Extreme Soul Makeover

Extreme Soul Makeover

1 Corinthians 3:16-17 / Ephesians 5:18

James C. Denison

Occasionally we wonder if the human race will survive another generation. These “idiot sightings” are unfortunately all true:

My family is originally from Kingman, Kansas, a small town outside of Wichita. Now I’m not so sure that’s a good thing. A man in the area called the local police to request the removal of the Deer Crossing sign on the road. He gave his reason: “Too many deer are being hit by cars out here. I don’t think this is a good place for them to be crossing anymore.”

In Birmingham, Alabama, a man was checking his luggage at the airport. An employee asked, “Has anyone put anything in your baggage without your knowledge?” The man replied, “If it was without my knowledge, how would I know?” The employee smiled knowingly and nodded, “That’s why we ask.”

At a Ford dealership in Canton, Mississippi, a couple arrived to pick up their vehicle but were told the keys had been locked inside. They found a mechanic working feverishly to open the driver’s side door. As the woman watched from the passenger side, she instinctively tried the door and discovered it was unlocked. “Hey,” she said to the technician, “it’s open!” He replied, “I know–I already got that side.”

Self-esteem is a major issue these days. Depression rates are at all time highs. Downsizing is a fact of corporate life. There is more stress on our time, finances, and families than many of us can remember. We’re not sure we’re up to the times. That’s because we’re not. But the God who lives in us is. “Greater is he who is in us than he who is in the world,” the Bible promises (1 John 4:4). How can God’s power be yours wherever you need it most today?

Why the Spirit lives in us

“You yourselves,” the phrase begins. Paul addresses all the Corinthians, no matter their past, present, or future. This church was divided, condoned sexual immorality, were suing each other, and committed every sin of their culture. And yet they were individually and collectively “God’s temple.” If they were, so are we.

We are God’s “temple.” Not heiron, the temple enclosure, but naos, the Most Holy Place, the most sacred place in all the world. That place which housed the ark of the covenant and the Ten Commandments. That place which was so holy that the High Priest could enter only one day a year, on the Day of Atonement. A rope was tied to his ankle so that if he was struck dead by the glory of God, his corpse could be dragged out from behind the curtain. Now we are that Most Holy Place where God dwells today.

Why? Because “God’s Spirit lives in you.” He literally “dwells” in us, “makes his home in us,” “pitches his tent in us.” He has taken up residence in our lives. This is in the present tense–he is living in us right now, this moment.

When we “ask Jesus into our heart,” it is actually the Holy Spirit who comes to dwell in us. Jesus is at the right hand of God, praying for us (Romans 8:34; Hebrews 7:25) while the Holy Spirit lives in us today. God does not dwell in temples made with human hands (Acts 7:48; cf. Acts 17:24). Instead, he dwells in us. All of God there is, is in us right now.

Our status as God’s temple is so serious that “if anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him.” “If anyone” is a Greek construction which assumes the reality of the condition–“if and when” would get the sense of it. “Destroys” means “corrupts” or “tears down.” The word is in the present tense: if and when people tear down the temple of God right now.

When people attack the church, dividing our fellowship, slandering or gossiping about our members, seeking to hurt the people of God. “God will destroy him”–God will do to the enemy of his church what that enemy does to his church. If a person attacks or assaults God’s people, that enemy will face the wrath of God Almighty.

This is because “God’s temple is sacred,” holy, set apart for himself, belonging only to him. And “you are that temple,” right now, where and as you are. We are not our own–we were bought with a price and must glorify God in our bodies (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).

It is human nature to measure ourselves by our appearance and possessions, our house and car and job and salary. But Scripture says that our chief value is this: we are the temple, the house, the dwelling of the Spirit of God.

A friend recently sent me a story about a group of successful alumni who got together with their favorite college professor. Talk turned into complaints about stress in their work and lives. Offering his guests coffee, the professor went to the kitchen and returned with a large pot of coffee and an assortment of cups–porcelain, plastic, glass, crystal. Some were plain looking while others were expensive, even exquisite.

When all the students had a cup of coffee in hand, the professor said: “If you noticed, all the nice looking, expensive cups were taken first, leaving the plain and cheap ones. It’s normal for you to want the best for yourselves, but that is the source of your problems and stress.

The cup adds no quality to the coffee. Yet you all went for the best cups, then began eyeing each other’s cups. Consider this: life is the coffee; the jobs, money, and position in society are the cups. They are just tools to hold and contain life. The type of cup we have does not define nor change the quality of life. When we concentrate on the cup, we fail to enjoy the coffee.”

We are the cup–the Spirit is the coffee. He is what makes life worth living.


GPS for the Soul

GPS for the Soul

1 Corinthians 1:1-3

James C. Denison

Have you ever been lost? Not just mildly displaced or momentarily disoriented, but truly lost? I have.

On one level, it happens to me nearly every day. Janet says I’m directionally challenged–when I come to an intersection, I should decide which way I want to go and then go the other way. Minni prints maps for me to every destination before I leave. Just because I’ve been someplace ten times doesn’t mean I can find it the eleventh.

But I still remember vividly the time I was truly lost. It was the sixth grade. Our class went on an end-of-year field trip to the piney woods of East Texas. Somehow three of us managed to get separated from the rest of the class. Before we knew it, we were completely alone in the forest. We had no idea where we were or what to do next.

We should have stayed in one place and waited for help to find us, but we weren’t nearly that smart. For the rest of the day we wandered through the trees, yelling for help, hungry and thirsty and hot and tired. Late that afternoon, park rangers called by our distraught teacher rescued us.

What if we had a GPS unit, a Global Positioning Satellite device? Of course, when I was in the sixth grade we didn’t even have remote controls for the television yet, but you understand the question. A little box with a reassuring voice to tell us “turn right at the next log” would have been a lifesaver.

What in life has you feeling lost today? What decision is confusing you? What stress is frustrating you? Where are you unsure what to do, where to turn, how to proceed? We’ve all been there, and we’ll all be there again. That’s just the nature of life for fallen people on a fallen planet. But the good news is that God has given us a GPS for the soul. Let’s learn how to use it together.

How to be a saint

Paul addresses the letter we call First Corinthians to “the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy” (1 Corinthians 1:2). “Called to be saints” is how most versions translate the text. When you hear the word “saint,” what comes to mind?

A person of great personal character and pious spirit? “She’s such a saint,” we say when someone does something particularly pious.

Or you might think about a great person of God designated a “saint” by the Catholic Church. For instance, St.Genesius, Bishop of Clermont, is on the Church’s list of saints to be remembered on June 3. He renounced the world for the church back in the seventh century, founding a hospital, church, abbey, and convent. Fearing for his own soul, he made a secret pilgrimage to Rome in 661. His bereaved flock sent messengers to the Vatican, where they found him and convinced him to return. He died in AD 662 and was buried in St. Symphorian’s church at Clermont in France; the congregation is now known as St. Genesius’s church.

That’s impressive. But you and I aren’t likely to renounce the world in order to live in the church or make a secret pilgrimage to Rome anytime soon or have a church named for us when we die.

No sainthood in our future. Except that “saint” is the Bible’s most common title for Christians–all Christians:

“To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints” (Romans 1:7).

“To the church of God in Corinth, together with all the saints throughout Achaia” (2 Corinthians 1:1).

“To the saints in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus” (Ephesus 1:1).

“To all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi” (Philippians 1:1).

“To the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in Colossae” (Colossians 1:2, NRSV).

Sixty-one times (by my count), the Lord calls Christians “saints.” This is by far the most common designation for followers of Jesus. “Disciples” is used of the entire church 27 times (by my count); “Christians” only once (Acts 11:26).

“Saints” is always found in the plural. And so every believer is a “saint.” No halos or harps or pilgrimages to Rome required.

The word “saint” translates hagios, meaning “holy one” or “set apart one.” Thus the NIV translates, “called to be holy,” while nearly every other translation renders Paul’s phrase, “called to be saints.” The two are synonyms.

We think of “saints” as the holiest of people, sanctified and pious in every way. We think that we could never be one of them. And yet these Christians in Corinth, called “saints” by Paul in this letter, were fighting and plagued by divisions (1 Corinthians 1:10).

Paul calls them “mere infants in Christ” (3:1) and “arrogant” (4:18). He rebukes them for condoning of sexual immorality (5:1) and suing each other (6:6). Later he tells them to “stop thinking like children” (14:20).

So how can they be “saints”? Because God’s Spirit has made them so. The moment we ask Jesus to be our Savior and Lord, we become the “saints” of God. In that moment you were set apart for him.

He has claim on your life now. You belong to him: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).

He is the potter; you are the clay (Isaiah 64:8). He is the head (Ephesus 5:23); we are the body (1 Corinthians 12:27). He has “all authority in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18); we have none. We belong to him, for he made us, then he bought us. We are his forever.

Note that they are “the church of God in Corinth.” Where we are is not who we are. We are the saints “of” God “in” Dallas. We are not what we have or where we are. Never forget the source of your personal worth.


Success in God’s Eyes

Success in God’s Eyes

John 15:1-17

James C. Denison

Tom Brady is the quarterback of the New England Patriots and winner of three Super Bowls. But with all his fame and success, when he was interviewed by 60 Minutes he said, “Why do I have three Super Bowl rings and still think there’s something greater out there for me? I mean, maybe a lot of people would say, ‘Hey man, this is what is. I reached my goal, my dream, my life.’ Me, I think, God, it’s got to be more than this. I mean this isn’t, this can’t be, what it’s all cracked up to be.” “What’s the answer,” asked the interviewer. “I wish I knew,” Brady replied. “I wish I knew.”

Most of us have experienced a measure of success in our lives and world. Now we want to be significant. We want our lives to count for something. We want our time on earth to matter. We want to know that we’re headed in the right direction, that God is pleased with us, that one day we’ll hear the most joyous words in all of eternity: “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21).

In our summer series we have learned that our church belongs to Jesus: “I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). Because our church is his, we are his as well–God’s “saints,” his separated ones. He expects us to live like his saints as his new creation. We do this by being “filled” or controlled with the Spirit every day.

Now, how do we know that we’re on track? How do we measure ourselves as the church of Jesus, his saints, his new creation, filled by his Spirit? What results should be obvious if we are living in his word and will? How does he define success for us? How can you know if you are pleasing God today? If you will please God in heaven? If your time is significant in eternity or wasted forever?

Measure success by fruit

Our text begins: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener” (v. 1). This seems a strange way for God to describe himself–a spindly, prickly vine growing along the ground or climbing up a fence. But in Jesus’ culture, a “vine” meant far more than we envision.

Throughout the Old Testament, the vine was the symbol for the nation of Israel. For instance, the Psalmist said of God and his people, “You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it, and it took root and filled the land. The mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches. It sent out its boughs to the Sea, its shoots as far as the River” (Psalm 80:8-11; cf. Isaiah 27:2-6; Hosea 10:1).

This image was so important to the people that they made it their national symbol. They constructed a tall, golden cluster of grapes on the doors of their Temple, and typically referred to themselves as the “vine” of God. Our symbol is the eagle–theirs was the fruit vine.

However, Scripture says that their vine had become decayed and corrupted: “I planted you like a choice vine of sound and reliable stock. How then did you turn against me into a corrupt, wild vine?” (Jeremiah 2:21).

Thus Jesus says, “I am the true vine,” the real, authentic vine of God. His Father is the “gardener,” the One who owns and tends the vine.

God “cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful” (v. 2).

The fruit vines which are found in Palestine grow rapidly along the ground or trellis. They spread so quickly that plants are typically spaced at least 12 feet apart. A new vine is not allowed to bear fruit for the first three years of its life, and is constantly pruned so that it will grow thicker and stronger.

When the vine matures, it bears two kinds of branches–one that produces fruit, and one that does not. An observer cannot tell them apart until the fruit appears. Then the gardener will cut off the branches which bear no fruit, so they do not take life and energy from those which do.

The discarded branches were good for nothing in Jesus’ day. Their wood was too soft to be used for building material. It did not even make a good fire for cooking or light, as it smoldered and smoked more than it burned. So the fruitless branches were “picked up, thrown into the fire and burned” as trash (v. 6).

Producing fruit-bearing branches was the gardener’s goal, but even they had no value in themselves: “No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me” (v. 4). If a fruit-bearing branch were broken off the vine by storms or malice, it would quickly dry up. It retained its value only so long as it remained attached to its vine.

So we find in Jesus the “true” or genuine vine, in contrast to the decayed, withered vine of the nation of Israel. We have learned that three kinds of branches are attached to him.

One is fruitless. It looks good, even beautiful, but produces nothing of value. Profession without practice, words without works, all leaves and no fruit. Has your life born fruit for God? As a tree reproduces by bearing fruit, so the Church reproduces when Christians make Christians. Have you made evangelistic fruit for God? Do you bear spiritual fruit for God, the “fruit of the Spirit”? Do others see love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control with consistency in your life (Galatians 5:22-23)? Does your branch bear fruit?

The second branch bore fruit until it broke from the vine. Successful until it became complacent, now self-sufficient and fruitless. When last did you pray first? When last did you surrender your day to the Holy Spirit, asking him to “fill” and control and use your life? Are you consistently connected with the vine through prayer and Scripture, praise and worship, obedience and gratitude? Are you attached to the vine this morning?


The Normal Christian Life

The Normal Christian Life

2 Corinthians 5:17

James C. Denison

A friend recently sent me some facts about small boys. Now that both of our sons have graduated from high school, I hope not to need this information. But many of you still may.

A king size waterbed holds enough water to fill a 2,000 sq. ft. house four inches deep.

If you hook a dog leash over a ceiling fan, the motor is not strong enough to rotate a 42 pound boy wearing Batman underwear and a Superman cape. It is strong enough, however, if tied to a paint can, to spread paint on all four walls of a 20×20 room.

When you hear the toilet flush and the words “uh oh,” it’s already too late.

Certain Legos will pass through the digestive tract of a four-year-old boy.

Super Glue is forever.

Always look in the oven before you turn it on, as plastic toys do not like ovens. The fire department in Austin, Texas has a five-minute response time.

The spin cycle on the washing machine does not make earthworms dizzy. It will, however, make cats dizzy. Cats throw up twice their body weight when dizzy.

However old we are, however old our children or grandchildren may be, we’re still the children of God if Jesus is our Lord. In our series on the church, the world’s only hope, we’ve learned that the Church belongs to Christ, her founder. It is made up of saints, people who belong to God.

Now we’ll learn in more detail how to become what we already are, how to defeat the tests and temptations which come at us every day and live in the victory Jesus died to give us. What worry or fear is keeping you from the joy of Jesus this morning? What temptation or sin is preventing your peace? How do we refuse the detours so we can arrive at the destination of God’s perfect purpose for us? Where do you need the victory of God in your life this morning?

Know your identity in Jesus

Paul claims for the Corinthians and us all: “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (v. 17). How is this possible? We still look the same as before we trusted in Jesus, and unfortunately many of us still act in the same ways. How can trusting in Christ make us a “new creation”?

The key is the first phrase: “If anyone is in Christ.” To be “in” Christ is to trust him as our Lord, to ask his forgiveness for our sins and invite him to make us God’s children. This is a prayer he always answers.

But how does this forgiveness make us a “new creation”? What of our sin nature? Think about the last sin you committed. Why did you commit it? Why do God’s people still disobey God’s word and will? What changes sin nature into God’s new creation?

Here’s the mystery, the fact most Christians never discover. One of the most important verses in all God’s word is Romans 6.6: “our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin.”

If you have asked Jesus Christ to be your Savior and Lord, in that decision God identified you with his Son. He put the person you were before Christ on the cross with him. If I put a piece of paper in my Bible, it is included with it. It goes wherever my Bible goes. When I typed my sermon into my laptop computer, it became part of the laptop. It goes with the laptop.

When you asked Christ into your life, Christ actually brought you into his life. He made you part of himself. The person you were before that decision “died,” and you were “born again” as one with him.

This is why Paul testifies, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2.20).

In God’s eyes, the person you were before you trusted Christ no longer exists. Your sins have been forgiven because Jesus’ blood covered them. Your sin nature has been replaced with his divine nature. And so you and I are “a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come.” We are God’s children, with his genetics, his character, his nature as ours. This is our identity in Christ. The first step to God’s victory over the detours and defeats of life is understanding that fact.

Choose the life of Christ

But we still sin, don’t we? Lies white and black, failures small and large, sins private and public. Why? Because we don’t choose the Christ life.

Let me explain.

Earlier this week a friend called me about the 1965 Mustang convertible his grandfather had given him. It was having a problem, and since he knew that I’ve owned two old Mustangs and still love them, he wondered if I might know something that would help. We spent an hour on the phone getting nowhere. My advice didn’t get him one step closer to solving the issue. I was simply keeping him from calling a mechanic who could actually fix what was wrong.

Not long ago my laptop needed some work, but our church technician couldn’t fix it until I gave it to him. My efforts weren’t solving the problem, and they were only hindering him.

A lifeguard cannot save a drowning man so long as the drowning man tries to save himself. He’ll pull them both under. The lifeguard can only safely save a drowning man when the man has completely exhausted himself and has no strength left.

This is hard for us. We are self-sufficient people, used to fixing things ourselves. But this is one problem we cannot solve. So long as we are trying to please God in our own ability, to resist sin in our own strength, to grow in faith and serve God in ministry with our own gifts and hard work, we actually prevent his doing his work in and through us.