The Good News of Christmas

christmas-lights-austin-lp8v4porThis time of year is still my favorite time of year.  I love the cooler weather.  I love seeing the fall colors of leaves on trees and on the ground.  I love seeing Christmas decorations around my neighborhood and city.  I love spending time shopping for Christmas gifts with my wife and sipping on seasonal coffee drinks. I love listening to my Christmas Jazz station on Pandora. I love being with my family sharing laughter, great food and exchanging gifts.  These are all great gifts given by God to be enjoyed!  Another aspect that I think about with gratitude is seeing the end of another year reflecting on God’s faithfulness. This also causes me to think about the Lord’s grace and mercies to come in the following year, should He tarry.

Of course, this time of year is a time of reflection and celebration for what I believe to be one of the most important events in human history – the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Christmas cards, decor and media flood our minds with nativity scenes of “baby Jesus”.  The exact date of Jesus’ birth isn’t known, but December 25 has been officially recognized by the Western and Eastern Church as the date to celebrate His birth.  More importantly, we should give earnest attention to the fact that God entered humanity in the person of Jesus Christ and dwelt among His creation for a specific reason.  However, as integral as it is, the birth of Christ is only a portion of the significance of Jesus’ life. We must also consider the significance of His life, death and resurrection to truly appreciate His birth.

The Significance of Jesus’ Life

Galatians 4:4 says, “4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law,…”.  This verse is very important and teaches us three things.  First, it teaches us that Jesus was sent by the Father at an appointed time. Second, it reminds us that Jesus was a human being born of a woman. Third, it reminds us of the administration He was was subject to.  Being born under the law meant that Jesus, as a human, was part of the covenant community of God subject to the Law’s demands.

In Exodus 19, God covenanted with Israel and issued His law to Moses, which was to shape, identify and govern His chosen people, Israel.  Jesus was a true Israelite subject to the Law of Moses.  Jesus was subject to the same law as every Israelite.  As with all laws, adherence was to be expected.  If Israel obeyed the Law, they incurred blessings. If Israel disobeyed the Law, they incurred curses (Deut. 28).  Despite having clear information and instruction from God about who He is and how they were to live, Israel repeatedly broke the covenant with God and incurred the curses of the Law. The reason Israel continually failed to keep the Law was because they were unable to keep it due to indwelling sin. The heart of the Law was wholehearted love for God and love for fellow man (Matt. 22:36-40) and sin prevents us from loving God and man in this way.  However, Jesus never sinned against God and man (1 Pet. 2:22) and thus He fulfilled the positive requirement of the Law, which is perfect obedience.  Jesus lived the perfect life that God required of all man. But He also fulfilled the Law in another way.

The Significance of Jesus’ Death

The ultimate curse of the Law was to be seen as cursed by God. Being seen as cursed by God for breaking the covenant warranted death.  Deuteronomy 21:22-23a says, “22 “And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, 23 his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God…””  In Galatians 3:13, the Apostle Paul says that Christ inherited the ultimate covenant curse of God being hung on a tree (crucifixion). On the cross, Jesus was forsaken by the Father (Matt. 27:46; Mk. 15:34). If Christ never broke the Law, why did He suffer the ultimate curse of the Law?

Though the Law could never keep Israel from sinning, because it was powerless to, it did provide a way of forgiveness.  God established rules of worship for Israel, which included a priesthood and animal sacrifices.  The priests, God’s appointed mediators, would regularly offer perfect animal sacrifices on behalf of themselves and of the people as God’s means of forgiveness and reconciliation for their sins. The act of offering an animal sacrifice involved killing the animal and having its blood sprinkled on the altar and other places of the tabernacle and the temple. Instead of the people suffering God’s wrath for their sin, God accepted the blood (life) of the perfect animals (usually bulls and goats) as a substitute for the life of guilty Israel. This priestly work was regularly done because the blood of bulls and goats could never completely take away sins nor purify sinful hearts (Heb. 10:1-4). This ritual functioned as a reminder of Israel’s sins. It also functioned as a pointer to the need for something greater.

Jesus’ death was the fulfillment of the animal sacrifices. He is the slain perfect Lamb who came to take away the sins of the world (Jhn 1:29; Heb. 9:12-14; Rev. 5:6-14). In His living and His dying, Jesus, as a man, completely satisfied all of the demands of the Law.  Jesus’ perfect life was a sin and guilt offering for those who turn to Him by faith for the forgiveness of their sins. The whole point of Jesus’ life was to please the Father and give His life as a ransom for many (Mk. 10:45).

The Significance of Jesus’ Resurrection

 

If one truth about Jesus’ life that tends to be overlooked, it’s His resurrection.  Perhaps it’s because we hear more songs about his life and death that we unintentionally minimize the resurrection. This probably occurs in our evangelism too.  I’m not sure why this happens, but it is too important to not state or minimize. Think about it. What good would Jesus’ life and death be if He remained dead in a tomb? Where’s the good news in that?  What hope would man have if Jesus is still dead? None. In fact, the Apostle Paul argued that Christians are indeed to be the most pitied of all if Christ had not risen from the dead (1 Cor. 15:17-19).  Paul makes the argument that if Christ is not risen from the dead, Christians are still in their sins (i.e. unforgiven and dominated by sin) and eternal condemnation awaits us. In order for us to appreciate what Christ’s resurrection accomplishes, we must first consider the effects of sin.

Sin entered the world through Adam and through sin, death came and spread to all men (Gen. 3, Rom. 5:12). Adam and Eve transgressed a clear prohibition from God and became sinners. The reason why death exists is because of sin (Rom. 6:23). Sin is rebellion against God and leads to separation from God. Rebellion and separation from God leads to death and since all men die, all men are sinners. Again, death is the consequence of sin. However, Jesus never sinned, yet He willingly died as a substitutionary sacrifice.  Since He never sinned, He didn’t deserve death nor does sin and death have the power to keep Him dead. Thus, His resurrection!!

By His righteous living and His resurrection, Jesus conquered sin and death!  His resurrection from the dead led to His ascension to the right hand of the Father where He is presently ruling and reigning.  When He comes again, He will gather His people to himself. Those living will be caught up with Him and those who have previously died will resurrect from their graves displaying victory over sin and death!  The last enemy to be destroyed is death (1 Cor. 15:26).

The whole point of the redemptive work of Christ is to gather the children of God to be with Him in His kingdom in the new heavens and new earth (Rev. 21)!

This Christmas, let us indeed celebrate and rejoice in Jesus’ incarnation, but let us not forget that His humble earthly beginning was the first step in His mission to destroy the works of the devil (Col. 2:15, 1 John 3:8) and bring many sons to everlasting glory (Heb. 2:10).

That is the good news of Christmas!

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Ethnicity, Sin & the Gospel

Over the last year, America has witnessed and experienced, what I believe to be racially charged acts of violence, even murder, against African Americans.  Consider Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, the shooting in South Carolina, the McKinney, TX pool party incident, the young lady who was assaulted and was dragged out of class in Charleston, SC, and LaQuan McDonald.  Most of the acts of violence were done by law enforcement.  I’ve heard both sides of the argument whereby each party was to blame. It’s a never ending argument despite evidence captured on camera. There’s also the argument of individual racism vs. systemic/structural racism.

Like many black men in America, I’ve had to process all of this and sort through many thoughts and emotions. I’ve even wondered how law enforcement sees me as we drive past each other.  I’ve been angry and I’ve been sad.  I think some of my anger has been just as I see injustice and murder occurring before my very eyes. I’ve been sad because peoples’ lives have been unnecessarily taken from them through unrestrained violence.  In many ways, it feels like the Civil Rights Movement all over again.

As a Christian black man, I’ve had to process and sort through many thoughts and emotions through the word of God.  I’ve had to fight the tendency to think all white people see themselves as superior and blacks as inferior.  I’ve had to fight the anger I’ve felt when our side of the narrative was being dismissed or when we’re charged with “not getting over it [racism]”.  In other words, I’ve had to fight being partial to my kinsmen according to the flesh.

Clear biblical thinking is paramount in times like these.  Clear biblical thinking must take into account that all men of every hue are sinners and sin manifests in myriads of ways. Specifically, the sin of racism entered the world in Genesis 3. It is nothing new.  As a Christian, I’ve also been compelled to examine my own heart and actions to make sure I’m not adding to the racism narrative.  Clear biblical thinking compels me to love my fellow man in the faith of every hue. Clear biblical thinking compels me love my fellow man of creation of every hue, even those who do evil, because I’ve been so dearly loved by God and because all men are created in His image (Genesis 1:26).  Clear biblical thinking also compels me to speak of the One who shed His blood for the sins of man He created from every tribe, tongue and nation (Acts 17: 26-28, Revelation 5:9; 7:9) and united in Himself as one new man (Ephesians 2:11-22), the Christian, and the church is called to display His particular glory of ethnic unity now and for eternity (Ephesians 3:10-11).

Truly, the gospel is the only remedy for racial reconciliation and it is my firm conviction that pastors lead out personally and corporately in the fight against racism.

This past October, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (Louisvlle, KY) hosted their annual Expositors Summit Conference and Preconference.  One of the preconference speakers, Curtis Woods, offered some great insights concerning pastoring and the changing ethnic demographics happening in America. Please give his talk a listen and be challenged and encouraged!

Grace & Peace,

d.

(Picture is courtesy of The District Church)

 

God Is Not Aimless

aimlessOne of the things my wife and I are committed to is continuing to date each other. Every week, usually on Friday evenings, we make it a point to spend time away from the “to do” list and away from others.  As self-avowed amateur foodies, we like to try different types of cuisine and Austin has a wide variety to choose from.  Some dates are more formal and some are casual, even including Austin’s famous food truck culture. With all of these choices, we’ve often found ourselves indecisive about what we want to eat and I’ve been known to drive without knowing where we’re going. Logic finally kicks in and I usually stop driving aimlessly and pull over in a parking lot so we can finalize our decision.

Aimlessness is costly because it is wasteful and counter-productive resulting in fruitlessness.  I think all of us can agree with that because we intuitively know that life is to be lived with purpose and usually when one loses that sense of purpose apathy, depression or despair kicks in.  I think we intuitively know this because we were created by God who is purposeful in all that He does.  If we truly believe that God is committed to carrying out His purpose in the world, we can be confident, despite what happens, that all things are working together for good in our lives.

A Case of Aim from the Beginning

Recently, I began re-reading the Bible, starting in Genesis, and immediately I was struck by the order in which He created creation.  Genesis 1 details God’s creative activity in six days.  However, what’s intriguing about this account is the order or structure of creation. There is a pattern of form and filling in Genesis 1. Here is what I mean:

  •  Day 1 corresponds with Day 4 | Creation of day and night on Day 1 and then the creation of the sun and moon to fill the day and night skies on Day 4.
  • Day 2 corresponds with Day 5 | Creation of sky and sea on Day 2 and then the creation of birds to fill the sky and fish to fill the sea on Day 5.
  • Day 3 corresponds with Day 6 | Creation of dry land, plants, and sea and then the creation of animals and man to fill these places on Day 6.

creation

In the very first chapter of the Bible, we learn that God is not aimless, but purposeful in His sovereign activity of creation. This truth should begin to shape our understanding of the character of God.  In fact, the rest of the Bible continues to reveal that God is purposeful.  

God’s Aim in Our Pain

However, I strongly suspect that isn’t where we struggle to believe and understand that God is purposeful.  We struggle to understand God’s purposefulness when we see the painful effects of sin in the world and how it painfully affects our own lives.  When we experience or hear of tragedies abroad or closer to home, we often question their purposes which, at times, causes us to question the sovereignty and the goodness of God.  Our theology seems to come unraveled when pain or disappointment invades our lives.  But why don’t we struggle to believe that all exists to glorify Him when all is going well? Is it impossible to believe that God even uses sin and its painful effects to glorify Himself?  Why do we commend God in times of pleasure and condemn Him in times of pain? We do this when we interpret life from our vantage point and not from God’s. That’s idolatry, not theology.  

James 1:2-4 and 1 Peter 1:6-7 reminds us that the trials we experience are given to us by God to prove, strengthen and perfect our faith.  God’s ultimate goal for us is that we would be conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29) and the process of being conformed or sanctification sometimes happens by experiencing trials and pain.  Trials and pain provide the occasion for us to remind ourselves of truth and respond accordingly as children of God. Oftentimes, these trials expose just how unholy we naturally are. C.H. Spurgeon said, “Trials teach us what we are; they dig up the soil and let us see what we are made of”.  

In seeing our unholiness, we ought to desire to be more holy. In that way, God’s aim in our pain and trials is that we would continually turn to Him for sanctifying and sustaining grace. When we turn to Him, we are declaring that He is sufficient to remove our pain or sustain us in it and in that He is glorified! God’s aim in our pain is not only our sanctification, but ultimately our joy and His glory as we are driven to Him (Psalm 16:11).   Do you believe that pain is God’s tool for your joy and His glory in your life? We must continually fight to believe in the goodness of God (Psalm 106:1), the sovereignty of God over all things – good and bad (Daniel 4:35, Psalm 115:3), and the good promises of God for His children (2 Corinthians 1:20).

God’s Aim in Our Pleasure

If pain is a tool that drives us to God for joy, what about pleasure?  What is God’s aim in our pleasure? Are the pleasures we experience meant to drive us to God?  Resoundingly, “yes!”  All of the legitimate pleasures we experience emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, materially and physically are pointers.   James 1:17 reminds us of the source of every good gift (material and immaterial) and 1 Timothy 6:17 reminds us that He aims for us to derive joy from what He’s given. Earthly pleasures are meant to be pointers to an eternally pleasing God!  The gift reflects the heart of the Giver. However,  sin prevents us from seeing the greater value of the Giver over His gifts. Thankfully, the Holy Spirit is given that we might see rightly!  Psalm 16:11 says –

You make known to me the path of life;

   in your presence there is fullness of joy;

   at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the Psalmist tells us that  lasting pleasure and the fullness of joy are ultimately found in God. If earthly pleasures are pleasurable, yet fading, how much more should we seek to experience ultimate unfading pleasure by being with Christ?!  

God’s Aim in His Pleasure

Have you ever wondered what brings God the most pleasure? It’s Him! Dr. John Piper writes: “God’s own glory is uppermost in his own affections. In everything he does, his purpose is to preserve and display that glory. To say his glory is uppermost in his own affections means that he puts a greater value on it than on anything else. He delights in his glory above all things” (Desiring God, p. 43).  For God to find joy or pleasure in anything above Himself, He would be an idolator giving glory to something or someone lesser.  Since nothing greater exists than God, He finds ultimate delight and pleasure in Himself because He is the sum of all perfection and glory!  If God finds ultimate delight in Himself, how much more should we do the same?  

God’s aim in all that He does is that He be glorified by, in and through His creation, which is the whole aim of the redeeming work of Jesus Christ.  God’s aim is His own glory, and rightly so!

Grace & Peace,

d.

The Gathering and Singing: The Focus (pt. 2)

choirPart 1 ended with a challenge for worship leaders in the black church to consider how their music set can bring the most glory to God by assessing solo singing, choir singing and congregational singing.   

Some of you may be wondering why I am taking the time to bring up this particular issue.  Others of you may be wondering if this issue is of any true significance.  Of course the music set of a corporate gathering has no effect on one’s salvation, but it does have an effect on our individual sanctification. I’d also argue that it affects the health and edification of the church.  I stated previously that the church gathers for three basic reasons – exaltation, exultation and edification.  For this to happen, every aspect of the service should seek to serve these three purposes, especially the music, not only lyrically, but also in delivery.  

As I’ve talked to many people who currently attend or who have had the opportunity to attend a black (or predominantly black) church, one aspect that always is commented on was how powerful the praise and worship set was. I usually chuckle because I know exactly what they’re talking about, having grown up in the black church.  I admit that hearing powerful singing and seeing the choir display particular rhythmic movements in unison is great to see, but that also is my biggest concern or critique of these types of music sets.   Due to the immense display of talent, the music set often becomes a performance (singing and the accompaniment) that often times rouses the emotions of the congregation apart from biblical truth. Emotions are often elicited usually through excessively repititious choruses, riffs and runs, physical gestures and extended instrumental showmanship. As this goes on, the congregation becomes passive spectators, rather than active participators. In these instances, the focus is on man and not God.  What was intended to be corporate praise (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16) has become a concert.

My estimation is that congregational singing is the healthiest form of music worship for a corporate gathering. If you’re unfamiliar with the term or the concept, congregational singing is the practice of the congregation joining in the music of a church, either in the form of hymns or in the form of the office of the liturgy.  Congregational singing normally doesn’t require many people on the platform or stage.  Also, the musical accompaniment is intentionally lowered so the collective human voice of the congregation can be heard singing.   In doing this, congregational singing does quite the opposite of performance oriented singing as the focus is rightly on Christ and the church is edified, hearing itself singing praises to Christ.  Now I am not saying there are no uses for solos or choirs. I think music sets can wisely employ them, but it must be done in such a way that doesn’t blur the focus of Christ, but rather sharpens it.  

Some might object to all that I’ve said under the guise that I am not respecting deeply appreciated black forms of musical expression or an individual’s talent.  My push-back would simply be to ask if the music set serves to bring glory to the music team or if it edifies the whole church and glorifies Christ.  Think about it.  Let us strive to build up one another for the glory of Christ in our singing.

Grace & Peace,

d.

The Gathering and Singing: The Focus (pt. 1)

choir“We had CHURCH today!” “The Spirit really showed up today!”  If you’ve been part of a black church or have visited one, chances are you’ve heard or have even have uttered these phrases.  If you’re unfamiliar with these phrases, let me help you understand. These are words of affirmation spoken by someone who really enjoyed the worship service.  If you were to ask someone what was so enjoyable about service, chances are they’ll say the preaching or the singing. These two components usually tend to be pretty dynamic in the black church. Sometimes they even rival each other and sometimes they’re blended. Here’s what I mean –  the preaching gets a little melodic and then before you know it, the preacher breaks out into song accompanied by the choir for a verse or two and then resumes the sermon.  Despite the many chief characteristics of the black church, music is almost “the” main component of the worship service.  

I’ve previously stated that the sermon, expositionally preached, is to be the central component of every worship service and its biblical text should shape the content of the songs being sung.  But in addition to the content of the music, we also must think critically about its delivery and who we are to be focused on.  Contextual and cultural differences surely will warrant a  modification of the tempo of the songs or their melodies. We will do well to pay attention to the composition lest we lose some of the gravity of the songs.  But also, great attention must also be paid to how the songs are sung and we must evaluate if Jesus is the focus or the singer(s).

The Purpose of the Gathering

Hebrews 10:25 exhorts us not to neglect meeting together, but why? Why do Christians gather? What is the point? I’d like to offer 3 main reasons why the church gathers – exaltation, exultation, edification.

Exalt means to elevate or to praise; extol.  When we gather, we are elevating and praising God for who He is, what He’s done and what He’s promised to do for the glory of His name.  We do that primarily because of the atoning work of Jesus Christ. Through Jesus Christ, believers are reconciled to God, called to live as lights in the world and look forward to an eternity of unhindered fellowship with God in the new heavens and new earth.  The preaching is meant to instruct our heads, encourage and convict our hearts, fill us with gratitude and move us to loving obedience for the praise of His glorious grace.

Exult means to show or feel a lively or triumphant joy; rejoice exceedingly.  If we truly understand the gospel and all of its implications (forgiveness, adoption, eternal life, etc.) we ought to be truly joyful about worshiping Christ in our gatherings.  If there is a lack of joy, it could be due to unrepentant sin in your life or possibly you have not yet mined the depth and the breadth of the provisions of the gospel. Preaching that is faithful to the text and the overall theme of the Bible should cause us to exult in Him (Psalm 32:11; 35:9).

Edify means to instruct or benefit, especially morally or spiritually; uplift.  The primary way that the New Testament speaks of believer being benefited or built up is by the instruction of the Word (Eph. 4:12, Col. 1:28) and also by the exercise of spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 14:4, 12, 26) so that the church would be mature growing up in Christ (Eph. 4:15).

When we consider these three basic reasons, it should be plain to see that man is not the focus of a worship gathering, Christ is.

The Purpose of  the Worship (Music) Team

If the main component, biblical preaching, is focused on God, specifically Christ, then every other aspect of the service should do likewise, especially the singing.  As I’ve stated previously, song lyrics ought to be biblical and should complement the sermon.  The music should serve as another teaching moment in the gathering.  It is no secret that the black church is replete with musical talent. History repeatedly proves this. From musicians to singers, the black church is rich with musical talent and that’s a good thing!  In fact, we ought to thank God for the way He dispenses His gifts and talents to people. But as with all of God’s gifts, they must be stewarded well for His glory. In matters of worship by song, we must be careful that our singing doesn’t betray the focus that is to be given to Christ in our gatherings. It might be wise for worship leaders or choir directors to ask themselves what will bring the most glory to God during the music set.

How should the black church think about solo performances, choirs, and congregational singing?

We’ll examine these in the next article.

Grace & Peace,

d.

The Gathering and Singing: Take Care How You Sing

AAWOrship2In another entry, I wrote about the importance music plays in the life of corporate worship.  The importance it plays can be for good or for bad depending on your understanding of the primary or central component of a corporate gathering.  One of the recoveries of the Protestant Reformation, argued by Martin Luther and John Calvin, was the preaching of the word. But not only that, but its primacy over all other aspects of a corporate gathering.  Since the word is God breathed, sufficient for godliness (2 Tim. 3:16-17) and living, active and able to discern the intentions and thoughts of the heart (Heb. 4:12), the preaching must be the central event of every corporate gathering. Not only must it be central, but the Word must also govern and shape the other events of the gathering, especially the music.

My purpose here is not to argue appropriate styles of music for a corporate gathering, though I think that is a worthy conversation, but to stimulate thought about the lyrical content of the songs we sing in our corporate gatherings.  I think the most helpful songs sung in corporate gatherings are those that are shaped by biblical truth and complement the theme and tone of the biblical passage that is preached.  For example, can the things that are sung be found anywhere in the Bible? And concerning appropriate themes for example, overly triumphant songs seem a bit out of place if the text preached was a stern calling for the believer to take serious heed of the warnings of God’s word lest he suffer discipline. Simply put, the songs we sing ought to be rooted in Scripture complementing the sermon preached.

Recently during a time of corporate worship I was more cognizant of this and I was greatly edified again by Ada Haberson (1861-1918) and Matt Merker’s song, He Will Hold Me Fast.

When I fear my faith will fail,
Christ will hold me fast (John 6:37);
When the tempter would prevail,
He will hold me fast (Lk 22:31-32).
I could never keep my hold
Through life’s fearful path (Matt. 26:30-35; 69-75);
For my love is often cold (Eze. 16);
He must hold me fast.

He will hold me fast,
He will hold me fast;
For my Savior loves me so,
He will hold me fast.

Those He saves are His delight (Isa. 62:5; Zeph. 3:17),
Christ will hold me fast;
Precious in his holy sight (Ps. 72:14; 1 Pet. 2:4),
He will hold me fast.
He’ll not let my soul be lost (Ps. 16; Matt. 1:21; John 6:39-40; Eph 1:3-14; 1 Pet 1:3-5; Jude 24-25)
His promises shall last (Nu. 23:19; Isa. 46:10, 55:11);
Bought by Him at such a cost (1 Pet. 1:18-19),
He will hold me fast.

For my life He bled and died (Isa. 53; 2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pet. 2:24, 3:18),
Christ will hold me fast;
Justice has been satisfied (Rom. 3:25; Heb. 2:17; 1 John 2:2, 4:10);
He will hold me fast.
Raised with Him to endless life (John 11:25-27; 1 Cor. 15),
He will hold me fast
‘Till our faith is turned to sight,
When He comes at last (1 John 3:2)!

Being replete with biblical doctrine was the reason why I was so edified by the song.  I was singing the Bible! As I was singing, I was being instructed and reminded of the biblical truth of the assurance we have in Christ for our salvation.  That is the main point of the song and it is encouraging!!! This is a song I can “Amen!!” simply because of the truth it contains, not primarily because of its melody.  A song with great melody, but devoid of biblical truth is ultimately not God glorifying, soul satisfying, faith fortifying or joy intensifying.  However, a song with biblical truth, though it may not be your melody of preference, is better for your soul simply because of its content. Consider the Apostle Paul’s exhortation to the Colossian church:

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.

(Colossians 3:16, ESV)

Next time you gather for corporate worship, take note of the lyrics and examine the degree of biblical fidelity.  May we take care how we sing!

Grace & Peace,

d.

Brand New | New Identity

Previously, we discussed that Christians or believers in Jesus Christ are subjects of Christ’s  kingdom.  Having been born again by the power of the Spirit for faith in the gospel, believers have been transferred from the domain of darkness to the kingdom of God’s beloved Son (Col. 1:13), Jesus Christ.  However, we must not only think of our relationship with Christ in a monarchial way. The Bible employs several images to describe our relationship with God and our identity as Christians.  While much more could be said about the Christian’s new identity, I will only spend time discussing a few aspects, which I think are most helpful for this series.

IDCHRISTIndividual and Corporate Identity

Two of the most common reasons why some believers have stunted spiritual growth or fail to experience joy is that some fail to understand who they are in Christ and others forget who they are in Christ.  If either of these occur in the life of a believer, it can have devastating effects.  

One of the most vivid descriptions of the Christian’s identity is found in Ephesians 2.  In this chapter, the Apostle Paul describes the work of the gospel in the lives  of the Ephesians, who like all Christians were formerly spiritually dead.  We’ve discussed this in part 1, so I won’t elaborate on that more.  However, Paul goes on to say some additionally important things about how the gospel shapes the believer’s identity and some of its implications.  

Contextually, Paul is writing to Gentile (non-Jewish) Christians and explaining how their faith in Christ has implications concerning their relationship to God and to people of other ethnicities, specifically Jewish people.  In vv11-12, Paul declares that they were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.  In other words, Gentiles generally had no share of the blessings of God and were without eternal hope.  However in vv13-22, Paul highlights the hope Gentiles now have because of the gospel and its direct implications. Paul says,

  • v13in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
  • vv14-16, 1914 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God…
  • vv17-18 – 17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.
  • v22- In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.

In verse 13, Paul explains how being Christians, or being in Christ, has brought them near to God when they were originally far off from God and without hope (v12). Do you see that contrast? Being in Christ, believers now have hope because they are covenanted with God in Christ. All believers are no longer alienated from the people of God and strangers to the covenants of promise, but are now the people of God and guaranteed inheritors of the covenantal promises.

In verse 14-16 and 19, Paul explains the relationship between believers of different ethnicities. Historically, Jews and Gentiles didn’t get along. In fact, hostility existed between them. However, in Christ, Paul says the dividing wall of hostility has been torn down (v14, 16) and they are now one new man.  While God doesn’t negate our ethnicities, which He created, our ethnicities are not what first defines us. What first defines us is our identity as the people of God. Our being in Christ not only gives us access to God and His promises, but it creates and puts us in a whole new family with other believers of different ethnicities (v19).

In verse 22, Paul uses Old Testament temple imagery to further clarify the Ephesian believers’ identity.  Under the Mosaic Covenant, or the Old Covenant, God commanded Israel to build a tabernacle and then a temple, which would be the locus of worship for Israel (See 1 Chronicles 28).  Not only would it be the place of worship, but the place where the Lord would often meet with His people. The temple signified the place where the Lord’s presence dwelled.  Paul says in verse 22 that the covenant community or God’s people are a dwelling place of God by the Spirit.  Back in Ephesians 1, Paul explains how believers are filled with the Holy Spirit , who is the guarantee of our inheritance. This filling of the Holy Spirit in believers was promised in the Old Testament in Ezekiel 36:26-27 and in Joel 2:28-29  and fulfilled in Acts 2 under the New Covenant in Christ. God didn’t dwell permanently in people under the Old Covenant as He does with people now in Christ under the New Covenant. Therefore, just as the Temple was the dwelling place of God on earth then, the church (the people of God, not a brick and mortar edifice) is the true temple or dwelling place of God by the Holy Spirit on earth now.   It’s a wonderful and humbling reality that we need to understand!

Another profound description of our identity as Christians is found in Romans 8:15-17. The Apostle Paul said:

15 For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.

  • v15 – we have received the Spirit of adoption; God is our Father
  • v16 – the indwelling Spirit bears witness that we are the children of God
  • v17 – as children of God, we are heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ

Every true believer is an adopted child of God and a co-heir with Jesus Christ!  Just as children depend on their parents for provision, protection, love, etc., every believer has that relationship with God the Father.  The Aramaic term “Abba” is a term used by children that signifies a close intimate relationship with their fathers. The English equivalent is “daddy”.  With this familial reality comes a grand future promise.  That promise is that we are co-heirs with Christ. Not only are believers promised salvation, but eternal life and we will rule (to some measure) the New Heavens and New Earth with Jesus (Lk. 22:30; 2 Tim. 2:12; Rev. 3:21). This will be the ultimate fulfillment of man’s original calling to rule and have dominion over the earth and its non-human inhabitants (Genesis 1:26-28).

Salvation in Christ not only restores our relationship with God and people, but also our roles over creation.

Identity as Slaves

The last issue of identity that I want to address pertains to our relationship with sin.  In Romans 6, Paul makes the argument that when we come to Christ through repentance and faith, our fundamental relationship to sin has changed.  Before being regenerated or being born again, sin was our master. We couldn’t not sin. It was inherent to our fallen state. However, after being born again by the Spirit, sin is no longer our master, Christ is. Paul says in 6:22, “But now that you have been set free from sin have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.”

slavechain

It is important to say that our battle with sin will always remain while we are here on this earth, but it is not our master any longer. We are no longer to be slaves to sin. One of the provisions the Holy Spirit provides is the power to not give into sin and the power and desire to obey God’s word.

The Implications of Our New Identity

The implications of these truths are significant and many.  I will only briefly examine a few based on what was stated above.  

First, we need to understand that because of Christ, we are accepted by God as His children and co-heirs with Christ. We have an eternal reward and eternal commission to look forward to!  We are a people of hope who are to set our desires on the world to come, not this world which is passing away.

Secondly, we need to understand that what fundamentally marks us is not our ethnicities, our genders, our educational backgrounds, nor where we live. Our fundamental identity is “Christian” over and above these other providentially given and governed aspects of our lives.  We are God’s covenant community from every tribe, language, people and nation (Rev. 5:9; 7:9) called to proclaim His excellencies (1 Pet. 2:9).  Therefore, racism, ethnocentrism, sexism, classism, etc. should not be named among us. We are first to be known by our obedience to Christ and must part with societal and cultural ways that contradicts God’s standards for His people. 

Thirdly, as God’s covenant community, every Christian is family – spiritual family. There is a familial aspect of our identity that is designed to display the wisdom of God (Eph. 3:8-11), our unity in Christ and love for one another.  To display these things means that we need to be regularly meeting together for worship (Heb. 10:25) and doing life together as visible expressions and proof of our new identity (John 13:34-35; 1 John 3:14; 4:7-21).  

Lastly, since sin is not our master, and Christ is, we are to live holy lives by the power of the Holy Spirit. Colossians 3 is just one of many places that describes what holiness looks like.  In Colossians 3:5-11, Paul highlights a general list of sins that we are called to repent of and not be characterized by. Then in Colossians 3:12-17, he lists attributes that should mark every believer.  Galatians 5:16-26 offers us a similar perspective on how we should live based on our new identity in Christ.

May the Lord cause us to reflect on these truths and live out our identities by faith by the power of the Holy Spirit!

Grace & Peace,

d.

The Grace of Trials

jobIf you’re familiar with the Scriptures, you’re familiar with the suffering of Job in the Old Testament. Job’s suffering was agonizing spiritually, emotionally, and physically. No area of his life was untouched by pain. What might be the most perplexing aspect of the narrative is God’s nomination of Job to Satan for these afflictions (Job 1:8). Or maybe perhaps the fact that we really don’t understand the “why” of God’s permission is most perplexing. What we do know from this text and several others in Scriptures is that God’s people are not exempt from trials. At times, God sends trials, which are not meant to harm us, but are a means of our growth or a witness of our faith (Matthew 5:10-11; Acts 5:41; Romans 8:28; James 1:2-4; 1 Peter 1:6-9). Famed Baptist pastor, C.H. Spurgeon, one who was greatly acquainted with trials said this –

“None of us can come to the highest maturity without enduring the summer heat of trials. As the sycamore fig never ripens if it be not bruised, as the corn does not leave the husk without threshing, and as wheat makes no fine flour until it be ground, so are we of little use till we are afflicted. Why should we be so eager to escape such benefits?”

If we’re honest, we’ll admit that our natural reaction to trials is to escape them, not to sit under them and let them do the good work God intends to do through them. We need to remember that as long as we live on this earth, we will go through trials of various kinds and of varying degrees. Such was the case recently for my wife and me.

Recently, my wife underwent a surgical procedure that we had been putting off for a couple of years hoping and praying the Lord would miraculously intervene and alleviate the issue. He didn’t. The weeks leading up to the surgery consisted of a few pre-op appointments and mentally preparing for major surgery. This would be my wife’s first surgery as an adult and there were more than a few concerns that often resulted in fear and anxiety in my wife. Having had surgery a few years ago, I understood her fear and anxiety and I constantly pointed her back to Scripture and the truths about God. Not only her, but I had to remind myself of these things as well.

More Than You Know
On one occasion before the surgery, my wife and I were discussing things and I reminded her that this surgery was not just about rectifying a physiological problem, but God was doing more than we knew through this ordeal, ultimately for His glory. We talked about God’s providence concerning Joseph, Ruth, and Jesus and how their trials and sufferings were part of His redemptive plan. Former pastor John Piper has said this concerning trials, “God is doing 10,000 things in your life through this ordeal, but He may only let you in on 1 or 2 or 3 of them.”

What Was Perceived & Prayed For
During moments of introspection and prayer, the Lord began to fill my mind with many of the good things that could come of this whole ordeal and I was excited as I shared them with my wife. Some of the things that we discussed and prayed for that could come of the surgery were:

• an opportunity to experience the sufficiency of God’s grace and faithfulness in specific ways (peace, financial provision, freedom from insurance administrative hassle, and a speedy recovery for my wife)
• an opportunity for us to grow deeper in our faith and know God’s goodness toward us in all things
• an opportunity for particular sins to be exposed (fear, anxiety, anger, pride, etc.)
• an opportunity to grow in humility
• an opportunity for God’s grace in this ordeal to be an encouragement to our families
• an opportunity for me to grow in compassion and patience as I serve my wife during her recovery
• an opportunity to continue to strengthen our marriage
• an opportunity to see the Lord’s grace toward us through our church family
• an opportunity to deepen relationships with our church family
• opportunities to share the gospel
• greater desire for eternity and a looser grip on the things of this world

trustThe Road Ahead
At this point, we’re just a few days post surgery and my wife has several more weeks of recovery. So the weeks ahead will be filled with more trusting in God (as all of life should be) as we get back to a place of normalcy.

Recently, we went walking and I took the opportunity to ask her what the Lord taught her about Himself and herself throughout this trial. She told me that she knows God is a faithful God who deserves to be trusted and that at times her faith is weak (like all of us). I appreciated her transparency. When they wheeled my wife off to the operating room, we expressed our love for one another and as she let go of my hand, I welled up with emotion – watery eyes and a shaky voice. I was talking to one of our pastors who had come to pray with us and I told him it was hard seeing her like that. Now that I think more about it, I think what was hard was that I couldn’t be with her during that crucial time. I felt like I had no control or protection over her. My sin – I wasn’t trusting the Lord to truly take care of my wife in ways I never could. I failed to remember that before she is my wife, she is His child and He perfectly loves and cares for her.

We can honestly say that the Lord has answered several of our prayers concerning this, but the biggest blessing of the trial is our increased understanding and knowledge of Him and delighting in Him above all things. We truly believe that God uses the tools of trials to remind us just how weak and needy we are, to reveal more of Himself to us and conform us to the image of Christ so that we might say along with the Psalmist, “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes.” (Psalm 119:71)

Grace & Peace,

d.

A Woman’s Place

woman preachingNow that I’ve gotten your attention with the title, I will proceed. 😉

In my ongoing desire to see churches function biblically and to see Christians think clearly, one area that we must think about, especially as African Americans or as black people, is the role of women
in the church and to some degree in civil society.

Let’s consider these questions:

1. Is a woman biblically permitted to serve in the church? If so, how? (Please provide Scripture references to justify your answer.)

2. Is a woman biblically permitted to serve as a pastor or co-pastor of a local church? (Please provide Scripture references to justify your answer.)

3. Is there a difference between preaching and pastoring?

4. Is it okay for a male pastor to give bible teaching opportunities to a woman to a congregation of men and women at a Sunday gathering or in a bible study setting?

5. Are there any consequences for allowing women to serve as pastors, co-pastors or teach a mixed crowd at a Sunday gathering or bible study?

These types of questions are issues that we should be thinking about when we consider how we think about the local church and what the Bible prescribes. Really, at the heart of this discussion is the glory of God displayed in the worth and in the roles of men and women (yes, genders are distinct and created by God) as God intended them in general, but specifically in the church for the purpose of this discussion. I readily affirm women are gifted to serve. This is not an issue of competence, but of design and purpose.

Concerning gender roles circulating in the church, the two opposing ideas are:

1. Egalitarianism
2. Complementarianism

As brief descriptions:

Egalitarianism states that men and women are ontologically (the essence of being) equal and therefore should function (roles) as equals. (i.e. Since women are equal to men, then a woman can do what a man can. If a man can pastor, a woman can too.)

Complementarianism states that men and women are ontologically equal, but have differing roles as men and women according to God’s design. (i.e. Even though men and women possess dignity as image bearers of God and are equal in essence, God has ordained that men lead and women serve in assisting roles in the life of the church.)

Complementarians root their argument in Genesis 2:18-25 and this is very crucial to understand the order in the church.

Whether or not you’re in a church that has an egalitarian philosophy of ministry, it’s important to understand these things so we can think more clearly and live as God intended in these areas.

I would love to engage with you on this topic!

Grace & Peace,

d.

The Gospel & Ethnic Reconciliation

Concerning the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott and likely several hundred other unreported cases surrounding the sinful treatment of black males, many of us wonder if ethnicity was the motivating factor for police brutality or the overuse of their authority or the lack of justice at the court level. Given the history of systemic racism, which truly is a product of personal racism, it’s hard not to think this way when we look at the disproportionate number of the arrests and imprisonments between young white males and young black males for relatively the same crimes. While I am all for punitive requirements being met for all criminals, it does seem like the scales unjustly lean a little lower on “our” side. Print So what are we to do? How do we, as Christians, deal with the issue of personal prejudice or racism and dare I say ethnocentricity? We all know that no law passed at the city, state and national levels will ever rid man of the sin in the unseen recesses of his heart. Since racism is a sin, the only remedy for it, as with all sin, is the gospel of Jesus Christ. First, I encourage my white brothers and sisters to take a humble posture of heart and listen to the minority narrative. I guarantee it will be worth your time. Secondly, I urge my black brothers and sisters continue to deepen your roots in the sweet soil of the gospel of grace to prevent responding to sin sinfully. For we all are not without sin ourselves.

From the first book of the Bible, but certainly not the only place, we understand that mankind (man & woman) was created in the image of God (imago dei) and therefore has inherent dignity. This very truth was the truth that under-girded the Abolitionist Movement and the Civil Rights Movement. Slogans like “Ain’t I a Man?” and “I Am a Man!” were birthed in these movements respectively.

Genesis 1:27 says –

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

Iamaman

However, when biblical truth is silenced, even hated, in the public square, what can Christians do? What ought Christians to do regarding racial reconciliation?

Recently, the Southern Baptist Convention’s (SBC) Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) held a leadership summit in Nashville to address the topic of racial reconciliation, primarily in the church. Now if you’re familiar with the SBC, this might seem like a shocker. If you’re not familiar with the SBC, let me give you a quick historical overview. The SBC was started due to its desire that slavery be a lasting institution in America. Baptists in the south disagreed with and split from Baptists in the north for this very reason and formed the SBC. Even though the SBC issued a public apology and a confession of sin in 1995, many still look at the SBC with disdain. Some may wonder why any African American would join an SBC church. In fact, many black Baptist denominations were founded and formed because of this very reason and still exist today.

Perhaps you’re wondering how professing white Christians during these times could maintain such a low view of  the black man in light of the Bible’s teaching on the dignity of all mankind. I wonder the same thing too. But the pull of sin and the pressures of our culture have us all unfaithful at times, right? However, in an effort to sincerely glorify the wisdom of God in the gospel, the SBC is seeking to make strides to show forth the fruit of the gospel regarding this issue because only the church has the ultimate lasting cure for racism.

Since the church is the only institution that has the ultimate lasting cure, it should be the leader reflecting unity in diversity where there is a collection of ethnicities in a concentrated area.  Imagine the effect the church would have on the surrounding culture if it lived out the implications of the gospel in this way.

In his epistle to the Ephesians, Paul details how the gospel has united Jew and Gentile to be one new man – the Christian (Ephesians 2:11-22). While their God given ethnicities were not done away with, their ultimate identities were now Christian. The same is true for believers of every hue. In light of this truth, how are we seeking to show forth the fruit of the gospel regarding racial reconciliation? What are some practical implications of the gospel concerning racial reconciliation? I can think of a few. Consider these.

1. What does our closest circle of friends look like?

2. Are we seeking to build relationships with Christians of different ethnicities?

3. Are we sharing the gospel with people who are ethnically different than we are?

4. When was the last time we had a person of a different ethnicity in our home?

5. How do we really feel about white people? Or any non-African American?

6. Do our churches reflect the diversity of the community it’s in? Or is it a mono-ethnic church?

7. If my church isn’t multi-ethnic, is it making strides to become one, if possible?

Consider this passage from Revelation 7-

9 After this I (John) looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

Who is standing before the throne of God and the Lamb? God’s people from every nation, tribe, people and languages!  God’s eternal covenant community is multi-ethnic! This future reality is to be displayed here on earth in local churches when possible.

church-segregation

If you have some time, consider looking at the talks given by several members of the SBC addressing how the gospel cures racism and why Sunday at 11am should not be the most segregated hour in America.

The Gospel and Ethnic Reconciliation

For His glory,

d.