Many are asking, “What is the church?” Pastor Jeff Vanderstelt believes we’re asking the wrong question, because the Bible uses that word to describe a group of people, not a gathering or event. So we really should be asking, “Who?” not what.
His answer? “The church is the regenerate people of God saved by the power of God for the purposes of God in this world.” This means we don’t stop being the church when we walk out of the building on Sunday morning. Instead, everything we do, we do as the blood-bought church of God, for the fame of Jesus, everywhere.
In less than three minutes, Vanderstelt unpacks how seeing the church through these eyes will change you — how you understand yourself and how you live Monday through Saturday.
Charles H. Spurgeon:
The church is not perfect, but woe to the man who finds pleasure in pointing out her imperfections!
Christ loved his church, and let us do the same.
I have no doubt that the Lord can see more fault in his church than I can; and I have equal confidence that he sees no fault at all. Because he covers her faults with his own love—that love which covers a multitude of sins; and he removes all her defilement with that precious blood which washes away all the transgressions of his people.
(HT: Trevin Wax)
“. . . so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him.” Colossians 1:10
We should not be afraid of this clear biblical teaching. It does not counteract the gospel in our lives; it is the sweet fruit of the gospel in our lives.
The good news of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, apart from all our works, is thrilling. The message of forgiveness, acceptance, adoption, all by radical divine grace — I never get tired of hearing it and preaching it. It is oxygen to me. Every day. I hope it means that to you too.
But this grace is also a power that transforms. It both reassures us and changes us. Both/and. How else can we account for the New Testament?
“Try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord.” Ephesians 5:10
“We ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more.” 1 Thessalonians 4:1
“Whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him.” 1 John 3:22
This is not legalism. The One whose mercy flows freely to the undeserving is not a machine. He is not a mechanical Grace Dispenser. He is a person. His smile is not an all-approving grin. He has moral sensitivities. We please him, and we displease him, moment by moment. Within the gospel framework of his grace, inside the relationship of his fatherly acceptance, he is fully capable of confronting us. Not rejecting us, not casting us off, but correcting us. Because he’s a good Father.
I’ll take it further. The One who is for us (Romans 8:31) can also bluntly say, “I have something against you” (Revelation 2:4, 14, 20). The One who will never leave us nor forsake us (Hebrews 13:5) is also quite capable of saying to us, “We need to have a serious talk. It’s time for you to make some changes. If you will listen and follow, I will continue to use you. If you turn away, I will set you aside.” All he wants to take from us is “what is dishonorable” (2 Timothy 2:21) anyway – the things in ourselves we can’t approve of either. What’s so bad about that?
But here is what I’m wondering. Is the only message we’ll hear and receive the word of justification and acceptance and affirmation? What if our Savior wants to get up in our faces about things in us that displease him? Will we dismiss that message as legalism? We can turn it into legalism. If we respond to the rebukes of Scripture as occasions for self-invented virtue, discounting the finished work of Christ on the cross, then it is legalism. But that is not what the Bible is saying. The Bible is alerting us to the heart of our Father, a heart that is wounded by our sins and follies, a heart that is pleased with our humility and obedience. He feels the one, he feels the other. This is part of the New Covenant message to God’s blood-bought people. Will we receive it?
I remember my dad mentioning a close friend of his who was in spiritual trouble. My dad said something like, “I wonder if he has so offended the Lord that the Lord has turned his face away.” Only God knows what was really going on in that man’s experience. But my dad’s intuition may have been right. Our Judge who justifies us is also our Father who disciplines us (Hebrews 12:3-11).
If your theology includes the message of justification by faith alone, I hope you never back off from that. I hope you keep that message central. But I also hope your theology includes another message – the grace of obedience fully pleasing to the Father.
The prophets searched. Angels longed to see. And the disciples didn’t understand. But Moses, the prophets, and all the Old Testament Scriptures had spoken about it — that Jesus would come, suffer, and then be glorified. God began to tell a story in the Old Testament, the ending of which the audience eagerly anticipated. But the Old Testament audience was left hanging. The plot was laid out but the climax was delayed. The unfinished story begged an ending.
In Christ, God has provided the climax to the Old Testament story. Jesus did not arrive unannounced; his coming was declared in advance in the Old Testament, not just in explicit prophecies of the Messiah but by means of the stories of all of the events, characters, and circumstances in the Old Testament. God was telling a larger, overarching, unified story. From the account of creation in Genesis to the final stories of the return from exile, God progressively unfolded his plan of salvation. And the Old Testament account of that plan always pointed in some way to Christ.
— Tremper Longman III & J. Alan Grovesforeword in George M. Schwab, Hope in the Midst of a Hostile World(Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2006), x
(HT: Of First Importance)
In 2012, sociologist Robert Woodberry published the astonishing fruit of a decade of research into the effect of missionaries on the health of nations. The January/February 2014 issue of Christianity Today tells the story of what he found in an article called “The World the Missionaries Made.”
There is a lesson implicit in these findings that I would like to draw out for the sake of the eternal fruitfulness of missions as well as her power to transform cultures.
Titled “The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy,” Woodberry’s article in the American Political Science Review, defends this thesis: “The work of missionaries . . . turns out to be the single largest factor in insuring the health of nations” (36). This was a discovery that he says landed on him like “atomic bomb” (38).
A Sweeping Claim
To be more specific, Woodberry’s research supported this sweeping claim:
Areas where Protestant missionaries had a significant presence in the past are on average more economically developed today, with comparatively better health, lower infant mortality, lower corruption, greater literacy, higher educational attainment (especially for women), and more robust membership in nongovernmental associations. (39)
He concedes that “there were and are racist missionaries . . . and missionaries who do self-centered things.” But adds: “If that were the average effect, we would expect that the places where missionaries had influence to be worse, than places where missionaries weren’t allowed or were restricted in action. We find exactly the opposite on all kinds of outcomes” (40).
An Atomic Nuance
Then comes the all-important observation which, inexplicably, Woodberry calls a “nuance” to his conclusion. I would call it a thunderbolt. He observed, “There is one important nuance to all this: The positive effect of missionaries on democracy applies only to ‘conversionary protestants.’ Protestant clergy financed by the state, as well as Catholic missionaries prior to the 1960s, had no comparable effect in areas where they worked” (40). Now that’s an atomic bomb.
I could not find in the Christianity Today article or Woodberry’s original article an explicit definition of “conversionary Protestant.” But these missionaries are contrasted with Roman Catholics and missionaries from state churches. I take it, then, that “conversionary Protestant” missionaries are those who believe that to be saved from sin and judgment one must convert from false religions to faith in Jesus Christ.
Thus Woodberry points out that, even though missionaries have often opposed unjust and destructive practices like opium addiction, and slavery, and land confiscation, nevertheless “most missionaries didn’t set out to be political activists. . . [but] came to colonial reform through the back door.” That is, “all these positive outcomes were somewhat unintended” (41).
A Significant Implication
What is the implication of saying that, as a result of “conversionary” missionary focus, social reforms came “through the back door” and were “somewhat unintended”?
The implication is that the way to achieve the greatest social and cultural transformation is not to focus on social and cultural transformation, but on the “conversion” of individuals from false religions to faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and the hope of eternal life. Or to put it another way, missionaries (and pastors and churches) will lose their culturally transforming power if they make cultural transformation their energizing focus.
Tree First, Then Fruit
There is a biblical reason for this. The only acts of love and justice that count with God are the fruit of conversion. If repentance toward God and faith in Jesus does not precede our good works, then the works themselves are part of man’s rebellion, not part of his worship.
Thus John the Baptist says, “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8). That’s the transformation that counts with God: First repentance, then the fruit of repentance. And Jesus says, “Make the tree good and its fruit good” (Matthew 12:33). First a new tree, then good fruit.
There are two kinds of mind: “the mind of the flesh” and “the mind of the Spirit.” “The mind of the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot; and those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8:7). Therefore, behavior change without the conversion of this “mind” is part of man’s insubordination, and is not pleasing to God. But “the mind of the Spirit is life and peace” (Romans 8:6) and bears “the fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22).
Recreating the Human Soul
That fruit — that transformed life — is “the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:11). That is, it comes through conversion to Jesus. It is the result of a new creation miracle: “We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Ephesians 2:10). Transformation comes through individual new creation.
This new creation of the human soul comes by the Spirit through faith in Jesus — that is, through conversion. And one fundamental achievement of that conversion is deliverance from the wrath of God. “Jesus delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thessalonians 1:10). Paul says to the converted believers of Thessalonica, “God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 5:9). “Having now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God” (Romans 5:9).
Change the World by Focusing on Christ
The point is this: Conversion to faith in Christ by the Spirit through faith accomplishes two things — rescue from the wrath of God, and transformation of life. This is ultimately why Robert Woodberry found what he found. “Conversionary Protestants” changed the world, because they didn’t focus first on changing the world, but on faith in Christ.
This means that the missionaries that will do the most good for eternity and for time — for eternal salvation and temporal transformation — are the missionaries who focus on converting the nations to faith in Christ. And then on that basis, and from that root, teach them to bear the fruit of all that Jesus commanded us (Matthew 28:20).
Evangelical churches typically recite these words when taking communion—or the Lord’s Supper: “Do this in remembrance of me.” Whether your theology of communion leans toward the Calvinistic “spiritual presence” or Zwingli’s memorial view, or you find yourself floating back and forth between the two, I would guess we all desire a heightened sense of what God holds out to us in these dynamic symbols.
In 1 Corinthians 11:24-25 (see also Luke 22:17-20) Paul recounts the instructions Jesus gave the disciples when inaugurating the new-covenant meal. Jesus says as we grind the broken bread (his body) in our teeth and as the bitter taste of the wine (his blood) lingers on our throats, we remember Christ’s death.
More Than Recalling
So what does it mean to remember? Does it simply suggest we shouldn’t let thoughts slip out of your mind? Does it mean we reminisce on the sufferings of Jesus so I feel really thankful or really awful? For many Christians, to remember is an ambiguous mental activity. But in the Bible, a call to remember—especially when tied to a covenant sign or ceremony—is a vibrant, powerful, and participatory concept where we recalibrate our lives according to what’s being remembered. According to Herman Ridderbos in his outline of Paul’s theology, “It is not merely a subjective recalling to mind, but an active manifestation of the continuing and actual significance of the death of Christ.”
Michael Horton layers our understanding of “remembrance” with the Jewish context. “In our Western (Greek) intellectual heritage, ‘remembering’ means ‘recollecting’: recalling to mind something that is no longer a present reality. Nothing could be further from a Jewish conception. For example, in the Jewish liturgy, ‘remembering’ means participating here and now in certain defining events in the past and also in the future.”
Here are two brief examples where the Old Testament “remembers” in an active way of bringing past realities into present-day living.
After the flood, God tells Noah the rainbow is the covenant sign that he will not cover the whole earth in judgment with water again. Each time the sign of the rainbow appears the covenant is remembered. “When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth. God said to Noah, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth’” (Gen. 9:16-17). The covenantal sign of the rainbow reassures us of God’s promises that still apply today.
The preeminent picture of redemption in the Old Testament is the exodus of Israel from Egypt, memorialized in the Passover meal. Every year the Israelites would again participate in this meal to remember who—or whose—they were. It’s not dry history to be learned but dynamic history to be lived. They participate in the meal because they are partakers in the reality of this redemption as Israelites. “This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the LORD; throughout your generations, as a statue forever, you shall keep it as a feast” (Exodus 12:14).
The Puritan John Flavel distinguished between two types of remembering. The first is speculative and transient, and the second is affectionate and permanent. “A speculative remembrance is only to call to mind the history of such a person and his sufferings: that Christ was once put to death in the flesh. An affectionate remembrance is when we so call Christ and his death to our minds as to feel the powerful impressions thereof upon our hearts.”
When the Lord’s Supper is served believers experience an affectionate remembrance because the gospel is recalled and reapplied. We remember the grace purchased at Christ’s death is the same grace we need when we come to the table.
Even as a new husband I know the importance of remembering my wedding anniversary. It wouldn’t quite cut it if on that day I did nothing special for my wife and only mentally acknowledged our anniversary. She wouldn’t say, “How thoughtful! I’m glad you didn’t forget.” You don’t remember your anniversary by stating the facts. She would rightly expect that the concept of remembering our anniversary involves a layer of activity, such as me writing a note or taking her on a date. We remember our covenantal promise as I pursue, cherish, and love her afresh like I vowed on our wedding day.
One of the things encouraging me is the current resurgence of understanding the ongoing application of the gospel. Christians today regularly hear that the gospel is believed once for salvation but is reapplied daily. The gospel rhythm isn’t one-and-done but rinse and repeat. This growing awareness of what it means “to preach the gospel to ourselves daily” or to “apply the gospel” might give us some insight as to how we look to Christ and again receive his grace as we eat the bread and drink the cup of the Lord’s Supper.
Every time we take communion the gospel is proclaimed, and we believe and embrace it again—in other words, we remember. My hope is that Christians come to the Lord’s Table with eagerness and expectancy, believing this is not a dull religious ceremony but a spiritual gospel experience.
Christmas is about the incarnation of Jesus. Strip away the season’s hustle and bustle, the trees, the cookies, the extra pounds, and what remains is a humble birth story and a simultaneously stunning reality — the incarnation of the eternal Son of God.
This incarnation, God himself becoming human, is a glorious fact that is too often neglected, or forgotten, amidst all the gifts, get-togethers, pageants, and presents. Therefore, we would do well to think deeply about the incarnation, especially on this day.
Here are five biblical truths of the incarnation.
1. The Incarnation Was Not the Divine Son’s Beginning
The virgin conception and birth in Bethlehem does not mark the beginning of the Son of God. Rather, it marks the eternal Son entering physically into our world and becoming one of us. John Murray writes, “The doctrine of the incarnation is vitiated if it is conceived of as the beginning to be of the person of Christ. The incarnation means that he who never began to be in his specific identity as Son of God, began to be what he eternally was not” (quoted in John Frame, Systematic Theology, 883).
2. The Incarnation Shows Jesus’s Humility
Jesus is no typical king. Jesus didn’t come to be served. Instead, Jesus came to serve (Mark 10:45). His humility was on full display from the beginning to the end, from Bethlehem to Golgotha. Paul glories in the humility of Christ when he writes that, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking on the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6–8).
3. The Incarnation Fulfills Prophecy
The incarnation wasn’t random or accidental. It was predicted in the Old Testament and in accordance with God’s eternal plan. Perhaps the clearest text predicting the Messiah would be both human and God is Isaiah 9:6: “To us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
In this verse, Isaiah sees a son that is to be born, and yet he is no ordinary son. His extraordinary names — Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace — point to his deity. And taken together — the son being born and his names — point to him being the God-man, Jesus Christ.
4. The Incarnation Is Mysterious
The Scriptures do not give us answers to all of our questions. Some things remain mysterious. “The secret things belong to the Lord our God,” Moses wrote, “but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever” (Deuteronomy 29:29).
Answering how it could be that one person could be both fully God and fully man is not a question that the Scriptures focus on. The early church fathers preserved this mystery at the Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.) when they wrote that Jesus is “recognized in two natures [God and man], without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ.”
5. The Incarnation Is Necessary for Salvation
The incarnation of Jesus does not save by itself, but it is an essential link in God’s plan of redemption. John Murray explains: “[T]he blood of Jesus is blood that has the requisite efficacy and virtue only by reason of the fact that he who is the Son, the effulgence of the Father’s glory and the express image of his substance, became himself also partaker of flesh and blood and thus was able by one sacrifice to perfect all those who are sanctified” (Redemption Accomplished and Applied, 14).
And the author to the Hebrews likewise writes that Jesus “had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17).
The incarnation displays the greatness of God. Our God is the eternal God who was born in a stable, not a distant, withdrawn God; our God is a humble, giving God, not a selfish, grabbing God; our God is a purposeful, planning God, not a random, reactionary God; our God is a God who is far above us and whose ways are not our ways, not a God we can put in a box and control; and our God is a God who redeems us by his blood, not a God who leaves us in our sin. Our God is great indeed!
At Christmas we remember and celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. The fact that He was born is amazing. However, why He came is the most amazing thing about Christmas. Here are 10 specific reasons Jesus came from the Bible.
1. Jesus came to do the will of the Father (John 6:38).
In John 6:38, Jesus says, “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.”
2. Jesus came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10).
In Luke 19:10, Jesus says, “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
3. Jesus came to save sinners (1 Timothy 1:15).
In 1 Timothy 1:15 Paul says, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.”
4. Jesus came not to call the righteous, but sinners (Luke 5:31-32).
In Luke 5:31-32, Jesus says, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”
5. Jesus came to destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8).
1 John 3:8 says, “Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.”
6. Jesus came to kill death (Hebrews 2:14-15).
Hebrews 2:14-15 says, “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.”
7. Jesus came to bring light to a dark world (John 12:46).
In John 12:46, Jesus says, “I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness.”
8. Jesus came to bear witness to the truth (John 18:37).
In John 18:37, Pilate asked Jesus, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.”
9. Jesus came to fulfil the law and the prophets (Matt 5:17).
In Matthew 5:17, Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”
10. Jesus came to give us abundant life (John 10:10).
In John 10:10, Jesus says, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”
2 particular responses to these truths:
1. Thank God for the coming of Jesus.
Utilize this season to think about and thank God for all that Jesus accomplished in His coming.
2. Spread this good news to others.
Tell others why Jesus came. Everyone in our culture knows that Jesus came, but not many are thinking about why He came. Talk to people about why Jesus came.
“‘Immanuel, God with us.’ It is hell’s terror. Satan trembles at the sound of it. . . . Let him come to you suddenly, and do you but whisper that word, ‘God with us,’ back he falls, confounded and confused. . . . ‘God with us’ is the laborer’s strength. How could he preach the gospel, how could he bend his knees in prayer, how could the missionary go into foreign lands, how could the martyr stand at the stake, how could the confessor own his Master, how could men labor if that one word were taken away? . . . ‘God with us’ is eternity’s sonnet, heaven’s hallelujah, the shout of the glorified, the song of the redeemed, the chorus of the angels, the everlasting oratorio of the great orchestra of the sky. . . .
Feast, Christians, feast; you have a right to feast. . . . But in your feasting, think of the Man in Bethlehem. Let him have a place in your hearts, give him the glory, think of the virgin who conceived him, but think most of all of the Man born, the Child given.
I finish by again saying, A happy Christmas to you all!”
C. H. Spurgeon, The Treasury of the Old Testament (London, n.d.), III:430.
(HT: Ray Ortlund)
The Nativity Story – “Come and Worship” - Bebo Norman
In his Preface to the Geneva Bible of 1550, titled Christ the End of the Law, John Calvin gave one of the most succinct and powerful explanations of the great exchange that occurs in the Gospel because of what Christ has done for believers. He wrote:
He humbled Himself, to exalt us; He made Himself a servant, to set us free; He became poor, to enrich us; He was sold, to buy us back; a Captive, to deliver us; Condemned, to procure our pardon; He was made a curse, that we might be blessed; the Oblation for sins, for our justification; His face was marred, to re-beautify ours; He Died, that we may have life. In such sort, that by Him, hardness is softened; wrath appeased; darkness made light; iniquity turned into righteousness; weakness is made strength; despair is consoled; sin is resisted; shame is despised; fear is emboldened; debt is paid; labor is lightened; Sorrow is turned into joy; Misfortune into blessing; Difficulties are made easy; Disorder made order; Division into union; Ignominy is ennobled; Rebellion subjected; Threat is threatened; Ambush is ambushed; Assault assailed; Striving is overpowered; War is warred against; Vengeance is avenged on; Torment tormented; Damnation damned; Destruction destroyed; Hell burned up; Death is killed; Mortality changed to immortality; In short, pity has swallowed up all misery; and Goodness all wretchedness; For all those things, which used to be the arms with which the Devil combated us, and the sting of death, are, to draw us forward, turned into instruments from which we can derive profit.1
1. John Calvin Christ the End of the Law (London: William Cegg and Co. pp. 29-3, 1850) pp. 29-30
The virgin birth cannot be considered in abstraction from the triumphant consummation of Christ’s life in his resurrection, for it is there that the mystery of his person is revealed. In fact the birth of Jesus of the virgin Mary and the resurrection of Jesus from the virgin tomb (‘where no one had ever yet been laid’) are the twin signs which mark out the mystery of Christ, testifying to the continuity and the discontinuity between Jesus Christ and our fallen humanity.
The incarnation is not only a once and for all act of assumption of our flesh, but the continuous personal union of divine and human nature in the one person of the incarnate Son, a personal union which he carried all the way through our estranged estate under bondage into the freedom and triumph of the resurrection.
Thus it is in the resurrection that we see the real meaning of the virgin birth, while the virgin birth has much to tell us about the resurrection. These are then the twin signs testifying to the miraculous life of the Son of God within our humanity, the one at the beginning and the other at the consummation of the earthly life of Jesus.
— Thomas F. Torrance Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 96
(HT: Of First Importance)
In Sinclair Ferguson’s book, In Christ Alone, he shares the sad reality that many Christians have a Christology that is more informed by Santa Claus than Scripture. For them, the message of the incarnation has been so twisted or diluted that they have in fact created for themselves a savior who is nothing more than aSanta Christ.
As you prayerfully read Sinclair Ferguson’s words, ask yourself the following question this Christmas season: “Do I believe in a Santa Christ?”
1. A Pelagian Jesus is a Santa Christ
Santa Christ is sometimes a Pelagian Jesus. Like Santa, he simply asks us whether we have been good. More exactly, since the assumption is that we are all naturally good, Santa Christ asks us whether we have been “good enough.” So just as Christmas dinner is simply the better dinner we really deserve, Jesus becomes a kind of added bonus who makes a good life even better. He is not seen as the Savior of helpless sinners.
2. A Semi-Pelagian Jesus is a Santa Christ
Or Santa Christ may be a Semi-Pelagian Jesus — a slightly more sophisticated Jesus who, Santa-like, gives gifts to those who have already done the best they could! Thus, Jesus’ hand, like Santa’s sack, opens only when we can give an upper-percentile answer to the none-too-weighty probe, “Have you done your best this year?” The only difference from medieval theology here is that we do not use its Latin phraseology: facere quod in se est (to do what one is capable of doing on one’s own, or, in common parlance, “Heaven helps those who help themselves”).
3. A Mystical Jesus is a Santa Christ
Then again, Santa Christ may be a mystical Jesus, who, like Santa Claus, is important because of the good experiences we have when we think about him, irrespective of his historical reality. It doesn’t really matter whether the story is true or not; the important thing is the spirit of Santa Christ. For that matter, while it would spoil things to tell the children this, everyone can make up his or her own Santa Christ. As long as we have the right spirit of Santa Christ, all is well.
But Jesus is not to be identified with Santa Claus; worldly thinking — however much it employs Jesus-language — is not to be confused with biblical truth.
Who is the Biblical Christ of Christmas?
The Scriptures systematically strip away the veneer that covers the real truth of the Christmas story. Jesus did not come to add to our comforts. He did not come to help those who were already helping themselves or to fill life with more pleasant experiences. He came on a deliverance mission, to save sinners, and to do so He had to destroy the works of the Devil (Matt. 1:21; 1 John 3:8b).
- Those whose lives were bound up with the events of the first Christmas did not find His coming an easy and pleasurable experience.
- Mary and Joseph’s lives were turned upside down.
- The shepherds’ night was frighteningly interrupted, and their futures potentially radically changed.
- The magi faced all kinds of inconvenience and family separation.
- Our Lord Himself, conceived before wedlock, born probably in a cave, would spend His early days as a refugee from the bloodthirsty and vindictive Herod (Matt. 2:13-21).
There is, therefore, an element in the Gospel narratives that stresses that the coming of Jesus is a disturbing event of the deepest proportions. It had to be thus, for He did not come merely to add something extra to life, but to deal with our spiritual insolvency and the debt of our sin. He was not conceived in the womb of Mary for those who have done their best, but for those who know that their best is “like filthy rags” (Isa. 64:6)—far from good enough—and that in their flesh there dwells no good thing (Rom. 7:18). He was not sent to be the source of good experiences, but to suffer the pangs of hell in order to be our Savior.
Adapted from In Christ Alone by Sinclair Ferguson.
And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.” – Luke 1:35
Really, the Advent season runs from Genesis 3 onward, and Christmas Day is when the miracle prophesied in Luke 1:35 is fulfilled. For those of us who believe personhood can be derived from Psalm 139:13-15 and Job 31:15, we believe the Incarnation did not begin at Jesus’ birth but at his conception. And if this is so, when Colossians 2:9 says, “For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily,” we know that the fullness of deity dwelled in fertilized ovum.
Will the Empire State Building occupy a doghouse? Will a killer whale fit inside an ant?
And here we are told that omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, utter eternalness and holiness dwelled in a tiny person. This makes Santa coming down a chimney seem a logistical cakewalk.
This miracle of addition is important. We must hold it tightly or lose the bigness of the Incarnation. God came as unborn child so that Christ would experience all of humanity. And he experienced all of humanity so that we might receive all of him for all of us.
If God came as a vulnerable, needful, weak baby, we have no need to fear for our own vulnerability, needfulness, and weakness. He emptied himself (Phil. 2:7) so that we would not see our own emptiness as a hopeless cause. “As you received him” — desperate, helpless, desirous — “so walk in him” (Col. 2:6). The miracle of the God-Baby proclaims the gospel’s speciality: rescue of the helpless.
Why do you exist? What energizes your actions? How do you account for your life and behavior and the choices you make throughout the course of a day? My answer to those questions, and I hope yours as well, is that it’s all for his name’s sake.
In his letter to the church at Ephesus, Jesus commended the believers there for “enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake” (Rev. 2:3). People all over the world endure pain for any number of reasons, some of which are noble and others not. Some persevere for profit and others to elicit compassion for themselves. But Jesus makes it clear that, for the Christian, endurance under duress is never an end in itself. Suffering for suffering’s sake is stupid, if not a sign of mental illness. Jesus commends the Ephesian believers because their motivation was the fame of the name of Christ. That is to say, they endured with a view to making known, especially to their persecutors, that Jesus was a treasure of far greater worth than whatever physical or financial comfort their denial of him might bring.
This same passion to see and savor Jesus alone accounted for Paul’s unqualified and otherwise inexplicable decision to turn his back on earthly achievements: “whatever gain I had,” said Paul, “I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Phil. 3:7-9). Did you see it? It was for his sake, as it also was for the Ephesians.
In the case of the Ephesians, undoubtedly some suffered unto death while others experienced the blessing of deliverance. In both instances it was “for his name’s sake.” As John Piper has pointed out, in dying, some declared, “Jesus is more precious than what I’m losing.” In living, others declared, “Jesus is more precious than what I’m gaining.” In both cases, Jesus is treasured above everything and thus magnified above all.
That is why you and I exist. We exist for his name’s sake. As lead pastor of Bridgeway, I can say that this is why we as a body of Christian men and women exist. It is why we serve and suffer; it is why we live and love; it is why we study God’s Word and make known his praise; it is why we sing and celebrate; it is why we give and go. It’s all for his name’s sake. That’s why we exist. If you know Christ, that’s why you exist.
That’s why you serve. May all that we ask, do, or think be for his name’s sake.
By David Burnette:
As you reflect on the significance of Christ’s coming this Christmas, allow me to make one suggestion that may actually add to your holiday cheer: Don’t begin in Bethlehem. That may sound scrooge-like, but hear me out.
Bethlehem looms large in our minds during Christmas, and rightfully so. The prophet Micah had predicted centuries earlier that a ruler would hail from this obscure town (Mic 5:2). As King David’s birthplace, Bethlehem would also be the scene of the Messiah’s birth. In that sense, it’s difficult not to think of Bethlehem this time of year. That’s fine, but don’t forget that the Christmas story was set in motion long before the nativity scene.
Bethlehem wasn’t the beginning.
Jesus spoke of the glory he had with the Father “before the world existed” (Jn 17:5). As the Second Person of the Trinity, He was in communion with the Father and the Spirit from all eternity. We’re even told that the world was created through Him (Jn 1:1; Col 1:16). To be sure, He took on flesh at a point in time, but His role in God’s plan of redemption did not begin in a manger in Bethlehem nearly 2000 years ago. Christ was not thrust on the scene unexpectedly. Out of His own free grace He set His sights on rebellious sinners like you and me before the foundation of the world. The eternal Word became flesh for us and for our salvation (Jn 1:14). This is the infinite grace of the Incarnation. And the nativity scene was our first glimpse.
As you reflect on Christ’s birth this Christmas and as you talk about it with others, be sure to include the little town of Bethlehem. But don’t start there: go back, much further back, and marvel at the One who planned the nativity scene from the beginning in order to rescue us from the judgment we deserve. Marvel at the grace of the Son of God who, as Paul says, “loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20).
Give thanks that in those dark streets of Bethlehem shone the Everlasting Light.
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).