We were living in Cairo, Georgia, and I was in the third grade. It was during a game of kickball on the playground and I was the “pitcher.” A kid kicked it hard and I caught it. As the ball hit me in the gut, I felt a sharp pain. Something wasn’t right. My parents took me that week to see the local doctor. He thought it might be a hernia. Exploratory surgery in Thomasville instead revealed a tumor on my liver. My parents and I flew to Atlanta, Georgia, where I was checked into Egleston Children’s Hospital. Extensive testing there and Emory Hospital, the general campus for Egleston, led my team of doctors to the same conclusion. It was cancerous. They tried to prepare my parents for how slim my chance of survival was. Even if their diagnosis was wrong, surgery and attending blood loss may well be more than I could stand. My parents maintained great faith, and my dad solicited prayers from congregations all over the place. Dr. Gerald Zwiren, who led a team of highly-skilled doctors, brought the news to my parents that I survived the surgery and later shared the oncology report that my tumor was benign. That was close to 40 years ago and to this point I have never had further complications. I certainly received a second chance.
Periodically, I ponder at length what I have done with that second chance. The scar I bear from that surgery has long since become invisible to my daily view. I suffer no lingering consequences. That event is certainly not why I chose to become a preacher, as if to try and pay a debt to God for saving me. Sadly, despite His mercy in sparing me, I have sinned in ways great and small that reveal, in addition to all else, a failure to appreciate that blessing. Spiritually, whether as a preacher, husband, father, or Christian, I am saddled with the realization of how far I have to go. With the help of His Word, His providence, and His strength, I continue to try to make the most of this extra time He gave me back in 1979.
All of us who are New Testament Christians face the same spiritual situation. We suffered the terminal condition of lostness in sin. By all human calculations and efforts, nothing could be done to save us. Yet, when we responded to His grace by believing, repenting, and being baptized (cf. Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38), He gave us all a “second chance.” We passed from death to life. More than that, God gave us a way to continually receive the benefits of the blood and grace of His Son as we strive to walk in His light (1 Jn. 1:7-10). You may have messed things up badly in your life. You may feel that it is impossible for God to love and forgive you. Friend, “With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26). God is the God of the second chance! His diagnosis is perfect, and His is the only one that counts! Trust in the Great Physician. He has never lost a patient who followed His prescription!
If you did not know the source of this quote already, you might be hard-pressed to guess it. This was said by Stanley “Tookie” Williams, two weeks before he was executed in California in 2005 for four 1979 murders he committed while the apparent leader of The Crips gang in Los Angeles. Though he vehemently proclaimed his innocence in these deaths to the very end, he freely admitted that drugs, robbery, gang- violence and other crimes were very much a part of his life before prison. Redemption, as he understood it, “is not predicated on color or race or social stratum or one’s religious background. It’s accessible for everybody. That’s the beauty about it” (interview with Amy Goodman, WBAI). Williams, who became a prolific author of anti-gang books while on death row, has left behind enough writing to indicate he did not have a biblical understanding of redemption, which is truly tragic because the ideas quoted are certainly biblical.
The word “wretched” is used “of a person in a very unhappy or unfortunate state” (New Oxford American Dictionary, online). The New Testament uses the word twice. Interestingly, the first time it is used by one who was all-too-aware of his wretchedness, but who rejoiced at the possibility of redemption (Rom. 7:24-25). The second time it is used by a church, Laodicea, who didn’t know they were wretched but were told by Christ they were (Rev. 3:17). A form of the word is also used in another place, where Christians struggling with worldliness are told to be wretched over their sinful lifestyle (Jas. 4:9, see ESV). The common thread between these verses is that wretchedness is related to redemption. One must recognize their unfortunate state if they hope to be redeemed.
One of the great ironies of life is that so many are racked with guilt but are also skilled in justifying and defending the very behavior that produces it. Many others rest in their confident belief that they are, overall, good and moral people who don’t really need redemption. To deny or rationalize the sin in our life will cause our most imposing problem to remain unresolved. To humble ourselves and admit our wretchedness apart from Christ can lead us to redemption. It doesn’t matter your race, color, income level, or background. Redemption is tailor-made for the wretched!
I cannot imagine anyone present yesterday morning to witness Janice Lee baptized into Christ could have failed to be touched at a very deep level. J.J. and Lila Brennan had been studying the Bible with Janice, and she came to the conclusion that she needed to be baptized for the forgiveness of her sins. So, she came to the front after my sermon and made that desire known.
She was in a wheelchair because she suffers left side paralysis as the result of a stroke. She is also on oxygen. Several ladies and a few of us men took special measures to help her into the baptistery. She could walk, slowly, gingerly, and with much difficulty. The ladies helped her up the stairs, while we stood in the water to receive her and help her the rest of the way. Each step was tenuous and required the utmost effort on her part. Once she was finally in the baptistery, we carefully lowered her under the water and brought her back up. Very quickly, her deeply felt emotions gently bubbled to the surface. She softly cried, recalling difficult things from her past, and she said, “I forgive those who’ve sinned against me.” The joy and peace on her face is something impossible to adequately describe.
What did this new sister in Christ demonstrate yesterday? Resolve! Afterward, I found out not only that she had to deal with the consequences of the stroke, but she is afraid of water. Yet, she saw the need of her soul as preeminent over any obstacle she might have cited. The constant need of oxygen, the paralysis, and the phobia were outweighed by the Lord’s command. Her faith was so strong that they were not insurmountable barriers. She refused to let them be!
The difference at the Judgment, in part, will be that some will offer excuses for why they did not obey the Lord while others, through genuine, trusting faith, will not need to make excuse. They will stand before Christ, who will see His blood covering their transgressions. What does it take to go to heaven? A “no matter what” obedience!
This is not just something Janet Jackson once wondered. The late summer and early fall of each year, college football programs have alumni, boosters, and fans asking head coaches the same thing. Companies ask the same of employees, and stockholders ask it of companies. While it can be an unfair question, it cannot be unfair if God asks it.
God has a perfect view of our lives, knowing not only what we’ve done for Him in our past but what we are doing now. As He looks into our lives, could He be wondering, “What have you done for Me lately?”
“Have you won a soul to Me lately?”
“Have you been in My Word lately?”
“Have you been to My throne room in prayer lately?”
“Have you and I been close lately?”
“Have you been involved in My Son’s work lately?”
“Have you been the spiritual leader of your family lately?”
“Have you watched your example and attitude lately?”
“Have you been the source of unity in My Son’s body lately?”
“Have you encouraged a hurting, lonely soul lately?”
These and other questions are ones He has already asked in principle, when He addresses our hearts (Mat. 15:8-9), teaches us our responsibilities (Mat. 7:21), talks about our relationship with Him (Mat. 22:37), and examines our lifestyles (Mat. 5:13-16). We may have studied with several people in the past, taught a Bible class at some point for a long period of time, and been very close to and in love with God in days gone by. But how is it now? Is that really a thing of the past or does it describe the current state of things? The wonderful news is that you can start right now, building a better relationship with Him and serving Him more effectively. Today is as “lately” as it gets. If your zeal is zapped and your fruit has shriveled, get busy right now restoring that. Obviously, God will see it and He will bless you for it!
It was reported on the news and all I heard was that the pop star turned bad boy, Justin Bieber, was baptized this weekend in the bathroom of a megachurch’s building in New York City. As has often been the case, this event was surrounded by a sea of controversy involving the 20-year-old singer. The “pastor” who baptized him said that the act was preceded by a month of intense Bible study. Bieber sought baptism for cleansing of sin following the release of a racist-filled 5-year-old video featuring the young man. I am not contending in the least that Bieber’s baptism fulfilled the biblical requirements or that he is now, in the New Testament sense, “born again.”
However, it provides a great opportunity to ask what elements must be present in a baptism that does meet New Testament requirements. First, it must be predicated upon knowledge. One must understand the significance of the one baptism (cf. Eph. 4:4). Practically speaking, one must either do the personal study or have someone teach what the Bible says about the place of baptism in God’s plan.
Second, baptism must be preceded by sorrow for sin and a desire to have sins washed away. Sorrow for sin is a part of repentance, which is a change of the mind that results in a change of action (Acts 2:38; 3:19; 2 Co. 7:10). Repentance is more than sorrow for sin, but it includes such.
Third, baptism must be by immersion to follow the teaching and examples of the New Testament. We read of baptism as a burial in water (Rom. 6:1-6; Col. 2:12). We see the Ethiopian go down into the water and come up out of it (Acts 8:38). In the New Testament, baptism took place where there was “much water” (John 3:23).
Though lacking complete knowledge of Lentz’s Hillsong Church, where Bieber was baptized, there is enough on their website to identify them as thoroughly erroneous in their teaching regarding salvation, worship, and various doctrinal matters (women’s role, instrumental music, tongue speaking, omission of baptism as part of what must be done to have forgiveness). However, it is possible that Bieber and anyone else we would deem spiritual wrecks—which we all are to some degree and in various ways—can be taught as they were in the first century and become what they then became. May we be searching for those who desire to follow Jesus, making disciples of, baptizing, and teaching them (cf. Mat. 28:19-20).
Perhaps the subject of grace has been neglected in some pulpits and congregations. Undoubtedly, it has been misunderstood and improperly taught since the first century (cf. Rom. 6:1; Gal. 5:4). It is vital to properly emphasize and explain such a huge concept within the gospel message. Why? Because of what it is—the completely free and undeserved expression of God’s lovingkindness and favor toward mankind, because of what it does—brings salvation (Ti. 2:11; Eph. 2:5) and comfort and hope (2 Th. 2:16), and because of what it cost to make available (2 Co. 8:9; Heb. 2:9). Perhaps some try to restrict God’s grace, making the requirements of Christ more stringent than Scripture teaches. If we forbid what God permits, we are distorting grace.
However, our age tends toward the other extreme. Far more try to make God’s grace extend further than Scripture teaches. This is not novel to our times. From the time of the early church, some apparently wanted to make God’s grace embrace things it simply does not cover. Jude contended against some who attempted to have grace cover excessive indulgence in sensual pleasure (Jude 4). By leaving Christ’s grace for another gospel, teachers contradicting the gospel message distort not just the gospel but also grace (Gal. 1:6-9). Paul also contradicts the idea that continuing in sin, without repentance, is abiding in God’s grace (Rom. 6:1). Passages like these serve as a warning not to make God’s grace cover what it simply will not.
Grace will not cover willful disobedience, a refusal to repent, a lifestyle or habit, or relationship that violates the expressed will of God. Some in adulterous marriages defend the relationship, trying to hide behind grace. Some feed addictions, sure that God’s grace will sweep away the guilt of it. Some refuse to follow God’s plain plan of salvation, claiming that they will ultimately be saved by grace on the day of judgment. Such ideas and claims are tragic misunderstandings and ignorance of revealed truth. The source of grace is Divine. So are the explanation and terms of it. Paul’s teaching is definitive when he says, “How shall we who died to sin still live in it?” (Rom. 6:2). The life in Christ is a new life (Rom. 6:4), a life characterized by turning away from sin, lust, and unrighteousness (Rom. 6:12-13).
Let us never restrict God’s grace. By the same token, let us never redefine it—especially to excuse or validate a lifestyle of sin. How that disgraces and cheapens the act that brought grace, Jesus’ painful sacrifice. May each of us grow in knowledge and appreciation of this great Bible doctrine!
This week marked the the anniversary of one of America’s darkest days when abortion became legal in our nation. Since pro-abortion websites tend not to deal in reporting specific numbers and pro-life websites certainly do, it is from the National Right to Life website we discover that over 56 million babies have been aborted since January 21, 1973. That works out to an average of 3,000 every day in the past 41 years. As one protestor’s sign read, “The abortion doctor has killed more Americans than all our wars combined.” Yet, those 56 million people were naked and completely defenseless. They were totally innocent.
The Psalmist decries the apostasy of the chosen people of old, saying, “But they mingled with the nations And learned their practices, and served their idols, which became a snare to them. They even sacrificed their sons and their daughters to the demons, and shed innocent blood, The blood of their sons and their daughters, whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan; And the land was polluted with the blood” (Psa. 106:35-38). Proverbs 6:17 declares “shedding innocent blood” as something God hates, while Isaiah reveals that those separated from God include those who “hasten to shed innocent blood” (59:7). In discussing one who was murdered without cause, Moses warned that those who shed innocent blood face bloodguiltiness (Deu. 19:10).
The last passage indicates a responsibility carried by the one who shed innocent blood, whether an adult having done nothing worthy of death—per that context—or anyone else who has done nothing worthy of having his or her life ended. Consistently, the Old Testament shows God’s attitude toward taking innocent lives. As God certainly sees the unborn as living human beings (Jer. 1:5; Psa. 139:15-16; Luke 1:15; etc.), He sees the taking of those lives as the shedding of innocent blood! The consequence of that is bloodguiltiness.
Whatever consequence our nation faces for this multi-generational practice, we need to reach out to our friends, neighbors, and co-workers. With such a high number of abortions, many of them know, firsthand and in another sense, the bloodguiltiness. Perhaps there are those who callously look back at the act, but most undoubtedly wrestle with guilt, regret, and loss. What an opportunity to minister to so many who understand the weight and burden of sin! May we share the good news of the innocent Man whose blood was shed to provide them the realistic expectation of forgiveness.