Challenges: The Gospel is for Christians

*This post is part of a series on challenges I’ve faced while in seminary.START AT THE BEGINNING or check out the PREVIOUS POST

In my previous post, I talked about the joyless seriousness that often characterized my heart in the mid-2000s. Somewhere along the way, I also picked up the belief that any imperfection in me could be dealt with by means of even greater seriousness and determination. This, however, only led to further frustration and failure.

But – praise God! – during my first two years in seminary, the Holy Spirit began to use professors, fellow students, and brothers and sisters at my church to help me more clearly understand the gospel of grace.

I still remember the moment when I heard for the first time that the gospel is not just what gets us in to Heaven but also what gives us the power to live the Christian life. I thought the gospel was for justification, and hard work (Sure…dependence on God in some undefinable way…but mostly hard work!) was for sanctification, but the chapel preacher I heard on September 27, 2011 told me that I needed the gospel for both. I needed to keep “preaching the gospel to myself” if I had any hope of becoming more like Jesus. I needed to continually…daily…multiple times a day…fall upon the mercies of Christ to overwhelm my heart with a greater happiness than my sin could offer.

This started a revolution in my life.

Not only did passages like John 15:1-17 (“…apart from me, you can do nothing,” ESV) and Romans 12:1-2 (“I appeal to you…by the mercies of God…,” ESV) make more sense than ever, but I began to see how Paul aimed at heart change by continually preaching the gospel…TO CHRISTIANS! What was the content of the first half of most of Paul’s letters to Christian churches? The gospel. He reminded Christians of the gospel before giving them practical commands; and, even in the practical commands, gospel truths were embedded.

Before this realization, I was one of those Christians who was bothered by Reformed people always talking about, “Gospel, gospel, gospel.” Now I understand, as Jeff Vanderstelt puts it, “Paul knows that if people are going to grow up into Christ in every way, they need to hear the truths of Jesus (the gospel) and learn to speak them into everything,” (Gospel Fluency, 28; cf. Eph. 4:11-16; 1:10; Col. 1:20).

So, if there was only one thing I could pass along to you through this Challenges series, it would be Paul’s message in the letter to the Galatians. We don’t leave the gospel behind after being regenerated in order to grow in the Christian life (Gal. 3:3). We continue deeper and deeper into –  turning over new, beautiful, and exciting facets of – the significance of a God who loved us so much that He took on human flesh, humbled himself to the point of death on a cross, and rose again to give us eternal life. This gospel sets us free from daily temptation and sin; and this gospel motivates us toward happiness in holiness! 


Why Faith?

“But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it – the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” -Romans 3:21-22a, ESV

It may sound strange, but one question about Christianity I have thought a lot about is:”Why faith?” Why is it that God chose faith as the means by which men and women are made right with Him? Why not some other means?

Well, let’s first consider our other options. I can think of two:

Option #1: Works, effort, religious observance, etc. This option would mean that we somehow make ourselves right with God by making up for our own sin and inadequacy. This is the path that most religions of the world take and is, I would argue, the default of the heart of man. We want to “redeem ourselves.” But what is the actual result of this attempt to be right with God? If one comes to think that he has been successful in his efforts, boasting is the result. This is why the Apostle Paul explains that the gospel of grace removes any ability to boast (Rom. 3:27; Eph. 2:9).

However if one has a more realistic view of himself, he quickly begins to realize that he can never “balance out” his good with his bad. What rubric would determine the moral weight of his thoughts, words, and actions anyway? How could he even begin to keep score? Attempting to do this would be maddening.

Option #2: Sin is no big deal. I suppose another option might be for God to treat our sin as if it is no big deal. This seems to be the default of the secular, agnostic modern man. The problem with this is also immediately obvious. For God to treat our sin as if it is no big deal would be to undermine His perfect goodness, justice, and holiness. When God chooses to give mercy and grace to human beings, this is not the same thing as treating our sin as if it is no big deal. Quite the opposite. God has provided a way to lavish mercy and grace upon us, but only at great cost to Himself – the death of His Son, Jesus Christ. In this way, He remains just and is able to simultaneously be our Justifier (Rom. 3:26). In the gospel, God does not set aside His goodness, justice, or holiness; He upholds them and at the same time makes a way for us to be right with Him.

But even if one were to reject the idea that God must maintain His goodness, justice, and holiness, the “no big deal” argument still can’t hold water. In order for the world to be a good and just place (which even the most anti-religious want!), all evil and injustice must be removed. The Bible tells us that this is precisely what God is up to in His plan of redemption, but if He were to treat sin as if it is no big deal, then He could never accomplish this mission. He would go on allowing this and that “minor” sin to continue, and thus never bring complete goodness or justice to the world.

Hopefully I’ve given you some good reasons to reject the other supposed options that are offered in our quest to be right with God. But we can’t stop there. It is also important for us to realize why faith is in fact the best means God could have chosen to make us right with Himself. This becomes clear when we realize what biblical faith actually is.

You see, in today’s culture, the words “faith” and “belief” have taken on a particularly religious flavor. For most people, these words have come to mean the acknowledgement or affirmation of a set of doctrines. And while biblical faith is not less than affirming true things about God and His world, it is way more!

Biblical faith is more akin to our English words for “trust” and “confidence.” The Bible knows nothing of a true faith which acknowledges doctrine without living in line with that doctrine – without loving God and loving people in response to that doctrine (Jas. 2:14-26). This points us to the superiority of faith over works and the “no big deal” mentality.

Think about it. The ideas or persons or things in which we place our trust guide every aspect of our lives. If you trust your parents or teachers, you listen to what they say. If you trust an airplane, you take your seat on the flight. If you trust a restaurant or grocery store, you eat their food. If you trust others, you develop deep relationships with them; but if you trust only yourself, you live a guarded and self-centered existence.

Trust is the linchpin of the will. It permeates every thought and precedes every word we say and action we perform. Every belief held, every decision made, every word spoken, and ever action taken is first filtered through our personal faith in someone or something. This is not simply an abstract religious concept. This is a what is means to be human. This is what it means to have a will and to live genuinely human lives: we evaluate who/what we trust, and we move forward in light of our belief. Because it is such a fundamental part of who we are, most of the time we don’t even realize we’re doing it.

And so, it is incredible to think about how God in His wisdom chose the kind of gospel He chose in order to create the kind of outcome that was needed. We needed our wills changed that we might trust Him; so He sent His Son to display His mercy and grace, which lead us to repentance (Rom. 2:4). At its core, to sin is to not trust God (see Gen. 3:1ff). So at its core, repentance must be about placing our trust back in God. And the gospel is the glorious reason why we should trust Him.

How can we move from questioning God’s goodness to being like God in His goodness? The gospel (Jesus’ sinless life, sacrificial death, and victorious resurrection on our behalf) is meant to so radically reorient our will that we truly, finally realize life’s most important truth: we can trust Him.  

Conquering Suffering through Suffering

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us…For we know that the whole creation has been groaning…And not only the creation, but we ourselves…groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for…the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved…Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness…the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words…And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good…For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.” -Romans 8:18-29 ESV

As I drove from Raleigh to North Georgia yesterday – on my family’s yearly trek to the motherland for Christmas – I had quite a bit of time to think. The events of the past week and my upcoming teaching series on the subject of doubt kept the problem of evil/suffering bouncing around in my head.

There is always great suffering happening around the world, but over the past six months death has been lingering close to my neighborhood. So many of my friends and church family have experienced great pain and loss.

Some argue that if God is all-powerful, then He is capable of stopping evil/suffering; and if God is all-good, then He would stop it. Therefore, they conclude, an all-powerful, all-good God does not exist. Of course, as Christians we believe that God will stop evil and suffering in the New Creation, and He sent His Son Jesus to begin that restoration project.

Yet we are left with the questions: “Why is this restoration not immediate? Why do we suffer now? Why did this spouse or child die? Why did this financial crisis ensue? Why was this terrorist attack allowed to happen?”

Christians would be disingenuous to fail to acknowledge the real pain and difficulty involved in answering these questions. I don’t for one second intend with this post to belittle the complex nature of suffering. At times we must say with Job, “Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth” (Job 40:4). In other words, God is God and I am not. It is good to sit humbly under this weighty reality.

Yet I do believe there is more that we can say. In fact, there may even be specific “reasons” for our pain beyond our ability to number. However, I think that the bigger story of the Bible along with Romans 8 in particular point us to one beautiful, over-arching reason, and it may just be the most important one.

Track with the Bible’s logic. Man’s sin in the Garden of Eden broke the creation. Enter suffering and death. God sent Jesus to begin the project of restoring creation, but not just back – and this is important! – to its original state in the Eden. Revelation 22’s Garden is much more glorious than Eden. In it there is no possibility of evil or suffering.

One of the central questions of the Bible then is, “How can human beings be transformed in such a way that, even if they were placed back in Eden and given the same choice as Adam and Eve, they would never again choose sin?”

Some immediately respond, “That’s not the point! Jesus chose rightly for us because we never could or would!” But this is only half of the truth. Jesus did live the life we couldn’t live on our behalf, and He did die the death that we deserve in our place. But He also rose from the grave, victorious over sin and death. He defeated death through death. And He has now given us His Spirit – the means by which He is conforming us to the image and character of His Son.

That’s where Romans 8 comes in.

In short, Paul says that the suffering we are experiencing now can’t compare to the glory that’s coming in the New Creation.

Yes, creation is groaning now. Yes, we are groaning now, but even in the midst of our groaning, even when we don’t know how to pray or what to say to God, the Holy Spirit is praying on our behalf!

Then comes the promise that should never become cliche to us: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (8:28). And what is the “good” that Paul promises in the immediate context?

We will become like Jesus.

We will become the kind of human beings who, like Jesus, always choose right.

We will be transformed into the kind of human beings who are fit for a world which has no suffering, the kind of human beings who are no longer capable committing evil or causing suffering in the New Heavens and New Earth.

Ultimately, since we are called and justified by Jesus, we will be glorified just as He is glorified (8:30).

So what’s my point?

What if the only way human beings like us can be changed in our character to this degree is by looking upon the greatness of our God and trusting in Him even (or especially) as we go through the refining furnace of suffering.

Yes, suffering and death in our world are the promised results of Adam and Eve’s sin; but if our Savior was so powerful that He conquered death through death, I don’t think that it’s too far-fetched to suppose that He is, even at this moment, conquering our suffering through our suffering!

If the atheist is right, then Shakespeare’s Macbeth is also right in stating that life is “But a walking shadow, a poor player, / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, / And then is heard no more. / It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.” And there is no one of whom we may ask, “Why?!” In fact, we shouldn’t even ask why, for suffering is merely the natural way things in this material universe.

But if the gospel is true, then we not only have Someome to whom we can cry out in the midst of our pain but also the promise that He will not allow one ounce of it to be wasted.