How Can I Believe the Gospel?

There are many preconceived ideas about God that are wrong. For example, when Pete suffers a tragedy in his life, someone says, “God is punishing him. He had it coming.”

When Mary gets a huge promotion in her work, her parents respond, “God is rewarding her for being such a fine person.” I think one would be hard pressed to find Biblical support for these statements.

From where do these distorted views come? Well, it could have been learned on the street. It may be some of our own logic that has convinced us that right is always rewarded, and wrong is punished.

Is there any way the church can correct some of these ideas about God? If it has caught the attention of the world, how we point people to a God who loves them, whose love is revealed in his grace?

Your church friend is confused about his faith in God. He says, “I went to Mel Gibson’s move, The Passion. The message was clear, and I got the point of the story. Christ had taken the sins of the world upon himself. If we will confess our sins and trust him, we are forgiven. Peter said it well: ÔHe himself bore our sins in his body on the tree . . . .’ It shows us the seriousness of sin. However, I have a problem with someone dying vicariously for me. Works righteousness is much easier to understand. It fits in well with the old adage that there is no free lunch.”

Another person is having problems accepting the Biblical message. She says, “I picked up a copy of Rick Warren’s book, The Purpose Driven Life. A quotation like the following catches my eye: ÔThis life is not all there is. Life on earth is just the dress rehearsal before the real production.’ Warren quotes Abraham Lincoln as saying, ÔSurely God would not have created such a being to live only for a day! No, no, man was made for immortality.'”

Your friend replies, “I like the idea of life after death. I have lost so many members of my family prematurely. I feel they have been cheated. If there is another life, that will help me to make up for what they have lost here. My problem is, how can I know for sure that there is another life?”

A common confession from one who is seeking God is heard in these words: I am not a Christian, but I would like to be. I am really interested. I would love to believe the message you Christians call the Gospel. I am open. Help me.

There must have been people with the same concerns in Corinth. Paul is giving them some answers to their questions. Those answers come from Paul’s inspired pen, and they can help people with the same questions today. The answers come from God’s revelation.

Listen to these words: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.” Isaiah, the Prophet wrote this truth. The Gospel is not a product of the human mind. It comes from revelation.

Paul writes, “God has revealed these answers to us by the Holy Spirit.” You might ask, who does the “us” refer to in this statement? It refers to the Biblical writers. Peter writes, “Scripture never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (I Peter 1:21).

John Stott says, “God is the author of revelation, the Spirit is the agent, and the apostles are its recipients. The Biblical writers proclaim this message and then write it down. It then becomes the inspired Word of God that stands forever. This Word is the same yesterday, today, and forever. It is not to be changed by any person or culture. This is an essential truth for those who are Christian. I cannot understand all that is written in the Bible. It is revelation and not limited to what my small mind can comprehend.”

Now here is the encouraging word for the hearer of the Scriptures: The Word of God carries with it the power to open our eyes and our hearts, and these Scripture passages become living truths. Jesus is God. Jesus is Savior. On the cross He paid the price for my sins. He promises us the assurance of our salvation as his child. The Scriptures, the history books, and our daily contacts put us in touch with people who have been converted from unbelief to trusting Jesus Christ for all that he has promised them. We soon learn the truth of the Bible verse that says, “Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17).

How can I believe the Gospel? Live with God’s revelation. Your lifestyle may not make sense to some of your friends and relatives. However, it will empower you to live and die as his child.

What Kind of Church Should I Join?

Our grandson recently accepted a job in Chicago. As a concerned grandfather I asked him if he knew where in the big city he would be worshiping.

“Yes,” he replied. “I know where I plan to worship, and it is my intention not just to be a drop-in. I plan to join the congregation as soon as possible. During my four years at the university I attended a wonderful church, but I never joined. Consequently, I felt like an outsider. Now that I am employed, it is important that I become a member of the church and assume my responsibilities as a part of the congregation.”

When I asked what criteria he had used in selecting this congregation, he answered, “The first criterion is faithfulness to the message of God’s Word. I have listened to the pastor of this church preach and appreciated his sermons.”

When he mentioned the pastor’s name, I said, “But this is not the denomination in which you were raised.”

He replied, “No, and I will have some doctrinal differences with this church. However, I can accept this in order to hear the Law and the Gospel each Sunday. I need to hear the absolutes of God’s Word, and I need to hear the message of the cross and resurrection.”

I thought, what would his great grandparents have thought? Their own flesh and blood was joining a congregation not affiliated with the denomination where our family has worshiped for any years. We have come to a time where tradition is not as important as it once was. Today we ask questions such as, What is the congregation’s message, and What is its mission? I have no doubt in my mind that, if our grandson’s work takes him to other communities during his life, he will seek out a congregation where he feels his soul is being nourished and he can serve his Lord.

Many find it shocking to see people move from one congregation to another. Perhaps it is shocking, but is it not healthy that belonging to a congregation is more than just following the family tradition? I will always be partial, but not limited, to the denomination in which I spent my entire life. This church has introduced me to my Savior and fed me with the Bread of Life. Nevertheless, if my children and grandchildren must go elsewhere for the same blessing, then so be it.

Now listen to the Apostle Paul. Speaking to pastors and teachers he says, “Men ought to regard us as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the secret things of God. Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful. I care very little that I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me.”

If you are one of those people whose attention has been caught by the Church since 9/11, you might be asking yourself, what am I looking for in a church?

You need a church that each Sunday presents Christ crucified and risen from the dead. This is the Gospel that feeds your soul and assures you of your relationship with God. He has taken away your sins and restored you into fellowship with God. This is the unique message of the Church.

You need a church where the Holy Spirit is active. He is the One who will be your teacher, guide, encourager, and strength when facing the big decisions of life. He will be your counselor when problems arise in your marriage. He will give you strength to stand firm when confronted with ethical decisions about what is right and wrong. He is the One who will give you a heart for the poor, lonely, and those treated unjustly. He is the One who will give you a true sense of values and make you a dynamic witness for Christ.

You need to be a part of a congregation that will provide you with brothers and sisters in Christ who will become your closest friends. Your church should be a place that will assist you in the raising of your children Ð one with a Sunday school and youth programs that will make the Christian message clear to your sons and daughters. It should be a sanctuary where you can retreat to gain spiritual strength to face the temptations of the day.

A congregation fashioned after the culture of its day is not adequate. Culture changes and seeks to change everything within its reach, including the mission of the church. However, God’s Word is not one of these parts of life that needs to change with culture. His Word never changes.

There are many great churches Ð some small and some large Ð that have this Biblical message. This is where you should belong if you want to be a person of God.

Who Will You Find in the Church?

As we continue discussing questions that people are asking regarding the church, we find a common one from unchurched people: Who would I find in the church Sunday morning?

Imagine walking into the church in Corinth in the year 55 A.D. By that time the church is five years old. You could well meet Gaius, a wealthy man. There would be Crispus, who was once the ruler of the synagogue. Then there would be Erastus, the city’s director of public works. There would be other wealthy people in the congregation. However, most of the members would be very ordinary people. Paul describes them in the following way: “Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.”

John Stott, in his book, “Basic Christian Leadership,” says most of the Christians in the Corinthian church were uneducated, insignificant, poor, and socially despised.” Only a few of the members came from the middle or upper class.

Why did God choose the ordinary or below ordinary people to be the founders of His church in Corinth? His answer is, “He chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things Ð and the things that are not Ð to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God Ð that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: ÔLet him who boasts boast in the Lord.'”

God was changing these Corinthian Christians through faith in Christ Jesus. They were beginning to have an understanding of their self worth.

¥ They were learning that in God’s eyes they were precious and important people, not because of what they had or had not done, but because of who they were.

¥ They were created in the image of God. That meant they had a mind with which they could think, and thus were responsible people.

¥ They were not only a body that would soon disappear, but also a soul that is eternal.

With this understanding of their personal worth, God was replacing some of their natural crudeness. They began to have a new sense of values, exercise their talents, become financially able to take care of themselves in better fashion, and help care for others. Five years of walking with Christ made a real difference in these people’s lives!

That is the way it is. Walk with God and he will make great changes in your life.

So in Corinth you would have met a group of people who confessed Jesus as their Savior and Lord. Their lives were committed to Him, and they were living in a personal relationship with God. Their faith was growing stronger day by day, and their commitment to Jesus Christ had much greater depth.

Now you may ask if the church in America today is the same as it was in Corinth in the year 55 A.D. The answer is, yes and no.

Yes, Christian people all trust Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord. They are committed to Him, and they live in a personal relationship with Him. They are people whom the Holy Spirit is changing as He speaks to them through the Word of God. This is what it means to be a Christian in the Biblical sense of the word. It matters not what the year is.

The second answer is no. Two thousand years of Christianity has changed many generations. Christ has invaded every section of the population. Today there are prominent people in the church. Charles Grassley is a dear friend of mine. He is a member of the U.S. Senate with huge responsibilities in that body. Chuck is a faithful member of his church in our town. Occasionally I have preached in that church and each Sunday that he is in town, the senator sits in his pew. God has called him to be a witness to others in his peer group.

In our day, we find many educated people in the church. I live in a university town, which is an exciting place to live. I preached very Sunday to many people with Ph.D. degrees. I remember one evening having dinner with Dr. M. J. Nelson, academic vice-president of the university. That evening I told Martin Nelson that, as a young pastor, I was often nervous preaching to such an academic person as he. Dr. Nelson got up from his chair, walked across the room, and placed his hand on my shoulder. Looking at me he said, “Pastor, when I come to church, I came as a babe in Christ and need to be fed with the Word of God. You are feeding me well. God bless you!” Wow! What an encouragement for a young pastor.

A few days ago in conversation with a retired surgeon, I asked, “What do you expect from the pulpit when you come to the worship service?” With a puzzled look on his face, I explained that he was a very well-educated and prominent person, and I thought that maybe he had different needs than the average person has. He answered, “I come to be biblically fed. My needs are the same as any persons’ needs.”

Unlike many people who feel the intelligence must be crucified, history books and present day church membership witness to the fact that church membership in 2004 is quite different from the year 55 A.D.

It seems that since World War II, church membership has changed as more opportunities have been offered to our citizens. The church in which I was raised had few formally educated people. Many left school when they completed the eighth grade. Some went through high school, but I cannot recall one member who was a college graduate. Most of our people worked in a paper mill. They knew the Lord. They were intelligent. They just never had the opportunity to further their education.

When I became acquainted with rural churches early in my ministry, I found most of the members had little formal education. They were intelligent farmers, financially very successful, and not necessarily prominent in society. However, many of them said proudly, “What I did not have, my children will have.” They sent them off to college and the university. Today many of these sons and daughters from the farms are leaders in both church and society. I was delighted to read that 83% of the 2003 high school graduates have now completed their first year of higher education in some type of educational institution.

In the midst of this society we face two dangers. First, let us never forget that with all of our learning, we are babes in Jesus Christ. God’s Word still stands and cannot be interpreted in the light of our culture. We must be the ones who influence culture and not the other way around, as some would have it.

Second, as we advance in knowledge, let us never forget that the ordinary person is still just as important to God as anyone else.

As Abe Lincoln said, “God loved the ordinary man. That is why He made so many of us.” God loves all people and we can become some of God’s greatest witnesses.

Where’s The Power?

We see a love for power in the world of business. Wal-Mart has built a large superstore in our community. It is a beautiful store. You can purchase everything from a hot dog to a diamond ring there. There is so much power in this organization that many smaller stores cannot compete. This is supposedly success.

As a member of a hospital board, the board members were told that we needed to affiliate with a larger health system to be competitive in delivering good services to the patients. Here, again, we see the importance of bigness, which breeds power.

Power has also affected the Church. The world is impressed with the mega churches. The members of our congregation, which has 4,500 members, tell us about their wonderful experiences of worshiping at Saddleback Church or the Crystal Cathedral, both in southern California. These churches have thousands of members. These huge congregations have beautiful buildings, outstanding music, and a church program that have something for everybody.

We need these churches, but when we ask the visitors where the power in these large churches comes from, many will say that it has to be in the organization itself. “That senior pastor would have been a success in whatever he did. He was a leader.” Does that then mean that the little church on the corner with two hundred members and an average pastor has little to offer its members? If this is true, then the smaller churches in America have little effect on the communities (and ultimately the nation) in which they are found. This is not true, for the spiritual giants of our nation did not all come from the large congregations. They came from that little church on the corner, which could not boast of many facilities that would capture the attention of the crowd.

God’s Word tells us where the power of the church is to be found. Paul writes, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

Perhaps the church has confused the world about where its power is. If so, let us apologize and set the record straight. Listen to these words of John Stott, “Power is more intoxicating than alcohol, more addictive than drugs. I confess to being frightened by the contemporary evangelical hunger for power, even the quest for the power of the Holy Spirit. Why do you want to receive power? Is it honestly power for witness, as in Acts 1:8, or holiness, or a humble service? Or is it in reality a mask for personal ambition, a craving to boost our own ego, to minister to our own self importance, to impress, to dominate, or to manipulate? For some evangelism is a disguised form of imperialism, since it builds human empires instead of the kingdom of God. Only one imperialism is Christian, and that is a concern for His imperial Majesty, the Lord Jesus Christ, a longing for the glory of his kingdom, for the honor of his name.”

These are words that we in the church need to give serious consideration.

The world must hear loud and clear that the power of the church is in the message of the cross. We are created in God’s image with a will to say, “No, God. I do into want to live according to your word.” We fall into sin. This sin separates us from God, and we are out of relationship with God. However, God is not willing that any should perish. So Christ has come to suffer and die for our sins. This is the message of the cross. Christ has taken our sins on Himself, and if we will repent and receive Him as our Savior, our relationship with God is restored.

From this point the relationship with Christ grows. Paul says, “If anyone is in Christ he is a new creation, the old has passed away and the new has come.” We become new people. Our behavior has changed. Our purpose in living is new. Our sense of values gives us a new understanding of what is important during these few years we have on this planet. The gospel has the power to change people and thus this world. Our nation needs to experience this power. Only then can we approach being whole.

As glorious as this message is, the Bible tells us that not all who hear it will come to faith in Christ. For the Jews, the Gospel was a stumbling block. They looked for a savior who would become their warrior and free them not from sin, but from the power of the Romans.

The Greeks thought the Gospel was foolishness. “It does not make sense,” is what the rationalists declare, whether it is declared in the first century or the twenty-first century. Some believe the Gospel is only one way to heaven. Some wonder about a heavenly home. If they conclude another life is waiting for us when these days are over, all people will be included in this salvation, regardless of faith or not. It is a universalistic type of salvation.

However, Paul gives us a positive statement when he declares, “But to those who are being saved, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.”

Our message is this: Listen, world! The most powerful place in your community is the church of Jesus Christ IF it proclaims the message of the cross Ð Christ crucified and risen. Receive Him into your life and you will be his forever. In Christ a security is there that takes the fear out of living. Christ walks with you. He comforts you in difficult times. He continues to change you.

Walk into the hospital, and they will fix your knee or your heart giving you a few more years of enjoyable living. Walk into a place of business with enough money to buy anything you want Ð house, automobile, vacation, boat, recreational equipment Ð and you will have the toys of life. However, none of these possessions will give you peace and joy in your soul that will be long lasting. At this point you need Christ, who can give you a peace that passes all understanding.

Not long ago I heard a documentary on President George W. Bush. This is not intended to endorse any political candidate. However, I was impressed with a statement from him. He was being quizzed regarding his Christian faith. The President said, “I am a Christian. Jesus Christ lives in my heart. I cannot explain it to you any further. It is something you have to experience.”

This pretty much answers the question, where is the power in the church. It is in the cross of Jesus Christ. That message can soften the hardest heart and convert the most wayward life.

The Inconsistency in the Church

There was a time in my ministry when I wondered if anyone cared very much about what was going on in the church. The interests were in business, industry, agriculture, politics, and athletics. People showed little interest in the church. Religion was for those who wished to spend an hour in the worship service Sunday morning. A relationship with God did not have a high priority in the lives of most people.

Today I believe the church has caught the attention of the world. The media devotes a considerable amount of time to what is happening in the church. We are not very proud about what caused renewed interest in the church. However, the news became headlines in America’s largest papers. Sexual perversion among clergy catches the attention not only of church members, but also of people outside the church. The world asks how this perversion can take place among people who profess to be servants of Christ.

People, who at best admire the Bible for its poetic beauty and high set of morals and ethics, ask how those of us in the church, who say the Bible is the inspired word of God and the only authority in matters of faith and life, can be divided on blessing same-sex marriages and ordaining practicing homosexuals. According to the Bible, marriage is between a man and a woman, and the practice of homosexuality is sin. Yet, we are giving these subjects serious study. The possibility is that in some main line denominations same-sex marriages will be blessed and practicing gays will be ordained. To the world this seems inconsistent.

The subject of abortion has been with us for several decades now. Again the world asks, If you believe life begins at conception, why are you not united in voice and action against abortion? Is this not murder? Again this makes the church ambiguous in its witness to the world.

As the political campaign heats up, the world does not know how to evaluate a candidate’s statements: “I am a Christian. However, I would never let my faith interfere with my duties as an officer of the state.” Then he chuckles and says that the Christian faith does not have a great hold on his soul.

There is a more positive way in which the church has caught the attention of the world. Many people in America know much more about Christianity today than they did one year ago. I give all human credit for this to Mel Gibson and Rick Warren.

Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion, has made it clear that Jesus suffered and died for the sins of the world. It also clearly teaches that those who receive Christ have been forgiven of their sins. This is the core of the Gospel. What a message it is for the world to hear! They might not receive the message, but they have heard it.

Within the last few months, Rick Warren’s book, “The Purpose Driven Life,” has been read by millions of Americans. This book explores a personal relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ. It reminds the reader that, compared with eternity, this life is very brief. In his confrontive style, Warren writes about being a servant of Christ and reminds his readers of Jesus’ statement, “You cannot serve God and mammon.” To be God’s servant you first have to settle the money question.

Today the church of Jesus Christ lives in a tense climate. Are we courageous enough to examine ourselves and honestly ask what the world is seeing as it looks at the church? Do we have Biblical answers for their questions? It is a marvelous opportunity to make the truths of God’s Word known to unbelieving people. The haunting thought is, is the church ready for such an assignment? I sometimes have to wonder if the Bible is still God’s inspired word and the authority in matters of faith and life for much of main-line Protestantism.

A certain portion of the Bible presents the church in a similar setting. The young church in Corinth lived in a setting much like the church in America today. While I was giving much thought to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church, I was given a book, “Basic Christian Leadership,” by John Stott. Dr. Stott’s book presents a detailed study of the early chapters of I Corinthians. Some of the Biblical thoughts presented in these chapters have captured my attention. So for the next few weeks I will share some of these Biblical truths with you in my sermons. The general theme for this series of sermons is The Church Under Scrutiny.

I will refer to Dr. Stott’s study. In no way do I want to be guilty of plagiarism. Those who know me realize I am not capable of having such insights as will come forth in these sermons. If I misinterpret Dr. Stott, he should not be blamed. I thank God for giving us Biblical scholars like Stott, who carries some of the highest academic credentials, and yet is so faithful to the Bible. We pastors are generalists who need these insights to communicate to the worshiping congregation. I urge you to purchase this book, “Basic Christian Leadership,” by John Stott, and study it in depth.

Corinth was a part of the Roman Empire. Stott describes the city in this way, “Corinth was a busy, thriving, affluent, proud, and permissive city. Merchants and sailors, pilgrims and athletes, tourists and prostitutes jostled one another in its narrow streets.”

Paul organized a Christian congregation in this city. Here lived a group of people whom Paul called the Church of God in Corinth, the divine and the human community. Stott described the congregation as a “fragrant flower growing in and out of a smelly mud.” Like the Christian church in America today, the Corinthian church was pulled between two influences: being faithful to God and following the ways of the flesh. Within the groups there were many inconsistencies. They claimed to love each other, and yet there was jealousy and quarreling among them. They professed to live the pure life, but in actuality sexual immorality plagued the congregation. Theoretically they were united, and yet there were many divisions among these Christians.

Their professions and their lifestyles caused the Corinthians who were not Christian to ask, “What goes with these people? They talk one way and act another.” Is this not a familiar comment in our nation?

Yes, we are often hypocritical. We are not perfect people. Billy Graham has often said, “If you find a perfect church, join it. But remember, the day you join it, it ceases to be perfect!” While we admit the church is far from perfect, we must not tolerate all manners of sin and error in the church.

John Newton has described himself well as a Christian. “I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world. But still, I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God, I am what I am.”

Our church must tell the world we are sinners. This sin threw us out of a relationship with God. However, God loved us so much He came into this world in the person of Jesus Christ and died for the world’s sin. When I receive Christ as my Savior, my sins are forgiven, and I am restored into fellowship with God. I have experienced God’s grace. I am not perfect. I will never be perfect while in this life, but God’s forgiveness is new every day.

Yet, neither can we as Christians lull ourselves to sleep in the grace of God. We cannot hang on to Biblical teachings that fit our liking and discard those that are not in harmony with the culture of our world or our own likings. God is continually changing us. Paul said it well, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away, and the new has come.” We are changing people.

Each generation is faced with its own challenges. Prior to World War II, the church held a very Biblical position on divorce and remarriage. Divorce was not culturally acceptable. Then came the war, and our society experienced a fruit-basket upset. No longer were people marrying just among people of their own type. Husbands and wives came from different backgrounds, and often had different values. Marriages were not as easy to hold together, and divorce became rampant. What was the church’s position? Gradually we accepted divorce. Today many of our children are being raised in single-parent homes.

Now we face another demand from our culture. The church must look at same-sex marriages. Is it permitted in Scripture? Of course not. The Bible is clear that marriage is a union between a man and a woman. Well, then, the world asks how we can give this demand of culture any serious consideration. The voices in the churches are becoming stronger every day as they set Biblical teachings aside and listen to the demands of society. We are interpreting the Scriptures in the light of culture’s demands.

What will happen? I fear history will repeat itself, and in another fifty years we will accept same-sex marriages as another way for people to live. This is the ambiguity in the church. Many church members have become complacent, but those who are committed to the Lord Jesus cannot let this type of disrespect for Biblical teachings continue. What the future holds for the church is debatable. However, one does not have to have great prophetic powers to predict that organized Christianity, as we know it, is about to split if evangelical Christians are going to remain true to the Scriptures. Enough is enough.

To our world looking in on us we say this: In Christ we are God’s people, redeemed in Jesus Christ. We are not perfect. You will find hypocrisy in all of us. Nevertheless, we have truly entered a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Our greatest desire is to overcome our sins and be faithful witnesses to him and what he has revealed in the Scriptures.

To you in the world who have not tasted of God’s grace, Christ invites you to become a part of His Church by receiving Him as your Savior and Lord. Then join those who still take God’s Word seriously as the authority in matters of faith and life.