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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Challenges: God is Good and Wants Me to Be Happy

*This post is part of a series on challenges I’ve faced while in seminary. START AT THE BEGINNING.

No, I didn’t turn prosperity preacher during seminary. But I am convinced that the two most important truths I’ve learned during this time are two of the most important truths anyone can learn in life: God is good and wants me to be happy.

In some sense, most of the posts in this series will be devoted to why I am convinced that God is good. I probably won’t get too much push back on this claim. But some may think, “How can he claim that God wants him to be happy? That just sounds so self-centered and shallow.”

My answer begins and ends with the ministry of John Piper. Passion OneDay 2000 was a watershed moment for many believers in my generation. I wasn’t there in person, but it didn’t take long for me to hear about Piper’s sermon, “Boasting Only in the Cross.” (If you’ve never heard it, take a listen, and see why it impacted so many.) In this sermon, I heard loud and clear, “Don’t waste your life on trivialities! Pour it out in service to the kingdom!” I heard the hard sayings of Jesus and, like so many, became determined to do hard things for Jesus. A year later, I even found myself in China teaching English for half a summer in response to this call.

But in being introduced to Piper so late in his ministry, I missed some of the foundational writing which provided context for that OneDay sermon. I missed concepts like, “The goal of missions is the gladness of the peoples in the greatness of God” (Let the Nations Be Glad, 35, emphasis mine) and “God is most glorified in me when I am most satisfied in Him” (Desiring God, 10, emphasis mine). Yes, Piper said these kinds of things in the OneDay sermon, but I don’t think I heard them.

I heard that I needed to work hard for God. I heard that I needed give and live sacrificially. I heard that I needed to “deny myself.” (And I still believe these things!) Yet, even if subconsciously, I began to believe that these truths meant I needed to deny myself of happiness. Why? Because seriousness and sternness are innately godly…right?

Long story (for another time) short, I returned from China disappointed…disillusioned…and unhappy. For various reasons, I found myself questioning both God’s goodness and His desire for my good. And unfortunately I wasn’t able to shake these for a long time.

But what I’ve discovered during my time in seminary is that happiness in Christ is the fuel of the Christian life. Sure, there is a time and place for doing our duty when we don’t feel like it; but even in this, we know there is greater joy on the other side. It is our delight in God and His ways which ultimately make our obedience pleasing in His sight (cf. Ps. 27:4; Ps. 119:47).

The promise of the New Covenant is the gift of a new heart, which, by the power of the Spirit, is compelled to walk in God’s ways (Ezek. 36:26-27). This heart is a heart of joy, for the fruit of His Spirit is joy (Gal. 5:22).  As the psalmist says, “…in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Ps. 16:11 ESV), and “I delight to do your will, O my God…” (Ps. 40:8 ESV). And, in the words of Jesus, “Happy are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied” (Matt. 5:6).

Why do I use “joy” and “happiness” interchangeably? Because for so many I think the word “joy” has come to mean merely a sort of contended peace. And that’s not bad! But I do wonder if, in only using “joy” to describe the Christian life, such believers miss the command to “Delight yourself in the LORD…” (Ps. 37:4). Yes, we are content. Yes, we have peace. But our faces also light up and our hearts leap at the blessing it is to know and be known by – to love and be loved by – God! 

In this, my final semester of seminary, I finally read Let the Nations Be Glad and am almost halfway through Desiring God. I wish I’d read them two decades ago. Still, I am grateful for the help they have been in overcoming this emotional challenge.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I now believe that the most important thing I can do each morning, as I start my day, is find happiness in Christ. This helps me rightly delight in God’s good gifts without allowing them to become idols. Of course, I don’t live in a constant state of happiness. I have to fight for joy just like everyone else. But I’m grateful for the realization that this is something I can…no, I am commanded to…fight for.

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Why Daily Time with God?

My parents instilled in me the habit of daily time in God’s word and prayer at an early age. In my teen years, I struggled to maintain the habit, but these days I wrestle more with the why. Why am I doing this? What’s in my heart? What do I hope to gain from this time?

I think there are several good reasons to spend daily time with God.

1. Increased knowledge about God. Faithfully walking through a daily Bible reading plan increases your overall familiarity with the things of God.

Paul prayed that God would give the Ephesian believers “the Spirit…of revelation in the knowledge of him” (Eph. 1:17 ESV). Don’t minimize the importance of the foundational activity of increasing your knowledge about God. This is necessary for an experience of God. If your experience of God is not informed by the scriptures, it may not be God you are experiencing.

As we seek to know God through memorizing and mediating on the biblical stories and instructions, we are shaped in our thinking and character. We begin to think like the Bible thinks, and the result is that we begin to live as the Bible directs. This leads to the next benefit of daily time with God.

2. Increased wisdom for life. Paul also prayed that God would give the Ephesian Christians, “the Spirit of wisdom” (Eph. 1:17). When we think of gaining wisdom from God’s Word, our minds probably go to the book of Proverbs. But, all of Scripture is intended to teach us how to live faithfully before God (2 Tim. 3:16). Don’t downplay the dos and don’ts of passages like Colossians 3:5-17 and 1 Corinthians 5-14 (most of the book!).

We might call point 1 “the foundation.” We need to grow in our knowledge about God.

And we might call point 2 “the result.” Daily time with God should affect the way we live.

But neither of these are the heart – the true why – of daily time with God.  In fact, just before Paul’s prayer for wisdom and knowledge for the Ephesians, he spent 12 verses, Ephesians 1:3-14, rejoicing in the gospel!

In Christ, God the Father has “blessed us…with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places…,” chosen and adopted us, redeemed and forgiven us, lavished grace upon us, given us an eternal inheritance (Himself!), and given us the Holy Spirit as the guarantee of that inheritance. These truths cause Paul to burst forth in praise!

The purpose of daily time with God is happiness in God.

3. Increased happiness in Christ. Above all, I hope to get up from my kitchen table and my time with the Lord each day delighting in what Christ has done for me. Like you, I don’t always reach this goal, but I think that just knowing what the goal is helps me reach it more often.

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.

That Doesn’t Make Sense!

On the one hand, there are a lot of religious people in the world who are out of touch with reality. I get that. On the other hand, one cannot get around the very clear biblical idea that God sometimes places His children in situations where trust in Him is required well beyond what makes sense. Sometimes we’re called to believe what God says when it doesn’t make sense, and other times we’re called to obey God’s commands when they don’t make sense.

– Hebrews 11:3 tells us, “By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.” All that exists was created out of nothing. This is illogical to many in our day.

– Genesis 6-9 and 2 Peter 3:5-6 explain that the whole earth was destroyed by water during Noah’s day.

– Genesis 17 and 21 tell us that Isaac was born to 100-year-old Abraham and 90-year-old Sarah.

– Genesis 22 recounts the testing of Abraham’s faith through the near-sacrifice of Isaac.

– Exodus 3 describes God speaking from a perpetually burning bush, and in chapters 7-12 extraordinary plagues in Egypt are God’s chosen means to release His people from slavery.

– Bread falls out of the sky in Exodus 16, and enough water for perhaps millions gushes out of a rock in chapter 17.

– Joshua is asked to walk around a city instead of besieging it (chapter 6).

– The sun stands still (Joshua 10).

– And righteous Job loses everything but his own life (Job 1-2).

Very little, if any, of this is makes sense to the modern mind; and for this reason, many seek to dismiss the Old Testament as an exaggerated fiction. Yet some of these very same people would claim Christ as Lord. But things do not get any easier to explain in the New Testament: water is turned into wine; the blind, lame, deaf, and mute are healed; water is walked on; and storms are stilled. Most significantly, Jesus dies on a cross and rises again bodily! How can any of this be sufficiently explained?

So the question at hand must be this straightforward: “Is there a God who created and controls all things or not?”

If He wrote the laws of physics and He invented time and space, then He is not subject these laws or constraints. He is not bound by “what makes sense” to us. He created “what makes sense,” and He has every right to go outside of it whenever He so chooses. 

And when He does chose to go outside of what makes sense to us, the question becomes: “Will we trust Him?”

Back to the religiously out-of-touch. The question is not: “If I have enough so-called faith, will God give me everything I think I need and want?” Nor is it: “No matter how foolish I am, He’s gonna keep making my life comfortable, prosperous, and easy, right?”

No. I think we go wrong when try to “have faith” in ways and in areas where the Bible speaks clearly in the opposite direction. If we are foolish with our money, God may exhibit grace to miraculously get us out of the mess we made; but most likely, He’s going to try and teach us by letting us stay in the mess. If we are unloving or unkind in our relationships with others, we should not expect to miraculously have deep friendships after a magic prayer.

Keep a budget. Say your sorry. Read and obey God’s Word. Live wisely. This is living by faith!

And when God chooses to act in extraordinary ways in your life, that habit of trusting Him in ordinary situations will carry over into the realm of what doesn’t make sense. 

“And without faith it is impossible to please [God], for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (11:6).


The Moment of Total Victory

“Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.”
– 1 Jo 3:2-3 ESV

In church yesterday morning, the Holy Spirit’s work among us was obvious as we sang these words from the hymn “It Is Well”:

And Lord haste the day 
When my faith shall be sight
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll
The trump shall resound
And the Lord shall descend
Even so it is well with my soul.

As I sang, my mind joyfully turned to this phrase from 1 John 3: “When he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” In fact, I can’t get that phrase out of my mind this summer. It’s about the moment when “My faith shall be sight.” The moment of glorification. The moment when believers will finally and completely cease all rebellion against God’s best for us (sin), and the moment when all of the brokenness which results from our sin will also cease. It is the moment of total victory.

It is as if that moment will be a flash of refining fire from which no one will be able to hide. Those who, by God’s grace through faith, have come to despise their sin and its effects will receive what they’ve been longing for: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matt. 5:6). But those who reject the knowledge of God and His offer of eternal life will, sadly, also be given what they desire – separation from Him.

Our youth group went to camp a few weeks ago, and during one of the services, we were singing songs of worship. At that same moment, though, I couldn’t get my mind off of my own sinfulness. It felt like a dark cloud hovering over my soul. I was tempted to feel defeated, but then we began to sing Hillsong’s “O Praise the Name”:

I cast my mind to Calvary
Where Jesus bled and died for me
I see His wounds, His hands, His feet
My Savior on that cursed tree

Then on the third at break of dawn
The Son of Heaven rose again
O trampled death, where is your sting?
The angels roar for Christ the King

And I can hardly type the words of the final verse without hope, victory, and joy welling up in my heart:

He shall return in robes of white
The blazing sun shall pierce the night
And I will rise among the saints
My gaze transfixed on Jesus’ face

My gaze transfixed on Jesus face. Oh how my soul aches for that moment. I imagine it even now; and it’s amazing how, even in reflecting on that future total victory, I receive a power over sin that no amount of outward religious practice or self-righteous deeds could ever hope to provide. In fact, I think that this is at least part of what the Apostle Paul means when He says, “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth,” (Col. 3:3) and “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind…” (Rom. 12:2).

We can have victory over sin now as we set our minds on our final, total victory. 

And what should be the result of this aching to see Jesus face-to-face? What should come from our longing for that future day of glorification? John says, “Everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.” 

Purifying ourselves today will undoubtedly be more difficult than simply thinking about the gospel; yet it is certain that if we do not first find joy in reflecting on Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, ascension, and return, defeat is all the more likely. Again, overcoming sin today is going to take a lot of (formative and corrective) discipline and self-denial (see Heb. 12), but we dare not attempt it without first “Looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:2).

Finally, don’t forget that “We are God’s children NOW.” And we have not received “the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear…but the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!'” (Rom. 8:15). Romans 8 tells us that the aching in our heart for the moment of Christ’s appearing has been put there by the Holy Spirit, and it is the direct result of having been adopted as a son and daughters of God. Incredible!

So in your struggle against sin today…
look to the past – to the glorious gospel which has set you free,
look to the present – to the reality that you are a child of God, and
look to the future – to the total victory that awaits you when you see Him, for

“When he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.”

Praise His name!

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?