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April 25, 2009

Several months ago I was asked to submit an article to Tabletalk Magazine. The editors had read an blog entry I had written dealing with the subject of accountability and asked if I’d be willing to write a condensed version and submit it for publication. I was glad to do so and the result appeared in this month’s Tabletalk. You may have read a version of this article in the past but, if you care to read it again, you can find it now in a condensed and edited edition. It goes like this:

Admiral Lord Nelson once remarked that “every sailor is a bachelor when beyond Gibraltar.” This was a statement about anonymity, a rare concept even just a few short generations ago. Nelson knew that once his sailors moved beyond the bounds of the British Empire, beyond society’s systems of morality and accountability, they underwent a transformation. Every man became a bachelor and sought only and always his own pleasure. Those who have read biographies of John Newton will see there a vivid portrayal of a man who was a gentleman at home but who was vulgar and abusive while away. Given only a measure of anonymity he became a whole new man.

In days past, anonymity was both rare and difficult. People tended to live in close-knit communities where every face was familiar and every action visible to the community. Travel was rare and the majority of people lived a whole lifetime in the same small geographic area. Os Guinness remarks that in the past “those who did right and those who did not do wrong often acted as they did because they knew they were seen by others. Their morality was accountability through visibility.” While anonymity is certainly not a new phenomenon, the degree of anonymity we can and often do enjoy in our society is unparalleled in history.

We need accountability. Left to our own devices, we will soon devise or succumb to all kinds of evil. As Christians we know that we need other believers to hold us accountable to the standards of Scripture. Passages such as Ecclesiastes 4:12 remind us that “a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” The Bible tells us that “iron sharpens iron” (Prov. 27:17) and that we are to “stir up one another to love and good works…encouraging one another” (Heb. 10:24-25). Life is far too difficult and we are far too sinful to live in solitude. We need community. We need accountability. And God has anticipated our need by giving us the local church as the primary means of this accountability.

Keep Reading at Tabletalk

April 24, 2009

Yesterday I posted the first part of an answer to the question many people have asked me (and the question I’ve, in turn, asked many other people: What Is The Gospel Coalition? In that article I answered a few of the what, where and why questions. Today I want to discuss how you and I can be involved in it.

Important to the ethos of The Gospel Coalition are the differences between an organization and a movement. The leadership of TGC wants it to be both. It is an organization in that it has leadership (through D.A. Carson, Tim Keller and the Council Members), in that it has charitable status, foundation documents and the like. The organization is important to provide structure and to provide a common vision. But primarily, TGC is (or its leaders hope it will become) a movement. Tim Keller says that a movement depends upon unity around a vision for the future that is carried on by those with shared beliefs. And he says that a movement depends on a level of grassroots spontaneity. There needs to be some control over the shared vision and belief and this, of course, is the job of the organization. But within that bit of structure comes great freedom and great ability for spontaneity.

The Gospel Coalition exists to create a network of like-minded believers who are committed to the gospel and are committed to working with other believers to further the gospel. One person compared TGC to a magnet that passes over iron filings in a box of sand, grabbing the filings and binding them together. Through networking, both online and offline, TGC hopes to find pockets of Christians who are committed to the gospel and to bring them together for that gospel, for missions, to change lives. Though such networking can happen through traditional means and undoubtedly will continue to happen through traditional means, TGC has launched a social media site, The Gospel Coalition Network, that they hope will serve as a means of bringing Christians together based on geography and common interest. If you are unfamiliar with the term “social media,” think of Facebook or MySpace or the like. It is software that fosters relationships and connections.

As networks grow, so too will opportunities for these like-minded Christians to work together in their regions or for their common interests. So as a network grows in the Greater Toronto Area (to use just one example), members, many of whom may never have met each other before finding one another through The Gospel Coalition Network, can begin to meet to discuss concerns common to Toronto or to inform one another of local events. They should be able to find many ways of working together to further the gospel. They may choose to begin a local chapter (explained below) to provide a more formal TGC presence in that area.

And so the best way for you to get a taste of The Gospel Coalition, and for you to get involved, is to begin to use that software. This software is absolutely free for anyone (men or women, pastors or laypersons, North American or European, etc). The TGC leadership is hoping that tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of people will create accounts and begin to use it. As of this very moment there are 2874 people registered with many more registering every day.

There are four terms you should be familiar with as you begin to use the software and begin to get involved in TGC.

“Participants” need only fill out a few digital forms at which point they can join in the discussion. They do not have to agree with The Gospel Coalition; they do not have to be Christians. The “participants” level is for anyone wanting to engage in networking and in discussion of common themes with other people. These people can create an account and immediately begin participating in groups, discussions, and so on.

“Members” are asked to take a further step in the registration process: they are asked to read the Foundation Documents, all of which are available online—Preamble, Statement of Faith, and Theological Vision of Ministry—and signal their agreement with these documents, without mental reservation. Only members will be allowed to start new groups on the Network.

“Groups” are simply groupings of members and participants based around a common theme or common geography. Groups may be based around location (Greater Toronto Area), interest (Church History), occupation (Youth Pastors), church (First Baptist Church) and so on. Each Group has a leader who can moderate that group, determine who may be a part of it, and so on.

“Chapters” are regional centers for carrying on the work of The Gospel Coalition at local and regional levels. Already, for instance, TGC Bay Area (San Francisco) exists, and several other regional chapters are on the cusp of forming. TGC hopes and expects that such local leadership will be far more effective at the local level than a central Council can possibly be. For obvious reasons they insist that these local chapters share the vision and priorities enshrined in the Foundation Documents. They hope in due course to serve these local chapters with special web pages and the like.

Your sign-up page depends on your geographic location:

If you are interested in being involved in TGC, simply sign up and get involved. If you agree with the Foundation Documents, consider becoming a member. Find groups that interest you or, if no such group exists, create one. Find friends, find local interests, and join in the discussion. And then take the relationships offline and begin to get involved with other Christians in working together for the gospel in your region. This is not the entirety of what it means to participate in TGC, but it is the place to start.

In all of this talk about the Gospel Coalition Network, I do not want to neglect to mention all of the resources TGC offers through their web site. By visiting the thegospelcoalition.org you will find a large and fast-growing list of resources meant to serve both churches and individual Christians. You will find the theological journal themelios, information about the Christ on Campus Initiative, conference audio and video, interviews and much more. Some of the resources coming in the near future are going to be better still.

So there is your introduction to The Gospel Coalition. Feel free to ask questions and, if I can, I will answer them. If I do not know the answers, I will try to find someone who does.

April 23, 2009

As I wrote yesterday, I am in Chicago at The Gospel Coalition Conference and I am here primarily to discover what The Gospel Coalition (TGC) is and why you and I should care about it. It is my impression that most people are quite confused, as I am, about what the organization is and what it hopes to accomplish. I am also uncertain as to who this organization is for—whether it is exclusively for pastors, if it is for both pastors and laypersons, and whether it is open to Christians of all stripes or only those who hold to certain points of theology.

And so I have been here on a fact-finding mission. Today and tomorrow I will share with you what I’ve learned (and what I am continuing to learn).

What is The Gospel Coalition Not?
Sometimes it is easier to define something from the perspective of what it is not. This may help alleviate confusion by allowing us to see what roles this organization does not intend to play. And in this case we will find that The Gospel Coalition is not a church and that it is not a denomination. It seeks to support both churches and denominations but to exist separately from them. It is wider than denominations even while acknowledging that denominations must continue to exist. It seeks to support the local church without replacing it.

It is also not a replacement for anything. It seeks to exist alongside Together for the Gospel (which is why they have conferences on alternating years) and the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It exists alongside churches and denominations.

The Gospel Coalition is also not a conference. It does (at least at the moment) have a large conference every two years, but this is only a part of what it is and what it does.

Who is The Gospel Coalition?
The Gospel Coalition is the brainchild of D.A. Carson and Tim Keller and they continue to lead it. However, they do hope that this organization will outlive them and will move beyond them. There are at this time only one or two employees of The Gospel Coalition. Beyond these men exists a Council of approximately fifty members who provide leadership, guidance and oversight. These Council members, all men and mostly pastors, are diverse theologically (within the theological foundation of TGC) and racially. And beyond the council are thousands of Christians of all walks of life who are members of TGC.

What is the Theological Foundation of The Gospel Coalition?
TGC has three foundation documents which you can access here. They are “The Gospel for All of Life: Preamble,” “Confessional Statement” and “Theological Vision for Ministry.” The documents are very consistent with the theology of the Reformation. They are distinctly Calvinistic when it comes to salvation and broad when it comes to secondary issues such as baptism and the end times.

Why Does The Gospel Coalition Exist?
The founders of The Gospel Coalition hope that it can become very big and very influential. In that way it is quite different from, say, Together for the Gospel, which is much more limited in its scope. Yet this want this to happen from the bottom up, not the top down. The Gospel Coalition wants you (no matter who you are) to become an active participant and to participate on a regular basis. And through hundreds of thousands of participants, they want to create a network of like-minded believers who, together, can “stimulate one another to faithfulness and fruitfulness in life and ministry in this rapidly-changing, increasingly urbanized, and spiritually hungry world.” “National and regional conferences constitute part of the outworking of this vision. At the same time we hope in due course to foster ties of mutual encouragement and support with believers in other cultures from which we have much to learn.”

So TGC exists, at least in part, to create and to foster a network of Christians (and a network of networks of Christians) who are committed to the gospel and are committed to working with other believers to further the gospel. They seek to do this on a regional level, a national level and even an international level.

And now I have a few more i’s to dot and a few more t’s to cross. In my next article I will tell you about how you, no matter who you are (Christian or not, Reformed or not, Pastor or not, etc, etc) can participate and whether or not, at least as far as I can determine, you should participate.

April 22, 2009

Since yesterday morning I’ve been in Chicago at The Gospel Coalition Conference. This is my first time at this particular conference and, as you may have noticed, I am not giving it the usual liveblog treatment. The sessions are going out live over the internet (where, from what I hear, tens of thousands of people are taking them in) so there seemed to be little reason to go through all the work of typing out summaries. If you want to watch them, simply head over to christianity.com. You can watch live as it happens and, as soon as they can work out the details, you’ll also be able to watch the archived sessions.

I came here with one goal—to figure out what The Gospel Coalition is and to find out if (and why) you should care. And, honestly, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure it out. It has proven a bit harder than I would have thought. Somehow the vision for this organization or conference or movement—this coalition—is just a little bit hard for me to describe. This is the reason for the silence on my blog—I’ve been learning. I’ve been going to sessions featuring D.A. Carson and Tim Keller (the men behind it) and have been talking to guys like Ben Peays who does the administration and is, as far as I know, one of only one or two employees of the Coalition. I’ve been asking almost everyone I meet while walking the halls and hanging out in the bookstore, “What is The Gospel Coalition?”.

I think I am starting to figure it out. Check in here tomorrow and I will start to tell you what it is, what it hopes to be and how you can be a part of it.

April 15, 2009

John MacArthur has kicked off a bit of controversy with his posts on Song of Solomon and, in particular, with his rationale for doing so—addressing pastors who, when preaching through the book, “employ extremely graphic descriptions of physical intimacy as a way of expounding on the euphemisms in Solomon’s poem.” In his first two articles he has singled out Mark Driscoll as one he considers a prime offender. This will be the last time the name Driscoll comes up in this article; I really do not want his name to sideline any discussion.

As I wrote in yesterday’s A La Carte, I think this is a discussion that we will all benefit from. I look forward to hearing what Dr. MacArthur has to say about Song of Solomon and a proper, biblical way of understanding, interpreting and preaching it. I think his long and faithful ministry has given him the right to speak out and speak up. We’d be foolish to immediately write him off as old and irrelevant and out-of-touch (as some are doing, based on what I’ve seen in blog comments). There is no need to be defensive here! The men he is writing against are all big boys and can handle what he says and the discussion that will ensue.

And already I have read some interesting discussion. For example, Erik Raymond gave me some things to think about when he gave two reasons that he is uncomfortable with all the talk of sex coming out of evangelicalism today. Here is what he wrote:

1. The emphasis upon sex has become so strong that it has begun to sound like our message. The danger here is that the gospel of Jesus Christ is regrettably assumed, neglected or forgotten. When many evangelicals begin to ride the waves of media popularity and are given a platform to speak, they sound more and more like sex coaches than ministers of a message. Somewhere along the way that which is of first importance gets shelved.

2. Most of the way in which these pastors handle the text is just flat out troubling. Often times we are given a reading of a verse or a section and then the pastor launches off into sexual advice and counsel. And when there is something that is legitimately debated among Bible teachers the issue is not dealt with responsibly (in my view) but rather quickly. The text then, which has not been adequately unpacked within its context, is then made prescriptive for the Christian.

I have listened to a couple of sermons of the kind MacArthur is reacting against—sermons which tend to look at Song of Solomon line-by-line, expressing how each metaphor, each poetic device, describes a particular part of the body or a particular sexual act. I have been bothered by such sermons for two reasons. The first lines up with what Erik wrote above: the poor handling of the text. Turning Song of Solomon into a how-to manual that describes or prescribes certain acts is to miss the point of the book. As MacArthur says, “It is, of course, a lengthy poem about courtship and marital love. It is filled with euphemisms and word pictures. Its whole point is gently, subtly, and elegantly to express the emotional and physical intimacy of marital love—in language suitable for any audience.”

The other reason is one for which I’d be interested in feedback. Song of Solomon is poetry and as such, should not be treated, exposited, in the same way as prose. Not too many people would disagree with this. It strikes me as well that Song of Solomon is substantially different from other kinds of biblical poetry. If we compare one of David’s Psalms to Song of Solomon we see that they are tangibly different. So while it may make sense to progress line-by-line through Psalm 119, interpreting each line, it seems to me that Song of Solomon does not give itself to this kind of interpretation. Song of Solomon is an expression of wonder, an expression of joy, an expression of mystery. Or that’s certainly how it appears to me. I don’t think we are supposed to understand it in a word-by-word, line-by-line sense as we might the book of Romans.

MacArthur quotes a few lines. They are worth reading just for the beauty of the poetry and the creativity of the imagery:

A garden locked is my sister, my bride,
A rock garden locked, a spring sealed up.
Your shoots are an orchard of pomegranates
With choice fruits, henna with nard plants,
Nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon,
With all the trees of frankincense,
Myrrh and aloes, along with all the finest spices.
You are a garden spring,
A well of fresh water,
And streams flowing from Lebanon.”
Awake, O north wind,
And come, wind of the south;
Make my garden breathe out fragrance,
Let its spices be wafted abroad.
May my beloved come into his garden
And eat its choice fruits!”

MacArthur says it right, I’m sure, when he says “Let’s face it: overall, the Song is about as far from explicit as the writer can get.” Had the author wanted to be explicit, he could have done so. Instead, he wrote in poetry, in metaphor, carefully crafting a poem that is full of mystery. “Song of Solomon is incredibly beautiful precisely because it is so carefully veiled. It is a perfect description of the wonderful, tender, intimate discovery that God designed to take place between a young man and his bride in a place of secrecy. We are not told in vivid terms what all the metaphors mean, because the beauty of marital passion is in the eye of the beholder—where it should stay.” To remove the veil is to remove the beauty!

So here is what I am wondering. Don’t we do damage to the Song of Solomon when we seek to interpret and explain every line? To use an old cliche, don’t we miss the forest for the trees? Isn’t it better to leave some mystery in the Song, understanding themes but ultimately finding satisfaction not in drawing a one-to-one comparison between metaphor and act, poetry and body part, but rather in seeing it as one man’s attempt at expressing the joy, the wonder and the mystery of sex and sexuality? Isn’t the very reason he had to use poetry was that prose just couldn’t express the wonder? The beauty and the mystery of the Song go hand-in-hand. To remove one is to remove the other.

April 13, 2009

In early 2006, firefighters in Orange County, California, anticipating a dangerous forest fire season, began a controlled burn of 10 acres of canyon land forest. They lit a small fire to prevent a bigger fire, attempting to reduce the amount of flammable material that might serve as tinder during the dry season. They thought everything had gone as planned until the winds shifted and picked up. Somewhere in the brush a hot coal sparked a new fire and soon the forest was burning anew. Almost 1,000 firefighters were called in to fight this new blaze. Within days area schools had been closed, thousands of homes had been evacuated and nearby roads had been shut down. In the end, the fire consumed over 8,000 acres of forest. The 10 acre controlled burn turned into an 8,000 acre raging fire. Lesson learned: there is danger inherent in fighting fire with fire.

Last Monday I posted an article called Evil as Entertainment in which the basic encouragement was to avoid reading watchblogs. Much discussion, much gratitude, much criticism ensued. I am caught somewhere between having so much more to say and never wanting to mention it again. Today I’ll tend toward the latter and perhaps in the future I can write about this again and in more detail.

I guess any writer can attest that every now and then you write something that is really, objectively good; and other times you lay an egg. Having talked it over and having read plenty of feedback, I’m going to have to say that I laid an egg on Monday. While I do not feel that what I said was wrong or unnecessary, I can see that I should have said it better. At the same time, I think it sparked some useful discussion and for that I am grateful. I can see how I should have nuanced my article and how it could have been so much better and so much more useful. In just a moment I want to point you to a couple of articles that may be of use to you if you wish to think further about the issues I raised.

Since I posted that article I’ve gotten heaps of email (I think only articles on homeschooling could generate more feedback) and have learned more about these watchblogs than I would have wanted. I received plenty of ugly, angry rebukes and a few kind, gentle rebukes. I also received many comments that echoed my own experience—that these sites are like an anchor to joy in Christ and an anchor for many a Christian’s love for his brothers and sisters in the Lord. These sites have undoubtedly caused much harm. Several others wrote to say that they are reevaluating their desire to read such sites. This is good, I think, and shows that God may be willing to use even a bad article for his purposes.

Let me offer this as an aside: a few people, including some of the angrier emailers, suggested that I was censoring comments in that article—that I was deliberately excluding certain comments. I suppose you’ll just have to take my word for this one, but I did not censor any comments. I checked published comments, unpublished comments and spam comments and there was no trace of anything beyond the ones that were published to the site (with the exception of one very long and rambling one that was about the length of War and Peace except with no paragraph breaks). ‘Nuff said.

Now, for those articles. Here are four you may find useful:

  • Great Damage: The Gift of Discernment Used in the Flesh - James MacDonald wrote this a few weeks ago and in it he highlights some of the ridiculous, ungodly argumentation used against him by just the kind of watchblogger I wrote about. He says, “A post I wrote on January 20th when President Obama was sworn in was picked up by a number of ‘watch dog’ discernment groups and the rest is history. I have been called weak, soft on the truth, a compromiser, politically correct, foolish, and worst of all, apostate (not truly saved). Wow!!!” Read between the lines a little bit and you can see the tactics such packs of watchbloggers use against their quarry.
  • Establish Elders - Frank Turk simply says this: “Notice that Paul here instructs Titus to appoint elders in every town and not watchbloggers. That is: the focal point and center of discernment ought to be in the local church. If your counter-concern is that local churches today lack discernment (and this may be a valid concern), I suggest that the place to fix that is in the place God ordained and not everywhere else but that place.” The discussion that follows is very interesting. With Frank I believe the best, most natural context for discernment is the local church.
  • Among the comments is this one by Frank and I think it is a very valuable read.
  • Turning a Blind Eye to Evil is Evil Too - Phil Johnson wrote about how he both agrees and disagrees with me. This article really helped me see the lack of clarity in my own article (well, that and my wife telling me that Phil’s article was better than my own). “I think what Tim Challies is saying is that it’s unhealthy to fix one’s attention on error full time rather than spending most of our time dwelling on things that edify. If that’s all he is saying, I say (as heartily as possible) AMEN! (Philippians 4:8). But if someone wants to seize that point in order to suggest that it’s always better to be an encourager than a critic, my reply is: That very attitude is largely responsible for getting us into this mess in the first place.” Exactly. There is a time and place for calling error error; there is a time and place for humor and sarcasm and all the rest. But a fixation on evil is dangerous!

Most of what Phil says is most of what I should have said (or said more clearly) on Monday. There is a time and place to expose sin and even to expose sin publicly (see this article by James MacDonald for some good thoughts). But a blog that has as its bread and butter exposing error in the church, and especially error that is completely decontextualized and irrelevant to any of its readers, is a blog I think we ought to avoid. A Christian’s thoughts ought to be dominated by “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8). As I said last Monday, “Do I really need to read and to know about the seedy underbelly of the church, when such things happen thousands of miles away, among people I will never meet and in places I will never be? Such news is plenty entertaining, but it is useless to me. It does nothing to further my faith or to cause me to grow in godliness.”

One analogy I opted not to use in Monday’s post was that of pornography. But let me haul it out now as I think it helps show what it is that I am reacting against. Imperfect, I’m sure, but worth thinking about. If a site wished to combat pornography, would the best way of doing so be to display lots of pictures of naked women with comments about how wrong they are to be doing what they are doing? Posted below the picture of a naked woman engaged in some lewd conduct are the words “This is what passes for sex in the church today. Lord save us!” If you were to visit this kind of a site day after day, do you think you’d continue visiting to help you be prepared to combat pornography (because by knowing what pornography looks like you could spot it in your own life)? Or do you think, just maybe, you’d find that you were visiting to see the naked women themselves? Isn’t it better to turn to Scripture to find what it says about sex and sexuality? Isn’t that the best way to learn about what is right? By studying evil you are learning about evil and are liable to be consumed by it. “Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature” (1 Corinthians 14:20).

Now I will grant that there are times when it is well and good to bring evil deeds to light and in such times there is a difference between heresy and nudity. But I think the point remains. Be very careful fighting fire with fire! Be careful fighting heresy with heresy, bad theology with bad theology, lack of love with lack of love. So easily the noble becomes ignoble. So often the controlled burn becomes the raging wildfire.

If you could take one thing away from this whole discussion I hope it is this: For the good of your own soul, think about why you visit the blogs you do. There is nothing wrong with entertainment and there is nothing inherently wrong with visiting a site to be entertained. But think about the nature of the entertainment. Is it possible that you are being entertained by what is evil? Are you finding joy in what God hates? Is it possible that there is no real value in learning what you are learning and in seeing what you are seeing? As you close down your browser and walk away from such sites, do you find that you are filled with the fruit of the Spirit? Or do you find your heart hardened and your mind cynical? Do such sites help you grow in your love for your brothers and sisters in Christ or instead do you find yourself hardened against them and mocking them? Think carefully about such things.

I leave you with those questions and with this Scripture: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law” (Galatians 5:22,23).

April 12, 2009

It is Easter today, and I woke up thinking about this song, a new favorite Easter hymn. It is written (not surprisingly) as a collaborative effort between Keith Getty and Stuart Townend. You can find at least a couple of different versions of it at Amazon or on iTunes. There is the studio version on the Getty’s album In Christ Alone or, the one I prefer, a live recording by Stuart Townend on the album See, What a Morning. With solid lyrics and a fitting melody, it simply rejoices in what this day is all about: Christ is risen from the dead!

See, what a morning, gloriously bright,
With the dawning of hope in Jerusalem;
Folded the grave-clothes, tomb filled with light,
As the angels announce, “Christ is risen!”
See God’s salvation plan,
Wrought in love, borne in pain, paid in sacrifice,
Fulfilled in Christ, the Man,
For He lives: Christ is risen from the dead!

See Mary weeping, “Where is He laid?”
As in sorrow she turns from the empty tomb;
Hears a voice speaking, calling her name;
It’s the Master, the Lord raised to life again!
The voice that spans the years,
Speaking life, stirring hope, bringing peace to us,
Will sound till He appears,
For He lives: Christ is risen from the dead!

One with the Father, Ancient of Days,
Through the Spirit who clothes faith with certainty.
Honor and blessing, glory and praise
To the King crowned with pow’r and authority!
And we are raised with Him,
Death is dead, love has won, Christ has conquered;
And we shall reign with Him,
For He lives: Christ is risen from the dead!

April 10, 2009

As seems to be the case with most boys, my friends and I went through a stage where we found great joy in tying people to things. In second or third grade we would take turns being the guys who would grab the skipping ropes and twist endless knots, fastening one of our friends to a tree or fence or flag pole. And, of course, we would take turns being the unfortunate one who was on the receiving end of the action. I remember one time when I was, thankfully, not the one being tied. It was recess, and we had only a few minutes to have our fun. We had tied a friend to a tree and it was now his time to play Houdini and escape from the ties. But something went wrong—we had tied him up too well. He struggled to get undone but could make little progress. And then, from across the school yard, the bell rang. We were torn. Should we help our friend and risk detention for being late to class? Or should we forsake our friend and look out first for ourselves? Typical children that we were, we left our friend struggling with the ropes and dashed for the door. A few minutes later he walked meekly into class, late and knowing there would be consequences.

I thought of this incident some time ago in what was a rather unlikely context. In our church’s evening service, a service that culminated in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, we sang Stuart Townend’s hymn “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us.” Like all good hymns, this one gives a lot to think about; it contains deep and biblical content. As we sang it, I was struck by the words “It was my sin that held him there.” As we sang those words I found my mind bouncing to some of the other occasions in Jesus’ life, times when He escaped pain or death.

There were several occasions in Jesus’ life when He escaped the wrath of His enemies. For example, in John 8:56-59 Jesus called Himself by the name “I am,” utter blasphemy to the Jewish nation, and cause for death. Though they picked up stones with which to execute Him (in the temple, no less), he managed to hide Himself and to make His way out of the temple. Just a short time later, in John 10:31-39 we read that people picked up rocks and sought to stone Him. But Jesus escaped their attempts to arrest Him and to put Him to death. This was the pattern, for a while. The people would misinterpret Jesus, accusing Him of blasphemy one time and seeking to make Him king the next. Jesus would escape or rebuke to ensure that His mission did not get derailed.

But then came the Garden of Gethsemane. Peter, drawing his sword and swinging at one of the men, clearly thought this was going to be another chance for Jesus to slip away from His accusers. But Jesus knew that this time would be different. “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:53). With only a single word, Jesus could have summoned to his defense more than twelve legions of angels. Look to the Old Testament and you will see the kind of devastation that could be brought about by twelve legions of angels. With a single word Jesus could have caused the heavenly host that sang of His birth spring to His defense. But He did not. This was true in the Garden, in the court, and on the hill. This was true as the spikes were nailed into His body and as the cross was raised to the sky.

Some words that I first pondered a few years and that have continued to be deeply affecting to me are found in Matthew 27:50: “And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit.” The amazing thing about these words is that they show us that Jesus was in control of the timing of His death. Though the nails had pierced His hands and feet, and though He had been beaten to be point of being almost unrecognizable, He died only when He decided to yield up His spirit. In his account of the crucifixion, John says Jesus “gave up His spirit.” This was an active, not a passive act. The significance of this wording is that it shows that Jesus was in control of the timing of His death. He did not die because His body could take no more punishment or because of blood loss. He died because He decided it was time to die. His work was accomplished and there was no reason for Him to linger. And so he gave up His spirit and returned to His Father.

All of this tells me that Townend is right—it was not the nails that held Jesus to the cross. He could so easily have escaped the cross and, even if He decided to go there, could just as easily have escaped from the cross. He could have stepped down and watched as His angels gained vengeance on the heartless men who had nailed Him to that tree. But He did not. Jesus remained there until the work was accomplished. He stayed there until He had done the work His Father had assigned Him. He stayed there until He had secured the redemption of all of His people. It was not the nails that held Him, but His love for the Father and His love for us. It was my sin that held Him there in the deepest expression of love the world could ever know. It was death by love.

The key to it all comes from John 10:17-18. “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.” No one took Jesus’ life from Him. He did not lose it, He gave it.

How deep the Father’s love for us
How vast beyond all measure
That He would give His only Son
To make a wretch His treasure
How great the pain of searing loss
The Father turns His face away
As wounds which mar the chosen One
Bring many sons to glory

Behold the Man upon a cross
My guilt upon His shoulders
Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice
Call out among the scoffers
It was my sin that held Him there
Until it was accomplished
His dying breath has brought me life
I know that it is finished

I will not boast in anything
No gifts, no powr’s, no wisdom
But I will boast in Jesus Christ
His death and resurrection
Why should I gain from His reward?
I cannot give an answer
But this I know with all my heart
His wounds have paid my ransom