Sunday, November 22, 2020

Do Not Harden Your Heart

Do Not Harden Your Heart

by Ted Burleson

Six-year-old Heather mashed the Playdough in her pretty little hands and formed it into one big glob. Mommy called for her, so she left the Playdough and went to her. Days later, she tried to mash the Playdough, but it had hardened so that she could not change its shape.

Thirteen-year-old Heather held her Bible in her maturing teenage hands and folded her hands to pray. Becky had asked her to go to the mall instead of going to church, and she went with her. Weeks later, she missed church again, and it did not bother her as much the second time.

Sixteen-year-old Heather held Jimmy in her shaking hands and closed her eyes as they passionately kissed. Jimmy had asked her to go all the way, and she went along with him. Months later, she tried to pray, but it seemed hard for her to believe that God was still listening.

Eighteen-year-old Heather held little Jimmy with her best “mothering” hands and closed her eyes as the baby cried and cried. Jimmy had asked her to get an abortion, but she kept her baby alive. Years later, she thought about calling her preacher, but it seemed to her that too much had happened to turn back now.

Stories like Heather’s begin, go on, and end every day. Heather learned that just as the Playdough hardens and the shape no longer changes, hearts can harden, and changes become even more difficult than ever. This lesson repeats an ancient theme: God can heal hardened hearts if we soften our hearts enough to invite Him into our lives. The vital requirement is for us to refuse to allow our hearts to harden.

In Hebrews 3:7-11, the writer to the Hebrews shows that turning a deaf ear to God’s instructions causes God to be angry. Christians must refuse to repeat the history of God’s rebellious people who did not learn God’s way. If we want to live for Jesus in this life and go to heaven in the life to come, we must not harden our hearts.

Remember God’s Old Testament people, Israel? They continually rebelled against God and refused to obey His commands. They murmured and complained and worshiped idols. It is easy to see their mistakes because of hardened hearts, but we must guard our hearts to keep from being just like them.

Read Hebrews 3:12-15 and ask if there is an “evil heart of unbelief” leading you away from God? Are you encouraging someone today to live for Jesus? Are Satan and sin deceiving you? The writer of Hebrews instructs his readers that to please God, we must listen to His voice and obey His commands.

You can see the progression of a heart hardened by apathy and sin in Heather’s story. Bible camps, youth retreats, worship services, and gospel meetings are all part of an effort to encourage you to remain active in God’s family. Satan makes it seem easy to leave God’s people, but the consequences are far from easy to bear.

Look again at Heather’s story. Where could she have altered the course of her life? Even though it will be tough for Heather, she can allow God to soften her hardened heart. Her heart is softening, and God is slowly being allowed back in her life.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Extending the Invitation

“Extending the Invitation”

C. Philip Slate

Periodically, preachers in the USA find themselves in a bind when they feel compelled, for whatever reasons, to “extend the invitation” when there is no natural connection between sermon content and an appeal to respond to Jesus. This article is a response to the felt awkwardness of this practice and offers a few alternatives.

Why should preachers feel compelled to “extend the invitation” every time they preach? Scripture does not enjoin the practice. In most of the churches I have visited in more than thirty countries, extending the invitation at the end of the sermon is exceptional, even in situations where churches are growing rapidly. Indeed, in the 1950s our workers in Italy found the practice of “extending the invitation” even counter-productive to their evangelistic efforts. Some Italians would respond when all they wanted to do was inquire. So, our workers created an alternative means of responding, a practice I need not detail here.

Tom Olbricht has shown how the “invitation” practiced among North American churches of Christ began as a counter-practice to the altar call in 19th century heavily Calvinistic Protestant revivalism, a call with the accompanying quest to ascertain or secure one’s election.[1] There is nothing about the biblical preaching event, however, that requires the “extension” of a formal invitation each time preaching takes place, regardless of content. One may exhort and persuade without the uninterrupted, and often awkward, move from sermon to exhortation.

In a real sense, the invitation was given by Jesus (Matt. 11:28–30), and all preachers can do is remind people of that invitation and exhort them to respond to Jesus in appropriate ways. In that sense we do not extend the invitation. In some cases our 19th century North American evangelistic efforts involved two men in the preaching event: one was chiefly a teacher while the other was an exhorter who urged people to act on what they had been taught. There was nothing wrong with that practice in a specifically evangelistic situation.

That the biblical message clearly demands responses is not the issue. Hearers were often urged to respond by repenting with accompanying fruits (Matt. 3:8; Acts 2:38), turning to the Lord (Acts 3:19), believing (trusting) (Acts 16:31), and so forth. Even when the sermon is not specifically about the gospel, on a given Sunday someone may want the opportunity to obey Christ in baptism for reasons other than the sermon just preached. The same may be the case for one who wishes to make known her or his repentance of some wrong, to apologize for behavior, to announce the decision to return to the Lord’s way of life, or to request congregational prayer for some threat or forthcoming event. How can those opportunities be provided? In many of our African American churches members simply remain standing after the post-sermon song, and the preacher asks each one what is on her or his heart—a good practice but difficult to do in a very large assembly.

Alternative Ways to do the Same Thing

Given the decision to provide opportunities for people to respond publicly in assemblies, there are several ways of making it know without employing strained connections between sermon and exhortation. Obviously, when the sermon is evangelistic it is easy to move into a call for response, a traditional USA practice among several churches. (1) Alternatively, however, one may state at the beginning of the sermon that at the end of the message a song will be sung as an appeal to people to respond publicly to Christ by coming to the front, if that is appropriate for them. Non-members and new contacts may not know what the post-sermon song means! Check it out for yourself. In fact, “extending the invitation” is strange terminology to those who have not been initiated to our phrases and descriptions.

The preacher could finish the non-evangelistic sermon and (2) simply state that he has finished the sermon planned for the occasion, and then say something like, “Now, please, give me a minute or so to make an appeal for anyone who may need to respond publicly to Christ today.” Another way of making the transition is to (3) finish the sermon with an appropriate prayer and then take a minute or two to make a meaningful appeal. (4) One may also transition from sermon to exhortation by making a psychological break, a planned pause after the sermon, and then exhort people to respond to Christ. (5) Additionally, one could finish the sermon with a song/hymn as part of the lesson, and then appeal for responses. (6) Another alternative to the traditional invitation involves the preacher’s mentioning the availability of himself or the elders (perhaps standing at the back) to talk about spiritual needs people want to discuss. Of course, this can be done along with an appeal to come to the front. (7) Finally, sermon over, the preacher may say simply but meaningfully, “Now, does anyone here today desire to become a Christian? Does anyone at this time want to confess some wrong or ask us to pray for a particular need? If so, please indicate it by raising your hand, standing up, or speaking. Let us know.

These are my suggestions. It may be useful to read how an Evangelical writer treated the subject.[2]

The Functions of Assembly

Whether or not to have a formal appeal for response depends largely on the way one sees the function of a sermon and a specific assembly. Interestingly, when theologically conservative James Kennedy was with the conservative Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Florida, it became in the 1960s the first Presbyterian church in the USA to have over three hundred conversions in one year. Kennedy never preached an evangelistic sermon to the church! Rather, on Sunday mornings he informed and encouraged the church. At one point he had trained 180 men and women to get out in the community and evangelize. That is how they had so many conversions. Waiving here our differences on the conversion processes, the point is that they did not use their Sunday assembly to evangelize but to minister to those already evangelized—and lost nothing evangelistically in the process.

It is useful for each church to decide whether it wants to be primarily a “front door” church (attract and win people by staging Sunday assemblies) or a “side door” church (does its evangelizing primarily away from the building and reserves the Sunday assembly more exclusively for building up the saints). Often churches try to do too many things in the limited time of the Sunday assembly. It is useful to reconsider what the “assembly” texts in the New Testament indicate about the practice of the early church. Settling on a manageable number of well-planned biblically required activities can sharpen the outcomes of assemblies, and sermons. Whatever a church’s leadership decides about these matters needs to be carefully explained to the congregation so it can participate in whatever approach is taken. It helps brothers and sisters to have a clear view of what they are trying to accomplish “when we [they] come together.”

Slightly modified article originally published by the Gospel Advocate in April, 2018.


(1) Thomas Olbricht, “The Invitation: A Historical Survey,” Restoration Quarterly (5:1), which is online at the RQ website.

(2) Larry K. Weeden, “Effective Invitations,” Leadership. 1988 (9:4):124-28.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

The Importance of Unity for the Church

The Importance of Unity for the Church

by Joel Stephen Williams

“Behold, how good and pleasant it is when people live in unity!” (Psa. 133:1). How wonderful unity, peace, and harmony are, and how discouraging division, discord, and conflict are. The apostle Paul begs us to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). Jesus prayed that his followers “may all be one” (Jn. 17:21). Unfortunately, it has not always been that way. Paul, for example, had to struggle with the problem of division in the church at Corinth. In the early church there were disagreements over the Gentiles and salvation. There were also disagreements due to personalities. Since there are sinful human beings who make up the church, sadly, divisions and disagreements are going to always be present. But that does not mean that we should sit back in apathy and indifference and fail to promote unity.

Causes of Division

What are some things that cause division? Some division is over doctrine. If division comes because of error, the truth must prevail. But between brothers and sisters, usually division is the result of other causes. Sometimes it is the result of personalities. This was the problem at Corinth. Some liked Paul the most while others liked Apollos or Peter (1 Cor. 1:12). Paul was horrified by this division. He wanted all of them follow Christ rather than human beings. It was Christ who was crucified for them. They were baptized in the name of Christ (1 Cor. 1:13). Therefore, Paul appealed to them to all “agree” so that there would be “no dissensions” among them (1 Cor. 1:10). Even today some Christians who should be friends are not unified, because they are lined up behind various personalities, namely, this preacher or that preacher. Let us line up behind Jesus Christ and repledge our mutual loyalty to him! If we are all following Christ, we will all be in line together.

At other times division results from hurt feelings. Sometimes one person has wronged another person. At other times someone has gotten their feelings hurt even though another person has not really done anything wrong to them. We need to learn to be forgiving toward one another. If we Want God to forgive us, we need to learn to forgive others (Matt. 6:12–15). Paul wrote, “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph. 4:32). God through Christ has forgiven each one of us of many terrible sins, so we need to be forgiving of others, especially our brothers and sisters.

At still other times division is due to jealousy. Sometimes preachers or churches get in competition with one another. Instead of working together, we work against one another. We need to learn to be humble and put God's glory first in all things, not our own selfish desires. Instead of trying to make a name for ourselves, let us be concerned with making the name of Christ widely known. His name will save; our names will not save anyone (Acts 4:12). We should seek the kingdom of God first (Matt. 6:33). As Paul taught, “Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others (Phil. 2:3–4). If we are only interested in pleasing God rather than pleasing mere mortals, competition will cease between us and unity will ensue (2 Cor. 10:18).

Another cause of disunity is a lack of love in our hearts. Jesus said that love would be the means by which “everyone will know” that we are his disciples (Jn. 13:35). The kind of love we should have, for our brothers and sisters in Christ is not merely a passing friendship. We are to have love “as” Christ loved us when he died on Calvary (Jn. 13:34; Eph. 5:2). If we. do not have a love for our brethren, then we do not really love God (1 Jn. 4:20–21). Peter told us to “love the brotherhood” (1 Pet. 2:17).

Expressions of Unity

In what ways do we have unity? We have unity in a common faith and doctrine. We agree on basic truths about God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the Bible (1 Cor. 1:10). We have common practices such as worship on the Lord's day and partaking of the Lord's Supper and we live a similar holy life. We have unity in that we were all baptized into Christ (1 Cor. 1:13). We have unity in that we wear a common name, Christian. Paul summarized some of the “one” things around which our unity is centered: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4–6).

Finally, how can we show our unity? We do it by partaking of the Lord's Supper together (1 Cor. 10:16–17). We do it by supporting one another in good works like gospel meetings, feeding the hungry, and caring for orphans. We do it by praying for one another. We do it by speaking of one another in complimentary ways (Rom. 12:10; 2 Pet. 3:15–16). We show our unity by rushing to the aid of one another in times of tragedy (Rom. 12:13, 15; Gal. 2:10). Obviously, we are not able to show our unity if we sit back in separate groups frowning at one another. Instead, we show our unity by standing side-by-side, arm-in-arm, as brothers and sisters in Christ.

How wonderful and desirable unity is. Let us all work toward more unity in the church, so that an admiring world will say, “My, how they love one another!” The world is a place of hatred, hostility, and division. Let the church be a refuge of love, good will, and unity. Let the world know that we are Christians by our love one for another.


Note: This article first appeared as Steve Williams, “The Importance of Unity for the Church,” Progress 2, no. 2 (November 1989): 10–11, in a paper published for preachers in India.

Saturday, November 7, 2020

A Post-Election Prayer for America

A Post-Election Prayer for America

by Justin Imel

Heavenly Father,

We acknowledge your sovereignty over this nation and every other nation on earth (Dan 4:32). Presidents come and go, but you sit upon the throne (Rev 4:9) and you reign forever and ever (Rev 19:6). Regardless of what happens in our country, we know that you are the almighty (Rev 4:8), the I AM (Ex 3:14; cf. Rev 4:8), and the ruler of the kings of the earth (Rev 1:5). We acknowledge, our God, that our citizenship is in heaven, and we anticipate the appearing of your Son, our Savior (Phil 3:20).

Our country is greatly divided. We pray for healing. We ask for reconciliation. We beseech you that the healing and reconciliation may begin with us. We know that even those with whom we strongly disagree bear your image (Gen 1:27; 9:6; cf. Acts 17:26), are our neighbors (Lk 10:25-37), and stand in need of Jesus (Lk 24:46-47). We wish to see all people as you see them, not as our political leaders see them.

Help the church be the light of this world (Matt 5:14). Help us do good to all men (Gal 6:10). Help us to sow love (1 Cor 13:4-8a). Help us to care for the widow and the orphan (Js 1:27). Help us to give to anyone who has need (Acts 2:45). In short, our God, we wish to show the character of our Lord Jesus everywhere we go.

We ask your blessings, holy God, on those in authority (1 Tim 2:1-2). We pray that we might live quiet and peaceable lives which please you (1 Tim 2:2). We pray that you might grant wisdom to those who are in office and those who will shortly take office (Js 1:5). Help us to submit to them, for we know that you are the one who gives them their authority (Rom 13:1-7).

We thank you for the honor of being a part of your kingdom (Col 1:13). We’re thankful that kingdom cannot be shaken (Heb 12:28). We’re thankful that in the heavenly kingdom all the evil we see in the kingdom of the world will be no more (Rev 21:1-4, 22-27); we look forward to that eternal day of peace and harmony.

In Jesus’ Name,

Thursday, November 5, 2020

God and Hinduism

God and Hinduism

by Joel Stephen Williams

When the apostle Paul preached in Athens to the scholars there, he began by commenting that the Athenians were very religious people (Acts 17:22). Among the many altars and images in Athens, Paul had noticed one dedicated to "an unknown god" (Acts 17:23). The people of Athens did not want to offend any god that might exist, so in case they had overlooked some god, they erected an altar to any god that was unknown to them. Paul knew these people were worshipping in ignorance. He, therefore, proclaimed to them the identity of the unknown god, that is the true God of which the Athenians were ignorant. As Paul proclaimed the true God to the people of Athens, gospel preachers today need to proclaim the true God to the people of India.

Hinduism teaches that there is one impersonal ultimate reality, namely, Brahman-Atman, who is known through three personal deities, Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu, that represent creation, destruction, and preservation respectively.(1) While this is the doctrine believed by the more astute Hindus, the "common man of India is uncritically and perhaps limitlessly polytheistic."(2) Many Hindus honor any and all gods and goddesses, or at least believe it is alright for others to honor virtually any god. Some Hindus claim that their deities number 330 million.(3) Many Hindus adopt a particular god or goddess as a patron deity. This god may be the protector of family and home. Some Hindus believe a certain god healed a relative, such as a grandfather, from an illness; thus, the family worships that particular deity. Other deities are popular in a certain town or geographical district. Still other gods are followed by a caste or class of people.

The multiplicity of deities in Hinduism means many Hindus will go from one shrine to another, from one priest to another, in order to appeal to a particular god or goddess that is supposed to be able to help with a problem. For strength one might pray to the monkey-god Hanuman. To remove an obstacle, one might appeal to Ganesh, the elephant-headed son of Shiva. For help with sickness, for a good harvest, or for safety on a journey one might approach other gods.(4) To this one might add the ever-growing number of shrines and holy places to which people go to worship, to pray, or to bathe. Once a person finds a god whom Hindus think have helped them, that god becomes a patron god for those people. Certainly, India is a religious country full of spiritual people.

The people of India need to be told what Paul proclaimed long ago: “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all men life and breath and everything....for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’” (Acts 17:24-25, 28). God cannot be contained within a holy house or an idol. God is not limited to a single function like strength or fertility. The one true God is great. He is everything good that the millions of gods are supposed to be, and he is more. Those in heaven before the throne of God are examples of a reverent attitude all should have toward God (Rev. 4:8, 11). They worship God, saying:

Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!...
Worthy art thou, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for thou didst create all things,
and by thy will they existed and were created.

The God of the Bible is “one Lord” (Deut. 6:4). God declared to Moses: “I am the Lord your God.…You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:2–3; Deut. 5:6–7). Let us honor this one God.(5)

(1) John B. Noss, Man’s Religions, 4th ed. (London: Macmillan, 1969), 207–17.

(2) Noss, Man’s Religions, 217.

(3) Noss, Man’s Religions.

(4) Noss, Man’s Religions.

(5) This article was originally published in a publication for India as Steve Williams, “God and Hinduism,” Progress 1, no. 3 (February, 1989), 5–6.

Monday, November 2, 2020

Shepherding for Greater Evangelism


by Roger Shepherd

The most significant work in the world is being a shepherd of the Lord’s church! Paul said, “it is a fine (good, honorable) work,” one who “aspires” to be an “overseer” of God’s people (1 Tim. 3:1). I have worked forty–nine years with young men who aspire to be preachers and shepherds. The idea they express in the type of leadership desired in the 21st Century is participatory shepherding, so they can take part in decisions. Shepherding transforms the people of God into servants.

I asked this question, “What is an elder?” and received the following:

  • A man who leads and directs God’s work. He is out front or the head of a team.
  • A man who has a following; without a following he is only taking a walk.
  • A man guiding or directing the service of Christians to others.
  • A principal player of an organization or team. He is an example of teamwork.
  • A person of determination and action.
  • A person with goals, visions, and a mission.
  • One who trains others to take his place.
  • He is a loving shepherd to cares for the flock of God.

How are these men developed today?


Shepherds are “pastors” who oversee the spiritual work and character of the church (Eph. 4:11). Jesus is the “good shepherd;” that is a metaphor taken from one who was a literal “sheep-herder” (John 10:2, 11). This is the biblical imagery of a human leader who pastors, superintends, oversees, and teaches the pupils in the church (BDAG, 843). The most desirable attribute for a church leader today is that of a shepherd, not a desire to be a manager. Christians desire spiritual leaders, thus, shepherding to develop spiritual maturity, not one who desires the ability to achieve power or a position. Those who work toward a position, rank, or title upon arrival only think they have become a shepherd. They experience the frustration of a few followers and never develop their leadership skills. A shepherd is not a church boss or hierarchy. A shepherd provides a service and this takes skill, personality, character, and servanthood to be effective. The evangelistic church develops spiritual men beginning early in life to be shepherds.

In my experience of ministry and training young men, the church has a lack of shepherds for two reasons. First, very few men “desire” the work of a shepherd (1Tim. 3:1). A shepherd earnestly aspires to do the work from an inward impulse (heart or spirit) rather than the glory of an outward object (honor of men or position); therefore, the man who has his heart right with God will desire to work as a spiritual shepherd (BDAG, 371). For example, Paul wrote: “You who are spiritual restore such a one (fallen Christian) in a spirit of gentleness” (Gal. 6:1). Second, the church has not developed men regarding quality of character and ability to do the work (1 Tim. 3:2–7), such as ministry and evangelism (Eph. 4:11–12).

In respect to shepherding, a leader will develop at least the following qualities:

  1. able to shepherd, feed, or take care of the church;
  2. able to teach;
  3. able to delegate the care of others to be managed by deacons and other leaders;
  4. watch to protect the sheep, especially when they stray from the flock, because a literal shepherd watched the sheep day and night (1 Pet. 5:1–4; Heb. 4:13).

The sheep know the voice of a true shepherd and follows him to the true spiritual pasture (John 10:1–11). True shepherds lead the sheep to eternal life.


The challenge is developing shepherding as valid in seeking to reach contemporary society with servant ministry and participatory shepherding. Shepherds are challenged to sacrifice values for power and expediency. Hierarchy empowers leaders to ignore the needs and expediency of people for dominion. For example, leadership is seen in the contemporary concepts of pastoral care, pastoral counseling, and Christian psychology. In the church it is seen as the “head elder” philosophy that is a “Do as I say, not as I do” leadership. This idea is as old as ancient Egypt, Babylon, and Persia that was later used in the Greek and Roman culture where it was perfected. “The social world into which Christianity spread was governed by a single ruler—the Roman Emperor. Soon after Constantine took the throne in the early fourth century, the church became a full-fledged, top-down, hierarchically organized society” (Frank Viola and George Barna, Pagan Christianity?, 118, 134). Therefore, God gave the church “pastors” or shepherds (1 Pet. 5:2–4) who lead under the Chief Shepherd with the servant attitude of Jesus that is for the evangelistic church.

Jesus was a servant who shepherded the people of God (Matt. 20:28; John 10:10). Matthew’s word “serve,” in reference for Jesus, means to serve another’s spiritual interests. The greatest necessity of people is salvation (John 10:9). Shepherds serve the gospel to the church and community that some might be saved. Jesus was different from the hierarchy of Rome, with a mission to serve the immediate needs of others, to function as an intermediary, act as a go-between/agent, and to be at one’s service, rendering assistance as his foremost ministry (BDAG, 229).


Transformation is not a common word in the vocabulary of most Christians today. Jesus challenged his disciples to stay young in their thinking, to accept truth with audacious minds, and to march toward a transformational style of leadership, building on the strengths of others. Shepherds raise the awareness of organizational goals and consequences of not reaching these goals. Shepherds empower disciples to transcend their own self-interest for the interest of others (Phil 2:4).

The church in contemporary society is challenged with transformational change that in biblical terms indicates a change in directions, change inwardly in fundamental character, thus, Christians progressively take on the perfection of Jesus through the Spirit’s direction (BDAG, 639–40). Paul used this term to mean a physical change by the renewing of the believer’s attitude and service to others, especially teaching and leadership (Rom. 12:1–8). Successful shepherds realize when they encounter a problem along the way, they change their direction, but not their destination. Believers that can change their thoughts can change the world to survive, and periodically change to meet the challenges of a changing community. Christians within the church will also change beginning with shepherding.


Hierarchal leadership lives on in the contemporary world today, but Christians desire godly shepherding. They want to know how much the shepherds care before knowing how much they know. Christians desire to be heard and to express their ideas and knowledge of a particular ministry. Remember, Christians support what they help create. When these opportunities are granted, they will produce their best in evangelism and keeping the saved. Followers are led to think and do what is right, having their needs met; this begins with transforming them spiritually. God taught participatory, servant, and transformational leadership to Moses, and he led Israel to great success (Exodus 18). The church is a better place to minister with a biblical model of leadership. Evangelistic shepherds will know the lost community and the church while serving their greatest spiritual needs and developing their ministry skills. Christians today are not so much wary of church as they are cautious of churches that do not practice the Bible. The contemporary church will be biblically organized and structured operating with spiritually gifted shepherds who rely heavily on ministries that emphasize relationships. True shepherds emphasize genuineness, holistic worship, service, knowledge, relationships, and teaching, while having a great respect for the early traditions without going beyond the teaching of Christ.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

The Power of Prayer and Faith

The Power of Prayer and Faith

by Ted Burleson

Prayer and faith are each a component in James’s recommendation for his readers. His admonition for believers to ask God for wisdom is his first reference to prayer (James 1:5). We must pray without doubt, or else our instability would mark our disbelief in the power of Almighty God. Regular prayer is counter-cultural but was very beneficial for ancient Christians as it still is for believers today.

In James 4:1–10, James teaches that God has many blessings that belong to Christians who will ask for them. We miss some benefits, because we never request them. We must pray according to God’s will and with proper motives. Wrong motives will result in the refusal of God’s blessings that are requested. James is not suggesting a way to manipulate God; instead, he recommends a disciplined practice that honors God and blesses believers.

Because God is the Father of Christians, we must have a personal relationship aided by a conversation with Him through prayer. We hinder our relationship with God if we conform to the standards of the world. James’s counter-cultural message is that instead of trying to please both parties in a dispute (worldly wisdom and heavenly wisdom), the Christian is to forsake the human model of success and depend upon God, aided by an active prayer life.

The counter-cultural message of James regarding prayer applies to contemporary society as much as ancient society. Worldly wisdom encourages us to “fit in,” while heavenly wisdom demands that we “stick out.”

Prayer rests the weary (James 5:13–20). The church elders are to represent the whole church and pray fervently for the sick while anointing them with oil. Prayer is that which heals. Prayer can improve not only the physical health of the ill but also the sin-sick by praying for forgiveness of sins. James encourages confession of sins to other Christians. Prayer for healing should follow this confession.

Prayer is counter-cultural in that secular culture sometimes scoffs at the power of prayer. When faced with trouble, depend on prayer to God to accompany the efforts of those who seek to heal us by conventional means. We should still call for the elders to pray for those in sickness, whether physical or spiritual.

Friday, October 9, 2020

Does God Have a Plan for You? Jeremiah 29:11

Does God Have a Plan for You?
Jeremiah 29:11

Joel Stephen Williams

Debi Thomas tells about her encounter with Jeremiah 29:11 early in life: 

I was 17 years old when someone first gave me Jeremiah 29:11 as a gift: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” The verse was given to me in a greeting card when I finished high school. Four years later, I received it again as a college graduation present, this time in block letters on the cover of a prayer book. A year after that, my husband and I found the verse among our wedding gifts, penned in calligraphy and set in an elegant silver frame. For years, the frame hung on our living room wall.

“For I know the plans I have for you.” Or, to put it in language common to American evangelicalism, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” In the circles I grew up in, this “wonderful plan” was a core belief. As a Christian, I wasn’t simply saved, forgiven, and loved; I was held in the sovereign will of a God who ordained my comings and goings, my nights and my days. This meant nothing would happen to me—nothing could happen to me—outside God’s plan.*

Many Christians believe in the mythology of a special individual plan that God has for each person, even those who are not of a Reformed, Calvinist theological persuasion. Is this what Jeremiah 29:11 is suggesting? Let us take a closer look.

The prophet Jeremiah had sent a letter to the exiles in Babylon. In short, he tells them to settle down in Babylon, because it is going to be a long, seventy-year captivity (Jer. 29:10). They should not listen to prophets and diviners who are there in Babylon among them who are trying to deceive them, claiming they have had a dream from the Lord. It is a lie (Jer. 28:12–17; 29:8–9). These false prophets are promising a short captivity (Jer. 28:1–4, 10–11). If the Jewish people had listened to them and joined in a rebellion against Nebuchadnezzar, they would have been crushed. Jeremiah gives them a message from the Lord: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jer. 29:11). Jeremiah told the Jewish people that God would allow them to return to Jerusalem at the end of seventy years. This message was surely a disappointment to many people, because they knew they would not live that long or they would be too old to make the journey. But at least they knew that some of their children and grandchildren would be able to return one day.

Is Jeremiah 29:11 telling us that God has a special, individual plan for each person to follow? Are we to pray and to watch for signs from God, to try to read the spiritual tea leaves of life to discern what this special plan is for our life? To choose this job or that job? To go to this school or that school? To marry this person or that person? To buy this book or that book? Or, as someone told a friend of mine, to choose this item on the menu at a restaurant or that item? Hardly. In Jeremiah 29 we read about God’s sending a message to the whole nation of Judah through the prophet Jeremiah. We are not in a parallel situation today with living prophets delivering oracles to the whole church. Furthermore, neither is God sending private encoded messages – “God has laid it on my heart!”** “I feel like the Lord is leading me toward this decision!” “The Holy Spirit has revealed this to me!” — to individual Christians to guide them in daily decisions. It was God’s plan that the Israelites would be allowed to return from captivity after seventy years. It is an illegitimate interpretation of the biblical text to lift these words out of their context and to apply them the way it is frequently done in contemporary evangelical Christianity today.

How should ministers counsel and advise people who are seeking God’s will and direction in life? Here are a few suggestions.

  • Instead of encouraging them to pray to God, seeking signs from heaven to show them which choice they should make between jobs, schools, or mates, point them to James 1:5 and help them pray for wisdom. Then help them discern God’s wisdom from the Scriptures. The book of Proverbs is full of wisdom as is the teaching of Jesus. For example, they should not make a decision primarily or solely on the basis of material gain. Every decision needs to include a person’s spiritual welfare.
  • If they are attempting to discern God’s “plans” for them, in other words, the will of God for them, study the Scriptures with them about the will of God. God’s will is the same for all people. God desires that all would be saved in Christ (Eph. 1:11; 1 Tim. 2:4) and that we would live a sanctified Christian life (1 Thess. 4:3; 5:18). God’s will is that we would do what is right (1 Pet. 2:15; 3:17; 4:2, 19; Matt. 7:21). Everyone who has access to the message of the Scriptures can know this will of God, and this type of study will help a person make wise job choices, informed educational decisions, and hopefully find a good Christian mate.
  • Study with people about planning for the future. Spiritual planning for the future as a Christian is not a matter of reading specially coded signs from heaven on what we are supposed to do each day. Instead, spiritual planning for the future is living “self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age” (Titus 2:12). We do not know what the future holds, so let us do what is right and say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that” (Jas. 4:13–17). One thing we do know is that the Lord will return, and there will be a judgment; therefore, we should plan for “these things” by living “lives of holiness and godliness” (1 Pet. 3:11).

I pray that these few simple suggestions will help you in your ministry with others. God bless.


* Debie Thomas, “The Plan and the Dream,” The Christian Century 136, no. 14 (July 3, 2019): 35. Also recommended are the following: Garry Friesen, with J. Robin Maxson, Decision Making and the Will of God: A Biblical Alternative to the Traditional View (Portland, OR: Multnomah Press, 1980); and Jeffrey G. Sobosan, “The Illusion of Continuity,” Journal of Psychology & Theology 4, no. 1 (Winter 1976): 42–46.

**Some readers might question my point here by referring to God putting an idea in the heart of Nehemiah (Neh. 2:12; 7:5). This is not a parallel. Nehemiah was being led by the Lord on a divine mission to aid God’s people. For this reason, F. Charles Fensham, in his commentary, translates Nehemiah 2:12 as “I told no one what my God made clear to me to do for Jerusalem,” and Nehemiah 7:5 as “God inspired me to assemble the important citizens, leaders, and ordinary people” (Ezra and Nehemiah, NICOT, Eerdmans, 1982, pp. 164, 210). Some Bible translations give similar renderings. These translations should make us pause and consider the implications of anyone today using phrases like, “God laid it on my heart.” We are not a Nehemiah. We should follow his example and do the work of the Lord, imitating his courage, leadership ability, and moral integrity, but God has not inspired us nor called us specifically and directly to some grand mission like he did Nehemiah. Beware of those who claim divine sanction for their human plans.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Beware of the Tongue

Beware of the Tongue

by Ted Burleson

James warns against rash and angry words by tying speech and hearing to anger. Anger is not sinful in itself; however, violence is not the thing that God approves. Instead of anger, the Christian may feel when viewing the wickedness of the world and within the church family, the Christian must wait patiently for the Lord to execute justice. Christians are to rid themselves of evil by being washed in baptism. Believers must govern their lives by the word “planted” in them (Jas. 1:19–21).

If Christians have an authentic walk with God, they must be slow to speak (control the tongue). Otherwise, one’s religion is useless. This idea is counter-cultural in that the wisdom of the world may lead someone to make claims that are not backed up by actions. James encourages Christians to walk the walk and talk the talk.

The lesson is clear for Christians today. The moral standards and the estimate of grace guided by a worldly mind are no match for the standards of the wisdom that comes from God. We may deceive ourselves into thinking that we are religious, but if we do not control our speech, we are following the ways of the world.

James warned against becoming teachers (3:1–12) because of the influence of the position and the difficulty of controlling one’s speech. A teacher will have to be more cautious about his or her speech. Knowledge of God’s commands is required, because we expect Bible teachers to speak God’s Word.

A teacher does not have to be perfect, of course, but a teacher must demonstrate actions and speech that are befitting to Christians. James illustrates these ideas with the metaphor of bits in a horse’s mouth, a rudder on a ship, and a spark that starts a massive forest fire. If worldly wisdom leads the tongue, then it is set on fire by hell. These illustrations are reminders that as a small member, the tongue (speech personified), is powerful (Jas. 3:1–12).

James continues illustrating the power and danger of the tongue by reminding his readers of all types of tamed creatures, but the tongue cannot be tamed. The tongue is like a deadly snake. Just as springs do not produce spring water and saltwater, the tongue cannot deliver words of heavenly wisdom and words of earthly wisdom.

The tongue controls the whole person. Nature is consistent, but the tongue is very inconsistent. It cannot be tamed. God alone can tame the tongue of the humble Christian who lives in submission to His will. Our culture is full of self-help books on improving our speech and vocabulary, but this is not the language of God. In our speech, God’s speech means that we are allowing God to strengthen our character, and the people who hear us know that our words are righteous.

James considers another abuse of speech to be slander and warns against such actions (Jas. 4:11–12). Those who are pure in heart will allow God to teach their mouths not to speak evil against others. To speak evil against a brother or to judge a brother is a violation of the royal law of loving our neighbor as ourselves (Jas. 2:8; cf. Lev. 19:18). If Christians do not want to be condemned by God, they should refrain from condemning one another.

James’ message is truly counter-cultural when applied to our present society, where faultfinding has become an accepted custom. James challenges his original readers and those who would read his writings today to stand against the culture by refusing to speak evil of others. This advice is especially true in the church. Simply because such evil speaking is behind closed doors or in private does not mean that it is less harmful. Evil speaking is sinful and forbidden by God.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

An Evangelistic Church


Roger Shepherd

Evangelism is one person talking to another person about his or her need for the salvation, that is only in Christ, with the intention of bringing him or her to a positive decision (Acts 4:12). Evangelism is personally teaching the lost. This is significant to church growth, because Christianity is a taught religion. The mission of Jesus is “make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19–20). The terms “make disciples” is an imperative! He left us no choice but make and teach disciples to make other disciples. I am personally a Christian because my parents taught me one-on-one how to be saved and remain faithful to the Lord.

The Restoration Movement reminds us of the need for evangelism. Traverce Harrison and C. J. Sharp said, “By evangelism we do not mean merely the conduct of revival or protracted meetings. We do not mean alone the work done by professional evangelists. By evangelism we do mean the use of the Word of God by as nearly as possible every Christian to win to Christ as nearly as possible everyone who is unsaved. The thought needs to be restored and reemphasized that every minister of the gospel is an evangelist first of all, and that, second of all, every Christian is capable of being, and therefore, ought to be, a winner of souls for Christ” (Evangelism, 39). It is amazing that this urgent plea was written in 1924. It is little wonder why the church grew so dynamically in the first century and during the Restoration Movement. Christians taught the gospel to lost people! Therefore, I ask, “What is an evangelistic church?”


The first Church of Christ was all about making disciples. Luke said, “Now in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying…Then the Word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:1, 7). The “number of the disciples multiplied” because the “Word of God” kept spreading. Church growth is the result of teaching the gospel referred to as evangelism outreach. Why? It is because people are personally taught how to be a Christian (Acts 5:42). Is the church multiplying where you worship?

How do we make disciples? A disciple is a follower, pupil, learner of Jesus, and adherent to the gospel of Christ. Therefore, we encourage the lost to follow Jesus and teach them to be “obedient to the faith” (John 3:36). They are taught to obey the gospel, because it is the “power of God to save” (Rom. 1:16; 10:17). Paul changed the morality of Rome by teaching “the gospel of God” (Rom. 1:1, 14–15). Today, do we understand the POWER of DUPLICATION? A discussion on the topic of disciple making according to Jesus’s command is at hand. I suggest the following:

  1. Call them to follow Jesus as a learner in their journey (Mark 1:16–17).
  2. Engage people in kingdom work such as helping the sick (Matt. 10:6–7).
  3. Intercede: pray for and with them in disciple growth.
  4. Invest: deepen your relationship with them.
  5. Inquire: ask questions and listen.
  6. Invite: ask for appropriate next step commitments.
  7. Instruct: discuss the commands of Jesus.
  8. Involve: connect them to others on their spiritual journey in small groups.
  9. Inspire: encourage the next steps of study, immersion, and more active ministry (Early and Dempsey, Disciple Making Is…How to Live the Great Commission with Passion and Confidence, 129).
  10. Implement: spiritual teaching in the assembly, Bible class, and one-on-one.


Disciple making includes teaching about Jesus. Disciples are not born into Christ. They are taught to follow Jesus and “observe” everything commanded by him. In the book of Acts alone there are more than ten occurrences of the disciples teaching others to be faithful followers of Jesus. Please note the following:

  1. Luke recorded “all that Jesus began to do and teach” (1:1).
  2. The “Sadducees came upon them, being greatly disturbed that they taught the People” (4:2).
  3. The disciples were asked “not to teach in the name of Jesus” (4:18).
  4. The “high priest asked, ‘Did we not strictly command you not to teach in this name? And look, you have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this man’s blood on us!’” (5:28).
  5. Disciples “daily in the temple, and in every house, did not cease teaching Jesus as the Christ” (5:42).
  6. “But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (6:4, 7).
  7. “Philip ran up and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and said, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ and he said, ‘Well, how could I, unless someone guides me?’” (8:30–31).
  8. “Paul and Barnabas (evangelists) remained in Antioch, teaching the word of the Lord, with many others” (15:35; 28:31).

What do we learn to motivate evangelism from these passages? We learn significantly that evangelism with the early disciples was intentionally following the example of Jesus. Teaching the gospel disturbs and threatens the growth of the enemies of Christianity and the denominational world. Christ is taught in the assembly and in every house in an evangelistic church. The church grew because preachers were involved in personal teaching and “other” Christians followed their example.

The teaching of the gospel to lost people and to keep the saved begins with the elders or shepherds of the church. It is followed by the preachers, or in better terms, the evangelist. Paul told Timothy: “do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry” (2 Tim. 4:5). The word “evangelist” means a “proclaimer of the gospel, evangelist” (BDAG, 403). This is first exemplified by the preacher and elders. An evangelistic church motivates individuals to teach the gospel person to person and by group teaching, such as in Acts 16:11–15 when Paul and Timothy taught a group of women of which Lydia and her household were immersed into Christ as a result.


The evangelistic church is involved in community outreach. How was this accomplished? First, the church reached out to the community in daily evangelism. For example, “praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). Second, in benevolence “all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need” (Acts 2:44–45). Who is needy in your community? Evangelism outreach applies to those hungry, naked, homeless, sick, in prison, lonely, lost, discouraged, and millions of others (Matt. 25:31–46). An evangelistic church reaches its community with the good news of Jesus. The fact is the church will “Reach out or Fade out!”

The Bible school was created to be an evangelistic outreach for the local congregation (Heb. 5:12). The Restoration Movement reminds us that “the richest and most fruitful field for evangelism is in the Bible school. Indeed, if the Bible school is awake to its opportunity with an intelligent evangelistic program, it will make the early ages a period of careful preparation, so that when the proper age is reached, there will be little difficulty in winning every boy and girl to Christ” (Harrison and Sharp, 60). Ira North helped build a dynamic church in Madison, TN, in years past with this slogan: “As the Bible School goes, so goes the Church.”


An evangelistic church is active in at least three areas: first, making disciples; second, personal teaching of lost people and the saved how to mature in their faith; and third, reaching out with the saving gospel of Jesus to the community. How does your congregation measure up to the teaching of Jesus, the apostles, and the early church?