The Truth about Tragedy

(This is a manuscript of a sermon I’ve preached in the face of great tragedies)
We live in a world full of tragedy.  And sometimes it is difficult to know how we should react to the devastating things that go on all around us.  Perhaps we should ask ourselves the question, what’s our disaster response look like?  The list of possible responses could be quite long:  from “Why me?”; to “I don’t understand.”; to “They’re getting what they deserve!”  But are these biblical responses?  Let’s look at what Jesus has to say about devastation and disaster.

1. Tragedy strikes all people regardless of who they are (vv.1-2, 4)
A.  Tragedy can be deliberate as with Pilate’s rampage (vv.1-2). Over the course of human history, countless catastrophes committed by man could be recounted.  One of the more recent in memory is September 11.

B.  Tragedy can be natural as in the case of the Siloam tower (v.4).  Again, history is full of persistent natural disasters.  Today, we might could argue that such disasters pay the bills for the media.  A prime example of a tragic natural disaster is the recent Haitian earthquake.

C.  Tragedy can strike both the rich and the poor (vv.1-2,4).  In verses 1-2, we see devastation affecting both the Galileans who were the working class poor (vv.1-2) and the Judeans who were the upper class rich (v.4).  Hurricane Katrina is a convincing modern day example of a disaster that was no respecter of persons.

D.    Tragedy can always be traced back to the will of God.  God’s very nature proves this, His providence being the prime example.  We as Southern Baptist are in agreement on this as made plain in our unifying statement of faith.  In Article II of the Baptist Faith & Message, it says:

God as Father reigns with providential care over His universe, His creatures, and the flow of the stream of human history according to the purposes of His grace. He is all powerful, all knowing, all loving, and all wise. God is Father in truth to those who become children of God through faith in Jesus Christ. He is fatherly in His attitude toward all men.

Not only does our Baptist statement of faith affirm this, but God’s very word declares that God’s will ultimately will be done, and what He did to Jesus is the prime example, for Isaiah 53:10 tells us:

Isaiah 53:10a—“Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief;”

The greatest tragedy ever to have occurred on the planet was at the same time the greatest act of God on behalf of sinners, all for His glory and our joy.  Therefore, we can say with confidence that God uses all things, even tragedy, to glorify Himself, and no tragedy is purely accidental or coincidental.  But not only does tragedy strike all people regardless of who they are, but . . .

2.  Tragedy leads believers to abandon all self-righteousness (vv.3, 5)
A.  Tragedy proves that no one is more righteous than another.  This is true for at least two reasons.  Man is incapable of producing his own righteousness.  Man is only capable of producing self-righteousness.  Now he may produce some things that are good from man’s perspective, but the Bible is clear that “none is righteous . . . no one does good” (Rom. 3:10, 12a).

Commenting on Harold Kushner’s book, “Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People,” someone asked one pastor what he thought the answer to that question was.  He said, “I haven’t met any good people yet, so I don’t know.”  We see this affirmed in the New Testament in Jesus’ interactions with the Pharisees, and we can learn at least two things from their negative example:

1)  Self-righteousness is always hypocritical in some way (Matt.6:21-22).  For example, it is easy for most people to affirm that murder is wrong and say, “I’ve never murdered anyone.”  But what about anger?  Have you never been unrighteously angry at another person?  Jesus says,

Matthew 5:21-22—“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’  But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”

Again, it is easy to affirm that adultery is wrong and for many to say, “I’ve never committed adultery.”  But what about lust?

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

It would be even easier for most Southern Baptists to agree that homosexuality is wrong and that they have never committed such atrocious acts, but what about the disgraceful things that flash across our television or computer screens?

2)  If the Pharisees could not achieve righteousness, how can anyone? (Matt. 6:20).  And the answer, of course, is that we can’t.  We simply have no righteousness of our own that would make us acceptable to God.

B.  Tragedy reminds us of every person’s need of repentance.  Tragedy is not a time for anger, revenge, complaining, or bitterness.  You see, each of these is the opposite of repentance.  All tragedies, whether something that affects us personally or not, are God’s gracious reminder of our need of repentance.

III.  Conclusion
So we come back to our original question.  What is your typical response to tragedy and suffering in life?  Whatever it is, it tells a lot about the state of your soul.  Tragedy is no respecter of persons.  It strikes all people in all circumstances all over the world.  If you find yourself responding to life’s tragedies with anger, vengefulness, bitterness, cynicism, or despair, then you must ask yourself, “Do I really know God?”  For you see, tragedy leads believers to abandon all self-righteousness through the gift of God that is repentance.

So today, what’s your disaster response look like—worldly self-righteousness or humble repentance?  Instead of asking, “Why me?”, shouldn’t you ask “Why not me?”  Instead of saying, “I don’t understand.”, shouldn’t you say, “God knows.”  Rather, than screeching, “They’re getting what they deserve!”, shouldn’t you cry out, “Lord, unless I repent, I too will perish.  Be merciful to me a sinner, O Lord.”

For His Glory,
Jeremy Vanatta

Gospel-Powered Parenting

If you’re like me, then you find it difficult to find gospel-centered parenting books out there.  While there are morality-centered and behavior-oriented books aplenty, the scarcity of God-centered and gospel-centered parenting books can be quite frustrating when you set yourself to looking for them.  God recently graced me with one of those rare treasures of a gospel-centered book on raising children to know Christ, and I rank this one right up there with two of my other favorite parenting books: Shepherding a Child’s Heart, by Ted Tripp; and Don’t Make Me Count to Three, by Ginger Plowman.  This newly found treasure is Gospel-Powered Parenting: How the Gospel Shapes and Transforms Parenting.

Gospel-Powered Parenting is written by William P. Farley, pastor of Grace Chrisitan Fellowship in Spokane, WA, and is published by P & R.  Throughout the book, Farley holds high the power of the gospel as the only hope of our children’s future.  Thus, he remains true to the title of the book.  In the following, I will note the chapter titles and briefly summarize each chapter with a few points and/or quotes from William Farley.

Chapter 1: Intellectual Submarines, contains five assumptions that Farley believes a parent needs in order to grasp the power of the gospel in our parenting:
1)  Parenting is not easy: “Because parenting is difficult, and because you are imperfect, you will need the grace that comes to you through the gospel.  God will use problems to deepen your dependence on him” (p.20).
2)  God is sovereign, but he uses means: God is the beginning, middle, and end of salvation.  In His infinite wisdom, however, He has elected to use parents as one of His means to work in the hearts of children for His glorious purposes.  Farley notes, “God is sovereign, but parents are responsible” (p.22).
3) A Good Offense:  “Effective parents assume that a good offense is better than defense” (p.22).  Parents are too often guility of defending/protecting their children against the wiles of the world (which is obviously necessary to a great degree), but these parents tend to forget about using godly offense.  Just as a football team with either a weak offense or no offense at all will more likely lose the game, so will the parenting that is weak on offense more likely lose the soul of the child.  Now this is not to presume either way upon the sovereigny of God in salvation, but it is a reminder that God has ordained means by which He brings a person to salvation, including a good offense.
4)  Understand New Birth:  Farley says bluntly, “Statistically, most Christian parents assume their child’s new birth.  This could be your biggest parenting mistake” (p.26).  The point here is that parents should never assume that just because their child “made a profession of faith” at a certain point in time or that their child attends Sunday School, church, or a Christian school, that their child is “okay” and has no more need for instruction in the gospel.  To the contrary, parents should be fruit inspectors on behalf of their children.  Farley says, “The bottom line is this: New birth is known by its fruits, not by a decision.  The most important fruit is hunger for God himself.  Effective parents assume this, and patiently wait for sustained fruit before they render a verdict” (p.30).
5)  Child-Centered Families:  “Effective parents are not child centered.  They are God centered” (p.31).  In too many Christian homes, the children and their desires are the driving force of the family.  Many examples of “child-run homes” exist, but here are a few decisions that many parents have relinquished to their children: sleep schedule, eating schedule, TV/Video Games schedule, extra-curricular schedule (sports and fine arts activities: how many and how often), and many more.  Farley concludes, “It is positively hurtful to build your lives around your children instead of God.  It damages children, it tears down our marriages, and most importantly, it displeases God” (p.36).

Chapter 2: Gospel-Powered Parenting, emphasizes the fact that the main goal of Christian parents is to prepare their children for eternity.  So the goal of preparing them “for life” alone is insufficient.  Rather, parents should have the goal of preparing their children “for eternal life,” or else their children will face judgment for their sin against a holy God.  The only hope of our children is the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Therefore, our children don’t need simple morality, which can be just as damning as outright debauchry.  Our children need the new life that only the gospel can bring.

Chapter 3: Gospel Fear, reminds parents that a genuine fear of God is imperative even now that God’s people have entered the New Covenant through the blood of Christ.  In fact, the cross of Christ is meant in part to floor us at the foot of the cross, realizing that this is what God thinks about sin.  God’s wrath will be poured out on the sinner either at the cross or in an eternity of hell.  So the cross brings us to fear God “who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt.10:28).

Chapter 4: A Holy Father, builds on chapter 3 and the fear of God.  The cross brings Christian parents to fear God because they see God’s holy justice there where God poured out His holy wrath upon His own Son.  Not only does the cross bring Christian parents to fear God, but Farley gives four other motivations:  the cross motivates them to pursue personal holiness, give them an eternal perspective in all of life, makes them decisive in their approach, and reminds both parents and children of their neediness.

Chapter 5: A Gracious Father, demonstrates the great need of parents for the grace of God in the impossible task of Christian parenting.  Commenting on God’s grace, Farley states, “It reminds us every day that we cannot be perfect.  We can’t discipline consistently.  We can’t teach sufficiently.  We don’t love adequately.  But it also emboldens us.  It reminds us that God’s grace is perfected in our weakness (2 Cor. 12:9-10)” (p.101).

Chapter 6: The First Principle of Parenting, presents an idea that may surprise many Christians. The first principle of godly parenting is not discipline or love of children.  No, the first principle of parenting is acutally Ephesians 5:27-33, where God instructs wives to submit to their husbands as unto the Lord and for husbands to love their wives even as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for here.  In short summary, “This chapter has said that our example matters, that our marriages preach the gospel” (p.122).

Chapter 7: Gospel Fathers, is another somewhat shocking chapter, but one that rings with so much biblical truth.  It probably is the most counter-cultural chapter in all of the book, and this is obvious from the first sentence that claims, “Christianity is a patriarchial religion.  That means that it is father centered” (p.125).  Farley goes back to Eden and reminds us that God created the husband as head and the wife as his assistant.  Interestingly, he argues, “The Bible addresses all its verses on parenting to fathers.  That is because God has given each father inordinate power over his children’s hearts, and ultimately their spiritual destiny.  The general principle holds: As the father goes, so goes the family, and so goes the parenting” (pp.141-142).  Farley fills the chapter with plenty of statistics to support this biblical aspect of parenting.

Chapter 8: Foundations of Discipline, discusses the biblical fact that “Clarity about sin and authority are the foundations of parental discipline.”  Both parents and their children have the same problem, namely sin.  Sin is more than outward behavior but lies in the very nature of man, and our children are not exempt.  Therefore, parents must deal with heart issues and not simply sinful behavior alone.

Chapter 9: Discipline that Preaches, connects chapter 8 with chapter 3.  Christian parents discipline their children out of fear of God because they know that the hearts of their children are corrupt and in need of redemption that comes only through the gospel.

Chapter 10: Food for the Hungry, emphasizes the need for feeding our children the Bread of Life (God’s word, particularly the gospel) on a regular schedule.  Parents must guard against the busyness of life that will absorb valuable time that is required for instructing our children in God’s word.

Chapter 11: Gospel Love, can be summed up with Farley’s words, “Before we can love our children, we must love God more.  That is because love for God defines how we love our children” (p.214).

Chapter 12: Amazing Grace, reminds parents once again that God’s grace must be held at the forefront of our parenting because it is not a matter of “if” we will fail but “when” and “how often” we will fail.  Farley comments, “Parents who repeatedly find forgiveness in the gospel can extend that forgiveness to their children.  Your children need to watch you continually shedding your guilt and fear at the foot of the cross” (p.219).

May the Lord grant in His grace that Christian parents raise up children who are passionate for God’s glory, and may this book remind them of the only hope of that happening–THE GOSPEL!

For His Glory,
Jeremy Vanatta

Our Greatest Enemy

Believers in Jesus Christ have a lot of enemies in life.  Some are more serious than others, but there is no doubt, we have many enemies.  For some it’s a co-worker or a classmate.  For others it’s a family member or a former friend.  But I want us to ask, who or what is our greatest enemy?  Now before you answer that too quickly, you might want to think about it on a deeper level.  We are tempted to answer emphatically, “It’s Satan!”, but I’m not convinced he is.  No, I believe our greatest enemy is even more deceptive than Satan.

To identify our greatest enemy, let’s turn to Hebrews 4.  The main topic here is entering God’s Sabbath rest, or heaven.  In the Old Testament, the Promised Land was the rest that the Israelites sought after, and it served as a foreshadowing of the heavenly city to come (Heb.11:13-16).  Hebrews 4:11 emphasizes the seriousness of entering God’s rest, saying,

Hebrews 4:11–“Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.”

The word strive is the main verb that drives verses 11-13.  It is a word that describes a passionate effort to do something even at the expense of comfort.  In this case, we are to “strive to enter” heaven because it is worth every pain and discomfort, for we have been called to bear the painful cross of Christ.  We see in verse 11, however, that the Israelites failed to enter God’s rest because of disobedience, and their disobedience remains a temptation for all people even today.  In fact, this disobedience is our greatest enemy.  So this leads us to ask a few questions:

What was the Israelites disobedience?
  The Israelites disobeyed with their unbelief.  Even so, the core of sin is always prideful and selfish unbelief.  Every sin under heaven is a constant cry “I DON’T BELIEVE YOU GOD! ”  or else, “I WON’T BELIEVE YOU GOD!”  Hebrews 3:19 notes the Israelities disobedience through unbelief:

Hebrews 3:19–“So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.”

What did the Israelites fail to believe?
  We see the answer to this particularly in Hebrews 4:2:

Hebrews 4:2–“For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened.”

They failed to believe the good news of God’s word—His promises of protection, provision, and ultimately salvation.  Rather than believe God, what did the Israelites do?  They listened to their own sinful hearts rather than God.  We too have received good news, called the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Listen carefully.  Believing God’s word is necessary for entering God’s eternal rest, “for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom.14:23).  That makes unbelief our greatest enemy because it threatens us with hell.  And beware of pride at this point, for pride and unbelief go hand-in-hand.  We often proudly proclaim that we believe God’s word, that we believe the gospel.  But unless a godly lifestyle of repentance and obedience accompanies our belief, there is no real belief.  The Bible testifies to this fact again and again:

2 Corinthians 7:10–“For godly grief produces repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.”

James 2:26–“You believe that God is one; you do well.  Even the demons believe—and shudder!”

James 1:22-24— “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.  For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror.  For he looks at  himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.”

What is our only defense against our greatest enemy of unbelief?
  Hebrews 4:12-13 answers this question for us most powerfully:

Hebrews 4:12-13–“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.  And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”

Our only hope of slaying the great dragon of unbelief is the word of God.  Notice the three main characteristics of God’s word here that bring us hope.

1.  God’s word is living:  The verb used for “living” actually begins the sentence, which emphasizes to us that this is one of the most unique characteristics of the Bible.  It is not your average book.  In fact, there is no other book like it.  It is a living book, and as such, it is life-giving.  We see a multitude of examples of this throughout Scripture.  Here’s just a few:

1 Peter 1:23–“since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God;”

Deuteronomy 8:3–“And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.”

Ezekiel 37:7-10–“So I prophesied as I was commanded.  And as I prophesied, there was a sound, and behold, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone.  And I looked, and behold, there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them.  But there  was no breath in them.  Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.’ So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army.”

2.  God’s word is powerful:  The word for “powerful” is one used to describe God’s word as both effective and active.  As such, God accomplishes His will through it.  Do you remember what God said through Isaiah?

Isaiah 55:10-11—“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do no return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”

We must be careful not to get caught up in our own expectations of what we believe the word ought to accomplish.  Too often the preacher is blamed (and sometimes perhaps rightfully so), but friend, if the word of God is preached faithfully and truly, God is doing a mighty work that only He fully understands.

For example, I once had someone approach me after a morning sermon complaining about the length of the sermon (though it was really about the length of the service) and how people “had places to be” and “things to do.”  I politely responded, that if “people have more important things to do, then they were welcome to excuse themselves.”  Interestingly, while this person and a handful of others were murmuring, two people contacted me the next week testifying to the power of God’s word in their lives from that sermon.  God’s word is powerfully effective!

3.  God’s word is piercing:  The Bible is said to be sharper than a double-edged sword.  Such a sword is designed for maximum effectiveness.  The writer piles up the language here.  It’s not just that God’s word is sharper than any two-edged sword but that it is beyond-sharper.

Because of its effective sharpness, God’s word cuts very deeply.  It cuts things that would otherwise be inseparable, like soul from spirit, joints from marrow, and thoughts from intentions.  The point is this: the word of God penetrates to the deepest part of who we are and judges what is there.  Ultimately, God’s word pierces to the depths of the heart discerning whether our thoughts and intentions are believing or unbelieving.  And this is exactly what we need because our hearts are “deceitful above all things and desperately sick” (Jer.17:9).  Hebrews 3:12-13 says it like this:

Hebrews 3:12-13–“Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from God.  But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.”

As a double-edged sword, God’s word has at least two characteristics:

a.  It can be a painful-pleasure: Much like the surgical scalpel that cuts through tissue and muscle in order to get to the cancerous tumor, God’s word can be both bitter and sweet.  The cut can be painful, but the cut will result in healing and godly pleasure for God’s people.

b.  It can be a controversial-peace:  It embitters unbelievers and believers alike because it exposes sin deep in our hearts.  Unbelievers that refuse to believe will continue in this bitterness because they refuse to submit to God’s surgery.  Believers, however, will be renewed through repentance and belief, or else they do not know Christ (1 Jn.1:8-9).

Though the word can be quite controversial, it always brings peace to God’s people.  Listen to what Jesus has taught us, and notice how He alludes to both the controversy and the peace that results from God’s word:

John 16:33–“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have  peace.  In the world you will have tribulation.  But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

Verse 13 then gives the reason that the word of God is so alive, powerful, and piercing, namely God has a full view of every created thing.  All things are uncovered to the eyes of God.  Literally, the word means naked, which tells us that God is omniscient, knowing all things.  Psalm 139 is one of my favorite reminders of this:

Psalm 139:7-8—“Where shall I go from your Spirit?  Or where shall I flee  from your presence?  If I ascend to heaven, you are there!  If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!”

And all people will give an account to this all-seeing God.  We will all answer for our sin, and only those who have treasured Jesus more than anything else will find mercy on the Day of Judgment.  For Jesus is our high priest, representing His redeemed people before God the Father (Heb.4:14-16).  By God’s grace, may we hear the word of God, submit to the painful process of cutting out unbelief, and be renewed through repentance of sin and faith in God’s promises.

For His Glory,
Jeremy Vanatta

Double-Standard Discipline

Without doubt, one of the most popular Bible verses among many professing Christians today is, “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matthew 7:1).  While anti-judgment sentiments have always been an issue throughout the church’s history, we live in an age that prides itself on its non-judgmentalism to a degree not previously known.  This becomes a practical issue when it comes to Chirst’s church, and more specifically church discipline.  If we are not supposed to “judge,” then what, if anything, should the church do about obvious sin in the lives of professing believers?  But a more basic question must be answered first.  Are these persons who are crying “Don’t Judge!” correct in their interpretation of Matthew 7:1.  I give a vehement, “NO!”  They are absolutely in error.  More than that, they are in sin, and I hope to demonstrate my conviction in this article.

While not exhaustive, I want to put forth three reasons that the “Don’t Judge” advocate is incorrect, each followed with Scriptural support.  By “Don’t Judge” advocate, I am referring to Christians who believe that it is wrong to confront a fellow Christian about sin and to call him to repentance.

1.   “Don’t judge” is itself a judgment:  So we can see the irony in the argument immediately.  If we are not supposed to judge at all, then telling other people not to judge is the same as making a judgment.  In this case, the judgment being made is against judging.  So in essence, “Don’t Judge” advocates undercut their own conviction from the start, which is the same problem that all postmodern understandings of reality face.  While a bit out of context, Romans 2:1 can be applied to this argument.

Romans 2:1–“Therefore you have no excuse, O man, everyone of you who judge.  For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things

2.   “Don’t judge” is steeped in partiality:  Again, we sense the thickness of irony.  For most of the “Don’t Judge” advocates, their conviction usually only applies to the things or persons they “love” or in which they have a vested interest.  This is especially true in cases of partiality that involve ethnocentrism, family relations, and authority issues–each of which is important and needs to be illustrated with possible scenarios:

  • EthnocentrismThis can be seen when the hearts of “Don’t Judge” advocates bleed with mercy over a member of their own ethnicity who has committed a grievous sin, but the same mercy is often withheld from a sinner of a different ethnicity.  Therefore, church discipline is for “those other kind of people.”
  • Family Relations–The old adage “blood is thicker than water” proves too often true.  This can be seen, for example, when the “Don’t Judge” advocate may affirm homosexuality as a sin against God that will be met with God’s wrath if Christ is not trusted and this sin forsaken.  Yet, many refuse to believe that their own homosexual son or daughter is bound for hell without Christ, especially if that son or daughter has made a previous “profession of faith.”  Therefore, church discipline is for “other sinners outside of my family.”
  • Authority Issues–People the world over are depraved sinners ever seeking to be “free” from authority.  One way that this form of partiality manifests itself in the local church is in regard to the pastor-sheep relationship.  Not only have I experienced this first hand as a pastor, but practically all of my pastor friends have experienced the same thing.  Time and again, the “Don’t Judge” advocates will defend the members of their own ethnicity, family, or their close friends to the hilt.  If you want to see people’s blood boil, then simply obey the Lord’s instructions on church discipline, and the “Don’t Judge” sword will be thrust in you repeatedly.  Ironically, many of these same “Don’t Judge” advocates will gladly throw you under the bus for your own sin, whether perceived or actual.  In other words, the only people subject to church discipline in most evangelical churches today are pastors.  To add insult to injury, churches that discipline the pastor most often do so unbiblically.  Rather than follow the commands of the Lord Jesus in Matthew 18:15-20, they more often than not skip to Step 4 in the process and rashly excommunicate the man of God, affecting multiple consequences in the life of his family and many families within the church.

James had quite a lot to say about the sin of partiality in his epistle, primarily drawn from chapter 2.  The entire book, however, speaks to the issue of true religion, and the sin of partiality is especially pinpointed as evidence of relgion that is false.

James 2:1–“My brothers, hold no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.”

James 2:8-9–“If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well.  But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as trangressors.”

3.    “Don’t judge” is rooted in the eisegesis of God’s word:  Eisegesis is sort of a tongue-in-cheek term that means that a person reads his own meaning into the Bible rather than allowing the Bible to speak for itself (the latter of which we call exegesis).  Now admittedly, all people read into the text due to our naturally biased slant, but this doesn’t mean that we should desire to do so.  Rather, our desire should always be to exegete the text, that is bring out the meaning of the text as intended by God through His inspired author.  Eisegesis is severely detrimental when it comes to the church discipline passages in Scripture and in the use of Matthew 7:1 as a supposed defense against church discipline.  This form of partiality can be seen when the “Don’t Judge” advocates do one of several things with Holy Scripture:

  • They frequently rip verses out of their context, as in the case of Matthew 7:1
  • They frequently ignore or downplay what the Bible says altogether, as in the case of Matthew 18:15-20 and Galatians 6:1
  • They frequently under-contextualize the Bible (in other words, they say that these verses are for first-century Christians only), as in the case of 1 Corinthians 5:1-7 and 2 Thessalonians 3:6, 14-15

In answer to these common twistings of God’s word, let’s look at a more complete context of these passages.

Matthew 7:1-5 (this passage clearly teaches that the judgment that Jesus has in mind is primarily hypocritical in nature, though He may also be alluding to a final/eternal judgment; but there is no doubt that believers are to help fellow believers remove specks of sin from their lives)
1     “Judge not, that you be not judged.
2     For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.
3     Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?
4     Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye?
5     You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.

Matthew 18:15-20 (this passage clearly teaches that there is a minimum of a four step process for dealing with sin between Christians for the purpose of reconciliation)
15   “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.
16   But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.
17   If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
18   Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
19  Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.
20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

Galatians 6:1 (this passage clearly teaches that believers are to restore/reconcile sinning believers back to a repentant status)
“Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.  Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.”

1 Corinthians 5:1-7 (this passage clearly teaches that ignoring and/or enduring sin in the local church leads to arrogance and impurity; therefore, church discipline is actually meant to be a process of humility and purity;  further, excluding an unrepentant believer from church fellowship is for the purpose of reconciliation and for his eternal salvation)
1     “It is acutally reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife.
2     And you are arrogant!  Ought you not rather mourn?  Let him who has done this be removed from among you.
3     For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing.
4     When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus,
5     you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh.
6     Your boasting is not good.  Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?
7     Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened.  For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.”

2 Thessalonians 3:6, 14-15 (this passage clearly teaches that sinning believers who are unwilling to repent must be excluded from fellowship but that they must continue to be warned of the need of repentance)
6     “Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us.
14   If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed.
15   Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.”

In conclusion, while a complete picture of church discipline has not been presented and all objections have not been answered, the basic question of whether Matthew 7:1 condemns all forms of judgment/discipline has been addressed.  We must conclude with Scripture and with common (sanctified) sense that discipline is necessary in all aspects of life and especially within Christ’s church.  We can no more deny biblical church discipline than the Lord who gave us the command to carry it out (Matt.18:15-20).  May God in His grace reconcile all of us sinners to Himself and to one another through Jesus Christ our Lord.

For His Glory,
Jeremy Vanatta

9 Marks of a Healthy Church

9 Marks of a Healthy Church was published by Crossway and written by Mark Dever, pastor of Capital Hill Bapist, Washington D. C., and the executive director of 9 Marks ministries.

Perhaps one of the more troubling facts regarding the current state of most evangelical churches in America is the dire state of their overall spiritual health. I am almost embarrassed to admit it, but I am a late comer to Mark Dever’s 9 Marks of  a Healthy Church.  Not only do I verge on shame, I’m actually twinged with regret as I have no doubt that Dever’s words of wisdom would have strengthened my many weaknesses and failings in my previous pastoral posts had I read his work earlier.

Dever has accomplished much for the church with this book.  Rather than sit on the sidelines in perplexity at the problems facing too many churches, Dever challenges us to contemplate and (re)commit ourselves to nine of the most fundamental catalysts for church health.  While so many things could be said of this book, I will limit our discussion to a brief summary of each of the nine marks:

1.  Expositional preaching: This is the supreme mark of a healthy church.  God brings spiritual life through the expositional preaching of His word.  Expository preaching is preaching that draws its main point from the main point of a particular passage.

2.  Biblical theology:  A healthy church has a biblical understanding of God’s character and ways.  Dever summarized the main thrust of the Bible’s teaching on God when he noted, “that He is creating; that He is holy; that He is faithful; that He is loving; and that He is sovereign” (p.60).

3.  The Gospel:  A healthy church recognizes the centraility of the work of Christ (death, burial, resurrection) for all those who would repent of sin and believe in His atoning sacrifice.  This repentance and believe is not simply out of tradition but actually changes the way the believer lives.  True repentance and faith is not just a one time thing but is a lifelong characteristic of the believer.

4.  A biblical understanding of conversion: A healthy church understands that conversion is an act of God.  Just as no one can “born themselves” physically, neither can a person be born again spiritually without the initiating and efficacious working of the God the Holy Spirit.

5. A biblical understanding of evangelism: A healthy church is actively evangelistic, but not necessarily in a programmed sort of way.  Rather, evangelism is the natural overflow of Christian worship and fellowship.  Simply put, the church is the evangelistic program.

6. A biblical understanding of church membership: A healthy church emphasizes and requires faithful membership for the sake of purity, accountability, and mutual edification.

7. Biblical church discipline: A healthy church disciplines blatanly sinning members for the sake of the sinner, the ones offended (other believers and God), and the unbelieving world.

8. A concern for discipleship and growth: A healthy church disciples new believers, as well as more mature believers, with the word of God and in mutual accountability around God’s word, most easily done through covenanting together around a common statement of believe such as a church covenant.

9. Biblical church leadership: A healthy church seeks out leaders based not on secular qualifications but on biblical qualifications of godly character and trustworthiness.  Both pastors and congregations will be held accountable for what is being taught from the pulpit.

May the Lord continually purify His church and may His church continually submit to His sanctfiying work so that every local body of Christ will be spiritually healthy for God’s glory.

For His Glory,
Jeremy Vanatta

The Gulf Between Good and Godly

There seems to be a common phrase among many church-goers.  It goes something like this: “They’re some good people down there at Insert Church Name.”  Yet, if you actually went “down there” to some of these churches you would find out quite quickly that their definition of “good” is not so good.

While we all understand what is meant by this, I have thought about the biblical accuracy of such a phrase.  I have concluded that there is absolutely no biblical foundation for making such a statement, and I hope to demonstrate my claim with three basic points from Scripture:

  1. There is no good personPaul, quoting the Old Testament, reminds us of our depravity before a holy God when he says, “All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” (Romans 3:12).
  2. Only God is goodJesus teaches us this plainly when He says to the Rich Ruler, “Why do you call me good?  No one is good but God alone” (Luke 18:19)
  3. By God’s grace, believers are godlyAgain consulting Paul, he reminds us that believers are to be separate from the world.  We are to be godly and that is only possible by God’s grace.  For our boast is this, the testimony of our conscience, that we behaved in the world with simplicity and godly sincerity, not by earthly wisdom but by the grace of God, and supremely so toward you.” (2 Corinthians 1:12).

Based on this simple three point approach, I believe we need to re-orient our belief on what constitues “good” and “godly” for there is a world of difference between the two.   Good, by the world’s own estimate, falls far short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).  For God calls us to be more than “good”, He calls us to be godly.  Peter says it like this, “But as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:15-16).

So, I guess the point I’m getting at is this, who cares if the folks down at the local church are “good” if they aren’t godly?  Is it not of far more importance that God’s church be known in the community as being godly and holy people?  Is not God’s gracious imputation of His righteousness the only thing that separates believers from unbelievers?  Lest we be godly, we will be nothing more than the world around us is? (1 Peter 2:11-12).  So let God’s people, who have been saved by His grace, be godly.

For His Glory,
Jeremy Vanatta

Call His Name Jesus

I love Christmas.  I love the sights, sounds, songs, and smells.  I love the candies.  I love the family reunions and the gathering of friends.  I love the gifts and the givers.  But as much as I love these things, I do not love them in and of themselves.  I love these things because they remind me of the One who loved me first.

Every year there seem to be more and more stress-laden, unhappy partakers in the holiday we call Christmas.  It is almost as if someone forgot to give these pessimistic prunes the memo: CHRISTmas is coming.  On the other extreme, you have the euphorical extremists all tanked up on the materialism of it all.  It is almost as if someone forgot to give these optimistic ones the same memo: CHRISTmas is coming.  You see, both have lost sight of the bigger picture and turned in on themselves as the center of Christmas.

But Christmas is far from being about self and what self wants. Christmas is about the Christ child who was sent on a mission by God.  This was a rescue mission.  The mission was this: deliver God’s people from themSELVES.  For the child born in a stable and laid in a manger grew up to be the man of sorrows, crushed for the inquities of His people.  So Christmas should never be about fulfilling our selfish desires, no matter what form they take. Christmas, always and forever, should be about Jesus Christ, Son of God. Christmas should always bring hope to the hopeless, and we all fit that bill.  For without Christ, we all are a hopeless people.  Hopelessly searching for happiness, contentment, or simply stuff.  Hopelessly headed for eternal destruction in hell.

Yet, God reminds us of the simply profound message of Christmas:  “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).  Now that is worth celebrating!

Merry Christmas!

Jeremy Vanatta

Slippery Little Fellas: 10 Common Signs of False Teachers

It seems most natural for man to fear serpents.  All the world over snakes find themselves the repeated targets of panicked ophidiophobics (snake-fearers).  Two memorable occasions stand out in my experience that prove my point.  One was watching a “macho” fifteen year old boy run out of the tobacco field screaming like a lady and cussing like a sailor because he saw a rattlesnake.  The other was observing twenty or so African men in Zimbabwe, along with a few Americans, gathering  around a puff adder with rocks in hand.  I imagined in that moment what it must have felt like to be the woman caught in adultery or Stephen who was martyred for his testimony about Jesus Chirst.  As with Stephen, the puff adder died for his testimony–the adder’s testimony being, “Yes, I am an adder.  Here I lie!”

In some ways, man’s fear of serpents is unwarranted and more often rooted in frenzy rather than fact.  Serpents, however, can be dangerous creatures depending on the ones you encounter.  Perhaps one of the reasons that man has such difficulty with snakes is because they are simply so stealthy.  Yes, most snakes bite and/or coil, and some snakes use venom on their prey.  But at the end of the day, these predatory features are only as useful as a snake’s slipperiness.  They accomplish such stealth via their God-cursed ability of slithering from place to place.

We can draw many parallels between serpents and the perennial enemy of God’s church.  Satan, with false teachers under his direction, have always posed a threat to the health of the local expressions of Christ’s body.  While we all freely admit that false teachers are dangerous for the church, it is their slithery character that catches us off guard.   Jude reminds us of this dangerous aspect of false teachers when he writes, “Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.  For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (Jude 3-4).   Notice that they “crept in” (the verb literally means, “to go down into” or “to come alongside”).  The implication of the word is saturated with creepiness and stealthiness.  False teachers are indeed slippery little fellas.

Well, since false teachers are so dangerous, what exactly are the dangers?  I will attempt to answer this question only briefly and partially using Scripture as our guide.  False teachers may have one, more, or all of these ten dangerous characteristics:

Dangers of False Teachers

1.  They disguise themselves as sheep but are really ravenous wolves (Matthew 7:15)

2.  They will bring destructive heresies into the church secretly (1 Peter 1:21)

3.  They lead many astray (Matthew 24:11)

4.  They are spoken well of by “all” (Luke 6:26)

5.  They attack true believers (1 Corinthians 11:26)

6.  They preach a form of works-righteousness rather than grace (Galatians 2:4)

7.  They stray from core Christian beliefs (1 Timothy 6:3-4)

8.  They are arrogant, though this may be hidden beneath sheep’s clothing (1 Timothy 6:4)

9.  They are greedy and liars (1 Timothy 6:5-10; Titus 1:10-16)

10.  They seek to please man rather than God (2 Timothy 4:3-4)

Therefore, Christians ought to be on the lookout for such Slippery Little Fellas.  Prayerfully, these ten dangers will remind us of their character and tactics.  May God continue to protect His church and His truth from the wiles of the Serpent and all his brood.

Anti-Santa or Pro-Christ?

[This is an updated version of an article written several years ago]

Christmas is undoubtedly one of my favorite times of the year.  While I abhor the plague of syncretistic paganism that envelopes much of the holiday season as much as the next Christian, God always works it out to His glory.  Despite the world’s effort to euthanize Christ from Christmas, the Star of the show shines brightly on.

But all the traditions do pose a challenge for the Christian.  Specifically, how do Christians maintain as central that which is central to Christmas, namely God’s plan of salvation for sinners through Jesus?

One of those aspects that my wife and I have wrestled with is Santa Claus.  We both grew up in homes that told their young children that Santa was real, Santa knew all your deeds, and Santa was the giver of gifts at Christmas.  After we married and before God blessed us with children, we began discussing the Santa issue.  After many conversations, we opted out of “being Santa” for our then future children for a variety of reasons, but our top five are below.

1)  Being Santa de-centralizes the centerpiece of Christmas–Jesus:  This one is difficult to get around.  Yes, the historical St. Nick is worthy of respect and honor.  We can learn much from his heralded compassion and kindness.  Yet it remains, that it’s all about Jesus.

2)  Being Santa attributes divine characteristics to Santa that belong to Jesus:  In many ways, this may be the most serious issue.  Only the Divine Jesus knows all of our thoughts and deeds.  To ascribe any other being but our God with these divine characteristics is idolatry.  In our minds, it is all pretend.  In the minds of children, it is somethhing altogether different, which leads  to numbers three and four.

3)  Being Santa lends itself to covetousness and idolatry rather than worship of Jesus:  If our children are more concerned about Santa because of what kinds of gifts he can bring than they are about Jesus for the gift that He is to sinners, then we have contributed to our children’s already idolatrous nature.  In addition, I’ve heard many parents proclaim they’re love of “being Santa” because of the priceless “joy” or “look on my kids’ faces.”  It seems this is a slippery slope toward parents idolizing their children rather than worshipping Jesus.

4)  Being Santa introduces mythological themes into historical realityChristmas is about the truth  of Jesus Christ.  Why then would the believer want to introduce mythological elements into a holiday that Christians celebrate as a historical reality, that Christ is born?

5)  Being Santa lends itself to immorality rather than holiness:  Since many parents that “do Santa” lie to their children about Santa, then one must question the very foundation of “doing Santa.”  This is not the same as a temporary, birthday-surprise type situation.  We are talking about a deception that is maintained anywhere from three to ten years.  Add to this, Christmas is supposed to be about the truth that Jesus is indeed “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).  Therefore, it does not seem the wiser to mix fact and fiction at Christmas time.

Of course, many people (often professing Christians) seem to have a beef with folks like us.  Some are genuinely curious as to why we don’t do Santa.  Others are downright indignant.  Here’s some of the reactions we received over the years:

1)  “Aren’t your kids missing out on all the fun at Christmas?”An alternate version of this questions is, “Aren’t your kids missing out on their childhood?”  Of course, this assumes that Christmas is about having fun and getting stuff.  Now granted, Christmas is lots of fun and should be, but I know plenty of children (including mine) that have never been fed the Santa tradition and who think Christmas just as grand.  In essence, they don’t really care so much about Santa as they do about getting stuff.  Either way, you have to deal with a child’s covetous idolatry (the “Mine, Mine, Mine Syndrome), and we believe that task is best accomplished by focusing on historical truth at Christmas.

2)  “You’re just being legalistic.”First off, we must use the term legalism carefully, since it often requires that we know the motivations of someone’s heart, and we can only know their motivations by getting to know them personally.

Second, legalism can only be legalism if it is a belief or practice that a person believes sets them apart as more righteous than another person and obtains for themselves a more righteous standing with God.  And this is certainly not where we stand.  A Christian’s righteous standing with God is by His grace alone through faith in Jesus.  Thus, my wife and I don’t judge other Christians for “being Santa.”  Rather, this article is not religious dogma but a call to consideration from fellow believers.

3)  “So, you don’t celebrate Christmas?”:  We were meeting with a group of Christians once, and we happened to share with them that we “don’t do Santa”.  One lady in the group said, “So, you don’t celebrate Christmas?  You don’t do gifts?”  Indeed, the Santa myth is deeply ingrained even among adult Christians.  Apparently for some, leaving Santa out of Christmas is no longer Christmas.  Thus, we see plainly the real and present danger of neglecting the Savior during the holiday.

All this to say, let us keep central that which is central at Christmas.  Christians, if you choose to “do Santa”, then do it.  But by all means, please be careful in how you deal with the historical truth of Jesus coming into the world at Bethlehem, living a sinless life that we couldn’t live ourselves, taking God’s wrath against sin that we ourselves deserved at the cross, and rising from the dead so that everyone that turns from sin and follows Him will have eternal life.

Merry Christmas!
Jeremy Vanatta

Church Planting Is for Wimps

The book Church Planting Is For Wimps is not, as you might guess from the title, your typical approach to the topic of church planting.  As his subtitle notes, the author, Mike McKinley, admits that he is a messed-up person.  Immediately, the (honest) reader can relate.  McKinley served on the staff of Capital Hill Baptist Church, Washington D.C.  In 2005, God called him to revitalize Guilford Baptist Church, Sterling, VA.  This book is a recounting of how God used McKinley to accomplish this feat.

McKinley writes openly and honestly, with humor and insight.  He has a knack for keeping the reader involved in the story.  Of course, the title communicates much sarcasm since the book is the story of a church revitalization as opposed to a fresh plant; but McKinley in no way communicates disdain for church planting.  The book is a must read for those praying about church planting or revitalization.  While there are plenty of wisdom nuggets to be found in the book, I want to share the following three:

1)  Beware of contextualization: while certain aspects of contextualization have their place, it does seem to be the newest catchphrase for the “homogeneous unit principle”–you know, the “pick your social demographic and appeal . . . to them” (p.20) model.  This form of contextualization is problematic for at least two reasons: it caters to the flesh rather than the spirit, and it steers God’s people away from a gospel-centered unity.  As McKinley noted, “People favor people who favor them.  They favor goods and services tailored to their tastes and how they want to perceive themselves.  Niche marketing works.” (p.17).  But, as he went on, “if you look at what the Bible says on this subject, you’ll see that one of the glories of the gospel is that it reconciles people that could never be reconciled without it.” (p.18).

2)  The preaching of God’s word must be central: McKinley reminds us that if we fail to preach the word of God, then we fail altogether.  He wrote, “the one thing that Christians and non-Christians need is the Word of God.  It is alive and powerful, and it’s what our churches need.” (p.53).  He encourages the church planter to never allow the the preaching of the Word to be decentralized by a plethora of pragmatic and administrative details.

3) Beware of “obessing over church size”: McKinley spoke plainly on this point, “Let me be straightforward.  The obsession with church size is killing many church planters.  I used to drop in occasionally on a gathering of local church planters.  There was a running tension in the group–everyone either subtly bragged about the size of his church (while trying to seem like they weren’t) or made excuses for it.” (p.107).  He warns us of the clear and present danger of numberitis.

While these three points fall short of all that Church Planting Is For Wimps relates to the reader, they do serve as a launching point for those interested in further helps in the arena of church planting and revitalization.

For His Glory,
Jeremy Vanatta

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