Friday, December 14, 2018

LOVE: Part 4, Dying to Be Loved, Reborn to Love

The Christmas story may be considered the world’s greatest love story—a “true love story.”  According to the Bible, the Greatest Lover, Immanuel, meaning “God with us,” takes on human form, is born of Mary in Bethlehem, lives a sinless life of obedience to His Father in Heaven, and eventually gives His life as the “Lamb of God” to take away the sins of the world.  Today, as I read, study, and write my fourth article about love, I am struck by the breadth and depth and height of God’s love for people like me.

As we noted in Part 1, the love of God is “What the World Needs Most, but many are looking for love and purpose in life in the wrong places.  In reality, both unconditional love (agape) and friendship love (phileo) originate from Out of This World because love originates in God.  Thankfully, we can love others “Because He First Loved Us.   In fact, God was loving all of us even while we were still sinners, rebels rejecting His pursuing love. 

Although the Bible defines love in words, God’s greater purpose is to demonstrate His love, especially through the Gift of His Son, Jesus Christ.  Even when Scripture seems to define love, there is action involved.  Romans 5: 8 illustrates God’s love in action (emphasis mine):  But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  From this principle, we learn that our love for God and our neighbor should not simply be in words, but in obedient actions.  John the “Apostle whom Jesus loved” challenges us, My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth (1 John 3: 18).

What should be our response to the love of God through Jesus Christ?  It can be nothing less than a commitment to give up the right to ourselves so that God can take the throne of our lives.  In short, our response to God’s loving pursuit should be repentance.

My Response to God’s Love:  Repentance
When I come and look upon the Cross of Christ, I see the raw, naked exposure of the horrible consequence of my sin.  There, a holy God motivated by His love for me and for the world, yet unable to overlook sin, placed it upon the perfect God-Man, Jesus Christ.  At the Cross, the penalty of my sin was satisfied at an infinite cost to God—the suffering, abandonment, and death of His beloved Son.  Here was death of the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God (1 Peter 3: 18).  I can only come to God through faith and repentance. 

Oswald Chambers writes, “The bedrock of Christianity is repentance.  Strictly speaking, a man cannot repent when he chooses; repentance is a gift of God…”  Think of it!  Because we are dead in our sin, we cannot come to repentance on our own.  Nor can we truly repent because we are sorry for our sin; or, because we want to try to live a better life.  Instead, as Chambers adds, “The only explanation of the forgiveness of God and of the unfathomable depth of His forgetting is the Death of Jesus Christ.  Our repentance is merely the outcome (not the cause) of our personal realization of the Atonement which He has worked out for us.”

United in Christ’s Death, Raised in His Likeness:  Atonement
By repentance and confession of sin, we identify with the suffering and death of Christ.  But how do repentance and God’s atonement come about in a person’s life?  The short answer is that God’s Spirit is responsible from beginning to end.  Again, Oswald Chambers explains: “The entrance into the Kingdom is through the panging pains of repentance crashing into a man’s respectable goodness; then the Holy Spirit, Who produces these agonies, begins the formation of the Son of God in the life.”  Chambers describes the true repentance which brings our atonement (think “at-one-ment”) with God as follows:  “Conviction of sin, the marvel of forgiveness, and holiness are so interwoven that it is only the forgiven man who is the holy man, he proves he is forgiven by being the opposite to what he was, by God’s grace.” 

"Then your love for me will be in them, and
I will be in them." - John 17: 26
I do not understand the atonement.  The Apostle Paul illustrates the atoning work of God’s Spirit in terms of our baptism or “submergence” into Christ:   Or have you forgotten that when we were joined with Christ Jesus in baptism, we joined him in his death?  For we died and were buried with Christ by baptism.  And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives (Romans 6: 3-4 NLT)Having been “born again” through the at-one-ment in Christ, the love and power of His Spirit within us compels us to love and follow Him in obedience.  Chambers concludes, “The new life will manifest itself in conscious repentance and unconscious holiness, never the other way about.”

Set Apart, to Abide in His Love: Sanctification
Although we want to consistently obey, God knows that we still live in earthly bodies that bear the marks of the fall of Adam, prone to wander away from Him and His truth.  But if we have died to sin and become united with Christ in His death, we have all the resources of the Triune God who prays for us, loves us, and teaches us through the Word (Romans 8).  Personally, when I read and meditate on Christ’s intercessory prayer to God the Father, in John 17, I can feel the arms of God around me—arms of protection ready to draw me away from evil, and arms of love to welcome me into God’s love.  For example, in one part of Jesus’s prayer, He asks His Father to make us holy, or sanctify us (set us apart), by His Word (emphasis mine): 

They do not belong to this world any more than I do.  Make them holy by your truth; teach them your word, which is truth.  Just as you sent me into the world, I am sending them into the world.  And I give myself as a holy sacrifice for them so they can be made holy by your truth (John 17: 16-19 NLT).

In John 15, Jesus calls those who would follow Him to abide in Him, or “remain in Him.” He said, I am the vine; you are the branches.  If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing (John 15: 5).  This invitation to abide in Jesus is a love-based command to be obedient—i.e. to be a Christ-follower.  It is also an open-arms invitation to join in the loving relationship that has been eternally shared within the fellowship of the Triune God.  Consider this loving invitation in Jesus’s words:  As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you.  Now remain in my love.  If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love.  I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete (John 15: 9-11). 

A Living and Loving Sacrifice, Offered in God’s Temple
I have been thinking much about how the truths of repentance, atonement, and sanctification should affect my day-to-day spiritual walk as a Christ-follower. First, it helps me to remember the Apostle Paul’s strong urging that, in light of the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living (not dead) and holy (not blemished or stained) sacrifice… And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…(Romans 12: 1-2).  Elaborating on the notion of our bodies as a living, holy sacrifice, Paul asks us in 1 Corinthians 6: 19, Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?

My second point in attempting to apply God’s atonement in my life hinges on the first.  If my body is a temple of the Holy Spirit of God, then I should be continually asking myself, “Do I regularly strive to be conscious of the presence of God’s Spirit in the temple of my body?”  I think of it this way:  We have all been in a party or reception where we sensed an absence of the values and behavior that we would consider God-honoring.  If we are Spirit-filled, it’s as if we can sense that the Spirit of God is grieved by what is happening.  Conversely, when we are among fellow Christ-followers, the conversation and values being shared should be uplifting.  If so, there ought to be a bond among us based on our common joy in the love of Christ. 

What is my point?   It is this:  My thoughts, words, and actions should be such that my body and life as God’s temple are a pleasant sanctuary for the Holy Spirit to live within—not like a party or reception with an atmosphere that is godless and grievous to the Holy Spirit.

In summary to this fourth article on real love, God invites us to come to the Cross of Christ as revealed in the Gospels.  There, we stand in awe before this horrible scene of suffering and death where God’s justice was met and satisfied by His mercy and love.  There, God’s Spirit does His work--the conviction of sin in our life that brings repentance and the formation of the Son of God as we are “born again.”  With a new heart and Master, we continually exercise the spiritual disciplines (prayer, time in the Word, fellowship, and service) necessary to maintain our body as a temple of the Holy Spirit.

 Chris Tomlin’s added refrain to the hymn, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” is a fitting prayer of submission and repentance that leads to forgiveness and the embrace of God’s love:

O the wonderful cross, O the wonderful cross
Bids me come and die and find that I may truly live
O the wonderful cross, O the wonderful cross
All who gather here by grace draw near and bless
Your name

How About You?  We are all “dying to be loved” whether we realize it or not.  May your response and mine be to die to sin and self-ish-ness, and be renewed in the power of God’s Spirit.  Maybe you have never come to the Cross of Christ in repentance and confession that you are a lost sinner in need of forgiveness of your sin.  If not, may I refer you to Steps to Peace with God which explains how you can become a Christ-follower according to the Bible? Then, you can experience the greatest Gift of Christmas, Immanuel—“God with us.”  God with you!  God in you--through His abiding Holy Spirit.  And, if you have questions, please contact me at

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Advent Readings and Activities for Christmas

Riddle:  What causes a great amount of excitement and anticipation each year, makes us very busy, wears us to a frazzle; and, when it passes, it has caused us to feel depleted…and our credit cards are depleted, too?
Answer?   It could be the annual IRS deadline; or a number of annual holidays.  But I’m thinking mainly of Christmas.

Like us, maybe one of your biggest challenges each Christmas season is to set reasonable goals for Christmas and plan well to achieve these goals.  In this way, you can maintain your spiritual and emotional focus while having time to enjoy the “true meaning of Christmas.”  My hope each year is to enjoy Christmas not just on December 25 but in the days leading up to Christmas Day.  When the Day itself is all too quickly past, often the best memories I retain are in my anticipation of the celebration of Christmas with family and friends.  After all, “anticipation” is at the heart of the tradition of Christmas dating back to the Book of Genesis where God revealed that He would send a Deliverer to be born of the “seed of the woman” (Genesis 3: 17).  During the several millennia that followed, the descendants of Adam and Eve remained in anticipation of God’s fulfillment of His promise.  The promise was fulfilled by God’s Gift of a Savior, born in a manger in Bethlehem, and named “Jesus” because He would save His people from their sins (Matthew 1: 21).

The approach that Abby and I have used to enhance our time of remembrance of the Advent (arrival) of the promised Savior, Jesus Christ, is to follow an Advent calendar.  These calendars are of different types and are easily found by searching for “Advent Calendar” online.   Most Advent calendars provide daily or weekly Bible readings which are often accompanied by a fun activity suitable for individuals or family.

Let me suggest three Advent resources for you to consider.  The first one invites you to focus on a Bible theme related to Christmas for each week of the four-week Advent season.  It has been prepared by our church, West HillBaptist Church, here in Wooster, Ohio.  The weekly themes, starting with “The Need” of a Savior,” are each meant to prompt us to reflect on why we celebrate Christmas and to consider how God would have us respond to His “greatest Gift.”  Please click on the thumbnail on the left.

The second Advent resource is from Focus on the Family and it provides a daily Scripture reading, a short readable commentary, and a fun activity related to Christmas.  If you would like to try out this excellent calendar, you can DOWNLOAD HERE.  And, if you would like a sample of the calendar, I have included the reading for today, December 6, as a sample (see thumbnail, below-right). 

The third Advent resource is one that I prepared last December.  It contains a daily Scripture reading and a short commentary along with discussion to help you personally apply the truth for each day.  This Advent calendar goes by the title, Daily Meditations to Enrich Your Christmas.  I hope these suggestions will enrich your celebration of Advent and the Christmas season this year. 

We hope you have a Merry and Meaningful Christmas!

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Thanksgiving Topics for Your Table

Thanksgiving is unique among all of the holidays we celebrate in our country.  Those who believe in God’s providential role and countless spiritual and material blessings realize that we ultimately owe our thanksgiving to Him.  Granted, we ought to thank one another for acts of kindness.  But because we are stewards of God’s blessings, even the grace that inspires us to do kind acts is from God.  Therefore, thanksgiving is incomplete unless we humbly offer it in worship and praise to God Who alone is the Giver of every perfect gift that comes down from above (James 1: 17).

If you and your loved ones are seeking ways to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday in a meaningful way that acknowledges American history and God’s providential role in it, consider using a series of questions that may pique the interest of both young and old.  Here’s how I hope this exercise will work in our family.

Write or print the following questions on numbered cards or paper.  (Or, you can simply print the questions on one sheet of paper and have someone be the questioner.)  Choose a time to sit together, distribute the questions, and take turns in the order of the number assigned to each question.   Allow time for anyone to answer and be alert to opportunities for discussion.  Answers?  If you don’t know them, why not search for them online, but be sure to double-check your sources for accuracy.

1.      What was the name of the ship on which the Pilgrims sailed to North America?
2.      How did the tradition of having turkey on Thanksgiving begin?
3.      How many different American Thanksgiving traditions can you name? [See how long you can keep it going around the table or group.]
4.      Why do we celebrate Thanksgiving?
5.      Why did the Pilgrims dress in dark, drab clothing?  [Suggestion: Pause for answers.  Then, ask if this stereotype is true.  See photos.]
6.      Which of the following is true of the Thanksgiving celebration by the Pilgrims, in 1621?
a.   Celebrating thanksgiving for the harvest was a tradition they brought from Europe.
b.   Their Native American friends (the Wampanoag’s) also had a Thanksgiving tradition.
c.    On their “First Thanksgiving” at Plymouth, 53 Pilgrims were joined by 90 Native Americans.
d.    At the time, numerous cultures in the world already practiced Thanksgiving celebrations.
e.    All of the above are true.
7.   Why did the Pilgrims decide to leave England?
      8.   Where did the Pilgrims land on their voyage from England?
      9.   What are the names of the two turkeys pardoned this year by President Trump?
10. Which president of the United States began the tradition of pardoning turkeys, and why?
11. Why did the Pilgrims leave their home and their work to come to North America?
12. Why did the Pilgrims land on Cape Cod when they had aimed for the mouth of the Hudson R?
13. In the Book of Genesis, who did God providentially send to Egypt as a slave so that his family
             and the whole nation of Egypt could be saved from famine?
14. In the Pilgrim story, who did God providentially send to help them survive in the new world?
Can you name other people in history whom God sent to intercede and deliver His people? Hint: One was a queen.  Another is mentioned in Isaiah 7: 14 and Matthew 1: 21. 
16. What are you thankful for as you remember the events of your life in 2018?

Additional Questions: (Select to fit age/maturity):
Although our culture is very different from 1620, does our celebration of Thanksgiving retain the purposes of the Pilgrims?

The Pilgrims believed that it was very important for each individual to love and honor their parents, family, and church.   Children and young adults learned that it was very important to make choices that honored their family and community.  Has culture in America become different from this, and if so how?  If today’s culture is different, do you think it is for the better?

Why are the Pilgrims called “separatists?”  How did their approach to living differ from the Puritans? Which if either is more in line with your beliefs about how we should live in our culture today?

Suggested Reading:
Read an account of how Squanto was strategically or (arguably) providentially prepared to assist the Pilgrims in ways that enabled them to survive in “New England.”  I recommend Squanto and the Miracle of Thanksgiving by Eric Metaxas. 2012 (Thomas Nelson), a very readable and well illustrated book for children and adults.

Quiz in PDF Format:  Available upon request to

Monday, November 19, 2018

Learning Lessons from the Pilgrims

In November, 2020 we will be celebrating the 400-year anniversary of the arrival of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Harbor in what is now Massachusetts.  But why did the Pilgrims embark on this daring voyage from England via Holland to another continent?  As we prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving this week, and then the quadricentennial anniversary in 2020, I wanted to be sure that I have the “Pilgrim story” correct. (See “Further Reading” below.)

Historians record that the Pilgrims left England for Holland in 1607 in pursuit of religious freedom from the Church of England.  Also known as separatists, the Pilgrims correctly believed that “the Church” had strayed from biblical Christianity in the years following the Protestant Reformation.  While religious freedom was their chief motive for leaving England, this does not explain why the Pilgrims left from Holland on the Mayflower, in 1620.  Robert Tracy McKenzie, professor of history and chair of the history department at Wheaton College, finds in the writings of William Bradford who later became governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony what I will consider to be three reasons the Pilgrims left Holland for North America.

First, the Pilgrim’s placed high priority on establishing godly families and a community patterned according to their understanding of biblical principles.  Hoping to accomplish this goal in Holland, they instead encountered a morally permissive Dutch culture that made it difficult for Pilgrim parents to raise their children with “due correction without reproof or reproach from their neighbors.”

Second, over half of the separatists that came to Holland had to become textile factory workers.  According to McKenzie, in place of the seasonal rhythms of farm life they had known in England, the Pilgrims faced the work of carding, spinning, or weaving in their own homes from dawn to dusk, six days a week, merely to keep body and soul together. Hunger and want had become their taskmaster.

Perhaps the Pilgrims might have tolerated the moral laxity and harsh economic conditions, were it not for what they saw as a third, more fundamental reason for leaving Holland.  They came to understand that the first two factors were becoming a threat to maintaining a vibrant Christian faith.  To these separatists, their daily walk of faith depended upon a cohesive faith community centered around strong families and church.  Therefore, we should call these committed Christians “Pilgrims” and “separatists” not because they separated geographically and sailed to an alien land.  Instead, the two names fit because their faith in God and His Word had led them to view themselves as “Pilgrims” and “separatists” from a world whose secular values were in opposition to their beliefs. 

Having left England for religious freedom, the Pilgrims found themselves in a Dutch culture that threatened to smother their lives of faith with the worries of this life, the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things (Mark 4: 19).  Maybe their “second separation,” a separation that led them to cut their moorings from a permissive, materialistic culture of Holland and set sale on the Mayflower, was a greater challenge than separating from the Church of England.  Whatever the case, the Pilgrim story provides Americans today with a choice of two Thanksgiving narratives—and more broadly, two American narratives.

Professor McKenzie challenges Christians today not to seize on the first narrative as simply “ammunition for the culture wars” against an unbelieving culture that undervalues or despises “religious liberty.”  While I do not deny that Christ-followers have an important role in standing against threats to religious liberty, the institutions of marriage and family, and other freedoms under the U.S. Constitution, we must not ignore the second Pilgrim/American narrative.  As Christ-followers, we must not forget that we too are called in the power of the Holy Spirit to be “pilgrims in a foreign land” and as such to remember another battlefront—one within our own souls, as the Apostle Peter reminds early believers (emphasis mine):

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God's own possession, that you may proclaim the excellence of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light: who in time past were no people, but now are God's people, who had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy.  Beloved, I beg you as foreigners and pilgrims, to abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul; having good behavior among the nations, so in that of which they speak against you as evildoers, they may by your good works, which they see, glorify God in the day of visitation (1 Peter 2: 9-12).

Providentially, the Cape Cod coastline provided safe harbor.
Here, I must admit that as I write, I am “preaching to myself.”  I find it much easier to be my own political and cultural warrior against materialism and moral laxness than to focus regularly on battling the thorns and thistles that tend to grow and thrive within my soul.  So easily, they can crowd out my priority of seeking the peace of God and the fellowship with His Holy Spirit through daily time in prayer and the Word of God.   John Winthrop who led 700 Puritan immigrants to New England and was instrumental in founding the Massachusetts Bay Colony, in 1630, preached a sermon entitled, “A Model of Christian Charity (Love)” in which he emphasized the spiritual disciplines that promote inner virtues and war against our fleshly selfishness:

Whatsoever we did, or ought to have done, when we lived in England, the same must we do, and more also, where we go. That which the most in their churches maintain as truth in profession only, we must bring into familiar and constant practice; as in this duty of love, we must love brotherly without dissimulation, we must love one another with a pure heart fervently. We must bear one another’s burdens. We must not look only on our own things, but also on the things of our brethren. 

After challenging his Puritan listeners, Winthrop gives instruction and his vision for righteous living in community of Massachusetts Bay.  His message also challenges me to discipline my inner life so my words and actions will showcase Christ’s love in my marriage, family, church, and government (emphasis mine):

For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God’s sake. We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going.

In summary, may I apply Winthrop’s challenge to all of us who choose to regard this year’s Thanksgiving as a holiday, or “holy day?”  In true “holy-day” spirit, we must direct our “thankfulness” to God, the only object worthy of our thanks—not to ourselves or our accomplishments, not to America or her cropland, forests, fisheries, mines; or great leaders and past heroes, as much as we ought to be thankful for all of these.  Our ultimate thanksgiving must be uplifted to the only Worthy Object of our thanks: Almighty God.

In giving our thanks to God, may we remember the “Pilgrim Fathers” and their costly commitments to separate not only from a church that was ruled by false doctrine, but from a materialistic and morally drifting culture that threatened the integrity of their marriages, families, and church.  But, most important of all is the lesson for us is in how Pilgrims believed and behaved.  They understood that their primary role was to be witnesses of Jesus Christ and not simply critics of politics and culture. 

In conclusion, Tracy McKinzie challenges us not to ignore the aspects of [the Pilgrim] story that might cast a light into our own hearts. They struggled with fundamental questions still relevant to us today: What is the true cost of discipleship? What must we sacrifice in pursuit of the kingdom? How can we “shine as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:15) and keep ourselves “unspotted from the world” (James 1:27)? What sort of obligation do we owe our local churches, and how do we balance that duty with family commitments and individual desires? What does it look like to “seek first the kingdom of God” and can we really trust God to provide for all our other needs?  As Christians, these are crucial questions we need to revisit regularly. We might even consider discussing them with our families [during] our Thanksgiving celebrations.

Further Reading:
The following articles and two books are recommended as Thanksgiving readings:
Thanksgiving and Black Friday: Invitations to Develop Contentment (2011)
Remembering the “Yearning to Breathe Free” (2013, and edited recently for corrections)
Thanksgiving in a Watching World (2014)
How Do You P-R-A-Y This Thanksgiving? (2015)
McKenzie, Robert Tracy. 2013.  The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us…
Metaxas, Eric.  2012.  Squanto and the Miracle of Thanksgiving.  Thomas Nelson.

Monday, November 12, 2018

LOVE: Part 3 – Because He First Loved Us

Welcome to Part 3 from my personal study and meditation on the love of God for mankind and for His creation.  As the songwriter expressed so well, all of us have a longing for “love, sweet love…” that which the world seems to “have so little of.”

In LOVE Part 1: “What the World Needs Most,” we considered the emptiness that results when we seek love apart from God.  But when we yield to God’s pursuit of us, we experience real love and are transformed by it.  We stop worshiping ourselves and plunge by faith into the infinite sea of God’s great love.  When we have become immersed (“baptized”) in God’s love through His Holy Spirit, all thoughts of ourselves being a source of love begin to dissolve away and our whole disposition changes.  

LOVE Part 2: “It’s Out of This World” pointed us toward God as the ultimate source of unconditional (agape) love.  John opens his Gospel with the claim that God’s Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1: 14).  “The Word” is God incarnated as Jesus Christ Who came to Earth over 2,000 years ago to show us God’s love and to save us from our sins.  Today, God reveals His love both through the inspired Word contained in the Bible (e.g. 1 John 4: 7-10) and through the amazing form and function of His creation (Romans 1: 20). 

Sunflower heads orient in the direction of the sun.
 God’s love comes to Earth like pure rays of sunlight after traveling 90 million miles—literally, from “out of this world.”  Sunlight warms the planet, causes plants to grow, and supplies food and oxygen essential for life.  Just as life on Earth depends on energy from an outside source, we cannot be alive spiritually and be lavishers of love unless we are transformed by the light of God’s truth and love as revealed in the Scriptures.

God’s lavished love still manifests itself through transformed lives of Christ-followers.  As we explained in LOVE Part 2, God transforms the life of each lost sinner when he or she hears the Gospel (“Good News”), realizes their “heredity of sin” (Romans 3: 23), and chooses to die to “self” and be “born again” through union with Christ (Romans 6: 1-14).  It is God’s love and grace that draws the sinner to hear and respond by faith to the light of Truth (Ephesians 2: 8-9). 

When God’s love works in our lives, we honor Christ and His Gospel in the sight of others who need God’s saving love (1 Peter 3: 15).  Now, we will discuss how God’s lavished love transforms us into lovers of Him and our neighbor.  The key to our spiritual transformation is hinted at in the title of this article, “LOVE Part 3: Because He First Loved Us.”

The apostle John wrote, We love because He first loved us (1 John 4: 19).  If we believe John’s claim to be true, then how exactly does God’s love transform us and enable us to lavish His love on the people and the creation He loves?  The answer is evident when we consider John’s statement, “because He loved us first.”

First, John’s use of the word “because” suggests that we ought to love God out of a realization of all God has done to redeem us.”  The Apostle John was moved to exclaim, See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!  And that is what we are! (1 John 3: 1).

Our realization of God’s love is elevated to obligation when we read 1 John 4: 11:  Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.  This ought brings moral significance because it commands us to assign value to God and to other people with whom we associate.  The moral and ethical reason for loving God and our neighbor is confirmed by the command in 1 John 1: 6, Love means doing what God has commanded us, and He has commanded us to love one another….  Our love is only registered in God’s eyes when we obey His commands.

But there is a third element of our “motivation” to love besides realization and obligation.  The word “because” in 1 John 4: 19 also suggests that God gives Christ-followers an inner compulsion to love—i.e. “we love because we cannot help but love. When we come to the Cross of Calvary, realize Christ’s sacrifice for us, and obey God’s command to “love one another as I have loved you,” God’s Spirit creates an inner compulsion to love as He loves us.  The Apostle Paul wrote that Christ’s love compels us because we are convinced… he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again (2 Corinthians 5: 14-15).

Philippians 2: 12-13 combines all three “motivations” for loving—realization, obligation, and compulsion (emphasis mine):

So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.

According to verse 12, if we obey God’s command (“work out your salvation”) in the daily situations of life, He “wills and works” His good pleasure within us.  Oswald Chambers wrote,* “God’s life in us expresses itself as God’s life, not as human life trying to be godly.”  As we take up His cross (or “yoke”) and bear it daily and lovingly, we are not alone.  We bear it in partnership with Jesus Christ (Matthew 11: 28-30).  The Holy Spirit in turn enables us to experience our Father’s love and good pleasure, and to share His love with others.  Therefore, Christ’s claim is true: “My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (11: 30).

Because of our willing submission to God, His love and power can work within us, producing fruit of the Spirit (i.e. love, joy, etc. according to Galatians 5: 22-23) that is pleasing to Him and attractive to our neighbor.  Again, by our analogy of sunlight, when the Sun’s rays warm the soil in the Spring, seeds sprout and seedlings emerge into the light through what botanists call a positive phototropic response.  That is, each seedling takes in the light energy and grows “in obedience” toward the light.  As tiny leaves enlarge in response to light, they intercept more light.  By the time the seedling has grown into a mature plant, it has accumulated enough energy and nutrient resources so that it can bear fruit.  We might say, obedient pursuit of the light (input of God’s love) leads to abundant fruit-bearing (supernatural output of love).

We can see that humble submission is a key to receiving and sharing God’s love.  Jesus used a “seed analogy” to teach how we must die to self in order to receive new spiritual life and growth.  We must be like a seed that falls to the ground and dies to itself (i.e. gives up its food reserves for the embryo) in order to enable the seedling to emerge from the soil (John 12: 24).  In John 15: 7-14 Jesus uses another plant analogy: “the vine and the branches.”  Speaking to Christ-followers, Jesus says in essence, You are like branches and if you obediently remain grafted into Me (Jesus) and receive my love, you will be filled and compelled to express My love to God and to your neighbor—even to the extent of giving up your life if necessary. 

In summary, we have considered how it is that God’s love transforms us and enables us to lavish His love on the people and things He loves.  The Apostle John’s point is this-- We love because He first loved us (1 John 4: 19).  If we respond in obedience to God’s love as He commands us, we are in fact showing evidence of our love for Him.  We will also realize that love does not ultimately come from us; it is from God as a fruit of His Spirit abiding and working in us.

While He commanded that we love Him, Jesus also knew what was in men’s hearts (John 2: 24).  Jesus knows that my heart is very prone to forget or deny His truth and great love.  I am prone to deny my Savior in thought, word, and deed.  Also, perhaps like you, I frequently face people and situations that challenge my ability to love unselfishly and witness unashamedly.  Therefore, I have been studying other passages of Scripture that teach what God expects of me in regard to his love.  In “LOVE Part 4: Dying to Be Loved,” we will consider how focusing on the Cross of Christ and His great sacrifice for us magnifies the holiness and judgment of God, and even more, the great love of God.

How About You?
Is there a point in your life where you surrendered to the claims of Christ and asked Him to forgive you and be your Savior?  If not, I refer you to Steps to Peace with God which will explain how you can become a Christ-follower.  Without Christ, you are dead in sin, cut off from the vine which provides spiritual nourishment needed to yield the fruit of the Spirit in your life.  In your unsaved condition, you are facing judgment for your sin and the “wages” of eternal separation from God (Romans 6: 23).  Romans 8: 6-7 states that those who are not at peace with God remain hostile toward Him because their minds are not "tuned" to the Spirit of God].  In fact, according to Romans 8: 7-8, they are not even able to do so... 

Maybe you have received Christ but your spirit (your "receiver" or "antenna") needs to be tuned again to the voice of God's Spirit speaking to you through His Word, or friends, or circumstances.  Ask God to help you turn again to Christ for forgiveness and cleansing (1 John 1: 9).  Then, as a Christ-follower, when you open your Bible and read, God’s Spirit will go to work to make your spirit and mind receptive to the Scriptures, and to give you understanding of the truth you are reading.  When you are receptive to that truth, God’s Spirit will empower you to respond to the Scripture for reproof, for correction, [and] for training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3: 16).  When God’s Spirit can freely guide your mind and will, He will produce in you the fruit of His love so that you can love God and your neighbor as He intends.  If you have questions, please contact me at
Oswald Chambers. 1935.  My Utmost for His Highest, September 20 (Dodd, Mead, & Co., New York, NY.)

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Faith and Football: Staying in the Pocket

Last night, my 6th ranked, West Virginia University Mountaineer football team was greatly humbled in defeat by the Iowa State Cyclones in Big 12 action.  After watching the 30-14 loss, I went to bed very disappointed.  My sadness returned when I awakened this morning and realized that it wasn’t a bad dream.  However, very soon, my thoughts became Spirit-directed as I realized how thankful I ought to be to begin another day of life.

Instead of a painful memory, the loss of the football game by WVU became a metaphor and a lesson for my own life.  Although I am far from an expert football analyst, it seemed clear to me that the 5-0 Mountaineer football team lost miserably to a 2-3 team because the Cyclones were successful in moving WVU away from their game plan in three ways.

Will Grier has nearly 2,000 offensive yards and 22 TD passes.
First, they forced our quarterback, Will Grier, to have to act under pressure, resulting in some poor executions.  As a Heisman Trophy candidate, Grier had come to Ames, Iowa to play like a winner.  But, instead of a sixth game in which Grier attained his average of over 300 offensive yards and 4 or 5 touchdown passes per game, he was limited by the Iowa State defense to 1 TD pass and 100 yards.  

A good quarterback leads because he comes prepared, exudes confidence, and demonstrates command of his offence in the face of the opposition. It is not for me to judge what caused Will's poor performance, but I am confident that he will bounce back next week.  As I try to imagine how painful it must be for Grier to watch the videos of the game, I know from experience how many times I have buckled under the pressures of life.  Maybe I was unprepared for the situation, or insensitive to others, or too proud to act or react in a humble way. I may have tried to protect my own interests or reputation rather than humbly giving honor to God or another person.  I cannot judge Will Grier, but in many of my cases, the source of problems is my pride.  Proverbs repeatedly warns us against a proud heart.  Proverbs 29: 23 states, A man's pride shall bring him low; But he that is of a lowly spirit shall obtain honor.

Second, the Cyclone defense forced our quarterback to move “out of the pocket.” Will Grier, like many quarterbacks, execute their best passing game when they stay in the pocket, a wall of protection that is formed around him by the offensive line.  The pocket is a safe place where the quarterback can stand, get a good read on the field, choose the best receiver, and deliver a pass that is on target.  However, in last night’s game, the Iowa State defense repeatedly attacked the offensive line so that Grier was forced to move out of the pocket where he was less effective in throwing, having to avoid being sacked. 

Quarterback Will Grier during one of too many sacks by ISU.
This morning, as I replayed in my mind the numerous offensive efforts in which Will Grier chose to leave the pocket, I began to see the spiritual application to my life.  Though I am not a quarterback, I have been a leader in my own home and in my family.  Reflecting back on my leadership, there have been many times that I reacted poorly under pressure “within the pocket” where God had placed me.  But, even worse, there have been times when I have “left the pocket” of God’s order for me as a husband and father, and have sought to “run the play” my own way.  But there is more to learn here.

Usually, the decisions of a quarterback are subject to input from a coach on the sidelines with occasional input from leaders in his offense.  All of his decisions must be made with respect to the rules of the game and situation at hand.  He is not free to operate as a “Lone Ranger” who takes matters into his own hands.  Likewise, when I see an opportunity to encourage or otherwise minister God’s truth and love to another person, I must be careful not to run ahead of God’s plan and purposes.  However, I have sometimes “left the pocket” of God’s protection, a pocket formed by biblical principles and people whom God has provided to help me.  When I have done this, I cannot “execute” in a way that honors God or that shows responsibility to my wife, family, friends, and others.  Then, it is time for "replaying the videos" of my actions, and where necessary, to repent and  make confession of my sin, and pursue forgiveness from God and the one(s) I have wronged.

For example, during my “retirement” chapter of life, I have been afforded more opportunities communicate with family and friends.  Some of my family are in situations brought on by poor decisions in earlier years.  I have watched some who have encountered illness and then died, not knowing what their eternal future will be.  Lest I act in disrespect of another person or seek to influence anyone in my own power, I have offered up many prayers for myself and for them. Yet, I still find it difficult to strike a balance between desiring to share my faith and the principles of life God reveals in Scripture while at the same time not being so zealous that I move “out of the pocket” of God’s order and timing for me.  The Apostle Paul writes (emphasis mine),

For the love of Christ compels us, since we have reached this conclusion: If one died for all, then all died.  And he died for all so that those who live should no longer live for themselves, but for the one who died for them and was raised (2 Corinthians 5: 14-15).

Although I believe my “compulsion” is a genuine derivative of God’s Spirit at work in me, I must learn to be a “team player” with Him while listening to the counsel of others.  Just as a successful quarterback earns the respect of his teammates, so I must remember my first responsibility is to God and to my wife and family.  Without their respect and without wise leadership in my home, my usefulness in God’s plan is in jeopardy.   

Finally, I realized a third lesson from offensive football.   West Virginia quarterback Grier must do even more than stay cool under pressure while he depends on his offensive line to protect the pocket.  He must also be discerning as he looks for eligible receivers.  Last night, the Cyclone defense neutralized our receivers by exerting tremendous coverage.  Hence, Grier was delayed in releasing his passes; and, this delay allowed the pocket to collapse, leaving him open to being sacked.

Again, the Apostle Paul expresses his zeal for sharing the love of Christ, in 1 Corinthians 9: 22 (NLT):

When I am with those who are weak, I share their weakness, for I want to bring the weak to Christ. Yes, I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some.

Like a quarterback, my zeal must show a proper balance between “passing” the Gospel message to family and friends while recognizing that not all loved ones are necessarily “eligible receivers,” at least at this point in time.  Like a quarterback, I may want to yell to receivers, “get open,” but I must remember that only God’s Spirit can open the hearts of others to receive.  As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4: 6 (NASB),

For God, who said, "Light shall shine out of darkness," is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.

I must remember not to be a “little God” or “little Providence” in the lives of others.  As the psalmist realized, only God can change the heart of a person:

No man can by any means redeem his brother,
Or give to God a ransom for him—
For the redemption of his soul is costly,
And he should cease trying forever
— (Psalm 49: 7-8)

In summary, my alma mater’s football loss will have some redeeming value for me, and maybe also for you the reader, if we are able to remember and apply several lessons from football strategies.  First, we must realize our total dependence on God if we are to have respected leadership in our homes and among family and friends.  We must spend time with God through prayer and reading of His Word so that we will be calm and poised under day-to-day pressures.  We must also put on the armor God provides (e.g. belt of truth, breastplate of God’s righteousness, helmet of salvation) so that His “pocket of protection” is secured around us against the fiery darts of Satan, the passions of our flesh, and the deceitfulness of our mind.  Finally, we must discern eligible receivers lest we run ahead of God’s Spirit, rely on our own power and plans, and end up disrespecting those who are not ready or yet called unto salvation.  The Apostle Peter’s charge is a fitting end to these lessons learned from a football team on their night of a disappointing loss:

Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3: 14b-15 ESV).

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

LOVE: Part 2 – It’s “Out of this World”

Brett Kavanaugh and his family with Chief Justice Roberts.

Yesterday, American history and government were at the forefront of U.S. news as Judge Brett Kavanaugh was sworn in to become the newest justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.  But this article is not simply about politics.  It is about what is increasingly absent from politics—and from our culture.  It is about LOVE.  It’s about what Hal David was lamenting about over one-half century ago when he wrote the lyrics to the song, “What the World Needs Now Is Love.”  Last month, in “LOVE: Part 1 - What the World Needs Most,” I responded to Hal David’s lyrics by noting that, according to the Bible, God has provided unlimited love.  The problem is we tend to look for love in the wrong places.

All of us want to be loved, but many enter relationships that end in selfishness, rejection, and abuse.  When we fail to find loving arms to embrace us through thick and thin, we settle for less in a pursuit of love in the wrong places.  For example, when Christine Blasey Ford’s letter alleged that she was sexually assaulted by Brett Kavanaugh, many other hurt people looked to the U.S. Senate to rule against Judge Kavanaugh as a way of bringing an end to their hurt and the hurt of many others.  What the world needs now, is love, sweet love.  But the ultimate source of love is not the U.S. Senate or the U.S. Supreme Court.  In fact, love is not even from this world!

Imagine while you are out hiking that you spot an object with an eerie glow that radiates from what appears to be a machine with many complex parts.  What would you do with this alien-like phenomenon?  Your decision could change your whole life.

This imaginary scenario is not unlike what has happened to many of us who have had a personal, spiritual encounter with God.  We too have discovered something of great value--something that is not from this world.  It is God’s love.  But those of us who have discovered it did not do so because we were smarter, more handsome or beautiful, or more powerful.  In fact, we had heard the word “love” used in so many different contexts that it was humanly impossible for us to find it on our own.  Consider the following examples:

“I just love cherry pie.”
“I love it when I hear that song.”
“From the instant he first saw her, he loved her.”
“If you really loved me, you would/would not….”
Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15: 13)

“Love” can mean a strong preference for a certain dessert, or an emotional high we experience from music, or the passion that is stirred by physical attraction for the opposite sex.  Love can also be “leverage” to get our own way with another person. 

Thankfully, there is a “greater love” that represents more than a response to our favorite tastes, sounds, or sights; or the passion that motivates us to do selfish things.  The Apostle John defines ‘love’ from God’s perspective:  Greater love has no man than this,
that a man lay down his life for his friends (John 15: 13).   This love is more than something that brings inner joy or a pleasurable feeling.  The Apostle John reveals that “greater love” becomes evident in the self-sacrificing behavior of a lover toward one who is loved—even to the point of death if necessary.

But where does this “greater love” come from?  Why is it that some people are overflowing with this love while others are very unloving and suspicious of anyone who offers to love them?  According to the Apostle John, this love ultimately comes from God (emphasis mine):

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God (1 John 4: 7).

According to the Bible, love is an integral quality or attribute of God’s character and personal nature.  God’s love is expressed through many of His attributes including mercy, grace, and forgiveness—attributes that cause God to pursue a personal relationship with us earthlings.  God assures us of His great love for us by sending His only Son, Jesus Christ, His greatest “Love Gift,” to die on a Roman cross to purchase us for eternity. 

God’s unselfish, sacrificial love for His creation and for mankind is expressed in the Greco-Christian word, agape.  Jesus explained that God so (agape) loves the world that He gave His only begotten Son [Jesus] that whoever believes in Him should not perish [be separated from God forever] but have everlasting life (John 3: 16).

Jesus and His followers used a second Greek word for love.  The word phileo means “brotherly love,” the generous and affectionate love that seeks to make a dear friend happy with no expectation for the kindness to be returned.   In 1 Samuel 18: 1-3, we see phileo love on display in the friendship of David and Jonathan where we read that t
he soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. …then Jonathan and David made a covenant, because he loved him as his own soul.

A third Greek word for love, eros, refers to the physical attraction that arises from our God-given capacity for romantic and sexual feelings.  Although the word eros does not appear in the Bible, the Scriptures do include very clear teaching about physical love and sexuality between a husband and wife.  The best example is found in a book by Solomon, called “Song of Solomon.”

Both phileo (brotherly love) and agape (sacrificial love) were used to describe the love of the Father for His Son Jesus; and, to describe the love Jesus has for His followers.  In John 3: 35, Jesus declares, “The Father (agape) loves the Son….”  But, in John 5: 20, Jesus is recorded as saying, “The Father (phileo) loves the Son….”  Think about this!  Before the beginning of time, God the Father (phileo) loved His Son Jesus as a “dear friend or brother;” and, the Father (agape) loved the Son, sacrificially and unconditionally.

When the Father sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to Earth, He was sending the very embodiment of agape and phileo love.  Jesus expressed this love as He built relationships with His disciples and others.  The Apostle John under inspiration of the Holy Spirit humbly uses both Greek expressions of love when he describes himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (agape, John 13: 23; phileo, John 20: 2).  Many years later, an aged John wrote, See [Just look!] what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are (1 John 3: 1)!

So far, we have defined love on the basis of the original Greek language from which we received the New Testament.  We have also noted that this love originates from God, not from us.  The Apostle John knew first hand and wrote about this love the Father has lavished on us…(1 John 3: 1).”  This love of God can transform even the most hateful person into a loving person by a total, spiritual change in his or her disposition.  How is this possible?

No one is “made loving” without a responsibility or action on his or her part.  This is because love is a quality of relationship.  Phileo and agape love are only realized between two or more persons.  Because love is from God, when God speaks through His Word and the Person of His Holy Spirit to an unloving, self-centered person, the person must choose whether or not to respond to God’s love.  But how does God’s love actually bring about this transformation? 

Romans 6: 4 states, Therefore we have been buried with Him [Christ] through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

When a person responds in faith to God’s “Love Gift” of salvation from sin, he or she surrenders their self-centered life and is “born again” with a new heredity.  He or she is delivered from the penalty of the sin nature and becomes a “child of God” (John 1: 12).  The love that God lavishes upon the child of God ignites their spirit within to respond to God’s Spirit.  The person is drawn to love and obey God—i.e. to become a disciple, or “Christ-follower.”  God’s Spirit, in turn, enables Christ-followers to commune with the Father in Heaven, and to love Him with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12: 30).   Romans 8: 15 teaches that we have …received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father.  This expression is like that of a girl or boy saying “Daddy, Daddy” to their earthly father.  This tender intimacy, formed by shared agape and phileo love, is sustained through regular Scripture-fed, Spirit-led prayer.  In this way, the very life and love of God is nourished in us.

To summarize, in LOVE: Part 1,” we emphasized that we need to stop looking for love in the wrong places and recognize that there is a “greater, sweeter love” freely given to us by God (1 Corinthians 2: 12).  God’s love comes from “another world” as expressed through the Life of His Son, Jesus.  But unlike the alien machine in our imaginary story, we discover God’s love when we encounter that crudely fashioned, splintery, wooden cross on which Christ gave His life so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit… (1 Peter 3: 18).  There we find the true loving arms of God stretched out to embrace us.  There, we find the true love that cannot be found through politics, government, or social justice movements, important as they may be.

At the cross, we are freed from the curse of sin and embraced by God’s transforming power and love.  Personally, I do not want to forget the warmth and relief I found in God’s love and forgiveness when the Living Christ and His cross became real to me.  In “LOVE: Part 3 - Because He First Loved Us, we will examine how it is that a Christ-follower becomes both a lover of God and lover of others.