Stalks & Scribes

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On Gut-Punches & Dusty Diets

Rarely do I read a blog post and feel equal parts amused and indicted. Well, this one called “Annoying Things in Worship Songs” did just that. I’ve no idea who Jeremy Pierce is or what originally occasioned this delightful riff, but here Pierce has dealt a wry, one-two punch Christians of all stripes need to feel.

To my shame, I ignored the hyperlinks the first go-round, choosing not to waste my time with any Christian music du jour. No need to, I said: The author and I are in step, and I’m sure our tastes align. My internal set list—1) Yes! 2) Mm, absolutely. 3) Man, I hate that, too!—proved this.

Then, finally curious enough, I clicked a hyperlink and—right jab to the ribs, left one to the chin.

Here’s Pierce’s gist, a gist I desperately needed to hear: God’s preferences take precedent over yours. So, your church’s songs—yes, even your church’s songs—should be vast and varied, happy and sad, new and old, loud and quiet, repetitive and narritival, well-known and unheard-of, wailing and triumphant, tough to swallow and as sweet as honey. Why? Because this is how Scripture is.

If man shall not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God, then pastors, song leaders, worship guys: please give your congregation a varied diet. Your dusty, unchanging set lists are not manna from heaven.

Like me, I hope you’ll read it, feel reproached, and pray for the wisdom to not allow your own tastes to diminish the prescribed, refined palette that Scripture offers us all.

_________

Postscript: Pierce’s article functions primarily as a corrective, and he uses exaggeration to convey his point. I don’t think he’s intending to bind church gatherings, demanding that every one reflect the emotional and liturgical range of all the Psalms. That would be over-reading his thesis and perhaps proof-positive that you’re like me and needed this grace-filled tummy-punch.

What Hath Eden to Do with Me?

“Apparently two college grads debated last night.”

I’m not sure I can improve on my friend Philip’s blithe summation of last night’s debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham. He’s right; two college grads did debate last night, addressing the question: Is the creation model a viable explanation for the origin of the universe?

I’ve nothing to add regarding the debate’s minutiae. Assessing whose fossils say what is something for which I’m obviously unqualified. Instead, I hope to propose a few observations about the debate in general.

I grew up with Bill Nye the Science Guy. More than anything else, this is observational (historical?) evidence, proving my age and my elementary school’s affection for passive instruction. I remember none of the show’s specifics, certainly not the science stuff, though I do recall enjoying Nye’s slapstick persona and the half-arena jam, half-psychedelic intro. This show certainly didn’t make me feel like I was being indoctrinated by a lanky Darwinist in a bed-sheet with buttons, but perhaps that’s the point.

I grew up with Ken Ham, too, though I’ve never been to the Creation Museum and hadn’t heard his name until last night. Instead, childhood Me heard the Bible’s account of creation as, well, God’s honest truth. Even today, I’m committed to the Genesis narrative because I’m a Christian who trusts that when and where the Bible speaks it does so truthfully, Genesis not excepted. This, of course, warrants nuance: Genesis isn’t a science book, true. But it doesn’t follow that, as such, Genesis makes no “scientific statements.” In fact it does: creation ex nihilo, the gendered-ness of humanity, and there are others.

News of the debate spread rapidly, and #creationdebate trended no. 1 worldwide on Twitter for two whole hours. This is great news. Millions of people heard the gospel last night during this debate, and for that reason alone my predominant feelings are appreciation and prayerfulness. But that’s not all.

1. The conversation too often fumbled over a frustrating expectation of verifiable certainty.

“Are you sure?” “Can you prove it?” These kinds of questions were lobbed back and forth, back and forth. I get it: Debates ask you to smother your interlocutor into submission, casting doubt not only in his mind, but also in the audience. This is unfortunate. Too often, the conversation veered toward what can be proven as opposed to what each side could offer as compelling.

2. Nye’s insistence to lump biblical creationism with America’s presupposed, quickly-coming irrelevance in the global economy was facile and ultimately a waste of valuable seconds.

At first, I was confused by Ham’s insistence to mention Christians who’ve succeeded in the secular scientific world. It seemed backwards, practically irrelevant. Ultimately, though, it showed Ham predicted at least one of Nye’s tactics. So instead of coming off as a concerned citizen, or whatever he was going for, Nye appeared a bit tangential and repetitive.

3. Ham needed a speed other than biblical faithfulness, consistency, and predictability.

While I appreciated Ham’s unswerving appeals to Scripture, after the initial 30 minutes his presentation made the Bible feel more like a pair of handcuffs than an exclamation mark following a point well-made. Anyone who disagreed with him already isn’t likely to recognize Scripture as offering convincing scientific data. He should have been more sensitive to this.

However, before we cry futility, let’s understand that Scripture in general and Genesis in particular never purports to offer “convincing scientific data” over and against Darwin’s naturalism. Moses didn’t write the Pentateuch with Darwin in mind; he wrote it with the Israelites and their recent slavery under the polytheistic Egyptians in mind. This is why God’s creation of the sun and moon is equal parts scientific fact and theological polemic; these creations are their recent slavemasters’ so-called gods.

On a similar note, Nye appears to lack even a fundamental understanding of what Christians believe about the Bible. If a mark of a worthwhile debater is representing your opponent in such a way that they would recognize their position, Nye failed abysmally.

4. Both sides must inevitably appeal to some kind of “miracle” or “mystery.” Therefore, the entire debate ultimately boiled down to questions of knowledge and authority: How can we know things? And by what authority can we ever say those things we know are objectively true?

Nye and Ham operate under antithetical worldviews. Ham dismisses Nye’s appeals to God-less science. Why? Because he trusts the Bible—and the God behind it—as his ultimately authority. Nye dismisses out of hand the possibility of things like the global Flood. Why? Because Ham’s initial assumption about the Bible doesn’t fit with Nye’s worldview. It’s really that simple. Eventually, though, when pressed, Nye himself felt the nagging tug of “mystery,” asserting “we don’t know” how something came from nothing—how life came from non-life, personality from impersonality, rationality from irrationality.

But where Nye finds an not-known-as-of-yet “mystery,” Christians find a miracle.* It’s a miracle God created the world out of nothing; it’s a miracle God spoke audibly to Noah, teaching him how to build this thing called an ark because of this stuff called rain. I could go on.

This isn’t to say the Bible tells Christians everything about everything. No, Christians find mysteries, too, but most often in the hows, and rarely in the whats or the whys.**

What: God created the heavens and the earth out of nothing (Gen 1).

Why: among many reasons, to reveal his glory (Psalm 19), to show his power and divine nature (Romans 1).

How: With his word. Well, how’d he do that? I don’t know. It’s a mystery.

5. There’s a danger with this debate, and things like it, to fall into a trap of where we too closely equate interest in general revelation (creation) with interest in special revelation (Christ, the Bible).

For many, I’m afraid there’s a curious kind of allure to these debates because the sound-byte style and abstract subject matter makes any immediate import feel vague and far-off. The line of logic between “In the beginning, God . . .” to “Jesus died for your sins, so repent and believe the gospel” is too long, too strained, too dependent on dusty English-language Bibles. What hath Eden to do with me?

The best place for non-Christians to hear answers to that question isn’t through a live-tweeted debate. It’s through the forbearance of a friend and the faithful teaching of a faithful church. Oh, and speaking of the church, she’s called to be a gathering of Christians, not creationists.***

I am thankful for Ken Ham, especially his non-conciliatory presentation of the gospel. He spoke clearly and with enough authority to earn a hearing. I’m thankful, too, for Answers in Genesis. They’re scratching an itch that needs to be scratched. Christians should pray for them. And yet, I wonder if this debate’s booming popularity doesn’t distract Christians in the church from their central message of the proclaiming Christ and him crucified.

______________

* I am partial to John Frame’s definition of miracle in his recently released Systematic Theology. He writes, “Miracles are extraordinary manifestations of God’s covenant lordship.” He eschews referring to miracles as “breaches of natural law” or something of the sort because it implies God is beholden to some created thing he must “breach” in order to act certain ways. There is nothing in Scripture that implies natural law is unimpeachable and absolute. It merely informs God’s processes in which his providence ordinarily functions.

** Yes, sometimes the why we hear from God is “just because.” (Ex: the book of Job, Romans 9: 14-16.)

*** I don’t want to rend those identities in two, but I also don’t want to assume a causative relationship that says if you confess to be the latter (creationist), then you are necessarily the former (Christian). There are many, many, many Christians who love Jesus without agreeing the universe was created in six literal days. The views proliferate from there, but the pale of orthodoxy is not threatened by any other divergent views. For a helpful primer on this, I suggest Four Views on the Historical Adam.

Fruit Roll-Ups & Cross-Cultural Missions: A Semi-Autobiographical Response to Let the Nations Be Glad!

A month after graduating high school, I went on my first mission trip. After half a day in an airplane, we landed in Nairobi, Kenya, groggy-eyed and rigid from our right-angled sleep. I was 17, and I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. The whole of my missiological framework was exhausted with three-fourths of one New Testament verse: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction…” I’m fairly certain I quoted that verse, with heavy hands, in my support letter or my Thank You letter or both.

That said, I do not intend to make sweeping generalities about youth-involved, short-term mission trips. I speak only for myself, about my own heart and its morally and emotionally skewed motives. I fully believe there are 12-year-olds taking “mission trips”—if you allow me to broadly define—across their cul-de-sacs with a robust desire to spread the love of Christ to their unsaved neighbor over a Fruit Roll-Up. I also fully believe, unfortunately, that there are career overseas missionaries—missionaries our churches support with pennies and with prayers—with a robust desire to self-justify, tacitly hoping that a life spent evangelizing the lost is “good enough,” whatever that means.

To approach the task at hand, this is the personal, peripheral mindset in which I read John Piper’s Let the Nations Be Glad. It’s silly and probably futile to divulge personal takeaways divorced from personal context, and it’s also silly to communicate those takeaways—in any sort of meaningful way, at least—without first explaining, even briefly, that context to the hearer. So, while it may be true that my trip to Kenya sits six years in the rearview, it is also true that a sinful heart still sits firmly inside my chest. But Piper’s missiological treatise did not trample my maligned heart. Instead, this biblically-rich book brought sublime encouragement and a hopeful vision for how cross-cultural missions can be reclaimed both within the local church and within the Christian’s heart—a vision where missions is not, first and foremost, in response to compassion for the “widow and the orphan,” but in declarative devotion to God’s radical commitment to point all nations toward the worship of his Son.

A pair of takeaways stand out, in particular. The first occurs in the third chapter, “The Supremacy of God in Missions Through Suffering.” Here, Piper goes into great detail about the certainty—not the likelihood—that followers of Christ will experience suffering in this life. Passages like John 15:20 come to mind: “Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” While acknowledging Christ’s suffering on our behalf, Piper explains how his suffering does not absolve us from the same; in fact, it is just the opposite. Christ’s suffering, while certainly serving as our substitution for eternal suffering, actually beckons us toward and even guarantees our present suffering.

But how can this be? Piper makes the excellent point that Christ’s life serves as both substitution, in the eternal sense, and pattern, in the present sense. In short, Christ’s suffering saves[1]; our suffering sanctifies[2]. Both are ordained. Both are from God. And both are vital to missions. Piper puts it succinctly at the end of his discussion: “Because he suffered for us, we can suffer like him.”[3]

These truths confronted my mistaken adolescent mind. Absolutely none of my service or suffering—no mission trip or sacrificial check—added an iota to my salvation or security in Christ.  When embraced, this is not paralyzing; it is freeing. Christ’s supreme sufficiency for us allows us to exhaust ourselves in the service of others. So, with this in mind, may we never hold a missiological ethic couched in oughts and shoulds; may we never impose guilt as our primary missiological impetus. Such an approach fizzles out, and ultimately demeans both those evangelizing and those evangelized. Christ’s death does not coerce us into ethical chains. Instead, it unshackles us from sin and death, freeing us to joyfully do his work.

The second takeaway helps answer the question of missiological motivation. While unfolding his God-centered theology, Piper, in the fifth chapter “A Passion For God’s Supremacy and Compassion for Man’s Soul,” deals with an anticipated reader rejoinder: In the work of cross-cultural missions, how can a supreme, preeminent love for the glory of God and a compassionate, commanded love for others coalesce? Is it not disingenuous to evangelize for the ultimate benefit of another—in this case, God? Didn’t Jesus come not to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many?

This is best reconciled with Piper’s oft-quoted saying: “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” In other words, to desire the glory of God is desire to happiness of man. Here’s the beautiful thing—the statement is also reversible: We are most satisfied when God is most glorified. Our single-minded pursuit for God’s glory does not diminish our joy; it amplifies it. Even further, our single-minded desire to see God’s name glorified among the nations does not diminish our compassion for others; it magnifies it. It is not unloving or uncompassionate to call others to a life of joy. Again, Piper distills his point well, saying, “Therefore, the twofold motive of missions, mercy for man and glory for God, is one coherent goal.”[4]

Thankfully, this mission is not an ad hoc amendment to a defective plan; it’s an eternal promise—from Abraham in Genesis 12 to Jesus Christ in John 10. So, to fixate our minds with proper motivation, we must relinquish ourselves to God’s mission. In doing so, we commit—day after day, hour after hour—to his message: that Jesus Christ’s sin-swallowing, salvation-securing death on a cross has, beyond a shadow of a doubt, accomplished its work in freeing us to love both God and neighbor; and that we, out of love—not guilt or duty or self-justification—have been freed to participate in God’s reclamation of the nations. This is a plan that will not fail because Christ cannot fail. This is a plan that brings God much glory and his people much joy. This is the plan—pure and undefiled—that has saved and will continue to save people from every tribe and tongue and nation—widows and orphans, me and you.

On Tom Hanks, Cast Away & Midterms

A dear friend delivered a well-thought, grace-fueled jab to seminarians (like me) the other day, decrying their interest is too often about — to borrow his biting, but excellent phrase — “wading in the pool of Calvinistic academia” and not enough about actually sharing the gospel with those who need to hear it. Though that’s painting with a wide brush, I can’t disagree.

So, with that being said, I toyed with the idea of posting an essay I wrote for my Systematic Theology class. At first, I hesitated, fearing prideful intentions. But after a fair amount of prayer and reflection, I think it’s a worthwhile idea. After all, if I am too scared/prideful/weird to share what I’m learning with the world, then what’s the point?

But I digress.

The question we answered for class has to do with the relationship between general revelation (as described in Romans 1: creation and moral consciences) and special revelation (i.e. Jesus Christ and the Bible). We were supposed to detail each and explain how their interaction applies to different world religions and philosophical understandings. Also, we were asked to mention how special revelation and general revelation apply to our understanding of missions and evangelism. We wrote these impromptu, for our midterm, so there’s probably some rambly and half-baked moments. (Though I’ve lightly edited it to clean it up a bit.)

But anyways. That’s my motivation in sharing: to start a conversation that will more fully flesh out the answers to incredibly important questions. The comments section is there for a reason. Feel free to use it. Either way, thanks for reading. I appreciate your thoughts.

*****

In short, general revelation is God’s way of unveiling Himself, in part, to His creation. This is done primarily in two ways: through creation and through each individual’s imprinted moral consciousness. More widely speaking, general revelation exists to point us to something else, or Someone Else — namely, God in Christ.

On the other hand, special revelation is God intervening to His creation in an effort to communicate His character in a clearer, more perceivable way. This intervention is important, even necessary because general revelation, at its best, is confusing and ultimately condemning. (More on that later.)

Put another way: special revelation exists as a filter, a lens through which we finally make sense of general revelation. The questions “How?” and “Why?” are never answered by nebulae in a telescope or atoms under a microscope because they cannot be. We are expecting something which they’re incapable to provide, at least to the extent we desire.

In Scripture, special revelation occurs in primarily seven different ways, most of which are obvious and self-explanatory:

1) God’s Acts — i.e. parting the Red Sea
2) Dreams — Joseph and the fat cows eating the skinny cows
3) Visions — Basically, dreams when you’re awake (Acts 10)
4) Oracles/Prophecies
5) Personal Address — “Saul, saul, why do you persecute me…?
6) The Bible
7) Jesus Christ

Now, that list in and of itself is unimpressive, perhaps even more confusing. However, when we understand that there is an implicit hierarchy there — a God-ordained hierarchy — things start to make sense. Types 1-5 are important. God uses them all in different times throughout salvation history. And, as recorded in Scripture, they are both infallible and important for us today.

But, it is through Scripture itself where special revelation sheds more light on general revelation and our experience of reality as a whole. Even more than that, Scripture must be rightly understood. It must not be seen as a set of moral musings or a series of grandiose fantasy narratives. No, from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22, it is a word from God — literally, a word from God about God.

More specifically, The Bible is a word about the true Word: Jesus Christ, God’s Son who came to take away the sins of the world. (John 1:1, 29). The person and work of Jesus Christ is — He must be — the hinge upon which all of Scripture turns. In the Old Testament, everything points forward; in the New Testament, everything points backward.

But what of general revelation? Is it useless? As I said earlier, general revelation — creation-at-large, our moral conscience, etc. — serves only to confuse and condemn. Paul, in Romans 1:20, mentions God’s “invisible attributes” being “clearly perceived” in creation. This, he argues, leaves “them” (in sum: everyone) “without excuse.” Later, in Romans 8:19-22, Paul even talks about creation itself “groaning,” implying a sense of restlessness, incompletion.

There’s the tension. General revelation, without proper interpretation, condemns us all. It may be “clearly perceived” but we are ultimately left “without excuse.” Looking at the mountains and saying, “Oh my, so pretty!” is never an equivalent to “Jesus is Lord.” This necessary interpretation is only offered in Christ; God only blesses the means which he ordains.

So, this seems kind of unfair, doesn’t it? That a loving, omnipotent Creator God would reveal Himself clearly on such a narrow platform — isn’t that kind of arbitrary? Doesn’t this leave so many people who want to be “saved” up the creek without a paddle? Here, we must biblically understand at least two things: the nature of man and the nature of salvation.

First, the nature of man. Romans 1-3 exists, in part, to essentially lay the theological groundwork that everyone is a sinner in need of a Savior — Jew, Gentile, whatever. After Romans 1:20, Paul admits that, sure, these people “knew” God, but… But what? What was their inexcusable sin? It was not a lack of knowledge, not a lack of intellectual assent, but a lack of worship. At its heart, all of our sin is rebellion against God — a peasant’s coup d’état against a divine King.

So, given that general revelation merely ascertains the hopeless fact that we are all idolaters, where does salvation fit in? If, in the deep caverns of our hearts, we genuinely don’t want to be “saved” — at least how Scripture defines it: submission, in faith, to the Lordship of Christ — if all that is true, where’s our hope?

Our hope, our only hope, lies in the special revelation of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Romans 10 speaks to this fact of salvation. What must we confess to be saved? It is not: “Oh, God Who Exists, I don’t know your name, but I love you and I’m sorry.” It is not: “I’ve tried my best to be good. It was hard, but I tried my best. Have mercy.”

No, it is “Jesus is Lord.” (Romans 10:9)

So, a man on an island who never sinned against anyone, who never hurt anyone, but sincerely wanted to be “saved” by whatever God he intuited to exist — he cannot be saved. Why? It’s not because God is a fickle curmudgeon who withholds what we really, really, really want. It’s because this man — and these sort of well-intentioned, but unevangelized men exist in droves — never confessed that Jesus is Lord. Philippians 2:1-11 provides another snapshot of this truth. Notice: eventually, every knee will bow. That’s not a vague universalism; it’s a victorious unveiling, where the “name above every name” finally receive the honor it deserves.

Believing this is absolutely crucial to a robust, biblically-faithful missiological method in our churches. If, in fact, there is another way for Tom Hanks in Cast Away to be saved — whether by a universalistic understanding of his own internal merit or an inclusivistic ethic that denigrates the uniqueness of Christ and champions tolerance over truth — then worldwide missions would be the height of foolishness. Evangelism would become a damning, well-intentioned death sentence. But clearly, given Matthew 28:18-20, this is not the case. The Great Commission is not The Great Condemnation.

Pluralism, the belief “all roads lead to heaven,” is a toxic and misguided idea. In the name of equality and kinship toward the brotherhood of man, it strips Christianity of its uniqueness. Yes, given the common grace of general revelation, we have common ground with everyone. But this common ground must never be overemphasized to the point where the discrepancies are rendered meaningless. Christianity must always guard against the prevailing cultural notions.

God’s gracious, merciful, special revelation culminated with His death on a cross. On that cross, Jesus Christ, the God-Man, conquered death, atoned for sin and acquired salvation for all those who repent and believe. Put simply: on that cross, Jesus lived up to His Name.

On Mini-Marathons & Arithmetic

My fiancée ran a mini-marathon last weekend. For three months, she ran three or four times a week, and her hard work and discipline finally paid off.

Me? Well, typing those two sentences was exhausting enough.

But in light of her achievement, I started thinking. I have an unfortunate distaste for discipline. I have an aversion to effort.

It’s probably for a lot of reasons: School was never overwhelming, I’ve lived a semi-easy life and I’ve been blessed with great friends and a great church that loves me and constantly keeps me grounded in the gospel. So, in my experience, “Christianity”—or at least a Christian veneer—came along almost necessarily as a result of my social and cultural constructs.

Also, I just lied.

I don’t think those are reasons at all. They are excuses, explanations to avoid the truth. I have but one problem that may be said two ways—one short, one long.

1) I’m a sinner.

2) I’m a sinner who sees the cross of Christ as unnecessary. It was certainly a rather kind gesture—God’s way of going over and above my allotted expectations of Him. But, at the end of the day, it was probably more theatrical than theological.

Here’s the thing: while I’m standing still, I often cry, “Grace! Grace! Grace!” That’s all well and good. But it’s not the point of Christ’s death and resurrection—at least not how I am meaning it there. Jesus Christ did not die so that I could slovenly rest on His laurels. On the contrary, His death motivates my life. The truths of the gospel are the only fuel for doing gospel work. The two necessarily follow each other, as two sides of the same coin.

My actions are always the sum of my beliefs. So when I do nothing, my belief adds up to nothing. I am refuting my words with my actions. In these cases, it would be better to say nothing at all.

I’ll put it another way. Tullian Tchividjian is absolutely right: Jesus + Nothing = Everything. However, that “Jesus” column must not mean a mere intellectual affinity or familial affection or religious propriety. No, it means the Jesus of the Bible—a Jesus who must be wrestled with, yearned for and, ultimately, submitted to.

We beg to barter with Him because the arithmetic doesn’t add up. We prefer Jesus + Something, Even A Tiny Thing = Everything. But here’s what we don’t understand: Our relationship with God is unlike any other relationship on earth. With our best friend or our parents or our boss, we cannot get by with a plus-Nothing relationship. But with Christ, it’s the only workable calculation. Why? Because any “Something” we try to carry over strips Christ of His supremacy which, in turn, strips Christ of His sufficiency to save.

Jesus is Lord; He need not ask our permission to be so. It’s simply a fact. Jesus is also Savior; He need not ask our permission there, either.* But we must try, as much as our menial minds can, to grasp God’s arithmetic.

That’s what is going on in John 15:5, where Jesus acts as both theologian and mathematician. “I am the vine; you are the branches,” He says. “Whoever abides in me and I in him bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”

His formula is pretty simple: Nothing + Nothing = Nothing.

* Please, do not read more into this than I mean. Also, feel free to comment and ask what I mean.

On Wagging Fingers & New Hearts

There is a character in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close who cannot speak. Instead, tattooed on his hands, are two perfunctory statements: “Yes” and “No.”

Other than a notepad scrawled with a few detailed missives, these two words are his only means of interaction. He is tethered to an eternity of embryonic communication.

Unfortunately — however vague and ultimately inconclusive his words may be — this muzzling malady defined him.

And if I’m honest, it defined me, too.

While straining to make Jesus more palatable and therapeutic to both myself and others, I mistook an occasional nod of the head and wag of the finger as standing up for the gospel — that saying “yes” at the right time and “no” at the right time is what Jesus meant when he said, “Take up your cross and follow me.”

You see, I learned how to picket and parade and protest against sinful things; I even learned how to admit unpleasantries and open up during coffeehouse accountability. But too often, I trusted the law of legalism tattooed on my hands.

Hey, you shouldn’t do this. You can’t do that. You better do this. Stop. No. Yes.

All the while, my misguided mind missed the point of my restraint. I saw the gospel as a call to self-determined asceticism, a self-deprecating means to a worthwhile end: heaven.

Sure, I knew how to combat sinful things. But I had no idea how to love and serve and encourage fellow sinners in my local church, much less how to confess and repent of my own sin and trust Christ for forgiveness.

Over and over again, I exchanged the power of the proclaimed Word for the comfort of a tacit tongue. I understood “Go, and make disciples” as a moral and mute missiological ethic.

I was lazy, unengaged and completely bored.

But then, by God’s grace, something happened. The gospel came alive to me. Or, rather, I came alive to the gospel!

It became clear that Christ’s message confronted not just pompous prodigals on their way to a distant country; it’s for the older brothers, too — at home in their self-righteousness. (Luke 15:11-32; Romans 5:8)

This is the scandal of the gospel: The perfect, sinless, spotless Son of God died in my rightful place so that I could live in His rightful place. This was all of grace, all of love, all of God. I brought nothing to the table besides that which needed to be removed: my sin.

Through that scandal, deep, decades-old tattoos of legalism and idolatry were removed and — even more! — replaced with a new, Spirit-filled heart.

At the cross and in the empty tomb, Jesus showed Himself as both the Suffering Servant and the Conquering King. There, he secured our present salvation and foretold His coming reign. These facts ground our confidence. And with this confidence, “Go, and make disciples” is far from a moral suggestion; on the contrary, it is a great commission from a Greater King.

Christ’s exhortation to His people is never, “Try harder!” And it’s not, “Yes, you can do that. No, you can’t do that.” The cross of Christ does not free us to do anything except to believe in what He has already done. “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.” (John 6:29)

Following Christ rarely looks like a nodding head or a wagging finger; instead, it looks exactly like a bended knee.

On Good Friday & Misnomers

Today, millions throughout the world will go to church to somberly celebrate a day presupposed as “good.” Some will dust off their Bibles and trudge through unfamiliar doors, cajoled into attendance by either a nagging parent or vague notions of a divine debt that sits irrevocably in the red. Others will go because “it’s what you do on Good Friday.”

There will be sermons about Christ’s death and suffering and love for His people, and they will be everything from theologically astute and biblically faithful to emotionally effective and contemplatively convicting. And tonight, I am certain of it, someone, somewhere will call on Christ as Savior and Lord. This is good news.

But to others, a message about a dead Galilean with a Messiah complex will fall on deaf ear. They will hear the story of Scripture–that Christ came to Earth, lived a sinless life, died on a cross for their sins and rose again three days later, defeating death. But if they’re honest, it all sounds like shallow moralism and therapeutic mysticism. The words will clang, silently, into hearts of stone and fall to the ground–maybe to be considered again next year.

After all, they ask, what’s so good about Good Friday?

What’s so good about a bloody cross and a crown of thorns?

What’s so good about “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

This response should not surprise us. As Paul says in II Corinthians 2, “We are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life.”

To many, the message of Christ–the message of the gospel and Good Friday–smells like death. It smells like a corpse-filled tomb.

While true, this must not lead to despondency. And it must not mean that the message of the cross is, in fact, bad news, only becoming “good news” three days later, after the resurrection.

Yes, the work of the cross is completed with the resurrection. There, Christ triumphs over sin, inaugurating both His future kingship here on Earth and his Lordship over the chief consequence of sin: death. And yes, without the resurrection, the cross is rendered moot–a mere execution of self-deluded man. In I Corinthians 15, Paul rightly says, “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.”

But with that being said, we must not extol the empty tomb over and above the bloody cross. The suffering and death of Jesus Christ–in all its violence and injustice–is good news.

Because at the cross, our debt is paid. At the cross, the glorious concoction of God’s justice and mercy meet. At the cross, any doubt that God is for us is silenced. Any insecurity that we’re not good enough is pointless; His work, and His alone, is our hope.

That first Good Friday communicated two things: an indictment and an expression. It was an indictment against our own sin–a correct assertion of our helplessness to remedy our condition before God. But–and we must not forget this–it was also an expression of the inconceivable lengths that God ordained, from the beginning of history, to redeem His people from their rebellion. God, in Christ, put Himself in our place to pay for our sin. Put more personally: for my sin and for yours.

To some, that sounds unfair, a vicarious sadism cloaked in religious rhetoric. It probably wreaks of hypocrisy and narrow-mindedness, too.

But to to others, it smells like life because it brought life.

So, what’s so good about Good Friday?

On that day we remember that Jesus Christ, the perfect Son of God, died for you.

On Princes, Princesses & Prosopagnosia

A few weeks ago, I listened to a Radiolab* episode called “Strangers in the Mirror.”

During the program, hosts Jad Adumrad and Robert Krulwich told stories of people who suffer from an incredibly rare, almost inconceivable disorder called “Face Blindness” or, for the scientifically suave, prosopagnosia.

In short, Face Blindness renders a person unable to recognize the faces they see. If you’re thinking of the cinematic masterpieces 50 First Dates or The Vow, well, you’re exactly right.

Each case varies in severity. For some, it makes identifying people–an effortless, instantaneous process for most of us–an arduous task. But for others, those who have it the worst, it’s incessant amnesia, relentless forgetfulness.

Face Blindness is an unimaginably frustrating burden to bear.

Can you imagine not recognizing your best friend? Your spouse? Your son or daughter?

A step further, can you imagine not recognizing yourself? Can you imagine looking intently into a mirror and, moments later, forgetting what you just saw?

For all of us, if we’re honest, the answer must be a regrettable “yes.” James’ insight here is uncomfortably accurate: “For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.” (James 1:23-24)

Some of us, we read the Word and sit there, doing nothing, waiting for some sort of divine diffusion to alter our behavior. Others consume sermon after sermon after sermon, becoming an intellectual and quasi-spiritual crock pot that ultimately sustains neither our sanctification nor the edification of the local church body.

Our disorder–our universal propensity to forget–has a name.  But it’s not a name stamped with syrupy, scientific verbiage, and it shouldn’t be.

It’s simply called “sin.”

Sin triggers our amnesia and, ultimately, devilishly distorts how we see both ourselves and Christ. After all, those two questions are fundamental: Who am I, and who is Christ?

The most successful and attractive individual, apart from Christ, actually has nothing. On the other hand, the most lowly and undesirable individual, hidden in Christ, under the blood of His cross, actually has everything.

Scripture calls us as Christians “co-heirs,” those destined to receive the inexhaustible riches of Christ’s kingdom. We are a “royal priesthood,” princes and princesses granted an incorruptible inheritance “kept in heaven.”**

But too often, we act like paupers, bankrupt beggars in need of some bread. We forget who we are in Christ. We forget, as a new creation, what we look like.

Put another way: we all suffer from a Face Blindness. But it’s not our face we fail to recognize. It’s our King’s.

*Quick aside: Radiolab, an NPR radio show ran out of New York City, is amazing, and I highly recommend it. Check it out on iTunes here.

** Verses: Romans 8:15-17 and I Peter 2 say this far better than me. Obviously.

On Repentance & Re-Repentance

I think we need to repent of our repentance.

First, without ruffling feathers, let me clarify what I don’t mean. I don’t mean that we should take sin lightly or that we can haphazardly disregard our sanctification. To do so would be a sinful, antinomian understanding of salvation — one that would, as Paul says in Romans 1, “exchange the truth of God for a lie.” More than that, such a lifestyle would render Christ’s death meaningless, a merely skin-deep and ineffectual sacrifice with no bearing either practically or historically.

Also, I do not mean that repentance is a one-time thing, simply the introductory act of our Christian story. The New Testament’s exhortation to “repent and believe the gospel” is two-fold, offering two things to two different sets of people: salvation to the non-Christian, sanctification to the Christian.

But, with that being said, let me clarify what I do mean. We need to repent of our relentless desire to scrub ourselves clean before the Lord over and over and over again. We need to repent of the devilish temptation that our first repentance for a particular sin wasn’t good enough, sincere enough, “Christian” enough. Sure, we should be aware of our heart’s intentions and trust the Holy Spirit to convict and lead us to into truth. But, we must also repent of the notion that God’s pleasure in us is directly proportionate to our displeasure in us.

Now, why does this matter?

Because at the cross our sins were not merely filed away, to be brought up at a later date when God chooses to divinely needle us. They were hurled onto Christ, the God-Man. And because Christ fully atoned, we are fully forgiven. And because we are fully forgiven, we are fully free from both the debt of our sin tomorrow and the guilt of our sin today.

Friends, we have to believe this: at the cross, through the power of the gospel, we are fully forgiven. And because we are fully forgiven we are fully free from both the debt of our sin tomorrow and the guilt of our sin today.

All of it. Past, present and future.

The gospel is not a call to asceticism. It’s a bid to come and die–daily–understanding there is One who already died in our place.

On Gardening & Golgotha

“And [the disciples] woke Jesus and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. He said to them, ‘Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?’” | Mark 4:38-40

Okay, I have to get this out: Are the disciples stupid?

They’re nautical bunkmates with the Creator and Sustainer of the universe, but they’re worried about a little rainstorm?

Over and over again, they’ve seen Jesus ascertain his deity, exerting dominion over demons and death and disease. But nonetheless, in their fear and anxiety, they accuse Him of lethargically watching them perish; they have the gall to use their present circumstances as an indictment against His goodness.

What stupid, short-sighted faithlessness. Right?

Let’s fast forward 2000 years: if I’m honest, I’m guilty of the same faithlessness. And you are, too.

This sentiment, unfortunately, is entirely too common. Rarely is it blurted so bluntly–God, do you even care if I die?–but it exists, often as a recurring undercurrent in our relationship with the Lord. Now, such honest groaning is not categorically sinful. Look at the Psalms; David often appeals to God with candor. However, let that not absolve the disciples, or us, from guilt here. An appeal and an accusation are two very different things.

Notice what Jesus says to them: “Have you still no faith?” Also, notice what He does not say to them: “Guys, calm down. Don’t worry; I already calmed the storm. You’re fine.”

As Christians, our confidence must never be marked by myopic murmurs for circumstantial salvation. Further, our faith is never confirmed by a turbulent present giving way to a fortuitous future.

It is no faith to trust God only in hindsight.

Instead, our faith remains riveted in the past, marked first and foremost by Christ and His cross. Its roots must be deeply planted in Golgotha’s blood-saturated ground.

For the non-Christian, this makes little sense. It sounds too hollow, nostalgic, like a desperate fisherman casting his line across the sea of history, hoping against hope to catch something worthwhile.

But for the Christian, this altered vantage point does everything: it makes sense of the past, provides comfort in the present and gives us an unshakeable hope for the future. Once we understand the person and work of Christ as the hinge upon which all of history turns, the filter through which we view all of reality–past, present and future–everything changes.

Then, we are finally able to understand the scandal of gospel: that a bloody cross always speaks a better word than a calm sea.

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