Tuesday, October 23, 2012 | By: Zachary Bartels

My other blog...

You may have noticed that I have a new author website and a new blog to go with it.  My most recent post over there is a review of a bad 12-year-old movie that I hope will make you chuckle.  I will still occasionally post on this blog (theological, ecclesiological, etc.), but please consider following the other one as well, since I will be posting there more and more frequently. 

Wednesday, September 5, 2012 | By: Zachary Bartels

We’re Not Lost Puppies

A number of times in the Gospels, Jesus is said to have been “moved with compassion,” usually when confronted with crowds full of clueless, desperate people (e.g. Matt 9:36; 4:14, Mark 6:34).  We think we know what that means, being “moved with compassion.” We think we can relate. Because we’ve all seen something sad, like a three-legged puppy or a kid whose ice cream tipped over, or something tragic like a filthy homeless man with no hope or a lost child screaming for his parents—and we know what it feels like to be filled with so much compassion that it’s not enough to just feel it, we have to be moved by it. This is what we call “mercy.”

And yet . . .
We still can’t relate (at least in the flesh) to Jesus’ being  moved with  compassion. You see, we can’t just take our human version of love or mercy or compassion—virtues common to all human beings—and ratchet them up to the sky in order to see what God’s love or mercy or compassion looks like. That’s backwards, upside-down. Instead, we need to look to the Scriptures, to the character of God, to see what love and all the rest really are, and then bring those to bear in our own lives.
A Scripture that comes to mind is  Ezekiel 6:4-6, in which God tells Ezekiel to prophecy to his people: “On the day you were born your cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to cleanse you, nor rubbed with salt, nor wrapped in swaddling cloths. No eye pitied you, to do any of these things to you out of compassion for you, but you were cast out on the open field, for you were abhorred, on the day that you were born. And when I passed by you and saw you wallowing in your blood, I said to you in your blood, 'Live!' I said to you in your blood, 'Live!'” (ESV)

Upon first reading, that would seem to reinforce the idea that you and I can fully relate to Jesus’ compassion. After all, who among us could walk by an abandoned newborn baby and not do everything possible to help it live, to wash it off and care for it. That’s about  a million times more compelling than finding a lost puppy, but it’s along the same lines, right?
Look closer. Ezekiel is here proclaiming the Gospel message using the beautiful picture of adoption. God saw a child with no one to care for him, and so he took it upon himself. (Yes, Christians who choose to adopt children are living out a picture of the Gospel!) But whose child is he adopting? It’s his enemy’s child! It’s the children of the serpent, the children of rebellion!
 And more than that, this is not a sweet, whimpering baby wrapped in a blanket or left in a basket on the doorstep. Yes, it’s a  pathetic picture, but not in the “Awwww, look at the poor widdle baby” sort of way.  This abandoned child, despised and wallowing in blood, is actively rebelling against the one who would save him; that’s the cohesive picture of the unregenerate sinner presented in Scripture. Snarling and cursing and snapping at our Creator—this newborn is giving him the finger and blaspheming as the Father passes by. God is moved with compassion here not because of who Israel is (and certainly not because of who we are), but because of who He is.
Granted, it’s a rather gross picture because it shows not only our helplessness to save ourselves, but our native animosity to the very idea of being saved. Scripture uses other gross pictures for sin as well:  putrifying sores, a canker or gangrene, vomit to which a dog returns again and again. I had jotted down two other examples, but I honestly think I’ve made the point and the other two are so disgusting they might cause you to stop reading.
The point is this: while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Not, once we changed our minds and became sweet, sad little lost puppies, doe-eyed and asking for help. Human compassion might be moved to respond to something like that. But God’s love and compassion are different altogether.
Martin Luther put it this way: “The Love of God does not find, but creates that which is pleasing to it.” Read that again and then think about what that kind of love would look like! It’s hard to fathom. I remember the first time I noticed my wife walking the halls of Garber high school almost twenty years ago (she wasn’t my wife then). I remember it well. She was (and is) gorgeous, talented, so very confident. I remember thinking to myself: “Dibs.” I knew I had to do whatever it took to make her mine.
And as I got to know her and understand just how kind and sweet she was and how it made me feel good to be around her, my love for her slowly grew over the course of years from infatuation to puppy love to immature romantic love and on and on. But in those early stages of human affection, each time the love levels up, it is the result of another set of hoops being jumped through and hurdles being cleared. Human love finds what it is pleasing to it and says, “Dibs.”
But God’s love creates what is pleasing to it! God sees the helpless, rebellious, filthy sinner, despising his aid and scorning his rule, looks down at that wretched creature and says, “Dibs. I will make of this sinner a saint!” That’s not human love or compassion ratcheted up to the Nth degree; that’s something else altogether. That’s agape love.
And praise God for that kind of love. Without it, we would still be in our blood, dead and dying. But now we are in His blood, alive and being renewed!  We’re adopted now, heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ. And this is not some future promise that will be fulfilled. I John 3:2 tells us this is what we are now.
And if that’s the case, then we can (and must) love the people of this world, not with the kind of human love that is common to all, but with the agape love that God showed us. We must show people compassion, not just when they tug at our natural heartstrings, but when there is nothing loveable or even pitiful about them.  By the very example he showed us, Jesus is compelling us to look upon a world as wretched and sinful as we once were and to respond, not with hatred or disgust, not with self-righteousness or a sense of moral superiority, but with compassion—the same kind of compassion we ourselves received. The more we recognize the extent of our fallenness, the more we will comprehend of our Father’s unfailing love . . . and the more we will be able to love him and love others.
Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven--for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little."

– Jesus Christ, Luke 7:47 (ESV)

Soli Deo Gloria,
                Pastor Zach
Wednesday, July 25, 2012 | By: Zachary Bartels

It's Up to...WHO?

Got a new car recently. Well, it’s not new, but it’s new to me and I love it. First thing I did, of course, was rub every inch of leather with leather-specific Armor-All wipes, even though it was already spotless. Then I gathered together all my stuff for the glove box and console and all my chargers and wires and stuff. Then I went down to the den for five CDs to load up the disc changer.

About 2/3 of my listening time is regularly dedicated to music from my college days. This is not unusual, of course, and I’m lucky that I didn’t go to college in the seventies or eighties, but rather the mid-90s when music was flippin awesome. MxPx got one of the five slots, as did a Napster mix CD I made in about ’98 (“Just how far down do you wanna go? We could talk it out over a cup of joe...”) and one of my favorite albums of all time: Value Pac’s self-titled debut.

I still enjoy every song on the above record, but I can’t listen to them in the same way I did in ’96. Because these songs are all about Jesus and mankind and where the two intersect and I am now carrying with me the benefit/burden of many years of higher education en theologica. This colors my listening to every “Christian song,” whether hymn or hip hop.

Surprisingly, the lyrics of the high school punk rock band called Value Pac are far more orthodox and biblical than most of what you find in Christian music. In fact, all of the five Solas are present in force on this album. One of my favorite songs (which you can listen to here) is called One Way Out, and is one of the best pictures of the state of mankind and need for a Savior. It does not mention the cross, but other songs on the album do very specifically. All in all, it’s pretty solid for a song written by teenagers and comprised of power chords. And yet, the unrelenting doctrinal effect of evangelical youth group culture and pull-up-your-bootstraps American soteriology still gets the last word.

Verse 1
All alone in this world you don’t want it
Not anymore, oh no

The cares of this world can choke you out
Ya got no direction; you can’t find your way out
Trapped in the maze that you call life
Not gonna make it until you see the light so bright

These walls, you built them up yourself
Locked from the inside; can you break your way out?
Which way is up? Which way is down?
Walking in circles you can’t find your way around
Yeah, I know. Not the best prose. But theologically, pretty good stuff for a high school or college age kid to listen to. The total depravity of man is conveyed to some extend. The human condition is trapped in sin, pictured as walls that we ourselves have built. The only door (I’m inferring a bit here) is locked from the inside by me, but I am apparently unable/unwilling to unlock it as the only option considered is breaking my way out, which I am unable to do. The only possible means of escape is me seeing the light. So far, so good by my score card.
But Jesus will find you and He’ll never let you go
Jesus will find you
He won’t leave you standing all alone
He’s gonna find you and He’ll never let you down
Jesus will find you
He’ll help you out; whatcha gonna do?
Okay, some of you might not like the language “He’ll help you out” and would prefer “He’ll pull you out” or something more monergistic sounding, but when you consider that we’ve already established the hopelessly trapped nature of man, I think the statement is in keeping with Jesus’ own references to/pictures of helping trapped animals out of pits, etc. And if you give that a slide, we’ve got a solid chorus here.

I just returned from a week as camp pastor for 7th and 8th graders and I (as always) tried to drill into their heads that they didn’t find Jesus—if they’re saved, Jesus found them. And they aren’t holding their salvation in their hands—if they were, they’d drop it every time. Instead, they’re safe in Jesus’ hands! Amen and amen!
Verse 2 and Bridge
The ways of this world have let you down
You wanna make it, but you don’t know how
Losing this game someone called life
You’ve had enough you’ve had it for the last

So watch your back as you walk astray
Turn around and walk the other way
You only want to live for you
Someday I hope you get a clue
Here we have a call to repentance (literally, “Turn around and walk the other way” is a great definition of שׁוּב). Much like the prodigal son “came to himself” and returned to his father, we must “have enough” of what the world offers to fill the hole, have it for the last time, and—drawn by the Holy Spirit to the cross—repent and believe. Again I say, amen!

But that’s not the end of the tune. After one more go through the chorus of “Jesus will find you,” there’s one more line, a little tag as the last power chord fades away:

But it’s up to YOU!
Ex-squeeze me? Uh-baking powder? Did you not just spend an entire punk rawk song telling me just how not in my hands this whole thing is? I’ve got this vision in my head of the lead singer with awesomely dyed, spikey hair, penning this song at a skate park, reading it over and having a weird conflicting feeling. He’s presented the Gospel as the Bible does, but it doesn’t jibe with what he’s been taught most of his life: namely, the largely Pelagian notion that God casts one vote for our soul and the devil casts one, and we get the deciding vote. As if that democratic process were the kind of election St. Paul refers to repeatedly.

If only he’d just held that idea up against Scripture before tacking it on the end of his song about how sinful men and women are not only unable, but unwilling to turn to God until their eyes are opened, the cell of their sinful heart is torn down, they are raised from spiritual death to life . . . Yes, we must repent and believe. But thank God it’s not “up to me.”

Soli Deo Gloria,
Pastor Zach
Tuesday, July 10, 2012 | By: Zachary Bartels
Thursday, June 28, 2012 | By: Zachary Bartels

Is Comfort a Vice or a Virtue?

I remember sitting in church as a little kid, thinking that the service must have been designed to make us kids as uncomfortable as possible. The hard pews, the organ music, the necktie, more than an hour of quietly sitting still.  It seemed to me that the adults were perfectly comfortable (after all, they were used to dressing up and sitting through hours of boring meetings), but we young people were being taught the spiritual value of discomfort.

That’s not a new idea by any stretch. Early Christian ascetics wore coarse clothing, ate little, lived in cramped quarters and slept on the hard floor because of the alleged spiritual advantage of being uncomfortable. Some even lived out in caves in the desert or at the tops of poles for years at a time. There is little in Scripture to back these practices up (in fact, St. Paul seems to rail against discomfort for discomfort’s sake in Colossians 2), but it has hung around in different forms for millennia all the same.

Today, though, thanks largely to the Baby Boomer generation, the opposite view rules the day. I attended a church in Grand Rapids for about 18 months where the main concern was that everyone be comfortable. I loved it! You could munch cookies and drink coffee during the service and the music each week featured a rock band playing a well-known secular song. If anyone was going to be uncomfortable in that setting it would be “churchy people” and older folks (and the leadership openly voiced how okay they were with this), since they might object to the loud music, smoke machine, and casual atmosphere. It was in a sense the exact opposite of the vibe of my church growing up.

The “worship wars” of the 1990s saw those two outlooks battling it out over who was right. On the surface, the argument was about biblical fidelity and pragmatism, inward vs. outward, etc. But underneath, we might admit that both sides were fighting for their right to be comfortable in their church . . . only neither of them really wanted to admit it, since being comfortable had recently become a major sin.

I think it was sometime in the mid-to-late-‘80s that the term “comfort zone” began showing up with regularity inside the church. It’s a term borrowed from the world of corporate management and it refers to a state of being anxiety-neutral and performing at a steady level with little sense of risk. The idea is that, unless they are pushed, people will remain inside their comfort zone, avoiding risk and anxiety, and will therefore never move beyond their current level of performance.

Naturally, in light of Jesus’ command to make disciples of all nations, Paul’s admonition to preach the Word “in season and out of season,” and the apostles’ consistent examples of suffering for the Gospel, remaining entirely within one’s “comfort zone” is not an option for the Christian. And so we were convicted and the call to “get out of your comfort zone” became a bona fide Christian cliché/buzzword—one which still receives heavy usage in some circles today. But, as always happens, the meaning of the phrase evolved over time.

The original emphasis of the term, as I remember it, was on evangelism. After all, it’s comfortable to talk to your neighbor or co-worker about the weather, last night’s ball game, or how many orange barrels are out on Michigan roads this week. It’s a step outside of the comfort zone to bring up matters of spiritual significance—particularly the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In this way, the “comfort zone” catchphrase served the church of Jesus Christ admirably, reminding us that we are called to a much deeper life than our comfortable, surface-level chit-chat and amusements.

But then the term's usage began to broaden. Sunday morning worship became a time when the aforementioned churchy people and older folks were called on to step out of their comfort zones. (“It’s not about you, after all,” I remember foolishly chiding one woman at a church council meeting in 1997, parroting a church growth guru I’d been reading). And before long, every aspect of a Christian’s life had to take place outside his or her comfort zone if one wanted to be a stellar Christian. Those who were content with their jobs and at home in their neighborhoods and churches were probably sub-par in the spirituality department. 

But is comfort necessarily a vice? And is discomfort necessarily a virtue? That’s a complex question with a multi-layered answer. 


1.      Paul, in a rare instance of ringing his own spiritual bell, tells the Philippians (in chapter 4) that he has learned to be “content in all circumstances,” whether he’s abounding or in need. Regardless of the number of creature comforts he was experiencing, he was  in some sense comfortable with his lot in life.

2.   In Jesus’ parables and his letters to the seven churches in the Book of Revelation,the comforts of life often serve as idols that keep people from receiving the Gospel and bearing fruit.

3.    Jesus frequently referred to the Holy Spirit as “the Comforter.” Of course being “comfortable” and being “comforted” are two very different animals, but if discomfort were our ultimate goal as Christians, wouldn’t Jesus have sent the “uncomforter?” [Lest I be charged with equivocation here, both the “comforts of home”-type comforts and the sort of “comforting” done for a hurting friend have to do with removing anxiety, and that's what I’m mainly concerned with here.]

4.   Throughout his epistles, Paul frequently reminds his churches that Christians are given different gifts and called to minister in different settings and capacities according to those gifts. Not everyone is a preacher, not everyone a teacher, not everyone a painter. If the idea of getting in front of the church and speaking scares you to death, that doesn’t mean God wants you to “get out of your comfort zone” and give the sermon next week. Quite the opposite.

5.      Following Jesus is never the path of least resistance or the path of most comfort. It is the narrow way, not the broad.  It is chipping a foundation out of stone rather than throwing a house together on the sandy beach, but in the end that is where our comfort comes from.

So when should you worry about being in your “comfort zone?” When is it a dangerous place to hang out? I would answer that question this way: only when you value your own comfort over God’s Word and his commands. In other words, when you are willing to disobey Him in the name of comfort.

Some comforts are always a good thing and there are some comforts that a Christian ought to be able to enjoy: the cross of Jesus Christ, the comfort of reading and hearing his Word and partaking of his holy meal, the comfort of gathering together with the saints. As we continue to study the Book of Revelation (both in my sermons and on my other blog), it will become more and more clear that, while being a Christian in a hostile world involves many great discomforts (from the mild awkwardness of bringing up Jesus in a culture where that’s just not done to the tribulation of outright persecution for professing faith in Him), there is a comfort for the church in gathering together faithfully to worship our Lord and holding up the Light, as his lampstand, for a lost world to see.

May we find our comfort in the same and offer it to all who would receive it.

Soli Deo Gloria,
Pastor Zach
Thursday, June 14, 2012 | By: Zachary Bartels

Out of Sardis (part 2)

Here’s an excerpt from another post at my second blog, Out of Sardis. This will likely be the last post from over there that I link over here, so please consider liking/ subscribing/ following/ whatever that blog as well. I've disabled comments on this post to encourage comments over there.

To view the whole post, click the graphic below:

I will be the first to admit that my default assumption is this: Jesus would do things the way I think they should be done—the way I do them. And I know I'm not alone here. This is a universal problem; since the Garden, we've had a propensity for remaking our God in our own image. And it's a problem that persists today, even in the Church. We all tend to read our preferences, our values, our politics,and our culture into Jesus and let them determine who He is, rather than vice versa.

Like so:

But we don’t have to. We have Scripture. And not only does God’s Word contain a record of the teachings of Jesus on earth (in the Gospels) and the inspired apostolic interpretations of those teachings, it also contains the oft-overlooked Revelation of Jesus Christ and its seven letters from Jesus to seven churches (from whence this blog derives its name). We need not guess or grasp.

Want to know Jesus’ position on sexual ethics for a church that finds itself in a pluralistic, over-tolerant, “sexually liberated” culture? It’s tempting to read our own views into Jesus’ heart and lips (i.e. “I just can’t imagine Jesus saying…”), but to do so is naive at best and idolatrous at worst. How much better to read the letters written by Jesus to churches in almost the same setting (Ephesus, Pergamum, and Thyatira), in which Jesus addresses these issues directly?

Likewise, when it comes to philosophies of ministry, particularly the hot-button issues of Church Growth and Church Health, it’s easy for all of us to assume that Jesus wants to use whatever ideas, strategies, traditions, or gimmicks we prefer in order to grow our churches. I know I’m guilty of this. And if we’re clever, we can even frame certain narratives from the Gospels such that Jesus seems to be on board with this or that trend, book, or buzzword.

These days, I most often see this done (and have been frequently tempted to carry it out myself) with regard to the uber-popular notion that you can tell where God is moving (and how powerfully he’s moving) by how many people gather together, how much of a buzz a church generates in the media, and how large and impressive the facility is .. .

Thursday, June 7, 2012 | By: Zachary Bartels

Out of Sardis (part 1)

Jesus actually vomits in Revelation 3.

We've all been reminded of that more than once—that the literal rendering of Rev 3:16 is, “Because you are luke warm, neither hot nor cold, I am about to vomit you out of my mouth.” I suppose it’s a good enough rendering, although preachers sometimes imply an intimate familiarity with this particular Greek word, despite this being its only use in the New Testament.

But either way, none of us wants to make Jesus puke; that much is obvious. And what triggers this awful response in our Lord? Why, our lukewarmness. Therefore: don’t be luke warm. Be excited, be active, wrap yourself in a flurry of religious activity, anything to avoid even the appearance of luke warmness.

The context of this dire warning, of course, is the letter from Jesus to the church in Laodicea—the last of seven letters in Revelation 2-3 to seven different churches in Asia minor. These letters generally follow a standard format and include, among other things, praise for the church, a rebuke of the church, a warning or threat, and an exhortation. That’s the general outline followed by all seven letters. Except that there are two churches with nothing negative said about them—no rebuke, no threat, no warning. Nothing but encouragement, approval, and exhortation.

And then, of course, there’s Laodecia, which has nothing positive said about it, further reinforcing just how bad it is to be luke warm. In fact, if there’s any church we don’t want to emulate, it’s Laodecia. And so we don’t. Church growth and congregation health gurus regularly remind us—and we remind each other—of Revelation 3:16 and how we need to avoid becoming another luke warm church in danger of being vomited out.

Instead, we try as hard as we can to be just like the church in Sardis. And every day there are new methods and books explaining how to be more Sardisian in our approach and new success stories of churches who have grown as a result.

There’s just one problem: Sardis is not one of the two churches for which Jesus had no rebuke and no threat. In fact, it was one of the two churches for which Jesus had no commendation, no praise—nothing good to say at all. Only the harshest of reproofs and most fearful of warnings. In the name of avoiding one deadly hole, we’ve been going deeper and deeper into another. Luther famously wrote of the Babylonian Captivity of the Church. Today, we might instead speak of a Sardisian Captivity of the Church.

This topic is so near to me that I've begun a second blog all about how the church’s conventional wisdom has shifted with—and bowed to—the world and its culture, how the books, the experts, the buzzwords, and the movements all assume what the church assumed in Sardis, namely that the way to gauge where God is at work is to use the world’s understanding of life, marketing, and mob psychology.

This new blog will not a discernment blog dedicated to calling people/churches out, naming names, and anathematizing masses of sell-outs and heretics. There are more than enough blogs out there doing that. Instead, it will be dedicated to shining light on the unrelenting trend we see in Western Christianity, a trend of the Church trying to look like Sardis, instead of Smyrna or Philadelphia.

How will we go about this task? Here’s how I see it (although it may shift mid-course): I will begin with a series of mini-studies on the letter of Jesus to the church in Sardis, drawing application to our churches today, then move on to survey some of the other letters in Revelation 2-3. When that is done, I will begin to add other contributors as we begin to apply these concepts more specifically (if you would like to contribute, let me know). The goal of this new blog (http://outofsardis.blogspot.com) is not just to raise the alarm about this disastrous trend in churches big and small, but also to provide insight and promote discussion about how we can head back out of Sardis.

I’m not an expert on the subject, but together we will hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

Soli Deo Gloria,
Pastor Zach Bartels
Wednesday, May 30, 2012 | By: Zachary Bartels

Once in a Lifetime, Once a Week

I’m not sure why, but I’ve got a thing for significant anniversaries and days set aside to remember important people  and events of ages past.  Yesterday was Memorial Day and on that day I often think back to the Memorial Day observances I took part in as a little boy at the cemetery in Zeeland, Michigan, complete with Scripture readings, gun salutes, and the playing of taps. My enormous extended family (my father has eight brothers and sisters, all of whom have reproduced with gusto) comprised the vast majority of the participants.

After the service, I remember my dad showing me grave markers of family members, including those of his father and his brother who died as an infant. Now that I think about it, it’s entirely possible that this cemetery service only happened once and I’ve just idealized it as what Memorial Day should look like. I tend to do that.

This year, my family went to no cemeteries and heard no one play taps.  That’s because, for us, the day was about celebrating someone alive and full of life—my son, whose birthday fell on the holiday.  We let him set the agenda for the day, which involved playing his new drums (yeah, we got him a drum set for his birthday—no regrets . . . yet), having a water fight, and washing dishes (I’m guessing that won’t last). It was awesome—another day that I will idealize and remember for the rest of my life.

The last few years have been pretty full of significant anniversaries for someone of my persuasion. In the summer of 2009, my hero John Calvin turned 500. And while I attended two conferences and read countless articles surrounding the milestone, I realized three days after the actual birthday that I had missed it, which frustrated me to no end. After all, that’s a one-time thing. Like my son Calvin’s fourth birthday, John Calvin’s 500th will never happen again. And I let it just come and go. 

Then in 2011, we had the 500th anniversary of the publishing of the King James Version of the Bible, one of the greatest steps forward in the history of the Church.  There are a few dates cited as the day of publication, but the most common is May 2, 1611.  Again, I realized a week late that I had failed to so much as give a thought to the day on the day.

This year, too, holds a biggy, since it was in 1812 that my church’s namesakes, Adoniram and Ann Judson made the journey to the other side of the world as part of the first American foreign missionary journey of its kind. They left Massachusetts among the first Congregationalist foreign missionaries from America, but arrived in India the first American Baptist foreign missionaries (upgrade! J).  The date they set sail was February 19, 1812. I realized I had missed this 200th anniversary a few days after it passed. Did I mention it was a Sunday? Yeah, we met together and said nothing about the momentous occasion. Another once-in-a-lifetime anniversary wasted.

Well, we’re not going to let that happen with June 17 (the200th anniversary of their arriving in Calcutta) or September 16 (the anniversary of the day William Carey baptized the Judsons by immersion into the Baptist faith). Seriously, I’m baptizing someone on September 16, volunteer or conscript. Likewise, we’re marking the completion of the Judson’s journey (albeit a week early) by welcoming the president of Judson University to our pulpit to remind us of the legacy our church’s founders took upon themselves when they named our church Judson Memorial Baptist. I’m greatly looking forward to it!

As special as all these once-every-hundred-years type milestones are, however, the most important days of memorial for a Christian recur over and over again. Good Friday and Easter morning are opportunities to remember our Lord’s death and resurrection, year after year.  That the day will come again next year does not make it any less special. Quite the opposite. Even more frequent are our monthly memorials to Christ’s suffering and death, as we receive Christ in the bread and cup of Holy Communion.

But what if this weren’t so frequent? Would we be more likely to attend—to be absolutely sure we made it—if this were a once-in-a-lifetime thing, like baptism? Or if it were only once a year? Probably, but should that be the case? If Christ’s death and resurrection is really at the center of who we are, shouldn’t we grasp every opportunity to follow his command to “do this in remembrance of him?”

And speaking of his resurrection, I’m sure you know that the reason we worship on Sunday and not Saturday (as in the Old Covenant) is because it was on a Sunday (the first day of the week) that Our Lord Jesus came back to life and walked right out of the tomb. In that sense, each Lord’s Day is a day devoted to remembering what he accomplished for us and what that means to us. Sure, another opportunity is coming in seven days, but can we really let any chance to devote a day to the Resurrection pass us by? I submit that a single monthly remembrance of our Lord’s death or weekly remembrance of his resurrection is far more important than the once-a-year or even the once-every-hundred-years anniversaries of births, deaths, and significant events that we make sure we observe each and every time they come around.

Yesterday, we thought about those who had died, but at my house, we celebrated one who is alive. Each Sunday the Church does the same. I encourage you to begin shifting the way you think about Sunday worship, away from something we just do because we always have, to a priceless opportunity to thank God for what he’s done and celebrate what he’s doing even now in our midst.

Soli Deo Gloria,
Pastor Zach
Monday, May 21, 2012 | By: Zachary Bartels


As I was smoothing out some of the wrinkles in the new blog template, I happened upon several unfinished posts in my “drafts” folder.  Actually, they were more loose outlines or reminders to write a post later on (clearly they didn’t do the job, as they were all dated in 2010). One was a partially written review of the YouTube “documentary” The God Who Wasn’t There (which, of course, made the bold choice to refute itself, leaving a bunch of Christian bloggers wondering, “What do I do now?”)

Another of these drafts was simply a copy of a blog comment that referenced me.  It was from the blog Epochalypsis: The Age of Unveiling. I vaguely remember seeing a Facebook ad featuring their glowing chi-rho logo and clicking over to check it out.  What I found was a post that referred to the doctrine of substitutionary atonement as “twisted crap.” I commented on the post, challenging some of the writer’s presuppositions, and got this response:

The Twisted Crap: (that Pastor Bartels apparently teaches his flock) God wanted us all dead for being such terrible sinners and Jesus saved us from his wrath. Also known as "substitutionary atonement" (i.e. Jesus was substituted in our place), this is one of the most vile, unfortunate and common understandings of what Jesus and his death on the cross means for mankind. It basically takes the biblical concept of a compassionate, loving, parent-like unconditional figure of God and warps and distorts God into some kind of blood-thirsty, revenge oriented God of wrath. While this understanding of God may not be true or helpful to growing as a loving compassionate believer, it sure is helpful to make believers compliant and put butts in your church pews. Much of the Empire of Christianity owes it's growth and success to this very lie. How do I know this is crap?

Think about the concept of substitutionary atonement this way: Imagine you were standing on the side of the road watching a mother and a daughter walking toward you hand-in-hand. Suddenly, a car loses control, and careens off the road onto the sidewalk right in the path of the mother and her daughter. With but a moment to act, the mother scoops up her daughter and throws her clear of the out-of-control car and then is killed instantly as the car slams into her. You run over to the scene of the accident to see if you can help. Paramedics, police and other bystanders are rushing around. Some are attending to the little girl, some are checking the mother's vitals, some are just in shock, crying at the horrible scene and the incredible sacrifice they'd just witnessed. Suddenly, out of nowhere, this wild-eyed woman walks up next to you, grabs your arm and says, "God wanted that little girl dead. The car was His wrath, and the little girl's mommy took her place."

I bet anyone of us would look that woman in the eyes and tell her she was nuts. Crazy nuts. And yet that's what millions of Christians the world over hear and believe every Sunday. The term "sacrifice" is not meant like the virgin on the altar, or the lamb at passover. It's not some kind of offering to appease. "Sacrifice" is meant like when we say a soldier "sacrificed himself" by jumping on a mine to save his platoon. Or the mother in the story above. It's an act of compassion and love. Not an act of appeasement. And that, my friends, is what Pastor Bartels finds offensive that I call "a morbid, negative and creepy doctrine" on the blog."

Not sure what I had been planning to do with that little gem. I’m guessing that the reason it just sat there a draft is because, like The God Who Wasn’t There, after a basic critical perusal, there’s little left standing to even tip over. But it might be a useful exercise to see just how many 1. false presuppositions, 2. logical fallacies / unwarranted leaps, and 3. blatant misunderstandings of orthodox soteriology we can find here. Not because it’s fun to tear someone else’s beliefs down (although the author of the above comment clearly thinks it is), but because, despite the fading away of many doctrinal-trends-formerly-known-as-emergent, the fashionable denial of substitutionary atonement is still on the rise among self-professed followers of Jesus.

And when we encounter proponents of such thought, it’s important that we listen carefully, that we search the Scriptures to analyze, validate, or debunk their teachings, and that we don’t let them get away with pulling a record number of “fast ones.”

Soli Deo Gloria,
Pastor Zach

Thursday, May 17, 2012 | By: Zachary Bartels
Wednesday, May 16, 2012 | By: Zachary Bartels

Stay Tuned for the Mind-Blowing Conclusion

If you look to your right, one of the many widgets you’ll see is an ad for our (Gut Check Press’s) on-going, serialized rapture-palooza of a thriller novel. I first told you about this project last February, and we were cooking right along for a while.

As of yesterday, though, the most recent entry was from January 14. But then today, I dropped the Big One.

As we say at Gut Check Headquarters / Pastor Zach’s Basement (while adjusting our wigs and looking deeply into our own souls in the mirror), It’s on now!

The aforementioned Big One:

If you want to know how it all ends . . .

Dear reader-slash-footsoldier in the Gut Check Army,

Yes, it seems that we let this project go by the wayside, as if this serialized end-times thriller is now as irrelevant as The Late Great Planet Earth. But things are not always as they seem.

True, we did have a bit of a lag there—so much so that we're having to re-work the clever “whoops, the Mayan calendar really runs out in 2011” sub-plot—but we’ve also been working on this project behind the scenes. There are now four more chapters, each building this story to a ludicrously dispen-sensational climax.

Where are these chapters, and why aren't they posted, you ask? Because we’ll be wrapping this story up as a committee in the next few weeks (somewhere in a smoke-filled back room or spark-and-steam-filled alley) and offering the whole deal as an e-book for, oh let's say, three bucks.

Stay tuned at www.gutcheckpress.com.

Honestly, this thing is a hilarious collaboration and it’s getting funnier as it gets more absurd. I’ll let you know when it’s all shrink-wrapped and ready for delivery to your Kindle or Nook.

Friday, May 11, 2012 | By: Zachary Bartels

New Look!

Check it out! I’ve got a new look here at Dispatches.

It occurred to me that, since my blogging career has involved more “comebacks” than John Travolta’s acting career, I needed to do something drastic to prove to the world that I’m really back on the blogging horse in earnest. So here it is: I actually updated my horribly ’90s-looking blog template with something (hopefully a little bit) less outdated looking.

Let’s all just take a moment to bask in the heat of the smile now spreading the mandibles of the Calvinist Gadfly.

-Pastor Zach

P.S. This is also a good time to follow my blog on blogger (or Google Friend Connect or whatever) or on Facebook (via Networked Blogs).

Tuesday, May 8, 2012 | By: Zachary Bartels

The Mother of All Preaching Problems


My fellow preachers,

I need some advice here.

The Background: I have never been the kind of pastor who lets Hallmark determine my preaching calendar. I’m singularly unwilling to allow 10-20% of my precious opportunities at the pulpit to be hijacked by secular/cultural/sentimental holidays which are not rooted in the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus.

When such a holiday comes along, I simply continue preaching through whatever book I was working through. More often than not, I’m shocked by the clear providence involved, as the “special day” in question (particularly days that touch on biblical themes, like Veterans Day, Valentine’s Day, Thanksgiving, etc.) fits together with the text hand-in-glove—totally unplanned, of course. Sometimes, I can even throw a bone to the holiday via a sermon illustration that serves the text.

But with Mother’s Day . . . well, let’s just look at my record . . .

  • My 1st Mother's Day at Judson: Preaching through Sermon on the Mount, I landed on, “If you look at a woman to lust after her, you've already committed adultery in your heart.”

  • My 2nd Mother's Day at Judson: Preaching through Joshua, it happened to be about Rahab, the harlot.

  • My 3rd Mother's Day at Judson: Preaching through Luke, the text was the woman of bad reputation (prolly a prostitute) who anointed Jesus' feet. (Some finding this less cute, and perhaps beginning to wonder if it’s by design . . . )

  • My 4th Mother's Day at Judson: I had just finished 63 weeks of preaching through Luke the week before and took it as a providential sign to preach a one-off expository sermon from a Mother's-Day friendly text. Okay, fine; it was a topical sermon. (Does Act of Contrition). I actually heard more negative feedback for this move than positive.

  • My 5th Mother's Day at Judson: Preaching through John's epistles, it seemed that the curse was lifted, as I was able to expound on love and truth.

  • My 6th Mother's Day at Judson: Didn't want to mess with it, so I took the week off and called in a real professional (Mikey Gohn) to deal with preaching on Mother’s Day.

  • My 7th Mother's Day at Judson (this coming Sunday): Preaching through Revelation, and have arrived at this text . . .
  • Revelation 2:20-23  “But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols.  I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality.  Behold, I will throw her onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her works,  and I will strike her children dead.” [Emphasis mine, natch]

    Seriously? On Mother’s Day! Come on!!

Part of me thinks it’s a test or something. Either, way (if I put it off a week or not), it'll be a great intro. But what to preach? And how to address it? 

I realize that many pastors do not choose their own text each week, or do not preach through books in an expository fashion, but let’s do a little inter-denominational-clergy-colleagues-take-part-in-a-Baptistic-style-vote a la bad ecclesiatical reality show action on this one. I’m thinking maybe going with whatever one of the major lectionaries has scheduled this week . . . ?

What say you?
Wednesday, May 2, 2012 | By: Zachary Bartels

The Jets, the Sharks, and Jesus

“They’re like Romeo and Juliet.” 

I’ve heard that said when two people are deeply in love.  What is meant, of course,  is not that the two people in question are star-crossed lovers, destined to crash and burn as a result of their passionate feelings for one another. No, it means that they epitomize the timeless, starry-eyed ideal of the romantic love story.

But is Romeo and Juliet a timeless, romantic love story?  I was reminded the other day that this uber-famous play is actually about “a relationship that lasted three days between a 13-year-old and a  17-year-old, which resulted in six deaths.” Well, when you put it that way . . .  Romantic? No.  Timeless?  Only because we’ve made it so.

In fact, Romeo and Juliet has been told and re-told in countless different ways with as many different settings and backdrops (from Nazi Germany to wherever Porky Pig lives).  One of the most famous re-imaginings of Shakespeare’s tale is the 1950s musical West Side Story (cue snapping), which is set in contemporary New York and involves street gangs, knives, and zip guns (zip guns!). Another well-known retelling was a film called Romeo + Juliet that came out when I was in college, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and set in a fictional modern-day location called “Verona Beach.” Car chases and gunfights ensue, but the story of two star-crossed lovers remains the same.

It seems that the setting is incidental to this story. It’s really about the relationship between these two families (or gangs or whatever) and how it affects two young people and their budding relationship. The rest is just backdrop, which can easily be replaced with another backdrop without harming the story.

Many other stories also remove timeless tales from their original settings: Clueless is really just Jane Austin’s Emma plopped down 180 years later in a Beverly Hills high school and O Brother Where Art Thou is a loose re-telling of Homer’s Odyssey. Both work because these timeless stories can play before any backdrop.  Georgian England or 90210 in 1995, the Trojan War or Depression-era chain gangs—these are just details not essential to the plot. Now, there certainly are stories where this doesn’t apply (for instance, Orwell’s 1984 ceases to make sense if you remove the backdrop of a tyrannical dystopia), but Romeo and Juliet easily survives a split from its historical setting.

Why do I even bring this up? Because our culture is viewing the world around us more and more in terms of narratives—stories. This is good news for Christians, since we have always viewed the world through the lens of the meta-narrative—the one Big Story of how God created us, we fell into sin, and He redeemed us through an incredible plan that climaxed with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. When we speak in terms of stories, then, we’re speaking both the language of Scripture and the language of the culture, which can make for some pretty effective preaching and some rather naturally occurring evangelism in the workplace, the family, or among friends.

But we have to be careful how we tell the Story. I’ve previously shared with you the best advice I ever got about preaching: my homiletics professor told us, “Gentlemen, when you’ve finished your sermon and think it’s just about ready to preach, read it over and ask yourself this . . . Could this message still be true and make sense if Jesus had not died and risen again for our salvation? If the answer is yes, then throw it out and start over, because it’s not a Christian sermon. It’s self-help or life-coaching or tips for family dynamics, but it’s not a cross-centered message, which is what we are called to proclaim.”
In other words, if you’re about to deliver a sermon or teach a lesson that is supposed to be rooted in the cross of Jesus, but you could swap out the cross of Jesus for the Koran or a book on etiquette or a self-esteem or productivity seminar (just as easily as swapping out Fair Verona for 1950s New York), then there’s something seriously wrong.

Well, the same thing applies to our very lives—our narratives.  How is it that Jesus and his cross fit into your story? Is He part of the backdrop, a detail not essential to the plot?  Is He a set-piece that could be removed or replaced without harming the overall story? Is the cross of Jesus like the setting of Romeo and Juliet (incidental and unessential) or is he more like the shark in Jaws? No shark, no story.  Then again, we could replace the shark with a tiger or a huge snake or even a hurricane (after all, it’s a basic “man-versus-nature” story) and not lose too much. The story of Scripture, though, is man-versus-God. And God Wins through His coming down in flesh to dwell amongst us and His dying for our sins, only to rise again. It’s the tale of God, in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself. You remove that and plug  anything else in its place and you’ve lost the whole story.

Rather than being part of the background or a supporting character in our story (a character who might be written out at any time), God calls us to become a supporting character in His story, the Big Story of redemption that he is writing. That means that our whole existence is only meaningful in relation to the plot of the Jesus Story. To remove us from that and try to find any meaning apart from it would be meaningless, like trying to create a spin-off series for the Close Talker or “Frightened Inmate #3.” When we realize that our lives have meaning only because they are part of God’s Story (and not because He is part of ours), then we can say goodbye to much of the uncertainty and doubt that so often plagues us as Christians—doubt that we’re doing enough, doubt that our story is compelling enough. It’s not. But His Story is.

Just as a sermon should pass the “Would it make sense without the cross?” test, so should our lives. When we prayerfully reflect on each day, perhaps we should ask the question, “Would today have looked any different if Jesus hadn’t died for my sins and risen again for my justification?”  If it would have been the same, take heart—God’s story carries on.  Let’s repent of our attempts to make Jesus part of the scenery and ask him every day to make us part of His Story, which is timeless—not because it can be re-imagined in a number of different times and places, but because it spans all of time. And he’s cast you in the role of disciple.
How could we possibly pass that up?

Soli Deo Gloria,
Pastor Zach