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Christian Living

April 19, 2011

Sometimes I struggle with motives. I struggle with the idea that we are to be motivated to obedience in this world by the promise of reward in the next. This is particularly true when it comes to money. We are to store up treasures in heaven instead of on earth; we are to obey God not just out of a desire to obey him, but out of a desire to increase our reward in heaven. That has always struck me as wrong, as something that is just a little bit less than noble. A truly God-honoring Christian would take obedience as his only motive, wouldn’t he?

Is it wrong to be motivated by rewards? This has often confused me. Somehow in my mind it seems like the reward must negate the joy or the purity of obedience. The fact that I would seek an eternal reward for a temporal good deed concerns me. Shouldn’t I want to give out of the joy of obedience? Shouldn’t I want to give simply because I love the God who commands me to give generously?

Randy Alcorn has helped correct my thinking. In his book Managing God’s Money, he calls the doctrine of God granting eternal rewards for faithful obedience “the negelcted key to unlocking our motivation.” He offers Hebrews 11:26 as a simple example: “He [Moses] considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward.” And, of course, we know that the Apostle Paul was also running with his eye on the prize—the crown that would last forever (1 Corinthians 9:25). Even Christ endured the cross “for the joy that was set before him” (Hebrews 12:2). He humbled himself knowing that he would soon be exalted. He, too, found his motivation in the eternal reward that would await him—in this case the glory of his Father as he is worshiped by a church washed and redeemed.

If we maintain that it is wrong to be motivated by rewards, we bring an accusation against Christ, suggesting that he was wrongly motivated. We also essentially say that Christ is wrongly tempting us when he holds out a reward for our obedience.

April 18, 2011

There was a time when God walked and talked with the people he created. This must have been an amazing experience for Adam and Eve. But alas, it was a short-lived experience. One evening God came to the garden for his evening stroll and Adam and the woman were nowhere to be found. They had heard the sound of him and they had been terrified. They heard that sound and instead of rushing to him they ran away from him. Clutching fig leaves to themselves, they got among the thickest trees and hid away, trying to get away from God. Their joy had turned to terror, their anticipation to dread.

Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.  And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden.

As a child there were days when I looked forward to my father coming home. He would have been away on a business trip and I knew he would have something for me—a new toy or something good to eat. “Dad’s home!” And I’d rush out and hug him and get whisker burn as he rubbed my cheeks with his stubbly face. Then he’d pull something out of his pocket and give it to me. That is a great memory of days long past.

And then there were days when I was terrified when dad came home. Those were the days I had sinned against my mother and she had sent me to my room; she had banished me. “You go to your room and wait until your father gets home!” I remember lying in bed and trying desperately to fall asleep, hoping dad would have pity on his poor, sweet sleeping child. I remember hiding in the closet one time, shrinking to the back of the closet and hiding, knowing that I deserved to be punished for lying to my mother yet again. This is what we do when we sin, when we are afraid of the consequence of our sin. This is what Adam did.

April 11, 2011

God has put eternity into man’s heart (Ecclesiastes 3:11). The knowledge that there is more to this world than what we see seems to be innate in human nature. it seems God has so wired us that we know there is life beyond the here and now. Every religion acknowledges something beyond, something outside of ourselves. There is something to come. But far more people acknowledge heaven than hell. Though the majority of people believe there is a heaven, very few believe in hell. Even fewer believe they will ever be in hell.

Yet our hearts continue to tell us that there is life and death beyond the grave. Life offers us many hints of what is to come. John Blanchard says, “The judgments of God fall often enough in this world to let us know that God judges, but seldom enough to let us know that there must be a judgment to come.” We see God’s judgments in this world often enough to know that God does judge sin and that he is provoked against evil. Yet the scarcity of judgment shows us that there must be more. If God is a judge he must judge all sin, not just some sin. And so we know that more judgment is coming. It must come. And really, we want it to come—we just don’t want it to come against us. None of us want Hitler to escape some sort of greater judgment, some kind of greater consequence for what he did before taking his own life. Surely a man cannot do all that Hitler did and then escape judgment. What kind of world would that be?

In the aftermath of Rob Bell’s book Love Wins there has been a lot of discussion about hell. I believe in hell—a hell of judgment and torment. But through all of this discussion I have been convicted that I do not believe in this hell strongly enough. It seems unavoidable to me that if I truly believe in this hell, it will have a greater impact on my life and faith. A hell of conscious eternal torment is not the kind of doctrine I can believe in and then just go on my way unaffected. Either I genuinely believe it and it will deeply affect my life, or I pay lip service to it and allow it to make very little difference to me. I don’t see how I can believe it deeply and not have it radically impact my life.

I have been helped in understanding life after death by reading Edward Donnelly’s aptly-titled book Biblical Teaching on the Doctrines of Heaven and Hell. The first half of the book discusses hell in all its horror; the second part turns to heaven with all its glory. The first half is difficult to read and weighs heavily on the soul; the second is like a sip of cool water on a hot day. The first terrifies; the second elevates. Donnelly is not given to hyperbole or imagination. He does not present a fictionalized vision of hell that owes more to horror movies or medieval art and imaginings than to the Bible. Rather, he simply relates what the Bible tells us, both explicitly and implicitly, about this awful place. He does so under four alliterated headings: Absolute Poverty, Agonizing Pain, Angry Presence and Appalling Prospect.

April 04, 2011

Christians read a lot of books. This is a good thing. Christians read a lot of Christian books. This is another good thing. But it’s also an easy thing, a safe thing. Though I am glad to see many Christians reading many books, I believe there is value in reading not only deeply but also widely. And this means that Christians should read more than just Christian books—we should read books that are in the cultural mainstream.

Let me offer you a few reasons that you should consider reading regularly in the mainstream:

Common Grace

Christians have long understood that God gives a measure of grace to all human beings and not just to Christians. We know this as common grace, grace given in common to all people. The great theologian Charles Hodge summarizes it in this way: “The Bible therefore teaches that the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of truth, of holiness, and of life in all its forms, is present with every human mind, enforcing truth, restraining from evil, exciting to good, and imparting wisdom or strength, when, where, and in what measure seemeth to Him good.” Common grace tells us that Christians do not have the market cornered when it comes to what is true and what is wise.

What this means is that we are wise to read all kinds of books, and not just those that have been sanctified by association with a Christian publisher or Christian author. The Parable of the Dishonest Manager in Luke 16 is one of Jesus’ stranger parables, but its purpose should not be lost on us: “For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light” (Luke 16:8). Jesus knew of God’s common grace. He would tell us that truth and wisdom are waiting to be mined in every genre of books.

Cultural Engagement

March 30, 2011

Have you ever noticed that the sins you hate most may just be the sins closest to your heart? I hate the sin of envy, and I think I hate it so much because it is so often very near to me, just waiting to strike, to cause me to mourn when I ought to rejoice, or to rejoice when I ought to mourn. “Rejoice with those who rejoice,” Scripture tells me. It is rarely that easy. I wish it was that easy.

I recently began reading Assist Me To Proclaim, John Tyson’s biography of Charles Wesley, and was challenged with these words:

Charles had a meekness and unfeigned humility about him that was remarkable and attractive. His sermon editor observed, “His most striking excellence was humility; it extended to his talents as well as virtues; he not only acknowledged and pointed out but delighted in the superiority of another.”

To delight in the superiority of another. There is humility. There is envy slaughtered and laid to rest. I think I envy this lack of envy.

In his book The Call Os Guinness says this:

Traditionally envy was regarded as the second worst and second most prevalent of the seven deadly sins. Like pride, it is a sin of the spirit, not of the flesh, and thus a “cold” and highly “respectable” sin, in contrast to the “warm” and openly “disreputable” sins of the flesh, such as gluttony. Its uniqueness lies in the fact that it is the one vice that its perpetrators never enjoy and rarely confess.

It was Aquinas who provided a famous definition of envy when he suggested it is “sorrow at another’s good.” Guinness says:

Envy enters when, seeing someone else’s happiness or success, we feel ourselves called into question. Then, out of the hurt of our wounded self-esteem, we seek to bring the other person down to our level by word or deed. They belittle us by their success, we feel; we should bring them down to their deserved level, envy helps us feel. Full-blown envy, in short, is dejection plus disparagement plus destruction.

March 23, 2011

Sin. I can’t live with it, but am just not able to live without it. I know that I’ve been freed from sin, freed from the power of sin, and yet I still sin. Scripture tells me not to let sin reign, it tells me that if I am truly a child of God I will not go on sinning (Romans 6:12, 1 John 3:9). And still I sin. Even in those times that I focus my efforts on one particular sin I find that I am unable to stop, unable to put it entirely to death. My mind can’t do it; my will can’t do it. It may not reign as sovereign, but it continues to exist as a trial and a steady temptation.

In The Christian Life: A Doctrinal Introduction Sinclair Ferguson writes about this tricky relationship of sin to the Christian and offers these words of assurance: “We are no longer what we once were; we are no longer related to sin the way we once were.” This is important for me to understand and to keep in the forefront of my mind as I battle sin—any sin. I am not what I once was. I am not who I once was. I was once a slave to sin, owned by it, inexorably drawn to it. But now I am the slave to a different master. I am owned by God and subject to him. My relationship to sin has been radically transformed.

And yet I still get angry. I still lash out in anger. I still simmer in anger. I still have desires that stem from anger and suffer the consequences of my anger. And that is just one sin. I still lust and am still jealous and am still thankless and still sin in so many ways. I have died to sin but sin has not yet died within. But here is the difference; here is the change: Sin no longer has dominion. And practically I cannot relate to it as if it has dominion. I have to ensure that my experience of sin is consistent with my theology of sin.

Anger does not own me. Christ owns me. Lust does not motivate me. Christ motivates me. Jealousy does not get the final victory. Christ will get the final victory. The cross stands there as assurance that I have been saved from its power and will some day be fully and finally delivered from its presence. Sin is in me but I am in Christ. And what is in me was put upon him on the cross. He triumphed over it then. He broke its power. And now I just wait, battling all the while, for him to speak the word and bring it to an end once and for all.

March 17, 2011

A few days ago I was looking through my book The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment (though at this point I can’t remember why I was looking at it). It’s amazing how much you forget about a book a few years after you’ve written it. As I browsed through it I came across a portion that I found very helpful. And I can say that without pride since it was drawn from Mark Dever’s Nine Marks of a Healthy Church.

As I wrote about how a Christian ought to develop discernment, and as I wrote about the best context to develop discernment, I wanted to convince readers of the importance of the local church. So here are 5 reasons that Christians need to join a church:

1. For Assurance.

While a person should not feel he needs to join a church in order to be saved, he ought to join a church to be certain that he has been saved. Christians, those who are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, will naturally gravitate towards other Christians and will desire to be with them, to learn from them, and to serve them. A person who professes Christ but feels no desire to be among his believing brothers and sisters is not a healthy Christian. Thus, eager participation in a local church and heartfelt attempts to measure our enthusiasm for that group of believers is a God-given way for us to assure ourselves that we are truly saved.

2. To Evangelize the World.

The gospel can best be spread through combined and collaborative efforts. Throughout the history of the church great men and women have attempted great things on their own and have often been successful. But more often, great things have been accomplished through the collaborate efforts of Christians working together. If we are to reach this world with the gospel message of Jesus Christ, we must share our efforts with other believers.

3. To Expose False Gospels.

As we interact with other believers, we will see what true Christianity is, which ought to expose the common belief that Christians are self-righteous, selfish individuals. As we labor, fellowship, and serve alongside other Christians, and as we observe the lives of other Christ-followers, we will see what biblical Christianity looks like. The more we see of genuine Christianity, the more the counterfeits will be exposed.

4. To Edify the Church.

Joining a church will help Christians counter their sinful individualism and teach them the importance of seeking to serve and edify others. The benefit of being a member of a local church is not primarily inward, but outward. Christians attend a local church so they might have opportunities to serve others and thus to serve God. Every Christian should be eager to serve within the church and to edify others through teaching, serving, and exercising the spiritual gifts.

5. To Glorify God

We can bring God glory through the way we live our lives. God is honored when we are obedient to him. He is glorified when his people come together in unity and harmony to find assurance, to evangelize the world, to expose false gospels, and to edify one another. God is glorified in and through the local church.

March 14, 2011

FacebookJust about everyone has joined Facebook. And just about everyone has since considered giving it up. There are all kinds of studies today telling us how much time Facebook is sucking—700 billion minutes between the lot of us every month. That’s a lot of time. But when you divide it 500 million ways it doesn’t seem quite so bad. That’s not why most of us have considered giving it up. There are studies telling us how Facebook is invading our privacy and selling our personal details to advertisers. That’s annoying, but not reason enough to quit.

The reason so many of us have considered giving up on Facebook is that it makes us miserable. A recent paper in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin looks at a series of studies involving how people evaluate moods—their own and those of others. The study itself is not as interesting as the implications. What the study found is that people tend to underestimate how dejected other people feel and that this in turn increases a person’s own sense of unhappiness. Put otherwise, we all believe that others have better lives than we do and this makes us feel bad about ourselves. That’s strangely significant.

Where do we find this phenomenon in clearest form? On Facebook, of course. We log on to Facebook, look through the photographs and status messages our friends post, and believe that everyone is happier and more successful than we are. And when I have spoken to friends and family members who have considered giving up Facebook, this is exactly the reasoning they have given. They look at other people and feel miserable in comparison.

What an interesting phenomenon. It seems clear that Facebook is exposing something, some ugly little corner of the human heart. Facebook is all about making life seem joyful—we “like” one another’s happy status updates, not the sad ones; we post photos of our parties, not our funerals; we use it to celebrate births and marriages and new relationships, not to mourn deaths or remember break-ups. Facebook is meant to be a happy place for happy people. But it doesn’t seem to work out so well. We all think everyone else is happy, but we don’t feel the joy.

March 07, 2011

Hell
Everyone is talking about the existence of hell. Is hell a real place? Is it a literal place of literal torment? It seems that this issue snuck up on us a little bit. Just a month ago a book came out titled Don’t Call It a Comeback. In that book several of the “young, restless, Reformed” authors (myself included) penned chapters discussing issues pertinent to the church today: the gospel, the new birth, Scripture, social justice, homosexuality. These are some of the big issues in the church today and tomorrow. But there is no chapter on hell (the index shows only 2 references to it).

And yet here we are with discussion raging on the existence and nature of hell. This weekend, as I thought about this controversy, I allowed myself a little thought experiment. What would I have to deny in order to deny hell? If I am ever to come to the point of denying the existence of hell, what will be the doctrinal cost of getting there? Though I am sure there is much more that could be said, I came up with four denials.

I Will Deny What Jesus Taught

Jesus believed in the literal existence of a literal hell. It is very difficult to read Luke 16 (the story of The Rich Man and Lazarus) and arrive at any other conclusion except that Jesus believed in hell and that he believed in a hell of conscious torment of body and mind.

The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’

Jesus also believed in the permanence of hell: “[B]esides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.” In Matthew’s gospel Jesus speaks of hell as the furnace of fire, the place of weeping and gnashing of teeth. He calls it a place of everlasting fire. This would be strange language for a man to use if he believed that hell did not exist and that it was not a place of horrible torment.

If I am going to deny the existence of hell, I will need to outright deny what Jesus teaches and declare that he is wrong, or I will need to obscure what is so plain. I will need to make all of Jesus’ language symbolic and all of the meaning something other than what is clear. I will need to deny what Jesus says.

February 15, 2011

In some parts of my life God has called me to lead and in some parts he has called me to follow. In either case the calling is one of service. He has called me to lead my family and he has called me to be involved in the leadership of my local church. And in all my leading these words from David Powlison present a genuine challenge: “You particularly image Christ by looking out for the well-being of those God has placed within your care.”

The words demand an obvious question: Am I providing those whom I serve an accurate image of Christ? Or am I leaving them with an image that is warped and distorted? Do my children look to the way I lead my wife and the way I lead them and see a reflection of the love of Christ? Or do they have cause to doubt that he is truly for them, that he loves them with a steadfast and immovable love? Do the men and women of Grace Fellowship Church see me leading them and learn that Christ labors for them in prayer, that he longs for them to know the Father through the Word? Or do they see a distortion, a picture of Christ who is self-centered and lazy?

This is why these words grab ahold of me—they challenge me as a leader. There are many measures I could use in an attempt to gauge the effectiveness of my leadership. I could seek to measure by the way people receive me, by the way they regard me, by the number of people who follow me, by wealth or health or happiness. Each of these measures is too easily manipulated; each is too subjective, too prone to my own agendas.

But in framing the success of leadership in its relationship to Christ—here is where the heart has little room to run or hide. Here the heart must see Christ as the model and myself as the one striving to be like him. Am I a good and godly leader? I need only look to Christ and see myself in relation to him. That is where the answer is found.

Interestingly, Powlison assures me that I can also gauge the way I follow by a similar measure. “You particularly serve Christ by standing under those God has placed over you.” But that is a topic for another time.

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