to take their own lives.

For those who serve the Lord today in the midst of a fallen and broken world, we can almost expect that there will be times of great anguish where we, too, wish for death.  This, however, is different than a persistent voice from the Evil One in a person’s soul telling him to end his life or thoughts that the world would be better without him.  Desiring to be with the Lord is different than on-going depressive thoughts and feelings that leave an individual feeling that death is her only way to end the pain.  Any on-going encouragement to commit suicide is a sign that what an individual is experiencing is different than what Moses, Elijah, Jonah and Jesus experienced.

So, if you find yourself at times of great stress and anguish longing for death, please know that this is not wrong.  But if there is a persistent, regular urge to end your life, you should follow the encouragement of the Psalmist who writes: “Why are you so downcast, o my soul? Why are you so disturbed within me?  Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.” (42:11) and the encouragement of James who says, “Submit yourselves to God, resist the devil and he will flee from you.” (James 4:7)  It is important that you talk to a trusted friend or church leader who can help you find your strength in the Lord.



Saul in Heaven?

undividedCan a person who commits suicide end up in heaven?

The most provocative and perhaps troubling statement from Sunday’s sermon on suicide for some people was my belief that Saul is in heaven.  Since Sunday, a few people have questioned whether saying suicide is forgiveable might actually remove a barrier that is currently preventing people from ending their lives.

While I would never want to encourage anyone to sin, using false barriers to keep someone from sinning is almost as bad as encouraging them to sin.  If it is true that genuine believers who commit suicide still end up in heaven, hiding that truth from those struggling with suicidal thoughts does not seem the right approach to me.

So let’s tackle this in parts.  First, let’s revisit the question of whether someone who commits suicide can still end up in heaven, then we can answer the question of whether it is wise to share that information with someone who is struggling with suicidal thoughts.

Saul’s suicide provides valuable insight when considering this question because he is the one suicide example in the Scriptures who could genuinely be a believer.  We are explicitly told that Judas was not a believer and we don’t know enough about Ahithophel and Zimri to know one way or the other.  But in Saul’s case we know that God’s Spirit came upon Saul in power.  In 1 Samuel 9-11, there is strong evidence that Saul is a believer in God and demonstrates the fruit of the Spirit.  Would we really think that God would choose someone to be the first king of Israel and offer him an everlasting dynasty (1 Samuel 13:13) if he was not someone who believed in the Lord?  One other point worth considering is in 1 Samuel 28 when Saul summons Samuel from Sheol, Samuel says to Saul “tomorrow you and your sons will be with me” (1 Samuel 28:19).  Now it is possible that Samuel simply means that Saul is going to die.  But as my wife pointed out to me, it could very well mean that Saul and his sons will be in the part of Sheol where Samuel was, namely paradise.  Certainly this is where Jonathan is headed.  My guess is that this is where Saul is headed as well.

After all, isn’t this what we mean when we say that we are saved by grace and not by works?  If good deeds didn’t earn us eternal life then sins – even ones as bad as suicide – cannot rob us of eternal life.

But if it were known that suicide does not disqualify a Christian from eternal life, isn’t it better to keep quiet about this in case those who are tempted to commit suicide might be encouraged down that road?

I don’t think it is for two reasons.   God never tells believers to withhold truth.  The idea that God’s grace can be abused and become a license to do what we want is very real. Paul addresses this in Romans 5-6.  Since the more we sin, the more grace we get, Paul is forced to ask the question, “why not go on sinning so that grace can increase?” (Romans 6:1).  Paul’s answer is not, “because you won’t be forgiven.”  His answer is that someone who is genuinely a believer can’t live in a state of constantly desiring to abuse God’s grace.  But God never hides from us that all our future sins as Christians will be forgiven.  I think we have a responsibility to do the same.

The second reason why I think it is important to declare publicly that God will forgive a genuine believer who commits suicide is that those who are struggling with depressive thoughts and feelings need to understand the depth of God’s unconditional love for them.  God’s willingness to forgive his children’s willful rebellion is a demonstration of his unconditional love.  If a loved one is struggling with suicidal thoughts, the best thing to share with them is God’s unconditional love.  To imply that God will only accept them if they behave in a certain way seems the exact opposite of what they need to hear.

It is true that every believer will have to give an account of their actions to God and the person who commits suicide will have to stand before the Lord and answer for their actions.  And it is true that on that day anyone who does commit suicide will wish they had chosen a different course.  But whether God is pleased with us as his children and our behavior is a radically different question than the question of whether we are secure as God’s children.  If someone has accepted Christ as Lord, even if we are faithless, he remains faithful because he cannot deny himself (2 Timothy 2:13).

So while I do not want to encourage anyone down the path of suicide by claiming that Christians who commit suicide will be in heaven, I am committed to sharing God’s truth and grace with all people trusting that truth will win out over any other approach.