Fleshing out the gospel

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A terribly puzzled look swept across the faces of those who had just heard me spill the title of our upcoming teaching series. “Fleshing—not flushing—out the gospel,” I emphasized in case they missed it. I thought it would help. But, they were confused nonetheless.

“Fleshing out” was meant in a figurative sense. Just as we might flesh out a deep doctrine of Scripture, like the mysterious nature of God’s unity or the marginless end of God’s sovereignty, we must also flesh out the wondrous realities of the gospel. It’s not an option for believers. It’s necessary.

My father used to say to me, “Boy, you need to put some meat on dem bones” (best if slurred in a Cajun tongue). It was his way of telling me that I needed to eat. I needed substance. I was too lean.

Christians today are looking more lean than ever. But it is not because we lack the spiritual protein needed for strong faith. Scripture is a mealhouse of necessities and useful for godly growth (2 Tim. 3:16). Rather, it is because we’ve lost sight of who the gospel is what the gospel does.

When we flesh out the gospel, we put meat on dem bones, body to skeleton, substance to form, content to outline, mass to framework. It means to pack on, add to, fill up, increase, deepen, compound, reinforce. It is the process of feeding on the gospel in order to fill your soul and mind with the things of God.

Why the gospel? Why not marriage tips, parenting points, or business advice?

The gospel—contrary to popular belief—is more than an evangelistic message. It is the single thread woven into the fabric of Scripture that binds it all together. It is the main message—the foremoremost focus—of the Bible.

The New Testament writers affirm this. To them, the gospel included all revealed truth about Christ (cf: Rom. 1:1-6; 1 Cor. 15:3-11) and covered all aspects of salvation—from conversion to glorification. Since Christ is all over Scripture (Lk. 24:27), then all of Scripture contains the gospel. When you preach the gospel, you preach Christ—God’s living Word (Jn. 1:14).

Why else would Paul be so eager to “preach the gospel” to a community of Christians (Rom. 1:15)? To preach the gospel is to preach the Word. Hearing and learning the gospel brings biblical vision and changes us from the inside outward. In doing so, all aspects of our life are affected—even the mundane.

This is why we must flesh out the gospel. It helps us see Christ and see like Christ.

It Helps us See Christ

Since the gospel includes all revealed truth about Christ, then a deeper understanding of the gospel brings about a deeper understanding of Christ. He is the manifestation of the gospel (2 Tim. 1:9), and there is no gospel without Jesus. If the gospel is the main message of Scripture, Jesus is the main subject of the gospel. The two are inseparable.

When we put meat on dem bones and add substance to our understanding of the gospel, we see more clearly the subject of the gospel. We see more comprehensibly the flesh of God—the incarnate Word, the living Gospel—Jesus Christ. In other words, to sink ourselves into the depths of the gospel is to submerge ourselves in the person and work of Jesus Christ. The gospel helps us see Christ.

It Helps us See Like Christ

Additionally, the gospel transforms our mind (Rom. 12:2). It brings to us renewed vision so that we might see through the lens of Christ. He is our corrective eyewear. He helps us observe ourselves and the world with godly perspective. The more we douse ourselves in the Word of God, the more we are able to see as Christ sees.

Such perspective enables us to live holy lives before His holy gaze. This is what He had in mind while praying that we be “sanctified in the truth,” acknowledging Scripture as truth (Jn. 17:17). The gospel helps us see like Christ.

Conclusion

Just as the body becomes frail when deprived of food, the soul becomes frail when deprived of the gospel. Conversely, a soul who has probed the depths of the gospel is a soul who has been immersed in Jesus. It is a soul of tender mercies and courageous faithfulness—a soul solidified and shaped by Christ Himself. Fleshing out the gospel isn’t optional for followers of Jesus Christ. It’s necessary.


Jacob Abshire is the author of Forgiveness: A Commentary on Philemon and Faith: A Commentary on James, and co-founder of Resolute Creative. You can find him online at jacobabshire.com and follow him on Twitter @aliasbdi. Photo via Lightstock.

Links I like

Kindle deals for Christian readers

Today’s the final day of Cruciform Press’ 5 books/5 days sale. Get these titles for 99¢ each:

A few others that on sale include:

Why Some Preachers Get Better

Hershael York:

On the first day of the semester, or the first time I hear a student preach, I have no way of knowing if he has what it takes or is willing to do what he must to be the preacher he needs to be, but I can usually tell by the second sermon if he does, because that is when he has to act on what I told him after his first sermon.

What makes the difference?

Dating Advice You Actually Need

Derek Rishmawy:

I’ve been working in youth ministry in some capacity for roughly eight years, and this is one of the most common questions I’ve fielded from young Christians: “How can (insert boyfriend/girlfriend) and I have a Christian dating relationship? How do we keep it centered on Christ?” As often I’ve heard it, I still love the the heart behind the question. A couple of youngins’ get to dating, and they want to “do it right.” They realize that God is concerned with every aspect of our lives, including our romantic involvements, so they’ve resolved to have a “Christian” dating relationship and sought guidance.

When You Should NOT Submit to a Church

Jonathan Leeman (quoting from his excellent book Church Membership) identifies the characteristic behaviors of leaders we should not submit to, but flee from.

What’s All This ‘Gospel-Centered’ Talk About?

Dane Ortlund:

What does it mean, then, to be “Gospel-centered”?

As far as I can tell the phrase is used in two basic ways. One is to view all of life in light of the Gospel. We’ll call this a Gospel-centered worldview. The other is to view Christian progress as dependent on the Gospel. We’ll call this Gospel-centered growth. The first looks out; the second looks in. Take Gospel-centered worldview first.

Your Naked Truth

Aimee Byrd:

I read an article the other day that is still bothering me. I think that it captures a lie that many men and women believe about beauty and love. A 59-year-old wrote it, but this is the same problem I see in 18-year-olds.

Oh, what a scandal it would be!

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We are Christians… We are not born in a land of heathenism, in gross darkness and in the shadow of death, and therefore our piety and virtue should far exceed all the practices of the heathen world. We are not left to the teachings of the book of nature, and to the silent lectures which the sun, moon and stars can read us: nor are we abandoned merely to the instructions of religion that we may derive from “the beasts of the earth and the fowls of the heaven,” or any of the works of God the Creator.

We are not given up in the things of religion merely to the wandering and uncertain conduct of our reason, feeble as it is in itself, corrupted by the fall of Adam our first father, beset with many sins and prejudices, and turned aside from the truth by a thousand false lights of sense and appetite, fancy and passion, by the vain customs of the country, and the corruptions of our sinful hearts. We are not bewildered among the poor remains of divine tradition delivered down from Adam to Noah, and from Noah to his posterity in the several nations of the earth; we are not left to spell out our duty from those sorry broken fragments of revelation, which are so lost and defaced amongst most of the nations, and so mingled with monstrous folly and delusion, that it is hard to find any reliques of truth or goodness in them. We are not given up to foul idolatry and wild superstition, nor to the slavish and tyrannical dictates of priests and kings, who contrive what ceremonies they please, and impose them on the people, which is the case of a great part of the heathen world.

Poor and deluded creatures! feeling about in the dark for the way to happiness, in the midst of rocks and precipices and endless dangers, and led astray into many mischiefs and miseries by those whom they take for guides and rulers. And what an infamous and shameful thing would it be for us, who have the divine light of the gospel shining among us to direct our paths, if we should read among the records of the heathen nations, that any of them have behaved better than we have done, either in duties to God or man, and exceeded us either in personal or in social virtues? Nay, what a scandal would it be to our profession, if we should not abundantly exceed all the shining virtues of the heathen nations, since the divine light that shines upon us, and the divine lessons that are published amongst us, are so infinitely superior to all that the heathen world has enjoyed?

The Works of the Rev. Isaac Watts, vol. 5, 5–6. (Image source)

God loves us because He loves us

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Word of advice: if you ever want to set a pack of Max Lucado fans, address a concern about some of this theology.

A few years ago, I reviewed his book on social justice (it was also, outside of a kids’ book I received about a year back, the last of his books I read), a book that had some good points, but was kind of weird. Strangely graphic descriptions of temple guards that read like a cross between the movie 300 and something you’d find in a non-Amish romance novel, his typical lackadaisical attitude toward doctrine, and, most alarmingly, an extremely deficient view of humanity’s real state before God.

“Of course, no one believed in people more than Jesus did,” Lucado wrote. “He saw something in Peter worth developing, in the adulterous woman worth forgiving, and in John worth harnessing. He saw something in the thief on the cross, and what he saw was worth saving…”1

Never so quickly have I underlined a phrase in a book. Oh my stars… how such a statement that runs so contrary to the gospel saw the light of day, I’ll never know (wait, that’s not true, I do know how…).

And that, of course, is what set off the Lucado fans.

Reading Titus For You by Tim Chester this week reminded me of the weird goofiness we have surround the reason why God loves us and why God saves us. Why do I describe it as weird goofiness? Simple: we have a really, really hard time taking what the Bible says at face value. Just consider the following:

In Genesis 6:5, we’re told that “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” And then He killed everyone except Noah and his family.

At the end of Judges, the writer laments, “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). The context makes it clear that everyone doing “what was right in his own eyes” is a very, very bad thing indeed.

Jumping along, with incredulity and awe, the psalmist writes, “what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (Psalm 8:4)

Proverbs 20:19 declares, “Who can say, ‘I have made my heart pure; I am clean from my sin’?”

On and on the Old Testament goes. And in the New Testament, this message gets even more intense.

Jesus declares that we are evil (Matt 7:11, Luke 11:13) and he did not entrust Himself to people because “He knew all people” (John 2:24). We love darkness and hate the light and are condemned because our works are evil (cf. John 3:16-21). Paul even goes so far as to spend the first three chapters of Romans unpacking this major issue, culminating with, “For there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…” (Rom. 3:22-23).

Anyone else sweating a little?

Let’s be honest: that’s really bad news for us, because if we’re looking for things about us to make us worth saving—in our actions and attitudes—then we’re pretty much up a creek.

So what are we to do? Are we to just wallow in despair, or is there something we can hold on to?

Here’s a great encouragement from Chester:

“He saved us … because”. The word “because” is key. Here is the reason for our acceptance by God, the grounds of our confidence and the basis of our hope. It is worth asking ourselves: How would I complete the sentence, “He accepts me because…”?

Everyone answers that question somehow. If I think I will be saved because of something I have done, then I am not saved. I can have no confidence. Our acceptance before God is: “Not because of righteous things we [have] done” (v 5). Saving faith involves removing faith in ourselves. It involves stripping away confidence in anything except God. “He saved us … because of his mercy”. That is our true and only hope.”2

Why does God save us? Because of His mercy. His mercy shows us His glory. His mercy makes much of His name. His mercy is what sent Jesus Christ to take our punishment on the cross—not because we were lovely, not because we deserved it, not because we were worth it, but because He is so magnificent.

That’s why grace is so amazing. Why, oh, why, would you want to settle for anything less?

Delighting in the Law of the Lord

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“The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul” (Psalm 19:7). David wrote those words to describe the first five books of the Bible—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. These, he said, are “perfect.” These “revive” the soul.

Do we see the Law the way David did?

I’m guessing, probably not.

We tend to view the Law in one of two ways. The first is, we treat the Law merely as commands to be scrupulously obeyed in order to earn favor with God. We are trying to be “good,” which is moralism (or, legalism). The second option treats the Law as something to be rejected altogether; we are free in Christ and thus we become a law unto ourselves. This is licentiousness (which, arguably, is another form of legalism).

Neither view respects the Law. Neither exhibits a love for the “perfect” Law. Neither revives the soul, as David says the Law does.

But there is another option left to us, one that is better than anything moralism and licentiousness have to offer—delighting in the Law. This is the option available to all faithful Christians, the way the Lord wants us to see His Law, and what what Jerram Barrs wants us to see in his recent book of the same name.

Barr’s background teaching apologetics and outreach at Covenant Theological Seminary plays a significant role in the tone of Delighting in the Law of the Lord. Barr writes not as a typical academic, but one who is convicted that what he writes is true. He, like a good evangelist, wants to persuade us to see the goodness of the Law over the course of 24 chapters (which is, sadly, where he does become more of a traditional academic).

So how’d he do?

Well, here are a couple of the standout items from my perspective:

The law is the definition of true humanness. Barr’s connection of the Law to our being created as image bearers of God is perhaps the most helpful thing he describes in the entire book. The Law represents the character of God—and is therefore beautiful by virtue of this fact—which means it also shows us the nature of true humanity. With each commandment given, “It’s as if God is saying, ‘This is my character: I am just; I am merciful; I am kind; I am faithful; I am generous. You are to be like me’” (99). If humanity was intended to reflect God, it makes sense that the Law would show us what we were intended to be—and more importantly, that Christ would show us what it meant to be truly human in His perfect keeping of the Law.

Legalism is the enemy of outreach. Where legalism—whether in rigorous rule keeping or in defiant rule-breaking—reigns, the gospel is not preached. Barr writes:

We must sit at Jesus’ feet and recognize that all legalism is an implacable enemy of the gospel of grace. And we need to be prepared to fight against it, rather than bow to it or allow it to govern the life or outreach of our churches.… Attacking legalism is necessary to bring about the salvation of the legalists themselves by humbling them before the Lord, before his truth, and before his grace. Attacking legalism is also necessary in setting people free from the rules that legalists impose upon them.… This proclamation of liberty from legalism is one of the great friends of true proclamation of the gospel, both to the church and to the world. (210)

These are a couple of points from the book that, in hindsight are tremendously helpful, and if they’re all you walk away with from the book, you will be very blessed indeed.

However, I’ve got to be honest: I wasn’t terribly enamored with this book while I read it. Don’t get me wrong—it’s well written, it’s thoughtful, and there’s a lot I agree with… but you know how sometimes the best way to describe a book is simply long? That’s Delighting in the Law of the Lord. It took me five months to read—not because I’m a slow reader, but because it couldn’t hold my attention. As harsh as it is it say, for a book on delighting in the Law, I didn’t find myself terribly excited about what I was reading.

Maybe the problem is me. In fact, it’s a safe bet that at least some of the blame belongs there. But as much as I wanted to be riveted by the book, I just wasn’t. I love the Law, I love seeing God’s grace in the Law and recognizing how Christ came to fulfill the Law for me while also working it in me… But my time with this book didn’t help with that. Having had a fairly significant amount of time away from the book (I finished reading it about two months ago), there’s more that I appreciate from it, but it’s definitely not a book that’s for everyone.


Title: Delighting in the Law of the Lord: God’s Alternative to Legalism and Moralism
Author: Jerram Barrs
Publisher: Crossway (2013)

Buy it at: Westminster Bookstore | Amazon

The Gospel

The Gospel by Ray Ortlund

It seems like  every few minutes there’s another book, article, or message being released with “gospel” in the title. Usually it’s followed by a hyphen: “The gospel-driven life,” “gospel-centered ministry,” “gospel-influenced driving…” It’s not that any of these are bad (well, except the one I made up), but sometimes I wonder if we’re in danger of turning the gospel itself into a modifier for the thing we’re really talking about. When that happens, we risk leaving the gospel assumed.

And you know what happens when you assume, right?

Ray Ortlund is a man who doesn’t assume the gospel. The pastor of Immanuel Nashville, Ortlund is one of those guys who you read or hear, and think, “Wow… he really believes this.” He gets that what we believe about the gospel shapes us and the culture of our churches, that “gospel doctrine creates a gospel culture” (117). But what does that look like? This is what he aims to show readers, The Gospel: How the Church Portrays the Beauty of Christ.

Individual and expansive

Loosely divided into two parts, The Gospel begins by exploring the deeply personal and epically cosmic purposes of the gospel. The gospel is about the eternal fate of individuals—but it is also about our churches and the world as a whole. This “both/and” Ortlund strikes is so necessary in our day when we need to introduce the God of the Bible to people with no frame of reference. People who have no concept of either an intimately personal God or a transcendent Creator who holds the universe together with but a word.

So how does this shape our culture? “We see how massive God’s love really is, and so we give up our aloofness and come together to care for one another in real ways, even as God wonderfully cares for us” (37), and we see that it “creates churches of bright, resilient, rugged hope. It creates churches that face life as it is and are not defeated” (62).

Is that not what the people of this world desperately need? I can’t help but think about the social awareness and action culture that’s sprung up around the millennials, a generation with just the right mix of naïve optimism and arrogance to believe they can truly change the world. After all, they’ve been told this their whole lives. And this is the driving force behind so much of our social (network) activism, cause-creation, and all of these things—it’s all about living up to the ideal. (Or is that idol?)

Is it any wonder that people are beginning to experience something called compassion-fatigue?

 

The gospel, though, has so much hope for them (just as it does for every age generation). In the gospel, millennials (and, again, all people) find the answer to the problems of the world, which aren’t external factors to be managed, but internal realities that need to be transformed. That we’re not good people who need to think more positively, but bad people who think too highly of ourselves. And when we get this, we are free—free from the demands of (man-driven) performance, free to let go of the unwieldy burden of trying to make a better world, and give it to the One whose job it actually is.

Faltering steps toward a new kind of culture—and a longing for something greater

If that last paragraph made you squirm a little, you’re not alone. The idea of letting go of the pressure to perform, to “fix” the world, is scary. Simply because we struggle to believe it’s true. The gospel seems too good to be true, and embracing and building a gospel culture is intimidating. It means we’re constantly examining our own culture to see how it conforms to Christ, to see what assumptions we’re making and uproot areas of unbelief. We will meet resistance from within and from the world. We will face rejection and self-doubt… But even our faltering steps forward give the opportunity for something beautiful to spring to life.

If we have suffered the loss of all things in order to gain Christ—no egos to protect or scores to settle—we are free to receive his power, courage, and love. They outperform everything in this world, because they come from beyond this world. How compelling for our churches to say: “We’re not taking one more step without the power, courage, and love of the gospel for the glory of Christ alone. No more status quo!” (104)

Though particularly aimed at pastors and church leaders, The Gospel is valuable for any reader. It is not a how-to for ministry; it is a rallying cry for revival. It leaves you with a desire to see the kind of culture Ortlund talks about (and has nurtured at Immanuel) birthed in your own life and church. What we believe shapes how we live, and how we live reveals what we believe. And what I want—and what I hope shows increasingly with time—in my own life and in my church is a culture where grace is freely given and joyfully received. Where even as some are hardened to the gospel, others are softened and welcomed into God’s family. When that happens, when our gospel doctrine leads to a gospel culture, it’s a wonderful thing indeed.


Title: The Gospel: How the Church Portrays the Beauty of Christ
Author: Ray Ortlund, Jr.
Publisher: Crossway (2014)

Buy it at: Westminster Books | Amazon

LInks I like

The Superior Blessed the Inferior

Erik Raymond:

…there are many (glorious) ways this points to Christ. However, I want to briefly focus on one for the sake of a gospel meditation. When you read of the superior blessing the inferior you don’t have to think long before you are face to face with Jesus and his dealings with you through the gospel. This is the ultimate example of the superior blessing the inferior. He is infinitely glorious eternally enveloped in the perfections of his person. He is superior in every way. His love, compassion, holiness, justice, mercy, humility, joy, courage, loyalty, and holiness all are without blemish or defect. He is utterly perfect. Yet this perfect one, this superior one, blesses us the inferior. In Christ, we have every spiritual blessing (Eph. 1.3). We are clothed with righteousness, adopted into a new family, given a new hope, new life, new holiness, indeed all things are new and precious in Christ! He who has taken our sin, guilt and shame upon himself while giving us his righteousness, liberty, and holiness. Indeed, we who have trusted in Christ have been richly blessed!

A ridiculous-sounding affirmation

Gloria Furman:

What a tender place the Lord has you in! To have that feeling of longing for his Word and to have that be your big question emerge in the midst of those circumstances is a precious gift. We’re not Word-hungry on our own; it’s evidence of the Spirit’s work when our heart is inclined to his testimonies (Ps. 119:12). And what a blessing it is to your young children that they see your appetite for God’s Word being played out in front of their watching eyes. Where does Mommy want to run to (or limp) when she’s starved for spiritual nourishment? God’s Word is so treasured that time spent meditating on it is hunted down instead of brushed off. It’s an assuring and tender grace of God to feel that even in your bone-weary physical fatigue you feel just as deeply that your soul longs and even faints for fellowship with God.

The Tone Deaf Singer

Tim Challies:

As Christians we are told to sing from the gospel, for one another, to the Lord—a ten-word summary of Colossians 3:16 which says, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” As Paul writes to this Colossian church, he wants them to realize that every Christian needs singing lessons. If we want to sing a song that glorifies the Lord, we first need to apply some lessons.

What Are We Teaching Our Daughters?

Rebecca Vandoodewaard:

The Lord doesn’t require His daughters to braid bread and arrange flowers. For women who want to, those things are gifts. And while we should have skillful hands and strong arms (Prov. 31), what God does require is that we do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with Him (Micah 6:8). That is a teaching that can, by grace, bear eternal fruit in a daughter’s life. A woman who is skilled in every domestic art is of little Kingdom use unless she also thinks biblically, discerns wisely, understands the times, and can serve her family and church with these vital gifts as best she can.

Why Do Some Believe and Some Don’t?

Daniel Hyde:

Our forefathers spoke of faith as “receiving” the gospel or more personally as “embracing” Jesus (e.g., Canons of Dort 1.4). This is important because all too often we can think of faith as just some mental gymnastic you do or an ethereal connection to an ethereal thing called God or Jesus. But what do the ideas behind the words “receive” and “embrace” communicate? They should evoke personalness because faith ispersonal. When I put my faith in Jesus this means that I receive Him and all that He is for myself. This isn’t theological Christianesse, but what John says earlier in John 1:11–12: “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name . . .” That’s faith. Does this describe your relationship to Jesus? Do you receive and embrace all He is for yourself?

Who are the false teachers?

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The whole concept of false teachers and false teaching is one that makes many Christians squirm. We don’t like to think about the idea that there are people who are actively trying to deceive believers, to turn them away from the truth of the Christian faith. But all one has to do is look around at a Christian bookstore and you can see it—deception is present.

So who are they?

Anytime someone writes on this topic, it’s tempting to name names. Tim Challies has been profiling a number of them over the last several weeks, for example, looking at false teachers throughout history and up to our present day. Making the cut are luminaries such as Benny Hinn, Joseph Smith, Ellen G. White, Pelagius, Arius… even the Pope made the cut!

Trying to make a list can be a double-edged sword. One danger is becoming too narrow, letting a secondary issue take precedence and become the measure of orthodoxy (think: egalitarianism vs complementarianism, or Calvinism vs Arminianism). A second is being too open, lacking any firm criteria upon which to make a judgement about orthodoxy whatsoever.

And it’s this error that I want to challenge in particular. When you start to examine the nature of false teaching, it tends to consistently focus on three primary areas:

The nature and character of God (including the person of Christ).

I wrote about this in a bit more detail in Contend, but imagine you’re standing dominoes up in a line to watch them fall. You’ve set up all your pieces just so and you’re ready to push the lead one. If you’ve got that first domino in the right place, when you knock it down, the chain reaction can begin, with every properly situated piece falling in exactly the right way. But if your first domino is pointing in the wrong direction or is placed too far away from the others, it’s just not going to work.

Our understanding of God is kind of like that. If we get God wrong, nothing else will truly fall in place. We won’t understand the gospel and there will be no energy or momentum to drive us forward into a life of fruitful labor to the glory of God. Thankfully, due to the immeasurable gift of the Bible, we have everything we need to get that first “domino” right. Indeed, if we begin to grasp even the most basic truths regarding God’s nature and character, that changes everything.

What this means for us is grasping as comprehensive picture of God as we can from Scripture—we see Him as immanent (He is personal and knowable), transcendent (He is far above us in every meaningful way) and Triune (He is one in essence and three in persons). He is many things—loving, jealous, just, and merciful… but undergirding all of this is his holiness. It is this fact that reminds us that God is perfect and distinct from the world He has made, it calls on us to pay attention to all He is. So we don’t take one aspect of His character at the expense of another—love doesn’t trump justice and vice versa; instead, we see God’s love as holy and His justice as holy. They spring from the same source. They are perfect and wonderful and glorious.

And this is what false teachers consistently attack. They strive to make God smaller, more distant, less intimidating… Honestly, if the thought of standing before God in His glory doesn’t make you want to wet yourself in terror a little bit, you probably don’t understand the God of the Bible.

The gospel.

Ask “what is the gospel” to 100 people, and you’re likely to get 101 answers. But the gospel, in its most basic and essential form, is this: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4).

There’s much that could be said about this, but notice the key elements: Christ died, and more specifically, He died to pay the penalty for our sins). He was buried, meaning He was truly dead. And He was raised to life again physically—not spiritually, not emotionally, not in our hearts or any such notion.

Without these things, there is no gospel, period. And when someone fudges on any of these, a different gospel is preached, and it’s one that damns its teachers to hell (Gal. 1:9). Yet this is what we consistently see in false teaching—men and women who make the gospel about something other than what Christ has done, and make it about giving us an example to follow, or giving us a Jesus who didn’t physically rise from death… But according to Scripture, such things are nonsense.

The authority of the Bible.

The final consistent point of opposition is the Bible itself. Notice how even with His gospel summary above, Paul consistently pointed back to the Scriptures—meaning, these things that happened to Jesus, God said would happen in His Word. And throughout the Bible, we see this kind of emphasis on the Bible’s authority and trustworthiness. Two examples:

Peter says that “we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (2 Peter 1:19).  And this prophetic word, he says, was not produced “by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21).

Paul, likewise, describes all Scripture as “breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).

But look throughout and you’ll find this repeated emphasis on the authority of Scripture. And this is what false teachers consistently strive to undermine, even before they’ll go after the nature of God or the gospel. They do it with appeals to experience and emotion as authoritative, and arguments designed to obscure the clarity of the Bible… it all amounts to the same trick the serpent played in the beginning, asking “Did God really say…?” (Genesis 3:1)

Thankfully, we have a “more sure” word than one that can be obscured easily. In the Bible, we have something we can rely on and trust. Kevin DeYoung, commenting on 2 Peter 1, says it well:

We do not follow myths. We are not interested in stories with a nice moral to them. We are not helped by hoping in spiritual possibilities which we know to be historically impossible. These things in the gospel story happened. God predicted them. He fulfilled them. He inspired the written record of them. Therefore we ought to believe them. Nothing in all of the Bible was produced solely by the human will. God used men to write the words, but these men did their work carried along by the Holy Spirit. The Bible is an utterly reliable book, an unerring book, a holy book, a divine book.

So who are the false teachers out there? Look at how a teacher views God, the gospel, and the Scriptures. That will likely tell you most everything you need to know.

What will they hear next weekend?

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Easter always has a lot of buzz around it, both from Christian and non-Christian sources. News outlets are always looking for a big, salacious Jesus-related story to plaster across magazine covers, newspapers and websites. Over the last few years we’ve seen big “exposés” on the gospel of Jesus’ wife, the Jesus family tomb, and the gospel of Judas, all of which have gotten some people talking about Jesus… but pretty quickly fizzled out of everyday conversation.

Christians, likewise, make a big deal out of Easter. This is one of the big times of year for programmatic evangelism in a lot of churches—encouraging every regular attendee to invite a non-Christian friend of family member being the most common. (There’s also the spectacle silliness some churches engage in, but let’s not talk about that right now, mmmkay?) And it’s a big deal. I mean, tons of people—whether nominal believers, adherents of other religions, agnostics, and even some atheists—show up every Easter.

Looking around the auditorium at the high school where our church meets during first service, I couldn’t see a single open seat (and second service was undoubtedly even more packed). The children’s ministry was filled to bursting… And most importantly, the gospel was preached, with clarity and conviction.

I’m guessing the Easter Sunday experience was similar for many of you, too.

It’s a safe bet most visitors to a church in North America heard the gospel this weekend (again, except for in those ones that engage in a lot of silliness…). This is something we should thank God for, to be sure. The resurrection of Jesus holds the promise of the gospel—that Jesus’ death on the cross actually did satisfy the wrath of God, that our sins are paid for, and that all who trust in Jesus will be forgiven and given new life.

But, here’s a question that’s on my mind:

What will next weekend’s visitors hear?

I’m thankful there are many churches, including my own, for which Easter Sunday is more-or-less the same as every other Sunday. The gospel is front-and-center every weekend. Jesus’ death and resurrection are the thing we celebrate together each week without fail. So, you know what visitors to churches like those will hear?

The gospel.

But for far too many churches—churches filled with really great people—yesterday’s message was kind of an anomaly. Next weekend will begin a new sermon series offering steps to handle finances, raise obedient children, or have a better marriage… and the gospel, while not denied, won’t be quite so front-and-center. They won’t hear about the only hope they have (and may not realize they need).

They might hear a call to moral living, but they may not hear a call to bow before Jesus.

And if they’re not hearing that, what are they really hearing?

While I don’t believe we should be gearing our worship gatherings toward the needs of unbelievers, we should never forget that they are always present. Visitors will be in the room. People who don’t know Jesus will be there. What will they hear next weekend?


photo credit: ACOUSTIC DIMENSIONS via photopin cc

Links I like

Moralism is Not the Gospel (But Many Christians Think it Is)

Albert Mohler:

In our own context, one of the most seductive false gospels is moralism. This false gospel can take many forms and can emerge from any number of political and cultural impulses. Nevertheless, the basic structure of moralism comes down to this — the belief that the Gospel can be reduced to improvements in behavior.

Sadly, this false gospel is particularly attractive to those who believe themselves to be evangelicals motivated by a biblical impulse.

What We Need

Kevin DeYoung:

In our day careful attention needs to be paid to the issue of sexual immorality in particular.  This isn’t because Christians are prudes or like to judge others or are obsessed with sex.  We have to talk about sexual sin because it is the idol of our age. For the church to be silent on the most important ethical matters of our day would be irresponsible and cowardly. This means Christians have difficult waters ahead, especially as it relates to the issue of homosexuality. How can we talk about sexual immorality in a way that is both true and gracious?

How parenting changes after the first child

Adam Ford nailed it.

B&H Kindle sale

The Fall of a Believer

R.C. Sproul:

There is no question that professing believers can fall and fall radically. We think of men like Peter, for example, who denied Christ. But the fact that he was restored shows that not every professing believer who falls has fallen past the point of no return. At this point, we should distinguish a serious and radical fall from a total and final fall. Reformed theologians have noted that the Bible is full of examples of true believers who fall into gross sin and even protracted periods of impenitence. So, Christians do fall and they fall radically. What could be more serious than Peter’s public denial of Jesus Christ?

But the question is, are these people who are guilty of a real fall irretrievably fallen and eternally lost, or is this fall a temporary condition that will, in the final analysis, be remedied by their restoration? In the case of a person such as Peter, we see that his fall was remedied by his repentance. However, what about those who fall away finally? Were they ever truly believers in the first place?

The Problem with “Bully Bob”

Clint Roberts:

I will admit readily that anytime something like this leaps out of obscurity and onto the radar of political correctness, my knee-jerk reaction is negative. I can’t help it. I have such little faith in and respect  for contemporary popular culture that I just assume that whatever captivates all of its attention at the present moment is probably idiotic. But that’s not really fair, so I have to back off and take a closer look sometimes. And even though the issue of bullying has popped up like a trendy ‘cause of the month’, if I think about the issue for what it is, disregarding some of the silliness that is currently written about it, I can’t deny that it is an important subject.

Captivated by Thabiti Anyabwile

captivated_anyabwileAbout a year ago, I bought a new laptop, and the first time I turned it on it was magical. Well, maybe not, but it was pretty slick. It went super-fast, did everything I needed it to do… Then, a few months later, my new work computer arrived. And I started feeling a little bit of regret over my personal one. The “shininess” of my computer had worn off and it seemed kind of, well, average. It wasn’t nearly as rad in my eyes as it had been when I opened the box for the first time.

I wonder if some of us see the Easter story that way. We’ve heard so many sermons on it—or preached so many—that it seems like we’re going through the motions. We say, “yay, Jesus is alive,” but really we’re thinking “alright, and now to run some errands!” This should never be. Woe to us who can look upon the death and resurrection of Jesus and say, “meh.”

Thabiti Anyabwile is a man who has not lost his sense of wonder at the cross. He knows that beholding the glory of Jesus is something none of us can do without. This is the heart behind his latest book, Captivated: Beholding the Mystery of Jesus’ Death and Resurrection.

In its five chapters (which originated as sermons preached at First Baptist Church, Grand Cayman) Anyabwile invites us to behold the wonder of the cross as he examines several key passages of Scripture:

  • Jesus’ prayer in the garden (Matthew 26:42);
  • Jesus’ cry from the cross (Matthew 27:42);
  • Paul’s rejoicing over death’s impotence in the face of Christ’s victory (1 Cor. 15:50-58);
  • The angels’ matter-of-fact questioning of the disciples at the empty tomb (Luke 24:5); and
  • Cleopas’ gentle rebuke to his new travelling companion along the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:18)

“Is there no other way?”

Almost all of us at some point have asked the question, “is there no other way?” When we look at the cross, and all the events that lead up to it, we can’t help but wonder if God could have done things differently. If you’ve ever asked the question, fear not: you’re in good company. Jesus asked the same one as he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane.

“My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.… if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” (Matthew 26:39, 42)

Here is the Lord Jesus—the One who was with God and was God from eternity past—asking if He had to go to the cross. Jesus wanted the cup to pass. But more importantly, He wanted the Father’s will to be done. So, could it pass from Him? No. And this is such good news, Anyabwile reminds us. In fact, we should be glad the Father said no. He writes:

Because the Father answered no, sinners have a merciful and faithful High Priest perfectly intimate with all their weaknesses. We have One we can approach for grace. Because the Father answered no, we have One who stands between us in all our ungodliness and God in all His holiness to reconcile us and reunite us as friends rather than rebels. Because the Father answered no, those who have faith in Christ need never fear the Father’s wrath again; His anger has been fully satisfied in the Son’s atonement. Because the Father said no, we stand assured that our acceptance with God happened on completely legitimate grounds—no parlor tricks, no loopholes, no legal fiction, no injustice to threaten or question the exchange of our sin for Jesus’ righteousness. Because the Father said no, we will forever enjoy and share the glory of Father and Son in the unending, timeless age to come.

I am so glad the Father said no.

Insightful, gospel-saturated meditations

Do you see the good news here? Anyabwile doesn’t resort to cheap parlor tricks or emotional platitudes to whoop readers up. Instead, he presents the gospel in all its glory. Over and over again, on page after page, the gospel shines through. And as you read the book, you can’t help but be caught up by its sermonic rhythm (appropriate, since it began as sermons). This makes for a captivating and fast-paced read—to some degree, almost a too fast one!

Indeed, that might be my only complaint about this book. Because it’s a series of gospel meditations, readers should not expect an in-depth treatise on any of the texts examined, which would work against Anyabwile’s purposes anyway. But this is not to say that deeper examination and application isn’t encouraged—it’s just left in your hands, thanks to the book’s reflection questions (which you really need to use—they add so much to the reading experience!).

Because we’re constantly inundated with “new,” we risk becoming a people who fail to take the time to enjoy what really matters. The gospel should never be something we move past, or shrug our shoulders at. This just won’t do. Whether you’ve struggled with familiarity or you’re consistently amazed at the cross, Captivated is a book that will be a great blessing to you.


Title: Captivated: Beholding the Mystery of Jesus’ Death and Resurrection
Author: Thabiti Anyabwile
Publisher: Reformation Heritage Books (2014)

Buy it at: Westminster Books | Amazon

The Gospel at Work by Sebastian Traeger and Greg Gilbert

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You know what I’m really thankful for? That there are people starting to write on the relationship between the gospel and work. This is a subject in which western Christians desperately need to grow in our understanding. Many of us, me included, really struggle to do our work in a Christ exalting fashion. Many of us grumble and complain, and generally struggle to be satisfied in what we’re doing or even see the value in our jobs.

Unless it’s just me who’s guilty of some of these?

Sebastian Traeger and Greg Gilbert tackle this head-on in their new book, The Gospel at Work. Their goal in the book is simple: to help us see how working for Jesus gives meaning and purpose to all of our work, to recognize that “when glorifying Jesus is our primary motivation, our work — regardless of what that work is in its particulars — becomes an act of worship.”1

Idols and idleness

Traeger and Gilbert approach the subject from a different angle than, say, Tim Keller does in his excellent Every Good Endeavor (reviewed here). While one could argue that this is a matter of semantics, the authors are less concerned about delivering a fleshed-out theology of work, as opposed to digging into the practical issues related to how we look at work. In doing so, they spend the bulk of their time examining the twin errors of idolatry and idleness in work.

Signs work is your idol

“Our jobs become idols when we overidentify with them,” they write. “Our work becomes the primary consumer of our time, our attention, and our passions, as well as the primary means for measuring our happiness and our dissatisfaction in life.”2 The key word here is “primary.”

When we give our all to the company at the expense of our families, when our minds are consumed by thoughts of work consistently, when we’re always looking at how we can position ourselves, or even when we see our work as being all about making a difference in the world… This is dangerous stuff, friends.

When work is “primary,” everything else is secondary, and we’ll always be dissatisfied. There’s always a next step, always another rung on the ladder, always a new challenge to overcome… but it will never be enough. [Read more...]

Links I like

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The Never-Ending Need of Multiplying Leaders

Ed Stetzer:

Pastors of growing churches know all too well the old adage of there being two sides to every coin. The excitement and energy of a growing congregation comes brings with it new needs and a constant demand of more people to help carry out the ministry.

When the numbers are lacking, the pressure increases on the pastor and staff to solve every problem, run every small group, set-up every service, and clean every toilet. The stress can become so heavy that the growth feels more like a crisis than a blessing.

Having a leadership crisis is not exclusive to the church (take a look at Congress) and neither is it a new issue. In Exodus 18, systematic issues within Moses’ leadership surface and reveal the need for a change.

The Gospel Rescues Cynics

Mike Leake:

Then one day some hopeful Harry decides to tell him that this isn’t the way that things are supposed to be. “You don’t have to be a slave! You can be free! Our God has heard our cry and He is going to rescue us from slavery”.

And he bought it. Just like all of his other countrymen. They bowed their heads and worshipped. And with that a terrible invader came into their hearts.

Hope.

The Joy of Theology Reading Groups

Eric Bancroft:

Pastor, I want to thank you. My marriage has been totally turned around.

These aren’t the words you expect someone to write three months after their spouse began reading a 1,291-page systematic theology book, yet that’s exactly what I was being told in a card. My prayers had been answered. I’d prayed that God would give people such a love for him and his Word that it would begin to affect all areas of their life. I’d also prayed that reading and discussing a systematic theology book with others would be one of those means.

What Pastors Owe Their People

Daniel Darling:

Preaching styles do differ, but it’s hard to argue the unmistakeable responsibility of pastors to take the whole counsel of God and preach it faithfully. To not give our people spiritual food, to not share with them the “all the things I have commanded you” is to commit spiritual malpractice. It’s to intentionally leave our people spiritually malnourished. And yet there is a temptation for pastors–I remember facing this weekly as a pastor–to sort of skip over or nuance the very hard passages. Or, more popularly, to not preach through issues that are at the tip of the cultural spear. Issues like a biblical sexual ethic, the dignity of human life, greed, materialism, and the prosperity gospel. It’s just easier to say things like, “We just want to love on people and be all about grace every Sunday.” But my question is this: if a new convert wants to know what it looks like to live out the gospel, where will he find it if he can’t find it in his church? We live in confused times, where the way of Christ cannot be assumed in popular culture anymore. So churches who tailor their preaching and services exclusively to not offend those they are trying to reach with the gospel will starve God’s people. I find it troubling when pastors sort of nuance or skip over passages that are counter-cultural. – See more at: http://www.danieldarling.com/#sthash.qvUEP7iR.dpuf

Seven Problems with an Activity-Driven Church

Thom Rainer:

Many churches are busy, probably too busy. Church calendars fill quickly with a myriad of programs and activities. While no individual activity may be problematic, the presence of so many options can be.

An activity-driven church is a congregation whose corporate view is that busier equals better. More activities, from this perspective, mean a healthier church. The reality is that churches who base their health on their busyness already have several problems. Allow me to elaborate on seven of those challenges.

Misusing the Lord’s name and delighting in the Law

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This year, I decided to shake up my Bible reading. Normally, I tend to avoid using the reading plans—not because I have a particular problem with them, but because I generally prefer camping in one book for a long period of time. But, like I said, I decided to shake it up. So, for the last week and a bit, I’ve been reading through the Bible’s big story, hitting the major beats from Genesis through Revelation.

Yesterday’s passage had me reading the Ten Commandments. While I’ve read these many times now, I keep thinking about this one, the third commandment:

Do not misuse the name of the Lord your God, because the Lord will not leave anyone unpunished who misuses His name. (Ex. 20:7 HCSB)

More familiarly, this verse is often stated as “do not take the Lord’s name in vain,” which we typically use to say don’t use Jesus’ name as a cuss word. While “do not take the Lord’s name in vain” and “do not misuse the name of the Lord” mean the same thing, there’s something helpful about this restatement, isn’t there?

If nothing else, it reminds us just how easy it is to violate this command.

Misusing the Lord’s name is far more than flippantly speaking his name—it’s actually about our lifestyle and our worship, too. Simply, this reminds us that it’s serious business to call oneself a Christian, yet behave no differently than the non-believer—mistakenly believing Paul’s hypothetical question, “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” should be answered in the affirmative—or to heap a burden of rules and regulations upon oneself that the Lord has not, treating your behavior as the source of your salvation. Both are a gross misuse of the Lord’s name.

And as we worship, particularly our corporate gatherings, how easy is it to do the same thing—to put on a show in the name of “leading people into an experience of God’s glory” or some such thing. To put up our hands because the song says it, but not because our hearts are leading us to do so. To give in the hopes of getting.

This is an important reminder: the Commandments exist to remind us of God’s perfect standard, and to reflect to us our own failure. But they should also serve as a reminder that, once again, we can rejoice in Jesus’ fulfilling of the Law for us—and progressively his fulfilling the Law in us as he gradually moulds us into his image, so that we “walk in the light as he is in the light” (1 John 1:7).