Archive for the ‘Gospel’ category

The desert’s edge

December 5, 2007

OK, I *think* the long drought is over, and we might be coming out of a long desert period.  I may even be able to get back to my abbreviated blogging! We’ll see.

There’s a big stack of material on my desk that is “stuff I might blog about”. Above all, the focus that I tried to maintain is still before us: Christ-centered, gospel-centered, the great indicatives of our faith first. I’m as excited as ever about it all.

One of the most encouraging things I’ve ever received in personal correspondence came into my Inbox yesterday. It said, “By being transparent and Bible-centered, you’ve said, ‘I can be an absolute mess and I have the life to prove it. I am cherished and I have Jesus to thank for it.'” There was a time when I wouldn’t have been encouraged by those words, but today? Today they’ve made me whoop with delight and praise God with heartfelt joy. Because that’s the gospel, and that’s hope, and it’s glorious. And too many times being me-centric has meant my desires warred with that clear presentation — I wanted the message to be something like “I used to be a mess, but Jesus helped me, and now I’m really the best guy around, and just the kind of guy you need.” But there’s only one Saviour, and the Bible and history only have one ultimate Hero, and God will not share his glory — nor should he, nor would it be love if he did.

I don’t know who coined the following phrase — candidates in my mind include Miller, Bridges, Keller, and Lovelace, and I’m sure someone can let me know — but it’s a great summary of the gospel: I’m more sinful than I ever knew, and more loved than I can possibly imagine.

When we get that, when it sinks in real deep, we are transformed by it. Praise God!

Mother Teresa’s “Dark Night of the Soul”

August 28, 2007

I know far too little about Mother Teresa. I have no pronouncements to make about the state of her soul. I cannot see around or through or under or beyond her crises of faith. God surely can.

I do know that true, faithful saints can experience long dark nights. Though the cry “Why are you so far from helping me, and from the words of my groaning?” (Psalm 22) was ultimately owned and redeemed by Jesus Christ, it was a true Davidic expression.

But in all the discussion and debate I have read over the last few days I have two other concerns; both of which point, I believe, to our tendency towards self-righteousness or gracelessness. The first concern has already been discussed many times: there is the loud cry of many that Mother Teresa must have been a true Christian, because look at all the amazing self-sacrificing work she did.

Forget about how this relates to any particular individual, including Mother Teresa. Simply look with me at where that statement points. We are pointing at her work. Her labor. Her sacrifice. Her earnestness.

Her merit.

The Gospel points us to Christ’s work, Christ’s sacrifice, Christ’s merit. There is a great difference.

Jesus told us to “let your light so shine before men that they may see your good work and glorify your Father who is heaven”. So we do draw attention to our deeds (they see our good work). Well, then, how do they glorify our Father, and not us, for the good work? There must be words accompanying our workings, words full of the gospel, words full of how our work is a response to his work, how our faith is a response to his Promise, how our fruit is the fruit of the cross and the resurrection and the hope brought to birth and life in Jesus Christ. If, at the end of our lives people are amazed at our endless self-sacrifice and pouring out of ourselves for others, and this what they see and talk about… we will have failed the gospel.

The second concern is perhaps even more serious: there is a tendency in us — if we are honest — to rejoice in the weakness and failings of others. There are some that are quick to draw attention to this soul-struggle that is highlighted, and to say, “I told you so.” We spend our lives comparing and contrasting our standing with that of others. Pastors look at other pastors leading bigger churches and having a “more successful” ministry, and privately think “I’m actually better than he is, if only I had an opportunity to preach to thousands, they would know that. But I face evil opposition instead. My people don’t realize how blessed they are.” And with that mindset, we actually have inner rejoicing when that “more successful” pastor is caught in a scandal. “See, I knew I was better all along. Now maybe my people will appreciate me more.” Others must fall if we are to be raised. And our masks and robes must be carefully worn so that the status we have achieved is not defaced or lessened.

Our merit must be recognized.

I know all too well of what I speak.  It’s the idolatry that has run amok in my own life and soul, causing so much destruction; the idolatry that still visits far too often.

It is Pharisaism, pride, and self-righteousness.

Our people need to appreciate Jesus more. His merit. His grace. Not us, not me, not you…and not any other saint. And there is no joy in the sorrows of others. The fact that Mother Teresa struggled in her faith says nothing about the quality, for good or ill, of our own doctrine or the positioning of our ministry. Do those who encounter our ministry encounter the God of mighty works who defeats all our idols and draws all our love? This is the question for us.

Draw attention to the gospel, to the God who is with us in Jesus Christ. Draw out the redemption, the Rescue, that is achieved for souls in darkness when Christ calls from the cross, “Why are you so far from saving me?” and thus achieves for his people the sure hope that they are heard, they cannot be forsaken, they are transplanted into the kingdom of light.

Praise Jesus!

Without money and without price

August 26, 2007

I hope to get back to regular posting within a day or two more. In the meantime, here’s a must-listen opportunity for you: I heard, today, a great sermon upon this, one of my favorite passages of Scripture. Amazingly, I heard this text expounded by Spurgeon!

Well, by someone (Tony Reinke?) reading Spurgeon’s message.

It was glorious!

There’s a wince-worthy point about a half-hour in, but Spurgeon’s point is that we are all worthy of despising, and all equally in need, and all equally invited to eat.

“You believe there must be some special entrance for you, so proper and moral are you. But the gate is so narrow that you must rub shoulders with drunkards and with murderers and with thieves and harlots to enter…”

“…you are feeling in your pocket and you find nothing there; you don’t need anything, come without money! You look into your heart, and you find nothing there…you find nothing of redeeming character…come, you don’t need anything, the gospel is without price!”

“Everything for nothing, and Christ for the asking!”

Head on over to The Shepherd’s Scrapbook, and scroll down the right-hand side in the list “Now on my iPod.” You’ll see this sermon, available as a Flash recording.

Give it a listen, you won’t regret it. And God willing, I’ll be back soon.

Faith, miracles, and the Word of God

August 23, 2007

We’re going through some stuff here that has slowed me for a couple of days and will for a couple more.  In the meantime, a quote from Total Church, written down before I — ahem — lost it (still a trauma).  Still in the section “Why Gospel?”:

In John 2 the disciples put their faith in Jesus when they see his first miraculous sign — turning water into wine at the wedding of Cana (v. 11).  This story is followed by the cleansing of the temple and Jesus’ declaration that he is the temple.  John comments, “After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said.  They they believed the Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken” (v. 22).  There is a kind of faith that comes from seeing miraculous signs, but true faith comes through the words of Scripture and the words of Jesus.  John goes on:  “Now while he was in Jeruasalem at the Passover Feast, many people saw the miraculous signs he was doing and believed in his name.  But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all men” (vv. 23-24).  Jesus does not trust the kind of faith that comes from seeing miraculous signs.  It is not difficult to imagine why.  Such faith is likely to be fair-weather faith.  It will believe when signs are performed, prayers are answered, things are going well.  But it is not the sort of faith that will survive the loss of a child, a period of illness or some other trauma.  Persevering faith comes through the word of God. 

The Holy Spirit doesn’t need our help

August 22, 2007

Nobody who has located the tiny outpost that is this blog needs any pointers to the vast metropolis that is iMonk (population: bazillions).

But he writes in such a way that, when he’s right, he makes you want to cheer and weep at the same time. He just wrote an example of such; find it here.

A favorite line:  “Wrong to believe the Holy Spirit needs all the help we moderns can give him in getting the attention of the bored.”  It’s the kind of thing we say all the time around here.  I need to say it more humbly, but it’s important to say.

“Wrong to think that the gospel is ever cool.” I agree with what he means, here. I do think that when we “get it”, sometimes our reaction will be, “That’s cool!”

No more nitpicking; head on over.

As if you haven’t been there a thousand times already.

Him we proclaim

August 20, 2007

My review of Total Church has been sidelined by a calamity: I’ve lost the book. I can’t begin to tell you how embarrassing and disastrous this is. I’ve never done such a thing before — to lose a book! I can’t believe this. I would have thought I’d sooner lose a finger. And to lose a book I was enjoying so much. If it was some mediocre drivel, I wouldn’t care…but it was outstanding! This is utterly humiliating and shaming.

Not to mention the extra mortification of having to re-order it from Europe, as it’s still not sold here.


I think I might have left it at a coffee shop where I met with one of the pastors here. I hope somebody is getting a good read out of it.

Ahh, it’s amazing that such self-frustration can live with the egocentrism that is I (actually, understanding idolatry, it isn’t that amazing after all; my self-idolatry just keeps letting me down… as all idolatries do).

Anyway, to hold us, two things this morning:

1. Head over to The Gospel Driven church and read Jared’s 5 Reasons for Sermon-Centric worship. Many of these thoughts seemed to me to harmonize with thoughts I was reading in the first section of Total Church. Once again, Gospel Driven is a good resource!

2. A great quote from Whitefield:

When a poor soul is somewhat awakened by the terrors of the Lord, then the poor creature, being born under the covenant of works, flies directly to a covenant of works again. And as Adam and Eve hid themselves… and sewed fig leaves… so the poor sinner, when awakened, flies to his duties and to his performances, to hide himself from God, and goes to patch up a righteousness of his how. Says he, I will be might good now — I will reform — I will do all I can; and then certainly Jesus Christ will have mercy on me.

–“Select Sermons of George Whitefield” (London: Banner of Truth, 1958), pp. 81-83, as quoted by Dennis Johnson in “Him We Proclaim” footnote p.57.

Update: Pressing in to the cross

August 17, 2007

One of the best books I’ve ever read on this subject is Walter Marshall’s Gospel Mystery of Sanctification. Today, over at Gospel Driven Blog, John Fonville continues a series on “How does God enable believers to keep His moral law?” He includes several quotes from Marshall; it’s a great post. As usual, you should read the whole thing, but here’s a snippet:

“…if you rush out and try to keep the law, without having Christ’s righteousness and Christ’s Spirit in you, you will have both the wind and tide against you! Your guilty conscience, and your dead corrupt nature, will frustrate and defeat all your attempts to love and serve God. The only thing you will do in this case is stir up your sinful lusts. You will not stir yourself up to true obedience. At best, you will attain the hypocritical performance of a slave,” (p. 112).

Pressing in to the cross

August 16, 2007

We’ve been looking at the “3rd type” of legalism, which is a counterfeit gospel. Another way to see the difference between moralism and the gospel call to obedience is this: the gospel calls us to an obedience we cannot complete in ourselves, and so drives us ever deeper into Christ.

I’d written the paragraph above and several of those below when, yesterday, I came on this article at The Shepherd’s Scrapbook. In this very well-written piece Tony reminds us that eschewing legalism should not bring us to think little of obedience, or consider it a minor requirement. I especially like the way he ends the article (you should read the whole thing):

…His Cross can sustain the weight of these high demands.

Here is what I’m getting at. In light of the coming tragedy, Christ raises the bar of obedience and fruit-bearing expectations for His disciples. This is how Jesus saw fit to comfort His disciples in the coming storm! He knew the higher the bar was raised in personal obedience the deeper He would drive the disciples into Himself.

We cannot miss this: The high calling to pursue personal obedience will (graciously) press the saint into Christ and into the Cross. And this means, at a profound level, the Cross-centered life is compromised by laziness in the pursuit of personal obedience. [emphasis original]

In Mark 12, a Pharisee (law-teachers were Pharisees) asked Jesus: “Which of the 613 laws in the Old Testament is the most important? 613 commandments are waaaaay too many — that’s crushing! Give us the main thing, give us some sort of keepable, doable, minimum requirement for heaven. Help us!”

Jesus answers: “The most important one is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'”

In other words, Jesus says, “I’ll help you out. We’ll reduce the laws to just two. Everything for God, absolutely, 100% completely, no mistake, no missing, no diminishing, ALL. Nothing less will do. Nothing less.

“And from there, love others like you love yourself.

“There are two for you…and all the laws hang on them. Every single one of those 613 require full-hearted commitment to God, and God alone, and must be obeyed in complete love.”

That’s it. That’s all God requires. Simple. Everything in everything, and far more than you’ve ever begun to realize.

Simple, and impossible. We sinners can never get there.

The moralist is crushed. He knows enough to see that he can’t do it. This exceeds all sacrifice and burnt offering! There’s no way I can have any of my faults or failures covered!

Rather than have the 613 reduced down to a manageable amount, Jesus reveals the terrifying truth (v. 34) that law-keeping is far more crushing than this trembling Pharisee had ever realized.

The law-teacher basically says so. “This is more than any worship can bring. This is more than all our entire moral system.”  And through the crowd, no one dares ask any more questions.  His responses are too terrible.

And Jesus responds: “You are not far from the kingdom.”

This legalist is broken, he’s crushed, he sees the futility of his entire system…and he’s arrived at a good place! Because the gospel of Jesus Christ crushes our legalistic framework, and then as we begin to see our brokenness and sinfulness and neediness, points us to our Savior. He comes for the lost, he comes for the sinners, not the righteous. And this trembling Pharisee is beginning to see his abject, sinful, lostness. Ahh…not far from the kingdom! You see your need; now, see your Savior!

The gospel doesn’t make obedience less, it makes it more. It shows us a level, a weight, that only the cross can bear. And it calls us to come in to the cross, come deeply in to a Savior who has kept all the law for us, and borne all the punishment of our failure. Come in joy and thanksgiving and worship, and come in faith-dependence upon him. We’re still called to no less than to love him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength…but we rejoice that he has loved on our behalf, and brought us into the relationship of love where this can now be begun!

The law is to be lived in love; love is found in the cross, in the Savior, in the gospel. Here is where obedience was affirmed, and here is where it begins.

The gospel does not end the need of our obedience. It begins for us, in us, the law living in love. In relation to God, in Christ, it is the life of joyful, full-hearted response.

Part of it is Joy

August 16, 2007

I’ve been “going on” for a few posts now about legalism, and there’s more to come. I realize it’s easier to point out wrong thinking than it is to describe right thinking. A friend once described it as trying to describe a cow for an infant, as you drive the countryside. You can point at anything and say, “That is not a cow.” Horse, sheep, dog, donkey…”that is not a cow.” But the lesson won’t really be grasped until you can point at a cow and say, “That is a cow.”

Wow, I start early with the deep, profound thinking, don’t I?

Yesterday’s post, “If my daughter were a Pharisee”, was hard for me to write, and is the kind of thing I think and pray about often. I described behaviors that could be achieved by legalistic, moralistic thinking. But aren’t those very behaviors still very much to be desired? Don’t I want her to act exactly that way?

I don’t really care.

O, don’t get me wrong. I’m a real Dad, and she’s on a pretty tight leash. I enforce consequences for her behavior. Just ask her. And since she’s a pretty wonderful kid, I’m also pretty often taking pride in her behavior.

Remember, I’m a recovering legalist.

It’s not the behavior, the actions, which should be the prime focus of our attention. Our behaviors can change while our underlying and motivating idolatries remain untouched. For example, if I lie, it might be because I live for approval, and am afraid the truth will make me less likable. But if I am convinced that being a liar will make me less likable still, I will give up lying forever — and the Temple of Fearing Men becomes even more central in my life’s worship. Our efforts at defeating sin succeed only in making us more accomplished sinners.

Have you ever noticed that? Anger-management classes help us keep our anger — and the lusts and idolatries that produce it — intact, but in “acceptable” ways. Take murderous anger on one hand, and marry it to the lust of man-pleasing on the other hand, and the offspring is a better sinner. Better at sinning.

So what does the gospel produce? If moralism and gospel can each produce behavior that looks the same, how can we tell the difference, even for ourselves?

Part of the answer, we’ve already given — what produced the behavior? Is it a response to Jesus Christ and the work he has done for us? Or is it a response to the pressures of law or fear or guilt or lust?

A while back, I wrote about the illustration (original (I believe) to Lloyd-Jones and used by Tim Keller at the Gospel Coalition conference in May; Justin Taylor took good notes on the whole thing) of a king battling an invading army outside his city. If he wins, he sends back news and people (and soldiers) respond with joy. Jesus sends news; every other religion sends advisors. Then Keller said this, and it’s key: in the short term, the activity looks the same (troops heading to the battlefield), but the reality is much different — celebration and joy, or fear and desperation.

When you look at your own behavior, you can ask: is this motivated by joy, carried forward in celebration of the hope bought in Jesus Christ? What “pressure” do you seek to apply in your battle with a particular sin? Do you seek victory in discipline, accountability, determination; do you go about it in loathing and guilt and fear? Or do you see and rejoice in the victory that has already been achieved in Jesus Christ, and exulting in that and taking confidence and assurance from it, say “No” to ungodliness and worldy lusts, with your heart’s motive displaced unto a new affection and a blessed hope?

One thing I noticed some time ago, in a time of wrestling with my own sin and practical denial of the gospel: it was a time when my own family said I appeared to have lost all joy. I responded then that I had been robbed of joy, and I blamed others. But the reality is that my heart had turned aside from the gospel, and though I struggled and cried and vowed and prayed, I was unsuccessful in breaking the grip of idolatry, and I was captivated by fear, and utterly joyless.

When the gospel broke in, joy returned. And captivity was broken. And the desired behavior followed — in thanksgiving and rejoicing.

Such has ever been the case. It’s because our Jesus is great and gracious and triumphant and merciful and sweet — o so sweet! — to the taste, and powerful in his work and in the Spirit to change us, grow us, sanctify us.

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. (Titus 2:11-14)

If my daugher were a Pharisee…

August 15, 2007

Some reader is going to think, “Doesn’t this guy know that women couldn’t be Pharisees? Sheesh! He’s going to get quite the comment from me…” Well, yes, and good for you. Pharisaism was disdainful of the ability of women to learn, thus Paul’s groundbreaking libertarian, “Let them learn!” in 1 Timothy 2 (contra the idea that Paul was himself misogynistic). OK, we got that out of the way… but I still want to use this analogy, because she’s my daughter, the apple of my eye, and I want the best for her… and sometimes that means I act like I wish she were a Pharisee.

I’ve often heard parents remind each other, “We don’t want to raise them to be Pharisees, after all!” By this is usually meant that we don’t to be overly strict, that we shouldn’t be insisting on dress or behavior that is wildly different than the culture – that we don’t want them to be “fundys”. It’s a wrong-headed view of Pharisaism.

If my daughter were a Pharisee (just go with the analogy):

-) She’d try her hardest to be obedient in every situation

-) She’d love the rules we gave her, and she wouldn’t mind at all if they were not the same as those of her peers. One of her favored rules would be, “Honor your father and mother.”

-) She’d love to excel, especially in academia; her study habits and disciplines would be above reproof, and her scores at the top of her class

-) She wouldn’t hang out with the “wrong sort”; I wouldn’t have to worry about bad company corrupting good behavior

-) This would all be a matter of the heart for her, not simply superficial compliance while being observed. No “Eddie Haskill” observance here (you’ve probably got to be advancing well in years to get that reference).

-) She’d have a reputation for integrity and trustworthiness.

-) You’d all like her and praise her and compliment her mother and I on our excellent parenting skills.

Parents: anyone want to raise a Pharisee or two?

Of course, it would all start to go sour when she told us she couldn’t care for us in our old age because her gifts were dedicated to the temple.

But it would seriously be sour from the beginning, for there are a couple more bullet points to make:

-) She would try her hardest, straining every spiritual muscle she had, to be all that she could be…and she would be doing it all without Jesus.

-) She would believe firmly in herself. This is not a good thing. Her place of worship would be the temple of “I’m my own God” that was erected by Adam and Eve and has been enlarged and renovated in every generation since.

-) Some of the most fearful curses Jesus uttered would hang above her soul.

-) At the insistence of Jesus that he, that God alone must have her worship, she would join the cry of “Crucify him!”

I weep to write this.

I pray for her soul.

And I ask forgiveness from the God of grace for the many times that I have raised her as a Pharisee.

Taking time to press the gospel of Jesus Christ to the hearts of our children takes time. “Just do it” can be a shortcut – a shortcut that ends in devastation.

“Just grow up. You’re acting immature.”

“You’re smarter than this. Start living to your potential.”

“You need better habits. Better disciplines. I’m going to show you how you can develop them: (sometimes followed with “one way or another; you want to do this the easy way, or the hard way?”).

“If you lie, people won’t be able to trust you. You’ll be a liar. Do you want that?”

Look what I’ve done. I’ve told her that she can be strong enough, that she can be her own savior, and to live in fear of the perceptions of others, and to satisfy them. Legalism. Soul-destroying.

The gospel enters and says, “You can’t do this. You need a Champion, a Rescuer, a Divine Helper. Look, there’s Jesus! Look what He has done in our place! See what that means now as we live out our life in him. We’re weak, but we have a great Savior! What does his grace mean for this in our life? He will help us here. Let’s trust him, and ask his help to live this out…”

But our heart naturally resists the gospel, which tells us our problems are deep-seated because of sin, and our hope is wholly other than ourselves. And telling the gospel takes time. And so we often settle for, “Get through it best you can now, relying on your self. We’ll talk Jesus later.”

And just as I have (God forgive me!) done this with my daughter, preachers do it with their congregations.

And when we give people rules for living and advice and tips on how to do it better, and we don’t seat them deeply in the work of God in Jesus Christ, we are growing a congregation of Pharisees.

Today, when evangelicals speak of “Pharisees”, the usual present-day analogy is to stuffy, arrogant religious leaders. But I’m afraid the brush paints much wider. It covers multitudes of earnest, serving, community-building, honest, dedicated church members, longing to be ever more obedient, ruing their remaining sin, trying their hardest to be strong and good.

May God help us.