Friday, May 17, 2019

Inward Apologetics

As apologists, we defend the faith against everything that goes against the Christian faith. It is easy to think of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons, and even Buddhists and Eastern religions, and even Islam and Judaism. All of these have a focus pointing outward. What about inward?
I’m sure you have all heard the teaching that when you point at someone you have three fingers pointing back at you. In other words, it is saying look who’s talking

Many of us are able to diffuse arguments against Christianity, such as from atheism, etc., and having a degree in apologetics, I have seen how it really helps with confidence in sharing the faith and how it organized my thoughts when discussing religion and spirituality with people, but what about when it comes to me? Do I have the right answers? The right heart?
I look at a couple verses in the Bible mentioning the condition of the heart, and it makes me wonder about my own.
Proverbs 4:23 says,

“Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.”

Further along in the Bible, we find in Jeremiah 17:9,

“The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?”

I don’t believe this is some contradiction that exists in the Bible, because these are both saying the same thing essentially. These verses are saying that the heart of a person is something that requires a lot of attention because of how desperate and quick it is to move or to be moved.
The heart seems to be a severely fragile thing that all of us have to continually keep in check. I think that this is especially so for apologists.
James 3:1 teaches us that “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” This should be a little concerning if nothing else. It is essentially what apologists are doing when they are defending the faith. We are teaching people the truth. We are redirecting people toward what is correct. Because of such, we better know what we are talking about.
Make sure you have it right, but also, make sure your own heart is in the right place. Prayer is one of our greatest allies, but there is another ally that we might not think about so easily, which is reflection. Ask yourself a question such as, “Am I being gentle and respectful in this conversation/debate? (1 Peter 3:16-17). Am I prepared to correct, rebuke and encourage with great patience and careful instruction?” (2 Timothy 4:2). The list goes on.
Sometimes we forget that enemies of the truth have hearts as well, but they might simply be using them incorrectly. What I mean is that we make our adversaries out to be monsters and villains, not a lost soul who has his own problems in his world, and who loves his mother. It is good to be careful not to treat those who oppose the gospel as if they are not human. All human beings have hearts, and therefore, contain something fragile, something vulnerable. Jesus knew this. Why do you think that He was so loving and gentle with people? Take the woman at the well, for instance, in John 4.
In reflection of my own past, even at my furthest distance from God (James 4:7-8), I can still look back and see that my heart was alive and ready to move.
These below are a few stanzas from a poem I wrote over a decade ago:

Push harder; this great knife into my chest.
Finish it! Let my drained soul finally find rest.
Why must I see you through sparkling glass?
(I thought I found her, my beauty, at last!)

Nestled neatly in the blanket of my heart,
The blade comfortably sits, slowly cutting me apart.

It is clear that my heart was not in the right place. I would even go as far as calling this idolatry. But look at how my heart was clearly unshielded. How did I let a knife get there in the first place?!
The reason people cannot understand the heart is because we often let it rule our minds instead of the other way around. The mind is the guide for the heart (or the guard in Proverbs 4:23 above). The heart is what moves us, but our minds put a leash on our hearts. I don’t think that just because we are apologists that we are excused from only using our minds. Therefore it seems good for us to reflect immediately on our motives in the heat of the moment. Even in our lowest state, we still find that our heart is ready to move. Apologists are vulnerable as well, even if we hate to admit it. Protect your heart because it is vulnerable.
Stay diligent in your studies. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:36). “The harvest is plenty but the [qualified] workers are few” (Matthew 9:37). Be encouraged and stand firm in the faith (1 Corinthians 16:13). Do these things because the chaotic world needs not only a form of stability, but also because everyone needs Jesus. You’re in my prayers, my friends.

 “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who doesn’t need to be ashamed, correctly teaching the word of truth” –2 Timothy 2:15

Written by Nace Howell through the grace of the Lord Jesus

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Is it Worth the Risk?

As Christians, we all have friends and relatives who are of a different belief system than our own. We might be cousins, neighbors, friends, or siblings with a Mormon (See also), a Jehovah’sWitness, a Buddhist, an Atheist or a Jew, and often we are very close to them. We love them, we care for them and we think about their concept of reality and truth. At the same time, we know that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life and that no one comes to the Father but through Him (John 14:6), and that they do not have the real, biblical Jesus (1 John 5:11-12).
The thought of this can be saddening, angering and even terrifying. This is something we have to think about if we really care for them. What is more important, that we go through life as if nothing is wrong, or that we have serious discussions about what happens when we die with our loved ones? Is it better that we have a fun relationship with them now and they end up leaving earth not knowing who Jesus is, or that they don’t like us as much in the beginning of our agenda to show them Jesus and they end up in eternity with us and with Jesus?
Paul says in Romans 9:1-5, “I speak the truth in Christ—I am not lying, my conscience confirms it through the Holy Spirit— I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people, those of my own race, the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption to sonship; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen.”
Paul seems to agree that his friends and family are a priority over even himself. He was willing to stay out of heaven if it meant that his fellow Israelite's were able to know and trust in Jesus. He was deeply saddened, for good reason, as we should also be for our friends and relatives who do not know Jesus.
Think about this for a moment. The Bible tells believers to “Contend for the faith” (Jude 3). Does this exclude those who are close to us? Certainly not. God is patient with us and desires that none should perish (2 Peter 3:9)! It seems that if they are close to us, we should be able to discuss the things of eternal life with them with more frequency, especially if they are lost. The fact that we have loved ones who are heading to hell for eternity should through our sadness, anger and terror, motivate us to talk with them about Jesus.
This is one reason we study apologetics. Apologetics helps us know the answers when we are confronted with tough questions concerning faith and theology. Apologetics gives us confidence in sharing our faith. Some of us indeed realize that we are just the messenger. It is not our message and therefore they are not rejecting us, and because of such, we don't even need confidence. But honestly, we really don't live that way. Believe me, we need all the confidence we can get! On top of all of this, apologetics is truth seeking. If Islam were the one true religion, then we would be Muslims. The fact is, Christianity is true, and this is why we are Christians.
Talk with your friends, your family members, your neighbors about the Good News of Jesus Christ. We are commissioned by Him to do this (Matthew 28:19). Paul even reasons in Romans 10:14-15, “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” 
Pray for them. Pray before you meet with them that God softens their heart and opens their eyes to the gospel. Pray after your discussion that they continue to think on the things that you had discussed. Pray that God would bless you with skillful and godly wisdom and that God would use you to bring Himself honor and glory. Be His servant.
Bring the Good News to them. It is not too late at this point. When the time comes that it is the end of your life, you do not want to leave the planet with regret ("I should have spoken with him about Jesus more often"). Contend for the faith. "Correct, rebuke and encourage with great patience and careful instruction" (1 Timothy 4:2). It is worth your relationship that they come to know Jesus and trust in Him alone. 

Written by Nace Howell through the grace of the Lord Jesus 

Friday, April 26, 2019

Making Good and Productive Judgments in Sharing the Gospel

Working Title: Moral Guidelines in Sharing the Gospel

Where is the line between, “Meeting people where they are at” and “having itching ears, people will accumulate for themselves teachers who suit their own passions?" It is interesting that Paul said, in a roundabout way, both of these statements. In 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, Paul clues us in to what he finds as the secret to witnessing… “To the Jews I become as a Jew...” How far should we become in order to reach people with the gospel? On the other hand, Paul also tells us that in the end times, Christians will listen to only what they want to hear. Is there a danger for our own spiritual health in “becoming all things to all men that we might by all means win some?”
The Bible tells us to meet people where they are at, but what does this look like? How far do we go, morally speaking, to meet people where they are at? After all, God became a man and came to earth, so it seems that 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 is a picture of the gospel. But depending on how far we go with meeting people where they are at, some people might call us heretics and sinners. They might think that we are but one of those accumulated teachers for someone. How do we avoid shaping a culture into people who have itching ears who want what they want? We have to reach them, but how far do we go to do so?

It is like these things became my friends I spent so much
time with them.
While working as a bulldozer and excavator operator for a site development contractor, I once had an interesting evangelism experience. I worked at this place for a total of eight years, and the first 6 years I worked there, I got little respect from my co-workers or my superiors. I was a Christian living in the world. I was trying to bring God Glory on my own power, literally. I was powerlifting after putting long days in for 3 hours a day, 6 days a week. It was insane. I am still blown away by what the human body is capable of doing. I basically hulked out in those early years, and working with heavy equipment, I was often referred to as a torque wrench, Thor, or because I have red hair, “the Viking” was popular. I was basically comedic relief for quite some time. I would rip big phonebooks in half and pick really heavy things up like logs, etc. I would tell people about Jesus and I stuck out like a sore thumb in a world of worldly men. I used to describe my experience to people by telling them that every stereotype that they have heard about construction workers are generally true, and that I could verify the facts. In any event, I quit working there without burning bridges after about 6 years to work in bi-vocational ministry as a solo pastor. 

Full-on beastmode (about 12 years ago).
This metabolism would still be nice to have.
After two years of inner-city ministry, I learned that I was too much of a country boy to do something like this. I liked chainsaws probably a bit too much, and had a side business of trimming and felling trees, and no one in my congregation even knew how to use one, let alone probably point at one in a hardware store. They were just foreign to them. I won a 30-.06 rifle in a raffle once and was praising God for it behind the pulpit and a woman from the congregation gasped in sheer horror because she learned that her pastor was a gun owner. I explained that this was a good thing, but she didn’t see it that way. I am extremely grateful for their patience with me and humoring me in all of my jokes and mishaps, for taking care of me, and I am thankful to God for the experience and what I learned about myself in that season. It was just not a good long-term fit, however.
After I resigned, my former site development boss called me back and offered me a job. I put two more years in there, working in site development (what heave equipment operators sometimes refer to as “dirt farming”), before moving to full time ministry. 

Photo of me courtesy of one of the men I still pray for.
While wearing a hard hat (brain bucket), I wanted to really work for God and bring Him the most honor and glory possible. I stopped powerlifting but it’s not like I turned into a skinny kid or anything. The jokes were still there, but they were different this time around. I was in nicer machines and such and there was a job where we were developing a site for a warehouse, which was to be almost 1,000,000 square feet of surface floor area. We were there for a considerable time. I got to know the guys I was working with quite well. We would often work 10 hour days or even more than that. Six days a week was normal. I wanted to witness to these guys so badly and I prayed for them daily, often through tears. I prayed for my interaction with them, I prayed that God would soften their hearts, and I prayed for opportunity on a daily basis. I was ready to explode with the Good News of Jesus, and I couldn’t contain it any longer. I grew to love them (I still pray for them frequently). They all knew who I was, thoroughly, and this was kind of getting in my way. I thought that I needed this image of me that they had in their minds to be changed, and one night I had an idea… I went to the grocery store and bought about 30 cans of snuff (tobacco) and went to the Dunkin Donuts and bought coffee boxes and piles of donuts early the next morning. By the time they got to work, there was a buffet of coffee, donuts and chewing tobacco.
In operating heavy equipment, I would say that more than half of people have some kind of tobacco habit; smoking, chewing, etc. I used to chew tobacco myself when I was younger. Now in regard to sin, the question is, where do we draw the line? It seems that nearly every churchgoer today thinks that tobacco in any form is a sin.
Romans 14:14 explains that nothing in and of itself is evil. The easy way to understand this is through the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus says that hating someone is like murdering them, and that looking at a woman in lust is like committing adultery with her in your heart… So we are measured by what is in our heart. Nothing can be evil in itself. It is what our hearts do with something that makes it evil. The idols destroyed in the Old Testament were not evil, but it was good to get the temptation away from the hearts of the people. So is chewing tobacco a sin? Is it an idol? It seems that if we let these things weigh us down, we will never get anywhere, culturally speaking. So before we get bogged down with too many questions, let me continue.
The thing is, I knew that the presupposition even in the eyes of construction workers, was that chewing tobacco was a sin. They likely viewed it as morally wrong, or at least that is what they thought that I thought about it. Smoking seems definitely different in my mind, so we will stick with the issue of chewing tobacco. This is why I didn’t get a carton of cigarettes for the breakfast buffet.
In any case, after my co-workers realized what was going on, not a few of them laughed hysterically at what was before them for a few seconds and then, in bewilderment, stopped laughing mid-laugh, and stared into space for a few seconds with their mouths hanging open. They could not work through what was happening in their head in the moment… It was like they were trying to solve the world’s hardest puzzle for a few minutes.
Time to start work. I was praying up a storm inside a giant bulldozer. Some of them came over to me after break time and said that I shouldn’t be feeding their habits, after taking a can of snuff themselves. Some of them thanked me and thought it was the coolest thing ever. “A preacher bought me a can of snuff!” It didn’t compute in their minds.
The thing is, that after this event took place, I had more theological discussion than I have ever had. Frequently, we would talk about Jesus in the lunch room, where there were 15-20 guys every day. They would ask me questions which opened the door for them to hear the gospel more than once. I gave several of them Bibles, and they deeply respected me for it. Some of them even took me out to lunch.
This cultural boundary was destroyed through a tobacco buffet with coffee and donuts. I was trusted and respected and things were flipped upside down. I think the ultimate question is not pragmatic in nature, but the question should be: what is more important, that someone spends eternity in hell, or that they come to know Jesus through breaking barriers of legalism and presuppositions that will hinder opportunity, growth and trust.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not condoning tobacco use. But I also think this is different than white and black moral failures, such as abortion or homosexuality. I wouldn’t, for instance, condone women getting abortions at Planned Parenthood in order to reach them for Jesus.
I think this now brings us to a question of judgment. The world often tells us that it is wrong to judge, but that itself is a judgment. I have heard it said that Matthew 7:1 is the most popular Bible verse in the world, but nothing beyond the first few words. The problem with this is that Jesus tells us How to Make Judgments in the beginning of Matthew chapter seven:

“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye. “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.

First of all, “Judge not” is a judgment. Granted it is coming from the Judge of the world, but this command is not all there is to this passage. Jesus tells us to take things that block our vision out of our eyes to make correct judgments. In other words, He is telling us to judge correctly. There are several other places in the Bible where we are taught to make good judgments, even about other people. For instance, in order to keep it easy to remember, we will go from Matthew chapter 7 to John chapter 7. Jesus says to those trying to kill him that they should not judge by mere appearances, but that they should make correct judgments (John 7:24). Jesus is telling us to make judgments, even about other people.
Let’s also quickly look at Galatians 6:1-2: “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”
So our judgments are to be mature, with good motives as we can see. In order to know that someone is caught in a sin, we have to make a judgment about them. In any event, I think that we are now able to turn to the initial problem proposed: that we need to know where the line is in witnessing to people.

2 Timothy 4:3-4 says, “For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.”

With this passage, we might wonder about celebrity pastors who are called heretical on a daily basis, and how some of them are just saying things that aren’t the gospel but are tickling people’s ears, in order to accumulate followers. But the problem is, how do we reach people without gaining their trust somehow, first? The culture is definitely different than what it was when Paul was on earth. Therefore, different measures must be taken. This is what preachers do! They bridge the gap between culture and time. The Bible was written 2000 years ago in a completely different culture, even to the culture that is now in the biblical lands. A good preacher will help modern ears understand the message that the original hearers heard, and in order to do this, he must speak through their modern experiences.
Let’s get to the heart of the issue:

1 Corinthians 9:20-23. “Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.”

The principle of Paul’s Method will stand forever: “I become all things to all men. So that I might win some…” When a celebrity pastor becomes all things to all men, does that mean that he is gathering around him people because he is tickling their ears? Definitely not! It is not the amount of people that follow a leader that makes him a heretic. Paul said while he was in prison to the Philippians (1:15-18),

“It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.

Paul uses the extreme situation here, where someone is preaching the gospel in order to get him even more into trouble. Their hearts were full of selfish ambition and were not sincere. Yet Paul rejoiced because the gospel was being preached. It didn’t matter who was preaching it, as long as the gospel was being preached! This is why we can find room in our hearts to love people who might be very different from us, yet still preach the gospel accurately. Sincere, truth seeking, and willing hearts go a long way for the kingdom of God.
Granted, we probably don’t agree with everything one man says, but he would say the same about us. No one has everything right, but we keep seeking the truth. This is why we have the Bible. So we can measure up what someone says to see if it lines up with the Word of God (1 John 4:1; see also Acts 17:11-12). The Bible is the standard.
How far do we become like a people in order to reach them with the gospel and win them to Jesus? We go as far as necessary, without becoming that which people want to hear to suit their own desires.We are called to make good and right judgments. It is interesting to note that Paul doesn't pray for the Ephesians to stop chewing tobacco or being drunkards etc., but he prays that they will be strengthened "with power through his Spirit in [their] inner being" (Ephesians 3:16). 
What are you doing to radically share the good news of Jesus?

Written by Nace Howell through the grace of the Lord Jesus