Category Archives: Idolatry

The Gospel Proclaimed

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The explicit gospel is summed up in Romans 1:1-4.  This gospel is that the Father sent the Son to be resurrected from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit to graciously bring us back into obedient reconciliation with God for the sake of His name.

All throughout Scripture God acts for His name’s sake. 1 Samuel 12:22; Psalm 23:3; Psalm 79:9; Psalm 106:8; Psalm 109:21; Psalm 143:11; Isaiah 48:9-11; Jeremiah 14:7, 21; Ezekiel 20:9, 14, 22; Ezekiel 36:22; Daniel 9:17-19; 1 John 2:12.  God acts for His glory.  Romans 11:33-36; 1 Timothy 1:11;  Philippians 2:11.

The explicit gospel is not about us.  It is about God.

The Church, however, has not done a good job of proclaiming this explicit gospel so the gospel has become obscure.  Christians have a tendency to treat our response to the gospel as if it is the heart of the gospel.  We focus on what we do (loving our families, devoting our lives to broken and hurting people, helping the homeless) instead of focusing on what Jesus did on the cross.  Matt Chandler, lead pastor of a church in Dallas stated “If we confuse the gospel with response to the gospel, we will drift from what keeps the gospel on the ground, what makes it clear and personal, and the next thing you know, we will be doing a bunch of things that actually obscure the gospel, not reveal it.”[1]

Making the entirety of the gospel about our doing things turns Jesus into merely a social justice warrior, the poster boy for every preferred progressive public policy.  If the gospel is merely about helping people overcome obstacles in this life, then people’s feelings become paramount.  The gospel then gets molded into how best to make people happy.  The gospel becomes a tool for political gain.  Abortion, homosexuality, same-sex “marriage,” gender fluidity are then justified by that gospel.    

Making the gospel about our good works and right living instead of what Christ has done is merely a self-help behavioral modification program and is all about our holiness.  A gospel that is merely about cultivating our righteousness becomes about living our best lives now, and about earning the favor and blessings of God.  This gospel is transactional: we behave and God blesses.  Rub that lamp, and get your three wishes.  God owes us for our efforts at obedience.  The more favor you have with God, the more He will give you the things that you “claim.”

These are false gospels of idolatry, leading us back to self-reliance instead of dependence on God.  The Church focuses its gospel preaching on meeting physical needs and teaching people how to behave, and neglects the heart of the gospel: the transformation of sinful, rebellious mankind from being enemies of God to a place of reconciliation by the power of the grace of God in order to give Him glory.  Christian author and apologist Ravi Zacharias often says “Jesus Christ did not come to make bad people good, but to make dead people live.”[2]  The gospel is about resurrecting those who are dead in their sins to become alive in Christ, not about lives of comfort and ease.

A song I recently heard that is popular in Christian circles falls into the same trap.  While the song generally has a good message, it misses the mark severely when it comes to the gospel.  “Dream Small” is Josh Wilson’s debut single.  Its message is about loving our neighbors as ourselves and doing small things that “change the world.”  He lists several of these small things: 

It’s a momma singing songs about the Lord.  It’s a daddy spending family time the world says he cannot afford…It’s a pastor at a tiny little church, forty years of loving on the broken and the hurt…It’s visiting the widow down the street or dancing on a Friday with your friend with special needs

The song writer encourages us to “Live well” and to “find little ways where only you can help.”  He declares “These simple moments change the world.”  Josh Wilson insists the God who makes oceans from rivers and rivers from raindrops, can add up your little things to do bigger things.  The “gospel” in this song is that our good behavior and our good deeds are the things that change the world.

Now, I do not want you to think that I believe the Bible teaches that we are not to do good works.  Jesus said that when we do not help the least of us, we refuse to help Him.[3]  Paul said in Ephesians that we are saved by grace through faith, and not by works.  But he also said “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.”[4]  James, the brother of Jesus, said that faith without works is dead.[5]  Good works are the fruit of a redeemed life.  But, these good works must be first and foremost for the kingdom of God.[6]

I do not despise the song when I criticize it.  But, this song’s nice sounding message is not the explicit gospel. The fault of the song is not in the fact that it encourages good works.  The fault lies in the emphasis of our good works that “change the world.”  Be nice to people.  Your kindness just might make their day.  Pay it forward and it will come back to you.  Buy the world a Coke and all will be in harmony. (OK that last reference is a little “old school.”  I’ve provided a link to help you get what I mean.)  Being nice to people does not tell them how to be reconciled with God. 

These good works are not the gospel.  They are our response to the gospel.  Matt Chandler said “We live through faith, and we die through faith.  Everything else is garbage.  Even good works of righteousness, if not done through faith, are works of self-righteousness and therefore filthy rags.”[7]  We can go to church every Sunday, attend a life group, participate in church ministry, volunteer at the food pantry, be nice to our neighbors.  But, if we do those things trying to earn the favor of God we may still be dead in our sins.  The result of making the gospel about our works is to inoculate ourselves to the real Jesus and the true gospel.   If we do those good works as the goal of the gospel, we obscure the gospel.  We essentially preach a cross with no power, grace without repentance, and a God who requires nothing of us.  Our nice deeds give people good feelings, but leave them without the good news.  We can do the same thing by singing about buying the world a Coke.

This false gospel of good works to change the world has a popular saying often (incorrectly) attributed to St. Francis of Assisi.  “Preach the gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words.”  However, Romans 10:14-17 insists the presentation of the gospel will always require words, not simply our good works.  Our example should certainly be one of obedience to Christ, but it is not our works that transforms sinners.  It is the Word.  Paul writes in Romans 1:16 “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes….”

Do not assume that your nice deeds will preach the gospel.  The gospel must be preached explicitly with words. 

This true gospel—where, for His glory, God the Father tore apart and bled out the body of Son of God instead of pouring out His wrath on us who deserved it—has the transformational power to make those who are dead in sin to become dead to sin and alive in Christ.  This is the explicit gospel Christians need to believe and the Church needs to preach.

[1] Matt Chandler, with Jared Wilson, The Explicit Gospel, (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2012), 83.

[2] https://twitter.com/ravizacharias/status/403333034134364161?lang=en

[3] Matthew 25:45.

[4] Ephesians 2:8-10.

[5] James 2:17.

[6] Matthew 6:33.

[7] Chandler, Explicit Gospel, 85.

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The Passion of a Disciple

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“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”
-Luke 14:26

collegefootballidolI don’t know if this photograph is real or photoshopped, but I do know that the situation in our churches make that photograph plausible.  The South is no longer the “Bible Belt.”  It is the College Football Belt.  But, the idolatry of sports (especially college football) pervades the Church across America.  I came to this conclusion back in 2012 when we moved to Warner Robins, Georgia.

Every new Air Force assignment for me requires a move to a new location and that means we have to find a new church wherever we move.  One Sunday in November 2012 we visited a church in Warner Robins.  The song portion of the worship service was typical of what I had seen all over the country: people showing up late, men standing in the sanctuary with their arms crossed or with hands in pockets, women holding coffee cups, hardly anyone singing.

I tried to ignore them. I was there to worship God, but it does put a damper on your attitude of worship when your supposed brothers and sisters do not appear to be as enthusiastic about worshipping Jesus as you are. (I am not saying this in self-righteousness. I am simply describing that the outward posture of the people in that church demonstrated a lack of zeal for worship.)  Anyway, I wanted to worship God.  I was disappointed when the obligatory three songs were over and we were told to be seated.

Then the pastor took the stage.

That’s when the congregation appeared to be more animated.  The silence from the congregation when we sang worship songs was erased by “cat calls,” jeers, whistles, and the random “Roll Tide!” from the crowd.  You see, this Georgia pastor just happened to be a ‘Bama fan, and that Sunday just happened to be the day after Texas A&M defeated Alabama 29-24.  The congregation was giving the pastor quite a ribbing because his team lost.

The pastor then spent 15-20 minutes of his sermon time talking about the game and college football.  Whereas before, the congregation appeared bored and uninterested to be there, they now came alive.

What motivated them?  The Almighty, Infinite God?  No, not hardly.  College football motivated them.  The difference in the congregation was stark.  They had more passion for Saturday afternoons than for Sunday mornings.

And this difference in passions occurred in church no less!  So, perhaps you can understand why I harp on this idolatry in the Church.  I see more “Roll Tides” and “War Eagles” and “Go Dawgs” from Christians in my Facebook newsfeed than I do songs, and hymns, and spiritual songs.

I do not single out anyone to tell them they have a sports idolatry.  I simply speak in general terms to address the issue, hoping people will honestly evaluate themselves.  I get a lot of push-back, though.  No one seems to have a problem, yet nothing changes in the Church.  I love my brothers and sisters.  I know that most of them are sincere in their faith and do not want to worship idols.  I have to trust that they are being honest with themselves and with God.

collegefootballreligionMeanwhile, my Facebook newsfeed continues to be filled with people’s sports passions.

In the Scripture above, Jesus spoke to a multitude of people about the cost of discipleship.  Being a disciple of Jesus means that we are to be so devoted to Him that our passion for other things is to seem like hatred in comparison.  Discipleship requires sacrifice, following Jesus, laying down our lives, our passions for the sake of the Gospel.

The disciple of Jesus demonstrates his passion by bearing his cross.  As disciples of Christ, perhaps one of the things we need to nail to the cross is our passion for college football.

Me? An Idolater?

I debated whether I was going to address our American sports idolatry this fall.  It is such a touchy subject for some.  Most do not believe they have a sports idolatry, I mean, after all, sports is not inherently evil, right?  Yet, everywhere I go our churches are filled with people who are more passionate about Saturday afternoons than Sunday mornings, or more excited about the opening kickoff than an opening hymn.

If you do not think there is a sport idol in America, watch this commercial:

Before you dismiss any call to evaluate idolatry in your lives, read these articles:

3 Questions to Detect Sports Idolatry
SPORTS IDOLATRY? Has America Made Football Its God?
When Does Sports Become Idolatry?
Worshiping The False God Of Football
Idolatry Season Has Begun

I concluded that I had a sports idolatry a few years ago.  I spent too much time watching sports, talking about sports, thinking about sports, arguing about sports.  It caused me to dislike some people.  I identified myself by what teams I supported.  I evaluated myself honestly and found that I was more passionate for my teams than I was for God.  I had to remove this idol.  Because I identified this idol in my life I can identify it elsewhere.

I debated whether to address our sports idolatry again until I came across this passage in Ezekiel 6:3-7 just this morning:

3 You mountains of Israel, hear the word of the Lord GOD! Thus says the Lord GOD to the mountains and the hills, to the ravines and the valleys: Behold, I, even I, will bring a sword upon you, and I will destroy your high places.

4 Your altars shall become desolate, and your incense altars shall be broken, and I will cast down your slain before your idols.

5 And I will lay the dead bodies of the people of Israel before their idols, and I will scatter your bones around your altars.

6 Wherever you dwell, the cities shall be waste and the high places ruined, so that your altars will be waste and ruined, your idols broken and destroyed, your incense altars cut down, and your works wiped out.

7 And the slain shall fall in your midst, and you shall know that I am the LORD.

sportsidol-01Brothers and sisters, idolatry is a serious matter with God.  How long will we be like the Church of Corinth, attending sacred assemblies on Sunday and dining with idols the rest of the week?  God slew his own people who defiled his temple with idols.  Do we think God will not chasten us because “we are under grace?”

“Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. I speak as to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say.”
-I Corinthians 10:14-15

Yes, Church, we do worship idols, most prominently the idol of sports.  Let us flee this abomination, and destroy it as thoroughly as King Josiah destroyed the idols in his day when he had the people tear down the idols, burn them with fire, pound them into powder, and spread their ashes.  Assuming I was merely spouting my opinion again, someone asked me where the line is drawn between idolatry and appropriate leisure.  I responded that I’ve found that as we get closer to God, and know Him in a deeper way, we will know for ourselves where that line is.  Knowing God requires us to die to ourselves.  Our idols are a false reality.  God is the only source of truth.  God does not demand we put away our idols for His sake, but for our own.  God knows that it is to our detriment that we place our passions on and worship things that are false, on things that cannot give us true meaning and worth.  Only in worshipping Him will we find true meaning in our lives.

Judge for yourselves if what I say is the truth.

Let us finally be the Church that worships God exclusively!