Make the Gospel of Grace a Daily Meditation in 2016

New Morning Mercies“When amazing realities of the gospel quit commanding your attention, your awe, and your worship, other things in your life will capture your attention instead. When you quit celebrating grace, you begin to forget how much you need grace, and when you forget how much you need grace, you quit seeking the rescue and strength that only grace can give. This means you begin to see yourself as more righteous, strong, and wise than you actually are, and in so doing, you set yourself up for trouble.”

–Paul Tripp, New Morning Mercies, Introduction.

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The Spiritual Value of Systematic Theology

I’ll never forget the off-hand remark of a long-time member of my home church the first time I returned for a visit after taking the teaching position I held as a seminary professor. He hadn’t seen me for awhile and didn’t know that I had recently left the pastorate to teach systematic theology in seminary. When I told him that I was now teaching systematic theology, his rather smug reply was, “I didn’t know there was a system to that.”

His reply was not unusual in those church circles. Theology was seen as a positive obstacle to evangelistic fervor and Bible comprehension. Better to just read your Bible, hand out tracts and try to keep all the rules. No need to understand God or Scripture as a unified, comprehensive message revealing God’s glory.

Cornelius Van Til, who was primarily an apologist, understood the tremendous value of theology, not only to the study of the Scriptures, but also to the spiritual vitality of the believer:

If we do not pay attention to the whole of biblical truth as a system, we become doctrinally one-sided, and doctrinal one-sidedness is bound to issue in spiritual one-sidedness. As human beings, we are naturally inclined to be one-sided…

A study of systematic theology will help us to keep and develop our spiritual balance. It enables us to avoid paying attention only to that which, by virtue of our temperament, appeals to us.

Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 2nd ed. Edited by William Edgar (P&R, 2007), 22.

All Christians ought to be reading systematic theology for their own spiritual growth and sanctification. This won’t happen until pastors model sound theology in their preaching. That is the subject of the next post.

Thank You for Telling Me About God. Now Leave Me Alone To Worship My Idols.

I was reading in Daniel this morning when I saw something I had never seen before (don’t you love how the Holy Spirit does that!), and I couldn’t read any further. After Daniel interpreted Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (Dan. 2), in which a rock (Christ) destroys the Babylonian empire and all empires that followed, an amazing thing happens. In the very next verse (3:1), Nebuchadnezzar crafts a golden idol of himself for all to worship. The very next verse! In other words, immediately after declaring to Daniel, “Truly, your God is God of gods and Lord of kings, and a revealer of mysteries, for you have been able to reveal this mystery” (2:47), Nebuchadnezzar rushes out to fashion an idol of himself.

This becomes a pattern in Nebuchadnezzar’s life. After being warned of impending judgment by Daniel in chapter 4 for his pride and self-sufficiency, Nebuchadnezzar has the gall to look over Babylon and praise himself for what he had “built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty” (4:30).

How like Nebuchadnezzar I am! In the same day that I am overwhelmed by the greatness and worthiness of God, I can turn and pride myself in some achievement, glory in my own greatness, or bow before the idol of my desires. I am really no better then Nebuchadnezzar, because like him, I am human and depraved. Like him I can hear the truth, stand in awe of it, praise God for it, and walk away and seek my own glory.

This is nothing more than my proclivity for making myself and my desires idols to be worshipped. Thank you very much for the truth, God, now leave me alone so I can worship myself. More and more I see this tendency as the foundational problem in my struggle with sin. And discovering this has been the path to freedom, for if I can identify the root of my sin, I can kill the fruit by hacking at the root. The grace of God in forgiveness and empowerment means that I CAN see this idolatry dislodged from my heart.

Let’s keep hacking at the root idolatries in our lives until Jesus comes!

Your Character Is Just As Important to Your Apologetics As Your Logic

Christians who develop an interest in apologetics often begin to believe that the most important things to learn are logic, rational arguments, and evidential proofs. They can become very focused on making sure their logic is airtight, while completely ignoring the importance of the moral quality of their life.  Historically, however, Christian apologists never separated rational arguments from their moral and ethical lives.

The 2nd century apologist, Athenagoras, challenged those who put too much stock in philosophy and logic, while ignoring their character. He noted that among the pagans were many who were skilled in logic, grammar and rhetoric, but whose character was unchanged by the truth they claimed to know.

For who of those that reduce syllogisms, and clear up ambiguities, and explain etymologies, or of those who teach homonyms and synonyms, and predicaments and axioms, and what is the subject and what is the predicate, and who promise their disciples by these and such instructions to make them happy; who of them have so purged their souls as, instead of hating their enemies, to love them; and, instead of speaking ill of those who have reviled them…to bless them; and to pray for those who plot against their lives? On the contrary, they never cease with evil intent to search out skillfully the secrets of their art, and are ever bent on working some ill, making the art of words and not the exhibition of deeds their business and profession.

William Edgar and K. Scott Oliphint, Christian Apologetics Past & Present, vol.1 (Crossway: 2009), 77-78.

Athenagoras proceeded to contrast this way of apologetics with the Christian manner, which was a combination of sound argument and pious living:

But among us you will find uneducated persons, and artisans, and old women, who, if they are unable in words to prove the benefit of our doctrine, yet by their deeds exhibit the benefit arising from their persuasion of its truth: they do not rehearse speeches, but exhibit good works; when struck, they do not strike again; when robbed, they do not go to law; they give to those that ask of them, and love their neighbors as themselves.

Athenagoras was highlighting a very important truth: apologetics is not all about rational argumentation. It is also about a Christ-like life that stands just as much in contrast to the lives of the heathen as a sound argument. He also encourages us that even if we don’t know the answer to every challenge brought against the Christian faith, the best response is not always an argument to begin with. Sometimes the best response is Christ-like love, forgiveness, compassion and good works. This should hearten every believer that doesn’t feel that he can always give an answer to those who question his faith. We can all live godly lives of character and good works. That will go a long way toward giving an apologetic that will add much power to our logical arguments.

photoTullian Tchividjian’s  book, One Way Lovedecries the tendency in our churches to focus on changing behavior. Some make the distinction between the indicatives and imperatives of Scripture. The indicatives are statements of fact regarding what God has done for us—the great truths of God’s initiation of redemption. The imperatives are the commands that tell us how we are to respond to the imperatives. Tchividjian says too much of our preaching and attention is on the imperatives of the Christian life to the neglect of the indicatives. The result is that Christianity becomes performance focused:

We’ve concluded that grace just doesn’t possess the teeth to scare us into changing. As a result we get a steady diet of “do more, try harder” sermons; we get a “to do list” version of Christianity that causes us to believe the focus of the Christian faith is the life of the Christian.

In my opinion, this varies from church to church, and ministry to ministry, but it is generally true in evangelical and fundamental churches. The whole idea of maintaining high standards, doing my absolute best in everything, looking my best, etc. can easily devolve into a performance mindset that reeks of pride and judges my standing with God by how well I have done. It is entirely human-centered and typically results in either vanity and self-righteousness or guilt and despair.

The fear of many Christian leaders is that if they stop preaching the imperatives, Christians will start to live lives of license and sin. The truth is, the transition from law to grace sometimes has that effect for a while. When people are used to being motivated by guilt and fear of God’s judgment, it takes awhile for them to begin to respond to God properly in gratefulness and worship. The transition is necessary, however, if the believer is to ever experience a Christian life that reflects the New Testament reality of the finished work of Christ, instead of their own obedience.

One distinction that needs to be made is the one between our standing with God and our fellowship with God. Teaching grace reminds us that our acceptance before God is based entirely on the imputed righteousness of Christ. It depends not at all on anything we do. This is often confused in legalistic ministries. Our standing with God, we are told, depends upon our obedience. This is indistinguishable from Roman Catholic doctrine. On the other hand, grace emphasizes justification by faith through grace. My standing before God has nothing to do with my performance as a Christian. God accepts me because of Christ’s righteousness. It is true, that my experience of God’s blessing is affected by my choices, but not my relationship with God.

For those who bristle at the contention that they are actually preaching law and not grace, there is a consolation. Tullian Tchividjian is not among the most influential evangelicals teaching a Reformed, Calvinistic emphasis on justification. There are many others who are more influential and more widely read, such as John Piper, John MacArthur, and Mark Dever. In fact, the book, One Way Love, is not all that good, compared to other books that cover the same topic of grace and legalism. It contains far too many stories, and tends toward tiresome repetition.

His main point in the book, however, is unlikely to be missed by a growing number of Christians who attend churches that are characterized by a performance mentality. Once a Christian comes to understand the grace of God and the beauty of living in light of the indicatives of Scripture, there is no going back to a Christianity that is still mired in the crushing demands of the law.

Finding Contentment in a Mundane Life

61L0lFuj3PLMany Christians live from one spiritual high to another. They look forward to the next big conference, concert, or special event that promises a mighty work of God, an experience of Jesus, or outpouring of the Spirit. In between the exhilarating spiritual events they have to endure the monotony of real life. Boring, repetitious, and uneventful. In his book, Boring: Finding an Extraordinary God in an Ordinary Life (B&H, 2013), Michael Kelley reminds us that because of God’s unfailing presence and working in this world, everyday life should be anything but boring for a Christian. He writes,

 God’s constant presence is ultimately what makes the insignificant significant. If we look through the pages of Scripture, we find time and time again God invading the ordinary and then making the ordinary into something extraordinary. It’s not that the thing itself changes; rather, whatever it is, in the midst of its ordinariness, becomes ordinary by the virtue of the presence of God…

According to [G. K.] Chesterton, it is a mark of strength, not weakness, to do the same thing gain and again. It is, then, the weak man who is constantly searching and seeking out the next great thing, never content with what stands before him. Ironically, it is the ability to do that which we might consider mundane with honor and even joy that is most difficult for us. We must, in a sense, fight to not fight to escape the ordinary. When we do, we’ll find the extraordinary lurking inside what has become ordinary to us.

I’ve heard it said, and I agree, that the most manly thing a man can do is not to fight an enemy or win a battle, but simply to come home every night to his family, and be a good husband and father. The reality of life is mundane. For the Christian, it is in the daily grind where our faithfulness is tested. First Thessalonians 4:11-12 reminds us of our calling:

Aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one.

If you find yourself always looking for the extraordinary in order to feel close to God or need a spiritual experience to stay motivated, this may be a book that will help you see God in the ordinary.

The Harm of Treating Sin Lightly

From John Piper’s forward to John Owen’s book, Overcoming Sin and Temptation:

As I look across the Christian landscape, I think it is fair to say concerning sin, “They have healed the wound of my people lightly” (Jer. 6:148:11, ESV). I take this to refer to leaders who should be helping the church know and feel the seriousness of indwelling sin (Rom. 7:20), and how to fight it and kill it (Rom. 8:13). Instead the depth and complexity and ugliness and danger of sin in professing Christians is either minimized—since we are already justified—or psychologized as a symptom of woundedness rather than corruption.

This is a tragically light healing. I call it a tragedy because by making life easier for ourselves in minimizing the nature and seriousness of our sin, we become greater victims of it. We are in fact not healing ourselves. Those who say that they already feel bad enough without being told about the corruptions of indwelling sin misread the path to peace. When our people have not been taught well about the real nature of sin and how it works and how to put it to death, most of the miseries people report are not owing to the disease but its symptoms. They feel a general malaise and don’t know why, their marriages are at the breaking point, they feel weak in their spiritual witness and devotion, their workplace is embattled, their church is tense with unrest, their fuse is short with the children, etc. They report these miseries as if they were the disease. And they want the symptoms removed.

We proceed to heal the wound of the people lightly. We look first and mainly for circumstantial causes for the misery—present or past. If we’re good at it, we can find partial causes and give some relief. But the healing is light. We have not done the kind of soul surgery that is possible only when the soul doctor knows the kind of things Owen talks about in these books, and when the patient is willing to let the doctor’s scalpel go deep.

What Owen offers is not quick relief, but long-term, deep growth in grace that can make strong, healthy trees where there was once a fragile sapling. I pray that thousands—especially teachers and pastors and other leaders—will choose the harder, long-term path of growth, not the easier, short-term path of circumstantial relief.

Finding Contentment in Christ

41EVF82B6nL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_“Contentment is the cultivation of a satisfied heart. It is the discipline of being fully alive to God and to others whatever our material circumstances. Contentment is not achieved through getting everything we want but by training the heart to experience full joy and deep peace even when we don’t have what we want.”

Jeff Manion’s new book, Satisfied: Discovering Contentment in a World of Consumption  (Zondervan, 2013; 224 pages) challenges and coaxes readers to think about their “stuff.” Rather than being identified and possessed by our possessions, Manion reminds us that in Christ we have been adopted, bought and sealed. We are God’s possession, and we need to see ourselves that way. He expounds the power of both serving and sharing as a sure way to detach us from our possessions. Manion constantly takes us to Scripture in this volume, skillfully weaving biblical stories with compelling exhortation. For anyone who feels the suffocating weight of discontentment, this book will encourage and motivate to simplify and find contentment in Christ alone.

Extravagant and Extraordinary Grace

Two recent books on the subject of grace complement each other wonderfully and deserve a consideration for your next read.

imagesExtravagant Grace: God’s Glory Displayed in Our Weakness by Barbara Duguid (P&R, 2013) is a distillation of wisdom on suffering drawn from her own life and from the letters of John Newton. Duguid, wife of theologian Iain Duguid, asks the question, “Why do real Christians still sin so much, even after they have been saved for decades?” She suggests that the problem is probably not the reality of our sin, but rather our unbiblical expectations of what Christian growth should look like. Growing in grace, she says, is more about humility, dependence, and exalting Christ that it is about defeating sin.

The goal of Extravagant Grace is to recover a more biblical theology of sin and sanctification, a theology that was “familiar and dear” to many pastors in the 17th and 18th centuries, but is “largely lost to a contemporary church overwhelmed by individual triumphalism and the myth of the victorious Christian life. As a result, many Christians live lives of deep discouragement and anguish, hiding their shameful struggles from one another.”

This book is full of gems from Newton. “The characteristic state of [the maturing believer] is conflict.” What a neglected truth! “[The maturing Christian’s] great business is to behold the glory of God in Christ; and by beholding, he is changed.” How true this is! “But that we are so totally depraved is a truth which no one ever truly learned by being only told it.”

Extravagant Grace is a book that will especially mean much to women, but men shouldn’t shy away from it. Duguid’s insight into the experience of the average Christian is one from which every pastor should learn. I highly recommend this great book.

extraordinary-graceExtraordinary Grace: How the Unlikely Lineage of Jesus Reveals God’s Amazing Love by Gary Chapman and Chris Fabry (Moody, 2013) is very different from the previous book, but no less edifying. The book is, according to the authors “a study of God at work among ordinary people.” It is an exploration into seven characters in the genealogy of Jesus. It brings OT figures like Abraham and Rahab to life with descriptive prose and imaginative descriptions of their thoughts and emotions. These are characters who “failed, fell or chose badly.”

The effect of the grace of God in the lives of these Bible characters, we are told, is not that we will be compelled to please God with a holy life but that we allow the holy life of Jesus to live in and through us. This allows us to become an agent of grace to others.

Chapman and Fabry tell these stories to remind us that it is only by God’s grace that we are forgiven and accepted.

 

When Will We See Peace on Earth?: Reconciling the Newtown Tragedy with the Christmas Story

Guest Post from Ray Jones, Pastor of Lighthouse Community Baptist Church, Pawcatuck, CT, and frequent religion writer in Southeastern Connecticut.

Every d460xay, my wife and I pray with each of our four children before they leave for school.  Some days, we simply ask God to help them with a particular assignment.  Other days, a classmate might be the subject of our petition.  But with each prayer, we always ask God to keep our children safe.  Beforethe “Amen” has barely left our lips, the kids are racing for the door to catch the bus and embark on their school day.

As parents, we experience two polar opposite emotions as we watch our children board a school bus: joy and fear.  There’s joy that comes with watching your child grow and mature as they go to meet their educational challenges for the day.  But, at the same time a quiet fear emerges as we release them to a world that is neither safe, nor kind.

That’s why Friday’s inexplicable tragedy in our own state shakes us to the core.  Every act of terror evokes sympathy, but it’s aentirely different story when the massacre takes place just 100 miles or so from here.  What mom or dad in this area, or anywhere for that matter, cannot help putting themselves in the shoes of the 20 sets of parents who went to their child’s school yesterday, not to pick them up for early dismissal, but to identify their lifeless body?  What educator does not mourn for their colleagues whose lives ended alongside their peers and pupils?

In my opinion, Governor Dan Malloy nailed the motives behind the events in Newtown when he said, “evil visited this community today.”  Can there be a better explanation for a 20 year-old-man killing his mother in her sleep and then arming himself to go attack an elementary school?  Is there a greater act of cowardice?  What motivates someone to express his anger at life by killing kindergartners and first graders?

Events like this remind us that our world is not safe.  Stiffer laws, greater police presence and new safety procedures may minimize risk, but they are powerless to eliminate evil itself.  Sadly, the image of the firehouse adjacent to Sandy Hook Elementary School adorned with Christmas lights and wreathes is a cruel and ironic symbol of the season.  Christmas is a time where we’re supposed to celebrate peace.  For the residents of Newtown, this Christmas will be marked by pain.

Yet, the Christmas story has the capability of speaking to this tragedy.  In an often neglected portion of the Christmas story, there is an account of a madman who murders innocent male children in the little town of Bethlehem (Matt. 2:16-18).  The mothers of this ancient borough just outside Jerusalem had a day not unlike the one 20 mothers in Newtown had on Friday.

But, there is a significant difference between these two acts of terror.  Bethlehem’s assassin was not a deranged citizen, but a maniacal ruler.  The mothers of Bethlehem could look neither to politicians, nor to police for safety.  In a harsh twist of fate, these very people were the ones directly responsible for their misery.  Matthew 2:13 records their sorrow: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”

Why did Herod the Great inflict such suffering upon his subjects?  He was after a baby boy who he perceived to threaten his rule.  The news that one had been born “The King of the Jews” in Bethlehem led this despot to kill many to ensure that he murdered just one.  Herod’s assassination plot on King Jesus failed, but it left much carnage in its wake.  Mary and her baby may have escaped, but their deliverance was only temporary.

The angels’ famous Christmas greeting to the shepherds outside Bethlehem, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men,” did not become a reality in Jesus’ day, nor has it in ours either.  The birth of Jesus represents the announcement of God’s plan for defeating evil and making peace and good will the norm on this earth.

Jesus’ life and more importantly His death were Phase 1 of a two phase mission of bringing peace to this war-torn world.  Jesus’ resurrection three days later shows death and evil hold no power over God.  Yet, evil continuesto hold sway over us.  Mothers continue to grieve for lost children while fathers struggle in vain to provide 24/7 protection for their families.  All of humanity groans as we await the final step in God’s plan.

What is that plan?  When will God finally accomplish it?  The next to last chapter of the Bible explains Phase 2 of Jesus’ mission.  Jesus, the one called “Emmanuel,” meaning “God With Us,” having finally vanquished Satan and his evil foes, will come to rule and reign on this earth for all to see.  What will characterize the reign of “The King of the Jews”?  Revelation 21:3-4 gives us a description:

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

So…where does that leave you and me in the meantime?  How are we to live in such a cruel world?  How can we find the peace we need to function in a world where madmen roam?  How can we keep our anxiety at bay as we kiss our kids goodbye and send them on their way to school each morning?

I believe Mary the mother of Jesus sets an example for all of us to follow.  She holds her baby tight, but entrusts Him to the care of God the Father who holds the future of her son in His hands.