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!

Africa is Always a Good Teacher to Me

I’ve had a chance to share some of my recent mission ventures with a handful of folks, but there is still so much rattling around in my heart … I have to put some of it in summary form (mostly for my own processing).

Satan’s Various Strategies and God’s ONE Solution

I imagine Satan thinks himself quite clever that in America he is an angel of light, filling big churches with man-centered teaching, entertaining shows, and Gospel-less preaching.  People think they are “getting in good with God”, when all that’s happening is they are being duped by false-Gospels.  I imagine Satan thinks himself quite powerful in Ethiopia where he advances false religions, witchcraft, tribalism, and demonic possession.  People think they have no hope of freedom, when Satan holds on by a thread knowing his power is weak and his turf limited.  All the same, over the years Satan’s strategies have changes and tweaks attached to them in order to best infiltrate the cultural milieu of the day (Os Guinness has a great book that cleverly exposes this – The Last Christian on Earth).  BUT the clear and simple bottom line is that God’s strategy has never changed.  The church has tried to change it to “stick better” or “present more softly”, but it’s always been about a Redeemer who rescues sinners by grace through faith.  In Northern Ethiopia church planters are simply obeying the Word of God in sharing the Gospel with people trapped by Satan.  Sometimes it’s praying for freedom from demonic activity, sometimes it’s sharing a story of God at work, sometimes it’s delivering medical supplies, but it is always about sharing the free and freeing work of Jesus Christ as the One rescuer of the soul.  And over the past 18 months since we’ve been able to help in the training of these courageous men and women 55+ house churches have been established.  WOW!  These faithful brothers and sisters inspire me more than anyone else I have yet to meet in Kingdom ministry.  Thanks friends for letting me be a part of seeing the Kingdom of God advance against the darkness in Amhara!

It’s Still and Always About Relationship

Crazy to think such an antiquated strategy for seeing life change would still be the case today, huh?  Leaving Ethiopia I had the immense privilege of spending time with one of my favorite families on the planet (The Carrolls).  I got to see what God has done through them in Uganda over the past decade.  It wasn’t the amazing missions training center they built (and then freely handed over to the largest Ugandan denomination in the country) that impressed me. It wasn’t the focused devotion of this missional family (yes kids, you guys are all an amazing example of what a Christian family is called to be) that impressed me.  It wasn’t even the powerful teaching that Dave has done on the heart of the Father (yes Dave … you are a deeply gifted teacher) that impressed me.  It was the people whose lives have been transformed by the power of God through the love of His people.  People don’t worship the Carrolls, but they have come to worship a great God because the Carrolls do. They have welcomed people into their heart and home to experience being loved and at peace.  It’s not always easy, but it’s not that hard.  It’s powerful Gospel living, but it’s not always “successful”.  It’s full of joy and sorrow, delight and heartbreak.  But it is the call of discipleship, and it’s still and always what God has called us all to.  Imagine that – Loving Gospel Relationships as a strategy … maybe it’s not our cafés and cool music that change people’s lives.  Thanks Dave and Jen for loving me, and letting me see and experience the powerful way you have loved a nation … and individuals.

This Is My Message and It’s Not Changing

I know, I’m blowing your mind here with the depth of insight and clever strategy I’m pumping out.  We are all more alike than we are different.  Sure, Ethiopia, Uganda, and America have great differences, but at the heart we’re all the same.  The trappings of life are different, but the idols of the heart are the same: love of self, love of control, love of praise, love of comfort.  And the temptations and distraction are as plentiful there as anywhere to think that there must be something more than the sovereign love of the Father, the all-sufficient sacrifice of the Son, and the ever-active transforming work of the Holy Spirit.  I’m always tempted to change my message to sound more innovative and groundbreaking or to make people go “Ohh” over it.  But I can’t, I won’t … there is just nothing else that I have to offer anyone on the planet than the inexpressible joy and satisfaction of the freedom and rest that comes through the cross.  That’s my forever message and I’m sticking with it.  Thanks Spirit of God for planting it deep on my heart, and always pushing it deeper in my life.  Thanks Africa for being a good teacher to me yet again.  And thanks to all of you who prayed for me … you were faithfully used to see the Kingdom of the Gospel advance as the glory of the Lord fills the nations!

Always Needy,

Pastor Mark

Thoughts on the Chardon Shooting: Just Who Is Wicked?

I’m a big fan of the Broadway musical Wicked.  The big question the story muses over is whether someone is born wicked or has wickedness thrust upon them.  It’s the age old question of nature or nurture.  And though it gets asked in different ways, it’s the question our community is musing over right now.  Here in Northeast Ohio, and the local communities of Lake and Geauga county, we have faced a tragedy.  Just 72 hours ago a young man walked into his school cafeteria with a concealed handgun and unloaded 10 rounds on his peers, killing 3, hospitalizing 2 others, and injuring an entire community.  Our first response is compassion and grief … we weep and pray for the great loss of precious young life and the families forever changed.  We fight off fear and the paralyzing effect this could have on thousands of other students heading off to their campuses.  Our hearts break for the permanence of such events and our inability to really fix anything.  And the second response has been to consider this troubled young man who did the shooting.  The media digs and uncovers the dysfunction of his parents, being raised by his grandparents, his isolation, violent tendencies, and on and on.  The natural human conclusions pretty quickly go to ‘how could we have prevented this? If only he had a healthier home life, or we need to hug our kids more’.  And as much as I am for human solutions, preventative strategies in our schools, and the building up of the family … make no mistake – Wickedness was not thrust upon him, he was born into it.  And so am I … and so are you.

James 4:2 says, “You desire and do not have, so you murder …” 

As a local pastor in this community I want to inject into this conversation that the same stuff that was in the shooter’s heart is in mine.  It may not result in murder, but it comes from the same place.  I’m wicked!  I was born a sinner to the core, and it is only by the restraining grace of the Spirit of God that my murderous heart doesn’t go to the very same place.  I’m certainly not arguing for justice to be averted or consequences to be avoided.  The Bible  clearly calls for justice, judgment, and punishment for the sinful choices we make.  And this young man will indeed face them.  It will help the victims, the friends, the community to know justice is served … but it won’t change us.  Until every one of us can look inside our own hearts, consider our anger, impatience, harsh words, and selfish behavior as rooted in the very same “stuff” as murder, different only in degree, then we will not truly heal.  Was wickedness thrust upon this young man? Perhaps.  But I guarantee you that for however poor a job his mom and dad did, they didn’t teach him to kill people.  I’m quite sure that grandma and grandpa didn’t give him this plan for acting out his hopelessness.  He got that from much deeper “stuff” that nurture.  He was born in wickedness, born a sinner, and born in need of the work of God in his life.  And so we all are.

Healing comes for the human heart and the heart of a community in the new heart only God gives through the glorious work of His Son Jesus Christ.  The cross is no fairytale, as much as this tragic event is no fairytale.  Sin is real, and at times like this we are painfully aware of the brokenness of not just the world, but our own hearts.  It is because of this that Jesus came to be the Savior of the world.  He came for murderous sinners like me.  He came to do what no one else could do … mercifully change me from a murderer to a worshipper of God.  This isn’t a Sunday sermon … this is a real life answer to the healing that must come to our community.  We need grace.  And that grace that can change us all comes only through our wicked hearts being changed by the righteous heart of Jesus.  After all the news stories stop, schools start back up, and we try to heal … will you please take some time to consider your own wicked heart.  This is the only thing that will change our community.

For the healing of our community,

Pastor Mark

Comfort, Conflict, and the Church

“Those of us in the American church must ask ourselves, ‘Am I following Christ, or am I just following the crowd that’s following Christ.’ In the persecuted church, they follow Christ. The personal cost to follow the crowd is too expensive. But there is something we must always keep in mind, whether we are in America or in one of the most persecuted regions on the planet; Jesus Christ is the head of His church. Everywhere. And despite our differences, in most ways we are all in the same business and the same family, pursuing the same mission under the same head. So even if the American church is somewhat crippled in certain areas, it’s still His church. Not ours. And He has every right to remind us of those things that we need to improve. His church has never been perfect throughout history, and yet He still chooses to work through it, and through us. It’s the number one vehicle through which the kingdom mission is being forwarded today.” (The Privilege of Persecution – Moeller & Hegg)

It has been one of the greatest joys of my life to learn about walking with God from my brothers and sisters around the globe. It can be really easy in my heart to be negative about the American church and champion the church-outside-the-West. In many ways I feel more drawn and engaged to the Ethiopian church than the church in the West. But, this is my mission field, my place to love, serve, and reach. And for that I am thankful, because I am a part of The Church. The Church that God promises to build! The funny thing is how we often measure that “building”, growth, and success. Paul, while in Ephesus, writes in 1 Corinthians 16:9 that “a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries.” The persecuted church gets this, we in the West, not so much. We equate conflict and trouble in the church as bad and we must be missing something. They understand that as part of the battle. We see ease and comfort as blessing and clear vision. They ask what they are missing and who are they appeasing to keep the peace? We need to learn how to think about comfort with some measure of suspicion: What are we not speaking out against? What sin is going undealt with? Who are we seeking the approval of? And we need to learn how to think about conflict with more faith: What do we keep at even if it stirs people up? Where do we get stronger and bolder? How do we make an even better call to courageous, prayerful living? God builds His Church in different ways. And in many ways focus on the glory of God in times of ease can be much harder than in times of trouble. Conflict can be good … (It delayed Paul’s trip to Corinth because he wanted to stay in Ephesus amidst the trouble for the open door to good ministry) … And comfort can be trouble (It orients the heart toward peace when there is no peace).

We need our “success/approval” scale re-oriented away from comfort and on to the right guidelines of 1 Corinthians 16:9 and the way the persecuted church thinks about what God has called them to do. Give us open doors Lord, and don’t let us run from the adversaries that brings!

Press on & Pray more!
Pastor Mark

0.2 Percent

Take a guess … Number of US kids who don’t have an IPod? Number of Men right now who don’t know what March Madness is? Number of US women who don’t know who Martha Stewart is? Probably true for all of those, but I have no statistics to back those up. But here’s the statistic that has the corner-on-the-market on my prayers right now …

0.2 Percent of Ethiopians in the Northern region of Amhara that have trusted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Why? Because they’re too busy to listen, too rich to see their need, or too apathetic to care? No. Because the lie of Satan has blinded their minds under the darkness of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and as of yet no great Gospel awakening has happened.

But we’re praying for that all to change. We’re praying for a Church Planting Movement to be unleashed with such spiritual power that churches spring up like new flowers all over the area quicker than can be counted. And it starts tomorrow. 50 Ethiopian church planters from the region will begin a three day training equipped to unleash the Gospel like wildfire. E3 Partners, Horn of Africa Ministries, and Leroy Chapel are here to bless it, pray for it, and give heart and soul to start something far bigger than we could imagine. So God gets famous all over the world!

Will you pray for this like a beggar needs food and our lungs need breath? I want every ounce of my human skepticism and fleshly unbelief taken away so I can see and believe the true power of God unto salvation – the glorious Gospel of grace! Will you teach your kids and grandkids to love the lost, care for the broken-hearted, and be motivated solely by the glory of God? May Amharic Ethiopians taste and see that Jesus is good!

Amaseganalo (Thank You),
Mark

Safe Church

I’ve been thinking much about the Church these days and read an appropriate quote this morning …

You were cleansed by the same blood, regenerated by the same Spirit. You are a citizen of the same city, a slave of the same master, a reader of the same Scriptures, a worshipper of the same God. The same presence dwells silently in you as in them. Therefore you are committed to them and they to you. They are your brothers, sisters, your fathers, mothers and children. Whether you like or dislike them, you belong to them. You have responsibilities toward them that must be discharged in love. As long as you live on this earth, you are in their debt. Whether they have done much or little for you, Christ has done all. He demands that your indebtedness to Him to be transferred to your new family. – John White

An interesting thought this author brings up.  We don’t live trying to pay a debt back to God for the work of Jesus because we can’t, and that turns grace into a sales contract.  We live joyfully in the Gospel hungering for more and more grace.  But here, this author transfers that sense of “debt” to our responsibility to our new family, the Church.  We express love, grace, patience, mercy, compassion, hope, etc to our spiritual siblings as an act of love and worship to God.  In other words, if we love God and are grateful for the cross, we will love and honor  each other regardless of if we agree with each other on everything or not.  That, my friends, builds a “Safe Church.”

Now Safe Church doesn’t mean comfortable, lazy, feel-good church … it means an active, prayerful, evangelistic, missional church.  Why? Because when the family provides safety, love and honor, the kids can go out and “play” in the work of the ministry with courage and confidence, knowing God … and their brothers and sisters have their back.

Do you have each others back?  Or are you sticking sharp objects in each others back when they aren’t around? I pray for a Safe Church as a Christian because I need brothers and sisters to uphold me and care for my soul.  I pray for a Safe Church as a pastor because I need God’s people to trust Him enough that they will trust their hearts and lives to the elders not based merely on agreement over decisions or direction, but based on Gospel acceptance of God’s plan for His Church.  I find it interesting that most pastors who leave the ministry do so because of attacks from within not from outside the church.  They get hit by “friendly fire” that isn’t so friendly.  Tell me you’ve got my back … I’m watching and praying for yours!  God grow your Church, and keep us from getting in the way.

Working for your Safety & Courage,

Pastor Mark

Selfish or Selfless Serving

I dream of a church community so selflessly committed to serving one another in love (Galatians 5:13) that no needs go unmet, no one person carries the whole burden, edification rules the days, and the watching community stands amazed and eager to be loved like that.  It seems to me this is so much more than the standard church call to serve that leaves people feeling guilty, busy, and joyless.  It’s a call to know how loved you are.  

We live in a day where serving is “cool”, caring about developing countries is politically correct, and even celebrities seem committed to philanthropy, and for all of that I’m glad.  But, I would submit to you that it isn’t motivated by worship.  Worship comes from a heart that knows how unworthy you are, how gracious, loving, and compassionate God has been to you, and stands in the joy of redemption in awe of the cross.  If we are to give our lives as spiritual acts of worship (Romans 12:1-2) then our motivation must be nothing less than the Gospel love we’ve received.  If you get that, really get that, then to serve one another through love is the spring-loaded reaction.  If you don’t then out comes the “biting and devouring one another” of Galatians 5:15.  

Service that demands recognition, bristles at remedial tasks, or leaves one joyless is selfish service.  Do I ever serve selfishly?  Yeah, I fight the flesh that wants praise and prominence. But I desire so much more … and God is so gracious to supply the needed fuel to motivate real worship-filled service.  How else can I explain a sorrowful satisfaction over dealing with sinning brothers, or an exhausted joy over a full week of teaching?  Selflessness is a word I find hard to apply to myself, I know my sin far greater than anybody, but I also know the joy of worship in serving others through love because I know the love of the Gospel that rescued me from the fires of hell.  Jesus pulled me from the rubble of the fallen building I was trapped under … He secured my oxygen mask so I can now live to secure as many others as possible.  Join me friends in the fight to LIVE FREE, not indulging in the flesh, but indulging in the mission of loving others with a radical Gospel-love and so fulfilling the whole law (Galatians 5:14).

Love, love, love –

Pastor Mark