Monday, April 30, 2007

Confessing Your Sins...Anonymously on the Internet

Fox News reported on their web site about a new way to confess your sins - internet confession. Life Church in Edmond, OK has launched a web site called mysecret.tv where guilt-ridden people can go and unburden themselves. The web site offers a place to make your own confession, read the confessions of others, and also a few resources to help those who visit the site.

Having visited the site and watched the video of the pastor welcoming people and explaining the site, I think they really do have good intentions. I'm certain that they want to help people get beyond their guilt and start fresh. There are two key verses of Scripture used on the web site to encourage people to submit their confession and take the first steps toward dealing with their issues.

If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us of our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness - 1 John 1:9

Therefore, confess your sins one to another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much - James 5:16

Though I applaud the intention of mysecret.tv, I have serious reservations about how genuinely helpful it will be. It is hard to imagine that the above verses encompass impersonal and anonymous confessions. Confession presupposes confessing to someone, and not someone in general but a specific someone. In 1 John 1:9, the Someone is God Himself. In James 5:16, the "one another" cannot be construed as anonymous readers of an anonymous web confession. Rather, it is the eye-to-eye, heart-to-heart, personal confession of one individual to another in the context of a local church.

Another weakness of the site is its lack of forthright gospel presentation. One might get the impression from reading the site that making your anonymous internet confession is sufficient. God is listening in and He is loving and forgiving. The truth is that no matter how deeply felt a sinner's guilt may be, such guilt cannot be removed until we turn from sin and embrace Christ by faith. Telling one's story is not the same as repentance and trust in Christ. One is not converted by accident while unburdening oneself to the cyber-world. Conversion, and the freedom from guilt that accompanies it, requires a conscious commitment of oneself to Christ by faith. We are not called upon to believe in the power of confession. Rather we are called upon to believe in Christ.

Our great high priest is not a computer screen or even a pastor. It is Jesus Christ. He alone is our Mediator. Thankfully, we do not need any intermediary, including the internet, to make our confession to Him. I am grateful for modern technology. It would seem odd indeed to read a blog where the author cursed the internet. Yet, we must be careful to see that our use of technology does not mislead people or provide substitutes for genuine interaction with the Living God.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Boasting Allowed

While working my way through Romans 5:6-11 this week, I was struck by the way Paul completes this paragraph. He states, "And not only this, but we exult in God through our Lord Jesus Christ through whom we have received the reconciliation." In this text, Paul describes the love of God for sinners displayed through the death of Christ on the cross which accomplished their justification and reconciliation. He then finishes his thought by saying that we "exult" in God through Jesus Christ.

The term "exult" comes from a verb which means "to boast." It is often used in a negative sense of self-exaltation and self-promotion. In such cases, boasting becomes a character flaw which is prohibited (see Romans 3:27). However, in a few cases, this term is used positively to describe the attitude every believer ought to have in relation to his or her salvation. This is how it is used in Romans 5:11. Boasting is here not only allowed but encouraged.

This reminded me that the church, both individually and corporately, has some serious thinking to do about boasting. For one thing, we boast too much in the wrong sense. We boast about our buildings. We boast about our baptisms. We boast about our doctrinal statements. We boast about our clout in the community. We boast about missionary force. We boast about our attendance, etc, etc, etc, ad nauseum. This kind of boasting is out of bounds. It flies in the face of grace. Anytime we boast in such things as though we had something to do with it, we insult the grace of God and we denigrate the cross.

At the same time, we don't boast enough with the right kind of boasting. Paul said we boast in God through Jesus Christ through whom we have received the reconciliation. We ought to be "talking up" God and His saving work through His Son all the time. In Galatians 6:14, Paul said, "may I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ..." The one exception to the boasting ban is boasting in Jesus Christ and His cross. The church ought to be doing all it can to put Jesus Christ and His cross at center stage. In other words, the biggest impression people ought to get from our churches is an impression of how great Jesus is. The same holds true for our personal lives.

There have been a few times in history (that we know of) where God has made it clear how serious He is about those who seek the glory which rightfully falls only to Him. In Acts 12:20-23, we read about Herod's demise. He gave a speech and the people responded by saying "the voice of a god and not a man." Luke says that immediately an angel of the Lord struck him because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and died. There is only one God...and you are not Him. If we forget that we are all ultimately food for worms, we may learn that lesson in a very unpleasant and premature way. God is jealous over His glory.

Of course, the negative consequences of siphoning God's glory are a source of motivation for us to keep things in perspective. Yet, greater than this, we ought not forget the grand privilege which is ours to boast in Jesus. Those who have received the reconciliation from God through Jesus Christ have experienced the wonder of His grace. They alone have been given the joyous task of boasting in Christ. It is not so much that we have to boast in Jesus. We get to.

So, by all means boast. Just make sure you are boasting in God and His Son Jesus Christ through whom helpless sinners have received reconciliation.

Update: Immediately after I published this post, I went over to Al Mohler's blog and read this. This is the polar opposite of boasting in God.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Three Christians Martyred in Turkey

Three Protestant Christians were martyred in Turkey on April 18 by a band of five Islamic militants. You can read about it here. Stories like this one are a stark reminder that, in a growing number of places, taking up the cross and dying to self is not empty rhetoric but essential reality.

Friday, April 20, 2007

God Speaks Today

This article by John Piper is a must read. Piper gently but firmly challenges a pervasive problem among evangelicals today. All I could say after reading it was "Yes, yes, yes!"

Thursday, April 19, 2007

From Whence this Fear and Unbelief?

In preparation for an upcoming message on justification by faith, I came across this great hymn by Augustus Toplady. Toplady also wrote Rock of Ages. An Anglican clergyman, Toplady was a contemporary of George Whitefield. J.C. Ryle said of Toplady, "Of all English hymn-writers, none, perhaps, have succeeded so thoroughly in combining truth, poetry, life, warmth, fire, depth, solemnity, and unction as Toplady has." High praise indeed from a man who himself has been greatly praised as a preacher and theologian.

This hymn is called From Whence this Fear and Unbelief? It is a beautiful treatment of the believers rest in Christ's substitutionary atonement. Biblically speaking, it is a fine representation of the truth contained in Romans 5:1, "Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ." I recommend it for your reflection and edification.

From whence this fear and unbelief? Hath not the Father put to grief
His spotless Son for me?
And will the righteous Judge of men, Condemn me for that debt of sin,
Which, Lord, was charged on Thee?

Complete atonement Thou hast made, And to the utmost farthing paid

Whate'er Thy people owed:
Nor can His wrath on me take place, If sheltered in Thy righteousness,
And sprinkled with Thy blood.

If Thou hast my discharge procured, And freely in my room endured

The whole of wrath divine:
Payment God cannot twice demand, First at my wounded Surety's hand,
And then again at mine.

Turn then, My soul, unto thy rest; The merits of thy great High Priest

Have bought thy liberty:
Trust in His effective blood, Nor fear thy banishment from God,
Since Jesus died for thee.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Crunching Numbers

The latest SBC statistical report is out. You can read about it here. The report shows increases in number of churches and giving. However, there is a decrease in baptisms. This is the number that generates the most conversation among SBC leadership. Former SBC President Bobby Welch launched a campaign to baptize 1,000,000 people in 2006. The actual number recorded was 364,826 - an actual 1.89% decline from 2005. This has caused some consternation among our denominational leaders.

I am concerned about numbers also. However, the numbers I worry about most are a different set than the ones mentioned above. Here are the numbers that cause me the most grief:

Total SBC Membership 16,306,246
Average Sunday Attendance 6,138,776

These numbers tell us that roughly 38% of those who SBC churches claim as members regularly attend church on a given Sunday. If you were the coach of a football team and less than half of your team showed up to practice or play each week, would you put all your emphasis on recruiting new players or would you start addressing the issues behind the shocking absence of your team members?

If our numbers trend holds true then only 138,634 of the 364,826 are actually going to demonstrate any meaningful connection to the churches which baptized them. This ought to cause us to ask why so many of the people who join our churches turn out to be such marginal members.

I know I am not the first person to suggest this, but could it be that our drivenness to achieve statistical success has caused us to become careless in our evangelism? Might we push people to "pray the prayer" or "sign a card" and be baptized when, in fact, they have not grasped the gospel and truly exercised saving faith in Jesus Christ? I fear that such a numbers-driven approach will cause us to confuse a decision with a convert and a baptism for real membership.

Someone might respond that there is no danger here because at least some of these people are being saved and are becoming meaningful instead of marginal members. I wouldn't dispute that some of them are true converts who stick to the church. However, some of them are false converts who think they are true converts. Herein lies the danger of quick and easy approaches to evangelism. We don't want to see masses of people going to hell with a signed decision card in their hands thinking they are safe because they went through some external motions.

Of course any true Christian who loves Christ and the gospel wants to see people saved, baptized, and churched. If we are not being diligent to share the gospel, then we should lament the lack of burden and effort in evangelizing our nation. I lament my own lack of evangelistic fervor. But the antidote for this is not statistically driven campaigns that threaten to cheapen the gospel and manipulate conversion. It is repentance and true revival which restores a burden for the lost while maintaining a desire to carefully present the gospel and trust the Holy Spirit for the results.

Monday, April 16, 2007

"Our and Us" Praying in a "My and Me" World

Rugged individualism is part of the fabric of American culture. However, an overdose of it threatens to ruin the American church. The extreme individualism of American culture coupled with the explosion of the "media church" has created the perfect storm which threatens to sweep the corporate aspects of church life away in its wake. People can hear sermons on television, radio, and the internet. They can push play and hear their favorite worship songs presented by gifted musicians. They can even skip the songs they don't like so every "worship service" is specifically tailored to their personal taste. They can give online to their favorite ministry from the comfort and privacy of their own homes. Things that once took place primarily in a corporate setting are now commonly done with "just me and Jesus." This is nowhere more visibly seen than in the area of prayer. The prayer meeting is on the endangered species list.

There are notable exceptions like Brooklyn Tabernacle, but how many churches (including my own) are known for having a strong corporate prayer life? If church health were measured by the attendance at prayer-centered events, we would have to conclude that many churches are on life support. Prayer has been relegated to the sphere of the individual. "I can pray at home, in my car, or by myself," it is argued. "Why have another church service for prayer?" It seems that the value of corporate prayer has been lost to many Christians.

We don't have to look much further than the most famous prayer of all to have our individualistic notions about prayer challenged. When our Lord taught His disciples to pray, He did not say, "Pray like this. My Father Who is in heaven...." No, He said, "Pray like this. Our Father Who is in heaven...." It is interesting to note the plural pronouns throughout the model prayer (Matthew 6:9-13). Of course, it is appropriate for us to pray in this way in our private prayer time. Yet, Jesus was teaching us something about the corporate nature of prayer in the church. The Christian life, including prayer, is not to be seen as a bunch of isolated individuals struggling through this world on their way to heaven. The Christian life has a strong corporate element to it. Though God saves us as individuals, He places us in a corporate context of the body of Christ expressed through a local congregation.

The corporate aspect of prayer is clearly seen in the Book of Acts. We find an emphasis on corporate prayer in Acts 2:42; 4:24-31; 13:3. In 1 Timothy, Paul gives extensive instructions to Timothy about corporate aspects of church life. In 1 Timothy 2:1-2, we are told that prayer is to be a part of the corporate life of the church's worship. So, both by description and prescription, we notice that corporate prayer is a biblical norm for the church.

There are many benefits from praying together with other believers. Here are just a few:
  • Corporate prayer promotes unity of purpose in the church. As we pray together, our hearts are knitted together in unity for God's kingdom purpose through our church.
  • Corporate prayer provides a context for spiritual encouragement. When we pray for each other in a group, our hearts are supported and refreshed.
  • Corporate prayer provides a context for our personal prayer life to be enriched. Just as Jesus disciples learned about prayer from observing His life, we can learn more about prayer by praying with seasoned Christians.
  • Corporate prayer allows the church to develop a sense of solidarity before God. Whether it is confession of sin, praise, or petition corporate prayer causes us to realize that it is "our" sin, or "our" need, or "our" praise.

There is much to be gained by taking to the time to pray together as a church. There is also much to be lost by neglecting this corporate spiritual discipline. If you are not in the habit of participating in your church's prayer meeting, you are missing out on a crucial aspect of your spiritual life. More seriously, when we fail to make corporate prayer a regular part of our lives, we fail to obey God's Word.

Without corporate prayer, our spiritual growth will be stunted. May God be pleased to burden the hearts of His people with a desire to pray together.

Monday, April 02, 2007

It's the Gospel Stupid

Most of us have probably heard about the famous sign that hung in the campaign headquarters of Bill Clinton - It's the Economy, Stupid. This sign was designed to keep the focus on the key plank in their platform. Such reminders are necessary and valuable amid all the distractions which compete for our attention and loyalties.

I think I need to hang a sign over my desk. It will say, It's the Gospel Stupid. I have been reminded of this recently while reading a biography of the famous Bible translator, William Tyndale. Tyndale and others like him eventually paid the ultimate price of martyrdom in their efforts to get the Bible into the hands of English people in the English language. The Roman Church at that time saw such an effort as, well, heretical. Common people have no business reading the Bible. They cannot understand it. They will misinterpret it. It will lead to all kinds of theological pandemonium if a tailor, a farmer, a schoolboy, or a maid is allowed to read Scripture for themselves.

Tyndale, in speaking with a learned Papist who defended the Church, uttered his famous words, If God spare my life ere many years, I will cause a boy that driveth the plow shall know more of the scripture than thou dost. What was Tyndale's movitation in this undertaking? It was not literary accolades. It was not financial gain. It was not fame. It was his absolute commitment to the idea that people will be saved if they can read the gospel. Tyndale understood the power of God's Word to convert sinners to Christ.

Just last week I received a flyer on my front door from a church in my area. They were inviting people to their Easter services. They offered a $20 gas card to everyone who would come to church on Easter Sunday. How sad. Is this really what we have come to in evangelicalism? Do we have such little confidence in the gospel and the Spirit of God? Of course we should invite people to church. But do we really have to resort to cheap marketing tricks and giveaways? Do we really think that the gospel of Christ will take center stage in a church where gift cards are dangled in front of people as an enticement to attend?

Oh that the church would be infused with a more Tyndalian approach! Has God changed His plan for saving sinners? Not that I have heard. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 1:18 that the word of the cross is the power of God. He said in 1 Corinthians 1:21 that God is well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached (the gospel) to save those who believe. In 1 Corinthians 9:16, Paul said, "woe is unto me if I do not preach the gospel."

In Jesus' story of the rich man and Lazarus, the rich man in hell begs Father Abraham to allow Lazarus to come back from the dead to warn his relatives about the danger of hell. Abraham said, "They have Moses and the Prophets, let them hear them." The rich mans protests, "No, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent." Abraham says, "If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead." Do we understand the drift of this exchange? It is not dramatic visitations of people who have had post-mortem experiences of the afterlife which God uses to convince sinners to repent. It is the Word of God. If people are not convinced by Holy Scripture to repent and turn to Christ, gas cards, clowns, and easter egg hunts won't do it.

Someday all the church marketing experts, church growth gurus, and church leaders who bought into their approaches are going to see that the most effective method for getting people to believe the gospel is the gospel. After all, it is not our clever speech or methods that makes the difference. It is the gospel itself that makes the difference. Let us declare that gospel with full confidence that the Spirit of God will, through the gospel, call people to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.