What Makes Heaven…Heaven?

Lately, I’ve been contemplating the reality of heaven. We often have skewed views of what heaven truly is. Is it unending golf? Is it a paradise with 10,000 virgins? Is it streets of gold and a glassy sea? What makes heaven heaven? Heaven is Christ! He is our prize!

Paul writes in Philippians 3:14I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Jesus Christ is our prize. He is our goal. He is heaven. Yet, often, I believe we as Christians commit the sin of idolatry by elevating the gifts of salvation above the Giver. We want forgiveness of sins because we don’t want a guilty conscience.

We take Jesus as rescuer from hell because we don’t particularly like the idea of burning in eternal torment. We take Jesus as prosperity giver because we selfishly want to be wealthy and “blessed”. We take Jesus as healer because we want to be disease free. We want Jesus on our terms and if we’re honest with ourselves, we want His gifts, not HIM!!

1 Peter 3:18 says,For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.” Salvation is ultimately a restored relationship with God through Jesus Christ. He is the ultimate end of our salvation. But often times, we treat Him as a means to salvation. We want Jesus as a means to eternal happiness, or health, wealth, and prosperity, but we don’t see Him as the ultimate Treasure to be valued above all other things this world has to offer.

We often use terminology in our evangelical sub-culture that is not even found in Scripture that downplays this vital union with Christ in salvation. We use terms like “ask Jesus into your heart”, but we don’t tell people to repent of their sins and embrace Christ as their all in all as absolute Lord over their lives. We tell people to “accept Jesus” as if we are the final arbiters of God’s approval on our lives. We should be more concerned about if Jesus will accept us as sinners.

My grave concern for many that claim the name of Christ is that we have taken just enough of Jesus to assuage our guilty consciences, but have not surrendered everything to Him as Savior, Lord and Treasure. There is no fruit in many people’s lives. There is no evidence of true conversion whereby the Holy Spirit has brought about the new birth. There are no new desires, affections, and lifestyle changes in many who profess Christ. They’ve gotten their “free ticket out of hell card”, but they have not truly been transformed by the saving grace of Christ as their personal Lord and Treasure.

John Piper has said this, “If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauty you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if CHRIST WAS NOT THERE?” (from God is the Gospel, page 15)

1 Corinthians 13:12 states,   “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” We long for heaven and our view of it is misty and hazy at times, but the glorious truth is that all who are truly saved will one day see Jesus face to face.

What an amazing reality to die and go to heaven and realize that the ultimate end, the ultimate prize, the ultimate destination is Christ Himself! I pray that you all embrace Him as Savior, Lord, and Treasure and receive Him as supremely more valuable than all this world has to offer.

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Blaspheme Against the Holy Spirit

Oh no!! I think I may have committed the unforgivable sin!! Have I lost my salvation forever!! In my years of pastoral ministry, I have been faced with this question many times. Just exactly how does the Bible define the unforgivable sin?

In the gospel of Mark, Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for their hardness of heart and for their blind audacity to attribute Jesus’ miracles in the power of the Holy Spirit to the work of Satan himself. They accused Jesus of being possessed by Satan and that His miracles were empowered by the prince of darkness. In light of these accusations, Jesus utters these amazing words in Mark 3:28-29:  “Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”. From the lips of Jesus, we discover the unforgivable sin—blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Just what exactly is this?

First of all, notice Jesus’ words that all sins will be forgiven. God is a God of immense forgiveness. He is patient, loving, compassionate and will forgive grievous sins. We might think that murder or adultery are such heinous sins that are beyond forgiveness, but may I remind you of some the greatest saints in the Bible. Abraham was a liar, Noah was a drunk, and Peter denied Christ three times and all three of these men have been saved by grace and are in heaven today. Paul was a blasphemer before Christ saved him according to his own words in 1 Timothy 1:13-14. King David committed adultery and murder but God forgave Him by grace and pardoned him with forgiveness and eternal life in heaven.

So the unforgivable sin is not some heinous sin such as murder or adultery, but it is the willful, conscious, deliberate, persistent rejection of Christ that is evidenced by a hardness of heart. John Piper defines it this way: “The unforgivable sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is an act of resistance with belittles the Holy Spirit so grievously that He withdraws forever with His convicting power so that a person is never able to repent and thus be forgiven.”

Does a sinner experience God’s forgiveness automatically? Or are there some conditions that must be met before God grants forgiveness? The Bible teaches that sinners must repent of their sins and then trust Christ and on the basis of the merits of Christ’s work on the cross, they by faith are forgiven. How can a sinner repent and trust? No one can come to the Father unless the Holy Spirit does an overpowering work of conviction and regeneration causing the new birth. Sinners are granted new birth and given the gifts of repentance and faith. We cannot experience forgiveness unless the Holy Spirit does a sovereign work of making us alive in Christ. Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is a perpetual state of hardness where a sinner has placed himself  beyond the convicting power of the Holy Spirit and where the Spirit says “No more!”

The Bible uses another term for blasphemy against the Holy Spirit—apostasy. The Scripture is very clear that a genuine born again believer CANNOT lose his or her salvation but is preserved to the end by God’s saving and sustaining grace. Yet the Bible teaches a category of person who were visible or external members of the church, confessed Christ, and enjoyed the benefits of being around God’s people, but were never saved and then at a later point in time decidedly rejected everything they “believed” and stood for beforehand. Thus a true believer can never commit the unforgivable sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit or apostasy. Only false converts who made a “profession” of faith, but never had true “possession” of faith can commit this unforgivable sin.

The writer of Hebrews clearly articulates this in 6:4-6 which states, “ For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they then fall away, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.” The writer lists five benefits that come with being around Christians, but demonstrate that these people were never saved in the first place. Notice carefully that none of the Biblical words normally associated with salvation are used to describe these people such as regeneration, justification, adoption, etc.

The first benefit is that they were enlightened. That is they know the facts of the Bible with head knowledge, but are never genuinely saved by grace. They also tasted the heavenly gift. They only sampled it. They didn’t consume or ingest or totally swallow Jesus. It wasn’t true salvation. They had an “association” with the Holy Spirit. The Greek is very clear here that these people were “associated” with the Spirit. The Bible speaks of true Christians, not as having an association with the Spirit, but as being indwelt and sealed by the Spirit. They tasted the word of God and the powers of the age to come. In other words, they heard good preaching and saw evidences of God’s working but were never saved.

What was their sin? They decidedly and deliberately fell away or rejected what they embraced before. They were false converts who were never saved. It is impossible for these people to ever get saved. They are beyond hope.  We have Biblical evidence of people who committed this sin—Demas (2 Timothy 4:10), Simon Magus (Acts 8) and Judas Iscariot.

Many Christians have tender consciences and wonder if they’ve committed the unforgivable sin and are very concerned and in anguish. This is certain proof that you haven’t committed the sin because you are grieved and bothered and seek forgiveness. The person who commits this sin doesn’t care and are so hardened to the truth. We must never stand in judgment of another person and pronounce them as guilty of having committed blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. We as humans cannot look into another person’s heart and make that judgment.

Yet we must also feel the weight of these verses and realized that they are meant to terrify the socks of those who are playing around with being a Christian but have never truly and genuinely been saved by grace through Jesus Christ.  Just because you’ve been baptized, gone through confirmation, been to church all your life, went forward at a revival, know the Bible stories, or are a good person does not mean that you are saved. Salvation comes in repenting of sin, trusting in Christ alone, and submitting to Him as Lord, Savior, and Treasure. Examine yourselves today and make your calling and election sure. You are never guaranteed another breath or tomorrow.

The “American” Gospel?

“A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministry of a Christ without a cross.” This quote penned from the hands of the liberal theologian Richard Niebuhr in 1937 could summarize the state of American evangelical Christianity today. Could this possibly be a reality that we have a “Christ-less” and a “cross-less” Christianity in America today? While most conservative evangelicals would agree with the exclusivity of Christ as the only way of salvation and the blood atonement on the cross, how much preaching and emphasis is placed upon the wrath of God and the amazing grace found through the substitutionary atonement of His Son?

Often Jesus is presented more as a life coach–a therapist to help people deal with self-esteem issues or as a genie to be used to guarantee health, wealth, and prosperity. He has been reduced to a Galilean peasant with feathered back hair who wears sandals and gives pithy sayings and never really offends anyone.  Where is the scandal of the bloody cross, the wrath of God being appeased in Christ’s sacrifice, and the transforming announcement that we can truly have peace with God?

First of all, Jesus is not a life-coach. He’s not a therapist. He’s not a cosmic genie. He’s not a wimp. He’s not just a great teacher. He’s not just one of many enlightened persons who have come upon the scene of history to provided direction for the aimless. In the introductory verse of Mark’s gospel, we find the true definition of Jesus.

Mark 1:1 says, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  The word “beginning” in the original language carries the idea of authority. God has spoken with absolute clarity and authority in His very own Son. This verse serves as not only the title and thesis of Mark’s gospel, but gives us the title of our Savior. If we carefully study these inspired words of Scripture, we find the true identity of Jesus.

The name “Jesus” means salvation is of the Lord. How often do we hear it as a cuss word and expressions of anger? His very name carries with it the power of God for the salvation of all who believe. The word “Christ” means “anointed One” or “Messiah”.  In the Old Testament, three different types of persons were anointed and set apart for God’s special tasks—prophets, priests, and kings. Prophets came declaring the word of the Lord while priests were appointed to be mediators in bringing the people into the presence of the Lord. Kings were anointed to reign in the power of the Lord.

John Calvin in his “Institutes of the Christian Religion” was the first theologian to describe how Christ fulfills the consummate role of all three offices of Prophet, Priest, and King. As the Prophet, He is the living Word of God. He speaks with the authority of God as God in the flesh. As the Priest, He is the Mediator between God and man through His sacrifice on the cross. Hebrews 9:26 says, “But as it is, he (Jesus) has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.” Paul writes in 1 Timothy 2:5-6:  “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.”  As the King, Jesus reigns over the entire universe as the King of kings and Lord of lords. (Ephesians 1:20-23)

Not only is Jesus the Savior of His people and the anointed Christ as the pre-eminent Prophet, Priest, and King, but He is also the Son of God. This title means that He is absolutely the fullness of all Deity. He shares full equality and eternality with God as all of God. Christ is not just one of many earthly prophets, but is indeed God in the flesh who reigns in all power and authority.

This reigning Christ left the glories of heaven and became obedient to a cruel death on the cross to fully absorb and exhaust the wrath of God that stood against us as sinners. Our most dire need is to be reconciled to the Father through the cross of Christ. In our psycho babble, therapeutic, consumeristic, narcissistic, seeker-sensitive evangelical sub-culture, the church in America has lost focus on the power of the gospel. We no longer proclaim that man is dead in sin and needs absolute reconciliation and forgiveness from a holy and righteous God who should justly pour out his fierce anger on sinners. We no longer proclaim the absolute majesty of Christ as the Sovereign Lord who demands ultimate obedience and submission. We no longer proclaim the scandalous offense of the bloody cross and the glorious resurrection that God through His grace grants to undeserving sinners.

As Americans, we think we are pretty good. After all, God grades on a curve and will overlook our minor imperfections. What we need is a life coach to help us have our “best life now” so that we can “become a better me”. We need the American dream with a little bit of Jesus added on top as whipped cream. We need self-esteem, direction, health, wealth, and prosperity, but heaven forbid, we actually admit that we as guilty and vile sinners who stand condemned by a holy God need the substitutionary atonement of Christ on the cross to bring us to the Father.  My prayer is that God would raise up mighty men of conviction who will once again preach from their pulpits the wrath of God, the glories of Christ, the mercies of the cross, and the absolute sovereignty of our reigning King who has chosen to save ill-deserving sinners like you and me from eternal judgment.

Lessons in Prayer from Habakkuk

ISIS. Terrorism. Iran nuclear deals. The threat of Russia and China. Low oil and gas prices. A plummeting stock market. The 2016 Presidential race.  We live in a crazy world of uncertainty, mayhem, political manueavering, and confusion. We may wonder if God hears our prayers and if He is going to do anything about the senseless violence and depravity in our culture.

Habakkuk the prophet lived in a similar culture thousands of years ago when the southern Kingdom of Judah was steeped in wickedness at the hands of their violent king. He cried out to God for answers and dared shout in God’s face. One commentator has said this: “God is the friend of the honest doubter who dares to talk to God rather than about Him.”

Habakkuk levels two major complaints against God. First of all, he laments that God is silent when he prays. Habakkuk 1:2 states, “O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save?” He wonders if God is even listening. How many times have we cried out in anguish and pain wondering if God in heaven hears our prayers or even cares?

God answers Habakkuk’s lament with an astonishing response that takes his breath away. God will indeed punish the violence and depravity of Israel by sending in an even more wicked and pagan enemy in the nation of Babylon to take them into 70 years of captivity. This is not the answer he wanted to hear. How in the world could God punish evil with evil?

Do we have a category in our minds that allows for a sovereign God to discipline His people in ways we would think “unthinkable”. It is not beyond the scope of God’s providence to ordain discipline in many different ways.  Hebrews 12:5-6  states, “…My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.”

The second major complaint is that God sits idly by and does not intervene and put a stop to the violence and rampant wickedness. The prophet charges God with this in 1:13: “You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong, why do you idly look at traitors and are silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?”

God again answers Habakkuk’s lament with a phrase that is repeated three times in the New Testament and is crucial to what it means to be a Christian. In 2:4, God answers: “…but the righteous shall live by his faith.” In other words, trusting in the power and sovereignty of God is what always brings salvation. Salvation from our sins comes in faith alone by grace alone in Christ alone. Once we trust Christ alone for salvation our sins are credited to Him and His perfect righteousness is credited to us. As a result, we are declared innocent by the Father and are accepted into His presence as those no longer under His just condemnation.

After Habakkuk wears himself out with venting before the LORD, he hears these deafening words from a holy God in 2:20: “But the LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.” Literally in the original language God tells the whole world to “hush”! God is sovereignly ruling from His eternal throne in heaven and He commands all people everywhere to bow in humble and quiet submission before Him. He is God and we are not.

In response to this, Habakkuk offers a very moving prayer in Chapter 3 and asks God to intervene and to work on behalf of His people and to bring revival on the land. In 3:2, he prays this: “…in wrath remember mercy.”  That truly is the “sinner’s prayer” if there ever was one in the Bible. We all deserve to experience the full brunt of God’s wrath because of our rebellion against Him and yet the only thing we can plead is for His mercy. We cast ourselves on the amazing grace of a sovereign God who has every right to obliterate us off the face of the planet and yet chooses to show us kindness through the sacrifice of His one and only Son Jesus Christ.

In an act of worship and faithful resignation, Habakkuk comes to a powerful conclusion. Though all the things that he clings to should be taken away, we find in 3:18-19 these poignant words of a man who has truly wrestled with his God: “Yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.  GOD, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places.”

He finds ultimate joy in His salvation. If everything were stripped away from you—your family, spouse, career, children, and even your health—would only having Christ and your salvation be enough. Would Christ still be your ultimate treasure? The sovereign and majestic LORD is our strength and He will guide our paths so that we can remain steadfast and unmovable on those high places.

Whenever you experience the pain of this world or question the reality and goodness of God or wonder if He listens to your prayers, remember the struggle of Habakkuk who realized that God was sovereignly reigning from heaven and that we need to keep silent before Him and find our ultimate joy in this great God who will never leave us nor forsake us.

2016 Recommended Book List

I am an avid reader and cannot get enough of consuming good books. We can be profoundly influenced and mentored by Christian authors that the Lord has used to impact His kingdom. With so many choices out there in the evangelical sub-culture, how does a Christian discern truth from error—especially when it is in print?

Part of our spiritual growth as believers is to build a good library of doctrinally sound and theologically solid books that will encourage, challenge, motivate and stimulate us to love and good works. As evangelicals, we adhere to Sola Scriptura which means that Scripture alone is our sole rule of faith and practice. There is no other authority above the Holy Bible and we are to measure every teaching of man against God’s revelation in Scripture. Yet, God in His providence, has given gifts to His church through godly men and women who have written books for the growth of God’s people.  We should realize that all humans are fallible and no one author or pastor or theologian is above reproof or correction and can at times be wrong.

As we start 2016, I want to recommend to you my reading audience “Sean Cole’s Top Ten List.” These are books that I have read over the past few years that have personally impacted me and I think would benefit you. Some are more accessible and readable that others. Some are more theologically dense but worth the read. These are in on particular order.

Number One:Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God” by Timothy Keller. Out of all the books on prayer I have read over the years, this has to be the most powerful. It combines sound teaching with great examples from church history as well as practical ways to actually pray. He uses many examples from Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Owen, and Jonathan Edwards on the richness of praying the Scriptures.

Number Two:Follow Me” by David Platt. This is the follow up to his best-selling book “Radical.” I think this book should have been written first as it provides the theological foundation for what our life in Christ is and how we follow Jesus as disciples. He clearly articulates what it means to be soundly saved by the regenerating power of God in the gospel. He challenges us to live as obedient followers of Jesus and provides a practical personal disciple-making plan.

Number Three:Tough Topics: Biblical Answers to 25 Challenging Questions” by Sam Storms. This great resource provides solid biblical answers to some hot topics. For example, he addresses the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, the fate of infants who die, and the nature of angels, demons, and the Satan. He tackles issues such as losing one’s salvation, speaking in tongues, and tithing among many other hotly debated issues.

Number Four: “PROOF: Finding Freedom through the Intoxicating Joy of Irresistible Grace” by Daniel Montgomery and Timothy Paul Jones. Using the teachings from the Canons of Dort, these authors explain the doctrines of grace for a modern audience. They address God’s unconditional election, sovereign regeneration, particular atonement, total depravity, and perseverance of the saints.

Number Five:What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality” by Kevin DeYoung.  In this accessible book, the author examines every passage in the Old and New Testament that address the issue of homosexuality. He also responds to popular objections raised by Christians and non-Christians.

Number Six: “Stop Asking Jesus into Your Heart: How to Know for Sure You Are Saved” by J. D. Greear. This short, semiautobiographical work relays how J. D. struggled with finding assurance of his salvation because he had “asked Jesus into his heart” so many times as a child. He provides a solid explanation of what it means to truly be saved and demonstrates the pitfalls of using the sinner’s prayer as a replacement for repentance and faith.

Number Seven:Evangelism: How the Whole Church Speaks of Jesus” by J. Mack Stiles. This brief book packs a punch on what it means for the both individual Christians and the church to share the gospel with the lost.  Instead of focusing on canned programs, the author encourages a simpler and more biblical approach to evangelism.

Number Eight:Hell Under Fire” edited by Christopher Morgan and Robert Peterson. This is probably the best resource on the doctrine of hell. Different authors contribute to each chapter and cover the Scripture’s teaching on hell from both the Old and New Testaments as well as some major theological issues and objections. In the past 50 years, the reality of hell has been under attack and this book clearly addresses the issue from the authority of the Bible.

Number Nine:God in the Whirlwind: How the Holy-Love of God Reorients our World” by David Wells. The author explores the depths of the paradox that God is both holy and loving. He provides a renewing vison of God’s character as the cure for the current shallow theology of evangelicalism. This is thoroughly gospel centered and will challenge modern assumptions of who people think God actually is.

Number Ten: “We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry” by G. K. Beale. This is probably the most difficult of all the books I have recommended. The author traces the themes of idolatry from Genesis to Revelation as he argues for this thesis: What people revere, they resemble, either for ruin or restoration. Beale is a prolific scholar who will challenge your thinking on how destructive idolatry truly is.

May you enjoy reading these recommended books as you start 2016. May God bless you and may you grow closer to Jesus this year!

 

Encouragement for PREACHERS

This is a special encouragement to PREACHERS.

Many times as preachers, we are tempted to skip over parts of the Bible we feel are not palatable for a modern audience. We may give in to the fear of man at times and shrink back from declaring the whole counsel of God’s Word. Yet, in order to be faithful as ministers of the gospel, God has commissioned us to preach in season and out of season regardless of how people may receive our message. Paul testifies in Acts 20:7: “For I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.” In 2 Timothy 4:2, he admonished Timothy to “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.”

In a culture that disdains truth claims and holds suspicion against any type of outside authority, we as preachers find ourselves in a precarious position. How do we faithfully declare the whole counsel of God’s Word and preach hard truths both in season and out of season? How do we fight the temptation to give into the fear of man? Where is our ultimate confidence as preachers?

This past week I came across a passage in Isaiah 51 that historically and contextually does not address the issue of preaching per se, but I do believe it has a powerful application for us today.

In Isaiah 51:12 the sovereign Lord asserts, “I, I am he who comforts you; who are you that you are afraid of man who dies, of the son of man who is made like grass.” In other words, “Preacher, why are you afraid of what people will think when you preach the truth?”

God provides a compelling answer to our fears as preachers in 51:15-16: “I am the Lord your God, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar— the Lord of hosts is his name. And I have put my words in your mouth and covered you in the shadow of my hand, establishing the heavens and laying the foundations of the earth, and saying to Zion, ‘You are my people.’ ”

As God’s chosen instrument to proclaim His truth, God promises to put His Word in our mouths. And this Word is performative in that it accomplishes something in the hearts of our hearers. What is the power by these “words”? The God who created the seas and waves and flung the stars into the heavens, is the same God who gives you the Word to preach.

And we have two very important confidences when we faithfully declare God’s Word. First of all, He promises to cover us in the shadow of His hand. God will protect you. This does not necessarily mean that everyone will like what you have to say or that you will never experience conflict as a result of your preaching. It does mean that God will be a strong tower of refuge in your preaching ministry.

Secondly, we have the confidence that God has chosen us as His people. We have been predestined, called, adopted, justified, and redeemed into God’s family as His special possession. Our identity in preaching does not come in our personality, charisma, or rhetorical skills. Instead, our identity comes in knowing that we are in Christ and our heavenly Father owns us as His own.

So, pastor, the next time you preach and you’re hesitant to proclaim hard truths from the pulpit, remember your confidence comes from God putting His very Word in your mouth through the sacred text. He promises to bless your preaching. He promises to bring about the regeneration of lost sinners and the sanctification of saints through your preaching. He promises to hide you in His powerful hands. He has called you by name as His own.

May I encourage us to preach with confidence. Preach with power. Preach with diligence. And preach with faith in an Almighty God who promises to do what only a sovereign God can do—change hearts through the power of the gospel.