Monthly Archives: September 2011

The Gospel Cures What the Law Cannot

“The number of crimes does not diminish but is continually on the increase. You must admit that consequently the security of society is not preserved, for, although the dangerous member is mechanically cut off and set far away out of sight, another criminal always comes to take his place at once, and often two of them. If anything does preserve society, even in our time, and does regenerate and transform the criminal, it is the law of Christ speaking in his conscience. . . . It is only by recognizing his wrong-doing as a son of a Christian society — that is, of the Church — that he recognizes his sin against society — that is, against the Church. So that it is only against the Church, and not against the State, that the criminal of today can recognize that he has sinned.”

– Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

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The "Religious People" Boogeyman

There’s something else about the “Did Perry Noble lie?” thing that I have found troubling for some time. Setting aside for the second whether Noble is evincing double-mindedness in the two stories, setting aside for the second the presuppositional problem that leads to thinking “Highway to Hell” in church (Easter Sunday or not) is a good idea, there’s something Noble says in both video clips, something that is typical for him (but that he by no means has innovated) that remains a systemic dysfunctional philosophy of the prevailing attractional church paradigm. It is this: there are “religious people” in our church threatening our culture of contempo-casual.

First of all, there are people in every church, no matter what kind of church it is, who struggle with the distinction between law and gospel, who struggle with the driving place of grace in their pursuit of holiness, so it won’t do to deny that legalism looms in our churches. Legalism lurks in every heart, actually, mine and yours. But this constant invoking of the judgmental “religious people” is very often a boogeyman. It’s an imagined threat, a scare tactic employed to both justify dumb exercises in license and arouse the self-satisfied mockery of self-identified “grace people.”

I remember first reflecting on these theoretical lurking legalists when the elders of a church I attended fired its lead pastor. The pastor called rallies in parks, spoke to the local news. He said the reason he was fired was because the elders wanted to satisfy “religious …

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Worship is Love On Its Knees

“Worship is humble and glad; worship forgets itself in remembering God; worship celebrates the truth as God’s truth, not its own. True worship doesn’t put on a show or make a fuss; true worship isn’t forced, isn’t half-hearted, doesn’t keep looking at its watch, doesn’t worry what the person in the next pew may be doing. True worship is open to God, adoring God, waiting for God, trusting God even in the dark.

“Worship will never end; whether there be buildings, they will crumble; whether there be committees, they will fall asleep; whether there be budgets, they will add up to nothing. For we build for the present age, we discuss for the present age, and we pay for the present age; but when the age to come is here, the present age will be done away. For now we see the beauty of God through a glass, darkly, but then face to face; now we appreciate only part, but then we shall affirm and appreciate God, even as the living God has affirmed and appreciated us. So now our tasks are worship, mission, and management, these three; but the greatest of these is worship.

“And do you see why it’s so easy to create that pastiche of 1 Corinthians 13, substituting ‘worship’ for ‘love’? Worship is nothing more nor less than love on its knees before the beloved; just as mission is love on its feet to serve the beloved . . .”

– N.T. Wright, For All God’s Worth (p.9)

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The Pulpit is the Prow

“. . . for the pulpit is ever this earth’s foremost part; all the rest comes in its rear; the pulpit leads the world. From thence it is the storm of God’s quick wrath is first descried, and the bow must bear the earliest brunt. From thence it is the God of breezes fair or foul is first invoked for favorable winds. Yes, the world’s a ship on its passage out, and not a voyage complete; and the pulpit is its prow.”

– Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

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The Fourfold Curse and The Tide’s Turning on Two Words

Ever felt Ephesians 2:1-10? You’ve probably read it, maybe multiple times. But ever felt it? Ever drunk it? Steeped in it? Had it knock you over?

Ephesians 2:1-3 is just brutal. Paul pulls no punches. How bad are we? Really, really, really, ridiculously bad. According to those three short verses we are, apart from Christ, dead. Dead, Paul says. Like, you know, dead-dead.

“But wait,” we think, “I sure didn’t feel dead. I could do stuff.” Oh, you mean like obeying your appetites (v.3), following the way of the world (v.2), and worshiping Satan (v.2)? Good job there.

It doesn’t get worse than this. We are dead, belly-ruled, world-following, devil worshipers. The curse we both suffer and embrace has us hemmed in on all sides. There is no escaping. We are much, much worse than we think we are.

Oh! But verse 4! Two sweet words start the reversal of our will and fate. Two words. Not “be still” but with the same effect — the ten-hutting of a storm. Two words that part the sea, roll back the darkness with violent force, like the jolting, snapping up of window shades. Two little words like wings of a seraph, breaking through our tomb with a bright ray of light and lifting us up and through the spiritual aether, seating us in the heavenlies (v.6).

“But God.”

Two words: the crash cart, the smelling salts, the sweet manna, the dagger in the devil’s neckbone.

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love …

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The Lord is Never Late

Reading in my friend Michael Kelley’s upcoming book Wednesdays Were Pretty Normal, about his family’s journey of faith through their young son’s battle with leukemia, I found a passage of reflection taking me back in time. I do not know the fear and grief of having a child with a life-threatening illness, but when Michael writes —

I prayed. I petitioned. I cried. And I felt . . . nothing. Emptiness. Despair. Isolation. Darkness. Where was He, this God who so loved the world? Where was the great Healer? We needed Him there, in that cubicle of a hospital room. Doing something. Healing something. Springing into action. I didn’t need a Jesus that was sleeping in the boat while the storms raged around His friends. I needed a Jesus who was turning over the tables of sickness and disease and calling out cancerous cells like they were demons.

this I know.

I was taken back to the smell of the guest bedroom carpet, where my nose had been many hours of many nights, my eyes wetting the fabric as I cried out to God. You ever groaned? If you have, you’d know. I planted my face in that floor and prayed guttural one-word prayers til I couldn’t speak any more. The lullaby music from my daughter’s room across the hall haunted me. I felt alone, unloved, unaccepted, and unacceptable. But I knew I deserved it all, so I was trying to be as submissive to God’s discipline as I could. …

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A Picture of How the Gospel Cures What the Law Cannot

From Sarah Vowell’s engaging history of the Puritans, The Wordy Shipmates:

When John Cotton’s grandson, Cotton Mather, wrote his Ecclesiastical History of New England in 1702, he told a story about [John] Winthrop that I would like to believe is true. In the middle of winter, Boston was low on fuel and a man came to the governor complaining that a “needy person” was stealing from his woodpile. Winthrop mustered the appropriate outrage and requested that the thief come see him, presumably for punishment. According to Mather, Winthrop tells the man,

“Friend, it is a severe winter, and I doubt you are but meanly provided for wood; wherefore I would have you supply yourself at my woodpile till this cold season be over.” And Winthrop then merrily asked his friends whether he had not effectually cured this man of stealing his wood.

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Men of God Handle Business

But as for you, O man of God, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.– 1 Timothy 6:11-12

The language here is so vividly militant, even as the qualities it urges appear “soft.” Love and gentleness? But we have to fight to get and be those things. We are not naturally gentle. This is why it has to be commanded of us. What happens is that we are hypocritically interested in whipping everybody else into shape but treat ourselves with kid gloves.

The biggest, toughest, gruffest Type-A kinds of men mollycoddle their sin, coast when it comes to faith, and drink from the gospel as if from a sippy cup. We will fight on every battlefield but the one that matters most, the one that brings the death of what is dying in us and yet glory to God.

But if we are truly converted, we are equipped and empowered to be ruthlessly brutal with the sin in us, positively in pursuit of gentleness and kindness, and steadfast in the faith, in love for others, and in the rhythms of the Spiritual disciplines.

Men of God, the kingdom comes violently, and violent men lay hold of it. Pursue, fight, take hold. It’s time to do work. It’s time to handle business.

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What Laziness Isn’t and Is

[W]e ought to define what sloth is. Let’s begin by listing a few things that are not slothfulness:

Stillness isn’t always slothfulness. In a noisy, hurry-sick world, regular silence and stillness is a necessity. Jesus himself “often withdrew to deserted places and prayed” (Luke 5:16). Times of peaceful, un-busy, prayerful meditation on God’s Word are not laziness. God commands us to take the appropriate time to be still and know He is God.

Sabbath isn’t slothful. God commands regular rest from our work. We’re supposed to work more than we rest, but there is nothing sinful about resting and there’s nothing honorable about not resting. It is both unwise, irresponsible, and disobedient not to rest.

Recreation isn’t sloth. As part of God’s command to rest and his freedom in the gospel to enjoy the good gifts he gives us, there is nothing wrong with having fun via hobbies (like collecting shells!), vacations, games and sports, arts and entertainment, good meals, and just plain being silly. In the appropriate measure, recreation is good for us and reflective of the joyous heart God gives us.

Retirement from a job is not sloth. John Piper has famously criticised the retired couple who are spending their twilight years collecting seashells. But while Piper and I may disagree on this point, retirement from a career in itself is not greedy or lazy or otherwise sinful, only what you do with that retirement. Quitting a career to go on a years-long vacation is slothful. But those who retire from a …

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The Pastor’s Justification

And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.– 2 Corinthians 11:28

There is a way to superhero-ize the pastor, to elevate him in ways that make Viola and Barna on to something. And then there are ways to diminish him, to dishonor his office as if it is “nothing special.”* Neither swing of the pendulum is healthy or honorable.

As we question whether God really said that elders who rule well should be considered worthy of double honor (1 Timothy 5:17), we ought not forget that the average, ordinary pastor is constantly aware that with double honor comes double responsibility (James 3:1). The good pastor is a fellow who feels the weight not just of his own neediness for Jesus but yours as well. He is typically the one fellow who loses sleep at night because of what’s happening (or not happening) in the church. While you worry about yourself and your family and your friends, he worries about himself, his family, his friends, and everybody else’s selves, families, and friends. There is the daily pressure on him of his anxiety for the church. Good pastors feel this.

It is for this reason that the author of Hebrews instructs us, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to …

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