Jacob Marley, Sherlock Holmes, Little Red Riding Hood, and 1 John 4:1

“You will be visited by Three Spirits.”

It’s a bit early in the year for this reference, but the line came to my mind as I was thinking about the beginning of 1 John 4: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.”

“You will be visited by Three Spirits.” These are the words the Ghost of Jacob Marley utters to Ebenezer Scrooge in the classic story told by Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol. “I think I’d rather not be visited by them,” Scrooge replied. “Without their visits,” said the Ghost, “you cannot hope to shun the path I tread. Expect the first tomorrow, when the bell tolls one.” “Couldn’t I take them all at once, and have it over, Jacob?” hinted Scrooge. “Expect the second on the next night at the same hour. The third upon the next night when you hear the last stroke of twelve. Look to see me no more,” Marley said, “and for your own sake, Scrooge, remember what has passed between us!”

Rather kind of Marley, I think, to let Scrooge know exactly how many Spirits he would encounter, and furthermore to announce the precise hour of their arrival. In 1 John 4, the Apostle John assumes that we will encounter spirits—plural. John doesn’t tell us how many visitors to expect, nor does he tell us the precise hour of their arrival; he doesn’t have this information. And of course John doesn’t use the word “spirit” in the way Dickens uses the term. By “spirit” John means an inspired individual, a person inspired by a spirit. Notice how he clarifies the word “spirit” in the final part of v. 1: “Test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” John is warning us about prophets, flesh-and-blood people. But behind every person is a power, a spirit. John has already divided people into two groups: the children of God and the children of the devil (3:10). The children of God have Holy Spirit power. The “Spirit of truth,” as John calls him in 4:6, inspires and empowers them to carry the words of truth. The children of the devil, on the contrary, are under Satan’s power, doing his bidding, and thus they carry only lies—for Satan himself is a liar, a deceiver. When John commands us to “test the spirits,” he means test every teacher, examine every messenger you encounter, because some of them are from God, but others are from Satan. So get out your deerstalker, magnifying glass, and pipe, because when it comes to the spirits you are Sherlock Holmes.

We should pivot from John to Paul for a minute. In 2 Cor 11:14, Paul warns us about the schemes of Satan. He masquerades as an angel of light. In the popular bedtime story “Little Red Riding Hood,” how does the wolf get close enough to devour the young girl? By dressing as someone the girl loves and trusts. What a wonderfully biblical story. This is precisely how evil and error operate. As Irenaeus says, false teaching never comes to us in its bare deformity; it comes wearing an attractive dress. False teachers have “the appearance of godliness,” as Paul says in 2 Tim 3:5. They claim to be inspired by God; they claim to have some new revelation: “This is what God really is like.” Or, “This is what God really wants for you.”

I met with a person recently who has been going through some tough times and thinks he has received some bad counsel from certain sources, sources I won’t name. What I will share is that during our conversation one of the questions raised was, “Is there good theology and bad theology?” My answer was: “Absolutely!” There is good theology and bad theology because behind every teacher, counselor, or messenger is either the Spirit of Truth or the spirit of error. And here’s the rub: it’s not always easy to spot the spirit of error. It’s not always easy to identify the wolf.

For this reason, there are four steps we should take, four questions we should ask of every messenger we encounter, messengers we meet in the sanctuary, on television, in books, on blogs, you name it.

1) First, the Fundamental Test: What does this person claim about the incarnate Word? Always, we begin with the person and work of Christ. It matters not how intelligent and articulate the messenger, nor how loud and popular the message. If a person denies or simply shies away from the message of Jesus Christ, behind this person is the spirit of error. He or she is a wolf dressed liked grandmother. Don’t get too close. And remember that the question we must ask begins with the word “What,” not the word, “Do.” We do not ask, “Do you believe in Jesus?” This is an insufficient question, because it doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. “Do you believe in Jesus?” “Sure, I believe in Jesus; he was a powerful teacher. I really like his stuff on love. He should do a TED Talk.” This doesn’t tell us enough; it doesn’t get to the issue of Christ’s identity and his work for sinners. The question we must ask is, “What do you believe about Jesus?” We want to discern if this messenger believes that Jesus is the Son of God, fully God and fully man. We want to know if this person believes in the substitutionary death of the Son and his bodily resurrection. This is where the Christian discernment process must begin.

2) Second, the Biblical Test: Is this person’s message consistent with God’s written Word? Or another way of phrasing it: Does this message contradict the teaching of God’s Word? God’s Word is perfect (Ps 19). The biblical authors were carried along by the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth (2 Pet 1:21). Therefore, when we read Scripture, we know we are reading truth. So every message we hear must be measured, assessed according to God’s written Word. Of course, if you and I are not devoting ourselves to the study of Scripture, then we are going to have a much more difficult time discerning those messages that contradict Scripture. We must be students of the Word. But in the Christian model of education, there is no allowance for independent study, no right of private interpretation—just my Bible and me. Learning always takes place in community. This brings us to the final two questions we must ask.

3) Third, the Historical Test: Is this person’s message consistent with the faithful expositions of Scripture we find throughout church history? Here I want to highlight the importance of tradition. Some of us react negatively to this term. But we shouldn’t. Tradition is the handing down of interpretation throughout the Christian centuries. Understood this way, tradition is a very good thing. We do not come to the Scriptures as the first interpreters. Many faithful readers have gone before us, and it is wise to listen to them, to allow them to help us become better readers of the Bible. Consult the Creeds and Confessions of Faith written hundreds of years ago. Read the old books. Don’t be guilty of what C.S. Lewis calls “chronological snobbery.” Lewis says, “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.” The new books are still on trial, Lewis says. The old books have proven themselves; they have stood the test of time. And honestly, most heresies or false teachings alive today are simply ancient ones wearing new garb. Faithful writers exposed these ideas as false long, long ago. So one of the best things to do when you hear a strange, new teaching is to pick up a really old book. Pick up a Christian classic. For starters, read On the Incarnation, a short fourth century work written by the Church Father Athanasius. The quote I just shared from Lewis comes from his introduction to this work. I can think of no better book to prepare your heart for the Advent season, which is quickly approaching.

4) Finally, the Communal Test: What do other believers in my Christian community think of this person’s message? We have asked, “What does this person believe about Christ?” We have compared their message with the testimony of Scripture. And we have thought about faithful expositions of Scripture from church history. The final step is to consult people we know and trust, fellow believers in our denomination, local church, and small group. Again, Lewis is helpful. “Two heads are better than one,” he says, “not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.” Now those are some wise words.

In conclusion, don’t be a heresy hunter, a drug dog always sniffing for false doctrine. If you’re the guy always wanting to burn someone at the stake, you’re gonna have a hard time getting folks to come over for a barbecue. But do stay alert to spiritual realities. Be a discerning listener, watcher, and reader. ‘Test the spirits … for many false prophets have gone out into the world.”

“Incardiated” Truth

In Matt 13:1-23 Jesus tells the Parable of the Sower.

This is a parable about spreading the gospel. The sower in the story represents the messenger, the communicator. The seed is the message, the truth. If someone told this parable today it probably would go something like this. Four sowers went out to sow. Four preachers went out to preach. The first was decidedly boring. He quoted dead guys. He used theological jargon. Everyone in the audience fell asleep. The second preacher was a little better. At least he traded in the old KJV for a newer translation. But his sermon was too long, far, far too long. This is the twenty-first century; we’re used to commercial breaks and Twitter. If you want to keep our attention, get your sermon as close as possible to 140 characters. The third preacher almost had us with his wonderful stories, but he could have used an occasional joke. The mood needs to stay light; we’re not looking for anything too serious. After all, this is church. The fourth guy was good. Easy on the eyes. Conversational delivery. Multiple references to pop culture. Jokes. Stories. Sprinkle in a little Bible. And all in 7 minutes! This guy had us ready to sign on the dotted line.

Satire aside, if told by a church leadership expert today, the emphasis in the parable probably would be on the sower, the communicator: this type of presentation will virtually guarantee these results. I don’t mean to suggest that sermon preparation and delivery are unimportant. In most cases, the difference between bad sermons and good sermons is the preparation of the preacher. But when Jesus tells the Parable of the Sower he is getting at something altogether different. As he tells the story, there is only one sower. The one sower scatters seed on four types of soil, and he gets different results, mostly negative results. In Jesus’ version of the story, the problem is not the communicator, nor is it the message; the problem is the soil, which represents the human heart. Only the seed that falls on the final soil, the “good soil,” takes root and produces an abundance of fruit. We see in the other type of soil something that appears for a while to be a positive result, but it does not last. The parable provides a sober reminder that even the most enthusiastic outward response to the gospel is no guarantee that a person is a genuine follower of Christ. For Jesus, a profession of faith must be accompanied by perseverance in the faith. And it is only when the word penetrates the heart of the hearer that he or she will persevere. As one of my favorite theologians says, “Words are impotent unless and until hearers take them in and give them a home. The word must be taken to heart: ‘incardiated’” (Vanhoozer, Faith Speaking Understanding).

How does the truth find a home in the heart?

Our explanation must begin with this point: Not by our power. You and I do not possess the ability to carry the gospel—the good news of what Christ has accomplished for sinners in his life, death, and resurrection—into the hearts of people. I cannot work the gospel into your heart. You cannot work the gospel into the heart of your spouse, your child, or your next-door neighbor. This is at once freeing and frightening. It’s frightening because we like to be in control of things, and basically what I’m saying is that we do not have control of true conversion. But it’s also freeing. If you have been living with guilt, a feeling of failure because your child or someone close to you is not presently walking in the truth, then you have placed on your own back a burden God never intended you to bear. You cannot convert your child, grandchild, sibling, or friend. This does not mean that you and I have no part to play in the conversion process. In Romans 10, Paul explains, “‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?” That’s our part. Our task is to get the gospel from our mouths to their ears, but only God can address their hearts. Only the Holy Spirit can guide people into the truth; only he can guide the truth into people.

What, then, are we to do about those people we know who have never responded positively to the gospel? And what about those whose profession of faith has not been accompanied by perseverance?

I have two simple words for us: presence and prayer. First, be a faithful gospel presence. Share the message of Jesus and show the love of Jesus. The best evangelism is not door-to-door, but life on life. Exercise a ministry of presence. Walk through life with that person who is need of the Lord. Show him that you care about him. Show her that you enjoy her company. You will find an excellent example of this in Larry Taunton’s new book, The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: The Restless Soul of the Word’s Most Notorious Atheist. This powerful book shows us that, though “it does not depend on us that the gospel be believed, there is much we can do toward making the gospel respected.”

Second, pray. Pray for God to intervene in a way that you and I cannot. Pray for the Holy Spirit to plant the truth of the gospel deep within their hearts, ensuring that it remains there. We know God is able to do this, because he has done it for us. So never stop praying. Pray that God will do for them what he did for Lydia, the woman we meet in Acts 16. Lydia heard the preaching of the gospel, and the Lord opened her heart to receive the message.

“The Law of the LORD is Perfect”: A Few Thoughts on Inerrancy and Literacy

“The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever; the rules of the LORD are true, and righteous altogether” (Ps 19:7-9).

Recently I preached a sermon on Ps 19, which C.S. Lewis calls, “the greatest poem in the Psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the world.” In vv. 7-9, the psalmist describes Scripture as “perfect,” “sure,” “right,” “pure,” “clean,” and “true.” The terms overlap quite a bit. The main idea is that the Word of God is flawless, totally trustworthy. Not only this, but also the Word is necessary. Notice what Scripture does: it “revives the soul (or life),” that is, it restores us to a right relationship with God; it “makes wise the simple”; it “rejoices the heart,” brings joy and deep satisfaction; it “enlightens the eyes,” guides us in the right choices; and it “endures forever.” It is the unchanging, always trustworthy, ever necessary Word. Stated another way, Ps 19 teaches us that when we read Scripture we are never reading incorrect or unneeded instruction.

Let’s think a little more about the “never reading incorrect instruction” part. How would you respond to the question, “Do you believe the Bible to be an infallible book?” I field this question from time to time, and my answer usually goes something like this. Yes, I do affirm the infallibility or inerrancy of Scripture, though I say this with the understanding that biblical truth involves form as well as content. To make arguments for biblical inerrancy without attaining biblical literacy makes Christians look like halfwits in an already skeptical world. We have to learn how to read the Bible rightly. For example, Ps 19 speaks of “the work of God’s hands.” Is this indicating something about God’s physical body? Does he look like an old man with well-worn hands? No. This is poetry. Here’s another example. The Gospel writers talk about Jesus feeding 5,000 people. Is this an exact count? If some papyrus fragment shows up claiming a different number of people were present that day, does this mean the Gospel writers erred? No. Because ancient writers were not interested in this sort of precision. Today, we read the news and we want exact numbers: How many people were killed in the shooting in Orlando? But ancient writers gave approximations. Still another example would be the Book of Genesis. Must we read Genesis and conclude that the earth is less than 10,000 years old and that it was created in six twenty-four-hour days? No. Some Christians choose to believe the world was created in six literal days, but Genesis leaves ample room for other options. We do not have to choose between science and Christian theology; they are not irreconcilable views. It very well may be the case that the universe burst into being some fourteen billion years ago. And if so, Christians believe it was God who lit the match.

All this to say, “Yes, I believe the Bible is infallible, providing God’s people are reading it rightly, not trying to make Scripture affirm things God himself never intended it to affirm.” You can’t claim a map is in error for not telling you how to make a good curry. You’re trying to find in the map something it was never meant to communicate, and you end up lost … and hungry.

Is the Spirit Schizophrenic?

At times the NT speaks of the inner leading and witness of the Holy Spirit, such as when the Spirit prompts Philip to speak to the Ethiopian eunuch on the road to Gaza (Acts 8:29; see also Acts 13:2; 16:6-7). We have no good reason to think that this type of communication was limited to the days of the NT, so we should expect at least some believers to receive private revelations from time to time. The question that requires a considerable amount of attention is: Is there a way to determine with certainty that the message has come from the Holy Spirit? We sometimes assume that if a message sounds “spiritual” then it must be from God, but this is not the case. In his first letter, John tells us, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). It is entirely possible to receive a spiritual message that does not come from the Holy Spirit. Thus, there must be an appropriate “testing” of the message.

If we think the Spirit is communicating something to us, we should first turn to the Scriptures. The Spirit guided the human authors of the Bible like the wind moves a boat. He will not convey a message to us that ignores or contradicts anything he himself led the biblical writers to record. The Spirit is not schizophrenic. Thus, we can say that a person cannot possibly know if it is indeed the Holy Spirit speaking to him if he does not devote himself to the study of Holy Scripture.

Beyond this, it is very difficult to determine whether or not a message is from God. We can seek the counsel of those we know and trust, but even the godliest man or woman is not an infallible interpreter. At some point, we simply have to respond to the revelation and see what happens. If you think God is telling you to start your own business, then begin taking steps in that direction. If in time the business fails, you may have to admit that you were wrong about the source of the thought, or that God wanted you to fail so that you would learn to depend more on him and less on your own efforts. If the business succeeds, perhaps it was a genuine word from God, but it would be wrong for you to declare this to be the will of God for the entire church. Maybe God wanted you to start your own business, but he certainly does not want all believers to do this. The reason we know this is because it is not taught in Scripture, which is our common guide to God’s will.

The written Word, which points us to the incarnate Word, is the only authority to which the people of God are called to submit without reservation. We open the Scriptures with absolute certainty that these words come from God. At our church, when we read Scripture publicly, whether we read from Leviticus, Psalms, Matthew, or Romans, the reader says, “This is the Word of the Lord,” and the congregation responds, “Thanks be to God.” When it comes to private revelations, we can never have this same level of certainty. This is precisely why John tells us to “test the spirits.”

In certain circles of Christianity, a great emphasis is placed upon special manifestations of the Spirit. It’s as if those who experience such things have made it to the next level; they’ve moved from the Minor to the Major League. Why is it that we think we need more than the gospel? Why is it that the idea of some mystical experience is more exciting than the simple truth of Jesus Christ? When the Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth was asked about special manifestations, such as speaking in tongues, healing of sicknesses, and private revelations, he said, “Let us gather around the substance of the Gospel, around the Cross and the Resurrection! Here is our bread. And so long as we need bread we may not call out for cake!” I think Barth is right. Those Christians who emphasize the Spirit do not rightly understand the Spirit. Remember what Jesus says in John 16:14: “[The Spirit] will glorify me.” The Spirit does not come to draw attention to himself, but to shine the light on the Son. J.I. Packer, one of the most important evangelical thinkers of the twentieth century, issues an appropriate warning for the church: “What then are the signs that Christ’s self-effacing Spirit is at work? Not mystical raptures, nor visions and supposed revelations, nor even healings, tongues, and apparent miracles; for Satan playing on our psychosomatic complexity and our fallenness, can produce all these things … The only sure signs are that the Christ of the Bible is acknowledged, trusted, loved for his grace, and served for his glory.”

Elshadai Child Development

13Check out this excellent article about two of our Cornerstone members, Atkelt and Lisa Simon. And for those in the Greeley, CO area, a fundraiser for the Elshadai Child Development Organization will be held from 5:30-7:30pm this Sunday at Cornerstone Community Church. There will be live bluegrass music, Ethiopian food, and a silent auction. For more information, check out the Elshadai website.


Justice Awakening 2016: Pornography, Abortion, and Racial Prejudice

Throughout the month of January, our church has focused on social justice. Several issues are included under this umbrella: poverty, racial prejudice, immigration reform, environmentalism, abortion, human trafficking, same-sex unions, and the list goes on. We identify two extremes when it comes to these issues, both of which we consider to be biblically problematic. First, some churches treat these issues as the gospel itself. They are not. The gospel is the message of what Jesus Christ has accomplished for sinners in his life, death, and resurrection. Second, some churches assume that these issues are unimportant to God. This is a faulty assumption. James, the brother of Jesus, explains, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (1:27). Believers are called, not to retreat from the world, but to be pure and charitable witnesses.

Below you will find the four sermons from our Justice Awakening series this year. Our prayer is that God will use these words to convict, comfort, melt, and refresh hearts.

Week 1: The Heart of Justice, Donny Butkus (Isaiah 58)

Week 2: Porn-Again Christians: Fighting Human Trafficking by Saying No to Pornography, Dillon Thornton (Matt 5:27-30)

Week 3: A Call to Arms: Sanctity of Human Life Sunday, Gail Holmes (Luke 7:36-47)

Week 4: The Marching Orders of Christ and the Multi-Colored Church: Racial Reconciliation Sunday, Dillon Thornton (Matt 28:16-20)


Let the Heart Sing This Advent Season

We have once again entered the Advent season, the season of looking back and leaning forward, of remembering Christ’s first coming and longing for his return. We are easily distracted by the commercial racket of the holiday season. To help us stay focused on the Savior each day, I suggest picking up some Advent devotional reading. There are several resources available:

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God is in the Manger

Calvin Miller, The Christ of Christmas

John Piper, The Dawning of Indestructible Joy 

Heidi Haverkamp, Advent in Narnia

And the edited collection, Watch for the Light

Or, even better, you might pick up some Advent doctrinal reading. As C.S. Lewis says, “For my own part I tend to find the doctrinal books often more helpful in devotion than the devotional books, and I rather suspect that the same experience may await many others. I believe that many who find that ‘nothing happens’ when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand.”

This wonderful line from Lewis is part of his introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation. If you prefer the way of the pipe and the pencil, I recommend starting with Athanasius’ work.

The Gospel of Ghoul

October’s required reading list includes Timothy George’s article, “The Gospel of Ghoul.” The article is a critique of that thriving phenomenon within the subculture of American fundamentalist and evangelical churches: the seasonal appearance of a Halloween alternative known as Hell House or Judgment House. George writes:

The problem with this kind of approach …  is that it says what it does not know and thus falls prey to that most damning of theological temptations, what medieval scholars called vana curiositas. Theology should be done within the limits of revelation alone but what is shown in most modern-day Hell Houses is 90 percent speculation.

It may be that some young people will find their way to genuine faith through such ghoulish shenanigans, but their overall import is a distortion of the Gospel. Those who indulge in such displays are taking something serious, eternal, and consequential and treating it with a finesse of a butcher doing brain surgery. In the process, they trivialize evil and domesticate grace. I seriously doubt that the Old Fiend himself is much upset about how his wiles are portrayed in such faux-dramas. He knows that conversion without discipleship is not likely to be lasting or deep. He is well aware that evangelism as entertainment seldom, if ever, results in genuine repentance or transformation.

The full article, which I highly recommend, can be found here.

Why the Christian Church Must Lead the Way in the Fight against Human Trafficking

Today I participated in a panel discussion at the University of Northern Colorado. The subject of our discussion was human trafficking. For those who were unable to attend the event, here are some of the comments I prepared.

“Written human history since Hammurabi’s Code in 1790 B.C. has identified the practice of slavery. Mankind has never eliminated slavery.” –Louise Shelley, Human Trafficking: A Global Perspective

Human trafficking is a defining problem of the twenty-first century. Every continent of the world is now involved in human trafficking, and even a country as small and isolated as Iceland, with a population of 250,000, has had trafficking cases. Traffickers succeed because groups from different parts of the world cooperate. Traditional animosities among ethnic groups are ignored to obtain a profit. If we are going to stand a chance in the fight against this large and rapidly growing component of transnational crime, we must come together, in the same way traffickers come together. With that said, my contention is that the Christian church should be leading the way in the fight.

I’ll state my presupposition clearly: I am convinced of the divine origin and thus the reliability of the Old and New Testaments, commonly referred to as the Christian Scriptures. These Scriptures teach us that Jesus Christ came into the world to rescue rebels (1 Tim 1:15). These Scriptures also teach us that those who have been rescued by Christ and now follow him are to love their neighbors and care for the vulnerable (James 1:27).

Some of the most powerless and defenseless people today are young women who are trapped in the sex industry. Many of these women are victims of cruel and clever predators who know exactly what to offer: the appearance of friendship, a listening ear, and the promise of love, wealth, and a new life. Women are lured with lies and then taken to breaking grounds, some of the darkest places on earth, where they are seasoned for the industry through physical violence, sexual assault, and drugs. Once engaged in prostitution, trafficked women employed in brothels throughout the world are often forced to serve as many as 30 clients a day during a 12- to 14-hour workday. In certain regions of the world where rates of HIV transmission are particularly high, sex workers die at a very young age. Often the trafficked women leave behind young children who have no means of survival outside the brothels where they are born and raised. Falling into the hands of the brothel keepers who controlled their now deceased mothers, these children have no futures beyond the world of begging, forced prostitution, or crime. Those women who stay alive in the industry live miserably. If they reach adulthood, they will have been raped thousands of times. Louise Shelley, a leading figure in the fight against human trafficking, founded and now directs the Terrorism, Transnational Crime, and Corruption Center (TraCCC) at George Mason University. In her book, Human Trafficking: A Global Perspective, Shelley tells of a woman trapped in the sex industry who summed up her life this way: “I feel like they have taken my smile and I can never have it back.” In their feelings of filth and their seemingly hopeless situations, these women need a Savior who will look at them with eyes of compassion and say: “I will make you clean.”

The church must lead the way in this war because our primary calling is to share the message of the person and work of Jesus Christ, the only one who offers true hope and complete healing to our broken world. I recommend a five-fold plan of attack:

  1. Pray and Proclaim the Gospel.

Pray for the traffickers to be transformed. Pray for the victims to be found and set free. Pray for those in positions of power to uphold the law and protect the vulnerable. And carry the gospel to the world. The gospel is the only message that will bring about the heart transformation needed to eradicate slavery.

  1. Raise Awareness.

Church leaders need to research the problem and then educate their congregants. This could take the form of a reading and discussion group or a series of sermons. Nearly 6,000 churches are now designating a Freedom Sunday, a day when believers unite through prayer and worship on behalf of the millions around the world who are enslaved. Churches should also consider participating in community awareness events hosted by universities and non-profit organizations.

  1. Support Existing Organizations.

If you’re a pastor, consider dedicating part of your mission budget to an organization that is making progress in this war. Our church gives a substantial amount each year to a non-profit that was started by one of our former members. The ministry reaches out to strippers, prostitutes, and porn stars. The staff also works with the FBI in getting children out of trafficking. There are lots of great ministries out there. Find one and support it.

  1. Create New Rescue and Recovery Ministries.

According to Shelley, trafficking exists in every state of the U.S. and in every kind of community: urban, suburban, small towns, and rural areas. Though there are a number of effective rescue operations, we need many, many more. This is a very tough industry to escape. According to one study, nearly all victims reported being threatened by their traffickers with death, beatings, increased debt, or harm to their children and families. These women need a way out of the industry and a safe harbor where they can heal spiritually, emotionally, and physically. They also need educational assistance and job training so they can secure a new occupation. All of this takes funding, and, most importantly, brave people. The most effective recovery is going to take place in the context of relationships. We need more believers who are willing to minister in the darkest places, who are willing to find these girls and help set them free, all in the name of Jesus, the one who came to proclaim liberty to the captives.

  1. Decrease the Demand; Boycott Porn.

Traffickers choose to trade in humans because there are low start-up costs, high profits, and large demand. We are driving the demand. How? It starts with pornography. Roughly 90% of college males and about 30% of college females are viewing porn on a regular basis. The more we view porn, the more we desire sexual fulfillment through prostitution. Greater demand for prostitutes means more and more human trafficking victims. In other words, when we view pornography we are fueling the sex-trafficking industry. So if you want to get in the fight in a very real way, put down your smartphone, shut off your computer, stop looking at porn.

Human Trafficking Awareness Event at the University of Northern Colorado

Next week is Empathy Week at the University of Northern Colorado. Empathy Week will include a variety of activities aimed at raising awareness of human trafficking. The week will feature a multimedia exhibit about child exploitation, a documentary about commercial sexual exploitation in oil and gas boom towns, presentations by a victim of human trafficking, and a panel discussion. I have been invited to represent the faith community on the speaker panel. The schedule for the week is as follows:

Open Mic Night

Monday, Oct. 5th; 9:00-11:00pm in the University Center, Fireside Lounge

Megan Lundstrom will share information about sex trafficking in Greeley and Weld County. Lundstrom’s experiences as a victim of sex trafficking prompted her to form Free Our Girls, a non-profit organization that provides awareness and prevention programs related to trafficking.

The Apathy Effect Exhibit

Tuesday-Thursday, Oct 6th-8th; 10:00am-4:30pm in the University Center, Ballrooms (Individual Self-Guided Tours); 5:00-9:00pm (Guided Group Tours)

This 40-minute multi-media exhibit from iEmpathize is designed to erase apathy, ignite empathy, educate, and empower participants. The exhibit narrative includes a guided tour experience that incorporates film, photography, and artifacts to show where and why exploitation has occurred in the U.S., Asia, Russia and Mexico, and how participants can engage to end it. Groups can schedule an evening guided tour here.

Boom Night

Tuesday, Oct. 6th; 7:00pm in the University Center, Ballrooms

On Tuesday night, a documentary produced by iEmpathize will be shown. The film explores commercial sex exploitation in oil and gas boom towns in Kansas, North Dakota, and New Mexico.

The Freedom Drivers Project

Friday, Oct. 9th; 10:00am-3:00pm in the University Center, South Parking Lot

The Freedom Drivers Project is a first-of-its-kind mobile exhibit that educates members of the trucking industry and general public about the realities of domestic sex trafficking and how the trucking industry is combating it.

Panel Discussion and Community Response Forum

Friday, Oct. 9th; 10:15-11:45am in Brown Hall, Centennial Hall Room

Panelists will include:

  • Jerry Garner, Greeley Police Chief
  • Angie Henderson, UNC Associate Professor of Sociology
  • Diana Laws, Northeast Colorado Coalition Against Trafficking
  • Megan Lundstrom, Free Our Girls
  • Michael Rourke, Weld County District Attorney
  • Chris Sarlo, A Kid’s Place
  • Dillon Thornton, Senior Pastor at Cornerstone Community Church

A Tale of Two Churchgoers

In James 2:2-4, we find a tale of two churchgoers. The Christian community is gathered for worship, and into the meeting walk two very different people. Both of them have to be told where to go, so both are probably guests. The “ushers” are the first people these guests come in contact with. And the ushers immediately notice the outer appearance of the two newcomers.

The first man is wearing gold and expensive clothing. A gold ring was a clear sign that a person was upper class in James’ day. This is a man of status and great wealth. In today’s terms, this is a recognized politician, a famous athlete, or a Hollywood star. So the ushers hurry to meet him. They get out their iphones and snap a quick picture with him. Then they give him a privileged position in the meeting; they escort him to his seat at the front of the room, close to the speaker, where everyone can see this honored guest.

Then a second man enters. And as he does, the smell of the room changes. This is the typical homeless person in our day. He probably has only one set of clothes, and these clothes are disgustingly unclean. The ushers look at each other, waiting to see who is going to have to deal with him. Finally, one of them inches toward the man, but not too close—he might have some sort of disease! The poor man is offered the choice of standing in the corner or sitting beside the footstools of the more important guests. But all the time the usher is hoping the smelly homeless man will just hurry up and leave. “I’m tired of dealing with this nobody,” the unlucky usher thinks to himself, as all the other ushers crowd in around the distinguished guest at the front of the room, taking more pictures and uploading them to Facebook.

James pictures the church fawning over the wealthy man and then treating the poor man with contempt. While he thinks specifically of the socioeconomic divide, we should read this as a warning against all forms of discrimination. We could retell the story, inserting some other type of person. A good-looking, newly married man and woman walk into the sanctuary, and the ushers help them find a wonderful seat. But then a few moments later, a homosexual couple walks in. What happens? Would they feel welcome? Would they feel loved? I’m not talking about approving of their relationship. At the church where I serve, we are unapologetic about the biblical teaching regarding marriage: one Christian man and one Christian woman, pursuing holiness together, together for life. We do not approve of same-sex unions, but we do want the gospel to advance to all people. We want all people to be transformed by the power of the Word and the Spirit, and this certainly includes lesbians, gay people, bisexuals, and transgender individuals. So we must not treat these people with disdain. We must welcome them into our worship gatherings, our community groups, and–dare I say it–even our own homes.

The elders at our church are reading a number of books together this year. One of these is a book titled Compassion without Compromise: How the Gospel Frees Us to Love Our Gay Friends without Losing the Truth. In the opening chapter of the book, the authors make this convicting statement: “People gripped by the gospel are able to reach out to anyone in a way that balances truth and love.” Wow. What would our churches look like if we really were ready to reach out to anyone? I think they would look, even smell, a lot different.


Twenty Lessons in Twenty Years of Ministry

Brian Croft, senior pastor of Auburndale Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, has written one of the best online pieces I’ve read in a long, long time. In the short article, he lists twenty lessons he’s learned in twenty years of pastoral ministry. I’ve listed some of my favorite ones below. Check out the full list here.

God’s Word Is Sufficient to Build Christ’s Church

On my first Sunday as senior pastor, I sat alone in the sanctuary wondering if the doors would be open in a year. I realized all my cleverness and worldly wisdom couldn’t stop the decline. But I knew God, by his Spirit and through his Word, was sufficient to build and revitalize his church. Over a decade later, I’ve watched him do this very thing.

The Gospel Is Powerful Enough to Change Lives

Programs, gimmicks, and personalities don’t change people’s hearts. Nor do they invigorate churches that have been in decline for over 30 years. For the last two decades, I’ve watched the gospel free people from the bondage of sin and give hope to the hopeless. I’ve watched it unite old and young, black and white, rich and poor. The good news has brought our church back to life. Indeed, it is powerful enough to change lives and revitalize any local church.

Hang Onto Your Family 

I was once told, “You can always have another ministry. You only get one wife.” This is absolutely true. Children also grow up fast and need their dad. Make sure you balance ministry and family life in such a way that your wife and children always come first, even in the grind of ministry. I’ve learned to take all my vacation time and not to answer the phone during dinner, devotions, and my day off. Remember, if you lose your family, you may lose the right to serve in ministry at all (1 Tim. 3:4–5).

Faithfulness Is Worth the Harshest of Criticisms 

Hard decisions have been made in every church I’ve served. Members have been disciplined. Men who just completed seminary have been counseled not to pursue vocational ministry. Attenders have been denied membership. Members have been removed due to their neglect. Countercultural decisions to defend the gospel in the community have been mocked. I’ve endured many harsh words because of my decisions to obey Scripture. My name has been so slandered that people recognized me in stores or coffee shops only because of the painful and public words said about me. But I can endure even the harshest words because I trust Christ will count me faithful, even despite my sin, when I stand before him.



Hillsong and Homosexuality

Owen Strachan, fellow member of the Center for Pastor Theologians, has written a punchy critique of Hillsong. The long and short of it is that Josh Canfield and Reed Kelly, Broadway actors and leading members of the New York campus of Hillsong Church, have been outspoken about their homosexual relationship and plans to be married next year, and the Hillsong leadership has failed to confront the issue. Presently, the Hillsong policy is that “[LGBT people] are welcome to attend, worship, even participate as members.”

Strachan’s assessment of the situation is blunt: “By allowing Kelly and Canfield to live as a gay couple for some time and continue to be members of the church, Hillsong has failed to offer them the true gospel.” He makes some excellent points. I encourage you to read the full article, which can be found here. He concludes the piece as follows:

There is no special spiritual program for megacities. There is no unique gospel for the theater community, or the athletic world, or the political superclass. There is not one message for food critics and another for plumbers. There is one Lord and one baptism. To argue otherwise is to miss the significance of Paul’s message to the Corinthians. Corinth was an enhanced New York, a city shot through with iniquity. It celebrated sexual license and encouraged people to find their identity in their depravity.

Paul would have none of it. “Such were some of you,” he reminds his struggling friends. “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:9-11). If ever there was a climate for “spiritual gradualism,” Corinth was it. Paul shows us that there is no mushy middle of spiritual half-transformation.

Underestimating God and Overestimating Our Own Condition

I’ve heard people describe salvation in terms of someone drowning. A person is in the middle of the ocean, struggling to stay afloat. His strength is failing. He’s gone under twice. If he goes under once more, it will be the end of him. And that’s when Jesus reaches out and calls to the drowning man, “Take my hand. Take my hand, and I will save you.” The truth of the matter is that when God saved us, he did something far greater than this. According to Eph 2, we were dead in our trespasses and sins. Not drowning. Stone cold dead. We were at the bottom of the ocean of sin, and God breathed new life into us. So let’s get the gospel right. Let’s not underestimate what God has done, and let’s not overestimate our own condition. The gospel is not about God lending a hand to someone who is struggling; it’s about God reviving a corpse.

To those who think of themselves as too “bad” to be redeemed, I say this: As long as you think of yourself as “bad,” you are still overestimating your condition. The gospel is not about making bad people good; it’s about making dead people alive. There’s nothing worse than being dead in sin, and according to the Scriptures, we were all once dead. So don’t think that you are somehow worse off than the rest of us. When we could do nothing, God did everything for us. He sent Christ, who died in our place for our sins, and who was raised on the third day, accomplishing our salvation. He sends the Holy Spirit, who unites us to Christ by faith, giving us access to what has been accomplished for us. Our salvation is all of God. Indeed, the only thing you and I contribute to our salvation is the sin that makes it necessary in the first place.

How Satan Serves God: A Look at Two Curious NT Texts

Twice in the New Testament Paul refers to delivering someone to Satan. Sound a bit harsh? In the most recent issue of the Tyndale Bulletin, I explain what I think is going on in these curious cases. You can read the full article here. I have also provided an abstract (summary) of the article below. (Warning: This is more of an academic piece.)
In 1 Corinthians 5:5, the Apostle Paul tells the Corinthian believers to hand a man living in sexual immorality over to Satan. In 1 Timothy 1:20, Paul tells Timothy that he handed Hymenaeus and Alexander over to Satan. In these passages, Paul’s language is strikingly similar to language contained in the prologue to Job. In Job 1:6-12, Satan disputes the blamelessness of Job and seeks Yahweh’s permission to test Job’s integrity. First, Yahweh allows Satan to attack Job’s most prized possessions (Job 1:12). After the first attack fails, Satan asks for Yahweh’s permission to assault Job physically. Then, in Job 2:6, the LORD says to Satan, “Behold, I deliver him to you.” In this paper, I argue that in both 1 Corinthians 5:5 and 1 Timothy 1:20 Paul draws from the prologue to Job, portraying Satan as an enemy of God who nevertheless can play the part of an ally in the process of church discipline.