Saturday, I “followed” pastor Mike Adkins and his wife Kelly on Twitter and tweeted the blog post, The Freedom to Speak or Be Silent, to the pastor of Grace Orlando as a sort of heads-up to this sermon review.
— Alice Dean Spicer (@AliceDeanSpicer) April 5, 2015
Kelly Adkins was kind enough to take the time to read and respond to Saturday’s blog post early Sunday morning. While I was poking around on the church website, I visited the About page and learned something interesting:
Three of our four campuses are in local schools, and that gives us a huge opportunity to directly impact the lives of families that our neighborhood churches serve. Much of our rent can be paid through in-kind gifts to the school, including computers, educational assistance and sports uniforms. Our Christmas offerings have also served local students in Seminole and Orange County Schools by providing food, tutoring and resources to students in need who stay after school for extracurricular activities. To date, Grace campuses have given more than $300,000 for student assistance at our specific school campuses.
In The Church Has Left the Building, First Baptist Orlando Makeover, and similar blog posts, I’ve strongly suggested that the money believers currently spend on church buildings could be better spent in community ministry. Kudos to Grace Orlando for getting this right. But believers meeting in homes or coffee shops can avoid many of the pitfalls of big church (a weekly one-speaker-many-listeners setting), which leads to my next point…. Grace Orlando has home meetings:
We believe that the local church — a connected, intentional group of believers who worship, learn and serve together — is the primary way God accomplishes His mission in the world. At Grace, we connect people in ministry teams who serve each other on Sundays and in Grace Communities who serve and connect with each other in homes throughout the week.
This could be a good thing, or it could be more of the same-old-same-old, depending on this:
Scripture is the final authority in all matters of faith and practice. This church recognizes that it cannot bind the conscience of individual members in areas where Scripture is silent. Rather each believer is to be led in those areas by the Lord, to whom he or she alone is ultimately responsible.
Using scripture as the “final authority” sounds pretty simple, until you stop and consider the fact that disagreement over how to interpret scripture has resulted in tens of thousands of denominations of Christian believers. And let’s not forget our ugly, not-too-distant history. The “final authority” of scripture was used to justify slavery. I find it promising that Grace Orlando sees each believer as led by and ultimately responsible to the Lord, but I find it equally unsettling that this insight is only applied to “areas where Scripture is silent.” In other words, if scripture says anything at all about a subject, even something hotly debated among believers, the leaders in this institutional church feel they have the authority to bind the conscience of individual members. In this case, the home meetings are just smaller versions of big church, where members appear to be free to follow their Shepherd into green pastures, but the final authority on any disagreement is given to the pastor and perhaps a handful of other leaders who intend to keep the flock confined within the fold of orthodoxy. For more about this, read Out of the Fold, Into the Flock, Bigger Fences for the Fold, and most importantly, Uses and Applications of the Word FOLD. I’m considering attending a home meeting for while. Best case scenario, I find myself welcomed into a community of believers who meets regularly, believers who may disagree with me, but want me around anyhow. Worst case scenario, I find myself the target of spiritual police who make it their mission to unwelcome me as quickly as possible in order to preserve their pseudo-authority to “bind the conscience of individual members” to their particular interpretation of scripture. We’ll see how it goes. I’ll keep you posted.
The Easter Sunday Sermon #DareToHope
When I first heard that the scripture for this sermon was in 1 Corinthians 15, I got pretty excited to hear what Adkin’s take on that chapter would be. But then I realized that Adkins would be preaching on verses 1-11 only. Read the rest of the chapter, people. Adkins introduces the sermon:
We’re going to be looking at an unconventional passage of scripture to talk about the resurrection of Jesus, because for some of you, you come on every Easter, and you hear the exact same scripture and the exact same message. So what we’re going to do is we’re going to mix it up a little bit here this morning. What I’d like to do is I’d like to talk through two different ways in which we tend to think. Now, this doesn’t have anything to do with whether you’re a religious person or not. You might have been invited here today by somebody who attends this church on a regular basis, and you were invited here because they love you and they want you to hear this truth. Alright?
An interesting side note:
The week prior, everyone in the congregation had been instructed to invite three people to church for Easter. Anyhow, Adkins says,
But, what we’re about to talk about, at least at the first part of this, doesn’t have a whole lot to do with whether you’re a Christian or not Christian, it has to do with the way we think, and the way we’ve been programmed through culture to think. So what I’m going to do is I’m going to read the scripture passage for today, and then I’m going to run through these words up here that you’re probably wondering about.
There’s a large, white cross in the middle of the stage. A thin rope extends from the cross to the left and the right with words hung on each side. Adkins continues,
This part of 1 Corinthians was written […] 55 AD, twenty-five years after the resurrection of Jesus. So this is actually widely known in scholarly circles as one of the early creedal statements about the church and about what we believed about Jesus. So, how early in church’s history did they believe that Jesus was God? Well, for us, we recognize that the apostles taught it and those that walked with Him taught that Jesus was God, but also within twenty-five years they had formalized these statements, and I’ll show you what they are.
Another interesting side note:
In my twenties and early thirties, I spent years — many hours over the course of a decade+ defending the doctrine of the Trinity against Jehovah’s Witnesses in weekly “Bible” (NTW/Watchtower) studies. One of the ways to demonstrate the deity of Christ is to point out that Christ didn’t correct people when they worshipped Him, which implies that if He were not God, then He was a blasphemous at best and a liar at worst. I figured the Jehovah’s Witnesses, when presented with the three possibilities, would reconsider their belief about the non-deity of Christ. This was difficult to demonstrate, though, because their NWT Bibles were translated in such a way as to appear that Jesus did NOT receive worship. For example, Hebrews 1:6 in my NIV says,
And then, when God presents his firstborn Son to the world, he says, “Let all God’s angels worship him.”
whereas the NWT says,
But when he again brings his Firstborn into the inhabited earth, he says: “And let all of God’s angels do obeisance to him.”
It was blatantly obvious to me that since the Greek word proskuneo in reference to the Father was consistently translated “worship,” but in reference to Christ the Son the same Greek word was translated “obeisance,” there was some translation bias going on. The Jehovah’s Witnesses simply believed what they were taught in church and what they read in their Bibles, like good Christians do. I got a hold of a revised 1961 version of the NWT that still had proskuneo translated “worship” (oops! leftover from the 1950s version, which I wasn’t able to obtain), demonstrating that it wasn’t all that long ago that the Watchtower organization changed their translation to fit their doctrine. Soon after I showed them this, the weekly visits stopped. Apparently I had been red flagged.
The funny thing is, I naively believed that the practice of hiding important information and shunning people who bring up uncomfortable discussions about said hidden information was limited to cult organizations. A few years later I discovered these practices were also alive and well within my own tribe.
Now back to the sermon.
Adkins reads verse 1.
Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand.
Then, he pauses to explain,
So he’s preaching the gospel right now to people who already believe the gospel. Now, the reason why he does that is because when we follow Jesus and we enter into a relationship with Jesus, we don’t move on from the gospel and learn deeper things about God, the gospel itself is the deep things of God.
Adkins makes an incredibly important point here, so let’s not gloss over it.
The gospel = “the deep things of God.”
Earlier in this letter to the Corinthians, Paul tells them that he can’t teach them deep spiritual truths, but that he has to treat them as if they were not-yet-believers. He compares them to milk-drinking babies who can’t handle the meal of a mature adult. Why? Because they were seeing themselves as part of Paul’s group or Apollos’ group instead of seeing themselves as belonging to Christ alone. Paul explains that, “no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ,” not Paul, not Apollos, not any fallible human being, no matter how many theological credentials he or she may possess. Even though the believers in Corinth “have the mind of Christ,” Paul can’t treat them as such because they are “mere infants in Christ” who were “not yet ready” for the deep things of God.
Do you know what this means?
It means that it is possible for people to be believers of the gospel who are “not yet ready” for the deep things that are there to be discovered within the gospel message. So, what, exactly, is the gospel? According to What Motivates Us Most, an article on Grace Orlando’s website, the gospel is ‘a word from the Bible that means “good news.'” The article asks and answers:
What’s so good about it? The gospel means we can have a relationship with a holy and perfect God — not because of anything we do (which could never be good enough), but because of His Son, Jesus, who died to give us life. Jesus paid the penalty for sin and died in our place to make us right with God. We are friends with God all because of what Jesus has done and nothing that we have done. The pressure’s off.
So, if that’s the gospel, why is it so hard for not-yet-believers AND BELIEVERS to understand the gospel? Paul answers this question:
If anyone builds on this foundation [which is Jesus Christ] using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.
The foundation of the gospel is Jesus Christ and what He has accomplished for humanity. Then, people come along and build on that foundation. Some of what they build has real spiritual substance. When it is placed under the light of scrutiny, it stands. Some of what they build is worthless junk. Spiritual babies rely on the stuff people build rather than relying on the foundation. They get distracted by the junk. Keep these things in mind as we continue to examine Adkins’ sermon. Adkins reads verses 2-11:
By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. Whether, then, it is I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.
Adkins pulls another snippet of wisdom from the text. He explains,
Paul has a problem, and that is, that he is plagued by his past. He is plagued by the fact that he persecuted the Church of Christ. And this is not something that we can have… that is very difficult for us to kind of imagine, I mean, just last week, a Kenya university was pillaged, and literally, the terrorists that walked through this school asked one after another, “Are you a Christian? Do you accept Christ? Will you renounce Christ?” “No. No. No.” Boom. Boom. Boom. Gone. And so persecution is not something that existed in Paul’s day alone, it exists even to this very day, and yet we think sometimes those people are beyond redemption.
Adkins calls this “before the cross” thinking. The irony of this is that Adkins can identify “before the cross” thinking but does not recognize it in his own sermon. Keep reading. You’ll see what I’m talking about. He attaches the word “if” to the string of words on the left side of the cross and explains that if-this-then-that kind of thinking “leads us to all kinds of problems in our own personal lives, in our relationships with others, and in our spiritual walk with God, Himself.” After expounding on this idea for a bit, Adkins says that people tend to be bound by the tyranny of “if this, then that,” which “works, until it doesn’t.” He says,
For some of us, this is the very reason why we have trouble with God. Because we’ve thought to ourselves, “If, God, I can just obey You, then, that means you’ll love me.” And the problem happens, not in the fact that God doesn’t love you, but the problem happens in the fact that we fall short in the “this.” I can’t obey him. I fall short of obeying Him.
I would take this a step further. For example, you might say, “If, God, I can just believe the gospel, then Jesus Christ will be my Savior.” And the problem happens, not in the fact that Jesus isn’t your Savior, but the problem happens in the fact that you fall short in the “this.” You can’t believe. You fall short of believing. Adkins says,
What we want you to do, is we want you actually to not skate along the surface, but we want you to think deeply about your situation. We want you to think deeply about your families. We want you to think deeply about your relationships. We want you to not be bound by the tyranny of the if-this-then-that mentality that unconsciously most of us live with. Because if we are not able to live up to “this” then, then that means that we have trouble on the other side [of the cross].
This resonates with me, especially what he says about being “bound by the tyranny.” What Adkins calls the if-this-then-that mentality is what Paul calls “the law of sin and death,” “the flesh,” or just plain “dead.” This is the reason Christ willingly gave himself over to the violence and hatred of His enemies. He shows us a radically different way of overcoming the if-this-then-that mentality. But I’m getting ahead of Adkins…
And not to mention us personally, but the if-this-then-that mentality ends up causing us, watch this, trouble with other people, because if you think as I think, then that means we can be friends. If you do the things I want you to do, then we can be in relationship. […] The problem is, you’ve basically said to the other person, “You’re God. And I’m going to put all of my eggs and my happiness in the basket of your response to me.” And I want you to think about this for a moment, because if-this-then-that mentality can turn around hurt you, because you and I don’t live this out right all the time. We fall short of it. We call it sin. And some people hate that word. They hate the word, because they think it means that we’re just calling them bad people. But actually what we are doing is we’re describing the human condition when we use the word sin. We’re saying, not you specifically are a horrible person, we’re saying that every person on the entire planet is a sinner. So, what we’re talking about is not actions; we’re talking about conditions. We’re not talking about behaviors; we’re talking about a condition that wells up in the human heart.
While we are looking at the human condition, it is important to note that there’s not a damn thing any of us can do about it. I’m glad that Adkins spends so much time driving this point home. But we have to ask ourselves, isn’t unbelief also a symptom of the human condition?
The Bible says that the heart is deceitful and desperately wicked, and who can cure it? Out of the heart flows life, and it’s broken. Your heart is fundamentally broken. I mean, whenever you’ve tried to live perfectly and do the right thing, the more energy and the more effort you put into it, first of all it collapses on you, eventually, because you just can’t bear the weight of always trying so hard to do the right thing. And then it collapses, you fall short, you’ve sinned, and you have nothing to do other than to go back and say, “Well, okay, I’ve done that, so if I do this, maybe it will make up for that, and then I’ll have a good future. If I do this good thing, then God will love me, and I’ll have that great future.” And then it turns around on you. For some of us, we have some really bad stuff going on. The “that” of our life is just falling apart, and so we reverse-engineer this unconscious thought process that we have, and we start thinking, “You know what? I’ve got cancer, so that, that means, this: God must be angry with me. And I’m not being the person that I really want to be. I’m sleeping with people I shouldn’t be sleeping with. I’m drinking too much. I’m doing this. I’m doing… And that means, clearly, that God is not with me.” But this is some broken thinking on this side of the cross that needs to be gotten rid of if you’re ever to find a relationship with Jesus. And if you are ever to find healthy relationships and not be a person of judgment and condemnation, you have to recognize that there’s no capacity that any of us have to constantly, forever, consistently do this [if-this-then-that]. We’re broken. And it’s ironic, because while this is the opposite of what the world tells you, which is you have everything inside of you necessary in order to be this great person, the church comes to you and says “You’re broken,” and here’s the beautiful thing about it — now you have awareness, now you have understanding, now you know why you do these things — because there’s a part of you that is broken.
Okay. We get it. We’re not perfect. And if perfection is what God demands, then we’re all screwed. Now what? Adkins attaches the word “because” to the right of the cross. Now it says “because that, then this.” He explains that we no longer have to be bound by “if this, then that,” because Jesus died and rose again… Adkins says,
…we now have the capacity and the ability to live beyond the if-this-then-that mentality. We no longer have to be bound by “If I’m good, then God will love me.” God will love me because that cross then freed this person to be whole, and that, that, that is the gospel, and that’s what makes such a major difference in everyday spirituality. That’s what makes a difference in everyday life… The good news is Jesus lived a sinless so that you would not have to live a sinless life. Jesus died for your sins so that He could take all of His goodness and transfer it into your account.
But then Adkins adds, “All it requires on your part is to say yes.” Wait just a minute. Is Adkins saying what I think he’s saying? Something is required of us? We have a “part” in our own salvation? What Motivates Us Most also says,
The gospel is not religion. Religion says “I obey, therefore I’m accepted.” The gospel says “I’m accepted, therefore I obey.” Religion is about what you do; the gospel is about what Jesus has done. Religion leads to pride for keeping the rules or despair for failing to keep them, but the gospel leads to peace because Christ has kept all the rules for us.
So if I understand Adkins correctly, and I understand this article correctly, then there’s a contradiction that needs to be resolved. Because it sure sounds to me like religion: “I say yes, therefore I’m accepted.” Religion is about fulfilling requirements. Religion leads to pride for doing my “part” in salvation. Perhaps Adkins will resolve this contradiction, I say to myself. After all, he’s only been preaching for 15 minutes. To draw conclusions 15 minutes into a sermon would be like walking out half way through a movie and then complaining about how the bad guy wins. Let’s continue to examine his sermon to see what he does with this. Adkins says,
All it requires on your part is to say yes, yes, I’m willing to think your thoughts, God, not mine. I’m willing to recognize that the feelings I feel sometimes are broken, and I want to feel your feelings. I want to do different things, yes, and I’m disempowered to do so without you.
Aha! I see a glimmer of resolution with “I’m disempowered to do so without you.” This is what salvation is about on the deepest level. We spiritually dead, blind, deaf, and powerless people are naturally inclined to move away from God, not toward Him. This is as disempowered as it gets.
See, when we say yes to Jesus, what we’re saying is, “Yes, I’m letting God do inside of me what He will do inside of me, no matter what that is.” It may be radically different than you right now. I hope it is. I hope that God comes sweeping into your life and brings you joy and peace and patience and kindness, not the stuff of this [if-this-then-that], but the stuff of that [because-that-then-this], because the cross looms larger than your sin.
But what happens if one is disempowered to say yes?
For us, people who are followers of Jesus, we recognize that it is the one thing that we have in common, which is brokenness. It is sinfulness. And we’re not coming to you and saying, “You’re terrible people who don’t belong in the church.” That is this [if-this-then-that] kind of thinking. And many of you brought that into the room with you today. If I don’t attend church very often, then that must mean I’m a terrible Christian. If I’m not obeying, then that means I have no place in Christ’s church. It’s not true. It’s not true.
My one takeaway from this bit is “…we recognize…” Spiritually dead people don’t recognize anything that has to do with God or salvation. They are DEAD. If one recognizes anything at all spiritually, including their need for a Savior, or even their own unwillingness to say yes, then that person is ALREADY ALIVE spiritually. It’s only a matter of time until God finishes what He started in them. “So shall my word be that goes forth out of my mouth: it shall not return to me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing I sent it to do” (Isaiah 55:11).
No matter if you were walking in the room today and you felt like the whole room was going to collapse down on top of you because of your sin, the Bible says that Jesus’s righteousness looms larger than the depths of the deepest depravity. And the beauty of that, the beauty of that, is that He offers it freely to you. All He simply says is, “Will you let me do inside of you what I want to do inside of you? Will you let me make you a different person?”
Let’s imagine the depths of the deepest depravity. Move down through the layers of greed, envy, selfishness, and the like. Way down at the bottom, you’ll find the one sin that you can keep hidden from Jesus’s righteousness. You won’t let Jesus go there, to that place where your desire to never be subjected to Him reigns. Jesus is able to conquer all sin except the one that matters most. Or so it seems. Adkins goes back to the scripture passage to point out that Jesus wasn’t metaphorically killed. He physically died. Then He rose again and appeared to 500+ people. This is what sets Jesus apart from the rest of us — living a sinless life enabled Him to be resurrected. Adkins says,
[The Father] says, “Now, I give [the Son] the ability to give your righteousness and your goodness to anyone who asks for it.”
But here’s the tricky part. A symptom of an unrighteous heart is an unwillingness to want or ask for righteousness. It’s a catch 22. If you have to ask for it or want it before it can be given, then why do some ask and want while others don’t? If the gospel changes us from the inside out, as Adkins says it does, shouldn’t that be the first thing to change? If we are saved by the grace of God, then shouldn’t the grace of God start at the deepest point of need? If Christ sets us free from the power of if-this-then-that, doesn’t He also set us free from if-we-believe-then-we-will-be-saved?
I believe that Adkins message is overall good and beneficial, except for one seemingly insignificant but incredibly important point.
Because-that-then-this. Because Christ has set us free, then we believe. Because Christ changed the desire of our hearts, then we said yes. Because Christ opened our eyes to our need for Him, then we accepted His free gift of righteousness and goodness. The work of Christ accomplishes anything and everything necessary for a not-yet-believer to become a believer. This is one of those deep things upon which some believers choke. If this is too much for you, go drink some milk. It’s okay. I don’t expect you to agree with me. I don’t see you as any less than me, because I used to choke on spiritual meat and potatoes, too. God chooses to reveal these things in His own time and His own way. However…
…if you want to know why you’re choking on this, keep reading.
It’s all fine and good that salvation is entirely the work of Christ until we stop and consider that in the scope of human history the majority of mankind did not or does not believe, say yes, accept the gift, etc. This raises a question that demands an answer. Why would Jesus save just a handful of people? Wasn’t His mission to seek and save the lost? Somehow, it’s easier for believers to wrap their brains around the idea that salvation is at least a tiny bit dependent upon us fallible human beings. That way God doesn’t look like a cruel monster for that eternal torment in Hell thing.
As Adkins winds down, he shifts gears to address “dechurched” people:
It’s impossible to love God and hate the church. Now you can be realistic and say, “The church is flawed. The church is faulty.” And yes, it is, absolutely because it has you in it, and because it has me in it. And we are sinners saved by the grace of God. Watch this. You are sanctified and grow the most in your life, not when you look at other believers and get judgmental and say, “I don’t want to be like them, so I’m out.”
First, know the difference between church and Church. I hate the church. It is a system prone to corruption. It is not a person or people, it is an if-this-then-that machine. But I love the Church. It is an organic system with the head of Christ and a body of believers with many different roles and functions. It destroys corruption. It grows and gets more beautiful with each passing decade and century. Adkins says,
You grow the most when you sit there next to the guy who is being condemning and judgmental or hypocritical, and you say, “I’m going to walk this through with you and tell you the truth, bro. You’re off track. I’m a sinner, too. You’re a sinner. And we’re going to walk together.” And as you walk together those edges get polished off and become smooth.
What happens if you sit there next to the guy and he gets up and walks away? What do you do when you begin to say, “I’m going to walk this…” and he interrupts to say, “Don’t speak to me.” How do you tell the truth to someone who has so little regard for you that he (successfully) goes around convincing other believers to imitate his shunning behaviors? Please tell me how it is possible to walk together with people who refuse to be seen with you in public and turn private meetings into bullying sessions? This is the kind of behavior (fruits) the church produces in otherwise decent, loving people. This is what it looks like when believers “believe in vain.” And it’s time that the Church brings the church into the light. Adkins says,
But it takes you in relationship with other believers who will fail you, but failure is not a problem, unless you think like this [if-this-then-that]. Failure is not a problem for this person [because-that-then-this]. Because I recognize that this cross has then set me free from the need to condemn and the need to be perfect. […] If He has accepted you, how can I not accept you? If He says you are righteous in His sight because of Christ, how can I then condemn? How can I say that you are less than me, if we are both broken, if we both recognize that our need is for the gospel and not for perfection and not for an image and not to pretend, but simply to trust that Jesus’s love was enough, and being enough, He made a difference.
I’ll tell you how a believer can reject someone God accepts — by believing God doesn’t accept that person. A believer can justify condemnation by imitating the god of eternal condemnation. A believer can reason that not-yet-believers will die in unbelief because they aren’t good enough, or smart enough, or willing enough. In this way the not-yet-believer becomes a less-than. A believer can feel that his/her trust in the love of Jesus is misplaced, if it turns out that Jesus’s love was not enough after all, and that it made very little difference in the fate of humanity. Since I am in full agreement with Adkin’s closing remarks, I will borrow them to use as my own closing remarks. (But please check out the videos when you’re done reading.)