A short time ago a reader of this blog wrote me with rather an interesting question. Here’s what he asked: I was hoping for some guidance on something. I am looking for books about being ‘Gospel-Centered.’ I know that is a buzzword nowadays and it is really intriguing to me. I am a long-time Christian, but am new to this Gospel-Centered idea. Don’t get me wrong, I love Jesus and Scripture and the Gospel, but I’ve never really heard or really understand the Gospel-Centered.
In my church we talk a lot about living gospel-centered lives or cross-centered lives, about applying the gospel to situations in life. So let me share a bit of my experience about what this actually means. And at the end I’ll offer up some suggestions for further reading. I feel like I am far more of a student than a teacher in this area, so I will largely depend on what others have said.
I’d love to know the origins of the phrase gospel-centered. While I cannot produce any proof of where it came from, my sense is that it arises from a combination of various factors: the writings of C.J. Mahaney and Jerry Bridges along with the emphases of organizations such as CCEF and Desiring God. Somehow if you do a smash-up of those men and those organizations, I think you end up with this emphasis on gospel centrality. Maybe someone can offer a more thorough history of the phrase.
The first thing we’ll need to do is define gospel. In our church we’ve got a handy little short-hand way of doing this, one that all the kids understand. I’m pretty sure you could go to just about any child in the church, ask “what is the gospel?” and hear this response: “Christ died for our sins and was raised.” When we talk about this during services, we accompany it with a little action. We begin with a closed fist held out in front of us and with each of the first five words we open one finger. “Christ…died…for…our…sins.” And then, with the open hand, we raise it up and say “and was raised.” And that’s the gospel. Of course the gospel can be as simple as those eight words or as complex as many volumes of theological text. But the essential gospel is right there—that Jesus Christ was put to death as an atoning sacrifice for our sins and was then raised back to life.
A couple of days ago I received an email from a young man who reads this site and he asked a rather simple question: How am I to react to sexual desire? As a teenager, unmarried and with marriage in the distant future rather than the near future, he wanted to know how God would have him understand sexual arousal.
That took me a little bit of thought, but here is how I think a young man can understand sexual arousal.
Sexual Arousal Motivates Marriage. Arousal points you to the fact that God wants you to marry. The fact that you feel sexual desire is a good and God-given thing—he uses it to point you toward marriage. Sexual desire is a part of how God has wired men so that they will pursue a bride. So in that way, see it as something that is not inherently evil. Arousal is evil only if it is improperly acted upon or if it leads to sin.
Sexual Arousal Preaches Imperfection. The very fact that you feel sexual desire tells you that you are incomplete—incomplete without a wife with whom you can find satisfaction and fulfillment of that desire. And I think this kind of incompletion can point you to the wider reality that we live in an incomplete world marred by the realities of sin. There may be a deeper lesson in unfulfilled sexual desire.
Sexual Arousal Teaches Self-Control. Young men who continually give in to sexual desire by acting out on it through masturbation train themselves—their minds and bodies—that they need and deserve sexual release whenever they feel desire. And yet that is not how life works. Even married men with loving wives and great sex lives deal with a great deal of unfulfilled sexual desire. So this is an opportunity to train yourself, while still young, that sexual desire can and must be controlled if it is to be something that is properly stewarded to the glory of God.
In the end, if you trust the Lord, you can know that there is no temptation that must cause you to sin. The Holy Spirit gives you the ability, the power, to stand strong in the face of even the most difficult torment. So in those moments when desire is aroused and when it feels like torture, you need to plead the cross, you need to preach the gospel to yourself. In those moments you need to know that Christ died to forgive sin and he rose to overcome the power of sin and death. So you can remain unstained by sexual sin.
One of the great promises of heaven, a promise that I long to see fulfilled, is that what gets old and tired in this world will always remain new and fresh and exciting in the world to come. Niagara Falls will send chills down my spine every time I see it; the Grand Canyon will cause me to gasp in delight, not just once but for all of eternity; the night sky will move me to praise you for your greatness each and every time I look up. Nothing will get tiring, nothing will get old, nothing will be just the same time after time after time.
What is it that causes us to grow weary of things that are good and even things that are so very good? How could we build up such hardness, such spiritual resistance to your greatest gifts?
You called Adam to name each of the animals, and paraded them in front of him one by one. He saw two of this animal, two of that, two of another, and through it all realized that there was no helper fit for him. He could not have been lonely, living there in that perfect world. And yet he realized that he was incomplete. You caused him to fall into a deep sleep and there, when he awoke, standing before him, was the perfect complement to him, the perfect mate. In wonder he exclaimed, “This at last is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” He praised you for your marvelous provision.
But then Adam sinned. He allowed his wife to lead him astray, he fell for the deception of the devil. And when you called to him he turned on that woman, he turned on that gift and said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” He turned on that gift, hated it, and in that moment hated the one who gave it.
Your Son called Peter to be one of his disciples. Jesus simply said, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” And Peter followed. For several years he followed, walking in the steps of the man who claimed to be the Messiah. He followed him all the way to Jerusalem, even proclaiming, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
But then danger came. Suddenly that Savior did not seem so mighty. And when the people said to Peter, “You were with Jesus of Nazareth,” he cursed and swore “I do not know the man!” He turned on that gift, hated it, and in that moment hated the one who gave it.
Why are we like this? Why do we marvel at something for a time and then grow weary of it, grow complacent toward it and even come to despise it? How do good gifts become old and tired gifts?
Father, I learned recently that you have seen fit to take your Word to some of your children, to some of my brothers and sisters who live almost a world away from me. Until recently the Kimyal Tribe in Papua, Indonesia have had only a portion of the New Testament available in their language. They loved that Word, they memorized it, they fed upon it. But like Adam after he named the animals and saw no helper fit for him, they knew that what they had was incomplete. But now, Lord, now you have given them the entire New Testament, all four gospels in which they can read about the life of your Son, Acts which allows them to study the earliest days of the earliest church, all those epistles in which your apostles tell us how we are to live in this world for your glory, those pastoral letters that will encourage the men in church leadership to hold fast the precious deposit that has been given them, and Revelation which beautifully describes that which is to come.
Their joy is remarkable. They overflow with it. They weep with the emotion of holding in their hands your precious Word. They throw a feast in an attempt to give back of the firstfruits. They dance and celebrate and act like this is the greatest thing that has ever happened to any of them. And that may just be the case. They have been waiting for two thousand years to hear from you. And now at last, in your perfect timing, you are speaking to them in their own language. And oh, how they rejoice.
I weep to see them celebrate. I weep with joy for them. I am grateful to you on their behalf, grateful to the ones whose long labor of love translated that Bible. But I also weep with shame and sorrow for me. How can my heart have grown so cold to your Word when these people, your children in the Kimyal tribe, are just now receiving those words for the first time? How could I grow so hardened to the gift you’ve given me? I sit in an office surrounded by Bibles—I can count 7 without even turning my head and I know there are many more downstairs and a whole box in the basement. And I say, “I’m tired. I don’t feel like it. It all feels the same. It just doesn’t seem exciting today.” My dancing has turned into mourning, my celebrating into complaining.
Father, I need you to renew my love for your Word. I need you to keep my heart from growing cold toward your greatest gifts. I need you to keep me from looking to my wife and seeing only those things I think she isn’t, only those things she doesn’t do; I need you to keep me from denying you, perhaps not in my words but too often in my actions, in the orientation of my heart. And I need you to keep me from being complacent toward your Word, from assuming that I know enough about it, from regarding it as a chore rather than an honor, a responsibility rather than a delight. Stir my heart as you’ve stirred the hearts of so many of your people when they read your Words for the very first time. And let even this remind me of the greater joy that is to come on that great day when you wipe away my tears of sorrow, when you take away every ugly complacency.
As they say in the Kimyal language:
Al weig buna’ ag bulamlange ab Domba Me ab se, sig aga meibna’ ab, gibna’ ab, bebnag ab, migib ab, unum-unum se ulamla.
“To him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, be blessing and honor and glory and dominion forever and ever.”
To the Father, to the Son, to the Holy Spirit be glory for ever and ever. Amen!
Note: Here is the pastor’s prayer upon receiving the New Testament:
The month that you had set, the day that you had set, has come to pass today. Oh my Father, my Father, the Promise that you gave Simeon that he would see Jesus Christ and hold Him in his arms before he died. I also have been waiting under that same promise, O God. You looked at all the different languages and chose which ones will be put into Your Word. You thought that we should see Your Word in our language. Today, the day you had chosen for this to be fulfilled, has come to pass. You have placed it here in our land. And for all this, O God, I give You praise.
Studying European history can be both fascinating and frustrating. Understanding the intricacies of all of those nations, borders and rulers could very easily be a life-long pursuit. The history of the continent is filled with claims, and counterclaims as one person after another sought to prove himself the legitimate heir to one of its many kingdoms. There were many who sought to claim thrones and these claims had to be settled through lengthy and detailed examination. Generations, kingdoms, marriages, and thrones had to be examined to understand who had the rightful claim to a throne.
I once found a similar concept of "claiming" in the Bible and it struck me as one of the most terrifying passages of Scripture. I remember as a child finding Revelation a dark and scary book. Visions of beasts and persecution, wrath and disaster played out in my mind as I tried to sleep. But I don’t think that’s any scarier than the implications of what I found in a particular verse.
It comes as Jesus is preparing to leave his disciples for the last time. They are in the upper room together celebrating the last Passover and the first Lord's Supper. Jesus is giving his disciples their final instructions, telling them that all he has taught them is about to be fulfilled. He is gentle with them, knowing that they are blinded to the reality of what is about to happen. He is kind to promise that he will send His Spirit to indwell and guide and teach them. And then he tells them that it is time for him to leave.
"I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no claim on me..." Jesus knew that Satan was about to unleash his full fury upon him. And far, far worse, he knew that Satan's wrath was as nothing compared to the wrath of God that he would soon have to face. Satan, the ruler of this world, was coming. He was going to drag Jesus, like a helpless, hopeless lamb, through the streets, through the courts, and to the cross where he would be tortured and nailed and pierced in utter agony. Satan was going to do his worst. But Satan would not accomplish what he had hoped. In fact, he would accomplish the very opposite of what he had intended. By inciting the masses to drag Jesus to that tree, Satan would make sure his own doom and ensure the salvation of multitudes of God's people. Satan could do nothing to Jesus beyond the physical, for he had no claim on him. He had no claim on the Son of God.
We had only lived in our home for a few months when the one next door to us was put on the market as well. It sold quickly and in moved Barb. Shortly after she moved in, her home was given a makeover (an extreme makeover, even). Barb was sent away for the weekend and returned to find her house completely renovated. The volunteers who gave of their time for this program did an incredible job. They replanted and resodded the lawns and gardens, laid new floors, repainted the entire house, themed the bedrooms and added lots of new furniture. We enjoyed watching them do their work and we were there when Barb and the family arrived home. It was a great deal of fun to see their faces, to see their joy, as they explored their new home.
Because the house was a construction zone for three days, it was not a great weekend for those of us who live beside or around the place. We live in townhouses and my house shares a wall with Barb's home. Sound travels readily through these walls and of all the neighbors, we had the worst of it. For much of the weekend there was sawing, banging, hammering and talking. Groups of people moved in and out from dawn until long after dusk. Television crews milled about to capture video of the work. It was difficult, but the crew seemed to do the best they could to be as sensitive as possible to the neighbors. The only one time I felt compelled to go next door was when hammering at 11 PM was keeping the baby from sleeping. I went next door and asked nicely if they would stop the hammering. They apologized and stopped immediately.
We had a great weekend despite the constant noise and commotion. We were thrilled for Barb that she would have the privilege of having her home renovated and we were willing to put up with almost any amount of annoyance for her sake. Unfortunately, most of our neighbors were not. On Friday evening, one neighbor called the police to lodge a complaint about the noise, even though it was only 8 PM. The police arrived and, recognizing the work from an article in the local newspaper, said they were unwilling to do anything. They promptly left and, I trust, found more pressing concerns. On Saturday I saw some other neighbors yelling at one of the crew members who had parked in the wrong parking spot. On Sunday, a few neighbors were gathered in a small group, muttering amongst themselves, making "choking" gestures towards the workers. On the way to church we were apprehended by a particularly grumpy neighbor who told us we should lodge a complaint because Barb's lawn had been laid with new grass and our adjoining lawn had not. Sunday afternoon a neighbor tried to draw Aileen into complaining about the house but Aileen would only say how great she thought the place looked. The neighbor scolded, "I just hope they now take good care of it both inside and out." We learned from the crew that a rumor was going around the neighborhood that Barb intended to sell the house as soon as the work was done.
Have you ever stopped to ponder what it might have been like for the Israelites as they wandered in the wilderness, knowing that each day they would completely exhaust their food supply? Have you thought what it would be like knowing that they would go to bed with no food, but that the next day their supplies would be fully and miraculously replenished? It is an interesting, thought, really, and one that is worth considering.
In the Wilderness
Imagine that you are an Israelite father or mother and that you have three or four young children depending on you. Imagine putting these children to bed in the evening, knowing that there is not a bit of food to be found anywhere in your tent. Just to be sure, you wander over to the fridge and open it up. The glare from the light shows nothing but the glistening white of the inside of the Kenmore. There is nothing on any of the shelves; nothing in any of the drawers. There isn't even a mostly-empty jar of relish left over from when you made burgers a few weeks earlier. There isn't a clove of garlic or an old stick of butter. There is nothing. You close the door and open the freezer and as you wave your hand to brush aside the mist, you see that every corner of the freezer is empty. You turn to the nearby pantry and, looking high and low, see that there is not a bag, not a box, not a jar to be found. You have no food. Nothing.
As you tuck your daughter into bed that night, she says, "Daddy, what will we eat for breakfast tomorrow?" And with utter sincerity and utter confidence you say, "God will provide." And, despite the bare cupboards and the empty fridge, you are able to go to sleep that night with full confidence that there will be food for you the next day. When you wake in the morning, you unlock the tent door, step outside, and see the world around covered in food like frost on a cold winter morning. You are able to quickly and easily collect enough food for the day, and can head inside knowing that the children will have all the food they need that day. As you nuke their mannapancakes, you whisper a prayer of gratitude that God provided again. Yet again.
But you also know that God has provided for only that day. The manna that lay on the ground was not enough for today and tomorrow. As the sun rises in a few minutes, the manna will melt into the ground and be gone. God has not provided for a week or a month or a quarter--he has provided for only one day at a time. You have heard of people who doubted God's providence and hoarded manna, packing it into Tupperware and stuffing it into the deepest recesses of their fridges, freezers, and cupboards. But when they took it out and tried to eat it, they found that it was rotten and disgusting, crawling with worms and smelling worse than sandaled feet in a hot desert. You know that as day fades into night, and as you prepare the evening meal, you'll find that you have just enough manna to eat, and that as you close your eyes in sleep, you'll lie in peace, knowing that God will provide again tomorrow. But only for tomorrow.
I dedicate this post to you, the person reading it. Before you were even born, God planned this very moment, the moment you would type the address of this site into your browser or the moment you would click a link from another site to arrive right here, right now. It is no accident that you are here today and you can be certain that God has orchestrated all of this so you could learn what I want to tell you today. So get ready. This is your moment!
Does that make you uncomfortable? It sure would make me uncomfortable if I ran into that statement at another person's web site. But you know what? The statement isn't too different from ones I've read in a selection of Christian books. Consider the dedication from Rick Warren's The Purpose Driven Life: "This book is dedicated to you. Before you were born, God planned this moment in your life. It is no accident that you are holding this book. God longs for you to discover the life he created you to live--here on earth, and forever in eternity." Don Piper's awful book, Heaven is Real has a similar statement within it, suggesting that God has so orchestrated your life that you are holding the book at that very moment simply so you could learn exactly what Piper seeks to teach you.
I dislike this kind of statement, and they are becoming all too common. It took me some time, though, to figure out why they make me so uncomfortable. And then it struck me. These authors are bludgeoning me with providence. They are peering into the unknowable providence of God and are interpreting it for me. And, needless to say, they are interpreting it in their favor.
Most men who are my age or older remember a day when pornography was rare and taboo. Pornography has existed as long as the camera has existed (and before that in more rudimentary forms, I’m sure) but has always been difficult to find and has always carried some kind of stigma. Today the tables have turned and porn has gone mainstream. Instead of being a shameful addiction it is now the punch line in jokes, the subject of sitcom episodes. Porn stars are admired. It’s probably significant that we don’t speak of “porn actors” but “porn stars” as if there is something inherently glamorous in their line of work. Books and magazines encourage us all to enjoy porn, to allow it to add a little spice to our relationships. It’s a lot harder to avoid porn than it is to find it.
And then there are the scary statistics, the scary reality, that men and boys are consuming porn like never before. Women and girls are now being introduced to it and even being encouraged to regard it as normal. An email that haunts me is one I received a short time ago from a girl of 14 who found herself battling addiction to pornography. It’s becoming a part of our culture, a part of our lives.
Amidst all of this, it can be difficult to avoid despair, to truly believe that anyone or anything can curtail the problem. We can look to the future and see a time marked by people who are utterly broken, whose sexuality has been undermined and destroyed by their consumption of never-ending amounts of pornography. We can see our sons and our sons’ sons growing up surrounded by it, giving themselves to it.
And, of course, we can see Christians increasingly viewed as being anti-sex for being anti-porn; in suggesting that the mainstreaming of pornography is harming individuals, families, and all of society, we are already regarded as repressed and repressors. This will only continue and grow.
Yet amidst this kind of despair, I’ve found great reasons for hope and I want to share two of those with you.
At the 9Marks Ministries blog I recently came across a brief article that outlined some of the ways church members can (and should!) serve their church on a Sunday morning. These are, in turn, drawn from a Trellis & Vine conference led by Colln Marshall.
Since tomorrow is Sunday, a day when the majority of the readers of this blog will head to their local church, it seems like a good time to reflect on a few of these things. Is there anything that should be added to the list?
Before the Service
Read the passage in advance
Pray for the gathering
Greet newcomers (act like you are the host)
Think strategically about who you should sit with
During the Service
Sing with gusto (even if you can't sing)
Help with logistics (if there's a problem, help fix it)
Don't be distracted
Be aware of your facial expressions (you may affect others and discourage preachers)
Yesterday I posted a review of Wesley Hill’s book Washed and Waiting, a book that discusses the particular challenges that come to those who are Christian and yet who struggle with same-sex attraction. Much of the discussion that followed centered on whether or not the phrase “gay Christian” is helpful. But I hope that did not detract from the overall point of the book. I consider it a very important book as Christians seek to engage the culture and as we seek to minister well to those around us.
I want to follow up with one more article on homosexuality. Again, I do not intend to speak about the morality of homosexuality because I believe the Bible is absolutely clear on that matter. Instead, today I want to look at one very interesting result, one very interesting development, that has come with the widespread acceptance of homosexuality. I have thought about this a little bit in the past but had my mind drawn to it again while reading Al Mohler's book Desire and Deceit: The Real Cost of the New Sexual Tolerance. In this book Mohler compiles some of his best blog posts and articles dealing with a common theme. In this case he writes about contemporary issues related to sexuality. And while there is much to glean from the book, one issue in particular give me a lot to think about.
I have sometimes wondered if, when The Lord of the Rings was first published, people looked with a certain suspicion upon the relationship of Sam to Frodo and Frodo to Sam. Here are two characters who loved one another deeply and who had a relationship forged in the fire. It is clear that in these characters, Tolkien was describing friendship as he had seen it in soldiers who had fought in the World Wars. He described a kind of intimate friendship that somehow seems so odd to our modern sensibilities. And in modern times many people have read homosexuality into that relationship, wondering if Tolkien, either deliberately or subconsciously, was creating gay characters.
Similarly, I have wondered if, when the men and women of the nineteenth century first learned of Abraham Lincoln's deep friendship with Joshua Speed, they raised their eyebrows. After all, Lincoln and Speed even shared a bed and wrote letters sharing their love and appreciation for one another. Recent historians have offered this relationship as proof that Lincoln was homosexual.
In both cases we're seeing clear evidence of contemporary thinking. Today we think nothing of imposing our own understanding on historical texts, interpreting them as we see fit. We think little of original meaning and much of contemporary interpretation. Thus there are feminist readings of literature, gay readings of literature, African-American readings of literature, and so on. Every group, every interest, is free to read history and literature as they see fit. In an age with few absolutes, who can tell anyone else that they are wrong? And when wondering about Frodo and Sam, when wondering about Lincoln and Speed, I am showing evidence of the pervasiveness of homosexuality in our culture. The fact that I would even wonder such things reveals that the presence of homosexuality is always just beneath the surface in our culture. I am reasonably certain that I can answer my own questions: No! When people read The Lord of the Rings they did not see homosexuality and when they first heard of Lincoln and Speed they did not even question whether they had been having sex in that bed. And here is an interesting part of the fallout of the widespread acceptance of homosexuality. We see homosexuality everywhere around us, whether it exists there or not. Things that are pure and normal we see as somehow being evidence or potential evidence of homosexual behavior.
In and of itself that may not mean too much. But according to Dr. Mohler, who follows the line of thinking from a Touchstone article written by Anthony Esolen, there is at least one sad consequence: it is marking the end of deep and meaningful friendships between boys. Writing about the scene between Sam and Frodo, Mohler writes "As Esolen suggests, a reader or viewer of this scene is likely to jump to a rather perverse conclusion: 'What, are they gay?'" This is an "ignorant but inevitable response" to such a situation. It is simply the way our minds work today. "As Esolen understands, the corruption of language has contributed to this confusion. When words like love, friend, male, female, and partner are transformed in a new sexual context, what was once understood to be pure and undefiled is now subject to sniggering and disrespect." I saw an example of this recently, in reading C.S. Lewis' The Silver Chair with my children. There Lewis writes "Though [Jill's] tongue was never still, you could hardly say she talked: she prattled and giggled. She made love to everyone--the grooms, the porters, the housemaids, the ladies-in-waiting, and the elderly giant lords whose hunting days were past. She submitted to being kissed and pawed about by any number of giantesses, many of whom seemed sorry for her and called her 'a poor little thing'..." "Make love" has obviously been sexualized sometime between 1950's England and 21st century North America. How might people understand Jill's actions today?
I am a follower of Jesus Christ, a husband to Aileen and a father to three young children. I worship and serve as a pastor at Grace Fellowship Church in Toronto, Ontario, and am a co-founder of Cruciform Press.