Results tagged “Witness” from Reformation21 Blog

Christianity: A Spiritual Contact Sport

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For followers of Christ in America, things are changing rapidly. If thirty years ago, you would have predicted where our culture would be on a variety of issues, no one would have believed you. And yet, here we are, with many aspects of the moral fabric of the culture spiraling down at breakneck speed.

A while back, I wrote some policies for how the church that I serve as pastor will handle marriage-related issues after the legalization of same-sex marriage. As I began articulating our beliefs on marriage, I originally wrote that we believe marriage is the union of one man and one woman. Suddenly it struck me--that definition is no longer clear enough. Rather, our documents needed to say one biological man and one biological woman. There were similar issues related to the current gender chaos, which demanded careful and nuanced language.

This is where we are in our culture. As I hear many Christians react to the changes in our culture, I hear panic in their voices. In fact, I would say that fear of the changes we are facing in the culture grips and controls many professing believers.

So, how do we respond to cultural declension and intimidation that we see happening? This is not a new question for Christians. Thankfully, we have a good roadmap in the Bible for how to deal with this. And the examples laid before us involve contexts that are far more difficult than the one we find ourselves in. One such example is Acts 4:1-31.

Cultural Intimidation

In the Book of Acts, the Gospel of Jesus Christ explodes and spreads at an exponential rate. Yet, that growth did not come without difficulty. It was not a comfortable path. As we begin Acts 4, Peter and John had just healed a man. After that healing, Peter and John preach the Gospel and they do so with boldness. As the crowds grow, the Temple Guard and the Sadducees have Peter and John arrested. They threaten and attempt to intimidate them.

The council of rulers, elders, and scribes asserted their power and authority over Peter and John. The next day the council questions them, "By what power do you do this?" (Acts 4:7). The council sought to show Peter and John that they have no power and should fall in line with their expectations. But their attempts at intimidation fail. When Peter and John are told no longer to speak and teach in the name of Jesus, they steadfastly refuse, "We cannot help but speak what we have seen and heard" (Acts 4:20).

Do you see the picture? Manipulation. Threats. Intimidation. Legal power. This has been faced before. Did you notice the courage? The boldness? It is possible to stand up against cultural intimidation. How? The Resurrection. Look at Peter. Before the cross, Peter denied Jesus three times--with cursing! And here he is, boldly refusing to bow to the intimidation. The Resurrection changes everything. Death has been defeated! Living in the reality of the Resurrection is what makes us bold in the moment of cultural intimidation.

Gospel Courage

When Peter and John were released, they returned to the community of believers and tell them everything that happened. In response, they gather to pray. I wonder, if you were in their shoes, what would you pray for? Would you pray for safety? Protection? But that's not at all what they pray for. "And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness" (Acts 4:29).

They pray for boldness to continue speaking, even though they know that to continue preaching might mean ending up in prison again. When was the last time you prayed for courage rather than for your temporal deliverance? When did you last just pray, "Lord give me courage"? Have you ever?

Why do we lean toward prayers of comfort rather than prayers for courage? I think it all boils down to expectations. These believers still had the images of the cross of Christ fresh in their minds. Jesus told this little band of believers to go make disciple of the whole world.

They didn't think it would be easy. They didn't envision their spiritual lives as a spiritual vacation. They believed that they had been called as soldiers to spiritual war. They did not expect life to be problem free and stress-free. So when problems came, they prayed for the strength to face them with courage.

Imagine you are coaching a football team and after a few plays, your players come to the sidelines exasperated, "Coach! The problem is that they keep hitting us!" You would be perplexed. This is football. You get hit in football. If you don't want to get hit, don't play football. Too many Christians face cultural intimidation and ask "What's going on? Why is this happening?" Well, do you want to be a Christian? We must understand that Christianity is a spiritual contact sport. Expect to get hit.

Spiritual Vacation?

Where did we get the idea that we were saved for a spiritual vacation?

"For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places" (Ephesians 6:12).

We have not been saved for a spiritual vacation, but for spiritual war. Our cultural opponents are also our mission field. But what if we never ask for courage like the believers in Acts 4? What if we believe that Christianity saves us from having to have courage? Then we will respond to cultural intimidation with cowardice. We will attempt to sever our Christian life from the Christian mission. We will think that Christianity is about me being happier and more content and only occasionally are we called, on our own terms, to be sacrificially on mission.

These believers in Acts 4 saw their whole life as living out the mission. They existed to make much of Jesus and spread the Gospel. Many professing Christians have traded theology for sentimentality. They want convictions that cost them nothing. Only when we realize that Christianity is a spiritual contact sport, will we prepare for and ask for courage in the battle.

The Persecution Driven Life

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John Hooper, the English Reformer and pastor, was burned at the stake for his unwavering stand upon the truth of Scripture. In 1555, just three weeks prior to his martyrdom, John Hooper gave the following charge in a letter: "You must now turn all your thoughts from the peril you see, and mark the happiness that follows the peril...Beware of beholding too much the happiness or misery of this world; for the consideration and too earnest love or fear of either of them draws us from God."1

In 2 Timothy 3:12, Paul states, "All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted." Paul was deeply persuaded that conflict is inevitable between the righteousness lives of the saints and those living ungodly lives in the world. This is nothing less than a tension between light and darkness.

In the conclusion of his beatitude statements in Matthew 5, Jesus pronounces divine blessing upon those who suffer persecution because they exhibit the godly characteristics of the previous beatitudes. Jesus defines persecution as arising from two sources:

First, true disciples of Christ are persecuted "for righteousness" (Mt 5:10). The beatitude statements can be divided into two groups of four with each group ending with a reference to "righteousness." The first group concludes in verse 6, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness," and the second group in verse 10, "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake." The three beatitudes that lead to "hunger for righteousness" are descriptions of a type of holy emptiness--blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are those who mourn over their needy condition, and blessed are those who are meek and give their cause over to God. These three descriptions of need are fulfilled in the form of mercy, purity, and peacemaking. The inevitable result is persecution for this very righteousness. In other words, the righteousness exhibiting itself in the life of the Christian through the characteristics of mercy, purity, and peacemaking provokes violence in those who do not know Christ. The ungodly observe the righteous lives of believers as a condemnation upon their own unrighteous behavior. In response, they lash out in ridicule and sometimes through severe forms of persecution.

Second, true disciples of Christ are persecuted "on my [Jesus] account," or "because of me [Jesus]" (Mt 5:11). Jesus forewarned his followers of the type of treatment they could expect, "You will be hated by everyone because of my name" (Mt 10:22). In verse 11, Jesus is highlighting a Christological title with which believers identify and are persecuted for. According to Luke 6:2, it is the title "Son of Man," that may have instigated the particular offense of unbelievers. This title identifies Jesus as a King of heavenly origin who will reign over a universal and eternal kingdom and who is worthy of worship by all peoples of the earth. This declaration was regarded as blasphemous and proved to be the key to the final condemnation and death of Christ on the cross. The world is okay when believers identify Jesus as a moral teacher or a great leader, but when a Christian attributes divine authority, kingship, and universal rule to Jesus they become outraged and angry. Jesus was saying, "If you identify with me, if you proclaim me as the Son of God, if you proclaim me to be the rightful king, you will relentlessly face opposition, anger, and persecution from those who disagree." Jesus is saying that identification with him at this vital juncture of confession of him to be the "Son of Man," us what gives the righteousness of the Christian its distinct character.

Jesus proceeds in Matthew 5:11 by offering three expressions of persecution that his disciples experience in this world. First, he says they will "revile you," which means that opponents of Christian righteousness and the gospel will mock and verbally shame you. Second, the word "persecute" in verse 11 means "to run after, pursue, or run out." The idea is that the disciples of Christ may be pursued from town to town with the evil intention of violently abusing them or turning them over to the authorities for prosecution. Third, verse 11 states they "will utter all kinds of evil against you falsely." This means that the persecutors of Jesus' followers will raise false allegations against them that have no basis but are in reality imagined lies.

A life devoted to righteousness and godliness will be persecuted or reviled or spoken against, because your holy life is an indictment against their sinful one. The reason for persecution is holy, hot, blazing righteousness and a committed devoted relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. In Matthew 5:10-12, Jesus is blessing those who have identified with him and saying in response, "You are mine!"

Thomas Watson, the great Puritan writer, said of Christians, "Though they be ever so meek, merciful, pure in heart, their piety will never shield them from suffering. They must hand their harp on the willows and take up the cross. The way to heaven is by the way of thorns and blood. Set it down as a maxim, if you will follow Christ, you will see the swords and staves. Put the cross in your creed."

Does this describe you? Are you ready to face opposition and persecution in order to identify with the Lord Jesus Christ in every way? For those who are free in Christ and joyful in persecution are indeed the "salt of the earth" and the "light of the world."


1. John Hopper, "A Letter Which Master Hooper Did Write to Certain of His Friends," The Church of England Magazine (London: James Burns, 1836) p. 382 

 
In 2011, hip hop artist, Shai Linne, released his album, titled, "The Attributes of God." In one of his songs, "Taste and See," he said, "The world is not subtle, why should we be subliminal?" Good question - why? I believe many Christians are conditioned to retreat into the cocoon of quietness. "Don't talk about religion," many people say. Therefore, in an attempt to keep peace with our neighbor in the world, we embrace that mantra. But "the world is not subtle, why should we be subliminal?"

I wear Christianity on my sleeve. That is what helps me evangelize. Whether it is with my neighbors or those whom I newly meet in the marketplace, I look for ways to insert my religion and declare the gospel (Col. 4:4-5). Depending on the circumstances, the way I approach the conversation may look different. Regardless of my approach, however, I do not want to seem forceful. In other words, I do not desire to fit an unbeliever's image of what it looks like to "force my religion down his throat." That is a difficult balance, and in some cases it is unavoidable, as the mere mention of Jesus may seem like you are being forceful. In those instances, there is really nothing you can do.

One of the things that helps me share my faith and invite people to church, all of which can be subsumed under the category of wearing Christianity on my sleeve, is be observant. Watch and listen. Look at what people are reading and wearing. Look at their tattoos. Listen to what they are saying, publicly, to the barista at Starbucks. Observe what people are purchasing at the grocery store. Look at their jewelry, body language, and just about anything else you can observe. As you do this, remain as natural as possible. You do not want to seem as if you are staring or being rude. Despite the potential awkwardness this may bring (i.e., watching and listening), chances are you are already doing this; however, it may not lead to a witnessing conversation. How do you get there?

As I am watching and listening, I try to determine if I have anything in common with those who share the same public space, or if there is anything they can teach me. If I notice tattoos or interesting piercings, that is always an easy icebreaker. "What do those mean?", I ask. The person, in turn, responds and teaches me something about his or her life. Since I have tattoos and piercings, we share those similarities, and during the conversation, Lord willing, I may be able to talk my tattoos, which entails a brief history about their significance. The significance of some of my tattoos naturally leads to the gospel message. For those who do not have tattoos or piercings, this may not help. Take the principle of finding ways to relate or be taught by others and apply it.

The shift from a general conversation to a spiritual one is likely what makes things the most difficult. How do you transition from talking about a football game to Jesus? How do you take a conversation with your neighbor about high school and move it toward the gospel? To be clear, a one-size fits all approach should not be adopted. What I do may not work in your context. It may, therefore, require some adaptation.

Despite all the programs that are available, which ensure easy icebreakers and a fluid conversation from the natural to the spiritual, I am tired of the artificial segues to conversations about Christ and his Church. In my opinion, they are a disaster waiting to happen. For instance, if someone is drinking a glass of water and you desire to engage them in spiritual conversation, entering a conversation by asking, "Have you heard of the living water?" is not likely the best approach no matter how closely you desire to resemble the conversation in John 4.

An approach more natural to my personality, which still allows me to wear Christianity on my sleeve, is to ask questions. In the midst of a normal and general conversation, I will ask people, "Do you attend church?", "What do you think about religion?", or "Do you mind if we talk about God?" It is a simple and straight-forward way to approach the subject. Interestingly, at least in my context, most people are willing to have those conversations with me. Perhaps they respect my direct approach, or maybe they have been wanting to have this conversation, but no one approached them about it?

Since there are so many ways to approach a conversation about Christ and his Church, it is difficult to state, concretely, how it ought to be done in all circumstances. Tailor your approach based on your personality and discerning the situation. Keep in mind, however, conversations about spiritual things may not happen immediately upon meeting someone new or even with a neighbor. Perhaps discernment dictates that the conversation should wait until you get to know the person more. Regardless of how the conversation unfolds, remember, "The world is not subtle, why should we be subliminal?" It is okay to wear Christianity on your sleeve. You have nothing to hide regardless of what the world says.
In a recent edition of Christian Renewal (date: December 11, 2013), Ruth Vandyken, in her article, "Preaching Outside the Box and onto the Public Soapbox," interviewed Dr. Joseph Pipa--faculty at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary--and Dr. Cornel Venema--of Mid-America Reformed Seminary--requesting their thoughts on proclaiming the gospel openly on the 
streets. 

Joseph Pipa said, 

"We encourage it. Dr. (Anthony) Curto did his D. Min on street preaching and I think deals with it in evangelism class. We have some students going out on Friday nights in downtown Greenville."

Cornel Venema responded more at length.

"I imagine there may be some difference of opinion within our faculty on the question, depending upon how such street preaching is conducted. We should encourage our students to seize every opportunity to present the gospel, including the use of public fora where suitable to communicate the gospel and its call to faith and repentance. The work of the minister of the Word is a work of gospelizing, ordinarily (but not exclusively) in the context of the gathering of the people of the Lord (and others who may visit or come at the invitation of members) on the Lord's Day. We would not advise our students to present the gospel in street preaching, if the forum was unsuitable and likely to cause needless offense or be unduly aggressive in manner. Such preaching, when properly conducted, should be performed with gentleness and humility, focus upon the good news of salvation through faith in Christ, and honor the general encouragement of the Lord to be "wise as serpents and harmless as doves" in the conduct of our ministries. Our general exhortation to our students is that they seize every legitimate opportunity to present the gospel to all, in a variety of settings and circumstances. That might even include presenting the gospel, if no limits are placed upon the Word, in gatherings or groups whose practices we might not endorse as fully obedient to Scriptural standards (e.g. in an unfaithful church)."

Open Marriages and Drug Usage

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My wife tells me that I frighten people. Whenever we are in public and I meet someone new, I ask, "What's going on?" in a somewhat loud voice. It is not the content of my initial greeting that frightens people but the volume. I do not plan on changing. It is a way to break the ice with strangers and make people laugh. Typically at some point in the conversation, I try to transition from small talk to Christ and his Church. As a pastor this is fairly easy to do. Once I tell those whom I newly meet my vocation, the dialogue eventually migrates to the things of God. I prefer to establish my relationship with strangers on the gospel, or perhaps more accurately put by telling them the gospel during our initial interaction, so that as we get to know each other and the topic is approached again, they will not be surprised. Matt Chandler put it well. (Watch the first two and a half minutes).

Today (January 6, 2014), I had the privilege to bring up the things of God with someone whom I have known for about a year and a half. This extremely nice lady knows that I am a pastor. Therefore, she expects our conversation to eventually move toward the Bible. Almost every time I see her, we dabble our dialogue about Christ and his Church. To my shame, I have not walked her through the entire gospel message. Perhaps it is because I continue to interact with her while she is working. I do not know. I pray, however, that I will have the privilege to share the life-giving message of Christ with her. 

Meanwhile, I said something to spark her interest today about church that I have never said to anyone else. Normally, I give people a hard time when they use novice one-liners to introduce people into a spiritual conversation. Perhaps you have heard some of those one-liners. Someone has a glass of water and in an attempt to break the ice and pursue a spiritual conversation, a well-meaning Christian asks, "Have you heard of the living water?" Or if you find out someone enjoys rock music, you eventually get around to asking, "Have you heard of the chief cornerstone?" Years ago you may have heard something similar to these one-liners slip out of my mouth. I am too sophisticated for that now. Instead, I say other ridiculous things. Today was one such example.

When I saw this lady (let's call her, Susie), I invited her to church. Susie responded, "The church might burn down if I come." With a smile on my face, I said that she needs to come. "This Sunday," I said, "we are preaching about open marriages and drug usage." "What?" she asked. I repeated myself only to have her follow by saying, "I have not been to church in a long time; it will burn down." I retorted, "We have plenty of water." She laughed; I left. I did not think much of it. Minutes later she tracked me down and asked, "Can you tell me about what you are preaching on again? You have sparked my interest."

I do not know if I will ever tell anyone that I am going to preach a sermon on open marriages and drug usage again (see Genesis 29-30), but I am thankful that she was interested. I pray she accompanies my family to church this Lord's Day.

I guess you can throw this in the pile of, "Stupid things Leon says." Children: do not try this in your home town. 

Recently, I published a book titled Words in Season: On Sharing the Hope that is Within Us. It is an introduction to sharing the good news of Christ that was birthed out of a Sunday school series. The book not only focuses on our individual privilege to witness of the person and work of Jesus but it also emphasizes the centrality of the local church. You can read more about it here.

In chapter 3, I focus on some of the common hindrances to personal evangelism. There are ethnic and cultural barriers; sometimes we wonder if our Bible knowledge is adequate; we are, perhaps, overly concerned about our reputation; we don't want to lose friends; we are nervous. I believe, in time, these concerns can be reduced or completely overcome. However, one of the biggest deterrents, which I only briefly mentioned elsewhere in the book, is one that is difficult to overcome. We cannot eliminate it. We cannot reduce it; it is there when you go to sleep; it is there when you awake; no matter where you go, it always follows you--time.

I've sometimes remarked the older I get, the faster time seems to move. Yet that is exactly what is required for personal evangelism, which is the very thing that it seems we often do not have--time. Our schedules are packed with many so-called obligations--children's sports activities, church meetings, personal hobbies and interests, writing blogs or other literature, spending time on Facebook, employment, sermon preparation, family vacation, education. With our massive to-do lists, where is the time to share Jesus Christ and him crucified?

It takes time to talk to others about Jesus. It takes more time to invite these people, with whom you share Christ, into your life so that they might see the realities of your faith (Col. 4:5-6).

Although time seems to move faster the older we get, we can change. We can be more aware of this great privilege to talk about Christ and invite others into our lives. It is much like our finances. Once we realize we are overspending in a certain area, we rearrange our budget to more accurately reflect what is important to us. Similarly, if sharing the good news of Christ and inviting unbelievers in to your life is important, you will rearrange your busy schedule in order to accommodate those priorities.

Jesus spent time w/ people; he entered their homes; he walked with them; he talked with them; he repeatedly answered their concerns and objections. I do not believe the point of the Gospels is help us calculate the amount of time Christ spent with unbelievers so that we might enumerate how much we should spend with them; nevertheless, the point is clear--Christ spent time with unbelievers. We should, too.

However, be mindful. There is a popularized phrase floating around called, "Friendship evangelism." The emphasis is on building relationships with unbelievers as a means to share Christ with them. (That is my understanding). This is dangerous. First, while it a fantastic idea to erect relationships with unbelievers, if we are developing those relationships for the expressed purpose to share the gospel, the friendship is simply a means to an end. We do not really care about them. We are not in awe that they are made in the image and after the likeness of God. We are simply befriending them to reduce our fears. Our underlying purpose in developing a friendship with unbelievers is to soften the impact of that initial conversation about religious matters.  

Is that true friendship?

This is one of the reasons I share the gospel with unbelievers almost as soon as I meet them. That way, when the topic is approached in the future, it is no surprise. There are instances, though, when we cannot share the gospel immediately. Providence seems to prohibit it. In that case, what do we do?

Chapter 8 in Words in Season is titled, "Hospitality: "One-Anothering" with the Stranger." It provides some practical tips on spending time with your unbelieving neighbors and those in the broader community.

God can save people immediately. He has done it in the past and he will continue to do so. However, there are times when he chooses to plant seeds over an extended period of time. It may take months, even years--it requires time. Are you willing to spend the time it takes to befriend unbelievers, plant the seed of the gospel, answer their concerns, and invite them to church? You may have to rearrange your schedule, but it is more than worth it.

"But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light" (1 Pet. 2:9).

What is truth?

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As part of our attempts to proclaim Christ in our small corner, we are investing some effort in a village near the town where I live. This village is, I think, fairly typical of our part of the world. It has a storied and pleasant-looking Church of England building nestled near the comfortably ancient pub at the centre of the village, and a good number of the villagers have some kind of association with the church (often a long family tradition). Some have lived in the village for years, if not all their lives, while others are newcomers. Many are simply apathetic, though some are sufficiently stirred to be hostile. There are agnostics, atheists, pagans and heathens all living cheek-by-jowl with one another.

It has been hard going to make Christ known here. In an attempt to engage a little more with the people that we meet and speak with, as well as to provide some kind of impetus and framework for some upcoming gospel meetings, we have been using a brief survey (six questions with multiple choice answers) to prompt discussion and thought as we go from house to house. We ask, on a number of points, "What is truth?" The results to date have been profoundly grievous.

Almost without exception, men and women of any and all convictions have assured us that - if there is a God, and if he communicates at all - he does so through impulses and feelings, and that there is nothing any clearer or more certain. Asked if life has any point, the responses are largely split between the assertion that life has no point whatsoever or that life is whatever you make it, no more and no less. God is in none of their thoughts.

The people of this village have no explanation for suffering, although some have accepted the possibility that it is the result of natural selection. What happens when we die? Several assert that it is simply the end, but most believe that it is impossible to know.

Although none to date have claimed that Jesus was a fraud, most will take him merely as a good man or great teacher rather than as the Son of God - and I will not begin to describe what they think that last option actually means. Most believe that the death of Christ was either pointless or a tragic mistake.

These answers are given across the board. Men and women who have been faithfully attending the Anglican church for decades give the same answers as the Muslim policeman who patrolled the streets one day and the casual mystics and dabbling Buddhists. We have found so few with any seemingly substantial faith and hope, almost none for whom their profession makes any more than a superficial difference to their patterns of life. With the exception of a few who attend churches outside the village, the professing Christians are as void of any accurate knowledge of the truth as those who claim to have rejected Christianity with all its trappings. Ardent religionists, angry atheists, friendly agnostics, earnest seekers, and those who cultivate their own private spirituality are all equally lost in the same moral morass, drifting lost without any anchors to drop, let alone any solid ground in which to drop them.

On one level, this is not surprising, for it is precisely what the Scriptures tell us to expect. On another, nothing can be more agonising, for there is a fearful judgement ahead for these needy sinners, many of whom are blithely skipping toward it, confident in their own strength and wisdom, or assured by false teachers of every stripe (including those who sail under cover of a Christian profession) that all will be well.

Christian friend, do you long to see God shake the secure, rattle the carnal, convict the careless and terrify the ungodly, to give them a present and pressing sense of their need in order that the gospel of Christ in all its sweet simplicity and saving security may become precious to them? Do you long to see them running to the great Physician as those who have become profoundly aware of their spiritual sickness? If we are to make any headway in this village and in the other places in which we preach Christ crucified, it must be as the Spirit of Christ opens the eyes of the blind, unstops the deaf ears, and gives life to the dead heart - we must pray to this end. It is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2Cor 4.6), and it is that same God with whom we must plead that he might do the same for others. Pray for us, and pray for yourselves, that God would do the work, shatter the chains of those in bondage, and bring the lost to their senses and then - through Christ as Saviour - to himself.