Three Pleas to My Formerly Christian Friends

Many of my friends who once professed to be Christians have walked away from the faith. If you are one of those people, I want you to know that I still love you and deeply appreciate our friendship. But I also grieve for you and pray for you. I know we don’t have the opportunity to go chat at a coffee shop, and perhaps we never will, but as my friend I hope you will take 10 minutes to read what I have to say. I want to make three pleas to you; one to your mind, one to your will, and one your emotions.

A Plea to Your Mind

One of the most common reasons I hear for why friends have walked away from the faith is their experience with hypocritical Christians. Perhaps your parents were considered exemplary Christians in their church, but you knew what really went on at home. Or you listened to preaching or attended a church that was ruthlesslly legalistic. Maybe you experienced a nasty church split or suffered as the church people shredded your dad, their pastor, to pieces. I don’t know what you have experienced, and I don’t downplay it in the least. One person once told me as I walked through deep ministry waters, “God is good, but sometimes his people are bad.”

Hang on to that thought, because we’ll come back to it in a minute. For now, though, would you please consider this simple plea? Please do not measure the worth of Jesus by his worst representatives. I get it, if that’s what Christianity is like, then you want nothing to do with it. But don’t stop there. Find the best imitators of Jesus you can, and then make your value judgment.

If I wanted to persuade you that soccer is an amazing sport (and I think it is), I would be foolish to take you to my 6-year old daughter’s Saturday soccer “game.” It looks more like a tornado of todders than a soccer match. No, I would take you to Spain to watch FC Barcelona and Lionel Messi work his wizardry live. Why? Because he’s the best of the best. And beautiful soccer is a delight to watch.

My plea with you is, even in spite of your experience, to consider there may be brighter fields of Christianity. Seek them out. I say this with sincerity, because I know there are brighter fields. And we have to ask ourselves, “How can people claim to be Christians, but live as hypocrites?” This leads me to my second plea.

A Plea to Your Will

Earlier I mentioned the quote, “God is good, but sometimes his people are bad.” I think that statement is partially true. As born sinners, all of us do bad things, but God’s children have been given new hearts, and their heavenly Father lovingly disciplines them when they do wrong. So if we think God’s people are bad without any repentance or spiritual growth, then we are wrong.

Which leads me to ask this question: when you walked away from the faith, did you really choose to walk away? Or did you simply confirm externally what had always been true internally? God says that when people walk away from the faith, it shows they never really believed it in the first place.

“They went out from us, but they were not of us;
for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us.
But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.”

1 John 2:19

In other words, your will was never enamored with Jesus Christ, at least not in a persevering, saving way. It had always been captured by a different love. More than that, your former experience with Christians may have been no experience with Christians at all, for they too may have never believed. The hypocrisy you witnessed was no true faith at all, but actually a “different gospel” (see Galatians 1:6-9).

So I make this plea to your will. Repent and believe in the gospel, not on the basis of former experiences, baptisms, or altar calls. Believe it on the basis of the finished work of Jesus Christ. Believe in his death as a substitute for your sin and in his resurrection as power for your new life. If you do, I can promise you will experience a radically different kind of Christianity than the one you walked away from. This promise leads me to my third and final plea.

A Plea to Your Emotions

As someone who has never actually believed the gospel in a life-transforming way, I plead with you—come, “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8)! You have never truly feasted on him. You don’t know what he is like. You have never known the God who formed the cosmos with his word, wound the clock of time, called and created a nation out of a barren couple, judged nations who sacrificed their children to false gods, raised the dead at funeral processions, granted eternal life by the death of his immortal Son, turned the world upside down with a handful of stubborn disciples, and now waits to commence the end of this age.

This same God is full of compassion for you. He wants you to know him, delight in him, and be satisfied in him. As Psalm 36:7-9 says,

How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
    The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
They feast on the abundance of your house,
    and you give them drink from the river of your delights.
For with you is the fountain of life;
    in your light do we see light.

I have hope some of you who read this will come to know the delight found only in Jesus Christ. This gospel which you already know so well is still offered to you freely. And I am always open to talk more. I will always count you as my friend, and I will always pray you hear my pleas to turn to Christ.

~CP

“I Didn’t Know God”

At first when he answered the phone I thought it was a joke. I had reconnected with a friend I hadn’t talked to in ten years. But he sounded nothing like the friend I used to know. I even told him it didn’t sound like him. Of course, that made things awkward for a bit. As we did small talk I went back over my phone and reviewed how we had reconnected. Same phone number. Same Facebook page. Same guy. And yet, totally different.     

I slowly was starting to accept the reality that I really was talking to my old friend when he clarified, “You know Cameron, we really haven’t talked in a long time. A lot has happened since then.” He continued, “I think I got saved 4 years ago.” I was shocked.

This is the guy I went to Bible college with. This is the guy who had wanted to preach his whole life. This is the guy who traveled on evangelistic teams to churches and spent his summers sharing the gospel with young people.      

He went on to describe for me his frustration at repeatedly trying to preach, but never being satisfied with it. He came to the point where he gave up on preaching entirely. But that bitterly low point of frustration caused him to realize something incredible. “I didn’t know God,” he confessed to me. “I knew about God. I knew about the Bible. I was drawn to the experience of preaching and the feeling that came with it. I think that is the same reason I was drawn to evangelism. But I didn’t have a real relationship with God.” 

He went on to describe for me how he started sincerely praying to and seeking God. And God changed him. Radically. So much so, he was a different person. Other people in his life began to take notice. “My wife asked me what had changed,” he said. “I hadn’t said anything about it at first because I didn’t know what to make of it.” 

Our unexpectedly awkaward conversation had changed into a mutually encouraging moment as he began to share with me the lessons God had taught him since his conversion. I apologized for being rude, and he accepted the apology, and we had a great time catching up for a bit.

When I got off the phone, I sat on our couch and stared out a window for several minutes. It was so stunning, yet so refreshing and glorious to see God radically transform one man’s life. This is, in fact, how the Scripture describes salvation.

“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.
The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Many people in this world gravitate towards religion for the experience. They confuse the emotional fervor of a thrilling worship service or shared moments of religious experience with a genuine relationship with the living God. Unfortunately, many church leaders today are guilty of encouraging this kind of behavior. It is a spiritually draining, inadequate substitute for your soul’s satisfaction. If you are in one of those categories, or find yourself in one of those kinds of churches, you can be free from the emptiness that comes with religion apart from Christ. Look to him. He is “the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2).  Only he can satisfy the desire in your soul for something better, because he is the “something better” you are thirsting for. 

~CP

The Weak Church: Making Much of Christ

Planted in Weakness

Christianity has enjoyed a position of strength in Western society for a long time. The church once commanded kings, encompassed nations, and dominated the world. But things were not always this way. Before the Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity in the Byzantine Empire through the Edict of Milan in 313 A.D., Christianity was not known for its strength, but for its weakness.

Christianity was a strange sect to the Roman Empire. Belief in one God, not a pantheon of gods, was like atheism to the Roman mind. Christians also refused to deify Caesar and participate in ritual offerings to him, offerings that were often mandated by the Roman government. Rumors spread, claiming Christians devoted themselves to cultic rituals and incestuous practices at their love feasts. To make matters worse, Christians followed a man who had been publicly crucified as a criminal at the hands of the Roman Empire. Such devotion to Jesus invited scorn, ridicule, and even martyrdom.

No image better represents the reputation of the early Christians than the Alexamenos graffito found in Rome. It depicts the body of a man with the head of a donkey on a cross (presumably Jesus), while a man below raises his hand in worship. Crude Greek letters etched in stone read, “Alexamenos worships his god.” 

Enduring in Weakness

Today, Christians are once again beginning to taste a small measure of the cup of shame that we drink in association with Jesus. How can we, like those early Christians, learn to endure? By rediscovering one simple truth—we were meant to thrive in weakness. We have become so addicted to the luxury of strong institutions, strong cultural influence, and strong political power that we have forgotten and neglected the power of the cross. 

Paul latches on to this concept in 2 Corinthians 12. Since he could powerfully boast in the extraordinary experience of a heavenly vision, God crippled him with weakness.

 So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, 
a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me,
to keep me from becoming conceited. 

This “thorn in the flesh” could have been a physical ailment or perhaps direct Satanic opposition. We’re not sure. What we do know is God sent it to humble Paul. And, like most of us would respond, Paul prayed for its removal.

Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. 

Paul was not wrong for seeking the Lord in this way. But God had work to do in Paul that he could not otherwise accomplish unless Paul was weak. So God left the thorn.

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” 

What Paul learned, and what we need to grasp as Christians in the 21st century, is the truth that God’s power is perfected in our weakness. We probably wouldn’t say this out loud, but we often imply by our words and actions that a good church is rich, self-sufficient, ecstatic, and strong.

But Paul is telling us God delights to use humble, poor, needy, downcast, and weak people in his plan. Our weakness presents us with an opportunity to make much of Christ, but our strength prevents us from making much of Christ. Which is why Paul concludes,

Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Advancing in Weakness

What we need today is not a strong church, but a weak one. To advance the gospel in this world, the church must make much of Jesus Christ through our weakness. How can we make much of Jesus when we never need him? How can we make much of Jesus when we refuse the paradox of the power of the cross? The world will continue striving for power, seeking to cover up its weakness with fancy façades that vanish like grass in midsummer’s heat. But it cannot be that way for the church. In Christ, when we are weak, then we are strong.

~CP

Is Peace Even Possible?

Words cannot do justice to the tragedy and devastation our nation has experienced over the past month. Within the pressure-cooker of the Coronavirus pandemic we continue scraping at the festering wound of sinful racism. My heart breaks for my fellow black neighbors and for every police officer out there. Yes, the Christian heart pulses with compassion for all people “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9-10); every human life is made in God’s image and equally precious in his sight (Genesis 1:27).

Which is why I get equally angry when anarchists with a political agenda hijack our national tragedy to serve their self-destructive end. Make no mistake, these rioters add insult to injury on those in the black community who rightfully pursue justice and peacefully protest. They undermine the very fabric of peace and order in our society and unnecessarily place our law enforcement officials in harm’s way. And I have to wonder—is peace even possible for our country?

There are rare moments in American history when we may have more in common with certain historical parts of the Bible than less. I think now is one of those rare moments. I’m referring to the crucifixion of Christ in Luke 23. In it, the gospel writer makes a point to establish Jesus’s innocence.

13 Pilate then called together the chief priests and the rulers and the people, 14 and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was misleading the people. And after examining him before you, behold, I did not find this man guilty of any of your charges against him. 15 Neither did Herod, for he sent him back to us. Look, nothing deserving death has been done by him. 16 I will therefore punish and release him.”

It seems like the case would be closed. But the Jewish leaders have insidiously incited the people to condemn Jesus, so the crowd unanimously cries out with the most shocking of demands:

18 But they all cried out together, “Away with this man, and release to us Barabbas”— 19 a man who had been thrown into prison for an insurrection started in the city and for murder.

There he is—Barrabas, the Insurrectionist. Does that name carry new meaning for you now? It’s the insurrectionists keeping us awake at night. It’s the insurrectionists burning our businesses, spray painting our monuments, and slashing police tires. It’s the insurrectionists who murder for the sake of anarchy. There seems to be no greater contrast than that of Barrabas and Jesus. The irony is the Jewish leaders had already accused Jesus of insurrection, but they failed to provide the evidence. Now Pilate, ready to release innocent Jesus, faces the inexplicable dilemma of unjustly substituting an innocent man for one already condemned to die. We read the gut-wrenching conclusion.

20 Pilate addressed them once more, desiring to release Jesus, 21 but they kept shouting, “Crucify, crucify him!” 22 A third time he said to them, “Why? What evil has he done? I have found in him no guilt deserving death. I will therefore punish and release him.” 23 But they were urgent, demanding with loud cries that he should be crucified. And their voices prevailed. 24 So Pilate decided that their demand should be granted. 25 He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, for whom they asked, but he delivered Jesus over to their will.

Injustice. Shame. Insurrection. Do you see the substitution God made on the cross for us? Innocent Jesus bore it all. Why? To pay the penalty your sins and for mine.

And it’s no secret that racism was an equally divisive and explosive sin-problem in 1st century Israel. Romans, Samaritans, Jews, and the surrounding nations harbored deep-seated hatred towards one another. So when Jesus, a Jew, died for the sins of mankind, it was very difficult for Israel, God’s chosen people, to understand God had thrown the door wide open to people “from every tribe and language and people and nation.” In the book of Acts, the companion book to the Gospel of Luke, we read of the gospel spreading from Ethiopia (Acts 8:26-40) to Rome (Acts 8:16-31). When this new reality sank in, it left even believing Jews speechless (Acts 10:1-11:18). God’s gospel is a global gospel.

Peace with God results in peace with each other. Jesus Christ bore the injustice, the shame, and the guilt of insurrection on the cross that we might confess our sins and be forgiven. But he also died on the cross to tear down the racial wall that has separated our country. So yes, peace is possible. Our generation needs Jesus to “tear down this wall” that runs through the heart of America. He’s the only one who can do it. Think about this truth in light of one final passage in Ephesians. Paul reminds the Ephesian Christians that they, as uncircumcised Gentiles, were at one time considered outsiders to the promises of God. But God tore down that wall and made peace between Jew and Gentile.

11 Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— 12 remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. 17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near.

We can only have peace with one another by first being at peace with God. When we confess our sins against God and repent, claiming Jesus’s innocent death and resurrection on our behalf, Jesus makes us into “one new man in the place of the two, so making peace.” We join together with those “from every tribe and language and people and nation” to praise God for his unmatched mercy and forgiveness poured out on us sinners. Oh how desperately we need this gospel truth in our world. How desperately we need it in our nation. How desperately we need to model it in our churches. If we are to find peace, we can only find it in Jesus.

~CP