— Useless vs. Fruitful — Two Competing Faiths. Which One Is Yours?

Two millennia ago Jesus’ sacrificial death established faith as the determining factor in whether an individual spends eternal life in heaven. It is a seismic distinction from other religions, which place the burden on man to earn salvation through some combination of good works, obedience, and holy behavior. But with Christ’s ascension from the grave, belief in Him as Lord and Savior was suddenly wholly sufficient to avoid sin’s consequences (that is, eternal darkness and suffering in hell).

In the years that followed, however, most of Christendom reverted back to emphasizing works as an integral part of salvation. That unbiblical view survived for hundreds of years, taught by a church intent on using such heresy to acquire wealth and power. Thankfully, the Reformation arrived in the early 1500’s to counter this false teaching. In time, faith regained its proper place in Church doctrine as the defining element of salvation.

Unfortunately, in recent decades a different but equally dangerous doctrine has emerged inside the Church. This one sits at the opposite end of the theological continuum and teaches that anyone who verbalizes belief in Christ instantaneously secures his or her salvation, irrespective of how they live in the future. A profession of faith in Christ as Savior guarantees eternal life, regardless of whether any evidence exists to support the claim.

Scripture, however, clearly teaches that this version of Christianity is as heretical as ‘salvation by works.’ Its fatal flaw is its failure to recognize that not everyone who expresses a belief in Christ truly believes. Many who claim faith in Jesus continue to place their trust elsewhere. They simply deceive themselves.

The apostle Paul understood this. He notes that some inside the Church are “corrupt and unbelieving” and “such people claim they know God, but they deny Him by the way they live.” (Titus 1:16a, NLT). These people willingly, even enthusiastically, declare Jesus Lord and insist they knew Him personally. So how could anyone argue that such people possess a counterfeit faith?

Paul could, and did, on the basis of their lifestyles, which denied Christ. His insight is critically important to understanding the Christian faith. Those who possess genuine faith in Christ live lives modeled after His example. Their lives profess Him Lord as loudly as their words.

This truth may cause some to cringe. Doesn’t that suggest good works play a role in salvation, they wonder. Does that mean eternally life rests as much on effort as it does on faith, they ask.

The answer to both questions is an emphatic, ‘No!’

Paul explained the proper relationship between faith and works in his powerful letter to the church at Ephesus. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is a gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:8-10, NKJV, emphasis mine).

As in his other epistles, Paul affirms the truth that salvation is by faith alone. We cannot earn God’s mercy and play no role in working our way into heaven.

That said, Paul immediately reminds his readers that God created us to advance His agenda and further His kingdom. We do this by practicing good works and committing ourselves to the lifestyle He prepared for us from the foundation of the world.

Our works and lifestyles have no impact on our salvation. They are not part of the equation. But they do represent essential evidence of our faith. Without them we have no assurance of our salvation. In fact, without good works we can be certain our faith is inauthentic.

James, one of Jesus’ brothers, provides an excellent exposition of the significance of good works in the life of a believer. He begins with a rhetorical question. “What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions?” (James 2:14, NLT). After providing a couple examples that highlight his point (failing to feed and clothe believers who are hungry and naked), he declares, “Faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.” (James 2:17, emphasis mine).

James uses powerful language to communicate his point. He actually states that faith without works is both dead and useless. It is fraudulent and serves no purpose. The person who practices such faith possesses no faith at all. Genuine faith always produces good works.

He continues, “Now someone may argue, ‘some people have faith; others have good deeds.’ But I say, ‘How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds.” (James 2:18).

James dismantles the argument that faith and good works can operate independent of one another. He shows that good works reveal faith. In their absence faith does not exist.

This leads to a very important question. What constitutes good works? Specifically, what type of good works evidence genuine faith?

James gives us two insightful examples: Abraham and Rahab.

He tells us, “Abraham was shown to be right with God by his actions when he offered his son Isaac on the altar. You see, his faith and his actions worked together. His actions made his faith complete… So you see, we are shown to be right with God by what we do, not by faith alone.” (James 2:21-22, 24).

Abraham exhibited good works by surrendering to God the one thing most important to him, his only son Isaac. Abraham loved him dearly. Nothing would cause him as much pain as boy’s death. And yet, this is what God required. And so Abraham obeyed. Though God eventually spared Isaac’s life at the last second, Abraham proved his faith by his act of sacrificial obedience.

And so it is with us. God expects us to live sacrificially for Him. At various times in our lives God will test our faith. He will require us to place on the altar something of great value to us. He will ask us to crucify it to faithfully carry out his will. Maybe He will ask us to leave a lucrative job; or move to an unfamiliar country; or sell our house and donate the proceeds to further His Kingdom; or give up a hobby entirely and invest the time in spreading the Gospel. Maybe He will ask us to do all of these.

Whatever the case, we can be sure the decision will require significant sacrifice. And it will be difficult to obey; impossible, in fact, without the Holy Spirit’s strength. Moreover, we can be sure His call to sacrifice will occur more than once. In fact, it will occur throughout our lives. Each instance will be an opportunity to grow in faith and demonstrate our trust in Christ.

In his second example, James tells us Rahab, “was shown to be right with God by her actions when she hid those messengers and sent them safely away by a different road. Just as the body is dead without breath, so also faith is dead without good works.” (James 2:25-26).

You may recall that Rahab was a prostitute who lived near Jericho. She housed the scouts Joshua had sent to investigate the land and hid them when the king’s guards came in search of them. On orders from the king, the guards demanded she bring the men outside. Instead, she informed the guards that the two men already had left the city and told them the route the scouts had taken. After the guards departed, Rahab sent the two men on their way in the opposite direction.

Rahab demonstrated good works by risking her life to do God’s will. Acting in faith, she protected the scouts and sent the guards on a wild goose chase. She not only jeopardized her life and freedom (the king likely would have imprisoned or executed her if he had learned the truth), she jeopardized the life and freedom of her family. Her faith compelled her to trust God – not the circumstances.

And so it is with us. God often calls us to put our faith into practice by setting aside our best interests, our freedom, and perhaps even our life. Once again, our faith matures as a result and we grow closer to Christ. Obeying God in such instances is never easy. Our flesh demands we look out for ourselves. Our friends will likely tell us we are fools to obey God when such an existential risk exists. At times like these, then, we must remind ourselves what James said. “Faith by itself is not enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.”

All of this may sound a little too extreme. Some of us might decide to follow the less radical version of Christianity. Unfortunately, a less extreme form of Christianity does not exist. While the specifics of how God calls us to live in obedience will differ from person to person, there are some commonalities.

  • God will test our faith.
  • He will do so by calling us to take action that substantively demonstrates our trust in Him.
  • He will ask us to surrender those things most important and dear to us.
  • He will send us on assignments that jeopardize our safety, reputation, and/or freedom.
  • He will give us tasks that, to some degree, disrupt our comfortable and organized lives.

As you live this vibrant expression of faith under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, you will draw closer to the Lord and more clearly understand His plans for you.

What an exciting way to spend the rest of your life!!

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Disturbing Trend In Christianity: Embracing Jesus But Rejecting His Message.

One theme that consistently appears throughout Scripture is how much mankind misunderstands God, what He values, and His expectations for His people. To overcome humanity’s misperceptions, God sends messengers throughout the ages – from Old Testament prophets to New Testament apostles – to clearly communicate His identity and truth. His effort to reach (and redeem) mankind with His message of repentance, reconciliation, and restoration culminates with the arrival of the Messiah, Jesus Christ.

During the three-year ministry that precedes His death and resurrection, Jesus teaches, commands, encourages, instructs, and declares God’s Word on a range of subjects. He places particular emphasis on discipleship and what it means to trust and follow Him as Lord, using a variety of metaphors and parables to depict the lifestyle of His followers.

Jesus also models the attitudes, priorities, and behaviors of this lifestyle on a daily basis, to supplement and reinforce the truths He proclaims to His audience. In doing so He removes any ambiguity as to what a decision to follow Him requires. Casual observers and carefree listeners alike quickly learn that those who place their trust and faith in Christ necessarily undergo a radical lifestyle transformation. The magnitude of this impact is enormous, extending into and influencing every nook and cranny of a Christian’s life.

Sadly, though perhaps not surprisingly, modern Christianity, as practiced by an increasing number of churchgoers, fails to reflect Jesus’ lifestyle or incorporate many of His teachings. Its adherents suffer the same spiritual sickness that gripped religious predecessors who shared a common pedigree (the Old Testament nation of Israel and the Pharisees). Though the modern churchgoer claims Christ as Lord with his lips, too often his or her life does not mirror the example Jesus taught and lived.

Jesus renounced this inconsistency, calling those who practice it ‘Hypocrites’ and quoting the prophet Isaiah to describe their condition. “These people draw near to Me with their mouth, and honor Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” (Matthew 15: 8-9, NKJV). This brief passage conveys several critical truths worth examining.

Jesus uses Isaiah’s portrayal of Israel to describe the Pharisees. They prayed to God, worshipped Him, and studied the Torah. That veneer of religion, however, failed to capture their true spiritual condition (as was the case with the Israelites before them). It simply masked reality. Absent a heart that desires the Lord’s presence and actively pursues His will and righteousness, faith does not exist – at least not in any authentic or meaningful capacity.

That’s why Paul emphasizes the heart when he tells believers in Rome, “If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus AND believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes to righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made to salvation.” (Romans 10:9-10, NKJV; emphasis mine).

Paul informs his audience that a profession of faith in Christ is meaningless unless it springs from the heart, which leads one to pursue the righteousness of Christ under the leadership of the Holy Spirit. This pursuit is not an effort to earn salvation (which we know is by grace alone) but a manifestation of genuine faith and the presence of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s life. Absent that desire for and pursuit of holiness, one does not truly believe.

The churchgoer who mouths praise for God and claims Christ as Savior on Sunday morning but lives for himself the rest of the week possesses an untenable faith. It will fail on the last day when Christ returns. He will stand in disbelief when Jesus refuses him entry into heaven; he will weep in horror when he finally realizes his faith was constructed on sinking sand that the Living Water has washed away.

That a churchgoer who publically professes Jesus as Lord and actively serves in the church may not experience eternity with Christ is a difficult concept for us to digest. Yet Jesus makes it clear that such a scenario is not only possible but will be the reality faced by untold numbers of churchgoers on Judgment Day.

Jesus concludes his Sermon on the Mount with these words. “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you, depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’” (Matthew 7:21-23, NKJV, emphasis mine).

What’s so shocking about this passage is Jesus’ description of the people He refuses to grant access to heaven; those He casts into the lake of fire with its eternal darkness and suffering. They refer to Jesus as ‘Lord’ and have performed many works in His name, as well as enthusiastically professed their faith in Him for salvation. These are not humanists, secularists, or practitioners of other religions. They are, by all outward measures, Bible-believing, Church-going, Jesus-loving people of God who sit in the pews every Sunday.

Inwardly, however, they have never surrendered their hearts to Christ. They never really know Jesus. The religious externalities they exhibit at church and within the Christian community are rooted in selfish motivations and personal agendas. None of it flows from a substantive relationship with Jesus. It is all an act. An act so compelling it not only fools their fellow churchgoers, it fools them as well.

Sadly, this scenario isn’t limited to a handful of churchgoers in a few isolated churches. Jesus says that “many” face this future when He returns to judge the living and the dead. While impossible to quantify such an imprecise term, it certainly seems possible the figure will reach into the millions, perhaps tens of millions, in the United States alone, where a glaring disconnect between the lips and lives of many churchgoers exists.

It is also important to highlight the fact that in the above passage Jesus links obedience to God’s will with knowing Him. Those who genuinely know Christ on a personal basis pursue His will on a daily basis. That desire to do the Lord’s will represents the evidence of an authentic relationship with Christ; and it is not limited to a few areas of our lives. Jesus expects us to place all areas of life under His authority and follow His leadership in each area. We are not to retain control over some areas of life and yield to Him other areas.

For some Christians, the struggle to abdicate authority of our possessions, pursuits, and passions to Jesus represents one of the greatest challenges of the Christian faith. Countless others never struggle in this area because they never learn of Jesus’ expectations; they attend a church that completely ignores the numerous passages that address the subject. Still others know what Jesus wants but in an act of willful rebellion refuse to obey.

Whatever the case, the fact that millions and millions of Christians fail to yield their lives fully to Christ does not validate that version of Christianity. Jesus repeatedly describes His expectations for those who follow Him and never suggests that a casual, half-hearted commitment is acceptable. He wants our whole heart, our full allegiance, and an unwavering commitment to Him as Lord and Savior. And we evidence this commitment by reordering our priorities, redirecting our income, reevaluating our schedules, and restructuring our agendas to reflect His Lordship.

This transformation is not easy. In fact, it cannot happen without the Holy Spirit. Continual prayer is another essential element to success. And we must familiarize ourselves with biblical passages that address the lifestyle of a disciple, harboring in our hearts the truths that Jesus and the apostles taught.

And we must sever our infatuation with the world. It is not enough to dial back our obsession. Nor is it sufficient to place our love for the world on simmer. We must renounce the relationship completely. We must remove every last vestige of its existence in our lives. We cannot be the bride of Christ and maintain a mistress on the side. Jesus demands full fidelity. He will not share our allegiance with the world.

However, he does understand how easily worldly possessions attract and mesmerize individuals of all economic backgrounds, even the relatively poor people of His day. He knows that as society’s wealth escalates and the availability of goods expands, the temptation to acquire more possessions will increase – even for Christians. Aware that this attraction poses a potentially catastrophic threat to the health and existence of His followers’ faith, He offers this compelling guidance.

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21, NKJV).

What’s so remarkable about this passage is its simplicity. In three short verses Jesus communicates everything we need to know about collecting worldly possessions, which can be summarized in two words: Avoid it.

Despite the simplicity of the message, Jesus’ counsel contains several powerful truths. First, the obvious: earthly treasures don’t last. At best, they survive until we die. More likely, the elements destroy them, or someone steals them. Either way, we no longer have them to enjoy.

In contrast, the treasures of heaven are eternal. They last forever. No one can steal them and nothing can cause their decay. We will enjoy them for all eternity.

Embedded in this distinction is an important insight. A treasure is either earthly or heavenly. It cannot be both. No investment pays an earthly and heavenly dividend. So we must decide whether we want to enjoy immediate gratification, in which case we invest in earthly treasure, or whether we are willing to delay our enjoyment for some period of years, perhaps decades. The instantaneous pleasure of the former is offset by its limited duration (a hundred years at best). The deferred satisfaction of the latter is enhanced by its unlimited duration (it lasts forever).

When we consider the choice in such simple terms, the decision should be easy to make. I’m certainly convinced Jesus intended it that way. He wanted His followers to resist the temptation to attain earthly treasure and instead seek the kingdom of God. So He spelled out our options in basic terms.

What’s so surprising is how easy the decision is for those who act in their own self-interest. Why would anyone choose a treasure that lasts for 100 years when they can instead have a treasure that lasts forever? And when you consider the fact that the eternal treasure will undoubtedly surpass the temporary treasure in magnificence, there is absolutely no reason to choose the earthly possession. Unless, of course, you don’t believe Jesus.

Maybe that explains why American churches are packed with people who chase, collect, and consume earthly treasures with as much vigor as our unchurched neighbors; churchgoers who willingly forfeit the opportunity to build a broad portfolio of heavenly treasure because they prefer to satisfy their craving for earthly goods instead. It is at once a decision as unfathomable as it is unfortunate.

Of course, losing out on heavenly treasure is not the only consequence faced by those who embrace earthly treasure. A far worse one awaits them. Jesus identifies it in the last verse of the passage. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Jesus informs us how to recognize the object of our heart’s affection. The heart always remains loyal to the treasure. If a man stores up treasure on earth, his heart is loyal to the world. If a woman lays up treasure in heaven, her heart belongs to the Lord.

Which brings us back to two earlier verses we examined. In the context of Romans 10:9-10, we might conclude that the man with a heart loyal to the world does not truly believe. He possesses a false faith. In the context of Matthew 15:8-9, we might conclude that such an individual is the spiritual descendant of the Pharisee. He honors God with his lips and draws near with his mouth, but his heart is far from God; and like the Pharisee is destined for destruction.

Of course, false worship of God predates the Pharisees by hundreds of years. The Jewish people struggled with this issue throughout the Old Testament. One particularly powerful passage occurs in Ezekiel, where God tells the prophet:

Your people talk about you in their houses and whisper about you at the doors. They say to each other, ‘Come on, let’s go hear the prophet tell us what the Lord is saying!’ So My people come pretending to be sincere and sit before you. They listen to your words, but they have no intention of doing what you say. Their mouths are full of lustful words, and their hearts only seek after money. You are very entertaining to them, like someone who sings love songs with a beautiful voice or plays fine music on an instrument. They hear what you say, but they don’t act on it!” (Ezekiel 33:30-32, NLT).

Sadly, this message is an accurate representation of what happens in thousands of churches across the United States every Sunday. We express enthusiasm for the Word of God and profess to each other a desire to know God more intimately. We sit in the pews spellbound. We take copious notes and appear attentive.

But like the Israelites we have no intention of doing what God wants if it conflicts with our own desires and agenda. We are merely pretending; putting on an Oscar-worthy performance. Like the Israelites, our hearts seek after earthly treasure and our mouths are filled with idolatry. We find the singing entertaining and commend the pastor on his message but we do not act on it. We will continue to spend our time and income satisfying our own worldly cravings, all the while claiming Christ is Lord.

I have no doubt these words will offend most readers. They will insist I am casting judgment on the Church and individual believers. They will contend that my claims are false and salacious. They will assert that the Church, their congregation, and their individual faith are beyond reproach in this area.

Which leads us to the last point. Following His comments on storing up treasure in heaven and His proclamation, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” Jesus makes the following statement:

Your eye is like a lamp that provides light for your body. When your eye is healthy, your whole body is filled with light. But when your eye is unhealthy, your whole body is filled with darkness. And if the light you think you have is actually darkness, how great is that darkness!” (Matthew 6:22-23).

His point? ‘Christians’ who pursue earthly treasure and whose hearts belong to this world actually believe they pursue heavenly treasure. They have convinced themselves they are filled with light and have a healthy faith. In fact, they are filled with darkness and have no faith at all.

They deceive themselves. The darkness that consumes them distorts their view of reality. They are so far from Christ they are spiritually blind, and can’t see they have no real relationship with Him. How great is that darkness indeed.

It is time to awake from our spiritual slumber and return to the Lord.

Spiritual Adultery: An Explosive Epidemic Wrecking the Church.

When President Trump nominated a number of prominent evangelicals to lead various departments of the federal government following his inauguration, I viewed it as a tremendous opportunity. These men and women could demonstrate to the nation that those who follow Jesus govern much differently than those driven by other motivations. Their leadership would be marked by humility, diligence, and most of all integrity. Scandals that rocked prior administrations would not surface at agencies led by those committed to Christ.

Sadly, some of these ‘Christian’ leaders betrayed the trust of the American people. Even worse, their behavior dishonored the Lord. Not only did they fail to establish a high-water mark in government ethics and maintain the highest standards of integrity, they left a trail of corruption and financial malfeasance in their wake.

Federal officials are investigating one of these men for violating anti-corruption laws surrounding efforts to leverage his government position for personal gain, using public funds for personal travel (in first-class no less), having employees perform personal tasks, and demanding a personal security team that cost millions of dollars.

Another cabinet official resigned after reports revealed he regularly traveled on private charter and military jets at taxpayer expense rather than travel on commercial flights that would have saved nearly a million dollars. Compounding his graft was the hypocrisy behind it. As a congressman he regularly railed against government waste and demanded more accountability from profligate bureaucrats.

Of course, senior Trump officials aren’t the only Christian politicians who have besmirched the name of Jesus in recent years. It also includes multiple pro-life congressmen who, despite their public policy positions, insisted their mistresses obtain an abortion after they became pregnant. In contrast to the conservative political platforms these men supported – predicated on family values and Christian principles – they pursued extra-marital relationships and then demanded the murder of a life they helped create. Such hypocrisy nauseates those already cynical of Christianity.

What’s more, each of these officials denied all wrongdoing, insisting he had crossed no criminal, ethical, or spiritual lines. Perhaps that’s not surprising. The ‘Christian’ motivated by self-interest and personal gratification rarely cares about confessing his sin and repenting.

Sadly, the tarnishing of Christianity isn’t limited to prominent and powerful people. It includes celebrated churches and popular pastors as well. For example, last August one of Houston’s mega-churches refused to open its facilities to those left homeless from the historical flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey. Despite the massive size of the sanctuary (which seats nearly 17,000) and an enormous church campus, the pastor ordered the doors locked. Apparently there was no room in the inn for those in desperate need of compassion.

It was an act of incomprehensible selfishness. How could a pastor worth upwards of $40 million (and who owns multiple homes including a $10 million estate) and a church that spent nearly $100 million on renovations turn away the needy from its doors? The response stands in stark contrast to Jesus’ expectations for His followers, as illustrated in the parable of the Good Samaritan.

The pastor’s explanation merely compounded the problem. He insisted the church was inaccessible to outsiders because of flooding in and around its property. When photographs surfaced online refuting that claim, he quickly backtracked and opened the church doors.

But the damage was done. In the midst of one of the worst natural disasters in America’s history, the nation watched a prominent evangelical church and its pastor model behavior marked by greed, selfishness, and dishonesty instead of generosity, sacrifice, and integrity. What it learned was that the Church too often reflects the values of the world instead of the teachings of Christ.

More recently a highly esteemed evangelical pastor at a renowned suburban Illinois church resigned amid reports that he met in private with female leaders and congregants at hotels, in his summer home, on his yacht, and inside his private jet. He claimed that nothing inappropriate happened with these women; his actions simply reflected bad judgment. But according to the allegations of a half dozen women it wasn’t for lack of trying on his part that nothing happened.

That one of the nation’s most respected evangelical pastors could have a pattern of pursuing women that goes back decades is disturbing enough. But at least church leadership eventually intervened and secured his immediate resignation. They recognized that the pastor’s behavior violated biblical standards of holiness and purity. They understood that keeping him on staff would sully the reputation of the church and dishonor Christ.

What makes this story even more alarming, however, is that these same church elders found no issue with the pastor owning a second home on the lake, a yacht, and a personal jet. It never occurred to them that such ownership constituted a troubling misunderstanding of biblical stewardship and revealed an unbridled love for worldly possessions. (Click here for a detailed discussion on stewardship). Their indifference to the greed and selfishness evidenced by such misuse of the Lord’s resources signaled an astonishing message to society: Evangelicals believe such behavior is not sinful. In fact, it is to be celebrated as a sign of God’s blessing. God gives some Christians (including pastors) exorbitant sums of money to lavish themselves with luxuries, while other believers suffer in extreme poverty.

Unfortunately, these are not isolated or infrequent incidents; they simply reflect the most extreme and egregious examples of a dangerous condition gripping the heart of the Church. American Christianity increasingly ignores the growing greed, selfishness, materialism, and covetousness that has taken root and is flourishing in thousands of churches across the country, especially inside evangelical congregations. American Christians increasingly exhibit the same insatiable appetite for worldly treasure, power, and popularity desired by society as a whole.

What we fail to realize is that such behavior is more than a minor blemish on the Christian community. It has fully disfigured the body of Christ. Our unabashed embrace of this world is an affront to Jesus and mirrors the idolatry practiced by Israel in the Old Testament.

It ignores Jesus’ repeated statements on the subject and His numerous warnings to avoid pursuing the things of this world, and it reveals a willful and rebellious rejection of Scripture. Worse, it signifies a willful and rebellious rejection of Jesus Christ.

How could American Christianity – especially evangelicalism with its emphasis on orthodox doctrine, a personal relationship with Christ, and salvation by grace – enter into such an adulterous relationship with the world?

Obviously, it didn’t happen over night. Like most adulterous relationships, it happened over time. Initially, Christians and the Church simply flirted with the world. Over time that seemingly innocuous relationship grew to include secret kisses, which then evolved into heavy petting, and eventually morphed into full-blown adultery. Of course, like most adulterers the Church attempts to maintain the appearance of a healthy marriage with its betrothed (Jesus) and tries to hide its clandestine affair with the world.

Oddly, it largely succeeds in keeping its adultery hidden in plain sight (though it’s glaringly obvious to independent observers), because an overwhelming number of American Christians have bought into this grotesque expression of faith, ignoring Jesus admonition that “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and riches.” (Matthew 6:24, NLT).

It continues to thrive and spread throughout the Church in part because pastors are unwilling to confront this issue with their congregations since their lives and lifestyles evidence the same adulterous relationship with the world. This pattern of adulterous behavior continues to escalate in intensity and frequency among churchgoers because they have no interest in learning the truth. Of such people Paul says, “They follow their own desires and look for teachers who tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear. They reject truth and chase myths.” (2 Timothy 4:3-4).

This ongoing and blossoming affair does more than discredit the name of Christ and undermine the mission of the church; it consigns millions of churchgoers and would-be believers to eternal darkness by sanctioning an abominable sin and selling the souls of parishioners in exchange for this world’s momentary pleasures.

So what’s the solution? How does the Church exit this adulterous affair and renew its commitment to Christ? How does American Christianity return to its first love and extinguish its self-destructive love for the world?

Ideally, God sends a few prophets to preach a message of repentance and burdens thousands of prayer warriors to pray for national revival under the leadership of the Holy Spirit.

If this fails to galvanize the Church and Christian community to return to the Lord, then it’s likely God will intervene by removing the object of our affections from our lives: our prosperity, comfort, and security.

I hope and pray we quickly and wholeheartedly turn back to Him before it comes to that. Or worse, it becomes too late.

When Idolatry Thrives, the Church Subsides. Raising the Alarm on Greed and Materialism Within the Church.

Scripture speaks a great deal about the dangers of wealth. Jesus addressed the subject frequently during His ministry, issuing a number of powerful warnings to the rich. Yet for some reason the church tends to ignore these messages or explain them away, signaling their irrelevance to churchgoers. But we disregard them at our own peril.

The apostle Paul offered this advice on the topic. “People who long to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many foolish and harmful desires that plunge them into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. And some people, craving money, have wandered from the true faith and pierced themselves with many sorrows.” (1 Timothy 6: 9-10, NLT).

No ambiguity exists in Paul’s message. Those who desire wealth succumb to temptation and become ensnared in destructive lusts that eventually ruin their lives. Wicked and ungodly behavior flows from the insatiable appetite for money, which even leads some churchgoers away from authentic faith and into eternal torment.

Paul’s candor and clarity make his warning nearly impossible to mistake. Don’t pursue prosperity; and avoid the love of money! These deadly desires will drive you away from Christ and toward a future filled with sin and suffering.

Yet the world, perhaps not surprisingly, embraces these desires without hesitation. Unfortunately, the Church and its membership increasingly do as well. In America especially, the lust for riches and craving for earthly treasures are escalating exponentially inside church walls, and within the hearts of believers.

How do Christians justify our obvious disobedience to Paul’s counsel? Rather easily as it turns out.

We proclaim we have no desire to be rich and insist we do not love money. It is a ridiculous response in face of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Our lifestyles mirror those of our non-Christian friends and neighbors. Like them, we fill our lives with earthly comforts and our homes with worldly treasures. And we do so with such excess that it is absurd to suggest we neither love money nor lust for wealth.

What we fail to understand is that our spending habits and unbridled materialism represent an outward manifestation of our hearts’ desires. Irrespective of what we say, our lifestyles are the best evidence of what we really believe.

Jesus’ encounter with the rich young ruler illustrates this. You may recall that the young man approaches Jesus with a question. He wants to know what he needs to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus tells him to keep the commandments. The ruler immediately responds that since his youth he has kept all the commandments. So Jesus tells him, “One thing you lack: Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow Me.” (Mark 10:21, NKJV).

This exchange offers incredible insight into the human condition and the deceptive nature of the heart. The rich young ruler genuinely believes he has never violated God’s commandments. As a result, he is confident his love for God is real and he will spend eternity in heaven. He simply wants Jesus to confirm that fact.

But Jesus knows the man’s heart; that he loves worldly treasures more than God and therefore will never love God with all his heart, soul, and mind (what Jesus refers to as the great commandment). He worships wealth and conducts his life in accordance with that priority, thereby violating the first of the Ten Commandments.

To reveal this truth and expose that barrier to genuine faith, Jesus instructs the young ruler to crucify his materialism. Only by selling everything and donating to the poor can the young man break the bondage of idolatry. Only then can he enter into a real relationship with Christ.

The ruler, of course, declines Jesus’ offer. Scripture informs us the man “was sad at this word, and went away grieved, for he had great possessions.” (Mark 10:22, NKJV). His love for worldly treasure surpasses his love for God (and desire for eternal life).

Sadly, an overwhelming number of Christians share this outlook. We have convinced ourselves we love the Lord with all our heart, mind, and soul, and are certain we will spend eternity in heaven. Like the rich young ruler we are completely unaware of our spiritual blind spot: that we love worldly things more than we love the Lord.

For proof we need look no further than our homes, garages, closets, and cars, and then consider Jesus’ challenge. Are we willing to sell everything we have and distribute the proceeds to the poor, and then follow Christ as His disciple?

I imagine every reader will agree that he or she is willing. Of course, Jesus didn’t tell the rich young ruler to be willing to sell everything. If He had, the ruler would have quickly agreed he was willing. Our willingness, then, is irrelevant, absent substantive action that puts that willingness into practice.

The truth is, most of us have some possession, some treasure, which compromises our relationship with the Lord. And in fact many of us, like the rich young ruler, have an idolatrous relationship with wealth and material possessions. It impedes us from knowing Christ intimately and hinders us from pursuing His call on our livesiHH.

At this moment Jesus is challenging each of us: Go, sell those treasures you have worshipped for too long, donate them to the poor, and fully surrender your life to Christ.

Avoid the temptation to simply say your treasures are not an idol; that you do not love them. That is a lie from the devil. You must permanently rid yourself of them if you want to be free from idolatry and its grip on your life.

Do you resist? Dismiss the challenge as ludicrous?

Our inability to respond to Christ’s challenge, or even understand the necessity for doing so, reveals the condition of our hearts. They mirror the heart of the rich young ruler, filled with deceit, greed, and idolatry.

Instead of closely examining Scripture, prayerfully considering what God wants, and asking the Holy Spirit for guidance to do what is right, most of us parse words to justify our lifestyles and explain why the Bible does not prohibit our insatiable materialism and impassioned pursuit of prosperity. In fact, we often insist that God wants us to enjoy the lavish American lifestyle.

Such outlandish views, however, simply prove Paul’s point that wealth and greed lead us to embrace a false faith that ends in destruction.

Jesus understood the ease with which the heart convinces us that our covetous lifestyles are approved by Scripture and ordained by God. To dispel this myth, which enjoys incredible popularity in the Church, Jesus declared, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:23, NKJV). Knowing His listeners would think He had misspoken, He repeated Himself, “Children, how hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:24b, NKJV).

How can Jesus make such sweeping statements? And on what basis does He claim that the wealthy face considerable difficulty gaining eternal life?

The answer lies in Jesus’ two statements. In the first, Jesus references “those who have riches” while in the second He mentions “those who trust in riches.” His point, of course, is that those who have riches frequently trust in riches – preventing them from placing their trust in God. In a similar vein, those who have worldly treasure often love their worldly treasures – supplanting their love for God.

Many Christians presume this issue does not apply to them. However, that is a dangerous perspective, and one that runs counter to the evidence. For example, the average American churchgoer gives about 2% of his/her income to the church.

That fact reveals a great deal about our spiritual condition, and suggests we have much in common with a farmer from one of Jesus’ parables. Jesus shared this parable in response to a request that He intervene and secure an inheritance for a young man.

The ground of a certain rich man yielded plentifully. And he thought within himself, saying, ‘What shall I do, since I have no room to store my crops?’ So he said, ‘I will do this. I will pull down my barns and build greater, and there I will store all my crops and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?’” (Luke 12:16-20, NKJV).

American Christians are the modern manifestation of this farmer. We share his selfish spirit. When our incomes increase or we experience economic windfalls, we typically acquire more worldly treasures and reward ourselves with more comforts.

Like the farmer who tore down perfectly good barns and replaced them with bigger ones, we trade-in perfectly good cars for newer ones; we upgrade working electronic devices (e.g. cell phones and televisions) with faster, fancier ones; we renovate functional kitchens and bathrooms to better suit our evolving tastes; we replace clothes and shoes we no longer like with trendier ones that fit our style; we move into bigger houses in more prestigious neighborhoods, so we have more room to store more of the possessions we desire.

Our choices, which are simply more extravagant versions of the ones the rich farmer made, put us in the middle of Jesus’ parable. We are the lead character in His story. So what message does Christ have for us?

We, too, jeopardize our souls as we chase the intoxicating riches, crass materialism, and indulgent excesses that increasingly define the American Dream. And it is not a remote risk. When our commitment to Christ extends no further than our lips, and does not extend to our checkbooks, we signal our belief that this world’s passing pleasures are of greater value than eternal life with the risen Lord. It is an incredibly foolish choice. But it is one made by millions of Christians every day.

Our selfish, greedy lifestyles have numerous causes but perhaps none more critical than a severe misunderstanding of biblical stewardship. We mistakenly believe that we take ownership of the income and financial blessing God steers our way. As such we can do with them as we want: lavish ourselves with luxury, pamper ourselves with pleasure, or consume the latest amenity that catches our eye.

Sure, we give a little to the church and less fortunate. But we spend the vast majority of our financial resources on ourselves. We refuse to recognize that it is God’s money. All of it. And He expects us to invest in things that drive His agenda, further the gospel, and accomplish things of eternal value.

Our selfish use of God’s money has dire consequences. Jesus says, “If you are untrustworthy about worldly wealth, who will trust you with the true riches of heaven?” (Luke 16:11, NLT). Our unfaithfulness in stewarding the financial resources God has entrusted to us in this world means we will have no heavenly riches entrusted to us. And that’s the best-case scenario for those who worship at the altar of materialism and greed.

Scripture makes clear that the likeliest outcome for those who pursue prosperity and love worldly treasure is eternal darkness. When explaining the meaning of the parable of the sower, Jesus informs His disciples that the seed sown among thorns are those who hear the Word of God but “the cares of this world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the desire for other things enter in and choke the Word, and it becomes unfruitful.” (Mark 4:19).

Once again Jesus reminds us of the deceitful nature of wealth and worldly treasure. Our desire for such things distracts us from a healthy relationship with God and eventually sabotages our faith.

We may insist that we love neither riches nor worldly treasure, but our lifestyles and spending choices contradict that claim. While sharing the parable of the rich farmer Jesus offered this warning. “Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses.” (Luke 12:15, NKJV).

It is important to note the implication of that statement. Jesus is equating the farmer’s lifestyle (which is comparable to the lifestyle of many American Christians) with covetousness. That troubling revelation ought to concern us since Scripture clearly defines covetousness as idolatry (see Ephesians 5:5 and Colossians 3:5).

Some may wonder why we can’t simultaneously pursue a genuine relationship with God and satisfy our desire for the riches of this world. Jesus answers that question in unmistakable language at the conclusion of his teaching on stewardship. He says, “No one can serve two masters. For you will hate the one and love the other; or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and be enslaved to money.” (Luke 16:13, NLT).

Unfortunately, most of us have little interest in exploring what the Bible says about our financial lifestyles and the danger we invite when we chase wealth and riches. Jesus addresses that danger directly in His remarks to the Laodicean Church. “I know all the things you do, that you are neither hot nor cold. I wish that you were one or the other. But since you are like lukewarm water, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich. I have everything I want. I don’t need a thing!’ And you don’t realize that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked.” (Revelation 3:15-17, NLT).

Like the Laodiceans, we have become so entrenched in the world and so enamored with its treasure that we fail to understand our condition. We have convinced ourselves that we are people of God when in fact we are lukewarm pretenders. We are neither on fire for God and His agenda, nor are we refreshing water for a culture dying of spiritual thirst. Worse, wealth and comfort have established in our hearts a spirit of pride and self-reliance. We don’t know what it means to truly trust God on a daily basis. We are spiritually wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked. And we are on the cusp of facing God’s judgment if we don’t repent from our lifestyles of greed and covetousness.

Our lifestyles should instead mirror the example provided by the New Testament believers of Macedonia. Paul said, “They are being tested by many troubles, and are very poor. But they are also filled with abundant joy, which has overflowed in rich generosity. For I can testify that they gave not only what they could afford, but far more. And they did it of their own free will. They begged us again and again for the privilege of sharing in the gift for the believers in Jerusalem. They even did more than we had hoped.” (2 Corinthians 8:2-5a, NLT).

This is the model of financial stewardship that Jesus calls us to embrace and live. In contrast to the wealth and excess enjoyed by American believers, the Macedonian believers were impoverished and burdened with economic troubles. Despite their onerous financial circumstances, they gave generously to their needy brethren in Jerusalem, and did so freely and with great joy. They considered it an honor to help those in God’s family and begged Paul for the opportunity to do so. They put the welfare and interests of others ahead of their own.

Their example offers us a clear illustration of what sacrificial giving looks like.

The Macedonians, out of their poverty, gave generously and sacrificially. In contrast we, out of our abundance, give paltry sums to the Lord (as a % of our income). We resist God’s prompting and guidance to give more, and instead convince ourselves that the best way to honor Christ is to spend nearly all our income on enjoying the good life. In doing so, we move further down the path that leads to destruction.

Sacrificial giving was also the lesson Jesus emphasized to His disciples outside the Temple. After observing worshippers drop money in the collection box, including many wealthy people who donated large sums and one poor widow who gave two small coins, He declared, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has given more than all the others who are making contributions. For they gave a tiny part of their surplus, but she, poor as she is, has given everything she had to live on.” (Mark 12:43-44, NLT).

The wealthy gave exponentially more than the widow. But Jesus commends the widow on her stewardship and asserts that she gave the most. Why? Because she gave sacrificially and out of a deep love for God.

Christ wants us to follow the widow’s example. We, too, ought to give sacrificially to the Church and Christian ministries that advance the gospel. Sacrificial giving means it hurts financially. We resist the temptation to buy non-necessities and indulge in extravagances, and use those resources to fund the Lord’s work instead. And we give out of joy, not begrudgingly.

This is a difficult model to follow. And it is made all the more difficult when we fuel our selfish desires by chasing prosperity and accumulating worldly treasures. These pursuits pose a real threat to our spiritual vitality and relationship with God. It is why the apostle John warns, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” (1 John 2:15, NKJV).

The basis for John’s counsel not to love the world is critical for Christians to understand. He explains that you cannot love God if you love the world. And the more wealth we obtain and the more treasures we amass, the more likely we are to turn our backs on God and place our trust in worldly riches.

Christ gives potential disciples similar guidance. “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.”

Investing in God’s work here on earth accrues to us eternal treasure, whereas earthly treasure is fleeting. Why would anyone jeopardize eternal life and heavenly treasure for eighty years of earthly pleasure? It is an insane exchange.

Yet millions of churchgoers have placed that bet, believing they can love the Lord with their lips on Sunday while simultaneously becoming intoxicated with worldly riches the rest of the week. They believe they can ignore what Jesus taught about financial stewardship and disregard His numerous warnings about wealth and money, without consequence.

By fostering an environment in which greed and idolatry thrives among believers, the Church compromises its credibility with the culture and undermines its authority to speak to society on issues of morality and biblical truth. If we want to impact the nation for Christ we must embrace all of Jesus’ teachings and not just the ones we find palatable and easy to follow.

As you consider how to respond to this message, meditate on these words from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21; NKJV).

Now ask yourself, ‘Where is my treasure?’

Christian Syncretism And the American Church: A Perilous Partnership

Syncretism is a technical term used to describe the mixing of two distinct religions into a single hybrid faith. Historically, within the Christian community, syncretism has been applied primarily to new believers in the developing world who retain a portion of their traditional religion and layer elements of Christianity onto it. Examples of this include the continued practice of voodoo and witchcraft while proclaiming Jesus as Lord.

Of equal concern to the church in this area has been the retention of social practices that, though not rooted in traditional religion, nevertheless violate clear biblical principles. Examples include ostracizing widows from the community and the practice of polygamy.

Curiously, the American church rarely examines itself internally for evidence of syncretism. When it does, the focus has been primarily on the most egregious and easily dismissed transgressions. Examples include universalism, the introduction of new age beliefs (such as the power of positive thinking), and theological flexibility on issues of personal holiness.

Meanwhile the most widespread syncretic practice within the American church flourishes, and is largely ignored and unaddressed by Christian leaders. It is a blind spot that threatens more than the health of the local church body and its ability to transform society. It risks leading millions, if not tens of millions, of churchgoers down a perilous path of spiritual destruction.

The blind spot is the grafting of Christianity onto the foundation of the American Dream (defined by Merriam-Webster as “a life marked by material wealth and comfort”). The result is a faux faith whose adherents are nearly indistinguishable from unbelievers on matters of prime importance to the American Dream: allocation of financial resources, investment of time, self-determination, and an emphasis on comfort, safety, and leisure.

What makes this expression of syncretism so dangerous is that it sounds so good. And we, the church, have been at it for so long that we have become adept at framing our pursuit of the American Dream in spiritual terms. In an effort to vindicate our lifestyles, we distort and misuse Scripture in grotesque ways – often embracing as truth the exact opposite meaning of whatever message Jesus taught on the subject.

But Scripture is unambiguous on the matter. The call of Christ and the American Dream are contrary to one another. Each advocates principles categorically opposed by the other. To pursue one necessarily requires rejection of the other. They cannot co-exist. Any attempt to splice the two together into a harmonious hybrid that balances Jesus’ teachings with the world’s lifestyle always fails. Jesus refuses to compromise or sanitize His truth so we can satisfy our infatuation with the world.

For the American church this dichotomy is too difficult to digest. Preaching such a position not only risks losing current confessors of the Christian faith, it complicates the conversion of new practitioners. Worst of all, preaching such a message would require living the message first. And that is perhaps the greatest barrier.

Few Americans steeped in the benefits and pleasures of the American Dream are able to renounce that worldview – certainly not without great difficulty. The world’s clutches go too deeply into our flesh. Its lures are too appealing and hypnotic. Its indulgences are too satisfying.

At the same time the church is committed to propagating the Christian faith. It wants to proclaim Jesus the Lord of all. It wants to gain adherents and grow the size of Christ’s bride. And it wants to remain faithful until His return.

So how do you reconcile the contradictory teachings of these rival worldviews: the American Dream on the one hand and the call of Christ on the other? If you are the American church you graft them together. This, of course, requires ignoring or distorting significant sections of Scripture. But it is a small price to pay for the opportunity to chase the American Dream while professing fidelity to Jesus.

A deep and comprehensive discussion of this issue would fill enough pages to complete a multi-volume manuscript, which far exceeds the limitations of this blog. Instead, I’ll highlight several themes integral to the Gospel that the American church ignores or distorts because they undermine the message of the American Dream.

These are not tangential matters referenced obscurely in Scripture. They are fundamental truths that Jesus emphasized over and over in His teaching, and that the apostles reinforced throughout the epistles. They provide believers the proper understanding of what it means to place one’s faith in Christ and commit oneself to Him as a disciple. In short, they apprise would-be Christians of the expectations Jesus has for them so they can make an informed decision of whether to follow Him or not.

1] Near the end of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount He shared this truth with His audience. “You can enter God’s Kingdom only through the narrow gate. The highway to hell is broad, and its gate is wide for the many who choose that way. But the gateway to life is very narrow and the road is difficult, and only a few ever find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14, NLT).

Notice Jesus’ emphasis on the size of the gate that leads to eternal life. It is incredibly narrow. That narrowness speaks not just of the fact that Christ alone is “the way, the truth, and the life,” and that “no one can come to the Father except through [Christ]” (see John 14:6), but also of what it means to place one’s faith in Christ. Authentic faith leads down a long and difficult road, as Jesus asserts unambiguously in the above verse.

This difficulty arises not from our own efforts to seek out pain, suffering, and misery in some vain attempt to warrant God’s mercy. Such misplaced struggles fail to grasp that God’s mercy and grace are never earned. Nor is salvation.

Nor is this difficulty reflected in the garden-variety trials experienced by all people, regardless of faith. Jesus is not referring to health issues, a job loss, or relationship problems.

Instead, the difficulty arises simply by following Christ’s example, keeping His commandments, and pursuing a real relationship with Him – all of which is basic foundational Christianity. However, in living out our faith in these ways we incite remarkable resistance from several sources.

First, our flesh fights us. The desperately depraved heart that resides in each of us before we come to Christ refuses to die easily. It does anything and everything necessary to prevent us from unseating it as the sole authority in our lives. This includes deceiving us into believing that God wants us to enjoy the American Dream as part of His blessing and to savor the comfort and pleasure of the good life. Our flesh persuades many of us to profess Christ as Lord in name only, allowing it to retain actual control of our lives. We must battle the flesh every day to keep it crucified and prevent it from securing a foothold in our lives.

Second, our culture mocks us. American society despises biblical Christianity (though it is willing to tolerate most apostate forms of the religion). They find offensive our belief in the power of prayer, our insistence that Jesus alone offers salvation, our embrace of biblical morality, and our unwillingness to compromise truth. Steadfast Christians offer a daily reminder to secular society that God does exist and He holds accountable all those who refuse to repent. This drives many of them to antagonize those who faithfully follow Christ.

Third, the world tempts us. We are bombarded daily with messages informing us of our need for the latest technology, apparel, treasure, or invention. Advertisers hound us with false promises that ring true because they’re packaged in slick Madison Avenue marketing campaigns. If only we buy their product we will become cooler, healthier, better looking, more popular, more successful, and more satisfied – and will attain a state of nirvana.

Fourth, the forces of darkness oppose us. Satan and his demonic legions go to great lengths to prevent people from placing their faith in Christ. One of his most effective strategies, especially in America, is to convince us that the American Dream is not just consistent with following Christ, it represents one of the great benefits of following Him. In doing so, Satan undermines many of Jesus’ teachings and refocuses our attention on enjoying the good life and pursuing leisure, luxury, pleasure, and popularity instead of intimacy with Christ.

We must be mindful that the call of Christ leads down a difficult path while the American Dream promises ease and comfort. Too many in the church have chosen ease and comfort instead of obedience and convinced themselves it reflects God’s blessing. In doing so they have entered the broad gate that leads to destruction.

2] We must count the cost. It is surprising how few churchgoers understand that following Christ comes at considerable cost. Surprising because that truth appears in so many of Jesus’ teachings and parables, and is reinforced by the apostle Paul in unmistakable language.

In one such parable Jesus explained that a builder counts the cost before beginning construction to ensure he has sufficient resources to complete the project. Similarly, kings count the cost of going to war before waging an offensive campaign to ensure they have a reasonable likelihood of victory.

Christ then informs potential followers that they, too, must count the cost of becoming His disciple. Why? Because the cost is high. Jesus explained to the crowd that day in these terms. “Whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple.” (Luke 14:33, NLT).

That reflects absolute commitment. Jesus doesn’t ask for a portion of His follower’s lives. He asks for all of it. And contrary to popular teaching, He isn’t asking for His disciples to simply be willing to forsake all (in some conceptual, ethereal manner that never materializes into substantive action). He requires total abdication of control over their lives. You’re all-in or you are not a disciple.

What does that look like practically? It will vary by individual but will always look extreme and radical to the outside world (and to the apostate church). Speaking in broad terms, Paul offers us a glimpse of what Jesus’ statement means. “But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3:7-11; NKJV).

There is far too much in this passage for us to unpack here. For our purposes it is important to note that Paul recognizes that as a follower of Christ he is called to count as loss all things he previously valued, and to do so in his daily pursuit of Christ, which then serves as evidence of his faith.

Early in His ministry Jesus provides two metaphors for heaven. “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; and for joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking beautiful pearls, who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it.” (Matthew 13:44-46, NKJV).

Jesus is not suggesting we buy our way to heaven. Eternal life is extended by grace and not earned. What He is emphasizing is that salvation, though free, costs everything. That means when we accept Christ as Lord we yield every area of our life to Him. We retain no rights to our lives, our time, our resources, our dreams, our income, our safety, or our career. Nothing. In other words, we ‘forsake all.’

That is one way we demonstrate that we love the Lord with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. And it is evidence of not only our love for the Lord but the authenticity of our faith.

The American Dream, in contrast, promotes the preeminence of consumerism, luxury, leisure, entertainment, comfort, and excess. Obviously, none of that comports with what Jesus taught. Not even remotely.

3] Sacrificial Stewardship. When we yield the entirety of our lives to Christ and forsake all, what does that look like in practical terms? Does God really want us to literally sell everything, give to the poor, and then take up our cross and follow Him in poverty, as He counseled the rich, young ruler? (See Matthew 19:16-22).

Pastors are in almost universal agreement that Jesus gave the rich, young ruler that guidance because wealth was what prevented him from fully committing himself to Christ. They then conclude that since no one in their congregation puts wealth or material possessions ahead of Christ, the message to the rich young ruler has no relevance for the American church.

Which is shocking. Because if the American church is not the modern manifestation of the rich, young ruler, then the issue of spiritual adultery (loving the world more than the Lord) simply does not exist on the planet today. Like the ruler we are comfortable in the Lord’s presence talking to Him. Like the ruler, we are confident in our current spiritual condition. And like the ruler, we are so blinded by our profound love for the world that we cannot fathom its existence.

This passion for wealth and worldly possessions is evidenced in the verse most frequently cited as a favorite by churchgoers, especially within evangelical circles. “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11, NIV). We then emphasize God’s plans to prosper us when we quote it. No misused verse better reveals churchgoers who have layered apostate faith onto their pursuit of the American Dream.

Not only do we demonstrate our lack of understanding of the context when we employ it to justify our prosperity (which happens in hundreds of churches and at thousands of Bible studies every week), but our near universal decision to use the NIV version exclusively reveals our bias for justifying our love for the world. (For a brief but helpful discussion of the verse, read here).

Jesus provided a very simple but profound test for whether we love wealth and worldly possessions more than Him after advising us to store up treasure in heaven and not on earth. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21; NKJV).

Most of us give somewhere between 2% and 10% of our income to the church and/or Christian ministries. Then we spend the remaining 90%+ lavishing ourselves with whatever material pleasures our heart desires. Does that sound like the action of a committed Christian or someone pursuing the American Dream?

Jesus makes it clear that we are stewards of the financial resources He gives us; we are not to treat those resources as our own to spend as we please. To the faithful steward Jesus will say, “you were faithful over a few things, I will make you a ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your Lord.” (Matthew 25:21, NKJV).

Over and over again Jesus and the apostles warn of the dangers of wealth and love for the world. One compelling parable, in particular, serves as a constant reminder to (and indictment of) the American church.

The ground of a certain rich man yielded plentifully. And he thought within himself, saying, ‘What shall I do, since I have no room to store my crops?’ So he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build greater, and there I will store all my crops and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?’ ‘So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.’” (Luke 12:16-21, NKJV).

Were it retitled for the current age, this passage would be labeled the parable of the American Dream. The rich man represents the bulk of Americans, including most churchgoers, who choose to spend increases in income primarily on themselves. They cannot satisfy their lust for the things of the world, always expanding their collection of material possessions. Also consistent with the American Dream is the emphasis on self in attaining the success that yielded the increased wealth.

Finally, the rich man in this parable decides to use his free time on himself, satisfying his carnal cravings. The American Dream, too, advocates a lifestyle of comfort, luxury, leisure, and pleasure. We spend an inordinate amount of our time chasing our desires for worldly activities such as sports, entertainment, shopping, vacations, and thrills. As Americans we believe we have earned it, and as Christians we believe God wants us happy. So we chase these worldly outlets as aggressively as our non-Christian peers.

Of course, these activities are not innately evil or sinful. But just as we direct a disproportionate amount of our income towards ourselves, leaving God the crumbs, so too we invest far more of our time on our own pleasure and interests than in cultivating our relationship with Christ and advancing His agenda. We do not practice what we profess. The chasm between our claim Jesus is Lord and our excess pursuit of the world reveals our faith as disingenuous. We are all talk and no walk in this area.

Jesus’ warning to the man for whom the earlier parable was given is germane for us as well. “Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses.” (Luke 12:15, NKJV). It is a timely reminder for all Americans, especially those in the Church. Probably far more than we care to admit.

Conclusion: Our spiritual idolatry (worship of worldly things instead of God) and spiritual adultery (grafting our pursuit of the American Dream with our professed commitment to Christ) has serious repercussions. For the American Church, it risks missing Jesus’ return if it does not awaken to this blind spot and begin teaching biblical truth to the lost sheep of America. For the individual churchgoer the risk involves embracing a faux faith taught by an apostate church. Jesus describes the dire consequences of that decision in this way.

Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’” (Matthew 7:21-23, NKJV).

The Ultimate Gift.

What is the greatest gift you could ever receive? Deep friendships? Perfect health? Unimaginable wealth? Peace of mind? Absolute power? Long life? Beauty? A brilliant intellect? Worldwide fame?

At first blush each of those gifts might sound fantastic. But they all suffer from the same shortcoming. They cease to exist upon your death, at which time you no longer enjoy their benefits. At best, you might have them for a hundred years. Likely, you would experience them for a much shorter period of time. Worse than that, such gifts only satisfy emotional, physical, or carnal cravings but never address the deeper longings of the soul.

The ultimate gift, in contrast to those above, satisfies your spiritual hunger, gives your life meaning and purpose, provides you with the hope and strength needed to persevere through difficult circumstances, and reveals God’s immeasurable love for you. Best of all, the ultimate gift lasts forever.

This ultimate gift is available to everyone. Regardless of your ethnicity, your economic status, your gender, your physical attributes, your moral failures, your religious upbringing, your popularity, your political affiliation, your social strata, or your intelligence, you can receive this gift. No matter how desperate your condition, how much society rejects you, how ugly you view yourself, how unworthy you feel, how poor you are, how heinous a crime you committed, how hopeless you feel, how unsuccessful you are, this gift awaits you.

It is the gift of spiritual salvation: the opportunity to experience a real relationship with God in this world, and enjoy eternal life with Him in heaven.

How does one receive this gift? Before answering that it might help to understand why one needs the gift.

The Bible tells us “all have sinned” and that “there is no one righteous, not even one.” (See Romans 3:10, 23. HCSB translation). The fact is no matter how hard we try we still sin. Not only that, but our best efforts to please God and to do good fall far short of His standards. The Bible says “all our acts of righteousness are like filthy rags.” (See Isaiah 64:6).

What is the consequence for our sin? The Bible declares, “the wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23. HCSB). This verse is not referring to a physical death. Instead it speaks of a spiritual death in which we remain forever separated from God. Instead of spending eternity in heaven we are condemned to hell, which the Bible describes as a place of everlasting darkness, torment, wailing, and gnashing of teeth. Obviously none of us wants to spend a moment there, let alone eternity.

So how do we keep from ending up there? Most religions teach the need to earn our salvation by performing good works, acts of charity, and making sure our virtues outweigh our sins. We are told that when we come before God he will compare our good deeds with our bad deeds. If the former outnumber the latter we will gain admittance into heaven. In other words, we alone possess the power to earn our place in eternity.

The Bible, however, disagrees with that consensus. Instead it teaches “no one is made righteous by the works of the law.” (See Galatians 2:16, and Romans 3:20). In other words, no one can work there way into heaven with good deeds. No amount of righteous living will earn a person eternal life with God. What hope is there, then?

Our only hope lies in Jesus Christ. The Bible tells us that only Jesus Christ lived a perfect life. Not once did he sin. He obeyed all of God’s commandments and never violated one. Therefore, He was righteous in God’s eyes.

To reconcile sinful mankind with Himself, God “sent His Son (Jesus) to be the propitiation for our sins” by dying a brutal death on the cross. (See 1 John 2:2, and Romans 3:25). His sacrificial death accomplished two things. First, it imputed (or assigned) our sins to Christ. This means Jesus bore on the cross the wrath of God that rightfully was due us. Second, it imputed to us the righteousness of Christ.

This powerful truth is worth restating. Christ endured the wrath owed to us while His righteousness was assigned to us. As a result we can be restored into a right relationship with God. This is the gospel of Jesus Christ.

What, then, must we do to secure this gift? Place our faith in Christ and surrender our lives to Him. It really is that simple. The Bible says that God’s righteousness is available “through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.” (See Romans 3:22).

What does is mean to place your faith in Christ? Several things. First, faith includes repentance. Both Jesus and John the Baptist began their ministries with the phrase, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (See Matthew 3:2 and 4:17, NKJV). When a crowd asked the apostle Peter what they must do to be saved he responded, “Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins.” (See Acts 2:38). Repentance involves two components. First, we must commit to turning away from the pattern of sin in our lives and, second, we commit to turning to the example of godliness Christ gives us.

Second, faith includes a verbal confession of Jesus as Lord and belief in your heart. The Bible explains it this way: “If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes to righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made to salvation.” (See Romans 10:9-10, NKJV). In other words, it is not just enough to declare with your mouth, “I believe in Jesus.” You must believe with the heart.

When we trust in Christ for our salvation we “are justified freely by God’s grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” The term justified here means ‘declared righteous.’ Redemption indicates we were purchased at a price, which was the blood Jesus shed on the cross. In other words, by His mercy God declares us righteous because Christ’s sacrifice on the cross paid the debt of our transgressions.

Finally, what does it mean to surrender our lives to Christ and make Him Lord? The apostle Paul offers this thorough definition: “But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. But indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.” (See Philippians 3:7-11, NKJV. I urge you to study this passage carefully as it touches on some of the previous biblical truths we discussed).

Jesus defines surrender in more succinct terms, telling potential followers “So, likewise, whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple.” (See Luke 14:33, NKJV).

In summation, the entirety of the Good News of Jesus Christ, as discussed above, is captured unambiguously in this final Bible verse. “For you are saved by grace through faith, and not from yourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” (See Ephesians 2:8, emphasis mine).

If you are still weighing what to believe, take time to read studiously through the above verses a second time. As you do, ask God to open your heart to Him and reveal His truth to you. He will gladly answer that prayer.

It’s Time to Choose: Judgment or Jesus.

Recently, as 2017 came to a close, I decided to spend a few hours on New Years Eve reading and reflecting on Scripture. For whatever reason I focused on chapters 13-18 of Revelation.

These chapters describe: the two beasts who, along with Satan, form an evil trinity that virulently opposes the holy Trinity of Father, Son, and Spirit; the three angels who proclaim blessing and judgment; the seven bowls of God’s wrath and judgment; and the city of Babylon (which represents modern civilization) and her utter destruction. John the apostle, the author of Revelation, offers a detailed and vivid account of the world’s end in these six chapters.

In particular he warns of the final pair of antichrists who will “wage war against God’s holy people and conquer them” (13:7, NLT, and throughout); will “deceive all the people who belong to this world” (13:8); and will control the global economy, requiring anyone who participates in commerce to receive “a mark on the right hand or on the forehead” to reflect their allegiance to the antichrist. Although those who receive the mark will enjoy the temporary material benefits offered by this world, in the end they “must drink the wine of God’s anger that has been poured full strength into God’s cup of wrath, and will be tormented with fire and burning … that will rise forever and ever, and they will have no relief day or night” (14:9-11).

It is important to note that according to this passage of Scripture there is a time coming when no one can participate in the global economy unless they have voiced fidelity to the antichrist and worship him. Those who buy and sell in the world’s marketplace reveal their devotion to the devil because “no one can buy or sell anything without the mark” of the beast (13:17).

In contrast, those who belong to Christ will refuse the mark, excluding them from participating in the global economy. Their refusal will lead to more than just an inability to buy and sell in the marketplace. It will lead to imprisonment and death.

What a dramatic difference those competing scenarios represent. Those of the world whose names are not written in the Lamb’s Book of Life will enjoy the material spoils, luxuries, and excesses of this world. The people of God, however, will bear immeasurable pain, suffering, and tribulation.

In the face of such a traumatic and agonizing scenario John warns his audience to keep in mind the words of the prophet Jeremiah, who he paraphrases, “Anyone who is destined for prison will be taken to prison. Anyone destined to die by the sword will die by the sword” (13:10a). Those who belong to Christ must come to terms with their destiny so they can “endure persecution patiently and remain faithful” and “obey (God’s) commands and maintain their faith in Jesus” (13:10b, 14:12).

It is critical that we remain mindful of the fact that the two scenarios described above represent the short-term outcome for the two groups John identifies: those of the world and those who belong to Christ. In the short-term the worldly survive and thrive as the global economy flourishes and produces unprecedented wealth, while the godly suffer terribly and undergo brutal deaths. In the long-term, however, the scenarios are reversed. The worldly spend eternity in the lake of fire with the devil and will be tormented day and night forever and ever [See 20:10, 14-15], while those in Christ spend eternity in heaven, which overflows with peace, love, and joy.

As I read Revelation and was reminded once again of God’s wrath and judgment poured out on all those who love the world and worship evil, a sense of sadness settled on me. How could people choose to spend eternity in continuous, unrelenting agony? Why would anyone reject the Savior for Satan?

And then it dawned on me. Such people choose to embrace the short-term pleasures and comforts of this world in the hope that there are no long-term consequences. In contrast, those in Christ embrace His promise of future glory and therefore willingly accept the short-term trials and tribulations He sends our way, which refine our faith and demonstrate our love for Him.

After reflecting on those six chapters, I could read no more about judgment and wrath. So I asked God to direct me to a different passage; one filled with hope for those who are in Christ. I was quickly led to Romans 8.

Wow! What an awesome transition. After reading about God’s judgment and wrath in Revelation I now read these words from the apostle Paul: “So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). The fiery lake of torment and eternal suffering holds no power over the believer. For those in Christ are not subject to God’s wrath.

Why? Because they are judged righteous in Christ. Jesus’ substitutionary death on the cross bore God’s wrath on our behalf, so that we stand justified before God. Therefore, for those who belong to Christ there is NO CONDEMNATION. What an incredible truth. What a comforting promise.

Those in Christ Jesus, however, are not just the recipients of that amazing assurance. We also receive the Spirit of God as evidence of our authentic faith in Christ. And with the Spirit’s presence comes power. “Because you belong to (Jesus), the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death” (Romans 8:2).

It is important we understand that when we surrender our lives to Christ we not only receive the promise of eternal life and the gift of the Holy Spirit, we also receive an expectation of holiness. This holiness is unattainable on our own strength. It is only by the power of the Spirit that we grow to resemble the Lord in our speech, conduct, and thoughts.

Paul described it in these eloquent terms.

Those who are dominated by the sinful nature think about sinful things, but those who are controlled by the Holy Spirit think about things that please the Spirit. So letting your sinful nature control your mind leads to death. But letting the Spirit control your mind leads to life and peace. For the sinful nature is always hostile to God. It never did obey God’s laws, and it never will. That’s why those who are still under the control of their sinful nature can never please God. But you are not controlled by your sinful nature. You are controlled by the Spirit IF you have the Spirit of God living in you. (And remember that those who do not have the Spirit of Christ living in them do not belong to him at all)… Therefore, dear brothers and sisters, you have no obligation to do what your sinful nature urges you to do. For if you live by its dictates, you will die. But if through the power of the Spirit you put to death the deeds of your sinful nature, you will live” (Romans 8:5-9, 12-13 – emphasis mine).

What is Paul saying in this passage? Simply this. If we truly belong to Christ we will conduct our lives under the power of the Holy Spirit, who will empower us daily to crucify the flesh and surrender more fully our lives to Christ and for His glory. We will live more sacrificially, setting aside our own interests to further the will of the Lord. We will no longer allow our sinful nature to dictate our priorities, plans, and pursuits, nor use our time, income, and resources to advance its agenda of selfishness, pleasure, comfort, idolatry, hedonism, and materialism. Instead we will pursue that which magnifies the Lord and will obey all He asks of us, no matter the cost.

In short, those of us in Christ Jesus will live in a manner that is an extraordinary contrast to how those of the world live – since we are controlled by the Spirit and they are controlled by their sinful nature.

As you begin the New Year consider these questions.

1] Are you focused on the short-term (as those in the world are) or on the long-term (as those in Christ Jesus are)?

2] What does your calendar, your checkbook, and your thoughts reveal about your commitment to Christ? Does it reflect total surrender or half-hearted devotion?

3] In what areas of your life have you crucified your sinful nature? In what area(s) is God calling you to put to death your selfish flesh?

4a] How difficult would it be for you to no longer participate in the global economy?

b] How confident are you that the Lord will provide for your needs if you refuse to accept the mark of the beast?

c] Are you prepared for imprisonment or death if that is required to remain faithful to Christ?

5] Is eternity with Christ worth the loss of worldly treasure, safety, comfort, freedom, and pleasure?

6] What specific action(s) is the Lord calling you to take after reading and reflecting on this message?

Commentary: Faith, Politics, Culture, and Bible Prophecy.