Can you lose your salvation?

Being a Christian in this broken, frail, and deeply beautiful world can be difficult. Contrary to what many preachers would have you believe, it isn’t all sunshine, roses and blue birds on your shoulders. It can be dark, painful and confusing. Ask anyone in the Bible. Start with Job, ask Jeremiah who said God “seduced” him, Peter, or Paul and ask them if following Jesus made life easier. And because of that, this life is full of questions.

When I was a youth pastor I got a lot of questions about what it meant to be a Christian. “What do you mean honor your father and mother?” “Are rated-R movies okay?” And of course, “How far is too far?” And then there was this more serious question, which I believe is a question many Christians ask, “Can you lose your salvation?”

Coming out of the Reformed tradition my answer was always “No” and then I would proceed to outline the rich doctrine of the perseverance of the saints and my students would proceed to fall down in deep adoration of this grace…or sleep, you decide. I’m believing the former.

But there is this pesky text (did I just say that?) in Hebrews where the writer says,

It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.

This makes it seem like it is indeed possible for one to lose their salvation. That it might just be possible for someone to experience grace and know Jesus, only to one day walk away.

This troubled me. I mean, it goes against a doctrine I have long stood on and found hope in. That God would work in me, and around me, and in spite of me to hold me fast to himself that I might not drift away from him. And here scripture seems to say I could drift. And if I do, then it might be impossible to come back. Bring on the sleepless night!

As I thought through this, I began to wonder, “Is it possible to participate in Christianity and been seen as a follower of Jesus while never actually knowing Jesus?” And more scary to me as a pastor, “Could it be that there are many in my church simply participating in Christianity but who are not truly regenerate?”

This is a disturbing line of thinking to me. It seems incredibly dark. So my first instinct is to look to the scriptures. Do we see any validity to this possibility in the text. I think we do. Look at Judas. One could make the case that he was not a true follower of Jesus even though he fully participated in following him for three years like the rest of the disciples. Or look at Ananias and Sapphira in Acts, or Simon the Sorcerer and you can see that there existed those who participated in the life of the church who were not true, regenerate followers of Jesus.

It seems it is possible for someone to fully participate in the community of believers and not be a disciple of Jesus. They can know the Bible, understand sin and grace, pray well, conceptually grasp good Christology and theology of atonement, even teach classes and lead others and still not be a follower of Jesus. And when that happens and they leave church, two things happen. One, everyone wonders what happened and two, they become inoculated to the gospel. Think of an immunization here. You are a given a small dose of the virus so that your body may fight it off in the future. In much the same way, those who participate in the church can become immunized to the things of Jesus to such a degree that it nearly impossible to bring them back to faith.

So what do we do with this? I don’t think it right to simply acknowledge the possibility of people in church and then do nothing. Fatalism never looks good on anyone. I think there are a few things we need to consider:

1. We can’t see a person’s heart. Therefore we shouldn’t try and figure out who is who. Doing so is not a prudent use of our time, nor is our responsibility. As I read the scriptures our responsibility is to treat everyone in the image of God, as someone being reconciled to God.

2. Discipleship, discipleship, discipleship. Over the last century discipleship has been watered down to a tawdry to-do-list centered on individualistic efforts at piety. And while I wouldn’t say any of those things are unimportant, I would say they not the apex of discipleship. Discipleship in the Bible was always carried out in the midst of relationship (I’ll post an example list in another post). While we as humans have no ability to bring about true transformation in another person’s heart, we can introduce them to the one who can. There is no better vehicle for this than the one modeled to us by the Creator himself: relationship.

3. Never underestimate prayer. As noted above, since we can’t bring about transformation in the heart, we can pray. And the God who can change the heart of a king can change and bring about the transformation that leads to life.

4. Never stop preaching the explicit Gospel. Enough with the self-help sermons. Enough with the focus on making people feel better about themselves. Enough with the prosperity Gospel. Enough with assuming the gospel and making it implicit. Where the gospel is implicit and assumed moralism, legalism, humanism and a lot of other -ism’s are right around the corner. Preach the gospel unashamedly, continually and explicitly. Who knows, by the Holy Spirit and the gospel a heart may be tuned to be in line with the behaviors of one who simply participating.

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It’s not you it’s me…or maybe both of us…

Relationships aren’t easy.  In fact, they are very, very difficult.  Even in relationships we value and enjoy there is difficulty.  One of my closest friends can absolutely drive me nuts. They are overly intense, sure of themselves, black and white and almost always right.  Drives me nuts.  To the point that it can be annoying and difficult to be around them.  Anybody have anyone like in their life?  No…just me…humor me as I continue.

As I have thought about how to be in relationship with others, I have found that there are three things I can do when I am annoyed or bothered by another’s actions in our relationship.

1.  Honestly assess if I am being overly critical.  I need to be honest and say that there are times I am annoyed with people simply because I am overly critical of them.  They may have a character trait, a way of being, or even a habit that rubs me the wrong way.  And it is completely possible that way of being is okay.  What’s not okay is my reaction towards them.

2.  Share the impact of their actions with them.  People will continue to do what they do unless they become present to the impact of their actions.  A friend of mine once lovingly helped me become present to the impact I was having on him.  He said to me, “I enjoy being around you and think you are great, but I have rarely left a conversation feeling loved by you.”  Getting very present to the impact I was having on him, and on our relationship, affected change in me.  Maybe the best thing we can do for someone and for our relationship with them is to help them, as gently as we can, become present to how they affect us.

3.  Share what I need from them.  This is along the lines of sharing the impact of their actions, but is a bit different.  Many times what bothers me in the relationship is not what they are doing, but what they are not doing.  In some relationships I need people to show more interest in my life.  In other relationships I need people to be less competitive as I have enough of that in myself.  From others, I need to have them show initiation in the relationship towards me as I feel as though I am always doing the initiating.

Doing any of these three things requires a lot of me.  It requires humility to see myself accurately, courage to share authentically with the other person, and a willingness to have them do the same toward me.  So maybe there is a fourth question, “Do I love this person enough to take action around any one of these things?”  Because if I don’t love them, I’ll be content to be annoyed behind their back.

Year in Review – 5 books I found most helpful/interesting/challenging

For most of my life reading was a purely mental exercise. What I mean by that is, I would read a book and learn a bunch of new things, but those new learnings rarely translated into new practices. The ideas learned were simply fodder to be used in conversations/discussion/debates to make me look well read and intelligent. What they didn’t do was shift how I thought, and more importantly, how I acted.

Let me add, this was also my approach to the Bible. I don’t think I am alone here. I believe this to be a massive problem within American Christianity. We live at a time where information is in excess. You can get your hands on books, commentaries, sermons, lectures, or studies easier than any other time in history. And yet for all the information that is available, there is little to show for how that information has impacted American Christians to live more obedient lives to Christ.

In effort to change my practice of learning, I am spending some brief time reflecting the five books that impacted me the most this year.

To Change the World – James Davison Hunter

There is a mandate on Christians to have an impact on the world around us. This mandate was instituted in the beginning when God breathed life into the man and woman, who were created int he image of the Creator God, saying to them, “Work in the garden and take care of it.” While not identical, in our work to fulfill this mandate we mirror God’s creative act.

Since the fall, this work has taken on a restorative or redemptive nature, again, to mirror God’s restorative and redemptive actions in the world. In other words, we work to make this a better place to live as God redeems and restores. This work has direct impact on culture. Hunter goes into detail about the differing views on what culture is. For some, culture is the sum total of the values that are held in the hearts and minds of people. For others, culture is what is produced by society in artifacts, art, music and the likes. His explanations, critiques and proposals on thinking about culture were extremely helpful.

The second part of the book moves into how those on the theological and political right and left, along with the Anabaptist approach their efforts to influence culture. He highlights how both the right and the left utilize power and authority to legislate for their particular morality, and how the Anabaptist choose to withdraw from the greater culture in lieu of using authority or power.

But perhaps the most intriguing idea put forth by Hunter was his idea of a faithful presence in the world. After highlighting the shortcomings of each of the aforementioned approaches, he draws upon the incarnation as a model to approach culture calling it, “the only adequate reply to the challenges of dissolution; the erosion of trust between word and world and the problems that attend it.” Hunter’s theology of faithful presence calls Christians to “attend to the people and places that they experience directly…[it] gives priority to right in front of us – the community, the neighborhood, and the city, and the people of which these are constituted.”

I think Hunter’s work is profoundly important as we continue to live in a society and culture that is markedly post-Christian.

A Failure of Nerve – Edwin Friedman

Friedman had my attention on page two when he wrote, “[this book] is for leaders who have questioned the widespread triumphing of data over maturity, technique over stamina, and empathy over personal responsibility.” That statement says a lot about the state of leading in our society. Friedman contends that throughout America there is a rampant sabotaging of leaders who try and remain a calm presence in the midst of a toxically reactive system. Rather than seeking emotional mature leadership, we have become a culture longing for quick fixes and band-aids that make us feel like a calm has been brought to the storm, but have done little to actually calming the storm.

This book challenged many of the assumptions I had about leadership, especially leadership in the church. To see such a challenge see my blog post here

The most challenging aspect to this book is that it will not give you easy solutions or techniques to make you a better leader. To become a better leader, one must better oneself. Leadership begins with who you are. If you are emotionally reactive, you can expect the system you lead to be emotionally reactive. As Will Mancini said, “You produce who you are.” A Failure of Nerve requires the reader to constantly look at self as they move through the content, and fight the urge to “fix” those they are leading.

Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times – Peter Steinke

I don’t think I have ever met a pastor who did not have a story about a congregation becoming anxious at some point. These stories are filled with other stories about frustrating, hurtful, obnoxious, and even sinful things people do in the midst of anxiety. Steinke actually says that according to his experience, four out of ten churches will face a moderate to serious conflict in any five year period. This book helps the reader understand anxiety and how it manifests itself within the system. This allows the leader to think systems as the move through and manage conflict. Steinke provides very practical suggestions in how to ones own anxiety as they seek to resolve conflict, as well as ways in which to minimize the negative effects of anxiety on the system.

My biggest take away from this book was two-fold: thinking systems when it comes to conflict management, and understanding that anxiety is not necessarily bad. Anxiety just is. Anxiety alone doesn’t hurt the system or organization. How the anxiety is managed, or not managed determines the effect of anxiety.

The Prophetic Imagination – Walter Brueggemann

For anyone who has imagined a world that is not broken, but is as it should be, this book will fan that imaginative spark. Brueggemann looks at Moses and the Old Testament prophets efforts at creating a counter-community to what they experience in the world around them. We speak often of this in church. A world where status and ledgers don’t determine worth, but rather worth is determined by the intrinsic value of being a image bearer that all people have. We dream of a world where materialism and oppression don’t numb us to the world around, but we dream of a world where the imagination for something holy other inspires us to new living. Brueggemann encourage us to ask not whether “it is realistic or practical or viable but whether it is imaginable.”

I found the following quote to be especially challenging.

“The prophet does not ask if the vision can be implemented, for questions of implementation are of no consequence until the vision can be imagined. The imagination must come before the implementation. Our culture is competent to implement almost anything and to imagine almost nothing. The same royal consciousness that makes it possible to implement anything and everything is the one that shrinks imagination because imagination is a danger.”

You Can Change – Tim Chester

I despise, and I am not sure it is for good reason or not, books and teaching that are systematic. If something “7 steps to…,” or “5 sure-fire practices…” or “11 things to do…” I will most likely never pick that book up. That is why Tim Chester’s You Can Change was so refreshing. This is not a “how-to” or a “Step-by-step” book. This is simply looking at the truths of the gospel and living into them in new ways to experience transformation in an area of our life that has yet to be obedient to Jesus. That’s it. Every chapter ends with thoughtful questions to help the reader engage an area of their life where they would like to see change. And these aren’t your typical study questions. These are real questions that, if taken seriously, will help people experience the gospel of Jesus to a deeper degree.

Those are my top five books of the year. What are yours?

The Identity Hoax

I remember Preacher Tom clearly.  During my time at college, he would come to campus wearing a blood red baseball hat with capitalized, bold letters stating, “Don’t Sin”.  He held a large sign that would be a good four feet above his head threatening people to “Repent!” Below the call to repent was listed every sin, in its most explicit form (i.e. fornication, masturbation, etc.), that one must repent of.

Often he would stand just outside of the food court hoping to get as much of an audience as possible.  I remember sitting outside watching him interact with students who passed by and feeling anger and, if I’m honest, an almost unhealthy rage begin to to turn within me.  He would shout out “Whore!” or “Slut!” to women whose dress he didn’t approve of as they passed by.  Men would be labeled as “masturbaters” and “drunks” as they unwittingly walked by.  As you can imagine, this went over well and led to many respectful interchanges with students willing to hear Preacher Tom out (where is my raised eyebrow emoticon?)…

What enraged me about this, and I don’t think I could labeled the emotion then but I can now, is that those labels are not the identity of those who walked by.  Sure, some of them may have done some of those things, but that doesn’t determine their identity.  The sum of what we have or have not done is not who we are.  Rather, who we are is determined by the one who created us.  And the one who created us, created us  by his divine choice to be image bearers of the all holy infinite God.  This is the identity of all people: image bearers.  And to identify anyone as something less, is to deny the imago dei imprinted on their life.

While this is true, the world around us works to identify us as something other than imago dei.  Our culture would have us believe our main identity is to be a consumer (there are more malls than high schools!), or an upstanding citizen, or a fill-in-your-political-party-of-choice-here.  We stand in awe of those people who can be identified as their “own person” as the exemplify the rugged individualism we Americans love.  Identity is based around wealth, position, influence, education, neighborhood, or even our kids successes on the athletic field.  Internally, people battle against the negative identities of being a failure, a hindrance, inept, or a fraud.  There is no shortage of identities shouting loudly to be the one defining us instead of the imago dei.

Granted, the imago dei every person bears has been blurred by the sin nature we each possess.  But that is why Christ came!  He came that the sin nature that identifies us as sinners in rebellion to God might be replaced by a restored imago dei offered to us when we are united to Christ.

Just look at Jesus and how often he did this.  In John 8 the Pharisees bring a woman caught in adultery before Jesus and asks what punishment she should receive.  Her identity in the eyes of the Pharisees was an adulterer.  A whore.  And according to the Mosaic Law, her punishment should be death.  But Jesus sees not a whore, but a image bearer of the Creator who needs to be restored. I think we often fail at moving people towards embracing their identity as image bearers.  In this story, many act as though we must validate her current identity to give the woman worth.  We may not do this explicitly, but it happens, almost unconsciously.  We stress her being a victim of being used by the ruling authority for their own purposes.  We point out that the man is missing from the equation and how unfair the culture was towards this poor woman.  Or maybe, more honorably, we see her as having the image of God imprinted on her soul and deserving of respect, but we don’t call her to leave behind a life that is blurring the imago dei she bears.  These are simply different identities less empowering than the her true identity, the latter being an incomplete or fractured version of the true identity.  Jesus removes the identity given to her by her accusers and calls her to live into her identity as a daughter of God by telling her to “Go and sin no more.”  The pursuit of individual holiness as image bearers of an holy God is a concept that seems to have been pushed to the fringes of Christianity in our pursuit to be relevant, accepting, and loving.

Let me be clear, I think too often in Christianity we aren’t accepting enough.  Far too many Christians focus on an identity other than image bearer for those who are outside the church.  We focus on an identity determined by the current actions and behaviors of a person rather than the identity they could and should be living into.  Accepting people may mean we allow them to continue being identified as something other than a restored imago dei.  Loving people means we won’t allow that.  The pattern of Jesus, which we should be seeking to imitate, is to dine with the misfits society has identified as unworthy, and identify them as worthy and love them by calling them to a greater identity than the one they currently bear.  He calls the thief to be a contributor.  The tax collector a giver.  The prostitute a worshiper.  The proud humble.  The weak strong.  The poor rich.

Let us also acknowledge that for some us, the identity we currently bear isn’t socially tabooed, but rather, is socially acceptable.  Being successful, intelligent, wealthy, moral, or an upright person are all socially acceptable identities.  And while they are good and right, they are not our identity. We see this in Jesus telling Nicodemus he must be reborn.  That his current identity must die in order for him to live into a new identity.  Again we see this when Jesus calls the rich young ruler to a life beyond his wealth.  While Jesus is calling him to give up so much in terms of material comforts, he is also calling him to leave behind an identity that, in all likelihood, served him well in the world.

Holding on to an identity, regardless if that identity is seen as positive or negative, other than the imago dei sells us short of the life we are to lead.  You are an image bearer.  You are an adopted son, an adopted daughter of the most high God.  You are an heir, sharing in the inheritance given to Jesus by the Father.  That’s your identity.  Go and live in that.  Let that define you.

The call to “repent” is not, then, a threat as it feels like when it comes from Preacher Tom.  It is an invitation to relationship and new identity if one would leave their old identity behind.

The reproduction of a handshake gone bad

As a life long Lions fan the beginning of this season made me pinch myself again and again. The constant comeback wins (the one in Dallas!?! Come on! You don’t even have to be a Lions fan to like that win), the dominant defensive line, and a unstoppable connection between Stafford and Johnson that was shaping up to be historical. Lions fans had been waiting a long time for this.

And then came the San Francisco. While there wasn’t a lot in the game to signal the coming slide of the Lions, what came after did. After the game the coaches, Jim Schwartz of the Lions and Jim Harbough of the 49ers, met for the post game handshake. What transpired next is largely based on the account of the beholder, but regardless of what really happened, Jim Schwartz did not like the way Harbough handled the handshake and chased after him in what looked like an effort to fight. The two exchanged words and were eventually pulled away from one another by those who stepped in.

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Fast forward to Thanksgiving day. The game between the Lions and Packers was anticipated by most football fans, and Lions fans especially. In the third quarter Nhandamkah Suh, after a play was well over, removed himself for a play by shoving the head of an offensive lineman for the Packers into the ground and then intentionally stepping on the player. Rightly he was ejected from the game and suspended for two games.

In the following game against the New Orleans Saints the Lions could not control their emotions and showed the immaturity by committing senseless penalty and senseless penalty.

Many have bemoaned the inability of the Lions players to control their emotions in the midst of the game. Much have been made of Suh and the number of personal fouls he commits. According to many analysts, Suh could be one of the greatest defensive lineman to play the game, but that legacy could be nullified by his stupid play. For Suh, and for the rest of the team, their age has been the excuse to rationalize their immaturity.

While players must take responsibility for their actions, I believe the reason this behavior has continued for as long as it has stems from their coach, Jim Schwartz. Will Mancini says, “You can teach what you know, but you only reproduce what you are.” While Schwartz may be teaching his players the nuts and bolts of the game, the offensive and defensive schemes, and even the rules they seem unable to not break, based upon his own inability to control his emotions during a routine handshake after a loss, he is reproducing what he is.

To apply this principle to the Lions, if Jim Schwartz wants to see his Team play more disciplined on the field with greater maturity, that begins with him.

As leaders we have tendency to blame the faults of others in someone other than ourselves. The question we need to be asking is, “In what way am I contributing to that behavior/attitude/immaturity continuing?” Another way to say it, “Is what I see in others a product of what is in me?”

In thinking about discipleship in the church we must not be concerned with teaching new information. While information is good and important, it has only limited potential to transform a life and create greater allegiance to Jesus. More important to giving more information to another is the personal work we do in becoming more loyal to Jesus and to experience transformation in our own lives. We produce what we are. We will only be able to take people where we have been. We only will be able to help people experience what we have experienced.

This is good news. Many leaders and pastors can become paralyzed at changing an organization or large group of people. The good news is you don’t have to. If you want to see change around you, change yourself. Become who you want to be, and who want to see others become.

You reproduce who you are. So who are you?