Is God Fair?

I recently hit the Mt. Everest of our Isaiah preaching series (Chapter 53) and a woman hunger to learn and grow as a believer sent me the following question that I thought would be worth posting here on my blog for others who may be wrestling with the same difficult question or just want more clarity on the matter.  She asked:

“I understand that through faith we our saved, and Jesus died on the cross for our sins. Through his death, our faith and salvation is how we are made righteous and go to Heaven. My question is what if someone never learns about Jesus? Does that mean they go to hell? It’s hard for me to grasp that someone may go to hell because of where they were born, or because their family did not believe that and they were not exposed to the teachings of Jesus. It’s does not feel like unconditional love. Or are we all held to a different standard based on what we know and what we have been exposed to or taught?”

Here’s how I tried to help her … Perhaps it will be a help to you too:

It’s a good and hard question, and there is some “tension” in the answer. First a few key references: Acts 4:12“There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” You are absolutely right in affirming that the Bible clearly teaches that salvation only comes through Jesus and his work on the cross. We call this the exclusivity of Christ … He alone saves. And yes, as you stated that is by faith in Him, not our works, religious acts, or “goodness”. So, first part of the answer – without Christ nobody can be saved, yes even those who have never heard. That’s the hard part … but there is more.

Because salvation is a work of God and not man, and He is the one who “opens” the heart to faith/belief, then God knows when (He created the when) a person’s heart is open (He opens it) and I believe He is always faithful to bring the truth and teaching of Jesus Christ to them. Romans 1:18-20 … I’ll not record it all here, but open your Bible and read it as I comment. The apostle Paul teaches that men suppress the truth of God – By their sinful nature (v18). He then goes on to say that knowledge of God is available to all men, so they are without excuse (v19-20). How is this knowledge available to all men? Through creation and in their conscience. We call the knowledge of God available to all men in creation – General Revelation. How does that work? Something like this I suppose — “Wow, check out those mountains, and that sun, and the birds … there is no way I could make that, or any man for that matter … there must be an amazing Creator God behind this in some way or another.” But that does NOT save anyone, because remember Acts 4:12 – they still don’t know about Jesus, and the cross, and their need for a substitute to deal with their sin and the judgment they deserve. Now, we call the knowledge of God needed for salvation – Special Revelation. How does that come? Through the Word of God and those who preach it, teach it, share it with others – Romans 10:13-18 deals with this issue very clearly (even quotes our Isaiah 53 passage). I believe that when someone responds to God with a soft heart to General Revelation that God supplies the Special Revelation. He brings a Christian friend across their path, directs them to church, etc.

But what about those who have no Christian witness? The “unreached” parts of the world? The tribes in the remote parts? Well, the same is true, they need more than general revelation, they need a witness to the person and work of Jesus. This is why we care so desperately about missions, and specifically missions to the unreached. People in NE OH have “access” to the Gospel if they choose to listen, ask, want to find out more (through you, me, and Leroy Chapel and other Gospel teaching local churches). But not everyone has that opportunity. So we hear the Great Commission of Jesus in Matthew 28:19- 20“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations …” Nations isn’t actually the geo-politic entities that have their own flags and national anthems, it actually means “peoples” or “people groups” and that is far greater than the nations recognized by the UN. For example Ethiopia alone has more than 70 people groups within its borders. Perhaps now you see why the work of missions is vital to the church, and why it so fills the story of God (“you will be a light to the nations”). Because God, like you, wants everyone to have a “fair shot” at hearing or having the opportunity to hear … and then they either choose to believe or reject.

And one last piece … I believe that this “preaching of the Gospel to all the nations” is why Jesus hasn’t returned yet. Not everyone has had a chance to have a Gospel witness. Matthew 24:14“And this Gospel of the Kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” So, He waits – lovingly and patiently – for the story to spread. We give ourselves to spreading the story … urging those who have an opportunity to hear the Gospel to respond (personal evangelism), and praying/sending/partnering with missionaries to take the Gospel to the unreached peoples of the earth (missions). And one great and glorious day – He returns and judges the living and the dead … those who have believed to life glorious and eternal, and those who have rejected to hell, awful and eternal.

I guess I’ve given you a whole other sermon on the subject. But I do hope it helps!

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Narnia, Rivendell, and The Kingdom of God

I have competing forces in me, and it’s taken me along time to understand how they fit together. I’m not talking about the flesh and the Spirit, or even good and evil. But the boyish love for stories and the man-like love for logic, reason, and evidence. On one hand I’m the classic sap who loves a good story, cries watching sentimental movies, and can’t wait to see Frodo and Sam make it through the Black Gates. And on the other hand, I love precision, measure twice cut once, and carefully researched exegetical papers on theology. My Tolkien side has felt insulted by my Calvin side for being shallow and too easily entertained, while my Calvin side is being attacked by my Tolkien side for being too heady and academic. What to do!?! Here is how the Spirit of God has made these enemies into friends …

Understanding God’s Story

The Bible is a story! And not just any story, it is God’s story. And at the climactic center from the beginning to end is Jesus the Warrior King. God moved men in various times and in different places to reveal the grand narrative of heaven to earth. God is the great story-teller, and He has made Himself known to men. He didn’t drop a theology book from heaven, send a college professor, or host a pastors conference … He sent a King. So it appears that Tolkien’s Aragorn and Lewis’ Peter are actually quite helpful and beautiful in helping us understand the Father’s King Jesus. And so, the story of earth tragically corrupted by the dragon, intensely waiting for a deliverer, striving to fix itself, and the loyal following holding out hope, aren’t so “fairy-tale” after all. Hush up, academic side … God is the great story-teller, Tolkien and Lewis are just following their author.

Shading in the Details

Every good writer does his research, and the richness of the story is shaped by the textures and shades of the thoughtful details woven into the tale. So it is with these epic stories, they need the theology, care, and study of the great theologians. Truth be told, Tolkien and Lewis are some of the finest theologians around. Why? Because they had that academic, professor, Calvin-side. They wrestled with sovereignty, substitutionary atonement, depravity, and redemption. They were exegetes and not just playing make-believe. We miss the joy and beauty of the grand narrative without the depth and clarity of Biblical theology.

Jesus Told Stories and Preached Sermons

Survey the life and ministry of Christ and you’ll find both carefully constructed theological arguments and beautifully poetic literature. People sat on the edge of their seat as he crafted parables to bring home a heavenly truth. And they nestled into the hillside as he outlined practical theology in his sermonizing. Truth can be communicated many ways, the main thing is that truth is communicated. When I read a theology book, I slow down, think deeply, reference Scripture, and evaluate where my framework needs tweaking. When I get lost in a story, my heart is much quicker to recognize the dark shadows I face, admit my Hobbit-like need, and long for the return of the King.

The End of Theology is Joy

Calvin-ish people need Tolkien, and those lost in Narnia need The Institutes. If you’re feeling angry (or people feel your anger) and sorta crusty … Maybe you’ve been trying to play the starring role in your own movie, rather than recognizing the story isn’t about you. Pick up Lewis and be reminded that this epic tale is about the glory of God, not life done your way. You can’t fix it all! If you’re fearful and anxious … Maybe you’ve been drinking the Kool-Aid of a superficial Christianity and anti-intellectual approach to the Word. Go deep in Edwards and Calvin, you need to be reminded of the Almighty Father, The rescue work of the Son, and the Spirit who ever lives to make intercession for you.

I’m not sure I’ll ever completely rid myself of this internal battle I feel, but the more I study theology AND the more I enjoy the beauty of His Story, the more my soul delights in the Gospel. And delighting in God and the Gospel (His Story) is the chief end of man … So that can’t be all that bad. Go on an adventure with Aslan, have a cup of coffee with Luther … But most importantly worship the Creator.

In His Story,
Pastor Mark

What The Prosperity Gospel and Moralistic Legalism Have In Common

Perhaps one of the hardest truths of the Gospel for man to embrace is the cold hard truth that you bring nothing to the table. God is completely independent, self-sufficient, and sovereign above all. Man is dead, heart of stone, desperately without hope of self-improvement. But oh how the human heart is prone to perform, and wired toward the age old axiom of ’cause and effect’. If I do this, then the following will occur … But it is a counter-gospel axiom in the spiritual life. You can go to church everyday of your life, and new life isn’t guaranteed to occur. You can give money, serve on boards, and teach Sunday School, and a healthy marriage is not achieved. You can read your Daily Bread, say your family prayers, and serve at the local shelter, but that won’t prevent rebellion in the hearts of your kids. God is not obliged to service the desired “effect” of your effort-filled “cause”. And sadly this can take all kinds of forms, even ones that seem like polar opposites. Allow me to explain …

Moralistic Legalism

This vein of man-centered religion says, “don’t drink, don’t chew, and don’t go with girls that do … and God will bless your life.” Ok, they might put it a little differently than that, but that is the essential message. Work hard at doing the right things, and avoiding the wrong things is what honors God. A life of holiness, purity, and integrity is what makes God smile, and therefore makes God open his hand to you. It’s no surprise then that the emphasis of this teaching is on imperatives. Do this! Resist this! Flee that! The promise of the Christian life is hidden behind moral imperatives, religious prohibitions, and political conservatism. Sounds a lot like the apostle Paul’s exposing of this in Colossians 2:20-23 – “…do you submit to regulations ‘Do not handle, do not touch, do not taste’ … These indeed have an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism, and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh”. Nope … moralistic, fundamentalistic, man-made, crusty, stop-doing-that, sort of “gospel” doesn’t honor God nor bring Him glory. So it’s no surprise then to think that in rejecting this and in claiming “authority” is where real power is to be found. Consider next …

Word of Faith, Prosperity Gospel

Yep, they are indeed twin sisters. The name-it-and-claim-it version of man-centered religion says, “You have been given all authority, speak into your deliverance, boldly claim what is yours out of Satan’s hand”. So, obviously I’m a little less familiar with the exact language they put into our mouths, but this is essentially their message. Instead of work hard at holiness to get God’s pleasure, it is asserting your authority over creation, declaring atoms in the body relocated for healing. It is prayers prayed like mantras over someone afflicted with suffering. It is techniques for controlling the Holy Spirit, or activities that demonstrate external evidences of spiritual activity. They have exchanged the imperative commands for the indicative promises, and now use them as leverage to get God to work for them. And the promise of the Christian life is hidden behind spiritual shenanigans, empowered man, and the guise of freedom. All the while it is beholden to the master teacher who has determined what buttons to push, or action to perform this month or at this service, always having to come up with something new to keep it fresh (or to keep the loyal enslaved). And this sounds quite a bit like Paul exhorting Timothy in 1 Timothy 6 to avoid those who have been ensnared by the love of money, power, and possessions and “have the appearance of godliness, but deny its real power (2 Timothy 3:5)”. Nope, name-it-and-claim-it, wacky, man-made, weaselly, just speak it, sort of “gospel” doesn’t honor God nor bring him glory. And it’s shockingly scary how similar these two version of “Christianity” really are. They both are about our performing … Do this and God will act, don’t do this and God is pleased. They both focus on you doing (or not doing) something. So, what then is the answer?

Christ Crucified

Yeah, yeah, I know … both of these say that they believe this, and I’m sure to some extent they do. The problem is they just don’t rest in it. It is not about what man does or doesn’t do, it is always about what God has done, continues to do, and will do. God the Father is not manipulated to act according to our holy living, nor is He swayed by our bold declarations … He has acted on our behalf through Christ, and He freely blesses His children with exactly what they need to be sanctified and delighted in, whether that be riches or suffering. He does not withhold when His children “blow it”, and He does not pour forth grace only when we “claim it”. He is infinitely pleased with His Son and the redeeming work He accomplished for those who believe. Nothing we do, good or bad, sinful or righteous, religious or secular, can get us more of Him or prevent His work over us. When we are ‘In Christ’ God is pleased with us … Period! And He is free to act completely apart from us for us! And that is the glory of the Gospel … and it is most definitely for our joy! Which is why Paul says, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2). Rest in that my friend … and that alone!

In love with a God who acts,
Pastor Mark

The Explusive Power of a New Affection

Thomas Chalmers was a pastor in Scotland … arguably the greatest Scottish pastor that country has ever known. Born 1780 – Died 1847. His sermon “The Explusive Power of a New Affection” is perhaps his most famous work. And while I have heard it quoted tons of times, and have read quotes from it, I had never until this weekend read the whole text of the sermon. WOW! My heart has been shaped by so many of the grand truths of the Gospel that he unfolds here. And while much was a refreshing and a clarion call to truths I hold dear, I was struck by a clear and simple statement he made that caught me a bit off guard. I’m just not sure I’ve ever thought of this truth as clearly as I have until reading this. I could literally quote dozens of statements that I highlighted and wrote “Wow!” in the margin, but I’ll cut directly to the “aha moment” I had with Chalmers and the Spirit of God.

“The freer the Gospel, the more sanctifying is the Gospel; and the more it is received as a doctrine of grace, the more will it be felt as a doctrine according to godliness. This is one of the secrets of the Christian life, that the more a man holds of God as a pensioner, the greater is the payment of service that he renders back again.”

This might possibly be the clearest connection made to the grand doctrines of grace and the practice of obedience I have ever read. When we fail to understand and embrace the sovereignty of God in salvation and the inability of man to do anything toward saving himself we likewise fail to understand the complete sanctifying work of the Gospel. When the Gospel is not free, man is much quicker (perhaps even bound) to make his obedience a method of payment to God for what He has done in the Gospel. We understand works righteousness and the evil of the human heart to be performers … it’s in all of us. And we understand obedience is to be a joyful act of worship as sons and daughters. But so many go down the path of preaching “the requirements” of the Gospel, though perhaps not phrased that way. Sermons, books, seminars that are about “commands and to-dos”, because after all how else will we get people to be holy. Now, of course these days, Gospel preaching is much more popular, but is the Gospel preached as free? Not merely as a “free” gift, but “free” of strings attached. It is either free or it is not free. You either have to do nothing, or must oblige God with your life of denial. This is where people start to get freaked out. Isn’t this too what Paul echoed “Shall we sin so that grace may abound” … the teaching in there being that our sin (and our obedience) can’t decrease (or increase) God’s free grace. Augustine said, “Love, and do what you will”. The point again, love is the only response to a free gift, not drawing up a legal contract for monthly payments. Free Gospel heralded … The sanctifying power of the Gospel felt in our lives completely and utterly apart from our works of obedience. I’ll let Chalmers have the last word on this …

“It is only when, as in the Gospel, acceptance is bestowed as a present, without money and without price, that the security which man feels in God is placed beyond the reach of disturbance – or, that he can repose in Him, as one friend reposes in another.”

For Your Freedom through the Free Gospel,
Pastor Mark

When Praying in Faith is No Longer Faith

So my mom is battling the aggressive enemy of ovarian cancer.  I’m praying many Gospel prayers, prayers for healing, prayers offered in earnest faith to the God of the Universe, my Dad, who loves me, loves my mom … and despises cancer.  And I’m think a lot about these things and have had good wrestlings about the subject I write about this morning.  Perhaps my wrestling will come clearer as I write it out … and may be of some benefit to you.

James 5 teaches us to pray for those who are suffering (5:13), to have the elders pray over one who is sick (5:14), to offer prayers of faith for healing (5:15), and to confess sin and pray for one another (5:16).  Then we are directed to the ministry of Elijah who prayed prayers of faith to God and he was heard, and God answered as Elijah requested (5:17-18).  I have long admired the ministry of George Mueller who prayed for clear evidences that you could trust God in his ministry to orphans so people would believe in his prayer-answering God.  There is no doubt about it, the Bible links faith and prayer.  Our faith in the power and promises of God fuels our prayers, and a praying life fuels our faith.  We have a God who is near to us in our suffering, and whose arm is not too short to save.  Though the Fall has reversed Paradise and Satan seeks to devour, God still has rule and authority over His creation as the architect and sustainer of all things.  He has healed, will heal, and does heal today!  And so Jesus-loving, Bible-trusting, Spirit-led, Father-adoring people will live lives where prayer is as central as breathing.  And at times our prayers are in alignment with the sovereign will of the Father, and He answers … not simply because He does whatever He wants and our prayers happened to land on His number, But in some strange and gracious way through the earnest prayers of faith of His children.  And at other times we pray, with the limited vision of finite people, and the Spirit intercedes on our behalf for what He knows we most need, and the answer is something far greater (though different) than what we have asked for.  [I find it interesting that Mary and Martha in John 11 both were convinced of Jesus’ power to heal the sick and were sad when Jesus didn’t show up in time to heal their brother Lazarus.  All the while, He was coming to do something far greater … He came to demonstrate His power not only over sickness, but over death itself.]

Now come to Gospel thinking with me.  We trust the completed work of Christ as the all-sufficient sacrifice for sin, the rescue of fallen man, and victory over the power and penalty of sin and death.  We believe that those called by God and adopted into the family are already redeemed, cleansed, and healed.  Jesus conquered sin and death on the cross, and Satan is a defeated foe.  Therefore, my mom, as a beloved daughter of God, is whole.  She has been redeemed from her sin, is constantly being refined, and her glorification is spoken of as something that she is already in possession of (Romans 8:30).  Does it not take great faith to believe this?  Absolutely!  To put your trust in a God you cannot see, embracing the historicity of calvary that you were not there for, holding fast to the infinite ramifications of this message that have been settled in eternity.  Great faith!  So when we pray for physical healing we have, in some sense, competing components of faith.  On one hand, the faith that says all is well with my soul no matter what calamity, sickness, or suffering comes my way.  And on the other hand, the faith that seeks God for comfort, healing, and deliverance from our present troubles.  Thus, the rub …

Are you familiar with the teaching that says if you are not being healed it is because you don’t have enough faith?  The proponents of this of course mean well (I’m giving the benefit of the doubt here).  They seek to stir up greater faith to see greater works to receive greater gifts.  But does not that call to faith, or “prayer of faith” undermine our faith that the Gospel has done it all?  That indeed ‘It Is Finished’?  That the work of Jesus has already healed our greatest disease?  That the present suffering is not worthy to be compared with our future glory?  You see, when our righteous (James 5) prayers of faith are offered and we don’t get the physical healing answer our finite minds long for, to give the reason that you don’t have enough faith is actually showing that you don’t have enough faith in the Gospel.  Those prayers of faith are actually no longer about faith.  They end up being more about what you want done then what Christ has already done for you.

Friends, trusting the work of the Gospel does not undermine praying great prayers of faith (ala Elijah and Mueller), but praying superstitious “prayers of faith” shows little faith in the truly greater things of the works of God.  I thank God that my mom is already healed.  She has been delivered from sin, death is defeated, and glory is hers.  I embrace that by faith!  And I pray earnestly for her physical deliverance.  I’m not ready to be parent-less, and she’s far too young to not get to play with her grandkids anymore or see her daughter get married.  So I pray in faith, with faith in the Gospel, to my Sovereign God who always knows best and accomplishes His purposes for His glory!

By Faith,

Pastor Mark

The Church in Troubled Times

Yes, we are living in difficult economic times, this is unquestioned.  But is the Church in troubled times?  Or maybe the better question is how do we know if the Church is in troubled times?  Let me answer a few ways, but all of which are completely independent of economic hardship, or the cultural issues we may face in any given community.

1- Is Christ being preached?  When the Church moves away from the message of the cross, troubled times are upon us.  When the Church feels the need to be “relevant” over being “right” we’ve headed down a dangerous road.  We are only as “right” as we keep Jesus central in the teaching of the Church.  In a time when messages abound for “recovery” and “bailout”, our message rings constant and hopeful.

2- Are people being cared for?  When the Church moves away from the “one-anothers”, troubled times are upon us.  If people start looking out for themselves, keeping back for themselves, and trusting in their own resources rather than the limitless resources of God, trouble is upon us.  We are never, never called to hold back from giving to others, even when we have needs perhaps going unmet.  This is a time where the Church gets to stand out as very different from the messages of the day.

3- Is the Church moving forward in its Mission?  When the Church hesitates, or stops reaching out, troubled times are upon us.  We are called to the Great Commission, period.  And the reality of Church History is that often times her mission advanced greatly when troubled times were upon her.  So if anything, these days should be rich mission-directed times for the Gospel to advance through the Bride to the World.  

Let’s not change our message, stop our giving to others, or falter in pushing the mission forward.  This is faith in action, trusting God over trusting men, and being influencers of our culture, not scared of it!  

Join me in the Mission,

Pastor Mark

Meeting Paul at Panera

It’s really easy to forget the Early Church was made up of normal people like us.  Sure, we read of their sins and screw-ups, but miss some of the relational nature of their existence.  Preaching in Galatians 2 this week I got to sit down with Paul at Panera and ask him about his relationship with Cephas (I prefer calling him Peter).

MS (Mark Spansel): Paul, good to get some time with you this morning, can I get you a cup of coffee?

AP (Apostle Paul): No thanks, I prefer tea … and one of those big non-kosher, really sugary cinnamon rolls.

MS: Got it, be right back.

MS: Tell me about the time you sat down with Peter in Jerusalem to talk circumcision.  What was that like?

AP: Well, Mark, it’s always hard to communicate everything on paper, so thanks for asking more than what I got a chance to write in chapter 2 to the Galatian churches.  I love Peter, I love that a fisherman and a guy like me could sit down and talk honestly about life, ministry, and theology.  You know we were working hard those days to figure everything out and make sure we didn’t split the church.  People were talking, those Judizers spying out our freedom made things difficult and we knew we needed to just talk things out.  So he cleared his busy schedule as I was in town and we hammered things out.

MS: Did he take some convincing?

AP: Sure, he’s a stubborn guy like me.  He has the baggage of his experiences and his traditions, but don’t we all.  I think once he realized I wasn’t interested in making him like me, but making sure we were on the exact same page about Jesus, the conversation got a lot clearer.  It’s a funny thing, when you actually treat people with respect and the honor they deserve how much hostility is taken out of the conversation.  The bottom line Mark, is that we both greatly respect each other and greatly love the work of Jesus in our own lives.  We want everyone to hear about the Messiah who fulfilled the law.

MS: But it gets tricky working out all the law stuff with Jews and Gentiles, doesn’t it?

AP:  That’s an understatement.  In many respects we were trying to mix oil and water.  Outside of Jesus, these two groups didn’t want anything to do with each other.  But I suppose that’s what I love watching God do – take differences and make one body.  It’s a pretty amazing thing to watch. Anyway, we knew we needed to make sure these issues were surfaced, talked about honestly and openly, and that we made a commitment to keep at it.

MS: What do you mean by keep at it?

AP: Well, we knew we’d have to have more conversations about this issue.  It was obvious it would get complicated and personal.  We vowed to not shoving this under the rug, not letting the enemies tear us apart, and invited each other to speak truth to one another.

MS: Paul, that fires me up.  It’s cool to see your commitment to the Gospel and to each other, we need more of that going on, for sure!

AP: Yeah, I guess the bottom line is this – Not one of us has it all figured out, BUT we do know that it all comes back to the cross.  It took me a little while to get it, in fact I didn’t get it, God made me get it.  Peter, he was impulsive, around Jesus a lot, but still head-strong and felt like a big failure.  He thought he was done, but God is so gracious to take a couple guys like us and commission us for such great Kingdom work.  You know, Peter invites me every year to come to his house and celebrate Passover.  We don’t do the blood over the door thing, we just sing and celebrate the blood that was once for all shed for us.  We have a sweet party rejoicing in the completed work of Jesus, the fulfillment of the law, and the lover of our souls.  And you know what?  For all our differences, we know the one thing that matters most – Jesus saved, Jesus saves, and we get to be a part of it.  Well, I’m starting to preach now, but thanks for taking the time to ask … I love talking about this stuff.  God bless my brother, and never move on from the cross.

MS: Brother, your words are sweet to my soul, I’ll never forget them … and thanks for speaking truth to me every time I pick up your letters.  They always point me to Jesus!

** This conversation is completely factual, and it may be reproduced in its entirety free of charge.