I Don't Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist

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There are certain areas of theology that draw my interest more than others. While all theology drives my everyday life, some areas I pursue more. One area of theology that I am speaking of is the area of Apologetics. Now, apologetics sounds like the study of how to give an apology, and that is the literal understanding of the word, but in Greek, an apologia was a defense. It wasn’t about saying “I’m sorry,” it was about being able to rationally and logically defend one’s position using the rules of argumentation. So, the theological area of apologetics is the study of how to defend the faith. Are there rational, logical, coherent proofs for the Christian faith and the Bible or do we just live on blind faith alone? Apologetics is the practice of defending the faith from outside attacks, as well as, offering proofs for why we believe.

            My interest in apologetics began in college. Going to a secular college and coming to faith in Christ there meant that I had to be equipped and prepared to be able to explain what I believe and why. As you can guess, a secular college is not the greatest breeding ground for newfound Christian faith. The anti-God bias is very strong in college and I really had to work through this question: is my faith in Christ and the Bible based on solid evidence and reason, or is it just some fairy tale I chose to believe in? Books on apologetics would reveal to me that evidence for Christ and the Bible are very real and present and our faith is not blind faith at all.

            I remember not being focused with engaging people of other religions, but of people who called themselves atheists. I knew the Bible said, “the fool has said in his heart ‘there is no God’” (Psalm 14:1) but atheists always seemed so sure and confident. They said their views were based on reason, proof, and evidence, and so as a Christian, I felt overwhelmed in trying to debate the existence of God with them.

            But there were serious questions that I wondered how atheists could answer. Questions like: How did something come from nothing (the universe)? How did non-life create life? How does physical matter create something like consciousness? These are questions that I had for atheists that didn’t seem to have any real scientific answer. In fact, the answers they gave all sounded like beliefs! And that is weird because they deride faith, right? The answers were, “we think this happened” or “we assume this happened.” That sounded like faith! They are the ones who reject any type of faith, yet the views they hold require just as much faith as a Christian!

            But I still wondered how to accurately engage the arguments of atheism, but also, be ready to defend what I believe about God and Scripture (1 Pet 3:15). When the title of this book came across my eyes I grabbed it immediately and devoured it with interest. The title of this month’s book recommendation is I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist. It seemed like everything I wanted to learn was bound up in that title.

            The book is an apologetic defense of the Bible, God, and the Christian faith but it takes an interesting approach. The first four or five chapters do not mention anything about the Bible or quote Scripture; that comes later. The first few chapters chronicle the various arguments for the existence of God starting from the very beginning of the concept of truth itself, to developing a rational, coherent explanation for the existence of God. The authors use the cosmological argument, the teleological argument, and the moral argument to show that belief in God is the most reasonable truth in the universe. But, along the way, the authors poke holes in the tenets and beliefs of atheism. They continually give the refrain, “I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist” showing that to be an atheist is to actually exercise more blind faith than the Christian! As the book goes on, the proofs continue not just for the existence of a god, but for the God of the Bible and His Son Jesus Christ.

            At the end of the day, we are not trying to win an argument, we are trying to win people to Jesus Christ. So, if you read this book in order to argue with people you’ve missed the point. At the least, this book prepares you to engage and deconstruct the arguments of atheists to show them their beliefs are based on much more faith than a Christian’s. But also, this book can be a real faith booster to the Christian who needs to see evidence and proof to back up what he believes.

The Soul Winner

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                I love the books that make me feel conviction. The kind of books that make me think that I should be doing better. The books that point out a specific area of the Christian life that I need to improve upon. I also like to read books by authors from years ago and not just recent authors. Therefore, The Soul Winner by Charles Spurgeon was an obvious choice to be on my favorites list.

                As implied in the title, the book is about being more faithful in evangelism, and that is a topic that I think we all could admit we need to do better. What is strange though, is that while most of us admit we need to do better at evangelism, we don’t read books on evangelism. Maybe something inside of us is scared of that conviction that the book will bring, but conviction is a good thing! Conviction is healthy because it shows us where we need to grow.

                For those reading this who are not familiar with Charles Spurgeon, he was a giant in evangelical Christianity. He pastored the Metropolitan Tabernacle for 38 years in the 1800’s and he was dubbed the ‘Prince of Preachers’ for his amazing sermons. Back then, sermons were transcribed, copied, and then sold. In 1865, Spurgeon’s sermons sold around 25,000 every week. That is a tremendous number! But adding to his preaching ministry was his writing ministry. There is more material written by Charles Spurgeon than any other Christian author…in history! The Soul Winner is primarily written to pastors and church leaders but all can profit from reading.

                The title of the book is based off of Proverbs 11:30 that says, “…and he who is wise wins souls.” It still amazes me that these authors could write a 300+ page book based on one portion of one verse! Spurgeon was a careful theologian and by no means does the title suggest that he will tell us to use some gimmicks or stunts in order to see more people get saved. Spurgeon believed in the sovereignty of God in salvation just as much as anyone else. Just to emphasize this point, Spurgeon tells an illustration of a preacher who led many souls to Christ but upon his judgment day it is told him that he receives no credit for their salvation because the blessing of those salvations came from the “deaf old man sitting on the stairs and praying” (177). That was the source of the rich harvest of souls.

                If you have ever read Spurgeon you know he has a rich way of using the English language. His points are simple, yet his illustrations are vivid and powerful; his admonishment hits straight at the heart. He describes ‘soul-winning’ (evangelism) as our one main business. He says too many preachers are trying to amuse men by entertaining them with lively speaking from the pulpit, to educate men by simply teaching information, and moralizing men by telling them to live rightly. As he says in classic Spurgeon form, “he who wants motion in a corpse should first seek life for it” (253). As he says so powerfully, “of what service will it be to him who has been amused when the trumpet sounds, and heaven and earth are shaking, and the pit opens wide her jaws of fire and swallows up the soul unsaved?” (254). Again, “of what avail even to have moralized a man if still he is on the left hand of the Judge, and if still, ‘Depart, ye cursed,’ shall be his portion?” (254).

                To the reader who thinks to himself, ‘I cannot be a soul winner,’ Spurgeon says, Jesus turned peasants of Galilee into founders of churches. Christ makes average people into soul winners. But, you must have holiness of character, a high spiritual life, and a humble spirit to be used by God in this endeavor. In true Spurgeon fashion he says, “If the Lord has opened your mouth, the devil cannot shut it; but if the devil has opened it, may the Lord shut it up!” (57).

                Circling back all the way to conviction, Spurgeon does not leave us off the hook. He asks very pointedly on page 254, “How many others have you brought to Christ?” A question we must seriously ask ourselves. He continues, “Did you never win a soul for Jesus? You shall have a crown in heaven but no jewels in it. You will go to heaven childless; and you know how it was in the old times, how the women dreaded lest they should be childless. Let it be so with Christian people; let them dread being spiritually childless. We must hear the cries of those whom God has given to be born unto Himself by our means. We must hear them or else cry out in anguish, ‘Give me converts, or I die’” (225). I don’t want a book that tells me I’m doing everything right, I want a book that shows me where I need to grow. Read this book and be challenged in ‘soul winning.’

-Pastor Mark Scialabba

The Disciple-Making Parent

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                I distinctly remember bringing home our first child from the hospital. We put her in the car seat, drove her home, and took her inside our small house. Then a terrifying thought came across my mind, “what do I do now?” I understood how she ate and how to change her, but how do I raise and parent this child?

                This month I am recommending the book The Disciple Making Parent as a valuable resource for parents. If you do not have children or your children are already grown, then this book might not be as valuable to you as it might be to others. It would be great to read though to be able to disciple all the young parents we have in our church. If you are a parent of children, especially young children, you need to get this book and read it carefully.

                Let me just say, I do believe the Bible is sufficient for all instruction about parenting. The Bible doesn’t get enough credit for all the passages that deal with parenting. Some examples are: Ephesians 6; Colossians 3, Deuteronomy 6, and of course the entire book of Proverbs. But it is helpful to have theologians unpack those verses for us into helpful books that explain to us how to apply them. The Disciple Making Parent is one of those helpful books.

                I love the continued emphasis on the parents in this book. It makes sense because it is our responsibility to raise our children. It is not up to the daycare or any other teachers to teach our children right/wrong. They will teach the ABC’s and 123’s, but it is the parent’s job to instill truth and values to our children. Every chapter is directed to ‘You’ the parent. We are not let off the hook and the seriousness of our calling is evident throughout the pages.

                When it comes to raising children, Christian parents can make 1 of 2 errors. Error #1 would be to assume their children are believers just because the parents are. Nowhere does the Bible say salvation comes because of one’s lineage. It is up to each individual to place his/her own faith in Jesus Christ as personal Lord and Savior. We cannot assume our 5 year old is regenerated, redeemed, and saved because he/she goes to church with us. That little life must be shepherded with the gospel and the facts of the gospel must be clearly and consistently taught in the home. 3 chapters in the book are devoted to evangelizing your children. Yes, we must evangelize our children with the same perspective as we would evangelize a stranger on the street.

                The second error Christian parents make is to think that outward rules and restrictions can change the child’s heart. We try to ‘Christianize’ our children. I cringe when I hear someone say, “I’m raising my kids Christian.” What does that mean? Are we putting in place rules and restrictions that we think will save them? I make them go to church, I make them say they believe in God, and I make them own a Bible, does that make them Christian? If I make them do a whole bunch of ‘Christian’ things will that will define their spiritual state? The danger with that approach is that we end up raising good little Pharisees. They are required to do the ‘god stuff’ but the heart is never changed. They end up being like the older brother in the story of the Prodigal Son, bitter and resentful to the Father that they have served for so long and gotten nothing like the younger son (Luke 15:25-32). Instead, parenting and discipline always must address the heart. Asking ‘why’ questions are always deeper than ‘what’ questions because they reveal what is going on in the heart. The Disciple Making Parent has 4 chapters that help address the heart of our children.

                On top of that, there are other helpful chapters on how to do family devotions, how to help your children enjoy life but not love the world, how to help our children seek God-honoring friendships, and how to teach your children to pray. I have around 20 books about parenting on my shelf but this resource is one at the top of the list. To further assist parents let me recommend some others as well:

                Shepherding a Child’s Heart by Tedd Tripp (One of the best books on parenting ever)

                Give them Grace by Elyse Fitzpatrick & Jessica Thompson (A mother’s perspective

                                about teaching our children what grace is like)

                What the Bible says about Parenting by John MacArthur (explanations about the various

                                verses on raising children)

                Parents, the task is hard, but the Bible is sufficient, and there are resources out there that can greatly assist us in our task at being faithful in parenting. I encourage you to get them, read them, and learn from them.

-Pastor Mark Scialabba

Christian Living Beyond Belief

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It is always my great joy to see individuals come to know Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. It is flat out exciting to see people get saved. But once people get saved, now what? We definitely are not done with people once they respond to the gospel. Jesus said to ‘make disciples’ not ‘make decisions.’ We want new believers to grow and we want their faith to mature. We want them to be able to answer this question: what is life like as a Christian? Our book for this month is great for that.

The book is titled Christian Living Beyond Belief by Cliff McManis. Now, it has nothing to do with any type of hyper-spiritual devotional behavior. It is just 11 chapters about the basics of the Christian life. The chapters are on: worship, fellowship, joining a church, serving, discipling, giving, evangelizing, studying, praying, thinking, and obeying. It is an excellent way to summarize the basics of the Christian life. If I had enough copies of these, I would give one to each new believer that we had at the church. The chapters are short and simple and they come with some application questions at the end so this can be used in a small group setting as well.

Over the past few decades, the church growth movement has really had an effect on American Christianity. The positive effect of the church growth movement is that there has been an inspiring effort to see the gospel go forth to every individual. The negative effect of the church growth movement is that the emphasis has been placed on the person’s decision, and not necessarily the person’s continued maturity after the decision. As long as we can get somebody to say ‘yes’ then we are done. That is not the process of church growth and disciple making that the Lord outlined. That is why this book is so helpful. It shows a new Christian what the Biblical process is for personal spiritual growth.

But this book isn’t just for new Christians. This book is for all Christians. The author describes, in the introduction, a consistent problem he saw in the lives of the people he counseled and pastored. The problem he saw was a lack of personal spiritual development. Many believers that he encountered did not have any formal approach to practicing the Biblical principles necessary for spiritual growth. That means that many seasoned Christians did not have a regular habit of prayer, they did not have a regular habit of Bible study, or a regular habit of serving the church. I fear this is probably more widespread in Christianity and not just in his church.

If we are having trouble growing, we must look carefully to our habits and our commitments. We need to evaluate the process of spiritual growth from what the Bible describes, not what we think. This is why this book is a great reminder, a great recall, a great recap of the basics of Christian living. Every once in a while it is good to just take a step back from all the business of life and complications of the Christian life and just remind ourselves about the basics. Service, prayer, reading Scripture, giving, fellowship, etc. Those are the basics and we need to refresh our commitment to those things first. If you find yourself in a spiritual ‘rut,’ maybe this is the book for you. Maybe a call back to the basics is just what your faith needs.

Now, I do have to offer a bit of a disclaimer for this book. At the time of this writing this book is very hard to find. It doesn’t come up on Christianbook.com or Amazon.com. It might be pretty difficult to get hands on. I will keep a lookout for another place where this book can be found but anyone who wants to read it can always borrow mine!

-Pastor Mark Scialabba

The Daring Mission of William Tyndale

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It’s no secret that I like to read many books. But some people don’t realize that I have a reading plan. I think it is important to be well read over a variety of issues and so when I go to a conference to buy a lot of books, I purposely look to get at least one book in multiple categories. I always want to get a book on Christian living, at least one book on preaching, a book on counseling, and a book on theology, but I also make sure to get a good biography as well. It is tremendously profitable to read good Christian biographies.

Reading a Christian biography reminds us that we are not alone. We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. Reading good Christian biographies also reminds us that God is still at work, and He has been at work for centuries. He is intimately involved in the building of His church and the lives of His people. Reading good Christian biographies also reminds us that we can always do better. I am consistently humbled when I read these biographies because they show me the great faith and work of other heroes of the faith and that spurs me on towards greater work for the Lord as well.

The book I recommend for this month is a biography of William Tyndale and it is called The Daring Mission of William Tyndale. This book is one in a series of biographies by author Steven J. Lawson. The series is called “A Long Line of Godly Men.” In this series, there are other biographies on big names in Christian history like John Calvin, Martin Luther, and George Whitefield. Lawson has even begun to bring in other authors in the series to borrow their expertise on various figures in Christian history.

I recommend this biography because of its singular focus. The biographies in this series are not an entire history of the person’s life. There are other biographies for that. For example, I have another biography of William Tyndale that is over 400 pages long that chronicles his entire life from birth to death. “A Long Line of Godly Men” is not that kind of biography. They are short and easily readable; usually around 200 pages or so. But they are short on purpose. The biography focuses in on one area of the person’s life and speaks on that. For John Calvin, the focus is on his preaching ministry. For George Whitefield, the focus is on his evangelistic passion. For Martin Luther, the focus is on his boldness. For Tyndale, the focus is on his daring mission.

For those of you who do not know the story, William Tyndale was burned at the stake for the ‘crime’ of translating the Bible into English. Tyndale had grown up in England where spiritual darkness was rampant. The Bibles they had were all in Latin, but the average person couldn’t read Latin; in fact, even some of the priests using their Latin Bible couldn’t! It was a time of empty ceremony, religious ritual, and spiritual superstition. Tyndale sought to change that by translating the Bible into the language of the people: English. William Tyndale was the perfect man to do the translating since he was proficient in eight languages and did his translating directly from the Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament.

To the Catholic Church who held the authority at the time, translating the Bible was a crime. Tyndale was forced to do most of his translating running for his life and he had to smuggle his translated Bibles back into England for the common people to read. This was his daring mission Lawson writes of. He spent the last 12 years of his life on the run as a fugitive until he was captured and killed in 1536. His goal was to get the Word of God into the people of God. He famously said his hope was that “a boy that drives the plow would know more of the Scripture than the pope.”

William Tyndale is one of my heroes because every time I casually pick up my Bible to read it, or casually ignore it when I should be reading it (sadly), I am able to have this Bible in my native language because of men like him. There are many other translators throughout the world seeking to bring the Bible to people groups in their native languages, but Tyndale was the first. The fact that you hold an English Bible in your hand today is due in part to the daring mission of William Tyndale who sacrificed his life to make sure that happened. Ultimately, we are grateful to God for raising up a man like Tyndale, but it is always humbling and encouraging to see how the Lord uses average everyday people to do extraordinary things for His kingdom.

-Pastor Mark Scialabba

STOP ASKING JESUS INTO YOUR HEART

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We all know the old phrase ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover,’ however we have to admit the cover or title of a book plays a large role in whether or not we pick it up and read it. The bright yellow cover and title of this month’s book jumped out at me from the conference table where I saw it. I knew I had to get this book and read it. I had no idea who the author was and I had no idea whether or not the book was any good but the title got me: Stop Asking Jesus into Your Heart.

As a pastor, this phrase has always piqued my interest. ‘Ask Jesus into Your Heart’ seems to be the modern day closer for any evangelistic message. You share the gospel with somebody, they seem interested, you tell them to ask Jesus into their heart. However, that phrase (or anything like it) is not found in the Bible. I guess it seems to be the way to tell an unchurched person “whoever will call upon the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rom 10:13; Joel 2:32).

But what I have seen from people who ‘ask Jesus’ is that they have probably asked Jesus into their heart numerous times and they have done it with increasing earnestness. I remember one man saying, “I’ve accepted Jesus into my heart…and I really meant it.” At the heart of his concern was doubt or question over his salvation. Does our salvation depend on what we asked Jesus? Or, does our salvation depend on how much we really meant it when we asked? Or, does our salvation depend completely on the complete and finished work of Christ? If we depend on our prayer or our sincere intentions then our dependence is misplaced and will cause doubt and confusion.

The subtitle of this book is “How to know for sure you are saved.” This is a book dealing with the doctrine of assurance. While the title of the book is meant to be a bit shocking and funny, the content is serious and Biblical. This is why we buy Christian books in the first place: to be edified and equipped to live the Christian life. We want books to help us with our various struggles and hardships that we are going through. We don’t pick up books just to see how two theologians are arguing with each other; we want edification! And edification happens when an author applies Biblical passages to the specific area and topic that we struggle with.

To say that people struggle with assurance would be an understatement (see the example of the man I referred to earlier). I remember at our church in Long Beach there was an older woman who lived in fear of losing her salvation every day. To say one could know he has salvation was preposterous to her. But the Scripture tells us it is possible to know we have salvation (1 John 5:13).

The author of this book knows how to teach us about assurance because he knows the Bible and he was one who struggled with assurance before. He admits to being baptized 4 times and asking Jesus into his heart hundreds of times. He jokingly admits to walking the aisle in probably every denomination! But the key is the Biblical understanding of faith, repentance, and the sacrifice of Christ. There is a chapter on each of those issues and very clearly and concisely he explains what each of those is and what they mean. There is a chapter on the ‘warning’ passages of Scripture and how they contribute to our assurance of salvation. There is also a chapter on looking for the fruit or evidence of salvation in your life.

This book is simple and small but it is heavy and deep in the content with which it speaks. I believe there might be many people we know who struggle with the idea of assurance. Did I really pray the prayer right? Did I really mean it when I asked Jesus to come into my heart? And for those people we want them to have real assurance, not a false assurance that just says ‘I’m saved because I know I’m saved,’ but a real assurance that is based on them resting completely on the finished work of Christ alone and not on a recited saying. I endorse this book because the author takes a difficult topic and explains it in a way that all can understand. Pick up this book if you struggle with assurance and let’s be equipped in understanding assurance from the Biblical perspective.

-Pastor Mark Scialabba

Gospel According to Jesus

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I am a firm believer in the doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture. Perspicuity is simply a fancy word that means ‘clarity.’ Isn’t it ironic that the word theologians chose to say the Bible is ‘clear’ is a really hard word to understand? Anyway, the Bible is clear and understandable in what it teaches. It comes from the infinite mind of God, God delivered the Word in order to be understood, and so that which Scripture teaches is clear.

If that is true, then why are there so many different theological views on teachings in the Bible? Why are there so many theological labels out there that pit men against one another? Just think about all the differing views on the end times! Where does this confusion come from? Well, certainly not from God. He is clear about His views and what He has to say. If there is any confusion, it is on the part of men who confuse the Scripture by not studying it objectively and who have a sinful nature that affects their understanding.

However, I will say that theological disagreement can be a good thing. It obviously helps us define what is the true church as well as orthodox Biblical Christianity. We have to have disagreements so we know how to differentiate between what is true and false. Also, theological disagreement can be a good thing in that it drives us to the Scripture to see what we truly believe and why.

The book I am recommending this month is The Gospel According to Jesus by John MacArthur. This book inadvertently launched an impassioned theological debate about the true nature of salvation. The debate raged through many books and continues today. The discussion is commonly called ‘The Lordship Salvation’ debate. In laymen’s terms, does a person (at salvation) receive Jesus as Savior only, or as Savior and Lord. At the heart of the disagreement is whether or not a person will surely obey Jesus after salvation or not.

MacArthur didn’t set out to ignite a theological fire, he just set out to write a book about what Jesus meant when He said “Follow Me.” The point MacArthur was trying to make was that at salvation, a person comes to Christ as both Savior and Lord. By calling Jesus ‘Lord,’ one is calling Him ‘Master,’ and committing to a life of repentance and obedience.

At the heart of MacArthur’s concern was the thousands of nominal Christians who would say they have been saved, been forgiven, and become a Christian, yet their lives go on totally unchanged. They still live, act, and think the same way they used to before their ‘salvation.’ Is this type of conversion true conversion, or could this be false salvation?

MacArthur, in the book, goes through passage after passage showing how Jesus continually called people to a new life, how He confirmed that true believers bear fruit, and how He warned against the possibility of false salvation. Some examples are: the parable of the soils (Matt 13:3-9) that describe only one true salvation out of four; even though two others ‘looked’ positive toward Christ, the vine and the branches passage (John 15:1-8) that clearly teaches true believers do bear fruit, Jesus’ call to repentance in Luke 13, and the parable of the wheat and the tares that teaches true believers grow right next to false believers.

Over and over again Jesus made it ‘hard’ to become a Christian. He didn’t just accept anyone who made a positive move toward Him. Just think of the rich young ruler, think of Jesus letting some of His followers leave in John 6, and think of His difficult sayings like ‘take up your cross and follow Me’ or ‘the gate is narrow that leads to life and few are those who find it.’ Far from encouraging easy believism, Jesus made sure people really knew what they were signing up for (See Luke 14).

So, as theological debates go, MacArthur was accused of making additions to salvation. His opponents claimed that he was making works a requirement for salvation and he was roundly criticized. But MacArthur affirmed that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone and the evidence of that salvation will be a changed life of fruit bearing. Obedience is not a part of salvation, it is what comes after salvation, and that shows that it is true.

What I appreciate about MacArthur is how he leaves his personal opinions aside and just takes Bible passage after Bible passage to explain what the text says. That is what I appreciate far beyond eloquence of argument and fine rationalizations. Pick up The Gospel According to Jesus (it’s in our library) and see from the Savior’s words Himself what goes is involved in following Jesus. And each one of us should carefully examine our own life. Are we truly following Jesus the way He said to, or are we just saying we are following Him?

-Pastor Mark Scialabba

Pilgrim's Progress

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A lot of times our Christian life can seem like a journey or a pilgrimage that is filled with various ups and downs as we make our way through life until the Lord calls us home. The truth is, it feels like that, because it is! The Bible calls us aliens (1 Peter 1:2), pilgrims on a journey just passing through. One of the most common words for our Christian life is a ‘walk.’ This word is used 7 times in the book of Ephesians to describe our behavior on our journey in this life. The Christian ‘walk’ is to be worthy, to be in good works, to be in love, to be not as unbelievers, to be in the light, and to be wise. But our ‘walk’ doesn’t end until the Lord brings us to heaven.

There is a book that vividly describes the Christian life in the image of a journey and this is the book I recommend for this month’s Voice Article. The book is called Pilgrim’s Progress. The book is a full length allegory of the Christian life. In the book, a man named Christian sets out on a journey to the Celestial City. The story begins with Christian living in a town called Destruction. He meets a man named Evangelist who urges him to leave Destruction and head to the Celestial City. Christian tries to get his family to join him on this journey, but they refuse and Christian sets out alone.

Along the way he encounters many other characters. People like Worldly Wiseman who tries to convince Christian to just live a happy life without God. He also encounters Apollyon who hurls darts at him but Christian defeats him with a sword. There are positive characters as well like Goodwill and Faithful. I think one can start to see the parallels in the story with the realities of the Christian life.

There are also locations in the story that Christian must travel through. Places like Vanity Fair is a town that Evangelist warns him about as a place of great temptation. And the allegory gets very complex and very deep when you read the section of Christian, and a new friend Hopeful, who are locked inside of a dungeon in a castle called Doubting Castle. The castle is run by a giant named Despair who holds them captive, but they are able to escape when they remember they hold the key of Promise. The parallel to the Christian life is obvious: when despair holds us in doubt we must remember the promises of God. The knowledge of Scripture that the author John Bunyan has is absolutely remarkable.

The book is actually divided up into two parts, with the second part being the story of Christiana (Christian’s wife) who attempts to lead her children to the Celestial City. The story is of course not a story of salvation by works, teaching us to successfully navigate life in order to earn your way to heaven. But it is an ingenious way to describe the pilgrimage of the Christian in this life.

When you consider how the book was written, as well, it makes the purposes of God even more remarkable. John Bunyan was a believer in Christ, who became a deacon in his church but felt the call of God upon him to preach God’s word. However, in 1660, you had to have a license to preach. Since he was not an authorized speaker for the Church of England he was arrested and put in jail for preaching Christ. He was actually arrested right in the middle of a sermon! But it was in prison that Bunyan would take his pen and write the story of Pilgrim’s Progress. Even though he had a wife and children, he would not leave the prison if the authorities wouldn’t let him preach Christ openly without restrictions. He spent years in and out of prison throughout his life, but it was that time in prison that allowed him to write this famous story. God’s sovereignty and God’s providence is really amazing. This book has gone on to be the greatest selling book in the history of the world, besides the Bible. I encourage you to pick it up, and read it, looking for those wonderful analogies to the Christian life.

-Pastor Mark Scialabba

Knowing God

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As most of you know, I love books. Reading is a passion of mine and has been for a long time. I usually will read a book or two a week. The vast majority of books that I read are theological or Biblical in nature, but occasionally I will venture into the realm of Fiction and History. While I understand that most people are not like me and do not read as much, I do find it extremely helpful in my walk with the Lord to read good Christian books and I would encourage everyone to read as well. These books constantly convict, refresh, and teach and that is why I can’t get enough of them. Since I do believe reading Christian non-fiction books are very profitable in the life of a Christian, I would like to write on that subject in this year’s Voice articles. Each month I am going to take a book that I have read that has had a profound impact upon me, or that I just think is extremely helpful for our church members to read, and explain what the book is about to inspire others to read it. Basically, this year is going to be about Mark’s Recommended Reading List. This month’s book is the classic: Knowing God by J.I. Packer.

While I attended a Christian church throughout high school, I was not actually converted until I went off to college. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area but went off to school to Orange County and Long Beach State. I was out on my own, away from home, but somehow by God’s grace I found a Bible teaching church and it was there that I came to know the Lord. If you haven’t heard, college campuses can be a place that is not very welcoming to born-again Christians. Yes, I had my church family, godly pastors, and even a Christian club that I regularly attended, but the vast majority of my time was spent around unbelievers who encouraged ungodly lifestyles. I knew it was my responsibility to work hard on my spiritual growth and I resolved to settle down and read Christian books during my breaks between classes and other portions of free time.

I can’t even recall how Knowing God entered into my possession. I’m pretty sure I bought it at the local Christian bookstore in Long Beach probably at the suggestion of someone in the church I was attending or because it had a little sticker on it that said it had sold over 1,000,000 copies. That meant it had to be good, right?

The book is exactly what you would expect from the title. It is basically a theological book, written in layman’s terms, to help Christians understand who God is. Each chapter covers a different attribute of God and explains those attributes in ways that help the reader ‘know God.’ There are chapters on God’s love, God’s majesty, God’s wisdom, God’s wrath, etc.

In reality, this is what we are doing when we read or study the Bible. We are trying to learn about God more, to know Him. The Bible was not written as a manual for our life. It contains that, of course, but that is not why it was written. God wrote the Bible to reveal Himself. That’s what the Scripture is. It is a revelation of the Divine, Perfect, Glorious, All-Knowing God. The infinite God has made Himself known to His creatures, and so when we read the Bible, we are discovering more and more what God is like. And because God is infinite, our knowledge of Him is able to grow and grow without ever being exhausted.

Packer does a great job taking these profound theological truths and explaining them in ways any Christian can understand. I remember taking 15-20 minutes between classes and finding a bench somewhere to read a chapter and being amazed at how God can be completely unlike us, but also, command us to be like Him. We can never be unchanging or majestic like God, but we can be loving and wise like God. This is where Knowing God is so helpful. I think over the years I have read through this book numerous times.

I encourage you to get this book and make your ambition in life to know God more and more. There are a lot of things we spend our time trying to know. We try to know about sports, or the stock market, or movie stars. But knowing God should be our ultimate goal. This book will help in that endeavor, but it is not the final stop on that journey. It is merely a help that guides us into knowing Him more and more.

- Pastor Mark Scialabba

One Another's

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This is the last Voice article for the year of 2018 and so that means we come to an end of our study this year of the Characteristics of a Healthy Church. To summarize, here are the previous eleven entries in this list: Passionate Worship, Expositional Preaching, Sound Theology, Qualified Leadership, Converted Membership, Persistent Evangelism, Continued Growth, Heartfelt Prayer, Humble Service, Missions Minded, and Individual Accountability. Any time we write a list like this there are of course some other topics that could be included. There is no absolute final list of THE 12 characteristics of a healthy church. I would have liked to include something about fellowship or the administering of the ordinances (Baptism and the Lord’s Supper). It is important for me to note this just to make sure if you don’t see something on this list that should be, it doesn’t mean I don’t believe it is necessary or Biblical. It just means I chose the top 12 for what I would think I would see in a healthy church. With that in mind, let’s get to our characteristic for this month: One Another’s.

I love the church, that’s no secret. I think it is the greatest organization that there is (even though it is more of an organism rather than just an organization). It is the only thing that Jesus promised to build. It is the only group called the Lord’s Body, giving it an extreme importance to the Lord. It is the only collection of people the Lord promised to sanctify and make holy; not the culture or the nation. It is the only crowd that is promised eternal life in heaven. These details are what make the church so great and so important in the Lord’s eyes.

But there is one more practical detail about the church that makes it so great and that makes it very personal in experience; it is the relationship of the people of the church to one another. It is an absolute blessing to join together on Sunday mornings with all kinds of different people from all different kinds of backgrounds and personalities and gather to praise the same God who gave the same salvation to all of them. But it is an even greater blessing to then share life with those other people and do ministry together.

The Bible calls on us to ‘rejoice with those who rejoice’ and ‘weep’ with those who ‘weep’ (Rom 12:15). How many of you reading this can testify to your personal experience to this exhortation? When joy and excitement happened to you, people from the church came to celebrate with you. When sorrow and hardship happened to you, people from the church came to weep with you. I can testify to both of these. From seeing the joy of our girls being born and having church people coming to rejoice with us to receiving cards of sympathy or calls of concern when a relative passed away or when a trip to the hospital was needed. This is what makes the church so special.

Over and over again in the New Testament there are commands upon believers to do various ‘One Another’s.’ 59 times in the New Testament the church is called on to ‘one another’ one another. From commands like honor one another, to instruct one another, to forgive one another, to encourage one another, the ‘one another’s’ are everywhere and they are varied. The most common ‘one another’ is to love one another which occurs 12 times. The New Testament sees a believer in Christ with a responsibility to live in relationship with other believers.

I don’t know how some believers think their Christian life can be lived in isolation away from the church. Those who don’t attend church regularly not only miss out on the blessings of being in relationship with others, but they also consistently disobey the ‘one another’ commands of Scripture. How can you obey those commands if you are never in relationship with other believers in the church?

The highlight of membership and ministry in the local church is the relationship you can develop with other believers. The connections, the shared lives, the joys and struggles are all a blessings we receive from the Lord here on earth. I can’t imagine a life without relationships with others in God’s family. Our final characteristic of a healthy church is a church that genuinely involves themselves with the other members and form lasting encouraging relationships. So, dive in, get involved, start serving and begin ‘one anothering’ one another.

Pastor Mark Scialabba

Individual Accountability

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When I first became a Christian, in my college years, the Associate Pastor of the church I was attending took a particular interest in me. He would drive about a half hour once a week to meet with me and ask me how things were going; usually taking me out to eat (which college students love). While there was the usual casual conversation about the weather or sports, the primary thrust of the meeting was for him to ask me how my walk with the Lord was going. To keep up with me and see if I was growing, staying faithful, struggling, or sinning. This type of 1 on 1 meeting is a great example of what real discipleship looks like, but I would classify it more specifically as Accountability. He was keeping me accountable in my walk with the Lord. He was asking specific questions about my behavior and my lifestyle, and that is holding someone accountable. This is the characteristic of a healthy church for this month: Individual Accountability. There are a few reasons why we need to be held accountable.

First, our tendency to fall into sin is very real. We know the tug of the world, we know the temptations of the enemy, we know the lust of the flesh is powerful and strong. We all admit that we are sinners, so what do we do when we sin? Are we confident enough in ourselves to just repent and fix the problem in our own power? What if that sin is secret and hidden and it is not easy to repent of? Pretty soon that hidden sin becomes a habit, then becomes a lifestyle. How will we be called back to obedience and righteousness if we never confess it or admit it? If there is no one in our life to ask us about our walk or call us back to obedience, then we could remain in sin and become the sheep that goes astray. That is not a good place to be with the Lord. But to have a brother or sister who we trust ask us about our walk and about our life is a sure guard against remaining for a long time in a state of sin.

Second, our flame can become dim and needs to be engulfed again. Our walk with the Lord becomes bland and cold. You know the times I am talking about. It’s not gross, unrepentant sin with no hope. It’s not outright rebellion against God. It’s just a staleness and coldness in our walk with Christ. It’s going through the motions. How do we get shaken out of this complacency? How do we get stirred again so as to prevent us from falling into sin? By keeping accountability with another believer. To be able to talk through these times and have him/her praying for you and continually encouraging you to being on fire again. A good talk about our spiritual state with another brother/sister can be like adding gasoline to a smoldering wick.

Third, as the Scripture says, iron sharpens iron (Prov 27:17). A positive walk with Christ will encourage someone else’s walk with Christ. Maybe your walk with the Lord is doing great. Maybe you are really on fire for God. Then, you go talk with someone else and they are the same way! How encouraging is that? How exciting is that? Doesn’t that motivate you to continue on? To not slip up? One of the best encouragements we can have in our walk is to hear about someone else pleasing God with their life and living rightly, and that can spur us on to even greater maturity.

When we meet as men at the Pillars Bible study, we have a time of accountability. When we meet as elders, we have a time of accountability. We genuinely ask one another how our walk with Christ is going and hold each other accountable to a life that pleases the Lord. That is a great help for me and I would assume for the men involved as well. But, I would encourage everyone to find a person, or a small group, where you feel comfortable sharing about your struggles and your trials in your walk with Christ. It could be me, another leader, or simply another believer. A trusted Christian friend can be a great help and a great encouragement in your walk. Churches that do this really show their love for one another and their care and concern about the spiritual side, which is the most important part of our lives. Be open, be willing to share your life with another believer to hold you accountable. But also, be ready to be the one that someone can come to.

-Pastor Mark Scialabba

Mission Minded

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As a pastor, there are some questions you get asked more often than others. One of those questions usually has to do with the eternal fate of people in the world who have never heard the gospel. For example, some group of indigenous people somewhere in the world who have never touched a Bible, never met a Christian, and have never even heard the name of Jesus. What is the fate of those people? Do they get to go to heaven because they have never heard the gospel and not had a chance to respond? This is a serious question and should not be ignored; we need to answer it. The Bible does say that faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ (Romans 10:17). So my answer would be that people only go to heaven by placing their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as their own personal Savior, and that comes from hearing about Him. They need to hear about Christ in order to be saved.

Now, this Voice article is not about discussing all the ramifications and implications of that truth and how the answer could stir up certain positive or negative feelings in Christians. But there are some Christians who are so burdened by the reality of people who have never heard the gospel of Jesus Christ before, that they do something about it. They become missionaries. That is a term that Christianity has coined to describe someone who takes the gospel overseas to the people of the world who don’t have a regular chance to hear the gospel like we do here in the United States. The work of a church in supporting that global gospel reach is called Missions. The next characteristic of a healthy church that we see this month is: Missions Minded. This characteristic is different than Persistent Evangelism in that this characteristic is focused on the gospel reaching the nations of the world, rather than just believers sharing the gospel in their everyday life. A church should have a strong Missions program to see the gospel reach the entire globe.

The call for Christians to take the gospel to all nations is not in doubt in Scripture. Jesus called together His disciples after His resurrection and gave them what we call the Great Commission in Matthew 28. He said to make disciples of ‘all the nations.’ There is not one country that should be left out of that work. All the nations must hear the gospel because the Lord told us to go make disciples there. But what if we don’t actually live in a foreign country? Then we take the gospel to those places: missionaries. A form of the Great Commission is found near the end of all 4 gospels. In the book of Acts, Jesus lays out the pattern for missions work: starting in their hometown and working outwardly to the ends of the earth. Yes, the Lord commanded it, but it was also understood that this glorious message of salvation would be proclaimed. It is not a message to keep to oneself.

Throughout the Bible we find story after story that shows God’s global plan. Although He worked primarily through the nation of Israel in the Old Testament, He has always had a heart for all peoples. From Rahab to the task of the prophet Jonah, God is bringing people into relationship with Himself from all the nations. When we see the glimpse of heaven in Revelation 4 and 5, we see people from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. How do those people come to know the Lord? Through the work of missionaries.

Now we know that all Christians are not called on to be missionaries to foreign countries. The Lord sovereignly has a role and a purpose for each one of us. But a church, if the people have the heart of God, will have a heart for all the peoples of the earth, and will be Missions Minded. Maybe not all of us are missionaries, but all of us can pray for missionaries. All of us can support missionaries. All of us can encourage and love missionaries. In a way, each one of us can have an active role in Missions.

The Lord laid the work of Missions on my heart having gone on a short-term missionary trip to England back in 2008. It was there, through the sovereign appointment of God, I was able to share the gospel with a random stranger in Rugby, England. After I told him about the work of Jesus Christ dying on the cross to pay for sin, I’ll never forget his response. He said, “I’ve never heard that before.” The message that I preach every Sunday, that we hear all the time, this man had never heard in his life! Not once! The Lord humbled me that day. All the little things I was concerned about in my church at home: the building, the grounds, the temperature of the A/C, all of that was suddenly a lot less important. There are people out there who have never heard of Jesus Christ.

If the reality of people going to hell because they have never heard the gospel really bothers you and really upsets you, then I challenge you to do something about it. Find a foreign missionary to support, start praying for that particular people group who has no gospel contact, or take a giant step of faith and get on a plane and tell them about the Lord Jesus Christ. Whatever role we take on, we challenge all believers at Congregational Bible Church to be Missions Minded.

-Pastor Mark Scialabba

Humble Service

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In John chapter 13, our Lord engages in absolute shocking behavior. Most of His ministry was shocking. He healed the sick, raised the dead, turned water into wine, calmed the sea, and many other miracles. Pretty much everything He did was shocking because nobody had seen it before. However, the behavior in John 13 has nothing to do with miracles or divine acts of nature; yet it is similarly shocking. The Lord girds Himself as a servant and kneels down to wash the feet of His disciples. This might be the most shocking act Jesus ever performed because the Lord of heaven and earth stooped down to perform the task of the lowliest servant. Our next characteristic of a healthy church is: Humble Service. 
    When Jesus had finished washing the disciples’ feet, He then instructed them saying, “If I then, the Lord and Teacher washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you” (John 13:14-15). He was not instituting a third ordinance to be practiced by the church, but He was instituting a model of service that should be followed by those in church. He is the ‘example.’ He then states in the next verse, “Truly, truly I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master.” The lesson is obvious: if He is the Master (and He is), and He is willing to stoop to perform the lowliest task, then why would His servants refuse acts of lowly service? Are we too good or too important to serve? A healthy church is filled with people who engage in humble service. 
    The New Testament teaches us to serve one another (Gal 5:13), those in leadership are called to serve the body (1 Tim 3:10, 13), Paul saw his work as service (2 Tim 1:3), all believers are called on to serve Christ (Col 3:24), and Peter groups spiritual gifts in the church into one of two categories: speaking and serving (1 Pet 4:11). In that same context, Peter calls on everyone in the church to use his/her spiritual gift in order to serve one another (1 Pet 4:10). The church is not made up of a group of professionals, high ranking, and authoritarian types. The church is made up of a bunch of servants…who emulate Jesus Christ in that endeavor. 
    It is spiritually unhealthy for church members to see themselves as anything more than just servants. That’s why I added the qualifier ‘Humble’ to this call to service. If our Lord was willing to take the form of the lowest servant, and perform that task, then what task is too ‘low’ for us to perform in the church? What job will you just not do? What restriction in service do you have? Is it grabbing a rag? Or, taking out the trash? Or, drying dishes in the church kitchen? If so, then I would ask, what demands do servants get to make? Some people have the perspective on service like this: “I’ll serve, but I’m not doing that!” This is where humility is critical. We are only in His family because of the Lord’s salvation, we are only in His kingdom because He graciously allowed us to be, we are only a part of this church because of His calling, and we cannot forget that. A humble servant says, “Use me!” because it is a divine privilege even to be here.
    It has been said that in churches 10% of the people do 90% of the work. That should not be the case. What has happened to the other 90%? It is the infiltration of the ‘consumer mentality’ that plagues churches. People go to church to receive, to get something, and if the church doesn’t deliver week after week they are gone. Churches scramble every single week to put a viable ‘product’ or experience out there that people can come and consume, feel good about, and then go home happy. When that happens, a church is unhealthy because the people are not seeing the church as a place to get involved and serve; and that is what believers are called to do. 
    I challenge you to find a ministry in the church where you can regularly serve. Where you can participate in the advancement of the kingdom of God, where you can be building up the body of Christ, and where you can be emulating our Lord, the Humble Servant.

-    Pastor Mark Scialabba
 

Heartfelt Prayer

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If we could think of one area of spiritual discipline that we neglect too much, probably most of us would admit it to be the area of prayer. Yet, conversely, we probably would all admit that prayer is the most important spiritual discipline for the Christian life. What an interesting dichotomy. Prayer is the most important discipline, yet the one most commonly neglected. If any church is to be healthy and strong, then the people of the church must be people of prayer. This month’s characteristic of a healthy church is: Heartfelt Prayer.

I don’t think that I need to spend too much space discussing the Biblical warrant for prayer. The Old Testament saints prayed, the New Testament ones did as well, the Lord prayed, He told us to pray, there are examples of prayers given in the Scripture, commands to pray, even commands to pray ‘without ceasing.’ When Jesus talks to us about prayer He says ‘when’ you pray, as if it is a normal and natural thing for a child of God to be doing. We do need to view prayer as a matter of obedience to the Lord. He told us to do it and so we must. There are many benefits to prayer that I could list, but we are not pray because of the blessings it gives us. We are to pray because our Lord told us to…and that should be enough reason for us to make it a regular habit in our life.

But I call it ‘heartfelt’ prayer because it shouldn’t be a burden. It shouldn’t be a chore. It shouldn’t be formulaic. It shouldn’t be stale and boring. It should be lively, passionate, joyful, communication with God from the heart. English Puritan Philip Henry had two children who were dangerously sick. He prayed to God for their safety and healing and he wrote about it in his diary. He said (paraphrasing) that if God would grant his request, he wouldn’t promise to never ask for anything again, as some do. He said if God answered his request then He would hear from Philip Henry more than ever! That Henry would love God all the better and love prayer all the better as well. Have you seen the Lord answer your prayers? Then why do we not go to Him more often? Why do we not converse with Him all the more?

A healthy church has praying people. Those people pray in two ways. First, they pray individually. Each member has daily personal communion with God; heartfelt conversation and communion with the Lord Jesus Christ all the time. That will make a healthy church I assure you. But secondly, they pray together. They pray with one another in small groups and in big groups. A friend once asked Charles Spurgeon how he kept the passion and the fervor of his church aflame after all the years of ministry. Spurgeon said it was his furnace that kept that passion alive. He invited the man down to the basement of the church to see his furnace. Behind the door was a large room with 1,000 members of the church all praying. It was the time of the evening prayer meeting. The church furnace was the people of the church praying.

I truly believe in the prayer service or the prayer group. That is how the wheels of the church really turn. We have two opportunities for our people to pray together. First, on Wednesday nights right before dinner. From 5:15-5:45 a small group gathers together to pray for the health and growth of our church. That is our targeted focus. The second time where we can gather together to pray is on the first Wednesday of each month during Bible study. We turn our normal Bible study into a prayer service where we pray to God and pray Scripture together. I encourage you to join us at one of those times to stoke the heat of the furnace of Congregational Bible Church. But also, have a time of personal communion with God and let time in His presence fill your heart and soul as you go through the Christian life.

                                              -Pastor Mark Scialabba
 

Continued Growth

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The next characteristic of a healthy church that we will look at this month is: Continued Growth. We, of course, are not talking about doing everything and anything just to try and get more people into the building. That is not the kind of growth that I am referring to. How many people come to the church is completely up to the Lord. He said He would build His church. It’s not our job to try, using human methods and tactics, to try and artificially increase the numbers that we have on a Sunday morning.
    
Many churches have abandoned their integrity by leaving Biblical commitments and convictions and doing whatever is necessary to boost attendance. Churches such as Willow Creek and Saddleback Church in Orange County became famous for this model of doing church that puts all the emphasis on numbers. Saddleback went so far as to go through the surrounding neighborhoods with a poll asking people, who had never gone to church, what would they like to see in a church, and then tailoring what they do in the church to the results of the poll. Of course the church’s attendance skyrocketed. 

The pressure on a church to grow, in terms of numbers, is always there and is always implicit. But that is not the kind of growth that I am referring to in this month’s article. I’m referring to the spiritual growth of the individuals in the church. Continued spiritual growth of each and every believer is a vibrant characteristic of a healthy church. 

The enemy of spiritual growth is spiritual stagnation, or spiritual complacency. This is when people believe they are as holy as they need to be, or they know all they need to know from the Scripture, or they are just satisfied with their current level of spirituality. Some evidences of this type of complacency are: a focus more on the events of the church rather than spiritual disciplines, inconsistent attendance on Sunday morning or at Bible studies, and/or putting the responsibility of growth onto someone else like the pastor or teacher. Yes, the teachers teach, but the actuality of growth comes in the involvement and engagement of the listener to the message being taught. 

The New Testament calls on us to continue to grow in holiness and to avoid spiritual stagnation. Paul prays for believers’ spiritual growth in Colossians 1:10 “We pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please Him in every way; bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God.” Peter discusses spiritual growth as well numerous times. 2 Peter 3:18 finishes his second letter with a command: Grow, in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ. In 2 Peter 1:5, he tells us to “make every effort to add to your faith.” There is a responsibility on each one of us to work hard at growth. How does growth happen? Through the Word of God, 1 Peter 2:2, “Like newborn babies, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation.”

While individuals are responsible for their own spiritual growth, it is important to note that continued growth happens in the context of the local church being in fellowship with one another. There is a relationship component to spiritual growth that occurs when believers are loving one another, serving one another, admonishing one another, encouraging one another, spurring one another on, etc. Spiritual growth shows up not just in Bible knowledge or the use of religious language, but in the practice of the New Testament ‘One Another’s.’ This was the great error of the monastic movement in church history. Men and women would go lock themselves away from society in a cave somewhere to focus so wholeheartedly on their own personal growth that the church itself suffered because all the ones growing in Scripture were nowhere to be found! Spiritual growth happens through a knowledge of the Scripture, yes, but also in the applying of that knowledge in the fellowship of the church. 

Paul says in Colossians 1:28 that he wants to present ‘every man complete in Christ.’ The pursuit of holiness, transformation, and spiritual growth does not end this side of heaven. We all need to be progressing toward continued spiritual growth, to continued completeness in Christ.

                                              -Pastor Mark Scialabba

Persistent Evangelism

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At a dinner given in his honor, missionary Wilfred Grenfell was asked by a Christian woman, “Is it true that you are a missionary?” Grenfell replied, “Isn’t it true that you are?” That’s a powerful illustration for us as a church. We know of people who have become ‘professional’ missionaries. They serve in that capacity full time. We know of those who are gifted at evangelism. We call them ‘evangelists.’ Scripture even confirms that there are certain individuals gifted to the church who are known as ‘evangelists’ (Eph 4:11). But as Wilfred Grenfell was implying with his question, every single Christian is an evangelist and every single Christian is a missionary. 

Our next characteristic of a healthy church is Persistent Evangelism. I use the word ‘persistent’ to emphasize that this is the responsibility of the entire church and that it is not confined to a singular event, but it is a regular and constant thing that the members are engaged in. The word ‘evangelism’ means ‘telling the good news.’ This good news is that Jesus came to save sinners, to forgive sins, and to grant eternal life! That truly is good news! Evangelism is not about forcing your religion on other people or trying to win arguments about why Jesus is better. Evangelism is telling people the good news of Jesus Christ and leaving the results up to God.

Some people don’t want to evangelize others because they feel that should be left up to the ‘experts.’ They think only those who are really good at evangelism should be doing it. What if they say something wrong? We have to understand that evangelism is not about skill or expertise, but it is about obedience. The Lord called together His followers in Matthew 28 and told them, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” (v 19). That seems to be a command to all of His followers. When we get to the book of Acts and see people in the early church, we see everyone spreading the Word of Jesus Christ. Look up Acts 8:1-4 and Acts 11:19-21 to see examples of ‘ordinary’ Christians spreading the gospel. It wasn’t just the elders and pastors who were doing the work of evangelism. It seems that all the people of the early church were active in spreading the gospel, not just the ‘experts.’

This is probably because they took the Lord’s Commission seriously. And they took the Commission as a command to be followed, not a suggestion to be considered. For a church to be truly who they are supposed to be, all the members need to be persistent in evangelism. We need to see our gathering together as a time to be equipped, and then, our scattering out into the world to evangelize. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:20 that we are “ambassadors for Christ.” We are His representatives speaking His message to the world. If a church sees evangelism as a matter of obedience then they will pursue it. Personally, this truth is what changed my perspective on evangelism. I used to think that I was terrible at evangelism and so the Lord wouldn’t want me sharing His gospel. Once I understood the instruction to “make disciples” was a command from my Lord, that changed my whole view on evangelism. 

Most people will frankly admit they do not evangelize because they don’t know how. What are some helpful hints in doing evangelism? First, use the Bible. Don’t come up with cute stories or self-defined phrases. Show people the truth of God’s Word. Put their eyes on the words of Scripture. The Word of God contains the power to convert, so let it! Second, speak of Christ. The good news is what Christ has accomplished. People turn to Christ, believe in Christ, and follow Christ. He needs to be the focus of your message. Third, leave the results to God. I encourage you to call on people to believe, to make a decision today, and to not delay about the state of their soul. But do not try to manipulate people to say ‘yes’ or try to garner some response. Let God do His work of conversion through His word. You and I just need to be obedient to the command of our Lord to “make disciples.”                    
 

Converted Membership

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J.D. Salinger is an author famously known for writing the book called The Catcher in the Rye. Salinger is also known for his frequent change in religions. He began as Jewish and then moved on to Buddhism, then Hinduism, then Christian Science, and finally Scientology. The world would say that Salinger ‘converted’ to at least 4 religions. What is ‘conversion’ and how does it relate to a healthy church?
    
Converted Membership is our next characteristic of a healthy church that we will look at in this month’s article. This is absolutely critical for the life of the church and for the church to remain what it truly is. 

What does it mean to convert? Or to be converted? The world would see conversion as simply a change in association or lifestyle choice. To merely mentally acknowledge a particular agreement with a group’s philosophies or ideals. I agree with your position, and so, I change my affiliation to the group that you belong to. Conversion would be something like changing political parties or becoming a vegan. That’s how the world sees conversion. But that is not how the Bible defines conversion. Surely there is something distinct about Christian conversion that separates it from simply a lifestyle choice, right?

To ‘convert,’ or to experience ‘conversion,’ or to be ‘converted’ in the Bible is understood as people who have repented of their sin and placed their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. The gospel message is always a call to repent and believe. When a person does that, he/she is ‘converted.’ People are always converted to Christ (Romans 16:5), not to the Christian religion or to church dogma. Conversion, therefore, is synonymous with becoming a Christian. So, one is ‘converted’ when one gets saved, born again, regenerated, or redeemed; and that happens when a person repents and believes. That is the only type of conversion that is understood in the Bible. 

This has serious implications for who we consider to be part of our church, or Christ’s church in general. Someone does not become a member of Christ’s church by attending the services, by association with Christians, by mental agreement with the teaching of Christianity, or by personal declaration (I’m a Christian). A person becomes a Christian, and a member of Christ’s church, when he/she is converted (repent and believe). It is impossible to say that someone has always been a Christian, since personal conversion is necessary to become a Christian. Conversion inherently assumes a change; a time before conversion, the time of conversion itself, then the life after conversion. 

Jesus said “unless you are converted you cannot enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 18:3). Church elders cannot be “new converts” (1 Timothy 3:6). And in Acts 15, Paul and Barnabas relate to the church the “conversion of the Gentiles.” Conversion is absolutely necessary to eternal life, conversion is a point in time when a person becomes a Christian, and conversion is the moment a person repents and believes on Jesus Christ as Savior. That is the overall testimony throughout the Bible. For more examples see the conversion of Zaccheus (Luke 19), Jesus’ first converts (John 1), the conversion of Paul (Acts 9), the conversions of Lydia and the Philippian jailor (Acts 16), and Epaeneutus, who was the first convert from Asia (Romans 16:5).

This is critical for the life of the church because without a proper understanding of conversion the definition of the church itself falls away. The church becomes nothing more than a club or an organization that you sign up for, rather than a distinct group of individuals made alive by the Spirit of God, who are brought together to serve the Living God. This is also critical because eternity is at stake. One’s eternal destiny depends on getting this right. We can disagree on things like styles of church leadership and eternity does not hang in the balance. But we cannot falsely assure someone of possessing eternal life because they choose to sit in our pews, like our music, or enjoy our potlucks. There is warning after warning after warning in the New Testament about false converts in the church, and this why a proper definition of conversion is necessary.

Conversion is when a person becomes new, not nice. Conversion is when a person is saved, not sincere. Conversion is being born again, not deciding on being a better person.                        

Pastor Mark Scialabba
 

Qualified Leadership

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Our culture seems to have a sneaking suspicion when it comes to people in positions of authority. We are laden with distrust and cynicism when a leader makes promises or declarations. This suspicion has crept into the church in regards to how people view the leaders of the church. Sometimes elders are viewed with the same suspicion as boards or politicians. If the leaders are Biblically qualified, this shouldn’t be the case.

I’ve titled this month’s characteristic of a healthy church ‘Qualified Leadership’ because that is exactly what the Bible mentions as the requirements for leadership. For a man to serve in leadership in the church, he must meet the requirements laid out in the New Testament. He must be qualified. The requirements are found listed in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9. A casual glance through those two passages show us that the list of requirements are all character issues. There is no requirement about what abilities he must possess, or his leadership savvy, or his position in the community, or his success in business, or his vision for the future. All of those things would make a great leader on the world stage, but those talents and abilities have nothing to do with leadership in the church. The main criteria is his Christian character. 

The overall feel of the character of Christian leadership can be summarized in a few ways. First, he ‘must be above reproach.’ Notice that the Scripture says he ‘must’ be above reproach. This is not an option. Being above reproach is really the absolute, fundamental, requirement for church leadership. It does not mean that he is sinless, but it does mean that there is no blatant sin or stain on his character. To have something to accuse him of would be hard to find. In reality, all of the other requirements just further define what ‘above reproach’ is. Second, he is a man of self-control. In the areas of sexuality, speech, passions, vices, and behavior. Third, he is a man of gentleness. Words like ‘gentle,’ ‘peaceable,’ ‘not pugnacious,’ and ‘not quick-tempered’ highlight this area. Last, he must be a man uncontrolled by money. It is interesting that in both lists a warning about inappropriate relations to money is mentioned. This cannot be ignored.

The only requirement that could be seen as a certain ‘ability’ in the two lists is the ability to teach (1 Timothy 3:2). The issue here is being able to effectively communicate the Word of God to His people. Even something like being able to teach is really a spiritual giftedness though, not necessarily a learned skill. Being able to teach means that the elder must have a sufficient grasp of the message of the Bible in order to teach it to God’s people. In fact, the seriousness of this ability is found in Titus 1:9, where the elder needs to be able to ‘exhort in sound doctrine and refute those who contradict.’ The elder has to know enough doctrine and theology to be able to build up the people of God spiritually and be able to identify, even correct, false doctrine.

How many leaders should the church have? How long should they serve? I would refer back to the qualifications to answer both of those questions. However many men meet the qualifications should be elders, however long they stay qualified is how long they should remain elders. The foundational question that must be asked of any possible elder is: is the man qualified? If he meets the qualifications, then further discussion of possible eldership can continue. If he does not meet the qualifications, he cannot be considered as an elder. 

Why is qualified leadership such a big deal? Why not just select the men who have been Christians the longest or those who are very influential and leaders in the community? Qualified leadership is important for various reasons. First, the Lord commands it. Those lists in 1 Timothy and Titus are not options, they are requirements. In no way can we redefine or ignore the Lord’s commands. Second, these men are required to ‘shepherd the flock’ (Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:1-2). There is a different character needed for a shepherd of God’s flock, versus a president of a board or a committee. One is a spiritual enterprise, the other is not. A spiritual entity requires a spiritual man. Third, these elders are supposed to be the examples that the church follows, as 1 Peter 5:3 makes clear. The people don’t necessarily need good leaders to follow, they need godly leaders to follow. 

What if you are not an elder or never seek to be an elder? How does this relate to you? Well, first things first, there is nothing in the lists of 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 that is not normal Christian behavior. Everyone in the church should be striving for that type of spiritual maturity. But also, the church is required to ‘obey and submit’ to their elders (Hebrews 13:17). It is important for the church to have qualified leadership who truly have the highest of spiritual character in order for the church to joyfully submit to them. Wouldn’t it be easy to follow the guidance and leadership of men who truly stand ‘above reproach’?

While not considered a big deal in some churches, qualified leadership is an absolute necessity for a healthy church.  

Pastor Mark Scialabba
 

Sound Theology

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This month is the third in our series on the Characteristics of a Healthy Church. Our topic for this month is: Sound Theology. It seems that the word ‘theology’ has a bad connotation nowadays in churches. When we hear the word ‘theology’ we think of brain teasers, difficult truths to explain, and divine conundrums. With that in mind, it is no wonder that people aren’t as excited about theology as they once were.

Theology is simply the ‘study of God.’ Of course, there is more to theology than studying God alone, but at the most basic level, theology is taking an interest in God and His dealings. What does it say about a church with no interest in God? How could we reconcile a distinct people of God with a lackluster interest in God? A healthy church holds onto sound theology and enjoys knowing God more.

I use the word ‘sound’ in Sound Theology to emphasize a thorough, solid, complete theology. This theology must proceed from out of the Scripture and not put into the Scripture. It is an error of some would-be theologians to endorse or agree with a specific theological framework, and then make the Scripture fit that framework everywhere. We must develop our theology from out of the Scripture and not read into the Scripture. In saying this, we could call our theology a ‘Biblical Theology’ and that is what it should be.

While almost everything done in church and Christianity has a theological understanding to it, I would like to focus on 4 Key Theological Truths that the church must embrace. These would be considered ‘the big picture’ in terms of theology. 

The first is a high view of God. We need to think lofty and exalted thoughts about our God. He is enthroned above the cherubim (2 Kings 19:15), there is no one holy like the Lord (1 Samuel 2:2), and there is no one who compares to Him (Isaiah 46:5). Of course, all the same is true of the Lord Jesus Christ, who is God in the flesh. This profound truth has serious implications for personal holiness as well as church life. Personally, if I have a high view of God, I will take His commands very seriously, I will seek to obey Him in all things, I will fear Him above all others. With a low view of God as simply a friend or an angel, His commands become less critical. Corporately, if the people of the church have a high view of God, they will seek His glory in all things, they will want Him to receive honor and praise, and they will try to please Him. With a low view of God, church becomes about man. The entire service and the programs become more about making people happy than glorifying God. 

The second key theological truth a church must embrace is a high view of Scripture. The Bible explains the nature of itself. Scripture is inspired by God (2 Timothy 3:16) and it is the Word of God and not men (1 Thessalonians 2:13). It also has the power to convert a soul (James 1:18), help a Christian grow spiritually (1 Peter 2:2), and can judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart (Hebrews 4:12). With a high view of Scripture, the church will seek to understand it’s meaning, labor to live it out, make it the sole authority in every area of life, and will cause it to be central in all church activities. Without a high view of Scripture, practicality reigns. Whatever is ‘working’ becomes the authority for the church to follow and this leads to all kinds of errors. 

The third key theological truth is a correct definition of man. Humans are not simply a collection of matter and molecules. They are uniquely and individually created by God Himself, separate from the animals. This means man has value and purpose, not just existence. However, man has fallen into sin. His heart is deceitful (Jeremiah 17:9), he is dead in transgressions and sin (Ephesians 2:1), and all parts of his faculties are infected with sin (Romans 3:10-18). With this correct theological understanding of man, we see the real need that unsaved man has. He needs regeneration, salvation, and the restoration of his relationship with God. He does not need to increase his self-esteem or improve his life. For the Christian, this means a clear explanation for the struggles of our daily walk: sin. It’s not about our environment or how we were raised, but the sin that still exists within us. Real change for the Christian comes from the inside out and not just behavior modification. 

The fourth key theological truth is a correct understanding of the church. The church is called the pillar and support of the truth (1 Timothy 3:15) and the church is called the Body of Christ by which individuals are members of that body (1 Corinthians 12:27). This means the church is so much more than simply a social club we join, it is more than doing religious activities, and its true membership is not found in all who want to sit in the pews. The church is a distinctly spiritual organism, it is the protector and distributor of truth, and it is truly made up of only those regenerated by God’s grace. 

While there are others I would like to include on this list, these four provide the key foundations for what a church could call Sound Theology. 

-Pastor Mark Scialabba
 

EXPOSITIONAL PREACHING

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There is a perspective on preachers that they sit around all week and think about what they are going to preach on. I must admit, if that was me, I would be panicked every single week! Fortunately, the content of what I am supposed to be teaching is defined in the Scripture itself.

Our second characteristic of a healthy church is: Expositional Preaching. Now, that’s a fancy theological term that simply means verse by verse explaining of the Scripture in such a way so that the point of the passage is the point of the sermon. To exposit a text of Scripture is to correctly interpret it’s meaning in context, then explain that meaning, and then apply that meaning to the congregation. Expositional Preaching has the message being extracted out of the text, rather than an idea from the preacher put into the text. Not that any of these characteristics of a healthy church are unimportant, but expositional preaching must be very high on the list because everything else in our list comes from this one being done correctly. If we get this one right, all the others will follow. Expositional Preaching is required because of 3 simple reasons. 

First, because preachers are told what to preach. In 2 Tim 4:2, Paul tells Timothy to ‘preach the Word.” Right out of the gate, preachers are given a certain limitation on what they are to be preaching. Preachers are not to just go out and preach anything. They are to preach the Word. They are commanded to do this. God does not tell preachers and pastors to come up with something to say, look for something to preach about, or invent content or topics to preach on. So, the content of preaching is narrowly defined: it must be Biblical, it must come from the Scripture.

Second, because the Word of God contains power and authority. It was by God’s Word that the heavens and the earth were created. It was by God’s Word that Abraham was called and became the father of the nation of Israel. It was by God’s Word that the 10 commandments were given, and the rest of the Law respectively. Hundreds of times in the Old Testament it says, “the Word of the Lord came.” Old Testament prophets announced what God had to say by beginning their message with “thus says the Lord.” That little phrase implies tremendous power and authority. In the New Testament, the Bible is said to be “living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12). The Bible itself has the power to judge the inner desires of people. And, the apostle Paul expressed his thankfulness for the Thessalonians because they accepted the word that he preached as the Word of God, and not as the word of men (1 Thess 2:13). Later in that same verse Paul says that the Word performs a work in believers. It does not matter how learned or clever a preacher might be. He has no power in and of himself, or his words, to speak with authority or to change lives spiritually from the inside out. Only the Word of God has the power and authority to accomplish that work and that is why expositional preaching is required. 

Third, because every verse is inspired and profitable. If preachers are to preach the Word, and the Word has the power and authority to change lives, then how does a preacher decide on what portion of Scripture to preach? Well, he must believe what 2 Timothy 3:16 teaches: “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable…” Every single verse of the Bible is breathed out by God and is profitable. With that truth in mind, how can we casually jump here and there throughout the Bible and only teach what we want to? If every verse is inspired, then every verse must be preached. If every verse is profitable, then every verse must be preached. Even portions of Scripture that seem to be difficult and not very applicable are still inspired and profitable. Preachers simply do not have the right to try and decide on their own what is good and useful to their congregation. Every word of Scripture is profitable because every word is God-breathed. Again, this demands verse by verse exposition of Scripture.

The apostle Paul told the Ephesian elders that he did not shrink back from declaring “the whole purpose of God” (Acts 20:27). He told the Colossians that he has a stewardship from God to make the Word ‘fully known’ (Col 1:25). He is the perfect example of someone who took expositional preaching seriously. There wasn’t a private insight he was trying to make known; it was only the full counsel of God delivered to God’s people. Expositional preaching is the only way to fully deliver the whole counsel of God. There are times when other types of sermons are helpful, like topical sermons. But the consistent and regular characteristic of the teaching ministry of a healthy church is expositional preaching.

-Pastor Mark Scialabba