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! 

NEXT POST

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.

NEXT POST

Challenges: A Little Background

As I approach graduation from seminary, I’d like to write a series of posts recounting some of the challenges I’ve faced over the past eight and a half years. Yes, it’s taken me that long to finish my M.Div., and yes, I am so…done. But I wouldn’t trade the time I’ve been given to soak up my classes for anything.

A little background to the series…

I came to seminary for several reasons. One, as I prepared lessons/messages for my former youth group back home, I realized that I didn’t really know how to study the Bible or preach it that well. I had a hunger to understand what I was looking at and how to communicate it.

Two, I had questions. Theological questions. Philosophical questions. And after attempting for a while to find the answers to these questions on Google and YouTube, it became clear that I needed a set of skills that I didn’t possess.

Side note… Nowadays when folks ask challenging theological questions of me, I usually respond with: “You’re asking a hard question. Are you willing to do the hard work required to find the answer?” Sadly, what I’ve found is that, while many don’t have a problem asking the deep questions of life, they simply don’t want to put in the effort that is necessary to find answers. Even more sad is how this apathy so often leads to either nominal religious belief or skepticism.  More on that later.

Back on topic…

So, to catch you up on my story. I didn’t find all the answers I was looking for. I think I found a lot of them, and I feel like many of the rest can be narrowed down to a couple of good options. But I’ve come to accept that there are several questions that I’m not going to get answers to – at least not in this life. And I’ve found peace even in this realization.

So, don’t think that this series is about me offering a shortcut or magic pill for life’s tough questions. It’s really about what I wish I could go back and tell myself a decade ago.
And it’s about helping people who may be now where I was then.

NEXT POST

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.

Assessment and Affirmation

This week Heather and I have been in Denver, CO for the North American Mission Board (NAMB) assessment retreat. We weren’t exactly sure what to expect over the two-day event; so we were a little nervous going in.

At the retreat we met NAMB reps, church planters, pastors, and specialists from all over the country, and their goal was to help us get an accurate picture of ourselves – our strengths and weaknesses – with regard to church planting.

We will not have any official results for a week or two, but our feedback was overwhelming positive, encouraging, and affirming. And while there are definitely some areas in which we need to grow, we feel more confident than ever that we are in line with God’s direction for our lives.

Windsor, here we come! 

Heather and I spent the better part of today (Thursday) in the Town of Windsor. The more time I spend there and the more I learn about the town, the more I realize how much need there is and how well it fits our team. We’re so thankful for God’s supernatural guidance in this process. As I read in His word this morning:

“I bow down…and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness, for you have exalted above all things your name and your word. On the day I called, you answered me; my strength of soul you increased.”  -Psalm 138:2-3

An Update from the Duke Family

Dear friends,

I’ve been wanting to write this update for a while now, but a number of factors have delayed it. As of my last post, our church plant team was considering the city of Greeley, CO for our location. Within 24 hours of that blog post, we felt redirected to the town of Windsor, CO. After two week-long vision trips and lots of conversations with local pastors and North American Mission Board representatives, Windsor very clearly rose to the top of our list.

One of the reasons I’ve hesitated to announce this outside of our church is that I was waiting for confirmation from the Lord. I knew what I wanted to do; but so often the Lord’s plans are different than our own.

Then, a few weeks ago, we got word that a new baseball sports park (the largest in the world!) is going to be built in Windsor. Construction starts October 1. The influx of people that this development will bring into the area will in itself more than justify the planting of a new church. Windsor is on the verge of incredible growth, and we want to be right in the middle of the kingdom growth that this will bring! We had already chosen the northwest corner of the town as our target area, and this just happens to be where the new sports park will be built! All of this is very exciting, and it was the kind of confirmation that I was looking for.

To date, we have four couples on our church plant team, and our home church, Christ Baptist, has agreed to support us for five years. I am blown away by God’s provision!

We leave this Sunday, July 9th, for a 6-day mission trip to Colorado. About half of the mission team is also on our church plant team, and they will spend a couple of days during the trip doing research in Windsor. Our mission trip will involve prayer walking, gospel conversations, man-on-the-street-type Q&A, cookouts in the park, and hosting a “thank you” dinner for the volunteers at a sister church plant.

We are in the process of applying for partnership with NAMB, and we hope to be invited to in-person interviews September 26-27.

If all continues to move as smoothly as it has thus far, team members will begin to look for housing and employment in the last quarter of 2017. Our church plant team will also form a new small group which will meet weekly beginning August 25th.

By early 2018, our new youth minister at Christ Baptist should be in place, and throughout the spring of 2018, team members will make trips to Windsor to secure homes and employment. Our target move date is July 15, 2018.

We will spend the first 18 months in Colorado learning from other church planters in the area, loving our neighbors, and having gospel conversations. Our vision is for a church where every member is a disciple-maker. We hope to develop at least two strong small groups before considering acquiring a facility in which to meet.

Our desire is to then obtain a multi-use facility that will add value to the Windsor community. We have a ton of ideas here. Maybe it will function as a co-op workspace or cafe. Perhaps fitness or art clubs will use it during the week. It could house an after-school program and/or counseling and recovery groups. And, of course, our church will worship there every Sunday evening.

How can you help?
1. PRAY – continue to pray that God would confirm the calling He has placed upon the lives of our church plant team.

2. LISTEN – if you hear of anyone that is moving to northern Colorado in the near future, please connect them with me. We would love for them to consider joining our team.

3. INVITE – from January to July of 2018, I hope to spend time casting the vision for our plant in churches around the country. My goals in this are to build a network of prayer support and seek out others who might join us in Windsor. If your church is open to me coming and speaking, please let me know.

Thank you all for your friendship and encouragement over the years!
I really feel like God has been preparing us for this work for a long time.
Knowing that you are behind us makes all the difference!

In Christ,
The Duke Family

 

Denver: Days 3-4

Our team is sitting in the Denver airport about to fly home, so I thought I’d take these few minutes to finish telling you about our vision trip to Denver, CO. Thank you so much for the prayers and encouragement via comments, Facebook, email, and text. They have been an invaluable part of the trip.

On day 3, we spent the morning with a precious family in the northern Front Range, who is a friend of one of our team members. They were so gracious. They prepared breakfast for us, mapped out a tour of the Fort Collins area, and took most of their morning to show us around. Thank you Matt and Becky!

In the Fort Collins area we found a culture that felt familiar to us North Raleighites, along with more affordable housing. We also drove by the newly constructed Mormon temple.

There seems to be a stronger church presence in Fort Collins than Denver, but there is still great need.

For example: the Alliance for Suicide Prevention of Lamier County states: “On average, one person in Larimer County [the county in which Fort Collins is located] dies from suicide every 4 to 5 days.” Our team talked about how hard this is for us to understand. Fort Collins is highly educated and affluent, offers almost unmatched opportunity for recreation, and has the Rocky Mountains for its backyard. Why then is there such depression and hopelessness?

I would never want to oversimplify a problem as big as this, but as believers we understand that beautiful landscapes were never meant to offer lasting peace. Their beauty is intended to cause humans to recognize the Creator and worship Him. No amount of knowledge, money, or fun will quench our spiritual thirst for love and joy. This is why a continued and ever-growing gospel witness through church-planting is so important.

We finished our morning tour with an even clearer vision of the need for church planting along the Front Range and with excitement about where God might call us. And since we weren’t able to secure any more meetings for Saturday afternoon/evening, we decided to head into Rocky Mountain National Park for some fun and to talk through all that we’d experienced over the previous 48 hours.

Once inside the park, it’s not hard to see why the mountains are such a draw. They are magnificent! God was just showing off when He formed those jagged peaks and crystal clear streams.

After our time in the park, we headed back down to the city of Denver. What a contrast! We transitioned from taking pictures of Elk (who couldn’t care less if we were around) to attempting to navigate the city’s public transportation system.

I’m really glad that we ended our exploration of the Front Range by spending Saturday night walking around the city. To me cities accentuate most vividly the brokenness caused by sin. How can a person who has limitless parties, partners, entertainment, food, and drink never find contentment? How can someone who has lived in the city for almost a decade soberly and sincerely state, “I have no friends” (True story told to us by one church planter, and apparently not an uncommon one)?

They need Jesus – the Friend of sinners – to heal their brokenness and satisfying their longing. And they need the church – His body – to be the tangible representation of that healing and satisfaction.

On our last day, we visited a brand new church plant (in only their second week of public worship services), which is working hard to be the hands and feet of Christ; and after worship, we had a final team meeting to discuss where we need to go from here.

There is still a lot of work to be done before it can be decided if Denver is where we will plant. Many follow-up emails need to be written and phone calls made. Further study needs to be done on specific neighborhoods. But more than this, as all of the knowledge we’ve gained and experiences we’ve had begin to settle in our minds, we need God to direct us.

Pray that He would continue to direct us.
Pray that if Denver Metro or somewhere else on the Front Range is where He wants us to plant a church, He would make that clear.
And pray that when steps of faith need to be made in the coming days, we will not shy away from them but move forward in obedience to our King.

For His sake and for the joy of the nations,
Andy