I Have Decided

“Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37-38)

I love music, all kinds of music. I especially love knowing the story behind songs because it gives me a fresh perspective and a greater appreciation for that particular song. In their book Living Among Lions, David and Jason Benham tell the story behind the hymn I Have Decided to Follow Jesus. If the title sounds familiar it might be because there’s a popular Christian song entitled Christ is Enough that borrows a portion of its lyrics from I Have Decided…. We sing this song at church and I listen to it often on iTunes. I’ve always appreciated the lyrics of this song, but until reading the Benham brothers book, I had never heard the story behind them.

The story behind I Have Decided to Follow Jesus began with a family of four who lived in the Indian province of Assam. They had professed faith in Christ and were subsequently baptized by a Welsh missionary in the 1880’s. As one might imagine, their profession brought about intense persecution. The leaders in their village arrested the family, demanding the father renounce Christ. He refused their demand saying, “I have decided to follow Jesus, and there is no turning back.” His two children were then killed right in front of him. He still refused to renounce Jesus saying, “The world can be behind me, but the cross is still before me.” Then they killed his wife. Still no renunciation. “Though no one is here to go with me, still I will follow Jesus” was his response. The village leaders then killed him. According to the Welsh missionary, when he returned to the village some time later, revival had broken out and he came to find out that those who had murdered the family had themselves come to faith in Christ. He passed this story along to a prominent Indian evangelist named Sandhu Sundar who then made this man’s dying words into a great hymn.

Scripture leaves no doubt as to where our allegiance as believers must lie−with Jesus. Jesus’ own words make that abundantly clear (Luke 14:25-33, Luke 9:57-62, Matthew 16:24-28). At first glance, the level of commitment these verses communicate might seem a bit unrealistic, but not only is it not unrealistic, this level of commitment is what’s expected. Our love and commitment to Christ must be unrivaled. Everything must take its place behind Jesus. And when it does, persecution may, and most likely will come. As disciples, we must be willing to count the cost. It’s not that we wish for the persecution, and it’s not that it will be anyway near as intense as this family underwent. It’s that in whatever form it comes, and however intense it may be, we focus on Christ and His promise to be with us in the midst of it. It was the Holy Spirit alone that enabled this father to not renounce Christ. It will be the Holy Spirit that will see you through whatever persecution results from your commitment to Christ as well.

So, are you willing to count the cost? Have you decided to follow Jesus? Have you resolved to not turn back? If not, grab hold of Jesus. If you have, just hang on. Trust that He is always with you, that His promises are true, that He is enough, and that yes, His grace is always sufficient. “I have decided to follow Jesus; no turning back, no turning back. The cross before me, the world behind me. No turning back, no turning back.”

God Knew Me When

“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…’” (Genesis 1:26). Is there really anything left to be said? As Christians, I don’t suppose we should expect those who do not believe in God or the creation account to accept the authority of Genesis 1:26, but we should expect more from ourselves. Psalm 139 is a powerful passage of Scripture that speaks to the issue of human life. Specifically, verse 13 speaks of God’s involvement in the development of an unborn child. “In the beginning…” Humanity began because of God, and of all that He created, His creation of man was the crowning jewel. Because God created everything, including humans, everything belongs and is subject to Him. But of all that God created, His relationship to humans is a special one, as it is only human beings that bear His image.

“For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb” David recognized that God’s interest in him came even before he was born. Psalm 139:13 is certainly not the only verse of Scripture that recognizes the personhood of a fetus. David also wrote, “I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5). Luke records that John the Baptist, while still in his mother, Elizabeth’s womb, “leaped for joy” when Mary greeted her (Luke 1:44). God said to Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5).

God’s activities in our lives don’t just begin at birth. I know as Christians, most of us realize that, but consider where the abortion debate has gone in recent years. While there are certainly Christians who have spoken out and held firmly to God’s Word regarding this issue, others have not, allowing this debate to be parsed around the issue of rape or incest. Admittedly, these are difficult circumstances, but far more often, convenience is what dictates the decision to have an abortion. Since when does rape or incest change the authority and the truth of Genesis 1:26? It doesn’t. Just because a child is conceived in sin doesn’t change whether or not that child is made in the image of God. The unborn child deserves the same right to life as anyone else. Believe that God can bring about “good” even in those things that we’re incapable of seeing how anything “good” might come. God will bless our honoring Him on the matter of abortion. We just have to be willing to stand up and testify to the truth of His Word. If we as Christians refuse to, then who will? Our belief in the absolute authority of Scripture is a must. Not doing so only widens the divide between our will and God’s. For those who have thought or think differently on this matter, like all sin, God’s grace covers this one. Look to God’s Word for clarity, open your heart to His. His will is clear. And then ask yourself, “Do I want to be at odds with that”? I pray you’ll answer, “No”.

Gracious and Seasoned with Salt

“Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Colossians 4:6) 

It’s no secret as to how Christians are to engage an unbelieving world. Having received grace, grace should always be the manner in which we approach anyone with the good news of Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul was a staunch defender of the gospel. As a result, he had plenty of opposition. There were many false teachers who tried to corrupt, even in very subtle ways, the true gospel. Not falling prey to this false teaching was a primary emphasis of Paul’s letter to the Colossians. His desire was for them to “be filled with the knowledge of God’s will and to walk in a manner worthy of the call of Christ (Colossians 1:9-10). Ultimately, Paul’s goal was for them to know that to be accepted by God, all they needed was Christ.

Our goal in Christian ministry should always be to have people run to Christ, not from Him. Christians are to be the “salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13). How we approach and engage an unbelieving world matters. It’s not that we have to deviate from the truth of the gospel or lessen the discussion around the issue of sin. Sin is what separates us from God, and no matter how much our culture might try to redefine it, sin is what God says it is. But as we do engage, we must first and foremost extend to others the grace God extended to us. You and I can’t know what someone else may going through or what may be causing their resistance to the gospel. We are simply called to lovingly share the message of Jesus. We’re to meet people where they are and interact with them in a way that would commend the gospel to them. We’re to be a vessel that God uses to draw people to Himself.

Always remember, those around you are watching. Do they know your story? Do they see Christ in you? You never know where people might be at a particular time. And you never know if your actions in a moment will be what God uses to extend His saving arms to those in need of His grace. That’s why you must make sure to always let your speech be gracious and seasoned with salt.

Battle Ready

“Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm” (Ephesians 6:13)

In the last chapter of Ephesians, Paul writes “Put on the whole armor of God that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil” (Ephesians 6:11). He uses the image of a fully armed Roman soldier to paint the picture of what it takes to fight against the devils tactics. Paul was under no illusion as to the significance of spiritual warfare. Our battle, he said, is not against flesh and blood, but against the cosmic powers over the present darkness and against spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (Ephesians 6:12). In spite of all that, Paul knew these forces were no match for the living God, but he also knew there were many who were ill-prepared for the battle and left vulnerable to evil influences.

Paul’s description of the Roman soldier’s armor consists mainly of defensive weapons to fend off attacks. The one offensive weapon for the battle was the sword of the Spirit−the word of God. When Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness, he cited Scripture to withstand that temptation. If it proved useful for Him to withstand temptation, why would we think it wouldn’t be for us? It’s through the Scriptures that the Holy Spirit prepares us for the fight.

I was having a conversation with a friend the other day. She was sharing with me her vision for a ministry to help every day Christians live out their walk with Christ in order to stand against those things that would hinder their ability to glorify God and live out the salvation God intends for His children. Our greatest source to know what these things are is God’s Word. It’s through the disciplines of encountering God in His Word and through prayer that we put on the armor of God. It’s how the Holy Spirit prepares us for the fight. There’s no doubt the battle Satan wages in this life is a serious one that we must be prepared for. So, are you prepared? Is your armor on? Are you battle ready?

I Guess the Kitchen Got a Little Too Hot

“For Demas, in love with the present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica…” (2 Timothy 4:10)

We don’t hear much about Demas in Scripture except to know that he ministered with the Apostle Paul for some period of time. He must have been a close associate of the apostle’s because Paul refers to him as a “fellow worker” in his letter to Philemon, and in his letter to the Colossians, he is included as one who sends greetings (Philemon 24, Colossians 4:14). But at the end of his life, as Paul sat in prison in Rome penning what he knew would be his last letter, he mentioned Demas again.

The Apostle Paul’s last letter was written to Timothy. Timothy was most likely Paul’s closest partner in ministry. He wrote to Timothy for several reasons. First, Paul wanted Timothy to bring him some of his personal items. Secondly, he wanted to encourage Timothy to carry on faithfully in his ministry ahead. Lastly, but in fact the primary attention of Paul’s letter was the gospel. Paul’s greatest concern was the glory of Christ and the preservation of the gospel as Jesus had revealed to him. In this letter, Paul also took the opportunity to update Timothy about those in which they had ministered together. One of those he spoke of was Demas.

At the time of this letter, everyone with the exception of Luke had pretty much deserted Paul. Specifically, Paul said Demas had deserted him because he was “in love with the present world.” The “present world” that Paul spoke about was the world apart from Christ, the world dominated by Satan. In Paul’s mind, Demas had proven, at least for the time being that he was unwilling to count the cost of a genuine commitment to Christ. Persecution of Christians had intensified. Ministry was tough, and evidently, Demas had had enough. Scripture doesn’t tell us how Demas’ story ends and we shouldn’t suppose his denial of Christ was permanent, only that in this particular moment, his own safety, convenience and love for the world overtook his commitment, not only to Paul, but also to Christ.

It’s easy for us to be so in love with the world that we become ashamed of the gospel of Christ, particularly when there’s a risk we might suffer for it. The truth is, comfort, convenience and acceptance appeals to us all. If we are to minister in difficult times to an unbelieving and often hostile world, we must be willing to count the cost. The kitchen can get pretty hot. Therefore, we need to pray for the Lord’s presence and power each day, always remembering the promise of His Word as we go, confident in that promise because we know that God keeps all His promises. “Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the LORD your God who goes with you. He will never leave you nor forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6).

As Iron Sharpens Iron

“Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17)

I first met Chuck Solomon about ten years ago. He was this guy that would always greet me during the welcome time at church on Wednesday nights. Like me, when the season was right, he would wear shorts and sandals to this service. We joked about it sometimes. Not too long after I met Chuck, I took a class he taught through the book of Job. One night after class, he asked me about discipleship and our meeting together each week to study. I took him up on it. I’ll admit, Chuck’s commitment and his boldness about his faith and his call to discipleship sometimes made me a little uncomfortable. When we would meet at Panera Bread, I can remember sometimes wanting to talk a little softer and not have it be so obvious we were praying. I did, however, enjoy this time and it clearly was a period of growth for me as a believer. As believers, we are all walking the same path in our lives of faith; it’s just that we’re often at different places on that path as it relates to the outward expression of it. I wasn’t where Chuck was at that time and I’m not sure I am now. We met one on one for time before joining with some other guys he had been leading in discipleship. In these nine years, I’ve taken time away from our Wednesday morning group to do other things, but my contact and communication with Chuck has always been constant.

The primary purpose of the book of Proverbs is to instill wisdom in God’s people that will serve them in their day to day lives. This wisdom is rooted in the “fear of the LORD” (Proverbs 1:1-7). Proverbs 27:17 deals specifically with the issue of influence and the need for, and benefit of, interaction among believers. Just as two iron blades rubbed together become sharper and more efficient at cutting and slicing, constant fellowship among believers has a positive influence on one’s character, sharpening them to live out their faith.

There have been many people who have poured themselves into my life. I am thankful for all of them. I know their investment of time in me is a deep well that I will draw upon forever. I know Chuck Solomon came along in God’s timing, and for the last nine years he has always been there for me. He has taught me, challenged me, encouraged me and prayed for me. In other words, he has loved me. I appreciate his heart and his commitment to doing what God has called him to do. Although our salvation is individual, it is never meant to be lived out in isolation, but in fellowship with others. This is the means in which, by God’s grace, the Holy Spirit builds up the body of Christ. I am personally grateful that Chuck Solomon takes this biblical truth to heart. Thank you brother, I love you!

When Jesus Moves In, Prejudice Can’t Stay

“For He Himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in His flesh the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:14)

The gospel has implications. We should expect that it would, but we are a stubborn people, set in our ways, molded by our upbringing and influenced by our surroundings. It has always been that way. Acts 11:1-18 tells the story of when the apostle Peter defended his acceptance of the Gentiles. The Jews and Gentiles had long been at odds and some of his fellow Jews found it repulsive that Peter would associate with them. They had put up walls between themselves and the Gentiles, believing Gentiles must follow Jewish traditions to be accepted. We know the dislike went both ways. The Bible expresses clearly the unity that exist in Christ. Ephesians 2:14-16 makes the point that in Christ, the Jews and Gentiles are no longer two distinct people, but one.

Our encounter with Scripture should always lead to application in our lives. We must see the walls (the barriers) that exist in our day to day lives as it relates to others who are different than we are. One of those areas is undoubtedly race. It’s hard to deny the racial divide that exists in our nation. The truth is, to some degree prejudice exists in us all. Unfortunately, there are people on all sides who propagate it for both personal and political gain, making it even worse. Fortunately though, we have a God who is not like us. When God looks at us, He doesn’t see color, He sees people, people created in His image, people tainted by sin, and people equally in need of His mercy and grace. God accepts all who come in faith. Salvation is for anyone who believes in the name of Jesus. We would not only do well to see others as Christ sees them, but we would honor God in doing so, while at the same time, give testimony to His work in our lives.

Let us ask the Lord to tear down the walls of prejudice in our own lives. The simple truth is, the more we see of Jesus, the less we’ll see of color, and for that matter, any other thing that makes us different. In Christ we are one! Let our relationship with Jesus be the one that unites us. Let His voice drown out the voices of division, no matter where they come from. Let our lives be challenged by the gospel, and let our hearts be open to His refining work. We might not readily recognize it as such, but part of God’s grace is the Holy Spirit confronting us in the deepest recesses of our hearts and shining the light that exposes our sin. Let our prayer be that God would do that continually and convict us when we dare see anyone any other way than how He does. Let our prayer be like that of the psalmist, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me” (Psalm 139:23-24).

Deathbed Conversions

“And he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ And he [Jesus] said to him, ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise’” (Luke 23:42-43)

Sometimes we hear of conversions at the end of a person’s life and question their validity. This is particularly the case when that person has done horrible things and are now facing the consequences of their actions. We think that perhaps they’re looking for sympathy for having to suffer those consequences, maybe even hoping with enough sympathy they may even avoid the ultimate consequence, death itself. I guess it’s hard to know for sure if to claim Christ in that moment was genuine or not. Quite frankly, I find myself a little skeptical when I hear stories like this. Perhaps I shouldn’t because the truth is, we have no idea what means God may use to save a soul. And the story of the thief on the cross, I believe, illustrates that very point.

The gospel of Luke gives us the greatest detail about the crucifixion of Jesus. It is also the only gospel account that specifically tells of His interaction with the thief that hung beside Him. Jesus was crucified between two criminals. As people passed by, they mocked and railed against Jesus. One of the criminals joined in “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” (Luke 23:39). Jesus didn’t respond, but the other criminal rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:40-41). He then turned to Jesus and said “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus’ responded saying “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:42-43).

What an amazing story of God’s grace. There’s so much we can learn from the story of the thief on the cross. The first is how gracious God is in spite of our sin. In the case of the thief on the cross, most likely, a lifetime of sin. Salvation for this man was Jesus’ gracious gift to him. It was free. His sins were forgiven because the One hanging next to him was bearing the penalty for it at that very moment. The second lesson is that we don’t have to have lived a perfect life to be saved. We can’t. For the thief on the cross, it was nothing more than a simple expression of faith at the end of his life. A final lesson from the story of the thief on the cross is that we should never give up on sharing the gospel. Just as God has ordained who will be saved, He has also ordained the means and the time of salvation. It was the reality of impending death that proved to be the event God used to save the thief on the cross. God’s timing is always perfect. Let’s not presume to know who is beyond His grace. Just be thankful that Christ has paid the penalty for your sin. Salvation doesn’t rest on a lifetime of goodness, but comes only by grace through faith in Christ. Let this be an encouragement to share that truth with those whose lives seem contrary to deserving the grace our God gives.

Eternally Secure

“For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39)

The lyrics go, “No power of hell, no scheme of man, can ever pluck me from His hand; Till He returns or calls me home, here in the power of Christ I’ll stand.” I love the song In Christ Alone. Not just these words, but the whole song is so rich with the truth of the gospel. It was Christ alone who paid the full penalty for our sin in order to make us right with God. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross atoned for the sin that separated us from God. As a result, there’s nothing that can ever separate us from the love of Christ. No passage in Scripture makes this truth more clear than does Romans 8:38-39.

There will always be aspects of God and His work in salvation that we’ll never be able to wrap our minds around. “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and inscrutable (beyond finding out) His ways” (Romans 11:33). When people think of salvation, sometimes they have in their mind that God does His part and we do ours, but that’s not the testimony of Scripture. Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” It’s good for us that salvation is God’s gift and that it doesn’t depend on us, because if it did, we would surely lose it. Think about it, if we could earn salvation what would make us think we couldn’t lose it.

There’s another reason it’s beneficial that salvation comes by faith alone. Let’s face it; no matter our level of spiritual maturity, there are times in all of our lives when we don’t feel saved, times when we don’t feel like God is present. But just as feelings aren’t the basis of God’s truth, they aren’t the basis of our salvation either. Salvation is based solely on the objective reality of what God has done for us in Christ. To believe Jesus paid less than the fully penalty for sin for all time is to deny the truth of the gospel. There is no joy in that, there is no security in that, and lastly, there’s no God in that!

No Hope, Without God…But Now

“But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:13)                                                                                                                                                  

In April, I began reading Ephesians. My plan has been to read the whole book every day for the month. The idea came from a friend who told me about an article written by John MacArthur on the topic of how to read the Bible for a deeper level of understanding. As I’ve been reading, Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 2:12-13 has been particularly meaningful. What the apostle is teaching in these verses is the unity and peace that exists in Christ. In context, he is teaching that the Jews and Gentiles are no longer two distinct groups, but are one “new man” in Christ. This is a pretty amazing considering the social and spiritual disadvantages the Gentiles had relative to the Jews. You see, the Gentiles weren’t part of the covenant community. They weren’t given a divine promise. They didn’t even recognize the true God. So, in fact, they were without hope and without God. But you know what, so were we.

Sometimes it’s easy to fall into a casual approach to reading God’s Word. It’s like we treat it as if it’s part of our “to do” list as opposed to an opportunity to meet with our heavenly Father. I believe this is particularly the case if we’ve studied the book or passage before. We assume there’s nothing more to be gained from it. It is true that a verse says and means only one thing, and it’s true that it says and means the same thing every time we read it. But it is equally true that the Holy Spirit is capable of taking God’s Word and impressing it upon our hearts in different ways at different times. That’s what’s happened as I’ve been reading through Ephesians this month. I’ve read Ephesians many times, but what has really struck me this time is that the Gentiles story is my story. And it’s also your story. All of us were without hope and without God. The Bible says we were dead in our trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1). But then God intervened, and because of His mercy and grace, even when we were dead in our trespasses, He made us alive together with Christ (Ephesians 2:4-5). Christ’s substitutionary death was not only for the Jew, but also for the Gentiles. It was for us as well. Christ’s death for us is the greatest expression of love ever known. It brought near those who were once far off. I believe the “But now” in each of our lives means even more when we realize our desperate condition apart from Christ. How can we truly appreciate grace if we’re oblivious to the degree with which we need it? God doesn’t love us because we’re lovable. He chooses to love us simply out of His own free will. The cross is the proof. Let us respond by loving Him in return.