May All the Other Garbage Go

No church organization, movement or a group can honestly claim to be the flag-bearers of the Protestant Reformation if they have departed from believing in the central importance of the substitutionary, representative life and death of Jesus Christ, and His literal, bodily resurrection. 

Trusting in Jesus-alone, plus no one and nothing else, is the heart of the Protestant Reformation and its understanding of the Gospel. If we truly appreciate that “the Church reformed is always reforming” we will see clearly that the reasons for Protest have not been removed. 

Christian groups that undermine or caricature the most literal centrality of Christ in their teaching, or that pay the Gospel of Christ a lip service only, or if they hijack the Gospel of Christ for the promotion of their own peculiar teachings are not the Reformers of our days. Neither are those that major on the social and cultural benefits of the Reformation alone, while growing embarrassed of the exclusive claims of Jesus. And neither are those groups that are ascribing the redemptive attributes belonging to Jesus alone to their subjective and speculative prophecies, miracles and wonders. 

Only those who continue to sift everything they believe through the filter of the exclusive, substitutionary, representative and objective significance of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection are legitimate flag bearers of the Reformation. 

Friends, no compromising formula has been discovered yet that bridges the gap between the two irreconcilable views of the Gospel. The only way to bridge the gap between us and God is for us all to embrace Jesus plus nothing (no one) else, and let all the other garbage go. 

It must be Christ plus nothing, or it soon becomes everything but Christ.  

May “the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse (purifies, heals) our consciences from acts that lead to death (FROM dead works, useless rituals), so that we may serve the living God!” Hebrews 9:14. NIV

Have a Thoughtful Reformation Day!

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Unwrapping Jesus

Wherever a Christian culture exists that encourages its followers to believe and act as if their salvation, or sense of God’s approval depended on our human works (whether they are the works of the Law, or our own rules, or the rules dictated by church); or the works of our own subjective feelings – all of them are demonstrating that we are not sure if trusting in Jesus alone is enough to keep us in the saving relationship with God. Thus, the grace of Christ, as the supreme and all-sufficient agent of our salvation is compromised, diluted, even lost.

Today many are praying for unity, quoting the prayer of Jesus “that all may be one”. Unfortunately, they are forgetting that the only legitimate call to unity shared between the followers of Jesus is the one where Jesus alone is firmly occupying the throne, and deciding the rules of the game. “That all of them may be one, Father, just as You are in me and I am in You”’ prayed Jesus. John 17:21.

Jesus never prayed for unity at all costs. Unity that does not have Jesus-plus-nothing in the center is a hijacked unity. Cosmetic or politically driven unifications are not based on the truth but on the compromises that always sacrifice the Gospel. There where Jesus Christ is not on the throne, some other christ will be enthroned. This is why the warning of Paul the Apostle sounds so urgent and uncompromising: “Even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned”. Galatians 2:8.

As long as we are adding anything to Jesus, whatever that may be, to which we are crediting even partial redemptive attributes, we have not grasped the heart, meaning and continuing urgency of the Reformation.

Most of us Christians of all brands would in one breath happily claim that we believe in Jesus alone – in Jesus free from all additives. But the truth is that we are so readily wrapping Jesus into all kinds of security blankets of our own making. Thus, we are worshiping a blanketed, often heavily dressed up Jesus. Often those who brag the most that they are the people of the Bible worship another, crippled Jesus. This is a widespread problem shared among too many Christians. 

The reason we are continuing to live in the state of cognitive dissonance of claiming the name of Jesus only, while blissfully continuing to venerate various additions of our own making, is that we ourselves can no longer tell the difference between Jesus and our own wrappings of Jesus. 

Our hardest challenge today, that always meets the strongest opposition within and without, is to unwrap Jesus, take the layers of unnecessary, even misleading and deceptive wrappings off, and let the undiluted Jesus speak from the pages of the Gospels and the New Testament. And the good place to start for me would be to ask myself: “Do I care enough to let the real Jesus stand up?” 

Jesus continues to ask his disciples of today the same question he asked His first disciples: “Who do you say I am?” Matthew 16:15. May we let the Holy Spirit lead us to a place where it will be said about us too: “They saw no one else but Jesus!” Matthew 17:18.

The 16th century Reformers understood that the heart of the Gospel was the gift of grace in  Jesus Christ without human strings attached. This was the landmark which they did not dare compromise or subject to improvisation. Neither should we.

Earlier version

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Video: Uganda Report – Developing Young Leaders in East Africa

Two weeks ago Bojan Ruvarac, new Renewing Our Minds director, and Tihomir Kukolja (ROM Director 2001-2019) were visiting Uganda.

We meet with the leaders of the Africa Youth Leadership Forum (AYLF) from Uganda and Eastern Africa.  We shared our work experiences with the Renewing Our Minds (ROM) ministry and our governing organization Forum for Leadership and Reconciliation. Our African friends shared their work experiences with AYLF and Cornerstone Development.

We were impressed, humbled and inspired as we watched how young people of Uganda and East Africa were becoming transformed into the future leaders of this region thanks to the dedicated work of the African youth Leadership Forum and Cornerstone Development, and their vision of “nurturing a new breed of African leaders”. Out of our visit and time spent with our friends from AYLF a new vision has flourished: AYLF is seriously planning to move forward with an African version of ROM.

Thank you friends from Uganda for your wonderful welcome and hospitality. Special Thank You goes to our friends Phillip Ojok, Gabriel Odhiambo Achayo, Allan Shepherd, and our new friends Branly Madatii, Monicah Monique Waithera, Emmanuel Baraka, Josephats Yeeko Izaacs, Tim Kreutter, Samuel Wanyagira and Yusuph Athuman, and to a number of other new friends from Uganda and the region.

To learn more about our recent visit to Uganda watch this video. Time 11:30. 

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Ours is Not a Tribal War

The main trait of any kind of tribalism is primitivism. In the ages past tribes were after each other just because they could. Not belonging to one’s family, caste or tribe was enough for conflict, because in the eyes of a tribe no one else existed worthy of respect, and everyone else was a threat. 

Today, despite all modern sophistications we are returning to the age of tribalism, just as primitive, forceful and savage as any in the former, barbarian ages. Bitter rivalries between ideological, political, gender, racial, ethnic, national, socio-economic, cultural tribes are branding our days. It is not a war of civilizations that we are facing, but the war of tribes, each determined to settle the scores of the bygone hurts – real, perceived or falsified. Nothing else matters any more except one’s tribal pride.

It seems everyone is up against everyone else in this war of survival of the meanest. Each tribe demands a revolution and retribution of some kind. Everyone provokes and blames the other with gusto, while declaring our own innocence. The other is always at fault. Everyone demands justice and respect while showing none for the other. Everyone screams that to be on the right side of history means pledging our allegiance to their cause alone. And everyone venerates only their own villains as heroes.

For us, followers of Jesus, the most urgent priority lies in finding a way to be above and removed far away from any form of tribalism of today. We must choose our battles carefully and discernibly. The tribal wars of self-righteousness, self-victimization and uncritical blaming of everyone but oneself are not our wars. While it is true that we can’t stay neutral, we can’t afford to let ourselves be tribally prostituted either, “for our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Ephesians 6:12. NIV

And if the cynics of today are so quick to label us a tribe too, let it be clear to us and to them that our identity is in Jesus Christ alone, and never in any form of tribalism – national, ethnic, racial, religious, or any other form of ideological tribalism. Likewise, our identity is not in any kind of supremacism, whether white, black, brown or of any other color or ideological persuasion.

Let me say it again: no racism, nationalism, supremacism, fascism or communism, or any other ideological tribalism, even if blanketed in Christian clothes and buttressed by Biblical quotes, has anything in common with the claims of the Kingdom of God. 

Our identity is formed as we are continually looking upon Jesus Christ, and thus becoming a new creation in Him. 

Let’s be careful with our allegiances lest we find ourselves fighting wars that are not ours.

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What is My and Your Religious Security Blanket?

What is My and Your Religious Security Blanket? A highlight from the Bible study of Luke chapter 3 shared by Tihomir Kukolja last Sunday with the Crossroads class at MDPC, Houston. About useless reliance on one’s religious pedigree, whether we talk about the Jews, Croats or Americans, or any other national, ethnic or religious group. We all have our own “Abrahams” of some kind, our own religious security blankets to keep us spiritually safe, superior, all sufficient, without any need for Jesus. Remember Jesus cannot be owned by anyone. The background text: Luke 3:7-9. NIV “John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?’Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.’” I believe this part of my Bible study is of significant importance today in many places so I would like to share it with my wider circle of friends. Time: 5:22 min.

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The Storm is Coming

For many years Noah worked on the ark. To his generation the ark was a powerful visual sermon, a wakeup statement, a call to repentance and salvation.

But no one listened. Not even one, except his family, most likely reluctantly. The message of the ark was too ridiculous, too naive, too unscientific, too intruding, too provoking, too undesirable to his civilization. They believed that their destinies were firmly secured in their hands. They arrogantly thought that no one could challenge them anymore, not even the God Almighty.

It is the same today. Our civilization is too sophisticated to hear God knocking. We do not want Him to disrupt our lives. We have our own plans. Deceived, we are frantically trying to rebuild the Tower of Babel, fantasizing that the day is drawing nigh when we will finally claim the very throne of God. 

The golden image of our Babylon is almost cast. The furnace if getting hot. The instruments of science are fine-tuned and ready to call us to bow down and worship. Nebuchadnezzars and Nimrods of our days are defiant. But, just as it was with the Noah’s generation ours too will be suddenly and shockingly surprised.

C.S. Lewis wrote: “For this time it will God without disguise; something so overwhelming that it will strike either irresistible love or irresistible horror into every creature. It will be too late then to choose your side. It will be the time when we discover which side we really have chosen, whether we realized it before or not.”

The night is falling. The storm is coming. It is about to start raining heavily again. Do not miss the light calling you to enter the ark.

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Passing On the Baton

I would like to share my report on the ROM (Renewing our Minds) 1999-2019 Anniversary Celebration Gathering held in Ohrid, Macedonia one month ago, since leading this amazing movement of friends has been my life for the past 18 years, out of 20 years of the current history of ROM. The gathering in Ohrid was a moving time when the baton of leadership was passed into the hands of a new ROM Director, Bojan Ruvarac. 

The Renewing Our Minds (ROM) project was born in Croatia in 1999, in the aftermath of the 90s post-Yugoslavian war that called for the education of young generations of leaders in the areas of peace building, reconciliation, and leadership development through service, modeled by the person of Jesus. The organizers believed that the teachings and example of Jesus would equip the young, emerging leaders of the Balkans and the world the best for leadership in the challenging environments and circumstances. 

In the period of twenty years 1000 people from over 60 countries have been blessed directly from the ROM ministry, and have themselves been a blessing to the Renewing Our Minds ministry either as participants, team members, speakers or mentors. ROM has also contributed to the creation or several international organizations that focus too on equipping young leaders for the leadership of service and leadership in reconciliation, and has refreshed the visions of a number of already existing ministries and movements with new ideas and incentives of how to serve more efficiently their communities. We are especially proud of our sister ministry, EDI – Economic Diplomacy and Integrity Forum, the first fruit of ROM ministry, that has been growing in its impact since 2006.  ROM has also highly contributed to the personal and spiritual transformation of many young leaders who took part in its programs and projects.

The summer of 2019 was a special summer in the history of ROM. 200 participants, mostly ROM alumni, with families and children, gathered in Ohrid, North Macedonia to celebrate the first twenty years of ROM history. This is why we called the gathering, that took place between Monday, 29thJuly and Monday 5thAugust, 2019 the ROM 1999-2019 Anniversary Celebration Gathering. It was  a week of reenergizing, sharing, empowering and thanksgiving, as well as a week of reminding the alumni of the values of peace building, reconciliation and leadership of service, as well as of following Jesus – which have been the core values of ROM since its birth in 1999.

Our desire was to learn from a mutual experience of the past 20 years, and thus set a stage for a new season of ROM ministry. This milestone ROM anniversary was also the important occasion when the top leadership baton was passed from the hands of Tihomir Kukolja, who served the ROM community as its director since 2001 (eighteen years out of its 20 years long history) into the hands of its new director, Bojan Ruvarac from Pancevo, Serbia. In fact, Bojan Ruvarac assumed officially the role of a new director on Sunday, 4thAugust, 2019. 

The 1999-2019 ROM Celebration Gathering also highlighted the service of two organizations that have made the ministry of ROM possible in the past 20 years; the Croatian based organization Life Center International, under which leadership and guidance ROM was born in 1999, and Forum for Leadership and Reconciliation, the Seattle based organization that has provided ROM with the needed governance and support since 2010. Both organizations played the most significant role in providing leadership and ministry platform for the service of the Renewing Our Minds movement, as well as the mission and vision guidance under its mission statement: “Developing leaders transformed by the person of Jesus in a divided world”, inspired by the words of Jesus: “Whatever you did to the least of those, you did for me!” Matthew 25:40.

At the end of the ROM 20 Anniversary gathering several trophies were awarded to a group of leaders and organizations who have over the years served the ROM community or contributed significantly and most consistently to its development. 

Tihomir Kukolja, ROM Director 2001-2019 shares the closing message at the ROM 1999-2019 Celebration Gathering, Ohrid, North Macedonia
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A Message at the End of One Long Season of Leadership

I’ve been away from updating and refreshing this place since May. The reason for my absence was that since May all my time was taken by leading and execution of my final project as the Renewing Our Minds (ROM) ministry director, namely the 1999-2019 ROM Celebration Gathering held in Ohrid, North Macedonia at the end of July and beginning of August. 

I am planning to be back and write some more soon on the themes I am passionate about. And there is much that I would like to say. But at this moment let me share with you the highlights of the closing message at this ROM anniversary gathering. This was my farewell message to the ROM community at the end of my leadership of ROM having served as its director for the past eighteen years, out of its twenty years long history. 

What is one to say at the end of eighteen years having led a beautiful and fragile ministry such as the Renewing Our Minds (ROM)? Since this was to be my last message to the ROM Community in the capacity of the ROM Director, my desire was to remind our ROM family of friends about ROM’s mission and purpose. ROM is a beautiful thing that has never lost its vision, purpose, momentum or relevance. ROM is also a fragile creation since it deliberately embraces young people across ethnic, religious, political and racial divides. The strength of ROM is in its deliberate rejection of any kind of nationalism.

Moreover, the real strength of ROM is in being anchored in the Person of Jesus. 

If you are not familiar with ROM may this message help you to get some idea about what ROM is all about. Time: 14:51 min.

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Christ Alone is Our Fitness for Heaven, Not our Victories

Continuing reflections on the Book of Hebrews – Jesus Without Strings Attached

“By one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.” Hebrews 10:14. NIV

Every follower of Christ, who understands and appreciates the Gospel, will agree that “without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14.). But the author of the Book of Hebrews also states that “we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 1:12). He strengthens the point later saying that “by one sacrifice He (Jesus) has made perfect forever those who are being made holy” (Hebrews 10:14). Paul states also that Christ is not only “our righteousness, redemption” but “our holiness” too (1. Corinthians 1:30). He states that the obedience and righteousness of Christ (not ours) makes “many righteous” (Romans 5:12-21).

Thus when one speaks of qualities of our holiness and righteousness, victorious living, sanctification, overcoming, one has to recognize that there exists a difference between the vertical, the most literal expression of those qualities, which for the time being belongs to God alone, and its horizontal, imperfect application in the lives of the saved but still fragile people, who are fighting Jacob’s battles every day, and are continually remaining in need of God’s grace (Romans 7:7-25.).

The Book of Hebrews underlines the difference between the two by distinguishing between the objective, unspoiled, perfect holiness of Christ credited to a believer (“by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever…” – Hebrews 10:13), and the subjective, limited, never-completed but always needed and necessary holiness manifest in the lives of the believers in Jesus. So, both is true for the followers of Jesus: in Chris we are already declared redeemed, righteous and holly, while at the same time we are called to a life-long process of “being made holy” (Hebrews 10:13.), always necessary and never completed this side of the eternity. 

This needs to be repeated since many are confused about this matter: as we believe in Christ in Him we are already possessing the absolute, complete and qualifying holiness that makes us fit for Heaven. Thus, when we speak of holiness as “our fitness for Haven” we can only speak of the perfect holiness of Jesus Christ credited to us as we believe in him, and never of our quality of holiness, or our subjective victories. No wonder that Paul calls us His “jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” (2.Corinthians 4:7).

When some of us are saying that we would rather trust in Jesus’ objective holiness than our subjective attempts at holiness, we are not making a mockery of the Gospel or limiting God’s power. On the contrary, we are humbly admitting, recognizing, appreciating and uplifting such a God who had in His greatness, despite ourselves, provided the most complete salvation for us, undeserving sinners. At the same time, by lifting up Jesus, our perfect representative, the only One who has ever given a due service of obedience in tune with His Law, we are also honoring the holiness of the Law of God.

Understanding that we are covered and vindicated by Christ’s perfect righteousness, and not by our bleak attempts at perfect righteousness will motivate and energize a repentant sinner to ever new victories and godly living than any do-it-yourself religion could ever do.

In other words, if the Gospel of Christ will not change us, nothing else will. This is why the words of Paul are more than true when he states: “I urge you brothers, in a view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices.” (Romans 12:1.)

Where some of us differ from others is in that we do not measure the amounts or intensity of our subjective holiness, victories, overcoming, obedience and anointing because we believe that they have already been measured-up to the fullest in the obedience, perfection, holiness, goodness, and righteousness of Jesus Christ our Representative.

In short (repetitio is mater studiorum) – however feeble and fragile our subjective, horizontal holiness may be, it is always inspired by the perfect holiness of Christ. And, however far we go with it and however victorious we might see ourselves on our faith journey, in humility we will continue to be reminded that our personal righteousness is just a weak projection of its prefect original. Whichever way we look at ourselves our subjective righteousness is not much more than, in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6). 

We shall not despair, however, because in and thanks to Christ, despite our crippled holiness, we are already and always counted clean and fit for Heaven. 

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Gospel Without Strings Attached

Contribution to the ongoing conversation about the ignored contribution of the late Desmond Ford to the theology of the Seventh-day Adventist Church: Ministry Magazine, May 2001, under the editorial leadership of Willmore D. Eva, published a part of my article “Gospel Without Strings Attached”.

As Hans La Rondelle, Raoul Dederen, Hans Heinz, Roger Evans, and Will Eva questioned the assumptions of the Catholic-Lutheran Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, they spoke with clarity, unseen for a considerable time in our official publications, about the forensic, objective, and legal nature of justification, distinguished from sanctification, as thought by Paul and the Reformers.

Those articles raised several questions: Has the Adventist Church, twenty years after Glacier View, finally matured enough to face the challenges of the gospel without preconceived prejudice? After providing an objective assessment of the current Catholic-Lutheran crisis over justification by faith, dare we now proceed by sweeping our own backyard, to provide a breath of fresh air so that the gospel, too often disfigured beyond recognition, may finally begin to shine in its intended beauty?

Consequently, we should ask again, how could the Church still maintain that our denominational views about the phased or stretched atonement, character-dependent investigative judgment, and the final justification of God’s character through the sufficiently perfect obedience of God’s people, all of which make salvation dependent on the believers’ performance, complement the truth of the objective gospel?

Just as much as the “gospel had been lost in an increasingly complicated systems of merits, good works, sacraments and penances” in the teachings of the Catholic Church, so it is compromised by the increasingly confusing systems of Adventist theology of salvation where individual sanctification frequently merges with the divine act of justification and where our eternal destiny was not decided on the cross as much as in the characters of believers, so that at the end of the day our honoring of Christ’s finished work of salvation appears more like a lip service than a genuine belief.

Whether the gospel is infused into indulgences, sacraments, merits of the saints, or into the character shaping doctrines of investigative judgment, vindication of God’s character through the lives of the believers and almost immaculate law keeping, it makes no difference. Both approaches are responsible for confusing the believer as to the method and place where salvation takes place, and as such they are an offense to the gospel—a serious deviation that undermines the fullness of salvation in the person of Jesus Christ.

The integrity of the Church and its mission in the days to come does not depend on how skilled it becomes in maneuvering through the challenges our distinctive beliefs will continue to face. Ultimately, the Church will be tested by its honesty toward the integrity of the gospel, for no church or a movement has ever been given commission other than to preach the gospel without strings attached. And how far will the gospel go in the Adventist Church this time depends on those ministers, evangelists, teachers, scholars, writers, editors, and lay members who treasure the gospel above the loyalty to any ideological concept.

For all of us the first step should be to stop hinting at the gospel and start preaching it deliberately and without apology.

Adventist Today, March-April 2001, published the entire article, pages 22, 23.h

Post Scriptum April 6, 2019:  Although in this article, written and published 18 years ago, I was challenging the populist Adventist theology of salvation, by comparing it with the Roman Catholic theology of salvation, suggesting that none of them are in tune with the Pauline and Reformer’s understanding of salvation, justification, atonement because both tend to infuse our works into Justification, the truth is that the story of misunderstanding of the Gospel does not rest solely within the boundaries of these two denominations. Across large sections of the Protestant/evangelical spectrum prevails a widespread confusion as to the roles of justification versus sanctification in our salvation. Consider the following paragraph: “Just as much as the ‘gospel had been lost’ in an increasingly complicated systems of merits, good works, sacraments and penances” in the teachings of the Catholic Church, so it is compromised by the increasingly confusing systems of Adventist theology of salvation where individual sanctification frequently merges with the divine act of justification, and where our eternal destiny was not decided on the cross as much as in the characters of believers, so that at the end of the day our honoring of Christ’s finished work of salvation appears more like a lip service than a genuine belief.” If you belong to any other Christian circle, not mentioned in the article, ask yourself a question: In what ways it becomes obvious that I or my church believe and act as if our eternal salvation depends very much on our performance, despite that fact that we all love to talk constantly about the grace of God?

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