Friday, September 28, 2007

Stand: A Call for the Endurance of the Saints

My Plans for the Weekend

Aundrea and I are headed to Minneapolis for the Desiring God National Conference this weekend, and are we ever looking forward to it! Want to know why? Here are a few reasons for starters:

1. The theme. Endurance isn't applauded much these days. The method of choice for 21st century Americans to improve their lives is to change something: upgrade, trade in, relocate, divorce, enhance. Who ever lists endurance as a personal value? As John Piper writes in his conference invitation: "A long, hard, steady, hold-the-course obedience is a rare and wonderful thing."

2. The speakers. John MacArthur, who has persevered at a single church for almost four decades; Jerry Bridges, who has suffered the illness and death of his first wife; Randy Alcorn, who has endured significant cultural oppression for his pro-life activism; Helen Roseveare, who has served in missions ministry and recruitment for over 50 years; and John Piper, who has endured a thing or two in his own 60+ years and still seems to speak to whatever subject with heated, Christ-centered passion.

3. The corporate worship. Desiring God's lead musicians and worshipers always help us see and savor the supremacy of Jesus Christ.

4. The opportunity to enjoy some spiritual meals together as a pastoral team. Pastors need to be pastored, too, and Bret and I are anticipating some rich nourishment this weekend!

5. Continuing something of a tradition. Aundrea and I have attended this conference three of the five years it has been held. I know many pastors who have never attended a conference with their wife even once. I pity those men.

6. Three whole days with my wife and without kids. Enough said!

Pray for us! We'll tell you how it went when we get back.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

What I Do vs. What I Believe, Part 2

The Alluring Alternatives to Everyday Faith

In last Friday’s post I asserted that we all show exactly what we believe by how we live. It’s a mistake, in other words, to try to change what we do to match up with what we believe. What we do already matches what we believe. Our actions never contradict our real beliefs; they simply manifest them.

Suggest whatever example or hypothetical scenario you’d like. Let’s say a pro-life couple decides to get an abortion for financial reasons. Are they really and truly pro-life? Hardly. Their actions prove what they believe: that they value financial security more than their baby’s life.

Or the guy who sings to God, “Here I am to worship, here I am to bow down, here I am to say that you’re my God, you’re altogether lovely, altogether worthy, altogether wonderful to me” and then never cracks his Bible or prays for the rest of the week. Does that dude really believe God is completely lovely and worthy and wonderful? Not if he doesn’t even have the desire to seek God outside of a church building.

So far, so good. We live what we believe.

But here’s what has me really puzzled. Why do my actions so often show that I don't really believe what I say I believe? What are the greatest hindrances to believing, and thus living, what I say I believe? There are probably lots of answers, but I’ve been especially convicted about three.

NOTE: Even though I’m writing this to you, I’ve left these musings in the first person because this post is a sort of journal entry for me. Hopefully, you might catch a glimpse of yourself here, too, as you peer over my shoulder while I look into the mirror of God’s word a bit…

1. I live by feelings more than by faith. More often than I care to admit, I am "feelingful" instead of faithful. Some of these "feelings" are genuine emotions; others are just plain old desires. For example, if I don't feel like (read: "want to") reading my Bible, I'm easily tempted not to. The point is, it’s easier to live by what I feel rather than what I say I believe. Or, to put it another way, I tend to believe my feelings more than I believe God. The problem lies in what I believe.

2. I also tend to live for the present more than the future. Sure, I am aware that God says sin is bad for me, but that seems so doubtful when I'm caught up in the dailyness of life. After all, sin doesn’t usually bring immediate consequences. That means I can sin and seem to get away with it—no retribution from God, no apparent consequences in my life… all is well. Or so it appears…

Why? Because when I say “all is well,” what I really mean is “all is well right this moment, at least as far as I can tell.” But what I fail to realize is that all is NOT well in the bigger picture. For example, my sinful coveting is setting me up for financial disaster, or my sinful anger is fracturing my relationships, or my sinful laziness is beginning to get noticed by my employer, or my sinful lust for approval is weakening my ability to stand for the truth. Disaster is right around the corner; but since I can’t see it, I don’t really believe it. The present seems so much more real to me than the future. Or, to put it another way, I tend to believe my experience of the present more than I believe God’s prediction of the future. Once again, the problem lies in what I believe.

3. Finally, I live by my assessment of myself more than the Bible's assessment of me. In other words, I tend to rationalize away verses that correct me, rather than see them as indictments of me personally. I’m quite an expert at this game of making excuses for myself and slowly squeeeeezing out from under the pressure of conviction.

I apply some verses to other people: "Give money? That's for people who actually have some extra." Or I excuse myself on the basis of a good heart: "Disciple my kids? Well, I really want to do that. Is that good enough?" Or I postpone my obedience: "Witness? I will, when unsaved people begin dropping into my life." Or I present God with conditions: "Ask for my wife's forgiveness? OK, I will, right after she asks me for mine."

In other words, I often fail to live out what I say I believe because I excuse my behavior as “not the real me.” Or, to put it another way, I tend to believe my own excuses for my sinful actions more than I believe God’s indictment of my sinful actions. Yet once more, the problem lies in what I believe.

If you’re still reading, I’m impressed. I’m also indebted to offer you a solution. What should we do if any of these false beliefs have captured our own soul?

Three suggestions:
1) Get in the word. To paraphrase Romans 10:17, “True belief arises in our heart through hearing the word of God.”
2) Pray for faith. Be like the man who asked Jesus for a miracle, and when Jesus asked if he believed, he pleaded: “I believe! But help my unbelief!” (Mk 9:24)
3) Connect to others. As Hebrews 3:13 recommends: “You must warn each other every day, while it is still ‘today,’ so that none of you will be deceived by sin and hardened against God.” It’s much easier to be deceived along the way when you’re walking it alone.

Do you really believe that what you believe is really real? If not, what are you believing instead? And more importantly, how do you plan to change it?

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Temporal Suffering vs. Eternal Joy

Viewing the Pain of Earth Through the Eyes of Heaven

I had a different post planned for today, but this afternoon I read through tears the news of a young couple who lost their full-term daughter the day before she was due to be born. I only met this young father once at a conference a few years ago, but I have prayed for him earnestly because I know very well the expectant hopes and joys of fatherhood. And since yesterday’s mishap with my own son, I’ve been especially aware of the fragility of our lives and the importance of grounding our joy in something other than prosperous circumstances.

One of the very first subjects I addressed as a new pastor was suffering, not because I want to ruin people’s joy but precisely because I want to strengthen it. Life shreds thin joy, and if yours isn’t rooted in something stronger than your circumstances, it will be very thin indeed.

Because I do not have much time to give to writing today, from this point I am simply going to reproduce part of my sermon manuscript from the last of three messages I preached on the book of Job. These are the kind of thoughts that help me when my imagination runs away with scenarios about what could happen to my children or my wife in this wretched, fallen world. I hope they are thoughts that will help strengthen your hope in God in the face of your own (future?) suffering as well. What follows is from that sermon.

As we come to the end of the book, we find that Job is a broken and changed man (42: 1-6). He affirms God’s freedom and sovereignty, and he repents of his reckless and reactionary words. He forgives his three friends and prays for their forgiveness by God (vv 7-9). And then we find an amazing and complete reversal of Job’s fortunes (vv 10-13). Here we learn the sixth theme of the book of Job:

Someday God will right every wrong and repay every hurt.

Should we conclude that this restoration here is normative and means that all of our sickness will give way to healing, all of our loss will be regained, all our hurt will be soothed in this life? Not quite. Job’s restoration in his lifetime is, I think, an accommodation to the era in which Job lived, before the Scriptures were given in their full form. Job’s restoration is God’s way of vindicating him and demonstrating what we know from the revelation of the rest of the Scriptures, which Job and his friends did not have.

The rest of the Scriptures reveal that God is just, He will right every wrong and repay every hurt and make every trial worthwhile.

How? Well, we’re not quite sure, but what we do know is that He is the God who imagined and carried out the details of the gospel. And in the gospel we see that our God wounds, but He also heals and will someday welcome us to His everlasting joy.

Rom 8:16-18 16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs--heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. 18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.
Oh, how glorious is the good news of the gospel for those in suffering! The final answer to the book of Job and the ultimate consolation for all of the Jobs who have suffered like him is that our Lord Himself embraced and absorbed all the undeserved consequences of sin and evil in this wretched world!

If you are not a believer in Jesus Christ, let me urge you to please repent and trust Him today! And for those who are in Christ, rejoice that eternity will make sure that not a single moment of patient suffering is wasted or lost. Psalm 56:8 indicates that God keeps every one of our tears in a bottle and records our sufferings in a book. And someday, the first nanosecond after we cross over the river to heaven’s shore, in that single instant the suffering will be over. But not only over—also worth it, for the eternal weight of glory that will be revealed to us!!
2 Cor 4:16-18 16 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
Did you hear those last two verses? “Our LIGHT and MOMENTARY troubles are achieving for us an ETERNAL GLORY that FAR OUTWEIGHS them all…”
Behold the mercy of our King,
Who takes from death its bitter sting,
And by his blood, and often ours,
Brings triumph out of hostile pow’rs,
And paints, with crimson, earth and soul
Until the bloody work is whole.
What we have lost God will restore—
That, and Himself, forevermore,
When He is finished with His art:
The quiet worship of our heart.
When God creates a humble hush,
And makes Leviathan his brush,
It won’t be long before the rod
Becomes the tender kiss of God.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Boys and Heights and Trips to the ER

Giving Thanks for God's Kind Providence

Until this month, we hadn't been to the emergency room much at all, especially considering we have four boys age eight and under. But on Labor Day our 3-year-old got bumped off the porch by his three brothers and landed right on his arm. After lots of tears and howls, a trip to the hospital, and a few x-rays, we learned that we had our first broken bone. But a few days ago he abandoned his little sling, and all was well.

Until today, that is, when our 5-year-old tried to climb a tree with the aid of a bungee cord. He hooked it on a branch above his head, grabbed on tight, and started to pull himself up. (Go ahead and cringe now, because you know what's coming next.) Just as he started to lift himself off the ground, WHAM! That deadly metal hook slipped off the branch and nailed him right between the eyes.

It was pretty gory there for a while: a trail of blood through the house, a jagged hole in his head, blood in his eyes and running down his nose… Once again my truck became an emergency vehicle, carrying one of my precious little treasures toward rescue. Ironically, he had just been at his doctor’s that morning for a scheduled visit, so they were all ready with his chart and insurance info.

I’m amazed at how tough these little boys of mine are. Our youngest didn’t take another drop of pain medication for his broken arm after leaving the hospital, and this little guy today took four shots of anesthetic directly in his torn forehead. Phew! Six stitches and a vanilla shake later, and we were on our way home again, not too much the worse for wear.

But what amazes me more than anything is the goodness of God that watched over both my boys during their mishaps. All the way to the doctor’s today, I couldn’t help but imagine what would have happened if that metal hook had hit him an inch or two to either side. As he himself said at the doctor’s office: “Yeah, then I would have needed to get a wooden eye!”

I will say to the LORD, "My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust."
Psalm 91:2

Monday, September 24, 2007

Monday Quotables

From R.C. Sproul’s The Holiness of God

“We tend to have mixed feelings about the holy. There is a sense in which we are at the same time attracted to it and repulsed by it.” (p 42)

“God is the ultimate object of our xenophobia. He is the ultimate stranger. He is the ultimate foreigner. He is holy, and we are not.” (p 45)

“It is one thing of fall victim to the flood or to fall prey to cancer; it is another thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (p 53)

“Holiness provokes hatred. The greater the holiness, the greater the human hostility toward it. It seems insane. No man was ever more loving than Jesus Christ. Yet even His love made people angry.” (p 68)

Commenting on the death of Uzzah when he steadied the Ark of the Covenant with his hand: “An act of heroism? No! It was an act of arrogance, a sin of presumption. Uzzah assumed that his hand was less polluted than the earth. But it wasn’t the ground or the mud that would desecrate the ark; it was the touch of man.” (p 108)

“The Old Testament list of capital crimes represents a massive reduction of the original list. It is an astonishing measure of grace. The Old Testament record is chiefly a record of the grace of God. How so? …In creation all sin is deemed worthy of death. Every sin is a capital crime.” (p 114)

“God put Adam and Eve on probation and said, 'If you sin, you will die.' Sin brings the loss of the gift of life. The right to life is forfeited by sin. Once people sin, they forfeit any claim on God to human existence.” (p 114)

“Sin is cosmic treason. Sin is treason against a perfectly pure Sovereign. It is an act of supreme ingratitude toward the One to whom we owe everything, to the One who has given us life itself.” (p 116)

“We become false witnesses to God. When we sin as the image bearers of God, we are saying to the whole creation, to all of nature under our dominion, to the birds of the air and the beasts of the field: 'This is how God is. This is how your Creator behaves. Look in this mirror; look at us, and you will see the character of the Almighty.'” (p 116)

“…the most mysterious aspect of the mystery of sin is not that the sinner deserves to die, but rather that the sinner in the average situation continues to exist.” (p 117)

“[God] is indeed long-suffering, patient, and slow to anger. In fact He is so slow to anger that when His anger does erupt, we are shocked and offended by it. …Instead of taking advantage of this patience by coming humbly to Him for forgiveness, we use this grace as an opportunity to become more bold in our sin.” (p 117)

“The most violent expression of God’s wrath and justice is seen in the cross. If ever a person had room to complain of injustice, it was Jesus. He was the only innocent man ever to be punished by God. If we stagger at the wrath of God, let us stagger at the Cross.” (p 121)

“As soon as we talk about deserving something, we are no longer talking about grace; we are talking about justice. Only justice can be deserved. God is never obligated to be merciful. Mercy and grace must be voluntary or they are no longer mercy and grace.” (p 127)

“God is not obligated to treat all people equally.” (p 128)

“Access to the Father is ours. But we still must tremble before our God. He is still holy. Our trembling is the tremor of awe and veneration, not the trembling of the coward or the pagan. ...We are to fear God not with a servile fear like that of a prisoner before his tormentor but as children who do not wish to displease their beloved Father.” (pp 153-4)

Friday, September 21, 2007

What I Do vs. What I Believe, Part 1

A Distinction Without A Difference

"Do you really believe that what you believe is really real?"

So ended the first session of The Truth Project, a DVD-based worldview study from Focus on the Family which we are beginning at our church. Dr. Del Tackett, who incidentally is one of the most effective and inspiring teachers I've ever heard, concludes his first lecture with this haunting question; and I've been pondering it ever since.

It reminded me of a thought that first came my way about 15 years ago, in a course taught by one of my favorite college profs, Dave Hershberger. He opined, "We don't need to live what we believe. We already do. We can tell exactly what we really believe by how we live."

At first I thought he was loony; but after about 5 minutes of raising and answering objections in my own mind, I concluded he was absolutely right. …and brilliant.

About 10 years later I read John Piper's Future Grace, with its central thesis that sin gets its power from the pleasures it (falsely) promises us and so the way to fight for holiness is to believe the promises of superior satisfaction from God. That book literally changed my life. (Someday I would like to write about the five books that have changed me the most and why. Interested? Stay tuned. Maybe I will.)

Suddenly, I saw that the key to fighting sin was not the gargantuan effort required to deny myself pleasure and "Just say no" to sin. Sure, the Bible exhorts us to say no, but a more biblically complete approach requires us to say "yes" to the promises of a far surpassing joy and fulfillment that God offers in His word. So once again, I was pointed back to the ultimate question: "What do I really believe? My feelings? The siren song of sinful desire? The culture? Or God's word?"

For example, Dr. Tackett suggested that if he himself really believed all that the Bible says about the fatherly nature of God and the power of prayer, he wouldn't have a problem NOT praying. The difficulty would be getting himself to stop praying!

I think he’s right. Do you? I think his question is one that’s well worth asking.

Do you really believe that what you believe is really real? …about God? …heaven and hell? …the Bible? …the final judgment? …the gospel?

Prove it. Live it.

(coming next week: why we tend not to live what we say we believe)

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Living in Colorado

...Means We Occasionally Hit the MOUNTAINS!

I'm bummed that I missed posting for a day or two, but we've been visiting family in Granby, which is up in the mountains not too far from Rocky Mountain National Park. We came up to go hiking, enjoy the sights, and watch the elk bugle. The elk watching was pretty amazing. We were often within 20-30 feet of whole herds - usually a bull and his harem, along with several calves.

The kids loved it! Along the way we also saw several moose, deer, and a red fox.

It's been a wonderful couple of days. Hiking, four-wheeling, relaxing, and being amazed at the handiwork of our God:

O LORD, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
From the lips of children and infants
you have ordained praise
because of your enemies,
to silence the foe and the avenger.
When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
the son of man that you care for him?
You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.
You made him ruler over the works of your hands;
you put everything under his feet:
all flocks and herds, and the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
all that swim the paths of the seas.
O LORD, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
Psalm 8

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

I, Harlot

Another Look at How a Christian Reads the Psalms (and the rest of the Bible)

My friend Jeff asked a really good question about this post from last week. Specifically, he gently challenged the notion that OT saints didn’t (or couldn't) have the same level of awareness of their sinfulness as we do. I had written:

…these men and women didn’t have Romans 7 or Ephesians 2 to help them understand how truly awful they are without Jesus. Thus, we should not expect them to have the same level of intimacy with the wretchedness in their own heart as we have, viewing it through the lens of these later Scriptures.

In response, Jeff asked, “Even without the New Testament, shouldn’t these people have had a good grasp of their own sin anyway just from what they could read in their own Scriptures?”

It’s a great question especially when we remember that, when Paul wants to prove that the whole world is desperately sinful in the early chapters of Romans, what does he do? He quotes the Old Testament extensively! Romans 3:10-18 is a collection of OT quotations all demonstrating his point that Jews and Gentiles are alike under sin. He writes (with OT references added in parenthesis):

10 as it is written: "None is righteous, no, not one;
11 no one understands; no one seeks for God.
12 All have turned aside;
together they have become worthless;
no one does good, not even one.” (Psalm 14:1-3)
13 “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” (Psalm 5:9)
“The venom of asps is under their lips." (Psalm 140:3)
14 "Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness." (Psalm 10:7)
15 "Their feet are swift to shed blood;
16 in their paths are ruin and misery,
17 and the way of peace they have not known." (Isaiah 59:7-8)
18 "There is no fear of God before their eyes." (Psalm 36:1)

So obviously, these readers of the OT had plenty of material to show them their sinfulness. Paul sure thought so anyway! But I still contend that they failed to see the depths of their depravity clearly, even with passages like these right before their eyes. Why? Because the average believer—both Old Testament era and New Testament era alike—would read these passages and assume that these words do not apply to them.

Why not? Context. If you’re an especially diligent sort, go back and read the OT passages I referenced above, and notice who these descriptions are applied to in their original context. If you don’t have the time or the inclination to go read them all yourself, I’ll give you one example.

The very last line Paul quotes is from Psalm 36:1, which says: “Transgression speaks to the wicked deep in his heart; there is no fear of God before his eyes.” Who has no fear of God before his eyes? "The wicked.” And this example from Psalm 36 is representative of the context for every one of these OT quotations: a description of “the wicked” or “evil men” or the writer’s “enemies” or those in outright rebellion against God.

Interesting then, isn’t it, that Paul takes these passages and applies them to everybody, not just those we would traditionally consider “the wicked”? In Romans 3, Paul is writing to moralists and lechers alike. He’s got the whole world in his sights, and he’s spraying inspired buckshot from the Old Testament all over everybody! In other words, Paul calls ALL OF US the wicked, evil men, and the enemies of God.

There’s another very important lesson for us here in how to read, not just the Psalms, but the entire Bible. In every passage we read, we need to see ourselves as the wicked, blind, broken, and helpless. We are the lame man in need of healing. We are the bloody mess by the side of the road in need of a Good Samaritan. We are the harlot, the tax collector, the Pharisee, the complaining Israelites, the wicked kings of Israel. In the story of the crucifixion, I am Judas, I am Pilate, I am the religious leaders, and I am the angry mob. In Genesis, I am Cain when he murders and Abraham when he lies and Jacob when he deceives.

It is the gospel itself that tells us to read the Bible this way. Paul shows us this by how he applies these passages from the Old Testament. In essence, he is saying, “There is no fear of God in the eyes of the wicked, and that means YOU!” The gospel reminds me that I am a sinner in need of a Savior. It commends to me one attitude and one alone: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Only when I begin there can I even hope to emulate, by God’s grace, the Good Samaritan or the great King Josiah or the faith-filled harlot Rahab.

This matters to me right now because I am studying for a sermon on the story of Ananias and Sapphira, the deceivers in Acts 5 whom God struck dead for their hypocrisy. I am convinced that the first way to read this passage is to see myself as the hypocrite, and the first way to preach it is to help my church family see themselves that way, too. And then, enter the gospel of God’s grace, where not all hypocrites and liars are stuck dead (a la, Peter, who stood there with these dead people at his feet, knowing that only months earlier he himself had lied three times about being a follower of Jesus Christ! Incredible.). Breathtaking justice forms the perfect backdrop for breathtaking mercy.

All this reminds me of Caedmon Call’s great song “Mystery of Mercy”:
I am the woman at the well, I am the harlot
I am the scattered seed that fell along the path
I am the son that ran away
And I am the bitter son that stayed

I am the angry man who came to stone the lover
I am the woman there ashamed before the crowd
I am the leper that gave thanks
But I am the nine that never came

My God, my God why hast Thou accepted me
When all my love was vinegar to a thirsty King?
My God, my God why hast Thou accepted me
It's a mystery of mercy and a song, the song I sing
(lyrics by Andrew Peterson and Randall Goodgame, from the album Back Home)

Monday, September 17, 2007

Monday Quotables

From John Stott's Between Two Worlds

“Seldom if ever do I leave the pulpit without a sense of partial failure, a mood of penitence, a cry to God for forgiveness, and a resolve to look to him for grace to do better in the future.” (p 9)

“Preaching is indispensable to Christianity. Without preaching a necessary part of its authenticity is lost. For Christianity is, in its very essence, a religion of the Word of God.” (p 15)

“Our worship is poor because our knowledge of God is poor, and our knowledge of God is poor because our preaching is poor. But when the Word of God is expounded is its fullness, and the congregation begin to glimpse the glory of the living God, they bow down in solemn awe and joyful wonder before his throne. It is preaching which accomplishes this, the proclamation of the Word of God in the power of the Spirit of God. That is why preaching is unique and irreplaceable.” (p 83)

“The kind of God we believe in determines the kind of sermons we preach.” (p 93)

“We should never presume to occupy a pulpit unless we believe in this God. How dare we speak, if God has not spoken? By ourselves we have nothing to say.” (p 96)

“More often than we like to admit, the pew is a reflection of the pulpit. Seldom if ever can the pew rise higher than the pulpit.” (p 115)

“Preachers are not to invent [the message]; it has been entrusted to them…. It is impressive that in all these New Testament metaphors [for preaching] the preacher is a servant under someone else’s authority, and the communicator of somebody else’s word.” (pp 136-7)

“Jesus Christ, we believe, is the fulfillment of every truly human aspiration. To find him is to find ourselves. Therefore, above all else, we must preach Christ.” (p 151)

“When we proclaim the gospel, we must go on to unfold its ethical implications, and when we teach Christian behavior, we must lay its gospel foundations.” (p 157)

“The best preachers are always diligent pastors, who know the people of their district and congregation, and understand the human scene in all its pain and pleasure, glory and tragedy. And the quickest way to gain such an understanding is to shut our mouth (a hard task for compulsive preachers) and open our eyes and ears.” (p 192)

“Humble listening is indispensible to relevant preaching.” (p 192)

“Supposing that a pastor has this support, what else could keep him from study? Let me be frank. Only one thing: laziness.” (p 208)

“So we need, as I find myself, constantly to repent, and to renew our resolve to discipline our lives and our schedule. Only a constantly fresh vision of Christ and of his commission can rescue us from idleness, and keep our priorities correctly adjusted.” (p 209)

“To search for [the text’s] contemporary message without first wrestling with its original meaning is to attempt a forbidden shortcut.” (p 221)

Commenting on why it is necessary to write out every word of the sermon: “Not because we shall read our sermons, nor because we shall memorize and recite them, but rather because the discipline of clear thinking requires writing…” (p 231)

“Hypocrisy always repels, but integrity or authenticity always attracts.” (p 271)

“A congregation learns the seriousness of the gospel by the seriousness with which their pastors expound it.” (pp 278-9)

“The main objective of preaching is to expound Scripture so faithfully and relevantly that Jesus Christ is perceived in all his adequacy to meet human need.” (p 325)

“The most privileged and moving experience a preacher can ever have is when, in the middle of the sermon, a strange hush descends upon the congregation. The sleepers have woken up, the coughers have stopped coughing, and the fidgeters are sitting still. No eyes or minds are wandering. Everybody is attending, though not to the preacher. For the preacher is forgotten, and the people are face to face with the living God, listening to his still, small voice.” (p 326)

“Why, then, does the power of the Spirit seem to accompany our preaching so seldom? I strongly suspect that the main reason is our pride.” (p 330)

“Self-forgetfulness is an unattainable goal, except as the by-product of preoccupation with Another’s presence, and with his message, his power and his glory.” (p 340)

Friday, September 14, 2007

If Sports Builds Character…

Where'd All These Villains Come From?

I loved sports. Past tense. There was a day when I was pretty well married to basketball, and football and baseball weren’t far behind. But these days, I can take ‘em or leave ‘em.

It started when I realized how much more prone I was to sin when competing—anger, pride, bitterness, selfishness, disrespect to authority, the whole depraved nine yards.

But what really has me aggravated lately is the recent deluge of immoral and contemptible behavior among professional athletes, coaches, and officials: the NFL’s infamous thug list, the doping scandals in baseball and the Tour de France, Nick Saban’s lies, NBA official Tim Donaghy’s gambling, and now Bill Belichick’s cheating. Nice. Quite frankly, I’m disgusted.

As a result, you can imagine my delight when I ran across this article entitled “Obviously, Sports Do Not Build Character,” by Anthony Bradley, assistant professor of apologetics and theology at Covenant Seminary. He begins:

If you are one of those people who believe the old adage “sports builds character,” you have some explaining to do.

Why are so many professional athletes, who have spent their entire lives in organized sports, masters at cheating, serial adultery, drunkenness, compulsive gambling, drug abuse, and thuggish fighting (to name just a few of the vices)? The truth is that sports no more builds character than attending Clemson University football games qualifies you to replace Tommy Bowden as head coach.

In spite of my irritation, however, I’m reluctant to give up on sports altogether. True, sports do not build character, but they provide a very helpful context in which character can be built… under the right circumstances. What circumstances? Well, I think Bradley gets it right near the end of his critique:

Sports do not build character in young people but virtuous adults do. In one sense youth sport is simply a medium for adult mentoring within the context of challenging situations. Character is bestowed – or not – from one generation to another.
Reminds me of a post I read a while back by CJ Mahaney. CJ loves sports, but he values biblical masculinity and godly character far more. In this post, he lists specific behaviors he commends to his son, Chad—practices which make sports a means to the end of developing godliness. Here’s CJ’s perspective:

There is nothing original or profound about this list. But helping my son apply it to his heart and life can make a profound difference. So after each game, I review the above list with my son. I go over the game with him and celebrate any and all expressions of humility and godly character. I tell him that this is more important to me than how many points he scored or whether his team won the game (although we do play to win!). Remember, fathers, what you honor and celebrate, your son will emulate. Therefore, we must celebrate godly character more than athletic ability or achievement.
If you’re a parent or a coach or even just a Christian sports fan, I’d encourage you please to read CJ’s entire piece. It’s absolutely excellent.

I want to conclude by offering my sincere thanks to the many Christian parents and coaches and fans out there who approach sports this way. Keep up the good work! If only there were a couple thousand more of you, perhaps we might have something to cheer about.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Own or Rent?

A Perspective on Possessions

I’m studying for a sermon on Acts 4:32-37, a passage describing the profound unity and mutual care in the Jerusalem church. On the table in this text is that dreaded subject, money:

Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. Acts 4:32
I need to give most of my time today to study and sermon writing, so this post is intentionally quite short. It’s just a helpful little analogy I found earlier this week as I was reading a book by Ralph Doudera, a highly regarded Christian investor. He writes:

My mentor, Evangelist Tommy Tyson, at one time considered joining a commune where everyone owned their property in common. God prompted him to take his wallet out of his pocket and count the money inside, asking him where he got the funds. Acknowledging that it was a gift from Him, he felt God say to him, “If you will accept everything as a gift from Me, and you are willing to use it as I guide you, then I don’t mind if you carry it in your own pocket.”

This concept has been helpful to me regarding the material things that I own. For example, if I had a rental car that was stolen, I probably wouldn’t get very upset, just report it to the authorities and get another one. But if “MY” car was stolen…? If only I could have this mindset for all my possessions. (Wealth Conundrum)

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Confessions of a Bible Critic

How a Christian Reads the Psalms

Sometimes the Bible irritates me. There, I said it. And now, before you call me a blasphemer, keep reading and let me explain…

The Bible doesn’t always say what I expect it to say. More to the point, it doesn’t always say what I want it to say. (I hope that’s true in your life, too. If it’s not, you’ve either died and gone to heaven and been glorified, or you aren’t reading closely enough.)

Like this morning… I was finishing up Psalm 119, and that writer just kept on saying things that I could never say—things that made me really uncomfortable because of what I believe about our depravity and sinfulness and need for grace. I wanted to pull him aside and offer a little friendly counsel on how he could improve his inspired Bible writing, especially on verses like these:

Look on my affliction and deliver me, for I do not forget your law. (v 153)
Many are my persecutors and my adversaries, but I do not swerve from your testimonies. (v 157)
Consider how I love your precepts! Give me life according to your steadfast love. (v 159)
My soul keeps your testimonies; I love them exceedingly. (v 167)
It sounds like this guy really thinks he’s got it going. “I do not forget your law. I love your precepts. I’m all that...” And when I started thinking about it a little more, I remembered that this isn’t the only Psalm that talks that way. Psalm 15 can make me feel like I never should attend a worship gathering again. Psalm 26 reads like a flavor of Christianity I’ve never tasted. And so on…

So what do we do with Psalms like that? Ignore them? Explain them away, like we're some dusty, liberal theology professor? “This particular selection from the psalter furnishes us with an undisputable example of hyperbole as the author writes of things he himself knows not literally but rather exaggerates the claims of his religious experience…” Spare me. If that’s what is happening here, how can we tell when the author means it and when he doesn’t? Is God really a rock and a fortress who can protect us from all our troubles, or is that just exaggerated language, too?

No, I think there’s a better way to understand the Psalms when they talk like that.

First, it’s helpful to remember that the Psalms were written during an age when God’s arrangement with His people emphasized due punishment and/or reward. He had given laws; their responsibility was to keep them. (Of course, it’s both true and very important to recognize that grace was very much at work in this period as well. I’m just suggesting that the emphasis was somewhere else.) Thus, it’s only natural that a follower of God would want to point out his efforts and successes at abiding by the arrangement.

Second, it’s helpful to adjust our expectations about the self-awareness of these OT writers. As one of my seminary profs pointed out to me a few years ago, these men and women didn’t have Romans 7 or Ephesians 2 to help them understand how truly awful they are without Jesus. Thus, we should not expect them to have the same level of intimacy with the wretchedness in their own heart as we have, viewing it through the lens of these later Scriptures.

Finally, it’s critical to remember that the Psalms are part of what the New Testament writers sometimes call “the Law.” That doesn’t mean it no longer applies to us. It just means that when we feel convicted by it like I was this morning, we need to remember how the Law is supposed to function in our life, namely, to convict us and lead us to Christ.

To say it a different way, all of these Psalms that sound so far out of reach for us actually are… and are not. They ARE out of reach in ourselves, but they ARE NOT out of reach if we are in Christ. In other words, Jesus did live like this. He could actually say these things and mean it. He could take verses like this on His own lips and talk to God like that! I love how Dietrich Bonhoffer puts it:
The psalms that will not cross our lips as prayers, those that make us falter and offend us, make us suspect that here someone else is praying, not we—that the one who is here affirming his innocence, who is calling for God’s judgment, who has come to such infinite depths of suffering, is none other than Jesus Christ himself. It is he who is praying here, and not only here, but in the whole Psalter. (Life Together)
This is what Bonhoffer calls “the secret of the Psalter,” and I think it’s probably the single most important thing I’ve ever learned about how to read the Psalms. These are Jesus’ prayers before they are mine, and I must pray them and read them through Him. In other words, the right way to read the Psalms is with a heart of repentance and faith—repentance for not being like this and faith that, thankfully, He is.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


9/11 and the Christian Life

At today’s 9/11 memorial service at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, DC, the Reverend Luis Leon suggested that each of these anniversaries presents us with a dilemma: how to remember that event appropriately while still pressing on with our lives. In my experience, it’s not been an easy balance to find.

The ability to press on with our lives, it seems to me, is a characteristically American strength. Historically, we have had a knack for bouncing back from disaster stronger than before.

But I wonder these days if we’re quite as good at remembering. We used to work hard at it: “Remember the Alamo!” during the Texas Revolution. “Remember the Maine!” in the Spanish-American War. “Remember Pearl Harbor!” for World War II. But “Remember 9/11”? Not so much.

I’ll admit, I’m really tired of the conflict in Iraq. I wish we weren’t there. I hate war. I hate killing. I hate hatred. Please understand that I’m thankful to be an American, and I’m very proud of most of our troops. I just wish they could come home. I guess I need to remind myself why they’re there.

Forgetting is easier. It’s painless, effortless, and all too natural. Unfortunately, it’s also bad for us. We grow only when we remember. We learn only when we recall. We bear up only when we bear in mind.

It’s that way in the Christian life, too. In a certain sense, remembering is the key to everything. I’m not talking about some sort of vast, comprehensive, infallible remembering that helps us get every single one of our little Christian duties done. No, the remembering we need to do is much more simple.

Paul told Timothy: “Remember Jesus Christ.” (2 Tim 2:8) Can’t get more basic than that.

Similarly, Jesus said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." And later: "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." (1 Cor 11:24-25)

I think that’s Christianity in a nutshell right there: remembering Jesus. How He lived. How He loved. How He died. How He rose. How He reigns. How He’s coming back.

One more thing… It’s interesting to me to ponder what God chooses to remember… and not to remember.

I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins. Is 43:25 (cf. Jer 31:34)
How can He “not remember” our sins? Because unlike us, He always “remembers” Jesus.
Because the sinless Savior died
My sinful soul is counted free
For God the Just is satisfied
To look on Him and pardon me
To look on Him and pardon me
("Before the Throne of God Above" by Charitie L. Bancroft)

Monday, September 10, 2007

Monday Quotables

From Craig Blomberg's Neither Poverty Nor Riches: A Biblical Theology of Possessions

"...we must take care not to assume that wealth necessarily, or even frequently, represents God's blessing." (p 36)

"So, without necessarily calling into question the wisdom of modern distinctions between legal and illegal aliens for legislative purposes, it would seem unconscionable that any Christian should ever support efforts to withhold basic human services from the neediest in any land, regardless of their country of origin." (p 48)

"Both sexual immorality and material selfishness stem from the same self-indulgent attitudes." (p 78)

"The key to evaluating any individual church or nation in terms of its use of material possessions (personally, collectively or institutionally) is how well it takes care of the poor and the powerless in its midst, that is, its cultural equivalents to the fatherless, widow, and alien." (p 84)

"As in Proverbs 30:8-9, Jesus is concerned to moderate extremes. But the main focus of his ministry, the road to the cross, and his call to his disciples to imitate him in similar self-denying sacrifice rather than basking in glory, suggests the overarching paradigm of generous giving rather than 'godly materialism,' for the one who would faithfully follow Christ." (pp 145-146)

"So, too, professing Christians today who have surplus income (i.e., a considerable majority of believers in the Western world), who are aware of the desperate human needs locally and globally, ...and who give none of their income, either through church or other Christan organizations, to help the materially destitute of the world, ought to ask themselves whether any claims of faith they might make could stand up before God's bar of judgment." (p 155)

"The church does not pay its ministers; rather, it provides them with resources so that they are able to serve freely." (p 187, quoting Don Carson)

"Christian giving is a gift from the grace from God, which he enables Christians to exercise." (p 191)

Final conclusions:
"1. Material possessions are a good gift from God meant for his people to enjoy.
2. Material possessions are simultaneously one of the primary means of turning human hearts away from God.
3. A necessary sign of a life in the process of being redeemed is that of transformation in the area of stewardship.
4. There are certain extremes of wealth and poverty which are in and of themselves intolerable.
5. Above all, the Bible's teaching about material possessions is inextricably linked with more 'spiritual' matters." (pp 243-246)

Final applications:
"1. If wealth is an inherent good, Christians should try to gain it.
2. If wealth is seductive, giving away some of our surplus is a good strategy for resisting the temptation to overvalue it.
3. If stewardship is a sign of a redeemed life, then Christians will, by their new natures, want to give.
4. If certain extremes of wealth and poverty are inherently intolerable, those of us with excess income (i.e., most readers of this book!) will work hard to help at least a few of the desperately needy in our world.
5. If holistic salvation represents the ultimate good God wants all to receive, then our charitable giving should be directed to individuals, churches or organizations who minister holistically, caring for people's bodies as well as their souls, addressing their physical as well as their spiritual circumstances." (p 247)

"'Give me neither poverty nor riches,' prayed the writer of the proverb; but, since most of us already have riches, we need to be praying more often, 'and help me to be generous and wise in giving more of those riches away." (p 253)

Friday, September 07, 2007

Milestone Meditations

Reflections on My Last Ten Years

This Monday is a significant anniversary of sorts for Aundrea and me, but since I’m going to do another “Monday Quotables” that day, I figured I’d write about Monday’s milestone today.

On September 10, 1997, Aundrea and I drove a 15-foot U-Haul loaded with everything we owned into the parking lot of the Berean Baptist Church in Livonia, Michigan. Hard to believe it was ten years ago. I know it's cliché, but it really does feel like yesterday.

When I stop and think about it though, I can see amazing changes since then. Our seven-person family was then two. Livonia gave way to Louisville, back to Livonia, and finally to Colorado. We’re replaced both our vehicles, our wardrobes, most of our furniture, and our skin cells several times over (if my high school biology serves me correctly).

It’s interesting for me to think back to those days. Ten years ago I had never…

  • been a parent,
  • heard of John Piper,
  • endured a church split,
  • led a wedding ceremony,
  • cared about Michigan football,
  • shared a meal with a missionary,
  • been baptized after my conversion(!),
  • experienced the death of a close friend,
  • counseled someone considering suicide, or
  • considered how the gospel affects my daily life.
I still don’t care about Michigan football, but a lot of other things have changed this past decade. But rather than belabor all of the changes, I’d like to suggest some effects that this kind of reflecting has on my soul. Looking back over these ten years makes me really want to…

Seize the day. If these ten years took only a blink to pass by, what does that say about my entire life?! I’d better stay focused on making it count. Looking back makes me more resolved than ever to spend each moment as wisely as possible. TV is out; family time is in. Gaming on my cell phone is out; reading is in. Mindless hobbies are out; dates with my wife are in.

Love my family. The changes of this last decade remind me that I’m not guaranteed anything. How foolish for me to obsess over stupid drivel and argue with my wife or get hacked off at my kids.

Regulate my spending. I wish I had given more money to kingdom work over the last 10 years. But instead, I’ve frittered away $25 here and $40 there, figuring that my little percentage-based giving was good enough. The regrettable result has been that I’ve turned down dozens of requests for help from short-term missionaries, needy folks in my own community, and those ubiquitous World Vision people.

Cherish the gospel. I think the single biggest change in me over the last ten years has been an awakening sense of the importance of living and applying the gospel every day. I’m grateful to God for that change, but it’s one that I feel is only just beginning. Looking back over these years makes me more thankful than ever for the cross of Christ, because I know that every bad thing was (or will be) overcome by the cross and every good thing was purchased for me by the cross:
He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Rom 8:32
In the words of my hero, John Newton:
’Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

From the Inside Out

The Death of Death

Last Sunday during the Lord’s Supper, I made the simple observation that one of the ways to appreciate the cross more fully is to ponder its effects. Then we pondered together the awesome truth that at the cross, Jesus completely disarmed Satan, both physically and spiritually.

To be more specific, Satan’s greatest physical weapon is death, and his greatest spiritual weapon is unforgiven sin. Death destroys our body, and unforgiven sin can destroy our soul. And Jesus wrenched both right out of Satan’s hands in His death and resurrection. But He didn’t do it quite how we would expect. Here’s how it works…

In Seeing and Savoring Jesus Christ, John Piper points out that if Jesus had wanted to remove Satan’s deadly influence from this world, He could have done it with one command: “Go to hell.” But instead, He chose a different route to destroy Satan:

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil… Heb 2:14
How did He destroy the devil? By submitting Himself to Satan’s most powerful physical weapon—death—and then destroying it from the inside out. The picture that comes to my mind (WARNING: It’s not very sacred, and it’s also kind of gross…) is from the movie Men in Black, when Tommy Lee Jones entices the huge alien bug to eat him, finds his weapon somewhere in there, and then blows the thing to gooey bits from the inside out.

It’s not like Jesus proved He was stronger than death by being immortal—i.e., never dying. Jesus was not like a soldier who moved behind enemy lines without getting caught. Instead, he went right to the enemy general, gave Himself up, got locked away in a POW camp, and then blew holes in the walls of every cell in the whole compound. Now every single soldier who gets taken captive can just walk right out through the holes left by the Man who went there before him.
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. (1 Cor 15:20)
But wait... there's more. The resurrection also defeated Satan’s most powerful spiritual weapon: sin.
When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: "Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?" The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Cor 15:54-57
Ever notice that, in the opinion of most people these days, the only thing you need to do to get to heaven is die?! That’s not what Paul thinks. He believes death has a massive stinger called "sin" which will make death a door to hell instead of heaven… if not for Jesus.

If it weren’t for Jesus, the worst part about dying would be that now we have to start paying for all the sins we committed when we were alive. Once death comes, Satan would sting us with our sin and carry us straight to hell forever. That’s what “the power of sin is the law” means. God’s law says that the penalty for sin is eternal death (Rom 6:23).

But Jesus broke the power of sin by fulfilling the demand of the law: He died for sin. And then He removed the sting of death—sin—by securing our full justification so that no accusation of sin could ever be brought against His people again.
And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him. Col 2:13-15
Isn’t that good news?! The gospel tells us that Satan’s two major weapons are gone: 1) death is not the end; we will rise again; 2) our sin will not be used to condemn us.
No guilt in life, no fear in death—
This is the pow'r of Christ in me;
From life's first cry to final breath,
Jesus commands my destiny.
No pow'r of hell, no scheme of man,
Can ever pluck me from His hand;
Till He returns or calls me home—
Here in the pow'r of Christ I'll stand.
(“In Christ Alone,” by Keith Getty & Stuart Townend)

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The Darkness of Doubt and the Light of the Gospel

Mother Teresa's Crisis of Faith

Mother Teresa of Calcutta died ten years ago today. And since that day, evangelicals (i.e., those who affirm the good news that Jesus died for our sins) have been speculating on what happened to her next. That is not the point of this post (though I will say that I think it is presumptuous and oversimplified to assume “practicing Catholic = does not know Jesus = destined for hell”).

Rather, I am interested in what it means for us that Mother Teresa, the universal icon of Christian service and spirituality, would write:

Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me? The Child of your Love — and now become as the most hated one — the one — You have thrown away as unwanted — unloved. I call, I cling, I want — and there is no One to answer — no One on Whom I can cling — no, No One. — Alone ... Where is my Faith — even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness — My God — how painful is this unknown pain — I have no Faith — I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart — & make me suffer untold agony.
According to a newly released collection of her private correspondence, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, the depth of spiritual darkness expressed here was not the exception for her. It plagued her for over six decades—virtually from the time she founded the Missionaries of Charity until her death. Time’s associate editor David Van Biema has written an illuminating cover story on the book. He reports that she referred to her spiritual experience as “dryness,” “darkness,” “loneliness,” “torture,” even as a sort of hell. Once she even wrote that it caused her to doubt the existence of God Himself.

Why? Why would such an apparently devout woman struggle so mightily with unfulfilled longing and unshakeable doubt? Biola’s Fred Sanders has offered a compassionate list of ten edifying (to me, at least) speculations, beginning with: “Maybe it’s depressing to be immersed in the lives of the poor of Calcutta, every day for your whole life. Think about the last thing you saw that ‘ruined your day.’ Then think Calcutta.”

But more important for me than the “why” question is the inescapable “so what?” What does Mother Teresa’s spiritual crisis have to do with me?

At the very least, it warns us against an experience-based, emotion-driven approach to the Christian life. Mother Teresa’s testimony reminds us that we must “believe our way” rather than feel our way through the Christian life. Pastor Rick Phillips has posted an excellent analysis of Mother Teresa’s testimony in which he writes:
Why was her faith so dry and dead, as she lamented for over sixty years? One key answer seems to be that her faith was not rooted in the Word of God, but in experiential ecstasy. In this, parallels can be seen between Mother Teresa and Christians of many stripes -- many of them evangelicals -- whose faith is driven by spiritual experiences instead of by the truth of God's Word. How much of the frantic, sterile restlessness of the evangelical culture today is charged by this same drive.
But I see an even larger issue at stake here. Mother Teresa’s struggle forces us to reckon with the veracity of the Christian faith. If Christianity is real—i.e., if there really is a God and He really has sent His Son and His Spirit really does commune with His children—then why would such a devout, self-sacrificing follower of Jesus suffer such an intense silence from God?

As I mentioned briefly already, I do not think it works to dismiss Mother Teresa’s darkness as the unavoidable experience of an unbeliever who simply doesn’t qualify for real fellowship with God. While I am deeply troubled that she was not known to articulate the good news of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, I am also forced to reckon with her incredible selflessness, her compassionate love for the needy, and most of all her many statements of intense personal longing for Jesus—all of which the New Testament considers to be fruits of a true work of God’s Spirit. I will certainly concede that all of these “fruits” could be worked up by human effort, but that only backs the question up a step and forces me to ask why I (and most other Christians) do not live with the Spirit’s help anything like she lived without Him!

So the question remains: in light of Mother Teresa’s internal struggle, can our faith really be true? Before suggesting an answer, I want to affirm the normalcy and even the value of times of deep spiritual depression. Countless saints of history have admitted going through seasons of profound darkness: David Brainerd, William Cowper, and Charles Spurgeon are the three that come most quickly to my mind. And though these seasons are painful, they can be extremely valuable because they teach us to “walk by faith and not by sight,” in other words, to trust God’s words rather than our own ideas or emotions. Nothing forces us to rely on our flashlight (cf. Ps 119:105) like pitch darkness.

As for the question of the truthfulness of the Christian faith and the reliability of the Christian gospel, I would suggest that the answer is found right in the gospel itself. The gospel tells us that our salvation has been secured entirely by Jesus Christ—through His sin-free life, debt-paying death, and hell-conquering resurrection. A necessary consequence of this message—and a clear biblical teaching—is that salvation comes to sinners completely by God’s free grace, not by working to earn it but by treasuring and trusting Jesus, who earned it for us.

“Trusting Jesus.” That is the response called for in the gospel, and I would suggest it is the answer to the even bigger issue of whether the gospel itself is even true to begin with. Trust Jesus. Look to Jesus. Consider Jesus.

When we take a closer look at the life of Jesus of Nazareth, we will see that no one lived like this man. No one loved like He did. No one spoke with His wisdom. No one had His power and authority. No one brought together such diverse qualities in perfect proportion as He: strength and tenderness, justice and mercy, submission and sovereignty, meekness and majesty.

The accounts of His life in the four gospels are so compelling, we are forced to listen to His words. And when He speaks, He says things like this: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mk 10:45) And this: “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” (Lk 22:20)

Apparently, Jesus Himself believed that His own life and death would make it possible for sinners to be ransomed and forgiven. In other words, Jesus believed the gospel was true. And if this most incredible, compelling Man thought it was true, I’m willing to trust Him in that, too.

As with yesterday’s post, I am going to wrap up with the fitting words of Al Mohler:
Our confidence is in Christ, not in ourselves. We are weak; He is strong. We fluctuate; He is constant. We cannot trust our feelings nor our emotional state. We trust in Christ. Those who come to Christ by faith are not kept unto him by our faith, but by his faithfulness.

I possess no ability to read Mother Teresa's heart, but I do sincerely hope that her faith was in Christ, and not in her own faithfulness.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Homosexuality, Christianity, and The Gospel

What Does the Bible Say?

About the time Brokeback Mountain came out a couple years ago, I realized I had never addressed the subject of homosexuality in the many years that I had been ministering to students. To remedy that a bit and to address the public controversy stirred up by the movie, I put together a short list of several biblical principles that I felt were critical to the issue.

In light of the Larry Craig scandal, I've reproduced my list in this post, along with some Scripture and a little commentary.

1. Any time we talk about sin, we should not think in terms of “them”; we must think “we/us.”

Matthew 7:1-2 Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

Galatians 6:1 Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.
As I will point out below, the Bible does call homosexual behavior "sin." But the Bible also condemns pride, racism, gossip, hypocrisy, indifference to the poor, lying, heterosexual adultery, materialism, gluttony, laziness, hatred, anger, and a whole host of other attitudes and behaviors. As a result, when Christians speak of homosexuals as "sinners," we are merely putting them in a category with ourselves. It's an indictment we all share.

2. A few fundamental truths have to guide our thinking about this issue and all others:
  • The Bible, as God's word, is true and trustworthy, and it can predict outcomes and consequences with absolute certainty.
  • The Bible predicts that when God's created things violate His purpose for them, disorder and destruction result. When they conform to His purpose, order, life and joy result.
The Bible acknowledges that homosexual behavior can bring pleasure. The Bible also acknowledges that a homosexual couple can find happiness together. But since the Bible warns against homosexuality, we must conclude that God is thereby protecting us from some sort of destruction and disorder. In essence, then, the truly Christian response to homosexuality is motivated by a desire for these people to know more joy and order and life, not less.

3. Homosexual behavior is sin. Homosexual desire is sinful and may lead to sin.
1 Corinthians 6:9-10 Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.

James 1:14-15 ...but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.
4. It is never biblical or true or necessary to say our desire equals our destiny.
1 Peter 1:14-16 As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: "Be holy, because I am holy."

1 Peter 2:11 Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul.
The simple fact that we crave a thing does not mean it is good or right for us to have it. Because we are sinners, our innate desires cannot always be trusted. In fact, some of our desires can be destructive, especially if we give them full sway.

5. Christians must learn to love sinners who are still struggling with and even blinded by their sin, and our love must take practical, tangible, undeniable forms.
Galatians 5:14 The entire law is summed up in a single command: "Love your neighbor as yourself."
The church has erred grievously by ridiculing, ostracizing, hating, and ignoring the homosexual community. In all our misguided (often self-righteous) zeal for keeping God's law, we have neglected this summary obligation: "Love them like you love you."

6. Our sins and the sins of those we love, no matter how deep and powerful, are no match for the power of the gospel.
1 Corinthians 6:9-11 Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
What awesome news the gospel is! But here is precisely why our failure to love the homosexual community is so grievous: Christianity is the only source which offers them a power sufficient to wash, purify, and pronounce them righteous before their God.

7. The gospel must be the message we say most often and most loudly, the truth that defines us in our own minds and in the mind of the culture.
1 Corinthians 1:22-24 Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
It's sad to me that Christians are often far more outspoken about abortion and homosexuality than about the gospel. I wish we were known for the message "Christ died for our sins." I wish Christians could be heard saying that as loudly and as often as we are heard parroting our pro-life and pro-family slogans.

I'm reminded of some of Al Mohler's comments on Larry King Live during a discussion about Brokeback Mountain. Mohler continually redirected the conversation to the gospel in ways like this:
You know my main concern, Larry, is not with the gospel of heterosexuality, even though I think that's very important. It's with the gospel of Jesus Christ and what I find lacking in the movie, the screenplay and in the short story is any resolution that really brings these persons to know why they were created and how God really intends them to live and how they would find their greatest satisfaction in living just as God had intended them for his glory.
And this (when asked about whether he believes homosexuality is a choice):
I don't doubt for a minute, Larry that there are millions of people who struggle with attractions to the same sex or other kinds of attractions that they don't even know they ever chose. They may never have and as they know themselves would never have chosen them.

But the big issue for all of us is how we find out what our creation was all about and what we were made for and why this incredibly powerful thing called sex is such a big part of our lives and how we are to bring it into a right alignment.

In other words, there are heterosexuals who struggle with all kinds of desires that are just not right desires and when it comes right down to it I, as a Christian, believe that we are also deeply affected by sin that we don't even know ourselves well enough to know why we desire the things we desire.

What I hope for is that persons, heterosexual and homosexual, will come to know the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, would come to know new life in him, would come to understand that sinners can find the only help that is -- that is worth finding and the only salvation and solution to our problems by coming to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and then understanding that God, our creator, has the right to define every aspect of our lives including our sexuality.
And this (at the very end of the show):
Well, I think we're watching the breakdown of norms in this society. I don't doubt that. I sense that we have a big task as Christians to articulate what is our most basic concern, and that is, Larry, that on the cross, Christ died for sinners, heterosexual and homosexual, and the only way to be made whole is in him, and that is more important than anything else I could possibly say.
Well said, Dr. Mohler. Well said.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Monday Quotables

From John Stott's The Cross of Christ

"Before we can see the cross as something done for us (leading us to faith and worship), we have to see it as something done by us (leading us to repentance)." (pp 59-60)

"If we spoke less about God's love and more about his holiness, more about his judgment, we should say much more when we did speak of his love." (p 132, quoting P.T. Forsyth)

"The priority [in the gospel] is neither 'man's demand on God' nor 'God's demand on men,' but supremely 'God's demand on God, God's meeting his own demand.'" (p 152, paraphrasing Forsyth)

"Divine love triumphed over divine wrath by divine self-sacrifice." (p 159)

"The essence of sin is man substituting himself for God, while the essence of salvation is God substituting himself for man." (p 160)

"As we stand before the cross, we begin to gain a clear view both of God and of ourselves, especially in relation to each other." (p 161)

"...whereas usually the one who sins and the one who dies are the same person, on this occasion they were not, since it was we who sinned, but he who died for our sins. This is love, holy love, inflicting the penalty for sin by bearing it. For the Sinless One to be made sin, for the Immortal One to die - we have no means of imagining the terror or the pain involved in such experiences." (p 214)

"No theology is genuinely Christian which does not arise from and focus on the cross." (p 216)

"Powerless wisdom or foolish power: it was (and still is) a fateful choice. The one combination which is not an option is the wisdom of the world plus the power of God." (p 225)

"[The cross] appears to be total defeat. If there is victory, it is the victory of pride, prejudice, jealously, hatred, cowardice, and brutality. Yet the Christian claim is that the reality is the opposite of the appearance. What looks like (and indeed was) the defeat of goodness by evil is also, and more certainly, the defeat of evil by goodness. Overcome there, he was himself overcoming. Crushed by the ruthless power of Rome, he was himself crushing the serpent's head (Gn. 3:15). The victim was the victor, and the cross is still the throne from which he rules the world." (p 228)