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I’ll never forget the spiritual journey that brought me to faith in Christ. My father is a retired pastor, and we were always in church. My mother was a godly prayer warrior. From my earliest age, I remember having my spiritual faith encouraged. We had devotions, went to church, and I had numerous opportunities to experience faith.

I learned to be a good little boy. For most of my childhood, I believed the facts about the gospel. I tried to do all the things I should (read the Bible, confess my sins, behave well). In spite of my efforts, my teenage years were internally disturbing. I experienced uncertainty about my salvation and could not be confident that I would have eternal life. For about 6 years, I faced mounting doubt and uncertainty. There were a number of occasions where I just wanted to die so I could find out where I would spend eternity.

On the outside, I’m sure I looked fine. On the inside, I was a spiritual mess.

During the summer of my 18th year, I was invited to go to summer camp with my cousin’s church. I distinctly remember having a conversation with God prior to camp where I said,

“God, I don’t know what is going on in my soul. I can’t get peace. But whatever you say, whatever you tell me to do, I will do.”

At camp, the internal turmoil did not ease. Rather, it grew exponentially. My heart was bursting with tension and frustration. It was at this point of tension, that God spoke loudly and clearly,

“Chris, you need to be forgiven. Your sins are the reason I died. You need to trust Me alone for your salvation.”

That night is forever imbedded in my memory. I gave up. I asked God to forgive me. God saved me that night at summer camp. In that moment, I experienced a peace, a joy, a freedom that was unexplainable. Something else became unalterably clear to me in that moment. God wanted me to preach his gospel to others. For me the call to salvation and the call to preach occurred at the same moment.

In the 20+ years since that experience, I’ve thought a lot about my conversion and call experience. Following are some insights into God’s call that I’ve developed as I interpreted my experience through the lens of Scripture.

  • Personal experiences are not universals, but they can be templates. It is important that we don’t generalize our experiences that we believe they are universal for everyone. But we should learn from personal experiences. Moses’ call in Exodus 3 might not be replicated in our lives today (God speaking through the burning bush), but when God calls, it will be to reveal himself and send us on his mission (this is the universal).
  • My need for salvation was because I had been relying on my goodness rather than God’s grace. Over the years I reflected deeply on why I was not converted at a younger age. I believed the facts of the gospel long before I experienced salvation. God helped me understand that one could believe spiritual facts while still relying on self for salvation. Trusting in Christ alone is required for salvation, and that is what I was missing.
  • God’s calling to salvation may not always be a calling to preach, but it always includes a calling to serve. Not every salvation experience includes a vocational call. But every salvation experience does include a call to follow Christ and serve his purpose. I’m afraid that in experience-driven Christianity, this may not always be communicated clearly. God’s call to salvation anticipates a call to serve his purpose and testify to him and his glory. According to Matthew 28:18-20 we all have the obligation to lead our neighbors and the nations to follow Jesus.
  • In order to hear/sense God’s call, we need to have distractions removed. That fateful summer camp for me provided a time of devoted attention to hearing from God. Moses’ burning bush experience occurred in the wilderness where he was alone. Many of David’s psalms were written during his alone time with the sheep. The principle is this: if we are going to hear from God, we need to make time to be alone and quiet with him. Cell phones, television, and other distractions must be removed so we can hear and experience God.

What about you? Have you experienced God’s call to salvation? I hope so. Nothing is more important than knowing God and being confident of eternal life. If you have that peace, then have you embraced God’s call to serve his purpose and live his mission? If not, why not make time to pause, pray, and hear from God about his calling on your life.

Our Wednesday Bible studies at Wilkesboro Baptist Church this year have been focused around a study of Theology. Theology is the study of God.

In the academic sense, theology can be separated into several categories:

  • Biblical theology—Investigates how each author or book of the Bible considers a particular doctrine. 
  • Historical theology—How different doctrinal ideas arose and were developed in history (over time). 
  • Systematic theology—Is a collection of Bible doctrines that flows out of an organized, logical framework relating the doctrines of Scripture to one another.
  • Practical theology—Connects doctrines to daily living. 

Our Wednesday night study has focused primarily on Systematic Theology. We are currently exploring the doctrine of revelation: God revealing himself to us through Jesus Christ and his Word, the Bible.

One issue that has been on my mind during the preparation and delivery of this series is the importance of understanding basic theology in the life of the Christian.

The reality is that nearly everyone does theology. Anytime, anyone claims to speak for God or interprets some verse of Scripture, that person is engaging in theology. For example, when a parent says to a child, “God wouldn’t want you to behave like that,” that is theology. Or when a politician quotes a verse of Scripture to caption a plank in their party platform, that politician is engaging in theology.

What is troubling is how poorly equipped many Christians are in the doctrines of their faith. I propose that each Christian needs even more understanding and engagement theologically.

“We need to have a faith seeking understanding.”

Augustine, 4th Century Church Father

We will never fully know God this side of heaven. But by studying God’s Word, we can know more about God. We will never have a perfect faith until we are glorified, but we can grow in our faith as we grow in our understanding of God.

If you’re reading this post, let me challenge you to learn more about God, what God has to say about his world, and what God has to say about you. Here are some practical things you can do to learn what God wants you to know.

  • Open the Bible and read God speaking to you.
  • Make a commitment to faithful church attendance where you can worship God and learn from his Word.
  • Read good books that build your faith. I’m encouraging our church members to read Introducing Christian Doctrine, by Millard Erickson during our study of theology.
  • Follow blogs that might increase your understanding and help you apply your faith.
  • Subscribe to podcasts and theological conversations that build your faith. We are uploading this theology series to our Wilkesboro Baptist Church podcast page as well as making the lessons available through iTunes. If you have an iPhone with a podcast app., just search for Wilkesboro Baptist Church.

“Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young,” Henry Ford is claimed to have said. “The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.”

The great automobile maker is right. Learning keeps us interested and interesting. If we stop learning, we can become stale and self-absorbed, significantly hampering our effectiveness. 

Just as worship habits contribute to our spiritual health, so do our learning habits. Here are three learning habits for spiritually healthy pastors. 

HABIT #1—MAKE TIME FOR SPIRITUAL DISCIPLINES DAILY. 

The quality of our spiritual lives will never grow beyond our devotional habits. For years, I’ve used the M’Cheyne reading plan for my devotions. Reading through the Bible in sections highlights the interconnected themes in all of Scripture. 

Bible reading, study, Scripture memorization, prayer, journaling, fasting, meditating on God’s Word are commendable disciplines with manifold value. These disciplines are critical for our personal growth. 

Too many pastors and church leaders who’ve failed morally or ethically can trace their failures to a barren devotional life. May we build habits that lead us to God’s Word and prayer. 

HABIT #2— PARTICIPATE IN A GROUP WEEKLY. 

In our church’s mission strategy, we fulfill the learning step in Sunday school classes and discipleship groups. For some pastors who have multiple Sunday services, attending a Sunday morning small group is impractical or even impossible. 

However, pastors must not neglect the habit of participating in the ministry of a group. A weekly discipleship group designed to encourage regular Bible reading, accountability, and prayer is spiritually healthy. 

Even though we’re the under-shepherd of the church, we’re still sheep. We need others. We need their encouragement and accountability. 

You’ll be blessed by the spiritual growth you witness when you make a weekly habit of growing with other believers in a group.  

Just this morning, I met with my discipleship group. I was encouraged by the spiritual development of others, motivated by their insights, and challenged by their faith. We need each other. Pastors, don’t neglect being in a group.

HABIT #3— READ, THINK, AND WRITE REGULARLY. 

To be a leader is to be a learner. Too many pastors set their ministry on cruise control, failing to be challenged intellectually and spiritually. 

In what’s likely the final letter Paul wrote, he asked Timothy to bring him books and parchments (2 Timothy 4:13). Paul’s example of continued learning at the twilight of his ministry is instructive and motivating. 

Charles Spurgeon encouraged pastors to spend their leisure time reading the Bible, reading sound theology, or praying. 

The spiritually healthy pastor will make time to learn by reading, thinking, and writing. 

Reading reveals how much we don’t know. Thinking helps us integrate what we’re learning into our daily lives. Writing engages the mind, providing clarity, understanding, and application with what we’re learning. 

You may argue, “But I don’t have time for this stuff.” Begin by carving out small blocks of time each day for reading, thinking, and writing. 

Get a subscription to audible.com, check out audiobooks from your local library to listen to in the car, take short windows of time that are specifically for reading, writing, or thinking. If you took 30 minutes a day for reading, writing, or thinking and tracked it for a month, you would be amazed at how much reading, writing, or thinking you actually got accomplished.

As church leaders, we aspire to have an effective ministry. As Christians, we aspire to spiritual growth. A ministry or a life with longevity and effectiveness will require habits of learning that’ll keep us growing.

In the spirit of this article, I’d love to learn from your feedback. What are some ways you’ve built learning habits into your life? 

Originally published here at LifeWay Facts and Trends.

I’m not an expert on suffering. My life’s suffering has been minimal. My mom died a couple of years ago, and I’ve had the flu and bronchitis, but generally I’ve had a pretty non-eventful life. This post is not written from the perspective of an expert, but rather a fellow traveler seeking to understand what God wants to teach us in our circumstances.

Now Job is an expert in suffering. Following a heavenly conversation between God and Satan (Job’s accuser), God gave permission for Satan to bring suffering into Job’s life. By the end of chapter 2, Job had lost most everything he owned, had to face the death of his children, became ridden with boils, and was encouraged by his wife to curse God and die.

Few people on earth have ever suffered as Job.

The next 35 chapters of the book are basically a dialogue between Job and his friends about the reasons for Job’s suffering. These dialogues include lament, complaint, disappointment, and argument. It is normal in times of pain and suffering to complain and wonder why. But our complaints are not always profitable. Think about the wasted days of conversations between Job and his unhelpful friends. They didn’t change Job’s mind, and Job didn’t change theirs.

So how do we respond to suffering and pain?

Dr. Donna Gibbs, in her excellent book Becoming Resilient, suggests that we draw a large circle. Inside the circle, we should imagine key words like comfort, peace, forgiveness, hope, and love that reflect our relationship with Jesus Christ. Our circle contains the deepest and most important aspects of our faith. But too often, because of fear or frustration or doubt or worry or sorrow, we leave our sufferings outside the circle representing our faith in Jesus. She writes,

“Until we muster the courage to bring our suffering into the circle, into our relationship with Christ, we will miss the opportunity to experience great relief.”

Donna Gibbs, Becoming Resilient, 165. 

What is profitable in our suffering is to bring our pains and difficulties directly to God. He alone can comfort and heal.

I love how God responds to Job and his friends at the conclusion of the book.

God’s response to Job and his three friends is poignant and powerful. It is direct and quite confrontational. For the better part of four chapters (Job 28-41), God peppers Job with question after question after question. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” And on and on. 

Do you know that God never answers Job or his friends regarding the reason for Job’s suffering? I think God’s response is instructive for two important reasons.

First, When God speaks, we need to become silent and listen. Too often all that can be heard regarding our suffering is our complaints, our opinions, and the opinions of others. Too often, we don’t pause to listen to God. We need to hear God speak by silencing our voices and reading the pages of Scripture. We need to listen for the guidance and comfort of the Holy Spirit in our situations. According to C. S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts to us in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” We might actually learn more about God in our pains if we will be silent and listen to him.

Second, We need to see God and not merely seek answers. The book of Job is a beautiful picture of the divine authorship of the Bible. No human author would spend 37 chapters building a story around a singular question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” and leave the question unanswered. If the book of Job had only human authorship, then the author would have written a response from God into Job’s question. But when God arrives, he questions Job. He silences the complaints of Job. He critiques the false statements of Job’s friends. In essence, God’s monologues to Job say, “Job, I’m enough.”

What we need more than anything else is to remember that God is enough.

Do you believe that God is enough even when you are suffering?

This week in my devotional reading I came to Romans 9. For some of my theologically astute readers, you will recognize the controversial section in Romans 9 where Paul acknowledges election and predestination. But I’m not writing in response to that section as important as it is. God impressed upon me a burden regarding an earlier set of verses.

I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen. But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.

Romans 9:1-8

As a pastor and theology professor, I often focus on the contentious theological passages of the Bible. Warranted as addressing the finer points of theology might be, Paul’s heart in Romans 9 is not found in a theological treatise, but in an evangelistic purpose.

When you read verse three above remember that Romans is Scripture. Paul’s writing here is God-breathed, inspired. Paul is not merely making an emotional point. He’s serious. Deadly serious. Eternally serious. His heart for his fellow Israelites is such that he expressed willingness to be cut off from Christ for their salvation.

This is what God used to break my heart.

Am I so concerned about the eternal state of my friends, family, and neighbors?

Am I broken by lostness that I would cry out for my own soul to be cursed that they might be saved?

Do I pray with fervency and share with urgency that sinners might come to Christ?

Take some time to read Romans 9. Go ahead and read the next two chapters as well. Paul’s internal spiritual desperation is matched only by his external evangelistic zeal. May we be so burdened in prayer and zealous in witness.

Even with the political divisions in our country, it should be our aim as pastors and evangelicals to prioritize the gospel of Jesus Christ and diminish, as much as possible, the division politics causes in the body of Christ.

Unfortunately, sometimes political conversations are unavoidable in the life of the church. Just the other Sunday, several members were discussing the recent impeachment proceedings. If that weren’t enough, Mark Galli’s Christianity Today editorial “Trump Should Be Removed from Office” stirred even more tension within evangelical circles.

Galli’s article prompted a number of responses, not the least of which came in the form of an open letter signed by nearly 200 evangelical leaders. Regardless of the outcome of the impeachment proceedings within the Senate, there will remain significant tension within evangelicalism regarding politics and the 2020 election.

Personally, I think it is wise to keep as much political tension out of the church as possible. The more we allow it to divide us, the less effective we will be in evangelizing the lost. I’m not going to get into the details of the impeachment, nor defend either side of those within evangelicalism. As pastors and church leaders, we must remember and be gracious with the following reminders.

1. We might not be who we choose to vote for. 

As a democratic republic, we have the privilege of voting for politicians to represent our values and interests. But because of our two-party system, the presidential candidates may or may not reflect our values or the character we wish to be associated with. At times this dynamic creates an unappealing “lesser of two evils” choice. Many people vote out of a sense of duty and conscience. Others vote against a candidate rather than for another one. Just because someone may have voted for a Democrat or a Republican does not mean that person automatically carries the same values, character or even holds all the policies of the candidate.

2. We might be who we choose to defend. 

Voting for someone and defending someone require different levels of engagement. While some are pleased with current policies or were pleased with the previous administration’s policies, we do not have to defend said politicians. If we defend a politician’s character in the midst of immoral or sinful behavior, we can become guilty of overlooking or defending sin. We must be careful here. Whatever your positions, when we defend the indefensible, we run the risk of losing our witness.

3. We must be careful to retain a prophetic voice. 

As Christians, we must be willing to speak prophetically and evangelistically. When politicians act immorally or unethically, we ought to speak out. When unethical and immoral platforms are being promoted, we ought to speak out. If we do not retain a prophetic voice, we will lose our witness in the world. And as Christians who have an allegiance to the kingdom of Christ, we should be willing to speak out prophetically regardless of the party in power or the party we align with.

4. We should occasionally get out of our echo chambers. 

In their excellent work The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt explore the tensions related to the “us versus them” culture that is so prevalent in contemporary politics. Part of the reason we are so divided is that we are able to get our information within our own chosen echo chambers of news. Social media plays to this reality as well. Clicks and likes form the basis for populating the articles on your feed. I’m not suggesting that you should watch, listen or read all news from all sources, but you should have a variety of news sources. At the least, we should recognize that each news source carries a bias. Using multiple news outlets helps us be more objective.

Might I humbly suggest that you get your news first from the Biblical Recorder. While the Recorder will not give you a rundown of the latest impeachment news, their staff is committed to news from a biblical worldview aiming to help Baptists fulfill their disciple-making mission.

This was originally published here as an editorial at the Biblical Recorder.

A typical Sunday afternoon dinner at our house goes something like this. One of my boys says, “Dad, mom, tell us a story.” We then recount some imaginative or interesting experience from our childhood. Those stories connect our remembered past with the current lives of our children.

Stories describe.

Stories define.

Stories connect.

It is through stories that we relate to one another, make sense of life, and help identify our place in the world. Stories sell. See the MCU and the recent movies that have made billions based on comic book stories. See the timeless tales written in books like The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, or the Harry Potter series.

Stories are not new. The Bible is made up of a variety of genres: history, prophecy, poetry, teaching, law, epistles, and narrative. Narratives are stories. Much of the Bible comes to us in the form of story. As a story the Bible connects us to God, to one another, and invites us to participate in a narrative that is grander than the sum of our individual lives.

A Jewish description of the importance of story helps us grasp why God chose to reveal himself through the medium of story:

“Truth naked and cold, had been turned away from every door in the village. Her nakedness frightened the people. When Parable found her she was huddled in a corner, shivering and hungry. Taking pity on her, Parable gathered her up and took her home. There, she dressed Truth in story, warmed her and sent her out again. Clothed in story, Truth knocked again at the villagers’ doors and was readily welcomed into the people’s houses. They invited her to eat at their table and warm herself by their fire.”

Annette Simmons, The Story Factor: Inspiration, Influence, and Persuasion  Through the Art of Storytelling (New York: Basic Books, 2001), 27. 

In the story of God found in the Bible, God reveals himself to us through narratives. The beauty of God’s revelation is that we can connect to his story because he came down in Christ to relate to us. God’s story can be seen in the four episodes of the Bible: Creation, Fall, Redemption, Restoration.

In Creation, God reveals that he is and that he created all things. He created us in his image so we could know him.

In the Fall, God judges the sin of Adam and Eve when they broke his law by eating the forbidden fruit. The Fall explains why the world is in the sinful and selfish condition it is in.

In Redemption, God rescues his people. His perfect redemption is foreshadowed in the Old Testament stories of rescue and declared in Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection.

In Restoration, God will make all things new and restore the perfect glory and purpose of his creation. Things will not be forever in sin and separation because God will restore.

Too often we get caught up in the details of our lives and focus time, energy, efforts, and worry on things that don’t really matter.

In other words, we allow our small stories to dominate our thinking. God invites us to have an eternal story. When we follow Jesus, we enter into

As we live out our lives as followers of Jesus who lead others to follow Jesus, our stories take on a permanent dimension.

The next time you read a Bible story, consider how God might have you join his story of redemption.