Jim Elliff

The Scriptures, Christotelic

Jesus had no problem talking for some time, from passage to passage, starting in Genesis, about Himself. In these passages He illustrated that ALL of the Scripture was about Him. If Jesus believed that was true, and if He in fact expressed that it is so, then we are under compulsion to read the Bible in that light. The Scriptures, beginning in Genesis, are Christotelic—intentionally aimed at revealing Christ!

When the forlorn disciples met up with Jesus following His resurrection, it made the short trip from Jerusalem to Emmaus much more pleasant. Before revealing who He was and that indeed the Christ was alive from the dead, Jesus talked with them as a fellow pilgrim in life—but one who had extensive knowledge about the Scriptures. We find this story in Luke 24.
He rebukes them, but more as a human like them who is confounded that these men do not see the truth about the death of Christ three days earlier. He is rebuking them for not reading the Scriptures with understanding, and for being men with weak faith: “Oh foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?”
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The Rural Church Dilemma

Be energized by the concept that your church could become the most loving church in the world. I find this compelling. There will be many things your church may not be. It may not be the most educated church or the most innovative church, or the most evangelistic church,  but it can be the most loving church. There is nothing to stop that from happening except your lack of determination and/or the will of the people. Love, after all, is the sign of maturity as a church. Now, if you are seeing this, you will find ways to encourage love.

Some time ago I drove to several small towns in rural Arkansas with my 89 year old father and my siblings, tracking the steps of the ministry of both my dad and his father. The experience was memorable. We visited small towns that even Arkansans might not recognize today: Cotter, Caledonia, Hagersville, Greenwood, LaVaca—twelve in all. These were the places where my father, and his father, labored for Christ eighty and ninety years ago.
Much has changed in the landscape of rural America in those eighty plus years. For one thing, most farms have been eaten up by large conglomerates, dramatically reducing population. The size of families has dropped and the area Walmart has made ghost towns of the typical downtown areas. Families long ago moved out of these rural places for the big cities in order to find work, and what young people you may find will almost certainly not stay where there is no action. With these demographic alterations, the country church has been reduced to only a shadow of what it once was.
But this does not mean the country church is not there. There are yellow brick buildings with mud stains around their base that still exist as the gathering place for those few faithful (and often reserved) older citizens and, in several cases, a family or two or even more containing younger people.
The “county seat” town churches are doing better, but even they feel the changes. Some have become regional churches for the surrounding areas. In fact, there are some notable exceptions to the general rule that rural churches are failing. In one Arkansas town that you have likely never heard of, there were 900 attending the largest church on Sunday mornings. The more remote rural churches have yielded their younger families over to these active centers which often carry on vibrant ministries. Regionalization is definitely a trend. We could call it the “Walmartization” of the rural church.
I’ve been there in my own ministry, pastoring in historic Washington, Arkansas as my first assignment. Thirty-five years ago, this town consisted of about 400 occupants, half black and half white. It has now lost much of that population and has turned into a state park (it was the old Civil War capitol of Arkansas). I never knew what quiet was until I pastored in that town. I used a “privy” behind the café and I waited out the lonely nights in a “Jim Walter” home provided by the church. It grew up to about 60 in attendance while I was there, but stayed mostly around 40. The grade school moved to Hope just after I was there, and things went down further. There is not as much going on now as far as church life is concerned, since the town has become a state park site. We said, even at that time, that the church was “just past Hope.” In more recent days, I’ve been back to that town and have reminisced about the good days of early ministry there, learning from kind people.
In addition to that, I’ve preached in so many rural churches that I could not even begin to recount them all. My ministry of 40 years of preaching has landed me in both city and rural churches, some huge, others in towns so sleepy that the grass grows unmolested on the two-lane highway—and deacons wear overalls. Though I’ve loved all of the experiences I’ve been privileged to have, I have to admit that it is often easier to visit than to stay in such a church. And I’ve scratched my head with the pastor wondering how the church could find vitality.
What happens when the young seminarian or college ministerial student takes his first churches in these areas?
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The Unrepenting Repenter

If a man turns from sin without turning to God, he will find his sin has only changed its name and is hidden behind his pride. Now it will be harder to rout for its subterfuge. You have loved others but not God. And you have loved yourself most of all. Lot’s wife left the city of sin at the insistence of an angel and for the love of her family, but turned back. She had left her heart. “Remember Lot’s wife.” (Gen. 19:12-26; Lk. 17:32)

The believer in Christ is a lifelong repenter.  He begins with repentance and continues in repentance. (Rom. 8:12-13) David sinned giant sins but fell without a stone at the mere finger of the prophet because he was a repenter at heart (2 Sam. 12:7-13). Peter denied Christ three times but suffered three times the remorse until he repented with bitter tears (Mt. 26:75). Every Christian is called a repenter, but he must be a repenting repenter. The Bible assumes the repentant nature of all true believers in its instruction on church discipline. A man unwilling to repent at the loving rebuke of the church can be considered nothing more than “a heathen and a tax collector.” (Mt. 18:15-17)
What is Repentance?
Repentance is a change of mind regarding sin and God, an inward turning from sin to God, which is known by its fruit—obedience. (Mt. 3:8; Acts 26:20; Lk. 13:5-9) It is hating what you once loved and loving what you once hated, exchanging irresistible sin for an irresistible Christ. The true repenter is cast on God. Faith is his only option. When he fully knows that sin utterly fails him, God takes him up. (Mt. 9:13b) He will have faith or he will have despair; conviction will either deliver him or devour him.
The religious man often deceives himself in his repentance. The believer may sin the worst of sins, it is true; but to remain in the love of sin, or to be comfortable in the atmosphere of sin, is a deadly sign, for only repenters inhabit heaven. The deceived repenter would be a worse sinner if he could, but society holds him back. He can tolerate and even enjoy other worldly professing Christians and pastors well enough, but does not desire holy fellowship or the fervent warmth of holy worship. If he is intolerant of a worship service fifteen minutes “too long,” how will he feel after fifteen million years into the eternal worship service of heaven? He aspires to a heaven of lighthearted ease and recreation—an extended vacation; but a heaven of holiness would be hell to such a man. Yet God is holy, and God is in heaven. He cannot be blamed for sending the unholy man to hell despite his most articulate profession (Heb. 12:14).
What are the Substitutes for True Repentance?
1. You may reform in the actions without repenting in the heart. (Ps. 5 1: 16-17; Joel 2:13) This is a great deception, for the love of sin remains. (I Jn. 2:15-17; Acts 8:9-24) At this the Pharisees were experts. (Mk. 7:1-23) The heart of a man is his problem. A man may appear perfect in his actions but be damned for his heart. His actions are at best self-serving and hypocritical. What comes from a bad heart is never good. “Does a spring send forth fresh water and bitter from the same opening? Can a fig tree, my brethren, bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Thus no spring yields both salt water and fresh.” (Jas. 3:11-12)
2. You may experience the emotion of repentance without the effect of it. Here is a kind of amnesia. You see the awful specter of sin in the mirror and flinch out of horror yet immediately forget what kind of person you saw (Jas. 1:23-24). It is true, repentance includes sincere emotion, an affection for God and a disaffection for sin. Torrents of sorrow may flood the repenter’s heart, and properly so (Jas. 4:8-10). But there is such a thing as a temporary emotion in the mere semblance of repentance; this emotion has very weak legs and cannot carry the behavior in the long walk of obedience. Your sorrow may even be prolonged. Yet if it does not arrive at repentance, it is of the world and is a living death—and maybe more (2 Cor. 7: 10). It is an old deceiver. Judas had such remorse but “went and hanged himself.” (Mt. 27:3-5)
3. You may confess the words of a true repenter and never repent. (Mt. 21:28-32; 1 Jn. 2:4, 4:20) Confession by itself is not repentance. Confession moves the lips; repentance moves the heart. Naming an act as evil before God is not the same as leaving it.
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The Revival We Need and the Unregenerate Church Members We Have

The churches that seem to be the strongest often have many members who have worked through earlier deceptions about their conversion to arrive at a solid assurance with God. The probing was occasioned by learning that spiritual life in the individual produces noticeable change. The exploration into whether or not they actually have spiritual life altered everything.

In the early 1700s, between 75 and 80 percent of American people attended church meetings regularly. Yet huge numbers among them were unconverted. It was among these people that Awakening doctrines had their greatest effects. In other words, wherever people gathered, within or outside the colonial church buildings, the principle leaders were addressing church members who needed Christ.
What truth, among the many emphasized, had the greatest influence on unconverted church members in The Great Awakening? And who are the unconverted church members in our context who may also need this truth?
The Great Awakening’s Emphasis on Regeneration
When George Whitefield was asked why he so often preached, “Ye must be born again,” he replied, “Because ye must be born again!”
Regeneration, or the new birth, was the prevalent issue of the Great Awakening of the 1740s. As Joseph Tracey said:
This doctrine of the “new birth,” as an ascertainable change, was not generally prevalent in any communion when the revival commenced; it was urged as of fundamental importance, by the leading promoters of the revival; it took strong hold of those whom the revival affected; it naturally led to such questions as the revival brought up and caused to be discussed; its perversions naturally grew into, or associated with, such errors as the revival promoted; it was adapted to provoke such opposition, and in such quarters, as the revival provoked; and its caricatures would furnish such pictures of the revival, as oppressors drew. This was evidently the right key; for it fitted all the wards of the complicated lock.[1]
This doctrine has repeatedly been at the heart of awakenings.
By “regeneration,” we mean the giving of life to dead souls as a sovereign work of the Holy Spirit. Berkhof says it is “that act of God by which the principle of the new life is implanted in man, and the governing disposition of the soul is made holy…and the first holy exercise of this new disposition is secured.”[2] The Lord lived and died for his own, and as King, gifts our dead souls with new life resulting in sight, belief, repentance, and holiness.
J.C. Ryle said in so many words that the awakening preachers of that time believed in an indivisible union between authentic faith and holiness. He writes, “They never allowed for a moment that any church membership or religious profession was the least proof of a man being a Christian if he lived an ungodly life.”[3]
The attention to this truth, fed by their earlier Puritan theology, brought great conviction and massive numbers of conversions when preached and taught with the unction of the Spirit in times of revival. Where it did not bring conviction, it brought anger. Whitefield, who himself was written against in over 240 tracts of various types,[4] said that when you heard middle colonies’ preacher Gilbert Tennent (and his brothers) you were either converted or enraged. According to Gillies’ quoting of Prince in Historical Collections of Accounts of Revival, Tennent is said to have preached in this way:
Such were the convictions wrought in many hundreds in this town by Mr. Tennent’s searching ministry; and such was the case of those many scores of several other congregations as well as mine, who came to me and others for direction under them. And indeed, by all their converse I found, it was not so much the terror as the searching nature of his ministry that was the principal means of their conviction. It was not merely, nor so much, his laying open the terrors of the law and wrath of God, or damnation of hell (for this they could pretty well bear, as long as they hoped these belonged not to them, or they could easily avoid them), as his laying open their many vain and secret shifts and refuges, counterfeit resemblance’s of grace, delusive and damning hopes, their utter impotence, and impending danger of destruction; whereby they found all their hopes and refuges of lies to fail them, and themselves exposed to eternal ruin, unable to help themselves, and in a lost condition. This searching preaching was both the suitable and principal means of their conviction.[5]
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The Nod and the Pause: Where the War Begins

A temptation is in fact a temptation because there is desire latent within you. When lust awakens in the easy chair, with one eye open he peeks over the window ledge on to the street where temptation sends its knowing glance. At this moment and not any later, declare in your mind, “I am dead to this in Christ. I do not serve it.” He gives his power to his own to do this. Then go on to the next good thing and don’t even give it another thought. That is the war.

Temptation is an opportunist as it passes by. Looking for the slightest nod, it hopes only for our invitation to pause a moment on the porch for our consideration of its merit versus cost and risk. Surely merely thinking about the merits versus risk cannot be too dangerous.
By overestimating our moral strength as supposedly detached evaluators we are soon to fail, however, since our resistance is already compromised severely in the nod and pause itself. We did not assume we laid down our weapons at that point. Temptation now bonds with our awakened lust on the porch of judgment to contend with our spiritual reason as we weigh the options. With such strong desires stirring us in the wrong direction standing beside an available and luring temptation, though we are a king, it will, far more often than not, give in like a fool. The great conquerors can be brought down easier with a second look than a warring tribe.
When this awakened lust contends with weakened biblical reason to talk it over on the porch, the battle for the mind is raging full bore. We have invited a lion to the porch, an old master at deception, though looking like something else which is deceivingly inviting to the senses.
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Slavery to the Fear of Death

If we continue to be enslaved by this fear, it isn’t for lack of concern on God’s part, nor for lack of effort or weakness of strategy. Freeing you from this fear was in His mind when Christ came to earth taking on humanity, living out the war against sin victoriously, dying triumphantly over its grip.

This fear rests over mankind like a heavy wet blanket. It fills the lungs of man with its acrid particles; coats the landscape. Regardless of the bravado of some, it is a dreadful enemy, striking every man, woman, boy or girl. Industries are built upon it. Depression arises from it like a mist. The entertainment world levitates its viewers from it, then plunges them into it again because it remains the greatest of all shocks. We all will die and we all know it.
It must be the happiest news possible to hear that Jesus Christ did something about death in order to remove this fear. Read and be amazed:
“Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.” (Heb 2:14-15)
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Christian, You Have Distinct Purpose: Your Letter From Jim

These two, salt and light, provide the great purposes of our lives as believers. God will bring you into certain ministries or callings or activities that will give structure to this, but remembering constantly that we have been made to be distinct in the world and illuminating is enough to give you that reason for living you desperately need. 

I queried an older man who has become a dear friend with a pointedly stark question: what is your purpose in life? He is advanced in years. He ought to know by now. The question struck home, and he teared up trying to answer it.
He failed. He had nothing much to say. And he felt the pain of the emptiness that lingered in the air as he tried. He seemed not to like what fumbled out and admitted he was unable to answer satisfactorily. I appreciated his honesty.
Imagine what it means for anyone, young or old, to exist for a precious few years on planet earth, staring at eternity during his or her only trip through, without any noble purpose. Imagine coasting in neutral to hell. I once read the final statement of a person of notoriety in journalism who had taken his life. He wrote, “I might as well have played ping pong all my life.”
At the time I had this revealing discussion, I had been meditating and discussing concepts from the Sermon on the Mount with a friend every week who lived many States away. We had recently discussed that section containing the often misused and unfortunately worn words, “salt and light.” You remember it, don’t you?
You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how will it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out to be trampled under foot by men.
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to all who are in the house.
Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven. (Mt 5:16-18, LSB)
We noted in our reflections that there is purpose here. You recall, I’m sure, that Jesus began his sermon with what is called “the beatitudes,” which is a kind of portrait of the blessed follower of Christ. This was the formula Christ used: “Blessed are the ________, for they will ___________.” The word “blessed” is followed by a descriptive name for those blessed (for instance, “the pure in heart,” meaning those focused singularly on God) and a statement concerning the specific way the blessing will be realized (“for they shall see God”). The specific blessings are those promised throughout Scripture for every believer and the descriptive name of such people is characteristic of each of those believers as well.
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The Unrepenting Repenter

Repentance and faith are bound together. A repenting man has no hope for obedience without faith in the source of all holiness, God Himself. In repenting of sins, he loses his self-sufficiency. God is his sanctifier. 

The believer in Christ is a lifelong repenter.  He begins with repentance and continues in repentance. (Rom. 8:12-13). David sinned giant sins but fell without a stone at the mere finger of the prophet because he was a repenter at heart (2 Sam. 12:7-13). Peter denied Christ three times but suffered three times the remorse until he repented with bitter tears (Mt. 26:75). Every Christian is called a repenter, but he must be a repenting repenter. The Bible assumes the repentant nature of all true believers in its instruction on church discipline. A man unwilling to repent at the loving rebuke of the church can be considered nothing more than “a heathen and a tax collector” (Mt. 18:15-17).
What is repentance?
Repentance is a change of mind regarding sin and God, an inward turning from sin to God, which is known by its fruit—obedience (Mt. 3:8; Acts 26:20; Lk. 13:5-9). It is hating what you once loved and loving what you once hated, exchanging irresistible sin for an irresistible Christ. The true repenter is cast on God. Faith is his only option. When he fully knows that sin utterly fails him, God takes him up (Mt. 9:13b). He will have faith or he will have despair; conviction will either deliver him or devour him.
The religious man often deceives himself in his repentance. The believer may sin the worst of sins, it is true; but to remain in the love of sin, or to be comfortable in the atmosphere of sin, is a deadly sign, for only repenters inhabit heaven. The deceived repenter would be a worse sinner if he could, but society holds him back. He can tolerate and even enjoy other worldly professing Christians and pastors well enough, but does not desire holy fellowship or the fervent warmth of holy worship. If he is intolerant of a worship service fifteen minutes “too long,” how will he feel after fifteen million years into the eternal worship service of heaven? He aspires to a heaven of lighthearted ease and recreation—an extended vacation; but a heaven of holiness would be hell to such a man. Yet God is holy, and God is in heaven. He cannot be blamed for sending the unholy man to hell despite his most articulate profession (Heb. 12:14).
What are the substitutes for true repentance?
1. You may reform in the actions without repenting in the heart (Ps. 5 1: 16-17; Joel 2:13). This is a great deception, for the love of sin remains (I Jn. 2:15-17; Acts 8:9-24). At this the Pharisees were experts (Mk. 7:1-23). The heart of a man is his problem. A man may appear perfect in his actions but be damned for his heart. His actions are at best self-serving and hypocritical. What comes from a bad heart is never good. “Does a spring send forth fresh water and bitter from the same opening? Can a fig tree, my brethren, bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Thus no spring yields both salt water and fresh” (Jas. 3:11-12).
2. You may experience the emotion of repentance without the effect of it. Here is a kind of amnesia. You see the awful specter of sin in the mirror and flinch out of horror yet immediately forget what kind of person you saw (Jas. 1:23-24). It is true, repentance includes sincere emotion, an affection for God and a disaffection for sin. Torrents of sorrow may flood the repenter’s heart, and properly so (Jas. 4:8-10). But there is such a thing as a temporary emotion in the mere semblance of repentance; this emotion has very weak legs and cannot carry the behavior in the long walk of obedience. Your sorrow may even be prolonged. Yet if it does not arrive at repentance, it is of the world and is a living death—and maybe more (2 Cor. 7: 10). It is an old deceiver. Judas had such remorse but “went and hanged himself.” (Mt. 27:3-5)
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The New Year Starts: Making Plans?

Should we plan? Yes. Should we aspire to something better? Yes, again. Is there godly ambition? Sure. But if we act as though this or that can happen outside of God’s will, we will be out of step with the Master planner. He has a strategy and a use for your life that all of our plans will not avert.

You may have reason to fear the year now upon us. What is on the other side of the door? Every person has their allotment of trouble, even among believers. Will there be loss, illness, death, aggravation, perplexity? Will those you love come to distrust you? Will you sin badly, ruining your reputation? Will there be economic trials and anxiety over money? Will you lose your job, or worse, your mind? Will you be hurt deeply? Will you be in constant pain? The circumstances can’t always be in your favor. Perhaps you are overdo for trouble.
We cannot know what is ahead. “You do not know what your life will be like tomorrow,” said James, the brother of Christ (James 4:13-17). You simply do not know—cannot know—if this will be your best year ever, or the worst, or somewhere inbetween with a bias to one side or the other. And, we cannot tell if what seems bad will do a world of good. We know so little as we put one foot ahead of the other.Read More

When Pastors Aren’t Able to Pastor

If only a few church members live out some or all of these suggestions—perhaps if even one does it—significant improvement will be made in the church you love.
The church is medium-sized in attendance, yet, on paper the membership roll is even larger. Its solo pastor is a frustrated man. There are some good days, and certainly some fine people who encourage him, but he’s frustrated because the job God called him to do just cannot be done. He has many people to tend to, numbers of which are missing, and even those who are present are more than any average man could possibly care for—that is, really care for.
So, this good-hearted, spiritually-minded pastor lapses into frustration over his inability to do much more than put out fires. And there are plenty of those.
He tries to project the view that he is a true shepherd of all the people. He speaks in warm terms to those attending on Sundays, and to all of the people through the church’s regular publications. The website shows him as if he were the best friend and confidant of all the members, constantly attending to their spiritual growth, mentoring, guiding, and comforting. But the blurb under his photo is only a wish and not a reality. He actually is only able to pastor an inner core on that level—perhaps twenty to thirty, at most. He sometimes thinks that his loving words are no different than those of the TV preacher who looks into the camera and acts as if he is directly speaking to the listener as his dearest friend. He has become a pastor who is not able to pastor.
Across town is the fastest growing church. They are driven by entertainment, appealing music, and a large staff. Sometimes his members visit there, just out of curiosity or perhaps out of the need to have a little relief from the sedate experience they are used to. When a special event comes to the mega-church, perhaps several of his members attend, including his own children. It often adds to his frustration, though he would not say much about it.
The pastor of the mega-church expresses his love for the people also. In fact, he may be better at saying it than the pastor of the smaller church. His website portrays him in several photos and videos as a caring, magnanimous friend of the people, who all smile and love him.
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