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.’

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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.

Catholic Civil War- a Good Thing?

Image result for pennsylvania priest sex scandal Image result for pope francis sex scandal

Bernie Diaz, August 28, 2018

I have long been a student of the American Civil War which divided and then largely began to unify this nation 150 years ago. I found that the ‘war between the states’- the bloodiest and costliest in American history (over 650,000 fatalities), became by God’s providence a necessary evil for this country and its legacy, in that it began to bring about the emancipation of African-American slaves and eventual equal and civil rights to them.

Similarly, my hope and prayer is that the current ‘civil war’ like state of Catholic affairs may actually lead to either a reformation or split of that religion from within, that would either drive its unbiblical and apostate hierarchy and doctrine back to the biblical faith in repentance, or disintegrate it from within as a means of freeing it’s millions of adherents from a false gospel of works-based and idolatrous salvation.

Conspiracy and Cover-Up?

As if Pope Francis’s recent and heretical statements on the nature of justification by faith and hell (a universalist bent) weren’t enough to shake the faith of many if not most Catholics, the Pope has just been accused by a former top Vatican official of covering up sex abuse in the Catholic Church for years, coming in the wake of the revelation of yet another priestly sex scandal involving 300 priests over the past seven decades involving thousands of abuse victims in Pennsylvania, according to a Grand Jury report.

While the pope was in Ireland and meeting sex abuse victims, a former Vatican official, Italian Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the former Vatican Ambassador to the U.S., claimed in a lengthy and detailed letter, that in 2013 he told Pope Francis of the allegations of sex abuse against former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. But, he writes, the pontiff ignored that, and allowed McCarrick to continue to publicly serve the church for another five years.

The 88-year-old McCarrick since resigned from his role as cardinal earlier this summer amid a wave of these sex abuse allegations, including many involving seminarians.

The explosive letter from Archbishop Vigano called on Pope Francis to resign. He insists that Pope Benedict XVI imposed sanctions on McCarrick in 2009 or 2010 and ordered him to withdraw to prayer and penance, but that Francis decided to cover for him and even put him in a position of a trusted counselor.

The alleged papal cover-up of McCarrick continued for years, the letter states, until finally the cardinal was removed from public ministry in June. Francis “knew from at least June 23, 2013 that McCarrick was a serial predator,” Vigano declares. He adds that even though the pope “knew that he was a corrupt man, he covered for him to the bitter end.”

Vignano added, “Pope Francis must be the first to set a good example for cardinals and bishops who covered up McCarrick’s abuses and resign along with all of them”. The Pope in his response to the allegations and call to resign said, “I will not say a word about this… I believe the document speaks for itself.” Much to his chagrin, it does.

“This is like an earthquake for the Church,” another Monsignor told CBS News in an interview, acknowledging that this controversy and likely conspiracy of papal participation in a cover-up could conceivably split the Catholic church wide open. The last Pope to resign in disgrace from the church was Gregory XII in 1415.

This latest sexual scandal involving the Catholic church could not have come at a worse time for Rome, coming in the midst of the #MeToo movement which has claimed many an accused sexual abuser or harasser since 2016, including several high-profile evangelical pastors, such as Bill Hybels, the founding pastor of the influential Willow Creek mega-church, outside Chicago, Illinois.

Though both cases allege sexual misconduct and perhaps even sexual abuse, the significant difference between the two is the reach or breath of the respective impact of each. Willow Creek among others, involve local congregations of which there are more than 300,000 Protestant churches in America, the overwhelming amount led by faithful ministers free of corruption.

Whereas, Pope Francis by virtue of his office, has been designated as the ‘vicar’ or earthly substitute of Jesus Christ, as head of the entire Roman Catholic religion, according to their dogma.

According to the Catholic Catechism, he is the pastor of the entire Church carrying full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered” (#882). Further reinforcing his power and authority, the catechism claims, “The Pope enjoys, by divine institution, supreme, full, immediate, and universal power in the care of souls” (#937).

What does a Catholic parishioner do when the caregiver of his or her own soul has likely participated in a cover-up of a massive and international sexual abuse scandal involving his own flock of clergy and leadership?

The Civil War is Breaking the Rock into Pieces  

Interestingly enough, this scandal and call for the Pope’s resignation actually calls into question the entire foundation of which this religion and its leadership structure is built upon.

Just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, neither was the Roman Catholic papacy. It was a long process that led to the setting up of this millennia-old office that combines spiritual and political claims.

As evangelical Pastor and Catholic historian Leonardo De Chirico observes from Rome, the pope claims to hold an office originally bestowed by Jesus upon the apostle Peter, and which has been passed down through a direct and unbroken line of succeeding apostles. In other words, “The pope claims to hold apostolic authority and continue the mission Jesus supposedly entrusted to Peter in Matthew 16:18: ‘You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.”

The Roman Catholic Church believes Jesus gave to Peter (and by implication, to all his successors) a foundational role in the building of his church. However, just a little Biblical and historical digging reveal there is no organic much less formal connection between what Jesus says of Peter in Matthew 16:18 and the function of the papacy.

De Chirico adds,The pope claims a succession to Peter’s ministry, but Jesus makes no reference to such a succession. Nor can we see in the text how this succession became attributed to the city of Rome, nor the imperial form that the papacy took.

In fact, just a cursory review of history tells us that the papacy is far more a product of the Roman Empire of the fourth century than of Peter’s ministry. The Roman imperial pattern seemed to serve as more of the blueprint that shaped the papal institution than the Bible.

What the Word Needs Now

Many religious leaders are inclined to believe that, in our smaller, globalized world, a global Christian spokesperson like the Pope is or would be practically useful for Christianity as a whole. In interfaith circles, some (i.e. in the more liberal Muslim world) go as far as to say that the pope represents the whole of humanity when he advocates for the poor of the world or when he makes appeals for peace.

How frighteningly similar are those thoughts to the identity of a second “beast” or worldwide religions figure to come at the behest of Satan as described in the book of Revelation.

Does the world need another global leader like the Pope at the helm in order to thrive and survive? No. Especially if he’s a carnal human being who claims religious and political roles that are not biblically justifed.

Born-again disciples of Jesus Christ should be in prayer with a heart to see either the pope and Roman Catholicism repent and reform from within of its sin and false doctrines, in returning to the once and for all biblical faith, as the result perhaps of this papal scandal and ethical civil war, or be dismantled from without, perhaps owing to the same result.

What the church and the world needs now as much as ever, is Jesus Christ, and the redemption he provides to a lost and dying humanity, by faith in him alone, by God’s grace alone, according to scripture alone and for his glory alone.   

Christian Confusion: Is Same-Sex Orientation Sin?

Image result for the gay christian Bernie Diaz, August 16, 2018

It should come as no surprise to Christians in the west in general and America in particular, that the secular world has fallen ‘hook, line and sinker’ for the LGBTQ agenda as the sexual or erotic revolution of our times has taken a stronghold of our society and its culture.

Pro-homosexual policies, laws, media coverage and cultural acceptance of same-sex values and orientation are generally viewed by many today as merely normative, and the transgender movement (the “T” of LGBTQ) is quickly following suit.

What is most alarming however to many Christians and more traditional and biblically minded church leaders, is the rapidity in which the revolution has been attempting to make head way in evangelical Christianity and not just the more liberal, mainline denominations which began embracing this revolution’s influence on the church more than a decade ago.

A new survey found that most LGBTQ adults in the United States are religious, and more than half claim to be Christian, to the surprise of people of faith.

The Episcopal Church’s General Convention just passed a resolution that expanded the right for gay couples to marry in all dioceses even where local bishops theologically object to same-sex marriage (including my home state of Florida).

That decision comes on the heels of the announcement made by United Methodist megachurch pastor Adam Hamilton, who stated at a Texas gathering that Christians can support gay marriage and not be at odds with orthodoxy. He argued that both sides of the debate within the UMC held high opinions of Scripture and that the differences were over interpretation instead.

Ironically, Hamilton got one thing right in that statement: right biblical interpretation leads to right authority.

More subtly and recently, a conference entitled, Revoice, hosted by Memorial Presbyterian Church (Presbyterian Church in America) in St. Louis, ranged from praise to condemnation over the issue of homosexuality from a Christian worldview.

The 400 attendees heard from speakers who self-identified as both Christian and gay, lesbian, or same-sex attracted. The topics discussed included the loneliness of lifelong celibacy, the nature of “mixed-orientation marriages,” and church ministry with and for lesbians and gays.

Biblically minded believers of Jesus Christ admittedly are struggling with reconciling the brokenness of homosexuals who need and desire Christian love and ministry, with those that wish to live with and love others with one foot in the church and the other in the world, continuing to identify with the LGBTQ community.

Torn Between Two Worlds

If it is to survive, the world’s moral revolution requires a total redefinition of morality, authority, personal identity, and more. The sexual revolution requires a new vocabulary and as another blogger posted, “a radically revised dictionary.”

Ultimately, as is the case with any type of moral revolution, it’s culture warriors seek to redefine reality or truth itself. And this revolution has no stopping point. I have now begun to find a plus sign at the end of LGBTQ+ in my reading as a signal of more identities and challenges to come.

This is the ideology – consciously or otherwise of the Revoice conference and books, lectures and churches like it, as its advocates are calling for a “revoicing” of the evangelical and biblical message on issues of sexuality, identity, and beyond.

The organizers of Revoice stated openly that they  “envision a future Christianity where LGBT people can be open and transparent in their faith communities about their orientation and/or experience of gender dysphoria without feeling inferior to their straight, ‘cisgender’ brothers and sisters; where churches not only utilize but also celebrate the unique opportunities that life-long celibate LGBT people have to serve others; where Christian leaders boast about the faith of LGBT people who are living a sacrificial obedience for the sake of the Kingdom; and where LGBT people are welcomed into families so they, too, can experience the joys, challenges, and benefits of kinship.”

In other words, there is a movement -claiming enlightenment in evangelical circles which wishes to legitimatize if not normalize homosexuality in the church, by arguing with the logic of same-sex orientation.

This line of logic argues that while the scripture can be found to clearly condemn the homosexual lifestyle or its behaviors as sin (i.e. Lev. 19; Ro 1; 1 Cor. 6), one’s sexual orientation – a biological or physiological predisposition or nature, cannot be  disputed nor easily dismissed, thereby making it possible for celibate, LGBTQ individuals who claim to love Jesus, to identify as “single and gay Christians”.

The Sin of the Body Begins with the Sin of the Heart

Of course, the great flaw in the logic of the ‘celibate, gay-Christian’ identity (orientation), is its failure to acknowledge the Bible’s teaching or doctrine on where sin- sexual and otherwise begins in mankind, which is the head and heart, before it hits the hands and rest of the body.

For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me (Ro. 7:18-20, ESV).

As Southern Baptist Seminarian Denny Burk and Rosaria Butterfield, an ex-lesbian activist and more recently a wife, mother and Christian author rightly explain, much of the dispute over orientation and sin, is rooted in a basic disagreement between evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism.

Ever since the Council of Trent (1545-1563), the Roman Catholic Church has insisted that involuntary incentive to sin is not itself sin. In a most revealing sentence, ‘Trent’ declared: “This concupiscence (or desire), which the apostle sometimes calls sin, the holy Synod declares that the Catholic Church has never understood it to be called sin.”

Did you get that? The Catholic Counsel again acknowledges that it’s tradition and its own understanding of its doctrine, therefore its ultimate authority, runs contrary to the language of the apostle.

Even the earliest church fathers including Augustine, a hero of the faith and theology to both Catholics and Protestants identified the desire to sin as sin, as per a sermon he preached on Romans 7 in A.D. 419,

This lust [desire/concupiscence] is not, you see—and this is a point you really must listen to above all else: you see, this lust is not some kind of alien nature. . . . It’s our debility, it’s our vice. It won’t be detached from us and exist somewhere else, but it will be cured and not exist anywhere at all [in the resurrection]. 

Augustine understood unchosen longing for anything outside of God’s will to be itself sinful. The Roman Catholic tradition, however, departs from Augustine on this point and reflects the view that concupiscence or the desire to sin is not itself sin, and that only conscious acts of the will can truly be judged as sinful. This explains why the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls homosexual sexual activity sinful but stops short of calling homosexual desire sinful and instead labels the desire as “objectively disordered”.

This failure to understand the nuanced though critical understanding of the sin nature of the human heart, opens the rhetorical door for the ‘gay Christian’ movement, giving credence to the idea that the temptation of same-sex orientation is just a result of the fall and is not in and of itself sinful.

Again, this issue like any other spiritual one, must be dealt with biblically and exegetically, rather than emotionally and culturally. The Bible clearly teaches that our desires—all of them, voluntary or involuntary—are morally birthed (Ja 1:14-15) and implicated. If someone desires an evil thing, then the desire itself is evil, whether it be voluntary or not (1 Cor. 10:6). This holds true for all human desire, sexual or otherwise, as illustrated by the law’s tenth commandment:

“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s” (Exo. 20:17).

Note that the English word covet, which is synonymous with the idea of lust, describes desire, and that desire itself is described as being sinful in this text among others.

In fact, the coup de grace or nail in the coffin of the non-sinful orientation and temptation movement, is displayed in the words of Jesus himself, the supposed paragon of the gay-Christian movement, who said in the Sermon on the Mount:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Matt. 5:27-28).

With Jesus’ similar words of condemnation having echoed upon the angry and hateful heart (Mat. 5:21-22), one should be left with little doubt that God views the temptation to sin, or the hunger or desire to sin as sinful as the acts themselves that emanate from those desires (1 Pet. 2:11).

Jesus made that distinction of sin’s origination and nature, so legalists such as the scribes and Pharisees of his day could not hide under the blanket of surface obedience and piety to the law of God.

Although we should listen to the voices of movements like Revoice at one level and pay attention to the tears, suffering and struggles of LGTBQ people yearning for relationship with a church community of faith and Christ, we cannot compromise the teaching of the biblical faith and choose to share the identify labels of those within the LGBTQ+ community who want to be in the world and of it and in the church, from their hearts to their hands.

Revoice at that level, is not the voice of Christianity we need to listen to.