Listen To Others, As God Listens To You

Kashelle and I are taking a course on marital communication.  

Thus far, here are two of my big takeaways:

(1) careful listening is vitally important to a healthy relationship,

but

(2) it is terribly difficult.  

Listening is an incredibly selfless act. But it takes a high level of concentration; especially in the midst of disagreement. When opinions clash, there's tremendous temptation to listen evaluatively. An evaluative listener seeks to control and direct the conversation. If you make quick internal judgments, rehearse rebuttals, mind-read or interrupt others with challenging questions, you're probably listening in this manner. At its worst, evaluative listening becomes purely reactive. You only listen long enough to ignore, minimize, discount, or disprove the other person's thoughts or experiences. Notice, the goal in this instance is not to understand the person (which would involve attending to words, acknowledging emotions, carefully summarizing and reflecting the person's thoughts to ensure accuracy, inviting more information, and asking open-ended questions), but to defeat them.

Now, if you're cross-examining a defendant, or competing on a college debate team, evaluative listening may prove useful. If, however, you and your spouse are trying to find a mutually satisfying solution to a problem through collaboration, such listening is often counterproductive. As our workbook states, the impact of evaluative listening is generally, "negative, especially when someone is trying to explain his or her side of things. In these cases, the listening style is inefficient and generates anger and frustration, yielding unsatisfactory results. Disagreements quickly become power struggles rather than information exchanges (with anyone involved vying for who is right or wrong). Lack of listening skills leaves people stuck." (Collaborative Marriage Skills, 85). By contrast, attentive listening allows you to hear the other in an uncontaminated way, to comprehend accurately, and to discover useful information. If both people listen in this way, they're far more likely to resolve a problem quickly and effectively. 

But (as every couple knows!) this is easier said than done. As I said, attentive listening is very, very hard. It's a form of death. You must crucify your desire to speak up, to defend, to correct, or to blame. You must open yourself to potentially painful information. And you must consider the other person's words, thoughts, and experiences as "more important than your own" (Phil 2:3). For self-centered, fallen humans, that can feel absolutely agonizing. 

So what should motivate us to listen this way? Obviously, the potential relational benefits are motivating. Obedience always brings blessings. But I think there's a more fundamental motivator. We can listen to our spouses this way, because this is how God listens to us. 

The Father is attentive to us. He is qualitatively more generous than the best earthly fathers (Matthew 7:7-11). Thus Jesus repeatedly encourages us to ask him for "anything." Peter invites us to cast our anxieties on the Father, because he cares about us (1 Peter 5:7). The Psalter repeatedly corroborates this point, as various Psalmists grieve, complain, doubt, yell and even (!) rejoice in the presence of God.

The Son is also attentive to us. As our High Priest, Jesus represents God to us, and us to God. And since Jesus is a human, he sympathizes with our weakness and suffering (Heb 2:15; 4:15). He can truly "relate" to what we're going through. And he serves as our representative before God. The Father eternally loves the Son. And he is favorably disposed towards us in him. Moreover, as our High Priest, Jesus doesn't just sit around. He actively intercedes for us (Romans 8:34; Hebrews 7:25). As the Apostle John says, Christ is our legal advocate before the Father (1 John 2:2). Christ pleads the merit of his blood on our behalf. And as Wesley wrote, "The Father hears Him pray, His dear Anointed One. He cannot turn away, the presence of his Son." This is all the more astounding, given that the Father is not some aloof, disinterested judge who must be "persuaded" to love us. Jesus pleads our case before the Father; the same Father who has already demonstrated his love towards us by sending Jesus (John 3:16; Romans 5:8)! Jesus attends to us. Thus, we should draw into God's presence "with boldness" (Heb 4:16).

Finally, the Spirit is attentive to us. The Spirit searches our hearts. And he discerns and expresses our deepest longings (the ones we cannot articulate) to God (Romans 8:26-27).

The Spirit prays through you, while the Son prays for you, while the Father listens attentively. No one is more attentive to you. No one could be.

At Creekside, we often talk about how the gospel holds the solution to every problem. This is the gospel solution to our listening problem. The one we must attend to, attends to us. If we have a compulsive need to be heard, we have forgotten this truth. Thus, we are free to listen to others, and freely offer the gift of our undivided attention.    

Rooted - Question of the Week #4 - Chalcedon

Today, we pick up our Rooted series, which – given my inconsistent posting tendencies – should probably be renamed, “Question of the Month.” During the past few class sessions, we’ve discussed the heart, foundation, cornerstone and (insert your preferred image here) of the Christian faith; the person of Jesus Christ.

I began our discussion by noting that Jesus is the Son of God. And this means he is God the Son. Jesus Christ is more than the ultimate, unparalleled Davidic King. He’s more than God’s perfect representative. He’s not just God’s, “right hand man.” He shares in the divine identity, and he always has (see John 1:1-3). Christians confess that Jesus Christ is God’s final and complete “Word.” God speaks and acts through Jesus. The eternal Son shares his Father’s nature (John 1:1, 18). As John says, “the Word was with God and…was God.” Thus, Jesus is uniquely qualified to image God to us; to “draw out God’s meaning” (1:18). How does he do this? By taking on our humanity. The “Word became flesh,” John says, and “moved into our neighborhood” (Jn 1:14; Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase). The Son of God added a human nature to himself, and was born of a virgin. Thus, the Son of God is also the Son of Mary. The person of Christ possesses deity (in union with his Father) and humanity (in union with us).

Now, if you reflect on the incarnation for more than 10 seconds, you’ll start asking questions; questions like, “How can Jesus be divine and human?” “What’s a person?” “What’s a nature?” “Are there two people inside Jesus?” “What is a divine nature?” “What’s a human nature?” "How does Jesus humanity relate to his deity?" The early church grappled with such questions, and tried to answer some of them (not least, the most pressing ones) in 451 AD at the Council of Chalcedon. And this brings us (at last!) to our question of the week: “what happened at this council?”

Periodically, the leaders of the early church held councils to address matters of great theological importance. Such councils were usually convened in response to pressing challenges of the day. Thus, these gatherings weren’t concerned primarily with speculative theological questions. Nor were they attended by ivory tower academicians. Pastors and political leaders called these conferences to examine teachings which were profoundly impacting churches, cultures, and countries. 

At the Council of Nicea (325 AD), many of the church’s leaders formally agreed that Jesus was indeed God the Son (a belief ably defended by the absurdly young, brilliant and godly pastor Athanasius). Consequently, they rejected the notion that Jesus was God’s created son, a teaching promulgated by the Alexandrian churchman Arius. Nicea represented a crucial victory for Athanasius and his ilk (and, I might add, for Biblical Christianity). But debates involving Jesus’ identity still abounded. Arianism remained popular, and wasn’t decisively stamped out until 381, at the Council of Constantinople. Moreover, Athanasius’ theological allies disagreed about the nature of the incarnation. What did it mean for God the Son to “become” a human being? If you asked various church leaders in the 4th century, you’d get different answers.

Apollinarius (315-392) believed that Jesus took on a human body, but not a “rational human soul.” In this respect, Jesus’ humanity was dissimilar to ours. This teaching laid some of the theological groundwork for a position known as monophysitism (which means “one nature”), which was defended by Eutyches (378-454). This monastic leader (or, at least, his followers) believed that Christ’s human and divine natures were conjoined in such a way as to create a hybrid; a new nature. As Stephen Nichols says, this is a complicated, theological way of saying, “yellow and blue makes green.” (For Us and For Our Salvation, 106). Christ's divine and human natures combined in the incarnation to make one substance, or nature. This, or course, entailed that Christ was a humanish/divinish kind of thing; a sort of freakish “missing link” between God and humanity in the chain of being. But it also entailed the he was not truly God and truly man, as Scripture attests.

Nestorius (381-451) sat at the other end of the incarnational belief spectrum. In contrast to Eutyches, this bishop from Constantinople highlighted the distinction between Christ’s human and divine natures. He laid such stress on this concept, however, that he undermined the unity of Christ’s person. It seemed to some early church leaders (viz. Cyril of Alexandria) that Nestorius was speaking about two “Jesi.” His view entailed an invasion from God the body snatcher. It was as if God the Son had taken up residence in the body of a particular Galilean dude named "Jesus." Subsequently this dude suffered from a case of cosmic schizophrenia. At times, God the Son acted through Jesus. But at other times, Jesus the Galilean dude was operative. There’s evidence that Nestorius did not in fact hold this position (and he confessed that Jesus was “one person” before his death). However, the purported implications of this view troubled a number of high-ranking church officials.   

In the mid 5th century, 520 bishops gathered at Chalcedon to address Eutychianism, which had gained traction within the church. Eutyches had powerful political allies, and his view was endorsed at an unofficial council in 449 (infamously known as the “Robber Council”). The Roman Empire faced mounting threats on its eastern borders. The emperor Marcion couldn’t afford to have a divided church in the face of impending military conflict. Thus the council was called. It provided an opportunity for church leaders to draft a statement which refuted the teaching of Eutyches. The positions of Apollinarius and Nestorius had been formally denounced at the Councils of Constantinople (381) and Ephesus (431) respectively. The meeting of Chalcedon, however, provided an opportunity for the bishops to reassert these pronouncements, and give them further articulation. The outcome of Chalcedon was nothing short of miraculous. All 520 bishops agreed to sign a statement (read it here) which affirmed that Christ was truly and fully human (against Apollinarius), having two distinct natures (against Eutyches), which belonged to one person (against Nestorius). The bishops were guided by two pivotal truths; that “God alone can save us,” and “what is not assumed is not healed.” Jesus is truly God (thus he has the power and prerogative to save). But he has truly assumed our condition, thus he can serve as our legitimate representative (he can save us).  

Chalcedon created a theological frame for understanding Jesus. This is often referred to as the Chalcedonian “box.” The Chalcedonian statement affirms that Jesus is truly God, truly man, who is two in nature, yet one in person. These four statements provide a box for understanding Jesus’ identity. They don’t “box” Jesus in. Rather, they map the conceptual space in which the biblically faithful understanding of Jesus is located. The creed doesn’t answer many of our questions about Jesus  (nor is it intended to). Rather, it helps us mark off the land in which we can safely roam.

For more information, check out Stephen Nichols helpful little book on the early creeds (I’ve adapted some of the information he provides in this post). Also, go listen to some fantastic lectures by Fred Sanders, from which I've also borrowed. They’re far more enlightening and engaging than this blog post.  

Rooted - Question of the Week #3 - The Trinity

At long last, we recommence our Rooted series. In this installment I won’t answer a specific question. Instead, I’ll briefly address the doctrine of the Trinity; a topic that elicits all sorts of questions. Last month, we spent several class sessions discussing God’s Trinitarian existence. I’d like to provide a brief recap of those discussions, and remind you why believing in a three-person God is both thoroughly biblical, and delightfully practical.

Adherents of every major Christian tradition confess that God is Triune. We believe that God is Father, Son and Spirit. These three are distinct persons, yet share one essence. If you think that sounds abstruse and philosophical, you’re quite right! The intellectual cream of Christianity’s crop has spent two millennia discussing the Trinity. Believers have plumbed the depths of metaphysical possibilities, straining to conceptualize the God they worship. But this begs a question; if this doctrine is seemingly inscrutable, why is it pivotal to our faith? As Mike Reeves says, the Trinity may seem, “like some pointless and unsightly growth on our understanding of God, one that could surely be lopped off with no consequence other than a universal sigh of relief.” (Delighting in the Trinity, 10)

The Trinity appears to be hopelessly complex. So why even discuss it? Can’t we relegate this doctrine to a position of relative unimportance?

No.

Here are two reasons this is untenable (some of this material is adapted from Reeves’ aforementioned book, so do yourself a favor and buy it).

First, the biblical writers don’t allow us to treat the matter with indifference. As Christians, we strive to understand, believe and obey the Bible. Accordingly, we seek an understanding of God that’s shaped by the biblical witness. But once we concede this point, we’re faced with an array of questions about God’s nature. What are we to make of Paul’s Trinitarian grammar (see 1 Corinthians 12:4-6; 2 Corinthians 13:14; Philippians 2:1)? Why do writers steeped in Jewish monotheism contend that Jesus is worthy of worship (Revelation 5:1-14)? Why is the Spirit treated like a distinct person from the Father, and not simply God’s active presence (see John 14-16)? Why does Jesus refer to himself, the Father and the Spirit by a singular “name” (Matthew 28:19)? When describing Jesus’ identity, why do New Testament writers frequently allude to Old Testament passages about Yahweh (Phil 2:11; Hebrews 1:10-12)? Are they drawing an equivalence between the two figures? These questions demand answers. Either Jesus and the Spirit have a share in the divine identity, or they don’t. And unless we make some judgments about God’s nature, we have no hope of understanding these passages (and many, many others). Unless we wish to treat Scripture as unintelligible, we must read with a particular idea of God in mind. Furthermore, if we deny the eternal deity of Jesus or the Spirit, we end up with a conception of God foreign to historic Christianity.

This brings me to the second reason we cannot disregard the Trinity; this doctrine has far-
reaching implications. What’s the most fundamental thing we can say about God? Perhaps we could say that God is power. As we reflect on the majesty of creation, we might infer that God is a Creator; a Potentate. But is such knowledge reassuring? Do we have any reason to hope that said being will act benevolently towards us? As Karl Barth once noted, a being of mere power sounds more like Satan than the God of Scripture. Perhaps the most basic thing about God is his self-existence. God is. He’s “being itself” (as many have said) and the ground of all other being. That might be a perfectly reasonable philosophical deduction. But it’s just that; a deduction. Such an abstract conception of God may account for the universe’s existence. But is this God personal? Is he personable? And is he the kind of God who wants to know me, or whom I’d like to know?

Christians have a different starting point. We begin with Jesus, the perfect revelation of God (John 1:18). Jesus says that God is a Father. God doesn’t just possess fatherly qualities. Rather, because Jesus is eternally the Son, God is eternally the Father. From all eternity, God has given life to his Son in the perfect fellowship of the Spirit. And because God is a Father, he always acts fatherly. From everlasting to everlasting, he is life-giving, other-focused, generous, and benevolent. As Jesus says to his Father, “you loved me before the foundation of the world” (John 17:24).

To put it simply, God is love. Before God ever loved us, the Father, Son and Spirit shared a perfect love relationship. And when God acts, he acts out of this character. Out of love, he creates. And out of love, he redeems. That’s just the kind of God he is. And that’s great news for us. God’s love isn’t dependent on us. It’s not as if God wasn’t loving prior to loving us. On the other hand, God wants to love us, because he’s just that kind of God; a God who gives himself for the benefit of others. And as we receive love from this God, we’re drawn away from our sinful, self-obsessive thoughts. We’re drawn out of ourselves to love God and others. And in so doing, we image the God who loved us first. A God who merely rules, or exists (or whatever) cannot transform our hearts in this way. So the Trinity makes a world of difference. I’ll conclude with one more gem from Reeves;

This God simply will not fit into the mold of any other. For the Trinity is not some inessential add-on to God, some optional software that can be plugged into him. At bottom this God is different, for at bottom he is not Creator, or Ruler or even “God” in some abstract sense: he is the Father, loving and giving life to his Son in the fellowship of the Spirit. A God who is in himself love, who before all things could “never be anything but love.” Having such a God happily changes everything. (Ibid., 38)

Rooted - Question of the Week #2 (02/16/14)

Today we continue our Rooted series with another Scripture-related question. This week, someone asked,

Why are there so many different translations of the Bible?

Over the past 40 years, publishers have released a spate of new Bible translations. And the sheer number of versions may create confusion. Which Bible is best for me? Should I choose the KJV, NKJV, NIV, NASB, RSV, NRSV, TEV, CEV, NLT, LB, or NCV? How about the TNIV, ESV, or the HCSB? What about The Message? Moreover, the variance between these translations may lead us to doubt the Bible's clarity. After all, if translators don't seem to agree on the meaning of Scripture, what hope do we have?

Why are there so many versions of Scripture? And does this phenomenon throw Scripture's intelligibility into question?

The Bible is the best-selling book of all time. Thus, publishers have an obvious financial incentive to publish new versions of Scripture. From a business standpoint, publishing new editions (with new features to entice new customers) just makes sense. This accounts for some of the diversity we find among translations. But there's a deeper reason. 

Different theories of translation underlie modern Bible versions. When translating, a committee is guided by some theory (i.e. set of assumptions) concerning translation. Theories of translation have to do with,

...the degree to which one is willing to go in order to bridge the gap between two languages. For example, should lamp be translated "flashlight" or "torch" in cultures where these objects serve the purpose which a lamp once did? Or should we translate the word "lamp" literally, and let the reader bridge the gap for him or herself? (Fee and Stuart, 35)

Translators have different purposes or goals. Understanding these goals serves to shape our understanding (and expectations) or different translations. There are three major theories of translation (much of this information is adapted from ibid., 33-44). 

  • Formal Equivalency/Literal: This theory of translation emphasizes the original language and word order of the text, and renders the most literal sense. FE translations make grammatical sense in the receptor language (i.e. the language the text is being translated into). But there is little attempt to bridge the historical/cultural/grammatical/verbal distance between the languages. The reader must do much of the interpretative work. Translators of the New American Standard Bible utilize this theory of translation.  
  • Free/Paraphrase Translation: In an attempt to overcome historical distance, this translation theory emphasizes simplicity and clarity in translation rather than rigid accuracy. Translators employing this theory are more concerned to convey the idea of a text than its precise grammar, or language. Translators of the New Living Translation utilize this theory.
  • Dynamic Equivalence: This theory of translation places emphasis on finding equivalent concepts in the translated language, while attempting to stay faithful to the sense of the text in its original language. Translators of the New International Version utilize this theory of translation. 

For a helpful chart comparing the various translations, see here

But why is it necessary for translators to abide by some translation theory? Why can't we simply develop a very literal translation that doesn't interpret the text in any way? 

Clint Arnold provides a good response:

The answer is simple: if we were to follow the Hebrew or Greek exactly, most passages would be utterly confusing and possibly unintelligible. For example, in the NIV, Jn 1:18 reads, "No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father's side, has made him known." In contrast, here is a literal word-by-word translation: "God no one has seen ever: the only-begotten God the being into the bosom of the father that one explained.

Although one might be able to make some sense of this, it's difficult to understand and terrible English. All translations must make a number of changes and interpretative decisions to render Scripture into intelligible English. 

To translate intelligibly, scholars must alter the word order (English follows a rigid subject-verb-object sequence, Greek doesn't) and grammatical forms, supply words (which are clearly implied in the original language), clarify meanings, and perhaps even substitute a different word for the original. 

All that to say, biblical translations rarely differ because translators are in wild disagreement over a text's basic meaning. Rather, translators have different goals when conveying that meaning into the receptor language. This accounts for much of the variance. For example, consider these three translations of 1 Thessalonians 1:2-3. Paul says,

We give thanks to God always for all of you, making mention of you in our prayers; 3 constantly bearing in mind your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ in the presence of our God and Father… (NASB)

We always thank God for all of you, mentioning you in our prayers. 3 We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. (NIV)

We always thank God for all of you and pray for you constantly. 3 As we pray to our God and Father about you, we think of your faithful work, your loving deeds, and the enduring hope you have because of our Lord Jesus Christ. (NLT)

Let's note some of the differences. First, there are differences in vocabulary. Where as the NASB (a Formal Equivalent translation) says, "steadfastness" (v. 3), the NLT (A Free/Paraphrase translation) says "enduring". The former rendering uses a word that closely approximates the Greek (humpomonê). However, "steadfastness" has fallen out of common usage in English. Thus, NLT uses a more contemporary word. There are also differences in structure. The NASB translates these verses as one sentence, reflecting the Greek. But this isn't very readable in English. Thus, the NLT and NIV enhance readability by translating these verses as two sentences. Finally, notice differences in phrasing. The NASB translates the virtue list in verse 3 as, "work of faith...labor of love...steadfastness of hope."  Each of the virtues (i.e. faith, love, hope) is in the genitive case. It's customary to supply the word "of" when translating this case from Greek to English. While this is a faithful rendering, it does little to explain the relationship between "work" and "faith",  "labor" and "love", and "steadfastness" and "hope". In English, I wouldn't say, "I'm so grateful for your work of faith!" Thus, the NIV supplies the words, “produced,” “prompted,” and “inspired.” The NIV translators make clear that Paul is saying, “your faith is the source of your work, your love is the source of your labor,” etc. Of course, this isn’t a literal rendering. The words "produced," "prompted" and "inspired" don't appear in the original language. Nevertheless, this rendering better approximates what Paul's Greek actually means in English. We catch a nuance of Paul's words which we would have missed in the FE translation.  

Because there are different theories of translation, it's helpful to read multiple versions of the same passage. Doing so will give you a sense of the various nuances in the text. It will help you appreciate shades of meaning you would have otherwise missed. And, as you see where translations diverge more dramatically, you'll be able to pinpoint areas of interpretative dispute (and thus areas for further study). Which translations should you read? I'd pick a representative from each camp; read a literal translation (like the NASB), a careful paraphrase (like the NIV), and a free translation (like the NLT). At Creekside we preach from FE translations, such as the NASB and the English Standard Version. These versions require the reader to do more of the interpretative work (which is exactly what we're responsible to do as preachers!). 

Rather than undermining our ability to understand Scripture, multiple translations greatly enhance it!

Thus the sheer fact that such variety exists shouldn't cause us concern.  

Rooted - Question of the Week #1 (02/09/14)

Last Sunday, we kicked off Rooted, Creekside’s course on the basics of the faith. John Weld and I always enjoy teaching the content of this course. But we really enjoy the discussion. People consistently ask great questions; so consistently that we struggle to provide adequate answers. Hence, we’re trying something new. Each week John and/or I will choose one particularly probing question from class, and we’ll answer it on the blog. We hope this enriches the Rooted experience for those attending, and assists other Creeksiders who may be asking these questions. 

We’ll start things off with a doozey. This Sunday, someone asked:

“How do we know that the 66 books in our English are the right ones? Why did the church consider these books to be God’s inspired word? Why did they exclude others?”

Biblical scholars refer to this as a question of canonicity. Canon literally means “ruler.” Taken together, the books of Scripture comprise a canon; a rule, standard or norm for the Christian life. So which books belong within this canon? How can one recognize which books are inspired by God (and thus authoritative), and determine which aren’t? While Christians have not reached a consensus as to the attributes of canonicity, there is broad agreement on several criteria:

1. Internal Witness: Numerous authors explicitly claim to communicate for God, or act as if they are. The formula, “thus says the Lord” occurs over 400 times in the OT. By invoking this formula, a speaker signaled that he/she was communicating on God’s behalf. Other times, authors deliberately add to the inspired corpus (cf. Exodus 34:1; Deut 10:2; 27:3 Josh 24:26; Jeremiah 30:2; Revelation 21:5). Jesus says that his words are an extension of his own authority (Mark 8:38; John 12:48). Paul claims that his words are a command from the Lord (1 Cor 14:37-38). Obviously, an assertion is not an argument, and these assertions must be evaluated. However, this textual feature becomes more significant when combined with other criteria. 

2. Inner-Biblical Corroboration: On occasion, the writers of Scripture reference each other’s work. This further solidifies a book’s canonical status. OT writers often refer to earlier writings as Scripture (see Josh 1:7; 8:31; 1 Kings 2:3; 2 Kings 14:6; Neh 13:1; Jeremiah 8:8; Dan 9:2, 11). NT writers quote the OT approximately 250 times. When doing so, they frequently employ the formula, “it is written,” by which to specify they're quoting divinely inspired literature. Paul refers to the Hebrew Scriptures of his day as divinely inspired (2 Tim 3:16), and states that the Jews were entrusted with the “oracles of God” (Rom 3:2). Jesus attests to the authority of the “Law and the Prophets” in Matthew 5:17-20. And in Luke 24:44-45, he refers to Scripture under three headings: “the Law of Moses…the Prophets and the Psalms….” (v. 44; see also v. 27). The Jews of Jesus’ day referred to most (if not all) of the 39 books of our OT under these twofold and threefold classifications. Thus, Jesus ostensibly believed that the OT books contained in our English Bibles were divinely inspired. Further confirmation of this point is found in Matthew 23:35, where Jesus refers to the martyrs of biblical history. He begins with Abel (who is mentioned in Genesis) and ends with Zechariah (who is mentioned in 2 Chronicles). The Tanakh (i.e. the Hebrew Bible used by 1st Century Jews) began with Genesis and ended with 2 Chronicles. This is further corroboration that Christ understood the entirety of our OT as divinely inspired. The significance of such references is enormous. Our Lord's estimation of a book's status should be determinative for our canonical judgments. Moreover, NT authors occasionally attest to the canonicity of other NT documents. Peter claims that Paul’s writings are divinely inspired (2 Peter 3:16), and Paul cites Luke’s gospel as Scripture (cf. Luke 10:7).

3. Prophetic or Apostolic Authorship: A third attribute to consider is an author’s status. Many Old Testament authors were recognized prophets (see Deut 18:15-20; Mt 23:29ff). This attribute becomes more significant when we turn to the NT, and consider the issue of apostolicity. Formally speaking, an apostle was someone who witnessed the earthly ministry of Christ. All of the NT writings were believed to have apostolic connections (see Klein, Blomberg Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, 115). Some of Christ’s 12 disciples pen books of the NT (Matthew, John, Peter). Two of Christ’s brothers (James and Jude) author epistles. Paul was considered an apostle because of his encounter with the risen Christ (Acts 9). And other NT writers are closely connected to the apostolic circle (e.g. Mark uses Peter as a source; Luke uses Paul, as does – perhaps – the writer of Hebrews).

4. Breadth of Reception: A final attribute is the church’s reception of a given writing. On the basis of various ancient writings (e.g. rabbinic literature, Josephus, Philo), scholars have argued that the Jews possessed a clearly defined canon (i.e. our OT) prior to the mid second-century B.C. (ibid., 108). Many early Christians believed in the canonicity of these documents (though there were a few notable exceptions, like Marcion). However, various early Christians also believed in the canonicity of additional documents from the period of Second Temple Judaism (for more information, see below). By the 4th century, Christians had reached a consensus on the extent of the NT canon. In 367 A.D., the church father Athanasius references all 27 NT books as Scripture. A comparable list appears in one of Origen's letters some 100 years earlier. This should not, however, lead us to conclude that the NT canon was largely undetermined prior to the 4th century. Based on his extensive textual analysis of early NT manuscripts, David Trobisch has contended that a document containing all 27 NT books was published sometime in the mid-second century A.D. Other scholars have presented arguments supporting the notion that the church recognized a fairly well-defined canonical core early in its history.

A Final Note:

Believers in the three major streams of Christianity (i.e. Protestant, Roman Catholic, Orthodox) concur that the 66 books we possess today are canonical. However, our Roman Catholic and Orthodox friends posit that additional books belong within the OT canon. This literature is often referred to as apocryphal (from the Greek word for “hidden”) or deutero-canonical (meaning a “second canon”). These books include such works as 1 and 2 Esdras, Tobit, Judith, the Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, Baruch, the Letter of Jeremiah, the Prayer of Azariah and the Song of the Three Young Men, Susanna, Bel and the Dragon, the Prayer of Manasseh, and 1 and 2 Maccabees. Protestant believers have traditionally rejected the canonical status of such books and defended the shorter OT canon (i.e. the 39 books evangelicals typically associate with the OT; Ibid., 104). They often contend that this shorter OT canon was the one used by 1st Century Jews, as well as the NT apostles. For a brief argument in favor of the shorter OT canon, see here

This is a very brief sketch. I can only scratch the surface of a vast array of complex and interrelated issues. The takeaway is that there are good reasons to accept the 66 books of our English bibles as canonical. If you’d like to study the issue further, here are a few resources.

Clint Arnold, How We Got The Bible.

John Wenham, Christ and The Bible.

Michael Kruger's Website.

F.F. Bruce (no relation!), The Canon of Scripture.

Gospel Glimpses in Frozen

Spoiler alert: You’re about to learn a lot about Frozen. If you’d rather learn about this movie by watching it, read no further.

Last week, Addie and I went to see the sing-along version of Frozen. Like most American girls in her age demographic, Addie loves this movie. During playtimes, she now insists that I act like Anna, the film’s protagonist (Addie plays the part of Elsa, Anna’s sister. The game basically consists of Addie freezing me over and over again).  

I too enjoyed this movie. It’s a throwback to Disney’s glory days (i.e. the 90’s); a serious and compelling story with great songs generously sprinkled throughout. But Frozen possesses an additional attribute; this film simply bursts with gospel truth.

I can see how stories are shaping Addie’s imagination and affections. Thus, as we watch movies I’m trying to illustrate truths about Jesus. Frozen makes this easy, since it’s replete with the imagery of the gospel. Many have already noted this, and the good folks at Mockingbird have provided a thorough theological analysis of the film. Rather than rehash the plot, I’d like to highlight a few truths the movie underscores (if you want to a summary of the story, go read the aforementioned analysis). Here are four things you can point out to your kids:

1. Cancerous Sin

Elsa is born with an innate power to create snow and ice. As she grows, so does the power. It damages those around her, and it alienates her from other people. When she finally lets go and surrenders to the power, it drives her into complete isolation, and the kingdom of Arendelle into perpetual winter. Elsa’s curse underscores that sin is an innate problem that both wreaks havoc on others and alienates us from them.  

2. Powerless Law

Elsa does everything she can to control her power. Her parents isolate her from an early age. She wears gloves to prevent the power from flowing through her hands. And she incessantly repeats a mantra to herself: “conceal, don’t feel.” Yet whenever she feels fear or anxiety, the magic overtakes her, and her powers manifest. After making a public spectacle of herself, Elsa despairs of subduing the power, and yields to it. Elsa’s efforts underscore our complete inability to conquer sin through law observance. Apart from the grace of God, we will never have the willpower or discipline or positive self-talk (or even meticulous parental oversight!) to be freed from sin.   

3. Cross-Shaped Love

The climax of this movie just wrecked me. Elsa unintentionally curses Anna with a frozen heart; a terrible condition which can only be cured by an act of “true love.” As viewers, we’re led to believe this act will be performed by Kristoff, Anna’s love interest. In the movie’s climactic scene, Anna is on the verge of freezing forever. Kristoff runs towards her, ready to offer true love’s kiss. Anna looks at her savior coming towards her. But out of the corner of her eye, Anna sees that her sister’s life is in peril. Hans (the movie’s villain) stands over Elsa with sword drawn. He’s intent on killing her, ending the curse of winter and usurping the throne of Arendelle. Rather than kiss her one true love and be liberated from the curse, Anna runs to the aid of her sister. She throws herself in front of Hans’ descending sword. As she does, the curse takes its full effect. Anna freezes completely and Hans’ descending sword shatters on her statuesque frame. Elsa’s life is spared.  

So many children’s stories proclaim the salvific power of romantic love. A dashing prince is what’s needed to break the curse, or undo what’s wrong, or defeat evil, or ensure one’s happily ever after. If Addie wants her own prince charming, that’s fine by me. But the only man who can provide her with salvific love is the Prince of Peace. The romance provided by Addie’s hypothetical future husband isn’t going to save her from anything. Moreover, said hypothetical husband will inevitably make a lousy Jesus. I don’t want Addie to be misled, or form a false god in her heart. That’s one of the myriad reasons this scene is so beautiful. As I watched it, Jesus’ words in John 15 echoed in my mind:

“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)

Anna’s choice to lay down her life for Elsa is the ultimate demonstration of true love. And this love ultimately liberates Anna, Elsa and the kingdom (and creation!) from the fearsome curse of winter. Anna’s action is thoroughly cross-shaped.

4. Transformative Grace

In an effort to protect others from her power, Elsa isolates herself from everyone, including Anna. At first, Anna doesn’t understand Elsa’s anti-social behavior. Yet she pursues her sister indefatigably. She comes to Elsa’s door each morning and asks her to play. Elsa always refuses. Yet Anna always comes back. Once Elsa manifests her powers in public, the people of Arendelle deem her a great danger. But Anna continues to pursue Elsa, even after being cursed by the power. Anna dies to save her sister’s life, even though her sister is really a stranger. It is this relentless, undeserved, and unexpected love that frees Elsa from her fear of the power, and enables her to live in right relationship with others. Jesus chooses to love unloveable strangers like us. We can resist him, run from him, spurn him and refuse him. But his love will ultimately drive out our fear, and liberate us from sin.  

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. 19 We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:18-19)

 

Reverse Legalism

A few weeks back, I preached about legalism. I’ve heard many a preacher issue many a warning about this particular, “ism.” And I believe such warnings are merited. As a fallen, prideful human, I’m tempted to establish my identity through performance (that’s one manifestation of legalism). And in my meandering journey towards Christlikeness, I’m tempted to add requirements to Scripture (that’s the second manifestation).

These two forms of legalism often work in tandem to disrupt our relationship with God, and damage our relationships with others.

But as is often the case, this sin exists at one end of a pendulum. Another sin stands opposite legalism; licentiousness (or if you prefer fancy theological terminology) antinomianism. An antinomian doesn’t feel legal or moral constraints. As with legalism, this sin manifests in a variety of forms. One especially insidious form could be called reverse legalism; a sin I've witnessed in my own life.

What is reverse legalism?

It’s a resistance towards applying Scripture with any degree of specificity.

A reverse legalist doesn't think about the implications of a command. She doesn't reflect on the ways that Scripture’s general prescriptions should be obeyed. And thus, she doesn’t obey Scripture in any particular way. And perhaps she justifies this by saying, “Well, the text doesn’t tell me exactly what to do.”

A quote by the inimitable Oliver O'Donovan spurred my thinking on this:

Ethics reflects on the conditions of good moral thinking. Were it to posit an ideal relation of text to action which, in the name of obedience to scriptural authority, effectively abolished thinking, it would abolish morality, and thereby abolish itself. There is a necessary indeterminacy in the obedient action required by the faithful reading of the text. Acts are ordered in a basic repertoire of kinds and types, and of these kinds and types Scripture has a great deal of normative force to tell us; but Scripture does not determine the concrete act itself , the act we must perform now . If Scripture totally determined our actions, there would be no obedience, for there would be no deliberation. Deliberation does not simply repeat what it has heard; it pursues the goal of faithful and obedient action by searching out actions, possible within the material conditions that prevail, which will accord with the content of the testimony of Scripture.

O’Donovan is commenting on the enterprise of Christian ethics. But his point has far-reaching implications. It appears that he's saying this: obeying Scripture will almost always require a good deal of moral reasoning and deliberation. On occasion, Scripture sets forth commands with great specificity (e.g. “don’t commit adultery”). But most of the time, Scriptural mandates are more general in character (e.g. “fear not!”, “love one another,” “abide in me”). Nevertheless, if Scripture is to have any functional authority in our lives, these mandates must make specific claims on us. We must conceive of them in such a way that they need to be obeyed in particular ways, in our particular contexts. This is where reasoning and deliberation enter the equation. When reading, it's good to ask, "is this passage commanding me to do something?" But it's also important to ask, "if so, how will I obey? What am I going to do?"

How will I be generous? How do I plan to love my neighbor as myself? How will I seek to love my brothers and sisters in the faith, and prioritize my relationships with them? How will I participate in God's mission? Whom will I bless? How will I serve as Christ's ambassador? Until we resolve to give our obedience a concrete shape, we haven't felt the weight Scriptural authority.     

Searching for Eden's Echoes in Gravity

I have a condition known as Cinematic Narcolepsy. CN is a sleeping disorder, affecting moviegoers like myself. More often than not, I sleep through movies. This frustrates me, as I really do enjoy movies, and I really don't enjoy taking 12$ naps (14$ if the movie is in IMAX).

Thankfully, my CN has improved of late. Over the past few months, I've been able to watch several films. These cinematic experiences have prompted me to think more about how we, as Christians, should evaluate movies. Is there a distinctively Christian way to watch a film? 

Jerram Barrs has sharpened my thinking on this topic. He says,

[The] three truths, that we come from Eden, that we have lost Eden, and that we long for the restoration of Eden - the recognition of those realities is true for all human beings, even for those who are not Christians. This is the truth about the human condition. And all great art, whether it is produced by Christians or not, is going to reflect elements of that true story. 

Every human lives in God's world, bears God's image, and acts in God's story. Thus, every human can (and does) bear witness to the good, the true and the beautiful. By virtue of the Fall, however, a cosmic fracture exists. In one way or another, every part of God's good creation has been distorted. In the words of Cornelius Plantinga, God's shalom has been vandalized. And all of us long for things to be made right again.

Remembering these truths changes the way I view movies (or any cultural product for that matter). When watching a movie, I ask three questions; does it bear witness to; (1) the goodness of God's world? (2) the futility of our condition? and (3) our need for redemption? A fourth question would be, "does the movie acknowledge these realities, affirm them, or distort them?" Thus, I'm not simply evaluating a movie based on its content (e.g. "what kind of language is used?"). Nor am I merely in search of an overtly Christian message, as if God's truth can only be communicated through patronizingly obvious means (e.g. the protagonist arising at the end of the movie to tell us"the moral of the story"). Rather, I'm trying to discern where the story aligns with God's story. 

Recently, I watched Gravity with these questions in mind.   

(Spoiler Alert: If you really want to see the movie, don't read any further).

As I reflected on the film, I was struck by the conflicting "takeaways" it offered. 

On the one hand, Gravity could be interpreted as a tribute to Darwinian tenacity; to the indomitable desire to survive, and conquer adversity though individual resolve and self-actualization. Dr. Ryan Stone (played by Sandra Bullock) faces insurmountable odds. After her shuttle is destroyed, the novice astronaut must rely on her limited skills to find her way back to earth. Her physical displacement in space serves as a metaphor of acute psychological (or spiritual?) alienation. Stone is haunted by the passing of her daughter, who died in a freakish playground accident. Moreover, she has no relationships rooting her to a purposeful existence, 

Emmanuel Stubezki's stunning cinematography continually reinforces the idea that the universe is a cold and inhospitable place, indifferent to Stone's plight (or anyone else's). But after surviving several near-death experiences, Stone experiences a kind of rebirth. In a scene of particular symbolic significance, the reborn Stone floats in zero-gravity, tethered to an umbilical cord-like air hose. She decides to live (though her motivation for so doing is never clearly explained), and defeats seemingly impossible odds, along with her own existential crisis. Viewed through one lens, Cuarón's film doesn't seem to "echo" Eden (as Barrs would say) much at all. It is, rather, an ode to our primal desire to stay alive.  

On the other hand, Gravity resounds with Eden's ehoes; with allusions to the story God is telling. We identify with Stone's profound sense of displacement, because this is our lot under the sun. Creation has been subjected to futility (Rom 8:20), and thus we are often struck by God's absence and apparent indifference. Moreover, the vivid portrayal of space's cold vacuity functions as a foil for the earth. As we float with Stone through space, we long for our earthly home. In this way, the movie affirms the inherent goodness of God's world. As Christians, we acknowledge that the earth is good. And yet we feel great homesickness, because we know that the earth is not yet liberated from its bondage to decay (Revelation 21-22). Furthermore, while Stone certainly draws on inner reserves to survive, she couldn't have done so without help from others (and perhaps from God). The cruciform self-sacrifice of fellow astronaut Matt Kowalski (played by George Clooney) enables her to travel to the International Space Station. And Cuarón subtly suggests that Stone receives some form of divine help. As she sits in solitude, Stone cries out to her deceased daughter, reflects on the afterlife, and even attempts to pray. At one point she says,

No one will mourn for me. No one will pray for my soul. Will you mourn for me? Will you pray for me. 

Stone experiences alienation not only from other humans, but also from God. She years for deliverance from this sense of lostness in the cosmos. Cuarón doesn't offer clues as to where we should turn for rescue, but he underscores our innate desire for Eden; our longing for home; for a place where we are known and loved. In this way, he reminds us of many things we know from Scripture, and from our experience as Christ-followers.

And, if you want way better thoughts on how to connect the Christian faith to culture, go check out Mockingbird.  

Preach What You Write: Why I Use a Manuscript

This may not be of interest to any of you (always a great disclaimer), but here are some thoughts on sermon prep that I put together for my good friends' new website.  

-------------------------------------------------------------------

Preaching is a weighty task. 

It certainly isn't our only pastoral responsibility, but it's one of our most significant. The weekend service is something of a cultural anomaly. People reserve time in their schedules to gather, sit down, and listen to the explanation of an ancient text. And they hope God will use this to transform them into Christ's image. We have no opportunity quite like this one. We must steward it well. I don't want to dishonor God's name, or waste people's time.  

In order to be a faithful steward, I've found it helpful to write a detailed sermon manuscript.

Not surprisingly, Eric Mckiddle (the guru of pastoral excellence) has already posted on this topic. I heartily agree with his 5 points, and recommend you read his article. I'd like to expand on his points with a few of my own. Here are 5 reasons I write a detailed sermon manuscript.

1. Words are weighty. 

Death and life are in the power of the tongue (Prov 18:21). If you're a competent preacher (or, you're just lucky), people will remember your "big idea". They won't, however, remember some generic concept, but the actual words you employ to articulate it. And if you say something inaccurate, overreaching, or needlessly offensive, that is what they may very well remember. The words we use are vehicles; they can move people towards truth, or away from it. We should be precise both conceptually and linguistically. By crafting a detailed manuscript, we give words their due weight. 

2. You will be judged more strictly (James 3:1).

God judges our words more strictly than those of others. He calls us to promote sound doctrine, and refute those who contradict it (Titus 1:9). Hopefully, our people will critically evaluate our teaching in light of Scripture (Acts 17:11). But in all likelihood, many of our people will form their interpretative assumptions on the basis of our teaching! Therefore, you must seek to be self-correcting. By writing a manuscript, you can subject your sermon to rigorous scrutiny before actually preaching it. Judge your words, that they may not be judged (Matt 7:1-5). 

3. The internet has a great memory.  

At least some of your sermons are probably floating through cyberspace. I'm tempted to think that the spoken word has a shorter lifespan than the written word. But this is no longer so. If people want to find out about your ministry, or hear what you think about a controversial topic, they'll listen to one of your sermons. It's sobering to think that there's a permanent public record of my thoughts on such a wide array of subjects. And this makes the manuscript so valuable. If you are confident in what you've written, you can preach it confidently.  

4. Most people don't speak well extemporaneously. 

Because of my personality, I naively assumed preaching would come naturally to me (I'm extroverted, I'm loud, and people occasionally laugh at me). But when I began preaching, I soon realized that my communication style wasn't very effective or engaging. There's a vast difference between monologue and dialogue. When you're having a conversation, you expect interruptions, diversions, run-on sentences, and parenthetical statements. We develop speaking habits through conversing. But we carry these habits into the pulpit, where they can turn against us. I considered myself a good conversationalist. But this didn't make me a good communicator. I had to learn to sharpen my thoughts, think in a linear fashion, and eliminate junk words and phrases (e.g. "you know," "like", "really", "I mean,,," etc.). Great communicators  are profound and provocative, yet concise, clear and memorable. If you wish to speak this way, you must learn to write this way.  

J.C. Ryle once said, "Have a clear knowledge of what you want to say. Use simple words. Employ a simple sentence structure. Preach as though you had asthma! Be direct. Make sure you illustrate what you are talking about." 

Writing a manuscript will help you follow his advice. 

5. You're giving the Holy Spirit more (not less) to work with. 

Manuscripting may feel rigid, or constricting. People sometimes object to such rigorous preparation on the grounds that it quenches the Spirit. I don't, however, see any conflict between careful preparation and Spirit-prompted improvisation. To the contrary, the discipline of manuscripting actually improves our homiletical improvisations.   

A helpful analogy comes from music. While listening to jazz, one might assume that the musicians are unbridled by any musical conventions or structures. But anyone who has played jazz knows this isn't the case Yes, the musicians are improvising. But they operate within a framework that gives them greater creative possibilities. A skilled jazz musician knows the nuances of music theory. She knows of all the possible voicings, intervals, and modes at her disposal. And she's developed incredible dexterity by playing scales for hours on end. Her masterful knowledge of the framework gives her a far greater array of improvisational possibilities than the average musician. 

In a similar way, extensive knowledge of your sermon's content will improve your improvisational skills. When you have deeply internalized the words of your sermon, you know which improvisations will fit, and which won't. You have already thought deeply about the point you wish to express, and how you wish to express it. So in one sense, the Spirit has more material to work with. 

Much more could be said about this. I realize that the writing process is time-consuming (as is the internalizing process). Perhaps I'll address these practical matters in a future post (or, I'm sure the guys at GCYM can find someone more qualified to address them!). 

I don't think every pastor is obliged to follow this advice. But I've benefited tremendously from this discipline. 

A New Discipleship Tool

Tim Chester has created a helpful mnemonic device for internalizing gospel truth. When tempted, we should turn to the "4 G's." The 4 G's are truths about God; namely that he is great, gracious, good and glorious. As these truths become part of our functional belief system, we are lberated from various idols (e.g. control, approval, pride, etc.). This fall, we've talked extensively about the 4 G's. I figured it'd be useful to list them with Scriptural support. Hopefully this gives shape and depth to the truths we confess. Keep in mind, this list isn't meant to be comprehensive (how could it be?!). Moreover, I'd encourage you to peruse the various passages in which these verses are found. During times of confession and accountability, I hope you can utilize this resource to encourage one another with glorious gospel truth. 

The 4 G’s: Freedom from Sin through Gospel Truth

1. God is great, so we don’t have to be in control…

  • Exodus 15:18 – “The LORD will reign forever and ever."
  • Deuteronomy 10:17 – “For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God.”
  • Job 34:14-15 – “If he should set his heart to it and gather to himself his spirit and his breath,  15 all flesh would perish together, and man would return to dust.
  • Job 37:23 – “The Almighty - we cannot find him; he is great in power; justice and abundant righteousness he will not violate.
  • Psalm 22:28 – “For kingship belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations.”
  • Psalm 29:10 – “The LORD sits enthroned over the flood; the LORD sits enthroned as king forever.”
  • Psalm 95:3 – “For the LORD is a great God, and a great King above all gods.”
  • Psalm 115:3 – “Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.
  • Psalm 145:3 – “Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised, and his greatness is unsearchable.”
  • Daniel 4:35 – “[H]e does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, "What have you done?
  • Ephesians 1:11 – “[H]e works all things according to the counsel of his will.”
  • Colossians 1:17 – “[I]n him all things hold together.”
  • Hebrews 1:3 – “[H]e upholds the universe by the word of his power.”

2. God is gracious, so we don’t have to prove ourselves…

  • Exodus 34:6 – "The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness”
  • Psalm 30:5 – “[H]is anger is but for a moment, and his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”
  • Psalm 103:10-13 – “He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.  11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;  12 as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.  13 As a father shows compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him.”
  • Psalm 130:3-4 – “If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?  4 But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.”
  • Isaiah 1:18 – "Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.”
  • Isaiah 30:18-19 – “[T]he LORD waits to be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you.”
  • Isaiah 40:1-2 – “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. 2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned.”
  • Isaiah 40:11 – “He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.”
  • Isaiah 54:8 – “In overflowing anger for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you."
  • Hosea 11:8-9 – “How can I give you up, O Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.  9 I will not execute my burning anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not a man, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.”
  • Lamentations 3:22-23 – “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; 23 they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”
  • Matthew 5:45 – “[God] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.”
  • Matthew 11:28-30 – “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."
  • John 1:14, 16-17 – “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth… 16 And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”
  • Romans 3:23-24 – “[F]or all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”
  • Romans 5:6-8 – “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person- though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die-  8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us."
  • Romans 5:20-21 – “[W]here sin increased, grace abounded all the more,  21so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
  • Ephesians 1:3-6 – “[H]e chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will,  6 to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.”
  • Ephesians 2:4-9 – “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ- by grace you have been saved- 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast."
  • 2 Timothy 1:8-9 – “God saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began."
  • Titus 3:4-5 – “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy.”
  • Hebrews 4:15-16 – “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” 

3. God is good, so we don’t have to look elsewhere…

  • Genesis 1:31 – “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.”
  • Genesis 50:20 – “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”
  • Psalm 4:7-8 – “You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound. 8 In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety.”
  • Psalm 16:11 – “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”
  • Psalm 23:6 – “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.”
  • Psalm 25:8 – “Good and upright is the LORD; therefore he instructs sinners in the way.”
  • Psalm 31:19 – “Oh, how abundant is your goodness, which you have stored up for those who fear you and worked for those who take refuge in you, in the sight of the children of mankind!”
  • Psalm 34:8 – “Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!”
  • Psalm 34:10 – “The young lions suffer want and hunger; but those who seek the LORD lack no good thing.”
  • Psalm 63:3-7 – “Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. 4 So I will bless you as long as I live; in your name I will lift up my hands. 5 My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food, and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips, 6 when I remember you upon my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night;  7 for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy.”
  •  

    Psalm 84:11 – “For the LORD God is a sun and shield; the LORD bestows favor and honor. No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly.”
  • Psalm 106:1 – “Praise the LORD! Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!”
  • Psalm 107:9 – “For he satisfies the longing soul, and the hungry soul he fills with good things.”
  • Psalm 145:9 – “The LORD is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made.”
  • Isaiah 55:1-2 – "Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. 2 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.”
  • Jeremiah 31:12-14 – “They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the LORD, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall be like a watered garden, and they shall languish no more. 13 Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy; I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow. 14 I will feast the soul of the priests with abundance, and my people shall be satisfied with my goodness, declares the LORD.”
  • Lamentations 3:25 – “The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him.”
  • Nahum 1:7 – “The LORD is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble; he knows those who take refuge in him.”
  • Zephaniah 3:17 – “The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.”
  •  Zechariah 9:16-17 – “On that day the LORD their God will save them, as the flock of his people; for like the jewels of a crown they shall shine on his land. 17 For how great is his goodness, and how great his beauty! Grain shall make the young men flourish, and new wine the young women.” 
  • Matthew 6:25-26 – “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?”
  • Luke 11:11-13 – “What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; 12 or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
  • Romans 8:28 – “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
  • 1 Timothy 4:4 – “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.”
  • James 1:17 – “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”

4. God is glorious, so we don’t have to fear others…

  • Exodus 15:11 – “Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?”
  • Exodus 33:20 – “[Y]ou cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live."
  • Psalm 27:1 – “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
  • Psalm 27:4 – “One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple.”
  • Psalm 50:2 – “Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth.”
  • Psalm 96:9 – “Worship the LORD in the splendor of holiness; tremble before him, all the earth!”
  •  Psalm 76:4 – “Glorious are you, more majestic than the mountains of prey.”
  • Psalm 96:5-6 – “For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols, but the LORD made the heavens. 6 Splendor and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.”
  • Psalm 104:1 – You are clothed with splendor and majesty.”
  • Psalm 114:7-8 – “Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob.”
  • Psalm 118:6 – “The LORD is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me?”
  • Isaiah 6:3 – “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!"
  • Isaiah 40:12-15 – “Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand and marked off the heavens with a span, enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure and weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance? 13 Who has measured the Spirit of the LORD, or what man shows him his counsel? 14 Whom did he consult, and who made him understand? Who taught him the path of justice, and taught him knowledge, and showed him the way of understanding? 15 Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as the dust on the scales; behold, he takes up the coastlands like fine dust."
  • Isaiah 40:25-26 – “To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him? says the Holy One. 26 Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created these? He who brings out their host by number, calling them all by name, by the greatness of his might, and because he is strong in power not one is missing.”
  • Isaiah 46:9-10 – “I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, 10 declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.’”
  • Isaiah 51:7-8 – “[F]ear not the reproach of man, nor be dismayed at their revilings.  8 For the moth will eat them up like a garment, and the worm will eat them like wool; but my righteousness will be forever, and my salvation to all generations.”
  • Matthew 10:28 – “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
  • 1 Timothy 6:15-16 – “[H]e who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords,  16 who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.”
  • Revelation 5:12-13 – “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!"… "To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!"

A Blessed Inattentiveness

In the Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz argues that a gratuitous amount of choice tends to diminish our happiness. When confronted with a multiplicity of options, we're reluctant to make a choice. And even when we do choose, we fear that we've somehow "missed out" (the "FoMO" hashtag amply demonstrates the pervasiveness of this mindset).  

After diagnosing this problem, Schwartz offers a number of solutions, one of which is the following: 

We would better off if we paid less attention to what others around us were doing. (p. 5)

Now more than ever, we have immediate knowledge of others' decisions and experiences. Some forms of social comparison are positive (e.g. cancer patients are often encouraged upon hearing that fellow patients are improving). But many are quite negative. Schwartz goes so far as to entitle one of his chapters, "Why Everything Suffers from Comparison." Comparisons are no longer localized. We don't just compare choices and experiences against those of people in our cities, or neighborhoods, or schools. Through telecommunications, we globalize them. Schwartz says this creates a universal and unrealistically high standard of comparison, and that it decreases our satisfaction, "even as the actual circumstances of our lives improve" (191). The result is that we're constantly reminded of what we don't have, or haven't become, or of the choices we've failed to make. 

 If Schwartz' argument is correct, it confirms a good bit of biblical wisdom. Scripture has much to say about the pitfalls of comparison (see Luke 15:11-32; 18:9-14). Comparison tends to make us prideful ("I'm better than you!") or despairing ("Everyone is better than me!"). Both attitudes are inimical to the truth of the gospel. We must, of course, be attentive to the needs of others. But attentiveness can degenerate into something unhealthy. 

I've often shared that my idol is approval. I love to be loved, feared and respected, Or, in the words of Michael Scott, "I want people to be afraid of how much they love me."  Further, I don't merely want people to tell me I'm doing well; I want to know that I'm doing beter than others around me (after all, how do you know if you're doing "well" unless you know how much "weller" you're doing than everyone else?). This causes me to focus obsessively on what others say, think and do. I worry far too much about "getting ahead" in some hypothetical rat race.

To curve this problem, I've tried to cultivate a measure of inattentiveness; to focus on what God is calling me to do, rather than on what everyone else is doing. As a practical step, I've decided to stop reading my Facebook newsfeed. I'm much less aware of what everyone else is saying and doing. I know far less about the decisions others are making. And as a result, I'm more focused, and happier with my own life.

Don't take this as a prescription. If you can peruse your newsfeed in God-honoring ways, enjoy that freedom. In my case, it fueled pride, disdain and despair. 

There's great blessing in self-forgetfulness. When we place the needs of others above our own, we experience the joy of Christlikeness. We're released from a morbid kind of introspection. But there's also blessing in a certain form of other-forgetfulness.

Enjoy the unique life God has given you. Don't worry too much about how it stacks up to the lives of everyone around you. 

 "Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them, the one who had been reclining at table close to him and had said, "Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?"  21 When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, "Lord, what about this man?"  22 Jesus said to him, "If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!" (John 21:20-22) 

Getting Down to Busyness

"How are you doing?"  

What's your knee-jerk response to this question? In past years, mine was, "good." Then, to avoid censure from crusading grammarians, I began to say "well." But recently, I've found myself uttering these words: "I'm busy!"

And I know I'm not alone. Many people respond this way.

Why is that? Why do these words almost involuntarily spill from our mouths?

There are a few possible explanations. It may be that we are, in fact, busy. Most people over the age of 11 have more than enough on their plates (and a great number of children under 11 have parents eager to fill their plates). Impending deadlines, commitments, are projects loom over us. And if we aren't diligent, they lord over us like tyrants. We say we're busy because it's true. Of course we're busy! We all have limited time and seemingly unlimited demands. But why do we want people to perceive us in this particularly way? I'll speak for myself: I want people to think I'm busy. 

Meredith Fineman recently wrote a delightful rant against busyness (in the Harvard Business Review, no less).  Commenting on our compulsion towards busyness, she says,

So much of this is about out-doing each other. To say that “I’m busier than you are” means I’m more important, or that my time is more valuable, or that I am “winning” at some never-finished rat race to Inbox Zero...What you’re trying to say with these responses is: I’m busier, more in-demand, more successful.

Recasting her insight in theological grammar, we might say that Westerners tend to view busyness as a form of righteousness. In other words, we find ultimate weight, identity, and significance in our productivity level, or in the number of hours we log, or in the "atta-girls" or "atta-boys"  we receive from our superiors. I find perverse joy in telling people about a particularly busy week, even while outwardly lamenting how difficult it was. Busyness can become a functional savior; an idol that rescues us from insignificance and worthlessness. But every idol demands sacrifices. Fineman mentions some of these: 

To assume that being “busy” (at this point it has totally lost its meaning) is cool, or brag-worthy, or tweetable, is ridiculous. By lobbing these brags, endlessly puffing our shoulders about how “up to my neck” we are, we’re missing out on important connections with family and friends, as well as personal time. In addition to having entire conversations about how busy we are, we fail to share feelings with friends and family, ask about important matters, and realize that the “busy” is something that can be put on hold for a little while.

I don't want to downplay the importance of hard work. In fact, anyone who thinks hard labor is unspiritual has overlooked a great deal of Scripture (e.g. Genesis 1:27-28, 2:15, Proverbs 6, Isaiah 65-66, and the books of 1 and 2 Thessalonians). I also realize that many of us have very demanding jobs. I won't tell you to shirk legitimate work responsibilities.

But I will say that the activities we busy ourselves with reveal our priorities. Thus busyness is not neutral; it is fueled by assumptions, and driven by ideals. Does our busyness further the kingdom of God? Does it enable us to be better disciples, spouses, church members, neighbors, citizens, children, parents, missionaries, and friends? Do we have parameters around our busyness? Do we have rhythms of rest and play and worship, in addition to work? And do we work for rest, or from rest? Can we be ok with ourselves at the end of a day that is not entirely productive? These are the questions I've been chewing on.  

 

Good News Now: Forgiveness by Andrew Faris

A note from Jeff: Andrew was the best man in my wedding, so that should give you some idea of our relationship. He's currently the High School Pastor at Rolling Hills Covenant Church. He's taught me more about Christlikeness than just about anyone.  

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- 

 The gospel is good news now because it assures me I'm forgiven. 

Creative, I know.

When Jeff asked me to write this post, I could think of a lot of answers. I thought of how the gospel is good news today because God gives me Himself as the best and final gift of the gospel, and I rejoice in that regularly. I thought of how the gospel matters to me today because it means that I don't need to find my approval in my work or in positive feedback from the high schoolers I pastor, since I am already approved of in Christ. And I thought of how the gospel matters to me today because it means that I am adopted into the family of God, the Church, and I love my church and am grateful for it every day.

All of those would be true answers. But beneath all of them, and what hits me hardest today, is that the gospel is the good news that sinners can be forgiven. And I am a sinner.

Part of God's good work in my life has been to show me, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that I am a sinner. It is not only that I am aware of my thoughts and actions, but that I am aware that many of those thoughts and actions are idolatrous and offensive to God. I live in the daily knowledge of my lust and pride and laziness and selfishness and insecurity and anxiety and covetousness and financial foolishness and lovelessness and lack of compassion for those around me and lack of compassion for the poor and lack of hospitality and on and on and on.

Apart from Christ, that's my identity: a pretty nice guy if you met me, sure, but a guy who fails in all of those ways I just listed and many more. I'm aware of them. I know the things I've thought and done.

And what's really terrifying is that I will one day stand before the living God in all of His majestic holiness, and were He to take an account of my thoughts and actions, He would certainly look at me and say, "Andrew Faris, you are guilty before me of countless sins and you have no place in my Kingdom." And I would nod my head in terrible agreement. I would not even begin to begrudge Him of His rightful declaration and judgment.

But praise God, that is not what He will say! The gospel is the good news of Romans 5:6-9:

"For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person--though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die--but God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God."

I love that: the "right time" (v. 6) is "while we were still sinners" (v. 8). Jesus didn't wait for us to clean ourselves up and try harder. Far from it! At the cross, Jesus saw all of my sin and died in my place, taking my sin on himself. And he rose again in victory over it on the third day. 

But he doesn't just take my sin. He also gives me his own righteousness:

"For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." (2 Cor. 5:21)

Incredible! A sinner, rightfully condemned before the Father, now stands with the very righteousness of Jesus Himself. I am that sinner, and I know it. So today, I walk in the load-lifting freedom of total acceptance before the God of the Universe because of the righteousness of His Son in my place.

I've always liked how the great old British preacher, Charles Spurgeon, says it: 

"I know what the devil will say to you. He will say to you, 'You are a sinner!' Tell him you know you are, but that for all that you are justified. He will tell you of the greatness of your sin. Tell him of the greatness of Christ's righteousness. He will tell you of all your mishaps and your backslidings, of your offences and your wanderings. Tell him, and tell your own conscience, that you know all that, but that Jesus Christ came to save sinners, and that, although your sin be great, Christ is quite able to put it all away."

Yes! I know about all my mishaps and my backsliding, my offences and my wanderings. I know that I am a sinner, and I know that I am thus disqualified before God. But Jesus Christ came to save sinners, even though my sins are great.

And that's good news for this sinner today.

 

Good News Now: Control by Sarah Grijalva

A note from Jeff: Over the next few months, we'll be doing a series entitled Good News Now. Various people will be sharing why the gospel is good news for them, right here and right now. Sarah Grijalva has blessed us with the first entry in this series. If you have a reflection you'd like to share, please let me know,

------------------------- ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Up until a few weeks ago, I considered myself a fearful person. I’ve always been afraid of the unknown and of not being in control. So I would either meticulously over-plan or just avoid certain situations. For example, a few years ago I was really scared to start student teaching because I didn’t know what to expect. I was also the person who did all the extra credit, even though I already had good grades.

As you can imagine, I hated roller coasters because they purposely make you feel out of control. What a terrible invention! When I visited amusement parks, I only selected rides where I still felt in control. The swings fit that category just about right.

But these past few years, God has been growing my faith and confidence in Him. As I learn more about the Gospel, I realize how much God loves me and takes care me. If God gave His only Son to save me, won’t He also take care of the small details of my life? I am valuable to Him.

Recently, I went to Santa Cruz with my family. This amusement park is home to a classic, wooden, roller coaster called the Giant Dipper. As a young girl, I was persuaded to ride it and was scared to death. I thought I was scarred for life.

Anyway, during this most recent visit, I wanted to try the Giant Dipper again. As I boarded the car and we plunged into the first dark tunnel, I realized two things (and thought, “Hey, I should write a blog about this!”)

  1. This was the exact same roller coaster that had traumatized me years ago. It still had a steep, sickening plunge and plenty of twists and turns. I was still completely out of control.
  2. At the same time, I noticed that my reaction was different. Although the ride hadn’t changed, something inside of me had changed. My fear of being out of control was conquered even before I stepped on the ride. It had been chiseled away bit by bit when…
  • My dad got into a serious car accident that totaled my car, yet God protected him and provided a much nicer car for me.
  • I stood shaking before my first class of high schoolers, yet God surprised me with tremendous joy and confidence.
  • I faced low energy, low cash, big deadlines, and big problems, yet God provided again and again for me.

So with this fortified faith, I sat back and enjoyed the rickety roller coaster that had once terrified me. I actually felt like laughing!

God demonstrated His love for me on the cross, and He demonstrates it every day of my life in how he cares for me. I trust him for salvation, and with the unexpected things life brings. 

Christianity Is (Most Definitely) A Crutch

 "Christianity is a crutch." 

At some point,  I'm guessing you've heard this bit of boilerplate criticism. Opponents of the faith claim that Christianity is for the weak-minded, the weak-willed, or the ill-informed. It's a coping mechanism; a crutch for the intellectually and emotionally impaired. I bristle against this accusation. My impulse is to defend the faith. But in this instance, no defense is necessary. Regardless of the critic's intention, her observation is valid. 

Christianity is a crutch; it's provides support for the impaired.  

The Christian message is not good advice for the strong and competent. It's good news for the weak and helpless.   

I recently heard Matt Chandler make this point in a sermon. He said (my paraphrase),  

"Of course Christianity is a crutch! And I need a crutch because my legs are broken!" 

Jesus Christ came for the weak, not the strong. Christians should find this statement utterly unobjectionable and inexplicably hopeful. If we do object, we've missed the Christian message by a mile. As a case in point, consider the following verses: 

I came not to call the righteous, but sinners."  (Matthew 9:12)
When [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. (Matthew 9:36)
...the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.  (Luke 19:10)
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. (Romans 5:6) 
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us,  5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ. (Ephesians 2:4)
The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. (1 Tim 1:15).    

If you think you're independently righteous, intelligent, wise, competent or powerful, you will not be attracted to Jesus, Only the spiritually bankrupt rejoice in his goodness (Matthew 5:3), only the guilty delight in his pardoning grace (Luke 7:47), only the burdened find relief in his steadfast strength (Matthew 11:28-30).   

This month, life has kicked me and my family in the teeth. Suffering and chaos make painfully clear that we aren't in control, we aren't wise, and we aren't independently righteous.

Right now, I don't need advice. I need a very reliable crutch. I need to know...

  • that God has complete authority, yet uses it only for my good.
  • that each fresh act of sin provides a new opportunity to exult in God's inexhaustible grace.
  • that no circumstance, power. person or idea can derail God's redemptive purpose in my life.

I need gospel-infused confidence. Christianity is a crutch, but it's far more. It's a rock for my feet (Psalm 61:2), and an anchor for my soul (Hebrews 6:19).  

If you bristle against this, you'll find Christianity arduous or irrelevant. But if you know you're weak, this is the best message in the universe.  

"For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: "I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite." 

Isaiah 57:15

 

Gospel-Feuled Repentance

As many of you now know, we're tweaking The Table in significant ways this Fall. One such tweak is the introduction of DNA groups. We hope these gatherings of 2-3 people will foster discipleship, nurture, and accountability within our community (hence, DNA!). We hope they provide a context in which people can be known, listened to, encouraged, comforted and corrected. We hope that people grow in their ability to apply the gospel message to their hearts. And, we hope that these groups produce more disciple-makers, who are equipped to speak gospel-encouragement into the lives of others.    

In my experience, the effectiveness of such groups depends largely on the honesty and vulnerability of participants. The deeper the confession, the deeper the repentance, the deeper the faith, the deeper the transformation. Or, as Keller says, "pervasive, all-of-life repentance is the best sign that we are growing deeply and rapidly into the character of Jesus." 

However, I'm aware that such transparent confession and repentance cannot be manufactured. We can't engineer this. I don't expect these groups to produce anything simply because we're setting them up. 

The quality of our repentance is directly tied to our functional understanding of the gospel. Sin is always ugly. There are no acceptable sins. Therefore, confronting our sin is always unpleasant. And if I don't get the gospel, my sin will drive me to (a) despair, (because it is too devastating), or (b) denial (because my self-worth is rooted in performance).    

If I don't believe that God is inexhaustibly gracious, I may...

  • suppress knowledge of sinful thoughts and desires for fear of being exposed before Him or others. 
  • externalize sin, and focus on behavior in order to make my sin seem more manageable.
  • downplay or minimize the sins I am committing (since the reality of falling short is so devastating).  
  • redouble my efforts to become a successful human being in order to cover faults and feel better about myself (which may just be another way of atoning for sin and furthering a self-salvation project). 
  • bitterly resent God (since I suppose he withholds blessings until I meet a certain standard of righteousness).
  • drift from communion with God for fear that I haven't done sufficient penance.
  • view God in a utilitarian manner. The thought process is as follows; "God won't truly be good to me until I do sufficient penance. Therefore, God won't give me what I want until I feel bad enough about sin. Therefore, I'll try to feel bad enough about sin and do enough to make up for it so that God will give me what I want." Such thinking reveals that God is penultimate in my heart, and some other thing which God gives is my ultimate desire.
  • resist the correction of others (because I can't come to grips with the fact that I am - in fact - a sinner). 

In sum, disbelief in God's boundless love keeps us from actually dealing with sin; from true repentance. 

By contrast, a robust understanding of the gospel liberates us to confess freely and repent deeply.

God does not wait for us to pursue him. He seeks us. He condescends to meet us. He promises to be forever with us and for us. Jesus dies and rises to make good on this promise. Once secure in Christ, we're free to deal with our sin in all its hideous contours. We are completely known, and completely loved. Therefore, the debilitating pressure to "measure up" is eradicated. God knows us infinitely better than we know ourselves, yet loves us infinitely more than we love ourselves. Therefore, we can come clean. 

Further, when we taste and see the goodness of this God - the God revealed in Jesus - we realize that our deepest problem is idolatry; treating something or someone besides God as ultimate. This, in turn, changes our perspective on sin. The problem isn't simply our destructive behaviors. It's the corruption of our disordered hearts; hearts that refuse to desire God. From such hearts spring all kinds of ungodliness. But the ungodly behavior appears downstream from an ungodly mind that believes lies about God, and an ungodly heart that worships false gods. This motivates us to repent not simply for our actions, but the thoughts, desires, dreams and motivations that precipitated those actions. And such repentance is fueled by grace. We repent to commune with God, the greatest Gift of all, not to measure up, to convince ourselves we're godly or to please other people. 

As with basically everything in the Christian life, this is easier said than done. But I hope it encourages you to deal with what needs to be dealt with in your life.

God is not an exacting creditor who refuses to lend more blessing until your previous accounts are paid in full. He is a prodigal Father who longs to "fall on your neck" (Luke 15:20) and embrace you. 

Repentance isn't paying up.

It's turning back;

back to the God who will never turn from you. 

The Gospel Gap

Paul Tripp often speaks of the gospel gap; a gap in many Christians' functional understanding of the gospel. Christianity is a "then-now-then" message. Christ has saved us from the penalty of sin (then - past), is saving us from the power of sin (then - future), and will save us from the presence of sin (then - future). Tripp contends that many Christians have focused on the "thens" of the Christian message, but have neglected the "now." A Christian can know that she has been forgiven, and that she is going to heaven, yet fail to grasp the essential "nowness" of the gospel message.  

I've experienced the consequences of holding such a truncated view. I'm relieved that my debt has been paid. I'm (occasionally) excited about my future in eternity. But I've struggled to see how the gospel should form me, encourage me, motivate me or focus me in the here and now.    

I'm convinced that Jesus won't seem that attractive to us until he's good news right here, and right now. Until we are staggered by the unfathomably good, right-here, right-now implications of the gospel, I believe we'll tend to view God as distant, Jesus as overly demanding, prayer as boring, generosity as imprudent, mission as prohibitively terrifying, service as burdensome, and Christian community as inconvenient. In other words, when we lose focus on the gospel, Christianity tends to feel like religion; joyless, safe, monotonous, burdensome, and incredibly boring. 

The gospel is better news than a job promotion, than the weekend, than the meal you're looking forward to, than video games, than sex, than the National Football League, than shopping, than the internet, than America, than children, than marriage, than worldly success, than the approval of people...

If we struggle to believe that, repentance is step one..  

My prayer this year is that we would really, deeply, truly get the nowness of the gospel. What does this mean? A lot (and we'll be talking about it plenty). For starters, it means that we truly believe...

  • That we're justified. God says we're righteous. We don't have to prove ourselves to God, or to people. Our goodness can't impress God. Our badness will not stop him from loving us. We don't have to hide behind pride, or self-justification, or over-confidence. We can be freed from the compulsion to obsessively manage our image.  
  • That we're adopted.  We're God's children. He won't let us go. We are secure in his care. Therefore, we don't have to freak out. We don't have to despair. We don't have to control people. We can risk loss, and pain, because nothing can separate us from our Father.  
  • That we're cleansed. We are new. Our past doesn't define us. Our sins have been washed away. We are accepted and embraced. We don't have to wear masks.  
  • That we're empowered.  The same Spirit who formed the earth and raised Jesus from the dead dwells in us. We don't have to be adequate, or sufficient. The Spirit empowers us to kill sin, serve the church, and proclaim what Christ has done. He wants to work through us these ways.  

May these blood-bought blessings not just be good news today, but better news than all the competing messages which clamor for our attention.

Ironic Resting and Spending Habits

God gives his people clear direction as to how they should use their time and money. As regards the former, God says,

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. (Exodus 20:8)

As for the latter, God often instructs his people to offer a tenth of some good that he has provided (e.g. their harvest, livestock; see Numbers 18:21; Leviticus 27:30-33; Deuteronomy 14:22-27; Malachi 3:6-12). 

Very sincere and smart Christians disagree with me, but I don't believe Christians are required to rest on Saturdays (or Sundays, for that matter). Nor are they obligated to give a tenth of their finances to the church. The New Testament does not enjoin Sabbath observance, as the fourth commandment is not repeated in the New Testament (interestingly. the other 9 commandments are). Moreover, no New Testament author prescribes tithing for Christians. NT passages that mention tithing are descriptive, rather than prescriptive. 

The New Testament's silence on these matters is attributable to its place in redemptive history. Jesus comes to fulfill the Old Testament Law (Matthew 5:17-20).. Jesus fulfills the law by clarifying its intent, intensifying it, and obeying it perfectly on our behalf. That means we should view the entirety of OT law through the interpretative lens Christ provides. Not everything in the OT carries over into the NT.

Tithing existed (in large part) to support the Levitical priesthood. But this priesthood has been fulfilled and superseded by the priesthood of Jesus (see Hebrews 7). We don't give Jesus a tithe (we give him everything!). As for the Sabbath, it was a weekly reminder of Israel's need to rest in God's provision and protection. But Jesus is our eternal provision and protection. He freely offers us the rest we need; the spiritual rest which Israel's Sabbath observance foreshadowed (see Hebrews 4). 

When Christ comes, he inaugurates the New Covenant. This covenant fulfills and replaces the Old Covenant. The New Covenant is characterized by grace. God's grace was apparent in the Old Testament, but in Jesus, we receive (as John says), "grace upon grace" (John 1:16-17). We experience a measure of grace that the OT saints could only hope for (Hebrew 12). And this New Covenant grace should make us radically generous (2 Corinthians 8:1-5) and radically restful (Hebrews 4:1-11).

With that biblical groundwork established, here's the sad irony I find in my life, and the lives of so many Christians. God's grace actually makes us less generous and restful, not more. 

You're not obligated to give 10% of your money to the church. Do you hear that and think, "phew, I get to keep more of my money"?

You don't have to rest on Saturday (or Sunday). Do you hear that and think, "phew, I can get more done"?

If God's grace is more powerfully active in God's people after Christ's coming than before, shouldn't that affect us? And specifically, shouldn't it make us more generous, and more restful than the Israelites? Shouldn't we view 10% as a starting point for generosity, rather than an unattainable goal? Shouldn't we be eagerly looking for new ways to rest in Jesus; to enjoy the grace he gives, and to "waste time" with God's people? If our positional rest in Jesus doesn't translate to actual rest during the week, something has failed to register. 

Americans worship money and work. It's not a stretch to say those gods are perched atop our national pantheon. Two of the clearest ways to renounce those gods (and worship the true God) are by (1) being radically generous, and (2) being radically restful. 

The gospel isn't license; it's liberating power.

 The Father gave you his Son. He's already met your deepest need; can't you trust him with every other need (Rom 8:32)? With that kind of God as your dad, you can be radically generous with your money.

And you can rest from work, knowing that God ultimately provides for your needs. Furthermore, you can rest from work because you don't have to work for an identity. Your identity is rooted in Christ's performance, not yours. God didn't adopt you into his family because you had a great work ethic, or because you were a team player who could make real and lasting contributions to the Trinity. God adopted you because he delighted in you; because he wanted you. You already have an identity you can't earn. So relax! Rest! Stop trying to prove yourself by working all the time.  

At root, our restlessness and miserliness are gospel problems. Thus, they need gospel solutions.   

So, let's make this practical:  

 If you aren't generous, ask yourself; "do I really believe that God is good? Do I really believe that he withholds no good thing from me? And do I really trust that he will be good to me, even when giving is costly?"

If you aren't generous, repent of your unbelief, and rejoice that God continues to give himself to you even thought you don't give yourself to him, or your stuff to others.  

If you aren't at rest, ask yourself; "do I really believe that God is gracious? Do I really believe that my identity is secure in him, and that I don't have to prove myself through hard work? Do I believe that it's ok to rest, because I really am ok with God?" 

If you aren't restful, repent of your unbelief, and rejoice that God continues to delight in you, even though you refuse to rest in him, and continue trying to prove yourself through performance.