Just as crucially, if all Scripture is breathed out by God, then there is a unity to be found across the pages of the Bible. Without minimizing the differences of genre and human authorship, we should nevertheless approach the Bible expecting theological distinctives and apparent discrepancies to be fully reconcilable.
The unity of Scripture also means we should be rid, once and for all, of this “red letter” nonsense, as if the words of Jesus are the really important verses in Scripture and carry more authority and are somehow more directly divine than other verses. An evangelical understanding of inspiration does not allow us to prize instructions in the gospel more than instructions elsewhere in Scripture. If we read about homosexuality from the pen of Paul in Romans, it has no less weight or relevance than if we read it from the lips of Jesus in Matthew. All Scripture is breathed out by God, not just the parts spoken by Jesus.
God’s gracious self-disclosure comes to us through the Word made flesh and by the inscripturated word of God. These two modes of revelation reveal to us one God, one truth, one way, and one coherent set of promises, threats, and commands to live by. We must not seek to know the Word who is divine apart from the divine words of the Bible, and we ought not read the words of the Bible without an eye to the Word incarnate. When it comes to seeing God and his truth in Christ and in Holy Scripture, one is not more reliable, more trustworthy, or more relevant than the other. Scripture, because it is the breathed-out word of God, possesses the same authority as the God-man Jesus Christ. Submission to the Scriptures is submission to God. Rebellion against the Scriptures is rebellion against God. The Bible can no more fail, falter, or err, than God himself can fail, falter, or err.
The relationship between justification and sanctification—between being pronounced righteous in a moment and being made righteous over a lifetime—is delicate, complex, and altogether crucial to grasp.
“Sanctification is always properly built on justification,” says Bryan Chapell in a new roundtable discussion with Kevin DeYoung and Rick Phillips. Still, he explains, we can make two mistakes concerning what motivates our obedience—denying either a plurality of motivations on the one hand or a priority of motivations on the other.
“We’re never in danger of talking about grace too much,” DeYoung insists. “But we can talk about grace in a truncated, reductionistic way.” We must take great care, then, to deal faithfully with the Bible’s multiplicity of motivations, resisting the tendency to flatten certain texts, while at the same time never becoming “suspicious of grace.”
Phillips cautions against rhetoric that suggests sanctification is a “tag on” to justification—little more than “being excited about justification.” Rather, he says, sanctification is a “twin grace with justification, each resulting from union with Christ.” Though not separable, each of these graces is a distinct aspect of Christianity’s gloriously good news.
Watch the full 10-minute video to hear these three pastors and TGC Council members discuss overcorrection, contextualizing warnings, and more.
I appreciate this reminder, and very challenging check list, for 2014, courtesy of Kevin DeYoung:
Even though the questions are particular to a husband, father, and pastor, you may be able to put them to good use as well.
1. Am I spending time slowly reading God’s word and memorizing Scripture?
2. Am I having consistent, focused, extended times of prayer, including interceding for others?
3. Am I disciplined in my use of technology, in particular not getting distracted by emails and blogging in the evening and on my day off?
4. Am I going to bed on time?
5. Am I eating too much?
6. Have I exercised in the last week?
7. Am I patient with my kids or am I angry with them when they disobey or behave in childish ways?
8. When at home, am I “fully present” for my wife and family or are my mind and energy elsewhere?
9. Am I making sermon preparation a priority in my week or am I doing other less important things first?
10. Have I done anything out of the ordinary to cherish and help my wife?
This is one of those posts I’ve wanted to write for awhile, but I wasn’t sure how to say what I think needs to be said. The danger of legalism and false guilt is very real. But so is the danger of disobedience and self-deception.
I want to talk about church members who attend their home church with great irregularity. These aren’t unchurched folks, or de-churched, or under-churched. They are semi-churched. They show up some of the time, but not every week. They are on again/off again, in and out, here on Sunday and gone for two. That’s the scandal of the semi-churched. In fact, Thom Rainer argues that the number one reason for the decline in church attendance is that church members don’t go to church as often as they used to.
We’ve had Christmas and Easter Christians for probably as long as we’ve had Christmas and Easter. Some people will always be intermittent with their church attendance. I’m not talking about nominal Christians who wander into church once or twice a year. I’m talking about people who went through the trouble of joining a church, like their church, have no particular beef with the church, and still only darken its doors once or twice a month. If there are churches with membership rolls much larger than their average Sunday attendance, they have either under-shepherds derelict in their duties, members faithless in theirs, or both.
I know we are the church and don’t go to church (blah, blah, blah), but being persnickety about our language doesn’t change the exhortation of Hebrews 10:25. We should not neglect to meet together, as some are in the habit of doing. Gathering every Lord’s Day with our church family is one of the pillars of mature Christianity.
So ask yourself a few questions.
1. Have you established church going as an inviolable habit in your family?You know how you wake up in the morning and think “maybe I’ll go on a run today” or “maybe I’ll make french toast this morning”? That’s not what church attendance should be like. It shouldn’t be an “if the mood feels right” proposition. I will always be thankful that my parents treated church attendance (morning and evening) as an immovable pattern. It wasn’t up for discussion. It wasn’t based on extenuating circumstances. It was never a maybe. We went to church. That’s what we did. That made the decision every Sunday a simple one, because their was no real decision. Except for desperate illness, we were going to show up. Giving your family the same kind of habit is a gift they won’t appreciate now, but will usually thank you for later.
2. Do you plan ahead on Saturday so you can make church a priority on Sunday? We are all busy people, so it can be hard to get to church, especially with a house full of kids. We will never make the most of our Sundays unless we prepare for them on Saturday. That likely means finishing homework, getting to bed on time, and foregoing some football. If church is an afterthought, you won’t think of it until after it’s too late.
3. Do you order your travel plans so as to minimize being gone from your church on Sunday? I don’t want to be legalistic with this question. I’ve traveled on Sunday before (though I try to avoid it). I take vacation and study leave and miss 8 or 9 Sundays at URC per year. I understand we live in a mobile culture. I understand people want to visit their kids and grandkids on the weekend (and boy am I thankful when ours come and visit). Gone are the days when people would be in town 50-52 weeks a year. Travel is too easy. Our families are too dispersed. But listen, this doesn’t mean we can’t make a real effort to be around on Sunday. You might want to take Friday off to go visit the kids so you can be back on Saturday night. You might want to think twice about investing in a second home that will draw you away from your church a dozen weekends every year. You might want to re-evaluate your assumption that Friday evening through Sunday evening are yours to do whatever you want wherever you want. It’s almost impossible to grow in love for your church and minister effectively in your church if you are regularly not there.
4. Are you willing to make sacrifices to gather with God’s people for worship every Sunday? “But you don’t expect me to cancel my plans for Saturday night, do you? I can’t possibly rearrange my work schedule. This job requires me to work every Sunday–I’d have to get a new job if I wanted to be regular at church. Sundays are my day to rewind. I won’t get all the yard work done if I go to church every week. My kids won’t be able to play soccer if we don’t go to Sunday games. If my homework is going to be done by Sunday, I won’t be able to chill out Friday night and all day Saturday. Surely God wouldn’t want me to sacrifice too much just so I can show up at church!” Not exactly the way of the cross, is it?
5. Have you considered that you may not be a Christian? Who knows how many people God saves “as through fire” (1 Cor. 3:15). Does going to church every week make you a Christian? Absolutely not. Does missing church 35 Sundays a year make you a non-Christian? It does beg the question. God’s people love to be with God’s people. They love to sing praises. They love to feast at the Table. They love to be fed from the Scriptures. Infrequent church attendance–I mean not going anywhere at all–is a sign of immaturity at best and unbelief at worst. For whenever God calls people out of darkness he calls them into the church. If the Sunday worship service is the community of the redeemed, what does your weekly pattern suggest to God about where you truly belong?
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.
With lots of books and blog posts out there about law and gospel, about grace and effort, about the good news of this and the bad news of that, it’s clear that Christians are still wrestling with the doctrine of progressive sanctification. Can Christians do anything truly good? Can we please God? Should we try to? Is there a place for striving in the Christian life? Can God be disappointed with the Christian? Does the gospel make any demands? These are good questions that require a good deal of nuance and precision to answer well.
Thankfully, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. The Reformed confessions and catechisms of the 16th and 17th centuries provide answers for all these questions. For those of us who subscribe to the Three Forms of Unity or to the Westminster Standards this means we are duty bound to affirm, teach, and defend what is taught in our confessional documents. For those outside these confessional traditions, there is still much wisdom you can gain in understanding what Christians have said about these matters over the centuries. And most importantly, these standards were self-consciously grounded in specific texts of Scripture. We can learn a lot from what these documents have to teach us from the Bible.
Sometimes the truth can be seen more clearly when we state its negation. So rather than stating what we should believe about sanctification, I’d like to explain what we should not believe or should not say. Each of these points is taken directly from one or more of the Reformed confessions or catechisms. Since I am more conversant I will stick with the Three Forms of Unity, but the same theology can be found just as easily in the Westminster Standards (see especially WCF Chapters 13, 16, 18, 19; LC Question and Answer 75-81, 97, 149-153; Shorter Catechism Question and Answer 35, 39, 82-87).
Error #1: The good we do can in some small way make us right with God.This is a denial of the gospel. The good we do is of no use to us in our justification because “even the very best we do in this life is imperfect and stained with sin” (HC Q/A 62). We “cannot do any work that is not defiled by our flesh and also worthy of punishment” (BC Art. 24).
Error #2: We must be good Christians so that God will keep loving us. To the contrary, the good news of justification by faith alone means that we can now “do a thing out of love for God” instead of “only out of love for [ourselves] and fear of being condemned” (BC Art. 24). In the midst of daily sins and weakness the struggling Christian should “flee for refuge to Christ crucified” (CD 5.2), truths that “it is not by their own merits or strength but by God’s undeserved mercy that they neither forfeit faith and grace nor remain in their downfalls to the end and are lost” (CD 5.8).
Error #3: If sanctification is a work of divine grace in our lives, then it must not involve our effort. We are absolutely “indebted to God for the good works we do” (BC Art. 24). He is the one at work in us both to will and to do according to his good pleasure. At the same time, “faith working through love” leads “a man to do by himself the works that God has commanded in his Word” (BC. Art. 24). Our ability to do good works “is not at all” in ourselves, but we still “ought to be diligent in stirring up the grace of God that is in [us]” (WCF 16.3).
Error #4: Warning people of judgment is law and has no part to play in preaching the gospel. Actually, “preaching the gospel” should both “open and close the kingdom of heaven.” The kingdom of heaven is opened by proclaiming to believers what God has done for us in Christ. The kingdom of heaven is closed by proclaiming “to unbelievers and hypocrites that, as long as they do not repent, the anger of God and eternal condemnation rest on them. God’s judgment, both in this life and in the life to come, is based on this gospel testimony” (HC Q/A 84).
Error #5: There is only one reason Christians should pursue sanctification and that’s because of our justification. The Heidelberg Catechism lists several reasons—motivations even—for doing good. “We do good because Christ by his Spirit is also renewing us to be like himself, so that in all our living we may show that we are thankful to God for all he has done for us, and so that he may be praised through us. And we do good so that we may be assured of our faith by its fruits, and so that by our godly living our neighbors may be won over to Christ” (HC Q/A 86).
Error #6: Since we cannot obey God’s commandments perfectly, we should not insist on obedience from ourselves or from others. While it is true that “in this life even the holiest have only a small beginning of this obedience,” that’s not the whole story. “Nevertheless, with all seriousness of purpose, they do begin to live according to all, not only some, of God’s commandments” (HC Q/A 114). Because we belong to Christ and our good works are “sanctified by his grace” (BC Art. 24), God “is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections” (WCF 13.6).
Error #7: The Ten Commandments should be preached in order to remind us of our sin, but not so that believers may be stirred up to try to obey the commandments. The Heidelberg Catechism acknowledges that “no one in this life can obey the Ten Commandments perfectly,” but it still insists that “God wants them preached pointedly.” For two reason: “First, so that the longer we live the more we may come to know our sinfulness and the more eagerly look to Christ for forgiveness of sins and righteousness.” And “Second, so that, while praying to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, we may never stop striving to be renewed more and more after God’s image, until after this life we reach our goal: perfection” (HC Q/A 115).
Error #8: Being fully justified as Christians, we should never fear displeasing God or offending him. The promise of divine preservation does not mean that true believers will never fall into serious sin (CD 5.4). Even believers can commit “monstrous sins” that “greatly offend God.” When we sin in such egregious ways, we “sometimes lose the awareness of grace for a time” until we repent and God’s fatherly face shines upon us again (5.5). God being for us in Christ in a legal and ultimate sense does not mean he will never frown upon our disobedience. But it does mean that God will always effectively renew us to repentance and bring us to “experience again the grace of reconciled God” (5.7).
Error #9: The only proper ground for assurance is in the promises of God found in the gospel. Assurance is not to be sought from private relation but from three sources: from faith in the promises of God, from the testimony of the Holy Spirit testifying to our spirits that we are children of God, and from “a serious and holy pursuit of a clear conscience and of good works” (CD 5.10). Assurance is not inimical to the pursuit of holiness, but intimately bound up with it. We walk in God’s ways “in order that by walking them [we] may maintain the assurance of [our] perseverance” (5.13). Personal holiness is not only a ground for assurance; the desire for assurance is itself a motivation unto holiness.
Error #10: Threats and exhortations belong to the terrors of the law and are not to be used as a motivation unto holiness. This is not the view of the Canons of Dort: “And, just as it has pleased God to begin this work of grace in us by the proclamation of the gospel, so he preserves, continues, and completes his work by the hearing and reading of the gospel, by meditation on it, by its exhortations, threats, and promises, and also by the use of the sacraments” (CD 5.14). Notice two things here. First, God causes us to persevere by several means. He makes promises to us, but he also threatens. He works by the hearing of the gospel and by the use of the sacraments. He has not bound himself to one method. Surely, this helps us make sense of the warnings in Hebrews and elsewhere in the New Testament. Threats and exhortations do not undermine perseverance; they help to complete it. Second, notice the broad way in which Dort understands the gospel (in this context). In being gospel-centered Christians, we meditate on the “exhortations, threats, and promises” of the gospel. In a strict sense we might say that the gospel is only the good news of how we can be saved. But in a wider sense, the gospel encompasses the whole story of salvation, which includes not only gospel promises but also the threats and exhortations inherent in the gospel.
Clearly, different sermons, different passages, and different problems call for different truths to be accented. One is not guilty of these errors simply by not saying everything that can be said. And yet, in the course of faithful preaching and teaching all the positive truths found in a robust, thoughtful doctrine of sanctification should be publicly declared. Likewise, although we may feel called to trumpet a certain truth about the gospel or sanctification—which certain times and certain texts call for—this in no way excuses the ten errors listed above. It is never wise to celebrate the truth by making statements that are false.
The Holy Spirit is often described as light. He shines into the dark places of the heart and convicts us of sin (John 16:7-11). He is a lamp to illumine God’s word, teaching what is true and showing the truth to be precious (1 Cor. 2:6-16). And the Spirit throws a spotlight on Christ so that we can see his glory and be changed (John 16:14). That’s why 2 Corinthians 3:18speaks of becoming more like Christ by beholding the glory of Christ. Just as Moses had his face transfigured when he saw the Lord’s glory on Mount Sinai (Ex. 34:29; 2 Cor. 3:7), so will we be transformed when, by the Spirit, we behold God’s glory in the face of Christ.
The Spirit, then, is a light to us in three ways: by exposing our guilt, by illuminating the word of God, and by showing us Christ. Or to put it another way, as Divine Light, the Holy Spirit works to reveal sin, reveal the truth, and reveal glory. When we close our eyes to this light or disparage what we are meant to see by this brightness, we are guilty of resisting the Spirit (Acts 7:51), or quenching (1 Thess. 5:19) or grieving the Spirit (Eph. 4:30). There may be slight nuances among the three terms, but they are all speak of the same basic reality: refusing to see and to savor what the Spirit means to show us.
There are, then, at least three ways to grieve the Holy Spirit—three ways that may be surprising because they correspond to the three ways in which the Spirit acts as light to expose our guilt, illumine the word, and show us Christ.
First, we grieve the Holy Spirit when we use him to excuse our sinfulness.
The Spirit is meant to be the source of conviction in the human hearts. How sad it is, therefore, when Christians try to use the Spirit to support ungodly behavior. We see it when people—whether genuinely deceived or purposeful charlatans—claim the leading of the Spirit as the reason for their unbiblical divorce, or for their financial impropriety, or for their new found sexual liberation. The Holy Spirit is always the Spirit of holiness. He means to show us our sin not to excuse it through subjective feelings, spontaneous impressions, and wish fulfillment disguised as enlightened spirituality. If the Holy Spirit is grieved when we turn from righteous into sin, how doubly grieved he must be when we claim the Spirit’s authority for such deliberate rebellion.
Second, we grieve the Holy Spirit when we pit him against the Scriptures.
The Spirit works to reveal the truth of the word of God, not to lead us away from it. There is no place in the Christian life for supposing or suggesting that careful attention to the Bible is somehow antithetical to earnest devotion to the Holy Spirit. Anyone wishing to honor the Spirit would do well to honor the Scriptures he inspired and means to illuminate.
Sometimes Christians will cite the promise in John 16:13 that the Spirit “will guide you into all the truth” as reason to expect that the third person of the Trinity will give us new insights not found in the Scripture. But the “truth” referred to in John 16 is the whole truth about everything bound up in Jesus Christ, the way, the truth, and the life. The Spirit will unpack the things that are to come, insofar as he will reveal to the apostles (see v. 12) the significance of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and exaltation. The Spirit, speaking for the Father and the Son, would help the apostles remember what Jesus said and understand the true meaning of who Jesus is and what he accomplished (John 14:26).
This means that the Spirit is responsible for the truths the apostles preached and that in turn were written down in what we now call the New Testament. We trust the Bible—and do not need to go beyond the Bible—because the apostles, and those under the umbrella of their authority, wrote the Bible by means of the Spirit’s revelation. The Bible is the Spirit’s book. To insist on exegetical precision, theological rigor, and careful attention to the word of God should never be denigrated as stuffing our heads full of knowledge, let alone as somehow opposed to the real work of the Spirit.
Third, we grieve the Holy Spirit when we suggest he is jealous of our focus on Christ.
The Holy Spirit’s work is to serve. He speaks only what he hears (John 16:13). He declares what he is given; his mission is to glorify another (John 16:14). All three persons of the Trinity are fully God, yet in the divine economy the Son makes known the Father and the Spirit glorifies the Son. Yes, it is a terrible thing to be ignorant about the Spirit and unwise to overlook the indispensable role he plays in our lives. But we must not think we can focus on Christ too much, or that when we exalt Christ to the glory of God the Father that somehow the Spirit is sulking off in the corner. The Spirit means to shine a light on Christ; he is not envious to stand in the light himself.
Exulting in Christ, focusing on Christ, speaking much and singing often of Christ are not evidences of the Spirit’s dismissal but of the Spirit’s work. If the symbol of the church is the cross and not the dove, that’s because the Spirit would have it that way. As J. I. Packer puts it, “The Spirit’s message to us is never, ‘Look at me; listen to me; come to me; get to know me,’ but always, ‘Look at him, and see his glory; listen to him, and hear his word; go to him, and have life; get to know him, and taste his gift of joy and peace.’”
Again, to know nothing of the Holy Spirit is a serious mistake (cf. Acts 19:2). But when Christians lament an over-attentiveness to Christ or moan about too much emphasis on the cross, such protestations grieve the Spirit himself. The Holy Spirit is not waiting in the wings to be noticed and lauded. His work is not to shine brightly before us, but to shine a light on the glory of Christ. To behold the glory of God the Father in the face of Jesus Christ the Son is not to sideline the Holy Spirit; it is to celebrate his gracious work among us.
Whether we are talking about holiness, the Bible, or Jesus Christ, let us never set the Spirit against the very thing he means to accomplish. We do not honor the Spirit by trying to diminish what he seeks to exalt. And we do not stay in his step by pushing others (or ourselves) in the direction of the very things that grieve him most.
For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering . . .
– Romans 8:3
We tread lightly here, but I fear we vastly underestimate the spiritual damage inflicted on our churches by “How To” sermons without an explicit gospel connection. The Bible is full of practical exhortations and commands, of course, but they are always connected to the foundational and empowering truth of the finished work of Christ. When we preach a message like “Six Steps to _______” or any other “be a better whatever”-type message — where the essential proclamation is not what Christ has done but what we ought/need to do — we become preachers of the law rather than Christ. (And it is not rare that this kind of message with barely any or no mention of Christ(!) at all gets preached.)
But is it just merely unfortunate? Something that could be improved but not really that big of a deal?
I think the Scriptures show us that this kind of preaching isn’t just off-center, but actually does great harm, actually serves to accomplish the very opposite of its intention. How?
1. Preaching even a “positive” practical message with no gospel-centrality amounts to preaching the law. We are accustomed to thinking of legalistic preaching as that which is full of “thou shalt not”s, the kind of fundamentalist hellfire and brimstone judgmentalism we’ve nearly all rejected. But “do” is just the flipside to the same coin “don’t” is on. That coin is the law. And a list of “do”‘s divorced from the DONE of the gospel is just as legalistic, even if it’s preached by a guy in jeans with wax in his hair following up the rockin’ set by your worship band.
2. The message of the law unaccompanied by and untethered from the central message of the gospel condemns us. Because besides telling us stuff to do, the law also thereby reveals our utter inability to measure up.
3. Therefore, a steady dose of gospel-deficient practical preaching doesn’t make Christians more empowered, more effective, but more discouraged, less empowered. Because the law has no power in itself to fulfill its expectations. The only thing the Bible calls power for the Christian is the grace of Christ in the gospel.
But it gets more serious than that.
4. The Bible goes further to suggest, actually, that without the gospel of Christ’s finished work, the preaching of the law of works serves to exacerbate disobedience. See Romans 5:20 and Romans 7, for this consideration. The law arouses passions eventually against itself or against its referent. In other words, without the saving power of the gospel, we go one of two ways in having the law preached to us: we end up being pushed to disobey (whether from anger at its judgment or discouragement from inability to keep it) or we end up thinking ourselves righteous apart from the righteousness the law really points to, that of Christ.
5. The law brings death (Romans 7:10). So the preaching of practical, relevant, applicational “do” messages aimed at producing victorious Christians is fundamentally a preaching of condemnation. It is the proclamation of grace, counter-intuitive though it seems and oddly enough, that trains us to obey God (Titus 2:11-12).
6. The preaching of Christless, gospel-deficient practical sermons increases self-righteousness. Because it is not focused on Christ’s work but our works. Christ-implicit, gospel-deficient practical sermons do not make empowered, victorious Christians, but self-righteous self-sovereigns. And the self-righteous go to hell.
Again, we tread lightly. But the stakes are high. And I think they are higher than we tend to think.
Brothers, let us preach the practical implications and exhortations of Scripture, yes. But let us not forget that the message of Christianity is Christ. It is the message of the sufficiency and power of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Let’s not preach works, lest we increase the sinfulness of our churches and unwittingly facilitate the condemnation of the lost.
For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.
– 1 Corinthians 2:2
Permit me a brief word about a disconcerting trend I see in young, and sometimes very popular, preachers. I mention this concern knowing full well my own temptation to it. Let me pose the problem as a question:
Preacher, are you at your best when you are closest to the text?
Too many preachers are at their best when they are telling a personal anecdote or ripping into some sacred cow or riffing on in a humorous fashion. There is a time for all of that, but we ought to beware if those times are when we are at our best. We can be orthodox preachers of good, gospel truths and still tickle people’s ears. If we’re not careful, we’ll train the large conference audience and our local congregation that the time to really pay attention is when we start drifting not when we start digging.
“Got it. Understood. Text means this, not that. Sound good. Now get back to that funny, over the top, in your face thing you do.”
I’ve done that thing; probably will again. If the rant is honest and true, the Lord can use it. But, again, I repeat myself, it must not be the best we have. The congregation should be most aflame with gospel zeal when they are beholding new things in the chapters and verses at the end of their noses. God uses all of the preacher–personality, humor, gestures–all of us. But the indelible impression left on our people must be a sense of the presence of God arising from careful attention to the word of God. If the best stuff we have every Sunday is disconnected from our hard won exegetical work, our people will learn to trust us and not the Book. They will look forward to our new antics, not our new discoveries in the text.
Ask yourself this Saturday: “Can I make my best point–the one I’m most excited about, the one I can’t wait to deliver–without noting anything from this week’s passage?” Everything you want to say isn’t everything you should say. We must be constrained by what we can sincerely say from these verses. If we want fresh power from the pulpit let us labor to demonstrate that our most passionate appeals come from the most precise exposition.
The best preacher is the preacher who is at his best when he is closest to the text.
It’s amazing how often people think they are giving the Christian message or have heard the gospel and yet there is nothing about sin and repentance.
The message of the gospel is not simply an invitation to know God’s love or enter his family or to live forever. That is all true. But the call to saving faith must always include a call to repentance.
Acts 13:38-39 “Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man [Jesus] forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the Law of Moses.”
The Law of Moses cannot free you. You cannot go to sleep at night knowing for certain that you are righteous before God based on your observance of the Decalogue. The law cannot set you free of your condemnation, that is why the High Priest had to offer sacrifices year after year, for centuries.
You cannot be freed from your sins by the intercession of your ancestors, or your moral religiosity. You cannot be set free from your sins because you have an active social conscience and you’re very engaged in issues of justice, or because you are a very fastidious homeschooling family. Only Jesus, the Savior, can set you free.
We have a problem. We are slaves to sin. We are under the curse and penalty of sin. We love sin. We live in sin. We were born in sin and apart from Christ, we die in sin.
The only freedom: repent and believe.
It’s a question Catholics have often asked Protestants as they wax on about justification by faith alone. It’s a question I’ve had posed to me, in one way or another, by both Muslims and Mormons. It’s a question that even Gospel-centered Christians don’t always seem to agree on.
Thankfully, it’s also a question we find in the Heidelberg Catechism (Q/A 86).
According to the Catechism, there are at least five reasons we who have been saved by grace alone through faith alone must still do good.
1. Fruit. Good works are the fruit of which justification is the root. If we have the grace of God inside us we will have something of the grace showing through to the outside. “Christ by his Spirit is also renewing us to be like himself.”
2. Gratitude. Good works show to God and to the world that we have much to be thankful for (Rom. 6:13; 12:1-2; 1 Pet. 2:5-10). When we are grateful, the nastiness of vice and pride is pushed aside. In its place we consider all that God has done for us and instinctively–and supernaturally–aim to please the one who has shown us such mercy.
3. Glory. Good works testify that God is worthy of our obedience and service (Matt. 5:16;1 Cor. 6:19-20). He receives praise when people see his reflection in us. His majesty is magnified when others recognize that we consider him a God to be feared and a Father to be loved.
4. Assurance. Good works bear witness to our own hearts that we are children of God (Matt. 7:17-18; Gal. 5:22-24; 2 Pet. 1:10-11). As we spot good fruit growing in our lives, we should conclude that we, therefore, cannot be bad trees.
5. Conversion. Good works make our neighbors stand up and take notice (Matt. 5:14-16;Rom. 14:17-19; 1 Pet. 2:12; 3:1-2). Our behavior cannot, by itself, win sinners to Christ. But our good works can adorn the gospel and lead the lost to consider whether they are as found as they thought.
Good works are not optional for the Christian. We must do good, not as the means of our acceptance with God, but as an expression of it. In the lifelong pursuit of holiness, we would do well to consider all the biblical motivations for Christlikeness. For at one time or another, we will need them all. And so will the people God brings before us in need of similar transformation.
Every church has a liturgy. Traditional congregations have a general order to worship. So do contemporary congregations. So do funky, artistic ones. Church leaders do not have time to reinvent their services every week. Congregations are not capable of learning new forms, new songs, and following a new order every week. Even the most spontaneous and creative church will flounder without some predictability and commonality from week to week. Even the most conscientious pastor or worship leader will eventually settle into a basic template for worship. Every church has a liturgy.
But not every liturgy is as good, or strong, or deep, or biblical, or gospel-centered as every other.
If I’m not mistaken, there is a New Evangelical Liturgy which is increasingly common in our churches. You find it in Baptist churches, Presbyterian churches, Reformed churches, free churches, and non-denominational churches. It’s familiar in rural churches and city churches. It can be found in tiny churches and megachurches. No one has written it down in a service book. No council or denomination is demanding that it be done. No pastor is taught this liturgy in seminary (um, probably not). But it has become the default liturgy nonetheless. It looks like this:
- Casual welcome and announcements
- Stand up for 4-5 songs
- During the set, or at the very end, add a short prayer
- Closing song
I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say this is the basic liturgy from which most evangelical churches operate. To be sure, there are slight variations. The announcement may go after the praise set. There may be an offering in there somewhere, possibly with a special music number. The service may be tweaked a bit when there is communion or a baptism. But overall, if I were to visit 50 different evangelical churches over the next year, this is what I expect to find most of the time.
The simple question I want to ask is this: Is this New Evangelical Liturgy really an improvement?
Please hear me. I’m not talking about instrumentation or worship style (though form is not irrelevant). And I’m not suggesting God doesn’t take pleasure when his people worship him in Spirit and in truth from all sorts of templates. I’m not saying people won’t be saved or edified in churches that use the New Evangelical Liturgy. I’m certainly not saying they won’t like it. What I am suggesting is that by no biblical or historical consideration can we conclude that the New Evangelical Liturgy is an improvement on the old liturgy.
What do I mean by the “old liturgy”? I mean the traditional Protestant order of worship that stretches back to Luther and Calvin (despite their important differences), runs through Westminster, and used to be what churches did when they didn’t know what else to do. Was it rote at times? Sure. Did some churches use it too rigidly? No doubt. But it was also a better default.
I’m talking about an order of service that included a call to worship, multiple Scripture readings, Psalm singing (along with old hymns and new songs), a Scriptural benediction, historic rubrics like the Apostles’ Creed and the Ten Commandments, and many kinds of prayers (e.g., invocation, prayer of adoration, prayer of confession, prayer of intercession, prayer for illumination). I’m talking about what Mike Horton calls “the drama of Christ-centered worship” or what Bryan Chapell calls “gospel ‘re-representation’”–a carefully constructed, though flexible, liturgy which progresses with a distinct gospel logic: adoration, confession, assurance, thanksgiving, petition, instruction, charge, and blessing. The traditional Protestant liturgy has an Isaiah 6 movement to it where the gospel is not just preached in the sermon or even sung in the songs, but embodied in the entire order of the service.
For whatever appeal the New Evangelical Liturgy may have in American culture, and for whatever abuses or doldrums may be associated with a more traditional liturgy, I don’t believe it can be argued, by objective measures, that the new is superior to the old. Which liturgy has more prayer? What one has more Scripture? Which one does more to accent sin and forgiveness? Which ones anchors us better in the ancient creeds and confessions of the church? Which one is the product of more sustained theological reflection? Which is more shaped by the gospel?
I’m not sure where the New Evangelical Liturgy came from. Maybe its origins are in revivalist camp meetings. Maybe it goes back to the seeker movement. Maybe it’s a reflection of the juvenilization of American Christianity. Maybe pastors have taken the basis pattern of Christian conferences and assumed it was meant to be the order for weekly worship. Wherever it came from, I encourage pastors, worship leaders, and churches to consider whether this New Evangelical Liturgy is the best we can do. It may be familiar. It may be simple. It may even be popular. And it may still not be an improvement.
In Antioch the disciples were first called Christians. They were known as Christ-people. This is not the only term used in the New Testament. In Acts alone we see Christians called saints, disciples, believers, the church, brothers, Nazoreans, and people of the Way. We can rightly be called by many names. But let me put this before you: don’t lose the term “Christian.”
Sometimes you find people who are a little hipper than thou who conspicuously eschew the title “Christian.” They would rather we called a “Jesus follower” or a “disciple of Jesus of Nazareth.” There’s no problem in using this biblical language, unless it is to steadfastly avoid other kinds of biblical language. In our day there is a certain casualness about “following” someone. It’s what you do on Twitter. It’s what you do when you settle on a school of thought. You follow Keynes or you follow Hayek. Following is pretty safe. Being called a “Christian,” however, is a little dicier.
Just like the first century.
Almost certainly, the believers in Antioch were first called “Christians” as a put-down. It was an insulting jab they came to own for themselves, much like the Puritans and the Methodists would later do. There was something about these believers in Antioch–their distinguishing characteristic to the world was that they were of Christ.
This is significant because the word “Christ” says something that merely “Jesus” doesn’t . Jesus was a common name. It’s become sacred to us, but it was like Mike or Jason or Sean in first century Palestine. Just another familiar male name. And so it’s telling that the church in Antioch came to be known as “Christians” rather than simply “Jesus people.” The fact that Luke points this out suggests the term stuck in the early church. The saints at Antioch not only pursued the ethical life of Jesus and revered the wise sayings of Jesus, they had a reputation for believing, teaching, and heralding that this man Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God, the Anointed One, the long awaited Messiah and King. There new name carried with it theological freight.
By all means, let’s be disciples of Jesus, followers of Jesus, lovers of Jesus, and friends with Jesus. But let us never stop there. We are also Christ people–worshipers of our Savior and King, trusting in all that the Messiah fulfilled and accomplished, redeemed by our dying Lord. Don’t lose the term the church in Antioch “earned” by their faithful witness. If you are glad to be a Christian, don’t be ashamed to be called one either.
What we mean when we say amen:
The word amen is not Christianese for “prayer over.” It means something much more beautiful and significant.
I had a friend in college who thought because of our freedom in Christ we shouldn’t say “amen” to conclude our prayers. So he started ending his prayers with “groovy” (you would have thought I was in college in the 1970s). He thought it was pretty cool, a little bit of needed rebellion against tired old Christian cliches. But amen is not the same as groovy. Amen means “let it be, “so be it,” “verily,” “truly.” When you finish your prayer with “Amen” you are saying, “Yes Lord, let it be so. According to your will, may it be.” It’s a final note of confirmation at the end of our prayers.
More than that, the Heidelberg Catechism reminds us that “amen” is also an expression of confidence. “Amen” means “This is sure to be!” It reminds me of this good news: “It is even more sure that God listens to my prayer, than that I really desire what I pray for” (Question and Answer 129). God is gracious to hear our prayers much better than we pray them. “Amen” bears witness to our desire for God’s purposes to be done and to God’s promise that they will. Your style may be groovy, but your prayers deserve an “amen.”
Many Christians do not really grasp why God has forgiven us of our sins. It’s not as if God the Father woke up one morning and was having a great day, just feeling terrific about being the Sovereign of the universe, then decided on a whim to have mercy on his elect and look past their iniquities. God did not save us because the loving part of him finally out balanced the justice part of him. We must not picture God up in heaven muttering: “You know your sin? And all your rebellion and failures and disobedience? You remember all that? Well fuhgettaboutit. It don’t bother me. I love youse guys and I ain’t gonna mention your sin no more.”
Without giving it much thought, many of us picture the atonement as nothing but undeserved mercy from a loving God. We forget that the mercy we receive is a mercy merited on the cross. God has not saved us by the removal of justice, but by the satisfaction of it.
Justice is shot through the entire plan of redemption. God never once set aside his justice. There is a hell because God is just. And people go to heaven because God is just. Our sins are counted to Christ, so that he died in our place. His life and his death counted to us, that we might live.
We are not forgiven and given eternal life because God waved a magic wand and decided he would just overlook our sins. He has not overlooked the smallest speck of your sin. The good news of the cross is that the tiniest little speck of your sin, and all of the great big sins as well, have been paid for by the perfect and final sacrifice.
We were not saved on a whim because God decided one day he might as well have mercy on sinners. We are saved because God sent his Son to become the curse for us. Every last lustful look, every proud thought, every gossiping tongue, God demands justice for all of it. And the resurrection of Jesus bears witness to the glorious good news that all the demands of justice have been met so that Christ would be the first to conquer death, but not the last. Divine satisfaction through divine self-substitution.
It is possible to transmit the gospel in a way that never really gets to the root of the problem. Sometimes we share Jesus in such a way that we simply invite people to receive more of what they already want.
“Come to Jesus, you’ll feel better about yourself. Come to Jesus, your marriage will improve. Come to Jesus, you’ll be a better student. Come to Jesus, you’ll find friends. Come to Jesus and he’ll bless you with more stuff. Come to Jesus and your life will improve.”
Now there is a way to many of those statements true. But you really haven’t given the gospel until you also tell people: “Come to Jesus and repent. Take up your cross. Follow him as your Lord, no matter the cost.”
It’s tempting to give a gospel which amounts to “Everything you could ever want! Right now!” Come to Jesus, and I’ll throw in this extra ShamWow! There are whole churches built on this type of infomercial-Jesus, this type of methodology, claiming time is running out, so come now!
Yes, you do receive incomparable blessings when you come to Jesus. But we must also hear, to paraphrase Calvin, that true Christian faith is built on denial of ourselves. This is why some folks have such a hard time hearing the gospel. We think, “God is love, and if God is love then he wouldn’t ask me to do something I don’t want to do.” But what good news is this?
The good news is that God is going to give us more than we could ask or imagine. But the reality of Christianity is that it only comes by a cross. Unless a seed falls to the earth and dies, it does not bear fruit.
When Jesus calls a man he bids him come and die.
That he might truly live.
I think one of the main reasons we struggle to tell people about Jesus is that deep down we just don’t think it will ever work. We think we’ve already tried to share with people before and nobody was interested. We imagine sharing our faith to be nothing but muscling up our strength to go do our duty and embrace failure. We soldier on, expecting fruitlessness, so we can say, “I did it, pastor.”
Most of us lack faith that God actually has people prepared for us who will listen. This is where the doctrine of predestination is the best news in the world. We have not yet exhausted the number of God’s elect. God has more people to be saved, so keep on sharing.
When Spurgeon was asked why he kept preaching the gospel when he believed in election, he replied, “Because the elect don’t have yellow stripes down their back.” In other words, he could not see who was elect and who was not, so he had to keep sharing, believing that God had more people who would listen.
The sovereignty of God is the greatest motivation for mission. God still has people, preordained from the beginning of time to be responsive to the gospel message. You may think that you have already shared with everyone who would possibly be interested in the gospel, but it is not so. Remember: that the Spirit of God goes before you. As the it says in Zachariah 4:6, “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts.”
God is more interested in saving people than we are in telling people how to be saved. So as we keep sharing, he will keep providing some to be saved.
We equate love with indifference to sin when the Bible’s logic is exactly the opposite. The cross is the fullest expression of God’s love not because it shows God’s indifference to sin, but because it shows God’s holy hatred toward sin and his willingness to pay for it himself. That’s love.
At the end of Acts 7, we see Stephen praying for the angry mob stoning him to death. He says with his dying breath, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Surely this is love: Stephen wanted them to receive a mercy they did not show him. He had done nothing wrong. Stephen was not deserving of death. Their actions were a profound instance of criminal injustice. And yet in a final gasp, on his knees, he cries out on their behalf, “Lord have mercy.”
How did he do that? How could Stephen love like that? How do we love like that? Pray like that? Forgive like that? Lots of people in the world want to love and forgive. We like those virtues in our culture. But few people are interested in the principles which makes these virtues possible.People want to love like Stephen without bothering to understand or embrace the mile of theology that made his love possible. They don’t want to see the Jesus he saw, or believe in the vindication he knew was coming, or entrust their offence to the God of justice who will one day make all things right.
In the world, they want to be good people. But they don’t realize they have to be God people first. I hope you aren’t going to church just to become a better you or just for the morality your kids might pick up. That’s not how Christianity works. Becoming a Christian is not simply about self-improvement. It’s about a hundred particular truths that teach our minds and touch our hearts–truths about God and Christ and sin and salvation. And yes, later, and only in connection with all the rest, is it about being a good person. When you embrace the biblical world-view of Father, Son and Holy Spirit; creation, fall, redemption, and consummation; redemption accomplished and applied–when your heart thrills to all of that, then you’ll bear fruit. But don’t expect to ever look like Stephen if you grasp for the fruit without the tree.
There are two difficult realities you must accept if you are to live faithfully as a Christian in the world. (1) You will have enemies. And (2) you must love those enemies. Jesus taught both things quite clearly.
Matthew 5:43-45 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your father who is in heaven.”
Matthew 10:21-22 “Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”
Accepting either one of these truths is challenging enough. Embracing both of them takes the work of the Holy Spirit.
Some people can accept that they will have enemies in this life. They understand the world may hate them, so they prepare for the worst and get ready for battle. They know that the world is not their home. They expect to be hated for their Christian beliefs. And in fact, they feel some confirmation they are on the right track when they accumulate opponents. They are fully prepared for enemies. But there is little in their demeanour that wants to love those enemies. They are always in battle mode and have no interest in forgiving their enemies or praying for the spiritual well being of their enemies. These folks exhibit lots of courage and little compassion.
On the other hand, some people are just the opposite. They believe in love with all their hearts. They know they must turn the other cheek and accentuate the positive. They care deeply for the feelings and hurts of others. They want people to get along. They try to minimize conflict and find common ground. They are fully prepared to love. But they don’t have a very robust view of love. They equate love with unconditional affirmation or think love means we don’t challenge faulty assumptions. They are always in bridge building mode and no stomach for ever upsetting someone. These folks exhibit lots of compassion and little courage.
We need both. If you are going to be a faithful Christian in a fallen world you better prepared for people to hate you, and you better prepared to love them nonetheless. Even to the point of death.
Ours, of course, not theirs. That’s the way of Jesus. Tell the truth. Be hated. Love. Die. Live again.
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7:9-10)
The great multitude is a host of overcomers. They’ve done it. They triumphed. They finished the race. They faced hunger and thirst and heat and tears (v. 16), but they did not curse God. They did not bail. They did not compromise. They held fast to word of God and the testimony of Jesus. They proved to be more than conquerors through him who loved us.
They also prove to be a colorful bunch. This is not a vanilla multitude. When we get to heaven we will be pleased to find a vast array of people that do not look like us. There are going to be millions of Africans in that great multitude and plenty of Brazilians and Chinese and Filipinos, and lots of Mexicans and Indians and Arabs, and there will be some white people too. And if you think it is great to sing your favorite hymn in English, it’s going to be even better when you get to hear it in Shona and Swedish and Swahili. You’ll thrill to hear praise in Fang and French and Finnish, and rejoice to see the throng spill out their songs in German and Japanese and Hausa and Hungarian and Quechuan and Kazakh and Korean. Heaven will be diversity without the political correctness and multi-culturalism unified in one single purpose. Every heart, every head, every voice giving glory to God and to the Lamb.
Revelation 7 is the final fulfillment of the promise to made to Abraham to multiply his offspring and make him a great nation. God’s plan has always been for more than ethnic Israel, more than Europe, more than the West. His plan has been to make a people for himself from every nation and tribe. God loves to be praised in white churches and African American churches and Russian churches and by every other congregation that calls on the name of his Son.
How sweet it will be when all our churches can sing together. Let us pursue now what we will enjoy in glory then. For what started with one man, called out of paganism, and joined to his barren wife, will one day come to culmination on the other side of the seven seals with a vast array of singing saints more numerous than the sand on the seashore.