Back in July of 2006, I did something I could not have imagined myself ever doing. I went on a cruise. We sailed out of Port Canaveral in Florida, and then headed down to Cozumel, MX, then on to Belize City, then over to Costa Maya in MX, then to Nassau in the Bahamas. It was a decadent experience, but it was fun. But I have to say I was glad to return to the world of routine and service to the Lord, free from the buffet lines of a cruise ship. I got very full. Way too full.

What can be gained from a time like that? Well for one, learning how to properly rest is a very important thing. In our frenetic, fast-paced society, we have far too little real rest. Rest is recuperation. Rest is revitalization. Rest is restorative. Rest provides perspective. Rest is a regrouping process. Rest is therapeutic. Rest is the non-activity or activity that accomplishes these ends. Rest can even include the absence of noise.

Many times in the past—when on vacation—I scurried around thinking that I needed to get in as much “fun” as possible. Driving here and there, doing this or that, I’d oftentimes have to come home and rest from my “rest.”

Consider the best Biblical definition or description of rest that I’ve been able to find in the Bible:

For he who has entered His rest has himself also ceased from his works as God did from His. (Hebrews 4:10)

That’s it! In the context of Hebrews, God is talking about the ability to stop trying to earn God’s favor. It’s the cessation of works which we think are meritorious (i.e., that “earn” our grace). Biblical rest is trusting wholly in Jesus Christ, and in what He has accomplished for us in His death, burial, resurrection, ascension, exaltation, and High Priestly ministry. It is the utter reliance upon God, with nothing coming from ourselves as a source of rightness or wholeness with God.

Taking that principle in the direction of how we should go about this business of resting, the implication is that we stop trying to do. We just are. We end our own efforts and we just settle down into a state of solitude, into a posture of peace. We trust God, knowing that it’s His will that we get restored, healed, rejuvenated, etc.

How much rest do we need? Well, the Bible teaches that a weekly dose is the minimum. One day a week. But then there are other periodic opportunities we can also take advantage of during any given year. Vacations, longer weekends, just about any time that God gives us.

As we remember rest’s purposes—and as we focus on and trust in the Lord to fulfill those purposes in our lives—we’ll be strengthened for the battles and ministry ahead of us. This is the time to serve the Lord! We need all the strength we can get. There are six other days in each week in which fellowship with God, life, service, family, struggles, trials, joys, and sorrows take place.

I’m trying to learn how to live in the moment. Trying to learn how to “be” where I am. Trying to learn to soak in the power and grace of God Himself. Trying to not have to be accomplishing something all of the time.

I must be making some progress … the other day after a busy morning at church I found myself in the kitchen with my wife. Nothing was on the immediate schedule, and I was able to just chill out. I was resting. I liked it.

Know Him and make Him known…updating the GPS

I’m one of those people that appreciates, enjoys, and openly declares the value of a good motto or slogan.  I’m always on the look out for not only a “catchy” motto or slogan, but one that also truly represents how that organization actually operates on day to day basis in the real world.

Many churches use a slogan or a phrase or two to express their vision and I’m all good with that.  In fact, I’ve learned that the process necessary for the leadership of a church to create and then adopt and begin promoting a motto/slogan is incredibly healthy and I highly recommend it.

Of all the slogans for various ministries that I’ve heard, my favorite has always been the one for YWAM.  I’m fairly sure Loren Cunningham didn’t invent it, that he probably heard it from someone else, but for more than 50 years, YWAM’s catchphrase has been to:  To know God and to make Him known! 

For years, I thought that you just couldn’t get much simpler or clearer than that.  That statement, in my opinion, is pretty much the GPS that every believer, not just a Christian organization, should be navigating life by.  I don’t really think it needs to be messed with…..but……I’ve come to the conclusion that another few words might be helpful to add.

The few words that I would add are the result of some of the things I’ve learned in our ministry to refugees here in Phoenix, talks with my youngest daughter and her friends and other 25 and under people that I know here in Phoenix and that younger generation that I’ve read about in various books about ministry to them.

The common theme among the people I just mentioned is that they are looking at people that claim to follow Jesus and measuring whether they want to know more, NOT by what those Jesus followers say about God but by how much those Jesus followers are willing to divulge about who they themselves really are in a meaningful relationship/friendship.  In other words, transparency, vulnerability, authenticity, and honesty, are what these people desire to see and hear from us before they choose to give any validity to our message.

So, here’s how I personally have updated YWAM’s slogan for myself:  I exist to glorify God by Knowing Him and making Him known by opening myself up to be known.  In other words:  To know God and make Him known…by letting myself be known.

Letting yourself be known isn’t comfortable, isn’t accomplished in a few minutes, and is always humbling.  But it’s worth it.  Our God let Himself be known through His Son…not only by the words His Son spoke, but the day in, day out living of life.  Our Lord was transparent, vulnerable, authentic, and honest in day to day life and all those He interacted with in that life.  He knew God and made God known by letting Himself be known.

And one last thought.  If this is crucial in our interaction with those who don’t know Him, how much more crucial is it for us to be that way with those who do know Him?  We may be all of those things in the pulpit, with our words and stories, but are we that way with our church leaders and our church members?  If we’re only that way in the pulpit, but won’t live that way in real relationship with staff, leaders, or church members, how effectively are we really making Him known?


The Pain is Real …. and It’s Okay

I am amazed at what people heap upon the leadership of the church, especially the pastor. If someone leaves the church it is the pastor’s fault. If someone has an issue or a complaint it is automatically assumed the pastor did something wrong and it is his job to fix it. If someone betrays the pastor it is his job to go and reconcile and bring the “lost sheep” back into the fold. As a pastor I have grown to accept this.

What I have a hard time with is the insensitivity to my feelings. I refuse to let people try to minimize or rationalize how I am feeling inside. This isn’t one of those “I am a person and I have feelings too” kind of moments. This is one of moments that I am expected to soldier on even though inside I am grieving. What I have found that as the leader of the church people want me to be doing okay all the time.

For a long time I struggled with this and it only produced more feelings of frustration. Why weren’t people understanding that I might need a moment to deal or maybe that I am not in a good mood because I am dealing with something? As I grew through this I realized they weren’t even thinking about me, or what I am going through at all, they needed me to be okay so that I could deal with their problems.

So lately I have been focusing on how I can deal with all the stuff going on in me while at the same time be available to counsel others. There are a couple of things that I have discovered that are helping.

First, I take my feelings to God everyday: I know this sounds trite but I have found it to preciously true, especially when it comes to anger. Currently I am working through a messy situation with a former elder that had produced some intense feelings inside of me. If I don’t take this to the cross and ask Jesus to help me I am prone to allow this spiritual battle rage in my mind which leaves me in a terrible state of mind. I am then good to no one.

Second, I manage my schedule much better: I have only so many spots in my calendar each week for counseling. My first priority are the messages I teach, then my staff, then counseling. I am okay with saying no or delegating it to my associate pastor. It has taken a long time but I think I am there.

Finally, I don’t beat myself up: Most of what goes on in a pastor’s ministry happens in his mind. It is a true Iceberg analogy where people only see ten percent. Most pastor’s beat themselves up over the mistakes they have made. It can be debilitating. I have become content in being real. This shocks people sometimes, especially old school church people, but it is so freeing. I don’t go around raging but I am just honest with people. I also understand that when feelings of anger come up I am not a bad person. I don’t let it turn into sin but I deal with it.

The fact is that the pain is real in our lives and you know it’s okay. We don’t have to exert more energy than we have to put up a front. Be who you are and let your people see your flaws. It is amazing how much that can minister to people.

The Sword v. the Cup – the Purpose of Government and Church

The last 30 years of political involvement by the evangelical movement has left me jaded and cynical.  The failed agenda of the Moral Majority and all its various spawn over the last three decades should bring us to a critical examination of evangelical thinking about the nature of government.

According to Romans 13, the purpose of government is to visit the wrath of God upon the one who practices evil.  This is set over against the closing verses of Romans 12 which admonish us not to take our own revenge upon our enemy, but to leave room for the wrath of God.  The government is the agent of that wrath, a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.  Government is a minister of God for justice.  The church is the minister of God for mercy.  The government is to promote and practice justice and the church is to proclaim and preach the gospel.

The government bears the sword of God while the church bears the cup of Christ.

The government metes out punishment while the church metes out pardon.  There is a wall of separation between church and state and it is the wall of purpose – government and church have different purposes.  The government is to work to make this a just nation while the church is to work to make this a justified nation.  Our political leaders, therefore, should be known for their commitment to justice, not to Christ.  They should be those who are committed to our constitutional rights as citizens and not our spiritual righteousness as individuals.

In short, our President is not our Pastor.

It is not God’s intention that the President turn this nation back to God.  It is God’s intention that our President promote justice and protect the citizens from injustice.  This is the purpose and limited scope of government.  But there are those who want to make it more than it is.

It seems that some evangelicals think that if we could just get ‘our man’ into the White House (or other high offices), this nation could be turned ‘back to God.’  But the purpose of government is not to turn the nation back to God.  The purpose of government is to protect its citizens from evil men and to punish evil men.  In wanting to get ‘our man’ into the White House, some are confusing purposes with results.  Will a Christian President result in a more Christian nation?  Will his influence radiate out and be felt at an existential level in the hearts of the citizens?  So far, the answer to that is a resounding NO.  Carter, Bush1, Clinton, Bush2, and Obama have all claimed to be Christian – but their Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian, and United Church of Christ faith have all resulted in – well, not much in terms of the results of righteousness.

Purpose has to do with what should be.  Result has to do with what could be.  When what could be overshadows what should be, we are aiming at results and not focusing on purposes.  When we expect a result from a purpose not engineered to produce that result, disappointment and disillusionment are right around the corner.  If I drive my Ford Focus to pick up twelve high-schoolers in order to take them to camp, I won’t get the result I desire.  I am expecting too much – the load is too great.  A Ford Focus is not a 15 passenger van.

When we expect a whole nation to be spiritually moved by a just President, we are expecting too much.  When we expect a whole nation to be impacted by a godly President, we are expecting too much.  Expected results should be in line with intended purposes.  We are expecting too much of our government officials when we expect them to forward the agenda of the church.

Proverbs 20:8, and similar Scriptures, are sometimes forwarded in this kind of discussion –

A king who sits on the throne of justice disperses all evil with his eyes.

Two things – the President is not a king and America is not a theocracy.  An eastern monarch was a despot (benevolent or otherwise) who wielded much more authority than does a democratically elected President.  He could be arbitrary, erratic, and dictatorial and there were few checks upon his power.  In our day, even the most godly President imaginable will still be surrounded by a vast bureaucracy marked by spiritual indifference and vested self-interest.  And even the most godly President would still need to appeal to the Constitution and not the Bible as a basis for his/her decisions.

Yes, righteousness still exalts a nation and sin is still a reproach to any people.  Yes, Christians should very much be involved in politics and in the political process.  But let’s not fool ourselves into believing that government can deliver more than it is designed to do.  (In many cases it doesn’t even deliver what it is designed to do.)  The government cannot deliver righteousness even as my Ford Focus can’t transport 15 people.  There are two mutually compatible ways to exalt a nation – the exercise of a just administration and the ministry of a Bible informed, Spirit formed church.  Let’s expect from the government what the government is purposed to do and let’s expect from the church what the church is purposed to do.  And let’s pray for mercy from God.

Focus on Your Marriage

I have noticed over the years that people have asked me about “the secret” to a number of things. One is this question (often by a wanabe), “What’s the secret to making it through SEAL training?” My response is often, “Sorry bud, no such secret.” We live in such an instant society where we juggle a bunch of stuff yet really don’t think or focus on anything. We expect that there is a shortcut to greatness. There isn’t.

In recent years, I have started to hear this question in relation to marriage and family. It is humbling to think people would look to me and think, “I should ask him about the secret to marriage and raising a family.” This blows me away because I feel like I put great effort to succeed in this arena and hardly feel like an expert. I have often thought to myself, “I am okay with failing at everything in my life, just as long as I don’t fail at my marriage and being a dad.” It’s hard work. I feel like my success ebbs and flows at times, but it takes work.

Next week, February 2, 2012, I am celebrating my 10th year of marriage with my wonderful wife Anna. This in large part is causing me to reflect on life and marriage–you know, sort of an annual review sort of thing! She is my best friend and I think we are very happy–although like all relationships we have our great days, mediocre days, and bad days like everyone else. In coming to Valley Baptist Church, we have been exposed to marriages that have had great influence on us. One marriage that was 70+ years strong, many that are 60+ years long, many 50+, and many surviving widows that were married for many years prior to loosing their spouse.

What have I learned along the way? The first thing is marriage flat out takes commitment. This is simple. You know, actually standing behind the vows you make, “To have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish; from this day forward until death do us part.” These are major. Simple to understand, difficult to live by. The only way to do this is to commit for the long haul.

But how when things are bad? This is where God comes in. First, I have found that my biblical worldview has shaped my understanding of marriage. So when the bad days come and I am frustrated, I cling to the understanding that God gave Anna to me. Therefore, He must be working something out in me through the bad times. I also know that He wants me married and so I am left with two options: 1) Stay miserable, or 2) humble myself and initiate something to make things improve!

I recently heard that an author said that “Quality time often occurs unexpectedly in quantity time.” I think this is so true. A family must intentionally spend large chunks of time together to grow together. There is no way to get around this one. The more time spent together to better friends you become. I also think marriage is more about friendship or companionship over the long haul so this must be cultivated.

If you are married, and you want to improve your marriage. I would encourage you to read the book of Ephesians and pray every day for a month. I think you will be surprised at what God does through that!

I love you Anna Jean and am so thankful for you! God has blessed me with a wonderful wife and mother of my kids!

Dead Men Preach Better

There have been a few times that I thought that I was going to die.  None of those incidents were heroic, so I won’t mention them here, but they were real enough.  They were frightening, shocking, and in their own way, brought an undoing into my life.  They reminded me of my mortality, and that death can come in a moment.

Some of those frightful experiences were due to my carelessness and negligence.  At other times, the causes for my “near death experiences” came from other people.  Regardless of how and when things came about, thinking that one might be dying is an unforgettable experience.

Humans have a strong urge to live.  If you have ever been caught under a series of waves in the ocean, you know that feeling.  You need to come up for air, but the waves keep coming, pushing you back down.  You know that it is wise to not panic, and you anticipate that a break will come, and that you will be able to surface eventually.  You resolve that it is best to let the waves toss you around until you can come to the surface.  Fighting the waves uses up precious oxygen, and so you purpose in your mind to play the rag doll.

But the waves keep coming, and in spite of your best efforts to remain calm, the panic sets in, and the survival instinct goes into high gear.  The instinct for survival is a strong one.  The body does not want to die, and so the fight begins.

A similar if not same instinct exists in the heart, mind, and soul of man.  Humans, at their base level, want to have their own way.  They don’t want to “die to self”.  Every reader here is probably convinced of that.

As a Christian, and as a pastor, I understand the command to “die to self”.  I agree with the words of John the Baptist when he said, “I must decrease, but He (Jesus) must increase”.  Every Christian in any kind of ministry is familiar with these words, and has begun the pursuit of learning how to die to self.

There is a kind of dying to self that we seek after and volunteer for.  We deny ourselves ungodly pursuits.  We say “no” to sin.  We pray that we might “die daily”, and then we make conscious choices throughout the day.  When faced with an opportunity for selfish gratification, we seek to take the high road.  When an opportunity for revenge appears, we say a prayer and ask for a loving heart.  Self denial is practiced in many ways by Christians who serve Jesus.  Any Christian in ministry of any kind is familiar with these concepts, and is engaged in them to some degree, as they/we should be.

But there is another kind of dying that none of us seeks after, or ever wants to face.  It comes in many different configurations, but it is a death to self that is forced upon us.  It is a death that takes our breath away, undermines all self-confidence, and quickly knocks us to the ground.

It is a death to ego, a death to dreams, a death to self confidence.  It is a death to hope.  It comes as the sudden harvest of foolish sins we have allowed to continue.  It comes through the piercing words of those whom we have laid our lives down for.  It comes through tragic loss that takes place in a fallen world.  It comes as a blowback from the blind spots we are ignorant of in our own lives. It comes when we are doing everything “right”. Or not…

Physical death can come incrementally, through lack of exercise, poor eating habits, etc.  That kind of physical death is cumulative.  It is not sudden.  At other times, physical death is sudden, and completely unexpected.

The same is true in the realm of human psyche.  The Christian knows to die to self, and so they do.  An accumulation of small deaths to self take place voluntarily, and a degree of selflessness and Christlikeness is established.  That is accepted, pursued, and volunteered for. It is anticipated, and though painful, it is “manageable”.

But there is the “other death” that seems to undo us.  It comes suddenly and forcefully.  It leaves us breathless, hopeless, and thinking things that are extreme and unreasonable.  It throws us into an emotional downward spiral.  It kills us in ways we never thought possible.  It tests us to the very core of who we are in Christ.

Dying to self can never be fully accomplished if left to the one dying.  We will never embrace death as much as we should, and sometimes God needs to force it upon us.  A good coach will push an athlete far harder than the athlete would push himself.  God “kills” His servants on a much deeper level than they would ever pursue without Him.

I (obviously) write from experience.  There are times that I swear I am going to quit the ministry.  I begin to make plans for my escape, and for my transitioning into “civilian life”. I will live for myself, my wife, and if anyone is lucky, they might get a bit of my time.  Even in those emotional moments, I KNOW that I am wrong, but the unsought for death that I am enduring is screaming at me to take a new direction, and for that moment, I am in full agreement.

Saturday night comes, and I am 99% sure that I won’t be in the pulpit on Sunday.  I plan my excuse for not being there, and console myself that “the church will be fine without me”.  The current death is strong, but the Spirit is stronger, and is speaking to me.  I know that eight hours of (restless) sleep can make a huge difference, and so I delay making that call to excuse myself from preaching.

Sunday morning comes, and I obediently show up.  I am empty, fragile, fearful, and people-shy.  I am praying that no one wants counseling before the service.  The “death” has let up a bit, but I still feel like a zombie, and have zero emotion regarding sharing the eternal word of God.

During worship I sing obediently, offering up my sacrifice of praise. And then it happens.  A certain lyric hits me, and the tears come.  The burden is being lifted.  I still don’t want to preach, but I am familiar with the process.  I have been here before.  I know how it will turn out.

Worship finishes, announcements are made, and now its time to greet people.  Instead, I fumble through my notes, fearful to make eye contact with anyone, lest they see the dread that is in my heart.

Finally, it is what I call “show time”.  I ascend the platform, open my Bible, and in faith and fear, begin to speak the truths of God.  It is a strange feeling to be that empty, and yet it feels so right.  There is a noticeable void of self, even though self is fighting to surface.  The unneeded idiosynchrasies that sometimes sully the message are absent.  The sense of humor is subdued, but not gone.  There is a somber, frightful, God fearing tone that is fresh, new, unnerving, and obvious.

Providential death has come and done its work.  Death has come and resurrection life has followed.  That which was not searched for has become a friend.  More of me has died that I didn’t realize needed dying.  I have survived the “black dog” episode once again.  The pastor isn’t going to quit, and the people applaud after the final “amen”.

“So then, death is working in us, but life is working in you”.

Dead men preach better.

(I’ll be in Mexico when this goes online.  I’ll catch up with comments as I am able.  Blessings.)

(P.S…..since I wrote this, I have returned from Mexico, where a bus ran us off the highway at 70 m.p.h.!  I am banged up, but alive.  Interesting P.S. for this post?)


Willing to Change

“Nobody changes until the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change.”

– Ed Stetzer

It is hardly debatable that we are creatures of habit. This is proved to me every Sunday as I look out upon the congregation. Almost without fail I know where certain people will be seated. It is as if we have assigned season ticket seating in the sanctuary. Regular routines help ensure a certain level of comfort, and we like comfort. There is of course inevitable conflict; someone is bound to [uneittingly] take your seat. But if there is one thing we can be sure of in this life it is change. Change decreases our comfort and increases our stress, so it is not uncommon to find that we generally resist it.

Our church, Calvary Escondido, has been in a transitional period, experiencing many changes over the last 6+ years. The biggest of those changes has certainly been transition in senior leadership that took place when I began pastoring the church 4 years ago. It was a huge change for all involved; a change that definitely brought about some stress and times of discomfort. By God’s grace and faithfulness it has proven to be a great transition. In my observations and interactions over the last 4 years I’ve come to see that much of the stress of this change has proven to be “eustress” or good stress.

Yes, there is such a thing as good stress. Think of finishing your degree, taking a new job, getting married, going on vacation, buying a house or having a baby. At some level each of these bring about stress, most of which is healthy and enjoyable, but it’s stress nonetheless. In a normal life such things are [essentially] unavoidable. To go a step further, I think that it is important to recognize that in the normal life of a healthy church transitional changes are necessary and good. Such transitional changes are about to become a far more regular and normal occurrence. The overwhelming majority of Calvary Chapel Pastors are among the Baby Boomer generation which, as of last year, has now hit retirement age.

I recognize and understand that retirement for Boomer’s looks quite a bit different than it did for those of the “Builder” generation. This is all the more true for Christians (especially pastors) who find no biblical support for retirement as we [currently] know it in America. That said, I think we all recognize that many of our pastors and churches are in transition, whether we were planning for it or not. Such transition does not mean a rocking chair on a porch retirement, but it may mean a life that looks radically different than the previous 25-30 years has.

Embracing Change

As I set now, 4 years into our [very successful] transition at Calvary Escondido, I am incredibly grateful that, although it was difficult at first, my pastor embraced this transition and change. Pat Kenney had pastored CCEsco for 27 years. He had seen the church grow from 25 to over 500, and move from a school, to rented spaces, to the purchase and buildout of our very own facility. Under his leadership CCEsco had seen great leaders raised up, missionaries and church planters sent out, and new para-church ministries established. When God began to bring the initial winds of change, Pat did not fight against it. I know for certain that he was not planning such a move, nor did he actively set out for transition. If God had so willed, Pat would have continued pastoring this church for many years into the future. But when God began to direct in new paths, Pat was willing and open to what God was doing.

It is very easy for us to hold on to the status quo, and find ourselves kicking against the goads of God’s will. But being lead by His Spirit means being open to His moving, even if we are not initially desiring the change.

Mitigating Change

One of the reasons that our transition has gone so smoothly is that many years before it happened our Elders, in recognize the call God had placed upon my life, began allowing me the opportunity to preach and teach before the larger body. To that point I had been a youth pastor, with very little interaction with the adult congregation, but at 22 I was given the responsibility of leading our Saturday night service and regularly rotated in on Sunday’s and Wednesdays. A year before our transition in 2008, I began teaching nearly all of our Sunday services. This teaching schedule was not the product of a transitional plan, as much as it was out of necessity. Pat’s wife was undergoing treatment for cancer – which ultimately took her life – and Pat was facing health problems of his own that precluded him from taking a regular preaching schedule. Even so Pat was willing to allow the bulk of the teaching responsibilities to fall to his 27 year-old assistant. This openness greatly mitigated the ultimate transition; so much so that when it was announced in April of 2008, there were many newcomers to CCEsco who already knew me as their pastor.

Maintaining Consistency

Sure, we’d like things to stay the same, but they rarely do.  It is however important to maintain a level of consistency in whatever areas possible.  Thankfully we have a great team of elders, leaders and staff at CCEsco.  If it weren’t for the consistent leadership team, I’m fairly certain we would not have had as successful a transition as we have.  There is no way that everything will remain the same when new leadership steps in, but maintaining consistency of core values and mission is critical.  Furthermore, I believe it is important to make changes strategically and slowly in a church with a well established culture.  Even if they are big changes, they should be presented clearly and sometimes implemented incrementally.

After almost 6 years being married and 4 years as a head pastor (it’s hard for me at 32 to use the word senior :)) I’m more convinced now than ever that a church is like a bride; not my bride, but a bride nonetheless.  My bride [Andrea] desires security and consistency.  If I were sporadic or fickle she would have a very difficult time following or being submissive.  Although the church is not the bride of the pastor (some pastors sure live like it is, but that is perhaps a future article), she still desires security and consistency.  Sporadic and fickle leadership will scatter the sheep; thus maintaining consistency wherever possible during periods of change is important.  But resistance to change is not an option.

As the winds of change fill the air among many of the churches in our movement, it is vital that we face them with reasonable thoughtfulness.

What if…

I’ve been thinking a lot about this simple phrase.
To me it speaks of possibility.
It speaks of transformation.
It speaks of the ways and thoughts of God.

What if…

…we made the greatest commandment our greatest commitment?
…we remembered that you can’t fulfill the great commission by neglecting the greatest commandment?
…we lived out the reality of the resurrection?
…we really chose not to worry or fear?
…we were as committed to unity as those who tried to build the Tower of Babel?
…we were really servant leaders?
…we love our wives as Christ loves the church?
…we didn’t use the ministry to keep us from having to interact with God?
…we viewed the church as a disciple making organism and not as a business?
…we stopped thinking that we had the right to share our opinions and stopped judging another man’s servant?
…we really believed in Jesus’ power to reconcile?
…we were really overflowed by the Holy Spirit?
…older pastor really mentored younger pastors?
…those same older pastors allowed younger pastors to be who God made them to be?
…younger pastors realized that they don’t know what they don’t know?
…we truly prayed without ceasing?
…movements and denominations didn’t resist the continual reforming of the church?
…churches gave their savings to the work of the kingdom in the least reached countries in the world?
…we truly died to ourselves?
…we stopped defining ourselves by what we are against?
…we realized that men will know that we are his disciples by the love we have one for another?
…we only cared what God thought?
…the church stopped being trendy and started being timeless?
…we truly fed the poor?
…we were more Christian than American?
…we were concerned enough for people to actually really share the life-giving gospel with them?
…we stopped snuggling up to the proclivities of our culture?
…we talked to people in person rather than behind their backs?
…if we truly feared God?
…we became the servant of all instead of lording our position over people?
…loved the whole world as God does?
…we lived out the grace that we proclaimed?

Soteriology in the Middle (Part I)

“…we trust in the living God, who is [the] Savior of all men, especially of those who believe.” 1 Timothy 4:10b


Brain Cramps

Over the past ten years of my life as a follower of Jesus perhaps no theological category has caused me to spend hours reading, thinking, and processing as much as the category of Soteriology.  Soteriology is the study of salvation.  More specifically, it is the study of what we might call the fine print of salvation.  Basic soteriology is what unifies all born-again Christians as the universal church.  Basic soteriology simply states the simple gospel.  It is the truth that though all people are sinners we can be saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in the Jesus Christ of the Bible alone.  Basic soteriology affirms the basic concepts of the gospel message.


But beyond the basic truth of the simple gospel the systematic theology category of soteriology goes much deeper.  It discusses such things as the order of the decrees of God in salvation.  It discusses the place of divine election and sovereignty and their relationship to human responsibility in the salvation of people.  Does God choose us?  Do we choose God?  Is it both?  Soteriology addresses the extensiveness and intensiveness of the effects of sin and the curse in the lives of human beings.  Did man lose free-will in becoming a sinner or does he retain free moral agency as God’s image-bearer?  Soteriology addresses the extent of the atonement of the cross of Christ on behalf of human beings.  Did Jesus die for every individual sinner or only the elect who ultimately become believers? Soteriology address the application of redemption in the lives of God’s people.  Do we exercise faith through which we become born-again, or does God make us born-again so that we exercise faith?  Soteriology addresses the security of the believer in Christ.  If I am born-again does God keep me saved or do I?  Can I lose my salvation through habitual sinning after coming to Jesus, or does the grace of God and work of the Holy Spirit cause me to persevere ultimately faithful until I see Jesus face to face?


My Early Soteriological Journey

Early on in my Christian experience I was discipled in what would be considered a Reformed church.  The first Bible study I attended of any kind was a study through eminent Reformed theologian R.C. Sproul’s book Chosen by God.  Needless to say, looking back that probably wasn’t the most helpful study I could’ve engaged in as a new Christian given the gravity and meaty nature of the topics that book articulates.  Non-the-less, that study and subsequent reading on the subject over the next few years resulted in my becoming an avid and, I would say, militant Five Point Calvinist.  A Five Point Calvinist is one who adheres to all Five Points of the acrostic TULIP which describe what most today consider the finer points of Reformed Soteriology.  In short the Five Points teach as follows:


Total Depravity: As a result of the curse on mankind which we have partaken of due to our willful rebellion against God in Adam, all mankind is depraved,  or completely sinful.  The effect of sin in our lives is not merely extensive though, it is also intensive and destroys the freedom of the will in humans.  Mankind is in a state of total inability and cannot trust in the gospel nor does he desire to do so.  But for the elect God graciously softens their hearts and removes the barrier of total inability that they might see their need for Him and trust in the gospel.


Unconditional Election: God chooses whom He will save and whom He won’t simply in accordance with His own pleasure and plans without consideration of what man would or wouldn’t, could or couldn’t choose when presented with the gospel message.


Limited Atonement: Jesus did not die for every individual sinner in a saving way.  Rather, only those whom God unconditionally elected to salvation in eternity past have their sins atoned for savingly by Jesus on the cross.


Irresistible Grace: All those whom God unconditionally elected and provided atonement for in the cross of Christ will be saved through the irresistible call of the Holy Spirit.  God is able to overcome even the hardest heart and bring the spiritually dead sinner to faith.

A sub-doctrine of Irresistible Grace is the Reformed understanding of the doctrine of Monergistic Regeneration.  This doctrine is summarized by R.C. Sproul this way: “We do not believe in order to be born-again.  We are born-again in order that we may believe.”  Simply put, this doctrine teaches that God makes people new creations before they ever exercise or express faith in the gospel.  When someone responds to the gospel in faith it is because God has already done a secret work in their heart bringing them to spiritual life and saved them.


Perseverance of the Saints: All whom God unconditionally elected in eternity past, made atonement for on the cross, and who are born-again through the irresistible work of the Holy Spirit will persevere in faith in Christ till death or the Second Coming.  Of all who are found, none will be lost.  It is argued that if we didn’t choose to be saved then we cannot choose to be unsaved either.


Soteriology in the Middle

Whereas in the past I would’ve preached and been able to affirm my whole-hearted agreement with the above declarations, today I’m in a different place.  To be sure I see a lot of value in some of the statements above.  But there are a couple key areas of disagreement I have with some of the propositions of Five Point Calvinism.  If you were to attend a Refuge Distinctives class at our church you’d hear us say in regard to our theological streams that we are Evangelical, Missional, and Moderate.  On the Moderate point one of the things we are getting at is that we are neither Five Point Calvinists or what is often seen as the only other option, Five Point Arminians.  Instead, we are moderate.  We are in the middle of these two systems of soteriology.  We say this because though we would affirm the basic concepts of Total Depravity and Perseverance of the Saints for instance, we particularly would disagree with Limited Atonement and Irresistible Grace.


Something Just Isn’t Right

Theses points have become to me the most troubling of the Five Points in recent months.  I remember the first time I heard those words, “We do not believe in order to be born-again.  We are born-again in order that we may believe.”  Even as a new Christian they just didn’t feel right.  I had heard people say that to be saved I needed to trust in Jesus.  I had thought I’d read that in the Bible.  But this doctrine seemed to say that I trusted in Jesus because I’d been irresistibly saved without my knowledge or choice in anyway before I exercised or expressed faith in Jesus.  I also remember hearing for the first time that if you looked closely enough at the Bible you’d see plainly that Jesus didn’t really die in an atoning way for all individuals.  That just seemed wrong as well.  I didn’t understand how you could fit “some” or “the elect” into verses like John 3:16, 1 Timothy 4:10, or 1 John 2:2.  Still I was fully discipled in Calvinism and shown how it all made “logical” sense.  Years later after reading both sides of this issue along with my Bible I’ve come back to that place of discomfort with these doctrines.  However logical the doctrines may be in connection with the Calvinistic system, I don’t see it as scripturally supported logic.


To Come…

In my next posts I will flesh out some of what I now see as a more biblical and moderate approach to the issues of Limited Atonement and Irresistible Grace and what I would call Moderate Soteriology.  I’ll look forward to the discussions that hopefully roll out from opening up this series of posts!  But in this area almost more than any other we need to remember to stand together and speak what we believe to be the truth in a spirit of unity and love.  Until next time…