Withstanding The Gates of Hell

And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. (Mat 16:18 ESV)

As an under-shepherd, I love the church: big churches, little churches and everything in between. And Jesus promised that His church will withstand the gates of hell. But what is the church? As Gregg Allison in Sojourners and Strangers notes the church is:
…the people of God who have been saved through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ and have been incorporated into his body through baptism with the Holy Spirit.
Allison continues to make the distinction between the universal church and the local church. The universal church is all of the people of God saved in Christ, from Pentecost (the birth of the church) to the second coming of Christ when God brings judgment to earth, ultimately bringing heaven to earth in future glory. The universal church includes all of the people of God in the past, present, and future: saints who have died, who are living, and who are yet to be born, all of God’s elect in Christ. St. Augustine noted that the universal church is mostly invisible; in other works, it’s hard to put a finger on it.
In contrast, there is the local church; you can point to the local church. You can point your finger on it. The local church is mostly visible, though there are invisible characteristics to it. One invisible characteristic is people’s hearts, their motives. Just because a person professes outward faith in Christ does not mean that that person is a true child of God, adopted into the family of God. Jesus taught that the church is made up of false (tares) and true (wheat) believers, making it difficult to tell the difference at times. However, a local congregation does have two visible marks, characteristics which tell us if it’s true or false. In the Reformed tradition, the marks of a true church are if the Word of God is purely preached, and the second is if the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are employed correctly. So, for example, if a pastor from the pulpit continually preaches that Jesus was just a good man, not the divine Son of God, then such a church is a false church. If a believer finds him or herself in a false church, then she or he must leave. Notice, I did not say that if a believer finds him or herself in a false or apostate denomination, but a false church. A denomination (like PCUSA or United Methodist or the Southern Baptist Association, or like the Assembly of God, etc.) is not a church. Denominations are connectional associations from one degree or another, but not a church. A church is a local body, within the larger, church universal.
Jesus said that, “I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” What He means is that His church will survive, even death and dying, i.e., tribulation and termination. That means the universal church will survive; the church will not be snuffed out!! However, local churches do die. For example, the local church which St. Paul addressed in Corinth is no longer around. Local churches close down all the time. Why? Well churches can get sick just like people get sick. Also like people many times a church can be deathly sick, but look well and vibrant on the outside. Just as there are marks of a true, local church there are marks of a healthy church.
So, what are the marks of a healthy church? Mark Dever insightfully notes “9 Marks” of a healthy church. These marks are: expositional preaching, biblical theology, a biblical understanding of the gospel, a biblical understanding of conversion, a biblical understanding of evangelism, a biblical understanding of church membership, a biblical understanding of church discipline, a biblical understanding of church discipleship and growth, and a biblical understanding of church leadership.
No church perfectly demonstrates these 9 health marks, but my hope is that the people of God will continue to get healthier and healthier and healthier as our Lord continues to build us up so that we can continue to withstand the gates of hell!
Soli Deo Gloria
Carl

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Praise Thee As I Ought

Weak is the effort of my heart

And cold my warmest thoughts

But when I see Thee as Thou art

I’ll praise Thee as I ought

 

If you recall last month’s letter the issue was about worship, true worship. Jesus taught that true worship is always in spirit and in truth. Spirit, in part, is a heart and will in lockstep with God’s heart and will. Truth is, in part, a mind that corresponds with the mind of God.

The issue before us now is about the content of our worship. What are the ingredients of true worship? We in the Reformed tradition, which includes Presbyterians, hold to (what is historically called) the “regulative principle” of worship. The regulative principle states that corporate worship is to be founded upon, or “regulated” by specific directions from Scripture. Just as a delicious “chocolate pie” is regulated by the contents of a recipe, likewise true worship is regulated by the content of Scripture! What does this mean? First, in part, it means we cannot worship God any old way we please. In Leviticus, chapter 10, Nadab and Abihu offered “strange fire” unto the Lord in worship. This unauthorized worship cost Aaron’s sons their lives. I remember in seminary when a professor shared a story about a friend of his who was a minister. He shared with us that his friend would preach from the newspaper and current events instead of preaching from the Bible. Instead of current events serving as illustrations to better understand and apply the Bible, he reversed it: that is, the Bible was used as an excuse to talk about current events.  So we must be careful when we introduce elements like this in our worship. It is dangerous to our souls!

A second thing the regulative principle does for us is that it frees the church. What I mean is that there is much freedom and wiggle room in our worship; case in point is style of worship. Traditional versus contemporary songs are examples of “matters of indifference,” known in biblical theology as “adiaphora.” Each culture and age has its own unique way to express adoration and praise to God. I am told by church historians that the traditional hymns of the 18th and 19th centuries we sing today were “contemporary” in their day, meaning the music to the hymns was the music of the day. There is nothing sacred about the style of music we sing; what is sacred is the object of our songs of praise!

                So what are the ingredients of true worship based upon the regulative principle? In 1 Tim. 4:13, Paul directs the church’s worship with reading the Bible; in 1 Tim. 4:2 worship is directed with preaching the Bible. The same goes for singing the Bible (Eph. 5:19), and prayer guided by the Bible (Matt 21:13) and the two sacraments of the church, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, both formed and informed by the Bible (Matt 28:19; Acts 2:28-39; Col. 2:11-12). So reading the Bible, preaching the Bible, singing based upon the Bible, prayer based upon the Bible, both baptism and the Lord’s Supper which are from the Bible—all of these are some of the essential ingredients that make up true worship.

In short, the content of true worship is formed and informed by Scripture. Why? It is because Scripture is God’s self-revelation or disclosure of Himself. The Bible is the only place where God reveals Himself as He truly is. Science and philosophy dimly reveal God as He truly is. It is dim because such knowledge is very general compared to Scripture. We can know through philosophy and good science that God exists. This is why the beauty and grandeur and awe of creation arouse within us a sense of praise!! But such worship pales in comparison to what takes place on the Lord’s Day during Sunday morning worship. Why? It is because it is only through Scripture (the sacred history of redemption) that we know that God not only exists, but God saves miserable sinners by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone! When we are confronted by such a good and great God in His self-revelation to us, then (as the poetry of the hymn says) you and I, in spite of our cold sinfulness, are able to be lifted up in worship, to “… see Thee as Thou art [and in turn to] … praise Thee as I ought.”

                In conclusion, there is a well-known saying that goes “to know me is to love me.” The object of our songs of praise is God! True worship is a heart enraptured by God. But our hearts cannot be enraptured by God until our minds are captivated by Scripture. Our hearts are enlarged by the renewing of our minds by God’s Word! My heart enlarges as my mind grasps more and more of His grace to me! In humility, as I think less of myself, I am able to think more of God. And I am able to think more of God as I think more about God as He reveals Himself to me and to you In the Bible. That is true worship! Anything less is not! So, may we praise God as we ought!!

Soli Deo Gloria

Carl

 

 

 

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True Worship

God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (Joh 4:24 ESV)

Some years ago a Christian friend had gotten into a discussion about true worship. The particular church he attended was a Four Square church. This church’s worship was contemporary. The worship service’s liturgy was simple. Typical of most Pentecostal churches this church eschewed formal worship. It was within this context that a number of his fellow members got into a discussion about what made worship true worship. The discussion took place on Face Book. I noticed many people talking about traditional versus contemporary worship, high liturgy versus low liturgy, organs versus drums. It was in the midst of this back-and-forth that I entered the fray and reminded them of how Jesus defined true worship. I simply posted Jesus’ words from John 4:24. Simply put Jesus is reminding us that worship is all about God, not about us. Worship is about the nature of God which is spirit, not about the nature of man which is flesh. Spirit in biblical parlance is focused on the will of God; flesh is the opposite: it’s about the will of man. Since the nature of God is spirit, then the response of those who focus on God must be spiritual and truthful. In other words true worship is not about external formalities. When external formalities become the focus of worship, when our symbols and forms become more significant than what our symbols and forms ought to signify…then such worship in vain. This is what our Lord meant when he said, You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: 8 “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; 9 in vain do they worship me….'” (Mat 15:7-9aESV)
So what is true worship? Jesus notes that true worship is in spirit and in truth. Spirit, in part, is a heart and will in lockstep with God’s heart and will. Truth is, in part, a mind that corresponds with the mind of God. Simply put, true worship is a heart and will of a man or woman, boy or girl who loves what God loves, does what God demands, and believes what God says and teaches—all formed and informed by the Word of God.
Next month we will delve into the content of worshiping God in spirit and in truth, but for now let us be reminded of true worship. Much so called worship across churches today in America is fleshly. Fleshly worship can be external and formal, focusing on external symbols and acts void of spirit. On the other hand, worship can be fleshly by focusing on ourselves: how we feel, how we emote, how we think, instead of how God feels, and what God thinks. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. (Mat 7:21 ESV). May we always do the will of the Father in our worship! Amen!!
Soli Deo Gloria
G Carl Moore

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More Wonderful Beyond

12 But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.

I Corinthians 15: 12-14

 

Alister McGrath, a former atheist who has become a believer in Christ, a theologian and a scientist, tells the following story about the first time he awakened to the hope of Christ’s resurrection:

[As a young man], I was a grumpy and frankly rather arrogant atheist. I was totally convinced that there was no God, and that anyone who thought there was needed to be locked up for her own good. I was majoring in the sciences at high school and had won a scholarship to study chemistry at Oxford University, beginning in October 1971. I had every reason to believe that studying the sciences further would confirm my rampant godlessness. While waiting to go up to Oxford, I decided to work my way through a pile of “improving books.” Needless to say, none of them were religious.

Eventually, I came to a classic work of philosophy—Plato’s Republic. I couldn’t make sense of everything I read. But one image etched itself into my imagination. Plato asks us to imagine a group of men, trapped in a cave, knowing only a world of flickering shadows cast by a fire. Having experienced no other world, they assume that the shadows are the only reality. Yet the reader knows—and is meant to know—that there is another world beyond the cave, awaiting discovery.

As I read this passage, the hard-nosed rationalist within me smiled condescendingly. Typical escapist superstition! What you see is what you get, and that’s the end of the matter. Yet a still, small voice within me whispered words of doubt. What if this world is only part of the story? What if this world is only a shadowland? What if there is something more wonderful beyond it?

 

McGrath’s struggle with the truth(s) of the Christian faith is not unique. The Apostle Paul had his own barriers, one being (from a Jewish perspective) the barrier of a religious tradition which assumed that the Messiah would conquer via the glory and honor of war, not the ignominious cross of dishonor.

Barriers to belief many times come in the form of intellectual pride as with McGrath, but McGrath knew by virtue of the moral law within and the starry sky above that “there is something more wonderful beyond” this life. Our neo-pagan culture lies to itself by saying that this is all that there is. It reduces reality to matter, a contiguous concourse of mere molecules in motion. We are like the ancients in Plato’s allegory of the Cave; we believe the shadows of this dark fallen world are all that there is. Yet, some of us are like St. Paul prior to his conversion; because of religious pride we assume “man-made” traditions are all there is. Religious tradition can too cast a long, dark shadow upon us. Even regenerate (born again) Christians will allow the need to belong to muddy our thinking in the morass of misconceptions. This was the case for Paul as he addressed the First Church of Corinth. Their intellectual pride of wanting to be accepted by their surrounding pagan culture (sounds familiar?) had them buying into pagan concepts (like the pagan idea that there is no bodily resurrection of believers), concepts contrary to the essentials of the faith (like the Christian idea of the physical, bodily resurrection of Christ). 

These are just some barriers to belief. Others barriers can be suffering, evil, and pain. However, when we are confronted with the resurrected Lord, when we have an encounter with the living God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, when we encounter the ultimate reality of the Word of God made flesh then all the idols of our minds retreat while our hearts surrender to Christ. This is what happened to Paul. It was Paul’s encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus which eroded his doubt; his pang of a guilty conscience receded into the shadows in the face of the overwhelming effulgence of the resurrected Lord.

During this season of Lent and Easter if you are struggling with doubt—e.g. doubt from pride, or doubt from pain and loss, etc.–turn your gaze again to the reality of our Lord who conquered death not for Himself, but for us. Because of Christ’s death on the cross death for us is but a shadow; and because of Christ’s life and resurrection there is something more wonderful here and now for us and beyond!

Soli Deo Gloria

G Carl Moore

 

 

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Preserved By God

4 Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. 5 And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. 6 For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. 7 God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. 8 So it was not you who sent me here, but God (Gen 45: 4-8a)

 

 

In this text we read about how God preserves his people in the midst of forces and pressures that seek to do us no good. Joseph the son of Jacob knew this very well. If there was ever a person who knew the forces and pressures of life that seek to pull apart and press us down it was Joseph: sold into slavery; sent to prison, forsaken and betrayed by family and friends. Yet through all of that Joseph persevered; Joseph prevailed; Joseph persisted! He went from prison to prominence! How? Why? 

4 Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. 5 And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve lifeGod sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. 8 So it was not you who sent me here, but God.”

In our text Joseph is pointing to a biblical truth which is throughout the Old and New Testaments: that is, the truth that God preserves us. In a theological parlance or manner of speaking this is known as “remnant theology.” All throughout sacred history God has always preserved for Himself a remnant: in the days of Noah there were eight; Abraham there was one (Isaac); in the days of the Judges God whittled down Gideon’s troops from 32,000 soldiers to a mere 300 to win the battle; in the days of the evil King Ahab there were 7000 who would not bow their knee to Baal; in the days of our Lord he taught that broad was the road to destruction, but narrow the road to life; in the days of the Apostolic church it was known as a “little flock.” Joseph points this out to explain how he persevered and how he was used by God to preserve his family in the midst of a great famine, taking them from Canaan to Goshen, preserving 70.

One of the things we learn from the life of Joseph is that in spite of our abilities, our tenacious perseverance, we are held up and preserved by God. I like to say that God preserves us in our perseverance. Paul says, “work out your salvation with fear and trembling, knowing it’s God who works in us to will and do!” As we look back in faith upon 2013 we are aware of how God has preserved us. As we look forward in hope may we look to God and his plans for us in 2014 as He again continues to preserve His people! Pray for your leaders and your church this coming year for God’s preservation!

 

Soli Deo Gloria

Carl

 

 

 

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Love’s Pure Light!

Silent night, Holy night
Son of God, love’s pure light
Radiant beams from thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord at thy birth,
Jesus, Lord at thy birth!

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”—Nelsen Mandela

Mandela was a great humanitarian and civil rights leader for the people of South Africa, a moral virtuoso! But he had too high a view of human nature and human moral ability. For the unregenerate, hate is more natural; love is most unnatural. You cannot change the human heart by naively teaching people to love and not hate. Until the depraved human heart is reconciled to God by way of regeneration (i.e. being born again from above by the Spirit of Christ Jesus), and no longer hostile to God, then and only then can human beings truly learn to love his and her fellow man as he or she ought!

This is why Jesus came as a baby in the manger. Our Lord God incarnate– the second Person of the Trinity, as the Son of God enfleshed– came to put an end to hate and hostility. He came first to announce the beginning of the end of hostility between humanity and God. The reason why there is hate and there is hostility between our fellow man is because of the hostility between humanity and God. That is the source of our hate for one another. Yet while we were enemies to God, He vouchsafed His love to us! This is what Christmas is all about!!

During this Holy Season of Advent and Christmas may God’s radiance beam from the holy face of the Son of God as His love, love’s pure light, of redeeming grace infuses us with supernatural love  as grace changes our hearts to love and not hate.

Soli Deo Gloria

G Carl Moore

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Thanksgiving Eve Sermon–November 2013

“Be Thankful”

Luke 7:36-50

Robert Emmons, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, and psychology professor Michael McCullough of the University of Miami, have long been interested in the role gratitude plays in physical and emotional well being. They took two groups of volunteers and randomly assigned them to focus on one of two things each week: focus on things that irritate them or things for which they were grateful.

The first group concentrated on everything that went wrong or that irritated them. The second group recalled recent events or people for whom they were grateful.

The results: The people who focused on gratitude were happier. They saw their lives in favorable terms. They reported fewer negative physical symptoms such as headaches or colds, and they were active in many ways that were good for them. Those who were grateful quite simply enjoyed a higher quality of life.

Emmons was surprised. “This is not just something that makes people happy, like a positive-thinking/optimism kind of thing. A feeling of gratitude really gets people to do something, to become more pro-social, more compassionate.” Such was not the case in  the other group: they were miserable.

Which group are you in this evening? Maybe you are one of those who look for things that irritate you. Well if you are, then you probably don’t have to wait long. How long do you have to wait before you are flustered? It wasn’t long for Simon the Pharisee to find something that irritated him. Why do I say this? He was looking for it. Simon invites Jesus over to get to know him; he was looking to see if Jesus was who he claimed to be: a prophet of God. But Simon was skeptical; he was not sure if Jesus was  true prophet. Surprisingly Simon found what he was looking for: Jesus was not a prophet (so he thought). Why? Because if Jesus was a prophet he would have known that “This Woman” who is touching Jesus (attending to Jesus’ needs) is a sort of loose woman that no “true prophet” would have anything to do with. But Jesus knew this. Jesus knew that this Pharisee was the sort of man who looked for things that irritated him. Jesus knew that this man saw life as a glass that’s half empty. If given lemons, he would make every one and every situation around him sour.

But as a prophet Jesus was also able to discern truly what sort of woman “That Woman” was who had been attending to his needs. This woman did not belong to the group of people who look for things to irritate them (like Simon), but she belonged to a second group of people, people who focuse on things which they were grateful for. Only a grateful person could serve Jesus the way she did. Unlike her critic “cynical Simon” who looks under every rock, leaving no stone unturned to find some offense (so that he may express his ingratitude) this woman serves Jesus with tears of gratitude. Have you ever been so grateful for something… that you have tears of joy? Well this is what happens to this woman—she expresses her gratitude with tears. In fact it was a floodgate of tears: she cried enough tears to wet the feet, to drench the feet of Jesus; so many tears drenched Jesus’ feet that it was enough to saturate all of the caked-on-dirt and grime and dung that Jesus had collected in his day’s journey. Mind you, Jesus and his contemporaries wore sandals with toes exposed. Jesus and his contemporaries would walk (not on nice clean paved roads) but on dirty, muddy, grimy roads. They would have to walk though dung left by horses and mules and donkeys. All of this would be caked on ones feet. We moderns don’t know a thing about stinky feet like the ancient Palestinians. We have nothing compared to ancient “Palestinian toe-jam.” This woman wipes off the dirt, grime, and dung from Jesus’ feet with her hair and then pours perfume (her expensive perfume) on them. As opposed to being critical, she was thankful for Jesus and his presence. Why? Why was she so thankful?

This woman was a known sinner in town; she was known for her sinful, disgraceful life. Most likely she was a prostitute. There is nothing glamorous about the sex trade industry. Prostitution is one of those sins that racks the body, destroys one’s sense of dignity; it leaves one jilted, and critical and cynical of life, of relationships. If anything it makes more sense for this woman to be in the first group; she has more reason to be critical and cynical than Simon the Pharisee. But she wasn’t! She was the very opposite. She was grateful. Why?

Jesus tells us why. He does this by-way-of a Parable. Jesus asks the Pharisee (Simon) I got something to tell you, a Parable. It’s a story about two men who owe a money lender: one owed five-hundred denarii, the other fifty. The money lender decided to cancel out both of their debts. Jesus asked rhetorically “Now Simon…tell me which one will love him (the money lender) all the more? Which one will be more grateful” Simon said “I guess the one with the bigger debt.” Jesus responds with a resounding eureka, A+ “cynical Simon.” Jesus then turns to Simon and tells him (and us) why this woman who had more reasons to be critical and cynical of life, and relations and even to Jesus more than anyone in this sanctuary tonight. This woman was able to love, was able to be grateful, was able to focus on things she was grateful for because she has been forgiven of much: no more guilt, no more punishment. She, unlike Simon, was aware of the fact that she was a dreadful sinner, estranged from God. She was aware of what sin had done to herself, others, and (most importantly God). She felt the weight of sin bearing down on her to the point of suffocation. It was in these circumstances that Jesus comes and liberates her, redeems her, tending to her emotional, and psychological and spiritual scars of sin. This woman was morally, emotionally, spiritually dead and Jesus brought her back to life with these words: “your sins are forgiven.”  This woman had an awful lot to be thankful for and she knew it.

The only difference between Simon and this woman is that she knew she had a lot to be thankful for. Simon did not. The woman was aware of her immense moral debt she owed God; that’s what made her appreciate what Jesus did for her. This is why she could say even on a bad day when asked “how are you doing?” by responding “better than I deserve!!” This is why she couldn’t help but to focus on things she was grateful for. What else is there? But this also explains Simon. Simon was not aware of the moral debt he owed God. Such people think that things are owed to them. If we think everything is owed to us—and we do not have everything—then it’s natural to be critical, cynical, and ungrateful even in the midst of grace. This is why the other guests were critical of Jesus when he said to the woman “your sins are forgiven.” They murmured, “Who is this who even forgives sins.”  God’s grace was in their midst and they missed it because they were too smug, self-satisfied, and ungrateful…too busy focusing on what irritated them.

In conclusion, I will not ask of you this Thanksgiving Eve “what do you have to be thankful for?” That should be obvious. But I will ask, “which group do you affiliate with the most?” Do you look for things that irritate you? Are you critical, cynical, and ungrateful? Are you in that group that focuses on what is owed to you? Or are you in the other group that focuses on what is owed to God (giving thanks to God), focusing on all that you have to be thankful for?  If so… be thankful!

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