Diverse Unity

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If you’ve ever experienced the frustration of disunity in a church, you know how upsetting it can be. Most of us do not enjoy conflict in general, so the thought of conflict within the body of believers can feel even more uncomfortable. However, conflict always inevitably happens, just as it does in any committed relationship. Christians are exhorted to be known by their unity even in the midst of great diversity, but does that mean we never raise any concerns? How can we know if an issue we have deep conviction over is worth fighting for? Is there ever a time to break unity with our church family for the sake of integrity?

Every member of the body of believers possesses a set of beliefs that can be divided into three categories: essentials, convictions, and preferences. Understanding how these all relate to unity can help us know whether to speak up or to remain silent, whether to break fellowship or to simply agree to disagree and stay put.

Essentials, Convictions, and Preferences

An essential is any truth which, if denied or misrepresented, nullifies the gospel. Examples of essentials would be belief in the deity of Christ, the Trinity, the virgin birth, or the inspiration and authority of the Bible. Essentials do not require a seminary degree to understand. They are plainly revealed in Scripture and accessible to believers of all maturity levels. Essentials are what you find in the historic creeds of the church. They define orthodox belief.

A conviction is any deeply held belief which, if believed in error will not nullify the gospel, but can harm spiritual growth. Examples of convictions would be views on baptism, the role of women in the church, eschatology, or the functioning of the charismatic gifts. Some convictions are more deeply held than others, depending on the church, and unlike essentials, not all convictions must carry the same weight. Some convictions, if held in error, have greater potential to harm than others. Disagreements surrounding convictions usually have to do with how we interpret Scripture.

A preference is something I care about, but that is a matter of personal choice. I can readily acknowledge that there is more than one possible right answer while still feeling strongly that my answer is the best one. Examples of preferences would be whether I prefer contemporary worship or traditional worship, casual dress or dressy clothes, smoke machines or stained glass. Disagreements surrounding preferences usually have to do with how we apply Scripture.

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

So, how can we judge whether an issue merits division? Think in these terms:

Essentials are worth dying for.
Convictions are worth debating.
Preferences are worth discussing.

Unity must be broken if an essential is compromised or denied. If your church suddenly decides that Jesus is merely a man and not also God, you need to pack your bags.

Unity may be broken if a conviction is violated but must not necessarily be. It could be possible, for example, to remain a faithful member of a congregation that affirms believer’s baptism while still holding to belief in infant baptism.

Unity should not be broken if a preference is not shared. To leave your church because you dislike the worship style (assuming the worship style is not anything sacrilegious) or disagree with its ministry model is to hold in light esteem the beauty of having shared essentials and convictions. This doesn’t mean that preferences are unimportant. They are. And we should be able to dialogue about them with charity. They just aren’t deal-breakers.

Stay If at All Possible

Unfortunately, we often sacrifice unity on the carelessly fickle altar of our preferences. Far too many churches have split over trivial things like whether God loves the organ more than the electric guitar, over what the pastor wears during the service, and even over the color of new carpet. That kind of immaturity is always incredibly sad.

The book of Acts celebrates unity, and it stands as an exhortation to the Church throughout the ages to work hard to prize it. Never has such a diverse assembly of believers been reconciled to one another as in the days of the early church. Acts records the uniting of Jew and Gentile under one God, and the debates and discussions necessary to join these two groups as members of one body. It details the differences in ministry philosophy between Peter and Paul, two men united in the goal of spreading the gospel but divided as to how it should be done. Acts shows us that the tension of the interplay of essentials, convictions, and preferences is a natural part of church life, and that unity is worth fighting for. But unity does not mean unanimity.

To be a member of a body of believers who all affirm every essential and many of your convictions will be a truly rare gift. We need not require that every conviction be held in unity, and we should not require that any preference be held in unity. Just as a marriage is more likely to be easy and enjoyable when a couple shares the same convictions and preferences, so is church membership. It isn’t wrong to long for that kind of harmony, but it is wrong to break or withhold relationship over the lack of it. As with all relationships, our list of preferences should receive due consideration before we commit but far less consideration after.

The way we express our concerns matters, too. Just as no spouse benefits from being nagged or attacked about a conviction or preference by the other spouse, no church benefits from a constant nagging or attacking member. Far better for the member to hold a respectful ‘debate’ or dialogue with someone in leadership than to complain publicly or privately to other members of the body. One approach demonstrates a love of unity. The other does not.

As we each soberly evaluate our essentials, convictions, and preferences, we are well served to remember the watchword of the Lutheran theologian, Meledenius: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” May we meditate then on Jesus; and the beauty of a church seeking unity in diversity, whose crowning virtue is love.

Recommended article: Walk in Unity

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Homophobic Bigots…

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It seems like most of the country, maybe even the world, is constantly talking about homosexuality. The conversation is virtually impossible to ignore if you pay any attention at all to cultural currents. News and media outlets, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, blogs, television shows, and even the federal courts are conversing about this topic. What some people are saying is very interesting, but much of it is also quite frustrating.

As legislature continues to be passed on the legalization of same-sex marriage and the definition of marriage “evolves/progresses” and all of that, if you’re listening to the rhetoric, here is the accusation against Christians in the broad-stroke: they are bigots. We are intolerant. We are the American Taliban. We’re straight up terrorists and a danger to society. We are right up there with the KKK and the Civil Rights Movement trying to deprive people of rights that are God-given or self-evident. We are out on an ignorant mission to rob others of their freedoms, liberties, and happiness. Those are the accusations against us.

Please don’t close the browser and tune me out just yet. All those accusations leveled against Christians, they had better be false accusations. I don’t pretend that our view will ever be understood by those outside the faith – outside the kingdom of God – but we are a people commanded by God to be marked by love, compassion, patience, mercy, and… even hospitality. Please understand this: You don’t catch sin from sinners. Do you get that?

“If my sinfulness appears to be smaller or less detestable than sins of others, I am still not recognizing my sinfulness at all.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I know some of us, in the attempt to protect our family and to make sure we all stay purer than we actually are, build walls. You don’t want your kids around those kinds of kids. You don’t want to be around those kinds of people. But you are those kinds of people! It’s God’s grace that rescues from “that” (Ephesians 2:1-10). We’ve all got to stop that nonsense. We shouldn’t be consumed with building walls. We should open doors. Our home is open, and my friends, neighbors, and co-workers can make accusations against me, but they better be false. I want them just to be confused to some degree. I just want my neighbors and co-workers to be so ridiculously confused. “This guy is a bigot, but he keeps inviting me over for dinner. He’s so closed-minded, but he speaks respectfully and kind to me. That guy makes me sick, but he keeps bringing me presents on my birthday and Christmas. That dude is such a jerk, but man he tips really well. That guy is like an American terrorist, but he sure is friendly.” I just want that type of confusion. (I’ll admit I don’t always conduct myself in such a way that would reflect the love of Christ, but it is my hope to do so.)

There has to be wisdom though. I’m not telling you to operate in a way that lacks wisdom; God has put us here for the purpose of being the light of the world. We aren’t called to hide out in a building, we are called to engage our community. We are to encourage. We are called to open up our home. We’re called to live in the world. There is some risk involved in that. Yes, there is always risk. Be wise about how you try to do that, but trust God in those things.

I have some friends who would fit the prototype of someone who would probably be infuriated with Christianity and Christians, and sure enough, as we have had conversations, as I’ve seen social media posts, after hearing story after story of being judged harshly, of being ostracized, of being made to feel worthless, feeling like their lifestyle or beliefs are belittled… there has been some unfortunate legitimacy to some of the negative experiences they’ve had with those proclaiming to be Christians, way too much legitimacy to some of those stories. However, some (yes, SOME) of the perceived harshness has been on them. Sometimes people feel hypocritically condemned even when there is no actual condemnation present. It’s not always entirely on God’s people, it’s not always 100%. Because sometimes unregenerate, unbelieving people don’t know what to do with conviction. They don’t feel it as sweet discipline from God; they see it as harsh judgment. They see it as horrible and something to flee from very quickly.

In fact, some of you reading this today probably feel judged, and no one has actually judged you. You may be “judging” yourself right now. We’re not judging you though. However, we’re going to inevitably fall short sometimes. We should be striving to live in glad submission to Jesus Christ where we laugh a lot, where we enjoy good music, appreciate good movies, where we enjoy good food, where we enjoy good drink, where we enjoy hanging out with others and sharing our lives, but not doing so in a way that is outside of the bounds of the Word of God. We should readily let others see the life that is made available to those who would put their trust in Jesus Christ, and then actually see our imperfections. Because tolerance isn’t about not having beliefs. It’s about how your beliefs lead you to treat people who disagree with you.

God loves imperfect people. That’s why dressing up like you’re pretty when you’re not isn’t helpful. The bigot, closed-minded, and intolerant labels will inevitably be put on us at this point. It’s over. This is how we will be labeled. It will only get “worse.” If you can’t handle this label and don’t want to be viewed like this, then you’re going to have a hard time; you’ll have to go underground or be silent with your faith, which means I don’t think you even really have any. In the end though, let us hope that the accusations and the labels are false.

In addition to being falsely labeled, if we limit the scope of how we are misunderstood and ignore that it is a form of persecution, we will neglect the Christian ethic incumbent upon us to pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44). “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them” (Romans 12:14; 1st Corinthians 4:12). When people slander us, mock us, or pass laws against us because we are thought to be anti-gay, anti-science, and anti-women, that is a form of persecution. And as such, we are commanded by Christ Himself to pray for those and love those who hate us so.

Because if John 15:20 is true, and 2nd Timothy 3:13 is true, and the expectation of the entire New Testament is true, then no amount of “cultural campaigning” or PR work is going to rescue the church from being thought by some as backwards and bigoted. Where in the gospels did Jesus promise that the world would love us if we just kept our heads down and tried to be really good neighbors? I know many people who think of the church as being very “unchristian” and evangelicals as being political operatives for the Republican Party. So let’s have the humility to see if we are as obnoxious and unintelligent as many people surmise. Honestly, sometimes some of us are… but let’s not assume that bad press with the world means we’ve all done wrong by God.

As followers of a crucified King we should expect to be like the scum of the earth to some (1st Corinthians 4:13) and like the aroma of death to others (2nd Corinthians 2:16). We should not think misinformed hatred and intolerant harassment mean the church has completely gone off the rails. The presence of persecution or hate is no sign that Christians have failed to engage the world properly. In fact, from everything we’ve seen in Scripture we ought to suspect something is wrong with us if we have somehow avoided all of the world’s persecution successfully.

Because, as Christians we believe that God has reconciled us to Himself, not by demanding that we first and foremost adhere to a moral code, but rather by sending the Son of God, by sending Jesus Christ, unlike us, to live a completely perfect life. Jesus Christ was completely obedient to every command God gave Him. He was other than, although He was fully man. Jesus is fully man, but His obedience is/was perfect. His record was spotless. No accusation could rightly be made against Him. Yet He was still hated by many…

So even when we are being criticized for quoting Scripture and stating our beliefs, the God of the Bible essentially says in Matthew 5, “Hey, they’re going to falsely label you. Cool, okay, stop worrying so much about that. They did that to Isaiah. You guys have something in common now. Oh, they’re going to falsely misrepresent you. Hey, you and Jeremiah would be good friends. You guys could sit around and talk about what it’s like to be ostracized and be pushed to the margins.” Jesus will also say, “Oh, hey, btw, I’m also well acquainted with all that.” Was Jesus not repeatedly misrepresented, repeatedly falsely accused of things that were absurd? There will be nothing you can do about the accusation. Just let it be false accusation, and strive to love your neighbor regardless of their actions, or your own feelings.

The Galloway Wedding

Recently I had the great privilege of serving as the “best man” in Greg (Aaron) & Autumn Galloway’s wedding. After receiving some requests for a copy of the speech I gave during their reception, I decided to share it publicly and make it available for anyone interested. What follows are the feeble words I offered to the newly wedded couple; they still drastically fall short of conveying my love for them, and infinitely more so the worth of our God.

The script:

Good afternoon, I’d like to thank all of you for being a part of this celebration with us. I have the great honor, the immense privilege of serving as Greg’s best man today. So at this time, I’d like to share some things with everyone. I’ve known Greg (not Aaron, it’ll never be Aaron) since middle school. He actually attempted to trick me into believing he was a set of twins, and since I met Greg first, he will forever be Greg to me. And this twinless guy is truly like a brother to me.

My wife Kat and I still remember the evening Greg first told us about Autumn… [ad lib.] And we’ve gotten to watch their relationship grow into something deep. I remember vividly some long conversations with Greg as he wondered if he would ever see this day, and now it is here. He has found what is good, he has found a wife.

And while this is a very beautiful day in the life of Greg and Autumn, there is a deeper grander to behold. We believe that this day, this ceremony and reception, is not ultimately about celebrating the marriage of Greg and Autumn, but rather us celebrating the love that Christ has displayed for His bride. In Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus, he writes in chapter five about the truth that marriage is not ultimately about sex or social stability or personal fulfillment; rather marriage was created to be a human reflection of the ultimate love relationship with the Lord. It points to the true marriage that our souls need and the true family our hearts want. For me personally, I never even really caught a good glimpse of the fuller meaning of this truth (of what it means for us, the church, being referred to as the bride of Christ) before mine and Kat’s wedding day. When those doors opened, and she walked into the wedding chapel room, looking beyond incredibly amazing, yeah, I’m not ashamed to admit it… I teared up as it all began to hit me.

We, the church, are not called Christ’s wife, but His bride… Think about that for a moment… The groom does not look upon his bride on their wedding day and think about her imperfections, but is rather intensely focused on her precious qualities and beautiful attributes. On the wedding day, the groom is overwhelmed with a deep sense of gratitude, and devotion. Because this bride, standing adorned before her groom: she is his. He sees only her, and no one can deter his gaze. She alone catches his eye and she alone can hold his attention.

So, in this wedding, in this marriage between Greg and Autumn, we catch a beautiful reflective glimpse of Christ. When marriage seems unfair, we are to be reminded that Jesus never sought out equality, fairness, and happiness. Instead, He humbled Himself, taking the form of a servant, and endured grossly unfair treatment for the joy set before Him, in redeeming the church as His bride. That is our model and our means for authentic marriage.

So Greg, don’t ever forget how beautiful Autumn looks today, and how she is completely dressed up in splendor, having been presented to you as a beautiful, radiant, spotless bride. That is how Christ sees us, His chosen loved ones whom He died for, and He calls us His bride. His pursuit of us is fierce and unwavering, His affection for us is strong and deep, His love for us is abiding and unending. Our hope is that this glorious Gospel is preached through Greg and Autumn’s marriage, as God has chosen the story of their lives to be a shadow of His much greater narrative.

Because when we arrive at eternity’s shore, where death is just a memory and tears are no more, we’ll enter in as the wedding bells ring, Christ’s bride will come together and we’ll sing, You’re beautiful!!! Thank you all for being a part of this wedding, to celebrate not just Greg and Autumn’s marital union, but our great God and King: Jesus.

Authentic Community: Bearing Life With One Another

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Everyone says they want community and friendship. But simply mention accountability or commitment to people, and they run the other way. So, why should we honestly believe and strive to live like authentic Biblical community really is worth the mess and pain?

The Passage

Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor. For each will have to bear his own load. Let the one who is taught the word share all good things with the one who teaches. Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” – Galatians 6:1-10 (ESV)

Quote to Consider

“A true understanding and humble estimate of oneself is the highest and most valuable of all lessons. To take no account of oneself, but always think well and highly of others is the highest wisdom and perfection. . . . Should you see another person openly doing evil, or carrying out a wicked purpose, do not on that account consider yourself better than him, for you cannot tell how long you will remain in a state of grace. We are all frail; consider none more frail than yourself.” – Thomas á Kempis

Acknowledging Sin & Seeking Reconciliation

When we become aware of someone else’s sin, conceited inferiority would cause us either to envy the life they are leading, however sinful; or to crave their approval so much that we won’t risk pointing out their failure to live in line with the gospel.

The ultimate goal is restoration. Why do we engage brothers and sisters who are drowning? Why do we engage those who are being overcome by sin? Why do we engage those who are hurting and losing their fight against iniquity? In order to restore; we work, not as detectives, but as friends and coheirs of Christ.

“For love is exultant when it unites equals, but it is triumphant when it makes that which was unequal equal in love.” -Søren Kierkegaard

Further… We should strive to be considerate and empathetic when giving advice. Don’t belittle your friend’s challenges by comparing them to yours. Your race might be a full 26.2 mile marathon, and your friend’s may only be a 5k, but telling them that you’re running a marathon doesn’t exactly make their 5k any easier. The heart of the Christian faith isn’t someone telling others how to eat, it is one beggar telling another beggar where he found bread.

Abscessed tooth: picture and story.

Abscessed tooth: picture and story.

“Love may forgive all infirmities and love still in spite of them: but Love cannot cease to will their removal.” – C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain

Authentic Community

We live in a strange time in which it seems the majority of people in our culture say they want community and they desire authentic community, but then they aren’t willing to kneel down and get their hands dirty in a sense. We all seem to understand that community and relationship are important and needed for a healthy life, but at the same time we aren’t quickly willing to make the sacrifices that enable community to happen.

Or on the other hand, we build a sense of community with only friends of roughly the same age, same interests, same ethnicity, same demographic as us so that we are more comfortable and less prone to experience any conflict.

We all constantly forget that sin will take us further than we wanted to go, keep us longer than we wanted to stay, and cost us more than we ever wanted to pay. Everyone wants judgment when it’s not their own foolishness being revealed; but praise Christ for grace in foolish moments and mercy for consistent failures.

“We are far worse than we ever dared to imagine, yet in Christ, we are far more loved than we ever dreamed we could be.”

Takeaway Questions

Is there a habitual sin you need to gently restore a brother or sister from? Are you willing to listen to others who seek to restore you?

What opportunities is God giving you to carry another’s burdens?

How are you sowing and reaping to please the Spirit in your specific set of God-given life circumstances?

Context… it really does matter.

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Pre-Gospel

It is in the third chapter of the book of Genesis that the author tells us something has gone very wrong. Something has gone wrong in you. Something has gone wrong in me. Something has gone wrong in the world. The entire cosmos has been fractured. Whether you’ve read the book and agree with what is presented or think it’s merely full of fairy tales, you would have to be a blind fool to argue with this particular part. Because something is definitely broken. What we see in the Bible is that what is broken in you is a severed relationship with your creator God that has led to a brokenness in all of us that has overflowed into a brokenness in all the systems we have built, in the food we try to grow, in the goods we try to steward, in the governments we try to run, in the businesses we attempt to lead.

This brokenness in us, that severed connection with God because of sin, has overflowed out of us onto the structures we have built so that we live in a broken world. (That’s not even getting into the effects of sin on the creative order itself. That’s just the damage we do as image bearers of the God of the universe.) God, in the midst of our rebellion against Him, in the middle of our accusation that we are smarter, more capable, and owe Him nothing, responds not with destruction, but actually intervenes on our behalf, for His glory.

So regardless of what you think about God or how you believe God feels toward you, here’s what the Bible tells us. The Bible tells us that from the very moment of the fracture of the universe, God begins to lay out His plan to send a Savior who would rescue us from the mess of our hearts that has spilled over into all of life. Again, it is in Genesis, chapter 3 that the author begins to explain that as sin enters the world, it fractures everything. (This is also expounded upon more throughout Scripture, in Romans 1-2; 5, 1st Corinthians 15, Ephesians 2, and many more.) Adam and Eve believed the lie that they would make better gods than God and that they could run things better than He could, and despite His goodness and His grace, they would prefer to be their own masters.

So we are told that sin entered the world and fractured it. After this tragedy, man and woman feebly attempt to hide themselves, and God begins to pronounce judgment, first on the Serpent, the Devil, the embodiment of evil. Here’s what He says to the Serpent. Genesis 3, starting in verse 15: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel.”

This is what theologians call the proto-evangelical. It’s the pre-gospel gospel. It’s the first messianic prophecy we get in the Bible. It’s not complex. There’s no build-out of the cross, no mention of atonement, no imputed righteousness explained, nothing like that, just God right in the middle of the fog of war, man and woman shamed, naked, distressed, world broken… He curses the Serpent and says, “One will be born of woman. You will bruise His heel, but He will crush your head.”

Now I’m not sure that as you’re reading this we could agree on everything, but I have to believe we can agree that a crushed head loses over a bruised heel. The world is still burning when God says, “I’m going to fix this.” There’s still this smell of smoke and death and destruction. Nothing has settled. Nothing yet restored. The universe is freshly fractured. The new normal hasn’t even begun to work yet when God says, “There will be a man born of woman who will crush your head.”

Things move forward in Genesis 12, verse 3. This is said to Abram, who will become Abraham, the father of the nation of Israel. The Bible states that God declares to Abraham, “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (See also Romans 4-5)

Context

Again, some of us are going to have to ditch what we think about God, because the God of the Bible simply won’t line up with what you think about Him. You have a God who, in the midst of man’s rebellion says, “I’m going the crush the head of the Evil One,” and now we move just a few chapters forward and He says, “Actually, through the line of Abraham, I’m going to bless all of the families on the face of the earth.”

So we don’t have a God who’s strictly vengeful against those who are disobedient, but a God who is working on behalf of those in the midst of rebellion to save and rescue some for the glory of His name, and the good of their souls. Too often we get presented with this idea that the God of the Old Testament is really cranky and perpetually ticked off, just waiting for someone to slip up so He can slam them… like the God of the Old Testament is nothing more than a power-drunk cop hiding in a speed trap just waiting to fill his quota of giving out tickets and ruining people’s day; but then when Jesus comes He kind of calms down and wants to be friends with everyone (except those darn Pharisees, of course). Yet, when we broaden our understanding of the great metanarrative of the Bible, we can see God’s grace, His plan for redemption already being played out and set in motion early on… as early as the third chapter.

So as we are reading the Bible, even the very beginning, we must have the entirety of the individual book and the other 65 books as a framework. There is a kind of rule when it comes to reading the Bible: the Bible interprets the Bible. Some people may be like, “Oh, of course, how convenient?!” But this is true about every book you’ve ever read that has any kind of unity in it. If you want to take a book from a series like Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, or even The Hunger Games, Twilight, or the Divergent series, and pull just one or maybe even two sentences out of it and go, “By this sentence I’ll decide all the rest of the book.” (Albeit these are popular fictional examples, but it applies to every genre – and a lot of people will be familiar with at least one of these works.) Then you’re going to get off in your interpretation, and your understanding of the whole story. The Bible is 66 books telling one story. Verses must be read in light of one another. Every verse sits within the context of a chapter, within a book, within the entire canon. Any text without pre-text and context is merely a proof-text.

Outdated

When we look at the Bible and declare it outdated or nothing more than some enslaving piece of literature garbage that should have stayed in the dark ages, we are essentially committing chronological snobbery. We delude ourselves into believing that we are now at the height of human development and know better today than any of those before us. How many times have you heard that scientist or researchers have discovered that what they previously held to be safe or helpful has now been found to be hazardous or harmful? How many times have you heard the opposite, that something that was dangerous is now actually considered beneficial? Just look at some commercial advertisements from the past 50 years. You’ll quickly see that it’s quite possible something we hold to be so normal today, may be deemed rather stupid or silly within the next few years.

True freedom and wisdom is not being unshackled to create your own truth, but is actually liberating submission to the Truth. Freedom is not the complete absence of any restrictions, but rather the presence of the right restrictions put in place. For example: a fish out of water. The fish is not more free when released outside of the confines of the water, but instead his ability to enjoy life is drastically hindered and he is sure to die. Only if God can say things that make you struggle and expose your pride, will you know that you have met a real God, and not a figment of your imagination. The Hebrews and early Christians would say of their book(s) that if the Scriptures are not fitting with the time, culture, societal norm, or your desires; it means there is something wrong with the times and your heart, not the Scriptures.

For us to attempt to void the Bible of any authority is subjective and trajectory hermeneutics; in that there is no objective truth or discernible message in the Bible that transcends time, race, gender, age, ethnicity, geography, people group, etc. and as “times change” and history moves forward across its linear path, then the way we see the Bible must also change to fit the cultural perspective of our time. Philosophical rejection of the Bible, in part or in whole, is often used to justify moral resistance. People don’t want to be told what to do. People seem to want a king, but then hate the king. Cultural-relativism-‘Christianity’ is not Biblical at all, but merely has a fairy-tale version of Jesus as the mascot of a short-sighted cause. We cannot go on ‘explaining away’ forever: or we will find that we have explained explanation itself away. We cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things forever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it.

If we view the Bible as completely subjective and void of any absolute truth or authority, this leaves everyone with nothing more than a list of rules to live by that can be taken or left depending on how one feels. This viewpoint doesn’t really give any of us any true hope or meet our needs on any real level more than any other book or compilation of thoughts. I think the Bible is a pretty crummy guide to life or manual for how to live (especially if it is disconnected from the Gospel). The Bible doesn’t answer a lot of questions directly and when we see it as merely a manual, it becomes dangerous… we’ve seen what happens in history when men and women ignore the greater context and pick things out of the Bible to use to fit their agenda. It almost never ends well.

The way we view the Bible really matters… theology matters… context matters… it matters… because, yes, what we know about God shapes the way we think and live. What you believe about God’s nature – what He is like, what He wants from you, and whether or not you will answer to Him – affects every part of your life. Theology matters, because, if we get it wrong, then our life will be wrong… We’re either building our lives on the reality of what God is truly like and what He’s about, or we’re basing our lives on our own imagination and misconceptions. We’re all theologians. The question is whether what we know about God is true.

Theme

The thing with the Bible is that it’s not primarily about us, it’s about Jesus. The Bible isn’t primarily about what we can do to make ourselves happier and live more moral lives, but rather our deep need for Someone outside ourselves to save us. The essence of other religions is advice about how to live. The essence of Christianity is news – here is what has been done. Jesus isn’t part of the story; He is the point of the story, from Genesis to Revelation. The focal point of Scripture is Jesus and His gospel, which is the good news that God saves. It is the historical narrative of the triune God orchestrating the reconciliation and redemption of a broken creation and fallen creatures from Satan, sin, and its effects to the Father and each other thru the birth, life, death, resurrection, and future return of the substitutionary Son, by the power of the Spirit, for God’s glory and the Church’s joy.

If we try to read the Bible (or any book for that matter) apart from the greater context, we will miss the meaning of the text.

 

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Recommended Articles:

Old Testament Law and The Charge of Inconsistency by Timothy Keller

A Command or an Explanation? by Hunter Hall

Two Men Went to the Temple (Luke 18:9-14)

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I was recently given the privilege to preach at our home church, Vintage Church in Allen, TX.

Sermon audio link.

Sermon notes (rough draft of transcript):

Two Men Went to the Temple (Luke 18:9-14)

Opening Question:

What if our sin problem isn’t that we’re wicked? What if it’s that we’re good?

Scripture passage:

“He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” – Luke 18:9-14 (ESV)

Opening quotes:

“The greatest threat to the church isn’t atheism or materialism, but moralism that celebrates a righteousness which doesn’t come from Christ.” – Paul David Tripp

“Satan’s masterpiece is the Pharisee, not the prostitute.” – Tullian Tchividjian

Characters:

1. The Pharisee (like the elder brother in Luke 15)

This guy was varsity. He followed the law in a way that would embarrass the rest of us. If morality was a sport (and to some people it is), this guy wouldn’t have enough fingers for his championship rings. [Go over his listed credentials.]

Kind if like when I’m building a résumé for applying for a job, or an application to get into a certain school, I have found myself at times building some kind of a spiritual résumé, almost like a checklist, or some list of qualifications that could somehow prove to myself cognitively that I’m worthy of God’s love and affection. Am I alone in this? Am I the only one who has ever sat there and compared myself to my neighbor, a co-worker, another person who performed worse than you in a similar situation? Have you ever had the thought, however fleeting, at least I’m not a hardened criminal, I’ve never stolen that much money, never killed a guy, it’s not like I’m Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Jeffry Dahmer, or Charles Manson… I’ve just made a few mistakes in life, but for the most part, I’m a pretty good guy. You will always be able to find someone worse than you; at least you should be able to do that. Anyone else feeling strangely able to relate to the Pharisee here?

[Our neighbors and their pet’s story… Costco customers and their shopping carts story…]

2. The Tax Collector (like the younger brother in Luke 15)

There is no cultural equivalent to a tax collector in first century Rome. A tax collector was a wicked, sinful, piece of trash who was more than deserving of being burned alive. They purchased the right from Rome to collect money (up to 90% of annual income) from their own people. It’s worse than them just taking an extra $20 from everyone. They purchased the right to collect taxes for Rome… for the empire that ruled and reigned over most of the known world at the time… how did they do that? With a standing army… they have jets, hummers, missiles, or satellites… So they needed a lot of tax money to afford that military. Tax collectors were the mediators helping to fund a massive army that was responsible for the rape, murder, torture, and crucifixion of hundreds of thousands of men, women, and even children; many of whom were the same race, ethnicity, and people group as the tax collector taking money… in this case, the Jews. To the Jews, tax collectors were men raising money to support the atrocities taking place against them and their family. Zacchaeus was not simply a cute wee little man, he had done disgustingly vile things. Would it not raise some eyebrows if our pastor went over to a guy’s house for dinner who was known for financially supporting sex-trafficking, drug cartels, and the brutal murder of innocent women and children?

Yet, Jesus tells us the tax collector went home justified… but not the Pharisee… this would have been very shocking to the original listeners.

What was the Pharisee not seeing?

The Pharisee (and a few verses later the rich young ruler, also) fails to understand what many of us fail to understand: that Christianity is not a religion. He thanks God for his exceptional morality and righteousness, but misses the fact that his “goodness” is still woefully short of the bar (Isaiah & Philippians: bloody rags and poop). The mantra of religion is, “I obey, therefore I am worthy and accepted.” The Scriptures, however, teach vehemently against this idea constantly.

The message we usually hear from the pulpit at church is “repent of your wickedness.” Stop sleeping around. Stop doing drugs. Stop getting drunk. Stop watching rated R movies that aren’t about the crucifixion of Christ. Stop partying. Stop cussing. Stop skipping church, because if the door is open, you should be there. I would agree that many of these things are sinful and need to be repented of, but that’s not the message of Luke 18. Instead of calling out the overtly wicked, Jesus says this: “You good husbands, you good fathers, good wives, good mothers, good students, you small-group-leading, church-going, tithing, morally righteous men and women… you need to repent.”

When we grasp that we are unworthy sinners saved by an infinitely costly grace, it destroys both our self-righteousness and our need to ridicule others (the Pharisee thanked God he wasn’t like other men, like the tax collector). Trying to somehow earn your salvation through good works is just as God-belittling, Scripturally ignorant, cross-mocking wickedness as anything on the secular pagan, dark side of the fence. We tell ourselves, “I’m a better man than my father was… my neighbor George is a horrible dude, I’m not like him… I’m a good husband… I’m a good dad… I’m a good wife… I’m a good mother… I’m a good student… I’m a hard worker… I’m involved in the church.” Jesus says, “Repent! That does not save you. None of your works save you! That does not justify you.” When we understand this rightly, we don’t stand next to the cross and tell everyone else to repent, we lay down on our face and tell others there is room.

Looking at the passage in the context of the continuation of the text:

Luke 18:15-17… We must enter the Kingdom of God like a child.

“What did you have to do with being born? Did you work hard to earn the privilege of being born? Did it happen due to your hard work and skillful planning? Not at all. You don’t earn or contribute anything to being born. It is a free gift of life. And so it is with the new birth. Salvation by grace – there are no moral efforts that can earn or merit it. You must be born again.” – Tim Keller

Luke 18:18-30… The story of the Rich Young Ruler. One thing you still lack. PERIOD. PAUSE. He lacks something; he lacks Christ’s imparted righteousness. Jesus exposes his heart by asking him to give up his excessive wealth.* The young man is asking for insight on behavioral modification, not grace.

*Cross reference this story with Luke 12:32-34. Very important passage in understanding that Jesus wasn’t simply giving another rule to, but was exposing a heart issue in the rich young ruler. “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

Continuation Question(s):

So what does this old story from a couple thousand years ago about these two very different men have to do with us today?

Secularism and religion are both all about your personal performance. The Gospel is the performance of Another applied to you. I believe that the bulk of our weird American evangelicalism is built on this idea that “my behavior makes God owe me, and that what saves me is my good works.”

The basic premise of “religion,” that if you live a good life, things will go well for you – is wrong. Jesus was the most morally upright person who ever lived, yet He had a life filled with the experience of poverty, rejection, injustice, and even torture. Jesus says in the gospel that everyone is wrong, everyone is loved, and everyone is called to recognize this and change. The essence of other religions is advice about how to live. The essence of Christianity is news – here is what has been done.

That whole illustration, those analogies with scales when it comes to being good or bad, they all need to be tossed out and forgotten. There are no scales!!! You’re either fully justified and redeemed by the blood of Christ on the Cross and His resurrection, or you’re not justified at all.

There are two ways of being lost, two ways of trying to save/justify yourself, two ways of trying to avoid God or somehow put Him in your debt. One is to keep all the rules, and the other is to break all the rules (like the two sons/brothers in the Luke 15 parable).

Before we continue, please nobody try to take this where it’s not going. Discipline is not legalism. I still love, pursue, and date my wife. I still work on loving her better and growing deeper in relationship with her, I’ll admit I fail at doing that as well as I should, but none of that is to get her to marry me… we’re already married.

Closing remarks:

Don’t get me wrong, I am in no way saying the law is of no value. Any theology that denies God’s moral law, and then domesticates sin by its absence, does not have Christ’s atoning love, God’s justifying pardon, or the Holy Spirit’s kind company. But the law cannot save.

Do you possess a desire for, strong affection for, and an exaltation of the person and work of Jesus Christ in the cross and in His resurrection? Or do you hang all of your hope in your righteousness on managing your own morality and church participation?

If your hope, confidence, and satisfactions are in being a good husband, being a good wife, being a good father, being a good mother, being a good churchman, a good kid, a good student, a good worker, a good citizen, just a good person at all… you’ve severely misplaced your hope in something that cannot and will not save you. No matter how law abiding or well behaved you are, we all end up 6 feet deep in the ground (or cremated if that’s more your style).

Repentance means coming back to the cross and confessing your infinite short-comings. We repent that we’ve become satisfied with just trying to better serve God rather than actually knowing or enjoying Him. We need to ask God once again for mercy, for His grace.

So, do you need to repent of goodness? I know I do. Do you need to ask forgiveness for your illusion of righteousness? I know I do. Constantly, I find myself trying to justify myself. We must throw ourselves on the mercy of God. Put our confidence in His cross, not in the fact that we’re “better” than our neighbor, or even that we’re better this year than we were last.

The Bible says it very clearly that if we could earn the favor of God with our behavioral modifications, then the cross of Christ was for nothing. In Galatians 2:21, Paul tells us: “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.”

So is your confidence in your goodness? Repent. We have no confidence outside the goodness of Christ. Your goodness is a myth. Repent of worshiping your own righteousness and set your mind on the things of the Spirit – set your mind on Jesus Christ, the Author and Perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). Whatever you accomplish today and tomorrow, you are no more justified than you are right now in the already finished work of Jesus Christ. Work from your rest and rest in His already finished work.

Implications of the Incarnation

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“But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone. You have multiplied the nation; you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as they are glad when they divide the spoil. For the yoke of his burden, and the staff for his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.” – Isaiah 9:1-7

The dawn of peace, on Christmas Eve, was the final night the world would sleep… fearful of the dark. For the love of the Father, was now in flesh appearing. To really understand the immensely spectacular good news of the Incarnation, we must first understand the immense need we all have for God’s grace. As well as how in order for Him to extend His grace He had to put on flesh. Forgiveness is the act of absorbing the wrath, pain, and consequences of another’s offense out of the motivation of love. According to Scripture all men have sinned, fall short of the glory of God, and are deserving of death. In order for God to save us from the rightful consequences of our rebellion, He had to absorb the penalty Himself. The triune God put on flesh through Jesus Christ. The Son of God was born into humble circumstances; born in the small town of Bethlehem, to a family that did not sit on any throne and had little money to their name. Jesus Christ was born to die. He was born to die as our perfect substitutionary atoning sacrifice, our Advocate, our Savior, and our Mediator.

The point of the Bible is God; it’s not you. Jesus isn’t part of the story; He is the point of the story, from Genesis to Revelation. God is about God. God is for God. When God is working, He is working for God. When God is forgiving you of your sins, that is for the praise of His glorious grace. When He is shepherding you, when He is protecting you, when He is providing for you, He is doing so in order that He might be worshiped, enjoyed, and praised. In fact, the Westminster Catechism says that “the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” You exist to worship, praise, love, and make much of God. That’s why you’re here, that is the reason for your existence.

Now that jostles us, because that’s not where we live. Everything in our culture goes a different way. Our culture screams “You’re the point. It’s about you. You deserve this. Why shouldn’t you have that?! You’re entitled to this!” And every marketing campaign, even some churches, are built around this philosophy. “It’s all about you. You deserve this or that. We should make way for you. What do you desire? What do you want? You’re the point. God loves you; He’s for you. You’re the point. This is about you and your happiness.” And we all need to realize that we’re not the point. In fact, if we look at it Biblically, you’re not even in second place. So God says He’s uppermost and then that you are to love others better than yourself. You’re bringing home the bronze. You’re down the list. You didn’t even make the cover. You’re a distant third at best.

Now let me tell you why this is strangely the best news in the universe. If God is after the praise of His glorious grace, then He is not after our begrudging submission, but rather He is after our joy. So all the commands in Scripture are about God lining you up with how He designed things to be for your greater joy. Now, some of you reading this may want to pump the brakes and petition God so you can explain how your circumstances trump this reality. You already have hypotheticals ready to be tossed into the discussion on why parts, if not the whole, of Scripture should be ignored. You want to explain to the God of the universe that He doesn’t seem to know your spouse. And if He knew your spouse, there is no way He would tell you that what the Bible says in regards to how you handle your spouse is the right move for you, because they’re crazy, they’re hurtful, they’re selfish, and you can go on and on about how your situation is different. Some of you want to talk to God about what has been done to you, about your inclinations, your orientations, your bents, your weaknesses, your struggles, etc. and how it all just isn’t fair.

Please don’t tune me out just yet. Let us lovingly press forward a little bit more. If we began watching a movie you’ve never seen before and didn’t know anything about, and just for the sake of demonstration let’s say we picked the movie “Cowboys and Aliens.” And as we begin watching the movie, I let you look at the screen for a few minutes and then pause it, and ask you to explain the movie to me. “So what’s that movie about?” You might respond that “It looked like a western.” “Is there anybody from outer space in this movie?” “Probably not. . . because it’s a western. . .” “What about space ships? Are there any space ships flying around in it?” “There couldn’t be. It’s a western. . . with Cowboys and such. I mean, your questions lead me to wonder if there might be something I am missing, but I know what I saw and there are not any aliens in this movie.” You’d have no idea there are aliens from outer space and that it’s a major part of the plot in the movie.

So think then, of how unbelievably arrogant it is of you to say you know better than God when you are here for a second in the scope of eternity and that you know better for you what’s going to lead you into joy than the One who spoke all matter into existence, the One created all things, wired all things, designed this entire universe. You really think your ideas about sex, money, marriage, parenting, and every aspect of life are better than and beyond the One who designed those things. It really is like us reading a sentence in a book and then fiercely claiming, “I’ve got this, I know exactly what this book is about, how everything in it works together, how it’s all related, how all the events are interwoven, and even what all the characters are thinking and doing simultaneously. I’ve figured it all out, don’t try to persuade me otherwise.”

However, if it is true that God is most glorified when we are most satisfied in Him; and that God is all about His glory, the honor and praise of His Name, if God is a God of love, justice, honor, compassion, and grace… then He is not some kind of cosmic police officer. He is not the ultimate joy killer, bent on making sure nobody has any fun by establishing freedom robbing rules to crush the hearts of men. Instead, the God of the Bible put on flesh and became our empathetic Savior. He isn’t just our sympathetic Savior, He doesn’t just sympathize for us, rather, He suffers first hand the pain of the Fall. God’s wrath flows directly from His love. If even we, as imperfect humans, can understand that when you see someone you greatly care about and truly love very deeply, doing something that is self-destructive or acting in a habitual manner that is hurting them, you will get angry; just as when you see someone else hurting the one you love, this angers you. If you were to simply not care about them, do nothing to help them, nothing to intervene, nothing to come to their rescue or shoulder any of the burden of recovery, how loving would that be? That would be hate at its greatest level: indifference. God though, being the God of love and justice that He is, takes our fallen condition and rebellious hearts very seriously. Sin is separation from God. To be truly separated from God is to have your life source cut off; the result of sin and separation is death. The cost of reconciliation must be paid with a life, with blood.

Nothing is truly free and true forgiveness is always the result of costly sacrifice. As humans, we can see this in many examples of life: if your neighbor were to back into your car and cause damage to your car; you simply forgiving them and not requiring them to pay for the damage and loss of the former good condition of your car would not cover the cost of any repairs or fix the car. If your car was totaled and no longer able to be driven, simply telling your neighbor not to worry about it doesn’t cure your transportation issues. You would then have to bare that cost yourself, to repair and restore the car costs something, and someone has to pay the price in order for reconciliation to take place. (Even if you have car insurance, the cost still has to be paid for and the repair cost covered by someone.)

God, in order to restore us back to a relationship with Him, paid the cost Himself. God is not immune to pain, loss, and suffering. Through the Son, Jesus Christ, God put on flesh, became fully human, He became 100% man while remaining 100% God, He lived a perfect blameless life, He walked this earth, He resisted temptation, He ate bread, He drank wine, He loved family members and friends, He was called crazy by His family at one point, He witnessed death and loss, He wept over the condition of this world, He wept over the death of His friend Lazarus, He bled, He felt weakness, hunger, exhaustion, rejection, betrayal, desperation, and loneliness. Jesus Christ lived in a manner undeserving of death. However, His love for us is so great, that He drank the cup of wrath that was rightfully ours to drink, and He took the full penalty of sin upon Himself. He who knew no sin, became sin for us, so that He was crushed for our iniquities, He was broken for our transgressions and rebellion. On the cross, Jesus was separated from His eternal loving relationship with the Father and the Spirit. He did all of this so that we may have life and never really be alone; He gave His own body as a ransom for ours.

Jesus was born to die as our Mediator so that we would not have to suffer the end result of our rebellion; He experienced complete separation from the Father so that we would never have to be alone. At the hour of the cross, Jesus knew this was the hour for which He was born. You and I are going to die, but we don’t know when or how. Jesus knew, He knew when and how, and more importantly He knew why. When He was on trial, standing before Pilate, Jesus told him that it was for this purpose and at this time that He chose to come into this world. He told Pilate that no one takes His life, but He gives it willingly. Jesus was the greater Moses in that He was rescuing mankind from slavery to sin and death, not just Egyptians. Jesus was the greater Abraham, the greater David in slaying the giant of death not just a large Philistine man, the greater Joseph, Elijah, Solomon, Job, Samuel; Jesus was the ultimate Passover lamb. What dominated Jesus’ mind throughout His life was not so much the living of His life, but the giving of His life. When Christ was on the cross, He was experiencing what every other human being in history deserves and which He alone does not deserve. And He experienced it alone. He did this so we would never have to experience being fully cut off from God and His love. God’s love for you was so great that He satisfied His righteous wrath with the perfect life and death of the Son, Jesus. God knows loss at a greater depth than we could ever possibly begin to comprehend. The gift of Jesus Christ, the birth, death, resurrection, and future return of the Son is the greatest gift this world could ever receive.

The motivation behind us living in accordance with this gospel of Christ, is grace. The reason Christians are so persistent about the cross and the reason they’re so persistent about how the Bible teaches that your salvation is meritless, that you didn’t have something intrinsically good that God thought He could use for His kingdom, but that He just rescued you out of where you were in your mess, is because when grace finally hits the heart, finally hits the mind, it’s this really beautiful, transformative grace that makes you want to herald it. Because, what did you have to do with being born? Did you work hard to earn the privilege of being born? Did it happen due to your hard work and skillful planning? Not at all. You don’t earn or contribute anything to being born. It is a free gift of life. And so it is with the new birth. Salvation by grace – there are no moral efforts that can earn or merit it. You must be born again.

So, when that truth sets in, you will feel the grace-enabled passion to live life more fully, resting in Christ’s love and sharing that truth with all those around you. The gospel is the good news that God saves. It is the historical narrative of the triune God orchestrating the reconciliation and redemption of a broken creation and fallen creatures from Satan, sin, and its effects to the Father and each other thru the birth, life, death, resurrection, and future return of the substitutionary Son, by the power of the Spirit, for God’s glory and the Church’s joy. The gospel isn’t a “list of rules,” it is the good news that those “rules” were already fulfilled in the life of Another.

If you think about it, all of us have been designed by God to be heralds by nature. Think about it. If there’s a movie you love, a song or album that moved you, a restaurant that you really like, a favorite bottle of wine, a particular brew of beer, a sports team you cheer for, a shirt you really enjoy wearing, a vacation spot you like to revisit, what do you naturally do with it? You herald it! You say to your friends and family, “Oh, have you eaten here?… Oh, have you seen this?… Oh, have you gone here?… Oh, have you heard this song?… Oh, did you see that game?” So, when you experience the grace of Christ, when the right motivation of being saved by grace through faith is realized, when the greatest news available in this world is understood, when it really hits you… you will herald it with joy.

This is why we celebrate the Incarnation. This is why we make a big deal about Christmas. In Jesus Christ, God put on flesh, and became man. In Jesus, the world saw a man who was ferociously humble. A man who was love incarnate. A man who suffered and was tempted, yet did not sin. A man who was steadfastly obedient until death, even death on a cross. A man who while being the very essence, being of the very nature and substance God, did not consider Himself equal to the Father, but submitted to the will of God and gave up His life for people undeserving of His love. In Christ’s death, He paid our debt at infinite cost to Himself. God paid our debt with His own flesh. Jesus paid our ransom to uphold the justice and righteousness of our Father; so that He could justifiably look upon us and lovingly call us son and daughter. This good news is the substance and meaning of the Christmas celebration: that God became man, to save us from ourselves, and give us life. He came just like He promised, and His love will not be silent.