Tag Archives: New Testament

“The Whole Counsel of God”

Cultivating and Celebrating a Faith
that is as Big as the Bible

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 “Why would you want a smaller Bible?”
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“In the Old Testament Jesus is predicted,
in the Gospels Jesus is revealed,
in the book of Acts Jesus is proclaimed,
in the Epistles Jesus is explained
and in the book of Revelation Jesus is anticipated.”   

Our tendency is to think that the person and work of Jesus Christ is confined to just the 33 years of His life on earth to which the New Testament’s four Gospels bear witness.  The way we think and act, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are the Bible’s “Jesusy” books.  We think that they alone are where we are going to find Him in the Bible.  Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are where we go to hear Jesus speaking and to see Jesus acting.  But because the Gospels are about who Jesus was and what Jesus did in the past, the way we tend to approach them is as past history.

We think of Jesus in the same way that we think of Abraham Lincoln.  He lived. He mattered. But now he’s gone.  Oh, we still feel his influence.  We continue to be inspired by his example and we’re certainly grateful for his contributions, but now he’s just a dead, distant memory.  Our only access to Abraham Lincoln is through the historical records that we have that tell us something about what he said and did when he was here.  Knowing Lincoln is a matter of historical research.  But knowing Jesus it’s different.

“Dead as dead can be” on Good Friday afternoon, Jesus was “alive again and alive forever” come Easter Sunday morning.  That’s what the Gospel story tells us, and even this is not where the Gospel story about Jesus ends.  The way that many of us approach the Gospel story, Jesus gets up on Easter Sunday morning, but He’s got nowhere to go and nothing to do.   But the way the New Testament tells the Gospel story, the resurrection of Christ is just the prelude to His Ascension which in turn is the trigger for Pentecost and the outpouring of the empowering presence of God through the Holy Spirit who has been given to the church for mission and assurance. The Resurrection, Ascension, and Pentecost are the three foundations to the church’s experience of the continuing presence and activity of Jesus Christ.

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John tell us about the 33 years of Jesus Christ’s ministry on earth.  But the book of Acts and the New Testament’s Epistles are the opening chapters on the Risen Christ’s continuing ministry in heaven that has now been underway for 2000 years.  And what this means is that the book of Acts and the Epistles are just as “Jesusy” as are the Gospels.  He was just as present and He was just as involved with the things that we find in the book of Acts and the Epistles as the Risen Glorious Lord in heaven as He was during the days of His earthly life as the historical Jesus.   We see Jesus and we hear Jesus everywhere in the Bible, and not just in the Gospels.  This is where I think “Red Letter” Christians get it wrong.

 “Red Letter” Christians are those Christians in the church today who, understandably weary of the disproportionate attention that has been paid to the book of Acts and to the Epistles of the New Testament by much of the church for so long, have consciously turned their attention back to the neglected Gospels, back to the “Red Letters” of Jesus’ teachings.  But rather than restoring a lost Biblical balance, the unintended consequence of this “Red Letter” initiative for many has been to now do to the book of Acts and the Epistles of the New Testament what had previously been done to the Gospels. “Red Letter” Christians objected to the way that the Gospels had been marginalized in the preaching, teaching, and believing of some Christians and some segments of the church, and rightly so. But in their attempt to address this problem, many “Red Letter” Christians have now, in turn, marginalized the book of Acts and the Epistles of the New Testament.

Whenever and however a pecking order for the authority of the books of the Bible gets created that excuses us from having to pay attention to their witness to the speaking and acting of God reduces the Bible by labeling some books as being “secondary” and “unnecessary.”  But we don’t need a smaller Bible, we need a fuller Bible.  We don’t want fewer colors in our crayon box to work with, we need more!  Any approach to the Bible that tries to convince us that there are parts of it that we don’t really have to deal with is going to finally restrict our knowledge of God and leave gaps in our spiritual experience because too much of the Bible has been pushed to the margins and left out of the conversation of faith.

What we need is a Bible that’s just as big as the canon of Scripture that has been placed in our hands.  What we need is a way of reading the Bible that doesn’t leave certain parts of it out, that doesn’t declare certain books in it to be irrelevant and unnecessary, that doesn’t diminish our expectation of being able to hear God speaking and to see God acting when we take up our Bibles, open them to any page, and read. The Bible’s library of the collected testimonies of witnesses to the presence and action of God in the history of Israel and in the person and work of Jesus Christ set the boundaries for the field on which the game of our faith gets played.  It’s big and expansive and rich and diverse, and deliberately so.  So, why would we want to settle for less?  Instead, let’s cultivate and celebrate a faith that’s just as big as the Bible.  DBS +

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A “Christian” Vote?

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What’s been particularly dispiriting this year was how many people decided what they thought of an accusation of sexual misconduct based upon the partisan affiliation of the accused. When it’s a member of the other party, the message to the accuser is, “You have the right to be heard. You have the right to be believed. We’re with you.” When it’s a member of our own party, the talking heads confidently declare they’re just hunting their “fifteen minutes of fame.” Who could have guessed that guilt in sexual misconduct cases aligned so perfectly with party membership?

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Jim Geraghty – http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/441324/character-candidates-and-wrong-lesson-2012

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Now that we are beginning our final approach to the 2016 election, more earnest are the appeals and more urgent are the arguments from colleagues and acquaintances alike about which candidate and which party is more “Christian,” and therefore my only option as a voting “Christian” when I step into my polling booth on the morning of November the 8th.  My Republican friends insist that voting Republican is the only “Christian” option based largely on a law and order reading of Romans 13 and an emphasis on the personal morality strands of New Testament teaching.  Meanwhile, my Democrat friends insist that voting Democrat is the only “Christian” option based largely on a social activist interpretation of the ministry of Jesus Christ found in the Gospels, especially Luke’s, and an emphasis on the social justice strands of New Testament teaching.

My problem is that when I read my New Testament, I find both the strands of teaching that my Republican friends emphasize, and the strands of teaching that my Democrat friends emphasize. The way I read the New Testament, it’s not “either/or,” it’s “both/and.” And what troubles me so deeply about this is the way that partisan blinders seem to screen us from seeing and partisan rhetoric seems to deafen us from hearing the way that our Christian brothers and sisters on the other side of the partisan divide are reasoning from Scripture, making inferences and drawing conclusions just as we are. That quote from Jim Geraghty’s National Review article “Character, Candidates and the Wrong Lessons from 2012,” at the lead of my blog this week powerfully expresses the way that partisan affiliation hypocritically skews the way that we “hear” things, and then “use” what we’ve heard to dismiss and denigrate the other side.  This is bad enough when we do it with what we hear on the evening news and with what we read about in the morning paper, but when we do it with Scripture, well, that’s just spiritual malpractice if you ask me.

In seminary I was told that the very first task of being a truly “Biblical” Christian was to be able to identify your own deeply imbedded presuppositions, to recognize the way that those prejudices were slanting the way that you read the Biblical texts, and then to try to neutralize them as much as possible by the use of the critical tools of interpretation and by consciously choosing to be part of a community of interpretation where people from different backgrounds, with different life experiences, and with different presuppositions could respectfully and honestly talk with each other about what they found in the Biblical text, what it means for the way that they understood God, themselves and the world, and how it shapes the way that they were then making their way through life in light of what they understood the Bible to say and mean.  This is why I am a Disciple, when theologically I am probably better suited to be a Baptist of some variety (Remember, we Campbellites were Baptists once… “Christian Baptists” to be precise).  In fact, this was the exact struggle that I actually had when it was time to choose both the college that I would attend, and later on, the seminary.  I’d had Baptist experiences of faith and church, and Disciple experiences of faith and church.  And I had Baptist options open to me, and I had Disciple options, and I understood that whichever option I took would forever set the denominational dye of the color of my soul.

At both junctures, college and seminary, I consciously and conscientiously chose the Disciples, and I have truly loved being part of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) as a classically Orthodox Christian (Chalcedonian and Nicaean) because I knew that as a Disciple, at the Sunday school table each week there would be rigorous conversations about what I believed, and why, while at the Lord’s Table, as a Disciple, I knew that there would be the embrace of a community that was deeply rooted and grounded in God’s work of saving love in Jesus Christ.  Billy Graham used to say that “the ground at the foot of the cross is level,” and that’s what I found in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) 45 years ago. It’s why I became an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) 35 years ago.  And it’s how I have always tried to operate as a minister in the five Texas congregations of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) that I have had the honor of serving, including Northway for these past 20 years.

Our founders refused to “fence the Table” over doctrinal and polity disagreements, and today, I believe that our stewardship of that practice of settled conviction requires us to refuse to “fence the Table” over political and social disputes, formally by statement or informally by attitude.  The spiritual “Magna Carta” of the church was Paul’s passionate exclamation in Galatians 3:28 –

 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free,
there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

 And today, I think that sounds like –

There is no longer Republican or Democrat, there is no longer conservative or
progressive, there is no longer red or blue; for all of you are one in Christ.

And because I believe that this is true of the church in general, and of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in particular, especially right now on the eve of a deeply polarizing Presidential election, I think that it’s time for us to start acting like the Christians that our spiritual tradition says we are, and minimally, I believe that this demands some modesty of us.

And so instead of declaring our partisan conclusions as the obvious and only “Christian” choice announced with vitriol and absolutism, how about opting instead for the more difficult pathway of a faithful conversation that opens with all of us saying to each other, “This is the choice that I am making in this election as a Christian, and these are my reasons why. So, tell me about the choice that you are making in this election as a Christian, and what are your reasons why?”  Faithful, respectful conversation rather than conflict and political conceit seems to me to be so much more reflective who we are as sisters and brothers in Christ.

On November the 13th, the Sunday right after the election, we will gather at the Lord’s Table here at Northway just as we do every Sunday.  We will have a President-elect, and if the national statistics are correct, then just about half of us will have voted for that candidate and just about half of us will have not.  Some of us will have “won” politically, and the rest of us will have lost.  But as Americans, we will have our President for the next four years – the leader we are commanded to “honor” (Romans 13:7; I Peter 2:17), and for whom we commanded to pray regardless of how we voted (I Timothy 2:1-2).  And as Christians, our faith and trust will still be in Christ alone as our Lord and Savior, and everyone who has made this same commitment to Him will still be our sisters or brothers in Him, regardless of how they voted.  And because that will be true of us then and there, how about thinking, talking and acting like it’s true of us here and now in these two weeks before the election.  DBS +

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Election Day Communion Service
Northway Christian Church – F-101 – Fellowship Hall
Tuesday, November 8, 2016 – 6 pm

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Election Day Communion Services began with the concern that Christians in the United States were being shaped more by the tactics and ideologies of political parties than by their identity in and allegiance to Jesus. Northway is a diverse congregation in terms of political views, but spiritually we are still one in Jesus Christ, and so we participate in this Election Day Communion tradition gladly. By deliberately coming together at the Lord’s Table on the evening of the election before the results are announced, we are showing ourselves to be one people in Christ, and we are affirming that what unites us is far more powerful than anything that divides us. So, vote on Election Day morning and then on Election Day Evening come to church to affirm what matters most to us as Christians – the unity of the body of Christ. The most visceral way to express this unity is to share the cup and break bread with other Christian brothers and sisters.

We will be sharing communion together on November 8th in the Fellowship Hall at 6 pm.

 

 

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The Dock and the Boat; Being “Biblical” in a Changing World

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boatHave you ever stepped from a dock into a rocking boat? Spiritually, the precariousness of this situation is where we live our lives as Christians.  Our mandate is to go into all the world to preach the Gospel (Mark 16:15).  The dock is the New Testament, the firm and fixed platform from which we operate.  It is our first source and primary authority for faith and practice as Christians. The world is the constantly shifting boat, rising and falling with the waves, rocking and rolling in the wind.  And we who have experienced and been entrusted with the Gospel message of God’s steadfast love in Jesus Christ are constantly being asked to step from the sure dock of the New Testament into the shifting boat of the world. The expectation is that we will carry the Gospel message that is rooted and grounded in the New Testament to the worlds where we live and move and have our being.   The trick in this is being able to “translate” the Gospel message into the language, thought-forms and felt needs of our changing world without “transforming” the Gospel message into something else in the process.

When I started ministry back in the 1970’s the pressing question of the day was women in the spiritual and pastoral leadership of the church. Back then I pastored churches that elected their first women elders and congregational chairs, and that called their first women ministers, and believe me when I tell you that there were some tense and terse meetings in those congregations as those decisions were being made, and some casualties. Some church members strongly and sincerely believed that the New Testament prohibited women in spiritual leadership, and they cited I Corinthians 14:34 and I Timothy 2:11-14 as their proof.  They had their feet firmly planted on the dock of Scripture and they weren’t budging.  Other church members knew that the world around them had changed, that the cultural movement towards equal rights between the sexes was right, and that the church needed to “catch-up” and adjust to this new reality.  They had their foot in the moving boat and they were faithfully committed to keeping it firmly planted there.  Needless to say, this created some uncomfortable tension.  Passion was met by passion, and the trick from my perspective as their pastor was keeping the necessary conversation civil and sustained.  The temptation was always for somebody to pick up their ball and go home.  Rather than trusting that the Holy Spirit was the source of the whitecaps of controversy in the pond of their church, some were always looking for a quick exit, a premature resolution.  Either stay on the dock or get into the boat.   Enough of this straddling business!   But the Great Commission – going into all the world to preach the Gospel – by definition always has and always will position us with one foot on the dock and with our other foot in the boat.

Resolution finally came in those churches not by dismissing the Biblical concerns nor by ignoring the present cultural developments, but by remembering that the books of the Bible themselves were all written in a shifting cultural context too, and that by figuring out what was cultural in them and thereby negotiable, and what was Gospel in them and thereby nonnegotiable, was going to hold the key for us as Christians today trying to “translate” the eternal Gospel into our specific cultural context without “transforming” the content of the Gospel into something else.

pecansAppreciating the difference between the husk and the kernel of a pecan was the crucial distinction. Every Texan has had the unfortunate experience of putting a pig piece of pecan pie into your mouth and biting into a piece of shell when what you were expecting was the taste and texture of the soft sweet nut.  Well, the Biblical context is the shell and the Biblical content is the nut.   The shell in inedible and disposable.  The nut is edible and valuable.  The trick is figuring out which is which when you are looking at a Biblical text.

Sometimes it’s obvious. I’ll bet you a dollar or two that you didn’t see any women in church last Sunday morning with their heads covered even though the New Testament explicitly commands it (I Corinthians 11:1-16).  You don’t need a seminary degree to know there’s a kernel and a husk at work in this text, and the fact that there were no women in church last Sunday with their heads covered shows that we know what the husk of it is.  The real question is what is the kernel of this text?  The interpretive tools of scholarship were developed to help us figure this “kernel” question out more faithfully.

Historically, the church has always believed in a Bible that is both authoritative and that needs to be interpreted. It needs to be interpreted because as C. Leonard Allen put it –

The Bible is a collection of writings rooted deeply in a world that is remote to us. It reflects languages, cultures and world views as strange to us as those of rural Kenya or Kurdistan. Only as we realize that we are outsiders can we enter that strange world and to some degree become insiders.

To be able to do this requires us to undertake an interpretive journey across the barriers of time, culture, language, knowledge and worldviews. J. Scott Duvall and J. Daniel Hays in their book Grasping God’s Word (Zondervan 2005) says that this journey involves asking and answering five question with every Biblical text –

bridgeStep 1: What did the text mean to the original audience?
Step 2: 
What are the differences between the biblical audience and us?
Step 3: 
What is the theological principle in this text?
Step 4: How does this theological principle fit with the rest of the Bible?
Step 5: 
How should individual Christians today live out the theological principles?

This is what’s involved in stepping from the dock of a Biblical text into the rocking and rolling boat of a culture in the world today with the message of the Gospel in your arms that you are trying to deliver from its original ancient setting to your present contemporary setting. It’s tricky, and it can’t be rushed.  Today, for most of us, the question of women in ministry has been settled by discovering what’s the kernel and what’s the husk of texts like I Corinthians 14:34 and I Timothy 2:11-14, and we did that by following some version or variation of the 5 steps of the interpretive journey.

Today, the pressing question for us is the full inclusion of Gay and Lesbian Christians in the life and ministry of the church, and just like the question of women in ministry 40 years ago, the LBGTQ question today has some church members with their feet firmly planted on the dock of Biblical texts like Genesis 19:1-11, Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, I Corinthians 6:9-10, I Timothy 1:10 and Romans 1:26-27, and other church members with their feet firmly planted in the boat of a culture in which the understanding of same sex identity and relationships have undergone a dramatic shift, a culture into which they know they have been sent with the message of God’s love in Jesus Christ.  And just like 40 years ago and the question of women in ministry, there is some uncomfortable tension in the church today about what it means to be Gospel inclusive?  Passion is meeting passion once again, and the trick for me as a pastor, once again, is to try to keep the conversation civil and going.

When people on the dock, and people in the boat, each threaten to take their ball and leave, we need to trust that the Holy Spirit is in fact the source of the whitecaps of controversy in the pond of the church, and to see it through to God’s resolution rather than seeking our own quick exit from the process. 40 years ago it was the question of women in ministry.  Today it is the question of the full inclusion of LBGTQ Christians in the life of the church. 40 years from now it will be another question. So long as Christ sends His church into the world with the message of the Gospel of God’s saving love, we who are Christians are going to feel the very real tension of having one foot on the dock of Scripture and the other one in the boat of culture. So, don’t fight it.  God is in it.  Trust the Holy Spirit’s work.  See it through.  DBS +

 

 

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Do you need God to do Church?

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The triad – thesis, antithesis, synthesis – is often used to describe the thought of German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Hegel stresses the paradoxical nature of consciousness; he knows that the mind wants to know the whole truth, but that it cannot think without drawing a distinction. Unfortunately, every distinction has two terms, every argument has a counter-argument, and consciousness can only focus on one of these at a time. So it fixes first on the one, then under pressure fixes second on the other, until it finally comes to rest on the distinction itself. Hegel refers to this process of alternation and rest as dialectic. [http://militantlibertarian.org]

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This familiar philosophical category serves me quite well.

I am an inveterate moderate. I deplore the extremes.  I never finish preaching a sermon without wanting to immediately say, “Now, on the other hand…” I never vote without wishing that I could take some of the positions and qualities of each candidate, and just like Frankenstein, use those parts to fashion an entirely new and different kind of being.   I get impatient with people who stake out their positions with clarity and passion, and who then refuse to listen to alternate points of view that are being staked out by people who can match their clarity and passion.  I can’t understand how people fail to see the complexity of things, and who become comfortable championing one-sided half-truths.  In his introduction to Martin Buber’s I and Thou (judged to be one of the 20th century’s foundational documents), Walter Kaufmann lamented the way that we tend to settle all too easily for black and white conclusions.  The alternatives before us are always myriad and manifold, he said, requiring us to be perpetually open and inquisitive, which brings me to the great wrestling match that’s been going on in my head since my Sabbatical earlier this year.

Scroll back through my blog posts to May 20, 2014, and take a quick look at “Human-Centered Church Growth ~ Christ-Centered Church Growth: A Collaboration or a Conflict?” In my examination of how some churches have been able to successfully shift their understanding and practice of evangelism from just being one of the many things that they do to actually becoming part of who they are, part of their culture as a church, the tug-of-war, at least for me, always returned to the same issue: when it comes to evangelism, what’s God’s part and what’s ours?  This is a perennial theological tussle – it’s Augustine and Pelagius, Calvin and Arminius, Wesley and Whitefield, Edwards and Finney.

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The conundrum gets distilled quite nicely for me in the comment that an Episcopal priest once made to R.T. Kendall, the Minister Emeritus of London’s historic Westminster Chapel – “If the Holy Spirit were taken completely from the Church, 90% of the work of the Church would go right on as if nothing had happened!” (The Anointing – 3).  Exploring this idea, just about a year ago Geoff Surratt, a church planter in Colorado, in a blog on his web page – “Inner Revolution” (http://geoffsurratt.com), asked “How long could you do ministry without God?”

I wonder how long I could be successful in ministry without God? I’ve been in vocational ministry for 31 years, and I seldom encounter a situation I haven’t seen before. I have a stockpile of sermons to pull from, and many other places where I can grab a complete sermon with a moment’s notice. I do strategy, staffing and structure in my sleep. My experience, connections and the internet give me all the tools I need to do ministry, and do it at a very high level. God is good, but often not all that necessary.

How about you? How long could your church function, and function well, without God? You have your sermons planned through Easter, your song lists loaded into Planning Center and your small group resources online. You have well-trained volunteers and the best staff money can buy. Your IT and weekend tech have redundancies built in to handle any contingency. The people who attend your church know that they will have a quality experience every weekend regardless what might happen behind the scenes. Certainly God is welcome at your church, but is he really necessary?

I am all for policies, procedures, strategy, training, planning and technology. If fact, except for policies and procedures, these are the things I love the most. And I am amazed to see how effectively churches use these tools to reach people far from God and lead them into biblical discipleship. What scares me, shakes me to my core, however is how easily we can substitute the tools of worship for genuine worship. How often we find ourselves worshipping the creation rather than the creator. How many weekends we leave church feeling satisfied because the music was good, the sermon was well received and the attendance was up without even considering if God was pleased.

How long has it been since I have been on my face before God, desperate to hear from him, knowing that I am absolutely toast without him. When was the last time I was so hungry to experience the power and presence of God that I could not eat, I could not sleep until I felt the supernatural touch of his Holy Spirit? When was the last time I was so overwhelmed by the responsibility of preaching the Word that I could barely breathe?

It is not all that hard to build a ministry without God.                                                                                                    

What a terrifying place to be.

Over the next few weeks I am going to be thinking out loud here about the part that human intelligence, initiative and ingenuity plays in making a church effective, and the part that the Divine presence, power and provision plays. Using Hegel’s dialectic, I am going to move from an examination of the thesis of Divine action, to an exploration of the antithesis of human action, to a consideration of the shape that some kind of synthesis of the two might take? And along the way I hope to bump into some truths that might actually serve the church and its ministry today.  DBS+

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If the Holy Spirit was withdrawn from the church today,
95% of what we do would go on and no one would know the difference.

 

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If the Holy Spirit had been withdrawn from the New Testament church,
95% of what they did would stop and everybody would know the difference.

                                                                                                                                                                               ~ A.W. Tozer

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Changing Laws ~ Changing Hearts

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Dr. Bill Baird, my professor of New Testament at Brite Divinity School, and the reason why I wanted to go to seminary in Ft. Worth in the first place, used to say that our natural reflex is to use Biblical texts as “springboards” to Washington D.C.

What he meant by this was our tendency to move immediately, unhesitatingly and uncritically from Biblical teachings to some specific public policy proposal. We get political in the blink of an eye and become partisan in a heartbeat. Both the Christian right and the Christian left pronounce their particular take on a pressing social issue of the day and leave the distinct impression that it is the only conscientious position that a serious Christian can take.  We call it being “prophetic,” and we think that it’s how we speak truth to power.

As Christians, we use the Bible politically to speak to the world. But when I read my Bible, in context, more often than not, what I encounter is not a word that’s being spoken to the world at large, but a word that’s being spoken instead to the community of faith, both to whole congregations and to individual Christians.  When He was in front of Pontius Pilate, Jesus Christ explicitly disavowed the suspected grab for worldly power through a political strategy that made Him a cause for concern to Rome.   “My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus said (John 18:36).  And when addressing a problem about sexual expression in the Corinthian Church, Paul explained –

9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. 11 But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people. 12 What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? 13 God will judge those outside. [1 Corinthians 5:9-13]

I know, I know, these verses beg many important questions, but for right now try to focus just on the inside/outside distinction that Paul was making here; the difference between what the church is supposed to say to “anyone who claims to be a brother or sister,” and what the church is supposed to say to “the people of this world.”

“What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?” Paul asked, assuming that his readers knew that the answer was “none” — that it’s not our “business” to hold people in the world accountable to the moral and spiritual standards that we who have surrendered to the Lordship of Jesus Christ hold sacred.  “Are you not to judge those inside?” And again, Paul assumed that his readers knew the answer to this rhetorical question as well. “Yes,” we are supposed to hold ourselves accountable to each other within the community of faith for the things that we say we believe are true, and right, and good.

Don’t try to play the trump card of Matthew 7:1-6 here. Even in context, Jesus’ “judge not lest ye be judged” assumes a capacity on our part to be able to identify “specks,” “logs,” “dogs” and “swine.” And within a mere 8 verses of this teaching, Jesus was warning His disciples about “false prophets” and the necessity for His disciples to be able to know who they were by their fruits (Matthew 7:15-20).  The appeal to Matthew 7:1 as a universal prohibition to judging that we like to use to avoid the hard work of getting clarity for ourselves or being challenged by others about what it is that we believe and value ignores what the verse actually says in context and attempts to have it bear more freight than it was designed to hold, which brings us back around to the inside/outside distinction and to the question of who the Bible is talking to?

The reason why we use Biblical texts as springboards to Washington DC is because we think that the primary way that the world will be changed, made more just and compassionate, will be through legislation. And while I’m not unaware of the necessity of political action or unappreciative of the way that good legislation and responsible government can serve the establishment of justice and liberty for all, neither am I naïve.  I’m truly glad that racial segregation and discrimination was officially outlawed in the United States by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but as the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, 50 years later have painfully shown us, it’s one thing to change the law and another thing to change hearts.

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The “takeaway” from Carl F.H. Henry’s 1964 book Aspects of Christian Social Ethics for me was his strong emphasis on Christianity’s “supernatural resources” for social change. This was his restatement of Pietist Christianity’s traditional approach to addressing social problems and fueling social improvement.

The twentieth century has cherished high hopes for socio-politico-economic reconstruction. First it trusted mass education to propound a new vision of society, then domestic legislation and possibly even international jurisprudence, and more recently it has looked to mob pressures and revolutionary techniques to being about rapid social fulfillment. (9)

But the Christian Church ought to rely on the spiritual regeneration of individuals to transform society. (72)

History shows that the thought of Christ on the cross has been more potent than anything else in arousing a compassion for suffering and indignation at injustice. (29)

Supernatural regeneration is the peculiar mainspring for the social metamorphosis latent in the Christian movement… Evangelism and revival remain the original wellsprings of evangelical humanitarianism and social awakening. To ignore or lay aside this chief armor of apostolic Christianity for reliance on other social dynamics means retreat from the peculiar glory of the New Testament to the world-wisdom and world-power of the Greeks and the Romans.  Those who in social agitation sponsor a morality of compulsion, or simply trust the word and will of unregenerate men, thereby betray their skepticism of the adequacy of spiritual reserves latent in the Christian religion. This gnawing doubt is manifest in the notion that social problems are not wholly responsive to spiritual solutions. Consequently, the Church has often turned aside from its evangelistic and missionary priorities, attempting to chart a socio-political thrust alongside rather than in and through the evangelistic thrust. (26-27)

The Gospel of Christ is the Church’s peculiar “dynamis” (power) for facing the entire world. Christian social action condones no social solutions in which personal acceptance of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord is an optional consideration. Personal regeneration and redemption are inherent in its hope for the social order.  (25)

The Gospel is the Church’s distinctive message and its distinctive dynamism for social transformation. (79)

When the New Testament addresses a social issue like slavery in Paul’s letter to Philemon, what it says was not being offered as a plank in the platform of a political party, or as some specific political policy proposal. Rome wasn’t listening.  The Emperor didn’t care.  What the New Testament had to say about social justice was a word that was addressed to the hearts of believers who then as salt and light and leaven would penetrate the world around them.  And my hope as a Christian today for the emergence of a more just and compassionate social order still depends less on the persuasiveness of a political argument and the results of the next election than on the spiritual transformation of people by the power of the living, loving God in their lives through the Word and the Spirit.  As Edward Beecher, Lyman’s son, put it –

Great changes do not begin on the surface of society, but in prepared hearts; in men (and women) who by communion with God, rise above the apathy of the age, and speak with living vital energy, and give life to the community, and tone to the public mind. (Wirt 147)

In closing, I put into evidence in support of this argument a story that J. Mack Stiles told in his book Marks of the Messenger: Knowing, Living and Speaking the Gospel (IVP 2010).

When our missionary friend, Mike McComb, tried to introduce protein into the diets of the largely illiterate Guatemalan farmers, it was a masterful combination of expertise, training, and strategy. He started his work towards the end of the murderous civil war. During that time Mike also faithfully shared the gospel. And Mike noticed it was the gospel that allowed protein to get to the people.

protein

When the gospel was understood and accepted in villages, Mike reported, men stopped getting drunk and beating their wives. As they attended church, they started to attend to their crops and their children’s education. Tomas, the mayor of Nebaj, told me that it was only when the gospel came to the Ixil lands that real change happened. Mike says that the preaching of the gospel did more to eliminate hunger than fish farms or crop rotation ever did. We must never forget that the Gospel brings more long-term social good than any governmental aid program ever developed.

Changed hearts change the world.  DBS+

 

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My “Defining” Books; The Serious Titles

books

A few weeks ago I listed the ten “popular” spiritual books that have had a strong hand in shaping my soul.  These were some of the books that I read before I was 20 years old, and that have remained on the bookshelf of my heart ever since because of the ways that they set the table for the rest of my spiritual life.  None of these books were “scholarly.”  None of them were written in the academy or for the academy.  They were written for ordinary Christians living ordinary lives as members of ordinary churches.

This week I turn to another category of “defining” books for me, what I am calling my “serious” collection.  These are ten of the books that have had the greatest influence on my theological formation.  How I think about who God is and what I understand God to be about have the tendrils of my soul all over these books.  They are the veritable lattice work that has held me up and given me direction as I have grown.  In fact, on my own personal spiritual Mount Rushmore, it would be four of these theologians who faces would appear – Augustine, Calvin, Bonhoeffer and Brunner.  These ten books demand more of the reader than the ten books that appeared on my “popular” list a few weeks ago, but none of them are beyond the capacity of a serious reader who is prepared to go slowly and thoughtfully.

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Before giving you my list, let me first honor the man whose personal and professional example provided me with the example of how genuine believing and critical thinking can combine in a life of great faithfulness.  Dr. William Richardson was one of my professors of New Testament and Church History at Northwest Christian College in the early 1970’s.  He “had me” the day he began a lecture by opening his Greek New Testament and translating the text that we were going to be discussing that day right there on the spot.  I knew then that when I “grew up” I wanted to be just like him.  Dr. Richardson was brilliant, insightful, whimsical, engaging and fully invested in the learning process.  He was instrumental in showing me what Jesus meant when He told us to love God with all our minds (Matthew 22:37).  Paul talked about the foundation he laid that others would later build upon (I Corinthians 3:11).  Well, Dr. Richardson laid my theological foundation that these ten thinkers with their defining books later built upon.  Even now, with every book I read, every sermon I preach, every article I write, and every thought I have, I do so knowing that I stand on the foundation that my “wise master builder,” Dr. William Richardson laid so skillfully in my head and heart some 40 years ago, and my life and ministry of “thinking believing” has just been “a poor attempt to imitate the man.”  My desire and capacity to read books like the ones that appear on this list were instilled in me by the way that I watched Dr. Richardson’s faith seek understanding.  He inspired and empowered the same pursuit in me.

green book

As I studied theology I often found myself captivated by what a certain theologian had to say, and that would send me off to the library to read a biography of them.   More often than not, the gap between the kind of people they turned out to be, the bad moral and spiritual choices they made on a personal level, and the profundity of their insight into the truth of Christianity staggered me.  It was and remains a mystery to me how somebody can grasp the meaning of Christianity with the brilliance of a great theologian, and not be seized by its truth in a way that produces a Christ-like character in that theologian who is thinking those thoughts and giving them such powerful expression.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer was the great exception.  His life was the laboratory in which he worked out the truths that he explored in his classic book The Cost of Discipleship.  Ostensibly a commentary on Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, this book challenges “easy-believism” and “cheap grace” as terrible substitutes for the obedience of faith  (Romans 1:5) to which we are called by the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  If you were to read just one book from the list of 10, make it this one!  It has the power to change your life.

quest book

My sister gave me a copy of Albert Schweitzer’s Quest for the Historical Jesus for my 12th birthday.  It was not because she perceived me to be a theological prodigy that she bought it for me.  No, it was because the book cost $2.95 new in 1965, which met her budget requirements, and it had “Jesus” in the tile, and she knew that since I was “religious” that I would probably like it!  It wouldn’t be until my first year in seminary, more than 10 years later that I would actually read this book with any degree of understanding. But once I had, I knew that the questions it asked were among the most crucial for the Christian Faith.  Like Bonhoeffer, the example of Schweitzer’s life is a stirring endorsement of the things that he concluded about who Jesus Christ is and why He matters. And while I don’t wind up in exactly the same place as Schweitzer did, I nevertheless believe that he got many things right, and it’s those things that have become and remained some of the most basic presuppositions in my own thinking and talking about Jesus Christ to this day.  This is a great book of stunning theological importance, one of the most crucial of the 20th century.

faith book

I was sitting in the second floor student lounge at Brite Divinity School in the spring of 1976 when the door opened and a box of books were flung in.  A wild-eyed student stood there in the doorway for just a moment after throwing in the box of books before announcing, “I quit!”  And then as he turned to walk away he muttered that the books were ours for the taking, if we wanted them.  The dozen student sitting there fell instantly on that box of books like a pack of hyenas tearing at a fresh carcass.  Every so often from the middle of the scrum a book, a “discard” would get tossed out, apparently holding no interest for the alpha dogs, and that’s how I came into possession of my copy of Gustaf Aulen’s The Faith of the Christian Faith.  Peter said of Jesus Christ, “the stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone” (I:2:7), and that’s kind of how I feel about this book.  I got it because nobody else wanted it, and through the years it has become one of my “go to” systematic theologies.  Aulen had a perspective on the meaning of Christ’s death on the cross that recovered the ancient church’s understanding of the atonement as God’s confrontation with the powers of darkness and His triumph over them in the Resurrection, Ascension and Second Coming of Jesus Christ that has real power in our world today.  It’s this strand of interpretation together with his keen awareness of the reality of evil in the world that makes Aulen’s The Faith of the Christian Church one of those books that I’ve read multiple times throughout my ministry, and to which I turn frequently for understanding and strength.  If I was told that I could just have one systematic theology from my library of dozens for the rest of my life, this is the one that I would gratefully take with me and continue to use until that day when my faith finally becomes sight.

Romans book

Seminary, at least in the Mainline Protestant tradition, breeds a kind of skepticism about what is perceived to be the naiveté of the affirmations that the church makes in her historic creeds.   You are taught to be suspicious of every faith claim and critical of every belief no matter how central or precious it has been to your spiritual development and vitality.  It was Karl Barth who helped me find my footing in this intellectual storm, and it was his book The Epistle to the Romans that sounded the clarion bell of God’s revelation of Himself and His purpose in Jesus Christ that provided me with my sense of spiritual direction in those days when everything was up for review.  Barth is not an easy read; there is still so much in what he wrote that I struggle to understand; but with that said, the broad sweep of Barth’s argument is clear enough for any of us to grasp, and for me, it has proven foundational.  Someday I intend to take a year or two to read Barth’s magisterial Church Dogmatics in its entirety (14 volumes… thousands of pages… very small print…) but until then, his Epistle to the Romans keeps me spiritually grounded and properly oriented.  Barth staked out the theological middle ground between the uncritical theological conservatism of my Christian College days and the hypercritical theological liberalism of my seminary days.  I owe him my soul.

Christ book

I love this book, and have for years.  I read it for the first time in Christian College in a class on culture as part of the missions’ curriculum.  And I knew, even as I was reading it for the very first time then, that its importance and insights transcended the narrow application that we were making in that class.  In many respects, H. Richard Niebuhr lived in the shadow of his brother, the theological giant Reinhold Niebuhr.  I mean no disrespect to the other brother’s genius.  Reinhold Niebuhr may very well be the most important theologian that America has ever produced; although Jonathan Edwards might have something to say about that.  But the Niebuhr I love most is H. Richard, and the book that I cherish the most is his Christ and Culture.  Since the moment that Jesus Christ first sent His disciples into the world with the warning that they were not to be “of the world” (John 17:16), the church has struggled with how to remain faithful to Christ while actively penetrating that world.  The categories that this book establishes as the way the church has gone about this throughout history are the continuum of alternatives out of which the church still operates today.  Robert Webber wrote a kind of “Cliff’s Notes” version of this book called The Secular Saint, and it is a good place to begin the exploration of this question.  But don’t settle for Webber’s introduction alone.  Read Webber as a way of dipping your big toe into the water, and then jump into the deep end to Christ and Culture, I think you’ll find the plunge to be invigorating!

essential book

The late Donald Bloesch showed me how to be a serious theologian with Evangelical convictions serving in a Mainline Protestant denomination (The United Church of Christ).  I chose his 2 volume work Essentials of Evangelical Theology for my list because it is easily his most accessible work, and because it is his comprehensive exploration of what it means to be an Evangelical Christian, but I could have easily chosen his 7 volume Christian Foundations series, or his absolutely magnificent book on the theology of prayer (The Struggle of Prayer), or any of his incisive books on the state of the church’s life and faith at the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century (Crumbling Foundations: Death and Rebirth In An Age of Upheaval, The Future of Evangelical Christianity, or The Evangelical Renaissance).  Bloesh was not fancy.  He rarely dazzles.  He was no flash in the theological pan, an intellectual acrobat turning spectacular somersaults in a phosphatized suit high on the flying trapeze to the amazement of the crowds below.  Instead, Donald Bloesch undertook the proverbial “long obedience in the same direction,” and for that I am forever grateful.  His theological breadth, depth and maturity was always a powerful encouragement to someone like me who has spent his life and ministry trying to walk the same path that he travelled.

doctrine

Back in the days when I was reading Karl Barth for the very first time, and really struggling with the complexity of his thought and expression – again, he is not an easy read – somebody told me that for English speaking readers, the writings of Barth’s contemporary and sometimes rival, theologian Emil Brunner are so much more accessible.  And so on my next trip to the theological bookstore, I picked up a copy of the first volume of Emil Brunner’s Systematic Theology – The Christian Doctrine of God – and dug in.  Before I had gotten through the first 10 pages I was hooked.  I now have dozens of books that Brunner wrote, all dog-eared and thoroughly highlighted.   If I cut my theological teeth on Francis Schaeffer, it was Emil Brunner who then seasoned and deepened my theological appetites.   Whoever it was who pointed me in Brunner’s direction did me a great favor.  I understand Brunner, and I deeply appreciate his perspective, the same perspective that Barth had, only in a much more approachable way.  His little book Our Faith is the perfect introduction to both his particular theological perspective and to the scope of systematic theology as a whole in my opinion, and it’s online @ http://www.religion-online.org/showbook.asp?title=2075.  This easy and even entertaining little book will give you a good feel for his style and his perspective, and if it whets your appetite to go deeper, then I think that the three volumes of Brunner’s Systematic Theology are as good a set from the school of Neo-Orthodoxy as you will find.

black book

I came out of Christian College thinking that everything that was wrong with Christianity could be laid at the feet of just 2 men – the Emperor Constantine and the Protestant Reformer John Calvin.  Needless to say, when I went to the bookstore to get my textbooks for the first theology class that I took in seminary, I was more than just a little bit alarmed to discover that John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion was going to be our primary text.  I swallowed hard and bought the set.  And then the next few months were spent reading and discussing what Calvin had to say, and slowly I came around.  Today I am a Calvinist in the same way that Jacobus Arminius was a Calvinist, which is to say that I regard John Calvin to be the formidable theological force from the Reformation era that can’t be ignored or avoided.  You can’t go around him; you’ve got to go through him, and when you do, Calvin changes you.  You may disagree with him and his conclusions, but you can’t dismiss him, especially if you purport to be working from Scripture on matters of faith and practice.  In many respects John Calvin has become my theological baseline, the theologian I use to check the things that I am going to say about God as a preacher and a teacher.  I don’t want to be found “misrepresenting” God (I Corinthians 15:15); the stakes are just too high (Matthew 18:1-9; James 3:1).  And so I let John Calvin function as my theological speed bump.   He forces me to slow down and to think carefully, reasoning all of my positions, theological and moral, from Scripture.

confesstions

If Calvin is the theological giant you can’t avoid from the Reformation era of Christianity, then Augustine is the theological giant you can’t avoid in the era between the Apostolic age and the Reformation.  He is the station through which every train of thought must pass, and the turnstile into this station is Augustine’s spiritual autobiography, Confessions.  This book is part of the canon of Western Civilization.  It would be hard to think of yourself as educated and not to have spent some quality time with this book.  Written in the form of a prayer, Augustine reviewed the journey of his soul with God, reflecting on the experiences, encounters and ideas that brought him into a meaningful relationship with God in Christ.  It is timeless, however, everything depends on the translation.  People who complain that they just don’t “get” Augustine, are usually the victims of a lousy translation.  The two best that are out there are Frank Sheed’s and Maria Boulding’s.  I also highly recommend that you companion read Augustine’s Confessions with Peter Brown’s Augustine of Hippo: A Biography.  Brown’s work puts Augustine in context and that’s a key to understanding, and understanding Augustine is crucial for an informed faith.  After the New Testament, Augustine is the next great voice that echoes down the corridors of time.  You need to hear what he was saying.

Theo

I went to Fuller Theological Seminary in 1976 to study with George Eldon Ladd.  I had been introduced to his work in Christian College, and I found him to be both challenging and clarifying for my faith at the same time.  Another Evangelical in a Mainline Protestant church (American Baptist), I viewed him as another role model for serious scholarship.  The New Testament Theology class that I took at Fuller was supposed to be taught by him, but health concerns precluded him from being able to do so.  And so I studied his book with his hand-picked substitute.  I felt like Dr. Ladd was being “channeled” by this teacher, and it was probably the next best thing to actually having Dr. Ladd there himself.  And the end result was positive, spending an intensive semester working through Dr. Ladd’s A Theology of the New Testament.  This experience, in my first semester of seminary, was the theological bridge between my spiritually nurturing undergraduate experience at Christian College, and my spiritually challenging graduate experience at seminary.  And I have always been grateful that it began with three months of drilling down hard into Dr. Ladd’s text.  It set out the markers for the field on which my consciously Biblical faith has played ever since.  The way I think about what the New Testament is and what the New Testament teaches were both decisively shaped by this book.  In fact, next to the New Testament itself, this just might be the most important book that I have ever read; it certainly has had the most enduring consequences for my believing and my behaving.

So, there it is, my list of the ten “defining” serious books in my life.  Just like the last list, there are so many others that deserve to be here – books by Carl F.H. Henry, Alister McGrath, Thomas Oden, David Bosch, Bruce Metzger, T.F. Torrance, P.T. Forsyth, Anthony Hoekema, Roland Allen, Hermann Bavinck, Gordon Fee, Harvey Cox; books and authors who have challenged my thinking and impacted my believing.  But these ten are somehow the most “foundational.”  Together they form the slab on which my life and ministry have been built.  DBS+

 

 

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Are You Odd and Interesting?

abc

I have been preaching through Matthew chapter 5 since the beginning of the year.  We have been looking at the content of the “righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees” (5:20) using the antithetical categories that Jesus lined out between the “you have heard that it was said of old” and His new “but I say to you.” There are six of these contrasts in Matthew 5 – murder/hatred (5:21-26), adultery/lust (5:27-30, divorce/faithfulness (5:31-32), vows/integrity (5:33-37), justice/mercy (5:38-42), and love of neighbor/“perfect” love (5:43-48).  In each case, I believe that Jesus was taking His disciples deeper than just outward conformity to an external standard of what was right to the behavior that issues from a heart that has been transformed by His empowering presence.  The key to my understanding of what Jesus was talking about at the beginning of His Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapter 5 is what Jesus said about fruit and trees at the end of His Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapter 7 –

By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them. (7:16-20)

We live different kinds of lives because Jesus Christ has made us a different kind of person.  When by faith Jesus Christ becomes our Lord and Savior we are changed fundamentally and irrevocably.  We become new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17), and we start to live new lives, lives that are “odd” and “interesting” by the standards of the world.  And this is the key to the core assignment that we have been given as the followers of Jesus Christ, namely to preach the Gospel to the whole creation (Mark 16:15).

The “secret” to evangelism is the “question-posing lives” that Christians live according to the Mennonite theologian Alan Kreider.  He has researched and written extensively about evangelism in the early church.  And it is his conclusion that the early church gathered in worship to shape Christians with Christ-like virtues and values so that when they scattered back into the world they would live “question-posing lives.”  Here is the gist of his argument –

a

If our lives are to speak, they must somehow be question-posing…

How distinctive are we? Does God want us to live differently? Is God calling us to live more oddly, more interestingly? Does God want us to live in such a way that others can see that we are odd, individually odd, corporately odd?

I have learned a lot from Anna Geyer, a student of mine at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary’s Iowa extension. Anna is a 30-year-old mother who lives with her husband and children north of the Black Diamond road, in an area where few Mennonites live. Anna tends a large garden, “The Cutting Garden,” to which people can come and cut flowers. They may pay if they wish. A wide variety of women gather at her kitchen table. Anna reports that people look at her and ask questions: “Anna, you’re living in a way that I’m not used to. Why are you and your husband so kind to each other? Why do your kids talk politely? …Why do you live like you do?” And at the right moment, which may take years in coming, Anna will say, “Because of Jesus.” Anna is a radical, who lives simply, who is committed to a peacemaking lifestyle, who is a good friend and an excellent listener. She has built up a remarkable network of women who don’t go to church but who want to talk about life — and about God. Anna is odd and interesting.

The New Testament writers don’t tell their readers to “evangelize” others. They tell them to live   with hope. And if we have hope, and express that hope in deviant behavior (“odd” and “interesting”), people will ask questions that lead to testimony. Peters puts this in classic form in his first letter: “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting of the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). It is hopeful incarnation of the way of Christ that leads people to ask questions and demand explanation. If we are hopeful, people will want to know why. [www.mennonitemission.net]

The ministry of evangelism is part of the “overflow” of our personal experience of salvation.  When we are drawn into the love of God by our encounter with Jesus Christ we are “born again” (John 3:3).  Something changes in our very core (Ezekiel 36:25-27).  What’s in our past gets forgiven, and our future gets filled with new and wonderful possibilities.  In Christ we are “raised to walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).  And it’s that “newness of life” – illustrated by the antitheses that Jesus drew in His Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapter 5 – that makes us “odd” and “interesting” as Christians.  Our best witness as a Christian is the “question-posing life” that we lead.  And this means that evangelism is not about memorizing formulaic scripts and forcing uncomfortable confrontations with people.  Evangelism is instead the “overflow” of a life that has been changed by an encounter with God in Jesus Christ.  When people see and are surprised by the way we behave, and then ask about it, the door is open for us to tell our own story about how we have personally found meaning and purpose in Jesus Christ.  As Alan Kreider puts it, first there is “incarnation” and then there is “explanation.”

If we are living hopefully and interestingly, then we can talk. Verbal articulacy will then point to God and will be our testimony to God’s saving grace and life-transforming vision that God has shared with us in Jesus Christ… Our hope as Christians is question-begging. People will ask: “Why do you have hope?” …And we must learn to answer: “Because God has given us forgiveness, joy, and that most countercultural commodity — hope.  And hope, as Paul says, “does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Romans 5:5). [www.mennonitemission.net]

The love that the Holy Spirit pours into our hearts overflows, and that’s how and where evangelism begins.   DBS+

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