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Life

Try to be absolutely clear when you say, “I am a Christian”

I don’t really like labels in Christianity, because on the surface, they seem to divide people who are Christians.  That can be true.  But it is also true that labels can be helpful when talking to people who are not Christian, but say they are.  In today’s pluralistic, postmodern, theological buffet-type culture, we must be able to distinguish our beliefs from other false ideas about Christianity.

To say to someone, “I’m a Christian,” is biblically correct, and should be sufficient (it would have been in the first century).  At the same time a friend might say to me, “I’m a Christian,” but it’s evident that they are no more a Christian than I am an oak tree.  How can I make sure that my misguided friend understands the difference  in our beliefs?

Consider this analogy.  I ask my friend what being Christian means to him.  He says, “I go to church.  I pray before meals.  I try to be a good person.”  Then he asks me what being Christian means to me.  I say, “I am a born-again, Evangelical.  That means I believe the Bible is the infallible, authoritative word of God and that the only way to be forgiven of sin, escape the wrath of God, and have eternal life is justification by grace through faith in Jesus Christ , who died on the cross and rose from the dead.”

When I defined being a Christian for myself, I put a label on myself (I use the word “label” here kind of loosely).  I labeled myself as an Evangelical (I could have even included the word “Protestant” in there too).  But the important thing is that I gave the label a precise definition.  The term “Evangelical” was practically synonymous with “Protestant” during the Reformation era.  The two main issues during this time were authority and justification.  The Catholic Church believed authority belonged to the Pope, and that justification could be purchased through indulgences.  The Reformers believed that authority was in the Word of God, and that justification was by grace and faith alone in Jesus.  This mean they protested (Protestant) against the false doctrines of the Catholic church, and identified themselves with the evangel (the true gospel of Scripture).

Because some people believe that Jesus is no more than a great moral teacher, and that the Bible is just a grab-bag story book with some good insights, we must be crystal clear in communicating what being “Christian” really means.  And sometimes, whether we want to or not, lableing ourselves might be helpful.

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Life Ministry

Preaching in Pretoria

Oh no. He’s refuting my sermon points before I even speak.  Jesus, there’s either going to be radical transformation today, or I’m going to be chased to my carI shouldn’t have worn flip-flops.

Those were my thoughts as the service began this morning at my friend Lordwick’s church here in a South African township, when John, the “emcee,” was up front.  He excitedly talked about enjoying a prosperous life as a Christian.   At one point he said, “If you are in trouble, if you are suffering, there is something wrong with you.  You need to get close to God.”

The demonic prosperity gospel has an enormous stronghold here in Africa. I wanted to confront it head-on.  I wanted God to do a mighty work and reveal the true nature of the gospel.  I knew that because of what I was going to say, suffering could come my way.

While I sat and listened to John’s pre-sermon ‘sermon’ and the loud, keyboard-driven praise music, I prayed that God would come with power to preach boldly — even if the message would be unpopular.  I prayed for transformation.  And by God’s grace, I think we saw the beginning of transformation by the time we were done.

Let me be honest: after the service, I tried to avoid John.  But he found me (it wasn’t hard, there were only about 40 people, and more than half were children).  He grabbed me and shook my hand and said, “James, you have opened my eyes up to something I didn’t know about.  I thought when I have Jesus, the money should flow in.  But I realize that I wasn’t believing the real gospel.  Your message, it was the real gospel.”  I was floored.  All I could say to him was, “Praise God.”  I gave my manuscript to John, and over lunch, we talked about getting him more resources that will help him be shaped by the real gospel.

With this response, God answered my prayer.  All week I had been praying that God would open people’s eyes to see.  I can’t do that.  Yet, that is exactly what God told Paul to do in Acts 26:18, “I am sending you to open their eyes.”  How can we do this impossible thing? It is only by God’s grace that he works through us.  Anything is possible with himHe is the one who says, “Let light shine!” (2 Cor. 4:6). And he did today.  In fact, he’s doing it everyday.

John was just one man, during one service, after one sermon, in one small, sweaty, school room in South Africa.  But it’s a testament to God’s grace and power.  It’s a testament to his kindness in answering prayer.  It’s a testament that he is the one who opens eyes, and that he uses nobodies like me to do it.

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Thanks to Rylan for the pictures!  Preaching with a translator is never easy (this was my second time).  It’s difficult to get in rhythm because I have to speak very simply (he’s not a professional translator) and sentence-by-sentence.  But by the end though, Lordwick and I started to feed off each other.  Listen to or read the message.

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Life Ministry

Confessions of a Campus Pastor

Campus ministry, at large, is vastly different than ministry in a church.  The demographic is narrowed.  The lifestyles are more uniform.  The conversations are generally more surface-level because college students don’t have that much experience in life.

So when a college student “accepts” Christ, it is usually a big deal.  People get super excited.  There’s praises and clapping and baking of muffins, as well as co-ministers who say things like, “That is so amazing!  God is so good!”  Most people react like this.

Except me.  I get skeptical.

Yup.  I’m that guy.

Before you burn me at the campus ministry heretics’ stake, give me some grace to be vulnerable here. First let me say that when someone becomes a Christian, there is no greater joy for me.  Seeing a spiritual baby born is truly a miracle and God deserves praise for it.  Last year, I had a friend from China that I got to know during the fall semester.   We were conversation partners so he could learn English.  We went out to dinner together.  I taught him about American football.

Then, one day, he said in broken English, “James, I hear you know a lot about Jesus story.”  So, I told him about Jesus.  He contemplated.  He battled to find truth.  He came with me to my parents’ home for Christmas.  He experienced the graces of Christian love, family, and fellowship.  A few weeks after the start of the second semester, he told me that Jesus saved him and now, by God’s grace, he was a Christian.  Our conversation meetings then turned into intentional discipleship times.

Now that’s awesome.

What I don’t think is awesome, and therefore do not get super excited about, is when a person reads a tract and the only way they understand the gospel is that Jesus died so they can have a great life.  They can get healed of disease.  They can get a good job.  They can have a better family.  They can get a free-pass from their sins. A lot of times, students will pray “the prayer,” and we truly think they are a real Christian.  Jesus gave us some wisdom about this.  He said that we need to wait a while to find out whether or not this seed that was planted landed in good soil (Matt 13:18-23).

The great American theologian and pastor Jonathan Edwards helps us flesh this out.  He says that it’s not easy to tell whether someone is a real, professing Christian or simply a pretender.  He says in Religious Affections, “The difference between doves and ravens, or doves and vultures, when they first come out of the egg, is not so evident; but as they grow to their perfection [maturity], it [the difference] is exceeding great and manifest.”

Whenever someone excitedly asks me, “So he accepted Christ?!  He’s a Christian?”, I always answer with, “Let’s find out in 6 months.”  Edwards counsel is wise.  Let’s wait to make judgments until they have gotten out of the egg, flown around a bit, grown into their own feathers, and tried to find their own food.

A tangent to this is talking to people on campuses who have no “assurance” of salvation.  Here in South Africa, we hear a lot about “making sure they get assurance if they are Christian.”  I have never understood how this practically works.  Isn’t assurance a life-long battle?  After all, Paul says we are in a marathon, not a sprint.  Fighting to make your calling and election sure doesn’t happen because you know information about God’s preservation of his people.  Assurance comes about through transformation.  A Christian might say, “Of course I’m assured of my salvation.  I accepted Christ.  I’m secure.”  Others who I might share some verses with (like John 10, Romans 8, or 1 John 5) might realize Jesus preserves his people.  But we need to remember that it was Jesus who said that not everyone who says to him, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven.

Again, Edwards gives insight.  “It is not God’s design that men should obtain assurance in any other way than by mortifying corruption, and increasing in grace, and obtaining the lively exercises of it.”   What are the “lively exercises” of grace?  It is a joyful and willful delight to love and obey God, study his word, pray, love people, and hate sin.  If someone doesn’t hate their sin, if they are not growing in experiencing God as the supreme Treasure of their life, one has to wonder if they ever truly met Jesus at all.

I want people to meet Jesus.  I want people to have comfort that they will not be lost.  All true Christians should want this.  But let’s not assume people are prepared to meet their Maker when they may in fact not be.  Let’s not assume people are really believers, even if they have confessed it for 10 years, when in fact they don’t really love Jesus and don’t hate their sin.

I understand this might rub some people the wrong way. I know that others might think I’m being too skeptical. I understand that I might be taking away from people’s joy.

The truth is, I love my job, but these are realities that I deal with. People can say whatever they’d like, but this goes beyond campus ministry.  This is an Evangelical problem all over the world.  I want people to truly follow Jesus, and that means continuing to preach the gospel to them as they grow to really be satisfied with Christ alone-not his gifts or anything else. Whatever you think, know that I’m just a dude doing my best, by the Spirit, to follow Jesus and be faithful to his calling.  I want to make disciples of all nations, but I don’t want any person to be fooled and get to the next life only to find out they were deceived in this one.

trying to figure out this whole “ministry” thing with you,
james