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! 

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Church Music: Content, Unity, & Style

“Let the word of Christ dwell in your richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”
-Col. 3:16, ESV

My pastor is preaching through Colossians this summer; and he covered chapter 3, verses 12-17 this past Sunday. This triggered some new thoughts in my mind about how we should select songs for our worship services.

My priorities, in order, are: content, unity, and style. 

1. Content
First and foremost, the content of a song needs to be true. The words need to communicate something and that something needs to be biblically accurate. I also believe that that communication needs to balance theological depth with clarity. In other words, I’m still glad to sing “A mighty fortress is our God,” even though no one knows what a bulwark is in anymore; but we need to be careful with overusing songs like this that need translation.

If we’re honest, there is a tendency in the human heart to view archaic things (even archaic language) as sacred simply because it’s archaic (think the KJV-only mindset). We need to resist this urge. Theological depth doesn’t mean we have to talk like Puritans. Every language in every time period has the capacity to communicate clearly and robustly.

[And just so I’m being fair: some also tend to consider me-centered, self-help psychology language in our worship songs to be sacred too.]

Why do I place content first in my priorities?

Because here in Colossians 3:16 the Apostle Paul makes a direct connection between “The word of Christ” and singing. One of the ways in which the word is to dwell richly among us is in our singing.

For this reason, I think one of the best practices in song writing is to paraphrase or summarize specific passages of Scripture. Also, one of the great features of many hymns is the movement from addressing sin or struggle to proclaiming the gospel and future glory (e.g. “It is Well,” “O Great God”).

 

2. Unity.
In the context of Colossians 3, and other similar passages in the New Testament, unity in local church worship is of the utmost importance.

Col. 3:12-14 says, “Put on then…compassionate hearts…bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other…And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”
Ephesians 5:21 says, “…submitting to one another out of reverence for God.”
And 1 Corinthians 14:26 says, “Let all things be done for building up.”

Unity under content and over style means that each church member exhibits passionate devotion to the truths of God’s word and deference toward the others’ preferences. In a context of obvious diversity, one should find themselves regularly and joyfully thinking: “This song isn’t really ‘my thing,’ but I’m so glad that it ministers to the mind and heart of my brother or sister.” This is what Paul means in Philippians 2 when he says, “…in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (vv. 3-4).

 

3. Style
Every culture in the world has its own unique expressions of worship; and this, so long as it is biblical, is beautiful. It is a picture of the diversity of the kingdom of God, and we should celebrate this diversity.

I don’t think that this means that every church must become as culturally diverse as possible; but, let’s be honest, at this point there seems to be little danger of that. As Lecrae pointed out, “Most segregated time of day is Sunday service / Now what you think that say about the God you worship?”

Truth is, just like we tend to consider archaic or emotional language sacred, we all tend to think of our favorite worship style as sacred. And that’s where the southern American church went wrong 20+ years ago. “Traditional” and “Contemporary” church members alike used their tongues to “bless our Lord and Father, and…curse people who are made in the likeness of God” (Jas. 3:9). They sacrificed unity on the altar of preference.

Yep. For me, this subject always seems to come back around to the regret I feel for what was and what could have been. Instead of gently integrating new styles of music into the church, the young started talking against “the old people;” and instead of being excited about and accepting of new cultural expressions of worship, it was said that we were letting the world’s (or the Devil’s!) music in. And the result looked more like Darwin’s rapid and catastrophic evolution of species than the advancement of the kingdom of God.

I truly believe that if the southern American church had prioritized depth and clarity of content (particularly on the contemporary side) and unity (on both sides) over style in the 90s and early 2000s, our churches would be healthier today and our witness to the world would be much more convincing.

Unfortunately, we can’t go back.
But we can move forward.
And I pray we will, with theologically rich, edifying singing.

Saved to Be Spent

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” -Luke 9:23

So far in 2016 I’ve been thinking a good bit about the question, “What is our salvation for?” I mean, I know that I am to be sharing the gospel with others, discipling them, and producing fruit in my character (love, joy, peace, etc.), but what does this look like in every day life?

A new horizon opened up when I encountered a little video series entitled “For the Life of the World” by the Acton Institute. The message of the series is that we, just like Israel in exile, are called to “seek the welfare of the city where [God has sent us]…and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare [we] will find welfare” (Jer. 29:7).

We are called to add value and beauty and LIFE to whatever spaces and relationships God placed us in. We do this most powerfully as we share the gospel and see broken and sinful human begins transferred from the domain of darkness into the kingdom of Jesus (Col. 1:13-14). But sharing the gospel is not where it begins or ends. In fact, we are called to leverage all of our gifts – as human begins made in the image of God and begin re-made into the image of Christ – for the flourishing of our neighborhoods, cities, workplaces, churches, families, and friendships. 

There is a temptation in the American evangelical church culture to be very thankful for all that God has given us (1 Tim. 6:17) without realizing that it has been given for a purpose. We have been blessed with a house, a job, a family, a church, etc. in order to be a blessing in the context of the relationships that those things create.

Though we are called to enjoy what God has given us, Christians are not saved and blessed that we might use these things up on ourselves. We are blessed that we might bless (Gen. 12:2). We are saved to be spent. 

And this is why Jesus says in Luke 9:23, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” In Luke 9, Jesus has just revealed to His disciples who He is (vv. 18-20) and what He has come to do (vv. 21-22); and what He has come to do is pour out His life for the eternal life of the world (John 3:16-17).

In like manner, we have been given the great privilege of signing over all that we own, all that we love, all that we hope for, and even our very lives, to the One who saved us.

“Here is my life. Spend it as you will,” should be our posture.
“Spend it in ordinary or remarkable ways.”
“Spend it through times of suffering and times of comfort.”
“Spend it in times of need or in abundance.”
“Spend it right where I am, or spend it in a foreign land.”
“Spend my resources as you please, Lord.”
“Spend my family’s time as you will.”
“Spend my life for Your glory and for the eternal life of the world.”

“For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake,” Jesus says, “will save it” (Luke 9:24). 

Good Devotional Books

Faith is a community project. Christians are called to learn and grow in the community of believers. We are to do this most frequently and faithfully in the context of a commitment to a particular local church – through listening to the preaching and teaching of God’s Word, singing God’s Word corporately, and engaging in relationships with people whom we allow to truly know us and to whom we give permission to correct us and challenge us.

Another amazing thing about the Christian faith, however, is that we can engage in this community project not only with those in our local church but also with believers from all over the world and throughout church history. The perspective of a southeast Asian believer can sometimes shed new light on God’s Word for a southern American like me; and the perspectives of believers like John Wesley and St. Augustine can also open up new worlds of understanding.

The above reason is why I appreciate (some) devotional books. Devotional books attempt to briefly and simply teach and apply God’s Word, and I believe there is a lot of value in this.

Unfortunately, there is also a lot of junk out there. I won’t go on a rant, and I won’t name specific books, but I will encourage you to choose your devos wisely. Don’t pick devos that only intend to “encourage,” being akin to self-help psychotherapy. One of the greatest encouragements a believer can receive is a rebuke from the Word of God. Just like the growth of a child depends on the discipline of her parents, our spiritual growth depends on the discipline of our Heavenly Father. (see Heb. 12:5-11; 2 Tim. 3:14-17).

So my recommendation, for what it’s worth, is to pick devotionals that attempt to unpack and explain and apply the Scriptures. Stay away from devos that attempt to speak for God, and run to devos that acknowledge that God has already spoken for Himself in His Word. And seek to understand His Word with the help of mature and careful believers.

That said, here a few of my recommendations to this end:

1. By God’s Word by Phillip Jensen (2 volumes):
http://www.matthiasmedia.com.au/by-god-s-word

2. My Utmost for His Highest by Oswald Chambers:
Website – http://utmost.org/
Purchase – http://www.amazon.com/Utmost-His-Highest-Oswald-Chambers/dp/1572937378?ie=UTF8&keywords=my%20utmost%20for%20his%20highest&qid=1464689075&ref_=sr_1_6&sr=8-6

3. New Morning Mercies by Paul David Tripp:
http://www.paultripp.com/new-morning-mercies

4. Solid Joys by John Piper (FREE mobile app and online):
App – https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/john-piper-daily-devotional/id553049864?mt=8
Website – http://solidjoys.desiringgod.org/en

5. Daily Growth by Ken Boa (FREE online):
http://www.kenboa.org/daily-prayer/

This is only a brief list of good options. What are some of your recommendations?

Boring testimonies

I pray that my kids (and the kids in my youth group) will have a “boring” testimony.

I began thinking about this over a decade ago when my sister, who never “ran far from God” in college, brought up the subject. Whole-heartedly acknowledging the innate sinfulness in her heart, her point was that she felt looked down on because she had not been rescued from alcoholism or a life of promiscuity.

The way this often plays itself out in the church is in the use of the phrase: “He has such a great testimony!” 

What we mean by this is: “He has such an exciting testimony!”

It’s the stuff of good novels or movies.

But maybe we shouldn’t consider “good” and “exciting” to be absolute synonyms in this case. I say this not because the salvation and transformation of a drug addict is not good, but because every single salvation and transformation of a human soul is good… and exciting! 

Unfortunately the story of a child who was raised in the church, discipled by their parents, reborn at an early age, and faithful in their walk with God (as much as any believer ever is) does not register with our fleshly minds as exciting. It’s mundane. It’s every day.

But it’s not! It’s beautiful… and wonderful… and miraculous!

It is a gift that God would be gracious in preventing such a person from suffering the long-term consequences of foolishness and at the same time immediately plunge them into the depths of the front line fight for the affections of their heart, a battle every believer faces daily.

A “boring” testimony is no cause for boasting on the part of the believer, for all are hopeless apart from Christ, but it does seem wholly appropriate to see such Christians as examples to follow. Young Timothy seems to have had just such a testimony and been such an example (see 2 Tim. 1:5ff).

So I pray regularly that my children are drawn to salvation at an early age. This means that I pray that God would reveal to them the depths of their depravity and their desperate need for Jesus Christ. I also pray that God would help my wife and me to be faithful to disciple our children in the ways of Jesus. Finally, I pray that our children would walk faithfully with Christ, confronting their heart sins with the gospel and daily repenting and believing.

I pray that they will have “boring” testimonies.

Spend time with sinners. Show them mercy.

“And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” -1 Cor. 6:11 ESV

On more than one occasion in my life, I’ve held to assumptions about certain “types” of people; and then, after actually spending time with them, my assumptions were radically altered, and my view toward their “type” was necessarily changed. As an inerrantist, conservative, evangelical Christian, I believe that the Bible never changes, but after studying church history a bit, it is obvious that some Christians’ “application” of the Bible has been found wanting. Just before the verse I quoted above, the Apostle Paul has given one of his lists of those whose sinful ways will condemn them at the final Judgment, and then he takes the time to remind the Corinthians that some of them too were once in this state. But Christ and His gospel washed them!

Perhaps it is, at the moment, too much for me to ask some of my fellow believers to spend time with those of this world who are enslaved to self-destructive patterns – to take the light into the dark places and be the agent by which such men an women are washed, justified, and sanctified. I understand and honestly struggle with this at times as well. Yet I would humbly and strongly urge you to at least spend time with those whom you call “brother” or “sister,” those whom you would claim are washed, but who still struggle with the painful and addictive effects of sin.

For me, it has only taken sitting with a Christian still struggling with alcoholism once. For me, it has only taken one time of talking to a drug addict just after they’ve fallen again. For me, it has only taken listening to a 40+ year old man talk about the fact that he’s only ever been attracted to those of his same sex – listening to his choice to be lonely but chaste because he has been washed, while understanding that God may not free him from this struggle until he is free from his flesh and this world.

Some say we should redefine the Bible’s definition of sin. Others say we should condemn all those who struggle in ways that are foreign to us. Neither are helpful or loving.

Why? Because sin is not just a choice, it is not only rebellion. It is also not just brokenness, not only a cause for pity. Those who would embrace only the former will become hypocrites, and those who cling to the latter will never really help anyone – their pity is powerless because it ignores God’s holy standard. But if we understand that sin as both rebellion against God and an innate brokenness, we will be presented with an opportunity to be used by God to bring comfort and heart-change.

In all of this, I’m simply asking believers to not only mimic the message of Jesus and the apostles, but also emulate their methods. Sit down with the woman at the well, and since you don’t have inexhaustible knowledge about her (as Jesus did)… just listen. Go into the house of Zacchaeus and Mary Magdalene, or, if you are not willing or able at the moment, at least reserve judgment until you do. This is not only prudent but essential, for James give us another warning that Christians dare not ignore: “So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment” (Js. 2:12-13 NASB). We show mercy because we have been shown mercy in the gospel, and we show mercy because we are continually being shown mercy as we are both broken and rebellious each day.

Yes, God forbid that we redefine His holy standard, and God forbid that we be found on Judgment Day lacking in mercy after the Son of God left Heaven to suffer crucifixion that we may be washed, justified, sanctified, and (Praise His Name!) shown mercy.

In Christ,
Andy