Radical Christianity Does Not Exist

In recent years an increasing number of prominent voices have challenged Christians to pursue their faith more earnestly, leaving behind the casual Christianity that mars the landscape of faith to practice a more radical approach instead. They encourage the church to embrace Jesus’ most difficult teachings not just His palatable promises, and to adopt a holistic approach to faith not just one based on convenience, comfort, or ease.

And while much of what has been said and written on the topic of radical Christianity is biblically sound, well articulated, and urgently needed, a fundamental truth of Scripture frequently gets lost. Too often audiences are lead to believe that two legitimate forms of Christianity exist: casual and radical. The frail faith that loves the world, serves self-interests, ignores the Word, and relishes God’s promises but not His presence is just as authentic as the fervent faith that consumes hearts, transforms lives, dictates decisions, spurs sacrifice, and passionately pursues the Lord. The faith that lacks any proof of its presence is no less genuine than the faith with overwhelming evidence of its existence.

But nothing in Scripture validates that assessment. Not a single account of Jesus’ ministry captures Him affirming casual Christianity as a legitimate option for His followers. In fact, whenever Jesus distinguishes between the dedicated disciple and the casual fan He always emphasizes the insufficiency of the latter.

Simply put, casual Christianity does not exist. It is false faith. And radical Christianity only exists as a synonym for authentic Christianity, which always appears radical to the world.

So what differentiates the two? In a nutshell: the heart.

  • Authentic faith flows from and transforms the heart. Faux faith flows from the head and transforms outward appearance.
  • Authentic faith loves the Lord passionately. Faux faith loves lip service.
  • Authentic faith pursues the presence of Christ. Faux faith pursues the desires of self.
  • Authentic faith says, ‘Here I am Lord, send me.’ Faux faith says ‘Some other time, Lord.’
  • Authentic faith revels at the opportunity to serve the Lord sacrificially. Faux faith says ‘Sacrifice is legalism.’
  • Authentic faith stores up treasure in heaven. Faux faith pursues earthly treasure.
  • Authentic faith crucifies the flesh and dies to self. Faux faith seeks common ground for faith and flesh to co-exist.
  • Authentic faith declares, ‘Thy will be done, Lord.’ Faux faith proclaims, ‘Only when it doesn’t inconvenience or discomfort me.’
  • Authentic faith counts the cost and surrenders all. Faux faith counts the benefits and carves out exceptions.
  • Authentic faith rejoices when God places a claim on the calendar or wallet. Faux faith grudgingly groans, ‘Not again.’
  • Authentic faith celebrates grace’s freedom by cheerfully obeying God. Faux faith insists freedom from the law is freedom from unreasonable obedience.

Jesus emphasized the fact that not all who claim Him as Lord will enjoy eternal life (see Matthew 7:21-23). Those who embrace cultural, casual Christianity will instead find themselves cast into outer darkness. Don’t let that be you, my friend.

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Profile in Courage

Few have done more to further the gospel and build the church than the apostle Paul. He authored most of the New Testament, traveled throughout Europe and Asia to share the good news, and invested his entire post-conversion life to nurturing believers, persuading unbelievers, and teaching the truth. He suffered stonings, beatings, and floggings; endured hunger, weariness, and nakedness; escaped violent mobs, sailed turbulent seas, traveled foreign lands, and withstood false brethren. He preached, encouraged, rebuked, refreshed, and debated.

His legacy of faith, however, does not exist without the remarkable courage of a man named Ananias. Before he encountered Jesus, Paul ruthlessly persecuted the church and did everything in his power to destroy the fledgling faith. His desire to annihilate the church before his conversion, was as passionate as his effort to cultivate the church post conversion. It is that cruel man, known then as Saul, who Christ confronts outside Damascus, afflicts with blindness, and then sends into the city for further instructions.

Three days later the Lord appears to Ananias in a dream and tells him where to locate Paul, so he can restore his sight and baptize him in the Holy Spirit. Ananias resists. He informs God of Paul’s brutality against the church and argues that it’s not safe to meet with him, let alone baptize him. Jesus understands Ananias’ anxiety; so He explains that He has chosen Paul and has a plan for him.

Despite the overwhelming risk to life and limb, Ananias obeys. He ignores those voices that tell him that Paul is beyond redemption; that men so hostile to the gospel, so hateful to Christ, and so harmful to the church cannot be salvaged; that they are doomed to darkness. Instead he locates Paul, introduces himself as a brother in Christ, heals his blindness, and baptizes him.

The rest is history. Paul becomes the most influential individual in church history. Without Ananias, however, Paul the church pillar remains Saul the church killer.

How many of us avoid sharing the gospel with people antagonistic to Christianity; who denigrate the Lord or mock His people? How many of us calculate an individual’s likelihood of conversion before we discuss Jesus’ sacrifice? How many potential Pauls never hear the gospel because we assume their inflammatory rhetoric and brash hostility towards Christianity disqualify them from joining our ranks?

Take time this week to identify someone in your life unlikely to embrace Christ – someone who defiantly shakes his or her fist at God, condemns the church, and views Christians with contempt. Ask God to soften the person’s heart and provide you with an opportunity to share the good news of Jesus. Who knows, perhaps that person who appeared so opposed to God becomes an effective advocate for Him.

Creation Proclaims God

Imagine a group of scientists trekking through the jungles of South America. They come to a clearing and suddenly see dozens of ancient buildings carved from stone. Though weathered by the elements, these impressive structures still retain a degree of architectural splendor and their structurally sound and aesthetic design suggest the work of an advanced society.

As the researchers stand in awe, they express an interest in identifying the people who erected the buildings, and learning more about their culture, character and civilization. The opportunity to study and understand this creative community excites the group beyond comprehension.

Except for one. One scientist voices skepticism, insisting that a combination of ice, wind and rain sculpted the stone formations over time. Despite overwhelming evidence the structures were created – as testified by their beauty and intricacy – the cynic refuses to consider that possibility.

Such a scenario sounds ridiculous, right? How could anyone with a lick of sense come to that conclusion after seeing firsthand the remnants of an advanced civilization? Yet scientists, academics, and intellectuals arrive at an equally absurd conclusion all the time – albeit on a much grander scale – when they attribute the design and creation of our bodies, the planet, and our solar system to a mix of time and happenstance.

They cling to such preposterous reasoning despite the fact that an infinite number of clues point to the presence of a Creator. From the micro to the macro, from DNA to galaxies, the world contains such incredible precision, inspired artistry, and tremendous complexity that only an all-powerful and creative God could produce it.

The Psalmist declares this truth in eloquent terms, saying: “The heavens proclaim the glory of the Lord. The skies display his craftsmanship. Day after day they continue to speak; night after night they make him known. They speak without a sound or word; their voice is never heard. Yet their message has gone throughout the earth, and their words to all the world” (Psalm 19:1-4, NLT).

It is for this reason the apostle Paul says we have no excuse for coming to and knowing God. “For ever since the world was created,” he notes, “people have seen the earth and sky through everything God made (so) they can clearly see his invisible attributes – eternal power and divine nature” (Romans 1:20, NLT).

Why, then, do so many people reject the obvious and cling to the ridiculous? It’s probably a combination of intellectual pride and hostility towards God. If only they’d open their eyes and hearts to the Lord’s handiwork around them skeptics would see God’s fingerprints all over creation.

Do you deny God’s existence because you’re just too smart? Do you reject the possibility of a Creator because no irrevocable proof exists? Or maybe your faith has wavered recently or a tragedy has ignited questions about God’s presence.

Whatever the reason, let me encourage you to take a look around and allow the heavens to declare God’s glory, the earth’s complexity to testify of His handiwork, and the jaw-dropping beauty around you to proclaim His presence. Then take time to investigate and pursue this Almighty God who created the world.

Dangers of Feigned Obedience.

Remember the story of Balaam and Balak? Balak is the Moabite king alarmed by the arrival of the Israelites, who settle on the plains of Moab after they escape from Egypt and defeat the Amorites. Their numbers arouse fear in the king and his people. He is certain these foreigners represent a threat to the safety and prosperity of his kingdom.

So he sends messengers to Balaam, a diviner for hire, and asks him to come and place a curse on these interlopers. Balaam receives the messengers graciously and invites them to stay the night while he inquires of the Lord. Balaam then engages God in a dialogue and explains that the Moabite king wants the Israelites cursed so he can overpower them and force them from his land.

In response God tells Balaam, “You shall not go with them; you shall not curse the people, for they are blessed” (Numbers 22:12, NKJV). Balaam reluctantly obeys God’s command and informs the king’s servants that he cannot go back with them; the Lord has not given him permission. So the messengers return home and notify the king of Balaam’s refusal.

On hearing the news Balak decides to send a larger and more prestigious delegation to solicit Balaam’s assistance. They locate Balaam and deliver an attractive proposition. ‘The king will pay you handsomely for your work and will do whatever you request. Just come and curse these wretched people.’

Balaam knows God’s will on the matter. But the allure of wealth and power spur him to petition the Lord a second time, hopeful God will change His mind. Those selfish and impure motivations anger God but He nevertheless allows Balaam to accompany the envoys back to Balak.

During their journey the angel of the Lord blocks Balaam’s path three times. Balaam cannot see the angel but his donkey does. Each time, the beast takes evasive action to avoid the angel, which infuriates Balaam. So he beats the animal. After the third encounter the angel reveals himself and explains that he would have killed Balaam had the donkey not acted as it did. God used the donkey to spare Balaam’s life, despite his greed.

I wonder how many of us are like Balaam? We know what God wants us to do but we resist. We pray over and over, hopeful that God will change His mind and give us what we want. Our delayed obedience doesn’t reflect a genuine desire to get God’s plan right, it simply reveals a craving for our own agendas.

And how many of us respond like Balaam when God uses circumstances and events, sometimes difficult or tragic ones, to steer us away from the path that leads to destruction? We kick and scream at God, perhaps even shake our fist in defiance, because He refuses to allow us to pursue an agenda we are certain is best, but in fact is catastrophic.

Does the story of Balaam resonate with you? Has disobedience and rebellion left you in a place of ruin or misery?

Well, take heart. God desires a restored relationship with you. He will never abandon you. Instead, He patiently beckons you back to Him, calling you by name. Come home.

Encouraging the Faithful.

Eight years ago FBI agents arrested financier Bernie Madoff and charged him with operating a $65 billion Ponzi scheme that remains the largest financial fraud in U.S. history. Thousands of investors suffered devastating losses, forcing many of them to forgo retirement and leaving others in financial straights. Driven by insatiable greed Mr. Madoff destroyed thousands of lives and inflicted incalculable pain on his clients.

As heartbreaking as that story was, it pales in comparison to the countless spiritual frauds perpetrated on unsuspecting Christians every week. Unfortunately, the consequences are far costlier for them than it was for those duped by Madoff’s financial fraud.

The author of Hebrews voices this warning, “Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God; but encourage each other daily, while it is called ‘Today,’ so none of you is hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:12-13).

Note the audience. The writer addresses believers. His cautionary counsel describes a dangerous series of interrelated events that lead to spiritual ruin. It all starts when a Christian succumbs to the deceitfulness of sin. Over time, as sin tightens its tentacles around the Christian, the believer’s heart hardens. It ceases to listen to the Holy Spirit’s promptings and grows desensitized to the ways and words of God. Eventually the hardened heart becomes fertile ground for evil and its presence evidences unbelief. That evil heart of unbelief then compels the believer to turn away from the living God.

That is a terrifying scenario that places in peril our spiritual health. It therefore behooves us to understand the sequence of steps that lead to this outcome. The passage offers a timeless reminder of the importance of resisting sin and remaining vigilant in guarding our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Thankfully, the author of Hebrews provides a blueprint for avoiding such disastrous situations. We are to encourage one another. Notice the universality of the writer’s directive. Every Christian is included in its scope. All who follow Christ must encourage other believers.

Note the frequency we should do this. Daily. Not monthly, not weekly, daily. This speaks to the significance that encouragement plays in the life of a believer. Encouragement sustains faith, inspires growth, refreshes weary souls, and nourishes the heart that’s hungry for hope.

Lastly, encouragement reinforces truth. That is of particular concern in this text. Remember, the wayward believer’s departure from God begins with an embrace of sin’s deceit. To counter such deception we need a foundation steeped in God’s word. Consequently, we ought to encourage each other in truth. Scripture is the ultimate antidote for deceit.

Take time to encourage a believer or two this week and incorporate encouragement into your daily routine so it becomes a habit.

God’s Ways vs. Our Ways.

As Jesus’ ministry neared its end Scripture tells us “He began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders, chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again on the third day” (Matthew 16:21, NKJV).

It is a shocking revelation to those who have followed Him since the beginning of His ministry. They expect Jesus to establish His kingdom on earth soon, not die and disappear into the clouds. His pronouncement is inconsistent with everything they believe about Him. In fact, Peter had just identified Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God. Surely a glorious and powerful empire is more appropriate for God’s Son than a brutal and horrifying death – honor and authority more fitting than indignity and weakness.

Peter is certain Jesus is disoriented; that He has experienced a moment of confusion, and has misspoken. He decides to set Him straight and remind Him that His destiny lies in greatness not brokenness, in splendor not infamy. So Peter pulls him aside. Steeped in confidence from Jesus’ recent praise, Peter rebukes the Lord saying, “Far be it from you, Lord; this will never happen to you” (Matthew 16:22 NKJV).

Imagine Peter’s surprise when Jesus chastises him. “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men” (Matthew 16:23, NKJV). The reprimand catches the attention of the disciples. For the first time they understand that God’s plan for Jesus is remarkably different than their expectations. He is going to die an ignoble death, not lead a revolution.

Perhaps even more unsettling is what it means for them. They must wrestle with the reality that God’s plan for them is also remarkably different than their expectations. Jesus will not install them as leaders of His kingdom in the immediate future. Instead their commitment to Him will have perilous consequences.

To their credit they do not abandon the Lord at that moment, though they understand that Jesus’ life and death serve as a model for them, and now realize they too must surrender their lives to God – and that doing so changes everything.

I wonder how many of us are like Peter? We are certain our ambitions represent God’s will. And if the Lord disagrees then we need only correct Him. How many of us, like Peter, are mindful of the things of men but not of God; are mindful of the things of this world but not of the world to come?

As you contemplate God’s plan for your life and the possibility that it may diverge dramatically from your own plans, consider this verse from Isaiah. “’For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord” (Isaiah 55:8, NIV).

How do you adopt the Lord’s thoughts as you own? By studying His word and watching how Christ interacted with those around Him. Notice who he invests His life in and how He serves them. Listen to what He teaches and the priorities He exemplifies. As you read Scripture ask God to reveal His ways to you through the lifestyle model Jesus provides. It is only as we become more like Christ that our thoughts and ways mirror God’s.

Christian Films: Best of 2016 and advice for future filmmakers

Two weeks ago Hillary Scott won a pair of GRAMMY awards for her album, Love Remains, and the hit song, Thy Will, in the contemporary Christian music category – a category that has been around since 2012. The recording industry presents awards in this category to performances that are expressly Christian in their content, and not merely to Christian singers who perform another genre such as country or pop.

To date, the film industry has not created a similar category for faith-based films, despite the growing number of filmmakers who weave their stories through a distinctly Christian worldview. This may, in part, be due to the significant quality gap that exists between faith-based and secular films, similar to the gap that existed in the music industry through the early 1990s. Of course, Christian musicians eventually achieved a level of production quality comparable to their secular peers.

Though Christian filmmakers have recently closed the gap in production quality (as well as in direction, special effects, stunts, and acting), a sizeable one remains. However, 2016 may be the year all that changed. This past year witnessed a significant improvement in overall filmmaking quality, particularly in screenplays, direction, and acting within the faith-based genre. It is a trend that will no doubt continue as Christians in the industry hone their craft.

That said, Christian films will never attract widespread audience interest (and industry recognition) beyond the church community unless several critical changes occur – changes that will also improve the overall quality of Christian films.

First, eliminate the heavy-handed and preachy dialogue. Those who want to hear a sermon go to church on Sunday morning not to the movies on Saturday night. Nothing interferes with a good story like incessant melodramatic sermonizing, which also exposes the directorial limitations of the filmmaker. Scriptwriters and directors should learn the art of subtlety in communicating the Christian message through cinema. That doesn’t make it doctrinally spineless, just less overt.

Second, develop multi-dimensional Christian characters with real flaws. Too often directors portray Christian characters as morally upright individuals who make good decisions, use churchy language, behave like Christ, and exhibit few flaws. But such superficiality does not reflect reality. The Christian encountered on the screen rarely mirrors the Christian encountered in everyday life, and such caricatures do a disservice to the Christian community and the film industry alike. Christian filmmakers who really want to connect with a secular audience must create authentic characters – those who struggle and sin like the rest of us.

Third, exercise creativity and be original. Too many Christian filmmakers and scriptwriters adopt a formulaic approach in telling their story (a flaw that pervades Hollywood and the studios as well). Such laziness neither inspires nor interests the audience. Instead it leaves them feeling fleeced. It is true that originality requires considerable time and effort, as well as reflection and research. But a final product that captivates audiences and manifests industry excellence makes it worthwhile – and honors the Lord far more than a cheap, sluggish imitation.

Finally, with the Motion Picture Academy set to announce their awards tonight, I thought it appropriate to select a few winners in the genre of Christian films since the Academy does not award Oscars in that category. I exclude films nominated for an award tonight, like Hacksaw Ridge and Silence, even if they had a Christian lead character or Christian theme. [By the way, their recognition by Hollywood demonstrates that films with a clear Christian message are taken seriously by the industry when excellence is achieved].

Now, without further ado:

Best Picture: Risen

Perhaps the best Christian film in recent memory. What makes this movie so original is that it unfolds through the eyes of a skeptic, a Roman Tribune tasked with finding the body of Jesus after the crucifixion. He dismisses the rumors of Christ’s resurrection as poppycock and simply wants to locate the dead body, on orders from his boss, Pontius Pilate, to quell the growing unrest in Jerusalem. It powerfully communicates the gospel without being preachy, exemplified by the cognitive dissonance displayed on the protagonist’s face when he encounters the risen Christ surrounded by His disciples in the upper room.

Best Actor: Joseph Fiennes (Risen)

Fiennes excels at nuanced expression and accurately captures the skepticism and urgency of his character. His performance is a tour de force and establishes a standard of excellence for other actors in faith-based films.

Best Actress: Madina Nalwanga (Queen of Katwe)

Sublime performance for newcomer Nalwanga, who plays a young girl in the Ugandan slums whose innate talent for chess creates an opportunity to improve not only her and her family’s life but to inspire her nation as well.

Best Comedy: The Resurrection of Gavin Stone

The strength of this film is two-fold: the performance of lead actor Brett Dalton, who nails the role of faux-Christian Gavin Stone, and the levity it brings to the faith-based genre. The film never takes itself too seriously and often pokes fun at churchy talk and Christianesque behavior. The approach is both refreshing and the source of many laughs, and communicates its message without being too preachy. [As an added benefit it reveals the ease with which people can come into church and fake their faith for the purpose of advancing a selfish agenda – a timely warning].

Agree or Disagree? What films and actors would you award for excellence in 2016? Post your thoughts below.

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