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gospel

February 14, 2011

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.

January 03, 2011

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.

Gospel

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.

September 30, 2009

Last week I reviewed Bill Farley’s new book Gospel-Powered Parenting. I recommended it highly, saying it had “just the right combination of affirmation (your struggles are universal struggles, your joys are universal joys) and exhortation to both encourage and challenge me in all the right ways.” After I reviewed it, I found there were a few things I wanted to ask the author. I went ahead and asked if he would be willing to do a brief interview about the book and he was kind enough to do so. I trust you’ll enjoy his answers as I did.

1. Why the gospel? Why is the gospel the key to empowering parenting? What is the connection between the words “gospel” and “powered?”
Paul tells us that “the gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16). We hear this verse and think the pulpit or witnessing, but parents should hear this and think family devotions. Parents convinced that God’s power is latent in the gospel center their families around the gospel. They are convinced that it provokes new birth, that it will knit their children’s hearts to God, and motivate godly behavior. Our children receive the “imperishable seed” of new birth through the message of the gospel (1 Pet. 1:23). Often parents don’t center their parenting in the gospel because either they don’t really understand the gospel, or they don’t believe that God’s power is latent in the gospel.

The gospel also protects parents from “moralism,” the idea that well-behaved children are the main thing. New Birth is the main thing. The morality of Christ imputed to your children is the main thing. It is not what our children do for Christ but what Christ has done for our children that is the main thing. Ironically, without aiming at it, gospel centered parents get godly behavior from their children.

In addition, the fear of God is the key to attracting God’s favor upon our parenting. Many think that the fear of God is an Old Testament concept. But the main place we get the fear of God is at the cross of Christ—the heart of the gospel.


2. Today we are hearing the word “gospel” everywhere (at least, those of us within a certain subset of the Christian world). Do you think there’s a danger that it could become cliche? Could gospel begin to lose its meaning when it’s applied to everything?
When the gospel becomes “cliché” Christianity has become irrelevant. The center has been displaced. That is because the gospel is the main thing. It is the center of the Bible. The Old Testament predicts it. The gospels recount it, and the epistles look back to explain and apply it. I think the recent surge of Gospel-centeredness is really just a resurgence of biblical Christianity.

This may sound strange to many Christians. To many the gospel is “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” But the gospel is deep. It is a well with no bottom. The more we understand it the less apt we are to stray from it. It starts by assuming the bad news. We are in trouble. Our default condition is Hell. God owes us nothing but justice. We are all running pell mell toward damnation. We cannot solve this problem by being good. We are in profound trouble.

The gospel is the “good news” that solves this problem. It reconciles enemies—God and man—and makes them friends. It opens the gate of Heaven to all who believe. It infuses Christians with an indomitable hope. It motivates love, grace, and forgiveness.

In my view, this new Gospel-centeredness is a profound deepening of the faith. It is what really matters. I believe there will be tremendous long-term fruit from the recovery of this emphasis.

Those who understand the gospel never get tired of hearing it. I watched my son preach on penal substitution last Sunday, and even though I covered the same ground ten weeks ago, the congregation was transfixed. Despite the fact that this message is the ABC of the gospel, my congregation would listen to it every week and keep coming back for more. What I am trying to say is that the gospel is not something we start with so that we can pass on to the deeper truths. It is the deeper truth.

The thesis of my previous book, Outrageous Mercy, is that the gospel teaches us everything we need to know about God, man, eternity, Hell, Heaven, how to get into Heaven, what God loves, and what he hates. In addition, it teaches us everything we need to know about how to live. If all of this is true, it must also teach us about parenting. The point of Gospel Powered Parenting is that it does.


3. We want to affirm, of course, that it is well within the rights of any Christian parents to homeschool their children. We want to affirm that this is often a wise decision for parents. Yet in Gospel-Powered Parenting you explicitly mention that your five children, all of whom are believers, went to public schools and state colleges. You emphasize the importance of an offensive mind-set. Do you find that, at least for some Christian parents, homeschooling is really just one aspect of a larger defensive mind-set?
Many things motivate home-schooling—a desire for a better education, the longing to mingle the gospel with academic subjects, the desire to cast our children in a biblical mold, and a longing to protect them from evil influence. What I am saying is that if protection is the main thing, or the only thing, we might be in trouble.

Let me be clear. I am all for home-schooling and/or private Christian education. Although my children all graduated from public High School, my two oldest daughters went to a private Christian school for several years, and we home-schooled my youngest during his Junior High years. None of my fourteen grandchildren are in public education today. My oldest daughter taught in a classical Christian school for twelve years. I am not against home-schooling: I am against a fear-oriented, defensive mindset. Home schooling does not necessarily presume this mentality.


4. What are the potential dangers in this?
The potential dangers are primarily reactionary. You could take this idea to an extreme and fail to protect children when you should. That would not be helpful. I am not saying that you shouldn’t protect your children from some influences. I am just saying that “protection” should never be our primary strategy. Isolating them from worldly influence by itself is seldom productive.


5. What does an offensive mind-set look like in parenting?
An offensive mindset targets the child’s heart not the child’s external environment (friends, music, school, etc.). In order to reach their child’s heart effective parents focus on their relationship with the child. Rather than fearing the world’s negative influence, they focus on the gospel’s power to influence their child. This parent worries more about their example to their child rather than the world’s example. This parent waits patiently for New Birth rather than assuming it because a child was baptized, or made a confession of faith at a summer camp.


6. Why is it such a temptation to try to control, or over-control, our children’s’ environment? Why do parents need to guard against this?
I think it is a temptation because our default condition is independence from God. We think our influence is the deciding factor in our child’s character development. It isn’t. Ultimately, the influence of God trumps all of our efforts. God gives New Birth. We can’t give it to our children. Our children can’t take it. It is God’s gracious gift (Mt 13:11, Mt 16:17, Luke 19:42; 24:16, 24:31, 24:45; Jn 1:12,13; Jn 5:21; Jn 9:39; Jn 6:39, Rm 9:10-24; Eph 1:1-6; 1Pe 2:9). Therefore, and this is crucial, pleasing God is the most important thing a parent can do to move God to regenerate their child. This means that effective parents are God-centered not child-centered. Their focus is always on God, not their children. Fearing God is one crucial way that parents can please God. We learn this fear at the cross. That is why I call it gospel powered parenting.


7. Do you feel that some Christian parents allow fear to be a motivating factor in the education of their children?
Yes, this is sometimes true. I am a pastor. I have watched parents try to protect their children into God’s kingdom. Fear of worldly influence is often their motive. Sometimes they are home-schooling families, but not always. When a parent thinks “protecting” their child from the outside world is the main thing, they are saying something. They are saying that Christianity equals “moralism,” (pleasing God through outward behavior), that obedient children are the main thing, that the child’s problem is “out there” rather than within his own fallen nature. Sometimes they assume that their child is basically good. Negative influence will corrupt that goodness. Therefore, protecting their child will enable that goodness to flourish. This mentality also assumes that New Birth has little power to equip a child to conquer temptation.


8. How can a parent guard against moralism? Isn’t there huge temptation, perhaps especially when we are within view of other Christians, to judge parenting by the outward shows of immediate obedience and other potentially-moralistic standards?
Moralism is the assumption that we make ourselves acceptable to God with good behavior. It is the deadly enemy of Christianity. It is the one thing that all non-Christian religions share in common, and the rejection of moralism is one crucial doctrine that sets Christianity apart. The Bible says God accepts us because we believe, not because we perform.

Moral behavior is important, however it is not the ultimate goal of parenting. New Birth is the final goal. Morality matters because it glorifies God. Our children will never be moral in a pleasing way to God until their hearts are changed through the miracle of New Birth, and even then, their morality will never makes them ultimately acceptable to God.

So, to answer you question, the only way to guard against moralism is to understand the nature of New Birth, to understand justification by faith alone, and to aim all of your parenting efforts at these targets. Parents that center their families around the gospel tend to get these results.


9. Why did you and your wife make decisions about educating your children?
Our children were in public schools during the years 1980 to 2000. We put them in public school because of the convictions mentioned above. There was a Christian sub-culture at their High School. They made their friends there. Generally, they prospered spiritually.

However, I must make some caveats. First, public education has degenerated since our kids were in school. We might do differently today. Second, we made some mistakes. We were not flexible enough. Some of our children easily withstood peer pressure. Others struggled. Looking back, we probably should have put the children that struggled in private school or home-schooled them. In short, I am not making any rules about where your children should be educated. The Bible takes a different tack. It stresses the role of the father, the importance of parental example, and the fear of God taught by the gospel.


10. How will you know if this book has been a success? What do you hope for it?
I will not know if this book has been successful until I am with God in eternity. I will feel successful if I meet saints who came to New Birth because their parents read this book and changed their approach to parenting.

July 10, 2009

On September 28, 2008, I was shocked to read these words on the blog of Terry Stauffer, a man I had met at a couple of conferences and who has long been a reader and commenter at my blog: “Last night at about 4:45 our precious 14 year-old daughter Emily was attacked and killed as she was out for a walk. We don’t know a lot of details, but we know that two young men came upon the scene right away, but it was too late for Emily. I will write more as more details come available. Please pray for us, for our church family who are meeting without us right now, and for family that is travelling. We are realizing from the inside the value of good, Gospel theology right now. ”

Terry is pastor of Edson Baptist Church in the small town of Edson, Alberta. Emily’s murder shocked this small town of less than 10,000 people—the kind of town where this crime is unheard of. I continued to follow Terry’s blog as he dealt with the aftermath—Emily’s funeral, national media attention, the arrest of a suspect and life following the loss of a child. Through it all, Terry’s faith strengthened me from afar. I recently asked Terry if he would be kind enough to participate in an interview and I am grateful that he was willing and able to do so. I offer this interview in the hope that it encourages you in the Lord who promises (and delivers) strength as strength is needed.

*****

In a short note you posted on your blog the day after Emily’s death you wrote this: “We are realizing from the inside the value of good, Gospel theology right now.” Tell me about the value of that good, gospel theology as you began to grapple with the reality of what had happened.


In recent years, my wife and I have been learning that the gospel puts everything else into perspective. Reading good theology books, listening to gospel-centered messages and reading our Bibles with Christ at the center has become a real passion for us. God was preparing us in many ways for Emily’s death. In the past couple of years, we have been growing in our understanding of sin and grace. Submitting to what God says about our sin is essential to understanding the good news.

Perhaps the greatest power of a gospel perspective the understanding that death is not the worst thing that can happen to a person - not even the death of a child. The worst thing for anyone is to face the wrath of a holy God in his or her sinful condition. We are by nature children of wrath. Christ absorbed that wrath for us on the cross to bring us reconciliation with God. Of course, the hope of Emily’s resurrection (and ours) because of Christ’s bodily resurrection cannot be overstated - this is our sure hope and it keeps us going.


On a more personal level, on the first morning after Emily’s death, I was overwhelmed with thoughts about what her last minutes must have been like. In the middle of that desperation, I remembered, “Christ was forsaken so that Emily didn’t have to be.” In fact, I wrote that “good gospel theology” line only a few minutes after this realization. Emily’s Saviour brought her to Himself, and Emily is safe and secure, full of joy inexpressible and full of glory. That is a great comfort for us.


As you began to plan for Emily’s funeral you wrote, “The funeral for Emily will not be a celebration of her life, though she will be appropriately honoured. We desire this service to be Gospel-saturated and glorifying to Christ our Redeemer. I can honestly say that’s the way Emily would have wanted it.” How did you use the occasion of her funeral to bring glory to Christ?

We had a sense that Emily’s funeral would be well attended by the community and it was. Her murder rocked our small town - things like this just don’t happen in Edson. We knew that there would be many non-Christians there and we wanted them to hear about Christ and the life that He alone gives.

For ourselves, we just had to major on the gospel. We began the service with the song, In Christ Alone. That gave Juanita and me the strength to make it through the service. The beauty of the gospel is that it fits every need and every occasion. We were in a sense selfish in that we did what we needed to do for our own souls, that is, worship God and cling to the Gospel. But that’s just what everyone else needs, too, even if they aren’t aware of it. If someone doesn’t believe, they need to hear the gospel. If a person is a Christian, they will long for the refuge and hope of the gospel.

We did speak about Emily, we did honour her by sharing memories and a projected slide-show of her life. In her testimony, Juanita said, “I could talk a lot about Emily.” However, we needed to confess God’s glory more than anything that day.


The funeral was widely covered by the media. What kind of reaction was there to this gospel-saturated funeral?
We braced for the media’s spin, or sensationalism, but we were pleased with how respectfully they treated us and relayed the gospel message. I would have liked to have seen more, but compared to our expectations, we were relieved.

We’re still waiting to see what God is going to do in the lives of some people that we were able to talk to. We have heard stories from all over the place about how people have turned to or turned back to the Lord, and for that we are very thankful. We’re still praying for several people that need to come to Christ and hope to hear more stories of grace as time passes.

We could relay several testimonies that we’ve heard about. We’ve been brought to tears several times when we’ve heard stories of how God has used Emily’s death to point people to Christ. 




During Emily’s funeral you said, “When Emily’s death was confirmed on Saturday night, I was shocked and bewildered. All I could pray was, ‘O Lord, Help! Help! Help!’ As I was on my knees, a thought came to me: ‘If all my talk about the Gospel and God’s goodness is not true now, then it was never true.’” Tell me about that, if you would. How did these words sustain you through such pain?
In moments of despair - that first night was just one of them - it was almost as if God put His hand on my shoulder and said, “Courage, now. Go back to the truth - trust me.” I easily spiral down into my own thoughts and feelings, but God is gracious to remind me of His presence and His Word. These times of despair (sometimes they felt like panic attacks) were very humbling, but God kept bringing His Word to mind (sometimes through a song or a hymn), or He drew me to read the Psalms.

In those early days, some people would say, “You’re so strong!” I would suppress a chuckle because I knew the truth. I have never felt so weak and helpless in my life. We said - and say -that God is carrying us. That is so true, and it is deeply humbling. Though I have believed and treasured the gospel for many years, God’s truth has never seemed so utterly true! 
 



Tell me about the role of the church, and especially the local church, in the days following Emily’s death.
We thought we knew what a great church we have, but we really had no idea. Emily’s murder was a terrible shock for everyone, and people were so helpful and so gracious. We needed the church so much, and they came through.

The first Sunday we were back at church was two days after Emily’s funeral. People were surprised that we were back so soon, but we needed to be there. I was amazed at the tender strength of everyone involved. The songs, scripture readings and sermon faced death head on. There was no equivocating - they saw the enemy and confronted it with the power of the cross. Though we shed a lot of tears that morning, we were significantly encouraged.

People from all the churches in town served us so well, as did many from the community. We were overwhelmed by these expressions of love. Though it was hard to be on the receiving end of so much kindness, we came to realize that these people wanted to do something because they were grieving too - even people that didn’t know Emily personally.

Practical ways we have been served:

  • Meals for over a month
  • The loan of a house so we could get away to Edmonton for a couple of days in the week following the funeral
  • Housecleaning
  • Gifts for the children - money, stuffed animals, journals and books and a family swimming pass were only a few of the ways they were encouraged
  • Friends who completed a scrapbook of Emily’s life for the funeral (it was mostly done but needed about 20 layouts to complete it)
  • Friends who put together a PowerPoint presentation for the funeral
  • A friend who coordinated the mounting and presentation of some of Emily’s photography for the funeral
  • The freedom for Terry not to preach for over a month
  • Cards from all over the world - from people we know personally to complete strangers
  • Encouragements and small gifts from online friends that have been sent over the months since Emily’s death
  • Two quilts made especially for our family
  • Friends who ask “how are you really doing?”
  • Gifts of encouraging books and journals
  • Prayers of God’s people - still continuing on


Scripture tells us that one of God’s purposes in suffering is to bring both the person suffering and other believers to greater maturity. Have you seen evidence of a growth in maturity in your life, your wife’s life, and the lives of other Christians?


First the short answer, yes, yes and yes.

For me, the biggest thing is that God seems much bigger and I seem much smaller. I think I take life more seriously, and I am more conscious of my sin. If I’m honest, I think I have withdrawn a bit as well; I’m not following up with people like I know I should. Knowing my weakness is a good thing. Submitting to my weakness is sinful, considering what I’ve been given in Christ.

I am amazed at the maturity of my wife, Juanita - and very thankful. She has pressed into God even more since Emily’s death, though her devotional reading was deeper and more consistent than mine before that. I see a growing sense of sensitivity to others as a fruit of this suffering in her life, among other things.

We see fruit of gospel perspective in the lives of several people. Thanks to this question, I’m reminded that I need to follow-up on this and express thankfulness for these evidences of grace to some of these people.


Has Emily’s death given you a different perspective on heaven and eternity? Has it made heaven seem that much nearer? That much more precious?


Absolutely. This has been one of the greatest lessons and benefits of Emily’s death.

One related story: During the last three weeks of August 2008, I preached a mini-series on Revelation 21-22. This led to a great conversation with Emily in early September as we drove to Edmonton (two hours away). That conversation on Heaven and future things is such a precious memory now.

A Spurgeon quote:

“Dear friend, have you found that trouble cuts the cords that tie you to earth? When the Lord takes a child, there is one less cord to fasten you to this world and another band to draw you toward heaven. When money vanishes and business goes wrong, we frequent the prayer meeting, the prayer closet and the Bible. Trials drive us from earth. If all went well, we would begin to say, “Soul, relax”. But when things go amiss, we want to be gone. When the tree shakes, the bird flies away. Happy is the trouble that loosens our grip of earth.” - From Beside Still Waters


Did you ever wrestle with questions of “why?” Do you still?

On a horizontal level, I find myself thinking, “What a waste.” Emily was so talented, growing spiritually, so alive that her death does elicit the question, “Why?” Her murder was so random - broad daylight on a busy path in a small town. It is still hard to process sometimes.


However, God brings me back to the truth of His goodness and sovereignty. We know that Emily’s death was not outside His will and plan for good.

There is a song, So I Will Trust You, from Sovereign Grace Ministries, Come Weary Saints that helps me get back to a healthy perspective at these, “Why?” times. God made me, He saved me, I know He loves me - so I will trust Him. I sang along with that song through gritted teeth a few times early on, but I’m thankful that as I confessed those words, my heart was encouraged.



How is the police investigation proceeding? Have they arrested a suspect and determined a motive?

The police arrested a suspect a few weeks after Emily’s murder, but as for motive, I have no idea. The case is before the courts now. It will be a long process.


Would you like to speak to the man who killed your daughter? If so, what would you wish to tell him?
Perhaps some day. We’re processing what forgiveness looks like in this case. From the day we were told of the arrest, we’ve been talking about honoring God in this whole process. I just preached a message on David and Bathsheba on Sunday and concluded by saying that God can forgive anyone from any sin, even if this forgiveness offends our sense of justice.

Repentance and forgiveness can be a complicated issue. We were given a copy of Chris Braun’s Unpacking Forgiveness and have found that helpful.

In this case, we don’t want to interfere with what is happening in the courts. We’ll take things one step at a time and keep praying for wisdom and courage to do what is right. We have certainly surrendered any sense of vengeance to God, and we are thankful for God’s grace in that.

One concluding thought:

We’re learning that God gives strength as we need it. When people say, “I could never be as strong as you,” I always think - and sometimes say - “I couldn’t either.” There’s no way either Juanita or I could have been prepared for the loss of Emily, or for the attention that we have received since her murder. God gives grace and strength step-by-step as it’s needed.

Emily and Terry Stauffer

May 07, 2009

When I was a child my father would occasionally take me to work with him. Dad did not work in an office so this was not a typical “take your child to work” situation. Dad was a landscaper and a day with dad was a day in the hot sun. It was a day of hard work, hauling, digging, planting, watering, tending. As a child I would grow discouraged at how little I could do in comparison to dad. By the time I had hauled a couple of flats of plants from the truck to the garden, he would have hauled a hundred. By the time I had dug a hole big enough to fit a rose, he would have finished a dozen. Even when I did get something done quickly, he would almost inevitably tell me that I had done it poorly and would tell me to go back and do it properly. After a while I would wonder if there was any reason at all to even help him. What could I really accomplish in comparison?

And yet at the end of the day dad would thank me for my help and would stop and buy me an ice cream or another treat. And he would give me a few dollars as payment for what I had done. Despite false starts, despite carelessness, despite weakness, I really was able to help dad out. Together we got the job done, even if my half of the work was, well, a lot less than half.

A few days ago I was reflecting on how good God is to allow us to work with him and to sometimes do his work on his behalf. When we share the gospel with unbelievers or when we preach the gospel to our brothers and sisters in Christ, it is easy to see our own inadequacy, our own shortcomings. It is easy to grow discouraged, knowing how little we can accomplish. Why bother with our fractional percent when God is the one who must provide all of the power?

As I was thinking about these things, I came across a great illustration in Gorden Cheng’s Encouragement: How Words Change Lives (published by Matthias Media). He describes an occasion where his work, foolish though it may seem, really does make a difference.

*****

When the entire family decides to plant baby lettuce on a Saturday afternoon in the backyard, certain realities apply and certain home truths about family dynamics and gardening knowledge must be taken into account. My wife is extremely well aware of these realities; the rest of us are somewhat aware in a descending order that begins with me, and gradually drops down to our seven-year-old (who, truth be known, is starting to get quite good and is beginning to ask question about my ability in this area), down to our four-year-old and finally to our three-year-old. The latter two contribute enthusiasm and a certain degree of, let’s say, unrestrained passion about how things ought to be done and who ought to do them first. As a direct result of this scenario, it is fair to suggest that every single task that needs to be completed in the garden takes three to five times longer than if Fiona (my wife) were to do it herself. Digging a furrow takes longer. Putting plants into the furrow takes longer. It is an activity fraught with risk both to the baby lettuce and to the dogs underfoot. At least one adult is employed for the entire gardening period keeping an eye on the most recent location of the pitchfork, and helping recover small plants from under a layer of newly thrown mulch. Snails, as the oldest of us have now realized, are not potential pets—but we haven’t yet had the heart to tell the two youngest, and so the location of their mollusc collection has also turned out to be one of those things that just has to be carefully monitored.

But for all the slow, distracting and sometimes dangerous things that happen in our garden, there is no doubt that all of us really are gardening. Every single one of the children’s mistakes, and a good number of mine as well, will be overruled by grace. The good things we do really are good things. In the kindness and providence of God, the children (and I) are becoming better gardeners than when we first began. When we stand in the garden in the summer sunshine we will be happy because we really did it.

And that is how it is with God and us, his fellow workers, in his church. We really are helping him. Those who see our efforts may laugh at what we do. We ourselves may become frustrated and upset by mistakes and lack of competence. We may become dimly aware, from time to time, that what we thought was useful and helpful was, unfortunately, nothing of the sort. But provided that we keep our focus on what God says in his word, and continue to speak that same truth in love, the gospel we speak will continue to transform our own lives and the lives of others. And that gospel work will result in a growth that bears fruit into eternity.

January 09, 2009

Some time ago I mentioned that I had been asked by a magazine to submit an answer to this question: “What is the greatest hindrance to the gospel today?” Since the magazine has now been published, I can print the answer at my site. So here goes…


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.

Dear Sirs,

I am.

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 Am

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.

November 11, 2008

Every believer carries a measure of the guilt for Jesus’ death. Was it not for our willful disobedience to God’s perfect Law, we would have no need of a Savior. We acknowledge in song that it was our hands that drove the spikes into His and sometimes speak about driving the nails into Jesus’ hands every time we sin. We speak figuratively, of course, knowing that although we were not present at the time of His death, we bear the guilt of creating the need for His death. Had we not sinned, Christ would not have died.

In the Bible we are given a brief glimpse of a man who was present while Jesus was nailed to the tree. He is mentioned in three of the four gospel accounts. But he is mentioned not for his cruelty, ruthlessness or ability as a soldier. He is mentioned for something far more important, for a marvelous transformation. This man was a Roman centurion, a commander over 100 soldiers of the Roman army. We know little about the man except that he was probably a hardened solider who commanded a detachment of Syrian-born soldiers. He had, in all likelihood, presided over the crucifixion of hundreds or even thousands of men and must have become hardened to the agony these men endured. Day after day he would watch men endure unspeakable agony.

It is likely that this man was present from the time Jesus was brought before Pilate right until the Lord’s body was lowered from the cross and given to Joseph of Arimathea. He may even have been present with the detachment of soldiers that aided in Jesus’ arrest the night before His crucifixion. This man would have accompanied Jesus from the time the Jewish leaders brought him to the Praetorium. He would have ordered his men to beat Him, caring little for who He was, knowing Him only to be another in a long line of people he was commanded to execute. He would have been nearby when his men dressed Jesus in a robe, pressed a crown of thorns onto His head and walked Him to Golgotha. He would have given the order to proceed with the crucifixion. He was there through it all, undoubtedly viewing Jesus as just one more man in an endless succession.

Having seen so many crucifixions, the centurion knew what to expect from prisoners. Most people who were sentenced to be crucified were criminals, brigands, thieves and murderers. He had heard countless men scream in agony while being whipped and plead for their lives before Pilate. He had heard them shout curses to men below and blasphemies to God above. The behavior of the thieves on either side of Jesus was all too common, as they mocked and ridiculed Jesus while he hung between them. What more could you expect from the kind of man who was hung on a cross?

Perhaps it was during this time that the centurion began to notice that there was something different about Jesus. Where most men cursed and swore, Jesus, as His hands were nailed to the wood, cried out for God to forgive those who were causing His suffering. Or maybe He noticed the tender mercy in Jesus’ voice when He spoke to the penitent thief beside Him, promising that the same day he would be with Jesus in paradise. Perhaps he was amazed that during such suffering Jesus could look down at His mother and ensure that her future was secure by telling John to take care of her. Certainly the three hours of darkness that accompanied Jesus’ suffering would have marked this as an execution unlike any other.

We can only guess when the centurion began to realize that perhaps, just perhaps, Jesus was exactly who He claimed to be. What we do know is exactly when He knew with full certainty.

Just before He died, Jesus cried out “It is finished!” and then said “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” At that very moment Jesus died. At that same moment a violent earthquake shook the land with such ferocity that rocks were split. Matthew tells us “when the centurion and those with him, who were guarding Jesus, saw the earthquake and the things that had happened, they feared greatly, saying, “Truly this was the Son of God!” Luke expands on this saying “when the centurion saw what had happened, he glorified God, saying, “Certainly this was a righteous Man!”

And just like that, the man who presided over Jesus’ execution, the man who ordered the nails to be driven into His hands and feet, became the first person to become a believer after Jesus’ death.

What an awesome, exciting testament this is to God’s divine grace! God was willing and eager to save one of those primarily responsible for the murder of His Son. A man who watched Jesus be scourged, who watched his soldiers mock and abuse Him and who probably enjoyed every minute of it, suddenly cries out in terror, realizing that He has killed an innocent man. But his cry of terror is also an expression of faith as he confesses his new-found knowledge that Jesus was and is the Son of God.

I am certain that this story served as a great encouragement to many people in the early church. Though many of them carried the guilt for having killed the Lord, the realization that God could save even those who held the nails, would have proven that He is a God of love and forgiveness. It would have reassured them that, like this centurion, they could gain God’s favor through Jesus’ sacrifice.

This centurion’s miraculous conversion continues to serve as an encouragement today. Just as we share the centurion’s guilt for driving the nails into Jesus, so we can share the victory He won that day. As with this soldier who lived and died almost 2000 years ago, we need only have faith to believe that “truly this was the Son of God” and we, too, can be forgiven for the part we played in this terrible, unjust execution.

October 27, 2008

Over the weekend I read Michael Horton’s new book Christless Christianity. I greatly enjoyed reading it (despite chapters that were slightly longer than my attention span) and found that it gave me a lot to think about. A few days earlier I had read a new book by Rick Warren, The Purpose of Christmas. What a contrast there was between the two of them.

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 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 is some exceedingly bad news. And this is why so many churches seek to soften the news. It’s better, they think, to welcome into church the many people who will accept a softened message than the few who will accept such a tough message. And so they tamper with it, taking the edge off. Yes, we have sinned, but let’s think of it as just doing bad things or making mistakes. And though God has noticed these mistakes, he is willing and eager to overlook such offenses. What kind of Father would he be if he really insisted that we face eternal damnation for some mistakes? Soon the message is watered down into watery, tasteless baby food. Having covered this not-too-bad news, these pastors and authors offer good news. If you turn to God, you can have your best life now. He will bless you richly, giving you all the things you want and need. He will make your life better and promise you the reward of heaven where you will be reunited with all of the people and the things you held dear here on earth.

There is, of course, a direct correlation between the weakness of the bad news and the weakness of the good news. The weaker we make the bad news, the weaker is the good news in comparison. The badder the bad, the gooder the good (and I apologize to my English teachers for that sentence)! When we understand—truly understand—the precariousness of our position; when we understand just how badly we have offended God and how we justly deserve his wrath, the good news becomes so much sweeter. Gone is the man-centered view of the benefits of God’s salvation and in its place arises an understanding that the greatest benefit of salvation is Christ himself! Rick Warren presents the benefits of being reconciled to God primarily in terms of personal benefit. “Wrapped up in Jesus are all the benefits and blessings mentioned in this book—and so much more! In Jesus, your past is forgiven, you get a purpose for living, and you get a home in heaven.” All of these things are amazing, but they pale in comparison to Christ himself. John Piper says it well. “The critical question for our generation—and for every generation—is this: If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties you ever say, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ was not there?”

Good news is only good in relation to what is bad. If we soften the bad news, we necessarily soften the good news. Our job is not to analyze the news we are called to herald to the world. Faithfulness to God requires faithfulness to the message—the whole message. We dare not soften the bad news; we dare not lessen the offense of the cross. Instead we preach the message faithfully and fully, letting people see first the depth of their debt to God and then the unsurpassed worth and beauty of Christ.

November 12, 2007

As seems to be the case with most children, 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 yesterday 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

November 04, 2007

I wanted to begin today by sharing a few words of wisdom from my daughter who just turned five: “In heaven you can’t die, so you can eat popcorn and hot dogs at the same time and not have to worry about choking.” I just thought you’d all like to have one more thing to look forward to in eternity. Of course one could well ask, “If there are hot dogs in heaven, could it really be heaven?”

But I digress.

In church this morning the pastor preached on John 3 and covered the portion of the gospel where Jesus confronts Nicodemus. Just prior to what are undoubtedly the most-quoted verses of the Bible, Jesus tells the Pharisee, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Jesus refers, of course, to Numbers 21:4-9 where Jesus punished the ungrateful Israelites by sending “fiery serpents” among them. In one of the Old Testament’s clearest shadows of the cross of Christ, God commanded Moses to create a bronze serpent that whoever looked at that serpent would be saved. It would only have been a fool who would feel the onset of sickness and death caused by that snakebite, but still refuse to look to the serpent.

I thought then of the joy and privilege it is to look to the cross of Christ, even in church this morning. I thought of my neighborhood where each Sunday morning our car is, as far as we know, the only one that drives a family to church. We are the only ones who raise our eyes to the cross each Sunday so that we might look to the cross and be saved. I was filled with gratitude to God for His saving gift and was filled with gratitude to experience the privilege of attending a church where the pastor and elders are committed to ensuring that each service our eyes are drawn to the cross. The cross is all they’ve got to offer us—it’s all they want to offer us. It’s a blessing to see new faces in that church as more people experience the joy of gazing at the cross.

From there my thoughts were drawn to places in the world where so many more people head to church each Sunday. I thought of Houston’s infamous Lakewood church, just one example of a place where each weekend tens of thousands of men and women gather, but where those thousands upon thousands are not led to truly gaze upon the cross. Rather, their gaze is drawn to a human—a mere sinful mortal. It can be no other way. After all, if we do not draw men’s gaze to the cross, we draw it only to ourselves. What a tragedy that so many miss the true thing. They may go to church for a lifetime and never truly be encouraged to see the cross as the main thing—as the only thing of real and lasting value. Their eyes may never be lifted up beyond themselves—beyond other human beings.

I thank God for faithful Christians and faithful churches that exist to lift up the cross so sinful men and women may look at it and live.