Divine Contrasts: Grace vs. Works

While I was away on vacation, I couldn’t help but feeling that I needed more of a rest than what I was being granted. Going to the beach in September is not the best of choices, but we didn’t have a choice since we were traveling with others. I got sick the first day there and ended up in the urgent care center only to discover I had a common cold. Problem with me is what starts out as a common cold ends up as walking pneumonia! I was concerned, so I rested by sitting in the hotel room feeling sorry for myself. But once I submitted that attitude to the Lord, I opened my Bible and started reading Jeremiah. I shared this in service this past Sunday, but Jeremiah 20:7-11 says,
O Lord, You have deceived me, and I was deceived; You are stronger than I, and You have prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all the day; everyone mocks me. For whenever I speak, I cry out, I shout, “Violence and destruction!” For the word of the Lord has become for me a reproach and derision all day long. If I say, “I will not mention Him, or speak any more in His name,” there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot. For I hear many whispering. “Terror is on every side! Denounce him! Let us denounce him!” say all my close friends, watching for my fall. “Perhaps he will be deceived; then we can overcome him and take our revenge on him.” But God is with me as a dread warrior; therefore my persecutors will stumble; they will not overcome me. They will be greatly shamed, for they will not succeed. Their eternal dishonor will never be forgotten (emphasis mine).
Verse 11 is where the divine contrast takes place. Verses 7-10 is the crux of Jeremiah’s complaint against God’s decision to send him to an idolatrous and disobedient people and proclaim “Thus says the Lord.” But verse 11 is Jeremiah’s acknowledgement of God’s abundant grace and mercy, but here specifically His justice. Everyone is against Jeremiah, even his so-called friends…but, God is with him as a Warrior,
the greatest warrior one could have on their side. I’ve often said it: God plus me is a majority, and it doesn’t matter what others do or, in many sad cases, don’t do.
 
Last week, the divine contrast took place in Ephesians 2:1-10, where Paul contrasts our complete deadness in sin with the life that is only found in Christ Jesus. This coming week, I’m going to stay in that same theme by looking at Romans 3:9-26 and the contrast between Man’s self-righteousness and God’s righteousness. Look at this passage and how rich it is in theology and practical application. I know I’m ahead of myself but I wanted to give the few who read this blog something to study in advance of Sunday:
What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one. Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of asps is under their lips. Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes.” Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in His sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.
 
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in His divine forbearance He had passed over former sins. It was to show His righteousness at the present time, so that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
 Beloved, this is the Bible. Grace through faith in Christ alone is the way to salvation and it’s also the way to sanctification and a healthy, joyful Christian life and worldview. The problem is we leave grace at the alter where we submitted to Jesus, and yet grace is supposed to stay with us constantly throughout our whole lives! How do we extend grace to others when we’ve forgotten the grace that saved wretches like us? We can’t leave grace for the conversion of our hearts and then forget about it when it comes to sanctification. Sanctification is a lifelong journey, not a one-time work of grace. I’m sorry, but I disagree with that doctrine. Sanctification is a process, not a destination. We will never be sinless and therefore there will always be a need for the sanctifying work of grace in our lives. It’s a molestation of the beauty of grace that leads entire churches and even denominations into great error and legalism. This free gift of salvation is delivered through the vehicle of grace, NOT WORKS, so no one can boast. And once you know grace, you will know mercy and love for others who struggle in this world with the veil of sin. Remember, church, where you’ve come from. If you’re reading this and you’re a child of God, you should be – without question or compromise – a student of grace, and all the gifts that spring from it.
 
Do you love mercy and grace? Ask yourself and be honest. Repent if necessary for the wrong worldview; celebrate if you know full well the mercy and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.
 
Thanks for reading, and God bless you.
 
Pastor Branden T. Robertson


Core Values…Why?

It’s been a while since I blogged on the site. Call it whatever you like, but there have been several times I’ve wanted to compose one and just didn’t have the strength to do it (or the inspiration, desire, time, etc.). So here it goes, months later, and the topic is what I’ve been preaching on the past four of five Sundays. Four of five? My wife and I were in Chicago for the Vertical Conference at Harvest Bible Chapel in Elgin, Ill. (Pastor James MacDonald’s church) for an amazing time of learning, worshiping, and soul-searching. Needless to say, it was awesome and we came away refreshed, if even in our own souls (which is all that truly counts, right?).
 
Anyway, I’m preaching a series on our Core Values. I did some Google searching on Core Values and this is definitely not a new thing. I’m always interested in what the Bible has to say about two main things: God’s identity (as much as we can know in our limited capacity as humans) and Christian identity. When I’m “on the ropes” in the boxing ring of life, I can often times boil down the issue to a confusion or misunderstanding of one or both of those identities. I’m either confused about who God is and what He’s doing, or I’m confused about who He says I am in Christ Jesus. When I’m prideful, I know it’s a messed up view of who God is and who I am in Christ (double-whammy there if ever there was one). I could go on and on here, but suffice to say that these two issues concern me deeply as I survey the landscape of Church history up to and including 2017.
 
Part of the issue in America, at least, today is one of confused identity. The series that preceded this one in late Spring 2017 was about the broader topic of Christian identity; who does God say that I am as a true follower and imitator of Jesus Christ? That’s important to know. But this new series on DNA and Core Values, I’m getting down to the local body level at Cove Run Church in southwestern PA where I am the sole and senior pastor only one year into full-time ministry. To know why we’re here in this part of our small community and the surrounding communities at large is so vital in our understanding of God’s plan moving into the future! So many churches get stuck in the past, and I don’t understand why. You can’t go back. You can’t relive the so-called “glory days” of the Church (when I use “Church” as a proper name here I mean the universal Church big “C”, not the local “church” little “c”). You can’t be stuck in nostalgia. You can’t wish for a retired pastor from yesteryear to come back. And the list goes on and on. I don’t have a bone to pick here with the past or tradition; both of those elements are crucial to understand where we’ve come from, but the past is there only to inform us of how to proceed into the future!!
 
DNA is the basic building block of all life and it was discovered in the not-so-distant past (1953). It changed the landscape of science and our understanding of how life originated. DNA is a language, a God-given language, mind you. I find God’s use of language so fascinating, and it takes so many forms. There’s the unspoken yet very understandable “body” language; there’s myriad spoken languages using syntax and rules to shape words into sentences that forms (we hope) intelligible discourse; there’s art, another unspoken language; there’s mathematics, the “universal” language; and again, the list goes on and on. DNA makes us unique, is the point, and every local church has a unique personality formed by God’s blessings and gifts in people at that time in history. That’s why churches change…because people and cultures change, sometimes slowly, sometimes very fast.
 
Core Values emerge as we study who we are. At Cove Run, I have a leadership team (formerly known as the “Bored of Administr-…I mean Board of Administration), and I’ve gone through a lengthy and personally challenging process of interviewing each of them by way of published surveys, spiritual gifting tests, and other evaluation tools for churches. Is the process perfect? Well, this is my first time through it (yes, I went through it with them every step), and I can say for sure no church evaluation system will ever be perfect. No multiple choice survey can possibly nail down everyone’s view of a given topic. But it’s a starting point and the goal is to get us to look at the glaring problems that may be evident in our Christian worldview. It also teaches teach-ability, something NO leader can lead without. Anyway, through that process that took months to complete, our Purpose, Vision, Mission, and Values have been revealed, at least on paper. How we hold to these elements, of course, is the final measure of the words on the paper.
 
But again, we have a starting point. Can Core Values change as people change? Sure. But make no mistake of my words here: the core essentials of what it means to be a Christian (lit. “little Christ”) never, ever should change at a church professing to be legitimately Christian. For example, Biblical Instruction is a core value at Cove Run. This absolutely and unapologetically is a core essential of the Christian faith at ANY Bible-believing church, and if it’s not, then that church has compromised on the faith. Even if it were only me, Pastor Branden, who held this value at Cove Run – and I’m not, by the way, thank Jesus – it would still be a core value here. Make sense?
 
Look, we’re all in this together. I don’t have all the answers. These blog posts aren’t my way of saying I know all the answers. I don’t. Plain and simple, I need the same grace, the same mercy, the same forgiveness, the same love, the same Savior Jesus Christ each and every single day of my life to even make it through life. It’s only by those attributes and more that I’m here today writing to you these things, sharing my thoughts and feelings straight from my heart and mind. To God be praised alone. He gives grace upon grace. At the end of my life, all I want to know is that I gave God my all and everything, and the suffering and pain that comes along with sticking as close to Him as possible will all be worth it in the end. If you’re reading this and you’ve never made the decision to follow Jesus, contact me, I’ll share my story with you. That’s all. I won’t preach at you, I just want to share the hope that is within me. Thank you, God bless, and to Him alone be praised.
 
Serving faithfully,
 
Pastor Branden T. Robertson


God’s Preferred Future

God’s preferred future”…what does that even mean? According to Andy Haskins, it’s the defining phrase of a church seeking a vision, but not just any vision, God’s vision…His preferred future for each individual church as they seek to align with His plan for their lives and community. Cove Run is seeking God’s preferred future, and it can be a bumpy, yet thrilling ride. Who doesn’t want to know God’s plan for their lives and church? Most Christians would admit that one of the most difficult issues they face is knowing God’s will for their lives. Most don’t even realize that God has a vision for their church, too! And it’s not just the pastor who needs to know it!
 
A.W. Tozer – a man I often quote in my sermons and blog posts – once said, “One hundred religious persons knit into a unity by careful organization do not constitute a church any more than eleven dead men make a football team.” And he was exactly right. This is a statement of vision, but in a negative sense. A church without a vision, who doesn’t understand God’s preferred future, is dead. That’s right, dead! And the statistics don’t lie. As I move through the Recalibrate initiative in our denomination, a staggering set of numbers have emerged. Somewhere between 80%-85% of Christian churches in America today are either dead or plateaued (a word that means “near death if something doesn’t change” in this context). Some denominations are affected more than others. The Free Methodist denomination in America is enjoying a mere 51% decline (note the intense sarcasm please), but the Body of Christ should be concerned for all denominations who belong to the pale of orthodoxy. Any decline is cause for reanalysis of what we’re doing, and clearly catering to the Millennial generation isn’t improving these numbers! Church growth movements being what they are – and I’m very cynical and suspicious in general about the secular motivations behind church growth – we’re in trouble, plain and simple.
 
Vision casting isn’t easy. As I write this, I am not wired to be a re-envisioning pastor. My temperament and personality, though given by God and He doesn’t make “mistakes”, don’t constitute the mix that the statisticians believe are the best for vision casting. And I’ll grant them that argument. But God does the impossible, does He not? With man it is impossible, but with God all things are possible, right? I believe I read that somewhere once. God is also omniscient, meaning He knows not only what is our actual future, but also any number of possible futures that could occur provided our freewill choice in the matter. That’s why I love the phrase “preferred future.” God has a future that He would prefer, but being the loving God He is, He will never force or coerce us to follow that plan. However, His preferred future is absolutely the best possible future we could have, if we’re willing to shed our selfishness, our ideas, our numbers, and our desires to align with His future, not only for our lives but our church’s life as well!
 
Friends, beloved in the Lord Jesus Christ, I believe with all my heart and soul that we’re on the precipice of a great awakening, possibly the greatest awakening ever seen in human history. Whether or not we’re in the end of the end time period or not, we’ve been living in the “end times” since Christ ascended to heaven over 2,000 years ago! If we truly believe that He can come back at any time, what would you rather be doing? Sulking in pity? Delving into despair? Or would you rather get up off your backside, stop deceiving yourselves by only hearing the Word, and get out there and do something for lost souls? That’s who the church is, what the church does, and what Jesus gave the church to be – a church with a vision, but not just any vision, not a human vision, but GOD’S PREFERRED FUTURE!
 
In Christ,
 
Pastor Branden T. Robertson


The Perfect Atonement

A. W. Tozer once wrote, “The atonement in Jesus Christ’s blood is perfect; there isn’t anything that can be added to it. It is spotless, impeccable, flawless. It is perfect as God is perfect.” That is a true statement, but many people are wondering: “What is ‘atonement’?” In the next few weeks I’m going to be preaching on the atoning work of Jesus Christ on the cross and what that concept relays to the unrepentant sinner and to reconciled believers.
 
Before we can understand the Christian orthodox view of the atonement of Jesus Christ, we have to understand that there are several competing theories – some historic, some modern – of the atonement:
  1. The Ransom Theory: This earliest theory, originating with the Early Church Fathers, claims that Christ offered himself as a ransom (Mark 10:45). Where it was not clear was in its understanding of exactly to whom the ransom was paid! Many early church fathers viewed the ransom as paid to Satan, which I think is patently absurd.
  2. The Recapitulation Theory: Originated with Irenaeus (125-202 AD). He saw Christ as the new Adam, who systematically undoes what Adam did. Thus, where Adam was disobedient concerning God’s command concerning the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, Christ was obedient even to death on the wood of a tree. Irenaeus is the first to draw comparisons between Eve and Mary, contrasting the faithlessness of the former with the faithfulness of the latter. In addition to reversing the wrongs done by Adam, Irenaeus thinks of Christ as “recapitulating” or “summing up” human life. I don’t think this theory says anything about the need of Man for redemption or God’s holiness and justice to demand Christ die on the tree.
  3. The Satisfaction Theory: The formulator of this theory was the medieval theologian Anselm of Canterbury (1034-1109), in his book, Cur Deus Homo (lit. Why the God Man). In his view, God’s offended honor and dignity could only be satisfied by the sacrifice of the God-man, Jesus Christ. The problem with this theory is that it speaks of God’s honor and dignity being somehow in need of satisfying rather than His holiness and justice being satisfied. This view undermines the need of Man’s redemption and reconciliation to God.
  4. The Moral-Example Theory (or Moral-Influence Theory): Christ died to influence mankind toward moral improvement. This theory denies that Christ died to satisfy any principle of divine justice, but teaches instead that His death was designed to greatly impress mankind with a sense of God’s love, resulting in softening their hearts and leading them to repentance. Thus, the Atonement is not directed towards God with the purpose of maintaining His justice, but towards man with the purpose of persuading him to right action. This theory is insufficient.
  5. The Governmental Theory: God made Christ an example of suffering to exhibit to erring man that sin is displeasing to him. God’s moral government of the world made it necessary for Him to evince His wrath against sin in Christ. Christ died as a token of God’s displeasure toward sin and it was accepted by God as sufficient; but actually God does not exact strict justice. This theory is insufficient.
  6. The Penal-Substitution Theory: This view was formulated by the 16th century Reformers as an extension of Anselm’s Satisfaction theory. Anselm’s theory was correct in introducing the satisfaction aspect of Christ’s work and its necessity, however the Reformers saw it as insufficient because it was referenced to God’s honor rather than his justice and holiness and was couched more in terms of a commercial transaction than a penal substitution. This view says simply that Christ died for man, in man’s place, taking his sins and bearing them for him. The bearing of man’s sins takes the punishment for them and sets the believer free from the penal demands of the law: The righteousness of the law and the holiness of God are satisfied by this substitution.
 
The Penal-Substitution Theory is the one I find most sufficient to explain our Holy Father’s demands for justice based upon His very nature of complete holiness. This view also takes into account the idea of Propitiation, that Christ stepped between God the Father and Mankind to take the punishment rightly due us. Of course, this then introduces another question: how limited or unlimited is Christ’s atonement? Is it sufficient to cover all of Mankind regardless of the fact that many, if not most, will reject Him? Or is His atonement limited, meaning only those chosen by God in advance can receive this atoning work?
 
Well, I don’t plan on convincing diehard Calvinists of my position, but suffice to say that the Bible has ample evidence that Christ’s atoning work on the cross is absolutely and completely unlimited in potentiality, but limited in actuality. In other words, God “so loved the world” in total that He sent His Son. The verse doesn’t say, “For God so loved the elect…” Elsewhere in Scripture it’s clear that God does not desire ANY man or woman to be apart from Him, but fortunately He didn’t create automatons, He is sovereign enough to allow free agents limited freewill to choose Him. So Christ’s atonement is potentially unlimited because His death and resurrection are sufficient to cover a multitude of sins for all Mankind, but in actuality only applies to those who choose to believe in and receive His gift of eternal life.
 
Don’t get hung up on this. The unlimited/limited aspect of the atonement has been and will be debated until Christ returns! It’s a non-essential belief in the pale of orthodoxy. Note that I’m not saying that atonement is non-essential, I’m saying the aspect of limited/unlimited is non-essential. And that’s not to say it’s unimportant; I’m saying it’s non-essential for salvation, but still important enough for us to discuss and debate in the spirit of Christian brotherhood. However God woos, draws, and brings us unto Himself is completely an act of sovereign grace, so if you feel His presence today, understand that He’s drawing you close, but you must choose. Choose Jesus Christ today, and allow His atoning work on the cross be actualized in your life today. Amen.
 
In Christ,
 
Pastor Branden T. Robertson


Judge Not…Really?

Judgment…judgmental…”don’t judge me”…all of these words and catch phrases are plenty popular in American culture and around the world. Jesus Himself said in Matthew 7:1, “Judge not that you be not judged.” Christians are often accused of being two things: hypocritical and judgmental. Now what does that mean to be both hypocritical and judgmental? It means that we turn the sharp edge of the sword to others – judgmental behavior in a condemning manner – and we turn the blunt edge toward ourselves – hypocrisy. We love it when others get the strong hand of justice applied to their necks, but grimace, complain, hide, and/or deny when it comes knocking at our door.
 
For the next three weeks I’ll be serving up a healthy dose of judgment talk from the seventh chapter of Matthew. Part one is titled, “Kingly Advice on True Judgment: Judging Ourselves.” We must, must, must as believers in Christ begin any judgment inside of our hearts. There’s no other way around it and that’s where Jesus started. Jesus didn’t say we can’t be discerning, wise, or judgmental about behavior, sin, etc. That’s not what He meant and there’s ample evidence. He uses the word “judge” in Matthew 7 in a “once-and-for-all condemning” style of judgment, which Christians are absolutely NOT supposed to do. That’s reserved for the King of kings and Lord of lords alone. But we are absolutely called to judge behavior in ourselves, and inside and outside the church.
 
It’s been said that once you cut off a person’s nose, don’t give them a rose to smell. If we’re going to present the rose of Christ and Him crucified to this world, we cannot then lop off the noses of those who need this good news. Too often we’re over eager in judging and condemning others while being timid and dishonest with cutting the chains that bind us! And we’ve all made mistakes in this arena, myself included…too many times if I’m being equally honest. But we don’t stop trying because we serve a mighty and loving God who will judge each one of us one day.
 
I pray that this series will serve as a reminder that we are to judge, but with “righteous judgment” (not by outward appearances) as John 7:24 states. It’s become a sport to hammer Christians over the head with cries of “don’t judge me.” And yet, if we first judge ourselves and humble ourselves before our holy Lord Jesus Christ, we can, with tenderness and love, reach a world who needs righteous judgment.
 
Prayerfully in Christ,
 
Pastor Branden T. Robertson


Eternity: Not a Game of Chance

As I was reading my daily devotion for today (July 30, 2016) in the “Light from the Word” devotional titled “Eternal Effects,” I realized that the only real motive and mission I’m supposed to have – not just as a minister in the Church but also as a Christian period – is to keep eternity in focus! That may sound like a gross understatement because we assume that the Church always has eternity in mind when we do anything related to ministry, preaching, serving, financial, etc., etc., etc. But today, we don’t have an eternally-minded Church in America, not as a general rule. Eternally-minded churches are the exception rather than the norm.
 
The writer of this devotion entry, Julie Cosgrove, mentions a Facebook post she came across that read: “I’d rather believe in God and be wrong than not believe and find I was wrong.” This quote was made famous by Albert Camus but has its roots with Blaise Pascal’s “wager” argument in his book titled “Thoughts” (Pensées). He said, “Belief is a wise wager. Granted that faith cannot be proved, what harm will come to you if you gamble on its truth and it proves false? If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation, that He exists.”
 
Now what do I think about this sort of reasoning? Well, I’m certainly not trying to go toe-to-toe with Blaise Pascal, a philosopher and mathematician who lived during the 1600s. But I don’t like this argument for belief in God and I’ll tell you why: there’s absolutely no motivation for this belief other than a simple “wager”, a bet, if you will, like someone putting a coin into a slot machine in Vegas and hoping against all odds that it will be a winner. I think this presents a person with a false choice: either one must believe in God or not by sheer happenstance of winning or losing a bet at a gaming table with no evidence that either choice is better than the other.
 
Holes have been punched – rightfully so – into Pascal’s Wager logic, and I’m not going to attempt to do that here. What I want to assert is that eternity is not a game where the outcome isn’t certain. Eternity is not a game of chance or wishful thinking where we close our eyes, cross our fingers, and hope against hope that all of this God talk is true. No, that is not correct, and Pascal’s assumption that God is completely unknowable negates the entire testimony of Scripture, of Jesus Christ, of the Holy Spirit, of the testimony of history, and many other avenues of compelling evidence for God (the intelligent design theory, the cosmological argument, etc.). Faith is NOT believing where there is no evidence! It’s not wishful thinking! That fact alone destroys this Wager argument. Faith is not taking a gamble that God is real and if He is then you’ll go to heaven. Many people will believe in God like this, and find out that they will be lost to Hell’s fire for all eternity anyway. Why? Because belief in God is NOT what gets someone into heaven! I’ve quoted James 2:19 multiple times from the pulpit: “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that–and shudder.” So I say congratulations to those who believe there is one God – you have something in common with the demonic horde! Belief in God alone is clearly not the only requirement for salvation. What is? Believing in and upon Jesus Christ as Lord and receiving Him in humility and submission as Savior of your life. That’s eternal, that’s the main thing, that’s the mission of the Church: to “preach Christ and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).
 
I pray that you’re not wagering your eternal destiny on a bet, a whim, wishful thinking, or blind faith. Those things cannot and will not save you. This is not a game of chance, it’s a real thing with real evidence and real truth to be found. Receive Jesus Christ today, for “today is the day of salvation.”
 
Prayerfully in Christ,
 
Pastor Branden T. Robertson