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.
This weekend I spent a little bit of time reflecting on a couple of seemingly random books: Michael Horton’s Christless Christianity and Rick Warren’s The Purpose of Christmas. But they’re not random—they are in many ways books that approach an issue from opposite directions.
Throughout his book, Horton emphasizes the importance and transcendence of the gospel message—the pure, undefiled simplicity of the gospel. Warren, on the other hand, obscures that message with talk of purpose and rash generalizations about the nature of a person’s relationship with God (though, thankfully, the heart of the gospel message is present despite that obscurity). Over the past couple of days I’ve found myself pondering the gospel message over and over again and asking myself why it is that this message is so unpopular even in Christian churches and among Christian authors. Why would an author or a pastor seek to soften the message?
I guess there is no great mystery here. Unbelievers hate the gospel message because it insists that things are true about them that they simply do not wish to believe. It insists things are true that they are unable to believe. The gospel message tells us that we are sinners. Many people are able to accept this information; only an incredibly dishonest and delusional person could pretend that he has done no wrong. The gospel message tells us that ultimately we have not sinned against others or against ourselves, but against God. This is more difficult to digest. Few of us care to think that we have sinned against the Creator of the world. The gospel goes on to tell us that our sin against God has offended him and filled him with wrath against us. Fewer people still are able to digest and accept this information. Few people are able to believe that God is justified in his wrath towards those who transgress his laws. But the gospel reaches its ultimate offense when it tells us that we are utterly unable to do anything about all of this. None of our deeds, however noble and good, are able to make the least dent in the debt we owe to God. Furthermore, none of us would pursue any kind of reconciliation with God were it not for his prior action in our hearts. We are, in our heart of hearts, God-haters. Without God’s grace we are helpless and hopeless.
This week, in the course I am taking with CCEF, I read David Powlison’s reflections on Psalm 131. And as he teaches the Psalm, he re-writes it as the exact opposite—rather an interesting teaching technique. But rather an effective one, I’d say.
So here is Psalm 131, words I’m sure you know well.
O Lord, my heart is not lifted up;
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child is my soul within me.
O Israel, hope in the Lord
from this time forth and forevermore.
And here is Powlison’s anti-psalm:
My heart is proud
and my eyes are haughty
and I chase after things too great and too difficult for me.
So of course I’m noisy and restless inside; it comes naturally,
like a hungry infant fussing on his mother’s lap,
like a hungry infant, I’m restless with my demands and worries.
I scatter my hopes onto anything and everybody all the time.
A couple of years ago I was asked to submit an article to Compassion International’s magazine. The article was to answer a single question: What is the greatest hindrance to the gospel today? I stumbled across that article today and thought I would share it with you.
You know the oft-told story, I am sure. G.K. Chesterton, along with other prominent authors of his day, was asked by The Times to answer this question: “What’s Wrong with the World?” His answer was beautiful in its simplicity and brilliant in its profundity.
Sincerely yours, G. K. Chesterton
As I ponder the greatest hindrances to the gospel today, I can’t help but feel that Chesteron’s words are applicable to this question, too. And yet, at the same time, I feel as if they are wrong; dead wrong.
I, as a Christian, hinder the spread of the gospel and hinder its power in the world.
I hinder the gospel when I lose confidence in the gospel—in the powerful simplicity of the good news that Jesus Christ has died to save sinners. Our age has seen more gospel innovation than any other. We have unprecedented access to programs, teachings and technologies that claim to be able to further the gospel’s spread. But how easy it is to find that my confidence is in the programs or in the teachers or in the technologies, rather than in the gospel message itself. How quick I am to prefer my own message and my own methods above those given to me by God.
I hinder the gospel when what I do fails to match what I say. When I claim to follow Christ but allow my actions to betray my words, a watching world scoffs at the gospel, and rightly so. When I claim to have been transformed by God’s grace but live as if God has made no change at all, I cause others to heap contempt on the gospel. Robert Robinson said this so eloquently in his great hymn, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing:” “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, Prone to leave the God I love.” Living in the constant tension of being both saint and sinner, I am prone to wander away from the One I love; prone to live as if He is nothing to me. And in this I hinder the gospel.
I Am Not
From my human perspective, I am the greatest hindrance to the gospel. But the Bible tells me to look higher. It tells me with glorious clarity that nothing, no one, is able to hinder the gospel. It tells me to place my confidence in the God whose plans cannot be stopped. My lack of confidence in the gospel, my indifference to it, and my unfaithfulness in spreading it, cannot truly hinder the work of God. God reigns supreme over all.
his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
and his kingdom endures from generation to generation;
all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing,
and he does according to his will among the host of heaven
and among the inhabitants of the earth;
and none can stay his hand
or say to him, “What have you done?” (Daniel 4:34b-35)
Not one person who truly seeks after God will be hindered from embracing Christ as Lord and Savior. Christ, the Good Shepherd, has sent His Spirit to gather a people to himself. Christ knows his own and his own know him. He will draw them to himself and not one will be lost; not one can be lost. Far be it from me to think that I can stand in the way of God, the Creator and Sustainer of all that was and is and ever will be.
What is the greatest hindrance to the gospel today? I am, but nothing is. God reigns supreme.
The Lord has been forcing me to learn about prayer. And it’s a good thing since I’m finding myself in one of those times in life when prayer is coming only with difficulty. It was a blessing to attend a local pastors’ fellowship on Monday where I enjoyed a panel discussion about prayer and the pastoral ministry. And it was a blessing to record an interview this morning with Dr. Joel Beeke, a man who is known not only for writing books on prayer, but for being a man who loves to pray and who prays powerfully. (listen to the interview)
When discussing prayer, I find that there is always a lot of value in the little nuggets, the little pieces of gold that are encountered in conversation. While listening to an hour-long panel discussion on prayer, each person in the audience picked up on a few little things that impacted him. And the same was true in my conversation with Dr. Beeke.
I want to share with you just a few of the things that have been resonating in my mind.
Pray in Jesus’ name. To pray in the name of Jesus is to pray with his authority in a way that claims his power. In prayer I should always be asking, “In whose interest am I praying? What is God’s agenda in this?” In other words, I need to make sure that I have a conscience sense of praying to the Lord, the King, the Sovereign One. I pray not only to this God, but I also pray in his power and with his authority. That merits a “wow!”
Use model prayers. One of the best ways to learn to pray is to use the New Testament prayers as a model. The Apostle Paul always brings home what he has been teaching through his prayers. So learn these prayers, learn how they relate to the letters, and learn to pray them first for yourself. Let Paul be your teacher.
Pray within your capacity to believe. One pastor said that we often pray beyond our capacity to believe. He used the example of praying for the salvation of his wife’s parents. He and his wife would pray that the Lord would save them, but they were praying without faith; though they knew God could, in theory, do this, they doubted that he actually would. What they decided to do was to pray within their capacity to believe, and so they began to pray smaller, incremental prayers for things they truly could ask in faith. In a similar situation you might pray that the Lord would bring your parents just one Christian friend, or that they would hear the gospel just one time, and so on. And once that prayer is answered, you can then pray for the next, slightly bigger thing. All the while you are ratcheting up your prayers while acknowledging God’s incremental answers to them.
Do not stop praying until you get through to God. This pastor said that you need to labor in prayer until you feel that you have gotten through to God. He particularly warned against stepping into the pulpit and preaching before first gaining a sense of the Spirit’s presence and power. If the preacher cannot go into the pulpit in the power of the Spirit, how can he expect the Spirit to then speak to the people?
Prayer is better caught than taught. Do you want to know how to pray? Then spend time with people who pray and pray with them. Do you want your children to learn to pray? Then pray with them and let them catch the ability to pray. There are few shortcuts here.
Prayer changes us, not God. The purpose of prayer is not to change God, but to change us, to realign ourselves according to his purposes. Prayer is not an attempt to twist the arm of God or to bend him to our will. Instead, it is God’s means of changing and transforming us, driving us to joyfully submit to his will.
Pray warmly. Dr. Beeke asked what right anyone has to feel that he should be able to pray warmly out of the cold blue. If we want to enjoy warm fellowship in prayer, we should first be willing to spend time with the Lord in the Word and in meditation. This warms the heart and draws us to the Lord, igniting our prayer.
If you would like to hear the wisdom of these men, you don’t have long to wait. Audio from Toronto Pastors’ Fellowship will be available soon. My interview with Dr. Joel Beeke will be available here at the blog next Tuesday (Lord willing).
On November 11 I bookmarked 2 blog articles. Bookmarks usually last about 24 hours before they get a) archived b) used in A La Carte or c) erased. But these ones are still sitting there. Several times I have gone back to read the articles and each time I’ve wanted to think about them a little bit more. There is nothing in them that is earthshaking to me. And yet the way they are phrased has given me a lot of food for thought (just ask Aileen if you doubt me).
The first article I read was by Amy Scott and it was titled simply “Be You.” In her article she references another, one titled “Just Whose Wife Am I Anyway?” They both deal with a common them: submission. In particular, they deal with the biblical command that a wife submit to her husband. Those are fighting words in many parts of the Christian world, not to mention outside of the Christian world. I won’t allow that to distract me here.
Both women write about their own struggles with what submission really looks like in a godly marriage. And as I read their thoughts, here is what struck me: We spend a lot of time talking in general about how men and women complement one another—generic men and generic women. This complementarity is obvious from a physical standpoint, but also from many others. But I wonder if we spend far too little time talking about how this husband and this wife complement one another. When we move beyond the generalities of gender roles, we find that the specifics may look very, very different from one couple to another. Within the Bible’s general guidelines, there are many ways to work out the details. Amy puts it like this:
My own husband would knock me silly (…figuratively) if I called him yesterday from the flooring store to solve and negotiate the huge issue that came up. He trusts me. He knows I am capable, and we are a team. (On the flip side, many husbands feel very respected to have their opinion asked about how to handle disasters.) We found a rhythm that works for us.
Greg has one Patriarchal rule for me. He will not let me use a paintbrush under any circumstances in our house. But I am OK with this.
A few weeks ago Aileen’s grandmother passed away. Two or three decades ago I’m sure the cause of death would have been listed simply as old age—a shorthand doctors used to say that her body simply gave out after many long illnesses; she just did not have the strength to fight anymore. She was the last of our grandparents, the last of that generation.
In the time since then the family has been wrapping up her affairs, dealing with the estate, emptying the house and preparing it for sale. Each of the kids and grandkids has gone through the house, staking claim to certain special items, little things that often have little monetary value but great emotional significance—clocks, dolls, pictures and things of that nature—the things that they associate with the person they loved. And having done that, they are now left with a house full of stuff. It’s a house full of furniture and boxes and pots and pans and junk drawers and appliances and everything else that a person uses and accumulates over a lifetime.
And so they are now sorting through that stuff, throwing much of it in the trash, donating other things to Salvation Army, and keeping the occasional thing that they just can’t bring themselves to throw out. Aileen’s grandmother was no pack rat—she kept a careful and clean home and had moved enough times that she had not accumulated as many possessions as some people do. And yet there is still a lot of stuff—as much as you would expect to find in a good-sized home. There is nothing in the home that she did not keep for one reason or another. Some she kept because it was practical and she thought she would need it; some she kept because it was sentimental, having been given to her by someone she loved. And now other people—her children and children-in-law, are sorting through all of that stuff, keeping some but discarding most.
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.
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.