Philip | Andrew | Meade

Vox Scriptura Vox Dei

Category: Christian Living (page 1 of 4)

The Missing Element In Our Discipleship

As a new year approaches, most Christians desire a more intimate walk with the Lord. The transition from “last year” to “next year” is accompanied by hopes of a better tomorrow and plans to improve our lives through adjusted routines and habits. For followers of Jesus, this usually means resolutions to faithfully read our bibles, become more committed to church-related activities, memorize Scripture, spend additional time with family, and begin tithing to the local church.

And I think that’s great. The change of seasons – the passing of something old and the arrival of something new – is an appropriate time to ask questions and consider the quality and character of our lives. Self-reflection and evaluation is certainly a biblical concept (1 Timothy 4:16). But as we know, it tends to fall apart rather quickly.

There are many possible reasons why our new year discipleship resolutions are difficult to keep, but one of the most fundamental is our forgetfulness of the means through which we have power to pursue holiness – our union with Christ.

The last few weeks I have been preaching on the tendency in conservative evangelical theology to separate the work of Christ from the person of Christ.  By that I mean we emphasize (rightly so!) the concepts of justification and sanctification and glorification that are all possible because of the work Christ has accomplished on our behalf at the cross and through his resurrection. No doubt, those are essential truths of our faith that do not deserve to be less preached, less taught, or less modeled by the church.

But the problem is when we present these benefits of faith as “things” Jesus goes and gets for us, turning the theological concepts of justification and so forth into the primary gift of our faith, and creating Jesus as a kind of “errand boy” who runs to the cross and delivers for us a beautiful package called “justification.” What’s wrong with that, you might ask? Isn’t justification a primary gift of our faith?

Well, yes. But here’s the thing. Jesus doesn’t deliver a package labeled “justification” to us. He delivers himself. Jesus is our justification. Jesus is our sanctification. Jesus is our glorification.  And what happens when we unknowingly divorce the work of Christ from the person of Christ is the creation of a benefit-centered faith that Jesus handed to us instead of a Jesus-centered faith that Jesus is for us.  Every single blessing of our salvation – all those wonderful terms such as justification and adoption and sanctification and glorification – they are all possible because of our union with Christ. If our oneness with Jesus does not exist, then neither does our justification. If we are not found in Christ, then we are not found adopted into God’s family. All of it relies on Christ in us and us in Christ. All of it.

Consider 1 Corinthians 1:30 – “And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” Jesus became to us our righteousness. Jesus became to us our redemption. Jesus became to us our sanctification. And why? Because we are “in Christ Jesus.” The work must never be separate from the person. Anthony Hoekema has said, “If Christ is indeed our sanctification, we can only be sanctified through being one with him.” (Saved By Grace).

How does this relate to our discipleship and a new year? Well, if we divorce the work of Christ from the person of Christ, we will undoubtedly divorce our work of discipleship from the person of Christ. Although we would never consciously suggest that Jesus is left out of our plans for discipleship and personal sanctification, we will become convinced that the right bible reading plan or the appropriate small group or a better church or healthier life or a increased determination will accomplish our freshly written resolutions. “It’s all for Jesus” we might say. But it’s not. It’s all in Jesus.

Whatever resolutions and whatever plans you have for 2019, I wish you the very best. If it is a new Bible reading plan, that’s great! (I have a new one myself I am excited about). If it is a commitment to a small group, that’s great! The point here is not to dissuade us from pursuing holiness. The point is to persuade us that these things will not sanctify us; Jesus is our sanctification. Jesus is both the one who provides the power of grace to pursue holiness and he is the object of that pursuit. We toil in Jesus to be shaped by Jesus to look more like Jesus.  

 

My Christmas Eve Devotion 2018

Oh come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant. Come ye, oh come ye to Bethlehem.

It is a classic Christmas carol and a wonderful song we sing every year. But is this the only group to whom the invitation to come and experience Jesus is given? To the faithful, to the joyful, and to the triumphant?

Now, I mean no disrespect to the beautiful song at all – to be certain, Christmas Day is a day of faith and joy and triumph. But my hunch is that for some of us worshiping in Graefenburg, KY on Christmas Eve in 2018, there might be a sense of our own lack of faith, or perhaps very little joy, and maybe we feel more defeated than we do triumphant. And so what shall we do with this invitation that beckons the faithful, joyful, and triumphant to come to Jesus?

Yesterday before Sunday School I was hanging out in the cafe and it was a beautiful morning of greeting one another and exchanging gifts and lots of laughter. I saw one of my favorite people and said, “Merry Christmas, how are you?” And at first she wanted to reply with a typical, “Merry Christmas, I’m doing great.” But she stopped herself and let me know that she wasn’t feeling all that joyful at the moment because of a conversation she had with a family member. And we talked for a bit and she went on to her class, no doubt thinking that she was betraying the spirit of the season which is joy and happiness and spreading Christmas cheer.

But tonight, just hours before Christmas Day, I want to read for you one verse that, I hope, will put the invitation to come to Jesus in perspective. The prophet Isaiah hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus testified to his arrival. And here is part of what he said:

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” Isaiah 9:2

You know, if it is the middle of a hot, summer day and the sun is shining down with its brilliant light, you might not even notice if I flip on the switch to a flashlight. But if you are searching for something that eludes you and you are covered in darkness, the illumination from a flashlight will be a great relief. You see, there is a reason why we make Christmas Eve services a candlelight service. It isn’t because it adds a touch of charm and beauty to the service, which it certainly does. But because we are reminding ourselves that Christmas Day is about the shining of a light into our lives filled with darkness. That Jesus is, in fact, the light of the world.

And that means that if today your world is filled with darkness. If you are struggling to find faith. If you don’t know where your joy went. And if your victory has been swallowed up in defeat. Then the invitation to come to Bethlehem is for you. For the great light of Jesus is most beautifully and powerfully seen when it shines in our messy, chaotic darkness. Jesus lived on earth, died on a cross, and rose from the dead to save you. To forgive you. And to change you, forever. And that means you can come to him or return to him right now.

Sam Allberrry is a pastor who earlier this year sent a message on Twitter that my wife forwarded to me. I loved it so much that I tucked it away to use as the closing to my comments to you tonight. He said,

“Oh come all ye faithless, joyless, and defeated. Come ye, Oh come ye to Bethlehem. Christmas is for the weary, for the messed-up, and for the broken. If your life isn’t instagrammable, Christmas is for you.”

Do you remember that friend of mine I told you about a moment ago? Who told me she had a difficult conversation with a family member and it was causing her not to have as much joy? She sent me an email this morning. I asked her permission to read part of it to you. The subject of the email was “Yesterday’s Joy” and she says:

“I wanted to say I was sorry for unloading my burden on you yesterday. In responding to your joyous greeting I could not lie. In sharing my burden your joy was spilled over to me and I was able to be in Bible study and worship with a lighter heart. After worship that joy was shared with others in Merry Christmas wishes, in hugs and ‘I love yous’. So even though I wanted to say I’m sorry I guess I’m not because Joy was shared in a way that it would not have been otherwise. And I believe by sharing my burden your joy was increased, if not then at least now as you know that that Joy was carried onto others.”

Bethlehem has never been a place of much comfort for those who fake it. But for the ones who come to Jesus in all their brokenness and sin and shame, the light truly has come.

And joy can come in the morning.

Reflecting on 2017

There seems to be a common sentiment on social media among many of my friends:  2017 was a difficult year. I would count myself among those who affirm such an assessment. Physically, emotionally, and spiritually I have found myself driven to deep and dark places – secret places that are noticeably absent of “this way out” signs. For the first time in 19 years of being on a church staff, my mind wandered to the dangerous land of “ministry isn’t worth it” and I acquired a greater appreciation for those alarming statistics of pastors who call it quits.

And then, of course, guilt piles on top of guilt. That’s what guilt does, you know. It is never satisfied to be left alone. I thought of the endless blessings I enjoy every day. Of my church that is healthy and growing and loving. Of my family who is a daily reminder of God’s goodness. And then I think, how could I possibly be so weak and sinful that I would reach a place of darkness so quickly when others have it so much worse? Guilt on top of guilt.

All of this brings me back to the truth I know so well I tend to forget it so often. God never stops with darkness. He keeps speaking. Always.

There was darkness at creation. God kept speaking. Then there was light.
Abraham fell into a dreadful and deep darkness. God kept speaking. Then there was light.
Egypt was filled with darkness for three days. God kept speaking. Then there was light.
Nicodemus visited Jesus in the darkness. God kept speaking. Then there was light.
Jesus was crucified and the land fell into darkness. God kept speaking. Then there was light.
I was living in the domain of darkness. God kept speaking. Then there was light.

God speaks in darkness. The beauty and brilliance of the light wouldn’t shine near as bright without it. So all of this brings me to this summary of 2017…

It was a difficult year with dark paths. And for that reason, it has been an important year. God isn’t through speaking. As my life marches on and I reflect back on 2017, I imagine I will consider the darkness and worship God with even greater zeal because of the light.

God, I’m not thankful for darkness, but I am eternally thankful that you keep speaking in it. I imagine I could watch 2017 fade away with gratitude for it simply being gone. But I think, God, I will do something different. I think I will watch it fade away with gratitude for having experienced it. For in it and through it, you have revealed and are revealing to me who you are all over again. And I love who you are. I love that you bring light out of darkness. I love that I could never appreciate the light if I did not experience the darkness. So, thank you. I’ll talk to you in the morning. And whatever you have in store for me and my family in 2018, here I am, Lord. Do to me as you will. I love you. Help me to love you more. I believe. Help my unbelief. I trust you. Help me to trust you more. All for your glory. Forever. Amen.

The Verse I Just Read To My Kids About Las Vegas

How do we explain and discuss things like the horror and heartbreak of the Las Vegas shooting to our children? How do we discuss them with our Christian friends? How do we discuss them with our non-believeing friends?

I know one clear way not to discuss them. We should never pretend to understand the mind of God when God has not revealed it to us. In other words, if our temptation is to say, “God allowed this to happen because ___________________________,” then we should pause, erase, and start over.

For family worship tonight, I wanted to address the sadness of the senseless killings that have left so many people in shock and in disbelief. I obviously did not want to scare my children or reveal things to them beyond their ability to grasp. But I also did not want to pretend the loss of life did not happen.

So, I opened my Bible to Romans 12:15 – “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”

I explained how Christians will not have all the answers all the time, especially when difficult and scary things happen. But when other people are hurting, we are to hurt along with them. When other people are crying, we can cry along with them. When other people are broken, we can be broken with them. That’s how I want my children to respond to the tragedies of life; not by offering an explanation. Not by giving unwanted pieces of advice.  But by being present, offering a broken heart to match the one across from us, and offering a shared tear.

The other thing I know for certain is this – God hurts when we hurt, and the gospel of Jesus Christ demonstrates how much love the Father has for the world. There is a time for systematic theology discussions concerning the problem of evil. And there are times not to have those discussions.

For now, it is a time to weep. To be broken. And to be prayerfully hopeful that the Lord Jesus will come soon.

Even so, Lord Jesus come.

A Baptist And A Jehovah’s Witness

I had an incredible conversation with a church member last Sunday. As I was about to leave the church, I noticed a member waving for me to come over and talk to her. So, I did. She began the conversation by saying, “I had two Jehovah’s Witnesses come visit me this past week.”  Stop right there.

At this point, my mind starts rapidly filtering into my JW database in order to anticipate her question or concern. I was expecting to hear something along the lines of how annoying “those people” are and perhaps I was being summoned to give her a few pointers on how she can get them off her front porch. But, that’s not what happened…

As the conversation ensued, this friend of mine explained how God gave her patience and a soft heart when these two elderly women at her doorstep introduced themselves as JW. Even surprising herself, my friend open her door wider and invited them in. Yes, she invited them into her home. From there, this Baptist church member joyfully exclaimed that she ended up having the best spiritual conversation of her life over the next 45 minutes. Not willing to compromise on truth, but very willing to show love, hospitality, and a listening ear.

That is how people see the beauty of the gospel.

Here are a few takeaways from my conversation with this amazing church member:

  1. Women tend to take more risks. Certainly not always, but more often than not when I hear about risky, bold moves for the gospel, I’m hearing the testimony of a woman.
  2. Speaking truth with grace really is possible. I think this friend of mine was a powerful picture of Jesus Christ as she opened her home to a couple of people with whom she knowingly disagrees…strongly disagrees…with their faith and practice.
  3. My friend is a long-time, strong believer. I would not necessarily recommend this specific course of action for a new believer in the faith, at least for them to be alone during the encounter. As my friend was telling me this story, I had no concerns that she would capitulate on the truthfulness of the word of God.
  4. I was rebuked. A couple of months ago I had two gentlemen visit my door at an inopportune time. Although I was certainly cordial with my guests, I quickly let them know my position at the Baptist church just up the hill and shut things down in just a couple of minutes. That’s not good enough.
  5. I need to stock up on Sanka and coffee cake. I’m hoping my wife is chuckling at this point because not long ago we watched a comedian discuss how things have changed over the last 20 years when we hear a knock at the door. 20 years ago when you heard your doorbell, it was a “happy moment.” Today, we duck, turn off the tv. and play dead so they will go away. Sanka was (is?) a brand of instant decaffeinated coffee. The point is that I need to be prepared to welcome in a stranger, offer them a drink, and talk about the goodness of the Lord.

I’m thankful for the conversation I had last Sunday morning about a Baptist and a Jehovah’s Witness, and I’m hopeful that others in the church will follow her example.

The Church and Bioethics: Abortion and Stem Cell Research

Below is a summary of a sermon I preached on May 1, 2016 at Graefenburg Baptist Church concerning abortion, stem cell research, and bioethics.

My position will be that babies in the womb, including the embryonic and fetal stages, are image bearers of God whose lives are to be protected and nurtured.

Four questions to answer addressing the topic of abortion and stem cell research:
1. Is there a difference between human life and human personhood?
2. What about Exodus 21?
3. Why is stem cell research a bioethical issue?
4. How does the gospel make a difference?

Is there a difference between human life and human personhood?
Most recent discussions that have a direct impact on public policy concerning abortion have centered around the question of what constitutes a human person. Why has the discussion of personhood become so important? Well, today most scientists, philosophers, educators, doctors, and theologians will agree that a human embryo, even from the first moment of fertilization, is a human life. This is difficult to refute. It is obviously alive, it possesses human DNA, and unless it is interfered with, will naturally develop through the various human life stages of maturity and development. But the Western world is now debating not so much if an embryo is a human life, but if all human life should be granted full human rights and thus equally protected.

Many are debating today that not all human lives are actually human persons, and that only persons are able to possess the kind of human rights that will protect them from harm. This, of course, has a tremendous impact on how people are thinking about abortion. If a human life is not yet a person and therefore does not have full human rights, such as the right to life, then abortion is not murder. But is this right? How does the Bible guide us in this area?

Although we have used the language of personhood to describe deep theological truths – such as the Trinity and the person of Christ – the Bible does not speak directly to the issue of if there is a distinction between human life and human personhood. Instead, the Bible speaks on these things in terms of the image of God and the impact of being created in that image. Let’s look at two examples:

Psalm 51 is a beautiful prayer by David seeking forgiveness for his multitude of sins.
First, notice that David refers to his time in the womb as “me.” There is a continuity in David’s inspired writing of himself with whatever stage of development he was in the womb.

Second, and even more powerfully, is that David identifies himself as a sinner, even while in the womb. This is not merely the mother’s sin, for the entire Psalm is about David’s sin and his pleas for forgiveness. This teaching lines up perfectly with Romans 5:12: “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men…”
David is teaching us in Psalm 51 that his sinful condition is not just a result of his own personal actions, but because of his association with Adam. (now let’s pause here and be reminded of a beautiful gospel truth. It is through our association with the first Adam, the one from Genesis 1-3, that we are by nature sinners and children of wrath. But it is through our association with the second Adam, that is Jesus Christ, that we take on his righteous nature and become a child of God.) But the point here is that since David identifies himself as a sinner in his embryonic state, then even as a human life in the womb, he carried with him moral accountability, that is to say, the need to be forgiven of sin. This necessarily means that even before David was born, he was an image-bearing human person.

Psalm 139 is another example. Here the continuity of David with his “inward parts” is consistent with Psalm 51. But even more striking is the degree of care that God shows to this baby inside the womb. Matthew 6:26-30 teaches us that God does not show the same level of value and personal care for all of his creation. Humans who bear his image are his top priority. And this Psalm most beautifully demonstrates how God sees the life in the womb as a full image-bearing human person.

We can also turn our attention to Luke 1 and the announcement by Gabriel that Mary would conceive and bear a son. Jesus, as we know, is the ultimate image-bearer of God who perfectly identifies with humans and yet is without sin. But notice that Jesus does not just appear in his adult human form. He identifies, from first to last, with the full range of image-bearing human persons, which meant he came in the first stage of maturity and development – a life in the womb. In this way, Jesus completely lived for us, completely died for us, and completely saves us.

From these three examples, we can say that the Bible does not specifically target the language of personhood, but highlights the image-bearing nature of humanity from inside the womb, which means from a biblical perspective, there is no difference between a human life and a human person. From fertilization onward, we are image bearers of God and have a right to life.

What about Exodus 21?
Pro-choice advocates have historically used Exodus 21:22 as a pivotal text to demonstrate how the Bible views life in the womb as less than a human person. Let’s read the verse and see if that claim holds up. “When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman’s husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. 23 But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”

Now, you are probably wondering why pro-choice folks look to this text to support their position when in fact it appears to harm their position. Well, that’s right. This is actually a verse that once again shows the image-bearing nature of life in the womb. Look at it closely. The Bible is speaking about harm to either the children or the mother.

So why do pro-choice folks latch on to this? Because a few translations, including the New Revised Standard Version and the 1977 New American Standard Bible, translate it differently: “And if men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child so that she has a miscarriage, yet there is no further injury, he shall surely be fined as the woman’s husband may demand of him; and he shall pay as the judges decide.” (Emphasis mine)

In this translation, the text indicates the “no further injury” is to the mother alone, seemingly making the death of the baby in the womb a trivial matter, compensated by a fine.

Now, in 1995 the NASB updated the text of their translation in order to use the most up to day scholarship. Their updated text says something very different from the 1977 translation. It says, “If men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child so that she gives birth prematurely, yet there is no injury, he shall surely be fined as the woman’s husband may demand of him, and he shall pay as the judges decide.”

So which translation is correct? The language evidence in this one verse coupled with the entirety of the Bible’s teaching on this topic shows that the updated version, and thus the translation of almost every modern translation (and most older translations, such as the KJV) is correct – the translation should be “her children come out” instead of “has a miscarriage.” This shows how life in the womb was considered just that – an image-bearing human person, and penalties would be paid in relation to the harm, or lack thereof, that came to the baby.

Why is stem-cell research a bioethical issue?
Stem cell research receives a significant amount of attention because of the potential to use the cells in ways that could produce better treatments for disease and illnesses. Because of that, many Christians struggle with an additional layer of ethical decision making – a case of which is the greater good, to preserve the life of a human embryo or to destroy that life in hopes of helping humans who are more fully matured and developed.

Stem cells are distinct from other types of cells because they are not fully differentiated. That just means that stem cells are able to develop into a variety of other cell types, leaving the possible scientific study on them open to many possibilities. The most important and valuable of stem cells are called “pluripotent” cells because they are are undifferentiated. Multipotent are the next valuable, and then unipotent are the least valuable to scientists. The ethical tension comes in the fact that human embryos, that is to say our children, are a rich source of pluripotent cells, the kind that are most valuable.

It is very difficult for Christians, even in light of all the evidence we have already discussed as the image-bearing nature of human life in all of its stages, to argue against stem cell research because all of us know loved ones and friends who could potentially benefit from this kind of scientific progress. It is easy to be seen as unloving to hold a position against stem cell research. Thus, this is another position where Christians will need to cultivate Christian courage. If human embryos do indeed bear the image of God in their personhood, then harming or killing them for the profit of another, even another who is more fully developed, is morally wrong and against all that we believe in Christ. Some of the most heinous periods in world history have come through brilliant arguments for the harming of those who are weaker, smaller, or supposedly dispensable for the perceived greater good of others.

But not all is lost here. Embryos are not the only source of stem cells and technology is providing additional sources for scientific study. Umbilical cord blood is one example of a plentiful source of stem cells, and even more promising is that scientists have started working on ways to extract stem cells from embryos without destroying the embryo itself, which of course would remove the difficult ethical considerations altogether.

How does the gospel make a difference?
First, the gospel reminds us of sacrifice and service, the vision statement of all Christians. In setting the ultimate example, Christ willingly left that which was comfortable, that which was majestic and perfect, that which was rightfully his, and took on a world of sacrifice and inconvenience. In 2014, an estimated 977,000 abortions took place in the US alone. Of those 977,000, a significant portion, upwards of 3/4 of women said they did not want a baby because it would interfere with their life. And listen, they are right about that. Babies get in the way. They can be loud and never sleep and are so demanding and inconvenient. They are expensive and seem to be so darn ungrateful. But do you remember what we said on day one of this sermon series? We said that bioethical issues involve a comprehensive view of who we are as Christians and must never be reduced to just the issue at hand. This is a perfect example. Apart from our Christ-centered worldview where the gospel instructs us on what service and sacrifice looks like, an annoying, interfering baby would be, well, just that. An annoyance. And who wants that? But in Christ, we find our joy through sacrifice. Our joy through service. Our joy in putting others before ourselves.

Second, the gospel reminds us of community and the church. After all, it was for the church that Christ died. Now listen, the church isn’t perfect. Far from it. But we love each other, sometimes in awkward ways, but we do. And we love babies. I can promise you that you will find a place of refuge and advice and help and support from the people of Graefenburg Baptist Church. That won’t make things easy for you. That won’t mean you will gets lots of sleep. But you will get help when you ask, you will be invited into community with us, and we will rally around you.

Third, the gospel reminds us of forgiveness. There is no condemnation for those of you who are in Christ Jesus. Abortion is one of those topics that when preached, seems crystal clear. But when there is a baby inside of your body that will disrupt everything, including perhaps your reputation, things become muddy very quickly. I understand that. Brother and sister, if you have a history that includes abortion and you have sought the Lord Jesus in forgiveness, then he does not condemn you and your guilt is removed. And if the Lord Jesus does not condemn you, then neither will Graefenburg Baptist Church.

But if you have not yet asked Christ to forgive you, then come to him today. He is gentle and ready to forgive. He will not turn you away.

 

 

The Church and Bioethics: Assisted Reproduction

Below is a summary of a sermon I preached on April 24, 2016 at Graefenburg Baptist Church concerning assisted reproduction and bioethics.

Four questions to answer addressing the topic of assisted reproduction:
1. Does assisted reproduction usurp (infringe upon) the sovereignty of God?
2. What is an embryo and how should Christians think about them?
3. What is the relationship between embryos and assisted reproduction?
4. Are there other ethical concerns?

Does assisted reproduction usurp the sovereignty of God?
Although a common objection from evangelicals to assisted reproduction is that the practice “usurps” the sovereignty of God, the answer to this first question is an unequivocal “no.” Human beings, despite our seemingly sophisticated technological advances, are not capable of disrupting or infringing upon the eternal purposes of a providential God. Therefore, Graefenburg Baptist Church will always view every baby and every child as a deeply loving and abundantly good gift from God. Regardless of how that child came into this world, whether it was through natural sexual relations or assisted reproduction or a single mother or single father who had a baby out of wedlock, every child is a beautiful gift of a sovereign God, and every child has come from God alone.

But we have to be careful. We can’t think that since God’s sovereignty is absolute and since every child is always a great gift that our actions and decisions concerning assisted reproduction do not matter. Remember, God’s sovereignty does not negate human responsibility, and we will be held responsible for our choices. So, we should not condemn assisted reproduction on the grounds that it usurps the sovereignty of God, but we should also avoid accepting every means of ART (assisted reproductive technology) as morally and ethically suitable for Christians.

What is an embryo and how should Christians thing about them?
An embryo is formed by the coming together of an egg from a female and a sperm from a male in a process called fertilization (sometimes called conception). When conception occurs, the egg and the sperm individually cease to be, and there is a new, distinct living human organism, sometimes referred to as a zygote. This new life is so amazing that it immediately closes itself off from any additional outside disruption. No other sperm can get in, no other parts are necessary for this human life to grow. This new living organism, so long as it is nurtured and fed and given time to develop, will very soon be crying and screaming and kicking in the arms of a doctor and then the arms of a parent.

Listen to how Robert George and Patrick Lee describe this process as they write for the US National Library of Medicine: “…from the zygote stage onward, the human embryo has within it all of the internal information needed—including chiefly its genetic and epigenetic constitution—and the active disposition to develop itself to the mature stage of a human organism. As long as the embryo is reasonably healthy and is not denied or deprived of a suitable environment and adequate nutrition, it will actively develop itself along the species-specific trajectory of development. This means that the embryo has the same nature—in other words, it is the same kind of entity—from fertilization onward; there is only a difference in degree of maturation, not in kind, between any of the stages from embryo, to fetus, infant and so on.”

In other words, Christians should consider embryos to be children. We should consider these to be our babies. All an embryo needs is time for more maturity and nourishment. But that is true for a newborn baby. That baby needs more time to mature, needs nourishment, needs somewhere safe to sleep. The exact same thing is true for the human embryo.

What is the relationship between embryos and assisted reproduction?
Let me address the two most common forms of ART. First is artificial insemination. Through this process a man’s sperm are injected into a woman at the right time and in the right place to help increase the probability of pregnancy. Through this means of assisted reproduction, fertilization occurs in a natural way and embryos are in no greater danger than if the couple would have engaged in normal sexual contact. For this reason, the relationship between embryos and artificial insemination does not create additional risk factors a couple would need to worry about.

The second most common type of assisted reproduction is In Vitro Fertilization. Through this process, Eggs are harvested from a woman, sperm is taken from the man, and they are brought together outside the womb. After fertilization occurs outside the womb, the embryos are implanted, or transferred, inside the womb. This process has several ethical concerns associated with embryos that artificial insemination does not.

First, both because IVF is incredibly expensive and because the success rate is very low, usually a much larger number of eggs are harvested for fertilization than are expected to be used.  After fertilization occurs outside the womb, only a couple, 2 to 4 typically, will be implanted into the womb. What is left is a very serious moral and ethical dilemma. What happens to the remaining embryos that were not placed in the woman? Sometimes they are frozen for potential use at a later date. Sometimes, and we have to recognize the way the secular world uses this language, they are “discarded.” Which simply means they are killed. There are some other options available as well, that I will mention below.

A second ethical concern for the embryos with IVF is the potential of needing to abort one or more of the embryos. This is sometimes referred to as “selective abortion.” Again, since there is such a low success rate and because of the high costs involved per transfer, the doctors might implant several embryos into the womb with the hope that one will continue to develop and mature. This often leads to multiple pregnancies and leaves the parent with a deeply difficult moral decision as to whether or not they should selectively abort one of the babies in order to put less health risk on the mother and on the other children. Thankfully, this trend of multiple embryo transfers is slowly starting to decrease. In some parts of Europe, there is a mandatory single embryo transfer, which is preferred from a Christian ethical viewpoint. Dr. Dorrette Noorahsen writing for Fertility Specialists says, “Due to the success of vitrification, we no longer need to transfer a higher number of embryos at the fresh ET, but are comfortable transferring fewer, and if the woman is not pregnant we can do a FET at a later point in time. The number of higher order multiples in the United States have decreased in the last decade due to fertility centers transferring fewer embryos. Transferring fewer embryos has not decreased pregnancy success rates in the last decade. Actually, IVF success rates have improved in the last decade due to improved technology.”

A third ethical problem for IVF is the reality of how many children have been killed in order to make the technology possible. It would be one thing if these killings had stopped now that we have the technology in place, but of course the industry desires to make the procedure more effective and safer for all parties. However, the means by which they continue to improve on IVF technology is in part the continuing destruction of embryos.

Are there other ethical concerns?
The parental connection when a third party is involved is an additional ethical concern. Third parties are sometimes necessary during assisted reproduction because either the female or the male is not able to conceive, so a third party egg or sperm is necessary. This creates a situation where there is a biological link to the child outside the husband and wife.

Now, most parents who are actually raising the child will have no problem clearly identifying themselves as the true parents, and rightly so. But what about the perspective of the child? There is no way to know how they might respond to the news of a third person having biological responsibilities for their birth. Of course, one option is to keep the information away from the child. But then that creates a situation where there are family secrets, and puts friends and family in an uncomfortable and often unfair situation of knowing something and keeping it quiet. Family secrets hardly ever turn out well.

Most children will want to know about their biological makeup and couples who use a third party must prepare for these kinds of ethical possibilities.

Another concern for third party involvement is the potential emotional connection between the third party and the child, a truth that is demonstrated in Scripture itself, such as the jealousy that develops with Sarah and Hagar.

Closing Thoughts
I believe one thing is absolutely necessary before any Christian couple should begin the process of assisted reproduction. Not surprisingly, it has to do with the gospel. Christian couples should seek contentment in Christ before any decisions are made or considered. This is not to say that contentment means a couple should not pursue a route to help with pregnancy. But rather, before a route is taken, they should seek contentment in Christ with their condition. The reality of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has not changed the brokenness and suffering of something so difficult as infertility, but it has radically changed a Christian’s perspective on that suffering.

Embryo adoption is a beautiful way for couples to both pursue parenthood in a God-honoring way while also coming alongside children who may be otherwise killed through the embryo discarding process. We would be happy to discuss embryo adoption with you and pray for your decision making.

The Church and Bioethics: Birth Control

Below is a summary of a sermon I preached on April 17, 2016 at Graefenburg Baptist Church concerning birth control and bioethics. The intent of these sermons is not to tell people what bioethical decisions they should make, but to help us think biblically and think well about the issues at stake. 

Four questions to answer concerning the Church and birth control:
1. Is the Creation Mandate of Genesis 1:28 a universal, ongoing command that requires all Christians to bear children?
2. What are the gospel implications of the Creation Mandate?
3. How does having dominion over the earth apply to birth control?
4. What are some warnings?

Is the Creation Mandate of Genesis 1:28 a universal, ongoing command that requires all Christians to bear children? We argued that the answer to that question is “no.” If we believe the mandate of Genesis 1:28 to multiply and fill the earth (that is repeated in 9:1, 35:11, etc), is still binding for all individual Christians today, then that would have obvious implications on how we would think about birth control, especially for couples who have decided never to have children. But we do not hold that position. The New Testament and the coming of Jesus Christ has a significant impact on our understanding of procreation. Jesus himself was childless, and yet remained the perfect fulfillment of the Law. Jesus has positive things to say about those who purposefully choose to be a eunuch. Paul endorses singleness, and thus childlessness, as a positive status for those who are able. Barrenness is never viewed as a curse in the New Testament for married couples, so those who struggle with infertility today should have no reason to think they are breaking a command of the Lord that says every Christian should bear children.

What are the gospel implications of the Creation Mandate? We should not assume the above position means the Creation Mandate is no longer a critical part of Christian practice today. On the contrary, there are several significant gospel implications:
1. God delights in children because children are image bearers who reflect the radiant glory of God. God desires Christ-honoring image bearers to fill his earth, not dishonoring idol worshipers. Thus, when Christian parents bear children and raise them in the fear and admonition of the Lord, God is greatly glorified by this act. This powerful means of bringing glory to God and good to us should be a factor when considering birth control and long term decision making for having children.

2. God used the Creation Mandate of Genesis 1:28 to fulfill his promise of the Seed of the Woman crushing the Seed of the Serpent. This is one reason why barrenness in the Old Testament was such a curse, and why God reminds Sarah and Rebecca and Rachel in their barrenness that He was the God of salvation and the God of the means of salvation, namely through the successful lineage up to Jesus Christ. When Jesus comes in the flesh, this critical application of the Creation Mandate came to a close, for the eternal purposes of God were now revealed in the death and resurrection of Christ. The Seed of the Serpent has been crushed by the new and better Adam.

3. The New Testament points us to another mandate that is, in fact, binding on all Christians. We call it the Great Commission. This also involved filling and multiplying the earth – with disciples of Jesus.

How does having dominion over the earth apply to birth control? Although we may at times wonder if technology, in all its forms, is helpful or harmful, we can nevertheless appreciate the giftedness God has given to doctors, engineers, scientists, and others who have used the earth’s resources for the betterment of humanity. That is a clear application of having dominion and subduing the earth. Modern medicine that is able to fight back against disease and death is a benefit to all humans and is consistent with the mandate of Genesis 1:28. The same principle is true for birth control, insofar as it falls within the category of subduing and having dominion. That does not mean that all forms of birth control, or all applications of birth control, are equally valid or morally acceptable, but it does mean that Christians should be careful to not dismiss the technology out right.

Finally, what are some warnings? We conclude from the above comments that birth control does not explicitly contradict the Creation Mandate, nor is it inherently contradictory to God’s design and commands for his children. There are moral and ethical considerations where a married couple would be wise to hold off on childbearing for a period of time, or even indefinitely, and birth control would make these wise and morally correct choices a possibility. In that way, artificial contraception can be used for the glory of God.

But we must be careful. There are moral and ethical considerations where a married couple would be acting against the character and commands of God by using birth control. A few examples are:

Greed. If a primary catalyst for preventing children is so we can fill up our barn houses with wealth, then we need to repent.  The riches of children far outweigh the riches of a bank account.

Selfishness. God desires his children to be concerned with others, to be servants to others, and to lay down our lives for others. Welcome to the definition of parenthood! Children are a beautiful way God cultivates the fruit of righteousness in husbands and wives. If our motivation for keeping children out of our lives is so we can fulfill selfish ambitions apart from being distracted by others, then we are on dangerous ground.

Fear. Will I be a good parent? What if I make the mistakes my parents made? Will we have enough money? There may very well be times when it is appropriate to wait and use birth control while you build character for godly parenting. There may very well be times when a significant debt, such as large tuition payments, need to be covered before you can have children. There are many situations where wisdom and stewardship would direct couples to wait before having children, or even decide to not have children at all. But, we will never be fully prepared in our character for parenting. Our bank account will never be rich enough. The brutal aspect of fear is that it is used by the evil one to immobilize us, to keep us stationary, to prevent us from experiencing the fullness of God’s design. Parenting, like every other part of Christian living, depends on the power of Christ in us. And the power of Christ in us develops character, such as courage, to do what scares us most for the glory of God.

In conclusion, we learn that God does not command or require every Christian to bear children, that birth control has legitimate, Christ-honoring uses for married couples who are thinking biblically, wisely, and with good Christian stewardship about children, and that birth control can become self-exalting if we use it for inappropriate reasons. A question every married couple should ask themselves is, “Why do we not want children?” and then how will the answer to that question impact our ability to serve and glorify God? That question, I think, will take us far.

Breathtaking: Thanking God For Jerry Bridges

In the fall of 2013 I began to prepare my preaching and teaching calendar for the following year. God had placed on my heart a need to focus the majority of 2014 at Graefenburg Baptist Church on the necessity of a Christian’s union with Christ. Many years earlier, this one doctrine had transformed my thinking about my identity and my ability to live the Christian life. The two words “IN CHRIST” would become my rock.

I didn’t have to think long about the primary source I would use to lead my flock into the deep waters of this gospel truth – anything written by Jerry Bridges would be better than anything else. I chose “The Transforming Power of the Gospel” which was a 2012 publication that tied together several aspects of Bridges’ teachings from his other incredible books.  We spent an entire Academy semester working through the book church-wide in small groups. I think the good folks at Graefenburg Baptist Church would agree when I say that Bridges’ impact on our lives through those weeks is still building a stronger foundation on which we boldly walk with Christ.

I remarked to my wife last night after learning about Bridge’s passing that he is able to say things in his books in such a way that it is as if I am hearing them for the first time. I cry more reading Jerry Bridges than I do any other author. I just can’t believe what I’m reading.

Books will be written about the enduring legacy of Jerry Bridges. But perhaps the most profound thing anyone can say to a teacher is this:  Dear Mr. Bridges, my name is Philip Meade. Because of the way God gifted you, I know Him, love Him, treasure Him, and depend on Him more than ever. I’m a different person because of you. Thank you.

Here are a few (very few) themes Jerry Bridges could make shine like no one else and I found he returned to these areas in almost everything he wrote.

Sin.
We live in a time where no one wants to talk about sin. I mean, who wants to get all depressed thinking about how awful we are as humans? For Bridges, he always starts with man’s pitiful, helpless, condemnable state. He so beautiful states his reason for doing so:  “It is against the dark backdrop of our sinfulness that the beauty of the gospel shines so brilliantly.” The cross will never reach its most penetrating destination of our hearts if we don’t fully grasp how necessary it was. Bridges never ends with sin. Oh no. He keeps moving us along to God’s glorious grace. But that grace isn’t near as glorious without understanding who we are and why we need it.

Daily Embrace of the Gospel
Bridges repeatedly taught that the power of the gospel was not limited to how a person gets saved. The gospel, he says, is our daily power for pursuing holiness. For my writing and teaching, I have crafted Bridges’ teaching on this issue into a little phrase I call “the great misunderstanding.” For churches around the world, the great misunderstanding is that the gospel is “how you get saved” but then living the life of a Christian is up to us.  Discipleship is often stripped of the gospel and reduced to strategies, lists, programs, and numbers. This misunderstanding leads to discouraged and guilt-ridden Christians who feel the church to be an oppressive arena of highlighting faults instead of a refreshing home of family and worship. “Those good works,” he would say, “on which we tend to rely for our expectation of God’s blessings actually deserve the curse of God.” All of our good works are favorable to God because they are works in the righteousness and power of Christ. And that requires a daily denial of self and complete reliance on Christ in us.

Dependent Responsibility
Those two words have become a staple at Graefenburg Baptist Church. Using those two words, Bridges’ perfectly captures the balance of discipleship. We are dependent on the power of Christ as the Holy Spirit indwells the believer. Apart from him, we can do nothing. And yet, we are responsible to pursue holiness. We can’t just “sit back and let God work.” No, we have to take action and we have responsibility. This teaching pushes back against pride (because we can’t do it) and passivity (we still have a responsibility).

Definition of Grace
Bridges’ definition of grace remains my favorite. Although we normally hear grace defined as “God’s unmerited favor”, Bridge’s takes it a step further and suggests the grace of God is not simply unmerited in a neutral sense, but is rather “ill-deserved.” We deserve God’s curse, not his blessing. Thus, Bridges’ definition of grace is, “God’s blessings through Christ to people who deserve his curse.” Incredible.

Breathtaking: The Righteousness of Christ Is Ours
This is the point that will cause me to warmly embrace Jerry one of these days in heaven and say, “thank you.” Many others have written on the benefits of our union with Christ, but it was Jerry Bridges who brought it home for me. One little word he uses – “breathtaking” – has caused me to weep in joy many times. Read his words and be amazed with me once again:

“Just as Adam was the representative head of all humanity, so Christ is the representative head of all who trust in him as Savior. So just as we must say, ‘When Adam sinned, I sinned,’ we may also say, ‘When Christ died on the cross, I died on the cross.’ Furthermore, we may also say, ‘when Christ lived a perfect, sinless life, I lived a perfect, sinless life.” I realize that this last statement is breathtaking, but that is what Paul was saying in his words, “In Him we might become the righteousness of Christ.” 

As I wipe away tears once again after copying that paragraph, I realize that this will always be breathtaking. It will never grow old. But not because of Jerry Bridges. It’s because of the merciful love of God who gave us Jesus Christ.

Farewell, my brother Jerry. I’m the righteousness of Christ. I promise you, I won’t forget it.
 

 

 

Why I Recommend Lent To My Southern Baptist Church

The 2016 calendar is inching closer to February 10 which means a variety of blog articles, Facebook status updates, and Twitter feeds will be providing support for or against the season known as Lent. February 10 is Ash Wednesday which marks the beginning of the Lenten season.

In order to define our terms, Lent is one of the most significant seasons of the Christian Calendar and is celebrated by a wide variety Christian traditions. Lent is most commonly associated with a period of prayer, reflection, repentance, and fasting that lasts from Ash Wednesday until Maundy Thursday, the day before Good Friday when Jesus was crucified. These different traditions will take different approaches to the 40 day period of Lent. Some traditions are quite strict with this season, prescribing it as a necessary part of faith and practice. Other traditions take a less stringent approach by providing resources and opportunities to prepare for Easter Sunday while keeping the door of freedom wide open if a person should choose to not observe.

I am a Southern Baptist pastor. Theologically and convictionally, I align most closely with the Reformed tradition in terms of my views on scripture, salvation, congregational worship, and church life. I do not believe a corporate gathering of believers should be bound by a strict liturgy that eliminates freedom in worship, nor do I espouse any extra-biblical tradition that would violate the core principal convictions of being saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. If the Son has set you free, you are free indeed.

So, it would seem someone like me, a Southern Baptist pastor rooted in the Reformed tradition, would be the last person to encourage my congregation to observe Lent. But that is exactly what I have done in years past and will continue to do.  Here are a couple of reasons why:

1. Extra-biblical does not necessarily equal enslavement.
To be certain, the season of Lent is an extra-biblical practice. That simply means that Lent is not commanded in the Bible. That’s important. If Christians engage in spiritual activities that are not explicitly commanded in Scripture, we need to have a good reason from biblical principles as to why those activities are edifying to us and glorifying to God. Of course, faithful evangelical Christians engage in a host of activities that are not explicit in scripture, such as celebrating Christmas, because the freedom to worship Christ in the awe and gratitude of his incarnation certainly aligns with biblical principles.

Yet, one of the more common refrains I hear from men I highly respect but highly disagree with concerning Lent is that observing this season “leads people into slavery.” Such indictments against recommending Lent to a congregation carry several problems. First, this is a general, sweeping statement. As I have noted, the observance of Lent does not come in a one-size-fits-all package and without an understanding of how a particular church preaches the gospel of Christ, union with Christ, and freedom in Christ, a blanket condemnation of turning people into slaves through the observance of Lent is reckless. Second, those in the Baptist Lent enslavement camp are guilty of pressing back against the fundamental issue of the 16th century while living in the 21st century. I suppose it’s possible that a Southern Baptist church who encourages Lent might be endorsing a mandatory, superstitious set of regulations by which a Christian can curry favor with God, but I’ve not met a Baptist pastor yet who would ever embrace such a heretical view.

2. Lenten observance does not endorse legalism.
The great H.J. Kuiper, an influential editor of The Banner from 1928-1956, helped provide a balance to Lent by endorsing some elements of the season he found worthy while expressing concern over other elements. One of his concerns was that Lent would promote the spiritual disciplines for one brief time of the year but then cause Christians to become lax in their walk with the Lord the remaining year.

Although I appreciate Kuiper’s concerns and find them much more plausible than the enslavement argument, they are nevertheless misplaced. Although Lent itself is not commanded in Scripture, Feast Days most certainly were. The primary intent of the Feasts were to set aside a period of remembrance and personal piety for what the Lord had done and was doing. Was God suggesting his people “forget” the Lord their God during the periods in between the feasts? Of course not.  Today we see a plethora of helpful (although I would admit too many) 40 day emphasis literature and bible studies. Sometimes it is right and helpful to focus ourselves during a period of time on an area of our Christian life. I can’t think of a better time than the weeks leading up to our Savior’s death and resurrection.

Does the idea of fasting, prayer, and repentance lead to legalism? This is nonsensical. What is magical about the word “Lent” or the 40 days before Easter that would cause these disciplines to become legalistic? If that is our approach, then we must never instruct or encourage our people to fast and meditate on the cross at any time of the year. Which is foolishness and unbiblical.

3. We must not become enslaved to a specific tradition.
I read an article last year describing how a person in the Reformed Tradition should not observe Lent because the season conflicted with the traditional interpretation of church life and practice within the Reformed camp. That’s scary stuff. When we base our church practices and spiritual growth solely on what a particular tradition points to, then we become slaves to a tradition and not to Christ – the very thing the Reformation protested against.

4. Practically speaking, the denouncement of Lent becomes laughable.
I had a good chuckle last year when IMB President David Platt called on all Southern Baptist leaders to guide our people into fasting for the IMB Great Commission work. His appeal to pastors fell within the time frame of the Lenten season. I wondered how my fellow SBC pastors and leaders who had come out strong in opposition to Lent would handle Platt’s request. Would they lead their congregation to fast for the IMB with a big asterisks that says, “This has nothing to do with Lent. You will not be enslaved or become a legalist by doing this.” The point is that if calling our people to prayer, repentance, meditation, and fasting during the 40 days before Easter is frowned upon, then we are frowning upon essential spiritual disciplines. The issue is not if we lead our people into these practices, it’s how we lead them into these practice. If we lead them by saying these are “necessary,” then there is a problem. But that is true for any time of the year, not just Lent. If we lead them by saying these are “worthwhile,” then there is benefit.

5. I want my congregation to grow closer to Jesus.
Graefenburg Baptist Church exists to “Glorify God alone by transforming lives in Jesus in order to love more and serve more.” The two key words in our mission is “in Jesus.” We spend a lot of time, well virtually every Sunday, reminding ourselves of the power of the gospel and the utter futility of attempting to live the Christian life apart from the power of Christ in us. And yet, we are a people who pursue holiness. Dependent Responsibility is what we call that. Dependent on the power of Christ in us, but responsible to pursue Jesus. What that means is that we will call our people to obey. We will call our people to engage in the disciplines. We will call our people to pray, to read, and to worship. But we will call them to these things based on the power available to them in Christ, not in themselves.

That doesn’t take a back seat during Lent. We don’t change gears and suggest that over the next 40 days, everything we have learned together about the gospel and our dependence on Christ is put on pause. On the contrary, we teach that based on the power you have in Christ, pursue him these few days leading up to Easter. How could I not take advantage of this incredible time of the year to help my people on their journey?

In conclusion, if you are not convinced of the benefit of Lent and think it isn’t for you, then here is my advice…don’t do it! You have that freedom in Christ! But I encourage you to pick up a book on the cross (how about this one), and grab a family worship guide through Lent (my church will be providing one on February 7), and meditate each day on your identity in Jesus, and by all means, get to worship on Sunday mornings.

Enslavement? I think not. The joy of Christian living? Yes. Yes indeed.

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