Famous Last Words

Guatama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, is his final teaching to his disciples said this:

“Behold, O monks, this is my last advice to you: Work hard to gain your own salvation.”

Source: Buddahnet

Others have translated this sentence in this way:

“Strive without ceasing to earn your salvation”

Compare that with the final words of Jesus, who, as he hung on the cross, surrounded by his mother and a few of his closest disciples, said with his final breath:

“It is finished.”

The word he used: Tetelesti, is the word that a painter would use when he put the final touch on a work of art. It is the word you would use, when you make the final payment on your loan. It is a word which conveys a sense of satisfaction with an accomplishment.

Jesus was saying: “It is accomplished! What I came here to do: it’s done!” The implication is that there is nothing that needs to be added to it. He did it.

The thing which sets Christianity apart from all other religions and philosophies in the world, is that Christianity is about good news, not good advice.

Good advice says: here are some principles. If you follow them well enough, you will be saved.

Good news says: here is something that has been done for you, on your behalf, and as a result, you will be saved.

In Buddhism or Islam, for example, you are not saved by anything that Buddha or Mohammad did for you, you are saved by your own works; salvation comes by following the teachings or adhering to the pillars of the religion.

In Christianity, however, you are not saved by following the teachings of Jesus; you are saved by what Jesus did for you in His life, death and resurrection. In Christianity, you are not saved by your works, but by the work of God, in Christ, on your behalf.

In Christianity, you are not saved by following the teachings of Jesus; you are saved by what Jesus did for you in His life, death and resurrection.

Christianity is unique in that it says that your salvation is inextricably tied to historical events, which either happened or didn’t. If they didn’t happen, then we are wasting our time, Paul the Apostle argues in 1 Corinthians 15. And yet, all of the historical and anecdotal evidence points to the fact that they did indeed happen.

The gospel is good news, not good advice!

(For the rest of the message I taught on this subject at White Fields Church, click here.)

Is Christianity in Decline? Yes and No. – Part 1

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Last week a friend of mine sent me a video in which Richard Dawkins was interviewed, and in the interview he stated his view that religion as a whole is eventually destined to die out. Then he sent me another article from The Guardian (UK), about how there is a correlation between the increase of secularism and standards of living around the world.

It seems as if from every angle, people are claiming that Christianity is in decline and it is simply a matter of time until all religion dies out in the world. The assumption is that as we become more “enlightened,” people will cast off their “superstitious” religious beliefs and everyone will be secular, AKA atheist – or atheism’s more friendly cousin: agnostic.

Many people take these claims as foregone conclusions, but is this really the case? Is religion in general, and Christianity in particular, in decline?

The answer is: yes and no. The answer to those questions depends on 1) what kind of religion (and what kind of Christianity) we are talking about, and 2) which parts of the world we are talking about.

There are a few very important factors to keep in mind. We will look at the first one today, and others tomorrow.

1. Inherited Religion is in Decline, but Chosen Faith is on the Rise

This is something we experienced as missionaries in Europe. While it is true that Europe is full of empty churches and has high rates of people who identify as atheists, we also experienced great openness to the gospel, and we saw many people come to faith in Christ and churches planted.

What we are seeing is the decline of inherited religion, but at the same time there is still an increase in chosen faith. There is certainly a down-side to this, in that people who assume inherited Christianity will still be exposed to Christian teaching and the Bible, and such exposure may very well lead to real, personal faith at some point in their life. In a situation where Christian faith is inherited, Christianity is seen in a positive light, as is going to church and reading the Bible. This perception can make it easier for a person to become a Christian than if one is raised in an environment where Christianity is portrayed negatively.

However, from a Christian perspective, there are also benefits of the decline of inherited religion. For example, as many people from Muslim background come to the West, many of them, rather than assume their parents’ religion, are open to the idea that their faith is something they must choose for themselves.

Furthermore, inherited religion, including Christianity, can leave people with a false sense of security, that they are guaranteed salvation or that they are right with God, even when in fact they are not. This is one of the great themes of the Book of Deuteronomy – as Moses speaks to the new generation who will enter Canaan, and he emphasizes to them that they must have their own faith; it is not enough that the Lord was their parents’ God, He must be their God as well.

This article by Timothy Keller for The Gospel Coalition addresses this topic very well: Inherited Faith is Dying. Chosen Faith is Not.

Here’s an excerpt:

[At a recent conference in Paris,] Grace Davie, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Exeter in Great Britain pointed out that nominal or inherited Christianity is declining. However, she noted (against all expectations) that new movements of Christian faith are growing in Western cities.
The growing Christian churches are evangelical and Pentecostal, and they emphasize the biblical call to “choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve” (Josh. 24:15) and the biblical teaching that we stand or fall on our own faith, not the choices of our family or community (Ezek. 18). These churches teach that vicarious, formal religion isn’t enough; there must be a radical, inward conversion (Deut. 30:6Jer. 9:25Rom. 2:29). Christianity that foregrounds these important biblical concepts and lifts up heart-changing personal faith can reach many contemporary people—and it can reach cities.

Tomorrow we will look at the statistics which point to the fact that secularism is actually poised to decline in coming decades, whereas religious belief, and Christianity in particular is set to increase worldwide. Stay tuned!

New York Times Article on Muslim Refugees Converting to Christianity

From the NY Times: The Jihadi Who Turned to Jesus

Something I have often written about and talked about is how when Middle Eastern refugees come to Europe and the West, for many of them it is the first time they have ever met Christians or even had the opportunity to hear the gospel or the freedom to read the Bible in their own language. We experienced this ourselves in Hungary, where we saw muslim refugees from Iran, Afghanistan and Kosovo convert to Christianity through our work in a refugee camp.

The New York Times posted this article recently about the conversion of a formerly radical muslim from Syria who converted to Christianity in Istanbul – an very interesting read especially in light of my post yesterday about my recent day-trip to Istanbul. His conversion was influenced by several factors, including his brother, also a formerly radical muslim, who had gone to Canada, where he met Christians and converted to Christianity.

Could it be that since these countries and cultures haven’t allowed Christianity to spread freely within their borders, that God is now bringing them to Europe and America precisely so many of them can hear the gospel and be saved? I believe so. I’ve written about that here: In Longmont We Met a Refugee from a Muslim Country. Here’s Her Story..

The question is: what will we Christians do with this opportunity?

“Should I Not Have Compassion on that Great City?”

Greetings from Kyiv, Ukraine! I have been in Europe for the past week on a ministry trip to visit some ministries that White Fields Community Church partners with in Hungary and Ukraine, with the focus of my trip being here in Ukraine.

I got a good price on a multi-destination ticket with Turkish Airlines. Part of the reason for the low price is that it included a 12 hour layover in Istanbul. I can understand why for some people that would be a terrible inconvenience, but for me on this trip it was a great added bonus! Recently I’ve been teaching classes on the history of Christianity, and Constantinople is a big part of it, so I looked forward to the chance to get to see the “New Rome” and the old capitol of the Byzantine Empire along with the Hagia Sophia – the largest Christian church in the world for nearly a thousand years, and a building that changed architecture.

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Inside the Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), built in 537 AD!

Istanbul, with 14 million people, is the largest city in Europe. During my time there I went to the Asian side of the Bosphorus Strait, and from there I could begin to get a glimpse of just how big this city is. It was great preparation for the conference I was coming to teach at in Kyiv on the topic of “Vision for Our Cities.”

I was reminded of the message of the Book of Jonah, which is summed up in the final verse, where God says to Jonah, “And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left?”

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Looking across the Bosphorus from the Asian side, toward the “Golden Horn”

Jonah’s view of Nineveh was that it was a city full of terrible sinful people who did terrible sinful things, and that they deserved God’s wrath. He was frustrated and upset by the fact that God wanted to offer them a chance to repent and receive mercy. But God spoke to Jonah at the end, and pointed out that Jonah was more concerned about plants than he was about people. God, on the other hand, cares more about people than plants – and so therefore, how could God not care about a city full of his most masterful creation, whom he loves? God wanted Jonah (and us) to understand the way that he feels about people, and about cities full of people: he loves them and we should too.

“And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left?”

On the streets of Istanbul and in the public transport areas I saw a lot of refugees from the Middle East. While I was in Turkey, the United States issued a ban on bringing laptops and tablets onto flights originating from 10 airports in 8 muslim-majority countries, including flights originating from Istanbul, something which will affect me on my flight home. The ban came as the result of the discovery of a plot to put explosives into an iPad.

As I walked through downtown Istanbul towards Taksim Square, I began wondering what it would be like for someone to do Christian ministry in that city. I was surprised at how European it was; aside from the mosques and minarets, most of the city looks like any other large European city.

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Galata Tower and a typical European neighborhood in Istanbul.

At the same time, I remember the news about German missionaries who were killed in Turkey a few years ago, and I realize that it would not only be difficult, but also dangerous for someone to do Christian ministry there.

Cities in general are “humanity magnified.” And because of that, there is inherently a dual nature to all cities: on the one hand they are full of the pinnacle of God’s good creation: people who are made in His image – on the other hand, we are fallen and so cities also have more brokenness, danger and sin.

The story-line the Bible tells is one which can be summarized in four points: Creation, Fall, Redemption and Restoration. That means that because of Jesus there is hope for humanity.

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Istanbul: very European and yet unquestionably Muslim

A Google search helped me find some international churches in Istanbul. I pray for their safety and for them to have effective ministry in this great city. May we truly understand the message of the Book of Jonah and may God give us His heart for cities like this one.

In Longmont We Met a Refugee from a Muslim Country. Here’s Her Story.

Pew Research Center reports that the United States admitted a record number of Muslim refugees in 2016. 38,901 Muslim refugees entered the U.S. in fiscal year 2016, making up almost half (46%) of the nearly 85,000 refugees who entered the country in that period, based on data from the State Department’s Refugee Processing Center.

In a previous post, I mentioned what I would do if refugees moved into our neighborhood. This past week, we met someone who lives in our neighborhood who came to the United States as a refugee from a muslim country.

Last Friday, our kids were invited to 2 birthday parties on the same night. I took one kid to the one party, my wife took the others to the other party.

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Kosovo

At the party my wife went to, she got to talking with one of the parents and came to find out that she was born into a muslim family from a muslim country, who had come to the US as refugees. The country? Kosovo.

After growing up in New York City, this woman married an American man, and together, the two of them became Christians.

This woman’s parents, at that point, refused to speak to her, but once she had children, her parents started coming around more often.

This woman and her husband now live in Longmont and they are involved in supporting various Christian ministries, churches and missionaries in Kosovo and travel there from time to time.

Here’s the point: this is what happens to good number of muslims who come to the United States: they meet Christians, they hear the Gospel, they become Christians, and then they begin to reach out and support Christian missions in their country of origin.

08-21-14_the_green_prince_mainIf you haven’t yet, check out the movie The Green Prince. It’son Netflix. It’s about Mosab Hassan Yousef, a Palestinian and the eldest son of Sheik Hassan Yousef, one of the founders of Hamas. The Green Prince, is the film adaption of the book, Son of Hamas: A Gripping Account of Terror, Betrayal, Political Intrigue, and Unthinkable Choices, tells the true story of how Mosab was recruited by Israeli intelligence to work against Hamas.

But what is particularly interesting about Mosab’s story, as is documented in the book and the movie, is how in 2007, Mosab left the West Bank and came to the United States. Living in San Diego, he was invited by some acquaintances to come visit their church. There he heard the gospel, the message of God’s love, and he met Christian people who embraced him. In 2008, Mosab publicly announced his conversion to Christianity, putting himself at risk by doing so.

Now guess what he does: He reaches out to Arabic speakers with the message of the gospel. Talk about legit: a son of Hamas speaking in Arabic about Jesus and the hope of the Gospel. That’s powerful for people in that culture, and in ours as well.

“Religion steals freedom, kills creativity, turns us into slaves and against one another. Religion can’t save mankind. Only Jesus could save mankind through his death and resurrection. And Jesus is the only way to God.” – Mosab Hassan Yousef

With all of these refugees from muslim countries coming to the United States, there is an incredible opportunity: for the first time, many of these people will be able to hear the Gospel, to meet and be embraced by Christian believers, and to choose for themselves what they will believe.

May we who call ourselves Christians be found faithful to act towards them as Jesus would, and may we be used by God to help them find love, liberty and salvation in Christ. Lives and destinies will be changed, and maybe even the world as we know it.

About Those Muslims…

I ran across this factoid in my reading today:

In my experience working with muslim refugees from places like Iran, Afghanistan and Kosovo, I found that many people born and raised in muslim families in majority muslim countries are open to hearing and considering the Gospel – sometimes more open than people in “Christian” Europe and North America.

Many people born and raised in Islam know very little about what the Koran teaches, and for them being muslim is more about cultural identity than theological conviction.

Consider this: the majority of muslims in the world do not speak Arabic, yet the Koran is to be read only in its “pure” form: in Arabic. What this means is that the majority of muslims have not read the Koran for themselves. The largest muslim majority country in the world by population is not even in the Middle East: it is Indonesia, and in Indonesia Christianity is legal, there is a sizable Christian population and there is opportunity for muslim people to hear the Gospel.

Did you know that Christianity is the most culturally and racially diverse religion in the world – by far?!  Every other major faith has 80% or more of its adherents on 1 or 2 continents, but roughly 20% of Christians are in Africa, 20% are in South America, a little less than 20% are in Asia, a little more than 20% are in Europe and North America each.  No other religion even comes close to the ethnic and cultural diversity of Christianity.

One of the differences between Christianity and Islam is that whereas Christianity affirms other cultures and languages, Islam does not. Wherever Islam has spread it imposes a foreign (Arabic) language and culture, including dress, art, music and other forms of expression upon its adherents. Christianity does not; rather Christianity liberates the African to be fully African and the European to be fully European in regard to language, dress, art, music and other forms of cultural expression. Considering the fact that the majority of muslims live outside of the Arabian Peninsula, this is a particularly compelling aspect of Christianity compared to Islam, which has imposed Arabic culture upon people at the cost of suppressing their African, Persian, Indian, etc. forms of cultural expression. For the Arab, while Islam does represent a distinctly Arab cultural expression, the fact remains that for 600 years a strong and healthy, culturally-Arab Christian community thrived in the Middle East, the remnants of which still remain – although they are currently endangered – in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq.

Christians, we have been given a mission which is greater than protecting and preserving our comforts. We have been given a mission to “preach the Gospel to all creatures” and to “make disciples of all nations”.  This includes the 1.6 billion people on around the world who self-identity as muslim. We live in unprecedented times, in which more people raised muslim have come to faith in Jesus Christ in the last 20 years than in the previous 1400 combined. May God do an even greater work in the years to come, and may we share His heart for all people.