Worship: The Center of Our Existence

We worship God because God created us to worship him. Worship is at the center of our existence, at the heart of our reason for being. God created us to be his image – an image that would reflect his glory. In fact the whole creation was brought into existence to reflect divine glory. The psalmist tells us that: “the heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork” (Ps. 19:1). … Worship must above all serve the glory of God.

~ Hughes Oliphant Old

5 Reasons Why the Doctrine of Justification is Vital to the Church

The Great Apostle, Paul, wrote these profound words in his masterful treatise we know as the Book of Romans:

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it – the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,  and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.  (Romans 3.21-25)

The word “justification” is both biblical and practical. Because it is a biblical word, it not a word that should be ignored or merely glossed-over. It warrants our consideation, contemplation, and understanding. More than just being a biblical word, though, the concept of justification holds a central place in the message the Apostle is proclaiming. It is like the lynch-pin that holds together the various components of salvation.

Author and seminary professor Dustin Benge offers these thoughts to help us consider the doctrine of justification:

The doctrine of justification by faith alone is vital for the church:

1. It is essential for salvation: The Bible teaches that we are justified by faith in Jesus Christ, apart from any works we may do. Without this doctrine, we would have no assurance of our salvation.

2. It guards against legalism: Justification by faith alone guards against the idea that we can earn our salvation through good works or religious rituals. This protects us from the dangers of legalism, which can lead to self-righteousness and pride.

3. It upholds the sufficiency of Christ: By emphasizing that we are saved by faith in Christ alone, justification by faith alone upholds the sufficiency of Christ’s atoning work on the cross. It teaches that we cannot add anything to what Christ has already accomplished for us.

4. It promotes unity in the church: The doctrine of justification by faith alone promotes unity in the church, as it is a shared understanding of the gospel that transcends cultural and denominational differences.

5. It encourages evangelism: The doctrine of justification by faith alone provides a clear message of salvation to share with others. It encourages us to share the gospel with confidence, knowing that salvation is based on faith in Christ alone.

Overall, the doctrine of justification by faith alone is vital for the church because it is central to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Leaky Buckets: On Church Attrition

Thom Rainer, Founder and CEO of Church Answers, recently noted:

Each year, for every 100 people who attend your church, you will lose

  • 1 person to death
  • 9 people to moving
  • 7 people to transfer to another church in the community,
  • 15 people to declining attendance frequency.

That’s 32 people out of 100! 

I’m still not sure what to make of this analysis. I am in no way doubting the veracity. I also realize that these stats represent a national average, and that there will be some varaince from community to community. For instance, where I live, in the Hampton Roads region of Virginia, we have the largest population of military personnel in the world, so we often see more move away in any given year than would a church in almost any other region.

I think most stunning stat is that 7% of church members simply change churches every year. Of course there are all sorts of variables as to why some may change churches – and there are both good reasons and bad reasons for someone to leave their church. But either way, good reasons or questionable reasons, it is sad. It is sad if 7% are leaving simply for consumeristic reasons (a “Bad” reason). But it is also sad to think that 7% of churches are giving their members “good” reason to leave – i.e. the church has allowed a toxic culture to develop; or the church has develued God’s Word, and has consequently become heterodox and unfaithful; or even that the church has become so in-grown that it is not faithful in engaging in God’s Kingdom Mission, whether globally or locally, and so those who are committed to a holistic mission and to the Great Commission long to be part of a body that shares their (biblical) missional commitment.

If only I could believe that a significant part of that 7% were leaving a vibrant, healthy, faithful church to participate in the planitng of new vibrant, healthy, faithful churches in other communities where faithful churches are not presently present… It happens… But I have my doubts that “mission” is the primary reason among the 7%.

Lord, have mercy!

The Responsibility of the Church

Lesslie Newbigin, in his book The Reunion of the Church, challenged the Church to be on mission:

“The responsibility of the church is to declare to each generation what is the faith… This is always a fresh task in every generation… No verbal statement can be produced which relieves the Church of the responsibility continually to re-think and re-state its message. No appeal to creeds and confessions can alter the fact that the Church has to state in every new generation how it interprets the historic faith, and how it relates it to the new thought and experience of its time… Nothing can remove from the Church the responsibility for stating now what is the faith. It belongs to the essence of a living church that it should be able and willing to do so.”

NOTE: Those unfamiliar with Newbigin may appreciate this article by Bruce Ashford: How A Man Named Lesslie Changed the Way I Think.

Finding My Place in the Story

The Bible comes to us in various forms of literature: history, poetry, and letters, just to name a few. But essentially, the Bible tells one epic story from beginning to end, using all the various genres.

Eugene Peterson, writing the introduction to Matthew in The Message, said:

“Every day we wake up in the middle of something that is already going on, that has been going on for a long time, genealogy and geology, history and culture, the cosmos – God. We are neither accidental nor incidental to the story. From it we get orientation, briefing, background, reassurance. Lacking such a context, we are in danger of seeing Jesus as a mere diversion from the concerns announced in the newspapers. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

The challenge is to find myself and my place in God’s great story of Redemption and Restoration.

Pascal on the Book of Ecclesiastes

Famed philosopher Blaise Pascal noted:

“Ecclesiastes shows that man without God is in total ignorance and inevitable misery.”

Elaborating on the message of Ecclesiastes, Pascal summarazied it in these words:

“We do not rest satisfied with the present. We anticipate the future as too slow in coming, as if in order to hasten its course; or we recall the past, to stop its too rapid flight. So imprudent are we that we wander in the times which are not ours and do not think of the only one which belongs to us; and so idle are we that we dream of those times which are no more and thoughtlessly overlook that which alone exists.

For the present is generally painful to us. We conceal it from our sight, because it troubles us; and, if it be delightful to us, we regret to see it pass away. We try to sustain it by the future and think of arranging matters which are not in our power, for a time which we have no certainty of reaching.

Let each one examine his thoughts, and he will find them all occupied with the past and the future. We scarcely ever think of the present; and if we think of it, it is only to take light from it to arrange the future. The present is never our end. The past and the present are our means; the future alone is our end.

So we never live, but we hope to live; and, as we are always preparing to be happy, it is inevitable we should never be so.”

Jonah Resources

Preparing for an upcoming sermon series in the Book of Jonah, I have been enjoying a variety of resources, some of which are pictured above.

The Ultimate Good of the Gospel

From John Piper, God Is the Gospel: Meditations on God’s Love As the Gift of Himself:

The ultimate good of the gospel is seeing and savoring the beauty and value of God. God’s wrath and our sin obstruct that vision and that pleasure. You can’t see and savor God as supremely satisfying while you are full of rebellion against Him and He is full of wrath against you. The removal of this wrath and this rebellion is what the gospel is for. The ultimate aim of the gospel is the display of God’s glory and the removal of every obstacle to our seeing it and savoring it as our highest treasure. “Behold Your God!” is the most gracious command and the best gift of the gospel. If we do not see Him and savor Him as our greatest fortune, we have not obeyed or believed the gospel.

Gospel-Driven Sanctification

by Jerry Bridges

Early in my Christian life I heard someone say, “The Bible was not given to increase your knowledge but to guide your conduct.” Later I came to realize that this statement was simplistic at best and erroneous at worst. The Bible is far more than a rulebook to follow. It is primarily the message of God’s saving grace through Jesus Christ, with everything in Scripture before the cross pointing to God’s redemptive work and everything after the cross–including our sanctification–flowing from that work.

There is an element of truth in this statement, however, and the Holy Spirit used it to help me to see that the Bible is not to be read just to gain knowledge. It is, indeed, to be obeyed and practically applied in our daily lives. As James says, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22).

With my new insight, I prayed that God would use the Bible to guide my conduct. Then I began diligently to seek to obey it. I had never heard the phrase “the pursuit of holiness,” but that became my primary goal in life. Unfortunately, I made two mistakes. First, I assumed the Bible was something of a rulebook and that all I needed to do was to learn what it says and go do it. I knew nothing of the necessity of depending on the Holy Spirit for his guidance and enablement.

Still worse, I assumed that God’s acceptance of me and his blessing in my life depended on how well I did. I knew I was saved by grace through faith in Christ apart from any works. I had assurance of my salvation and expected to go to heaven when I died. But in my daily life, I thought God’s blessing depended on the practice of certain spiritual disciplines, such as having a daily quiet time and not knowingly committing any sin. I did not think this out but just unconsciously assumed it, given the Christian culture in which I lived. Yet it determined my attitude toward the Christian life.

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What is Now True Because of Jesus

The Apostle Paul notably quipped:

“I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes…” (Romans 1.16)

The “gospel” is the message – the “Good News” – about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and of the Kingdom in and over which he reigns.. Paul is saying that the message has power – life-giving and life-transforming power to all who believe the message. Bible scholars will point out that the construct of the Greek word for “believe”, and the context within the sentence, express that the word carries a connotation of “on-going belief”. In other words, the aspect of salvation that we call “justification” occurs the moment one believes; and the on-going effect of salvation, the process of salvation we call “sanctification” occurs by the same power, and by on-going belief in the same message.

Properly speaking, the gospel message is about Jesus; but the fruit of the gospel becomes evident in those who are believing. The gospel is the power to change us. Certain things become true because of the gospel – because of Jesus. Here are a handful of passages describing what is now true because of the gospel:

John 5.24 – Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.

2 Corinthians 5.19 – In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.

Romans 5.1 – Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Romans 8.1 –  There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

Romans 8.2 –  For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.

Ephesians 1.5 – …he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will…

Ephesians 3.16-19 – …that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Colossians 3.1-4 – If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your[a] life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

1 John 4.7-12Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.

Revelation 12.10-1110 And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. 11 And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.

Are We Singing the Same Song?

I cannot recall who said this, nor where I first read it, but the following statement resonates with me:

Jesus’ life and teaching always attracted a crowd; he was loved by the irreligious and was outcast and hated by the moralistic, legalistic, religious types. If our lives and proclamations of the gospel are not having a similar effect in our culture, then it is probably a different message we proclaim.

On the Date of the Nativity of Our Lord

The question about the actual birthdate of Jesus of Nazareth is quite debatable. While few probably give it much serious thought, it seems that the most common assumption, at least in my circles, among those who do think about such things, is that it has to be at almost any time of year other than late December. I certainly do not have a definitive answer. I can’t say I even have a firm opinion. But I am at least intrigued by the suggestion of historian Alfred Edersheim, in his classic tome, The Life & Times of Jesus the Messiah, in which he makes a case for the traditional December 25 date:

So much, that is generally accessible, has of late been written on this subject, and such accord exists on the general question, that only the briefest statement seems requisite in this place, the space at our command being necessarily reserved for subjects which have either not been treated of by previous writers, or in a manner or form that seemed to make a fresh investigation desirable.

At the outset it must be admitted, that absolute certainty is impossible as to the exact date of Christ’s Nativity – the precise year even, and still more the month and the day. But in regard to the year, we possess such data as to invest it with such probability, as almost to amount to certainty.

1. The first and most certain date is that of the death of Herod the Great. Our Lord was born before the death of Herod, and, as we judge from the Gospel-history, very shortly before that event. Now the year of Herod’s death has been ascertained with, we may say, absolute certainty, as shortly before the Passover of the year 750 A.U.C., which corresponds to about the 12th of April of the year 4 before Christ, according to our common reckoning. More particularly, shortly before the death of Herod there was a lunar eclipse (Jos. Ant. xvii.6.4), which, it is astronomically ascertained, occurred on the night from the 12th to the 13th of March of the year 4 before Christ. Thus the death of Herod must have taken place between the 12th of March and the 12th of April – or, say, about the end of March (comp. Ant. xvii.8.1). Again, the Gospel-history necessitates an interval of, at the least, seven or eight weeks before that date for the birth of Christ (we have to insert the purification of the Virgin – at the earliest, six weeks after the Birth – The Visit of the Magi, and the murder of the children at Bethlehem, and, at any rate, some days more before the death of Herod). Thus the Birth of Christ could not have possibly occurred after the beginning of February 4 b.c., and most likely several weeks earlier. This brings us close to the ecclesiastical date, the 25th of December, in confirmation of which we refer to what has been stated in vol. i. p.187, see especially note 3. At any rate, the often repeated, but very superficial objection, as to the impossibility of shepherds tending flocks in the open at that season, must now be dismissed as utterly untenable, not only for the reasons stated in vol. i. p.187, but even for this, that if the question is to be decided on the ground of rain-fall, the probabilities are in favor of December as compared with February – later than which it is impossible to place the birth of Christ.

2. No certain inference can, of course, be drawn from the appearance of the star’ that guided the Magi. That, and on what grounds, our investigations have pointed to a confirmation of the date of the Nativity, as given above, has been fully explained in vol. i. ch. vi… (see specially p.213).

3. On the taxing of Quirinius, see vol. i. pp.181, 182.

4. The next historical datum furnished by the Gospels is that of the beginning of St. John the Baptist’s ministry, which, according to St. Luke, was in the fifteenth year of Tiberius, and when Jesus was about thirty years old’ (St. Luke iii.23). The accord of this with our reckoning of the date of the Nativity has been shown in vol. i. p.264.

5. A similar conclusion would be reached by following the somewhat vague and general indication furnished in St. John ii.20.

6. Lastly, we reach the same goal if we follow the historically somewhat uncertain guidance of the date of the Birth of the Baptist, as furnished in this notice (St. Luke i.5) of his annunication to his father, that Zacharias officiated in the Temple as on of the course of Abia’ (see here vol. i. p.135). In Taan.29 a we have the notice, with which that of Josephus agrees (War vi.4.1.5), that at the time of the destruction of the Temple the course of Jehoiarib,’ which was the first of the priestly courses, was on duty. That was on the 9-10 Ab of the year 823 A.U.C., or the 5th August of the year 70 of our era. If this calculation be correct (of which, however, we cannot feel quite sure), then counting the courses’ of priests backwards, the course of Abia would, in the year 748 A.U.C. (the year before the birth of Christ) have been on duty from the 2nd to the 9th of October. This also would place the birth of Christ in the end of December of the following year (749), taking the expression sixth month’ in St. Luke i.26, 36, in the sense of the running month (from the 5th to the 6th month, comp. St. Luke i.24). But we repeat that absolute reliance cannot be placed on such calculations, at least so far as regards month and day. (Comp. here generally Wieseler, Synopse, and his Beiträge.)

Source: Appendix vii, The Life & Times of Jesus the Messiah

What We Celebrate At Christmas Is Why We Go to Church

As Christmas Day falls on a Sunday this year, church leaders across the country are making decisions about whether their respective congregation will hold services or forgo them. As one who holds a firm resolve about the prudency, even the appropriateness, of arbitrarily canceling services on any Sunday, no matter how noble-sounding the reasoning, I appreciate Grayson Gilbert’s thoughts on this matter, posted for Chorus In The Chaos:

Every set number of years, the church has an opportunity to gather with the saints on Christmas Day—and yet this often becomes a point of controversy for professing Christians. Some churches cancel services, while many others keep their doors open. I will admit at the onset of this that I believe those who shut their doors are not only doing a disservice to their congregants, but are in disobedience to the Scriptures.

The call to gather with the saints in the local assembly of believers is one that holds few exceptions to the rule. What has been traditionally held is that unless one is barred from attending church due to the providence of God or works of necessity, Christians should be among God’s people on the Lord’s Day (i.e., Sunday service). That time should be a designated time for all who profess faith in Christ simply because it is a time where the Spirit is uniquely present to work in and through His people as they serve one another, through the proclamation of the Word, the public reading of Scripture, corporate prayer, and congregational signing. In other words, unless we are providentially hindered or performing works of necessity, church attendance should be a non-negotiable to us. That is the general rule.

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O Come All Ye Faithful: When Christmas Falls On Sunday

Christmas Day falls on a Sunday this year. It happens every several years. Across the country churches are cancelling Sunday service; or, harkening back to the pandemic, some are pre-recording elements of a worship service to be consumed via streaming at the convenience of those who take the time to watch. (Is “watching” actually worshipping? That’s probably a good subject for another post.)

Granted, church attendance will likely be low even in churches committed to holding worship services. And family time is important. So, I get the factors that lead some to feel the need to cancel. (Well, “need” is probably too strong of a word. “Preference” is probably more apt.) Point being that the issues that cause a dilemma for some are not lost on me.

The question is, what is the best way to resolve these tension points? Even granting latitude for the consciences of individual Christians and families, what should the Church do?

I appreciated the solution proposed by Blake Larebee in his post for Chorus in the Chaos: 3 Good Reasons to Move the Gathering to Saturday the 24th. (NOTE: I had to read through it twice before I caught what he was actually saying. The key is in the end, and what he proposes ought to be done on “The Lord’s Day”.)