The Necessity of Good Works

After the Protestant Reformation, there were 5 major tenets of faith  which emerged to help explain what the Reformers (Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Wycliffe, Tyndale, et al) were protesting about the Church of their day. These have come to be known as the 5 Solas of the Reformation. They are: Sola Scriptura (by Scripture Alone), Sola Fide (by Faith alone), Sola gratia (by Grace alone), Sola Cristus (through Christ alone), and Soli Deo Gloria (for the glory of God alone).

Over the nearly 500 years since the time of the Reformation, many of these ideas have come to mean things that were unintended by the Reformers. One of those thoughts is a combination of Faith alone and Grace alone teachings. The Reformers taught that it was by grace alone and through faith alone that a person comes to Christ. They were protesting against the concept of meritorious works, which teaches that our works contribute to our salvation. I think we’ve done well in continuing to teach that salvation is as Paul said in Ephesians 2:8-9…

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.

Now, I don’t think there is any question that most denominations and local churches have done a fine job in avoiding the trap of falling into a system of working for salvation. The real trouble that I have seen is in our de-emphasis on Spirit-wrought works altogether. The fact of the matter is this: Scripture is very clear that, while we are not saved by works, the grace and faith that is powerful in saving us is also powerful in producing good works in us.

What we have is an unintended consequence of placing a stronger emphasis on grace and faith while simultaneously placing little or no emphasis on the good works that result from that faith. As a matter of fact, as I’ve grown up in the Church, I can tell you that the emphasis has always been to simply “get people in the door” to the neglect of teaching them to obey all that Christ has commanded. I think we’re unintentionally deceiving people in this process.

I quoted Ephesians 2:8-9 just earlier here, but what does verse 10 say? For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them. So, we are not justified in the sight of God because of works, but we are created in Christ Jesus FOR good works. There it is. Jesus Himself said that our mission is to go and make disciples of all nations, not merely baptizing them, but also teaching them to obey Him. Yet, with our strong emphasis on grace and faith, we leave people with the idea that salvation is like a vaccination- get one shot and you’re done. I can’t count the number of people over the years who have come in, made a profession of faith, been baptized, and then never (or rarely) are heard from again. Yet, these folks, who show no fruit, display no good works, and seem to care little about the things of God, believe themselves saved because of a prayer they prayed years ago.

The truth is that a saving faith is a life-changing faith. Grace that saves also produces good works in us. A person who can live continually in sin and for the things of this world, largely ignoring God day to day, has no biblical reason to claim salvation. This is a truth that is not convenient for many, but perhaps if we speak this truth, they will truly repent and believe.

How was worship Sunday?

Please, pardon my title. It is an attempt to capture the shallow thinking of our time when it comes to weekly worship gatherings. “How was that sermon?” “Oh, it was great! Our pastor can really bring down the house! He’s such a good speaker!” “The worship was so good today. Those songs are such a blessing to me! Our praise band just knows how to minister to us, don’t they?” I wonder what would happen if the Apostle Paul came to preach in one of our churches next week? I fear he’d be ashamed of much of what he would see and his approach to preaching might not fly. I feel many would leave thinking he was not too impressive. Many in Corinth thought the same thing of him: “For they say, ‘His letters are weighty and strong, but his personal presence is unimpressive and his speech contemptible.’” (2 Cor. 10:10) Why would some say such things? Paul had some of the same problems we have today, with fickle people demanding to be entertained and blessed and seem unmoved by a simple presentation of the Gospel which brings no glory to the preacher, no outpouring of emotion from those who don’t believe, and relies on no fleshly technique for its success.

1 And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. 2 For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. 3 I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, 4 and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God. (1 Corinthians 2:1-5)

We have lost our faith in the power of the Gospel. So, what have we done? We have taken many different approaches to dress it up, to make it more palatable to our audience, to remove the offense, or to make it more exciting and emotional for lost men. What is the modern approach?

  • We need a young, socially relevant pastor with a charismatic personality.
  • Dress the pastor in jeans and an un-tucked shirt to put the crowd at ease.
  • Get the crowd juiced with adrenaline and emotion with driving music, then bring the mood down just before the message to get the “spirit” ready to work.
  • Somebody say “this sermon has so little truth, I have to use techniques to keep you engaged.”
  • Turn to the person on your left and say, “I’m obviously too dumb to understand deep truths, so I have to act like a parrot in order to remain engaged.”
  • Are you with me? Are you listening? Can I get an “amen”? Am I alone in here? Hello? (please affirm me and love me!)
  • They tell me to vary the pitch of my voice to be more interesting.
  • Let me read you 3 verses and tell you 5 stories (4 to make you laugh, 1 to make you cry)
  • Let’s play some soft music because the Holy Spirit apparently can’t work without it, especially during the invitation. Perhaps we can even play music the entire sermon if we need a little extra spirit.
  • Dim the lights in the audience, Brighten lights on the stage, make it feel like a concert. (I’m the star!)
  • Video is more engaging for a modern audience, so we must use video in every service.
  • Let’s get the sound just right. The sound enhances God’s ability to work.
  • We’ll never get younger people in here if we don’t change the music and use a full band.
  • I always like to begin all my sermons with some humor- it puts people at ease. The more I get you laughing, the more happy you’ll be. (maybe you’ll give more, too- relaxed and happy people open their wallets)
  • Let’s focus on love, joy, happiness, blessings, prosperity, grace, mercy, healing, heaven, and victory and leave out sin, death, depravity, hell, suffering, justice, guilt, wrath, and judgment.

Now, I will admit this to you. Not all of these things are sinful or wrong in and of themselves, but the trouble is with our thinking in using them. I’m convinced these are often the techniques churches use to manufacture “the presence of God” or “a move of God” in the absence of God’s working. If you look closely at that list of “techniques” people use, you’ll find that all of them are designed to appeal to the flesh of man. They are all intended to appeal to the senses. None of them is done in faith, trusting God to work. The truth is, we are attempting to make our message more appealing to a lost person and to the tares among the wheat. Is it any wonder many churches are filled with lost people? We hear things like “Well, if the church doesn’t become more relevant, it will never reach the people.” We use this as a justification to try just about anything during our services to make them more memorable, exciting, and relevant.

There are multiple problems in taking this approach. First, it is a slippery slope. If I’ve got to use various techniques to keep people interested, where will it end? If we have sold our souls to this thing and the people who are coming are there because of our exciting techniques, these things must become bigger, better, more exciting, more creative, and etc. This never ends. Soon we’re spending more time working on the packaging of our worship services than we do on the content of them. Related to this is the fickle nature of people. Churches which build themselves upon the latest fad usually attract disgruntled church goers from around their area, who are looking for the next big thing. There is usually a reason folks are disgruntled and rarely does the fault lie solely with the church they left. How long before your mass of disgruntled members have a relapse? A third issue here is this: as pastors, teachers, and leaders in the local church, we are called to equip the Saints. We are called to Feed His Sheep, not to herd the goats. If we spend all our time appealing to the goats and the tares, the sheep will starve or be forced to go elsewhere for nourishment. But most of all, our weekly worship gatherings are to be designed for an audience of One. All glory to God! We are to be pleasing Him with the design and the content of our worship services, not man. Our praise is to be directed to Him. So, what is most important here and what should our approach be? Look again with me at this text from 1 Corinthians 2…

I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom

Of this phrase, Matthew Henry writes, “He did not affect to appear a fine orator or a deep philosopher; nor did he insinuate himself into their minds, by a flourish of words, or a pompous show of deep reason and extraordinary science and skill. He did not set himself to captivate the ear by fine turns and eloquent expressions, nor to please and entertain the fancy with lofty flights of sublime notions. Neither his speech, nor the wisdom he taught, savoured of human skill.”

I would submit to you that many well-known preachers today take the exact opposite of Paul’s approach to preaching the message of the Gospel. They do come attempting to sound like great orators. They do attempt to bring a message of deep philosophy or some new revelation. They do attempt to insinuate themselves into the minds of their hearers, so as to impress them or draw them in. They make for their hearers an impressive show, as it were, a pleasing and entertaining message. This is not of God, friends. Many are fooled by it because the world takes a similar approach, but it does not honor God.

But what was Paul’s approach?

For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling…

Paul’s focus was the Gospel of Jesus Christ and nothing else. He himself came to them in weakness, fear, and trembling, not in human confidence or to assert the authority of his position upon them. He could have come saying, “I am an Apostle of Jesus Christ, you should listen to me!” Instead, his message was simple. It was straight forward. It was of Jesus Christ and Him crucified, and nothing more. His desire was not to impress them or to make them followers of Paul, but that they might hear the Gospel, the very Word of God, and that by it they would be transformed. Many were transformed, but others were left unimpressed, as I quoted from Paul’s 2nd letter to the Corinthians above.

This begs the question my friends- what more is needed? Indeed, what more is needed even today? Do we believe today in the power of the Gospel? It seems clear from that list above that we don’t. Somehow we have come to the conclusion that we must dress up the message and prop up the cross in order to have a successful meeting or worship service.

Paul continues…and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.

This is what is missing today, my friends. It is missing from so many worship gatherings and messages, and this is what has driven us to our techniques. We need a demonstration of the Spirit and of power. We need God to change the hearts and lives of people from within, not our puny manipulations which end the moment our congregants walk out the door. The sad thing is, though we’re aware there is an issue (which is a good thing), we’ve gone looking in the wrong place for answers. We’ve looked to the world, for psychological techniques, like lighting, color schemes, visual aids, music, humor, drawing out emotion, vocal techniques, and etc. But what is the answer? The answer is found in the same place it was found in Paul’s day- in the power of God working through His chosen message, the Gospel of His blessed Son Jesus Christ in the power of His Spirit, presented in faith in the One who raises the dead. This is the answer, my friends. The Apostle Paul didn’t have video projectors, microphones, power point, air conditioning, and padded seats. How would he make it in 2013 without those things? How could a person sit in a hot room and sweat while listening to a lecture without being bored to tears? The answer is the power of God through the Truth of the Gospel. Now listen, I’m not saying we need to move our services to the parking lot or that all modern conveniences are evil. I’m saying that the power from our message MUST be found in the Truth of the Gospel, not in any technique we might use. Our faith is found in Jesus Christ and His message, not in our ability to present it effectively. He makes it effective or it is nothing.

I have come to believe this regarding many modern religious people. They think they’ve heard a great sermon or been a part of a great worship service if they’ve felt some emotions or been stirred in some way from a fleshly standpoint. “I felt the chills, the Spirit was there!” “Brother, you got me all fired up! The Holy Spirit was truly in this place!” “I loved the worship today- those are some of my favorite songs!” “Wow, that was a great service! I laughed, I cried, and then I wanted to shout!” Many are greatly impressed with the kinds of shows the Apostle Paul denounced in the text we just read. Let’s face it- Americans love a good show! You can fill a church building for 3 services if you use these techniques. So, in an effort to survive as local churches, we have turned to Hollywood for answers. They say, “You’ve got to get more people in here or you’ll die. You need excitement, fun, food, games, activities for kids, free stuff, and your services need to be more relevant, more sensational!” So, we’ve bought in, or should I say, “we’ve sold out!”

The answer to our problem is the same as it has always been. We need the power of God working in our midst. But He will not work where He is not honored. We must abandon our methods and techniques to God alone. We must focus on the Gospel in everything, in our speaking, in our singing, in our praying, and in all that we do. We must be determined not to glorify man, but God. Soli Deo Gloria! We must preach the depths of the Truth of the Gospel as the Apostles did, from Old Testament texts to New Testament letters. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is a deep fountain of rich meaning, the truths of which are found throughout the Scriptures. God’s Truth must be central. We must cry out to Him. We must not settle for man-made techniques designed to fabricate that which only God can genuinely accomplish in the lives of His people.

Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.

The Lost Doctrine of Suffering

When I read the Scriptures, I can’t help but notice a common theme throughout that seems to be lost in American Christianity today. The theme is “the necessity of suffering.” I might have also said, “the benefits of suffering.” No matter how you state it, it’s very clear that Jesus and His Apostles taught clearly that suffering is an expected part of the Christian life. Now, before I write another word, I want to mention something very important here. Some have taken this concept of suffering in Scripture and become almost obsessed with the notion, even going so far as to inflict pain upon themselves in order to somehow increase God’s blessing. The entire idea of purgatory that is taught in some circles is based around some similar thoughts. The idea is that we are purged of sin and uncleanness through suffering. Therefore, if we have not suffered enough in this life, more suffering for sin will be required before we can enter the next life. I want to say up front that I do not subscribe to any of these notions, nor do I believe that these thoughts can be found in Scripture.

Having said this, the problem I see today in American Christianity is not that we are obsessed with suffering. Our issue is that we refuse in any way to suffer for the sake of Christ or His Gospel. In fact, many traditions (and it really varies from group to group and pastor to pastor) have abandoned teachings on suffering altogether and have basically defined any and all suffering as necessarily evil or as an attack of the enemy. But is this the way Scripture depicts suffering? Not at all. In fact, Jesus and the Apostles speak in one voice as they speak about the necessity of suffering.

Romans 8

16 The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him.

Philippians 1

29 For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake, 30 experiencing the same conflict which you saw in me, and now hear to be in me.

1 Peter 2

19 For this finds favor, if for the sake of conscience toward God a person bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly. 20 For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God.

1 Peter 4

12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; 13 but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation. 14 If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. 15 Make sure that none of you suffers as a murderer, or thief, or evildoer, or a troublesome meddler; 16 but if anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name. 17 For it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? 18 And if it is with difficulty that the righteous is  saved, what will become of the godless man and the sinner? 19 Therefore, those also who suffer according to the will of God shall entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right.

James 1

2 Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, 3 knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 4 And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

James 5

7 Therefore be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious produce of the soil, being patient about it, until it gets the early and late rains. 8 You too be patient; strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. 9 Do not complain, brethren, against one another, so that you yourselves may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing right at the door. 10 As an example, brethren, of suffering and patience, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. 11 We count those blessed who endured. You have heard of the endurance of Job and have seen the outcome of the Lord’s dealings, that the Lord is full of compassion and is merciful.

Jesus said it this way: Matthew 5

10 “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. 12 “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Perhaps we should define what Scripture means when it speaks of suffering. Some folks, it seems, have a martyrdom complex of sorts and always see themselves as suffering some kind of burden. We must be careful about these things. The Apostle Peter, in the passage I quoted above, spoke about the difference between suffering for doing what is sinful or merely from our own poor choices versus suffering for our faith. The simplest way I know to explain the difference is this: any time a believer endures attacks (physical, spiritual, mental), insults, hardships, pain, persecutions, or anything like this for the sake of Christ and His Gospel, this is the kind of suffering Scripture speaks about as a blessing. Scripture also teaches that God sends particular sufferings into the lives of His children, such as sicknesses, stresses, and hard times in general, for their own good. These are not always due to some attack from people or due to standing for Christ, but are sufferings sent from God. The pruning of the branches that Jesus speaks about in John 15 could be an example. The Apostle Paul spoke of a thorn in the flesh that was given him to keep him from becoming conceited because of the amazing revelations and works God did in and through him. Others had sicknesses, trials, hard lives, problems in churches, and etc. These are all examples of suffering, though I’m certain there are many other specific examples in the lives of saints throughout the ages.

Now, here is the really difficult part for us and involves counting the cost of our faith. Scripture clearly teaches us that suffering is a definite for every Christian. Now, each believer’s suffering is his/her own and it may not look exactly like the suffering of others, but it is clear from Scripture that all believers will endure suffering of some kind. You may not face death as a martyr, but you will endure hardships. It is as Jesus Himself taught us in John 15-  “If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A slave is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you; if they kept My word, they will keep yours also.” If you are a new creature, no longer of this world, and you are living according to your new nature, you WILL suffer in this world.

If that were not clear enough, look again at the verse from Philippians 1:29: For to you it has been granted for Christ’s sake, not only to believe in Him, but also to suffer for His sake…” That is about as clear as it can be. It has been granted that you will suffer. That seems a strange way to say it, especially if you view all suffering as a negative. But then again, Scripture doesn’t view all suffering as a negative and neither should we. James said that we “consider it pure joy when we face trials.” Jesus said we are blessed when suffering for His sake. Paul said in that same text that it is for the sake of Christ that we suffer. Another way to say that is that it gives glory to God when we endure suffering for the sake of our faith.

Many Christians throughout history have suffered to the point of death for their faith. Others, even today, face the threat of death on a daily basis. Others face imprisonment or the loss of property or rights because of their faith. Here in America, we don’t face many of these things, but there are still sufferings we endure. The entire system of this nation and world goes against everything our faith tells us. I am convinced that it is impossible to truly live out your faith without enduring persecution. I’m equally convinced that many who call themselves Christians don’t face persecution or suffer for their faith because they are unwilling to endure it. That is, at the first sign of resistance, many simply back down and try to not make waves of any kind. They just try to blend in. Yet, if the salt has lost its saltiness, what good is it? If the light is hidden, all men continue to walk in darkness. So, many don’t speak of their faith and they dare not share the message of the Gospel for fear of upsetting someone. Friends, I have serious doubts about that person’s faith, I must say.

So, what is the American approach to suffering? Many ignore it completely. Many popular preachers, teachers, and evangelists preach the exact opposite of what Scripture says. Instead of speaking about the sufferings of Christ and His followers, they speak only of health, wealth, and prosperity. They speak only of blessing, implying that it is God’s will that they enjoy the temporal blessings of this life to the fullest. They teach that every sickness should be seen as from Satan and all disease will be healed if a person only has faith. They will teach that God wants you to have that new house, that new car, that promotion, and the American Dream. It is blasphemous, in my opinion. But this is what people today want to hear. It should not surprise us, given the fact that it was prophesied by Paul to Timothy when he said, “For the time time will come when men will not endure sound doctrine… but will gather around teachers who say what their itching ears want to hear.” You can fill a stadium with a message of prosperity. Is it any wonder, in a “church culture” that lusts for “positive messages” of God’s blessings, that a message regarding suffering would be neglected or absent? In this system, a message speaking of suffering would be seen as sent from Satan- as an attack, and as something which should be actively avoided.

So, should we avoid all suffering at all costs? Not according to Scripture. Should we go looking for suffering where it is not? No. We certainly shouldn’t develop a martyrdom complex, finding suffering in every hang nail or crying “woe is me!” every time we face the least resistance to our faith. But when suffering does come, we should accept it willingly and even embrace it with joy. God has purposes for our lives that we have yet to see, the greatest of which is that He would be glorified in us fully. He teaches us patience and endurance. He teaches us to love as He loves. He teaches us to be gentle, to be humble, to be faithful, to be obedient, and so on. In addition, He has designs in mind for your holiness and for your usefulness to His Kingdom. He has plans that you would be salt and light in this dark world. He has plans that you would be His ambassador and that you would live to help reconcile others to Him with the glorious Gospel of His blessed Son Jesus Christ. His design for you is to persevere in faith, even through the difficulties of life. And then you will be able to say with the Apostle Paul, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” (Romans 8:18)

One final word- why is teaching about suffering so critical? We are facing a world today that is increasingly becoming hostile to Christianity, yet we also have been given a task to take the Gospel to every nation. Who is going to do it? Will those who have been told God intends only to prosper them with temporal blessings in this life go and take a stand for Christ and His Gospel when it could cost them everything? Not likely. Those who won’t endure even slight criticism for the sake for the Gospel won’t face torture or the loss of their lives. I submit to you that we must teach these things because people need to understand the gravity of our mission and the cost of being a disciple of Jesus Christ. The Kingdom of heaven will be carried forward by servants who are obedient, even in the midst of suffering.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you.

D. Courtney Hill

God’s Sovereignty in Evangelism

I’ve been reading through J.I. Packer’s Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God and came across a section of the book that beautifully sums up what God has been working in me in recent years regarding our evangelistic efforts and tools. Here is the excerpt:

“While we must always remember that it is our responsibility to proclaim salvation, we must never forget that it is God who saves. It is God who brings men and women under the sound of the gospel, and it is God who brings them to faith in Christ. Our evangelistic work is the instrument He uses for this purpose, but the power that saves is not in the instrument: it is in the hand of the One who uses the instrument. We must not at any stage forget that. For if we forget that it is God’s prerogative to give results when the Gospel is preached, we shall start to think that it is our responsibility to secure them. And if we forget that only God can give faith, we shall start to think that the making of converts depends, in the last analysis, not on God, but on us, and that the decisive factor is the way in which we evangelize. And this line of thought, consistently followed through, will lead us far astray.”

He continues describing how this would lead us astray…

“If we regarded it as our job, not simply to present Christ, but actually to produce converts- to evangelize, not only faithfully, but also successfully- our approach to evangelism would become pragmatic and calculating. We should conclude that our basic equipment, both for personal dealing and for public preaching, must be twofold. We must have, not merely a clear grasp of the meaning and application of the gospel, but also an irresistible technique for inducing a response. We should, therefore, make it our own business to try and develop such a technique. And we should evaluate all evangelism, our own and other people’s, by the criterion, not only of the message preached, but also of the visible results. If our own efforts were not bearing fruit, we should conclude that our technique still needed improving. If they were bearing fruit, we should conclude that this justified the technique we had been using. We should regard evangelism as a battle of wills between ourselves and those to whom we go, a battle in which victory depends on our firing off a heavy enough barrage of calculated effects. Thus our philosophy of evangelism would become terrifyingly similar to the philosophy of brainwashing. And we would no longer be able to argue, when a similarity is asserted to be fact, that this is not a proper conception of evangelism. For it would be a proper conception of evangelism, if the production of converts was really our responsibility.”

Bear in mind, this was written in 1961. It seems almost prophetic to me. These are the dangers I see many times in the techniques of evangelism so many teach today. This is why “the sinner’s prayer” technique is dangerous to me, and the reason why so many other techniques, even invitations and soft music designed to appeal to emotions, or similar kinds of techniques, seem dangerous to me. 

Here is a bit of a testimony of a recent experience in evangelism for me… By the grace of God, I was given the opportunity to share the Gospel in our church’s VBS a couple weeks ago. Sitting, looking those children in the eyes, I realized that many of them would likely do anything I asked them to do. I could have had them repeat a prayer after me and many would have. And then I could have announced “40 kids accepted Christ!” to shouts and many pats on the back.  But I shared the Gospel faithfully. I gave an opportunity for the children to call out to God at the end but offered no repeat-after-me prayer. I believe there were 3 or 4 who were genuinely converted (time will tell), and all of them had been exposed to the Gospel prior to that week of VBS. 

I think the bottom line here for me is this: God has called us to be His ambassadors and the Gospel is our message. We must be about His business, Kingdom work. But we must never lose sight of the fact that God is the One who awakens and calls them, inwardly. God is the One who saves, miraculously. I am not responsible for the response. I am merely responsible to faithfully present the Gospel as accurately as possible, and the results are in the hands of God. The best thing we can do is study and learn the Gospel, what it means, how to share it, and pray for boldness, guidance, and wisdom in knowing God’s timing. 

I know some will likely disagree with me on this, and I welcome dialogue, but this was on my heart and I wanted to share it with you. 

D. Courtney Hill

In Need of Mercy

Then it happened that as Jesus was reclining at the table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were dining with Jesus and His disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to His disciples, “Why is your Teacher eating with the tax collectors and sinners?” But when Jesus heard this, He said, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick. “But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Matt. 9:10-13

Have you ever thought about how the Pharisees of Jesus’ day became the way they were? Do you ever think there was a time when faith in God was more than just a religious code that they set out to perfect? I’ve thought about that this week because I don’t want to ever allow myself to go there. It’s clear that these Pharisees thought it was ridiculous that Jesus spent time with these known sinners, yet spent little time with them, the creme de la creme of the religious world. If Jesus came to your town, would you expect him to stop at the biggest church first or perhaps the church that saw itself as the most spiritual? Who exactly do we think we are?

This attitude is what Jesus was trying to warn these Pharisees about in this passage. The Pharisees had made a science of righteousness, ceremonial and legalistic righteousness, that is. As Jesus told them at another time, you legalistically tithe on even the spices and herbs from your garden, but you neglect justice and loving God. How can this be? So, Jesus tells them to look into something God said through  the prophet Hosea, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

I’m certain this was not a pleasant thing for these Pharisees to hear, though it was very needful. These tax collectors and sinners knew that they were in need of the mercy of God. The Pharisees believed themselves to be deserving of the attention of God. Can you see the extreme danger that is found in this attitude? And can you, like me, see the need to continually crucify in ourselves this attitude of self-righteousness?

God’s desire is to grant mercy. Those who recognize their desperate need for God are the ones in whom God will do His work. (By the way, ALL of us fit into this category, but we don’t all recognize it) God isn’t interested in our “sacrifice,” or our religious offerings. God isn’t interested in how well we can perform rites and rituals. God isn’t interested in how well we can keep the rules. I’m certain He desires obedience from His children, but obedience is not the entrance into His Kingdom. Only through God’s mercy can we enter the Kingdom.

Jesus made it even clearer when He said that He did not come to call the righteous, but sinners. So, was He saying that the Pharisees were righteous already? Not at all. He meant that He had not come to call those who were righteous in their own opinion or in the opinion of the public. This is what Jesus was teaching about in Matthew 6 when he encouraged private devotion rather than public and condemned hypocrisy. Instead of coming to call those who already think themselves righteous, Jesus came to call those who think of themselves as sinners. It reminds me of the parable Jesus told in Luke 18 where the man who was justified prayed, “Have mercy on me, the sinner.” This is the contrite and repentant attitude of a person whom Jesus will call to Himself. May God keep us from ever thinking ourselves deserving attention more than needing mercy.

D. Courtney Hill

Private Prayer

“But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret…” Matthew 6:6

I’ve been thinking and meditating on this thought this week and I’ve come to the conclusion that times of private prayer are vital to a Christian’s life and work. I realize that perhaps I just made the most obvious statement of all, but I would ask you to bear with me for a moment in thinking about this…

I’ve read where Jonathan Edwards was trained as a young boy to spend time in prayer and to do it according to a rigid schedule. There is even a certain amount of pleasure that can be derived from being able to keep a religious code or schedule, and he shares in his writings that he felt this way. But I’ve also read where Edwards later realized that his time of genuine, private prayer decreased over time until it had become almost nonexistent. The conclusion that he reached is that genuine prayer is driven by an authentic love for God, to know Him and draw near to Him, and not merely as a means to feel better about myself, to ask for needs to be met, or even to find answers to questions to share with other believers as a teaching, like in preparation for a sermon or a lesson. God is not a means to an end, but He is the ultimate goal.

So, what if my time of private prayer diminishes to almost nothing? I would say that this is a dangerous sign and should be taken very seriously. Saying public prayers or publicly participating in prayer is not the same as private prayer. Jesus pointed out in Matthew 6 above that public prayers, while good and valuable, do not necessarily reflect the inward spiritual condition of a person. People may offer many grand prayers filled with colorful words and phrases and continue on and on, sounding beautifully, but their hearts may be far from the Lord. Public prayers, therefore, are no true barometer for a person’s spiritual well-being. As Jesus pointed out through the first 18 verses of Matt. 6, hypocrisy is a very real problem among religious people, and God hates it. But if a person is praying privately, who is their audience? Hypocrites don’t pray privately because they have no person to impress standing nearby.

So, for this reason, Jesus points to private prayer. Now, as I stated above, Edwards was taught to engage in private prayer and he did it methodically and meticulously. Though he found great pleasure in his religious conquests, he later found private prayers diminishing and he even realized at some time later that he never truly knew the Lord to begin with, though he found God to be inescapable. If you study his life, you’ll see that he didn’t believe himself to be truly regenerated until after he was pastor of his first church, which ended after a short tenure. It was at this point that he began to spend time in private prayer purely for the purpose of communing with God. This is what I believe Jesus is referring to throughout the early part of the sermon on the mount. He wants authenticity in us. Private prayers are more likely to be authentic, which is why Jesus tells to go alone into our inner room.

If you look at Matthew 6:1-18, you’ll see Jesus addressing this same thought and desiring to help people distinguish between empty religious practice and genuine, God-inspired actions. Whether doing good deeds, giving money to the poor, saying prayers, or even fasting, the main idea is presented up in verse 1: Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.”

So, this is the question: do you ever go to the Father with no agenda other than simply seeking His face and enjoying His presence? Do you ever just go to Him to be with Him? The Westminster Shorter Catechism is a tool that many Puritans used with their children to teach and train. The first question and answer in that catechism says, “What is the chief end of man?” The answer to be given is this: “The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him for eternity.” Do you enjoy God as you commune with God in prayer? That is the key that I’m speaking about here, and it is at the heart of what I think Jesus is teaching in that text. So, what are the benefits of spending time in this kind of prayer?

1. Communion with God- there is nothing better. You want and need time with the Father for YOU. If you grew up in a large family, there may not have always been time for every child to be one on one with the Father, but that is not so in God’s family. I think the only reason why any genuine believer thinks they don’t need this is because they’ve not really experienced it. Why do you want to go to heaven? To be with the Lord. Who is our greatest prize? He is our prize. Heaven is a bonus. Eternal life is a bonus. No sin, sickness, pain, and death is a fringe benefit. He IS OUR TREASURE! So, let’s spend time treasuring Him!

2. You need for God to work on YOU before you can work on others. (I’m guilty of this my friends, I have to confess) What do we have to offer to others in our own strength and wisdom? Nothing. Even if we have some great teaching that is very scriptural, if we don’t have God’s timing, God’s power, or God’s working in us and through us, nothing will be accomplished.

Along this line, I’ve come to realize this more and more as I get older and as I grow in faith (I’m sure many here already know this), we are sufficient in Christ for every good work- whatever He may want of us and require of us, we can do it. But apart from Him we can do nothing. (Jesus told us this) I see this every time I open the Scriptures and begin to share with people. If God doesn’t cause that word or that teaching to come alive within these people, I can do nothing. What amazes me at times is that God will have me teach something, from a particular verse, about a particular idea, and everyone may look at me like I’m nuts, but one comes up afterward and says, “Thanks, that’s exactly what I needed to hear.” Sometimes you don’t get that kind of confirmation (most of the time you don’t, actually) but believe this- when you’re being obedient in what you share, God’s Word will not return to Him void.

3. The power to live, the power to obey, the power to resist temptation, the discernment of the Spirit, the wisdom to speak the right words or do the right thing, these all come from God. Can we expect to be found faithful if we haven’t spent time with the Father? (by the way, we’re spending time with God, praying to the Father in the power of the Spirit in the authority of the Son.)

I’ve recently had a bit of a struggle of my own in this area. It has been a cause of concern for me in my own walk with the Lord, but I’ve been inspired by the Lord to come to Him seeking only Him and I’ve found a greater sense of peace with God than I’ve had before. It’s this idea of treasuring the Lord, praying for no other purpose than to commune with the Lord, and reading the Word only to know Him more. That may seem an easy thing to you, and I truly hope it is, but for me it’s not always easy. I hope these words encourage you today.

D. Courtney Hill

New Pope and Protestantism

Why Am I Protestant?

All of the hype and excitement surrounding the election of a new Pope has me thinking about many things in regard to our faith. One of the things I’ve noticed in this excitement is the degree to which many Protestants seem to be just as excited as many Catholics regarding the new Pontiff. It makes me wonder if many Protestants view him as their leader as well. This makes me ask another question. Have we lost our understanding of why we call ourselves Protestants? I think many have. Protestants are, by definition, protesting against something. In this case, we are protesting against what we believe are unbiblical teachings in the Roman Catholic Church.

Before I even begin to talk about these things, I would like to say that I’m NOT denouncing Catholics here or saying that no Catholic is truly a Christian, or anything of the sort. I would not presume to make such a judgment. As is the case with Protestants of whatever stripe, salvation is a personal matter between the believer and God. However, there are differences between what the Roman Catholic Church teaches and what Protestants teach. If there were no differences, we’d all still be Catholics. There are many things I admire about the Catholic Church, in fact, and I think we can learn much from studying her teachings, but there are some critical differences which serve as the reason I’m not a Roman Catholic.

(By the way, in a very real sense of the word, we are all catholic. The word catholic is a synonym for the word “universal.” Catholic simply means universal Church, and all genuine believers in Jesus Christ are a part of that One Church, regardless of what other title is over the door post of their local meeting place.)

One of the primary reasons for the Protestant Reformation is the office of the Pope. According to the Reformers (Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Wycliffe, Knox, Tyndale, et al), the papacy is not biblical. If you read Luther’s 95 Theses, you’ll find that, in addition to the practice of selling and granting indulgences (aiding a dead loved one in escaping from purgatory), he believed that the power vested in the Pope by the Roman Catholic Church is not biblical. The idea of a man being able to grant indulgences and the corruption that accompanied such power is what sparked Luther’s protest.

Catholics believe that this newly elected Pope, Pope Francis, is a direct successor to the Apostle Peter, whom they believe was the first Pope, as enacted by Jesus Christ Himself in Matthew 16:17-19. They believe that the Pope is the Vicar of Christ on earth. That is, that he is the representative of Jesus Christ, that He speaks for Christ when he speaks ex-cathedra (from St. Peter’s Basilica), and that he speaks infallibly when he does so. That means that Roman Catholics believe the authority with which the Pope speaks from the porch is equivalent to the authority of Scripture. In fact, when and if a contradiction happens between Scripture and the words of the Pope, the Pope’s words will supersede the authority of Scripture. Indeed, the more recent a proclamation or teaching, the more authoritative and binding it is.

The Reformers saw the office of the papacy as unbiblical. The “keys to the Kingdom” as referred to in Matthew 16, belong to Jesus Christ and are given to the entire Church as a stewardship, not to Saint Peter and not to successive Popes. As for authority, the Reformers believed in Sola Scriptura, or Scripture alone is our authority. Roman Catholics believe in progressive revelation of God’s message to man, which includes the Scriptures but also includes the Roman Catholic Catechism, which consists of the pronouncements of the Church through various Popes which have also spoken infallibly from Rome. I should note that Protestants have no trouble with a Catechism. In fact, many use such tools to teach their own children. The issue here is with the authority given to the Catholic Catechism as equally inspired as Scripture itself. Protestants believe that Scripture is our sole authority, though we certainly respect and recognize God’s working through teachers and leaders throughout the centuries. We simply do not view their words as a final authority or inerrant, as the Catholic Church views the words of their Popes when speaking ex-cathedra.

The distinctives of Protestantism can be summed up in the 5 Solas of the Reformation:

Sola Scriptura – Scripture Alone
Solus Christus – Christ Alone
Sola Gratia – Grace Alone
Sola Fide – Faith Alone
Soli Deo Gloria – The Glory of God Alone

The Reformers believed that the Catholic Church was violating all of these, and so they protested against it. This is why we are where are today. I would be remiss if I did not mention at some point in this article what I believe to be the MOST critical difference between what I believe and Catholicism, and it is summed up in Sola Fide and Sola Gratia just above. Faith alone and by grace alone, not works of any kind- not even God-inspired works (which Catholics refer to as “meritorious”), can count toward salvation. It is as the Apostle Paul told the Ephesians, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Now, the next verse says that we have been created unto good works, but the merit for salvation is found by grace through faith alone- in Christ’s completed work on the cross on our behalf. Catholics believe that justification itself is a process, not a one-time event, and that our “meritorious works” contribute to our salvation in the final analysis. So, this is one of the primary reasons why I’m a Protestant.

Now, I would not presume to say that God has ordained all that has happened in various Protestant churches since the time of the Reformation. In fact, one of the greatest indictments against the Protestant Reformation is all of these denominations which have risen since that time. Some estimate that number to be over 20,000 Protestant denominations. It’s ridiculous. However, it should be noted that there were and are valid reasons for not being a part of the Catholic Church today. I would encourage everyone to read, study, and pray about these reasons and come to your own conclusions. It is worth your time my friends.