A word in season from Jared Wilson:
There is a great danger this Christmas season of missing the point. And I’m not referring simply to idolatrous consumption and materialism. I’m talking about Christmas religiosity. It is very easy around this time to set up our Nativity scenes, host our Christmas pageants and cantatas, read the Christmas story with our families, attend church every time the door is open, and insist to ourselves and others that Jesus is the reason for the season, and yet not see Jesus. With the eyes of our heart, I mean.
I suppose there is something about indulging in the religious Christmas routine that lulls us into thinking we are dwelling in Christ when we are really just set to seasonal autopilot, going through the festive and sentimental motions. Meanwhile the real person Jesus the Christ goes neglected in favor of his plastic, paper, and video representations. Don’t get distracted from Jesus by “Jesus.” This year, plead with the Spirit to interrupt your nice Christmas with the power of Jesus’ gospel.
Can you imagine if you had been there? What would it have been like to be with our Lord Jesus face to face? To walk with him and to listen to him for hours on end. To hear the tone of his voice. To ask him any question you want.
What if, instead of just being one of the disciples in the outer circles, you were one of the key players: Mary the humble mother of God; Peter the exuberant bumbler turned repentant leader; John the Baptizer, who leaped for joy at Jesus in Elizabeth’s womb and then was able to baptize his cousin and Lord.
But if you are in Christ, the reality is that things are better for you know than it would have been to be any of these folks who knew Christ in the flesh.
For example, Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Matt 11:11; cf. Luke 7:28).
Peter, recalling the Transfiguration and hearing the voice of the Father expressing pleasure in his Son, goes on to say that “we [including you and me] have the prophetic word more fully confirmed. . .” ( 2 Pet 1:17-19).
And at the end of his earthly ministry, Jesus tells his disciples, “it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you” (John 16:7).Jonathan Edwards, in his landmark sermon series on 1 Corinthians 13, comments on this theme with a particular view to the blessed virgin Mary:
Great was the privilege which God bestowed on the blessed virgin Mary, in granting that of her should be born the Son of God; that a person who was infinitely more honorable than the angels, who was the Creator and King of heaven and earth and the great Savior of the world, should be conceived in her womb, born of her, and nursed at her breast, was a far greater privilege than to be the mother of the child of the greatest earthly prince that ever existed. But yet, surely that was not so great a privilege as it was to have the grace of God in the heart, to have Christ, as it were, born in the soul, as Christ himself does expressly teach us.
Edwards here cites Luke 11:27-28:
As he said these things, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!” But he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”
And once when some told him that his mother and brethren stood without desiring to speak with him, he thence took occasion to let them know that there was a more blessed way of being related to him than that which consisted in being his mother and brethren according to the flesh, viz. in having grace in the heart, and bringing forth the fruits of it in the life.
And here he cites Matt. 12:46-50:
While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. But he replied to the man who told him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
—Jonathan Edwards, Charity and Its Fruits: Living in the Light of God’s Love, ed. Kyle Strobel (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 74-75.
Ronnie Smith was shot and killed in Benghazi, Libya, on Thursday. He was 33. He was a husband and father. The leaders of his home church have given me permission to respond to his death publicly and carefully. You can read the fuller story at World or in themainstream media.
One of the reasons I want to respond is because Ronnie wrote to us at Desiring God last year and told us that one of my messages was significant in leading him and his family to Libya.
Now Anita is a widow, and his son Hosea has lost his father.
Weep with Those Who Weep
How do I feel about sharing in the cause of his going to his death?
I came to tears this morning praying for Anita and Hosea. Weep with those who weep was not a command in that moment; it was a sorrow rolling over me. I remember being 33. That’s how old I was when God called me to the pastorate. I was starting my ministry at the age Ronnie’s ministry ended. And Jesus’s.
After sorrow and sympathy, my response was (and is) prayer. “Lord, give Anita great faith. Help her to weep — but not as those who have not hope. Make that little fellow proud of his daddy. May he grow up thrilled to be in the bloodline of such a man. May they live on the glories of Romans 8 — the groanings of this fallen world of waiting (Romans 8:23), and the rock-solid assurance that, though we are being killed all day long, nevertheless, in all these things we are more than conquerors (Romans 8:36–37).”
Something Worse Than Death
Then I am sobered. Ronnie is not the first person who has died doing what I have encouraged them to do. He won’t be the last. If I thought death were the worst thing that can happen to a person, I would be overwhelmed with regret.
But the whole point of Ronnie’s life is that there is something worse than death. So he was willing to risk his own life to rescue others from something far worse. And he could risk his own life because he knew his own risking and dying would work for him “an eternal weight of glory” (2 Corinthians 4:17). And he knew God was able to meet every need of his wife and son (Philippians 4:19).
We are not playing games. When I preach that risk is right, I know what I am doing. When I say, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him — especially in suffering,” I know what suffering may mean. When I say, “Fear not, you can only be killed” (Matthew 10:28), I take seriously the words of Jesus: “Some of you they will put to death. . . . But not a hair of your head will perish” (Luke 21:16, 18).
Flood the World with Replacements
Finally, I call thousands of you to take Ronnie’s place. They will not kill us fast enough. Let the replacements flood the world. We do not seek death. We seek the everlasting joy of the world — including our enemies. If they kill us while we love them, we are in good company. Jesus did not call us to ease or safety. He called us to love for the sake of his name. Everywhere. Among all peoples.
Anita and Hosea, I love you. I am sorry, so sorry, for your loss. I admire you and Ronnie profoundly. Hold fast to this: “God has not destined you (or Ronnie) for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him” (1 Thessalonians 5:9–10).
It is a great sin to think any sin little; but it is a greater sin to think the righteousness of Christ is not above all sin. Our disobedience is the disobedience of man; but Christ’s obedience is the obedience of God: therefore, our believing in Christ doth please God better than if we had continued in innocency, and never sinned. The least sin is unpardonable without this obedience and righteousness of Christ; and the greatest is pardonable by it. Therefore, O seek in to Christ, to be clothed upon with this righteousness.
— Ralph Erskine “And Walking in Him, Opened” in The Works of Ralph Erskine, Vol 24332
(HT: Of First Importance)
Tim Keller shares this illustration in his new book, Encounters with Jesus: Unexpected Answers to Life’s Biggest Questions (Dutton; 2013), 28–30:
Everybody has got to live for something, but Jesus is arguing that, if he is not that thing, it will fail you.
First, it will enslave you. Whatever that thing is, you will tell yourself that you have to have it or there is no tomorrow. That means that if anything threatens it, you will become inordinately scared; if anyone blocks it, you will become inordinately angry; and if you fail to achieve it, you will never be able to forgive yourself.
But second, if you do achieve it, it will fail to deliver the fulfillment you expected.
Let me give you an eloquent contemporary expression of what Jesus is saying. Nobody put this better than the American writer and intellectual David Foster Wallace. He got to the top of his profession. He was an award-winning, best-selling postmodern novelist known around the world for his fierce and boundary-pushing storytelling. He once wrote a sentence that was more than a thousand words long. And, tragically, he committed suicide. But a few years before that, he gave a now-famous commencement speech at Kenyon College. He said to the graduating class,
Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god . . . to worship . . . is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure, and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before [your loved ones] finally plant you. . . . Worship power, and you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they are evil or sinful; it is that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.
Wallace was by no means a religious person, but he understood that everyone worships, everyone trusts in something for their salvation, everyone bases their lives on something that requires faith. A couple of years after giving that speech, Wallace killed himself. And this non-religious man’s parting words to us are pretty terrifying: “Something will eat you alive.”
Because even though you might never call it worship, you can be absolutely sure you are worshiping and you are seeking. And Jesus says, unless you’re worshiping me, unless I’m the center of your life, unless you’re trying to get your spiritual thirst quenched through me and not through these other things, unless you see that the solution must come inside rather than just pass by outside, then whatever you worship will abandon you in the end.
(HT: Tony Reinke)
James S. Stewart wrote that “union with Christ, rather than justification or election or eschatology, or indeed any of the other great apostolic themes, is the real clue to an understanding of Paul’s thought and experience” (A Man in Christ [Harper & Bros., 1955], vii).
John Calvin said that union with Christ has “the highest degree of importance” if we are to understand justification correctly (Institutes 1:737).
John Murray wrote that “union with Christ is . . . the central truth of the whole doctrine of salvation. . . . It is not simply a phase of the application of redemption; it underlies every aspect of redemption” (Redemption—Accomplished and Applied [Eerdmans, 1955], pp. 201, 205).
Lewis Smedes said that it was “at once the center and circumference of authentic human existence” (Union with Christ [Eerdmans, 1983], xii).
Anthony Hoekema wrote that “Once you have your eyes opened to this concept of union with Christ, you will find it almost everywhere in the New Testament” (Saved by Grace[Eerdmans, 1989], 64.
Hoekema explains that the New Testament uses two interchangeable expressions to describe union with Christ:
- We are in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17; John 15:4, 5, 7; 1 Cor. 15:22; 2 Cor. 12:2; Gal. 3:28; Eph. 1:4, 2:10; Phil. 3:9; 1 Thess. 4:16; 1 John 4:13).
- Christ is in us (Gal. 2:20; Col. 1:27; Rom. 8:10; 2 Cor. 13:5; Eph. 3:17).
Hoekema says that we should see union with Christ “extending all the way from eternity to eternity.” He outlines his material in this way:
- The roots of union with Christ are in divine election (Eph. 1:3-4).
- The basis of union with Christ is the redemptive work of Christ.
- The actual union with Christ is established with God’s people in time.
Under the third point, he shows eight ways that salvation, from beginning to end, is in Christ:
- We are initially united with Christ in regeneration (Eph. 2:4-5, 10)
- We appropriate and continue to live out of this union through faith (Gal. 2:20; Eph. 3:16-17).
- We are justified in union with Christ (1 Cor. 1:30; 2 Cor. 5:21; Phil. 3:8-9).
- We are sanctified through union with Christ (1 Cor. 1:30; John 15:4-5; Eph. 4:16; 2 Cor. 5:17).
- We persevere in the life of faith in union with Christ (John 10:27-28; Rom. 8:38-39).
- We are even said to die in Christ (Rom. 14:8; 1 Thess. 4:16; Rev. 14:13).
- We shall be raised with Christ (Col. 3:1; 1 Cor. 15:22).
- We shall be eternally glorified with Christ (Col. 3:4; 1 Thess. 4:16-17).
And here’s a helpful quote from Sinclair Ferguson (in Christian Spirituality: Five Views of Sanctification [IVP, 1989], 58), explaining in a nutshell why union with Christ is the foundation for sanctification:
If we are united to Christ, then we are united to him at all points of his activity on our behalf.
- in his death (we were baptized into his death),
- in his resurrection (we are resurrected with Christ),
- in his ascension (we have been raised with him),
- in his heavenly session (we sit with him in heavenly places, so that our life is hidden with Christ in God), and we will share
- in his promised return (when Christ, who is our life, appears, we also will appear with him in glory) (Rom. 6:14; Col. 2:11-12; 3:1-3).
This, then, is the foundation of sanctification in Reformed theology.
It is rooted, not in humanity and their achievement of holiness or sanctification, but in what God has done in Christ, and for us in union with him. Rather than view Christians first and foremost in the microcosmic context of their own progress, the Reformed doctrine first of all sets them in the macrocosm of God’s activity in redemptive history. It is seeing oneself in this context that enables the individual Christian to grow in true holiness.
Some newer treatments of this important subject:
Robert Letham, Union with Christ: In Scripture, History, and Theology
Marcus Peter Johnson, One with Christ: An Evangelical Theology of Salvation
Elyse M. Fitzpatrick, Found in Him: The Joy of the Incarnation and Our Union with Christ
Robert Peterson, Salvation Applied by the Spirit: Union with Christ (forthcoming, 2014)
For the Bible to be coherent, then, it follows that the gospel must resolve the problem of sin. What is the gospel? In recent years that question has been answered in numerous books, essays, and blogs. Like the word “sin,” the word “gospel” can be accurately but rather fuzzily defined in a few words, or it can be unpacked at many levels after one undertakes very careful exegetical study of εὐαγγέλιον4 and its cognates and adjacent themes.5 We could begin with a simple formulation such as “The gospel is the great news of what God has done in Jesus Christ.” Then one could adopt an obvious improvement: “The gospel is the great news of what God has done in Jesus Christ, especially in his death and resurrection” (cf. 1 Cor 15). Or we could take several quantum leaps forward, and try again:
The gospel is the great news of what God has graciously done in Jesus Christ, especially in his atoning death and vindicating resurrection, his ascension, session, and high priestly ministry, to reconcile sinful human beings to himself, justifying them by the penal substitute of his Son, and regenerating and sanctifying them by the powerful work of the Holy Spirit, who is given to them as the down payment of their ultimate inheritance. God will save them if they repent and trust in Jesus.
The proper response to this gospel, then, is that people repent, believe, and receive God’s grace by faith alone.
The entailment of this received gospel, that is, the inevitable result, is that those who believe experience forgiveness of sins, are joined together spiritually in the body of Christ, the church, being so transformed that, in measure as they become more Christ-like, they delight to learn obedience to King Jesus and joyfully proclaim the good news that has saved them, and they do good to all men, especially to the household of faith, eager to be good stewards of the grace of God in all the world, in anticipation of the culminating transformation that issues in resurrection existence in the new heaven and the new earth, to the glory of God and the good of his blood-bought people.
Once again, as in our brief treatment of sin, much more could be said to flesh out this potted summary. But observe three things:
1. The gospel is, first and foremost, news—great news, momentous news. That is why it must be announced, proclaimed—that’s what one does with news. Silent proclamation of the gospel is an oxymoron. Godly and generous behavior may bear a kind of witness to the transformed life, but if those who observe such a life hear nothing of the substance of the gospel, it may evoke admiration but cannot call forth faith because in the Bible faith demands faith’s true object, which remains unknown where there is no proclamation of the news.
2. The gospel is, first and foremost, news about what God has done in Christ. It is not law, an ethical system, or a list of human obligations; it is not a code of conduct telling us what we must do: it is news about what God has done in Christ.
3. On the other hand, the gospel has both purposes and entailments in human conduct. The entailments must be preached. But if you preach the entailments as if they were the gospel itself, pretty soon you lose sight of the reality of the gospel—that it is the good news of what God has done, not a description of what we ought to do in consequence. Pretty soon the gospel descends to mere moralism. One cannot too forcefully insist on the distinction between the gospel and its entailments.
So now I come to the fairly recent and certainly very moving book by Richard Stearns, The Hole in Our Gospel: What Does God Expect of Us?6 This frank and appealing book surveys worldwide poverty and argues that the American failure to take up God’s mandate to address poverty is “the hole in our gospel.” Without wanting to diminish the obligation Christians have to help the poor, and with nothing but admiration for Mr Stearns’s personal pilgrimage, his argument would have been far more helpful and compelling had he observed three things:
First, “what God expects of us” (his subtitle) is, by definition, not the gospel. This is not the great news of what God has done for us in Christ Jesus. Had Mr Stearns cast his treatment of poverty as one of the things to be addressed by the second greatest commandment, or as one of several entailments of the gospel, I could have recommended his book with much greater confidence. As it is, the book will contribute to declining clarity as to what the gospel is.
Second, even while acknowledging—indeed, insisting on the importance of highlighting—the genuine needs that Mr Stearns depicts in his book, it is disturbing not to hear similar anguish over human alienation from God. The focus of his book is so narrowly poverty that the sweep of what the gospel addresses is lost to view. Men and women stand under God’s judgment, and this God of love mandates that by the means of heralding the gospel they will be saved not only in this life but in the life to come. Where is the anguish that contemplates a Christ-less eternity, that cries, “Repent! Turn away from all your offenses. . . . Why will you die, people of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone” (Ezek 18:30–32). The analysis of the problem is too small, and the gospel is correspondingly reduced.
Third, some studies have shown that Christians spend about five times more mission dollars on issues related to poverty than they do on evangelism and church planting. At one time, “holistic ministry” was an expression intended to move Christians beyond proclamation to include deeds of mercy. Increasingly, however, “holistic ministry” refers to deeds of mercy without any proclamation of the gospel—and that is not holistic. It is not even halfistic, since the deeds of mercy are not the gospel: they are entailments of the gospel. Although I know many Christians who happily combine fidelity to the gospel, evangelism, church planting, and energetic service to the needy, and although I know some who call themselves Christians who formally espouse the gospel but who live out few of its entailments, I also know Christians who, in the name of a “holistic” gospel, focus all their energy on presence, wells in the Sahel, fighting disease, and distributing food to the poor, but who never, or only very rarely, articulate the gospel, preach the gospel, announce the gospel, to anyone. Judging by the distribution of American mission dollars, the biggest hole in our gospel is the gospel itself.
So long as this broken world endures, suffering will remain a painfully relevant subject. It’s not far from any of us. As Christians we know we’re supposed to lean on God, but what kind of God is he? In light of all the heartache and sadness that plague our lives, is he really worth our trust?
“One of the biggest mercies of God took place long before my suffering arrived,” recalls Chandler, who was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2009. For a while he had been working to prepare his young congregation for suffering. Little did he know, however, that all along God was preparing him.
Contrary to popular belief, Piper observes, awareness of the bigness and majesty and sovereignty of God practically helps when we’re in the throes of perplexity and pain. Though it may sound comforting at first, the idea that “God didn’t have anything to do with this” is actually horrible news, since it means he’s not in control after all and thus cannot ensure your trials will be used for good (Rom. 8:28).
“We have a loving Father who gives us only what will work together for our good,” Platt remarks. ”God uses sorrowful tragedy to set the stage for surprising triumph—whether in this life or the life to come.”
Watch the full nine-minute video to hear about the Platts’ struggle with infertility, when Piper’s mom died, a 10,000-year perspective, and more.
But Christ has done for Christians even far more than that. He has given to them not only a new and right relation to God, but a new life in God’s presence for evermore. He has saved them from the power as well as from the guilt of sin.
The New Testament does not end with the death of Christ; it does not end with the triumphant words of Jesus on the Cross, ‘It is finished.’ The death was followed by the resurrection, and the resurrection like the death was for our sakes.
Jesus rose from the dead into a new life of glory and power, and into that life He brings those for whom He died. The Christian, on the basis of Christ’s redeeming work, not only has died unto sin, but also lives unto God.
— J. Gresham Machen Christianity & Liberalism
(HT: Of First Importance)
After spending 11 chapters magnifying the grace of God shown to us in Jesus Christ, the apostle Paul broke out into a hymn of praise:
“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Rom. 11:33).
Have you come to this place before? A place of awe before an all-knowing, all-wise God?
Whenever we study the big questions of life, the big debates of our world, and the development of a biblical worldview, we can easily become smug and confident in what we know. We put God in a box and assume we have figured out His ways and His plans.
Reacting against this arrogant overconfidence, some Christians make everything about the Scriptures a mystery. They wonder whether we can know anything with certainty about who God is and what He has done.
The apostle Paul struck the right balance. Paul believed he knew things about God, and he held these truths with confidence. At the same time, the more Paul knew, the more he realized he didn’t know everything. In other words, though Paul could know many things about God with absolute certainty, he understood that he didn’t know God exhaustively.
So what was Paul’s response? He bowed his knees in worship. He proclaimed what he knew about God based on God’s revelation of Himself, and then he knelt in worship, fully recognizing his own limitations of knowledge. That’s where intellectual growth should lead us, not to overconfidence in our ability to figure God out but to our knees in worship, in awe of His goodness to us.
If you have ever tried to read about the story of Jesus’ birth from one of the Gospels in the New Testament, you will have already discovered two things. First, no one Gospel tells you everything about the birth of Jesus. And second, some Gospels do not tell youanything about the birth of Jesus.
What do we make of this reality?
One takeaway should be that the significance of Jesus’ birth is best understood in the totality of his life, teachings, death, and resurrection. Whether you have just begun to consider Jesus or already consider yourself a believer in him, let me encourage you to read through the four Gospels this Advent season to gain a fuller appreciation for the significance of his birth.
Here’s a brief description of each Gospel’s unique contribution to our overall understanding of Jesus, followed by a calendar for reading through them this December.
Matthew: The story of Christmas is rooted in history.
Matthew’s account begins with a genealogy, demonstrating the birth of Jesus is not an isolated event but one rooted in history. In other words, the birth of Jesus is not the beginning of the story. To properly understand Jesus’ birth, one must understand the history from which he came.
If we were to consider the birth of Jesus as an isolated event, we could conclude that Jesus is powerful. Surely the virgin birth would require divine power. When we learn from Matthew that the virgin birth was rooted in history and anticipated in prophecy, we learn that Jesus is not only powerful, but also faithful to promises made in history.
Mark: The story of Christmas requires our repentance.
When you turn to Mark you notice that he begins with the ministry of John the Baptist, not the birth of Jesus. John’s ministry was a plea for Israel to repent. In Mark 1:14-15, we are told that John was arrested and Jesus began to preach the same message: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” Repent is the key word for Mark. John preached it, Jesus preached it, and Mark wants all of us to remember it. Why?
We cannot properly celebrate the birth of our Savior until we acknowledge the reality of our sin. Until we are willing to repent, all the details that surround Jesus’ birth and life are rendered inconsequential. Otherwise who cares if it was three wise men or wise men bearing three gifts? Or whether he was God incarnate or an angel in human form? Mark tells us news he believes can change our lives. So are we willing to be changed? Are we willing to acknowledge that we are not as we should be? According to Mark, we cannot properly celebrate the birth of our Savior until we acknowledge our need to be saved.
Luke: The story of Christmas invites our worship.
As you turn to Luke, you notice that he gives us the most details of any of the Gospel writers surrounding the birth of Jesus. When people announce that they will read the Christmas story, they are more often than not reading from the second chapter of Luke. It’s striking about Luke’s attention to detail how often he focuses on the worship that surrounded the birth of Jesus.
For example, in Luke 1:46, Luke could have simply said that Mary worshiped God. Instead he records for us details of how she expressed her worship in what we now commonly call the Magnificat. You will notice this detail again in verses 67-79 when Zechariah worshiped God. Then Luke tells us of the heavenly host praising God in 2:13-14 and the shepherds praising God in 2:20. When Jesus is presented in the temple, Luke tells us of Simeon’s worship. Before, during, and after the birth of Jesus there is worship!
Much like the Psalms of the Old Testament, the details of these expressions of worship are not given to simply inform us of past events, but to invite us to join in their expression. When all the facts are considered, as Luke claims to have compiled them, one discovers that the Christmas story is not only true but also glorious.
John: The story of Christmas restores our relationship.
John does not begin with the birth of Jesus, the ministry of John the Baptist, nor does he begin with the history of Israel. John writes, “In the beginning.” The beginning of what? The beginning of everything! According to John, Jesus was with God and was God from before time began. These verses are key the church’s understanding of the Trinity.
As it relates to the Christmas story, we affirm that Jesus was sent from God. The Creator is the Redeemer; the Judge is the Savior. John’s account is similar to Mark’s in that he makes the story immediately personal. Jesus is the unique Son of God who came into the world, so that you and I could become children of God as well (John 1:12-13).
Four different Gospel accounts and one conclusion—Jesus is sufficient. Intellectually, according to Matthew, the Christmas story is rooted in history. Morally, according to Mark, the Christmas story requires our repentance. Emotionally, according to Luke, the Christmas story invites our worship. And relationally, according to John, the Christmas story restores our relationship with God.
By Matt Smethurst:
The Bible makes many claims about itself within its text. What does it say?
Click here to download a hard copy of this article.
There are only two options when it comes to knowledge of a divine creator: revelation or speculation. Either he speaks, or we guess. Christians believe that, thankfully, he has spoken. The God of heaven and earth has “forfeited his own personal privacy” to reveal himself to us—to befriend us—through a book.1Scripture is like an all-access pass into the revealed mind and will of God.
By virtually any account the Bible is the most influential book of all time. No shortage of ink has been spilled on writings about it, against it, and in favor of it. But what does the Bible say about itself?
The Bible Is Inspired
When people claim the Bible is “inspired,” what do they really mean? Are they just saying it’s inspiring? Well, not quite. Sure, the Bible may inspire some of its readers, but the concept of “inspired” as used here has to do with the relationship between God and the Bible’s authors.
Now, the Bible’s human authors weren’t inspired in the way we typically use the word today. It’s not as if the Apostle Paul saw a gorgeous sunset, felt moved by its beauty, and then wrote Galatians. Nor does it mean he would enter some catatonic state, recite a bunch of words to a friend, then pick up the parchment and say, “Let’s see what God wrote!”
First and foremost, inspiration has to do with the fact that the Bible’s ultimate author is God. In 2 Timothy 3:16–17, Paul writes: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of Godmay be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”2 Notice how it says the entirety of the Bible is “God-breathed”—exhaled from God. No wonder, then, that the Bible is commonly referred to as God’s Word.3
But if God was the author, then what were Moses and David and Paul and John and all those others doing? Weren’t they writing Scripture, too? Indeed. You see, the Bible was written by God and humans—or, more precisely, by God through humans.4 The Apostle Peter explained it this way: “Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”5 In other words, God made sure the human authors wrote exactly what he wanted them to write—no more, no less.
However, these authors weren’t passive robots. God didn’t erase their personalities or take over their minds. They wrote as thinking, feeling human beings. God simply worked sovereignly through their unique personalities and educations and backgrounds and experiences6 to enable—to inspire—them to write divine truth.7“Each word in the Bible is the word of a conscious human author and at the same time the exact word that God intends for the revelation of himself.”8
The Creator of the universe has spoken—in human history, in human language, through human beings. That’s what inspiration is all about. In answer to the question of who wrote the Bible—humans or God—the Bible itself answers simply: “Yes.”
The Bible Is True
OK, so Scripture is completely inspired, but is it completely true?
The Bible says that God’s Word is true because God’s character is true; God is not a liar.9 Therefore, the God of truth cannot speak words that are false. To doubt the truthfulness of God’s Word is to doubt the truthfulness of God himself.10
Some people think that while the Bible’s “spiritual” concepts are true enough, much of the other content (such as historical and geographical details) probably isn’t. But Scripture doesn’t make “any restriction on the kinds of subjects to which it speaks truthfully.”11 Besides, if the Bible isn’t fully reliable at every point, how could we be certain that it’s fully reliable at any point?
When we look at Scripture itself, we see that it is filled with claims to pervasive truthfulness.12 Every word it contains is described as flawless,13 eternal,14unbreakable,15 boundless in perfection,16 and completely reliable.17 As Jesus concisely stated, “[God’s] word is truth.”18
In fact, Scripture’s truthfulness is so comprehensively assumed that entire arguments can hinge on appeals to a single word,19 the number of a noun,20 even the tense of a verb.21 When properly interpreted, the Bible will never mislead you. What it says, God says.22
The Bible Is Authoritative
God owns the universe he spoke into existence. He rules as king over his creation—and that creation includes you and me. His loving authority, intended for our good, is exercised through his Word. In fact, God has so identified himself with Scripture that to disbelieve or disobey it is to disbelieve or disobey him.
True, the Bible isn’t the only authority in our lives. There are other rightful authorities, such as parents,23 pastors,24 and members of the government.25 None, however, is above God’s Word. The Bible is the highest authority. This means the correctness of every belief, value, opinion, statement, and sermon is decisively settled by the question: What does the Bible say?26
Regarding Christ’s own view of the Bible, it’s been observed that “[Jesus] appeals to Scripture, to each part of Scripture, and to each element of Scripture as to an unimpeachable authority.”27
Kings don’t give advice; they give orders. Obedience to the Word of God, therefore, is not optional. “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves,” the Apostle James writes. “Do what it says.”28
As J. I. Packer observes, “True Christians are people who acknowledge and live under the word of God. They submit without reserve to [it], believing the teaching, trusting the promises, following the commands. Their eyes are upon the God of the Bible as their Father and the Christ of the Bible as their Savior.”29 A Christian, in other words, is one who hears the voice of Jesus in Scripture and gladly follows him.30
J. C. Ryle remarked, “Happy is the man who possesses Bible! Happier still is he who reads it! Happiest of all is he who not only reads it but obeys it.”31 As countercultural and counterintuitive as it may feel, Christians believe submission to God’s Word is where true life and freedom are found.
The Bible Is Clear
The Bible is an ancient document. It can feel foreign, and some parts are certainly confusing.32 However, as the psalmist states, “The unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple.”33 God even commands parents to teach the Bible to their children.34
I’ve heard it said that Scripture is shallow enough for a child to wade, but deep enough for an elephant to swim. I think that’s profoundly right. The Bible is “written in such a way that its teachings are able to be understood by all who will read it seeking God’s help and being willing to follow it.”35
Sometimes Scripture is difficult to understand because it’s talking about complicated things. At these times, extended, prayerful study may be necessary. Often, however, it’s hard to grasp because we simply don’t like what it says. As Mark Twain famously quipped, “It ain’t those parts of the Bible I can’t understand that bother me; it’s the parts I do understand.” Often it’s not that the Bible is unclear but that we’re unreceptive.
The Bible Is Sufficient
Scripture contains all the words from God that we need in order to know him truly, trust him fully, obey him perfectly, and enjoy him abundantly. Peter says God has given us “everything we need for a godly life” through the knowledge available in the Scriptures.36 Likewise, Paul says, the Bible is so complete that through it we can be “thoroughly equipped for every good work”—“thoroughly” and “every,” not “partly” and “most.”37 It doesn’t get more comprehensive than that.
While the Bible may not tell us everything we want to know, it does tell us everything we need to know. Its truth isn’t exhaustive but it’s enough.38 It contains all we need to know in order to be saved39 and to obey God in faith40—no wonder such severe warnings accompany adding to or removing any of its words.41
“The case can be made that every corruption of biblical Christianity begins by compromising the principle of sufficiency,” one author observed. “Every deviation from Christianity established by Christ and the apostles begins by adding to the Bible or by taking away from it. Every deviation is the Bible plus or minus something.”42
The Bible Is Powerful
Since the Bible’s ultimate author is God, it is a book of unparalleled power. Its words are strong enough to melt hearts43 and change lives.44 The book of Hebrews states, “The word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”45
Saying the Bible is powerful is another way of saying it’s effective. The Holy Spirituses it to accomplish his plans.46 The book is an instrument of action in God’s all-powerful hand. “Do not put yourself at odds with the Word of God,” Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli once remarked. “One can perhaps dam it up for awhile, but it is impossible to stop it.”47
It is crucial to realize that God intends his Word not simply to engage our minds, but to change our hearts. As one person put it, “The Bible was not written to satisfy your curiosity; it was written to transform your life.”48
The Bible Is Christ-Centered
Contrary to popular belief, the Bible is not simply a collection of ethical principles, moral platitudes, or abstract life lessons. It is a thrilling story.
Ultimately, that story is not about you and me. It’s about Jesus. In Luke 24, the resurrected Savior appears to two followers on the road to Emmaus. Luke recounts what happened:
“[Jesus] said to them, ‘How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.”49
Later, after appearing to his eleven disciples, Jesus says to them: “‘This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.’ Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.”50
It wasn’t just after his resurrection that Jesus spoke this way, however. During his earthly ministry he explained to the “Bible experts” of the day his central place in the great story: “‘You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life. . . . If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me.’”51
It’s been rightly noted that the Old Testament is “Jesus Christ concealed” and the New Testament is “Jesus Christ revealed.” From beginning to end—Genesis to Revelation—the plotline of Scripture anticipates, spotlights, and finds its ultimate resolution in God’s redeeming Son.52 And perhaps the most stunning thing about this story is that the central character loves us back.
The Bible Is Precious
The Bible is the most valuable treasure in the universe. It’s our food,53 our life,54 our comfort,55 our strength,56 our guidance,57 our desire,58 our hope,59 our love,60 our joy,61 and our treasure.62
Did you know that even the books of Leviticus and Chronicles and Obadiah were written to encourage you? That’s what the Bible says, anyway: “For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.”63 Everything. What a sweeping word! Paul is going so far as to claim the entirety of the Old Testament was written for you—to instruct you, to encourage you, to help you endure, and to flood your heart with hope.64
And while we must avoid “bibliolatry”—treasuring Scripture more than its Author—it’s striking to note how inseparably connected God’s Word is with God himself.65Indeed, to abandon it is to abandon him.66 Until Jesus returns and our faith becomes sight, we must live in the “age of the ear.”67 “For now,” Augustine said, “treat the Scripture of God as the face of God. Melt in its presence.”68 As one great preacher remarked, “To me the Bible is not God, but it is God’s voice, and I do not hear it without awe.”69
The Bible is a bottomless treasure chest of beauty and wonder. It claims to be inspired, true, authoritative, clear, sufficient, powerful, Christ-centered, and precious. May God help us to treat it as such.
“I have found … that people grasp these points more easily if we go in the order in which we ourselves often experience them when we become Christians.”
- We experience first our depravity and need of salvation.
- Then we experience the irresistible grace of God leading us toward faith.
- Then we trust the sufficiency of the atoning death of Christ for our sins.
- Then we discover that behind the work of God to atone for our sins and bring us to faith was the unconditional election of God.
- And finally we rest in his electing grace to give us the strength and will to persevere to the end in faith.
In short, here is how he explains each of the points:
- Total Depravity: Our sinful corruption is so deep and so strong as to make us slaves of sin and morally unable to overcome our own rebellion and blindness. This inability to save ourselves from ourselves is total. We are utterly dependent on God’s grace to overcome our rebellion, give us eyes to see, and effectively draw us to the Savior.
- Unconditional Election: God’s election is an unconditional act of free grace that was given through his Son Jesus before the world began. By this act, God chose, before the foundation of the world, those who would be delivered from bondage to sin and brought to repentance and saving faith in Jesus.
- Limited Atonement: The atonement of Christ is sufficient for all humans and effective for those who trust him. It is not limited in its worth or sufficiency to save all who believe. But the full, saving effectiveness of the atonement that Jesus accomplished is limited to those for whom that saving effect was prepared. The availability of the total sufficiency of the atonement is for all people. Whosoever will—whoever believes—will be covered by the blood of Christ. And there is a divine design in the death of Christ to accomplish the promises of the new covenant for the chosen bride of Christ. Thus Christ died for all people, but not for all in the same way.
- Irresistible Grace: This means that the resistance that all human beings exert against God every day (Rom. 3:10-12; Acts 7:51) is wonderfully overcome at the proper time by God’s saving grace for undeserving rebels whom he chooses freely to save.
- Perseverance of the Saints: We believe that all who are justified will win the fight of faith. They will persevere in faith and will not surrender finally to the enemy of their souls. This perseverance is the promise of the new covenant, obtained by the blood of Christ, and worked in us by God himself, yet not so as to diminish, but only to empower and encourage our vigilance; so that we may say in the end, I have fought the good fight, but it was not I, but the grace of God which was with me (2 Tim. 4:7; 1 Cor. 15:10).
When God saves sinners he makes them a new person and he gives them a new purpose.
Never underestimate the gift of new life in Christ. We are new creations. The old has passed away, and the new has come (2 Cor. 5:17). “I have been crucified with Christ and it is no long I who lives but Christ who lives in me and the life I know live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).
When you become a Christian you may wake up the next morning with the same family, the same job, the same house, the same money, the same looks, but make no mistake: you are a new person and you have a new purpose. You no longer live for the glory of your name, but for the glory of the Name.
And let’s be honest, this is why many people do not come to Christ.
Maybe it’s why you have not come to Christ.
Because you know what it entails. Or at least, what coming to Christ should entail. You know that if you want Jesus as Savior, you’re going to get him as Lord. And if he is Lord, then he calls the shots. His word is inviolable. His law is your obedience. His truth is Truth.
But you like your old life. You like your old person and your old purposes. You are happy to live for yourself. You’re going to be somebody. You’re going have something to show for yourself. You’re going to stick it to the man (or the woman, or whatever). You’re on your way. And you’re doing it your way.
Now, if you happen to get a little Jesus on the side–a few better habits, a nice church even–that’s cool. Whatever helps. But you aren’t looking for conversion. You aren’t interested in new birth. You’ll be fine without it. You don’t need another Lord in your life. You’re managing in that role just fine.
At least that what’s you’ve always believed.
And come to think of it, it is a belief. Faith in self-reliance, self-direction, self-autonomy, and the inevitability of progress.
The good news for messed-up, brokenhearted sinners is that God can make you a new person and give you a new purpose. The bad news is that lots of contented, self-sufficient, too-proud-to-beg, too-big-t0-follow types will miss out on the new life God offers in Christ.
Should preachers aim for the affections? Is this even possible without resorting to manipulation techniques? In a new roundtable video, John Piper, Voddie Baucham, and Miguel Núñez—all Council members for The Gospel Coalition—explore differences between “working the crowd” and awakening authentic, God-honoring emotion.
“As long as preaching unpacks the greatness of God, the emotions should be moved,” Núñez observes. Faithful exposition, then, is a excellent way to cultivate godly affection and safeguard against squalid manipulation.
A bored preacher misrepresents the God he proclaims, Piper adds, since God is not boring. Moreover, he explains, “the difference between emotion and emotionalism is whether you’ve awakened it with truth.”
Baucham references a complaint sometimes voiced in more traditionally emotional (e.g., black and Latino) cultures that emphasizing truth and theology amounts to “denying your culture, your heritage, your ethnicity.” But the call to awaken affections with biblical truth is not culturally specific. As Piper quips, “I want to be known as the best black preacher there ever was.”
Watch the full 12-minute video to hear these three preachers discuss Grand Canyon moments, when God looks boring, and more.
A radical shift has taken place within the church. Pressure is put on pastors and church leaders to make church about us. The focus is no longer God and how we fit into HIs story. The focus is us, and how God meets our needs.
One author puts it this way:
Throughout Western societies, and most especially in North America, there has occurred a fundamental shift in the understanding and practice of the Christian story. It is no longer about God and what God is about in the world; it is about how God serves and meets human needs and desires. It is about how the individual self can find its own purposes and fulfilment. More specifically, our churches have become spiritual food courts for the personal, private, inner needs of expressive individuals. (Al Roxburgh, The Sky is Falling)
This shows up in a number of ways within the church:
- Worship — “Contemporary worship is far more egocentric than theocentric. The aim is less to give glory to God than to satisfy the longings of the human heart. Even when we sing God’s praises, the focus is on fulfilling and satisfying the human desire for wholeness and serenity,” a motivation that is not wrong but “becomes questionable when it takes priority” (Bloesch, “Whatever Happened to God?”)
- The role of the pastor — “…the responsibility of seeking to be the Christian in the modern world is then transformed into a search for what Farley calls a “technology of practice,” for techniques with which to expand the Church and master the self that borrow mainly from business management and psychology. Thus it is that the pastor seeks to embody what modernity admires and to redefine what pastoral ministry now means in light of this culture’s two most admired types, the manager and the psychologist.” (David Wells, No Place for Truth)
- The sermon — “Evangelicals in America are creating a religion that tells them how to be happy, how to be financially secure, how to be successful, fulfilled and healthy. Evangelical Christianity in America has pushed missional values to the fringes and brought ‘the Good Life’ so close to the center that sermons themselves are calmly titled ‘How to Discover the Champion In You.’ To which everyone applauds.” (Michael Spencer)
What is needed? A Copernican Revolution of the Word that puts us in our place in orbit around God and His Word in our lives, our churches, and our preaching.
We don’t need a series of practical steps to follow. That comes later, if ever. What is needed first is repentance: pastors repenting for catering to and even sometimes encouraging an us-centered approach to ministry, and churches for expecting church to meet our needs.
The issue is idolatry. It’s not about us. One of the greatest needs of our day is for churches to make the shift to a God-centered, not an us-centered, view of ministry.
My understanding of the nature of worship was radically transformed by a fundamental truth I found in C.S. Lewis, who died 50 years ago this month.
What Lewis helped me grasp is best explained by looking briefly at his own struggle with worship as he explained it in the essay titled, “A Word About Praising,” in his short book,Reflections on the Psalms, pages 90–98 in my worn, 1958 edition.
In a word, Lewis enabled me to recognize that not only was it permissible to enjoy God in worship, it was absolutely essential if I was truly to honor him. He said it in this one profound statement: “I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation.” But there is a lot that leads up to this statement.
God’s Deep God-Centeredness
As a young man, Lewis was more than a little agitated by the persistent demand, especially in the Psalms, that we all “praise God.” What made it even worse is that God himself called for praise of God himself. This was almost more than Lewis could stomach. What kind of “God” is he who incessantly demands that his people tell him how great he is? Lewis was threatened with a picture of God in which he appeared as little better than a vain woman demanding compliments. Thanking God for his gifts was one thing, but this “perpetual eulogy” was more than Lewis could stomach.
I suspect this strikes us as problematic, as it did Lewis, because we want to think that God is preeminently concerned with us, not himself. We want a God who is man-centered, not God-centered. Worse still, we can’t fathom how God could possibly love us the way we think he should if he is so unapologetically obsessed with the praise and glory of his own name. How can God love me if all his infinite energy is expended in the love of himself?
Part of Lewis’s problem, as he himself confesses, was that he did not see that “it is in the process of being worshiped that God communicates his presence to men.” Even in the old-covenant sacrificial system, it wasn’t so much that the Israelites gave bulls and goats to God “but that by their so doing God gave himself to men.” God is, after all, the creator and owner of the cattle on a thousand hills. If he were to become hungry, so he says in Psalm 50:12, he would hardly need to tell us!
Enjoyment Overflows to Praise
Lewis is addressing, somewhat indirectly, the question: Why do you worship a God who needs nothing? Indeed, how do you do so? If God is altogether self-sufficient and cannot be served by human hands as if he needed anything (Acts 17:24¬–25; Romans 11:33–36), least of all glory, why does he command our worship and praise of him? This is where Lewis turned the light on in my brain and stirred the affections of my heart:
But the most obvious fact about praise — whether of God or anything — strangely escaped me. I thought of it in terms of compliment, approval, or the giving of honour. I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise unless . . . shyness or the fear of boring others is deliberately brought in to check it.
The world rings with praise — lovers praising their mistresses [Romeo praising Juliet and vice versa], readers their favourite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favourite game — praise of weather, wines, dishes, actors, motors, horses, colleges, countries, historical personages, children, flowers, mountains, rare stamps, rare beetles, even sometimes politicians or scholars. . . . Except where intolerably adverse circumstances interfere, praise almost seems to be inner health made audible. . . . I had not noticed either that just as men spontaneously praise whatever they value, so they spontaneously urge us to join them in praising it: “Isn’t she lovely? Wasn’t it glorious? Don’t you think that magnificent?” The Psalmists in telling everyone to praise God are doing what all men do when they speak of what they care about.
My whole, more general, difficulty about the praise of God depended on my absurdly denying to us, as regards the supremely Valuable, what we delight to do, what indeed we can’t help doing, about everything else we value.
What Lewis is touching on here is how the love of God for sinners like you and me is ultimately made manifest. God desires our greatest good. But what greater good is there in the universe than God himself? If, therefore, God is truly to love us he must give us himself.
Praise Completes Our Joy
But merely giving us of himself is only the first step in the expression of his affection for sinners. He must work to elicit from our hearts rapturous praise and superlative delight because, as Lewis said, “all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise.” That’s the way God made us. We can’t help but praise and rejoice in what we most enjoy. The enjoyment itself is stunted and hindered if it is never expressed in joyful celebration.
Here’s how Lewis explained it:
I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed. It is frustrating to have discovered a new author and not to be able to tell anyone how good he is; to come suddenly, at the turn of the road, upon some mountain valley of unexpected grandeur and then to have to keep silent because the people with you care for it no more than for a tin can in the ditch; to hear a good joke and find no one to share it with.
So, Lewis is telling us that God’s pursuit of our praise of him is not weak self-seeking but the epitome of self-giving love! If our satisfaction in God is incomplete until expressed in praise of him for satisfying us with himself (note well, with himself, not his gifts), then God’s effort to elicit my worship (what Lewis before thought was inexcusable selfishness) is both the most loving thing he could possibly do for me and the most glorifying thing he could possibly do for himself.
For in our gladness in him is his glory in us.
“Calvinism and Arminianism both affirm that God has chosen not to save everyone; the paths diverge over whether God’s electing grace or our free will is the deciding factor in salvation. In the Calvinist account, though, God’s love is finally greater than the fallen heart’s rebellion and resistance. God will not let those whom he has chosen have the last word in this matter, but redeems them, renews them, and keeps them until glory. In the case of neither the elect nor the reprobate does God coerce the human will. Rather, in the former case he frees sinners from their bondage to sin and death, and in the latter case he leaves sinners to go their own way.”
- Michael Horton, For Calvinism, page 64
(HT: Josh Harris)
J. I. Packer’s insight into the nature of godly living must be noted. He rightly insists that:
“we can never hope to do anything right, never expect to perform a work that is truly good, unless God works within us to make us will and act for his good pleasure. Realizing this will make us depend constantly on our indwelling Lord – which is the heart of what is meant by abiding in Christ. Our living should accordingly be made up of sequences having the following shape. We begin by considering what we have to do, or need to do. Recognizing that without divine help we can do nothing as we should (see John 15:5), we confess to the Lord our inability, and ask that help be given. Then, confident that prayer has been heard and help will be given, we go to work. And, having done what we could, we thank God for the ability to do as much as we did and take the discredit for whatever was still imperfect and inadequate, asking forgiveness for our shortcomings and begging for power to do better next time. In this sequence there is room neither for passivity nor for self-reliance. On the contrary, we first trust God, and then on that basis work as hard as we can, and repeatedly find ourselves enabled to do what we know we could not have done by ourselves. That happens through the enabling power of the Holy Spirit, which is the wellspring and taproot of all holy and Christ-like action. Such is the inside story of all the Christian’s authentically good works”
Hot Tub Religion, 180 (emphasis added)
(HT: Sam Storms)