Are You a Living Letter?

L.D. Turner

Paul stressed that in order to be effective witnesses for the gospel, we must become “living epistles.” We must become open letters that anyone can read and by reading, come to a deeper understanding of just who this radical Galilean was and is. It is a high calling, indeed and not one to be taken lightly. If we take Jesus’ words recorded in the 26th Chapter of Matthew as true, then it should be obvious to even the most dense among us that the litmus test for defining a Christian is not belief in Christ, but in embodying Christ.

My experience has been that many sincere adherents of the Christian faith pay little attention to the magnitude and the importance of this calling to emulate Christ in thought, word, and deed. I don’t say this to judge, but only to record what I think is an accurate observation. I would also add that I, too, am guilty of taking this call too lightly.

I have, however, managed to take the Christ-calling a bit more seriously over the past few years. For this I am ever grateful and, at the same time, quite aware that I still have a long, long way to go in terms of character formation. Yet I press forward toward that goal, which as Michael Frost points out, is incumbent upon all who would claim Jesus as Master and Teacher:

Practicing the presence of Christ means being a living example of the life of Jesus. This raises the stakes enormously. It means that our lives need to become increasingly aligned with the example of Jesus. It doesn’t require sinless obedience – as if that’s possible anyway. It means, though, increasingly becoming people of justice, kindness, mercy, strength, hope, grace, generosity, and hospitality.

Yes, this divine calling is an invitation to a life of fulfillment and reward beyond our imagining, if we will only yield ourselves to it with complete abandon. Yet for many of us, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. Still, it is necessary to move forward as best we can, relying on the promises of God and the empowerment of the indwelling Holy Spirit. For many of us, we get better in spite of ourselves. I know that is often true in my case.

This call to emulate Christ is a call to give flesh to grace. The whole story-line of God’s Great Saga is one of proactive grace. God saw that we needed grace and gave us Christ and Christ saw that the world needed grace and gave the world us. Just pause and chew on that one for a minute. What a great honor and what a great responsibility.

The world in which Jesus carried out his grace-mission is far different than the one we live in. In some ways the world of the first century was far more difficult than our era, but in other ways, we face challenges Jesus never had to contend with. Still, if we take seriously the divine calling we have been speaking of we can’t let these challenges divert us from the task at hand. Michael Frost speaks clearly to the dilemma facing the contemporary church:

In our world today – post-Christendom and postmodern – we find ourselves a far cry from the simpler times during which Jesus lived…..we find ourselves up against challenges that we can’t imagine Jesus having to deal with. We stare vacantly at our WWJD (What would Jesus do?) wristbands, wondering just what Jesus would do when confronted with the befuddling complexities of contemporary culture. No wonder so many Christians opt to withdraw, to burrow deeper down inside their warrens in the hope that they can avoid contamination from the onslaught of the post-Christendom West. Likewise, the temptation to give in and be swept along by the prevailing mores is perfectly understandable. Swimming always against the constantly shifting flow of culture is exhausting, and it’s not incomprehensible when Christians throw their hands up and just stop swimming.

The pressing questions confronting those who are consecrated to the mission of vivifying the Body of Christ and mobilizing its resources in service of a world in great need revolve around both form and function. What kind of organization can best carry out the task of giving flesh to grace in highly varied circumstances? Once the shape is defined, how can the church best meet the needs of the community in which it finds itself?

As I have mentioned in other venues, my vision of the future church is of a body of highly committed Christians operating in groups that are creative, transformational, and incarnational. Michael Frost, writing with great promise and hope, cites six values that need to be embraced by the church of the future:

  1. To seek an approach to spiritual growth that values inward transformation over external appearances.
  2. To value a spirituality that seeks not to limit our God-given humanity, creativity, or individuality; to value diversity and difference over conformity and uniformity.
  3. To enjoy from-the-heart, honest, dialogues and avoid relationships marked by superficiality and hidden agendas.
  4. To strive to be completely honest with God and appropriately transparent with others about our inmost thoughts, hopes, dreams, emotions, shortcomings, failings, transgressions, struggles.
  5. To seek to welcome back mystery and paradox over easy explanations; to live with questions that have no easy answers.
  6. To work to honestly recalibrate our lifestyles, diets, spending patterns, and commitments to reflect our hope for a more just, equitable, and merciful society.

At first blush, these goals may seem overly idealistic and virtually impossible to bring into positive manifestation. As I study, reflect, and pray over these optimistic visions for the church, however, I find that they are not only highly pragmatic, but equally achievable if we consecrate ourselves to the task. We must also add to the equation a factor that many of us who hold a more liberal, progressive view of the faith seem to have either forgotten or cast into the dustbin of disbelief: With God, all things are possible.

Our work here at LifeBrook has demonstrated the reality that positive change is, indeed, possible. We have found that using a small group approach works best in bringing about spiritual transformation. Frost relates that in his church the formation of a small group ministry called “Life Transformation Groups” has worked quite well.

Robin R. Meyers, in discussing various aspects of the Sermon on the Mount, makes the cogent observation that Jesus says “blessed are those who hear the word of God and obey it.” Meyers goes on to say:

Notice that he did not say blessed are those who hear the word of God and believe it. Nor did he say blessed are those who hear the word of God and enshrine it as doctrine. Nor did he say blessed are those who hear the word of God and co-opt it for a particular religious or political agenda. He said blessed are those who hear the word of God and obey it. That is, blessed are those who give up their old way of being in the world and willingly surrender to a new way. Blessed are those who are willing to take new orders – by marching to the tune of a different drummer and taking the road less traveled.

As stated earlier, our calling is to emulate Christ and become living epistles for the faith we claim. Although we face challenges that are different and, at least in some ways, more difficult than those faced by Jesus, these are exciting times for the Body of Christ. Within the context of these challenges and changes, we have the opportunity to forge a great future for Christ’s church.

© L.D. Turner 2010/2018 All Rights Reserved

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Holistic Optimism and Christian Acceptance

L.D. Turner

One of the key principles that we emphasize here at LifeBrook is the importance of optimism. The reasons for stressing the development and maintenance of an optimistic outlook on life are many, but perhaps the most important benefit of optimism is obvious.

Optimism is the womb of hope. 

More significantly, as Christians, we have every reason to be optimistic. God has given us, through his grace and love, everything we need to live a complete, fulfilling, and rewarding life. Further, the Bible tells us repeatedly that we are now wholly redeemed and acceptable to the Father and that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God. In and of itself, that should be enough to allow optimism to work its roots deep into the soil of our hearts. Moreover, in Romans Paul reassures us that all things work for our benefit, even if we are sometimes blind to the fact.

In brief, God accepts us and blesses us. So, why is it that many of us have trouble fully accepting this free gift of grace? Why is it that a significant number of God’s family displays such a negative mindset? Why is it that church pews are often filled with people wearing either plastic smiles or, even worse, displaying such a sour countenance that visitors might think these folks had been baptized in vinegar instead of water?

Perhaps the problem stems from the fact that many of us, deep down in our spiritual hearts, just don’t believe that we have really been accepted. If we are among that number, our situation is such that we are actually rejecting the very gospel we proclaim. 

A renowned Christian theologian, I think it was Paul Tillich, once said that the key to the whole Christian gospel was the fact that God accepts us. In fact, he went on to say that the way to appropriate God’s grace was to accept that we are accepted. I am no theologian and, at best, possess a second or third-rate mind. But I am capable of comprehending the truth of this statement. We cannot begin the spiritual journey as outlined by Christ until we accept the gift of grace. And the most fundamental aspect of accepting God’s offer is to accept that we are accepted. Yet many Christians don’t seem to get this point. In fact, in their broken, weak state they can’t fathom that they are in any way acceptable to God. Something is wrong here. Very wrong.

The crown jewel in the center of the Christian message is that the lowliest, neediest, and most broken people are accepted if they have faith in Christ. Just take a look at the kind of people he chose to hang out with when he was on earth. He associated with thieves, lepers, tax collectors, prostitutes, cripples, paupers, and even a woman married five times. It now strikes me as absurd to think that I, even with my hang-ups, sins, shortcomings, and defects of character, am beyond the loving pale of God’s grace. However, many people both within and outside the church feel they are unworthy of God’s grace and thus reject the gift that was designed for them in the first place.

Consider the familiar story of the Prodigal Son as told by Christ in the fifteenth chapter of Luke. We are so familiar with this tale of a wasted life saved through love and redemption than we often loose the impact that it should have on our lives. Especially if we are wastrels and rogues like the wandering Prodigal. Perhaps more than any other passage in Scripture, the parable of the youngest son of a wealthy landowner illustrates the incomprehensible, counter-intuitive love of God. Brennan Manning speaks succinctly about the Prodigal in all of us and God’s incredible acceptance:

“When the prodigal limped home from his lengthy binge of waste and wandering, boozing, and womanizing, his motives were mixed at best. He said to himself, “How many of my father’s paid servants have more food than they want, and here am I dying of Hunger! I will leave this place and go to my father”. (Luke: 15:17-18). The ragamuffin stomach was not churning with compunction because he had broken his father’s heart. He stumbled home simply to survive. His sojourn in a far country had left him bankrupt. The days of wine and roses had left him dazed and disillusioned. The wine soured and the roses withered. His declaration of independence had reaped an unexpected harvest: not freedom, joy, new life but bondage, gloom, and a brush with death. His fair-weather friends had shifted their allegiance when his piggy bank emptied. Disenchanted with life, the wastrel weaved his way home, not from a burning desire to see his father, but just to stay alive.”

Yet even with these mixed motives, borne as much from desperation as from contrition, the wastrel was accepted by his father and a celebration ensued. Of course it is best if we respond to God’s offer with a pure, contrite heart and full acknowledgement of our failure and powerlessness. Yet how many of us are actually capable of this? Not many I suspect. I know I am not. But God accepts our response to his offer in spite of our conflicted hearts and spirits. In fact, if one is to believe what Christ teaches in the parable of the Prodigal, then he in accepts our desperation just as much as he accepts our repentance. This is truly “radical grace.”

So what is our response to what God has done? What are we to do if we truly and sincerely want to partake of God’s marvelous offer to accept us, love us and empower us to be better people? What are we to do if we genuinely desire to become Children of the Light? First, we should deeply reflect on just what it is that God has done through Christ and what He is continuing to do through the ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit. Brendan Manning again puts it in cogent and moving words:

“We should be astonished at the goodness of God, stunned that he should bother to call us by name; our mouths wide open at his love, bewildered that at this very moment we are standing on holy ground. 

Just how do we go about accepting this radical offer made by God? We just accept it. It is really that simple. There is no great mystery here, no elaborate initiation rites, no secret oaths or pledges. We just accept it because God offers it. We accept it on faith and leave God to work out the details and understanding later. The comfort we find in accepting God’s love comes after faith, never before it. Remember, it all begins with and hinges on faith.

Christians seem to have an uncanny knack for taking simple truths and complicating them through debate, dogma, and doctrine. The “Doctrine of Grace” is one thing; the reality of God’s grace is quite another. It is freely offered to all who would humble themselves enough to receive it. I suspect that each of us has his or her own way of resisting God’s grace. Some of us, as mentioned above, feel we don’t deserve it; some of us are too prideful, feeling that we can fix ourselves on our own; others think the concept of grace is just too simplistic. Whatever our reasons for struggling with this basic Christian principle, until we resolve our conflict, we will not advance very far on the spiritual journey.

I can attest to this fact from my own experience. Paul says that the idea of “Christ crucified” as the means of salvation would be foolishness to the Greeks. Well, for many years it was foolishness to me. I much preferred the complexity of Buddhism and Hinduism, or the sanity of New Thought. Still, somewhere down in the pit of my being, the Hound of Heaven was chewing on me. God was unrelenting in his pursuit of me and I, like Jonah, headed for the hills more than once. Still, God’s grace kept surrounding me and I could not escape. In fact, I came to treasure the comforting feeling of being surrounded by God. Finally, I accepted that I was accepted.

Once I stopped running; once my struggles with God came to a halt, it was like a whole panorama of spiritual reality opened before my eyes, including a deep sense of optimism and hope. As a result, I began to view the world, including its problems and pain, with a greater degree of compassion and a genuine desire for healing involvement.

With the help of the Holy Spirit, I came to understand at a deeper level that I was in fact accepted. Accepted in my weakness because this is where the strength of Christ is seen. Accepted in my brokenness because this is where the healing of Christ is seen. Accepted in my faithlessness because this is where the fidelity of Christ is seen. Accepted in my wandering in the wilderness because this is where Christ’s true and stable mansions are eventually discovered.

(c) L.D. Turner/2018

The Significance of Living the Christian Life (Part Two).

L.D. Turner

Part of the problem, a significant part it seems, stems from Christianity’s grace vs. works dichotomy. As an outgrowth of what I think is an over-emphasis on the grace side of the equation, coupled with the 19th century evangelical anti-intellectual reaction to the Enlightenment, the faith has devolved into a shallow and largely hollow system of ideas, proscriptions, and prohibitions that bear little resemblance to the practices and principles espoused by and exhibited by Christ. This form of Christianity produces a cadre of “saints” who walk about acting as if they have all the answers, are the only ones privy to God’s master plan, and perhaps worst of all, sit in judgment of others by determining who is and isn’t a heretic, an apostate, or sibling of Beelzebub himself.

For lack of a better term, this form of Christianity has come to be known as “Decisional Christianity” and is based on a person making a “decision” to accept Christ as their personal savior. This decision, often made at the end of a service of some kind, constitutes a person’s entry ticket into the faith. At other times, the decision is made in more private, intimate settings, often after praying a short petition known far and wide as the “Sinner’s Prayer.”

Increasingly, critics both within and outside the faith have been reevaluating this sort of “ticket to ride” Christianity. Nowhere in scripture does it speak of saying some magic formula like the Sinner’s Prayer, nor is there any repeated emphasis in scripture about “accepting Christ as your personal savior.”

Jesus said that we would know the relative truth or falsity of a teaching based on the fruit produced and it is accurate to say that, outside of inflated numbers regarding the number of “saved souls,” this brand of decisional Christianity has produced little in the way of positive fruit. In fact, decisional Christianity tends to result in a highly superficial approach to the faith that requires little of the convert once the “decision” is made to “accept” Christ, as if for some reason this aspect of the Triune God, the matrix through which the entire universe was created and the force that holds all things together, pines away for our acceptance in the first place. It is really a ludicrous thought when you get right down to it. David Platt speaks succinctly and in a straightforward manner regarding this issue:

You will not find a verse in Scripture where people are told to “bow your heads, close your eyes, and repeat after me.” You will not find a place where a superstitious sinner’s prayer is even mentioned. And you will not find an emphasis on accepting Jesus. We have taken the infinitely glorious Son of God, who endured the infinitely terrible wrath of God who now reigns as the infinitely worthy Lord of all, and we have reduced him to a poor, puny Savior who is just begging for us to accept him.

Accept him? Do we really think Jesus needs our acceptance? Don’t we need him?

Platt minces no words in describing the unworthiness of such a response to the person and the mission of Jesus. And based on the teachings of Jesus, especially those we just looked at in the concluding section of the Sermon on the Mount, Christ expects a lot more as well. Platt continues:

I invite you to consider with me a proper response to this gospel. Surely more than praying a prayer is involved. Surely more than religious attendance is warranted. Surely this gospel evokes unconditional surrender of all that we are and all that we have to all that he is.

Platt zeroes in on the essential fabric of our proper response to the incredible God’s incredible compassion and love as exemplified by the content of the gospel when he says, “…unconditional surrender of all that we are and all that we have to all that he is.” In one word here, Platt is describing a response of abandonment.

God’s grace is given freely but it isn’t cheap. In fact, it cost all that we are. In this process of abandonment, we are bid to come and die. What this means is simply we are to step out of the cockpit and let the Master take over. Easier said than done but absolutely essential if we are to reap the full benefits of being a follower of Jesus.

Take up your cross and follow me.

He who loses his life shall gain it.

Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies…..

After that fateful morning when the Holy Spirit spoke to me about those concluding verses of the Sermon on the Mount, and particularly after I got around to personalizing its message by considering that Jesus might be talking about me when he said, “I never knew you,” I began to take stock of where I stood. In addition, I could not help but wonder how many other supposed followers of Jesus might be in more trouble than they think.

As I sat in the sanctuary the following Sunday, I couldn’t help but wonder how many of the decent folks sitting there might falsely believe they are true believers in the Master when, in actual fact, they are not. I wondered how many felt so smugly assured of their eternal future when in the Master’s eyes, they are total strangers. I fear more than a few are in this predicament whether they know it or not.

I say this not out of some self-righteous grandiosity on my part. Instead, I say it out of the humbling perspective of one who realized that he was not nearly as secure in his faith as he thought. I say it out of the experiential realization that I was not living anywhere close to the level of commitment and obedience that Christ was calling me to. Finally, I say it out of a genuine heart of compassion for those sincere believers who may be in a similar circumstance. Perhaps many of those folks were taught that reciting the Sinner’s Prayer, church attendance, and coughing up a few bucks for the collection plate was what this faith was all about.

As a Pastor, David Platt eventually became acutely aware of the implications of the closing verses of the Sermon on the Mount. In his remarkable little book, Platt describes what he frequently felt as he gazed out across the congregation on any given Sunday.

The danger of spiritual deception is real. As a pastor I shudder at the thought and lie awake at night when I consider the possibility that scores of people who sit before me on a Sunday morning might think they are saved when they are not. Scores of people have positioned their lives on a religious road that makes grandiose promises at minimal cost. We have been told all that is required is a one-time decision, maybe even mere intellectual assent to Jesus, but after that we need not worry about his commands, his standards, or his glory. We have a ticket to heaven, and we can live however we want on earth. Our sin will be tolerated along the way. Much of modern evangelism today is built on leading people down this road, and crowds flock to it, but in the end it is a road built on sinking sand, and it risks disillusioning millions of souls.

Jesus calls us to a life of far greater potential, filled with possibilities for service to others and positive work toward the establishment of his kingdom here on earth. The Master calls us to become the optimal version of ourselves, all for the sake of others and for the furtherance of his kingdom. Yet he directly tells us, and in so doing leaves no wiggle room, that there is indeed a price to pay for full status as his follower. Jesus, and the gospel that he authored and lived, requires a response from us and that response cannot be half-baked. If we reject Jesus, we do so outright, but if we accept him, then, we must accept him with totality. Again, in the words of David Platt:

 Surely this gospel evokes unconditional surrender of all that we are and all that we have to all that he is.

Think about it.

© L.D. Turner 2018/All Rights Reserved

The Significance of Living the Christian Life (Part One)

L.D. Turner

Living the kind of life Christ called us to is at times complicated and at others, quite simple. At the bottom line, it involves obedience, pure and simple.

We are given a hint at this when the Master announces what he came to accomplish on a daily basis. Paraphrasing Isaiah, Jesus proclaims good news for the oppressed:

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor and to proclaim the captives will be released and prisoners will be freed,

Now that the Lord has given us at least a vague notion of his mission here on this planet, I think it is safe to assume he expects us to follow his lead. We can find this clearly delineated in Matthew 7, especially toward the end. What follows is an article I wrote on LifeBrook several years back.

Few sections of the New Testament have received as much attention as those chapters in the Gospel of Matthew that constitute what is traditionally known as the “Sermon on the Mount.” Containing what is generally considered as a synopsis of the most important teachings of the Master, much ink has been devoted to the early verses known as the Beatitudes, and considerable pages have also been written commenting on the other teachings that come later.

Perhaps the fewest words, however, have been devoted to the closing verses of the sermon. In particular I am speaking of the seventh chapter of Matthew, verses 13-28, where Jesus pretty much wraps things up by talking about how difficult these teachings really are and warning prospective followers about false teachers and even the dangers of self-deception. After prayerfully reflecting on these verses for some time now, I have arrived at the conclusion that these passages, often skimmed over in our haste to finish this section of scripture, contain critical teachings for not only prospective Christians, but also for those who think they are firmly entrenched in the faith.

Before proceeding any further, let’s take a look at what the Master says:

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.

Beware of false prophets who come disguised as harmless sheep but are really vicious wolves. You can identify them by their fruit, that is, the way they act. Can you pick grapes from thorn bushes or figs from thistles? A good tree produces good fruit, and a bad tree produces bad fruit. A good tree can’t produce bad fruit and a bad tree can’t produce good fruit. So every tree that does not produce good fruit is chopped down and thrown into the fire. Yes, just as you can identify a tree by its fruit, so you can identify people by their actions.

Not everyone who calls out to me, “Lord! Lord!” will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter. On judgment day many will say to me, “Lord! Lord! We prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and performed many miracles in your name.” But I will reply, “I never knew you. Get away from me, you who break God’s laws.

Anyone who listens to my teaching and follows it is wise, like a person who builds a house on solid rock. Though the rain comes in torrents and the floodwaters rise and the winds beat against that house, it won’t collapse because it is built on bedrock. But anyone who hears my teaching and ignores it is foolish, like a person who builds a house on sand. When the rains and floods come and the winds beat against that house, it will collapse with a mighty crash.

When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching. For he taught with real authority – quite unlike their teachers of religious law.

There is enough meat on these biblical bones to occupy us for page after page of reflection. It is a mystery to me why Bible teachers, pastors, and other commentators spend such little time on the closing verses of the Sermon on the Mount. Granted, the entire section of Matthew is worthy of much reflection, but that doesn’t minimize the importance of these concluding remarks. There is one part of the passage that has particularly far-reaching ramifications, eternal ramifications in fact, and it is to those verses that we now turn.

In verses 21-23 Jesus very clearly describes those that are his true disciples. He does this right after talking about false teachers and advising that we judge a person by the fruit they produce, not by what they say or how they appear. In doing things in this order, Jesus seems to be implying that it is important to judge the veracity of a person by how they live their lives and, at the same time, to examine how we are living as well. The implication here is that it is easy to deceive ourselves in terms of whether or not we are actually true disciples that will see the Kingdom of Heaven. Again, Jesus says in verses 21-23:

Not everyone who calls out to me, “Lord! Lord!” will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter. On judgment day many will say to me, “Lord! Lord! We prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and performed many miracles in your name. But I will reply, “I never knew you. Get away from me, you who break God’s laws. (New Living Translation.)

Jesus wasn’t addressing these words to those outside the boundaries of contemporary religion, in this case those that were outsiders and not Jews. Instead, Christ was zeroing in on the very leaders of the Hebrew faith. David Platt describes it this way:

Jesus was not speaking here to irreligious people, atheists, or agnostics. He was not speaking to pagans or heretics. He was speaking to devoutly religious people who were deluded into thinking they were on the narrow road that leads to heaven when they were actually on the broad road that leads to hell. According to Jesus, one day not just a few but many will be shocked – eternally shocked – to find that they were not in the kingdom of God after all.

Let me share with you an experience I had with this passage of scripture, an experience which was, in retrospect, an epiphany of sorts. Several years ago I was reading through the Sermon on the Mount as a part of my devotional time. At the time I was working on an extended reflective essay on the Beatitudes so this quiet time studying and praying over these scriptures had been a part of my focus for several weeks. I slowly worked my way toward the end of the sermon, hoping for some sort of new insight or fresh angle from which to approach the scriptures.

Little did I know the Holy Spirit had prepared an ambush.

It is hard to put into words exactly what happened as the words of Matthew 7: 21-23 rocketed from the page, tore through my defenses, and stopped me stone cold in my tracks. I had read these verses many times before but on that particular morning, in some vivid yet inexplicable way, it was as if I were seeing them for the first time. Moreover, I was seeing quite clearly, with frightening clarity actually, exactly what the Master was getting at here.

Basically, he was saying that on the Day of Judgment many folks who think they have their ticket punched for the Promised Land are in for a rude awakening. Cry out as they may, these unfortunate souls who thought they were in the club of the chosen, who had even worked and served in the Lord’s name, were going to be told to hit the bricks.

After my initial shock, my next response was one of great sympathy for these folks. How awful it will be for these people, many of them perhaps well-meaning Christian professionals, maybe even pastors and teachers, will have their hopes dashed on that fateful day. How awful it will be for these believers to hear the Master tell them, “Depart, I never knew you.”

Then it finally hit me like a two-by-four in the back of the head:

What if he’s talking about me?

To be continued . . . . .

(c) L.D. Turner 2018/All Rights Reserved

Have a Blessed Christmas

I want to take this opportunity to wish all my readers, subscribers, and those who just happen by a blessed and merry Christmas. Let us always remember the true meaning of this holiday – the celebration of God’s gift to humanity, a gift that just keeps on giving. Jesus was the birth of divine light into a dark world and it is my wish that more and more of us carry that light in our heart of hearts and manifest his sacrificial love in our daily lives.

Random Thoughts on Our Identity in Christ (Part One)

L.D. Turner

One of the primary reasons so many Christians walk in much less victory than God intends stems from the fact that they still don’t understand the full extent of the gospel message. For much of our shared history, American Protestants have emphasized the blood of Christ and the atonement for sins. Granted, this is a portion of the gospel truth, however, the mission of Christ was far greater than that. Unfortunately, a significant number of Christians don’t fathom the rich treasures Christ has provided through his incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascendancy. In order to regain a full perspective on the accomplishments of Christ, our new identity as Children of the Light, and the authority and power granted to us, we need to carefully study Scripture and ascertain the full extent of the blessings of God’s provision through Christ.

Often, we toss about the word salvation and, after hearing the word so many times, lose sight of just what the word implied to the first Christ-followers and, by implication, to us as well. “Sozo” is the Greek word for salvation and it implies a sense of completion, soundness, health, and the absence of disharmony on all levels. Sozo thus refers to a reality far greater than the remission of sins, although that is an important aspect of the word’s meaning. Sozo, taken in its biblical context, refers to the fact that God’s, through Christ, has given His grace whereby we are freed from all obstacles and hindrances that could stand in the way of us becoming all that we were created to be. Salvation implies that through God’s grace we freed from bondage to anything that hinders our ability to become complete in Christ, manifesting our original nature, created in the image of God.

I think that this general lack of awareness on the part of many Christians stems from a complex constellation of factors, but for the sake of simplicity, perhaps we can focus on four sources of misinformation about the full extent of the gospel: the pulpit; the enemy; the world; our own habitual patterns of thought and behavior.

Perhaps many of you are wondering how I could imply that the pulpit may in some way be responsible for our general lack of understanding of who and what we are in Christ. The answer is simple. By choosing to consistently focus on the blood of Christ at the expense of the provisions generated as a result of his resurrection and ascension, many pastors and preachers have contributed to this miasma of misunderstanding. This in no way minimizes the blood of Christ, but instead, it completes the work done on the cross. If Christ died for our sins, but left us completely under the power of “sin,” (our sinful nature), then we would be no better off than the Israelites who were dependent each year on the placing of their sins upon the “scapegoat,” which was then release to wander in the desert until it died. After the Day of Atonement, the Jews then began the process of accumulating sin that would need atonement the following year.

Pastors, preachers, and Bible teachers need to repeatedly stress that God has provided all that we need to lead a godly, holy life (see 2 Peter 1:5). Through the blood, our sins are forgiven; through the cross, our sin is dealt with. Unfortunately, the pulpit has not stressed this aspect of the gospel nearly enough.

In terms of the enemy and the world, these two forces often act in concert to minimize what we have been granted in Christ. After all, the popular views of our culture are often in opposition to what God would have us do, whether it is in terms of our actual behavior or, at an even more subtle level, how we think and how we view the world. Let’s take a brief look at how these two forces, Satan and the world, might be a formidable obstacle when it comes to understanding our true blessings “in Christ.”

In today’s spiritual marketplace, the church is often assailed by the enemy in ways both manifest and subtle. One of Satan’s main strategies is to put forth teachings that contain a grain of scriptural truth and, at least on the surface, sound good, especially from a worldly perspective. For example, many contemporary Bible teachers focus on material wealth and prosperity. Don’t get me wrong – there is nothing wrong with wealth and having possessions, so long as we are not controlled by them. However, these teachers often go to scripture to support their contentions and, in so doing, often miss the point of the particular verse or portion of scripture they cite. Most of the current prosperity gospel advocates justify their teaching by quoting Jesus in John 10:10:

I have come that they may have life and have it to the full.

According to the prosperity teachers, Jesus was speaking of material abundance when he uttered these words. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Given the situation they were in, I doubt the early Christians were overly concerned with gaining material wealth. In the early days of the church, the prime focus was on solidifying the local church, spreading the gospel, and staying alive.

When Christ spoke of abundance in John 10:10, he was speaking of the fullness of life. Here Jesus is talking about the fact that through his mission, believers will now have the capacity to have the fullness of life that was lost due to the Fall. In essence, He was referring to a restored humanity, now in proper relationship with God and ready to bear fruit.

The theological minutia surrounding the discussions of justification and sanctification can be both confusing and distracting. Although gaining an understanding of these concepts is important, for our present conversation going into depth about such matters would be an unnecessary distraction. For now, let’s just suffice to say that understanding and accepting who we are in Christ is central to the process of spiritual formation. Further, it is important that we see that our adoption into God’s family is an act of grace. Neil Anderson tells us:

Only as we see ourselves as sons and daughters of God can we really grow in holiness (see Romans 8:15). Only as we are free from the task of trying to gain a relationship with God by our own righteousness or cleanness will we be free to appropriate His righteousness and holiness for our growth.  

Without Christ, his work on the cross and in rising from the tomb, we could not even begin to progress in terms of spiritual formation. In order to grow in spirit, we have to be connected to God. Just as a fish cannot thrive unless it is in water, we cannot thrive outside of our natural environment, which is proper connection with God. Christ’s mission accomplished this reconnection with our Maker and made all spiritual formation possible. Without the regeneration provided by the mission of Christ, we would remain in a state of separation from God. Listen to Neil Anderson as he so accurately elaborates this theme:

Spiritual growth in the Christian life requires a relationship with God, who is the fountain of spiritual life. Only through this relationship can we bear new seed or tap into the root of life. As in nature, unless there is some seed or root of life within an organism, no growth can take place. So unless there is a root of life within the believer – that is, some core of spiritual life – growth is impossible. There is nothing to grow.

The thrust of what is being said in this article is centered on the fact that we need to seize our proper identity in Christ, but in doing so, we must also understand the work of Christ on the cross and through his resurrection and ascension. Underlying this vital comprehension is that fact that we cannot be who and what we were intended to be without being in proper, intimate relationship with God. In order for that to be possible, our relationship must be restored. That’s where the Blood of Christ comes into play. Through his death, in some mysterious way Christ paid the debt for our sin and made reunion with the Father possible.

Beyond that, through his dying to self and rising in new life, we, too, may also die to our old way of being and rise in newness of life. But the story doesn’t end there. Christ, through his ascension into heaven, made possible the coming of the Holy Spirit. As Christ himself said, “Unless I leave, the Spirit won’t come.” As stated, Christ’s departure and his seat at the right hand of the Father make possible the Spirit’s presence in our lives. Now, just as the Father walked in the garden with the first couple, the Spirit walks along side of us. Even more important, he has also taken up residence within us.

It is not enough to die and rise again. We must also live in a new manner and it is the Spirit that makes this new way of thinking, feeling, behaving and relating possible. Grasp that, and you are well on your way of appropriating your new identity in Christ.

To be continued . .

(c) L.D. Turner/ 2017/ All Rights Reserved

Christian Success Principles

L.D. Turner

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new

Creation; the old has gone, the new has come.

(2 Corinthians 5:17)

Since I was a child, I have had a passionate fascination with bears. It all started when I was around five-years-old and my family took a vacation to the Great Smoky Mountains. It was on this memorable trip that I saw my first bear and it was love at first sight.

Throughout my childhood and adolescence I took every opportunity I could to go and see a bear, whether it be in a carnival, a traveling circus, or in a zoo. I also spent hours studying about bears in encyclopedias and books. I guess no one can really explain why a young person develops these sorts of interests. For many, the fascination passes as adulthood arrives with its myriad responsibilities and other interest. For me, however, I still love bears.

With this information as a backdrop, you can imagine how excited I became back in the early 90’s when I learned that the Miami Zoo had obtained a rare, Tibetan Bear. I was living in Miami at the time and read about the bear in the newspaper. The next day I drove out to the zoo to take a look at the Tibetan Bear.

The zoo in Miami is of the modern type. Animals are not kept in cages, but instead roam with relative freedom, separate from spectators by large ditches, canals, or non-descript fencing. I arrived at the zoo and inquired as to the whereabouts of the Tibetan Bear. I strolled over to the area where the bear was being kept and I was in awe.

A relatively smallish bear, the Tibetan Bear has long hair, brownish red, and a face with much character. The bear was near the small canal that ran between the walkway where I stood and the enclosure where it lived. After observing the animal for several minutes, I noticed something quite odd about its behavior. The bear paced endlessly in the same pattern. It would take eight steps in one direction, slowly pivot on one of its front feet, turn, and take eight steps in the opposite direction. The creature kept this up for the entire time I was there, a total of almost thirty minutes.

Inquiring about this strange behavior, the zookeeper told me the bear was about six-years-old and had lived its entire life in a cage. The eight steps was the exact distance from one side of the cage to the other. The bear had implanted a deep pattern of behavior based on its former environment. It had never been able to take more than eight steps in one direction and now, even though it had the freedom to roam as far as it wanted, it still only took eight steps. According to the zookeeper, a trainer worked with the bear each day in an attempt to help it “unlearn” the old pattern of restrictive behavior. The zookeeper said that most animals that had lived in cages for most of their lives had similar patterns of behavior.

On my way home I reflected on this and had one of those moments of personal epiphany. I realized that I, like the bear and a majority of the Christians that I knew, had a similar problem. Through Christ’s mission on earth, we have had our bars removed as well. The cage of sin and self has been removed and we captives have been set free. As the scripture from 2 Corinthians that opened this article states, “we are new creations.” The old has gone and the new has come. This is part of the good news of the gospel and the result of the healing work Christ’s victory has obtained. Each of us, when we accepted Jesus as Lord, was given a new identity “in Christ.”

So why is it we continue, like the bear, to walk as if we were still behind bars? Why do we continue to behave in the same destructive ways that we did before? Why is it that so few of us seem to walk in the newness of life that Christ promised and Paul spoke of so often?

I think there are many reasons for this unfortunate reality. Part of the reason is just the sheer force of habit. Whenever we repeat a behavior over and over, we tend to eventually do it automatically. In a real sense, we become machine-like. Our world pushes a button and we respond in a predictable way. Another reason is our faulty thinking. Let’s get one fact down deep. Our behavior starts with our thinking or, as said often, the thought is the ancestor of the action. Until we change our thinking, we won’t effectively change our behavior.

Paul realized how important our thinking was to our behavior. That’s why he said we needed to “renew our minds.” All lasting change starts with a mental makeover.

One other reason why we continue to walk in our old ways, even though scripture screams we are new creations, stems from the fact that either we don’t realize that we are new creations or we don’t believe it. Perhaps this needs a bit of clarification.

The Church as a whole has been expert at preaching the gospel of the blood and forgiveness of sin. Christ died as a ransom for many and, even though we don’t deserve it, we can now come into God’s presence as if we were spotless. As great a message as this is, it only half the story. Yes, Christ won our forgiveness but he also did something else. He won our victory over our sin and our sinful nature. Go back and review Romans 5-8 to get a true picture of all this.

By his resurrection and his ascension Christ has made possible, through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, our sanctification, meaning, we are now operating under a new set of circumstances, with the Holy Spirit working inside of us. Many Christians are unaware of this reality for two primary reasons: first, the vast majority of believers are biblically illiterate. Recent studies by George Barna more than bear this out; and second, pastors typically preach more about the blood than they do the resurrection, the ascension, and our subsequent empowerment.

Other Christians are aware of the fact that they are new creations in Christ, but just don’t believe it. This is a tragedy because just the act of believing what scripture says about us goes a long way toward helping us to manifest this new reality in our lives. Look at it like this: we receive salvation by accepting Christ’s atonement by faith; why don’t we also accept the second half of the gospel by faith? Why don’t we, using our faith in all that Christ has accomplished, accept the gift of our own progressive movement toward receiving the “fullness of Christ?”

In essence, a big part of our problem as Christians is the fact that we sell ourselves short. We don’t understand who we are and what we are in Christ. Even more devastating, we don’t accept and apply our new identity to daily living and we end up only being marginally effective. Like the Tibetan Bear, we pace back and forth in the same old ruts, the same old worn out ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving. If we continue to do this and expect results any different than what we have experienced in the past, we are sadly mistaken.

No, my friends, it is time for a change and that change begins with recognizing, understanding, accepting, and applying the blessed gifts of being “in Christ.” I encourage you to not put this off another day. Start today by taking a few minutes out of your schedule, sitting down and getting quiet and centered, and ask God to reveal to you the full understanding of your status as his child. Ask God to show you, especially in scripture, just what Christ accomplished for you in his life, his death, his resurrection, his ascension, and his successful mission into this world.

Begin a personal Bible study in which you explore this whole business of being “in Christ.” Keep a notebook handy and jot down your thoughts, insights, and ideas. They may be useful reminders as you move forward in the process of appropriating your new identity.

In closing, let me recommend a couple of books for you. The two titles are, Victory Over Darkness and God’s Power at Work in You. Both of these great books are by Neil Anderson, noted author and teacher. By and large, much of Anderson’s teaching is a bit too conservative for my taste. However, I can say without reservation that he has done perhaps the best job of spelling out the reality of our new identity in Christ that I have ever encountered. Further, he does an excellent job in detailing things that we can do to appropriate that identity and make it a day – to – day reality. Another title by Anderson, Bondage Breaker, is also very good.

(c) L.D. Turner/All Rights Reserved