Sunday, April 26, 2020

Full of Faith

Faith 15

Note: if you are planning to take my free Zoom class on Freed From Sin beginning tomorrow evening you will get an email with the sign in link during the day on Tuesday, April 28, 2020.

Basket of Apples, c 1865
by John Francis
In Acts 6, the Jerusalem Church found itself frustrated by complications of growth. In the preceding few months it had grown from around 120 to at least 8,000 and probably more. Part of the solution to those complications was the installation of the first deacons, including a man name Stephen. (Yes, I realize this passage does not use the word “deacons” but I am quite comfortable associating that here.) And in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews… …and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost (Acts 6.1, 5). I love that descriptive identifying phrase – full of faith. It speaks directly to what I want to become and what I want to build in others. So what is it? And how do I get there?
          Those of you who read this blog regularly will recall that last week I used the illustration of apples placed in baskets to reveal what we are to do with our faith – place it in God. With that in mind, I want to tweak that illustration slightly and apply it to today’s blog post. Instead of five people each with an apple let us narrow that down. Let us give one person five apples. Placed in front of him are the same number of baskets. The apples represent faith. The baskets represent what the man places faith in. He places one or two apples in one basket, another in a different basket, and no apples in some of the baskets. Which happens to be a bit more like how life actually operates.
          We are given a measure of faith. We place some of that faith in God, yes, but we also often place some of that faith in institutions, in men, in industries, in investment strategies, etc. In other words, rarely, if ever, do we only trust one thing. We often trust many, to one degree or another.
          What does it mean to be full of faith? There are those who would say that means there is no room for doubt. I am not one of those people, and I already addressed that earlier in this series on faith. No, to be full of faith does not mean that there is no doubt in your life. It means to place all your faith in God alone. No longer do I spread my faith out among the different baskets. I find the basket labeled “God”, and I put all my apples in that one basket.
          Stephen, the man described here as being full of faith, is not a major Bible character. He is, however, mentioned in one other biblical account. Following his election to the office of deacon, he preached with boldness and power and he was soon brough to the attention of the Sanhedrin. Arrested and brought to trial, Acts 7 brings us the speech Stephen gave in his own defence. He begins by reviewing some pertinent points of Jewish history and showing how those pointed toward Jesus. Toward the end, he pulls no punches in what is a basically a sermon to the association of men who had recently murdered Christ. Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye. Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? and they have slain them which shewed before of the coming of the Just One; of whom ye have been now the betrayers and murderers. The Sanhedrin reacted to this broadside with all the grace of a wounded rhinoceros. When they heard these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth. Following this display of demonic fury, they proceed directly to the sentencing phase – death by stoning. As Stephen slips the surly bonds of Earth in direct likeness to his martyred Master he whispers an immortal prayer: And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
          What grace Stephen brought to his martyrdom! Aye, and more than grace. This is nothing less than being full of faith. How so? Because he committed the entirety of his life, in complete trust, into the hands of His God.
          You do not have a greater possession than your life. Thus, you do not have a greater gift. Our Saviour said as much mere hours before He practiced it when He told the Apostles, Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends (John 15.13). Stephen gave his entire life, every single breath of it, willingly and trustingly into the hands of His Heavenly Father. He let the Father choose how to spend that life. And he did not resist or fight or change his mind at the last minute when he realized how God would choose to spend that life – in martyrdom. He put all his apples in one basket.
          The first step in that process is to place your faith in Christ alone for your salvation, but that is just the first step. That done, the story of the rest of your life is written as you learn how to gradually decrease your trust in anyone/anything else and gradually increase your faith in Him.
Someone once described the Christian life as being the polar opposite of the
Stoning of St. Stephen, c 1625
by Rembrandt
physical life. I was born tiny and helpless, entirely dependent for everything on my parents. As I grew, I became less and less dependent on them and more and more dependent upon myself. Finally, as I matured, I ceased to be a dependent at all and became independent. Spiritually speaking, I was born large and in charge, only dependent on God for my Saviour. But as I grow, I become less and less independent in my thinking and living and more and more dependent upon Him. Finally, as I mature, I cease to be independent in any area at all and I become entirely dependent upon Him for everything.
          I am full of faith. I am all in in. All my apples are in one basket. Him.

Monday, April 20, 2020

An Invitation

          As most of you know, last year I published my third book, Freed From Sin. It was not an easy book to write. Years of study, of writing, and of God’s working in my life are contained within its 430 pages. One of the things I included in the book was a discussion guide. I know in spots it is a fairly technical work, and I realize that many of the topics take much time and thought to work your way through. In spite of that, because of the value of the subject matter, I wanted the book to be as accessible as possible and I thought a discussion guide at the end of each chapter would contribute to that.
          For many years now Mandy and I have homeschooled our children. Part of my responsibility in relation to that is to teach my older two high school students a Bible class. Through the years I have taught them why we are fundamentalists, what we believe about music and alcohol, how to approach dating, and a biblical view of money. We spent one whole year in Proverbs and another doing systematic theology and hermeneutics. As I approached the spring semester this year, the fact that Jack was about to graduate from high school weighed heavily on me. This would be the last home school Bible class he would take from me. What did I most want to communicate to him?
          With some embarrassment, I tell you that God led me to my own recently published book, Freed From Sin. I want my son to love and serve God for a lifetime. I want him to live a life that resembles his Saviour. What better subject could I teach him in our last class than the meaning and means of sanctification? So taking my own book, we sat down three hours a week for sixteen weeks and studied it out. Reading each paragraph by turns, we read the entire thing front to back. From time to time, I would pause the reading and interject with some explanation or question or answer or illustration. At the end of each chapter, we would review by means of the discussion guide.
          We finished recently. I laid the book on the dining room table, resting in my conscience, knowing I had done a good work to prepare my children to follow on to know the Lord. I confess, I wish I had had a larger class. It is just good stuff, helpful stuff, edifying stuff. But I had done what I could with what I had.
          A few days ago I was contemplating the situation in which we find ourselves. As I mentioned on my Brennan’s Pen Facebook page the other day, I have never been a video guy. I am a word man. I think words allow for precision and thought where video mostly only allows for surface contact and emotion. But this pandemic has forced me to embrace video. We are streaming our church’s services live on YouTube several times a week. Mandy has begun a livestream of her own teaching a ladies’ Bible study. And just a couple of weeks ago I launched a Facebook live reading program via Brennan’s Pen.
          …then an idea hit me upside the head like a boat oar: why not stream a class on Freed From Sin to whomever wants to take it? Everybody is home. God’s people are craving connection and teaching both. I know I have a book chockful to the brim with helpful biblical content. I just watched how teaching it patiently and slowly helped my own children. The technology is available to teach it more widely. Ergo, this blog post is being written.
          Beginning next week, Tuesday, April 28, at 8 PM Central time, I will be offering a free online class on Freed From Sin. I am inviting you to join me, if you would like.  
          There are a couple of parameters I need to mention at this point.
First, you need to have a copy of the book. If you do not already have one, you may purchase print editions in paperback or hardback on Amazon or Barnes and Noble. The digital version is available on Kindle or iTunes. I am not going to put a bunch of links here. You can figure it out.
Second, a potential student needs to be at least 15 years of age, and a relatively mature fifteen. This is not a class for children. Beyond that, I do not care if you are a pastor, a Bible college president, or a nursery worker, you are welcome.
Third, I am choosing to use the Zoom platform. I realize there have been some questions about its security recently, but I will not publish the link to each class online. You will receive it via email on the day of class. In order to ensure you receive the link for each class you will need to subscribe to my blog. Simply navigate to and enter your email and name in the box on the right hand side of the page. The classes will not be archived. You must participate live. Also, I cannot be your tech support. You will have to figure out how to use Zoom on your own. Zoom is free, and if you are a reasonably intelligent individual you ought to be able to handle figuring out how it works.
Fourth, the class size is limited to 100 in attendance each time. You do not have to enroll. I am not going to take attendance or try to police who shows up. I will not and cannot hold a spot. I will open the Zoom meeting 15 minutes early each night and the first 99 people to sign in will be able to take that evening’s class.
Fifth, and most importantly – by taking the class you are agreeing to teach someone else the material when we get done. If we cover one or two chapters a week the class will last for some months. At the end of that time, you will have a solid foundational understanding of the doctrine and practice relating to holiness. And, may I say, you will have an excellent textbook at your fingertips. <grin> I am not interested in just teaching you. I want to teach you so that you will teach someone else. Teach your Sunday School class. Teach your youth department. Teach your small group. Teach your Christian school Bible class. Teach your college. Teach your staff. Teach your church. You can even, like me, teach your older children. Just teach it to somebody else. Do not worry. I will teach you how to teach them. Just watch how I teach. Then sit down with them over a copy of Freed From Sin and work your way through it together.
          So join me on Tuesday nights beginning next week at 8 PM Central. Let us journey into the heart of the purpose for which God saved you and me – forming us into the image of Jesus Christ.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Have Faith. In God.

Faith 14

          God gives every person some faith. (Romans 12.3) There is not an entirely cynical person on the planet. There are people who have become cynical in certain areas, but everybody trusts somebody or something in some way. It is part and parcel of how we are made, of how God created us. We are each of us born with the capacity to believe.
          Though God gifts us with this capacity, what He does not do is forcibly direct that faith. The capacity to believe is present in all of us. We get to choose where we place it.
Imagine for a moment that there are five people present, each possessing an apple. In front of those five people, I place a number of baskets. I then invite each person to place their apple in the basket of their choice. Walking slowly up and down the line of baskets, the first individual chooses the basket that looks the best to them. It may be because they like the way that basket looks. It may be because others have told them that is the best basket. It may be that his experience tells him this is a better basket. It may be that there are lots of other apples in that basket, or none at all. But he picks a basket for what seems to him a good reason.
This is precisely what the average person of your acquaintance does with their God-given capacity to believe. They place it in one or more of a number of different baskets. Some, for instance, place their faith in themselves. They back themselves. They bet on themselves. In their own mind, they are the smartest, the strongest, the best, the greatest. They believe in themselves. Others place their faith in the government. Given enough power and money, the government will eliminate crime, solve immigration issues, fix the income inequality gap, and provide healthcare to all. Often this type of individual is highly invested in whichever politician is campaigning for office next. Still other people place their faith in money. They reach for it, grasping it, acquiring it with might and main. After all, it is called the Almighty Dollar for a reason. If I can just get enough of it everything will be all right. Some choose to place their faith in the media, believing this trusted source or that one, molding their actions and reactions in life around what some influencer or journalist or broadcaster says or writes. Numerous other examples could be furnished.

What is the problem with this scenario? Not its accuracy, for ‘tis highly accurate. This is exactly what people do. The problem is in the baskets they choose. You can back yourself, but you will soon find you are dumber, weaker, and more fallible than you think. Government has a God-ordained role, without question, but it is not as a basket for faith. The only people who have ever been let down by government are all the people who have ever lived under one. Money? Ha! It gets lost, stolen, inflated away, not to mention what it purchases is only temporary at best. The media? Both the accepted wisdom and the countercultural wisdom of the day are often wrong. Science? The military? Name it and it has been proven to be a perpetual failure in some way.
The average person of an experienced age has come to admit this. The next problem is that they often simply choose a different basket. My employer let me down so now I will trust the government. My health failed me so now I will trust science and medicine. I am just taking my apple from one bad basket to a different yet equally flawed basket. Nothing ultimately gets better this way.
What am I supposed to do then? Let us turn to Jesus for the answer, shall we? Walking into Jerusalem during the Passion week, He cursed a fig tree. For the context and the meaning of it, you can see this blog post here from my series on the life of Christ. My point today is Jesus’ reaction to the Apostles shock at finding it withered the very next day. And Jesus answering saith unto them, Have faith in God (Mark 11.22). The wise man places faith in God.
This is not blind faith. It is not walking up to the basket labeled “God”, closing our eyes, and dropping our apple into it. It is a conscious decision, understanding Who and what God is. It is the application of knowledge, wisdom, and understanding. God is simply the best basket. He is the best receptacle for faith.
Why? Well, He is eternal. The eternal God is thy refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms (Deuteronomy 33.27). That means He sees the end from the beginning. That means He is already in the future. That means His guidance of and preparation in my life will be done with perfect knowledge.
God is all-powerful. And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth (Matthew 28.18). That’s substantially more power than the amount of power available to any other basket, is it not?
God is all-knowing. Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in his sight: but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do (Hebrews 4.13). I do not know about you, but I would prefer to trust Someone who is never surprised about anything or anyone. Nor ever will be.
God has never tried and failed. So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it (Isaiah 55.11). There is nothing God has ever decided to do that was beyond Him.
God binds Himself to His own Word. God is not a man, that he should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent: hath he said, and shall he not do it? Or hath he spoken, and shall he not make it good? (Numbers 23.19). See if any other basket can make the same claim with a straight face. Go ahead. I dare you.
Why have I chosen to extend my writing on faith? Because in the situation in which we find ourselves, the calls for us to trust in the wrong thing are clamoring, frantic, panicked, and wrong. I do not want to let the media or society or medicine or history or my own feelings drive my life. I want to live a God-driven life. I want to close the eyes and ears of my life, and in the stillness of my heart hear His still small voice. And I want to place everything in that basket.
Join me. Together, let us place our faith in the only basket that really makes any sense. Let us have faith in God.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

It Only Works if You Mix in Faith

Faith 13

Note: This was the last post I had planned in this blog series about faith. Due to the situation in which we find ourselves I am going to extend my writing on faith for some time yet. I hope that you will find it a help in times like these.

Hebrews 3. 17  But with whom was he grieved forty years? was it not with them that had sinned, whose carcases fell in the wilderness?
18  And to whom sware he that they should not enter into his rest, but to them that believed not?
19  So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief.
4.1 ¶  Let us therefore fear, lest, a promise being left us of entering into his rest, any of you should seem to come short of it.
2  For unto us was the gospel preached, as well as unto them: but the word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it.
3  For we which have believed do enter into rest, as he said, As I have sworn in my wrath, if they shall enter into my rest: although the works were finished from the foundation of the world.

          In Hebrews, we often find the writer comparing the events of the New Testament era to the events of the Old Testament era. He does so here. He mentions the Jews fleeing Egypt could not enter into the Promised Land due to their unbelief. He goes on to explain that, just so, if we would enter into the rest of Jesus/Heaven it must be by belief. Along the way, almost as an aside, the writer discusses the concept of preaching and why it seems to help some people but not help others. Why did some Jews find preaching beneficial while others did not? For unto us was the gospel preached, as well as unto them: but the word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it.
          Did you ever wonder why a sermon you hear can impact you so deeply while someone sitting right next to you snoozes through the entire thing? While we cannot see another’s heart, it is patently true the reception of the sermon itself is key to the amount of spiritual profit we would take away from it.
          Just the other day I happened to be watching a cooking competition. It was a team exercise. One of the courses the Blue Team was preparing happened to be polenta, and it was not going well. In fact, it was an utter disaster. At one point, five different chefs stood around the pot trying to come up with a plan to rescue the dish. One of the guys hit upon the idea of adding milk. He stirred it in and, voila!, everything turned out splendidly. So it with preaching. As a pastor, I can preach the pure Word of God diligently until I am blue in the face, but if that preaching is not mixed with faith in a receptive heart the preaching will be unprofitable.
          With that by way of introduction, let me give you three corollaries to this idea. First, let me say that the hearer must have absolute faith in the Word of God. Faith in God must include faith in His Word. Do not tell me you trust me if you do not trust what I say. There must be, driven deep into the heart of each hearer, an absolute embrace of the inspiration, inerrancy, infallibility, and sufficiency of God’s Word. It is never wrong. About anything. It says so repeatedly, and I must believe that if I claim to be a believer in God.

Psalm 12:6 The words of the Lord are pure words: As silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times.
Psalm 19:8 The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart: The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes.
Psalm 119:140 Thy word is very pure: Therefore thy servant loveth it.
Proverbs 30:5 Every word of God is pure: He is a shield unto them that put their trust in him.
Romans 7:12 Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good.

          This unshakeable faith is a necessity for preaching to minister to you.
          Second, in addition to an absolute faith in the Scriptures, the hearer must have some level of faith in the preacher. I write this cautiously. Obviously, I believe our faith must be placed in the Lord. But there is a sense in which I must have some measure of trust in the preacher to whom I am listening if I am going to get anything out of the message.
          Many years ago, I was out door-to-door soul winning in Niles, Ohio, with my father. At one particular door, a distinguished looking gentleman answered our knock, and in answer to our queries explained that he was a born again Christian. He went on to say that he was active in his church, teaching the young married couples class. In the course of our conversation, the fact that he was divorced happened to come up for some reason or other. As we walked away, my father quietly said to me, “Would you put a divorced man in charge of a married couples class?” I have never forgotten the wisdom of that quiet statement. Why? For the same reason I do not give weight loss advice. Quite plainly, it is not my area of expertise. The sad truth is if you do not have some level of confidence in a preacher you will respond to his preaching with suspicion at best and/or criticism and bitterness at worst as you reject everything he says.
          Paul understood this. He often cites his own experiences in order to help people understand that he knows what he is talking about. Ye know how through infirmity of the flesh I preached the gospel unto you at the first. And my temptation which was in my flesh ye despised not, nor rejected; but received me as an angel of God, even as Christ Jesus (Galatians 4.13-14).

          Along this line, let me offer two appropriate suggestions. First, cultivate a balanced faith in the preacher, with the key word of this sentence being “balanced”. Yes, he is God’s man but he is still just a man. The authority is in God’s Words, not his. By the same token, he just a man, but he is a good man. He is a genuine man. He is a tested man. He loves you, loves his family, loves his neighbor, and loves God. Grant him a measure of trust and esteem. It will open your heart to the truths of God’s Word he is holding before you.
          Additionally, I might suggest that you be wary of the tendency all of us to allow our spiritual discernment to morph into fleshly criticism. Do not check your brain at the door. Do not swallow anything whole that anybody says. If a preacher is wrong you ought to know your Bible well enough to spot it. By the same token, when you see a critical spirit developing in your heart, fight it. The preacher you are listening probably is not on par with Jim Jones. He is human, yes, but not evil. It is highly doubtful he spent all week in his office plotting how to manipulate you into something spiritually dubious. Have a – important word here next – little faith in him.
          Thus far, in looking at the importance of mixing faith with preaching, we have looked at the necessity for faith in the Word of God and the help there is in having some level of faith in the preacher. Third, then, I would counsel that the hearer should mix in this specific mental approach to every sermon: “Lord, you show me and I’ll do it.” Seven times in James 2 we find some form of the phrase faith without works is dead. If I am going to mix faith in with the message I hear that faith, if it is a genuine faith, will result in some work or action on my part. In other words, if the sermons I listen to do not cause my life to change at all then I must not be mixing them with faith. Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves (James 1.22).
          I realize that some sermons do not call on me to do anything differently. This is the case if I am already practicing what is being preached. If the message is about forgiving my enemies and I already have then nothing needs to change there. If it is addressing bitterness and I am not bitter then I not need to take action. Other messages I hear from time to time do not apply to me. If I take my teenagers to a Youth Conference, and the preacher waxes eloquent on choosing the right spouse carefully I can sit back and pitch in with a hearty Amen, but I do not need to do anything about the message necessarily. But many, if not most, sermons do have an application that I should personally incorporate. And my default approach must be that if there is a personal application that applies to me in a sermon then I will seek to apply it. This approach should be foundational. It should be part of who we are at our core. We should think this way with every message we hear.
          I love to preach, but I am neverendingly frustrated with some people who sit in my church. Week after week, month after month, year after year there is no change. Meanwhile, Bro. So-and-so who sits one row over is growing like gangbusters. Why? Bro. So-and-so had the wisdom to mix in faith.
          You will hear some preaching this week. Do not sit there like a bump on a log, challenging God and the preacher to move you. No, beloved. Bring to it an absolute faith in God’s Word. Throw in some trust in the preacher. Add in a dash of “Lord, you show me and I’ll do it”. And it will taste so much better.