Adventures in Transformational Discipleship

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Adventures in Transformational Discipleship

Imagine holding a Bible in your hands for the first time. Think about learning the difference between the Old and New Testament, and getting to read the words for yourself instead of hearing them translated to you from a missionary.

Now imagine being a teacher who wants to make sure that his students can verify the truth of what he is teaching by pointing them to passages in the Scriptures. Do they know the relationship between the Fall and depravity? Do they understand the life-long journey of salvation? Do they comprehend the promise of the Spirit? I never want to assume that I can just casually speak these truths to people without connecting them sufficiently to God’s Word.

I am currently in an African country teaching transformation to leaders of a small people group of which only .5% are evangelical believers—98% are Muslim. This is a challenging mission for these believers—to bring the gospel to the many who have a strong commitment to a belief system that has dominated their part of the world for 1300 years. Especially challenging for witnesses who only had the Bible translated into their language just recently.

I was asked to come as one of a number of teachers who are going to this people group. I was allowed to bring a colleague with me. I introduced this man to transformational discipleship a number of years ago. God used it to change his life. Since then, he has taught it in a number of countries—Japan, the Bahamas and India. And everywhere he has taught it, it has made an impact on people’s lives.

Every word my colleague and I teach has to be translated into the local language. We have five days to train these fellow believers, but the total time we have to teach is cut in half by the translating. Still, we both worked hard on our training materials before we left to make sure we covered what was necessary for them to hear.

We literally spent the first day in traveling—there is no easy way to get from Lakeland, FL to here. We spent the next day just recovering from the flight! We face the same on our way home next week.

When we finish here, we will travel to another location for the weekend. Next Monday, we will be teaching at a Bible college run by a national Christian group who are affiliated with my home denomination, Converge.

Pray for me and my colleague as we teach these believers, that God would use what we say to deepen their faith journey with God and motivate them to continue to sow the gospel and reap a harvest among their people.

-Steve 


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No Plan B

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Keeping in Step with the Spirit Part 20: No Plan B

Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Galatians 5:25 (NIV)

God had only one plan for salvation—Jesus and the cross. There is no Plan B. As Jesus gave up his life, he announced, “It is finished!”—Not “Is it finished?” When humans ate from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and declared independence from God’s reign, they acquired a penalty, a bill of death. That bill was now paid. Nothing more would ever be required of anyone. Jesus finished what we call the work of salvation.

‘No Plan B’ is not just about being saved from the penalty of sin. It also includes being saved right now from the power of sin, and someday being saved from the very presence of sin. The scope of all that is Paul’s point for the Galatian church. It is finished. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. (Galatians 5:24 NIV)

In other words, we have no other pathway to righteousness. There is no plan where the flesh can be relied on for back up. It’s dead. The flesh—our human effort—died with Jesus on the cross. It is finished.

Paul explained this is greater detail in Romans 6:1-7 (NIV). What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.

When we put our faith in Jesus, we died to our old life. Paul explains it as believers actually joining in the act of Jesus’ crucifixion. Our baptism put us in the grave with him in the same way that Jesus’ resurrection delivered us into a new life. The flesh had to die because otherwise it would pull us back into death.

The flesh did die. It was crucified. We are no longer slaves to sin. We are set free. It is finished.

Nothing is worse than living a lie, even if it is a pretty lie. The gospel is never Jesus plus anything. The gospel does not equal the requirements of a previous covenant that God made with Israel. God declares that in Jeremiah 31:32. The gospel has no external laws—only laws which God Himself is writing on our hearts and minds.

It is not good for believers to live in confusion about what God has done for us through the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is not good to place limits on God’s salvation as if it only gets us through the door into Jesus’ kingdom and then we have to fight to stay in there by our best efforts. We do not even have a snowball’s chance in Death Valley if that is what salvation is all about.

This brings us back to keeping in step with the Spirit. We have only Plan A going forward—surrendering to the Spirit’s leading. Paying attention to his direction and leaning into his power. There is no Plan B because God put His Spirit in us to take charge. It is not up to us to bull our way forward in some holy kind of way. The part of ourselves that we depended on for that is finished.

If you have been confused about this, ask God to clear up your mind. It is the Spirit’s job to lead you to all truth (John 16:13). Trust God’s Plan A over the best substitute any religious leader ever offers up to you as a replacement.

-Steve Smith


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What Makes Us Holy?

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Keeping in Step with the Spirit Part 19: What Makes Us Holy?

Sometimes we who follow Jesus just cannot help ourselves. No matter how hard we try, we constantly stray back into making holiness about not sinning. I recently enjoyed a short book on this subject by a teacher I admire. He discussed holiness as an outcome of not sinning versus holiness as a reason for not sinning. He explained the holiness of God through this contrast. Is God holy because He does not sin or is God holy, therefore He does not sin?

This equation emphasizes the wrong point. God is holy, and therefore all He does is good. He defines all that is good. When he created, it was all good because He said so. Sin was not even a thing at creation. Instead, Adam and Eve were defined by being in image of God and stewards over creation and fruitful multiplying. Their life’s focus was being entirely open with God and each other.

Paul is alluding to this way of thinking as he ended his recitation of the fruit of the Spirit. “Against such things there is no law.” (Galatians 5:23 NIV) Being transformed into the likeness of Jesus is not about focusing on avoiding sin, but living a life that flows out of the character you have been given. This is what your holiness is all about. This is what you were made to be.

In other letters, Paul writes about the why of the Law. In 1 Timothy 1:9-10, he explains, “We realize that law is not enacted for the righteous, but for the lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for killers of father or mother, for murderers, for the sexually immoral, for homosexuals, for slave traders and liars and perjurers, and for anyone else who is averse to sound teaching…” In other words, the Law is not for us who believe in Jesus. He alone fulfilled the entire Law so that, through his death and resurrection, we would be free from sin and could live a new life altogether.

But because we see people struggling with learning to keep in step with the Spirit—perhaps see ourselves struggling with this—we fall back on depending on the ‘Do Not’ rules of holiness. What I have learned from my own journey with God is that, when avoiding sin becomes the way you tell the story of your faith life, sin gains power over you. It dominates your thinking like a song stuck in your head. No matter how hard you try to change the tune, singing a counter song to drown it out, it roars back strongly the moment you stop singing.

I spent a lot of time beating myself up before I learned this truth. I was living a rollercoaster relationship with God, trying hard to be good by not sinning, climbing up the hill of obedience. Then I would run out of strength and roll back down into the valley of defeat. Then up again. Then down again. Sin was my story, my focus, not the nearness of God. His holiness scared me instead of drawing me to Him. But when I began to learn about the Spirit’s power, I changed deep within my core.

“Against such there is no law” reminds us that, if you depend on your flesh to supply you love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, you will still be waiting until the kingdom comes. This is the flaw Paul sees in the instructions on holiness the Galatians are currently being fed. Jesus plus the Law is not the gospel. It is not even a cheap imitation. It is something else—a deadly substitute. It does not produce holy living, but desperation in those who are trying to fend off sin and pride in those who think they are.

When Paul says there is no law against living out the fruit of the Spirit, he is finishing his thought that started in Galatians 5:18: “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.” You do not need a law to tell you to continue to grow and exhibit love, joy peace and the rest. You have the Spirit inside you. Listen to his leading.

It is like saying, “That thing you are doing . . . do more of it!” You do not need a rule to tell you to do it. By keeping in step with the Spirit, its manifestation becomes more and more you. The Spirit overrides your weaknesses and counter-tendencies to produce these amazing characteristics of the person that you were reborn to be. It is not pride, but humility, that carries you along on this journey in which you receive grace from God.

Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Galatians 5:25 (NIV)

-Steve Smith


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Clarity about the Fruit: Self-Control

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Keeping in Step with the Spirit Part 18: Clarity about the Fruit: Self-Control

In Give Me an Answer That Satisfies My Heart and My Mind, Cliff Knechtle peppers his book throughout with comic moments of how to apply biblical truths to your life. One has a character, Tony, choosing to be a professional bowler over becoming an international terrorist. Tough decision!

Wouldn’t it be great if all your choices were so easy! Instead, you face temptations that can be as challenging as fasting in a chocolate factory. Yet by keeping in step with the Spirit you can have the power to say “No! to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age.” (Titus 2:12 NIV)

Self-control as a fruit is not a matter of making up your mind…or even being a determined-to-overcome type of person. That kind of self-control describes a reforming approach to the faith life. “I will conquer my flesh. I will beat this temptation.” Trying to reform into the likeness of Jesus means you, not God, are personally seeking to shape your character, as noble as it seems to you to steer clear of sin.

This pops up often as a feature of Christian accountability. Now, if you are speaking of Christian accountability as a means of making something important, such as a reminder to guard your heart, or to practice moderation in all things, or to care for the poor, or to sow the gospel faithfully, then you are on biblical grounds. But when accountability becomes your go to method for not giving in to sin—replacing what Paul described as “by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body,” (Romans 8:13 NIV)—you are not practicing self-control, but self-reliance. It’s a form of pride.

For example, I am aware of how many people use a Christian online screening service as a means of making sure they do not go anywhere on the internet that is sexually explicit. In order to use this service, you have to choose an accountability partner who gets a report snitching on you. Knowing that someone will know if you engage in such activities weighs in your favor of saying “No.” Except it is all smoke and mirrors. Anyone who wants to sin and also to lie to his or her accountability partner will do so. As one friend told me, you can always get on a different computer under someone else’s name. (This, by the way, is not meant to encourage you to try it!)

The point is, unless the Spirit changes you from within, you will never be safe. You may live a version of someone who AA calls a ‘dry drunk.’ You will still crave the forbidden fruit. You will turn your back and run away, but your mind will pull it along behind you. Your desires will draw you back towards it. In the end, you will lose the battle for self-control because you have no real self-control—only a pale substitute of the real thing that will fail you at the worst moment of your life.

But, if by the Spirit you allow yourself to be transformed, by faith let him kill the misdeeds that have formed barnacles on your soul, you will live. You will freely say “No.” because the pull of sin will not be battling your impossibly weak ability to resist, but will instead come against the Spirit’s empowering presence in you.

There’s more. Self-control frees you to do the will of God. When you have the fruit of self-control, you do the right things for God and not merely stay clear of sin. This is the unexpected outcome of self-control. But think about people you know, both above or below the radar of public notice, who have been greatly used of God. One characteristic they share is that temptation is always stalking them, but they do not say “Yes” to it.

Furthermore, no test that you failed in the past will keep the Spirit from producing this fruit in you today. I know a man who wrecked his life by saying “Yes” to sin—lost his job, his community, and almost lost his family. I get to watch him now as he is keeping in step with the Spirit. All he lost has been restored and added to by God. He is doing things for the kingdom that only God could have made possible. I do not worry that I will hear someday that he blew it again because the self-control he displays in his life now is not a result of him reforming his behavior. It comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Galatians 5:25 (NIV)

-Steve Smith


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Clarity about the Fruit: Gentleness

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Keeping in Step with the Spirit Part 17: Clarity about the Fruit: Gentleness

I listened as my friend Pete gave counsel to Mark who was desperate about his life. Mark had made some pretty bad decisions and was franticly seeking to turn things around for himself and his family. He had driven for over two hours to meet with Pete about a position he was not really qualified to fill. Between the 10 minutes Mark arrived until his screeching departure from the parking lot, my friend Pete heckled him about his lack of credentials, the wasting of his time and why he even wanted to be in ministry at all. Their voices got loud enough for me to follow the conversation from the next room.

Uncomfortable about the way Mark was treated, I challenged Pete about how he had handled him. His response—Mark needed to hear the truth about himself. As I reflected on my Pete’s words, I realized, as vital as his message of truth might have been, how truth is delivered as just as important. What was lacking was the fruit of the Spirit called Gentleness.

You might think my friend Pete was unkind. I don’t. I think he was kind to tell this man he was unqualified and not string him along. But he was not gentle in how he did it. Perhaps you are unclear about the difference between kindness and gentleness. Kindness is the inner spiritual motivation that leads you to show concern for people. Gentleness is the manner in which you show concern for people.

The idea of ‘gentle’ was the same in Paul’s day as it is today. If comes from turning wild horses into domestic animals. This is called gentling—getting their huge physical strength under control. This process allows the child in the above picture to lead a horse that has a great deal more power than she will ever have. But the horse is gentle. It will control its power. It cooperates. It follows. The child is safe with the horse.

People felt safe with Jesus, too. Messed-up people found themselves being treated with dignity. Were they outcasts like Zacchaeus? Jesus took them in. Did they have physical ailments like the man by the pool of Bethesda? Jesus did not turn away from them. Instead, he healed them according to their faith. When Nicodemus came to see him after hours, Jesus engaged him with insights he should have known.

It is interesting that Paul follows this teaching about the fruit and keeping in step with the Spirit with “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently.” (Galatians 6:1 NIV) Why restore gently?

People will mess up in the most despicable ways. Their choices are embarrassing to the rest of the church. Their lack of repentance is worrying. In their wake they leave damaged people, perhaps their children or their spouse. Certainly they deserve no pity from us who have noticed their rebellion against the love and holiness of our God. My years of being in the faith have exposed me to the normal response to ‘sin in the camp.’ It is to cast stones, turn our backs, and finally grab the culprit by the scruff of the neck and goosestep him or her out the door.

Except…that is not how Paul teaches the Galatians that the people of God should react. He counsels them to get their strength under God’s control. To be concerned about anyone who deliberately dives back into sin. Gentleness makes the way back for offenders possible. It says, “No, what you are doing is destructive.” while at the same time proclaiming, “We cannot just let you go. We will do all we can to bring you back into intimacy with God, with your family and with your church.” It means we will not use offensive means that humans are prone to—shaming, anger, disgust and threats. Instead, we will remember that, “There but for the grace of God go I!” and treat the person as we would want to be treated if we stood in his or her place.

Looping back to the opening story—it was kind that my friend Pete told Mark the truth, but it missed being a teachable, restorative moment for a guy who needed spiritual guidance…because there was no gentleness. Sadly, I am afraid that it did not bother Pete that he had added more hurt to a brother who was already desperate. This is precisely why we need to keep in step with the Spirit. Otherwise, we are merely letting the flesh run the show in our lives. So, “walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” (Galatians 5:16)

Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Galatians 5:25 (NIV)

-Steve Smith


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Clarity About the Fruit: Faithfulness

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Keeping in Step with the Spirit Part 16: Clarity About the Fruit: Faithfulness

In the story about Rilla, the youngest daughter of Anne of Green Gables, Lucy Maud Montgomery brings the reader to a decisive moment that was steeped in tragedy. WW1 is raging and Rilla’s brother, Walter, is in the thick of it. He writes the night before he is to ‘go over the top’ that he expects death will claim him, but urges his sister to keep faith with the deep values that compelled him to fight against tyranny in the world. She cries when she hears of his death, but grieves deeper when his final letter comes into her hands. Drying her eyes, she stands looking over their childhood playground and vows that she would keep faith with Walter to the covenant they made before he was shipped to Europe. She will not forget and she will stand with him against the worst that is found in mankind so that a better future will be realized.

This portion of Rilla’s story captures much of what we need to understand about Faithfulness as fruit of the Spirit. Faithfulness guides us in decisive moments, where we choose God’s way over all other alternatives. When we are tempted to take the easier way, believe the pretty lies of the enemy over the hard truths of the cross and suffering and resisting temptation, faithfulness is given to us to hold on to the righteous reign of God over us and our world.

The guiding word for faithfulness is covenant. God made covenant with us through Jesus. This covenant is not like the one He made previously, because to accomplish it, He came to live in His people with power in the person of the Spirit.

Here is where faithfulness comes in. God is always faithful to His covenant. But He made covenant with His created beings—people who have in every way been affected by the Fall. Our personal strength to be faithful to this covenant is zero. You know this to be true because you witness your own failures and see this played out in the church body with sad frequency.

God, knowing we were not able, gave us the Spirit for this very reason. We have no hope in ourselves, but every reason to boast in hope of the glory of God as this “hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:2, 5 NIV)

Faithfulness means we are made able to take a decisive stand for truth, holiness and love even if we do not know how things will turn out.

Think of Abraham. God promises Abraham an offspring that would result in descendants “as numerous as the stars in the sky,” then asks him to offer his son, Isaac, as a sacrifice. Abraham kept faith with God because he “reasoned that God could even raise the dead.” (Hebrews 11:19 NIV)

Moses kept faith with God when he “chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin.” (Hebrews 11:26 NIV) He never entered the Promised Land, but the covenant God made with Israel through him would set the stage for the Messiah.

Faithfulness is not demandingness such as someone who follows a made-up god might experience—the I-will-follow-you-if-you-perform-as-I-expect-you-to kind of believing. It is a ‘Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego’ faithfulness. When confronted by Nebuchadnezzar with the choice of bowing or burning, they unhesitantly responded that their God would deliver them. But even if he did not, they chose Him over bowing to anything else. They were convinced of the reality of their God no matter how He decided to act in their situation.

In a time when cultural shifts are confusing and voices are shouting their version of truth from both sides of the political and social spectrum, faithfulness directs your eyes to God’s reign over all He has created. You are a stranger and a pilgrim (words I learned from my KJV years ago) in this world. Peter’s use of this peculiar expression was to remind us that our real home is not the one we find ourselves living in, but God’s kingdom. The foundational truths of the kingdom spring from the very character of God.

When you come to your crisis moment, when you have to decide where you stand, what you value the most, how you will then live, rests in the assurance that God has given you His Spirit. Before that moment comes, the Spirit is already shaping your character. In his strength you will find the ability to keep faith with the covenant God has made with you.

Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Galatians 5:25 (NIV)

-Steve Smith


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Clarity About the Fruit: Goodness

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Keeping in Step with the Spirit Part 15: Clarity About the Fruit: Goodness

The first thing that popped into my mind as I thought about goodness as fruit of the Spirit was the old Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem, There was a little girl, who had a little curl, right in the middle of her forehead. When she was good, she was very, very good, but when she was bad she was horrid.

Of all the fruit mentioned, this one has the clearest opposite. You can either be good or bad. In fact, you can be horrid. And you can contain both sides of this all at once, being good to some while being horrid to others. So while we would want to believe we humans are hardwired for doing good, we constantly are caught out by the reality of the little-girl-who-had-a-little-curl in ourselves.

And it is true that people who claim no relationship with God do good. Why is that so? The reason is that everyone was created in the image of God and retains an echo in their soul of the goodness, the rightness of God, even when they reject His right to reign over them. So they do good and others applaud because doing good is something we all feel good about.

Jesus told a parable of a vineyard owner who needed workers to harvest his grapes. He went to the temp agency and hired a bunch of people for the day, promising them a good days wage for their services. He went back later and hired more people who had not found work that day, returning again and again to find that others needed work. An hour before quitting time, he discovered yet more people available and sent them out. At the end of the work day, he then paid each of them off, giving them all the same wage, even those who had worked only a fraction of the time compared to the ones who had been hired first. Those hired early in the day grumbled, thinking he should have paid them more than those who worked for just a short time. Challenged, he asked, “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (Matthew 20:15)

The word he used to describe his pay scale—generous—is the same word Paul used for goodness. Here is the function of goodness for all who keep in step with the Spirit. Goodness is seeing the neediness in others and meeting their need for the sake of Jesus’ kingdom. In Jesus’ name we give out cups of cold water. In Jesus’ name we see the hungry, the naked, the imprisoned and are inwardly compelled to meet their needs.

When empowered by the Spirit, we see the world differently. One of my friends saw the neediness of a group of people who lived on the food and materials they dug out of a garbage dump in the Dominican Republic. Many of the young girls were subsidizing their family by sex work, often having children while still themselves a child. He changed his life direction in order to go and help them with food, housing, clothing and job training—visibly preaching the gospel through his generosity—generosity that is giving these hopeless people hope of a better future for themselves and their children. But more importantly, he is displaying the good news of Jesus through his life.

Don’t misunderstand this story. Goodness does not just lead to missionary work. Goodness leads you to see ignored people with compassion and steps up to stand in the gap for them—which is not always a monetary need. Goodness is a characteristic that wants change to take place in others, not just to fill a temporarily empty stomach. Goodness wants to see people set free from whatever binds them. To oppose those who are caught up in wickedness so they can’t destroy another, whether it be a spouse, a child, or the oppressed. Jesus excelled in this because he was good.

When we are very, very good, we are participating with God in making His gospel known. This goodness reaches down to those who could never pay us back, but can join us in loving our God.

Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Galatians 5:25 (NIV)

-Steve Smith

 


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