Your Love, Poured Into the Heart of Jesus

Feb 22, 2015 | Trevin Wax

hammer-and-nails-509x340Your love,
which breathed this world into being,
established a covenant people,
brought them out of captivity
and into a promised land.

Your love,
which from the moment of our birth
has known and called us by name
from out of this world’s slavery
into the kingdom of God.

Your love,
poured into the heart of Jesus
who endured the nails of our sin,
defeated death to rise again
and causes our hearts to sing

– from Faith and Worship

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God Has Done Something

Feb 21, 2015 | Trevin Wax

God has spoken and acted in Jesus Christ. He has said something. He has done something.

This means that Christianity is not just pious talk. It is neither a collection of religious ideas nor a catalogue of rules. It is a ‘gospel’ (i.e. good news) – in the apostle Paul’s words ‘the gospel of God…regarding his Son…Jesus Christ our Lord’.

It is not primarily an invitation for us to do anything; it is supremely a declaration of what God has done in Christ for human beings like ourselves.

– John Stott, Basic Christianity

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Answering “No” To One of These Questions Will Kill Your Evangelism

Feb 19, 2015 | Trevin Wax

EvangelismEvangelism is a scary word for many Christians. Whether it’s because we fear rejection, feel unqualified, or are uncomfortable with making a truth claim in a pluralistic culture, we often shy away from evangelism, either by retreating to the realm of personal testimony or by avoiding spiritual conversations altogether.

Our pastor, Mike Lee, recently preached on evangelism by offering five questions that need to be answered by those who seek to be faithful in following the Great Commission. I’ve adapted these questions here and added a sixth. I commend them to you because they peel back the layers of our defensiveness toward evangelism and help us see what needs to be in place before we will be confident, joyful, and effective tellers of the good news.

Answer “no” to any of these questions and your evangelistic passion will suffer.

1. The Compassion Question: Do we care that people are dying without faith in Jesus Christ?

Before we can hope to be “good news tellers,” we have to be formed by the good news into compassionate and loving people. If we believe that people without Jesus truly are lost – both in this world and in the next – then compassion ought to be a motivator for our evangelism.

Takeaway: We share because we care.

2. The Culture Question: Do we understand why people reject the gospel? 

What are the most common objections people give for choosing not to believe in Jesus? What cultural trends make it difficult for people to believe, whether intellectually (existence of God, reality of miracles), morally (God’s purpose for sexuality), or experientially (inability to accept God’s forgiveness)?

It’s said that Francis Schaeffer was once asked how he would share the gospel with someone in an hour. He said he would spend 55 minutes listening and five minutes talking, because only then would he know how to share the gospel in a way that would overcome objections.

Takeaway: Good missionaries know their culture and listen to people.

3. The Content Question: Do we know what the good news is that we’re sharing?

I’ve been particularly burdened about helping people know the answer to this question. It’s why I wrote Counterfeit Gospels and Gospel-Centered Teaching. We won’t be effective tellers of good news unless we’re clear on what the good news is. Therapeutic and moralistic distortions of the gospel abound in a culture awash in “moralistic therapeutic deism.” How do we present the gospel in a way that is faithful to Scripture?

Takeaway: Evangelists must know the evangel they are proclaiming.

4. The Confidence Question: Do we believe that God really saves sinners?

The way to counteract your feelings of inadequacy in evangelism is not by growing in confidence in yourself or your persuasive abilities, but in growing in your confidence in the power of the gospel to save! People who doubt the reality of conversion are not likely to share the gospel. People who share their faith, trust that God can use their stumbling, imperfect gospel presentations. Those who see God change lives are most likely to get excited about evangelism. The power is in the gospel, not us.

Takeaway: Confidence in the power of the gospel is what motivates us to share it.

5. The Commitment Question: Do we believe God has given us the responsibility of evangelism?    

Do you believe God has given this responsibility to you? Do you believe that the proclamation of His Word is the way He saves people?

If, deep down, you’re an inclusivist who believes God may have other ways of saving people, then you’ll stay quiet about the gospel. If, deep down, you’re a Hyper-Calvinist who believes God will save people whether you share your faith or not, then you’ll stay quiet about the gospel. The question here concerns commitment: Do you believe you’ve been given this amazing privilege and weighty responsibility and that the Holy Spirit will use you to draw people to God?

Takeaway: We won’t share the gospel unless we understand the privilege and necessity of evangelism.

6. The Calling Question: Are you willing to ask someone to repent and believe, and then disciple them in the faith?

Sometimes we talk about Jesus but never arrive at the point of inviting someone to repent of their sins and put their faith in Christ. We spend time sowing seeds but are reticent to reap the harvest. Maybe it’s because we are afraid they will say no, but maybe it’s because we are afraid they will say yes! If someone receives Christ, we now have the responsibility to bring them into the church through baptism, and “teach them to obey everything Christ has commanded.”

Takeaway: We won’t call for conversion until we are committed to the people we are evangelizing.

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Worth a Look 2.19.15

Feb 19, 2015 | Trevin Wax

Worth a Look MagnifyingKindle Deal of the Day: A God Centered Church: Experiencing God Together by Henry & Melvin Blackaby. $2.99.

God saves individuals but places them in community with one another–a community of believers. God is creating for Himself a people through whom He can accomplish His purposes in our world.

Google Street view has arrived in Greenland. This is spectacular:

“You can now explore immersive 360-degree imagery of the world’s largest island, which is sparsely populated yet chock full of glorious natural wonders and historical sites,” Google wrote on its blog Wednesday. “Let us take you on a tour of fjords, waterfront vistas, Norse ruins and more.”

Danny Franks recounts a brief conversation that led to this interesting question – Is Your Church a Landmark or a Lighthouse?

Not long ago I was having coffee with a pastor friend who mentioned that in his church, not one single member lived within a fifteen minute drive of the building.

Screwtape has a few things to say about the “mommy wars:”

All of the virtual ink spilt over the Mommy Wars has a troubling trend, and I fear that all of our hard work may soon be fully exposed. The pundits are bemoaning the idol — calling it names and despising it. Have you heard this? The Patients are fed up. They are growing in boldness in their acceptance of one another’s freedoms — choosing to give each other icky things like support and compassion.

Daniel James Devine explains what makes millennials stay in church:

For millennials who grew up attending church, having a strong Christian faith and practice today is linked to the quality of their relationship with their parents.

That’s a conclusion from a new online survey of young adults between the ages of 18 and 38 who attended church as children or teenagers. The survey also found that frequent church attendance and homeschooling were linked to stronger Christian beliefs and behaviors as adults, including believing Jesus is divine and avoiding co-habitation.

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Reawakening Wonder at the King of Glory

Feb 18, 2015 | Trevin Wax

Nashville_Event_Photographer_Wendy_Twit_Photography_69Russ Ramsey, a pastor in Nashville, is a friend and fellow-writer. His newest book, Behold the King of Glory, features forty chapters that walk through the gospel story and culminate with the death and resurrection of Jesus. I’ve asked Russ to stop by the blog to answer a few questions about writing gospel reflections.

Trevin Wax: Whenever I read “imaginative retellings” of gospel stories, I’m always looking to see if the writer’s storytelling distracts from or enhances the original account. How do you balance reverence for God’s Word with your God-given imaginative freedom to paint the scene?

Russ Ramsey: So much of the answer to a question like this boils down to how I regard the Scriptures. I started reading the Bible on my own in high school—half my life ago. I have had the great gift of being discipled by people who held a deep reverence for Scripture, from my mother to my pastors to my mentors. I love the Bible. I believe it is sufficient and just as God meant for it to be, and I believe it holds authority over my life. Everyone listens to authoritative voices—whether it be their own or the voice of another. I believe the Bible is everything Paul told Timothy it is: useful for all manner of correction, teaching, and training in following Christ.

So when I sat down to write Behold the King of Glory, I came to the project in a posture submitted to what was already there. I did not want to invent people, conversations, or stories. Instead, what I wanted to do was tell the story on the page the best that I could.

Over in Deuteronomy, when God instructs His people to tell their children about Him, I imagine them sitting around a fire at night saying, “Did I ever tell you the one about when Abraham took Isaac to Mt. Moriah?” That is the spirit of what I wanted to do with this book—tell a biblically faithful story in a story-teller’s voice.

Trevin Wax: All of these chapters are brief and easy-to-read in one sitting. Why did you think it was important to limit your storytelling to a self-imposed word count?

Russ Ramsey: I gave myself constraints for a few reasons, some of which are a bit more noble than others.

First, I imposed the limits before I ever wrote a word as a way of disciplining the author to stay focused. The Apostle John tells us that if we were to try to write all that could be written about Jesus, there wouldn’t be enough libraries in the world to hold it. There are entire libraries even now devoted just to the four Gospels.

Second, I wanted to compose the book to be a single narrative, not a collection of vignettes. This gave me freedom to set aside certain points I wanted to make for a later time.

Third, I wanted people to be able to use this book as a daily reader during Lent if they wanted, so I felt I had entered into a sort of gentleman’s agreement to keep some sort of consistency for their sake as they planned their day. A big part of writing well involves loving the reader.

Fourth, I prefer shorter chapters myself. Don’t judge me.

Trevin Wax: You often focus on a particular character for a chapter. I love this description of Nicodemus. “He was a riddle, coming at Jesus with the confidence of a statement while standing in the darkness like a question.” How did you decide which characters to portray?

Russ Ramsey: Ah, Nicodemus! Here is a man whose entire life was defined by his religious position in the world, and Jesus challenged his presumptions. Nicodemus is a person who reminds us that following Jesus costs us something—everything, actually.

I was drawn to characters with a story arc of their own.

I am intrigued by characters who appear more than once during Jesus’s three year ministry (John the Baptist, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, and Nicodemus, who first comes to Jesus in secret, and then later defends him in front of the Sanhedrin, and then later tends to Jesus’s corpse after the crucifixion). We witness Nicodemus’s conversion as a slow turning, which is incredibly comforting when I think of others I see God working in, but are not where I hope they would be. The human experience we see being lived out in the lives of these people binds me as a reader to the people Jesus touched, dined with, and challenged.

Trevin Wax: There’s a lot of historical detail in this book. How does knowing the history help us see the full picture of what the Gospels are communicating?

Russ Ramsey: In college I had the amazing opportunity to live in Israel for a semester. I lived on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. We had a class called “Physical Settings of the Bible” which took three day long field-trips every other weekend. We toured all over Israel, and I was amazed to see just how compact everything was. Israel is about the same size as New Jersey, and yet it is the junction where the corners of the world came together: Africa, Asia, and Rome (Europe).

Details involving geography, politics, cultural norms, and status play in the Gospels like characters in the story. The desert is where people are tested and sometimes broken, The Sea of Galilee is a source of life and food and commerce that binds people close to its shores, and those masses gather to hear Jesus teach. Or take Pilate. We all know people like Pilate, and we are all a bit like him. He was a middle manager with just enough power to look bad if he didn’t perform well, but not enough to really think for himself.

Knowing the politics, geography, and historical details helps us not simply project our present-day, western ideas onto what is happening on the page of Scripture. I wanted to provide enough to keep the reader between the lines of truth, but not so much that I took over for their imagination. I hope I succeeded more than I failed at this.

Trevin Wax: You say that your desire is to help us rediscover the wonder of the gospel. Why do we lose our wonder when we read the Bible? And how (and why) should we get this back?

I think Christians tend to read the Bible differently than we read anything else. We either come to it looking for counsel, or we come to it assuming we already know the story. I know I do this, anyway. But the Bible tells an amazing story, and God has created us to be people who learn, grow, change, and gain wisdom through the hearing and telling of story.

The Bible is packed with amazing stories. As a complete story, it is the greatest ever told. What I hoped to do as an author was tell the reader things that were there in the text that they might have missed in such a way that they wanted to take up the Bible and look for more.

I hope Behold the King of Glory helps some readers see the Bible as more than a source for how to follow God. I hope Behold the King of Glory prompts readers to come to Scripture for what it is: God’s revelation of Himself to His image bearers.

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Worth a Look 2.18.15

Feb 18, 2015 | Trevin Wax

Worth5Kindle Deal of the Day: Four Views on the Apostle Paul (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology). $3.99.

  • Reformed View: Thomas R. Schreiner
  • Catholic View: Luke Timothy Johnson
  • Post-New Perspective View: Douglas Campbell
  • Jewish View: Mark D. Nanos

Erik Raymond with some good thoughts on “How to Think about Persecution When You’re Not Very Persecuted:”

In light of the brutal murder of 21 Christians in Egypt this weekend, I received a good question yesterday about suffering: “How do we apply the passages on persecution when we in the West don’t have much of it?”

Mike Wittmer writes about how evangelical attention is shifting from “heaven” after death to “new earth” after Christ’s return, and why both aspects of eternity are good news:

The new earthers must not despise the promise of heaven, but they rightly warn that a fixation on heaven easily distracts from our even greater hope of the new earth. It’s no accident that heaven obsessed evangelicals no longer believe in their future resurrection. This is no small detail, but a threat to the foundation of the Christian faith.

Should public schools teach evolution? Hunter Baker says everyone should learn about evolution, even if you doubt it:

Should evolution be taught in schools?  I think the answer is that it really should be simply because it is by far the dominant theory.  What is the point of protecting your child from the dominant theory when they will come face to face with it in college or later on via any variety of possible encounters?

20 Quotes from great love letters of the 20th century:

9. Nothing has happened as we imagined it would except our children. We never thought we’d roam the world. We never thought our occupations and interests would cover such a range. We never thought that our thirty-third anniversary would find us deep in our second war and me again at the front. Well, darling, we’ve lived up to the most important part of the ceremony, “In sickness and in health, for richer for poorer, till death do you part.” - Theodore Roosevelt Jr.

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Book Notes: The Screwtape Letters / Bonhoeffer On the Christian Life / Memoirs of John R. Sampey

Feb 17, 2015 | Trevin Wax

by C. S. Lewis

How is it that reading a C. S. Lewis book a third time is like reading a new book? I first encountered Screwtape when I was a teenager and picked it up again in my twenties. I was amazed at Lewis’ ability to get into the mind of a demon committed to rendering a Christian man ineffective.

Ten years later, I’m reading the Screwtape Letters yet again, and the experience is still fresh. The parts I remembered from my previous reading weren’t the parts that stood out to me this time around. Maybe it’s because I’m the one who has changed over time, not ScrewtapeReturning to this book years later is like returning as a different person, with different tastes and different temptations, so that the spiritual insights here, delivered through devishly clever fiction, strike me in different places. Here is a passage that stood out: The Safest Road to Hell.

From the Cross, For the World
by Stephen Nichols

I read something by or about Dietrich Bonhoeffer every year. Nichols’ book, part of Crossway’s Theologians on the Christian Life series, serves as a great introduction to Bonhoeffer’s practical theology. If you’ve read a biography of Bonhoeffer (perhaps Metaxas’ or Marsh’s) and you wonder what to read next, I recommend this book. You’ll get an overview of how Bonhoeffer’s Lutheran theology played out in his vision for the Christian life.

Nichols locates Bonhoeffer firmly within the conservative evangelical world, primarily because of his high view of Scripture. But scholars are divided on just how conservative Bonhoeffer was or where his trajectory would have taken him had he lived past World War II. So if you pick up this book as an introduction to Bonhoeffer’s thought, I recommend you follow up by reading Bonhoeffer himself. Start with Discipleship.

John R. Sampey

This is a print-on-demand copy of John R. Sampey’s memoirs, written in the twilight of his long life after having served as a professor of Old Testament for nearly 60 years, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary during the worst of the Great Depression (1929-42) and president of the SBC from 1936-38.

Sampey’s autobiography is full of activity that displays his passion for evangelism, scholarship and missionary work, particularly in Brazil. But what struck me about his memoirs is how often he mentioned the church’s ongoing discipleship ministry. This quote from John Sampey, a seminary president who was deeply involved in weekly lessons for smaller groups, stood out to me:

“When the advocates insisted that the lessons be pupil-centered, I countered by insisting that the lessons should be Christ-centered. I sought to make Jesus Christ the center of each cycle… For 46 years I sought to exalt the redemptive element of the Bible. And how many noble men of the Lesson Committee joined meputting Christ Jesus and His salvation in the center of our lesson system!”

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Worth a Look 2.17.15

Feb 17, 2015 | Trevin Wax

Worth6Kindle Deal of the Day: The Complete Spurgeon Sermons on Genesis$0.99.

Includes all 95 sermons that Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892) preached from Genesis over the course of his ministry.

In The Atlantic, Graeme Wood provides a lengthy and informative article about what ISIS really wants:

Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it. We’ll need to get acquainted with the Islamic State’s intellectual genealogy if we are to react in a way that will not strengthen it, but instead help it self-immolate in its own excessive zeal.

Philip Nation captures well the sentiments of the past weekend, and the numbers that were the topic of conversation: 50,40 and 21 – The Numbers that Defined a Weekend

As I write this on February 16, 2015, I am struck at how three numbers defined the last few days.

50 Shades of Grey: The movie adaptation of the book was released this weekend.

40: Saturday Night Live held a three-hour special on Sunday night to celebrate its fortieth anniversary on air.

21: The number of Coptic Christians who were beheaded by the Islamic terrorist group ISIS.

Bruce Ashford – How Richard John Neuhaus Changed the Way I Think:

If Rawls’ view was wrong, what view was right? I sensed that certain other alternatives—such as withdrawing from the public square, on the one hand, or trying to install a theocracy, on the other hand—were misguided. During this time, I had my first encounter with Richard John Neuhaus via his classic book,The Naked Public Square.

Some reporters are perturbed about the grisly language describing abortion in recent pro-life bills. I wish they were more perturbed about the procedure itself.

The Bloomberg headline was shocking: “Grisly Language Propels Kansas Anti-Abortion Bill as U.S. Model.” Bloomberg journalist Esme E. Deprez was tasked with informing readers about the Unborn Child Protection from Dismemberment Act, which last month was introduced in both Kansas and Oklahoma. The writing experience obviously wasn’t pleasant for her. The story began…

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Awesome God in a Boring Church

Feb 16, 2015 | Trevin Wax

wonderThe surveys and statistics are consistent: people who attend church services regularly are much more likely to adhere to Christianity’s doctrines and moral teachings.

Many of us see these statistics and assume that church attendance is simply one signal of religious devotion, one ritual among many. If you go to church, you must be serious about your faith, and that’s why you’re more likely to hold to your religion’s particular doctrines and morals.    

But what if I told you that church attendance says less about the individual’s seriousness, and more about the church’s formative influence on an individual’s worldview, particularly the sense of awe you feel when you realize you’re one part of a bigger whole?

The Hive Switch

I’ve been interacting with Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind the last few weeks (see herehere, and here), a book which lays out various reasons why humans act the way we do. Part of his argument is to show how important groups are to moral formation. Against the logic of the left (that exclusivity is always wrong), Haidt says:

“We need groups, we love groups, and we develop our virtues in groups, even though those groups necessarily exclude nonmembers. If you destroy all groups and dissolve all internal structure, you destroy your moral capital” (359).

So, why do groups matter? And what role do they serve?

Haidt summarizes Emile Durkheim’s argument that humans are “a creature who exists at two levels: as an individual and as part of the larger society.” There are times when we activate what Haidt calls “the hive switch,” that is, we shut down the self and become part of the whole, much like bees who are fulfilling their roles in a hive.

Durkheim called this phenomenon “collective effervescence.” He described it this way:

“The very act of congregating is an exceptionally powerful stimulant. Once the individuals are gathered together, a sort of electricity is generated from their closeness and quickly launches them to an extraordinary height of exaltation” (262).

Haidt uses college football as an example of losing yourself in the group. “It is a religious rite that does just what it is supposed to do,” he writes. “It pulls people up from Durkehim’s lower level (the profane) to his higher level (the sacred). It flips the hive switch and makes people feel, for a few hours, that they are “simply a part of a whole” (287).

I wonder if this may be one of the reasons evangelicals love to attend large conferences. We love to be in a congregation of strangers who believe the same things, worship the same Savior, and are raising their voices through the same songs. People who return from a Promise Keepers rally, Together for the Gospel, or a Beth Moore conference often talk about getting goose bumps or being moved to tears while singing along with the thousands in attendance.

Awe in Nature, Awe in Worship

Haidt mentions several ways to “activate” the hive switch, but the one I want to focus on is awe.

“Awe acts like a kind of reset button: it makes people forget themselves and their petty concerns. Awe opens people to new possibilities, values, and directions in life. Awe is one of the emotions most closely linked to the hive switch – they are simply part of the whole” (264).

Haidt is focusing here on awe in nature, a sense of wonder at our smallness in light of the world’s grandeur. But I wonder if there isn’t a point of application for how we consider worship.

The common knowledge goes like this: in order to get people to attend worship services regularly, you need to make sure that the music and message are relevant to where they are in life. In other words, make it about them.

Unfortunately, that’s getting it backwards. Now, don’t misunderstand me: the Bible is filled with relevance for our daily living, and the pastor or worship planner who doesn’t think about how Sunday morning relates to Monday is missing a major part of what it means to communicate the gospel in our day and age.

But is it possible that our worship services have become so much about ourselves that we find it difficult to “get outside” our “petty concerns,” as Haidt says? Church leaders look with disdain on the member who chooses a day at the lake or a day of mountain climbing instead of gathering with the body of believers. But when you talk to the church-skippers, you’ll hear them say they have a hard time resisting the “awe in nature” Haidt referred to. And even if we don’t support the decision to skip church for a nature walk, perhaps we should ask why some of our church members discover “awe” outside of the church, but not inside.

Application After Awe

Let me wrap up with something I included in Gospel-Centered Teaching. I warned about a pastor’s tendency to rush toward application without first evoking awe:

Not long ago, I was speaking to a group of student ministers on this very subject. We were talking about our tendency to become so familiar with some of the stories in the Bible that we are no longer awed by the truth of the narrative. I used the story of Jesus calming the storm as an example. How many of us hurry so quickly to apply that story to “Jesus’ presence with us during the storms of life” that we miss the moment of awe that led the disciples to say, “What kind of man is this? – even the wind and seas obey Him!” (Matt. 8:27). It’s fine to apply the account of Jesus calming the storm in various ways. But don’t rush to that application so quickly you miss the moment of awe.

A few days after my talk with the student ministers, one of them sent me a tweet, saying, “I couldn’t sleep last night thinking… He really did silence the storm. Crazy.” The student minister had gone from over-familiarization with a famous story of Scripture to once again being captured by the power of the narrative. He marveled at the power of Jesus, which is exactly what the biblical authors intended our reaction to be.

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