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A few months ago, a graduate student in practical theology asked Stanley Hauerwas for his perspective on new church movements, especially emergent church movements. Disarming and epigrammatic as ever, the man whom Time once called "America's Best Theologian" replied, "The future of the church is not found in things like this; the future is doing the same thing Sunday after Sunday."This may seem dismissive. The student certainly took it that way, and indicated as much on his blog. I want to suggest, though, that Hauerwas was essentially right. ...
So what do we do? Perhaps the answer is much simpler, and more "old-fashioned," than we think: Maybe we ought to be teaching churchgoers to read the gospel. The first thing Muslim children learn about Christians is one of the last things Christians learn about themselves: we are a "people of the Book." Perhaps we ought to ask how to make this observation from the Qur'an true, once more, among those who fellowship around the Bible. How can we form ourselves as a people of the Book?
The first thing Muslim children learn about Christians is one of the last things Christians learn about themselves: we are a 'people of the Book.'Any decent elementary-school librarian knows that getting children to read is about giving them a chance to love a story—to miss it during mundane events like math and dinner, and to fight throughout the day for chances to hide away with the characters and adventures to which they've become attached. Of course, what Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John offer us is a story, but not just a story. It's also the linguistic vessel through which we encounter the loving, creating, and saving God. The central character in this narrative loves us back. After asking, "Do you love what you are reading?" the Christian educator ought to be able to add, "And are you loved by what you are reading?"If we could surrender our anxiety-ridden need for novelty, we could think about how to "work with the words" of the gospel in a way that makes God's loving call resound anew for children and adults alike. In learning to read the gospel, we would be giving ourselves the greatest and most formative gift possible: the gift of love for the fundamental story of the world, and a way of receiving and experiencing the divine love that story narrates. Imagine a church in which children and adults of all ages, races, and classes were bound together by their common love for the words of the gospel. If Christians can learn, week after week, to read the story of Jesus of Nazareth—to love what we read, to be loved by what we read—then surely the future of the church would look a bit more hopeful.
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.
1. Link Between Gratitude and HopeGratefulness looks back. Hope looks forward with desire and reasonable confidence and expectation. By looking back, gratitude fuels forward-looking hope.
As with over-matched ball teams that are behind late in the game, hanging their heads without oomph, without hope for the future, there isn’t power for the present.
Persons who tend not to be grateful tend not to be hopeful.
2. Link Between Hopelessness and Misplaced Trust
Hopelessness is a curse; it’s the curse of trusting in man or in anything other than God and his perfect wisdom and timing.
Despair looks at immediate realities; hope sees ultimate realities. Some see a hopeless end, but others see an Endless Hope.
Psalm 33:17, The war horse is a false hope for salvation. . .
How is hope sustained? Answer: trust the right thing — God.
Hope believes that God is not done. Hope is the feeling we have that the feeling we have is not the feeling we will have. That is, hope is the (up) feeling we have that the (down) feeling we have is not permanent.
3. Link Between Old Testament text (Isaiah 11:1–10) with New Testament Hope
The Old Testament is a story of frustrated hope. Everyone longs for God to do something.
Why was Isaiah 11:1–10 written? Here’s one reason:
Romans 15:4, "For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope."
Romans 15:12–13, "And again Isaiah says, 'The root of Jesse will come, even he who arises to rule the Gentiles; in him will the Gentiles hope.' May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope."
4. Link Suffering to HopeRomans 5:2–5,
we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
The goal of everything, including suffering, is hope.
Many lose hope during tribulation, but God intends for tribulation to produce hope… through faith.
How does one grow in hope during tribulation? Answer: God’s love is poured into our hearts (through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us).
5. Link Jesus to Your HopeJesus is our hope.
In the baby Jesus, God was fulfilling the hopes of his people in a way that they did not recognize. We may not see it now, but God has already acted for us, and God is working even now behind the scenes to bring about his good will.
The key is to remember Jesus, who knows your situation, and whose Spirit in us is a down payment of glory yet to come. God is not done.
6. Link Your Hope to the God Who Is Not DoneGod was not done when Noah was in the boat, Sarah was barren, Joseph was in prison, Moses was on the run from Pharaoh, the children of Israel were pinned against the Red Sea, the walls of Jericho blocked possession of the promised land, Gideon was hiding from the Midianites, Samson was seduced by a woman and blinded, Ruth was widowed, David was mocked as a boy facing a giant, Job’s children were all killed, government officials persecuted Daniel, Jonah was in the belly of a fish, Paul couldn’t get rid of this thorn, and Jesus was put in the grave. God is not done!
Hope is not undone, because he is not done!
“In one sense the whole object of being a Christian is that you may know the love of Jesus Christ, his personal love to you; that he may tell you in unmistakable language that he loves you, that he has given himself for you, that he has loved you with ‘an everlasting love.’ He does this through the Holy Spirit; he ‘seals’ all his statements to you through the Spirit. . . . You believe it because it is in the Word; but there is more than that; he will tell you this directly as a great secret. The Spirit gives manifestations of the Son of God to his own, to his beloved, to those for whom he has gladly died and given himself.”
D. M. Lloyd-Jones, Romans: An Exposition of Chapters 7.1-8.4 (Edinburgh, 1973), page 61.
I don't typically blog about SBC-specific issues here on this blog. I save that for my posts at BetweenTheTimes.com. The reasoning for that is quite simple-- I have a broad array of readers and reading what can sometimes be tireless denominational arguing does not serve those readers.
However, this is a blog about research. And today at LifeWay Research we've released new data on the perception of Southern Baptists (and a bunch of other groups) in America. I thought it was worthy of your time regardless of your denominational affiliation.
On to the research (you can find the full article here):
The majority of Americans have a favorable impression of Southern Baptists...However, 40 percent of respondents have an unfavorable view of the denomination, more than a third strongly assume an SBC church is not for them, and the negativity is higher among the unchurched.Respondents were shown the names of five “denominations or faith groups” and asked to “indicate if your impression is very favorable, somewhat favorable, somewhat unfavorable, very unfavorable, or you are not familiar enough to form an opinion.” The study indicates 62 percent of Americans have a favorable view of Methodists compared to 59 percent for Catholics, 53 percent for Southern Baptists, 37 percent for Latter-Day Saints (Mormons), and 28 percent for Muslims.The study sought to determine how the name might impact the interest or connection with a congregation. When asked their level of agreement with the statement, “When I see (fill in denominational affiliation) in the name of a church, I assume it is not for me,” 35 percent “strongly agree” a Southern Baptist church is not for them – higher than for Catholics (33 percent), Baptists (29 percent), Methodists (26 percent), and community or nondenominational churches (20 percent).Significantly more respondents disagree with this statement for community or nondenominational churches, indicating they are considered as a possible fit compared to other Christian faith groups included in the survey – 58 percent compared to Baptists, 44 percent; Catholics, 43 percent; Methodists, 42 percent; and Southern Baptists, 38 percent.Respondents were also asked: “If you were considering visiting or joining a church, would knowing that the church was Southern Baptist impact your decision positively, negatively or have no impact?” Forty-four percent of Americans indicate that knowing a church is Southern Baptist would negatively impact their decision to visit or join the church, 36 percent say it would have no impact and 10 percent say it would positively impact their decision.-----------
This data should really not come as a surprise. It's been widely reported that denominational numbers are in decline while non-denominational churches are a growing category in America. So what does this specific data tell us?
Here are some charts that tell the story. Feel free to share them on your blog and opine as you desire. Yes, that includes you Methodists!
- A lot of unchurched people assume certain denominations are not for them.
- Most of the unchurched don't have strong opinions or awareness of denominations – especially in heavily unchurched areas like the west and northeast.
My guess is that many people will see the research and it will be a bit of a Rorschach Test—people will see in it what they want to see. My hope is that people will consider how best to respond to this research rather than simply restate the view they already have.Real issues are at work here and they need to be approached with grace and wisdom. I hope all involved desire to ask what is, and what is not, a stumbling block-- that should be the real question.That was the question stated and debated when the issue first was mentioned. And all of us should be committed to remove unnecessary stumbling blocks so that only the "stumbling block of the cross remains." The issue is complicated, but one question remains paramount-- is the SBC name a stumbling block to those whom SBC churches seek to reach? My guess is that people will debate that over the next few weeks and our hope is that this data will bring more light than heat to that conversation....
Over the past two or three years I have paid attention to how often we quote single Bible verses on Facebook pages or we Twitter a single Bible verse. I love Scripture and it is always refreshing seeing inspired Scripture posted on-line. So I am all for quoting verses of Scripture. Jesus quoted passages of Scripture and it is wonderful seeing Bible verses popping up on Twitter and Facebook.
But there a couple of interesting things to think about regarding these single Bible verse posts. One is that we have to be careful when we quote one Bible verse or use a single Bible verse to then apply to something directly in our life. Greg Koukl from Stand To Reason said it well here about how we need to be careful in how we use single Bible verses. So I won't go into that here, but there is another observation I would like to make.
When you scan Twitter and Facebook, virtually all the Bible verses that are quoted, are always the positive, encouraging and cheery ones. Again, all Scripture is inspired, so I absolutely love the positive and encouraging cheery verses. May those quoting them continue to do so, as we need sheer and encouragement in this world for sure that is God inspired words. But.... in the Bible there is also hundreds and hundreds of verses that aren't the nice, encouraging and cheery ones. The Bible is filled with verses you never see in those daily calendars with a Bible verse each day in it. Or on Christian coffee cups or t-shirts or memory verse cards. There are hundreds of very strange sounding, weird, sex descriptive, bizarre and even violent verses in the Bible. It shouldn't be a surprise as life is filled with weird, bizarre and all kinds of unusual things. The Bible captures life at different time periods in history and I love the honesty of the Bible. That is one of the things when I first was studying the Bible I was impressed with and made me have more confidence in it's inspiration. If it was soley a human document, we probably would have cleaned up all the stories to have nice endings and removed the weird sounding things. But I believe God gave us an accurate record of what was happening and left in the happy, encouraging parts as well as the bizarre, weird and not so happy ending parts.
A classic and well known almost cliche example of a strange story from the BIble I will start with today is from 2 Kings 2:23-25. The story goes:
"From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some boys came out of the town and jeered at him. “Get out of here, baldy!” they said. “Get out of here, baldy!” He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the LORD. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys."
So basically, Elisha gets made fun of by some youth for being bald. Elisha then calls a curse on them and two bears kill all 42 boys. Here's a video portraying the weird sounding story:
I won't go into an explanation of this story, you can read one here. But it will be strange and weird Bible stories and verses like this I will quote or highlight on Wednesdays.
There are so many who post the hundreds of encouraging and cheery verses, I am going to once a week post the not-so-cheery and often very weird sounding verses in the Bible. My friend Mike Frost posted on his Facebook a couple weeks ago that he noticed it was all the happy ones always quoted and it got me thinking about this. Who quotes the other ones? And why aren't we quoting them if they are inspired Scripture just like the cheery and happy ones? I think the more difficult, strange verses actually force us to be better students of the Bible - as we think "What the heck does this mean?!?".
A few weeks ago in Vintage Faith Church, we had Professor David Lamb speak in our 3 worship gatherings and then had an open forum after the evening one. He talked about whether the God of the Old Testament is a violent angry God (based on some of the stories in the Old Testament). The place was packed and at the Open Forum we had in The Abbey that night, it was also packed and crowded. I moderated the questions coming in and it was a totally wonderful evening having discussion with a scholar about these things. We sold out of David's books too (God Behaving Badly: Is the God of the Old Testament Angry, Sexist and Racist?) To me, it shows there is such interest in learning these things. The good news is when we look past the surface we can generally gain some insight to why the verses are so incredibly weird, bizarre and difficult to understand. Sometimes we can't and will have to live with the fact they just are weird and we can't understand them. But more often than not, there are some reasonable answers when you don't just look at them in isolation and not in context. Or look into culture at that time so the passages are then interpreted based on a cultural context as well.
So, I shall begin posting on Wednesdays a weird, strange, or bizarre sounding Bible verse. Some weeks I will do a little study on it and write that here, time-permitting. On other weeks I wil just post the verse like mainly happens with the way the cheery, happy ones are posted. There are some verses I will only post the book, chapter and verse as honestly the words are too much too type out (either graphic violence or sex descriptions). But it is all in the Bible! I hope the bizarre, strange, weird Bible verses will be of encouragement and perhaps cause us to want to look deeper into Scripture than just a surface look at times. Wednesday-Weird-Bible verses now begins.
Did Jesus teach that miracles are useless for those who reject the word? Here’s the story he told:
From hades the rich man implored Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his five brothers not to come to that place of torment.
But Abraham said, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.”
The rich man said, “No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.”
Abraham disagreed: “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” (Luke 16:31)
God Must Open EyesDoes this mean that miracles are useless among people who have biblical truth, but don’t believe it? Sounds like it: If the prophets haven’t converted them, a miracle won’t either.
But think of it this way. Thousands of people first learn what the Bible says and only later come to believe it. So for a season they “hear Moses and the Prophets” and don’t believe.
Then something happens. God touches the eyes of their hearts and they can see the truth and beauty of what they once rejected (2 Corinthians 4:6).
Eye-Opening AgenciesWhat agencies — what means — does God employ to do this? Peter says that one agency is always the word of God: “You have been born again through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Peter 1:23).
But other agents can have their part to play. Jesus said that our good works may so shine that people “give glory to our Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). He also said his miracles may have a role to play: “Believe on account of the works themselves.” (John 14:11).
So the point of Luke 16:31 (“If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead”) is not that God never uses miracles to convert sinners.
The point is that the person who remains blind to the word will remain blind to the miracle. But the person who sees the true meaning of the miracle will also see the true meaning of the word.
Some are awakened by the word alone. Others are awakened by the word confirmed by a miracle (Hebrews 2:4; Acts 14:3).
The Same Change of HeartThe key in making sense of Luke 16:31 is that the same change of heart that opens a person to the true meaning of a miracle also opens him to the true meaning of the word. So it is totally true that a person who rejects the divine meaning of the word will reject the divine meaning of the miracle.
And the test of any person who claims to believe because of a miracle will be that their heart embraces the truth of the word of God. If they love miracles and don’t love the word, they are in love with the mere power, not the purpose, of the miracle. They are what Jesus calls adulterous sign seekers (Matthew 12:39; John 6:2; 26; 7:3-5).
Always by Word, Often by WonderTherefore, Jesus would not discourage us from praying the way the early church did concerning the divine words and divine works:
Lord, . . . grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus. (Acts 4:29–30)God always quickens by his word (1 Peter 1:23), and often by the concomitant agency of works.
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Luke 2:8-12Gracious Lord Jesus, you confront us with the liberating command, “Do not be afraid”, at both your birth and your resurrection (Luke 2:10; Matt. 28:5). Like bookends of glory… the A to Z of grace… a morning and evening kiss. There is no savior as merciful and mighty as you.
Ever since our first parents sinned, feared, and then hid, I’ve helped to keep the family tradition alive. At times fear has more power over my life than your love. Though I know I’m already clothed in your righteousness, I still reach into the closet for fresh fig leaves. So I join the shepherds today in coming to you, for you alone bring the good news of great joy for which my heart longs every day. You alone can charm my fears and grant me an ever greater freedom. Because the gospel is true, I can tell you everything that’s going on inside of me. As I come to you, you run to me. I am so thankful for your pursuing and welcoming heart.
Lord Jesus, my fears aren’t all that noble. I’m not really afraid of angelic hosts. I’m not really afraid to die. I’m not even afraid of facing the final judgment, for I humbly cling to your cross as my Judgment Day. You have exhausted God’s judgment against all my sins—past, present, and future. Hallelujah… many times over!
So what fears haunt me? For what fears do I need to obey the command “Do not be afraid”? I’ll start with the fear of man. Jesus, there are some people whose praise or disdain has more functional power over my heart than the gospel does. It hurts to say that, but it’s true. By the power of the gospel, continue to slay the “approval suck” inside of me. I also have moments when I fear painful things happening to members of my family. But I know, in my heart of hearts, that you love and care for my family much more than I do. They belong to you by creation and redemption. Grant me grace to trust you more.
Then there’s the fear of disappearing into a fog bank of not mattering anymore—of getting older, being out of touch, becoming irrelevant. Jesus, even as I acknowledge this fear, I praise you for your non-condemning gaze. It’s not easy to confess such weakness. May the joy of being used by you never supersede the much greater joy of simply being known by you and loved by you.
Jesus, I have other fears in line for gospel charming, and I bring them to you today with joy and confidence. For you’re no longer a baby wrapped in cloths lying in a manger; you’re a Savior outside an empty tomb, exalted to the right hand of the Father, ever living to advocate and pray for me, preparing a place and a banquet for me. Thank you, thank you, thank you. So very Amen I pray in your welcoming and liberating name.
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.” Proverbs 3:5
How can I tell if my trust in the Lord is wholehearted? One way is this. Do I let the Bible overrule my own thinking? It says, “Do not lean on your own understanding.” So, do I agree with the Bible, or do I obey the Bible? If I merely agree with the Bible, then my positive response is not obedience but coincidence. The Bible just happens to line up with the prejudices I’ve soaked up from my background. But what do I do when the Bible contradicts what I want to be true — especially when, on top of that, it seems culturally remote and perplexing? If I’m reading the Bible for excuses for what I want anyway, my heart has already drifted from the Lord. But if I trust him wholeheartedly, I will let the Bible challenge my most cherished thoughts and feelings.
I love that word.
I’m going to start using it more often.
I feel sluggish today.
Nevertheless, I’m going to get up and get going. Even if my progress is slow, I’m going to move forward.
I’m offended by what they said to me.
Nevertheless, I will choose to forgive, and refuse to become bitter. God’s done too much for me to stay stuck in this.
Nobody seems to appreciate what I’m doing right now.
Nevertheless, I’m going to serve God wholeheartedly. My reward comes from the Lord, and He sees, and He knows, and that’s enough.
And on and on.
The Bible is full of nevertheless statements. Just a few examples:
God loves His children with a nevertheless love:
Nevertheless I will remember my covenant with thee in the days of thy youth, and I will establish unto thee an everlasting covenant.
Jesus calls us to follow Him with a nevertheless obedience:
And Simon answering said unto him, Master, we have toiled all the night, and have taken nothing: nevertheless at thy word I will let down the net.
In Christ, we are called to a nevertheless faith:
I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.
And on and on.
Add that adverb to your vocab today.
It sounds a little funny in our modern vernacular.
Nevertheless, there’s a lot of power in it.
Collin Hansen serves as the editorial director of The Gospel Coalition (TGC). He is always a good writer, but I found his post at the TGC site to be especially helpful and unifying. You can read it here.
I was particularly interested in his reference to the Theological Vision for Ministry. These vision statements are exceedingly helpful and worth your consideration. It is my understanding that they were drafted by Tim Keller and worked on by TGC council members, then formed into their consensus document. I'll be commenting more on this document later but thought Collin's post and the quote from the vision statement were helpful.
I am not a part of the Gospel Coalition but continue to find the writing and resources to be quite helpful. I'd encourage you to take a look if you are not aware of the ministry.
Read Collin's post. Below is my comment at his blog shared here (at my blog) because it addresses the important need for a recognition that gospel-loving and biblically-driven Christians can and do come to different conclusions, but are really not that far apart.
For example, I share the concern that Collin blogs about at TGC and DeYoung and Gilbert write about in their book What is the Mission of the Church? Simply put: doing deeds cannot replace or supplant proclaiming Christ. And there is plenty of reason to think this is occurring and needs to be addressed.
Here is what I wrote Collin:
Collin,Good word. Thanks.I had not read this statement from The Gospel Coalition:Christian churches must work for justice and peace in their neighborhoods through service even as they call individuals to conversion and the new birth. We must work for the eternal and common good and show our neighbors we love them sacrificially whether they believe as we do or not. Indifference to the poor and disadvantaged means there has not been a true grasp of our salvation by sheer grace.I thought the statement was helpful. (I need to read more of the excellent work of TGC!)I think the example you gave is helpful-- it is a real issue. If engaging in justice supplants proclamation, we are missing it. I'm in complete agreement-- I've written on the issue myself (most recently in reference to Lausanne and social justice).It seems that many churches ARE getting distracted from evangelism--some churches seem almost embarrassed by the idea. But, these churches want to engage in social action. It's more acceptable. The world will cheer when you engage in justice but often jeer when you preach Jesus.The challenge is to decide the solution to that evident problem. I think most evangelical pastors are concerned that gospel proclamation be central-- whether it is "part / not part" of the mission or the "center" of the mission. They are looking for how to balance those out.As you said, gospel preaching leaders and pastors are not that far apart. I'd hate for this become a point of division between believers, particularly those within the TGC world. I wrote on this on my own blog a while back. I appreciate friends who are on both sides of the issue-- and see them engaging in mission even if they prefer not to use the terms in the same way I do.There is a place for both views and I hope we will treat one another that way--one is not orthodox and one heterodox. One is not biblical and the other unbiblical. They are differences of perspective and conclusion based on a sincere engagement with the biblical text. What there is NO place for is a view of justice demonstration that eliminates or distracts from gospel proclamation. On that we all should agree.Thanks,Ed
Those who value gospel proclamation are united in their concern for clear and prioritized gospel sharing. They might differ on the terms and where deeds fit in the mission of the church, but we can all agree that gospel proclamation can never be replaced-- and that the temptation to do so is very real.
My hope is that as people debate the mission they might not get distracted from it. On that we can be united. Thanks to Collin for the caution and the reminder.
“Many pulpits across the land consistently preach the Christian and not the Christ.” Todd WilkenAs I said in Ed Stetzer’s interview of me a couple weeks ago, the way many of us think about sanctification is, well…not very sanctified. In fact, it’s terribly narcissistic. We spend too much time thinking about how we’re doing, if we’re growing, whether we’re doing it right or not. We spend too much time pondering our spiritual failures and brooding over our spiritual successes. Somewhere along the way we’ve come to believe that the focus of the Christian faith is the life of the Christian.
Reflecting this common assumption, someone who was frustrated with something I had written said to me not long ago, “Don’t you know that the focus of the New Testament is the personal holiness of the Christian?” What? Seriously? I heard Mr. Miyagi’s voice in my head, “Breathe in, breathe out; breathe in, breathe out.” The truth is, we spend way too much time thinking about ourselves, and we justify this spiritualized navel-gazing by reasoning that this is what God wants us to be doing.
I’ve said this before but let me say it again: there is nothing in the gospel or about the gospel that encourages me to focus on me. Nothing! It’s never honoring to God when we take our eyes off of Christ “the author and finisher of our faith” and center our eyes on ourselves. Never! In fact, the whole point of the gospel is to get us out of ourselves and to “fix our eyes on Christ” (Hebrews 12:2). The truest measure of Christian growth, therefore, is when we stop spiritually rationalizing the reasons why we’re taking our eyes off of Jesus to focus on ourselves.
The biggest difference between the practical effect of sin and the practical effect of the gospel is that sin turns us inward and the gospel turns us outward. Martin Luther picked up on this problem in the Reformation, arguing that sin actually bends or curves us in on ourselves (homo incurvatus in se). Any version of “the gospel”, therefore, that encourages you to think about yourself is detrimental to your faith-whether it’s your failures or your successes; your good works or your bad works; your strengths or your weaknesses; your obedience or your disobedience.
Ironically, what I’ve discovered is that the more I focus on my need to get better the worse I actually get–I become neurotic and self-absorbed. Preoccupation with my performance over Christ’s performance for me actually hinders my growth because it makes me increasingly self-centered and morbidly introspective–the exact opposite of how the Bible describes what it means to be sanctified.
Sanctification is forgetting about yourself. “He must increase but I must decrease” (John 3:30) properly describes the painful sanctification process. “Decreasing” is impossible for the one who keeps thinking about himself. In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis reminded us that we’ll know a truly humble man when we meet him because “He will not be thinking about humility: he will not, in fact, be thinking about himself at all.” When we spend more time thinking about ourselves and how we’re doing then we do about Jesus and what he’s done, we shrink. As J.C. Kromsigt said, “The good seed cannot flourish when it is repeatedly dug up for the purpose of examining its growth.”
This is the point: When we stop narcissistically focusing on our need to get better, that is what it means to get better. When we stop obsessing over our need to improve, that is what it means to improve!
Thankfully, the focus of the Bible is not the work of the redeemed but the work of the Redeemer. The gospel frees us from ourselves. It announces that this whole thing is about Jesus and dependent on Jesus. The good news is the announcement of his victory for us, not our “victorious Christian life.” The gospel declares that God’s final word over Christian’s has already been spoken: “Paid in full.” Therefore, Christians can now live in a posture of perpetual confidence “that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).
I love the story of the old pastor who, on his deathbed, told his wife that he was certain he was going to heaven because he couldn’t remember one truly good work he had ever done.
He got it.
Creation out of nothing was an awesome event. Imagine what the angelic spirits must have felt when the universe, material reality of which they had never imagined, was brought forth out of nothing by the command of God. The fall was an awful event, shaking the entire creation. The exodus was an amazing display of God's power and love. The giving of the law, the wilderness provisions, the conquering of Canaan, the prosperity of the monarchy — all these acts of God in redemptive history were very great and wonderful. Each one was a very significant bend in the river of redemptive history, bringing it ever and ever closer to the ocean of God's final kingdom.
But we trivialize Christmas, the incarnation, if we treat it as just another bend on the way to the end. It is the end of redemptive history. . . .
With the coming of Christmas, the ocean of the age to come has reached backward up the stream of history to welcome us, to wake us up to what is coming, to lure us on into the deep. Christmas is not another bend in the river of history. It is the end of the river.
Let down your dipper and taste of Jesus Christ, his birth and life and death and resurrection. Taste and see if the age to come has not arrived, if the kingdom has not come upon us. Does it not make your eyes sparkle?Excertped from Christmas as the End of History (1981), paragraphing added.
If you doubt whether evangelicals need to read What Is the Mission of the Church?, follow me on a tour of one fairly typical evangelical church. The leaders of this church want their community to know the saving love of Jesus Christ. What else would motivate them to plant a church in a small community where long-established churches view them with skepticism and even hostility? They believe the Bible without reservation and eagerly invite their friends, family, and neighbors to join them in church each Sunday morning. During the last decade the church has grown beyond what any other church in this community has ever seen.
These leaders look to large suburban megachurches for advice on how to grow the size of their congregation. You name the program, and they've probably tried it. Alpha and Financial Peace University have been helpful. Lately some leaders have broadened the church's horizons. The church has teamed up with the local Chamber of Commerce to promote local businesses. They've invested serious time and money into a community Easter egg hunt. They've adopted several needy families to provide free home and car repair.
It's never enough, though. Recently some members read a moving book about how Christians have neglected the needs of the poor around the world. Now they're asking everyone in the church to give everything they possibly can to the church, so they can distribute the money to the less fortunate in their city. Every week the congregation hears about how they've failed to live up to their calling as Christians. They must do more. Volunteers are always desperately needed.
Some long-time members have noticed a change in the church's mission over the years. Preaching the Bible is no longer a priority, though the pastor still grounds his exhortations in Scripture passages. Evangelism is no longer an urgent calling, though community service certainly attracts some new members, including a few who previously claimed no church affiliation. Overall, however, church leaders are most excited these days about doing good works that will express the love of Christ and win the community's favor.
Maybe you've attended a church that cares little for the outside community, and this activity excites you, too. Maybe you recall how the early church won many new converts in the Roman Empire after sacrificially serving all who had need. Good! I share this story not to disparage good works, because all Christians bear responsibility to minister in word and deeds. Rather, this example illustrates how a church can lose sight of its unique mission to preach the gospel and make disciples. Several mainline and Roman Catholic churches do good works in this particular community. So do many volunteer organizations. But we're not called to be the Jesus Jaycees. If we don't make a priority of preaching the gospel and teaching Christians to obey everything Jesus commanded, no one will.
Meaningful UnityEven in churches concerned to keep on mission, you will hear of many believers who staff homeless shelters, run crisis pregnancy centers, and cook Christmas meals for the poor. To be sure, the elders will devote themselves to teaching and prayer, according to the example of Acts 6. But they will also disciple believers to exercise their love for God by serving the community. And the deacons will oversee support for the needy, inside and sometimes outside the church, by distributing funds collected from members. Indeed, DeYoung explains, "We also have a terrific diaconate which responds to physical needs in our congregation and responds with compassion and wisdom to requests that come from outside our congregation."
The apostle Paul issues a helpful guideline in Galatians 6:10: "So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith." DeYoung and Gilbert wisely argue on the basis of this verse for moral proximity. We cannot meet the needs of the whole world. And we should take care of the needy within our church before anyone else. But as we have opportunity, we should do good to outsiders as well. This way we adorn the gospel and fulfill Jesus' commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves. Christians rejoice to give sacrificially in such churches, because they appreciate the leaders' priorities and also their generosity.
If you talk with biblically grounded leaders on different sides of this debate over the mission of the church, you'll find more unity than the blogs betray. Yes, we must do good for everyone. And yes, we must guard our priority as leaders in local churches on the ministry of the Word. The elders should not be meeting together to plot economic development plans that will bring shalom to their communities. But they should be delighted that their discipleship might produce Christians who take up the challenge of fighting injustice to the glory of Jesus Christ.
Fabric of SocietyI give thanks that so many Christians look at the social decay around them and want to make a difference. We should remember, however, the wisdom of theologians who have gone before us. In particular, Abraham Kuyper's " sphere sovereignty" distinguishes between the responsibility of the state, society, and the church. What we see now in the West is a breakdown of society, which includes families, voluntary organizations, and local communities. The government has overstepped its responsibility by seeking to occupy this sphere. Our financial crisis and political stalemate should disabuse us of any notion that the government is capable of replacing these so-called mediating institutions.
But neither can or should the church bear this burden; otherwise, it will lose sight of the unique mission Jesus gave us. And that would be a critical loss indeed for all who need above anything else to hear and believe his liberating gospel. Perhaps if we trust God to demonstrate the power of this gospel to save, he will rebuild the fabric of our torn society.
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this. Isa. 9:6-7Lord Jesus, you are the one of whom Isaiah was speaking hundreds of years before a manger became your first bed in this world. Every name, appellation and office the prophet gives you in this Scripture underscores the greatness of your glory and the wonders of your love. Knowing the government of the whole world already rests on your shoulders profoundly gladdens me. It fills me with a joy second only to knowing your shoulders fully bore the sin of the world, including mine. As this day begins, I raise my face to bask in your beauty and I lift my hands to offer you praise.
You are Wonderful Counselor, for in you are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. You teach me everything I need to know about great mysteries and things eternal, but you’re also the one to whom I look for counsel about old wounds, fresh hurts and unfulfilled longings. You care about everything.
You are Mighty God—the one who created and sustains the entire universe; the one who upholds all things by the power of your Word; the one in whom all things are being summed up. But you also marshal your might to help me humble myself when I’d rather stay proud; to boast in my weaknesses when I’d rather be self-sufficient; to run to you, rather than just run away.
You are Everlasting Father, for to see you is to see the Father and to know you is to know the Father. You tenderly care for the needs of the world—even the flowers of every field and the birds in every sky; but you also care about me. You didn’t leave me as an orphan, Jesus. Through your work, I’m not only declared righteous in God’s sight, but also secure in his embrace. I now cry, “Abba, Father!”, with certainty and joy.
You are the Prince of Peace, for you paid the price of peace on the cross. Indeed, your cross was my Judgment Day. Because of you, God is at peace with me and his peace is ruling in my heart. We’re no longer enemies; there’s no more enmity left between us. You are my peace, Lord Jesus. There will never be an end to the greatness of your government and peace, for even as you are making all things new, they will stay new forever! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah! So very Amen I pray, with humility and elation.
“Let us not dictate to God. Many a blessing has been lost by Christians not believing it to be a blessing, because it did not come in the particular shape which they had conceived to be proper and right. To some the divine work is nothing, unless it assumes the form which their prejudice has selected.”
Jeremiah Lanphier, Alone With Jesus (London, 1872), page 88.
In the 1970s the Holy Spirit was poured out on a desperate generation, and we came home to God. We were unlikely converts, many of us. We were messy. But the blessing was real. Those who received it flourished.
Today the Holy Spirit is stirring again. We are unlikely converts, many of us, again. We are messy again. But the blessing is real. Those who receive it will flourish.
Let us be grateful to be witnessing another day of the Lord’s power.
But the conference landed on a unique weekend for me, personally. That weekend I also preached my first sermon as the lead pastor of All Souls Church in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and my sermon text just happened to be on the topic of work. My manuscript was already typed and set to be preached the next morning, so there wasn't much time to borrow any thoughtful content. But Mouw's opening address subtly helped changed my tone.
He began with challenging the usual divide between secular and sacred, but he did so by setting our minds upon the presence of Christ. "Welcome to the center of the universe," Mouw said, "not because you're in New York City, but because you're in the presence of Christ." We were in the presence of Christ, not because we were in the beautiful St. Bartholomew's Cathedral in Midtown Manhattan, and not because we were gathered together with 400 other Christians, but because Christ is present everywhere and holding together the universe. Like Abraham Kuyper famously said, Christ is sovereign over every square inch of this world. The reign of Christ is not only central for our Sunday gatherings, but it also infiltrates our work, family, and friendships. It shifts and transforms our obligations and allegiances.
The next morning, I'm confident my preaching was different than if I had not listened to the questions and concerns of the conference attenders and reflected the foundation of a sovereign Christ. How? I didn't just preach to the congregation of All Souls Church. I preached to congregants who were ad agents, writers, financial consultants, and teachers, who all had commitments, deadlines, and obligations. And their ultimate allegiance to Christ does not lessen those obligations; rather, it deepens them. Paul in Colossians 3:22-23 instructs slaves, whose ultimate allegiance is to Christ (Col. 3:24), not to neglect their duties to their masters, but rather to "obey in everything" and "work heartily." What a radical and subversive view of life!
In Paul's words and in our work we see that our relationship to God is not merely an ethereal reality detached from life on earth. Actually, how we relate to God has a significant effect on the world around us. Our relationship with God helps make sense of the world around us, not simply take us out of it. That is Christianity, and there's nothing in this world like it.
“In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.” Ephesians 2:22
After his magnificent vision of God’s peace in Christ growing the Church into “a holy temple in the Lord” (2:21), Paul applies his vision to the church in Ephesus. The emphatic words are “you also.” “God is doing this great work in his Church. But he’s involving you also, you in your church. You’re part of this glory coming down.”
John Calvin sees verse 22 as an exhortation to the Ephesians “to be a part of that new temple which, through the Gospel, was then being built by God in every part of the world.”
Paul connects the great work of God in the Church with the particular work of God in that church — building a new community where God’s presence can be known on earth.
Your church also matters.
From Prayer —
Nothing seems to be too great, too hard, or too difficult for prayer to do. It has obtained things that seemed impossible and out of reach. It has won victories over fire, air, earth, and water.Prayer opened the Red Sea. Prayer brought water from the rock and bread from heaven. Prayer made the sun stand still. Prayer brought fire from the sky on Elijah's sacrifice. Prayer turned the counsel of Ahithophel into foolishness. Prayer overthrew the army of Sennacherib.Well said Mary Queen of Scots, "I fear John Knox's prayers more than an army of ten thousand men." Prayer has healed the sick. Prayer has raised the dead. Prayer has procured the conversion of souls. "The child of many prayers," said an old Christian to Augustine's mother, "will never perish." Prayer, pains, and faith can do anything.J. C. Ryle will be the focus of Pastor John's biographical study at our 2012 Conference for Pastors being held in Minneapolis from January 30 to February 1.
And they shall be my people, and I will be their God. I will give them one heart and one way, that they may fear me forever, for their own good and the good of their children after them. I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me. I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul. Jer. 32:38-41Most loving Father, no portion of your Word exposes the smallness of my heart and the enormity of your goodness than this one. I welcome your invitation this Advent season to discover, all over again, that the gospel is so much more glorious than I could ever hope or imagine.
As I pray my way through these familiar verses, the main thing that stands out is all the blessed personal pronouns—all the “I will’s” and “my’s” in the text, and you’re the One doing the talking. Indeed, Father, you’ve made promises you alone can keep. I praise you for being so immeasurably generous and resolutely faithful to your covenant. There are no contingencies in the gospel. There’s no “my part” and “your part”. There’s just you. Hallelujah!
I praise you for your promise never to stop doing good to us… (pause). I praise you for revealing how much joy you experience in doing good to us… (pause). I praise you for the promise of a new, whole, single heart… (pause). I praise you for promising to show covenantal goodness to my children and grandchildren… (pause). I praise you for making sure I will never turn from you… (pause).
These promises are truly overwhelming—contradicting how I’ve thought about you most of my life. You’ve already “made good” on your promise to make an everlasting covenant with us, and this fuels the fire of our faith. Why would I doubt any of your other promises?
Lord Jesus, well beyond Jeremiah’s day, you came into our world and you accomplished everything necessary to prove our Father wasn’t exaggerating. Your incarnation, life, death, and resurrection—all for us, guarantee God is this good, all the time . . . and all the time, God is this good to us!
Because of you, Jesus, we are already perfectly forgiven and have already been declared to be righteous in God’s sight. Because of you, one day we will be made completely whole and the whole creation will be made new. On that day our Father will plant us in the land of the new heaven and new earth. We believe… help us in our unbelief, dear Lord.
Until that day, Holy Spirit, continue your transforming and liberating work in our lives. Free us to love and serve our God with singleness of heart, affectionate reverence, and gospel-driven obedience.
Hallelujah, what a salvation! Hallelujah, what a Savior! So very Amen we pray, in Jesus’ triumphant name. Amen.
“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
Ethical behaviorism is a term Psychologists use which defines righteousness exclusively in terms of what a person does or does not do. In this sense, a righteous person is one who does the right things and avoids the wrong things. An unrighteous person is one who does the wrong things and avoids the right things. Defined this way, righteousness is a quality that can be judged by an observation of someone’s behavior. Virtue and uprightness is purely a matter of outer conduct without any hint of what goes on inside you.
William Hordern illustrates well how this definition of righteousness is the definition held by the world:
The law enforcement institutions of society are concerned with right behavior. They do not care why people obey the law, so long as they obey it. The person who breaks no laws is righteous in their sight regardless of the motivation that produces law abiding behavior.In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus breaks radically from this definition of righteousness. He cuts through the outer behavior of a person and looks at what’s in the heart. Jesus insists that righteousness is not simply a matter of what we do or don’t do but rather a question of why we do or don’t do it.
Only God and I (and now you!) know the real reason I never went off on my mean neighbor: the potential risk to me was too high. I didn’t want to get in trouble, I didn’t want him calling the police, I didn’t want him filing a complaint against me to our neighborhood association, I didn’t want him gossiping about me so that people in the neighborhood would think less of me. After all, everyone knows I’m a pastor and I didn’t want to tarnish my image. And on, and on, and on. In other words, the very thing that may have on the surface seemed righteous was motivated by something terribly unrighteous: selfishness.
So the apparent “righteousness” of my deed was destroyed by the motivation that inspired it. It wasn’t as “righteous” as it seemed, to say the least.
Hordern goes on, spelling this out very clearly:
Before an act of murder or adultery is committed there has first been the motivations of the person involved. In his or her heart there has been a murderous anger or an adulterous lust. What Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount is that many people may have the same motivations in their hearts without ever carrying out the external actions. There may be many reasons for not acting upon our motivations, but obviously one of the most common reasons is a fear of the consequences. The laws of all societies make it perilous to commit murder and laws or social pressures of all societies make it costly to commit adultery. Therefore when a person refrains from such actions it may not be because their heart is pure but simply a matter of self-protection. Jesus is saying that where the motivation for not acting on one’s desire is selfish, that person is as unrighteous in God’s eyes as the person who actually commits the crime.The reason this is so important is because many Christians think God cares only that we obey. In fact, many believe that it is even more honorable–and therefore more righteous–when we obey God against all desire to obey him. Where did we get the idea that if we do what God tells us to do even though “our hearts are far from Him”, that it’s something to be proud of, something admirable, something praiseworthy, something righteous? Don’t get me wrong, we should obey even when we don’t feel like it (I expect my children, for instance, to clean their rooms and respect their mother and me even when they don’t feel like it). But let’s not make the common mistake of proudly equating that with the righteousness that God requires.
The truth is that God isn’t concerned with any kind of obedience; he’s concerned with a certain kind of obedience. What motivates our obedience determines whether or not it is a sacrifice of praise. Doing the right thing with the wrong heart reveals deep unrighteousness, not devout righteousness. T.S. Eliot said it best, “The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”
If any kind of obedience, regardless of what motivates it, is what God is after, he would have showcased the Pharisees and exhorted all of us to follow their lead, to imitate them. But he didn’t. Jesus called them “whitewashed tombs”–clean on the outside, but dead on the inside. They had been successful in achieving “behavioristic righteousness” and thought that’s what mattered most to God. But Jesus said, “So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matthew 23:28). Again, Jesus shows that real righteousness is a matter of the heart–what’s on the inside matters more than what’s on the outside. This is what he meant in Matthew 5:20 when he said, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus wants to set us free by showing us our need for a righteousness we can never attain on our own, an impossible righteousness that is always out of our reach. External righteousness is something we can all achieve on our own with a little self-discipline and a lot of self-righteousness. But Jesus wants us to see that regardless of how well we think we’re doing or how righteous we think we’re becoming, when “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” becomes the standard and not “how much I’ve improved over the years”, we realize that we’re a lot worse than we fancy ourselves to be–that unrighteousness is inescapable, that “even the best things we do have something in them to be pardoned.”
In Matthew 5:17-48, Jesus shows me that whatever I think my greatest vice is, my situation is actually much worse: if I think it’s anger, Jesus shows me that it’s actually murder; if I think it’s lust, Jesus shows me that it’s actually adultery; if I think it’s impatience, Jesus shows me that it’s actually idolatry. This painfully reveals my righteousness for the house of cards that it really is. It cuts to the heart and shows me my deep need for outside help, for an “alien righteousness.”
Only when our understanding of righteousness “exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees” and goes beyond outer conduct, will we see the impossibility of achieving our own righteousness and the necessity of receiving Christ’s righteousness. There is nothing that sinners hate more than to be told that there’s nothing they can do, that everything has been taken out of their hands, that no matter how hard they try, their best is never good enough. And yet, we’ll never be free until we give up fighting for a righteousness we can claim as our own.
In a sermon entitled “The Death of Self”, Gerhard Forde shows how the work of Christ on our behalf finally kills any presumption that there’s something acceptable we can bring to God:
At the betrayal in the Garden of Gethsemane when the crowd comes out against Jesus with swords and clubs, the disciples want to do something. They still want to do their bit for God. They want to take up the sword and risk their lives, perhaps, and fight. One of them grasps a sword and cuts off the ear of one of the assailants. But Jesus will have none of it: “Put up your sword,” he says, “for there is absolutely nothing you can do!” In Luke’s account, Jesus even stretches out his hand to undo what the disciple had done–he heals the wounded man. At that point, no doubt, everything within us cries out in protest along with the disciples. Is there nothing we can do? Could we not at least perhaps stage a protest march on God’s behalf? Could we not seek, perhaps, an interview with Pilate? Could we not try to influence the “power structures”? Something -however small? But the unrelenting answer comes back, “No, there is nothing you can do, absolutely nothing. If there were something to be done, my Father would send legions of angels to fight!” But there is nothing to be done. And when it finally came to that last and bitter moment, when these good “righteous” men finally realized that there was nothing they could do, they forsook him and fled.Can you see it? Can you see that hidden in these very words, these very events, is that death itself which you fear so much coming to meet you? When they finally saw there was nothing they could do they forsook him and fled before this staggering truth. You, who presume to do business with God, can you see it? Can you see that this death of self is not, in the final analysis, something you can do? For the point is that God has once and for all reserved for himself the business of your salvation. There is nothing you can do now but, as the words of the old hymn have it, “climb Calvary’s mournful mountain” and stand with your helpless arms at your side and tremble before “that miracle of time, God’s own sacrifice complete! It is finished; hear him cry; learn of Jesus Christ to die!”In the cross, “God has stormed the last bastion of the self, the last presumption that you really were going to do something for him…He has died in your place! He has done it. He made it. It is all over, finished, between you and God! He died in your place that death which you must die; he has done it in such a way as to save you. He has borne the whole thing! The fact that there is nothing left for you to do is the death of self and the birth of the new creature” (Forde).
As everything, he became nothing so that you, as nothing, could have everything. You bring nothing to the table except the sin that makes Christ’s righteousness necessary. The perfect righteousness of Christ has been freely credited to your bankrupt account forever (what theologians call “imputation.”). The gospel is good news for those who have finally been crushed under the weight of trying to make “righteousness” happen on their own.