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Saturday, 31 December 2016

Will Your Anchor Hold in 2017?

At the start of a new year, we often reflect on events that have taken place over the previous year or years. We look back and wonder whether things could/should have been different and we set goals for the future. 

Although I don’t bother with new year’s resolutions as I tend to immediately break them, I do reflect and consider whether changes are needed for the new year. I also think about things I have learned from a faith perspective and how they can be applied to my life. 

This new year I’m looking back on several years of struggle and disappointments, from a human perspective. Having to leave a mission field I believed I was called to for life due to circumstances beyond my control, long-term health problems, broken relationships and various short term work stints rather than being able to settle into the long term work I was hoping for. 

What does it all mean and what was the purpose? More importantly, what happens next? I’ve never been particularly patient or good at waiting for things, but I’m learning.

I’ve moved beyond the “Why has God allowed this to happen to me?” and “Maybe I made a mistake and God is punishing me,” and “Why did God seemingly lead me in one direction only for everything to fall apart?” I’ve been learning that there is always a purpose in everything that happens in the life of a Christian. It’s a lesson that has to be learnt over and over again, in my case.

Our attitudes tend to be shaped by the “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life” philosophy which is great until the trials come. I commented on this in a previous post. Actually, the statement is true but as with so many things, our interpretation of it is likely very different to God’s. His wonderful plan is not about earthly happiness or success, it is about making us more like Jesus and fitting us for His service. This process might be painful, even traumatic, but it is ultimately for our good if we love Him. (Romans 8 vs 28.)

When I think about the “trials” I have experienced in recent years, they really pale into insignificance in comparison to what others are going or have gone through. I haven’t lost any family members or close friends to cancer or accidents. I haven’t been arrested for a crime I didn’t commit or placed in prison after a miscarriage of justice. I haven’t been blown up by a terrorist or even been in the vicinity of a bombing/attack. I haven’t lost a job, house or car due to debt. I haven’t suffered from a permanent disability or illness that keeps me house-bound. There are so many other things that haven’t happened to me or from another perspective, that God has protected me from.

I am blessed with financial security, a supportive family and friends, food, clothing and shelter and material things in abundance. I have the ability to read, write and think intelligent thoughts (some of the time.) More importantly God has revealed the truth about His Son Jesus Christ to me and has rescued me from a life of sin and an eternity in hell. 

My “trials”, when measured on this scale are barely worthy of mention especially when I think that God is allowing them for my good and to make me better able to serve Him. I should be grateful that He bothers to refine me whilst I am protesting. Actually, I am blessed and it’s all about perspective.

Maybe we need to take a leaf out of Job’s book when he cried “Though He slay me, I will hope in Him.” It is easy to serve God when everything appears to be going right but we grow spiritually in the tough times. There are always people in situations far worse than our own—all those who aren’t yet saved for a start.

We don’t want to be like the seed on the rocky ground that grew up quickly but withered and died when it was scorched by the sun. (Matthew 13) Why did that happen? The Bible tells us it was because the soil was shallow and the seed had no root. When trouble or persecution came because of the Word, they quickly fell away.

We don’t want to be like the seed that fell amongst thorns either. The worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choked the Word, making it unfruitful. Worrying and becoming anxious about things may be a natural human response but we have a Father in heaven who cares for us more than sparrows…

As we mature spiritually, our response to trials should be different. Instead of complaining and wondering “why me”, we will seek to learn the lessons and to be obedient despite the circumstances. Then we will ask the question, what next?

It is our response to the trial that is important. We can be effective witnesses to non-believers at these times. They are watching closely to see how real our faith is—whether God will really sustain us in the difficulty. If we throw up our hands in horror or give up and turn our backs on God the probably correct assumption by onlookers will be that our faith wasn’t genuine in the first place. Our faith is proved by the tests that we endure. 

At the start of a new year, let us ask ourselves whether we are prepared for new challenges and trials. Let us be ready for them, whatever form they might take trusting that God is faithful and knows what He is doing. 

Let us ensure that our anchors in Jesus will hold in 2017

Have a blessed and peaceful New Year!

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Why Most Christians Don't Believe in Hell

I have been thinking about Hell in recent days.  I cannot dwell on it for more than about thirty seconds at a time without feeling a sense of desperation and horror for those who will end up there. 

I started thinking about Hell more than usual due to Ray Comfort’s approach to evangelism on his show The Way of the Master. I realised that it was the first time in a long time that I had heard someone suggest that it was okay, even loving, to terrify people into Heaven by confronting their sin and their need to be rescued from an eternity in Hell. 

When I was backslidden (away from God,) the thought of death and eternal torment in Hell loomed  like an oppressive force. At times, it used to keep me awake at night and made me afraid to fly on a plane. It was probably the single most important factor in drawing me back to God because I knew that Hell was a real place. Even now, looking back, I shudder at the gamble I was taking with my life and am immensely grateful that God was patient with me.

These days we are told we should not focus on sin or God’s judgement for it, neither should we focus on Hell. It is too gloomy, negative and discouraging. But surely it is more than that—try it for a few seconds, think about yourself or someone you know spending a few hours or days alone in a dark place of torture and torment. A place where you/they want to die rather than continue to suffer but you/they won’t be able to. The only relief from those thoughts for you or for that other person is that there will be an end to the suffering. Now, think about being stuck there FOREVER with no relief. 

The problem is that we refuse to think about Hell and our preachers have been told to stop reminding us that it exists. It’s like non-believers refusing to think or talk about death, as if the absence of debate lessens the reality. But we will all die and we have to go somewhere. Most people still believe in an after-life and even those that don’t can’t prove that there isn’t one. If we believe the Bible, which most Christians claim to, then Hell is a real place and those who do not confess faith in Jesus and repent of their sins here on earth will go there forever, with no chance of escape.

Some Christians, even prominent evangelical leaders are so horrified by the thought of Hell that they soften the idea and hope that God will change His mind due to His mercy. Some still teach annihilationism (also known as extinctionism or destructionism is a belief that at the Last Judgment those not receiving salvation are destined for total destruction, not everlasting torment.) Obviously, that would be preferable from a human perspective, but if Hell isn’t real or isn’t eternal then what are Christians actually being saved from? Why have martyrs through the centuries willingly died for their faith? Why did Jesus Himself die if the penalty for sin could have been paid in another way or if Hell didn't exist for the unrepentant?

The reality is that God cannot change His mind about Hell because His justice requires that He punish sinners. “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6 vs 23.) We console ourselves with the thought that God is good and will do what is right—but the Bible clearly teaches that Hell is right. God’s goodness is not violated or in question due to His creation of Hell. Hell is a just punishment for sin.

We waste our time with trivialities and worry about offending people in our politically correct society. But these same people will be thanking us for eternity if God chooses to use us to break through their hard outer shells. If they reject Him, we won’t be aware of them beyond this life because there is no pain or sadness in heaven. It will be as if these people don’t exist. But they will, in Hell, for eternity.

It is sad that most Christians don’t really believe in Hell as it is described in the Bible. We might say that we do, but we soften the doctrine and so often fail to warn people about the reality. People are walking blindfolded towards the edge of a cliff or standing in the road about to be hit by a bus. We need to warn them of the consequence of their sin before it’s too late. No one is guaranteed tomorrow.

The oft quoted verse from John 3 vs 16 begins

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

God loves us tremendously and sacrificed willingly. But the passage continues in verses 17-18,

“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”

We are reminded that God sent Jesus to provide an escape from the condemnation that is to come. 

Let’s spend a brief time each day thinking about the realities of Hell, as well as the glories of Heaven, as a motivator for evangelism. Let’s not allow Satan to convince us that Hell doesn’t exist or that God will change His mind about it. Let’s not allow him to make Hell into a tolerable place or Heaven into somewhere boring with angels playing harps. We can trust that God who created us knows our desires and that Heaven will be so much more amazing than we could possibly dream or imagine. 

Let’s pray for opportunities to witness the salvation of as many souls as possible whilst we still have time. “Rescue those who are being taken away to death; hold back those who are stumbling to the slaughter.” (Proverbs 24 vs 11)

Daniel 12:2  
And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.

Matthew 10:28  
And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.
Matthew 13:41-42 
The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Matthew 25:46 
And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.

Mark 9:43-48 
And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’

Hebrews 9:27   
And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.

2 Peter 2:17 
These are waterless springs and mists driven by a storm. For them the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved.

Jude 1:7 
Just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.

Revelation 14:11 
And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.

Revelation 20:10 
And the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.

Revelation 20:13-15 
And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

Revelation 21:8 
But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

The Way of the Master?

I stumbled upon a book this week, The Way of the Master by Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron. They run an organisation by the same name and another called Living Waters. They have produced a number of almost feature length films covering controversial topics, these can be watched on their website or on Youtube at no cost. The most recent is called The Atheist Delusion. Both organisations are committed to biblical evangelism.

They state that the modern Western church has lost its way. That due to an over-emphasis on grace and the love of God our churches are full of false converts. These people have been told that God has a wonderful plan for their lives and that all they need to do is to pray a prayer, sign a card or make a decision to accept Jesus and be restored to God. The majority then continue their lives exactly as before but now with the “saved by Jesus” or "born again" label. There was no repentance and therefore there is no visible change in their behaviour. 

When trials and suffering come to these people they lose interest in their faith or become angry and disillusioned with God for their plight. They question the “wonderful plan” they were offered and blame God for their circumstances. They then either gradually fall into sin believing that God will forgive them later as life is just too hard and God is not delivering what He has promised. Or they harden their hearts and walk away from the faith, They are thus in a worse position than they were  in the first place. They have now rejected God completely and are resentful and bitter towards Him if they still acknowledge His existence.

You may be thinking that these observations are not new and that other well-known preachers and authors (John MacArthur) have been highlighting “easy believism” and other mass conversion methods for years. 

Comfort, however, offers a solution. He suggests that the only way for someone to be soundly converted is to first confront them with the law and then outline God’s plan of salvation through Jesus. He believes that the only way to do this is by using the Ten Commandments to make a person realise that they are a wretched sinner before a Holy God.  A person needs to admit that they are a liar, thief and adulterer at heart amongst other things. Then they will understand that God’s wrath is upon them and will therefore desire to escape from the penalty of their sin which is ultimately eternity in hell.

It is only once they have acknowledged their sin that Jesus’ death is offered as the solution. The point is that unless someone realises the danger they are in they are not going to take action to ensure their personal safety. Comfort uses the analogy of a blind man walking towards the edge of a cliff. Someone comes up to him and tweaks the MP3 player he is carrying to enhance the sound so he can enjoy his journey. He is thrilled and merrily continues towards the cliff edge, presumably falling to his death. This is what we are doing when we focus on people’s immediate physical needs, comfort and wellbeing rather than their eternal destination.

At first I thought, wow what a great resource and method for evangelism. I watched all the movies on the website and looked at ordering tracts. But, I was curious and decided to research what others were saying about Comfort’s ministry—that was an eye opener! It seems Comfort is like Marmite, you either love him or you hate him. 

I expected that, to some degree, due to the controversial issues he tackles. I would’ve been more concerned if he didn’t have his critics. But, some of the comments were coming from Christian sources that I respected. 

The main two concerns were that the Ten Commandments were not designed to be used in this way for evangelism as we are now living under the New Covenant. Also, that a “one size fits all” or method approach for evangelism doesn’t allow sufficient room for the Spirit to lead and guide a believer when witnessing. That each person is an individual and should be ministered to as such. 

In relation to the first issue I can see the concern. In Comfort’s book, he goes to great lengths to explain the significance of the Ten Commandments themselves overlooking the fact that they were originally given to the Israelite nation and not to the gentiles. However, for those who think I am suggesting that the commandments don’t apply to us today--ALL, except one, of the Ten Commandments is actually repeated and confirmed in the New Testament and therefore does apply to NT believers. (The Sabbath Day command is the exception and has little relevance to this discussion about biblical evangelism.)

The question that naturally arises is, why place so much emphasis on the Ten Commandments as given to Moses when we can use the NT with its wider scope and more relevant application for today? That would avoid the common argument that we are not living under the Old Covenant and that therefore the rules don’t apply.   

Critics of Comfort’s approach argue that the use of the Ten Commandments is too narrow and excludes other effective methods. Also, that he is telling people that they will be judged according to their adherence to the Ten Commandments alone. They point out that the bigger offence is the rejection of God and of Jesus as their Saviour from their sin. The greatest commandment given by Jesus Himself is after all, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind.” (Matthew 22 vs 37)

Honestly, this is a tough one for me. There are people arguing that scaring or terrifying people about hell is not effective or loving. But personally, it was sufficient to convert me and cause me to give up my worldly life. I'm not sure whether the goodness of God alone would've had the same effect. Convincing people that hell is a real place and that their sins will take them there forever is important. I can see Comfort’s rationale in this respect. I can also see that he has a genuine love for the lost and desire for them to be truly saved.

If there is a choice between the shallow and false conversions we are seeing everywhere today and Comfort’s approach, I would definitely side with Comfort. Actually, the videos that had the biggest impact on me were those of the large numbers of people who claimed they were born again/evangelical Christians cheerfully admitting lying, stealing, pre-marital sex, pornography, drunkenness, drug taking etc. The shocking thing was that these “Christians” felt no shame or guilt about their lifestyles and didn’t even acknowledge that these things were wrong. The main reason given was that everyone else was doing it. They weren’t giving into temptation and repenting and trying again. They were completely unconcerned and apathetic. They were false converts filling the churches on Sundays.

Having said that, I don’t agree with a standardised or method approach that must always be used in evangelism. I have used lots of methods over the years and I think it’s important to really hear the heart of the other person. Sin must be confronted in every Gospel conversation and the Good News about Jesus offered. It is necessary for a person to understand what they are being saved from and how serious their sin is in God’s eyes. I like the way Comfort talks about a change of perspective reminding us that it is our own sin that takes us to hell. He speaks about how ridiculous it is for millions of tiny people (in comparison to God) walking around on the earth shaking their fists at their Creator as if that will change reality.

I would highly recommend the resources on Comfort’s website, Way of the Master, as I believe they will make people think. I admire him for tackling controversial issues that others have avoided. There is no doubt that his work has done a lot of good in the American church. But, personally I would use New Testament texts where possible in evangelism and ensure that the biggest sin of all—rejection of God—is highlighted in any presentation.