An Unnecessary “Strange Fire”

 

I was greatly saddened this week to hear that prominent pastor and author John MacArthur held a national conference he called “Strange Fire” to attack and denounce charismatic Christians.

MacArthur has long been a staunch advocate for the “Cessationist” point of view, which holds that certain gifts of the Spirit ceased at the death of the apostles. The Strange Fire conference coincides with the release of his book by the same name. It is his third book attacking the charismatic movement.

Though labels are problematic, there is truth in the over-simplifcation that Evangelicals believe in the necessity of conversion through personal faith in Jesus, the authority of the Bible and that the role of the Holy Spirit is to make us like Jesus (holiness). Charismatics also believe the same things, plus that the Holy Spirit plays an active role in a Christian’s life by giving us the spiritual gifts listed in the Bible for the ministry of Jesus.

Over the last 100 years most of the growth of the Christian Church worldwide has been in the “charismatic” wing. As MacArthur noted, there are now about 500 million Pentecostal/charismatic believers world-wide., and he does not like this one bit.

That is disappointing.

One of most encouraging developments in the Church over the last 40 years has been the tumbling of the walls people built between the evangelical and charismatic segments of the Church. That growing unity allowed greater missional cooperation, not to mention a healthier testimony to the world.

MacArthur seems bent not just on rebuilding the walls of separation, but on eliminating the charismatic movement altogether. Through his conference and upcoming book, he attacks it as “a farce and a scam”, saying nothing good has come from the charismatic movement or theology, that they do not worship in a God-honoring way, that they do not hold nor value sound doctrine, and more.

It appears to me that their greatest “sin” is that they do not believe exactly as John  MacArthur does.

Some of MacArthur’s statements indicate that his passion to stamp out charismatic Christianity is trumping his judgement.

For example, he said “if you criticize them [charismatics], if you endeavor to be vigilant and discerning, and if you endeavor to contend for the truth and hold them to Scripture and expose their error, they will condemn you as the sinner … How do I know that? I have lived that.”

MacArthur apparently doesn’t see this is exactly what he is doing himself. If someone claims to have experienced and ministered with a gift of the Spirit that he doesn’t believe in, he condemns them as heretical, unsound doctrinally and worse.

He said, “We are not trying to divide the Body of Christ by this conference, we are trying to identify the Body of Christ.” Can he really believe that anyone who doesn’t line up with his teaching on spiritual gifts is not a part of the Body of Christ?

It is surprising that MacArthur lumps all charismatics together as if they are all the same, and then calls out the abuses of some to characterize them all. No movement can withstand such treatment.

* Are there some charismatics who worship with an emotion ungrounded in biblical truth? Of course.

Yet are there some Evangelicals who worship with a cold, dead orthodoxy? Absolutely.

* Are there some Pentecostals who teach unbiblical concepts? Certainly.

Has error or heresy ever cropped up in Evangelical churches? Without question.

* Have there ever been abuses in the use of spiritual gifts in charismatic circles? Yes.

Yet there have been abusive practices of other kinds in Evangelical churches too.

The reality is that there are 500 million pentecostal/charismatics in the world because they are lit with a fire to share their faith. Evangelical leaders regularly urge people to read their Bibles and to share their faith, but it is those who testify of an experience of the Holy Spirit who are actually doing it.

Charismatic and Evangelical believers have so much in common. It is very sad to see someone wage war on fellow believers when the world is in such desperate need of Jesus. And the Church needs all the tools (spiritual gifts) God provides in order to fulfill the mission of Jesus in the world.

If I’d have to pick a label  for Crossroads (which I usually resist doing) I’d use Rich Nathan’s term and say we are “Empowered Evangelicals”. We adhere to the evangelical’s primacy of scripture as well as use all the gifts of the Spirit. In the process we try to steer away from the abuses of either camp.

I call John MacArthur my brother in Christ, though I am not sure he’d label me his. None the less, I love John and pray God’s best on him.

MacArthur has a valid point that the global charismatic movement needs to call divergent teachers back to the grounding of the scriptures. But to deny that the Holy Spirit is doing something remarkable in the world today is myopic at best. An unbiased reading of the book of Acts and the letters of Paul would not naturally lead one to conclude that Christ-followers who see God heal the sick, speak in tongues, encourage and build up people through biblical prophetic words or see miraculous works done are not part of the body of Christ.

J.I. Packer is a highly respected evangelical writer and professor who is decidedly not charismatic. He wrote a lengthy scholarly paper on the charismatic renewal in which he concludes:

“Though theologically uneven (and what spiritually significant movement has not been?) the charismatic renewal should commend itself to Christian people as a God-sent corrective of formalism, institutionalism and intellectualism; as creatively expressing the gospel by its music and worship style, its praise-permeated spontaneity and bold ventures in community; and as forcing all Christendom, including those who will not take this from evangelicals as such, to ask: What then does it mean to be a Christian, and to believe in the Holy Spirit? Who is Spirit-filled? Are they? Am I? With radical theology inviting the church into the barren wastes of neo-Unitarianism, it is (dare I say) just like God—the God who uses the weak to confound the mighty—to have raised up, not a new Calvin or John Owen or Abraham Kuyper, but a scratch movement, cheerfully improvising, which proclaims the divine personhood and power of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit not by great theological eloquence, originality or accuracy, but by the power of renewed lives creating a new, simplified, unconventional and uncomfortably challenging life-style.” (from Theological Reflections on the Charismatic Movement)

Let’s work together to share Jesus with a dying world.

 

Sandy Hook Questions

Sandy Hook Questions

At last weekend’s services we prayed for the parents and responders to the shootings at Sandy Hook, and I addressed the tragedy during the message. (You can hear it on our website if you missed it.) This shooting is a vivid expression of evil, but Jesus’ power is greater than all other powers.

This tragedy causes us to ask many deep questions that we couldn’t address in one service. So, I’d like to share some thoughts with you about some of those questions.

Where was God?

He was there in the room with those children and teachers.

At Christmas we marvel again at “God with us”; that in Jesus God entered our world in all of its joy and pain. That means he was in Sandy Hook school the day of the shooting and he is there today.

The book of Acts records that when Stephen was being killed for his faith, he looked up and saw the Lord Jesus in heaven. The Lord helped Stephen transition from this life to the next not in terror but in wonder.

I believe that God met those children (and adults) in their final moments. I believe he and his angels escorted those children into his presence, comforting them as He did so.

Jesus said that God cares deeply for children, and I believe he did not leave them alone in those tragic moments, just as the teachers did not.

How could this be God’s plan?

It wasn’t. It was sin.

Not everything that happens on earth is the will of God. (By definition sin is an act against God’s will). That is why Jesus taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” That prayer would make no sense if everything that happened was already the will of God.

This doesn’t mean God was surprised by this; He knows everything before it occurs.

Romans 8:28 still applies; God can take even this evil and cause good to come from it. That is not to say that everything happens for the best; it does mean God’s work in our lives is not defeated by evil.

He didn’t cause this tragedy, but it is true he didn’t prevent it.

Why didn’t God stop this?

Consider a world where God steps in to stop all sin. Since we all sin regularly, what would life look like on this planet? If God stopped only certain sins, which should he stop and which actions would he permit?

We are created in the image of God, which includes having free will. We don’t move through life like robots in a script. He will allow us to receive or reject him and his ways. He will also let us experience the results of both our actions and those of people around us.

God allowed Adam and Eve to sin. He didn’t step in to prevent the sin that caused the entire human race to be chained to death and sin. But he did intervene in Jesus to make a way of redemption.

God knows the pain of those parents in Sandy Hook. He allowed his own Son to be killed by unjust and cruel people. And yet Jesus’ death made the way for redemption and life forever, a life those children in Sandy Hook now know fully.

What is our world coming to?

This shooting highlights the reality that we live in a broken world. As God’s people, we are his instruments to push back the darkness. As we love a broken world, we can see His light penetrate the darkness.

Your efforts for Christ make a difference. Each person we reach with the gospel, each need we meet, will help God’s kingdom to come. Small things done with great love will change the world.

We need not live in fear; we serve the risen King of the universe. Hug your children, and if they ask questions about this, assure them that there are many adults keeping them safe. And pray not only that they will be safe, but that they will fulfill God’s purposes for their lives. As we daily say “yes” to the prompts of the Spirit there will be less brokenness and more of God’s will done here on earth.

I know these few paragraphs cannot fully address all the complexities of this tragedy. I’m praying for you that God will speak to you exactly where you need to hear from him. May his peace embrace you this holy season.

 

Dying to Live

Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, died recently at the age of 82.

Not many know that Neil Armstrong and his fellow crew members did not expect to return alive from their mission. Such a large number of untested procedures had to go exactly right that the margin of error was exceedingly low. For example, if the rockets didn’t fire just right on their lunar module, the men would have been stranded on the moon forever.

Armstrong was asked why he went on the mission, given his assumption that he would die. He replied that he considered it an honor to sacrifice his life for his country.

Because Neil Armstrong was willing to lose his life, he had an amazing experience no other human had ever experienced. He also helped the United States to make huge scientific advances.

Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Matt. 16:24)

If we are unwilling to take a risk of obedience to Jesus, we will not see his power displayed. If we are unwilling to let our desires come second to His, we will not see His will be done through us.

But when we are ready to say “yes” to what ever He calls us to, then we will find a new life and power.

For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. (Matthew 16:25)

 

Child of God or Servant of God?

Jesus was uniquely satisfied. Are we?

Jesus’ fulfillment came from knowing he was the beloved Son of the Father and from doing God’s work in the world. Both are essential for us, too.

From time to time I meet believers who express a spiritual discontent, dryness or boredom. I am sure many more experience this but don’t express it. Could it be that we are not centered on the two realities which gave Jesus his inner fulfillment?

Sometimes we talk about the importance of knowing we are God’s children, and not just  being his servants. This is true, but I believe that in order to be fulfilled we need to both experience the unconditional love of being a child of God, but also the thrill of doing his work. Just one will not leave us healthy enough.

At the start of his ministry Jesus came up out of the waters of baptism to hear the voice of the Father say “This is my beloved Son…” What an experience! We each need to revel in the reality that through Christ we are adopted into our Heavenly Father’s family.

But if we focus only on “being” God’s child, we will miss out on so much that comes from engaging int eh mission of our Heavenly Father.

After speaking with the woman at the well (John 4) Jesus’ disciples arrived with food. He told them he had food they didn’t know about, which was to do the will and works of the Father. Then in the very next verse Jesus points to the harvest. In other words, the “work” Jesus was about was reaching people far from God, and He urges His followers to see the opportunity He does.

There are many ways to serve in the Kingdom of God. However, believers will be most fulfilled when they in some way are engaged in reaching people for Christ. In fact, the more directly one is doing this, the more fulfilled you will be. There is nothing quite like the thrill of helping to introduce someone to Jesus and see their life changed. All ministries are important, but they shouldn’t replace the front-line sharing of Christ.

If we are opening our hearts and minds to the reality that we are beloved children of God, and also participating in the harvest work, there will be lasting fulfillment.

 

Worry is…

Worry is paying a bill you have not received.

 

 

What the Penn State issue teaches leaders

The Penn State scandal is a vivid lesson to all of us who are leaders.

Even if you are not a college football fan, you have recently heard a lot about Penn State and Joe Paterno. Coach Paterno and several of the top administrators at Penn State have been accused of covering up (and thus enabling) the terrible child sexual abuse committed by former coach Jerry Sandusky.

As a result, the NCAA levied very stiff penalties on the football program and the university: $60 million fine, loss of bowl appearances, and football scholarships. Some have said the penalty is unjust because it punishes the wrong people; the current players, coaches and students did not commit these acts, but they are suffering consequences because of them.

I don’t wish to argue to whether the penalties were appropriate or not, I want to point out the leadership principle involved: namely, that the actions of leaders have consequences for others.

Leadership is influence. That means that what leaders do impacts others, whether positively or negatively. This should give all of us who are leaders a reason to pause.

The Old Testament describes some kings of Israel as good and others as evil. When the king was faithful to God, the nation prospered. When the king did evil, the nation suffered.  The average citizen of Israel was impacted by what the leader did (or didn’t) do. It is the nature of leadership.

The students and players are protesting that they didn’t do anything to deserve the loss of a chance to go to a bowl game this year, and they are correct. It was the poor decisions of leaders that caused that. But then again, they didn’t do anything to build Penn State’s facilities, endowment, or anything else that makes Penn State the great school they attend today. The decisions of past leaders resulted in those good benefits, as well.

The point is that leaders impact others in positive and negative ways. So, if you are a leader of a Little League team, small group, or a parent, your actions will impact others. But don’t fear, because the Lord will guide us as leaders as we look to Him. He alone is the perfect leader and King of Kings.

 

Where do habits get their power?

Habits are hard to break! That’s not a news flash, but it’s a reality I recently confronted again.

People who know me well tell me I have a type A personality. I guess it is true that I am very goal-oriented and often try to pack more into a day than 24 hours will allow.

But last year’s cardiac arrest taught me how to slow down and de-stress. I learned how to breathe more deeply, move more slowly, and to let go of stress more intentionally.

And yet, last week the tension-pain in my back told me I had slipped into old routines of hurry and stress. So, I have once again started the practices of “no hurry, no worry” – and leaning on the peace of the Holy Spirit! (And my back feels a lot better now!)

How could I have fallen back into old patterns after a wake-up call like a cardiaac arrest? Here’s my best understanding:

1. A little at a time — it didn’t happen all at once, so I didn’t notice it for a while.

2. Habits are strong because they are based on our assumptions and beliefs. When I am moving too fast to be healthy, it is because I believe I must do this or that or else… (what??) I assume it is the way things get accomplished…vor that it’s all up to me… etc.

So to break habits like rush and/or stress I need to pay attention to the little routines and not let myself drift, and especially to confront my thinking. Asking myself “why are you pressing?” can lead me to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit through His Word and not to the assumptions I’ve carried inside.

You may have different habits which creep up on you, but I wonder if they are rooted in the same places?

 

 

What Matters Most

I see an old but nonetheless troubling trend in the American Church today: some mistake their zeal for a theological “truth” as zeal for God.

I guess that was on my mind as I emailed a friend who is a man of God and growing greatly in his faith. Here is what I wrote to him (who I will call “Theophilus”)

 

Hi “Theophilus”,

Thanks for your thoughts.
I have a huge amount of reading and listening to do so I won’t have a chance to hear the sermons in the foreseeable future, but they sound like they seek to honor the Lord’s word through his scripture.
Since you are obviously seeking God and have been growing in Him, I thought I’d share a word with you as your pastor and friend.
In your desire to grow in Jesus, keep your focus on the targets God does: love and obedience to the voice of Jesus.
I have noticed that some, in a genuine desire to honor God, end up making right thinking on a wide variety topics their measure of spiritual maturity, thinking it pleases God. So they develop a long list of narrow doctrinal stances and declare people “in” or “out” based on that. This is not spiritual maturity.
I am not saying that [name of speaker] is doing this, since I don’t know him nor have I listened to his sermons. But it happens enough today that I wanted to share this with you.
I am not opposed to knowledge: I have a doctorate, study the Bible daily and read other books every day, too. I do think there are a few basic theological truths which we can’t waffle on.
However, God is much bigger than our theologies (we can’t contain him in our limited brains), and the Bible itself never says that agreeing to a long, detailed list of statements is the measure of maturity nor holiness. I have seen many change their minds about what they were once passionate about.
What is the mark of spiritual maturity? Love.
Jesus said Love God with all you have (yes, including your mind) and your neighbor as yourself. He said “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, that you love one another.”

1 John 4:7-8  Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.

Galatians 5:6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.

I’m not saying that doctrine is irrelevant, I’m just pointing out that making a long narrow list will not match God’s reality nor help us grow. Knowledge – using our minds – is part of following Christ, but we need to be humble on our opinions. We can’t love our doctrinal positions more than people nor more than God. 

1 Corinthians 8:1 – Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up.

Again, what really matters? Knowledge plays a part, but not the biggest part.

2 Peter 1:5-8 – For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; 6) and to knowledge, self-control: and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; 7 ) and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. 8) For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

 

In His love,

Steve

Would you still do it?

Most Christ followers in the Western world work on this equation: lead many to Christ = Success. Pastors who lead churches to grow large get invited to speak at conferences and seminars. Believers who win a lot of people to Christ are held up as models for others. The idea, I think, is to encourage others to do share the gospel and promote the goal of winning the world to Christ. Makes sense.

But, what if being really effective at sharing the gospel wouldn’t get you on a magazine cover but a prison sentence? What if starting a movement of Jesus would get you killed instead of promoted? Would you still do it?

That was the reality for the apostles. They brought multitudes to Christ, wrote the New Testament, saw miracles and got statues made of themselves by later generations. But before you apply for the job, let’s not forget that one of the marks of an apostle was to suffer for the Gospel. Jesus told Paul from the beginning that he would suffer for Him. And Paul went without food, was chased from town to town, imprisoned, ridiculed and eventually killed for his faith. I don’t think he even had a 401k or dental plan.

In some parts of the word, suffering is a reality for many who are leading movements of Jesus. There are believers in China who lead networks over literally millions. That’s a big church! But they also spend much of their time in jail or under government surveillance. Some workers I have heard and read about cannot be identified by name or place because of security concerns. They may lead movements of millions, but very few know about them. I am not only humbled by their commitment and obedience, but personally challenged.

Threats do not deter a true Spirit-led follower. Not even death threats. Why? Because he/she has already died. Jesus said “Anyone who would come after me must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” That is, we must die to ourselves – our plans, privileges, self-direction, etc. If someone is already dead, you can’t change their minds by threatening to take their life away – they already gave it away to Another!

Last year I had a cardiac arrest and was without a pulse on the floor of a gym. Only 7% of people who have cardiac arrest outside of a hospital live to tell about it. Not only did I live, but I have no heart damage and full energy once again (I ran 3 miles on Sunday). But I am aware that any life I have has been granted by God — so how can I do anything but say “yes” to whatever he wants of me?

The same is true for everyone, though. We were all dead in our trespasses and sins, but God made us alive again through Christ. So, let’s live today not for ourselves, but for Jesus. Let’s not evaluate His commands against our comfort and preferences, let’s remember we are already dead and thus have no preferences or claim to comfort. That is true living!

I am very aware that as an American pastor I don’t get penalized for sharing the faith or obeying Jesus (at least not much). BUt I don’t want to assume that will always be true.

What would you do for God if it really didn’t matter what your salary was, what people said, or where you lived?

 

 

The “God Particle” and Colossians

And now for a little particle physics.

This week scientists excitedly announced they had found evidence of the Higgs boson, a long-sought particle which they believed would explain some of the universe’s secrets.

Since I’m not up on my sub-atomic physics, I’ll let Professor Stefan Soldner-Rembold, from the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Manchester, England, explain.

“Scientists believe that in the first fraction of a second after the Big Bang, particles zipped around the universe at the speed of light with no mass, and no inertia. It was only through their interaction with the “Higgs field” that they acquired mass and were capable of forming the universe.”(http://bostinno.com/2012/07/06/what-is-god-particle-higgs-boson-definition)

In other words, it is the Higgs field which explains why things have mass — how matter comes to be. It is why your light bulb has mass and light doesn’t. It is a huge step in understanding the universe.

So why is it called the “God particle”? That’s actually a bit of an accident, but ultimately this discovery does not “replace” God. It doesn’t disprove that God created the universe. If the Higgs boson causes matter to form, where  did the Higgs boson come from?

It makes me think of Colossians 1:17, which says of Jesus, “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”