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The Message of Christ: Faith and Repentance

   This week in Wednesday Night Bible Study we considered Chapter 15 of the Westminster Confession of Faith: Repentance unto Life. Repentance is integral to the Christian life; Martin Luther wrote in 1517, “When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said ‘Repent,’ He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
   In fact, repentance was at the heart of the message Christ proclaimed on earth. The very first words that Jesus speaks in the Gospel of Mark concern the necessity of both repentance and faith (1.14-15): “Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”
   In spite of its central place in the teaching and proclamation of Jesus, many who claim to follow Jesus give little thought to the idea of repentance. Truly, repentance is not only one of the most neglected spiritual disciplines in our day, it also one of the most unpopular truths of the gospel.
   Repentance, in short, means “turning” and particularly a turning from sin and to God for grace and mercy as he offers it in Christ. Sin, as you know, doesn’t just include murder, adultery, burglary, and sodomy, but also very much includes gossip, laziness, selfishness, arrogance, pride, bitterness, lust, gluttony, and a host of other socially acceptable thoughts, attitudes, and activities.
   Repentance is not simply expressing regret for some action you may have done and/or been caught doing. Anyone, even a sociopath, can express regret! Repentance means actually turning away from sin because of a new love and affection: Christ in the gospel.
   When a person is brought to repentance, he or she, because of the New Birth and the working of the Holy Spirit, has gained a real hatred for sin and so he or she actually is able to sincerely strive for new obedience to God’s Law.
   It is important to recognize that, just like faith, repentance is a gift from God. Because of our own sin, we can’t just decide or resolve to stop sinning and start loving God. The Bible describes us as being “in bondage to sin” (Rom. 6) and “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2). As with every other grace, we are entirely dependant on God to grant the grace of repentance. Do you pray regularly for the grace of repentance? As with faith, even though it is a gift of God, repentance is something that we do actually do and is truly ours.
   Faith in and Repentance toward God are inseparable. A person that has true saving faith will indeed live a life of repentance. Faith and repentance defined Jesus’ own preaching and He commanded both be preached to every nation for the salvation of sinners (Luke 24.47-48).
   Is your own repentance visible for all to see in your life?
 

The Christian's Duty to the Civil Magistrate

   A couple of weeks ago in our Sunday School class we considered the Fifth Commandment, which teaches us how we are to live under all lawful authority. God in His word teaches us that He is the one who establishes and puts in place all authority and rulers. As such, he commands His people (and all people) to honor all those who are in authority.
   The Christian does not have the right to disregard or dishonor a civil ruler simply because he or she dislikes or disagrees with him or his policies. Many in Christian communities believe it is acceptable to speak rudely of a President, Governor, Senator, Judge, or other ruler simply because in that person’s estimation the ruler is not doing what he or she ought to do or obeying God’s mandates.
   But such a position is foreign to historic Christianity and utterly opposed to the commands of God in His word.
   Consider two examples of how God commands His people to live toward their rulers:
   I Peter 2:13-17 “Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution...Fear God. Honor the emperor.”
   Romans 13.1-7 “...there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God...whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed...he is God’s servant...Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes...revenue...respect...honor...”
   We should note that respect and honor do not always entail blind obedience, for we must always obey God over men. Nonetheless, in both of these instructions the Apostles wrote of pagan governments who were actively persecuting Christ’s Church and promoting wickedness. Christ did not die so that Christians could disregard or disrespect authorities whom they don’t like.
 
   We are in the midst of the Holiday Season. We’ve said goodbye to Halloween, Reformation Day, and Guy Fawkes Day; Thanksgiving is almost upon us, and Christmas, Boxing Day, and New Years Day will be here before you know it.
   Thanksgiving Day falls right in the middle of the Holiday Season. Quite often today Thanksgiving has become the perfunctory day that stands in the way of “Black Friday” when we all rush out to Mal*Wart to get last year’s model big screen TV for $199 and a bunch of other stuff. It seems like it is almost a parable for the decay and decline of American culture that “Black Friday” consumption as taken precedence over Thanksgiving reflection and gratitude to God. Many Christians have lamented the change in what has become acceptable and decry it as yet another sign that American is no longer a “Christian nation.” I like to turn such complaints and judgments about the culture around. Before condemning the culture, we ought to look at our own lives and examine to see whether we are committing the same sins of consumption and ingratitude.
   Christians complain that the modern American lives only for himself; he spends his money on himself and what he wants and does not respond in gratitude and generosity to God for the many gifts that God has given. Well let me ask you: are you responding in gratitude and generosity to God for the many gifts that God has given to you? Does your giving to the work of the Kingdom here at First Presbyterian Church reflect a deep and profound gratitude to God for His sending His Son to save you from your sins and bring you into God’s own family?
   Under the Old Covenant, the Hebrews were commanded to bring in a tenth (a tithe) of all their produce to the Levites for the support of the ministry of the Church. Now under the New Covenant there are no Levites and no tithe, however God’s people are no less required to give to His Kingdom. In fact, if under the Old Covenant (when the people were less spiritual and knew Christ only in shadows) the people gave 10%, how much more should we be giving now, we who have tasted the fullness of Christ?
   Paul reflects on how knowing Christ profoundly impacts our giving to the work of the Church, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (II Cor. 8:9).
   Paul doesn’t lay out a percentage for people to give, rather he appeals to us to consider what Christ gave for us, and respond accordingly. If you know Christ’s grace, your priorities should look like Christ’s priorities: Not holding on to and getting stuff, but freely giving that others may come to know the salvation of Christ as well. Take time to examine your own giving to the ministry at FPCW and spending habits generally and consider whether you are being a faithful steward over what God has given you.
   It’s one thing to want to give a big sum to the church if you have extra or when you die and have no use for “your” money, but it’s quite another to give regularly, faithfully, and sacrificially now. Faithful giving to the local church, faithful stewardship reveals a heart that has not been captured by the things of this world, but is hidden with Christ.
 

Beware "Forrest Gump Spirituality"

   Most of us have probably seen the 1994 Tom Hanks hit movie, Forrest Gump in which the titular character shares his experiences and reflections on life and society with various people on a Savannah park bench.
   As the story goes on, Gump often shares with us little insights and maxims from his mother, which invariably begin, “Mama always said...”
   For many who have been reared in a “pseudo-Christian Culture” such as the United States, we have a tendency to assume that the values and norms that we have known, lived under, and been taught are universal and transcendent truths and “Christian.”
   Sadly, this is not always the case. For instance, you may have been told that it’s okay to tell a “little white lie” if it means not hurting someone’s feelings. God’s word, by contrast, tells us that God is a God of Truth, hates liars, and demands that His people love the truth so much that they forsake lying.
   Many people who call themselves Christians live out a spirituality that consists simply of what they were taught by their parents and the traditions of their society. But is that where Christians are supposed to learn how to live as His people? Yet many in our society have a religion that consists of little more than “my mama always said...”
   True Christianity is found and learned from God’s word, the Bible. The Bible teaches us that every culture is imperfect, riddled with sin, and doomed to pass away. Because of this, God’s word confronts every culture with its sins, failings, and shortcomings as it calls the people of every culture to embrace Jesus Christ offered in the gospel and follow His commandments.
   As Presbyterians, we must not be crippling our growth in grace by living a “Forrest Gump spirituality” that consists only of traditions and sentiments of the past. We must be constantly looking to Christ and His word to see if the traditions and values that we hold dear are actually from God or merely of man’s devising.
   One of the problems that has continually dogged the Church is that as persecution dies down, the saints become increasingly comfortable with the culture and the church begins to increasingly resemble the culture. The only defense against this is a robust and disciplined love for God’s word, not simply the “idea” of God’s word, but the actual words, sentences, paragraphs, teachings and themes of the Scripture.
   Do you love God’s Word? Is your Christianity, your piety founded upon a faithful study of the words of Christ? Do you make time to know your Bible? Or is your religion simply that of traditions and customs? A religion that resembles the culture is not a religion of the Christ who was crucified for offending the traditions and customs of the society in which He lived. We must each ask ourselves and evaluate is my religion based on “my mama always said” and “I always thought” or “God says in His word?”
 

Does the Bible Have All the Answers?

   Recently, I received an email from the priestess at a congregation my family attended while I was growing up. In her weekly email she made the point that the Bible does not, in fact, have all the answers.
   She went on to say that since the writers of the Bible didn’t know about “artificial intelligence or AIDS or the Human Genome Project or socialism or Big Box Stores,” and so on it can’t provide all the answers.
   That view of the Scripture is very popular today, particularly in the mainline denominations. Such a view of God’s word is tragic and, of course, man-centered and “sub-Christian.”
   As Presbyterians, we heartily believe that the Bible indeed has all of the answers to life’s questions. Our Westminster Confession of Faith states that the Scripture contains “all things necessary for [God’s] own glory, man's salvation, faith and life” as either “expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture.”
   When the authors of the Westminster Standards wrote those words they were making a bold stand against worldliness. They proclaimed that the Bible’s authority and teaching does not simply tell us how to “get saved,” but also how to live our daily life, as well as provides the answers to the “deep things” of life. As such, the Scripture is indispensible to a full life.
   Now we are not saying that the Bible has an exhaustive index that includes a heading for every issue and topic known to man. Rather, principles of God’s Word speak to every issue and topic and instruct God’s people how to respond to and evaluate them.
   Take for example, “Big Box Stores.” Doesn’t the Bible speak about materialism and the love of stuff? Jesus may not have told a parable featuring a clerk at Best Buy, but
God’s word speaks amply about the love of money, the accumulation of possessions, and concern for the poor and helpless (e.g. Chinese factory workers)?
   Sometimes God’s word will give an explicit command regarding an issue (e.g. Murder, Adultery), but more often God’s word gives us principles that we must apply everyday to know how to live as His people.
   It is by far much easier to simply assert that God’s word doesn’t have all the answers and then live as is fashionable than to read, study, and search God’s Word to direct your paths.
   The Bible does indeed have the answers to the questions of life, but to learn the answers God gives in His word takes a lifetime of devotion and prayerful study of the Scripture.
   It is worth the time and effort to know God’s Word, and it is far more rewarding than letting Bill O’Reilly and Rupert Murdoch tell you what to think!
 

The Deacons Called by Christ

   In the sermon on Sunday we looked at the Bible’s qualifications for the office of deacon in I Timothy 3. The Lord Jesus Christ sets a very high bar for those whom He calls to the office of deacon.
   As we consider deacon nominations, it’s important to remember that it is Christ who calls the deacons. The qualifications listed in the Scripture are there so we can distinguish the men that Christ has already called.
   We should remember that Christ saves us all by grace alone through faith alone. We are not saved because of our works or how well we “do” as Christians.
   Nonetheless, the men God calls as deacons (and elders) exemplify what it means to be a Christian. Typically, not every man in a congregation will be called as a deacon or an elder, in fact most will not be.
   Simply because Christ does not call you to be a deacon or an elder does not mean you are excluded from service in the Kingdom and to the Church. Many today think that if they’re not an “officer” they can’t serve (whether it be in the WIC, the diaconate, or the session). Nothing could be farther from the truth.
   The church in Acts 6 had about 20,000 members and only seven deacons. The relatively few deacons oversaw a much larger operation to which many members contributed vitally even though Christ had not called them to a particular office.
   The men whom Christ calls as deacons represented Christ to His people and lived lives that were models of godliness for the people to follow.
   Deacons called by Christ not only have an exceptional knowledge of God’s Word, but their reputation and character are flawless and “beyond reproach.”
   It is important to realize that Christ’s qualifications for deacons do not include “sinless”! If that were the case, then no one (except Jesus) would be qualified.
   But those who are qualified are quite aware of their sinfulness, quick to repent when they sin, speedy to seek the mercy of God for their transgressions, and do not delay in sincerely asking forgiveness from others whom they have wronged. Such men do indeed have the blameless character and reputation that is becoming of a deacon (and which all Christians are called to have).
   The ones who know their need of Christ the most are the ones whom Christ gives to serve us, to help us to see all the better our own need of Him. It was, after all, the Apostle Paul who considered Himself to be the chief of sinners, and it was through Paul’s ministry that God brought so many sinners to Himself.
 

The "War" on Christmas

   In recent years there has been much fuss over the alleged “War on Christmas” by the ACLU and the “Leftwingers.” A few years ago there was quite a stir when it was alleged that Wal-Mart forbade its employees from wishing customers a “merry Christmas.”
   Culture warrior commentators such as Bill O’Reilly make lots of money and beef up their ratings when they decry the petty casualties of the “War on Christmas.” In fact, on one website you can find a triage categorizing retailers based on their use of the word “Christmas” and calls for boycotts of retailers that do not utilize the expression “Christmas” enough to suit the organization.
   The truth is that the observance of Christmas as a holiday in the English-speaking world, and particularly America, is a relatively late tradition. In the early days of the colonies and the Republic, it was not uncommon for schools and businesses to be open as normal on Dec. 25.
   In fact, Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay, and Connecticut colonies banned the observance of Christmas in the 17th Century (and those are the days the “culture warriors” appeal to as a foundation for a “Christian nation”).  The original New England colonists would find it quite odd and sacrilegious to celebrate Christmas. For most of America’s history, Dec. 25th was marked with little fanfare at all.
   The observance of Christmas in England and America was popularized by an 1841 illustration of Victoria and Albert celebrating the holiday around a Christmas tree first. But Christmas was not declared a Federal Holiday until 1870.
   Much of the traditions surrounding Dec. 25 have little actually to do with the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity at all. In fact, they often distract or dilute the meaning of God taking on our flesh in order to redeem mankind.
   The true “War on Christmas” has nothing to do with whether the government schools are allowed to have “Christmas parties” or retailers have “Christmas Sales.” The true War on Christmas has been Satan trying to prevent God from fulfilling His promise in Gen. 3:15 to send an offspring, a seed from the woman who would crush the head of the serpent.
   The real “War on Christmas” is Satan’s attempts to wipe out the line of promise through which the redeemer of God’s people would be born. We are studying those promises in Sunday school this month, and I hope you will join us at 9:00 a.m.

Are You Backing the Right Horse?

   Throughout the world, the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ is persecuted. From California and Michigan to China and Mongolia to Kenya and Cornwall, Christians are targeted for oppression, violence, and harassment by those who hate God and His people.
   This has always been the case. In Gen. 4, Cain murdered Abel because Abel had saving faith in God and Cain hated him for it. The book of Esther shows - in large part - the failure of conspiracy of one man to wipe out the Church from the Persian Empire. We saw more examples of attempts to destroy the church this week in Kenya and Pakistan and Scotland and Egypt.
   In spite of millennia of persecution, the Church of Jesus Christ has outlived every empire and society that has opposed her. The empires of Babylon, Persia, Rome, Saladin, Hilter, and Stalin have collapsed. 
   Here in the United States and also in Great Britain, Christians have been free from persecution by and large since the 1689 Glorious Revolution. That freedom from persecution brought on one of the greatest missionary ages since the execution of the Apostle Paul.  But not all the results of this peace have been fruitful.
   One of the challenges faced by the Church in Britain and America because of freedom from persecution is an unbiblical melding of Church and Nation. In America often “God and Country” are joined together as if their goals and aims are the same.
   The goal of the Church is the salvation of sinners through proclaiming Jesus Christ and preparing the saints for heaven. The goal of the Nation is preservation of order and the enrichment of the leaders.
   The present persecution of Christians in Britain and the menacing threat of persecution here may help (and force) Christians to take stock of where their allegiance and possessions lie.
   Is your allegiance to the “state”? Are your hopes and dreams caught up in the success of an earthly empire? Or do you, like Abraham and David, long for a land of eternal rest because there is no rest for God’s people here?
   It is so important for Christian living to remember that the saint’s home is not here, but with Christ in Heaven.
 

Sermon Snapshot: What KIND of a Messiah?

   Last week as we finished our study of Psalm 22, I mentioned that the Jews had rejected Jesus because he was not the kind of Messiah that they wanted.
   The First Century Jews, like the “Zionists” of the last Century, were looking for a national, military hero to be their messiah. They wanted a messiah who would ride in on a big horse at the head of a great army that would “kick the bums out.” The Jews of First Century Palestine wanted most of all a restoration of their former national glory and liberation from Roman rule.
   The Jews of the First Century, like so many today, did not comprehend that their biggest problem is not political or economic, but God’s wrath. John 3:36 declares that God’s wrath “abides” or “remains” on all those who do not have faith in Jesus Christ. That is a serious problem; Jesus diagnoses the problem of everlasting wrath, and that is what He came to address.
   In Psalm 22, we read exactly how Jesus Christ dealt with the great human problem. In profound literary detail, the psalm describes the Saviour enduring the wrath that is due for your sin. We read of Him mocked and in great anguish. Yet it does not end that way.
   The psalm ends singing about an empire. Not an empire dominated and established by the conquests of one people or race, but one that includes “all the families of the nations.”
   The Messiah may not have come to establish a world-wide-Jewish Empire as His contemporaries had hoped, but Jesus Christ was indeed about the work of building an Empire, the Kingdom of God.
   Christ came to bring blessing to every tribe and nation; the blessing of peace with God through the forgiveness of sins.
   The saints of God have been looking for Christ’s Kingdom since the Old Testament. Psalm 22 is not the only place we see the promise that all the earth will worship God.
   One of the most beautiful pictures of this is in Zech. 6 in which God promises that those “who are far off” will come and build the Temple.    We in the Church on this side of Calvary, inherit all the promises to Zion and Jerusalem because we - like Israel of old - are at the center of God’s redemptive purpose.
   God’s redemptive purposes were never confined merely to this world, but include God making all things new, in a New Heavens and a New Earth when people from every tribe and nation shall worship God in their everlasting inheritance that Messiah has prepared.
   Is that the kind of Messiah that you want? The temptation is always to long for a political "messiah" who will do great things for an earthly nation. But Christians must be diligent to pursue their inheritance which is in the New Heavens and the New Earth.
 

Judging, Discernment, and Applying God's Word

   On Sunday night we had some very good discussion on some of the various components of the Christian life. One of the things that we discussed was “judging.”
   Sometimes you will hear people say something to the effect of, “It’s not for us to say...” Somehow Satan has inserted into Christian circles the idea that Christians are not to “judge.” After all, Jesus said, “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matt. 7:1)? Satan is very skilled at twisting God’s word.
   When Jesus spoke there (as the context shows), He was condemning people who had added to God’s word and pronounced others guilty before God on the basis of something other than God’s Law.
   While it is true, on the one hand, that Christians are not to “judge” that does not free us from our responsibility to be discerning. In fact, we do not judge per se, God has already judged in His word, and we simply apply His judgments. God’s word is His Law, His commands for how His people are to live.
   In fact, Jesus continues in Matt. 7:6 by commanding the saints to judge, discern, and show wisdom in dealing with people. In Matt. 7 the Lord Jesus Christ is commanding believers to be merciful and slow to judge, yet not freeing them from the responsibility to discern someone’s character from his life and response to the gospel.
   God has given commands in His word for how His people are to live. If a person refuses to live by God’s standards, he is probably not a Christian at all.
   For example, I’ve mentioned before that I’ve heard people say, “I’m a Christian and all, but I don’t go to church...”  In light of God’s word, such a statement is quite damning. It’s no sin to doubt someone’s Christianity when he or she refuses to follow God’s commands.
   We do not get to decide which of God’s commands and God’s judgments to follow. We must obey all of them, and continually seek His mercy for when we fail.
   In Matthew 7, Jesus is warning His disciples about folks who may give “lip-service” toward spiritual things, but show by their lives that they have no desire for the true things of God, or to repent and serve Christ the King.
   As God’s people, it is our duty to proclaim God’s truth and be discerning as we apply it in all our interactions.
 
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