Friday, October 2, 2020

Are You Kidding?


For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!
(1 Corinthians 9:16, ESV)

It happens often, but we never get used to it. Someone will say, with the sweetest of smiles, “I am glad you are getting to do what you want to do.” Sometimes I want to say, “You must be kidding.”

I did not want to go to Zambia in 1999. We had just buried my father, and I knew that my mother would not live until we returned. I did not want to fly to Sudan in 2009. I felt that “necessity” was laid on me. The job needed to be done. As it was for the thousands who volunteered in December of 1941, it was not the desire to see foreign places that led me on, but the conviction that there was a spiritual war going on and I was needed in that work at that time. Right now, we are needed in one of the lonelier outposts of that same war.

Eswatini is a nicer place than Nigeria, or Ghana, or the parts of Zambia that we considered. It is closer to being home for me than anywhere else we have lived, but it is not home for us. Our grandchildren are not there and are unlikely to visit us there. We will miss many of our friends and many favorite foods and activities.

On Friday at noon we will close the sale of a home we have owned for thirty years. We held on to that home during our previous service in Africa, but this time it was not going to be possible. That was supposed to be our retirement home. Now it belongs to someone else. We are glad that it sold for a good price. That will make it easier for us to do the work in Eswatini. But do you think we wanted to do that? You must be kidding.

We do not expect you to pity us or even to admire us. That would be ludicrous. We are disciples of the one who gave up heaven to live in Nazareth, and to die at Golgotha. Following him entails giving up what we want. This is not some “above and beyond the call of duty” kind of service; it is what is expected. It is, or should be, the normal course of action for anyone following Jesus.

No, we are not all called to be missionaries to a foreign land; but every disciple is to follow. To follow Jesus means to say, “not as I will, but as you will” (Mt 26:39). Are you a disciple of Jesus, or are you kidding?

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Club Membership

 I have never been a member of a club. I have known members of various clubs (the Lions, the Rotary, the Kiwanis, and even the Odd Fellows). I am told that these clubs offer enjoyable fellowship and that they engage in worthwhile service projects. But this week I learned something else. Most of the clubs have rules regarding attendance. If a member skips meetings he may have to make up for the missed meetings in some way. I never knew that; but Sinclair Ferguson included the rules of the Trenton, N.J. Rotary club in his latest book, Devoted to God’s Church.

Why did he do that?

Well, I am sure that it was not because he wanted us to join the local Rotary Club. He was making a point and making it rather well. People think that they are entitled to drift in and out of the church when and as they please. They want to be considered members and want to be granted all the benefits of membership, but they do not want to be held accountable to any standard of behavior. They certainly do not want to be told that they must attend meetings of the church, or that they will suffer any consequence if they are sporadic in their attendance.

Do you really believe that church membership is less a privilege and blessing than is membership in the Rotary Club? If Rotary members accept the premise that you must attend the meetings to continue as a member in good standing, why would anyone question the same principle in connection with the church? If a Rotary member moves from one local branch of the club to another, he accepts the fact that he must acknowledge this shift in the location of his membership. Why do so many Christians put up a fuss over a similar expectation in the church?

To drop the club illustration and use a more biblical one, Christ is the vine and we are the branches (John 15). Every branch must be firmly connected to thrive; and to be connected one must be connected at some given point along the length of the vine. It is possible to move a branch from one part of the vine to another. If a branch is cut loose from one part and carefully grafted in somewhere else on the vine, it may thrive in the new location. But a branch that is moved from one part of the vine to another but is never firmly connected in the new location, will not thrive and may well die.

We need to take our membership in the body of Christ more seriously. Christ died for the church (Acts 20:28). We are called to live for the church.

Friday, September 18, 2020

We Have a Choice

Frances Price Baxter has been described as a salesman and a visionary. At one time he served as an elder in the church, but he had a lot of grandiose ideas, most of which did not work out. Eventually he obtained a divorce from his wife and abandoned his family – going off to marry someone else and showing no further concern for his family. The family never spoke of him.

According to some, that should have doomed his descendants to failure, maybe even justified them in taking to a life of crime.

But the son of Price Baxter did not allow his father’s wrongdoing to ruin his life. He became a preacher and eventually a college president. In fact, that son of Price Baxter served as the president of three different colleges (Abilene, Lipscomb, and Pepperdine).

Yet Batsell Baxter is not best known for his preaching or his work with the colleges. Batsell Baxter is best remembered because he became the father of Batsell Barrett Baxter, the best-known preacher and educator among Churches of Christ during my youth. Batsell Barrett Baxter was the most effective television preacher I ever heard. B.B.B. could stand in an empty studio, look into the camera, and people watching at home would feel as if he truly cared about them. Unlike many who were both college teachers and preachers, Batsell Barrett Baxter was excellent in both occupations.

Yes, it is true, some of us had better home lives than others. But the point is that things can be turned around. Price Baxter abandoned his family. His son decided to do better. He had such a peaceful home that his only son would later say that his parents only had one major disagreement of which he was aware. That disagreement was settled by a brief walk in the garden.

In a single generation the Baxter family went from the tragedy of divorce, to a level of harmony rarely experienced in any home. And in the next generation the Baxter family produced one of the finest evangelists of all time.

We have a choice. We can use our family history as an excuse. Or we can learn from it and do better.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Why Did God Allow Sin?

It is a common question. If God knew that mankind would sin, and that sin would bring untold misery to the world, why did he create us to begin with? Why did God allow sin to happen? I have been asked the question, in one form or another, many times.

Brownlow North (1810-1875) was asked the question as well. He replied, “Because God chose to allow sin.” While at first glance that does not seem to be a very satisfactory response, it is really about all we know. God chose to create us, even though he knew we would be sinners, and that our sin would cause untold amounts of suffering. Yet he chose to do so, and he did not choose to explain his reasons to us. We can speculate on them if we choose to do so, but the reasons that we offer are reasons of our own making. God never tells us why. He, of his own free and sovereign will, chose to do so. If we are honest, we will admit that this is as far as we can get for certain.

Romans 9 teaches us that the created is not to ask the creator why he created. It is not our place to know God’s reasons. It is likely that if he told us we could not understand. He is free and sovereign, and he chose to create us. That is as far as we can speak with certainty.

But while thinking on the fact that God chose to create, even knowing that we would sin, we should also consider something else that he did of his own free and sovereign will. He sent Jesus.

Yes, he could see, as he created beings in his own image, that doing so would allow sin to occur. For making us in his image means that we have within a limited sphere a freedom and sovereignty like he has without limitation. He knew that allowing us this freedom allowed sin, and that sin would lead to suffering, often to innocent suffering. In particular, he knew that it would lead to extreme suffering for one completely innocent human.

Why did God allow sin? For the same reason that he sent Jesus, because he chose to do so. In creating us he knew that he would suffer for it. But he chose to create and he chose to suffer. He has the freedom to so choose; and he has accepted the consequences and the suffering entailed in those choices.

Now for a more answerable question. “What will we choose?”

Sunday, August 16, 2020


Social distancing is more widely practiced now than in the past, but it is hardly a new concept. Most of us have always put a little extra distance between ourselves and a person who is coughing or sneezing. As children, we were taught to cover our mouth when we cough. Most of us had enough sense to avoid shaking hands after coughing, even before the pandemic. We do not want to spread germs. We do not want to contract an illness, so we keep our distance. That tendency may be amplified now, but it is not new. 

 We keep our distance from germs that might damage our physical health, but all too often we invite spiritual illness into our lives, and into the lives of our children. There was a time when schoolteachers could be dismissed if they had a contagious disease (either physical or spiritual). We still expect that the school board will not allow a teacher with tuberculous into the classroom. But we accept it calmly when they hire persons known for immorality as teachers. Which is worse? When she was a child, my mother-in-law contracted tuberculous from a schoolteacher. She survived, but even if she had died, it would only have been her body. 

When we cozy up to immorality, and allow the immoral to teach our children, we are inviting their spiritual death. That is far worse. We are told to “Flee immorality” (1 Cor 6:18). All too often, we are doing the opposite. We must remember that the friend of the world is an enemy of God (James 4:4). Let’s put some distance between ourselves and sin. 

 “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” (Matthew 16:26, ESV)

Friday, August 7, 2020

Varied Reactions

After quoting a letter praising one of the sermons of Brownlow North, his biographer goes on to say, “Strange to say, the sermon which awoke such a strain of thanksgiving … and brought her sweet note of gratitude, awoke bitter opposition in another breast and brought an angry and rude letter ….” The same sermon, but a different reaction.

When Jesus healed the man with a withered hand (Mk 3), I am sure that the man himself and all his friends rejoiced. But the Pharisees went out and held counsel with the Herodians how to destroy Jesus (Mk 3:6). The Apostle Paul had a close friendship with the Christians in Galatia, until some false teachers came in and made them suspicious of him. Having been told by the new teachers that they could save themselves by good works, they reacted in anger when Paul reiterated the Gospel to them. He was forced to ask, “Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth?” (Gal 4:16)

Good preaching does not always receive a good reaction. Speaking of the generation that wandered in the wilderness, the Hebrew writer says, “the word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it” (Heb 4:2, KJV). Does the word meet with faith in us? If it does not, the best sermons in the world will do no good.

Sometimes a preacher misspeaks or speaks unclearly. But let us always remember that our reaction to what is said is our reaction. If we think that we have heard something terrible, while others have a different reaction, maybe we misheard, misunderstood, or misapplied what was said. Or maybe the message simply was not received and mixed with faith in our hearts.

The same sunshine will melt butter and harden clay. The same teaching that causes rejoicing in the heart of the penitent sinner, draws an angry reaction from one determined to go on in sin. The reaction of our heart toward a given teaching is not entirely the result of that teaching. The state of our heart contributes considerably to the overall result. That is why preparatory prayer is so important before worship or Bible study. Sin must be confessed. The heart must be prepared to receive the message.

When the Bible is expounded, our reaction may tell more about the state of our heart than it does about the quality of the delivery. A cold indifferent response indicates a cold indifferent heart. An angry response …. A warm and joyous response ….

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Glorify God

J.I. Packer died July 17, five days shy of his 94th birthday. A native of England, Packer taught at various schools in England, and authored several influential books, before moving to Regents College in Vancouver, B.C. in 1979. He served as the general editor of the English Standard Version.

Near the end of his life, Packer was asked if he had a final word to leave for his fellow believers. Being a man who prided himself on brevity (“Packer by name; Packer by inclination” he used to say) he responded with a four-word sentence. “Glorify Christ every way.”

In saying this he was echoing the first question and response of the Westminster Shorter Catechism. “Q: What is the chief end of man? A: Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”

More importantly, he was echoing the plain and persistent teaching of scripture. We exist to glorify God. That was the purpose of our creation; and it is the purpose of our recreation in Christ.

“Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31). “For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory forever” (Rom 11:36). “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Mt 5:16). “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever” (1 Peter 4:10-11).

Whether we live into our nineties or die young, whether we are well-known or little-known, whether we are successful in worldly terms or end our lives in poverty, the key question will always be, “Did we fulfill our God-given purpose?” At the end of this day, and every day, let us ask ourselves, “Did I face my tasks, bear my burdens, and enjoy my pleasures in a way that honored my Lord?” And let us start each new day with the determination that we will, once again, glorify the Lord. And when our final hour comes, let us face death in a manner that glorifies our Lord.