Monthly Archives: February 2012

Until We’re Finally “There,” There is No “There” – There’s Only “Here”

One of the most helpful things I read last week was this word from Justin Anderson:

I’ve seen the “promised land” — and it’s just ok.

Refreshing is what that word is. Anderson elaborates:

For the last couple years, I have been living the dream. Our church has seen explosive growth, people be saved, baptized, and join groups all the time. We have four campuses, thousands of people, and a great staff. Finally, all the toil of church planting has paid off and the prospect of megachurch stardom was a reality.

Most of us want some version of this in ministry. I finally reached the promised land, and I can report that it’s just OK. Don’t get me wrong: there were parts that I loved, but at the end of the day there is always more to do, always another idea, hill to climb or battle to fight—it never ends.

Much wisdom here for all of us, big church or little church, succeeding or struggling. Wisdom there for pastors and laity alike.

Too often we envision “successful ministry” — this vision may look different from person to person, church to church — and pour our energies and affections into seeing that vision become a reality, assuming that once we finally “arrive,” things will be better, easier, finally and ultimately fulfilling. This is, functionally, idolatry. It is a creation of a false heaven, not simply false in its falling short of the real Paradise but false in its inclusion of talent, acquired skills, and grit to …

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Adequate Preparation for Brokenness

The portion of this feature on Lauren Winner that jumps out at me is this:

“In Christianity there’s this script of, you do the right things and you will not come to that place of despair, and something is wrong with you if you do,” she said. “I didn’t feel I had an abundance of preparation for hitting that experience.”

What she describes in the first sentence is not Christianity, of course, but what passes for it in many churches and faith communities today. Do x, y, and z and no harm will come to you. This is what most of the idiots on television preach. But it is also there, mostly between the lines but often not, in the way many evangelical churches teach the Scriptures. Call it moralistic therapeutic deism, call it self-help religion, call it legalism, call it whatever you want, but don’t call it Christianity.

What Winner says in that second sentence — “I didn’t feel I had an abundance of preparation for hitting that experience.” — speaks to the utter importance of gospel-centered preaching, teaching, discipleship, counseling, community fellowship, and on and on. I didn’t have preparation for hitting the experience of despair either. I had a lot of helpful hints and tips, a treasure trove of weekly seven steps to this or that, and an abundance of Christian resources. But nothing “works” like hearing and knowing and trusting that nothing could separate me from the love of God and nothing could invalidate the approval I have …

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A Christian is a Person Who Cannot be Conquered

In A.D. 404 John Chrysostom, the early church father, was brought in before the Roman emperor. The emperor threatened him with banishment if he remained a Christian.

Chrysostom responded, ‘You cannot banish me, for this world is my Father’s house.’

‘But I will kill you,’ said the emperor.

‘No, you cannot, for my life is hid with Christ in God,’ said Chrysostom.

‘I will take away your treasures.’

‘No, you cannot, for my treasure is in heaven and my heart is there.’

‘But I will drive you away from your friends and you will have no one left.’

‘No, you cannot, for I have a friend in heaven from whom you cannot separate me. I defy you, for there is nothing you can do to harm me.’

(And this anecdote always reminds me of my favorite line from Richard Sibbes’s The Bruised Reed: “A Christian is an impregnable person. He is a person that never can be conquered.”)

HT: Dane Ortlund

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The Vision Without Which People Perish

“Where there is no vision, the people perish . . .”
— Proverbs 29:18 (KJV)

Proverbs 29:18 may be one of the most misapplied verses in all the evangelical church today. Many a church leader has used it to spiritualize his strategies and blackmail followers into supporting his entrepreneurialism. Vision statements are cast. Mission statements are crafted to serve the vision. A list of values is composed to serve the mission. An array of programs is developed to serve the values. A stable of leaders is recruited to serve the programs. An army of volunteers is inspired to assist the leaders.

Much of what goes on in our local churches serves to make sure the church machine keeps running. In less healthy — but sometimes very big — churches, the entire machine is designed to put on an excellent weekend worship service. All of this would indeed perish if that vision were not cast.

But what if a leader’s good idea for church growth or success was not the vision Proverbs 29:18 had in mind? What if we aren’t free to insert anything we come up with, no matter how spiritual or “inspired by God”?

The verse is longer than is usually quoted. Proverbs 29:18 (in the ESV) in its entirety reads: “Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast off restraint, but blessed is he who keeps the law.” The vision is “prophetic vision”; what is in mind here is the revelation of God to his biblical spokesmen. Where there is no vision …

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Come and Die

Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus.
— 2 Timothy 2:3

Have you ever seen a military recruitment poster or TV ad that showed wounded soldiers? Ever seen one that showed soldiers taking bullets, medics administering morphine to blood-gushing comrades, or an array of battle-hardened quadriplegics?

No, you have not. We recruit soldiers by showing shiny weapons, technologically advanced machines and systems, adventurous locales, and strong, healthy men and women using them, engaging in them, and bravely enjoying them.

But not Paul. He will not whitewash the mission. As Christ says, “Count the cost” and “Take up your cross” and “Die to self,” Paul’s recruitment slogan is: Share in suffering.

In 2 Timothy 2:7, he writes, “Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.” He wants disciples of Jesus to consider what he’s just laid out for them, which is that Christianity is about suffering like a soldier, training like an athlete, and working hard like a farmer. One thing these three examples have in common is a stubborn commitment to a diligent daily grind for a payoff that is not instant or immediate.

“Think over what I say.” Mull this over. Consider this. Count the cost. So that when hardship comes — and as Gary Demarest says, “Following Christ causes problems” — you are not acting as if something strange is happening to you (1 Pet. 4:12). Instead, you have a vision of what will be, of the “eternal glory” (2 Tim. 2:10) that lay ahead.

When …

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God’s Astonishing Revelation

I’m a fan of the kind of UFO movies that tap into that inscrutable human longing for contact with what’s “out there.” Signs was a good one, not really about aliens at all, but really about faith. E.T. is a classic not least for speaking to a growing generation of lonely children. I love the scene in Contact where those long-listening to SETI’s droning broadcast suddenly and startlingly hear an anomaly, a signal at last from another world. But my favorite extraterrestial film is Spielberg’s other classic, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. So much angst throughout, so much mystery, so much hurt and hope, hurtling forward into the climactic moment at the end when all the hopeful longing is met with the arrival of creatures from another world. And there is a sweet, beautiful illustration of the wonder, the transcendence, the “coming home”-ness of the heart that has eternity written upon it finally being filled. If you’re like me, when you see these scenes, you feel stirred in some way. They are playing on a frequency deeper than mere entertainment.

I think this is because there is something essentially human about feeling that we are not alone.

As Christians, we know that God is real, that God is out there, that God is the settler of the restless heart. The “thing” everyone is longing for is God himself. And this God is real! So here we have the God: eternal, immortal, invisible, God only wise. He is utterly transcendent. To him …

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Just as if I’d . . .

In Genesis’ tales of Abraham and Sarah, we see the ways that Sarah exerts control. “Go into my servant Hagar,” she tells Abraham. The rest is manipulative history. We also learn that “she was afraid” (Gen. 18:15).

Then, in 1 Peter 3:5-6, Peter commends Sarah’s submission and fearlessness.

Say what now?

Welcome to the covenant of grace. In here Abraham the sinful jerk has his faith credited to him as righteousness, and you can too. God out of his measureless love in the unsearchable riches of the grace of Jesus makes us controlling cowards totally justified.

Covered in his seamless righteousness, Jesus’ perfect obedience becomes ours.

Justified: “just as if I’d” never sinned, right? But also just as if I’d always obeyed.

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“But God is One” and The Gospel

Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary. Now an intermediary implies more than one, but God is one.
— Galatians 3:19-20

What does this mean, “God is one,” in relation to the gospel in Paul’s letter to the Galatians?

An editor’s note in one edition of Calvin’s commentary on Galatians mentions 250 recorded possible interpretations of Galatians 3:20. That’s not a little intimidating, but here’s my contribution to be counted among them or added to them:

The Law was put in place via angels, through Moses. We see this affirmed in Acts 7:38 and 53 and in Hebrews 2:2. Deuteronomy 33:2 tells us the Law came to Sinai by “ten thousand holy ones.” That’s a pretty impressive scene. “An intermediary implies more than one.” Yes. There were several links in the chain of command: from God via his ten thousand holy ones to Moses, then to the people. And let’s not forget to factor in the priests and the ceremonial rites and regulations that went along with all that. There were a lot of working parts. Many persons, many sacrifices, many details between. In order to deliver and then to administer the Law, teamwork, as they say, made the dream work.

“But God is one.”

So why is the gospel better than the Law? Why is Jesus more glorious than any other intermediary? Because it is God himself doing the …

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The Perfect Storm for Gospel-Driven Sanctification

Doing flows from being.

This side of heaven, there is still sin in me. I am a wretched sinner.

Born again, I am a new creation and the Spirit of Christ resides in me. I am a saint.

As Cornelius Plantinga writes in Beyond Doubt:

As a result, all Christians need to say two things. We admit that we are redeemed sinners. But we also say boldly and joyously that we are redeemed sinners (89).

Here in this tension is the perfect storm for the mortification of sin by the power of grace. If I hold only that I am a wretched sinner, I trudge against sin, pursue holiness as one through quicksand, motivated perhaps only by self-pity. And if I hold only that I am a saint, I shield my eyes to my pride and egotism, become passive about sin, claiming victories under my own legalistic power that don’t exist.

But if I put the vinegar of the acknowledgment of my indwelling sinfulness together with the sodium bicarbonate of my eternal standing in God by the grace of Jesus Christ and his righteousness credited to me through faith — look out! Only in the grasping of this double-reality can I fight against my flesh with the holiness God commands through the power of the holiness he has already imputed to me.

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Dude, Prepare for Later Now

Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, “I have no pleasure in them.”
– Ecclesiastes 12:1

Ah, youth! I remember, in the prime of my life, overflowing with the confidence and vigor of pure, automatic trust in my teenage athletic abilities, stepping into the huddle of one of our Saturday football games and saying to Mark, our all-time quarterback, “Just give me the ball. I will score.” And Mark let loose a beauty of a pass — few things look and feel so beautiful to a teenage football-playin’ boy than a perfectly thrown pass in the dazzle of an autumn afternoon squirmish — and I on the furious run brought it to safe harbor in my arms like a baby, racing past the staggered defense on skinny wheels, thirty yards, twenty yards — he.could.go.all.the.way — ten yards, five yards, touchdown. I did what I said I would, because I knew I could. Ah, youth!

But the evil days come, creeping in inch by inch, day by day, as metabolism sneaks out of the house overnight, easing the sports car out of the driveway and disappearing. Were I to enter that huddle this coming Saturday and speak with honesty, I should say, “Just give me the ball. I will run out of gas ten yards in, pull up with a muscle cramp, and collapse with two high ankle sprains.”

I’m …

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