THE NEXT STEP

Since we believe that Christ died for all, we also believe that we have all died to our old life. He died for everyone so that those who receive his new life will no longer live for themselves. Instead, they will live for Christ, who died and was raised for them. … This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! [2 Corinthians 5: 14b-15,17 (NLT)]

Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness. [Westminster Shorter Catechism]

waterfallIn writing about the Sinner’s Prayer yesterday, I wondered if, by saying it, a new believer gets the false impression that his responsibility ends with a prayer when, in fact, it has just begun! Justification takes only a moment but sanctification takes a lifetime. Addressing the guilt of our sins, justification is when, by the grace of God, we are made righteous through God’s grace and our faith. It’s as if we’re guilty criminals, standing in God’s courtroom, and God pardons us. Telling us our debt to society has been paid, He sets us free. While it’s easy to walk out of the courthouse, it’s not so easy to alter the behavior that led to our life of crime. Like any felon, we need to change our ways, which is where sanctification comes in. Rather than the reformation of a criminal, it is the transformation of a sinner.

Powered by our faith and the Holy Spirit, sanctification transforms our sinful character so we grow more and more like Christ. Focusing on the destructive power of sin in our lives, it gradually shapes our hearts, minds, and desires to those of God. Sanctification is the work part of our salvation and requires diligence in study, prayer, fellowship, witness and service. It’s coming to know Jesus, loving and obeying God, and letting both His word and the Holy Spirit convict us when we sin. It’s allowing God to work in and through us, not as a way to earn His blessings and favor, but because we delight in His will.

While holiness is the goal of sanctification, I don’t think any mortal can live a life completely free from sin in this world. Nevertheless, even though we can’t attain sinless perfection, like the Apostle Paul, we will continue to struggle against sin and temptation as long as we’re on this side of the grass. We persevere and, through the power of the Holy Spirit, continue to grow more and more like Christ every day.

The Christian life requires hard work. Our sanctification is a process wherein we are coworkers with God. We have the promise of God’s assistance in our labor, but His divine help does not annul our responsibility to work. [R.C. Sproul]

Work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear. For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him. [Philippians 2:12b-13 (NLT)]

Since you have heard about Jesus and have learned the truth that comes from him, throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception. Instead, let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God—truly righteous and holy. [Ephesians 4:21-24 (NLT)]

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COME IN AT THE GATE

Such people claim they know God, but they deny him by the way they live. They are detestable and disobedient, worthless for doing anything good. [Titus 1:16 (NLT)]

enter by the gateI’ve been reading The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. I vaguely remember reading some of this 1678 allegory in senior English class but that time it was in the original Middle English (the language of the King James Bible) and difficult to read. Although I thought myself a Christian, I was unfamiliar with most of the biblical references and concepts. In reality, all I wanted to do was to get through it (along with Beowulf, Canterbury Tales, and Ulysses). With less pressure, more biblical knowledge, and an annotated modern version, I’m actually enjoying the tale of Christian: a man who leaves his home in the City of Destruction in search of the Celestial City.

Even without footnotes, I recognized the gate when Christian arrived there and understood Goodwill’s welcoming words: “In spite of everything people have done before they come here, we make no objections against anyone. No one will ever be driven away.” After warning him about other paths that are wide and crooked, Christian is told he can distinguish the right path because it is straight and narrow.

While on the path, Christian encounters two men who have climbed over the wall. Named Hypocrisy and Formality, they think they’ve found a short-cut to the Way. Hypocrisy, of course, is someone who puts on a mask and pretends to be what he is not. He acts the Christian in public but is an entirely different person in private. He may bring food to the needy on Sunday but beat his wife on Monday. Formality is the man whose religion is based on ritual and rests on outer form. Although he faithfully attends church, fasts, kneels, tithes, takes communion, and wears a cross, He’s only going through the motions. Neither man has a spirit of godliness or a relationship with Christ. With no true faith or repentance, they have built their lives on pride and pomp, appearances and rituals. Coming from the land of Boasting (Vain-Glory in the original), their religion is empty. Thinking that God is as impressed by external appearances as are they, the proud men are going to Mount Zion for praise: not to praise God but rather to be praised!

Satisfied with the appearance of godliness and unwilling to pay the cost of repentance, the two have taken the easy way by climbing over the wall. When Christian tells them that entering that way means the Lord of the Way will consider them thieves, they tell him to mind his own business; no one likes being confronted about their superficial professions of faith. When the men come to the hill called Difficulty, the narrow path leads straight up the hill. Seeing how steep it is, Formality and Hypocrisy choose the easy paths that seem to go around the hill while Christian climbs it. Having chosen the paths of Danger and Destruction, unlike Christian, those two will not reach the Celestial City.

This part of Bunyan’s tale hit home because we just finished a sermon series about the “cultural” Christian or what Craig Groeschel calls the “Christian atheist.” Like Hypocrisy and Formality, the cultural Christian believes in God but doesn’t know Him, lives as if He doesn’t exist, won’t recognize his deceptive and shallow faith, and follows laws and ordinances without following the Way. Bunyan’s is a cautionary tale as are Jesus’s words about the gate and narrow path. There are no shortcuts to salvation and the narrow road is not one of ease; nevertheless, the journey is worth it!

You can enter God’s Kingdom only through the narrow gate. The highway to hell is broad, and its gate is wide for the many who choose that way. But the gateway to life is very narrow and the road is difficult, and only a few ever find it. [Matthew 7:13-14 (NLT)]

I tell you the truth, anyone who sneaks over the wall of a sheepfold, rather than going through the gate, must surely be a thief and a robber! … Yes, I am the gate. Those who come in through me will be saved. They will come and go freely and will find good pastures. [John 10:1,9-10 (NLT)]

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OUTSIDE THE BOX

Lowdermilk Park - Naples FLI appeal to you, dear brothers and sisters, by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, to live in harmony with each other. Let there be no divisions in the church. Rather, be of one mind, united in thought and purpose. [1 Corinthians 1:10 (NLT)]

Now I say to you that you are Peter (which means ‘rock’), and upon this rock I will build my church, and all the powers of hell will not conquer it. [Matthew 16:18 (NLT)]

Since she is new to town, I invited Alice to our church. “What denomination?” she asked. When I told her we were non-denominational she thought I meant we were a church of whatever the individual wanted to believe and asked, “Do you mean Unitarian?” I assured her we’re Bible-based Christians but, unable to wrap her mind around the concept, she rattled off a set of questions. No hierarchy, bishops or diocese? No formal liturgy? No membership requirements or official canons or procedures? Who tells you what to believe? To whom are you accountable?

In Letters to the Church, Francis Chan asks the reader to imagine someone on a desert island, having no experience with Christianity, with only the Bible as reference. Asking first how this person might picture church and worship, he then asks the reader how his church and worship stack up to those first century expectations. Here in Florida, we attend two different churches and one fits Alice’s expectations: denominational, organizational hierarchy, church campus, sanctuary, chapel, liturgy, hymnals, pews, pulpit, choirs, choir director, organ, meeting rooms, video screens, stained glass, sound system, and several services. While Alice would identify it as a traditional church, that marooned person and the Apostle Paul probably wouldn’t recognize it.

Because I love the liturgy and hymns, we do attend that church Saturday nights. The church to which I invited Alice, however, is the church I think of as home. Less than a year old, while the early church met in homes, we meet in a city park and, since we’re in Florida, we can meet there all year long. Although non-denominational, we do have a core set of Bible-based beliefs and, to maintain doctrinal, financial, and leadership accountability, we belong to several Christian organizations. We have no formal liturgy, prayer books, hymnals, sound system, or choir (although the birds usually sing throughout the service). Rather than stained glass, we have palm trees, sea grapes, blue sky, and the Gulf of Mexico decorating our sanctuary. When we meet for Bible study, we rent a room in a community center. By today’s standards, our “outside the box” church is anything but traditional but I think the Apostle Paul would easily recognize it.

Last week, our similarity with the 1st century church came to mind when we met together at the community center for an early Thanksgiving dinner. Everyone brought a dish to share and, along with more than enough food, there was laughter, joy, and plenty of fellowship. I think Paul would have recognized Christ’s church as the sixty of us ate dinner, prayed and, in true early church tradition, partook of communion as a family.

Whether we are part of a traditional or unconventional church, let us remember that Christ’s church is not about a building but rather a group of believers. A church structure without a family of believers is not a church whereas a family of believers without a building is one! Christ’s church, regardless of where or how it worships, exists wherever two or three are gathered together!

For where two or three gather together as my followers, I am there among them. [Matthew 18:20 (NLT)]

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WHO’S IMPORTANT?

So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. … Then the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground. He breathed the breath of life into the man’s nostrils, and the man became a living person. [Genesis 1:27,2:7 (NLT)]

SK8 Church Steamboat COOur family business makes products used in skateboards and many boarders are familiar with our name. After skiing one day, as my husband got on the bus, he was greeted by a boarder who spotted our company logo on his cap. “Yo, dude!” he called. Pointing to the cap, he asked, “You know those people?” When my husband replied he was “those people,” the fellow responded as if he’d met a celebrity and excitedly introduced my spouse to his pals. Soon they all were in an animated discussion of trucks, decks, wheels, and grip tape. The woman next to me, curious about the commotion in the back of the bus and not wanting to miss a celebrity sighting asked, “Is that someone famous? Is he important?” I replied, “He’s no one,” adding, “It’s just a skateboard thing.”

Later, I realized I’d given the wrong answer and not just because my husband is incredibly important to me. The better answer would have been, “He’s not famous but he is important.” Then, I should have added that she and I were just as important, as was everyone else on that bus, because we’re all important to God! I could have told her that real importance and value have nothing to do with fame, wealth, possessions or power. It has nothing to do with how we look, what we’ve done, where we work, what others think of us, or even what we think of ourselves.

Whether or not we were planned by our parents, we’re not accidents; God knew us all before we were born! Made in His image, we are God’s handiwork and precious in His sight. It was his breath that filled our lungs with life and His spirit that lives within us. Our names are etched on the palm of His hand, He’s promised to strengthen and help us, and He knows everything about us, including the number of hairs on our heads. If God carried an iPhone, our pictures would be on it and our numbers would be listed in His “favorites.” We are so loved by God that He sacrificed His only Son for us! As Christians, Jesus counts us among His friends and we’ve been adopted by God. As His children, we are recipients of a priceless inheritance. As followers of Christ, the God of the Universe has taken up residence in our hearts. Now that’s what I call important!

God does not love us because we are valuable. We are valuable because God loves us. [Fulton J. Sheen]

You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body and knit me together in my mother’s womb. Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! Your workmanship is marvelous—how well I know it. You watched me as I was being formed in utter seclusion, as I was woven together in the dark of the womb. You saw me before I was born. Every day of my life was recorded in your book. Every moment was laid out before a single day had passed. How precious are your thoughts about me, O God. They cannot be numbered! I can’t even count them; they outnumber the grains of sand! And when I wake up, you are still with me! [Psalm 139:13-18 (NLT)]

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WHAT’S YOUR GIFT

There are different kinds of spiritual gifts, but the same Spirit is the source of them all. There are different kinds of service, but we serve the same Lord. God works in different ways, but it is the same God who does the work in all of us. [1 Corinthians 12:4-6 (NLT)]
barred owl - painted bunting - penguin

When I was writing about the peacock’s unpleasant scream yesterday, I pictured him complaining to the owl that the wren has a nicer voice. The wren chirped back her complaint that, unlike the peacock, she was small and nondescript. Hearing them, the penguin complained about his plain black and white feathers but the colorful painted bunting countered that she was unable to swim. The pelican joined the grumbling and whined that he couldn’t flit from flower to flower like the hummingbird who then expressed jealously over the pelican’s large bill. When the bald eagle protested not having long legs like the ostrich and the ostrich expressed envy at the eagle’s ability to soar high in the sky, the wise owl hooted at them all to be quiet.

Unlike the other birds, the owl did not grumble about what many would consider his shortcomings: his dull color, asymmetrical ears, and farsightedness. Explaining that his dull color gives him camouflage, the lopsided ears allow him to locate prey at night, and his farsightedness makes him an excellent hunter, he told the other birds to be thankful for their gifts. He reminded each bird of what made it special: the peacock’s beautiful tail, the wren’s ability to sing and trill, the penguin’s powerful flippers and streamlined body, the bunting’s unique coloring, the pelican’s skill at diving from heights of 30-feet, the hummingbird’s capability of flying backwards, the eagle’s eyes that can spot a rabbit two miles away, and the ostrich’s gift of running faster than any other bird. Rather than complaining about what they didn’t have, they should appreciate their own unique God-given gifts and use what they were given with wisdom, joy and thanksgiving.

Like the birds, we too have gifts: both the talents we were given at birth and the spiritual gifts we received from the Holy Spirit. Those talents and gifts are as unique as a peacock’s tail or the wren’s song. Some gifts, like the strong legs of an ostrich or a pastor’s inspired preaching are rather obvious. Others, like the owl’s lopsided ears or the healing embrace of someone gifted with empathy are less apparent. Rather than complain, as did the birds, we should take inventory of our many gifts and talents, appreciate and develop them, and use them enthusiastically and wisely to glorify God. Let’s appreciate what we have and accept that there will always be some things, like singing or soaring, that are best left to others.

Our purpose should be to discover the gifts He has given us and to use those gifts faithfully and joyfully in His service, without either envying or disparaging the gifts we do not have. [John MacArthur]

A spiritual gift is given to each of us so we can help each other. … It is the one and only Spirit who distributes all these gifts. He alone decides which gift each person should have. [1 Corinthians 12:7,11 (NLT)]

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THE ALARM

Even Gentiles, who do not have God’s written law, show that they know his law when they instinctively obey it, even without having heard it. They demonstrate that God’s law is written in their hearts, for their own conscience and thoughts either accuse them or tell them they are doing right. [Romans 2:14-15 (NLT)]

robinLooking back, I realize we’d heard a chirp once or twice earlier that day but had ignored it. Busy running errands, we’d given the odd sound no thought. At 12:22 AM, however, the source became obvious and could no longer be ignored. The bedroom smoke alarm was chirping loudly every minute or so. I looked at my husband with envy—without his hearing aids, he was oblivious to the annoying noise above our heads. Since there was no way I was going to return to slumber, I woke him and we replaced the battery. Two nights later, when the same thing happened with the brand new battery, we simply took it out and went back to bed. I’m embarrassed to admit we had no battery in that alarm for the next several months. Since 60% of home fire deaths occur in properties without a working smoke alarm, we were foolish to ignore the problem.

Rather than replacing the battery, we actually needed to replace our 15-year old smoke alarms. The U.S. Fire Administration (part of FEMA), suggests replacing smoke alarms every ten years. After a decade, alarm sensors are compromised by dust, insects, contaminants and circuitry corrosion and their failure rate is 30%.

The smoke alarm got me thinking about another alarm we have—conscience. Made in the image of God, we all have an innate understanding of right and wrong, good and evil. Like a smoke alarm, however, its sensors can fail to work properly. Rather than dust or spider webs, things like pride, selfishness, prejudice, materialism, envy, and jealousy can corrode its circuits. Fallible, it can be convinced to condone, excuse, or justify the indefensible, inexcusable, and sinful. By themselves, consciences can be as unreliable as thirty year old smoke alarms (nearly all of which fail).

Fortunately, as Christians, we have something in addition to a conscience—the voice of the Holy Spirit. It is His voice that points us to God’s ways. His presence renews and reshapes our conscience into a much bigger and better alarm—one based on God’s word rather than convenience or objectives. While we can manipulate our conscience into seeing things our way, we can’t sway the Holy Spirit; God’s standards don’t change with the situation or our desires. Moreover, the Spirit’s voice doesn’t stop at determining right from wrong; it convicts us of the need for repentance and change. It’s like the new smoke alarms we now have that interconnect, inform us of the type and location of the danger, and tell us to evacuate. Fortunately, instead of a seven year warranty, the Holy Spirit can last a lifetime!

Our new improved Holy Spirit-powered conscience won’t do us much good if we don’t recognize and heed it. Unless we read God’s word, it’s easy to mistake which voice we’re hearing (ours or the Spirit’s). While gentle and loving, the Spirit’s voice can be brutally honest and, like a smoke alarm, it demands action. When the Psalmist asked God to point out anything He found offensive, he had to expect a truthful answer and one that he might not like. Although we can’t remove the Spirit’s batteries, we can ignore His words of conviction. Like those people without functioning smoke alarms, however, we do so at our own risk.

Let us therefore not deceive ourselves. In walking according to the spirit we shall hear the direction of conscience. Do not try to escape any inward reproach; rather, be attentive to its voice. [Watchman Nee]

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life. [Psalm 139:23-24 (NLT)]

My conscience is clear, but that doesn’t prove I’m right. It is the Lord himself who will examine me and decide. [1 Corinthians 4: 4 (NLT)]

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