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Thursday, 16 November 2017

Am I Good Enough to Get to Heaven?

Taking a break from the Bridging the Gap series, I wanted to touch on something that was briefly mentioned in Ten Deadly Views that are Prevalent in Society.

I had a chat with an 82 year old man named John in the street today. He walked past my book table and was squinting to read the sign, presumably to find out what I was offering. I greeted him and, still at a distance, he said “Is it about religion?” I obviously told him that it was about Christianity. He waved his arms around in frustration and said that he didn’t want to know anything about religion. I suggested that it might be important, and he came over to talk to me.

John said that in the past, he had spent time in a Catholic church with nuns and also in a Church of England. He continued that he didn’t believe any of it now and didn’t go to church. He then began listing all of the good he had done in his life. He was trying to walk away from me the whole time he was speaking, partly because of the cold weather but also I sensed that he didn’t really want to hear what I had to say in response. I found the encounter interesting because it was cold and there was really no reason for him to even stop and talk to me. I hadn’t imposed myself on him and it wasn’t just a case of him politely listening to me, he obviously felt the need to converse on the subject, maybe even to reassure himself that he was on the right path.

I often pray during conversations like this not immediately knowing what to say to engage the person. I tried a basic Gospel explanation knowing I only had seconds before he left. In reply, John told me that he didn’t believe in an afterlife and that he would just be dead in the ground. He didn’t believe God was there and didn’t believe in Heaven or Hell. He laughed when I spoke about God having created us.

Yet, John, who claims not to believe in God or an afterlife, had spent most of the conversation telling me about all of the good he had done in his life. It begs the question, why bother if there is no God, no afterlife, no Judgement Day?

John is typical of many people who are suppressing the truth about God. We have been created with a conscience that knows right from wrong and we can see the hand of God in creation. This is why we feel guilt when we sin and why people who claim not to believe in God, like John, end up doing good works “just in case.” If we are honest, we know deep down that we are accountable for our sin because God has created us with that knowledge.

A staggering number of people, even professing Christians think that salvation and entrance into heaven is at least partly based on good deeds. These people usually also think that their good will be weighed against their bad and as long as they haven’t committed a serious crime (according to the definition of society e.g. murder, rape, child molestation,) then their good will outweigh their bad.

It amazes me that people are willing to risk their eternal destiny on something so subjective. It’s also incredible that more people aren’t wanting to know the definitive answer to the question: “Am I good enough to get to heaven?” They leave it until it’s too late to do anything about it when they have already died and are standing before God awaiting judgement.

The Open Air Mission has a tract with this question on the front. A lady was handed the leaflet and read the question aloud she then said ,“No, actually, I’m not.” I tried to engage her in conversation but she was off up the street continuing her shopping, apparently not concerned enough to give a few minutes of her time to find out how she could get to heaven.

The good news is that the Bible gives us the answer to this most important question. It tells us that none of us are good enough to get to heaven. All of us have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. (Romans 3 vs 23.) God’s standard is perfection and none of us are perfect.

Whilst talking to John I acknowledged that from what he had said, he had lived a pretty good life and done a lot of good things for people. I asked him whether he thought that was enough and whether God’s standard was the same as our standards as human beings. He admitted that he wasn’t perfect and quickly followed that up with the observation that no one is. It made me sad that this man at 82 was striving to lead a good, moral life yet was missing the mark and was unwilling to hear the solution. He refused a booklet and rushed off saying that he was cold. Please pray for him.

God knew that we could never live up to His standards because of our inclination to sin. He therefore sent His only Son Jesus to die on a cross in our place and for our sin. Jesus lived a perfect life with no sin of His own. Then, he literally stepped in and took the punishment that you and I deserve. Jesus bridged the gap between us in our sin and a Holy God. It is only through Jesus that we can approach God, have our sins forgiven and ultimately enter heaven.

So, the title question is really a trick one. The amount of sin we have committed is irrelevant because we have all sinned. Likewise the number of good deeds because we are not perfect. One small sin is enough to keep us out of heaven, forever and doing something good doesn’t cancel it out!

The answer will always be, no, we are not good enough to get to Heaven. However, if we trust Jesus, our sin can be replaced with His perfection and this is all that God requires for entrance to Heaven.

Here is the full verse, part of which I mentioned earlier;

“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.

Romans 3 vs 23-24

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Bridging the Gap by Using Words that People Understand

I want to continue looking at ways that we, as believers, can narrow the widening gap between ourselves and non-believers, in order to effectively present the Gospel message.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the language and words Christians use in general speech both within and outside the walls of the church. Also, the content of sermons and the hymns that we sing.

I’m sure we’ve all experienced the anxious wait to see who the speaker is having invited a new person to church. We pray that the message will be specifically relevant for our friend and at a level that they can understand. However, this isn’t really what I’m referring to because conviction of sin is a work of the Holy Spirit in a person’s heart. Therefore, any message can be used by God provided it is from the Bible. I may have mentioned before that I know someone who was saved when they heard a message on the dry bones in Ezekiel and realised it was referring to their lack of life as a non-believer!

Perhaps in some Christian circles there has been an over-reaction to the watering down of the Gospel message in modern times. One consequence might be that we cling on to the language of generations past for fear of inadvertently changing the message.  

To be fair to him, my pastor is very aware of this issue and often explains the meaning of words in hymns or in the Bible as they arise. However, I think we fail to appreciate the sheer number of words that we use as Christians that are now totally foreign to non-believers. This is partly due to the lack of church attendance by the majority and also the lack of Bible teaching in schools. Ignorance of church words and language is increasingly prevalent.

Having grown up in the church, I found myself recently examining the words of a hymn we were about to sing. I realised that I didn’t understand a lot of the words and that therefore the meaning was completely lost on me. I spent a while grappling with possible meanings before giving up and glancing around to see whether others were similarly perplexed. I ended up singing the words without understanding them which meant that for all intents and purposes my mind was unfruitful.

There is not much difference between me doing this and someone reciting a mantra or chant in a foreign language. Indeed, earlier this week, a friend quoted a Sikh prayer that he prays each day in an Indian language. I asked him what it meant and he asked me to wait whilst he looked it up in English on his Smart-phone! I pointed out that there wasn’t much point in reciting a ritualistic prayer to a god if he didn’t understand what he was saying. (Interestingly, when I did look at the prayer in English I recognised that a lot of it had come straight from the Bible, but that’s another subject….)

Words have also changed their meaning within our culture. We were studying Ephesians this week and the use of the word mystery. The point was made that, in the Bible, God and some of His works, are described as mysterious, meaning that they are incomprehensible to us. Whereas, society would see a mystery as a game, or puzzle, or something to be solved.

I’ve also made the mistake of using words that I thought were obvious during live-chat with people on Chatnow. I asked someone how they thought their Christian witness would be affected if they took a certain course of action. They simply replied, “what do you mean my witness?” A witness in society is someone who has seen a crime, not something to do with their faith. I then used the word testimony which they also didn’t understand, I wasn’t sure where to go from there but managed to simplify my language sufficiently in the end.

I joined a group for some Open Air ministry a few weeks ago. The enthusiastic team were from a church that uses the King James version of the Bible only. There came a point when the preacher was trying to engage a young man, probably of Middle Eastern nationality, in the crowd. The preacher had asked him if he knew why his faith was flagging. He didn’t know the answer so the preacher asked him whether he had “drawn nigh unto God.” The man looked bewildered but the preacher continued telling the man that if he “drew nigh unto God then God would draw nigh unto him.” Looking on, I knew that there was no way this man would have understood the word “nigh” yet this was the word being repeated to him over and over again. In this context, the question and instruction made no sense unless the person understood that key word. Would there have been any harm in updating the word to “near” or “close” to ensure the understanding of the lay person in the street?

When discussions arise about which version of the Bible to use, my answer tends to be that a person should use the most accurate translation that they can understand. For some, this might encourage laziness as they go with a paraphrase or something that reads like a children’s picture book when they are an adult. I’m not advocating this as we can all do with a careful study of the Bible and this usually involves stretching our minds. I also don’t recommend versions like The Message or The Street Bible. Personally, I prefer ESV for understanding and accuracy. I also sometimes use NASB and NIV. My church uses NKJV. I ended up reading aloud from a KJV at a Bible study recently and was forced to smother a laugh due to the dated language. Sorry if that offends anyone, I know that those who use KJV hold a sincere belief that it is right to do so!

There are numerous words that trip off our tongues as Christians but are we considering the person we are speaking to and attempting to engage. How often have you heard someone ask a preacher, or even a friend in conversation, “What does that word mean, I don’t know it?” People won’t ask because they don’t want to appear ignorant or embarrass themselves. They will just pretend they understand. Those really interested in the topic, or wanting to expand their vocabulary, might care enough to look it up later, but the majority won’t.

As society sadly slides towards widespread atheism, we need to be simplifying and explaining words that may, in the not too distant past, have been in common use. Most of us realise the need to explain words like sanctification, justification and substitutionary atonement, but are we thinking about words like fellowship, sin, the Lord’s Supper and outreach? Nearly every word that specifically, and probably exclusively, relates to Christians (and church) might now need to be explained in certain circumstances. We mustn’t assume even a basic level of knowledge unless we know the person.

There is also a case for updating the words of our hymns and songs so that they can be understood by everyone singing them. I’m not talking about changing the meaning, just cutting out the “thees, thys, deigns” and others.

Let’s make sure we are not placing unnecessary barriers in front of people by using words they don’t understand.

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Bridging the Gap by Keeping the Focus on the Gospel

In my last post, I reflected on the growing gap between believers and non-believers, as well as those attending church and those who don’t go to church. This separation is evident in the ignorance of many people--there is no longer an understanding of what the Bible teaches or of mainstream Christian beliefs. Children are not taught these truths in school and parents have stopped sending their children to Sunday school. Adults don’t discuss religion and don’t see how anything the Bible could have to say would be relevant to them.

I have recently started taking a book table with free Christian books out in my local town centre for a few hours a week. I thought it would be a pretty non-confrontational way to get Christian literature into the hands of those living in the town. It is a different type of low-key evangelism aiming to build contacts and, in time, get people to church.

A few weeks ago I was sitting quietly reading near to the table, but not on top of it. I try to keep a distance so people don’t think I’m going to pounce on them and preach a sermon if they show a flicker of interest. I can usually sense whether someone wants me to talk to them or not by their body language as they look at the books.

Anyway, on this day, my peace and solitude was suddenly disturbed by the noisy arrival of a white van man. He crashed to a stop directly in front of me obscuring the table from view. He then jumped out and marched to the back of the van where he began opening then slamming doors. He was a youngish man wearing shorts and casual clothing. I did not expect to have any interaction with him.

I watched his activity thinking that, based on his appearance, (I know this is a stereotype but we all do it!) he wouldn’t even cast a glance at my books. I was also silently praying that he would move along quickly so that my table would be visible again. However, there was an “Oy love” or something similar shouted in my general direction followed by something about Bibles. Confused, I immediately felt a stab of guilt, this man was actually a lost soul looking for a Bible and I had been wishing him somewhere else….

“You are looking for a Bible?” I keenly asked him.

“No, I said, what version of the Bible do you use?” He responded as he continued loudly going about his work.

Still thinking he was looking for a Bible, I said “Well, I have some John’s Gospel’s here and my church uses the New King James version.”

“You know that’s corrupted,” he responded. He then proceeded to tell me the reasons why, at length. At times he was shouting at me across the street as he moved around his vehicle. This was obviously drawing the attention of passers by. Nothing like a loud debate about religion to draw a crowd.

I patiently waited for him to finish before explaining why the Bible wasn’t corrupted. At this point, he changed the subject and still in the same loud voice began explaining why Christians should use the “flat earth theory” as their foundation for evangelism. (You think I’m joking but there are an increasing number of these people around.) He even had proof of the effectiveness of this method in the form of a recent convert, or so he said.

After discussing some of these issues somewhat fruitlessly with the man who was becoming more and more aggressive as I refused to accept what he was saying, he disappeared into a shop. Re-emerging he tried to continue insisting that I needed to watch certain videos on Youtube and to change my methods of evangelism and the Bible I was using etc etc. I changed the subject by asking him which church he was involved in. Turns out, he doesn’t go to church, corruption there as well….

Why have I relayed this story? Not to highlight the absurdity of this man’s beliefs, or to express my frustration with this type of situation. Purely to demonstrate what happens when the focus of our faith becomes something other than the Gospel. It makes me very sad that this man had become so fixated on two areas that don’t have much, if anything, to do with forgiveness of sin through Jesus. He was so desperate to convert me to his way of thinking that he wasn’t hearing the true message that I was trying to convey to him.

This man claimed to be a Christian yet he was willing to spend time debating these issues aggressively in public in the presence of many non-believers. What an evangelistic tool a conversation between two believers in the street could have been if we had been able to encourage each other with truths from the Bible, whichever version we happened to be holding.

Similarly, in my town, I have been attempting to befriend a drug addicted lady who mixes with some pretty dangerous people. I learned, the hard way, in the Philippines, how to try and truly help people with these types of problems. I also developed a thick(er) skin for self preservation!

This lady was ranting and raving abuse at me whilst standing smoking behind my book table. Clearly, the situation was less than ideal not only because passer’s by probably assumed she was my ministry partner which raised some Christians eyebrows and kept the rest well away, but now because she was screaming and swearing at me.

It crossed my mind that the police might be called which would be tricky. She was upset because I was trying to draw some basic boundaries about what I was and wasn’t prepared to do to help her. This involved reminding her constantly that I could and would give her short term help on the day she needed it, but that long term help could only come from God and that her true need was to get right with Him.

Afterwards, it occurred to me that this was probably akin to gobbledegook in her drug induced rage and that I was probably frustrating her by referencing a Deity that she could not comprehend or see the relevance of, for her immediate problems. This became evident when she calmed down sufficiently for me to offer to buy her lunch at a nearby cafe. After initially refusing due to a sudden stab of conscience and not wanting to “use me,” she consented.

We sat down and she began eating. I tried to broach the God topic again, this time with more urgency as I honestly didn’t know how long this woman could continue living in her emaciated body with the risks she was taking on a daily basis. I could see that she was softening towards me, probably due to the food. She realised that she needed to show willing and that all I really wanted was for her to listen to me talk about God. This is what she said….

“Do you mean like when the man gets some bread and …er…does something…and dips it in something and er……”

“No, look, forget all that.” I cut her off abruptly with a wave of my hand. Perhaps, I shouldn’t have told her to forget her vague idea of Communion but that could be dealt with at a later stage.

Improvising, I looked around and grabbed two sugars. I placed them on different sides of the table then placed a teaspoon in the middle. “This is God,” I said, pointing to one of the sugars. “This is you, and me.” I pointed to the other sugar which she was staring at intently. “This spoon is all the bad things we do. It keeps us separated from God because He is perfect and holy and cannot get close to us because of it. That is also why we cannot get to heaven.” I looked around for something else and grabbed a ketchup bottle, it helped that it was red but I think this aspect was lost on her. “This is Jesus. He died for the bad things we do. He died instead of us and took our punishment. He is like a bridge between us and God.” As I said this, I picked up the spoon and balanced it on top of the ketchup bottle. My presentation had become even more urgent as I was just desperate for her to understand. She was still staring at the hastily assembled items then she looked up. Making eye contact she spoke softly, “I get it now.” She cried then about her life and everything that had gone wrong. We talked for a long time, I made sure I explained how she could get right with God and filled in some of the gaps, then she went home.

I saw her again a few weeks later and she seemed a lot calmer, something was different in her general demeanour, she was less frantic. She had started making gradual changes and was trying to keep off the drugs. She mentioned the sugars, spoon and ketchup bottle and how she had heard bits of this message over the years but hadn’t understood it. Now, she said she did. She took a John’s Gospel from my table. She asked to come to church.

We arranged to pick her up but she didn’t turn up at the meeting point. The next time I saw her she blanked me in the street. This is where the thick skin comes in and I have to trust that if God has His hand on her, she will be back. I sense that she is lost in the darkness of the underworld and that she can see the light of Jesus hovering at the edge, that she is starting to grasp for it but that things are getting in the way. Please pray for her.

This story is another example of the gap between believers and non-believers. I established later that the lady had been thinking back to a time when she had been given Communion, or their equivalent, in a Greek Orthodox church. Christianity had become about this vague ceremony in her mind.

A Christian recently told me how excited he was that a local school had allowed a vicar in to give all of the children Communion. I was shocked commenting that most were probably not Christians and that this would surely do more harm than good, according to the warnings in the Bible. However, this man felt that the fact that there was Christian influence in the school through the Communion was a good thing. Is this not, though, just another way of getting side-tracked from a person’s true need?

During evangelism, it is essential that we stick to the core truths of the Gospel and simplify them to the level of the person we are speaking to. This is where debates about methods fade into obscurity because we cannot plan for every situation. Sometimes, when we are faced with someone ready to listen and in a desperate condition, all we will have is two sugars, a spoon and a ketchup bottle!

In our town, a group of churches (not including our church,) have regular healing meetings on the street. They combine this with preaching. A fair number of people stop and receive prayer for healing. At least one of the main leaders believes that it’s always God’s will to heal and I’m sure he’s communicating this to the non-believing community.

Will these people go away and find peace with God as a result of this intervention? What will happen to them if they aren’t healed? Surely then, the gap between believers and non-believers will be wider as they won’t trust anything that is said by Christians in the future. Perhaps, they will also doubt the God that the Christians claim to represent when they promise healing in His name and He doesn’t deliver. If God does deliver and heal the person, will they know enough of the Gospel to realise that their greatest need is forgiveness of sin rather than just earthly healing?

We must keep the focus on the Gospel during our evangelism. Forgiveness of sin through Jesus is the only way that a person can be saved eternally. We can bridge the gap between believers and non-believers by communicating the life-saving message in a way that the recipient can understand and relate to.

“If you confess with your mouth Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart God raised Him from the dead. You will be saved.” Romans 10 vs 9