September 29, 2014

Romans 2:14-15 Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.

To my knowledge this is just about the only passage in the whole Bible that hints at being right with God apart from direct faith in Jesus Christ. The only other one is Jesus’ statement that “He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives the one who sent me.” (Matthew 10:40) On the other side we have Jesus’ uneqivocal statement that “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) That leaves us having to let God be the judge of who is saved and who isn’t, and that’s a good thing. We tend to set up litmus tests about this, that, or the other, as though we were the final arbiter when if we were, it would be tragic! God alone sees people’s hearts, as the Bible reminds us. (1 Samuel 16:7) So what then? We are responsible for our own relationship with God, and for making a right relationship with God available to as many people as possible. That means living out the truth we know and not just giving it lip service, and at the same time expressing that truth to others, under the anointing of the Holy Spirit. That is what personal evangelism is all about. We aren’t to go around deciding whether people are saved, but we are to make it as easy as possible for them to be saved, through repentance and faith.

This is, of course, of intense interest to me as I minister in Japan. A smaller percentage of people are active Christians in Japan than in Pakistan! There is no active persecution here at all, and general public behavior sometimes seems more “Christian” than that observed in traditionally Christian countries. However, the vast majority of people have no personal faith, and only go through religious motions or rituals out of tradition or obligation. (Actually, that could be said for some nominally Christian countries as well!) That leaves people with a spiritual void, but they have great reluctance to go against what they see as family loyalty. There is a term that is often used in Japan that is translated into English as “filial piety,” but few if any English speakers have any emotional connection to what that might mean. Changing religions is seen as disloyal, and loyalty is one of the highest, if not the highest, virtue in Japan. I believe there are very many “hidden Christians” in Japan who believe that Christianity is the true religion but are afraid to be open about it. That brings them up against Jesus’ statement that “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.” (Luke 9:26) So I am left with proclaiming the Gospel and living it out, inviting as many as will to join me in that, and leaving everything else to God.

Father, this is something You know I’ve struggled with over the years, particularly when so many people have received us warmly, yet have not become Christians. (Matthew 10:40) I continue to pray for a massive, open harvest, and I also pray for peace and endurance until that happens, for Your glory. Thank You. Praise God!

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September 28, 2014

Romans 1:32 Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.

In a way, Romans 1 is comforting, because it helps to know that things have been this bad before. This reads like a description of the 21st Century, particularly in America but actually around the world. The thing that is most distressing is the strong pressure to make perversion normative, to the point that it is not just celebrated, those who continue to call it perversion are actively punished. It is a truism that you cannot legislate morality, but at this point the pressure is on to try to legislate immorality! (Actually, it is far more activist judges and public officials, rather than legislatures, that are doing the legal damage.) What is called for is steadfast obedience to God, even in the face of persecution, but then, that hasn’t changed throughout history! Those who care what God has to say have got to stand tall and strong, even though that can invite attacks, remembering that in Christ we are more than conquerors. (Romans 8:37) Society around us may be distressing and disgusting, and it is, but we have got to speak the truth in love, not compromising for the sake of social or other expediency, recognizing our own weaknesses and relying on God. It is again a truism that we are to hate the sin but love the sinner, but we must keep a clear focus on the fact that true love is not at all weak, but rather strong to insist on what is best for the one loved, rather than on what they ask for.

As a pastor I find that all areas of life are interrelated. What I just wrote about love is true in marriage, it is true in parenting, and it is true in every other part of life. That’s why Jesus could condense the entire Law into the commands to love God and love our neighbor. (Matthew 22:37-40) My job is to teach people what agape love looks like. That certainly includes words, but it must be founded on a lifestyle that practices it. I find I agree with Augustine, who said, “Love God and do as you please.” The problem is of course that we don’t love God properly, and actually don’t even love ourselves properly, but rather love pleasure. (2 Timothy 3:4) I’ve got to seek God and watch over my own heart, teaching, encouraging, and admonishing others so that they may do likewise, so that together we may avoid the devil’s traps and destroy his works, to walk in all that God intends for us.

Father, thank You for all that You are doing in, around, and through me. Thank You for the beautiful evidence of progress in some to whom I have been ministering. Thank You for the Word You have placed in me for this morning. I pray that I would deliver that Word clearly, undistorted, so that it may penetrate hearts and minds to set people free and move them into active discipleship, for their blessing and Your glory. Thank You. Hallelujah!

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September 27, 2014

Romans 1:16 I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.

What a powerful statement! Today we might get hung up on referring to all Gentiles as Greeks, but even a cursory understanding of the culture of the 1st Century should clear that up. With that out of the way, the next point is whether the Gospel is something to be ashamed of. We don’t have the same visceral response to the idea of crucifixion that people of that day did. Recent crucifixions by Muslim jihadists might help us understand that point! In those days, crucifixion was an execution reserved for the worst criminals, and the Gospel proclaims that Jesus was crucified for our sins. That was shame-worthy both because of crucifixion itself and because all who receive the Gospel are saying that they themselves are worthy of crucifixion. Even today, many are unwilling to say that. Even apart from that, there are those today who are unwilling to claim the Gospel because in their eyes it isn’t “cool,” it isn’t the philosophy of the “in crowd.” That particular pressure is extreme in American academia today. However, Paul’s reason for not being ashamed of the Gospel is as valid today as it was when he recorded it: it is the power of God for salvation for all who believe. It is a major problem when we fail to really grasp that point. Far too many church members today aren’t really settled on the issue of whether Jesus is the only way to salvation. That is a major push of the devil, the liar and father of lies. If we fail to grasp that fundamental issue, we will lack both gratitude for our own salvation and motivation for sharing the Gospel with as many people as possible.

This is of course why I am a pastor in Japan. If I didn’t agree with Paul on this verse I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing! However, I have seen time and time and time again that Jesus really does save those who believe. I was talking with someone just yesterday about how many people have a distorted idea of what salvation is. They think in terms of being rescued from immediate difficult circumstances, when it is far more than that. We’re talking about eternity here! When people are fixated on the problem in front of their nose they have trouble grasping the reality that even at the worst it is just temporary, but salvation totally transcends that. As the Bill Gaither song says, “The longer I serve Him, the sweeter He grows.” However, that doesn’t mean that life becomes “easy street.” I’ve baptized a few people who disappeared once they discovered that Jesus doesn’t mean easy street! I am to be faithful to speak the truth in love, proclaiming the same Gospel Paul did, and for the same reasons, and trust God with the results.

Father, thank You for the two major ministry opportunities You gave me yesterday. Neither was planned on my part, but they were clearly in Your plan. One recipient is not yet Christian and one is. I pray that they would both receive what You said through me, so that Your Word would work Your salvation in them on every level, for Your glory. Thank You. Praise God!

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September 26, 2014

Acts 24:25 As Paul discoursed on righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come, Felix was afraid and said, “That’s enough for now! You may leave. When I find it convenient, I will send for you.”

Paul was certainly not afraid to speak truth to those in power! I’m sure he was familiar with the Lord’s words to Ezekiel, and he wanted no one’s blood on his hands. (Ezekiel 3:20, 33:8) Felix’ response to the Gospel is all too typical. I’m sure Paul didn’t leave out how we can make it through the Judgment, by grace through faith, (John 3:16, Ephesians 2:8-9) but Felix didn’t really hear that, and his response was fear and avoidance. He has a lot of company! People today are just as prone to run away from the Gospel, despite the fact that it’s the best news in the world. They don’t want to be confronted with their own sinfulness, and think that ignoring it will get them out of it. That’s like ignoring cancer. As doctors keep telling us, the sooner cancer is discovered and treated, the higher the probability of full recovery. However, many people are so afraid of a cancer diagnosis that they put off going to the doctor, often until it is too late. With cancer, we might or might not have it, but with sin and judgment, everyone has it! That’s why the irony of a response like Felix’ is so acute: the fatal infection is present, but the only cure is rejected. That is heartbreaking indeed, but all we can do is pray for people and speak the truth in love.

I’ve run into Felix’ response more times than I could possibly count. However, there have been those who have heard the good news and had the humility to repent and believe, and they make it all worth it. If I were to focus on those who decline to receive I would have given up a long time ago! I am to keep sowing the seed, plowing and watering as the Lord gives opportunity, and leave the results in His hands. Each person is a fresh opportunity, and I am to expect great things of God as I walk in humble obedience.

Father, thank You for the various successes You do give me. Thank You for those who have received Your Word with joy and have put down good roots. I pray for fruitfulness in each life so that we may see exponential growth, with each believer reaching multiple people and drawing them, too, into full discipleship. I pray that You would use me to impart vision to the believers so that they would grasp that You want to use them as much as You use me. Help them understand that it’s not about the vessel but about the contents, and that You are in them as You are in me. May we together be so full of Your presence that people would be drawn continually, even as they were to the early Church in Jerusalem, (Acts 2:47) for a massive harvest in Your kingdom, for Your glory. Thank You. Hallelujah!

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September 25, 2014

Acts 17:24-25 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else.”

This is the classic statement of who God is, and is the foundation of monotheism. However, it is remarkable how many people act like it isn’t true. We of course have the cohort of those who deny there is or ever was a Creator, because they don’t want to acknowledge their accountability toward Him. However, even setting those aside we have many people who act like God lives in the house they made for Him, and nowhere else. It’s not that they have examined that way of thinking and are intellectually satisfied with it, it’s that they have an emotional need to feel like they “own” God, that He belongs to them instead of the other way around. Then we have the people who feel like God couldn’t get along without them. There is a song that goes, “God has no hands but our hands…” That has some truth to it, but the fact is that He allows us to participate in what He does, rather than Him being unable to do things without us. Failing to serve God hurts us, but it doesn’t hurt Him. And the last point is one where we all trip up from time to time: God supplies everything for us. We are prone to miss Him in one of three ways here. We tend to think we have what we have entirely by our own efforts, forgetting that “It is [God] who gives you the ability to produce wealth.” (Deuteronomy 8:18) As this passage says, every breath we take is a gift from God! The second mistake we often make is the opposite of that, thinking God owes us, that nothing is called for on our part. That would be the ultimate Welfare Society, and as is so evident today, that is invalid on every level. The third, and most common, mistake we make is in thinking, or at least feeling emotionally, that God is going to run out of what we need. That’s called being anxious, and the Bible is filled with admonitions to have nothing to do with it. (Philippians 4:6, etc.) When we have the right foundation for our faith we can grow strong and tall, but if the foundation is faulty, everything will collapse.

I am deeply grateful that this foundation was laid in my heart early in my life, but I deal constantly with people who were not so blessed. I find that things that seem completely obvious to me come across as fresh insight to many, and it never ceases to surprise me. I am never to get conceited about it, but rather be faithful to speak the truth in love so that others may receive it, passing on what the Lord has poured into me. At the same time, I am not to think that simply knowing these things is sufficient in itself; I have to live it out. I am not to fall into the trap of deceiving myself. (James 1:22) Only then will I be effective in communicating God’s truth to others.

Father, thank You for who You are, and for the incredible privilege of calling You Father. May I be an effective instrument in Your hands so that many, many more may be drawn into that relationship with You through Christ Jesus Your Son, for their salvation and Your glory. Thank You. Hallelujah!

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September 24, 2014

Acts 10:15 The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”

This is an extremely important Scripture. Not only does it reinforce God’s authority over human traditions, even when those traditions are based on what God has said previously, it also touches on the only way anyone can be pure before God, and that is by the edict and action of God Himself. I’m reminded of Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18, in which the man the world would have called less pure was pronounced more pure than the other, because of his humble honesty before God. Here, God was dealing with over a thousand years of awareness that the Jews were the chosen people of God, showing Peter that they didn’t have a monopoly on God’s love and mercy. We are quick to categorize people by all sorts of criteria we set up, some of it Biblical and some not. However, in so doing we often set ourselves in the place of God without realizing it. We forget that none of us deserves to be accepted by God on our own merits, so we are all dependent on His grace. Universalism, that is, “everybody’s going to heaven,” is in no way a Biblical answer. However, as Jesus said so clearly in Luke 6:36, we are to be merciful as our Heavenly Father is merciful. It is the blood of Jesus, and only the blood of Jesus, that cleanses us so that we are acceptable to God.

There are groups that practice “sloppy agape,” (not even pronouncing the Greek correctly, much less understanding it) paying little if any attention to the Bible’s many calls to holiness, and there are groups that seem to search for reasons to disqualify people from being called Christian. Neither is pleasing to God, nor Biblical, though both will trot out plenty of “proof texts.” I am to love both but not be caught up in either. I am to be uncompromising with God’s standards, laid out so clearly in the Bible, but I am to do so with an overriding, and overwhelming, awareness of the grace of God. Yesterday I was talking with someone with a very confused and inadequate understanding of God – as I do almost every day, because so many around me fit that description. I am not to focus on “correcting” them, but rather on sharing with them the grace that has been poured out on me. With my Teacher gifting, I tend to “set people straight,” when that is rarely the best way to open their heart to God’s truth. I am to share the Good News as simply as I can, in terms they can relate to, so that they may grasp the hope that they see in me and make it their own. I need to remember that God loves them as much as He does me, and that I am as dependent on His grace as they are.

Father, thank You for Your grace indeed. Help me be an open, accurate conduit of that grace, never degrading it either by compromise with the world or by legalism, so that as many as possible may receive and accept it, for their salvation and Your glory. Thank You. Praise God!

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September 23, 2014

Acts 7:57 At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him.

The irony of this scene is extreme to me. These people were doing exactly as Stephen had said in verse 51, resisting the Holy Spirit. If their hearts had been tender, hearing Stephen describe the vision he was given of Christ at the right hand of the Father would have driven them to their knees. Instead, they covered their ears while yelling, so as to block every word Stephen might say. People today do similar things, accepting any distraction so that they won’t have to receive the Word of the Lord. We make jokes about it, but it is funny only because it reflects what we really do. Of course the devil delights to supply all the distractions and lying voices we will accept, but we can’t say, “the devil made me do it,” as though that were a valid excuse. The devil only has as much power over us as we give him, so if we will choose to stand firmly in Christ, submitted to Him, then the devil’s tricks fade to insignificance. (James 4:7) The devil works with fear based on deception. When we choose to submit to God and trust Him, we see through the deception and the fear is lifted. That is when the devil flees indeed, though only to “look for a more convenient time.” (Luke 4:13) We are never to let our guard down, but also never to walk in fear. We are certainly never to yell and cover our ears to block the Word of the Lord, but singing praise to God is an excellent way to counter the lies the devil speaks to our minds and hearts.

I have certainly witnessed in abundance the capacity of mankind to block, ignore, and resist what God is saying, and I’ve practiced it far too often myself. For myself, I need to renew daily my commitment to listen to and obey the Holy Spirit. For others, I am to pray for them and continue to speak the truth in love to them, both in words and in actions. There are times when my patience runs out, but I must remember how much patience has been shown toward me. I don’t expect to be stoned as Stephen was, but I must not let even such a prospect deter me. God’s plan is good, and He will more than reward me for all I do in obedience to Him.

Father, I am often amazed at people who say they love you, yet they fail to turn their hearts to You and inquire of You about the countless decisions of their lives. I ask for wisdom and anointing to speak Your truth to them so that they may be set free from the deceptions of the enemy. I also pray for the multitudes around me who have not taken the first step of choosing to believe, acknowledging Jesus as Lord. May my obedience to You draw many more into that obedience, for their salvation and Your glory. Thank You. Hallelujah!

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