This allows for the invasion of religion into the gospel

I believe there is a gross error present within the church.  What is that error?  It is the “spiritualizing” of different passages of the New Testament.

Why do I say this is a gross error?  I do so because that spiritualization then gives rise to teachings in and from the church that are not part of the gospel message, but actually find their origin in religion.  When this happens, it not only opens the door to attaching the teachings of religion to the gospel, it actually paves the path.

From being trained to be what is called a “Biblical Theologian,” it was drilled into my head that a text could not be made to say something different than what the author was actually saying and any application must remain true to what was actually being said.  “Spiritualizing” a text is akin to changing what the author was truly saying in the first place which is wrong.  To then create an application or teaching from that “spiritualization” is piling on.

I have often wondered if this type of thing has arisen from the desire to find and the teaching that there must be some deeper hidden spiritual meaning behind every word or phrase in the Bible.

And this desire is what has led to the “invasion” of religion and its tenets/teachings into the gospel message.

Let me give an example.  The teaching of “dying to/denying self.”  Dying to or denying self is actually a practice of the Old Covenant and religion.  It is not part of the gospel message, but through spiritualizing some passages in the New Testament, it is brought into the gospel message.  Let me explain.

There are two main passages that are used to support this teaching, both of which are spiritualized in order to make this teaching plausible.

Luke 9:23-24: Jesus said, “If anyone wants to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.  For whoever wants to save his soul/life shall lose it; but whoever loses his soul/life for my sake, this one shall save it.”

Through the spiritualization of this passage, Jesus is now made out to be saying that, in order to follow him, one must deny himself pleasures and desires in this life in order to live a disciplined life, one that’s worthy of Jesus.  The teaching states that the only way to true self-fulfillment is through self-denial.

Is that truly what Jesus is saying here?  No, it is not.  Because of the use of the Greek word for “soul,” which was used for actual, physical life (in other words, actual breathing), Jesus is talking about a person’s physical life, not that person’s desires or wants or selfishness.  What Jesus is actually saying is this: “If someone wants to follow me, s/he must be prepared every day to actually die physically because of following me.  If you are not willing to do that, that you cannot follow me.”

When those hearing him heard the word, “cross,” the denial of self, this idea of a denial of desires or wants, did not enter their minds.  What entered their minds is actual and literal physical death, even one of the most cruel ways of being put to death, which a death on a cross was.

Jesus was declaring to them here that in order to follow him, they must be willing to relinquish their right to actually continuing to breathe and anticipate that each day may just be the day in which that relinquishing becomes actual reality.

So, what Jesus is truly saying here does not support this idea/teaching of denial of self.

The second passage is 1 Corinthians 15:31 where Paul says, “I protest by the boasting in you, brothers, which I have in Christ Jesus, I die daily.”

The spiritualization of this text makes Paul out to be saying that he continues to die on a daily basis to his old nature and his own wants and desires.  But is that truly what Paul is saying here?  Once again, it is not.

The topic of this chapter is physical resurrection.  The word construction that Paul uses truly means that he has a daily expectation of death, actual, literal, physical death because of following Christ.  This daily anticipation of death does not deter him because he believes in the reality of the resurrection because of Christ’s resurrection, which was the first-fruits of the resurrection.

He further cements that this is what he means when in the following verse (verse 32), he says, “If after the manner of men I fought with wild beasts at Ephesus, what does it profit me?  If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”  Paul is saying that, because of the reality of the resurrection, he has no problem anticipating that that very day may be the day in which he is called to actually die for the name and cause of Christ.

The contrasting approach is doing it in what he calls the “manner of men.”  This is without the reality of the resurrection.  If he fought those beasts without the hope of physical resurrection, there is no reason to do so because he would be dead and stay dead forever.  Therefore, it would be appropriate to do whatever was necessary to remain alive physically and get the most out of the days one has.  Hence why he says, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”

So, what Paul is saying here does not support this idea of “denial of self” and its spiritual applications.

Now, why do I say this spiritualization actually gives rise to combining teaching of religion with the pure and true gospel?  One of religion’s main teachings is that of the necessity of self-discipline, a denial of wants and desires, because there are two warring natures within a person.  Religion teaches that it is necessary for a person, through being taught techniques, observances, and performing rituals, to deny this nature for the other one.  One religion calls it the yin and the yang while another uses the picture of two “dogs” fighting for control inside of a person.  The spiritualization of these two texts, with the resulting idea of the necessity of self-denial, brings this teaching into and connects it with the teaching of the gospel.

If the gospel is just a repackaging of the old or of religion, how is that good news?  It’s not.  In all actuality, the spiritualization of these two texts actually change what truly happened through the gospel.  It does so, because if it is understood what truly happened through the gospel, then it would be realized that this teaching is not only necessary, it is false, so the nature of the gospel must be changed somehow in order to accommodate this teaching.

So, what is the true nature of the gospel?  What truly happened in and through the gospel that made this teaching of “self-denial” unnecessary?  What makes the gospel truly good news?

The gospel is truly good news because, through participating in the death of Christ through being crucified with him, the old nature is killed and removed.  It could not be reformed or “managed” into righteousness; it had to be killed.  Then, through also participating in the resurrection of Christ to walk in newness of life just as Christ did, we are given a new nature as our one and only nature.  We are made new creations and through Christ being made to be sin, we who believe have become the righteousness of God in Christ.  (2 Corinthians 5:16-21)

Paul taught that through Christ we now have a new nature, that of Christ, and that new nature is our one and only true nature.  Because of this, there is no need for religious laws or practices or techniques which are designed to manage and regulate the old nature because it is dead and the new nature has no need of them.

God is not still practicing “sin-management” and “behavior-modification” like He did in the Old Covenant.  He dealt with sin once and for all through Christ.  If He still felt that “sin-management” and “behavior-modification” were still necessary, then what He did through Christ wasn’t sufficient.  God would actually be making Christ’s sacrifice common, which He just would not do.  And since He wouldn’t go there and do that, neither will I.  Therefore, I reject this spiritualized teaching of and the need for self-denial as necessary for the Christian.

I believe the biggest problem in the church and for many Christians today is that they do not truly realize who and what they are.  They do not realize their true identity and true nature.  If they did, they would realize that the concept of self-denial is unnecessary because of having the nature of Christ.

What must happen is that Christians must truly realize who and what they are – the adopted sons and daughters of the living and true God, having the nature of Christ as their one true and only nature.  They must change how they think and how they view themselves.  This is the reason why Paul says in Romans 12:2, “And do not be fashioned according to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of the mind that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and well-pleasing and perfect.”  Being fashioned according to this age is thinking through a “religious” mindset, with all its need for rules and regulations and behavior modification techniques and ways of dealing with that old sinful nature.  But being renewed in the mind means that we now see ourselves as God has now made us to be.  That is where our focus lies, and when we make that change, we move deeper into realizing and experiencing in reality what God has already made us to be through Christ.

Through a combination of things to which I have been exposed, I believe that one of the things God has given me to do is to expose those teachings within the church that actually go against what the gospel truly teaches.

As Paul encourages his brothers and sisters in Philippi, I will strive for THE faith of the gospel and teach against anything that taints that faith.


Why I don’t respond to Facebook requests to pray about something

From time to time, I see on Facebook people requesting prayer.  I understand and appreciate the sincerity of the requester and those responding that they are praying, but whenever I see people respond that they are praying, I cannot help but wonder about the confidence level they have in what they are praying concerning the situation.

Prayer today, as it is typically taught in most churches and practiced by many, just doesn’t work.  Having a 50/50 chance of praying correctly about something, like a surgery, is not having true confidence.  Within this typical approach to prayer, there are two types of responses to what actually occurs in the given situation.  First, if the outcome is what is actually prayed (hoped) for (a person’s personal desired outcome to the situation), then the response is, “God answers prayer.”  Second, if the outcome is the opposite of what is actually prayed (hoped) for, then the response is, “God answered no.”

The problem with this approach to prayer is that it is, for all intents and purposes, not much different than a young child in the store with a parent begging that parent to buy him/her some candy.  Biblically, it is not much different than what the 450 prophets of Ba’al did on Mt. Carmel when they went up against the prophet Elijah.  (1 Kings 18)  All morning and throughout the afternoon, all the way up to the time of the evening sacrifce, those 450 prophets prayed, begged Ba’al to consume the bull that had been laid upon the altar.  Nothing happened; their prayer was not answered.  Just like what typically happens now, they could have said, “Well, Ba’al answered, ‘No,'” when the outcome was different than what they were praying.

Elijah had no problem with confidence with what he was going to pray.  He knew what God wanted to do to prove Himself as the true God.  And so, in contrast to the prophets of Ba’al, he prayed it once and the fire of God rained down and consumed not only the sacrifice, but also the altar and the water that had poured on it.  The people who witnessed this had no problem believing in the power of God.

Unfortunately, talking about the power of prayer or saying, “Prayer works,” in connection with the typical model to prayer is a joke.  It may sound harsh, but it truly is.  Where’s the power when, because of not being confident of the outcome God wants, a person prays hedging his/her bets by being prepared with the first or second response depending upon what happens?  There is no true power.

Jesus said in Matthew 21:22, “And whatever things you ask in prayer, BELIEVING, you will receive.”  Was Jesus lying?  Because in today’s typical model of prayer, people are taught to receive a “No” answer from God.  How does being taught to expect a “No” answer jive with Jesus’ words?  (BTW, that’s a rhetorical question.)

Believing and confidence have a direct and strong connection with actually receiving from God.  James the Apostle, in the first chapter of his epistle says that a person who asks God for wisdom must “ask in faith, doubting nothing, for he who doubts is like the surge of the sea, driven by the wind and tossed about.  For that man must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.”  

When is there true confidence in what is being prayed?  When the prayer is characterized by what John the Apostle said in his first epistle in the fifth chapter, verses 14-15: “And this is the confidence/boldness which we have toward Him that whatever we should ask according to His will He hears us.  And if we know that He hears us whatever we should ask, we know that we have the requests which we asked from Him.”

When you know that what you are praying is what God wants to do, therein is absolute confidence.  There is no need for a fall-back position of “Well, God must have said no because nothing or the opposite of what I prayed happened.”  There is no need to end a request with the catch-all of “Your will be done” because, in that context, it is an additional hedging of one’s “bets.”

I realize I’m probably rattling some cages, but teaching people that when something bad happens, prayer must begin immediately, is actually teaching people to pray at some level of unbelief.  I realize and appreciate that this model of prayer seems reasonable and even righteous because it is done out of concern, care, and compassion, but on a deeper level, it actually hinders the power of God to work on our behalf, for when a person prays too soon, that person usually prays in unbelief.  S/he is actually praying out of the shock or trauma of the situation itself or out of panic, worry, anxiety, or concern.

Have you ever had people in the world scoff at statements like “prayer works” or “the power of prayer?”  That’s because they have typically witnessed that the prayers of people are void of any real power and confidence, as evidenced by being prepared with one of the two appropriate responses depending upon the outcome.

There is a model of prayer in which the power of God is truly demonstrated.  There is a model of prayer that has an extremely high level of confidence attached to it.  It is based upon using prayer to pray God’s will, not as a means to find it.  And according to John the Apostle, when we actually pray God’s will, there is extreme power and confidence because we know that He hears and does what we have asked.

If you want to learn more about this model of prayer, I’d encourage you to purchase this e-book, “Crafted Prayer,” written by my mentor Graham Cooke.  It’s only $5.

Four Essentials for Church Vitality

It has been a common refrain over the past years for those inside the church to lament the changes in people’s lives that have occurred in our society, changes that have caused decreased attendance at church programming such as Sunday school and worship gatherings.  The common desire is that, with no changing or adjustment to what is done, people would come back just like it was 50-100 years ago.

What must be remembered is that this is not the first time in the history of the church where it had to adjust something due to changing conditions in society.  And when considering whether to somehow adjust what is currently being done or to begin something totally new and different, it is important to consider why something was started, whether or not it has achieved its purpose, and whether or not changes in society have necessitated an adjusted or new course altogether.

For example, let’s take Sunday school.  It is often the case that when I ask people why Sunday school started, they are unable to correctly answer.  The typical answer is to provide religious education to people, but that answer is based upon their own experience and the current model of Sunday school.

The Sunday school was created as a literal school.  They were places where poor children could learn to read.  The movement began in England in 1780s as a response to the reality in that culture, caused by the Industrial Revolution, that saw many children spending all week long working in factories and, because Saturdays were considered part of the work week, these children only had Sundays available for any learning to occur.  Christian philanthropists wanted to free these children from a life of illiteracy.  (Today, we know that literacy is absolutely essential to being able to move ahead in life.)

Well into the 19th century, working hours remained long.  The first restrictions on limiting the number of hours children could work daily came in 1802 – 12 hours!  This limit wasn’t lowered again until 1844.  And, finally, by the 1870s, compulsory state education was in existence in both England and the United States.

The movement spread rapidly and many churches and church organizations created Sunday schools.  Within decades, the movement had become extremely popular.  By the mid-19th century, Sunday school attendance was a near universal aspect of childhood.  Even parents who did not regular attend worship gatherings of a church generally insisted their children attend a Sunday school.  Working-class families were grateful for the opportunity to receive an education.  They also looked forward to annual highlights such as prize days, parades, and picnics, which came to mark the calendars of their lives as much as more traditional seasonal holidays.

True, religious education was always a core component.  The Bible was used as a textbook for learning to read.  The children learned to write by copying passages from the Bible.  Basic theology and other spiritual practices, such as prayer and singing of hymns, were taught as well as teaching Christian morality and values.  There was a graduation and many graduates became teachers in the Sunday school, allowing them to gain leadership skills and experience found nowhere else in their lives.  Through educating the working class, the Sunday school empowered people.

Once universal, compulsory state education was established, the need for the Sunday school in its original form was no longer necessary since learning to read and write was done on weekdays at school.  Since it was no longer needed to carry out its original mission, it was then that the Sunday schools adjusted by limiting its curriculum to religious education.

The “moral” of this example?  Those who first created the idea of and the first Sunday school saw what was occurring in society at that time and creatively responded to it with the creation of the Sunday school.  Once it was seen that the original mission/reason for the Sunday school was no longer necessary due to the changed conditions for children and working class families, the Sunday school was modified to only be for religious education, again, in response to what was seen in society at that time.

This type of evaluation of what we, as churches, do, must never stop.  When what is being done, and not the why behind it being done, becomes the primary focus, that’s when inflexibility and irrelevance enter in force.  But when the why behind what is being done is the primary focus, that allows for flexibility and continuing relevance in the community. This is true because it not only allows but actually encourages continuing examination of why something is being done and, from that, whether or not, due to changes in society or completion of the reason of why something was created in the first place something should be ended or changed in some way.

This requires four things from the church, all four being essential to the vitality and growth of a church: being a student of the community, allowing and encouraging creativity, a willingness to let go of what has been for what will be, and courage.  The absence of one or more of these four will inevitably, I believe, lead to inflexibility and irrelevance which will then lead to the slow demise of the church.

Being Kingdom Freedom Fighters

“Our responses to others can never be based on need alone
because the need in this world is endless.

Reacting only on the basis of ‘I need you’ or ‘I need this from you’ will leave us exhausted from well meaning efforts to be everything to everyone. That’s a job that only God is capable of. Yet, the enemy of our faith would love to convince us otherwise. If he hasn’t been able to cultivate you into a couch potato, then the moment you decide to engage in life, he will be sure that every ‘good’ project and pressing need rushes in like a tsunami. The strategy is to overwhelm you to the point that you will return to the couch, feeling that you gave it a try, but that it was all just too much.” – from the In Focus blog, “Freedom from Needs,” as written by the Team Brilliant Staff

It has been said that charity is its own worst enemy.  Only meeting the immediate and surface need without addressing the causes behind the need creates a never-ending cycle.

This is why, as citizens of the kingdom of God, it isn’t just enough for us to be ambassadors (merely representing/displaying the nature of the King); we must also be the kingdom’s freedom fighters.

As such, not only are we proclaiming the reality of the kingdom and the goodness of the King, we are bringing the freedoms of the kingdom to bear in this realm.  For example, how much hunger is present in the kingdom of God?  The obvious, and correct, answer is zero because the kingdom is free from hunger.

So, instead of trying to feed everyone who is hungry, we bring the kingdom’s freedom from hunger to bear on the causes behind that hunger, because if all we do is try to make them not hungry today or this week, we will find ourselves right back in the same situation tomorrow or next week.  And that is an approach that produces a never-ending cycle.

So, the attitude must be “doing with” rather than “doing for.”

Right now, I have percolating in my mind something that might bring the kingdom’s freedom from hunger to bear on why there are people who are hungry in the Fort Dodge community.  After reading a report on food waste, I realized that, in this country, there are literally MILLIONS of TONS of food that is wasted every year, food that is edible, but for one of a variety of reasons is discarded.  I think it reasonable to deduce that Fort Dodge is not immune from this reality.

What if something was created that would reclaim that edible food and combine it with processing it (like canning or preparing for freezing), as well as teach others how to process it?  Canning or freezing edible food far extends its usefulness beyond its natural state.

And because this is about “doing with” and not “doing for,” anyone (those who are “food insecure”) who would receive the results of the processing would have to participate in the procuring and processing of the food.  The goal would then be to walk with them to get them to such a point where they can do their own processing at home and become closer to being “food secure” at home on their own.

Obviously there are other factors in play causing the “food insecurity,” but we cannot realistically address all of them, but learning skills and possibly providing the equipment necessary to process the food would impact at least one cause behind it.

For example, maybe there is an apple orchard that is tossing away apples because those apples do not meet appearance criteria for being sold in stores, but are perfectly edible.  Let’s say that the orchard was approached and agreed, for a tax deduction, to donate those apples to just such a ministry.  Now, if these apples were just handed out to those who are “food insecure,” the impact would be short-lived since the apples would quickly spoil.

But what if, instead, those apples were processed and those who would receive the product provided labor in the processing.  Now you have homemade applesauce (YUM!) and apples prepared for freezing and maybe apple cider, among other products, products that will last long after the time the unprocessed apples would have spoiled.

And that’s just one example of how the freedoms which are a reality in the kingdom of God can be brought to bear upon the realities of this world by Kingdom Freedom Fighters.

So, if you are a Kingdom Freedom Fighter, consider the freedoms present in the kingdom and compare how the realities of this realm match those freedoms.  If they don’t match, consider the reasons behind why they do not.  Then consider how God would want to use your status as a Kingdom Freedom Fighter to bring the freedoms of the kingdom to bear on one of those reasons.

And then watch what He does.

Abundance and the gospel

Over the past couple of weeks, I have been ruminating on something that Jesus said.  It is John 10:10 and this is my translation of it: “The thief does not come except in order to steal and to kill and to destroy.  I came so that they should have life and should have abundance.”  Just a bit earlier (in verse 8), Jesus said that “all those who came before me are thieves and plunderers…”  And when he says that, he’s referring to the religious leaders who have been putting an extremely difficult burden on the people to carry.  And that burden was seen in the rules and regulations they expected the people to follow and live by.

It has been far too common that the gospel that has been preached and proclaimed by the church is one of austerity.  What is emphasized (to a great degree, I believe,) is a faith that is characterized by asceticism, harshness, and discipline, and it is in those three things that one truly finds joy in life.  And the benefits of the gospel, while believed as being true, in practice are shown as only for a future time in eternity, but not for life today.

Where’s the joy in that?

I have often wondered if that teaching hasn’t been a reaction to those who have preached what is known as a “health and wealth” gospel.

Austerity is the opposite of abundance.  When Jesus talks about abundance, he isn’t only meaning provision for needs, though that certainly is included.  And I have personally experienced having more than needed for living and, from that, have in turn been able to share that abundance with those around me who were in need.

But there are so many more things included in this abundance.  For example, joy, peace, and love.

If the gospel doesn’t bring joy (happiness) in living this life, even in the face of difficult circumstances, what’s the point.  People in the world too often live lives with very little joy.  Living a life full of joy, even in the midst of difficult circumstances definitely stands out as different.

If the gospel doesn’t bring peace, which I see the opposite as stress, worry, and anxiety, what’s the point?  Life in the world is characterized by stress, worry, and anxiety.  What’s the point of the gospel if it doesn’t change that?  Living a life free of stress, anxiety, and worry, but full of incredible peace even in the midst of situations that would cause stress, anxiety, and worry for others, stands out as different.

If the gospel doesn’t bring an abundance of love, even for those who hate us and curse us and insult us, what’s the point?  It’s through the gospel that God pours His inexhaustible love into us.  If that doesn’t truly change how we live, what’s the point?

And the list of what’s included in that abundance could go on and on and on.

Do you know what is appropriately characterized by austerity, strictness, harshness, asceticism, and discipline?  Religion, that’s what.  Take a look at the major religions of the world.  They are commonly characterized by these things.

That is not the gospel, and those transform it into something that is characterized by austerity, harshness, asceticism, and discipline, they pollute the gospel.

It is this very reality that has caused individuals responding to being invited to become a Christian to say, “No thank you.  I don’t want to be like you.”  What are they really saying?  If what I see from Christians is what the gospel offers, I’m not interested.

In other words, what’s the point?

Being “religious” is not what the gospel is about

I heard a story on the radio this morning about one of the Duggar cousins who recently got married.  It was mentioned that at the wedding reception there was alcohol and dancing.  Those sharing the story were somewhat shocked because the comment went, “Isn’t that a religious family?”

What immediately came to my mind when I heard this is how those who are deemed as religious are typically characterized, a characterization I believe to be accurate, by the way.  First, a person is given the descriptor “religious” by what s/he will not do.  Typically, this person will not drink alcohol or smoke or dance or go to movies or listen to any music with any type of beat or use playing cards  (BTW, those were all activities that, as a child, my church taught me were all activities that were straight from the pit of hell and that no good, upright Christian should ever participate in them).  There are a whole host of activities from which a religious person is restricted from doing or participating in.  And this is the first of two reasons for which a person is deemed as being “religious.”

Second, a person is deemed “religious” because of a strict adherence to a list of things that must be done.  Isn’t it interesting that a person who does something with a seriousness or a high level of making sure of doing it is said to be doing it “religiously?”  A person who strictly adheres to a moral code or observances and requirements is said to be religious.  For example, I was told that the number of chapters of the Bible I read during a given week revealed how devoted I was to Christ.  Memorizing Bible verses showed how spiritual I was.  And, indirectly, I learned to deem myself more spiritual than others by reading more chapters and memorizing more verses than they did.

Being religious means being unyielding in adhering to and carrying out a code of requirements, observances, and do’s & don’ts.

By the religious of his day (the Pharisees, Sadducees, and the like), Jesus was deemed irreligious because he would not abide by their rules.  Christians of the early church were deemed irreligious because they were monotheistic, not polytheistic like the culture around them.

The problem with being characterized as “religious” is it usually implies an inflexibility in responding to different situations.  Additionally, it usually implies that maintaining the standard is of higher value, importance, and priority than how people are being treated while maintaining that standard.  Being “religious” means that people aren’t truly as important as adhering to the code.  That’s the reason why the “religious” of Jesus’ day were incensed at many of the actions he did; those actions, such as healing a man on the Sabbath, were deemed wrong because they violated the letter of the code, even if a man was healed.  It didn’t matter.

The preceding is why I do not consider myself “religious.”  I don’t want to be like that and God, in giving me the nature of His Son, has not created me to be that way.  I truly believe that when a follower of Christ is religious, it is residue the old nature and must be swept out.

Being “religious” is not what the gospel is all about.  Just ask Jesus.