The Cross of Christ – A Review

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I can never express enough my gratitude to my FBC family for your support of me in seminary, both prayerfully and financially. Because of that, I try to share as much as possible from my experience there, and so today I wanted to post on here a book review I had to write recently for my systematic theology class. For those of you who have never read John Stott’s book The Cross of Christ, I can’t encourage you enough to check it out. Hopefully this review will give you just enough of the taste you need to pick it up and read one of the most influential and foundational works on evangelical theology to come out of the late twentieth century.

Stott, John R. W. The Cross of Christ. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1986. 380 pp.

 

Introduction

             John Stott’s Cross of Christ has stood for close to three decades as one of the author’s defining works and a solid expansion of basic evangelical views regarding Christ’s crucifixion. Stott was an evangelical Anglican cleric who served the church for over sixty years as curate, rector, and rector emeritus of All Souls Church, Langham Place in London. Stott was highly influential in leading evangelicals to remain within the Anglican Church, and his influence among evangelical Christians spread across the globe. His bibliography contains over fifty different books on a wide range of theological topics. Stott was known for his deep theological insights and his ability to explain such lofty concepts in simple, understandable terms.

The Cross of Christ is Stott’s attempt to demonstrate the central importance of Jesus’ crucifixion in understanding Christian theology. He seeks to place the cross at the center of all Christian doctrine and from there extricate its role in the totality of Christian life. From God’s relationship with man to man’s relationship with one another, the cross stands firm as a lasting symbol of the depth of Christianity. Christ’s crucifixion plays into every aspect of faith, and as such should be consistently commemorated and refocused upon. In this, Stott takes on a tall task by laying his scope upon the cross from its tiniest minutiae to its grandest implications for the follower of Christ.

Summary

            Stott’s work is broken down into 4 broad sections, which he has titled “Approaching the Cross,” “The Heart of the Cross,” “The Achievement of the Cross,” and “Living under the Cross.” The first section looks at the centrality of the cross to Christianity; why is the cross even important to begin with? The rest of the section looks at the events leading up to the cross, how even though Jesus was physically handed over by the hands of men, he still willingly gave himself up to die according to the Father’s plan. From this, Stott observed a number of smaller implications taken from various things Jesus said before and during the passion events, centering on the depth and seriousness of human sin.

Section two moves from preliminary matters to the theological depth of why exactly Christ had to die upon the cross. Chapter four examines the apparent contradiction between God’s holiness and his ability to cleanly forgive the abject deplorability that is sin.  Stott then turns to look at various theories of satisfaction proposed concerning the cross. Ultimately he lands on the concept of God’s self-satisfaction through display of his holy love. By sending Christ to the cross, both God’s condemnation of sin and his self-giving love were on display. Chapter six looks at Christ’s self-substitution in man’s place upon the cross and how it worked to bring about God’s satisfaction and man’s forgiveness.

Stott’s third section moves from the actions of the cross to their theological ramifications for the state of humanity. Possibly one of the most clarifying sections in the work, chapter seven looks at the aspects of salvation accomplished in the life of the believer. Specifically, Stott puts a magnifying glass over the terms propitiation, redemption, justification, and reconciliation to see their true meaning for the believer in light of the cross. He connects this back to the previous section by noting how Christ’s substitution underwrites all these aspects of salvation. Next, Stott looks at the revelatory nature of the cross and how through Christ’s sacrifice the full love of God has been revealed. Finally, he looks at the theme of victory in Jesus—how Christ’s death won the battle over the devil and evil and how that victory is worked out both in the world and in the hearts of men.

Stott finishes his work with practicality by observing how exactly the truths of the cross show themselves through the actions of the Christian community and the lives of its members. Chapter ten looks specifically at the idea of celebration within the church and moves from a discussion on the newfound attitudes of celebration to a discussion on the depths of communion. Chapter eleven sees takes these new attitudes and applies them to self-worth and personal identity in Christ. He enumerates the many ways Christians should deny their old nature, embrace their new identity, and ultimately shine forth Christ’s self-sacrificial, giving love in this world. Chapter twelve moves out of self-sacrificial love towards loving one’s enemies and seeking to overcome evil with good. Finally, Stott closes the book with a number of views on the classic problem of evil, or suffering as he calls it. He enumerates a handful of ways that suffering in the Christian life falls in line with God’s character on the cross and how it can be ultimately edifying to the follower of Christ.

Analysis

It should be noted from the outset that the scope of Stott’s undertaking in this work is simply monumental. To take a subject so central, so foundational to the Christian faith and attack it from every direction requires a boldness that Stott certainly brings. Of course, for this reason, The Cross of Christ has been widely accepted as a deeply influential work since its penning nearly thirty years ago. Stott does a thorough job of looking at the entirety of the cross and its role in Christianity. By explicating the scriptural milieu leading up to the cross, Stott forms the basis for his theology. By delving into the depths why Jesus had to die, he uncovers solid truths of God’s nature and ability to forgive and reconcile sinners. By uncovering the theological realities brought about in the cross, he fills out the picture of man’s new life in Christ. And by ultimately elucidating the practical effects of the crucifixion on the Christian life, he lays a solid path down which a believer can travel with all this newfound insight.

As for his apparent thesis, Stott certainly fulfills expectations and then some. He lays out simply the centrality of the crucifixion to Christian theology and then explains its roles in all of Christian faith. The doctrine of substitutionary atonement has been criticized from all directions, but Stott stands here waving its flag with his feet planted firmly on biblical and logical grounds. His whole work makes a well-defined logical progression from the biblical bases to God’s problem of forgiveness to the actual accomplished work of Christ to finally how it all works out in the Christian life.  The fact that some thirty years after its composition, The Cross of Christ is still lauded as a thorough and foundational exposition on the doctrine of the cross proves its value both to the academic and the ecclesiological worlds.

One of the most glaring aspects of this work is the amount of John Stott’s personality put into its composition. Every chapter seemingly reveals a tinge more of who John Stott really was, from his intellectual stature to his pastoral nature. First, it is important to recognize the logic written into this work. Both on the grandest and smallest scales, Stott manages to keep his arguments logical and straightforward. No matter the topic, Stott keeps things in tidy order, so that the most important ideas are put forth as the most important over secondary issues. Primary, secondary, and even tertiary issues are certainly addressed, but Stott makes sure to keep them in their rightful series. One extremely helpful aspect of Stott’s logical nature shone through in his use of sequencing words to begin paragraphs listed in the same vein. When Stott begins a thought, he will introduce it and list how many sub-thoughts fall under it. Then, the following paragraphs tend to begin with proper sequencing language. For example, in discussing the biblical idea of propitiation, he notes it is “necessary to distinguish it from pagan ideas at three crucial points” (171). He then goes on to begin the following paragraphs with the main three points: “First, the reason why propitiation is necessary is that sin arouses the wrath of God…Second, who makes the propitiation…Third, what was the propitiatory sacrifice?” (171-172). By writing in this logical manner, Stott makes his arguments simple to follow and easy to review. This is enhanced by the inclusion of a study guide along in order to facilitate proper learning and internalization of the material even for laypeople without high theological training.

This final idea—that Stott greatly cares for the average reader and wants him or her to truly grasp the material—speaks to another aspect of Stott’s character. John Stott was a deeply intellectual man, for certain, but he was also a well known pastoral figure with a heart for people. Stott cared about his readers and that shows in his writing style. Instead of purposeful density of language, Stott states things clearly and concisely in order to better be consumed and absorbed by all. He utilizes imagery to its fullest in his explanation of theological principles. To use an example from the same chapter on different aspects of Christ’s salvation for sinners: each topic (propitiation, redemption, justification, and reconciliation) he connects with the proper intellectual setting. Propitiation pictures a temple surrounding, redemption a marketplace, justification a court of law, and reconciliation a personal home. Through each of these images, Stott lays out a perfectly understandable idea and picture of what exactly Christ has accomplished.

Another aspect to consider that shines through Stott’s writing is his own personal background. As an evangelical Anglican minister, Stott has some views that maybe do not totally mesh with the average protestant evangelical. This comes through especially in his chapter on Christian community and celebration, where he spends a significant portion of the chapter discussing the theological foundations for and views of the Eucharist. Of course an Anglican and a Southern Baptist are not going to totally see eye to eye, but Stott focuses a significant portion of his words in this regard to looking at the confluence of Anglican and Roman Catholic views on communion. This certainly made for an interesting discussion, but was perhaps less practical in nature.

Ministry Relevance

            It seems as though this should go without saying, but the cross of Christ and the self-sacrificial, self-substitutionary atonement acquired therein are relevant to every aspect of Gospel ministry, since the cross is absolutely foundational to the Gospel message itself. As Paul plainly says in his first letter to the Corinthians, “We preach Christ crucified” (1 Cor 1:23). Every message we teach should revolve around that biblical truth and its implications for the lives of believers. This goes doubly so for my particular area of ministry—to youth—where so many messages cry for their attention and say their worth is found in other student’s opinions, their ability to perform on a sports field, how attractive they are, etc. Those societal pressures combine with a plethora of ministries that replace the deep truths of the gospel with fun, games, and a list of moral rules to follow and the result is an age group in significant need of the gospel, in a crucial time period of life, and with a lack of gospel witness. Thus, in youth ministry especially there is imperative need to focus on the cross of Christ and its teachings for students.

Conclusion

            On the whole, Stott’s work stands up to the praise and respect hurled at it by the evangelical community. It takes a comprehensive look at the salvatory work of Christ and the implications the nature of Christ’s crucifixion has on Christian Theology. Stott’s work covers a wide range of topics, from why it had to happen in such a way, to what the cross reveals about God himself, to how the cross should play into everyday life for the Christian. His writing is clear and understandable yet still holds to the weight and depth of the topics he covers. There is certainly reason for the high praise it has received.

I personally would absolutely recommend the book to others, for it provides a detailed look at such a basic yet integral doctrine of Christianity. For those who have no taste for intellectual theology, Stott writes in a way that is fairly accessible. For those who look for theological discussion on the highest level, Stott refuses to back down from tough topics and hard thoughts. He truly encompasses what the cross is about and how Christ’s work on it greatly affects the lives of every human. The cross, the whole cross, and nothing but the cross of Christ rings forth as Stott’s call to arms; let every Christian hear and proclaim the glories of Christ and his self-sacrificial, self-substitutionary atonement.

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MJAM 2015

Last weekend we were excited to travel to Williams Blvd Baptist Church for M-JAM 2015. The main purpose and focus for the day is missions, missions education, and sharing the Gospel. Missionaries shared with us how we can be involved in taking the Gospel to others, our community, North America, and the world.

Our theme verse for the event was Mark 8:34, “ And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Thanks to the presenters, our kids discovered what it means to follow Jesus! 

I want to thank our WMU group for helping us make this trip! Make sure to check out April’s First Focus Newsletter for more on our MJAM trip and how you can talk to your kids about missions!

St. Patrick the Missionary

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St. Patrick’s Day is more about missions than anything else. Of course, we’ve managed to mess it all up with parades, green beer, drunkenness, and revelry. But the point of St. Patrick’s Day is to remind us of how a life surrendered to the Lord God in sacrifice and service can produce unimaginable results.

The Life of Patrick

Patrick was not from Ireland. He was British, born around 390A.D.

  • His grandfather was a pastor and his father was a deacon. He was brought up in the Christian church and was taught the truths of scripture (remember this key point). Yet by his own admission, he was a rebellious, unbeliever who lived in the flesh.
  • At age 16, Patrick was kidnapped by Irish pirates and made a slave. He lived in Ireland as a slave for 6 years, tending to his masters cattle and sheep. During this time, much of which was spent in isolation in the rain and snow, Patrick’s faith in God deepened and his heart was turned to Jesus. Without a single Christian influence in his life, Patrick prayed day and night, sometimes hundreds of prayers at a time, in constant communication with God.

One night the Lord gave him a dream telling him to escape and travel to the coast (nearly 200 miles) where he would find rescue. As he journeyed, Patrick was never pursued or captured by his masters. And when he arrived at the coast, not knowing where or how rescue could come, there were fishermen there who rescued him and brought him back to Britain.

  • After returning to Britain, Patrick enrolled in seminary and was commissioned as a pastor. Some years later, the Lord God spoke to Patrick in another dream, calling him to return to Ireland to evangelize the lost and to bring the gospel to an entire nation. At period in history (5th c.),
  • Ireland was an incredibly disorganized tribal country. They had no central government, no cooperation, and very little love for one another. The country was a mess of about 150 warring clans who lived debased, wicked, and paganistic lives with little respect for anyone outside of their own clans. In fact, the Church of Rome had essentially given up on them, calling them barbarians who were beyond saving. They had either killed or run out any other missionary ever sent to the island. But Patrick had a love for the people who had once enslaved him. This is what fueled his missionary efforts.

In faith, the forty-year-old Patrick sold all of possessions, including the land he had inherited from his father, to fund his missionary journey to Ireland. He worked as an itinerant preacher and paid large sums of money to various tribal chiefs to ensure he could travel safely through their lands and preach the gospel. Patrick used a completely unique and unorthodox strategy for reaching the Irish clans.

He functioned like a missionary, trying to relate to the Irish people and communicate the gospel in their culture and language. Unlike the missionaries sent by the church of Rome, Patrick understood the people he was sent to help, and he communicated to them in ways which they could understand. There is some debate to the legendary story as to whether or not Patrick used the three-leaf clover to teach the gospel and the doctrine of the Trinity. It cannot be proven or dis-proven; but it would not be surprising if that was one of Patrick’s strategies for sharing Christ with the lost Irish.

Patrick’s strategy began with the key leaders of each clan. Upon entering a pagan clan, Patrick would seek to first convert the tribal leaders and other people of influence. He would then pray for the sick, preach the Bible, and use music and art to persuade people to put their faith in Jesus. Once enough people had converted to faith in Jesus, he would build a simple church that did not resemble Roman architecture, baptize the converts, and hand over the church to a convert he had trained to be the pastor. Then he would move on to repeat the process with another clan.

The reason Patrick is not canonized by the Roman Catholic Church is one of simple disagreement. The church did not approve of Patrick using “common means” to teach the Holy Scriptures.  Patrick was more of a “whatever works to reach the lost” kind of guy, while the monks and priests were more of “it’s our way or the highway!” The results are undeniable.

In nearly 40 years of missionary work in Ireland, it is reported that Patrick:

  • Baptized nearly 100,000 believers.
  • Between 30-40 of the 150 tribes in Ireland had become substantially Christian.
  • He trained 1000 pastors
  • He planted 700 churches
  • And he was the first noted person in history to take a strong public stand against slavery. (for obvious reasons!)

The churches and monasteries that Patrick was responsible for establishing became some of the most influential missionary centers in all of Europe. Missionaries went out from Ireland to spread the gospel throughout the world. In fact, it is believed that the work of Patrick on the Irish Iles became the foundation for preserving the Christian faith during the dark ages. Patrick died at the age of 77, having given his life to the people who enslaved him.

Lessons we can learn from the life of St. Patrick:

1)      Children brought up to know and love the Lord God and his Word will find out later in life just how valuable that training is. Patrick didn’t have a Bible to read or pastors to teach him while he was enslaved, but all that his father and grand-father taught him as a boy was remembered and trusted upon while he spend long, terrible nights out in the fields.

2)      So often in the lives of God’s children, God will use our prior circumstances, especially our most difficult ones, to stir in us a passion for ministry. Like abused children who grow up to help and minister to other abused children. How those who grew up in poverty know how to relate to the poor. Or those who understand suffering through sickness and disease can help others dealing with those same struggles. Patrick knew the Irish people. He knew their culture and their ways. He knew they were lost and he knew why they were lost. He was uniquely gifted by God, even by his afflictions, to minister to them effectively.

3)      Missionary work is first and foremost a work of sacrifice. Patrick had to leave everything behind, a life of comfort and provision, to go to the Irish people. We must understand that to reach the nations, it will cost us more than “just a little extra”. It will require an all or nothing commitment.

4)      Gospel ministry requires us to be sensitive and aware to the uniqueness of the culture. Missionaries from America don’t expect those they are called to reach to learn English. No, missionaries learn the language and culture of whom they are called. We can’t say “Be like us or you’re doomed to hell”. We have to be willing to learn and adapt to the language and customs of our culture. This is an important aspect to church work as well. We can’t sit on our hands and expect the world to just to “show up and fall in line”. We have to “speak to them in a way that they can understand”, just like Patrick did for the Irish.

5)      Never underestimate the effect of many years of faithful gospel preaching and ministry. in nearly 40 years of ministry, Patrick undoubtedly  had times of utter despair when reaching the clans of Ireland seemed impossible. But God honored his hard work and the world was affected by Patrick’s commitment to the gospel.  God is the same today as he was then. HE is faithful to his people to use their humble service to save souls. Let us not grow weary in proclaiming the gospel, for in time, God will bring a great harvest.

When Jesus said “Go and make disciples. . . baptizing them. . . and teaching them all I have commanded you”, he didn’t leave us with that command to go it alone. Jesus said, “And I will be with you to the very end.” That means that Jesus will be with us until the very end of our work, and he will be with his people until the very end of this earthly age.  Let us not lose heart. Preach and live the gospel and Jesus will make of us a witness to the glory of his name.

 

Act of Approach – The Broken Heart

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O Lord,

No day of my life has passed that has not proved me guilty in your sight.

Prayers have been uttered from a prayerless heart;

Praise has often been praise-less noise;

My best service is but dirty rags.

Blessed Jesus, let me find a hiding place in your appeasing wounds.

Though my sins rise to heaven your merits soar above them;

Though unrighteousness weights me down to hell, your righteousness lifts me to your throne.

All things in me call for my rejection,

All things in you plead for my acceptance.

I appeal from your throne of perfect justice to your throne of boundless grace.

Grant me the grace to hear your voice assuring me:

that by your stripes I am healed,

that you were bruised for my iniquities

that you have been made sin for me

that I might be righteous in you

that my grievous sins, my many sins, are all forgiven

buried in the ocean of your concealing blood.

I am guilty, but pardoned,

lost but saved

wandering but found

sinning but cleansed

Give me perpetual broken-heartedness

Keep me always holding tightly to the cross

Overwhelm me in every moment with your ever flowing grace

Open me to see the river of divine knowledge,

sparkling like crystal,

flowing clear and untainted

through the wilderness and struggle of life.

 

Translated from Valley of Vision, The Broken Heart, pp.150-151

Beauty from Briars

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Last year around spring time, my wife and I decided to “upgrade” the small flower garden in front of our house with a few new plants. We had big plans to beautify our home. It was all “good intentions” while ignoring the reality. Now, let me be very forthcoming with the truth about my family and plants: we don’t grow stuff very well. In fact, the nearly indestructible fern and aloe plants we’ve been given over the years have met their doom under our care (or lack thereof).  The effort to ensure that our 3 children are fed, clothed, and generally happy can be daunting, so the plants around our home may go unnoticed from time to time (read as “all of the time”). So for us to undertake the task of purchasing the right “low maintenance” plants, preparing the soil for planting, and then actually planting and caring for these new living things was quite a project for us. But we ventured headlong into it, firmly thinking that we’ve matured in our ability to keep a simple plant alive, and “this time will be different”. Can it be considered delusion if we really don’t think we are being delusional? Or is that the definition of delusion? Whatever it is, we were mostly wrong.

It’s been almost one year since we tried to grow something beautiful, and as of a few days ago, our little garden is. . .  A DISASTER! Everything either died or it was swallowed up by various ugly weeds. We have learned quite well that we can grow weeds. If you ever need some quality weeds that are obtrusive, quick growing and happy to kill everything else in sight, I’m your man. BUT. . .

Don’t you just love it when the bad news or sad reality is followed by the word “but”? Often times the undesirable news is diminished by something really good, and in our case of the “tragic garden”, we have seen something to give us hope. As part of our planting and growing dreams, we put in our little patch of dirt a few, beautiful day lilies. While many of our other plants floundered and were swallowed whole by the demon weeds, our day lilies held on for dear life until the cold finally did them in. But we’ve recently realized that our precious lilies are not yet gone. They have only been hiding in the safety of the soil until the warmth of spring comes and once again they will sprout and bloom and produce a lovely flower. In light of other horticultural disasters in our front yard, those proud day lilies have given me much encouragement. I welcome the longer days and warmer temperatures of the weeks to come that my efforts of 2014 will carry over in some way to 2015.

My hopeful outlook for those lilies has a very distinct connection to what I read this morning in Isaiah 55. This chapter includes a passage of scripture that many Christians are familiar with, and who find it to be greatly encouraging. The passage reads like this:

 10“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,

11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

12 “For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.

13 Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall make a name for the Lord, an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”

Isaiah’s prophecy is one of hope for Israel, which has lived in rebellion against God’s Word and commands, but whom God is redeeming because of his great love. Through the prophets of that day, God spoke the words of judgment and redemption; of punishment and of peace. He loves his people, and his holy love will NOT allow them to live in continual sin and sorrow. So he sends out his word of hope, and it will not return to him without effect. In other words, when God speaks, something always happens. And in this case, his word goes out like rain to water the dried up hope of his people (v.10), giving life to their dead souls and reviving the work of his kingdom (v.11). This brings about the spiritual nourishment and joy of God’s people (v.12). And here is the beautiful picture: Instead of thorns there will be cypress trees (indicating strength) and instead of briers there will be myrtle trees (indicating health and beauty). These acts of God to make his people strong and healthy is for the glory of his great name; an everlasting name that will never cease to be spoken of and one that will be praised for all of eternity (v.13).

This text has really hit home for me this week, both literally and figuratively. Those precious lilies in my otherwise cantankerous garden will overcome the weeds of winter and produce a beautiful plant, evidence of God’s grace. And like those lilies, God’s people are precious in his sight and he loves us too much to let us die without first producing fruit for the glory of his name. So, if there are briers in your life today, pray to the Lord and wait on his word to take effect. Winter will pass. Under the surface of all the spiritual frustration and failure is a plant of faith waiting to bloom in warmth of spring. Trust in him and he will bring to life what Jesus died to create in you.

3 Tips on Starting a Family Bible Time

John_1If you make your way to the children’s ministry department on a Wednesday night, you’ll hear us practice our music. Yes, we may be a little off key, but it’s still a joyful noise! One of the songs we’re currently practicing is based off Deuteronomy 6:4-6, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.” But it’s the next part that I want to focus on for today’s blog post.

Parents…God has placed your children under your authority. It’s your responsibility to teach your children how to live a life that is pleasing to God.  We can see one way to do so as we continue with Deuteronomy 6:7, “You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.”

It’s important to have faith conversations at home. We’ve talked about this in previous blog posts. One factoid that I recently came across really drove that point home with me. According to Jim Burns at HomeWord ministries, kids that talk about their faith at home with mom and dad have an 80 percent chance of remaining in church once they leave the home.

According to Pew Research, when parents with a variety of ideological beliefs were surveyed about what they want to teach their children, religious faith came in third, being beat out by responsibility and hard work. I believe if we start with God, those other traits we want to pass on will follow naturally.

You can talk to your kids today, and every day, about God and His commands by starting up a family Bible time. Here are some tips to get you started:

  • Building on (or up to) Sunday Continue the conversation started on Sunday by your child’s Sunday school teacher or Pastor Oren. Read related verses or go over the ones you read on Sunday again to keep them fresh on your mind. Or better yet, find out what the next sermon/Sunday school lesson will be about and spend some time reading what the Bible says about that subject. That way, your kids will be prepared to understand what is being presented.
  • Time and place Bible time can happen anytime and anywhere, though some kids may benefit from having a designated time and place each day. Making it a part of your routine will help kids understand its importance. Also, while we’re talking about time remember this: kids have an attention span of one minute for every year of age they are, maxing out at five minutes.
  • Involve your kids Find an easy-to-read version of the Bible and let your children read the verses. And incorporate worship and prayer in this time as well, again letting your children be involved in both.

Recommended reading: Necessity of Family Bible Time by Robert Velarde

Living in the Tension

Did you ever make a tin can telephone as a child? Take 2 cans (or Dixie cups if you were like me), put a small hole in the bottom of each, connect the two with a string, and then you and your buddy can pass secret messages to one another from totally different rooms. It was a fun little toy, and probably mind blowing when it was first invented (the first evidence of a wire-tension telephone was by scientist Robert Hooke as early as 1667!). The thing about tin can phones, though, is that they would not work well unless you kept a certain amount of tension on the string, as a loose string cannot effectively transmit the sound vibrations. Tension is necessary for its proper function.

I think there is a certain lesson here that maybe applies as well to all of life, especially theology. First, think of all the dichotomies in a person’s life. There’s work/life balance. There’s the interplay between focusing on being a good parent and a good spouse. There’s doing good for others and making sure you still do good for yourself. If we let these swing all the way to one side or the other, bad things generally happen. The man who works 90 hours a week does as much disservice to his family as the lazy man does to his boss. The parents who pour all of themselves into their children and leave no romance are as bad off as the parents who care only for each other at their children’s expense. The totally giving, 100% of the time selfless person will eventually burn out and crash, but the egomaniac is no better off. Often the middle road is best. In other words, life must be lived in the tension.

The same is true for much of theology. If you walk through the campuses of seminaries across America, the most commonly debated idea these days would almost certainly be the doctrines of God’s sovereignty versus man’s free will in salvation. Calvinism vs. Arminianism. Has God in his sovereign greatness foreordained everything that is to happen, such that he knows everyone who will be saved and everyone who will not? Do we even have a choice in the matter then? Or do I as a free agent have the ability to decide my own fate? Can I consciously turn towards or reject God? There are those who would answer these with a resounding yes, no, no, no! And there are those who would say no, yes, yes, yes! I can guarantee that this debate has led to bad blood between classmates, if not full blown destruction of friendships.

The thing is, biblical evidence exists to support both sides. Is God Sovereign? Yes. Does God know what will happen in our lives? As often as the Bible uses the terms predestined, foreknew, and ordained, absolutely. Do humans have free choice? Yes, otherwise Jesus would not call us to preach the Gospel and call people to repentance. Of course there are many positions that attempt to reconcile the biblical account of how it all works. And of course as long as you have solid biblical foundation for your belief, you can land in whichever camp you think is best. My point here is not to debate the five points of Calvinism (there’s plenty of that out there on the internet already). My point is that sometimes things aren’t cut and dry, but instead they’re messy. There’s a tension going on, and we’re called to live in it.

By no means is this the only tension, either. If God is sovereign then what’s the point in us praying and asking for things? How is the Trinity even possible? How can someone be three persons in one at the same time? Even better, how can God the Son come down as flesh incarnate and live a human life as a fully human man, yet still be fully God at the same time?  How can God be perfectly holy and just such that all sin against his nature deserves full wrath and destruction, yet still merciful and loving to forgive? How can God use something as horrible and accursed as crucifixion to accomplish the feat of glorious salvation for all of humanity? And those don’t even touch the contradictions of practical Christian faith and social norms: whoever would save his life would lose it, but whoever loses his life for Jesus’ sake will find it (Matt 16:25); in the Kingdom of Heaven, whoever is first will be last and the last will be first (Matt 20:16); the poor in spirit will inherit the Kingdom of Heaven; those who mourn will be comforted; the meek will inherit the earth (Matt 5); we’re supposed to have humble faith like a little child (Matt 18:3); and on and on it goes.

We are all too arrogant as human creatures, thinking we have a birthright to all that can be known. We refuse to admit that sometimes things just remain a mystery to us. Instead, let us rejoice that the infinite and illimitable God has shown us the grace to reveal even just a portion of his goodness. Now of course I’m not saying any time we come up against some tough thought we should throw up our hands and say, “It’s a mystery!” But let us not be quick to presume we definitively have all the answers.

We live in the tension. We’re pulled between conflicting realities, but the tension between them does not cease to make them real. Instead of scoffing at the idea, seeking some sort of settled relaxation, let us embrace the tension. It’s okay. It won’t hurt. Instead of arguing or fretting over what we may not fully understand, let us instead turn to what we do know. We may not fully grasp the intricacies of God’s sovereignty and man’s will, but we know that Christ called us to go and make disciples of all nations. We may not understand how God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit mesh with one another, but we do know all of their roles in our spiritual lives. We may not understand how the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, but we do know that Christ calls us to deep, vibrant faith in Him. We may not fully understand how a man dying in such an excruciating way can be construed as the greatest victory in the history of creation, but we do know that’s the way God chose to bring about our salvation.

This world is messy. Life is messy. Theology is messy. And that’s okay. It’s through the mess, through the tension, through the stretching and twisting that we grow the most. Like the tin cup telephone, life without some tension is simply empty. So embrace it.

Now all has been heard;

Here is the conclusion of the matter:

Fear God and keep his commandments,

For this is the duty of all mankind

Eccl. 12:13

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The Bonds of Christian Unity

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A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of sharing a sermon with a group of people that I have known, and who have known me, for a very long time. I was asked to preach for the Acadian Baptist Association revival service in Eunice, LA, which is my hometown. I spent my first 18 years of life in that little Cajun town, and I have many fond memories of my days there. Being a Baptist in Eunice meant that I “stood out” at times, mostly because of the prominence of Catholicism in the area. There was not a shred of animosity or strife among me and my Catholic friends; we all got along just fine. Yet, I was keenly aware that my Baptist convictions placed me in the minority among the residents of my hometown. Although I was in the minority, I never felt like I was alone, as I had many Baptist friends who helped me along the way. Greater still, there were countless other loving and precious adults who were praying for me and my spiritual growth.

So, when I returned to Eunice last week to preach from God’s Word, I was greeted by so many of those dear Christian people who had such a tremendous impact on my life and my faith. I hugged former school teachers, ministers, Sunday School teachers, family and friends that I have literally not laid eyes on in 20+ years; but it was like I had never left. And as I sat there during the “singin” time, I thought about how much those very people had to do with the fact that I was about to enter that pulpit and preach God’s Word. I don’t think anyone would have imagined that little Oren would grow up to be a preacher (although as much as I talked as a child, some might not be surprised). But looking back it was God’s plan all along to get me to where I am today, and the grace in it all is that He used each of those faithful believers to shape me, mold me, and encourage me to this point in my life. Let me clear about something: This is NOT about me becoming a pastor, rather it is about how God uses Christian unity to make for himself a holy people who love, support, teach, and encourage one another for the glory of His name. This is part of the ministry of the church that we don’t often talk about or share with one another, but it is absolutely vital that we all take time to remember God’s grace in how he uses others to sanctify us and lead us into obedience.

I have thought often about my own blessed congregation in this context as well, particularly as it relates to the 140 years of ministry and worship at FBC Baton Rouge. The joy of belonging to the body of Christ, regardless of where you might live, was on display among the people (and former people) of FBCBR. When we all got together in September 2014 for our 140th Anniversary Celebration, one of the uplifting “take-aways” for me was just how precious this church is to so many people “NOW” because it was precious to them “THEN”. As life happens and families are moved around, the church can be an anchor and a place of joy for every one of us. As jobs come and go and as children grow up and leave, very few of us forget just how special our church is to us. We know those individuals who love and support us and to this day continue to pray for us. This is the beauty of the church and the encouragement of the bonds of Christian unity.

What led me to this thought was the writing of Paul to the Ephesian church as he sought to bring them back to a place of spiritual agreement, knowing that the church is only effective when she is united in peace. Paul writes these words:

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. – Ephesians 4:1-3

 

Notice the emphasis Paul makes on the “how” and the “why” of Christian unity. We are to walk (live) with humility, gentleness, patience, and in love for one another while being eager to maintain unity in the bonds of peace through the Holy Spirit. This is how we are to live. Why should we? Because we have been “called” by Christ to walk in this particular manner for the sake of peace. This “peace” goes with us where we go because we take Christ into every place, every building, every room and relationship. So the peace that led all of those loving men and women to encourage me and build me up over the years in Eunice is the same peace which they welcomed me in when I returned. It is an abiding peace that never leaves and only grows as Christ works in his people. And when we see those old friends, mentors, and teachers our hearts are once again warmed and edified by their presence and their kindness. This is the bonds of Christian unity that cannot be broken.

 

Take some time today to thank God Almighty for the gift of Christian people in your life. Without them, you would not be where you are today, and without the church we suffer greatly if we are deprived of their blessed help going forward. It’s no secret that Christians are looked upon today with disdain. The reasons for that are too many to list here, but it should be no surprise to us that we will need each other in the days to come. So love your fellow Christians, keep in touch with those who have moved away, and most of all pray for them as you ask God to glorify his name through them. Jesus Christ is faithful to his people, so let us be faithful to Him and to his church.

 

Collegiate Pursuit

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We all know college can be a place of new people and opportunities, some more beneficial than others. Finally free from parents, students are bombarded with people to meet, activities to attend, causes to give time and money to, and different academic and extracurricular groups to join daily. As most freshmen are, I was overwhelmed when first coming to LSU. Fortunately, my older sisters had already paved the way to the doors of the Baptist Collegiate Ministry where I quickly met other freshmen and made friends. Getting involved in a freshmen Bible study and visiting churches as soon as I got there helped me feel like moving 16 hours away from my family and friends was NOT a huge mistake, a thought that crossed my mind the night before I left home.

But even at the BCM, everything is vying for your time. Fortunately, I followed the call to visit local churches, ended up at First Baptist, and I couldn’t be happier. FBC has become a second home to me with people just as important to me as family.

I’m so thankful that I was pursued by the church and welcomed with such love! Instead of wasting my college years, I was shown through the Church what it meant to really live a life of faith. I was given the opportunity to make my faith, MY faith and not my parents’. I was able to meet other college students who also valued this time of life to grow in their faith. And I was reminded of why we are even here on Earth in the first place.

Ultimately, I want to say thank you to FBC. Thank you for pursuing college students like myself. Thank you for giving them the option to avoid the many pitfalls that are available to them around campus. Thank you for believing in the next generation of the Church. Please never lose your heart for this group.

Faith UnFrozen Family Night

It was 2013 when Disney’s Frozen hit the big screen. Fast forward to 2015 and kids are still talking about it. As someone who works with kids, I hear the movie’s music all the time. I mean all the time. I try to turn a cold shoulder to it. I’m telling you, that movie is walking on thin ice with me. I might sound cold, but there’s snow way I can hold it in. I’ve got to let it go.

All joking aside, something about the movie has stuck with kids, and that’s why I loved the idea of Faith UnFrozen. I was so excited to bring it to our church after reading about it in Children’s Ministry Magazine. The idea is to have crafts and games that play off the frosty theme, but to have a faith connection with each activity. Adding to the fun, we had families come together during the night to play and discover more about faith together. Here are some pictures from the night:

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If you missed the action, here is a simple activity modified from a game we played that you can do at home:

Grab a family member and a piece of ice. Try to hold it as long as possible. When you hand gets uncomfortably cold, give the ice cube to your partner so you can warm up a bit. Keep switching until it’s all melted.

Read Philippians 1:28-30: “Don’t be intimidated in any way by your enemies. This will be a sign to them that they are going to be destroyed, but that you are going to be saved, even by God himself. For you have been given not only the privilege of trusting in Christ but also the privilege of suffering for him.  We are in this struggle together. You have seen my struggle in the past, and you know that I am still in the midst of it.” (NLT)

Questions to answer as a family:

  • How was the ice like or unlike the struggles we face in real life?
  • How was having a partner like or unlike having God in our lives?
  • What’s one way you know God is always with you even when times are hard?
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