Saturday, May 25, 2019

You Must Die, If You Want to Live

At the center of the Gospel of Matthew, God the Father revealed to Peter, a man like you and me, the way to a victorious life. That way is through the faithful confession that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, the Son of the Living God (Matt 16:13-20). A little later, after Peter demonstrated that he did not fully understand how this victory would be achieved (Matt 16:21-22), Jesus the Christ offered a lesson about how we must go about living the victorious life that He freely offers to believers.

In Matthew 16:23-27, it is written that Jesus told his disciples,
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.
For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?
For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done.”
With these poignant, even piercing, words, Jesus totally reorients the lives of his listeners. Through years of trying to live, at first without the Word of God, but afterward with the Word of God ever before my eyes and in my ears and on my tongue, I have learned that the Word of God challenges us, changes us, compels us. His words have power, life-altering authority, and in this text He speaks to you today.

Jesus sets out a command for how to conduct your life, and then He offers one compelling reason, expressed in three increasingly demonstrative terms, as to why we should take his command with utmost seriousness. Let us look quickly at “the cost of discipleship,” which is death, and “the cause for discipleship,” which is life:

I. The Cost of Discipleship: Death


If you want to be Jesus’s disciple, then you are required to deny yourself and take up your cross and follow him. The Germans use the term Nachfolge to convey the Greek mathetes. It means, literally, “to follow after.” A disciple is one who follows after a master. He or she fashions his life upon the life of his or her master.

Because Jesus denied himself in his needs and his desires in order to bless the other, so we must do likewise. In his profound book, Nachfolge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously cried out, “When God calls a man, He bids him come and die.” Every time I read those words, they challenge me to the core of my being. Will I really deny myself? Will I really die to this world, so that I might rise with Him? Again and again, I cry out, like Bonhoeffer, with my whole heart, “I am yours, Lord!”

Because Jesus embraced the calling of God to live and then to die in this way, so we must do likewise. This does not mean we carry a literal wooden cross and are nailed upon it. Nor does it mean that we may propitiate for the sins of others, for that is far beyond our capabilities. However, it means we are called to a life of suffering on behalf of the needs of other people in other ways.

Because the life of Christ is the exemplar for the life of the Christian, it means we are to adopt his humility, his way of life, his higher purpose. The high calling of Christ is a claim that our lives mean more than the mean goals to which we are prone to reduce ourselves.

If I have noticed one thing that is highly detrimental to Christian believers of whatever age, it is the short memory we have regarding the high calling that He has given to each of his children.

  • While God may bless you with a face of beauty, this is a mere means to the higher call. 
  • While God may gift you with a mind of acuity, this is only an intellectual instrument to strive toward the higher calling.
  • While God may grant you gifts of wealth and power and status, they are not what you really should be concerned about. Rather, see them as avenues toward a greater way of life.
Don’t let the little things, the lesser aspects, the mean moments become the purpose of your life.

Yes, develop your bodily beauty, your mental capacity, and your other talents and gifts to their utmost potential. However, keep the higher calling in mind. Your life is not about the things you own or the people with whom you cavort. Your life is about the One who owns you and who gave you all these things to use and all these people to love.

II. The Cause for Discipleship: Life


Why should you follow Christ? Why should you take up the cross God is laying upon your life? Why should you deny yourself and allow God to ensconce Himself exclusively upon the throne of your personal life?

Jesus offers three descriptions for the one reason for being his disciple:

  1. You must lose your life to save it.
  2. You must give your life to gain it.
  3. You must prepare for judgment or glory.

Behind each of these expressions lays the overwhelming truth that we must ultimately give an account to God for what we do with our lives.

You must lose your life to save it? It is admittedly counter-intuitive from a humanistic perspective. I must lose my life in order to save my life. It only makes sense in the light of the sovereignty of God. By “lose your life,” Jesus means that you must stop trying to “save your life.” Your sin has already brought to you the loss of life. The only way that it can be saved now is if God himself does that for you. He wants you to trust him with your life.

You must give your life to gain it? Again, this is counter-intuitive from a purely anthropological perspective. It only makes sense from the theological perspective. By “give your life,” Jesus means that, once you have begun the life of faith, you must entirely dedicate to living your life God’s way. We want to gain things in this life—family, friends, experiences, joys, adventure. And yet, God tells us that we must give it away to get it. The older I become, the more I am convinced that this life is a grand adventure, a progress, a pilgrimage, and I am an adventurer, a pilgrim, a temporary resident on my way through the vagaries of this world headed to the promised land. This is not my home yet, and if I must give everything I have and I am in order to go home, then I will give it away.

This brings us to the third cause for discipleship: The final judgment. Jesus made it very clear in the Gospel of Matthew that there is a judgment coming (Matt 24:29-25:46). And every single person shall give a personal account. The Son of God will divide humanity into two groups on the basis of their response to Him. There are only two possible categories, and the result of one's placement therein is ainios, “eternal.”

  1. Those who have turned away from him in disbelief shall be judged and condemned to “eternal punishment.”
  2. Those who have walked with him in faith shall be ushered into “eternal life.” 

The subject of hell is not exactly a popular subject these days, but these are the words of Jesus, and they stand at the center of his gospel. The subject of heaven, however, is very popular, but there is no eternal heaven without a life of discipleship, a cross of death, and a resurrection.

Conclusion


And, thanks be to God, Jesus has paved the way through death into eternal life by his cross. When life is understood through the paradigm of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, as well as the coming judgment, then our lives take on their ultimate meaning.

Life will give you so much, and you will have many choices to make. May I encourage you to keep the life, death, resurrection, and return of Jesus Christ at the center of your every consideration?

  • May I ask you to accept the adventurous life that He has for you? 
  • May I ask you to keep your faith in Christ first, your spouse second (if He grants you such), your children third (if He grants you such), and finally your diligence to work hard and to study hard in whatever particular vocation He grants you? 
  • May I ask you to leave the gifts of joy in this life—gifts that He will grant you, because He loves you and wants to bless you? Can you leave the gifts up to Him and focus on the life He wants you to lead? Leave the delights of this life to be divine surprises that He delights to give to you. 

Pursue the high calling He has laid upon you. You won’t ever regret it. Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow your Creator, your Redeemer, your Consummator through this life, through the death at the end of it, and beyond that into eternity. You won’t ever regret following Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, fully God and fully Human.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

The Apostles' Creed


I believe in God the Father, Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; on the third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended to heaven and was seated at the right hand of God the Father, Almighty, from where he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy universal church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and eternal life.

Amen


[The creed is a poetic masterpiece constructed for use during worship but also properly used for theological instruction. Notice its explicitly Triune form. Notice, moreover, that the second part, which summarizes the apostolic kerygma of Jesus Christ, is the fullest of the three articles. Strikingly, Christ’s death and resurrection, the gospel in sum, thus stands at the very center of the creed.

Because the descensus ad infero clause, which may be translated as “descended to hell” or “descended to the dead,” was not found in the earliest manuscripts and currently remains a matter of dispute among evangelical Christians, it has not been included here. This is not to say the translator necessarily disagrees with that doctrine. However, its use in worship may distract the minds of some from the centrality of the cross and the resurrection.

This version of the Apostles’ Creed has been specifically designed for use in congregational worship, thus its style recalls a poetic cadence and a centralized emphasis upon the gospel. It was first used at Lakeside Baptist Church, Granbury, Texas, on Easter Sunday, 16 April 2019, where I am the Teaching Pastor. An earlier version of this translation appeared in a more traditional form in my God the Trinity: Biblical Portraits (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016).]

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Let Us Tremble in Light of Such Heavy Responsibility

Christians believe in human dignity. But we face significant challenges at this very time to human dignity in both the realms of the Church and the State.

We as Christians are compelled to contend against both abortionists without and abusers within. Article XV of our Baptist Faith and Message reminds those of us who are Southern Baptists to provide for and contend for both the abused and the infant: 
“We should work to provide for ... the abused ... 
We should ... contend for the sanctity of all human life from conception...”
Ezekiel 34:7-10 applied to “shepherds” in ancient Israel who held the various offices of kingship and priesthood. Consider how the words of the Prophet apply to the State and to the Church today.
Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD: As I live, declares the Lord God, surely because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild beasts, since there was no shepherd, and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep, therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD: Thus says the Lord God, Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will require my sheep at their hand and put a stop to their feeding the sheep. No longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, that they may not be food for them.
Therefore, against the abortionist Democrats in the modern American Senate, we must remind them that God holds them accountable as “shepherds.” Also, therefore, against those ministers who would either abuse or neglect to properly protect the abused in the Church, we must remind them, too, that God holds them accountable as “shepherds.”

I mourn for the aborted and the abused, for the little ones who belong to Christ. As an American voter, God will hold me accountable for what shepherds I empower in the State. As a Christian church member, God will hold me accountable for what shepherds I empower in the Church.

As a Christian pastor, I tremble before the thought of the accounting I must give before God’s throne. May He find me a shepherd who did well faithfully. And may He also on that judgment day deem all of us as Christians today to have been faithful in both the realms of the Church and the State in providing for the abused and contending for the babies. Let us tremble in light of such heavy responsibility. 

Sunday, February 10, 2019

“Autonomy”? No, Evil Doesn’t Get a Pass

The Southern Baptist Convention cannot reform itself due to local church “autonomy”? No, my brothers and sisters, evil doesn’t get a pass.

“Autonomy” ought not be taken as an excuse to neglect the churches’ moral responsibility. The churches are equally responsible to Jesus as Lord. The churches must thus identify and rebuke any and all activities that harm any of his “little ones,” including in other churches.

It might be helpful if in the Baptist Faith and Message the term “autonomy” was replaced with the term “Christonomy.” This would help correct the idea that Baptists may rule themselves. Looking to Christ as our ever-present Governor would subvert inappropriate power claims.

As President of the Flat River Baptist Pastor’s Conference (in North Carolina) in the early 1990s, liberal pastors blasted me for wanting to remove one church that allowed a teacher to deny the resurrection. I reminded them that their churches are not alone in their autonomy. Orthodox churches are autonomous, too. Evil doesn’t get a pass.