The Altar is Still There

Genesis 13:1–4 (ESV) So Abram went up from Egypt, he and his wife and all that he had, and Lot with him, into the Negeb. 2 Now Abram was very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold. 3 And he journeyed on from the Negeb as far as Bethel to the place where his tent had been at the beginning, between Bethel and Ai, 4 to the place where he had made an altar at the first. And there Abram called upon the name of the Lord.

What do you do when you blow it and others know you’ve blown it and you’re ashamed to even realize just how much you’ve blown it?

You go back to Bethel.

Bethel means house of God. And it’s exactly where Abram went back to after one of his greatest failures. In Egypt, Abram relied on his cunning and ingenuity to make a way for himself through the tough famine in the land of promise. He figured God could only be trusted so for and sometimes matters must be taken into one’s own hands. 

The result was shame and expulsion… and it reads from Pharaoh’s own mouth:

Genesis 12:19–20 (ESV) Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife; take her, and go.” 20 And Pharaoh gave men orders concerning him, and they sent him away with his wife and all that he had.

So Abram went again into the land God told him to be in for the promises to be fulfilled. This time humbled and defeated. But what did he find? He found that old altar he built when he first arrived. This may be years later, we don’t know. But he found a place to call on God and he did.

What the enemy wants you to believe is that when you’ve really blown it (like selling your wife out in Abram’s case) or adultery in your case, or public humiliation, or the really bad sins that everyone is going to remember you for… when you do that… get back to the place where you called on God. Go back to church, go back to that altar, get back on your knees before Him, and call upon the Lord! He’s there waiting and what He has is really good news.

The story of the Prodigal son fits here. The Greek language is explicit and ratcheted up to describe the Father’s action when the son returns.

Luke 15:20 (NKJV) “And he arose and came to his father. But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him.

He literally LEAPS on his son is the word picture we have from the NKJV, He “fell on his neck”. The words present an image of the Father running so hard and so boundlessly to the boy that he literally overtook him in the moment. This was the same son that previously asked for his fathers’ money and wildly wasted it. He deserved a cold shoulder. He got abounding grace instead.

Wow.

What does James say to the “adulterous people” of his scathing rebuke in James 4?

 James 4:4 (ESV) You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?

Ouch. That’s true and it hurts… but notice two verses later:

James 4:6 (ESV) But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”


And then the same call:

James 4:8 (ESV) Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. 


If anyone ever told you that you sinned too big for God’s grace, they lied. They spoke for the devil and he’s doing a good enough job apart from the assistance of ignorant people. God forgives aggressively and convincingly.

Just go back and see for yourself.

 

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To Cast a Lot or Not

Acts 1 presents us with the disciples seeking determine Judas’ replacement in their number. Peter proposes a solution: They will pray and cast lots, leaving the decision in the hands of God. If you only read the Bible occasionally you will most likely question why the Church no longer practices this form of decision making. You may ask, “When was the last time we cast lost in this Church?” “Where are the lots kept for when they do get cast?” Or even, “What the heck is a LOT?”

This is the importance of reading the Bible properly. Any fool can find one passage of scripture and claim the Bible is not taken seriously because we pick and chose what it says. After all, we no longer stone disobedient children or adulterers (Deuteronomy 21-22). We no longer slaughter goats and sheep (Leviticus). We no longer condemn the braiding of hair and gold jewelry (1 Peter 3). So what gives?

When you read the Bible you have to ask, “What was the original author trying to convey?” When Luke writes the book of Acts, his purpose for writing (Luke and Acts) is found in the first few verses of Luke. He’s writing an orderly account for a friend (Theophilus) about the history of Jesus and His Church. The point of Luke’s writing is so that Theophilus (and we) “may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:4).

When you read past the disciples casting of lots in Acts 1 you will notice the practice disappears from the pages of Scripture after the Holy Spirit fills the Church in Acts 2. Paul, Peter, John, James and Jude never mention it again in their writings. What they repeatedly mention (especially Luke) is the practice of prayer in step with the leading of the Holy Spirit.

  • Peter and John go to pray in the Temple. On the way Peter heals a lame man in the power of the Holy Spirit through the Name of Jesus in Acts 3.
  • In Acts 8 The Early Church prays and the Holy Spirit empowers Samaritans with the same gift of tongues the Jewish believers received in Acts 2.
  • Peter is in prayer when the Holy Spirit speaks to him about going to the house of a Gentile Roman Centurion to bring the Gospel to an unreached people group.
  • The Church prays in Acts 13 and the Holy Spirit speaks to them about sending Paul and Barnabus on their first missionary journey all over Asia.

What Luke has done with the book of Acts is subtly illustrate a point: When you have the Holy Spirit, live in community with believers and pray – God speaks! Which teaches us a few things about decision making:

1. You should pray. Decisions shape your life. Not talking important decisions the One who made you is a horrible mistake. And if you cannot pray about it, you probably should not consider it.

2. You should belong to a Church that prays regularly. Every time prayer happens and the Holy Spirit speaks in Acts, its in community, not in isolation. Some decisions need to be made in a community of faith because they are that big. At Waters we pray for an hour before first Wednesday and we pray before our first Saturday Service, after our second Sunday Service and we offer prayer in the front at the end of every Weekend Service.

3. You should listen. The Holy Spirit is a Person. He’s not a gut feeling or a vague impression. He is not a force. He is personal and so He speaks. You develop ears to hear from Him in prayer in COMMUNITY. Because Holy Spirit is part of a Community (the Trinity) He will usually to speak to and through community (the Church).

Every once in a while a big decision comes along that you should not make in a hurry. Get together with believers, pray, and listen to the Holy Spirit. It could change everything.

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My Love/Hate Relationship with the “Sinner’s Prayer”

I love the sinner’s prayer.

Usually at the end of our services at Waters Church we end with the opportunity for people to come to faith in Christ. At that time we ask them to raise their hands, or come down to the front and pray with member of our Small Group Leadership/Elder team. We lead them in what is commonly referred to in Church circles as the “Sinner’s Prayer.” Please note you will not find this prayer in its totality in Scripture. But that does not make it unfit for use in the Church. Most of the elements come straight out of Scripture: A general cry for salvation is found in Jesus’ parable of the Tax Collector and Pharisee in Luke 18. The prayer leads the person to confess with their mouth that they are a sinner who needs forgiveness and that only by faith Christ Jesus as Lord through His death, burial and resurrection can they be saved (according to Romans 3:23; Romans 6:23; & Romans 10:9-13; 1 Cor. 15:3-4). Conveniently, all these scriptural truths are composited in a simple short prayer to God.

We have had several baptism testimonies in our church mention that moment of our services as THE moment they truly came to Christ. Some of them confess their heart was warmed, they felt a strange and welcoming sensation, and they knew in their heart something dramatic had changed. I love to hear these stories. And for these reasons, I love the sinners prayer.

I also hate the sinners prayer.

Don’t stop reading! I will continue to use it because I see the effectiveness of leading people to a life-changing moment of salvation. However, I also see it leading others to a “one-stop” shop for eternity the Bible never promises. I’m talking about those who put the hand up, say the prayer, receive our literature, and then never darken the doors of our church again. While some may indeed have truly been converted, it is often hard to tell for sure. The sinner’s prayer inadvertently sends the message that people are “all set”, case closed, job finished, “see ya in the afterlife.” I feel profound disappointment with this sentiment.

Jesus never commands anyone to pray the Sinner’s Prayer. Rather, He calls them to come, follow and believe – in that order. Come to church, to small group; be around Christian people and Gospel preaching, learn, grow and hear (Romans 10:17). Secondly, follow Jesus. Start doing the things He says. Forgive, love your enemies, seek peace, do justice, hunger for righteousness, freely give. These commands are so essential to the Gospels we tend to ignore them under the shadow of one singular prayer. Finally, believe Christ. Do not simply believe what He says, believe WHO he is (John 6:68-69).  Our lives are not always going to “get better in every way” when we follow Christ. That’s when we trust WHO He is! He is the peace of God (Eph. 2:14). He is the author and finisher of our faith (Heb. 12:1-2). He formed us and owns us and ransomed us back to God (Romans 11:36)! Believing is always present tense, never a singular moment.

This is why I hate the sinner’s prayer. You must never sum up your faith with an emotional nod to God one Sunday in your life. If He is who He said He is, everything changes, sometimes slowly, sometimes dramatically, but there’s no denying the difference. You don’t END with Christ, you BEGIN with Christ. All things are new!

I will continue to use the “Sinner’s Prayer.” I believe it leads people to Christ. But I will continue to pray Jesus’ words from John 17 over those who come to Waters: John 17:3 (ESV) And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.  

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Pastor – Waters Church – N. Attleboro