Who Can Kill Sin and How?

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Bernie Diaz, October 17, 2018

Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions.  Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. (Ro. 6:12-13, ESV)

God doesn’t mess around with sin does he? According to Psalms 5 and 7, he actually hates unredeemed sinners, in the sense that he hates sin and that rebellion against him and his law, which cannot be separated from the sinners that commit those sins or miss the mark of righteousness he requires of people to come before his presence.

So where does that leave us, his favored creation, made in his image- warts, sins and all? My current sermon series from the book of Romans has reminded me that fortunately, disciples of Jesus Christ – God’s Lord and Savior, have had their sin nature crucified with Christ, which forgave them of their sins and the penalty of it, as well as putting to death or killing their old sin nature (Ro. 6:6-11).

Just Say No and Yes.

Part of what Christians call the “good news” that is the gospel, is that born-again believers of Jesus are given a new nature or heart when they are saved and justified by faith via God’s grace alone and yearn for righteousness rather than sin. They have been given a grace of Holy Spirit power to say no to sin and yes to the greater pleasure and treasure that is a relationship with Jesus and citizenship in his kingdom.

However, part of the ‘bad news’ that is juxtaposed with the gospel is the reality that the unredeemed – unbelievers, are spiritually, dead, deaf, dumb and blind (Ro. 8:7-8; Eph. 2:1-3) and are therefore slaves to their sin nature, which they inherited from Adam in the fall of mankind (Ro. 5:12).

So why are we so surprised and so often frustrated by our lost family, friends and co-workers that say no to the light of Jesus and love to say yes to the darkness of their sins? Wasn’t that us in our BC (Before Christ) life?

I learned myself several years ago that those that expect unbelievers to act like believers either suffer from naivete, ignorance or poor theology.

The great Puritan theologian and Pastor John Owen addresses this in his great work Overcoming Sin and Temptation, a book that deals with the subject of mortification, of putting sin to death, and Owen dedicates one chapter to explaining why only Christians can behave like Christians.

He begins by insisting that only Christians have the ability to put much of the remaining sin in their lives to death. Unbelievers may suppress sin- say no for a while, mostly due to the moral law that God placed in their conscience (Ro. 2:12-14), but they cannot kill it.

“Unless a man be a believer—that is, one that is truly ingrafted into Christ—he can never mortify any one sin; I do not say, unless he know himself to be so, but unless indeed he be so. … There is no death of sin without the death of Christ”, writes Owen.

And again, “A man may easier see without eyes, speak without a tongue, than truly mortify one sin without the Spirit.”

Indeed, as America’s mid-term election season nears, Christians that seek a “Christian nation” too often pray for if not rely on a political revival that would transform or Christianize a nation filled with unbelievers from the outside in. If we only had the right Supreme Court. President. Congress.

Why do we seek worldly solutions to spiritual problems? Such a revival it is supposed, would begin to kill the corporate sins of abortion, the sexual revolution, violence, poverty and any number of social and moral issues that plague the U.S.

Although I would personally love to see and live in a more moral and politically conservative America, I am under no illusion that such a societal and cultural shift will happen, absent a revival in the hearts and homes of Christians across the fruited plain.

Anything less than a revival of the American church, can only bring a Phariseeical sort of renaissance that Jesus vehemently opposed in the first century AD.

The kingdom of God and heaven is more concerned about its advance than a particular nation. God according to scripture, is “seeking worshippers in spirit and truth,” more than a particular cultural revolution.

If it is, indeed, the case that unbelievers cannot put sin to death- and they can’t because they do not have the heart to do so, due to their spiritual condition, then they and evangelical Christianity must have a higher priority than superficial righteousness or piety: conversion. Owen adds:

Mortification is not the present business of unregenerate men. God calls them not to it as yet; conversion is their work—the conversion of the whole soul—not the mortification of this or that particular lust. … Let the soul be first thoroughly converted, and then, ‘looking on him whom they had pierced,’ humiliation and mortification will ensue… There is a proper order to these things. First be saved, then put sin to death.

In reality, unbelievers who attempt to put sin to death actually go deeper into their sin. “This is the usual issue with persons attempting the mortification of sin without an interest in Christ first obtained. It deludes them, hardens them—destroys them.” And again, “To kill sin is the work of living men; where men are dead (as all unbelievers, the best of them, are dead), sin is alive, and will live.”

Owen anticipates the following objection: “Shall [unregenerate men] cease striving against sin, live dissolutely, give their lusts their swing, and be as bad as the worst of men?” If unbelievers cannot put sin to death, would it be wrong of us to tell them to stop sinning or even expect them to?

He answers the objection as the apostle Paul would: “God forbid! It is to be looked on as a great issue of wisdom, goodness, and love of God, that by manifold ways and means he is pleased to restrain the sons of men from running forth into that compass of excess and riot which the depravity of their nature would carry them out unto with violence.”

God dispenses his common grace to all, and this grace keeps men and women from being as sinful as they can be. Sometimes God does convict unbelievers of sin and causes them to restrain that sin, yet without actually converting or saving them.

So, it becomes a matter of right priorities both for the person calling upon the unbelievers, and for the unbelievers themselves: “Let men know [that putting sin to death] is their duty, but in its proper place; I take not men from mortification, but put them upon conversion. He that shall call a man from mending a hole in the wall of his house, to quench a fire that is consuming the whole building, is not his enemy! Poor soul! You set yourself against a particular sin and do not consider that you are nothing but sin.”

Christians understand that the lost must be found before they can change. Don’t expect them to be the person they are not -yet. Don’t call upon unbelievers to stop sinning until you first call them to turn to God and trust in Christ with repentance and faith so that they can one day say no to sin.

Even if they do not turn to Christ they may still suppress a sin, but let’s not make it our main purpose to convince unbelievers not to sin or place their trust in other men and women; instead, let’s make it our mission to call them to believe in and give themselves to Jesus Christ.

Then we can see what God will do with our communities and country.

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Kavanaugh is Confirmed- What’s Next in the Culture War?

Image result for ford and kavanaugh Bernie Diaz, October 10, 2018

Perhaps no Supreme Court Justice confirmation in American history was more contentious and controversial than the just concluded process, which saw judge Brett Kavanaugh sworn-in as the newest Associate Justice of the highest court in the land, by retired Justice Anthony Kennedy, whose seat will be occupied by Kavanaugh.

Kavanaugh was nominated by President Trump and then confirmed by the Senate’s razor thin margin of 50-48 (the closest vote to confirm a justice since 1881) that sparked mass protests, an FBI investigation and a national reckoning over power, gender, sexual assault and the line between violence and adolescent transgression coming in the midst of the #MeToo movement.

All of this comes less than a month before the pivotal midterm elections that will determine which political party controls Congress for the next two years if not beyond. Don’t believe for a moment that this coming election will not be greatly influenced by Kavanaugh’s appointment to SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States).

The accusations transformed the clash from a routine struggle over judicial ideology into an angry struggle over questions about victims’ rights and personal attacks on nominees.

Kavanaugh was sworn in last Saturday in a private ceremony as protesters chanted outside the court building as they had been all during the Senate’s Confirmation hearings.

For President Trump, he has now put his stamp on the court with his second justice in as many years, pleasing supporters and many an evangelical Christian in the process, though Kavanaugh may be joining SCOTUS under a cloud that may remain for some time to come.

This process affirms the fact that America is as divided a nation ideologically and politically between red and blue, as it is spiritually between the lost and found.

Kavanaugh was accused by Professor Christine Ford of attempted rape while in high school – yes, some 30 odd years ago.

A recent Fox News poll asked respondents whether they believed Kavanaugh or Ford. Among registered voters, 59 percent of Democrats believe Ford and 60 percent of Republicans believe Kavanaugh. Only about one in three voters answered “I don’t know” when asked whether they believe Kavanaugh or Ford, also indicating that minds were not substantially changed by the testimony of both parties in the hearings.

This proverbial and non-criminal case of “he said- she said” ultimately led to Kavanaugh’s prevailing, due to a lack of substantiating and corroborating testimony and evidence against him.

Pride and Prejudice

What this process has revealed to me is that the culture war in America is alive and well between the left (progressives or liberals) and the right (conservatives), to the extent which ironically, the very bedrock ideal of “innocent until proven guilty” in the U.S. came under some scrutiny due to partisan and political agendas.

U.S. Senator Mazie Hirono, a liberal Democrat from Hawaii, went as far as to suggest that Kavanaugh’s judicial philosophy is evidence that he’s guilty of attempted rape.

“Doesn’t Kavanaugh have the same presumption of innocence as anyone else in America?” CNN’s Jake Tapper asked her in a live television interview. “I put his denial in the context of everything that I know about him in terms of how he approaches his cases,” Hirono answered. What?

Interestingly and hypocritically enough, the left turned the tables just about 25 years ago when they excluded President Bill Clinton from the same standard of proof they held up before Justice Kavanaugh, when they rejected the harassment and abuse claims of Juanita Broaddrick, Paula Jones, Monica Lewinsky or Kathleen Wiley.

The Kavanaugh confirmation affair has been nothing more than an exercise in necessary political partisanship, contrary to such denials, in which both parties have been or are willingly to be a part of such conduct (remember the hearings or ‘witch hunt’ trials of judges Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas over the last generation).

The real truth was confirmed by the fiery rhetoric of Republican Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, who during the hearing’s examination of Kavanaugh, laid bare the political and not so hidden agenda at the crux of the process, when he asked Kavanaugh:

Are you aware that at 9:23 on the night of July the 9th, the day you were nominated to the Supreme Court by President Trump, (Democratic) Senator Schumer said 23-minutes after your nomination, “I will oppose Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination with everything I have, I have — and I hope a bipartisan majority will do the same. The stakes are simply too high for anything less.”

The quote directly attributed to the leader of the Democratic minority in the Senate, merely confirmed what had been presumed all along: the leadership of the Democratic party, representing the nation’s left-leaning political ideology, was hell-bent on destroying Kavanaugh’s nomination from the get-go, rather than focusing on any real fact finding of truth on accusations of his alleged, teenage shenanigans or crimes.

The Cultural Agenda

Why? Why have both political parties struggled tooth and nail to either confirm or deny Kavanaugh’s nomination, his acclaimed judicial experience and qualifications notwithstanding?

Unfortunately, the judicial branch of American government has far strayed from its roots and authority as per the intent of the government’s architects- the founding fathers. The unprecedented and miraculous experiment of American democracy is built upon the notion of the separation of powers.

The executive branch- the presidency, is an office of leadership (i.e. Commander in Chief). The legislative branch, made up of the Congress, is mandated to make federal law which is approved of and signed into law by the Executive.

Whereas, the judicial branch in the supposed check and balance of power, is capped off by the highest court we have (SCOTUS), to interpret and apply the constitution and the intent of its original authors to current cases of law, influenced by its Declarative principles.

Much like the issue and conflict over interpreting Christian scripture today, where liberal theologians and teachers wish to reconstruct or reinterpret and misapply the original intent of the original author (God in the case of the Bible), liberal lawyers and elected officials began in the later 19th and through the 20th century, to support and anoint liberal, activist justices who usurped the role of the legislative branch by in effect making law.

They did so with decisions on cultural and moral issues in which the founders never intended the courts to make and often at odds with the will of the people.

The reason abortion on demand and same-sex marriage is legal, is not because Congress legislated it so. In fact, DOMA, the federal Defense of Marriage Act was legislated by Congress mandating that marriage be restricted to the definition of one man and one woman during the ahem, Clinton administration.

However, like the landmark and unprecedented ruling of Roe v. Wade legalizing abortion in 1973, the left-leaning majority Supreme Court, legalized same-sex marriage by a controversial 5-4 decision in Obergfell v. Hodges in 2015, where there was no legal or logical precedent to do so.

Simply put, the majority worldview of the court, has come to influence if not directly dictate how it will decide and even make law, on the most contentious, moral issues of our time, with legal decisions impacting millions of Americans for perhaps generations to come.

The power of the high court has now become too great to ignore in the existing political environment, making each open seat of the SCOTUS bench a near political life and death battle, in what observers have referred to as the war with ‘judicial tyranny’.

The current court may once again be faced in the not too distant future with  anti-abortion legislation to rule upon (hopefully), as well as cases which will impact immigration, gun-rights and sex and family law, as the current moral revolution is sure to drive the Transgender portion of the LGBTQ agenda forward to the courts.

What is the future of SCOTUS? Let’s not be naïve and think this process is somehow morally neutral and unbiased.

As Senator Graham implied in the hearings, the court will be dominated by the worldview of whichever political party is in power by a majority, to nominate and confirm the justices it wishes.

Politicians must continue to lay in the bed they have made. They wanted partisanship in politics, they got it. The stakes are clear and the lines have been drawn if you can’t see them. The culture war will rage on and little can and should even be done without it, unless one side is willing to compromise its core values and principles which is unlikely- at least anytime soon.

The left wants virtual unlimited sexual freedoms to be legalized and legitimized, a socialist leaning economy (i.e. guaranteed and “free” health care and college for all), access to weed, soft or “dove” like isolationist foreign policy against the enemies of democracy and total control of gun ownership to name a few issues of contention.

The right is largely antithetical to all of the above, as fiscally conservative hawks, and constitutionalists who may or may not favor at least some restrictions of sexual and moral behavior. All of that emanates from one’s personal worldview or philosophy of life.

Or in other words, one’s view of God, man and sin are normally the greatest indicators of one’s political ideology and persuasion.

Most polls and surveys of public opinion confirm the common-sense notion that many if not most liberals are religious liberals, who largely reject the absolute truth of the Bible and the fundamentals of the monotheistic faiths of the world if they are religious at all- many are not.

Many political conservatives are theists, including evangelicals who find their ideology most closely aligned to the fundamental understanding of the Bible’s view on many of the issues we grapple with today. It is not a stretch to say that God is pro-life and pro-traditional family according to his word.

These views are not likely to change unless hearts do. So, Christians must be in prayer for God’s sovereign and common grace to fall upon the court and all the powers that be in Washington to at least reform its means of communication and interaction, in ways which would reflect God’s law and the dignity of fellow image bearers regardless of political persuasion.

Both sides should confess and repent and seek God’s forgiveness for the conduct unbefitting elected officials, including the President, whose rhetorical skills are his greatest weakness as a leader.  His tweets and tongue are more likely to inflame rather than tame the fire of the coarseness of our culture and the political side of the culture war we find ourselves in.

At least I am relieved or take comfort in the fact that Brett Kavanaugh will be in fact (Lord willing) a justice whose own constitutional convictions may help someday soon overturn the morally abhorrent laws which still govern abortion and marriage in our nation and that regardless my God- the Lord of all in this world, including this country and its highest court is in his hands (Psa. 2:8; 22:8, 27; Isa. 14:26).

A Pilgrim’s Progress- 3 Ways to Know if You’re a Christian

Image result for pilgrim's progress Bernie Diaz, October 4, 2018

Much to the consternation if not chagrin of false religions and cults, the Bible actually teaches that a real, true, born-again Christian can and should actually know whether or not they are in the kingdom of God and heaven.

 I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life. (1 John 5:13, ESV)

My argument in this blog post is that a true disciple of Jesus Christ has at three ways or means of knowing that they are guaranteed of having eternal life: faith, fruit and fortitude. Yes, I’m arguing the pithy little statements uttered in so many Baptist churches like mine, such as: “Once saved, always saved” may be true of legitimate, regenerated believers.

Yes, I’m actually saying we can be assured of our salvation and live with eternal security as believers, holding on to God knowing his love for his own is everlasting, as the apostle Paul promised in Romans 8:31-39. Why? How?

I think the theological landmines that exist and lie between our profession of faith and proof of its real possession have more to do with tradition and the condition of our hearts, rather than a proper understanding of scripture.

The parable or the sower unnerves some in and around the church (Matthew 13), since three out of the four soils that received gospel seeds didn’t make it all the way to the kingdom after first having received it, to say nothing of that troublesome and difficult passage of Hebrews 6:4-6, in which there were some attenders or fans of the early church, who had “once been enlightened, who (had) tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away..

Oops! Believers who were once enlightened and tasted the word and Spirit of God walked away from the faith? Are some Armenian oriented theologians right in declaring that there are those sinners who may be presented with and then reject a “prevenient (‘comes before’) grace” which enables all men to respond to God’s invitation and believe in the gospel should they choose?

Or, did these “Christians” become ex-Christians? Or, could they be considered apostates, those that profess and then depart or “fall away” from the foundation and fundamentals of the faith they once professed (see Judas, “the son of perdition”)?

Fortunately, we have biblical texts like 1 John 2:19-21, which shed light on the fact there is no such person as an ‘ex-Christian.’ So, what we seem to be challenged with in the church is an issue of recognition.

How do we recognize real Christianity in ourselves and among other professing believers? After all, Jesus Christ, the Lord of the harvest himself proclaimed in another parable (Matthew 13:24-29, 36-43), that both wheat and weeds, resembling both the true and false church respectively, would grow up side by side in the church age and would be difficult to distinguish one from another, until the reapers (angels) will come and gather the wheat into God’s “barn” (kingdom) and bind the weeds to be burned into the eternal torment of final judgment.

I have found and at the risk of oversimplification and alliteration, of at least three ways in which a professing Christian can ascertain whether or not they are a grain of wheat or a weed and can claim assurance of their salvation or eternal security.

1. Faith 

It should stand to reason that a real, born-again Christian would know what it means to be a Christian, to understand the gospel and what it means to have turned away from sin to God, to have trusted in Jesus Christ alone, through repentant faith alone, by God’s grace alone right (Eph. 2:8-10)?

The first question I would ask of myself then, or any other professing believer in Christ would be, is do I or they have a proper biblical and doctrinal understanding of the gospel? Meaning in other words, do we know that Jesus Christ died a substitutionary death on the cross to make payment for, and forgive the sin debt owed to God of those that would believe in him, so they could stand as righteous before him (Romans 3:23-25; 4:5; 5:8-10; 1 John 4:2-3a)?

If we understand who Christ is and what he’s done for sinners (John 1:1-3,12; Eph. 2:4-6), we can then come to him and be saved on his terms (Romans 10:9). Simply put, we have to know who we believe in and why, before we can claim to be one of his.

2. Fruit

Can a professing Christian pass the fruit inspection test? Are we however imperfect as we are on this side of heaven (Romans 7:14-25; 1 John 1:8,10), manifesting enough godly fruit, that we can assure ourselves and others that we are conforming ourselves more and more to the image of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, exhibiting the fruit of his Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23)?

I reminded myself and my church while preaching through Romans 6:1-4 this past week of the fact that by virtue of having been born-again by God as a believer of Christ, It should be made known to others- in the church and in the world, that I have died to my old sinful self and been raised or resurrected in a “newness of life” which should be visible to my church as well as skeptics and critics of our faith.

Trust me- your unredeemed family and closest friends will know.

Again, while acknowledging the current entrapment of our new nature in our cursed and fleshly bodies, a Christian should be able to affirm his or her faith with habitual fruit, a walk or lifestyle which “practices” righteousness (1 John 3:4,6,9).

Yes, we who profess Christ may fall here and there, but if we’re the real deal, we get back up, repent and continue on in a life that bears the marks of a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17).

3. Fortitude

Fortitude is a word and concept which is synonymous with the doctrine of endurance, or “the perseverance or persistence of the saints”, as the reformed divines of the faith proclaimed centuries ago.

That doctrine alliterated here to comply with my three F’s, simply says that the true Christian will persevere and remain a faithful disciple of Christ through the end of his or her earthly life, never abandoning Jesus and the gospel of God regardless of their suffering and persecution through times of testing, trials and tribulations.

The real Christian does not apostatize.  He will not walk away from Jesus in spite of his cancers, job loss, family dysfunction, hardships or what have you. This third proof of true saving faith is perhaps the least spoken of because it is the perhaps the most difficult to adhere to. Moreover, it will take a lifetime of faith in Christ to ascertain whether someone has persevered or exhibited fortitude to the end.

Many a man or woman has professed Christ, repeated a credible, biblically sound gospel and salvation testimony of faith, been baptized and exhibited fruit rivaling those of the greatest saints we have ever known or studied, but yet rejected the faith when their life here became either too difficult to hang on to Jesus through thick and thin, or suffered a crisis of faith and worldview, such as illustrated by the tragic life of Charles Templeton.

A Modern Apostate

Templeton, a friend and mentor of a young Billy Graham of all people, first professed faith in 1936 and became an evangelist that same year. In 1945, he met Graham and the two became roommates and ministered together during a 1946 Youth For Christ evangelistic tour in Europe.

But by 1948, Templeton’s life and worldview were beginning to go in a different direction than Graham’s. Doubts about the Christian faith were solidifying as he planned to enter Princeton Theological Seminary and less than a decade later (1957), he would publicly declare that he had become an agnostic (“without knowledge” of God’s existence).

In his infamous 1996 memoir, Farewell to God: My Reasons for Rejecting the Christian Faith, Templeton recounted a conversation with Graham prior to entering seminary in which they split over their different understanding of the biblical account of creation – Templeton siding with the Darwinian theory of evolution.

Fifty years later, Christian apologist Lee Strobel had an opportunity to interview Templeton, who had just a couple of more years to live. He was in his 80’s and suffering from Alzheimer’s, but could still engage in a clear conversation. In A Case for Faith, Strobel recounts the ending of their wide-ranging conversation.

“And how do you assess this Jesus?” It seemed like the next logical question—but I wasn’t ready for the response it would evoke.

Templeton’s body language softened…. his voice, which at times had displayed such a sharp and insistent edge, now took on a melancholy and reflective tone. His guard seemingly down, he spoke in an unhurried pace, almost nostalgically, carefully choosing his words as he talked about Jesus.

“He was,” Templeton began, “the greatest human being who has ever lived. He was a moral genius. His ethical sense was unique. He was the intrinsically wisest person that I’ve ever encountered in my life or in my readings. His commitment was total and led to his own death, much to the detriment of the world. What could one say about him except that this was a form of greatness?”

I was taken aback. “You sound like you really care about him,” Strobel said.

“Well, yes, he is the most important thing in my life,” came his reply. “I . . . I . . . I . . . ,” he stuttered, searching for the right word, ‘I know it may sound strange, but I have to say . . . I adore him!” . . .

” . . . Everything good I know, everything decent I know, everything pure I know, I learned from Jesus. Yes . . . yes. And tough! Just look at Jesus. He castigated people. He was angry. People don’t think of him that way, but they don’t read the Bible. He had a righteous anger. He cared for the oppressed and exploited. There’s no question that he had the highest moral standard, the least duplicity, the greatest compassion, of any human being in history. There have been many other wonderful people, but Jesus is Jesus….’

“Uh . . . but . . . no,’ he said slowly, ‘he’s the most . . .” He stopped, then started again. “In my view,” he declared, “he is the most important human being who has ever existed.”

That’s when Templeton uttered the words I never expected to hear from him. “And if I may put it this way,” he said as his voice began to crack, ‘I . . . miss . . . him!”

With that tears flooded his eyes. He turned his head and looked downward, raising his left hand to shield his face from me. His shoulders bobbed as he wept. . . .

Strobel adds, “Templeton fought to compose himself. I could tell it wasn’t like him to lose control in front of a stranger. He sighed deeply and wiped away a tear. After a few more awkward moments, he waved his hand dismissively. Finally, quietly but adamantly, he insisted: ‘Enough of that.”

Templeton at one time professed the Christian faith, exhibited Christian fruit, but failed to persevere in it – to manifest new-life affirming fortitude. He fell away, and as a result, its experiencing a far greater regret and torment now, than he did then, when he apostatized.

We are to obey the command the apostle Paul gave the Corinthian church, Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test! (2 Corinthians 13:5)

Do you want to know if you are a real Christian who will stand the test and trials of our time before its time to meet the judge once and for all? Examine yourself. Test yourself. Do you have true faith, fruit and fortitude? Persevere Christian, as you continue on your ‘pilgrim’s progress.’

The Both/And of Sanctification

Related image Bernie Diaz, September 25, 2018

I’m a curious person by nature- particularly with respect to the theological and doctrinal issues of the Christian faith.

Having the honor, privilege and blessing as a pastor to have been called to and given the time to wrestle with such issues, I have the responsibility of wrestling with two weighty doctrines this week. One, in preparing for our church ministry’s Facebook Live chat, I will attempt to explain the Trinity to churched, unchurched, skeptics, unbelievers and critics of the Christian faith.

No big deal right? Am I a glutton for online punishment? Maybe, but I do know that people often stumble over or struggle with that great and fundamental doctrine of Christianity. In fact, one of the major tenets which separate many of the cults and religions from biblical Christianity is the view that God is one being, yet made up of three pre-existent and eternal persons (Father, Son and Holy Spirit).

The second doctrine I’m dealing with that deserves explanation and clarification is sanctification, which is the idea that real, born-again believers of Jesus Christ have been, are and will be sanctified, or set-apart or marked out as a different and holy nation or people.

How can a disciple or follower of Jesus be sanctified past, present and future? Wouldn’t that be a single act or event that occurred one time only? Sorry, our space in this blog post won’t allow for that answer, however, equally as perplexing, is who and how in the present tense of sanctification or living holy is the Christian life lived?

One of the most oft-quoted verses of scripture that speak to this question and issue that I am considering as I begin to delve into the complex, controversial and wonderfully rich section of the book of Romans, from chapters 6-8, in preaching at my church on Sundays is the seemingly parallel and paradoxical text which comes from Philippians 2.

 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure (Phil. 2:12-13, ESV).  

Who Sanctifies?  

This question really evolves into the greater topic of God’s sovereignty and will in comparison to mankind’s responsibility. Is God responsible for man’s salvation or is man? Who chooses who? The Bible seems to teach both. Did God write the Bible or did man? The Bible seems to teach both- Doh!

While passing on those two massive questions, verse 12 of the great passage of scripture quoted above, seems to indicate that on the one hand we are to ‘work out our own salvation’, referring to the Christian life, post-conversion, or what we call sanctification, the process of being more like Jesus every day until he returns.

On the other hand, verse 13, indicates that it is “God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Well Lord, which one is it? You or me?

Goodness, we hope it would be God- all by his lonesome, perfecting or maturing us to be all we should be right? That would be miraculous and easy for us falling all on God.

Christians who try to reconcile every doctrine in a humanly rational way – you know people like me, who struggle with grey matter or ambiguity can be drawn to extremes on this. Seeking to remove all mystery and paradox, we emphasize one truth or aspect of God’s Word at the expense of another which seems to contradict it- if we’re not careful.

This is precisely how many Christians over the centuries have handled the doctrine of sanctification. One view emphasizes God’s role to the virtual exclusion of the believer’s effort. This is often expressed by the idea of just ‘Let go and let God.’ The opposite extreme might be equated exclusively with our piety, efforts and what can evolve into self-righteousness or legalism.

The latter group loves holiness as we all should and emphasizes such scriptures as “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (James 2:17).

Unfortunately, this view lends itself to what scholars such as D.A. Carson call the “fallacy of the either/or” scenario or conclusion in which one must land on one position of a given doctrine or application to the exclusion of another possibility, with neither being in contradiction to each other.

One side of sanctification might say, “Do nothing.”

The other side says, “Do everything.”

It must be either/or.

Nope! In Philippians 2:12–13, Paul beautifully reconciles the two positions, making it the appropriate both/and scenario.  He makes no effort to rationally harmonize the believer’s part and God’s part in sanctification. Good idea, for the “secret things belong to God.” The apostle is content with the paradox and simply states both truths, saying that sanctification is both of believers (verse 12), and that it is of God (verse 13).

The truth is that sanctification is God’s work, but He performs it through the diligent self-discipline and righteous pursuits of His people, not in spite of them. God’s sovereignty dictates both the means and the ends in which he accomplishes his will and purposes in many ways, which gives us a pretty big clue as to how we answer the questions posed above of salvation and biblical authorship.

God’s providential work does not absolve believers from our responsibility to obey his commands. It simply means that our obedience is a Spirit-led and Spirit powered work of God.

As one pastor said some years ago, “.. The Word of God about the Son of God is the means by which the power of God is unleashed to transform lives by the Spirit of God.”

May God’s people let God do what he does best and may we do what we are called and equipped to do. That’s a both/and I can live with.

The Need for “Weird” Christianity

Image result for standing out in a crowd Bernie Diaz, September 18, 2018

“If the Church wants to grow, it must celebrate those who take eccentric actions to spread the faith”, says Michael Frost in his new book about Church “rule-breaker” movements.

In Keep Christianity Weird: Embracing the Discipline of Being Different, Frost, co-founder of Forge Mission Training Network, calls on pastors to use unconventional methods in their ministry to foster “greater creativity and innovation.”

“Could it be that the church has closed its doors to the misfits and rebels and troublemakers? Does the church make space for and foster the contributions of those who see things differently?” asks Frost in the first chapter of his book.

Having read a credible review of that book and an interview of its author, I would disagree with his argument that in an attempt to maintain cohesion, evangelical churches too often require a level of conformity by their members to the extent it may inhibit innovation and creativity.

Compromising, cultural assimilation and innovation are not in my view, deep-seeded problems in Christendom today, but frankly what we may be lacking as this author stated was ‘eccentricity’ in the church.

The real, biblically based western church today- and in America specifically, may not be “weird” enough for this generation!

Strangers on Earth

But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light (1 Pet. 2:9, KJV).

Though I rarely quote from the King James Version of the Bible anymore, I like its rendering of the above, oft-quoted verse from Peter’s first epistle to the dispersed and persecuted early church, exhorting them to embrace an alien existence in the world, as pilgrims or foreigners, called to be a weird or eccentric people, or as the KJV translates the Greek word meaning a ‘special possession’, as “peculiar.”

Christians- peculiar? In the sense that born-again disciples or followers of Jesus Christ belong to God as a treasured people group and a “holy nation,” we should and may be considered peculiar, which defined in the common vernacular would be as an unusual group of people at best, or a strange bunch at worst.

Why? Christianity if it is going to be considered orthodox Christianity at all from a biblical worldview, should be counter-cultural.

Meaning, that the church’s new identity in Christ with all the privileges that come with it, should lead to a radically different character in the lives of its people, that will lead to a radically new conduct- a way of living that will attract the lost to Christ and the kingdom.

Other books and movements like UnChristian, which decry the “image problem” of the church miss the obvious reality that the Christian faith is to be distinctive by definition which gets to the root idea behind the concept of holiness itself, and distinctive or different enough to be contagious to a lost and dying world looking for real peace, joy, love and meaning.

The apostle Peter in the second chapter of his first epistle, makes the point that the privileges of Christianity given to the disciples of Christ, should lead to a practice or lifestyle which should serve as the best apologetic and evangelistic testimony for the faith that we have in this world.

When the church of Jesus Christ leaves the building where it comes together to worship and praise the one true God on Sunday, it needs to leave it and then live out that distinctive faith in the world through its character and conduct Monday through Saturday.

The character is who we now are in Christ, and the Christ-like conduct is the behavior that should flow from that. We should leave the Sunday meeting ready to show and share Christ.  But How? Peter shows us how.. 

Weird Christianity

We understand that while on the one hand as strangers on earth whose citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:20), we belong to God and God’s place- his kingdom on earth and heaven, so we obey heaven’s laws and seek to please heaven’s Lord.

While on the other hand, ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.

Lost people need to see (“showing”) and hear Jesus Christ in our lives as the means by which God will save his elect. People need to see and hear the Bible in the flesh. We, through our lives and lips are the Bible in living color. We may be the closest thing to Christ that an unbeliever will ever see or hear in their lifetime. We can make or break someone’s image of Christianity depending on how we live and relate to people. We’re living billboards of Christ as Christians and that means we may need to be a little weird or peculiar.

What does it look like to proclaim or preach Christ and all his excellencies as a peculiar person in a world that is rejecting if not hating Christianity all over the place?

Pretend you’re a bank manager or you own a store and you want your staff to hear the gospel- God’s good news. What would you do? Invite them to church? That’s a good start. You could invite all your people out to dinner? Give each one a Bible or a little devotional book (Daily Bread)? Host a dinner party and have a cool Christian rock band or some magician come over for a live show first? Would those plans work for everyone?

Sometimes, a Christian’s first approach to a skeptic, unbeliever or even a burned-out believer, is to serve them in love, to offer them mercy and justice if you can. Why? A consistent, sincere, servant-leader looks so odd or out of place, so different, so weird, that those gospel words you share, will be heard differently. They can take root. Before we communicate Christ in words with some people, we may want to try with deeds as a primary way to communicate Christ in loving service.

The Weird Way

The best way to silence the critics or skeptics of Christianity according to Peter – is to shut them up not so much with our words, but our godly deeds. Or in other words, it’s not being as much of a ‘goody two-shoes’ as a ‘godly two-shoes.’ The idea here is evangelism by being salt and light as the Lord commanded us to be in Matt. 5.

Then if we silence the kingdom’s critics with our character and conduct, the lost may be in a better position to be found, by being open by God’s sovereign grace to hearing and responding to the gospel.

Alexander MacLaren, the great Scottish preacher once wrote, “The world takes its notions of God most of all from the people who say that they belong to God’s family. They read us a great deal more than they read the Bible. In fact, they see us, but they only hear about Jesus Christ.”

The bottom line is we will win as many or more people to Christ by our weird walk as our talk. We evangelize with our character to preach and conduct that will silence the critics.

A 9-11 Reflection: Terror and Suffering Continues – In Different Ways, Times and Places

Related image Bernie Diaz, September 11, 2018

This week I had lunch with a brother from my church at a restaurant in our community which honors American first responders with the playing of the National Anthem at 12 noon every weekday, encouraging most all of the patrons assembled at the height of the lunch hour, to stand in paying respect to law enforcement members, military personnel and veterans in attendance for their service and sacrifice to our country.

Admittedly, my patriotic juices flow when I find myself in such an environment though this week- ironically, I was caught off guard at my lunch appointment when I found this barbecue restaurant to be more crowded than usual with fire fighters and fire trucks parked everywhere as if having gathered for some sort of ceremony.

What I missed was that I had taken a certain date – 9-11 for granted, neglecting this country’s commemoration of the 17th anniversary of the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil.

I was reminded of that latter “day of infamy”, in which nearly 3,000 people died on Sept. 11, 2001, when 19 hijackers crashed four planes in New York City; Washington, D.C.; and Shanksville, Pa. According to news reports, a memorial ceremony was held at New York’s World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m. Tuesday morning, the time when the first plane slammed into the center’s north tower.

Vice President Mike Pence attended a ceremony in Washington at the Pentagon, telling family members of the 184 people killed at the Department of Defense headquarters that the nation still grieves with them.

President Donald Trump and the first lady attended a ceremony at a new memorial near the Shanksville, Pa., site of where a California-bound United Flight crashed after 40 passengers and crew members learned that terrorists had taken over the plane and tried to storm the cockpit. Everyone on board was killed.

The president called the fallen a “band of brave patriots” who “took control of their destiny and changed the course of history” by stopping a possible attack on the U.S. Capitol.

“A piece of America’s heart is buried on these grounds, but in its place has grown a new resolve to live our lives with the same grace and courage as the heroes of Flight 93,” Trump said. “This field is now a monument to American defiance. This memorial is now a message to the world: America will never, ever submit to tyranny.”

Whereas I can affirm the President’s rhetorical tone and take solace in America’s resolve- militarily and otherwise to safeguard our nation and its people from other attacks- both from within and without, I depend on God’s sovereign grace to protect us and enable us as I Timothy 2 calls us in prayer for our government leaders to lead, “a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.”

However, world events in the far east this past week have recalled to my attention that world peace and religious freedom are far from us and is being ever threatened while we reflect on 17 relatively peaceful years, free from post 9-11 international terrorism at home.

Anti-Religious Terror in China

21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly (1 Pet. 2:21-23, ESV).

The Chinese government in the wake of having cracked down on the human rights of Muslim minorities near its Mongolian border, has begun anew a campaign to destroy crosses, burn bibles, close churches and force Christian believers to sign papers renouncing their faith as the crackdown on religious congregations in Beijing and several provinces intensifies.

According to the Associated Press, the suppression of religious freedoms is part of an official campaign to “Sinicize” religion by demanding total loyalty to the atheist Communist party and removing any potential challenge to the party’s power in the country.

“The international community should be alarmed and outraged for this blatant violation of freedom of religion and belief,” Bob Fu of China Aid, said.

The persecution of Christians in China is nothing new of course, as disciples of Christ and other religious groups in China have been persecuted since 2012, which had led to a flourishing underground church movement there.

In fact, a third of all religious believers in China who belong to a faith group were also found to face “high” to “very high” levels of persecution, which ranges from bureaucratic harassment and economic exploitation to harsh prison terms and even violence, one report said.

But experts and activists say the Chinese government is now waging the most severe suppression of Christianity in the country since “religious freedoms” were granted by the Chinese constitution in 1982.

The escalating anti-Christian campaign coincides with President Xi Jinping’s recent consolidation of power that made him the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong, the notorious mid-20th century tyrant and communist leader responsible for millions of deaths.

War on Jesus?

A Christian pastor in the Henan city of Nanyang said crosses, Bibles and furniture were burned during a raid on his church on Sept. 5.

Activists reportedly filmed footage of what appeared to be piles of burning Bibles and forms declaring that the signatories had rejected their faith. The authorities allegedly forced the believers to sign the forms or risk being expelled from school or loosing welfare benefits.

In Beijing, the Zion church was shut down last Sunday by around 60 government workers accompanied by buses, police cars and fire trucks, the church’s pastor, Ezra Jin Mingri, said. Zion is known as the largest house church in Beijing, with six branches.

The officials declared the gatherings illegal and sealed off church properties, Jin said, after already freezing the pastor’s personal assets in an apparent attempt to force him to comply with their demands.

I believe what is going in China is just another form of terrorism, this one coming in the form of religious oppression from a totalitarian nation against millions of its own people and may be God forbid, replicated elsewhere.

Although Chinese government officials reportedly disputed the allegations raised by Christians, saying authorities respect religious freedom, recent  history tells us otherwise, from a nation long known for repressing people and institutions of faith.

Just this past April, China began the elimination of the sale and acquisition of the Bible from online marketplaces, as Beijing continues to clamp down on scripture

That reality comes on the heels of China having launched a “social credit system” that will give points for good behavior and deduct points for bad behavior for citizens determining their status to receive government assistance.  “Big brother” is alive and well (see George Orwell’s 1984) in China.

This is a time I believe for the American church to recommit to prayer and whatever support it can lend as necessary, to influencing reform initiatives from the White House and protection of Chinese believers in the sake of basic and civil human rights, beginning with the right to freely worship.

We the church, must be mindful that we belong to a universal church with brothers in Asia as we strive and long for the gospel to spread to all peoples of every tribe and tongue for the glory, sake and cause of both Jesus Christ and his kingdom (Psa. 67:3-4; 97:1).

The War on Words

Related image Bernie Diaz, September 5, 2018

What is the dumbest thing you’ve ever said? Is that too difficult a question? Your memory banks are probably overloaded on that one. What is the dumbest or worst thing you said this week- so far?

When you think about the tongue, it shouldn’t take long to remember some of the greatest damage you’ve done with it or some of the really inane or nonsensical things you have said just recently. Celebrities and politicians really are masterful in this area:

“Smoking kills. If you’re killed, you’ve lost a very important part of your life.” – Brooke Shields, actress, during an interview to become spokesperson for a federal government anti-smoking campaign

I don’t understand how they can call me anti-Latino when I’ve made four movies in Mexico.” – former actor and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Hasta la vista, Hispanic votes baby. He also said on another occasion, “I think that gay marriage should be between a man and a woman.”

Both of the major political parties in this country have made their fair share of verbal mistakes through the decades- even prior to President Trump’s Tweeting mishaps: “Outside of the killings, Washington has one of the lowest crime rates in the country.” – Mayor Marion Barry, Washington, D.C.

Though most of us will never achieve celebrity status, we will likely suffer from foot in mouth disease throughout our lives at different times and places.

Being a parent, I’ve become more sensitive than ever through the years to the words and labels we lay on our kids and the short and long-term effect those words and labels can have on them.

Parents may think that it is obvious to their child that they don’t mean it when they say things like “I’ll kill you”; “I wish you were never born”; or “Why don’t you just get lost” and so on. Little wonder why counselor’s offices are filled with adults still dealing with the trauma created by comments directed towards them as youngsters.

We have lots of opportunity to do this kind of damage with our tongues don’t we? Supposedly, we spend one-fifth or 20% of all of our life talking as some experts estimate – some of us more than others. If all of our words were put into print, the result would be that a single day’s words would fill a 50-page book, while in a year’s time the average person’s words would fill 132 books of 200 pages each! Men speak about 25,000 words a day and women well over 30,000 (what a shock)!

But among all those words there are bound to be some spoken in anger or carelessness, which is why someone said, It’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.”

Our communication struggles are not so much about technique or tact although those are important factors, but a struggle of the heart. Much biblical literature from both the Old and New Testaments teach that our war of words is not so much with people, as it is a battle within.

We the church of Jesus Christ- yes, regenerate believers even, need to figure out who and what really controls our hearts, which controls our words. Can we control our words? Can we win this war, so as to manifest a fruitful faith?

The Difficulties of the Tongue

“Not many of you should become teachers” (James 3:1).

This apostle wrote that Bible “teachers” ought not to be many. Although members of the early church were given some liberty to teach and contribute to the assembly of a congregation (1 Corinthians 14:26-34) with encouraging words of scripture and truth, or a praise, a word of edification, or a prayer, some or many in that community of faith were abusing that privilege and being harsh with their words towards others.

As a result of that war of words, James cautioned Christians about the tongue, mentioning it in every chapter of his book. James described this relatively small but dangerous weapon in three ways (3:4-5): as a horse’s bit or bridle, a rudder of a ship and a fire. What those three items have in common of course is that are both “small” and powerful.

Just think of the tongue as being the part of the body which resembles a rudder as a guide which steers our whole body, meaning our actions.

When we gossip for instance, we spread lies or rumors- sometimes even unnecessary truths about others and that can ruin a reputation that can severely impact somebody’s life. Those ruinous words, come from a heart of pride, or sometimes a heart of envy or jealousy.

When you slander someone and judge their motives, you falsely ascribe a position or an attitude without proof, which is tantamount to lying. When someone constantly criticizes something or someone and is constantly negative, that might reveal a heart of ingratitude and selfishness.

Cursing, foul and obscene language towards someone can come from a heart that’s murderous, hateful and spiteful. Lying lips can betray a heart that’s stolen or coveting something and can be part of a cover-up of the truth (Psalm 52:2).

In my lifetime I’ve seen an American President lie on the witness stand (perjury) in order to cover-up his adultery. What does that type of sin of the tongue reveal? A tongue that is being steered by a defective heart.

Taming the Tongue

You would think with all our intelligence and will power, we could control this little member of our body (the tongue) right? However, like a flicker or the spark of a flame, it can burn down a huge forest- like our families, jobs and virtually everything else in its path (James 3:5-6). We understand that a seemingly little jab or put down from one person to another can act like a forest fire, similar to the way in which a little burning cigarette can set fire to thousands and thousands of acres of land (Proverbs 16:27; 26:21).

It is not unusual for a businessman, an employer, to read scripture or pray on Sunday and then curse or rip his employees to shreds the next day. Or for a lady to speak sweetly at a small-group meeting and immediately upon dismissal kill someone’s reputation with some juicy gossip. Our tongues can display a Jekyll and Hyde quality.

James uses the analogy of creation and our dominion over it, to show just how untammable or controllable our tongues are- that it is perverse and has seemingly uncontrollable power.

But think how amazing it is to see human trainers at Sea World, tame and train killer whales (most of the time) or an old-fashioned lion tamer. Such power can be controlled- It can be done (Psa. 8).

The caveat is that we cannot- in our own strength, tame our tongues (James 3:8a). Something has to change. That something is the heart of a sinner, who is sinning with his or her mouth.  Fruit is only as good as its root and if our tongues are unstable, hypocritical and inconsistent, then so are our hearts. Jesus on this issue you might remember, said, “out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.”

The key to taming the tongue or winning the war of words is a born-again and then renewed or a gospel repentant heart. We need the gospel, to remember who we are in Christ- redeemed, forgiven, reconciled, saved sinners, once deserving of hell ourselves, and when we keep that in mind so that heart, followed by our words will reflect that. The Bible says, “The tongue has the power of life and death (Proverbs 18:21).”

With the new or refreshed heart, comes a new tongue. The reason we can speak grace and edifying words to others (Ephesians 4:29-32), to tame our tongues- as untamable and unstable as it may be, is because we Christians are in Christ and indwelt with his Holy Spirit, symbolized by believer’s baptism.

When Christ was buried, so was our old sin nature. When he arose to newness of life, we rose with him. We’re no longer a slave to sin- we can say no. We can do this – not perfectly, but we can tame the tongue to be more Christ-like than it is.

So, let’s pray for God’s cleaning forgiveness for our part in taming the tongue and to feed on the hope of Christ and the gospel that changed us and should be changing us day by day. Lord, please help us to know the power of our words and the way to win the war on words.