The Gospel is for Christians Too

Many of us have been taught that the gospel is the ABC’s of Christianity; the building blocks of the Christian life so to speak. But is this really the case? Is the gospel only the entryway into the Christian life? We may say that understanding the gospel is useful, but only for the purpose of evangelism, but God’s Word sees things quite differently.

In 1 Corinthians 15, the Apostle Paul makes the argument that the gospel is not only the entryway, but the very lifeblood and heartbeat of the Christian faith. In fact, Paul reminds fellow believers in the church at Corinth that the gospel is, “of first importance.” He writes, “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.”

Remember That You Received the Gospel

When we reflect on our initial reception of the gospel it does a few things: it reminds us of our former lost condition, it stirs up Godward gratitude in us, and it instills within us a desire to plant the gospel seed everywhere we go. Do you remember the day you were converted? You don’t need to know the exact point you were given a new heart in Christ, but you do need to reflect on the fact that God did give you a new heart. In the Puritan prayer book The Valley of Vision, one prayer entitled, “The Dark Guest” states it this way: “The memory of my great sins, my many temptations, my falls, bring afresh into my mind the remembrance of thy great help, of thy support from heaven, of the great grace that saved such a wretch as I am.”

Paul encourages the believers in the church at Corinth to remember the circumstances surrounding their reception of the gospel. Paul had evangelized Corinth around the mid 50’s A.D with the support of fellow tentmakers Priscilla and Aquila, and the continued efforts of Apollos. After a church was formed in Corinth, there were a number of serious problems Paul had to address, yet despite all these, he turns his attention to the most important thing to which they should focus: the gospel. When an unbeliever repents and receives this gospel, it is nothing short of a miracle of the grace of God. We all would do well to remember with reverence and gratitude to God the fact that we received this gospel in the first place. We can adopt Paul’s words in Romans 6:17-18, “Thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.”

Remember That You Stand In and Are Being Saved by the Gospel 

The gospel is not only the message we first received upon conversion, but also the very foundation “in which” we “stand.” We don’t simply get into good standing with God through faith in the gospel. We stay in good standing with God through faith in the gospel. We get saved, stay saved, and will persevere to end time salvation through faith in the gospel alone. If our standing before God is based on our performance, we are standing on a shaky platform indeed, and such a platform will soon give way to God’s judgment. The professing believer who moves on from the gospel to moralism is not moving closer to God but further from him, and is in danger of missing the gospel altogether. As believers, we must understand that our only hope as sinners before a holy God is faith in the gospel. The gospel must be the daily foundation of our hope and joy and peace before God. Because the gospel is to be our mainstay and our lifesource and our confidence, we must preach it to our hearts each day. We must let it’s glorious truths sweep over our souls time and time again until our lives are one long, continuous expression of faith in it alone. There is no salvation outside of gospel salvation, therefore we need to live in and breath in the gospel each day.

Remember That the Gospel is of First Importance

Paul says the gospel is “of first importance.” There are a lot of important things about the Christian life that the Apostles mention throughout the New Testament writings: holiness, missions, prayer, obedience, good deeds, service to God and worship of God. Yet we must not confuse the fruit of the Christian life with the root of it. Without the gospel having its primary place at the foundation and as the lifeblood pumping throughout the church, nothing else matters. A Christian or a church which elevates the fruit of the Christian life above the root is in serious danger, just as a man choosing to live in a house without a proper foundation. To remove the gospel from the center of our everyday lives individually and corporately is as foolish as a doctor removing all the blood from his patient and expecting that patient to keep living.

So then, what is the content of this gospel?

Paul gives it to us: the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ.

Yet one can believe that Christ lived, died, was buried, and rose again without believing the gospel. The gospel isn’t just the statements alone, but faith in the work behind the statements. To believe the gospel is not to believe that Jesus died for sinners. To believe the gospel is to believe that on the cross, Christ became my substitute dying in place of my sins and to believe that His work on the cross is sufficient to save me. To believe that Christ was buried and rose again is not to believe the gospel. To believe the gospel is to believe that Christ’s bodily resurrection from the grave means He will raise me from the grave after I die.

The issue is not whether we have ever believed this gospel at some moment in the past, but whether or not we are currently living by faith in this gospel alone for our salvation. After all, outside the gospel, all other ground is sinking sand.

What That Verse Really Means – Philippians 4:13

Growing up, one of the only verses I had memorized was Philippians 4:13, which states, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” What boy doesn’t want to feel like he can do “all things”? Its a big world out there and there are lots of things which can intimidate us. Knowing that Christ helps us do anything we set out to do makes us feel good. Its almost like Jesus is our life cheerleader, standing on the sidelines shouting, “Way to go! You can do it! You got this!”

What It Doesn’t Mean

One famous UFC wrestler ran out to the ring under Philippians 4:13, on his way to beat someone to a bloody pulp. Defensive linemen in football write Phil. 4:13 in white letters under their eyes to motivate them to tackle the other team’s quarterback. But the Apostle Paul never intended his words in Philippians 4:13 to motivate us in these ways. Paul’s words weren’t meant as a pep talk for those going out into the world to achieve great feats. Rather, his words were meant to motivate us in a much deeper and long-lasting way.

What It Does Mean

Lets take a look at Philippians 4:11b-13, which read, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

Here was the apostle Paul sitting in chains in a prison cell for preaching the gospel of Christ, probably chained to a guard on his left and right. He was no ivory tower theologian who enjoyed writing treatises from the comfort of his own home. He was a battle-worn soldier of Christ who had endured much persecution and hardship for the sake of the Gospel. We only need to read of Paul’s persecutions and sufferings in 2 Corinthians 11 to find out that the apostle Paul had suffered much for Christ. Yet in spite of all this, he had come to discover “the secret” of true contentment in any and every circumstance in life. He had gone without food, without sleep, and in fear of death often; and now here he sits in prison writing of his contentment. So when he comes to verse 13 and says, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”, what he meant was: “I can endure any hardships necessary as I live for Christ, because Christ lives in me.”

In his book Spiritual Depression, Martyn Lloyd-Jones has pointed out, “The Christian is not just a moral man; the life of God has entered into him, there is an energy, a power, a life in him and it is that that makes him peculiarly and specifically Christian, and that is exactly what Paul is telling us here…the Christian life is not a life that I live myself and by my own power; neither is it a life in which I am obliterated and Christ does all. No, ‘I can do all through Christ.'”

What it means for us

Instead of giving us an ego boost or a peptalk to go on to do great things in our own power and for our own name, Philippians 4:13 assures us that Christ will empower us for every trial we must face.

This means the worst of life circumstances are not too much for the child of God because Christ gives them strength. Just imagine the worst thing that could possibly happen in your life: the death of a child, the loss of a spouse, a diagnosis of cancer, financial bankruptcy, a debilitating illness; If you are in Christ and Christ is in you, He will give you the strength to endure all of these.

I often hear people say, “God will never put on you more than you can handle”, but that just is not true. I agree with another friend who has said: God will put on you more than you can handle, but not more than He can handle through you. In 2 Corinthians 1:8-9, Paul describes one particular instance of this in his own life. He and his team were, “so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.”

So the next time you face a trial that seems too much for you to handle, remember Philippians 4:13 and know that Christ will give you the strength to get through this so long as you rely on Him and not yourself. If you seek contentment in your personal comforts, you are doomed to a life of disappointment and discontentment. But if you seek your contentment in Christ alone, nothing will be able to truly disappoint you and no trial will destroy your joy in Christ. You can endure it all, so long as you remember that the strength is found not in you, but in your union with Christ.

What That Verse Really Means – Matthew 18:20

There are a number of Bible verses that well-meaning people often quote at different times which twist Scripture into saying things it never intended to say. Some of us have probably heard or been guilty of using the phrase, “Where two or more are gathered, there am I among them.” This statement of Jesus from Matthew 18:20 is usually quoted when there is low attendance at some church function. Basically, we want to tell each other, “Hey guys, there may only be a handful of us here, but Jesus is with us.” It is true that Christ is among a small group of church members, but Matthew 18:20 isn’t saying it in that way.

Many people would be surprised to discover that Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:20 deal with church discipline. I’ve always heard it said that a text without a context is just a pretext. So let’s look at the context. Context is best found by reading the verses and chapters before and after. To discover what Jesus means in verse 20, we only need to read verses 15 through 20. Jesus says there,

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

The concept of church discipline is foreign to many churches today because we live in a society that embraces inclusion and we don’t want anyone to feel left out. Also, we may have seen this practiced in an unbiblical way and thrown out the baby with the bathwater. But due to our throwing out church discipline, we have an even more serious problem: unregenerate church membership, or worse, unregenerate church leadership. 

Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, has pointed out that Southern Baptists, America’s largest denomination, haven’t included a statement on church discipline in their doctrinal beliefs (The Baptist Faith and Message) since prior to 1925. Yet there is no avoiding it here; Jesus is talking very plainly and clearly about church discipline.

We can’t say with Cain, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” When a person becomes a believer, they join a family, and families love one another. What compels families to hold interventions for an alcoholic parent? Love. As church members, we’ve got to ask ourselves, “Is it really love that motivates me to keep quiet when a brother’s foul language ruins his witness or when a sister’s addiction to pain pills enslaves her?” We may say it is love that silences us, but it is really fear. Love compels us to confront brothers or sisters caught in sin. Fear stands idly by and watches while someone’s life implodes, while love acts to rescue them. This is why we have a Good Samaritan’s Law which criminalizes onlookers who don’t help a person in danger. Real love is concern in action; a heart attached to hands, feet, and a yes, even a mouth.

But how is church discipline to be exercised? Are we to go around pointing out each other’s sins every time we see one another? Of course not. Jesus gives us some very clear steps to take and each imply some covenant relationship between both parties. These steps are to be carried out among members of a local church who have covenanted to care for one another spiritually. We’re not the spiritual police for the planet, but we are responsible to our fellow members.

Step One

According to Jesus, step one involves going to the sinning brother or sister on a personal level. Paul explains the spirit we should have in step one this way: “Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another. Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 5:26-6:2). The aim in every step is restoration, yet loving confrontations enables this. If they do not “listen” and refuse to express any change of mind (repentance) about their sin, we move on to step two. 

Step Two

This involves bringing one or two others. Why? They can be extra witnesses, they add seriousness to the need for repentance, and this allows others a chance to persuade them. If repentance occurs, the process stops and restoration begins. If they refuse to listen even to these two or three gathered in Christ’s name, then the church body as a whole is to be notified. 

Step Three

And by “tell it to the church”, Jesus doesn’t mean the universal church! So sin that was once a matter between two members, due to ongoing unrepentance, has now become a matter for every member of that church who has covenanted to care for one another spiritually. This process probably goes on for a period of months and involves many prayers and tears first individually, then among the two or three, then as a unified church body. If however, this individual is so entrenched in sin that they refuse to repent even before the church body, the church is to respond by no longer treating them as a fellow member, but as an unbeliever in need of salvation. Paul uses the language of handing them over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh so that their spirit might be saved in the end (1 Cor. 5:5). Even biblical ex-communication aims for eternal salvation!

So what does it mean when Jesus says, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them”? It means that if two or three believers go to an unrepentant brother or sister on behalf of the church, that individual should know they come with the authority and presence of Christ himself. We are all sinners, but we are all repentant sinners. Unrepentant church members must know that their sin not only brings them out of fellowship with fellow believers in their church, but out of fellowship with Christ himself. So in the event that you find yourself among the two or three going to confront another brother or sister living in sin, take Matthew 18:20 with you…and pray for the miracle of restoration.

Pastors & Spiderman

The other night my wife and I decided to watch one of the Spiderman movies we owned at the house. During the movie, I felt an odd connection with Peter Parker and his Spiderman persona. It was then that I started thinking about all the ways pastors and Spiderman have a very similar calling.

First, like Spiderman, pastors are urged to serve because of the serious need they see around them and the unique calling given them.

Whereas Peter Parker is urged by the screams of people who are in danger, we are urged by the lostness around us. When Paul was at Athens, his spirit was provoked when he saw the idols they worshiped (Acts 17:16ff). As pastors, we must never stop seeing the spiritual desperation in people’s lives. All believers are called to serve others for the sake of Christ, but pastors have a unique calling to shepherd their souls as well.

Second, both pastors and Spiderman share the struggle of their calling with one woman (our wives, except in the case of Peter Parker).

Peter Parker’s girlfriend Mary Jane left her fiancé waiting on the altar to express her desire to spend her life with him. But just as the sparks were flying, Spiderman was called to save someone else in another part of the city. The look on Mary Jane’s face is the same look I’ve seen on my wife before. It’s that sort of look that conveys understanding for the nature of a pastor’s calling and yet discouragement that his calling often interrupts family time. The difference is, unlike Spiderman, we know God is the one doing the saving, and that frees us up to say “no” to some situations that can be handled later. Our families must never bear the brunt of our over-eager concerns for being well-liked by our congregants.

Third, pastors are like Spiderman in that they save people from very real threats, albeit spiritual ones.

In fact, Spiderman can save people from burning buildings, but he cannot save people from burning in hell forever. The salvation we preach and minister is one that calls them to die to this life so that they can live forever with Christ. The evil characters that threaten Spiderman’s city are make-believe, while the demonic realm that holds people captive to sin is more real than anything we see with our eyes (2 Tim. 2:26, Eph. 6:10-12). Jesus told Paul at his conversion that he was sending him to turn people from the power of Satan to God (Acts 26:18). Our gospel truly saves people from super-human evil forces.

Fourth, like Spider-man, pastors are sometimes elevated too highly, but are just as much in need of salvation as those they seek to save.

At one point in the movie, we saw Spiderman’s pride puffed up because of all the people who praised and admired him for his kindness and sacrificial service. The man Peter Parker then began confusing his calling for his identity and it caused serious problems. Pastors must beware of perhaps the most dangerous threat of all: pride. We pour ourselves out for others and often don’t see much physical fruit of our labors, but when that fruit seems to abound, we can easily believe it came from us. We must resist the selfish pride which puts us at the center of God’s saving action in the lives of others instead of Christ. We must also not confuse our calling with our identity. We ought not draw our identity from our calling as pastors, but from our union with Christ in his death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. When Peter Parker was at his lowest and had learned the folly of self-reliance, Mary Jane came to him and said that even Spiderman needed a savior sometimes. As pastors, we understand the gospel so well and can preach it to anyone at anytime; yet when we think for a second that the salvation we hold out for others isn’t also meant for us, we’re in trouble. We must beware of a Messiah complex that always presents us before others as some perfect version of ourselves.

So pastors, take heart. You are specially called by God to bring the message of salvation to God’s image-bearers who are currently enslaved to spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. Yet you pastor are not the message, for you yourself are in need of the same Savior. As you hold out the Word of life to this lost and dying world, remember that only Jesus is the true Savior. And whatever you do, don’t sacrifice your marriage and family on the altar of ministry. Since you aren’t the Savior, don’t attempt to be. Simply preach and minister the powerful message of salvation and watch God do with it what He always does…change lives.

If Christ Be Not Raised…

Imagine if you woke up in the morning to discover this breaking news on your social media feed and across every major news network.: “the body of Jesus Christ has been discovered in a tomb near Jerusalem.”

If somehow this news could be verified, it would mean the end of the Christian faith and a complete repudiation of the Bible’s claim to divine inspiration. In his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul examines the ramifications of this if it were to be true. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul defends the doctrine of the future, bodily resurrection of believers from the vantage point of Christ’s bodily resurrection. The ESV Study Bible informs us, “Many people in the ancient Greco-Roman world believed that death extinguished life completely or led to a permanent but shadowy and insubstantial existence in the underworld. The concept of a physical, embodied existence after death was known mainly from popular fables and was thought laughable by the educated.”

These Corinthian believers wanted to deny the future, bodily resurrection of believers while still accepting the bodily resurrection of Jesus, because it wasn’t popular in their culture. Paul helps them connect the dots of their faulty reasoning. In order to bring home the necessity of a future, bodily resurrection of believers, Paul imagines out loud what it would mean if Jesus had never physically rose from the grave.

1 Corinthians 15:12-19 reads, “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection from the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.”

If Christ be not raised…

Gospel preaching is a waste of breath

The first result of no Easter Sunday would spell the demise of all gospel-centered preaching. The gospel is hardly good news if the Messiah was crucified as an Enemy of the State and his lifeless remains are rotting in a tomb today. Who would boldly herald that kind of a morbid message? And who would gather Sunday after Sunday to hear someone preach about a Messiah that once lived long ago but is now long dead. This reveals the problem with a church service where preaching is not the central event or where the preaching has been degenerated to a load of moral principles simply because its untenable to believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Such church’s will perpetually dwindle because after all, who wants to go to church every Sunday to hear that?

The faith of believers has no grounding in reality

So with preaching forever gone, authentic faith would also be gone. The object of our faith as Christian’s is the event of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. If Christ lived an outstanding life, then died never to rise again, it would prove he was only a man and would make all faith in him a foolish endeavor. We cannot eliminate the resurrection of Christ without eliminating the very basis of saving faith. If Christ be not raised, then he did not accomplish what he claimed to accomplish at the cross and he was not who he claimed to be.

The Prophets and Apostles are a bunch of liars

Not only would preaching and faith be rendered pointless without Christ’s resurrection, but also the Bible itself. Paul includes himself when he says, “We are even found to be misrepresenting God.” Those aware of the New Testament’s explosive copying and distribution in the early centuries of the church know this all hinges on the bodily resurrection of Jesus. The main reason the message of the New Testament spread like wildfire throughout the known world was because there was sufficient evidence to believe the body of Jesus had physically risen from the dead. There is a kind of preaching and living that is not possible apart from an authentic and life-altering event as the resurrection of Christ. Men who would tirelessly preach a lie about Christ’s resurrection in the face of relentless persecution and go to their bloody deaths with that message still on their lips are a mystery indeed. Maybe one or two men would devote themselves to such a wasted life of preaching this false message if they themselves thought it were so but the evidence was minimal, but not all the Apostles would have joined such a band.

If the Apostles were lying about the resurrection of Christ, then the Old Testament prophets were as well. Who would study a Bible claiming divine inspiration if the supposed God who inspired it was not faithful to keep the very promises he made throughout it?

We are dead in our sins

Perhaps the saddest truth of all is to consider that if Christ be not raised, we are still dead in sins. Not only would our Sunday mornings be different and our Bibles be gone from the shelves and our faith be vain if Jesus’ lifeless body lay in a tomb, but we would have no life in our souls either. Easter means not only that Jesus is physically alive from the dead, but that all who trust in Jesus are spiritually alive from the dead. If Christ is dead, so are we. If this were true, then every glorious text in the Bible that gives the “before” and “after” of our salvation would stop at the “before.” Titus 3:3 would read not, “For we ourselves were once foolish…”, but, “For we ourselves are still now foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another.” Ephesians 2:1-3 would not say, “you were dead in the…sins in which you once walked”, but rather, “And you are still now dead in the trespasses and sins in which you still walk, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all still live in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and are by nature children of wrath like the rest of mankind.”

Deceased believers are gone forever

Every Christian funeral would be sapped of all hope if the body of Jesus itself also lay in a tomb still. The words of comfort believers give one another when their loved ones who are in Christ have died would be eliminated. We wouldn’t be able to comfort the grieving spouse by saying, “Well, at least we know your godly and believing husband is now gone forever and you’ll never see him again. Praying for you to come to terms with this.” Such a statement would go unsaid because it contains no hope. While we are not to envision heaven being just a great, big family reunion of the redeemed, if there were no saints going there it would not be heaven. Also, who would follow a faith that honestly believed this life was the only good to be enjoyed. If every Christian’s life ended at the tomb, we would be better off living for the maximum worldly pleasure in this short and vain life we are given.

Christians are a hopeless and pitiable group

Lastly, Paul reasons that no Easter morning would mean Christians would win the award for being the world’s most hopeless and pitiable group. There is no hope if there is no bodily resurrection. There is only pity. We feel sorry for people who give their lives to a faith that we know is based upon lies. Mormons, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, and even Jews who don’t see Christ as the fulfillment of the Old Testament are pitied by us now and so we try to reach them with the glorious news of Christ. But imagine if Christ be not raised, Christians would be the first on that list as a group of people to be pitied.

Imagine life without a risen Savior. It would be a hopeless waste of existence with no silver lining on the dark clouds of suffering because of no hope beyond our coming expiration. Yet I praise God that we do have a hope on which we can cling. In the very next verse, the Apostle Paul says, “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead” (1 Cor. 15:20a). Paul abruptly puts an end to this morbid and yet important pondering to declare the reality of the bodily resurrection of Jesus.

Because Jesus has risen from the dead and reigns in glory at the Father’s right hand, gospel preaching is no longer a waste of breath, but is perhaps the most fruitful thing we can do in this life.

Because Jesus is alive, our faith is not ungrounded, but has a sure footing in this historical event.

Because Christ has risen, the prophets and Apostles were not lying, but were declaring the pure truth of God and our Bibles are to be cherished.

Because Jesus’ body has been lifted up to glory, we are no longer dead in sins, but our souls have been raised with Christ and our bodies will at His return.

Because Jesus is alive forevermore, our loved ones in Christ who have gone before are not truly dead, but are now reigning with Christ in glory.

Because Jesus died and rose again, Christians are not a hopeless and pitiable group, but a hope-filled people who live as authentic and bold witnesses to the only hope there is in this world…the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

Do you have this hope reader? If not, turn from your sins and trust in this Jesus, who alone gives eternal life. If your hope is set on the risen Christ, let it be expressed in the way you live. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

10 Reasons I Got Teary-eyed Over Deuteronomy

The title of this blog may seem a little surprising. 

When most people think of reading Deuteronomy they probably picture it being as moving as watching the grass grow, but for those people I feel very sorry. Relatively recently in my Christian walk I have discovered the treasure of reading through books of the Bible in one sitting; usually those books I’ve read through in one sitting have been New Testament books which consist of only 2-3 pages. 

A friend of mine created a Bible reading plan that allows you to fall behind a little and still stay on track with reading the Bible through in a year; the catch is that he has you read certain OT books in one sitting. I was intrigued by the idea of reading through an OT book in one sitting, but knew the challenge that it would involve. Today, I read through this quarter’s OT book of Deuteronomy in one sitting. It took me about and hour and forty-five minutes, and my eyes were a little red afterwards; but let me just say, my eyes were not red primarily because of staring at a page that long (though that may be part of the reason). They were red primarily because I was overwhelmed with God and the way he dealt with his chosen people Israel. What led me to be teary-eyed over Deuteronomy specifically? Here are ten glorious truths that stood out to me about God (fitting, as it goes along with the Ten Commandments):

1. God alone is totally sovereign over all that he has made. There are no others gods really. God himself testifies that all other gods are no more than the work of men’s hands and cannot truly deliver the people who follow them.

2. God deserves the worship of all peoples, yet all peoples have rejected him. Sometimes we forget that the people of Israel were once not a people at all, but rather entailed only Abram, who was himself a worshiper of false gods and lived in the region that would later become a symbol of enmity against God.

3. God chose, of his own grace and purpose, to set his love on a people. God’s choice of Abram was not because of anything in Abram. I love Deuteronomy 7:7-8, which reads, “It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.” Abram wasn’t looking for God. God wasn’t sitting around in heaven on some recliner waiting for man to respond. God sought out Abram. Why? His grace! Glorious grace!

4. God graciously delivers these people he has chosen from slavery and destroys their enemies. The repeated theme of Deuteronomy is a call for the people of Israel to remember that they were slaves for 430 years in Egypt and God delivered them by his almighty power.

5. God lavishes these people he has chosen with rich blessings. God chooses to lead these people out of their slavery and through the wilderness for forty years, yet they never starve or have to change clothes or shoes. God not only provides for them, but leads them to defeat all their enemies during that wilderness wandering and promises to bring them into a land with seven nations mightier than they, assuring them he will destroy those peoples and give them the glorious land of Canaan.

6. God calls these people to a radical lifestyle of worship to him that acknowledges his saving them. Moses repeatedly reminds these people to live their lives within the framework of a rebellious people who were once enslaved and serving their enemies, whom God has graciously redeemed and set free. Moses calls them to constantly remind themselves of their once slavery and so to treat others with the grace they have been given, except when those others will turn their hearts away from the God who alone has saved them and who alone is worthy of their praise. Moses even calls them to teach their children they were saved by nothing but God’s grace.

7. God calls these people away from pride by calling them to remember his gracious salvation. God knew these people he had chosen, graciously redeemed, and blessed would turn away from him after they entered the promised land; all because they would think they did it by their own power and efforts. We are still so prone to think we have earned the grace of God by our efforts, but we must guard against such ridiculous lies, for they minimize the true power of God.

8. God disciplines the people he has chosen when they rebel. God is not content to let his chosen people be destroyed by their own sins, so he disciplines them and reminds them whose they are.

9. God graciously forgives these people he has chosen when they repent. The result of God’s hand of discipline always achieves from his people a repentant heart, which is why he disciplines them in the first place. Our God is not angry with his people, but disciplines those he loves, so they will come back close to him.

10. God promises to one day set a people free from slavery to their own sinful desires so they can worship him from the heart

But perhaps the sweetest truth from Deuteronomy was the way the people of Israel were so rebellious and never seemed to learn these lessons fully, yet God promises: “And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live” (Deut. 30:6). 

God was not a fool. He knew that the people of Israel would not obey the 10 Commandments. In fact, Paul tells us much of the reason God gave these commands to rebellious people like Israel was to remind them how they were in desperate need of a Savior to live them on their behalf. In the New Covenant, God has graciously cut away the wickedness of our hearts through the new birth and has stamped his law on our hearts. Jesus has obeyed where we have rebelled and by faith in his finished work and victorious resurrection, God credits his righteousness to our account. This doesn’t mean believers obey all the time from the heart, but it does mean that believers are no longer bound by their sins, but have the power of the Spirit of God within them to kill their sin…more radically than the people of Israel had to destroy all that tempted them to turn away from God.

I have pages of Scripture from Deuteronomy I have underlined and may include more of it here, but for now I’m content to let these glorious truths of our gracious saving God keep me ever close to him, rejoicing in his grace towards me in Christ, and in the company of those he has redeemed to himself. May your eyes ever be teary and red from our God’s grace in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The Bible, The Constitution, & Neil Gorsuch

We’ve all been in those Bible studies where a Scripture is read, then everyone takes their turn giving it’s interpretation in their own opinion. The only interpretation outlawed in these settings is one that says someone else’s interpretation is wrong and theirs is right. The idea is that the Bible comes to each of us differently, therefore there is any myriad of possibilities for each text (within reason). The only problem is that Scripture presents itself to us as a meta-narrative (one big story), not as a series of small stories or good little promises. It is the story of creation, fall, redemption, and new creation, and the central figure of it all is Christ. As Sally Lloyd-Jones puts it in The Jesus Storybook Bible, “Every story whispers His name.”

Textual criticism and interpretation sounds like an art form reserved for ivory tower theologians, but it has shown up in recent news in a most unlikely place: the supreme court nomination hearings of Judge Neil Gorsuch. The question has been posed whether or not this supreme court justice will interpret the text of the U.S. Constitution as a “living document” and it has caught the attention of millions of Americans. News flash for you pastors and teachers out there: even people in the 21st Century are still concerned with the manner in which ancient texts are interpreted. Why the sudden interest from the public in something as seemingly dull as this? Because people want to be in authority.

To interpret the text of the U.S. Constitution as a “living document” is to place oneself in judgment over the text. It is to embrace the freedom to interpret words and phrases in light of one’s own personal opinion. Textual interpretation like this has a total disregard for the original intent of its authors. No attempt is made to discern what the words or phrases could have possibly meant to the founding fathers, those who crafted the very sentences themselves. In those who hold to such an interpretive theory of the text, there seems to be a fear of authorial intent which does not appease everyone’s wishes. So why worry with the original intentions of the authors when you can twist the text to say whatever the current cultural trends are saying?

As frightening as it sounds to stand in judgment over a text one didn’t write because one doesn’t like the obvious intention of its author, this is precisely what people do with the Bible. People say that there are various interpretations that people take on Scripture, but I think this is an over-generalization. As Mark Twain once put it: “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.” The task of every Christian is to discern the author’s intent in the writing of any biblical text and to then apply that to their lives. The task of every pastor and teacher is to communicate the author’s original intent to the original recipients in such a way that the 21st Century hearers are comforted, corrected, and edified.

While the Bible does refer to itself as “living” we ought not to consider it to be a living document in the sense that we can interpret it how we wish. It is only living in the sense that its words are the very words of God Himself, which have the power to bring life to the spiritually dead. The first Bible twister was Satan in the Garden of Eden, who sat in judgment on God’s Word when he asked, “Did God really say?” and then, “You will not surely die!” We must always strive to let God’s Word be our judge and never attempt to be its judge.

I heard the story once of a preacher who was asked if he stands on the Word of God and his response was basically, “No. I let the Word of God stand in authority over me.” May we all do the same.

The Gospel for All: A Lunchtime Confrontation 

All-inclusive.

Who doesn’t love to see those words when you’re booking a cruise or going to a vacation resort? When my wife and I went on our honeymoon to Jamaica, we found out how amazing those two words can be. We could eat at all the Sandals restaurants and order whatever we wanted without paying the bill (except for that little bill I paid before we left the States). But then we encountered multiple people on staff at this all-inclusive resort who wanted a tip: the men who put our bags on the bus, the bus driver from the airport to the resort, the bag boy who brought our bags to our room, etc. All the sudden that “all-inclusive” feel was out the window. I felt a little cheated.

What is my point?

In our interactions with those around us, I’m afraid many of us who claim to believe an all-inclusive gospel for all sinners actually cheat some out of it. We freely and joyfully hold out the living water to those who are like us, while avoiding or withholding it from those who are not like us. Sometimes we even expect something more from them than we do from others before they can receive its benefits.

In Galatians 2, we encounter a rare scene where one Apostle publicly rebukes another for conduct that was, “not in step with the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14). What sort of heinous and ungodly actions were committed that warranted such a public rebuke? Sexual immorality? Drunkenness? Blasphemy? Nope. Switching lunch tables. 

Well at least that’s what it would look like from our perspective. What was so wrong with Peter’s decision to switch lunch tables? Can’t a guy eat with whoever he wants to at mealtime? And isn’t Paul’s open rebuke for something so trivial a little overboard? Maybe this reminds you of school fights in the lunchroom over the most ridiculous things. But Paul isn’t one to make a fuss over trivial matters, especially when it involves rebuking another Apostle. The truth is, Peter’s actions that day were far from innocent.

Jesus had called Simon to be his disciple and renamed him Peter (“rock”). Once a headstrong man with a foot-shaped mouth, Peter became a rock-like leader at Pentecost. Yet here, in a moment of personal weakness, Peter caved to the fear of man (Gal. 2:12b). Of all people, Peter knew the universal scope of the gospel. God had personally given Peter a vision of his intentions to save Jews and Gentiles through faith in Christ, and even sent Peter on the first apostolic mission into Gentile territory where the Spirit fell on those in Cornelius’ household (Acts 10). The issue of salvation for Gentiles became such a big deal that the leaders in Jerusalem called a council to clarify the matter (Acts 15). What was at stake in this council was the gospel itself. Was there hope for anyone outside Judaism? Is there any way possible for Gentiles to be accepted by God or are they all destined to hell forever? Thankfully, the council recognized the Spirit’s regenerating of both Jews and Gentiles and from there on the gospel message was freely offered to both.

Problem solved. Catastrophe diverted. But not quite. Peter knew the gospel was a message of free grace to all who will turn in faith to Christ, but like us, he struggled with national pride. He sometimes acted in ways that communicated another gospel. Not one of grace for all sinners, but one of judgment for those who don’t meet the mark through law-keeping.

Our scene plays out with Peter happily enjoying a meal with his new brothers in Christ from Gentile lands. Smiles and laughter fill the table as food is passed back and forth. Unity abounds and the Spirit is working. Then a door opens and everyone looks. In walk a group of angry-looking Jewish men adorned with their long robes and bushy beards. They look at Peter in disgust and glance with hate at the Gentile believers sitting beside him. The Gentiles move their eyes from these angry men to Peter’s reaction. And they see it. Peter’s demeanor has completely changed.

The once welcoming and happy Peter now looked fearful and serious. The encouraging conversation they were just having was cut short. Peter rose from the table as if he was a child caught with his hand in the cookie jar. He walked away from these Gentile believers like they all the sudden had contracted a contagious virus. No more eye contact, no more physical contact, no more friendliness. Then, to their dismay, Barnabas also followed suit. Then all the Jewish believers as well. The Gentiles all the sudden felt unclean all over again. The unity they once shared with Jewish believers was severed. Perhaps they thought to themselves, “I thought the blood of Jesus could cleanse all sinners. What about the gospel? Is it all too good to be true after all? If this Apostle and all his Jewish brothers now avoid us like the plague, then are we really forgiven and accepted by God?”

This simple scene of switching tables was presenting a serious threat to the gospel. Someone had to do something and fast. But who? It would have to be someone with the authority of an Apostle.

Enter the Apostle Paul.

The once diehard Jew who persecuted Christians, couldn’t sit still at this scene. He didn’t get up from the table when Peter did. When Paul saw this, he stood only to raise his voice so that all present could hear him. The echo of Paul’s voice through the dining area left everyone stunned in silence. “Peter! If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force Gentiles to live like Jews?” We can only imagine what was going on in Peter’s mind at this point. Perhaps Peter was rushed back to the scene where he had denied Christ for fear of a little girl and the rooster had crowed three times. He had done it again and he knew it. The pain of his foolish actions struck his heart like a sharp arrow and he probably felt he could run away and weep his eyes out all over again. Paul was determined to not only spare his brother Peter from a life dominated by fear, but he also was determined to reassure all Gentile believers that the gospel really is good news for them.

Paul shared this experience with the Galatian believers because he discovered that the old cronies who influenced Peter were trying to influence them to forget the gospel as well. Paul went on to explain to this church, “a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified…for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose” (Gal. 2:16, 21b).

What about you reader? You’d probably affirm that Christ came to save sinners from all walks of life and we should share the gospel equally with all people. But how does that play out in your life? Are there some that you avoid sharing this message with?

Christianity is an exclusive faith in that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone. Yet Christianity is inclusive of all who would come to Christ, no matter race, ethnicity, or past lifestyle choices. Do all groups of people from all walks of life equally feel the same warmth of the gospel pulsating from your life towards them? Those who have engaged in homosexual lifestyles? Those of a Middle Eastern descent? Those of a darker complexion? Those who live on the “other side of the railroad tracks”? Or are you communicating a message to them that says, “You don’t measure up because you’re not the right ethnicity or you’re sins are too grievous or you’re too different”?

Revelation 7:9 tells us that God’s future kingdom in heaven is made up of people from all walks of life who are washed in the blood of Jesus. Let’s make sure we’re expressing the same gospel to those different from us as to those like us.

Fighting Fear with Fear

When a forest fire rages out of control, sometimes firefighters must fight fire with fire. By burning the area around the fire, they leave nowhere for the fire to go. When it comes to the fear of man, we must fight fire with fire, by cultivating a healthy fear of God.

In Matthew 10:28, Jesus says, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” 

I am a pansy. 

There, I said it. I’m far too concerned with what people think of me over what God thinks of me. If you’re like me, you are regularly frustrated at how often your decisions in life are based more on the fear of man than the fear of God. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t care about sounding offensive in many situations. I’ve been cussed at, threatened, and insulted by non-believers for sharing the gospel with them and not lost one minute of sleep over it. But when it comes to people I am close with, I hold their opinions often too highly and care more about offending them than God. Why is this?

In this text, Jesus is preparing his disciples for the world’s hatred of them. He had just shared with them that persecution is to be the Christian’s constant companion in this sin-cursed and broken world, but now he tells them how they should respond emotionally to it. Jesus compares the true bite behind people’s bark with the bite behind the bark of his holy Word, and there is no comparison. People can kill the body (which is going to die anyway), but God can cast the soul into eternal, conscious torment in hell. To live with an unhealthy fear of people, however, is to live with an unhealthy fear of God. It makes perfect sense to fear the God to whom we all must give an account. It makes no sense whatsoever to fear people who cannot shake your soul’s security. Perhaps this is why Isaiah put it so rightly when he said, “Stop regarding man in whose nostrils is breath, for of what account is he?” (Isaiah 2:22).

But how do you know when you have crossed the line between Christian kindness and fear of man? How do you know when you’re living in the fear of man instead of the fear of God? I think the answer from our text is that anytime we’re okay with being silent about Christ for fear of what others may think of us, we’ve crossed that line. I’ve always heard it said that good Christian leaders have learned to develop a tough skin and a soft heart. On the one hand, we must so fear God that we’re not swayed by people’s opinions, while on the other hand, we must so love God’s image-bearers that we spend time getting to know them and doing the hard work it takes to reach them with the gospel.

But we must not forget that the source of all our God-fearing boldness stems not from us, but from Christ. Jesus’ deep reverence for his Father led him to endure the shame of the cross, despite the great cost. His willingness to be betrayed and deserted by his own disciples, rejected by the ones he came to save, and forsaken by his Father to endure our wrath is astounding. Yet Jesus embraced such a hard life to save us and now he calls us to fearless obedience to God from hearts full of reverence for him. 

The late Jerry Bridges has noted that the fear of God refers to reverential awe. Because we revere and stand in awe of the Lord God, we can overcome this unhealthy fear of man in our lives. After all, they can only kill us…and we’re invincible anyway!

The Cure for Spiritual Amnesia

Amnesia is a terrible disease usually brought on by some sort of blunt force trauma to the brain. I recently heard the story of a woman who got amnesia when she happily lifted her baby in her arms only to accidentally hit the ceiling fan. While the baby was okay, the motion knocked the fan blade off balance and hit her on the top of her head, leaving her with amnesia. She had to relearn who she was, who her husband was and how she met him, and even who her baby was. 

Physical amnesia is terrible, but spiritual amnesia is far worse. 

Those who suffer from spiritual amnesia have forgotten who they are and whose they are, and as a result are incapable of carrying out the mission God has for them. Truth be told, every believer struggles on a regular basis with spiritual amnesia. It happens when we begin to listen to ourselves more than we preach the Gospel to ourselves. It happens when we gradually begin believing the lies of the world, the flesh, and the devil over the truth of God’s Word. And before we know it, we’ve forgotten who we are and what God has done in Christ to redeem us. There is a reason the Apostle Peter said, “I intend always to remind you…though you know…I think it right, as long as I am in this body, to stir you up by way of reminder…I will make every effort so that after my departure you may be able at any time to recall these things” (2 Peter 1:12-15).

So if you struggle with spiritual amnesia, what can you do to overcome it? Just as those who struggle with physical amnesia must relearn their identity and calling, so we must relearn our spiritual identity and calling through regular exposure of our hearts to sound Gospel truth. 

In his excellent book How the Gospel Brings Us All the Way Home, Derek Thomas explains, “If we forget who we are, we will fail to be what we should be. And that is our biggest error—a failure to remember who we are in Christ.” In an attempt to help those of us with spiritual memory loss, the Apostle Paul pulls out a few pictures to jog our memory. In Titus 1:1-4, Paul helps us understand our true identity, salvation, and task. He writes, “Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the sake of the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness, in hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began and at the proper time manifested in His word through the preaching with which I have been entrusted by the command of God our Savior; to Titus, my true child in a common faith: grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior.”

Our True Identity: We Are Servants Sent Out to Save Some

Before being an apostle, Paul sees himself as God’s servant or slave. Being a servant means putting your life on the altar every day and letting God decide what His plan is for it. Paul says in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” If the Apostle Paul considered this his primary identity, we must see it as ours too.

But Paul served God as an apostle, or “sent out one.” While there were only thirteen apostles, every believer has been sent out by Christ to be on mission. Like Paul, we must see our identity as missionaries. We are on mission everywhere we go. It’s not about where we go on a map, but who we are when we get there. In his book, MARCS of a Disciple, Pastor Robby Gallaty explains it like this: “The most overlooked mission fields are the ones we spend the most time in: our workplaces, our neighborhoods, and in the presence of our family members…there is no reason a believer should have to carry a passport, pack luggage, and hop on a plane in order to be missional. The trick is thinking like a missionary in our everyday lives.”

Paul was sent out to save some. His mission entailed bringing God’s elect to faith in Christ and a saving knowledge of the truth of the Gospel. God has a people He will redeem and it is our task to bring the Gospel to all peoples so that He might save some. We do not get to choose to whom we should preach Christ. We proclaim Him to all peoples and let God have mercy on whom He will have mercy.

Our Salvation: We Enjoy Grace, Godliness, and Future Glory

If those who believe and know the truth of the Gospel are called God’s elect, then our salvation is all of grace. Christian rapper Shai Linne says it this way: “The Father chooses us, the Son gets bruised for us, and the Spirit renews and produces fruit in us.” While we must personally receive Christ by faith and repent of sins, this also is a gift of grace.

But those God has redeemed to Himself always produce lives of godliness. The faith that claims Christ and yet cannot produce a real and recognizable love for Him and submission to His Word is, as James says, a dead faith.

We must also remind ourselves when we forget that our salvation is eternally secure. The God who never lies promised before times eternal that we would reign with Him in glory and nothing can break the faithfulness of God. His Word is unbreakable..

Our Task: We Are Entrusted, Commanded, and Given Grace to Preach the Gospel

Paul tells us in Titus’ introduction that he was given a sacred trust when God commissioned him to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles. As with Paul, so also with us, we are entrusted with the only message that saves. We entrust things to people all the time: keys to our home when we go on vacation, our vehicles, our clothing, our books. God has entrusted us with the preaching of His Gospel. But we cannot decide not to evangelize. We are commanded by a higher authority to do so. If we do not feel qualified for the task of evangelism, God promises us grace and peace as we do so.

As we regularly remind ourselves of our identity, our salvation, and our task, we will then be able to effectively minister the glorious Gospel of God’s grace in the face of  spiritual amnesia.

What We Can Learn from J.C. Ryle

“The world will let a man go to hell quietly, and never try to stop him. The world will never let a man go to heaven quietly—they will do all they can to turn him back…let him begin to read his Bible and be diligent in prayers, let him decline worldly amusement and be particular in his employment of time, let him seek an evangelical ministry and live as if he had an immortal soul-let him do this, and the probability is all his relations and friends will be up in arms…if a man will become a decided evangelical Christian he must make up his mind to lose the world’s favours; he must be content to be thought by many a perfect fool” (Iain Murray).

The name J.C. Ryle seemed to be forgotten by the winds of time after his death. For fifty years, Ryle’s work would be left in the dustbin of history. But when the battle for the Bible began raging on and the conservative resurgence took shape, Ryle’s works once again grew in popularity. Now that a new wave of “young, restless, and reformed” have swept on the scene to retreat from the shallow theology of easy-believism, there is a renewed interest in J.C. Ryle, and for that we should all be grateful.

J.C. Ryle served as the first bishop of Liverpool and his life spanned most of the 19th Century. He has authored a number of works including Holiness, Simplicity in Preaching, and Expository Thoughts on the Gospels. Everything I quote regarding his life in this blog comes from Iain Murray’s book entitled J.C. Ryle: Prepared to Stand Alone.

John Charles (J.C.) Ryle was born just over two hundred years ago, on May 10, 1816. Although he was born into a very wealthy family with his father running a bank, his promise of fortune ended when the bank went belly up and he was left to pay off large amounts of his father’s debts for years to come. He recalls from his childhood that he, his brother, and his four sisters, “were brought up in the greatest comfort and luxury, and had everything that money could get” (pg. 4). Ryle later comments on the crash of his father’s bank: “I was going to leave my father’s house without the least idea what was going to happen, where I was going to live, or what I was going to do…an eldest son, 25, with all the world before me, lost everything, and saw the whole future of my life turned upside down, and thrown into confusion. In short, if I had not been a Christian at this time, I do not know if I should not have committed suicide” (pg. 49).

Although J.C. grew up in a church-going family, his was not a truly Christian church or home. He remarks, “The plain truth is, that for the first 16 or 17 years of my life, there was no ministry of the gospel at the churches we attended…we had no religious friends or relatives and no real Christian ever visited our house…neither at home, nor school, nor college, nor among my relatives or friends, had I anything to do good to my soul, or to teach me anything about Jesus Christ” (pg. 18).

At about the age of 21, J.C. Ryle began sporadically attending a new Church of England congregation in his home town of Macclesfield, which was unlike the other two churches in the area, “where you might have slept as comfortably in those churches under the sermons of their ministers as you might in your own armchairs with nothing to wake you up.” It was here, under the ministry of John Burnet that Ryle saw, “a kind of stir among dry bones.” He speaks later of his conversion, “Nothing I remember to this day, appeared to me so clear and distinct as my own sinfulness, Christ’s preciousness, the value of the Bible, the absolute necessity of coming out from the world, the need of being born again…all these things…seemed to flash upon me like a sunbeam in the winter of 1837, and have stuck in my mind from that time down to this” (pg. 23).

Ryle’s later call into the ministry came after failed attempts at other things and seemed to be forced upon him. Although he didn’t want to be a clergyman and was fairly skilled in law, he would later say, “God ordered it differently, and would not allow me to be a lawyer.” He even said, “every avenue seemed shut against me.” He also remarked, “If my father’s affairs had prospered, and I had never been ruined, my life of course would have been a very different one. I should probably have gone into Parliament very soon, and it is impossible to say what the effect of this might have been upon my soul.” He served churches in Exbury, Winchester, Helmingham, rural Suffolk, and Stradbroke before being asked to become the first bishop of Liverpool. He was regularly in the houses of his parishioners, even visiting every family once a month. His commitment to visit his members so frequently came from a desire to preach the Gospel to them in their kitchens and living rooms as much as from the pulpit. His heart beat for discipling his people with the Word. Ryle saw it as his life’s work to preach the Gospel in the Church of England so as to keep it from drifting away into ritualism and Roman Catholic influences, a serious threat which we see now in our day. Having grown up in the Church of England, Ryle had studied the 39 Articles and loved the legacy of the Reformers, so he was intent to do his part to keep the Church of England on solid ground. Many would have abandoned such a hard road for another denomination with a brighter future, but not Ryle.

As a preacher, Ryle often preached from short, pithy texts and filled his sermons with no-nonsense straight talk about the real issues of life. He always spoke to his congregants like he believed he would one day have to give an account for their souls. J.C. Ryle was once referred to as, “that man of granite with the heart of a child.” Ryle earned the title of a “man of granite” by his rock-solid stance on the truthfulness of God’s Word against a host of Roman Catholic sympathizers wreaking havoc in the Church of England. He also took a bold stand in his preaching and was unashamed who was offended by the message of the cross. He did not cower before the opinions of others, even when those others were in the majority. He once told a group of ministers, “Stand fast, both in public and in private, even if you stand alone…Stand fast in the old belief that the whole Bible from Genesis to Revelation was given by inspiration of God, and that the historical facts recorded in the Old Testament are all credible and true” (Murray, pg. 194). On the other hand, Ryle was said to have, “the heart of a child” because of his sincere love for all people. Some men take themselves so seriously that they turn people away from the truths they preach, but Ryle was not this way. On his daily walks, he would often be seen speaking to a group of young boys playing a game on the road and giving them a piece of sharp and witty advice. The children also knew that whenever they saw Mr. Ryle coming he had plenty of candy in his pockets.

Ryle’s ministry included suffering, as his first and second wife both died prematurely and left him with five children to care for all on his own. He eventually married Henrietta, who more than made up for all his suffering. Henrietta was more than a good wife to J.C.; she was also the perfect partner for him in the stresses of ministry. A good help-mate can make or break a man’s ministry, and she certainly made his thrive.

Perhaps one of the saddest events in J.C. Ryle’s life involved his son Herbert. Herbert studied and began preaching liberal theology to the dismay of his aging father. It is one thing for a preacher’s son to be lost and yet a whole other thing for that son to be a popular false teacher rising among the ranks. J.C. went to be with Jesus in 1900 and his son Herbert seemed intent on removing his father’s evangelical heritage. All that J.C. Ryle stood for theologically, his son Herbert stood against. The new era of liberal theology seemed to cast a dark shadow over all Ryle’s efforts and his son Herbert rejoiced to see evangelical theology dissipating into the dark recesses of the history books. Little did Herbert and his liberal contemporaries know, the “faith once for all delivered to the saints” can never be truly extinguished, but will shine ever brighter until Christ’s return. Liberal theology only served to close church doors as J.C. had foretold, but evangelical truth, which J.C. Ryle had stood for, would face another resurgence decades later.

Praise God for the life and ministry of His servant J.C. Ryle in a day where his memory is once again celebrated. Ryle teaches ministers today to have a thick skin and a soft heart. He also teaches us to be dead earnest about the Gospel and yet not take ourselves too seriously either. We would do well to learn these lessons from a dear brother gone before.

God Meant It for Good

As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20a)

Perhaps the biggest issue people have with Christianity is how a good God can coexist with the evil and suffering of this world. More ink has been spilt trying to give a sufficient answer to the question of God’s goodness in an evil world than I could write in ten lifetimes, but in this one verse we find perhaps the best concise explanation. 

Let’s at least get one thing out of the way before we break down what is going on in this text: the problem of evil cannot really be a problem to God. Were God to face a real dilemma He cannot solve, such as the presence of evil, He would cease to be the sovereign authority of all creation. The problem of evil then is really only a problem from our human perspective. The old saying, “If God is God, He is not good. If God is good He is not God”, from a play by Archibald MacLeish, sums up the belief of many regarding this issue. Yet in the life of Joseph, we encounter a God who is God and He is also good. On the one hand, He is in total sovereign control of all things (including evil and suffering), while on the other hand, He is altogether good and loving. Isn’t that the kind of God we all know exists anyway? One who is truly God and is truly good?

The story of Joseph’s life is quite remarkable. A dearly loved and favored son, Joseph dreams a strange dream of his family bowing before him only to be sold into slavery by his own brothers for even mentioning it to them. He is then falsely accused by an evil seductress and imprisoned, only to later be released by Pharaoh for interpreting dreams, and ends up becoming second in command over all Egypt and saving multitudes from a dreadful famine. 

Joseph’s story has traces of evil and suffering all over it: favoritism, envy, hatred, slave-trading, betrayal, lies, temptation, false accusations, prison, and famine. Yet at every turn in Joseph’s story, the reader is reminded of God’s good purposes and presence. In his slavery, imprisonment, and rise to power, we are told, “God was with Joseph.” Apparently a good and sovereign God can coexist with evil and suffering in this world. But how?

Later in his life, Joseph’s dreams have been fulfilled. He stands as second in command to Pharaoh and his brothers finally come bowing before him. The very plot meant to destroy Joseph’s dreams actually was the instrument by which those dreams were fulfilled. Had Joseph never been sold into slavery, he would have never been falsely accused, and had he never been falsely accused, he would have never been imprisoned, and had he never been imprisoned, he would have never been released to become Pharaoh’s right hand man, and had he never become Pharaoh’s right hand man, multitudes would have perished in a severe famine.

In Genesis 45:5-8 Joseph tells his brothers, “do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life…God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth…so it was not you who sent me here, but God.” The psalmist, in Psalm 105, is so bold as to add that God, “summoned a famine on the land” and “sent a man ahead of them, Joseph.” How do we reconcile these two seemingly contradictory statements? You sold me…God sent me. You meant evil…God meant it for good. Famines are bad…but God summoned it. 

First we must realize that what often seem like contradictions in our Bibles are actually not contradictions at all, but paradoxes. A paradox is the coming together of two parallel truths that don’t seem to be reconcilable. When 19th Century Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon was asked to reconcile God’s sovereignty with man’s responsibility, he said, “I wouldn’t try…I never reconcile friends.”

The glorious truth obvious to Joseph and to all God’s suffering saints throughout the ages and needs to be understood by us as well is: behind every drop of suffering and behind every dark spot of evil, God is sovereignly working out His good and perfect plan. This truth is one some believers foolishly run from, yet which is given by God as a support for them in the trials of life. Instead of embracing God’s sovereignty and goodness behind our suffering and behind the evil of our world, many believers choose to attribute all supposed “bad” events to Satan and all supposedly “good” events to God. I was in a Bible study once with a godly Christian woman who said her father’s death was all the work of Satan and refused the thought that God could have been sovereign behind it. After a time of her own prayerful reflection and study, she told the group that she now understood that God was sovereign and did allow her father to die for His own good purposes.

Think of the most ungodly and heinous act in human history. Now, can you confidently say, “The perpetrators meant it for evil, but God meant it for good”? Perhaps you were thinking of the Holocaust or September 11th. But these crimes pale in comparison to an even more despicable crime: the crucifixion of God’s only Son. The early church understood the cross to be both the most heinous crime ever committed and an offense God predestined to occur for His own good purposes in redemption. In Acts 2:23 we read, “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” So on the one hand, there are “lawless men” who “killed” Jesus and on the other hand, Jesus’ death was “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.” Then again in Acts 4:28 the church prays that all the evil perpetrators (Herod, Pilate, the Gentiles, and Jews) did, “whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.” 

If God is sovereign over a famine in Joseph’s day and all the sin leading up to that event in his life and the horror of Christ’s crucifixion, then He is sovereign over every evil event and amount of suffering in this world. Yet God always has a good purpose which He brings out of evil and suffering. The ultimate good purpose of all evil and suffering in this world will be realized in the new heavens and new earth when the bride of Christ will finally be redeemed out of this sin-cursed world and all will be renewed. Until then, may we learn to rest in God’s sovereign care over our lives even as we live in a world full of sin and suffering. 

After all, what hope would there be if there were no sovereign and good God behind the helm of this world and behind the wheel of our own lives?

Keeping in Step with the Spirit

When my wife and I first married, we would often take walks around a beautiful water reservoir near our apartment in Louisville, KY. When we’d begin walking we wouldn’t always be in step with each other, so I’d do a little foot shuffle until my steps mimicked hers so we could walk hand in hand. If I didn’t do this, either I’d eventually outpace her or she would me and it would lead to some awkward walking. 

In the Christian life, it is imperative that we strive to keep in step with the Spirit of God, so that we are not running up ahead in self-righteous independence or falling behind in selfish laziness. But what exactly does it look like to, “keep in step with the Spirit” and how does one go about doing this? For this we turn to Galatians 5:16-26.
The Problem with Legalism and How to Combat it

The church at Galatia had a problem running up ahead of the Spirit, so Paul wrote a letter to both warn and remind them. They had begun well and gave evidence that the Spirit was working in their midst, but eventually they veered off track. False teachers, possibly a group known as the Judaizers, came in and informed these believers that they must also keep in step with Jewish rituals and ceremonial laws to be true Christians. By adding requirements to the gospel of grace, Paul told this church they were in effect, “turning to a different gospel.” He warned them that such false teachers aimed to, “distort the gospel of Christ.”

Paul could have combated this legalistic false teaching by giving the church at Galatia a list of Christian virtues to perform, but this would have just been another form of legalism. Instead, Paul explained to them that the Spirit within them would produce such characteristics in line with God’s law and that they need only to yield to His leading. He didn’t say, “Come on guys! Salvation doesn’t come keeping Jewish rituals, but through maintaining love, joy, peace, patience in your life. Stop trying to earn your salvation by works and start being good people for goodness’ sake.” Rather, Paul taught them to, “keep in step with the Spirit.” This is why Paul referred to, “the fruit of the Spirit” and said these things were simply evidences of a heart saved by grace.

Since these Galatians were believers, they needed to be reminded that righteousness isn’t really ours to produce. Whatever we could produce that would look like righteousness isn’t really righteous. Righteousness comes by the indwelling and empowering of the Spirit in our lives. Paul David Tripp shares the analogy of an apple tree planted in his yard that won’t produce good apples. He says to imagine what his neighbors would think if they saw him taking delicious store-bought apples and stapling them onto his bad apple tree. Good fruit doesn’t come by our own self-effort at being good, but flows out of us as we submit to the Spirit in our lives.

Shortly after conversion, I worked for a summer as a youth pastor’s intern. In one conversation, I referred to the “fruits” of the Holy Spirit and this youth pastor corrected me, saying it was the actually the fruit of the Spirit, singular. At the time, I thought this was a needless correction and it didn’t make any difference, but this reveals how I misunderstood this doctrine. The ESV Gospel Transformation Bible clarifies the importance of this distinction in language: “Notice that Paul speaks of “fruit,” not “fruits,” of the Spirit—the fruit of the Spirit is not a checklist to work through but the unified blossoming of a heart liberated by the gospel of grace.”

Therefore, the antidote to running up ahead of the Spirit in self-wrought ritual-keeping is not another self-wrought formula of character development, but rather yielding of oneself to God’s Spirit.

Yielding to the Spirit

In Galatians 5:16-26, Paul teaches us that there are two very different ways to live. Either we can be empowered by the flesh or empowered by God’s Spirit. Those who follow the lead of their flesh and fall behind produce the rotten fruit of sin. Those who follow the lead of the Spirit and keep in step with Him produce the beautiful, abundant, and delicious fruit of righteousness. When the world tastes this fruit from a Christian’s life, they know it didn’t grow from man’s planting but was put there by God. But the way we keep the tree of our lives from producing so much rotten fruit is through yielding to the Spirit. 

When you approach a yield sign on the highway and notice another vehicle coming, there are consequences for failing to yield. Accidents that could lead to tickets, fines, insurance problems, or even death. In the same way, the Spirit of God is directly opposed to your flesh and when He is calling you to obey and your flesh is saying to ignore him, there are dire consequences for failing to yield to Him. Such as: being deceived by sin, then hardened by it, then ultimately proving to have never been converted in the first place. Paul warns that those whose lives are marked by the rotten fruit of jealousy, envy, immorality, and all other manner of sin, will not inherit the kingdom of God. We cannot forget that he is writing to regenerate church members. If we wish to inherit the kingdom of God, we must live lives marked by submission to the Spirit, not resistance to Him. 

How we go about this is through the means of grace: reading, meditating on, praying through the Word of God, quick confession of sin, continual prayerful dependence on God, submitting to one another in the body of Christ, killing sin by the Spirit. We must remember that there is a war within our hearts and that we will not win this war in our own self-effort, but only as we depend on and lean upon the Spirit for strength. Only the yielded heart is capable of producing a righteousness that surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees and that fulfills the whole law. May we endeavor to remove from our lives any barriers or hindrances to the Spirit’s way and strive to die to self in the power of the Spirit until we see Jesus. 

Are you in step with the Spirit today?

Our Name Changing God

Johnny Cash’s famous hit, “A Boy Named Sue” pokes fun at the significance of names. Nobody wants a name that makes others laugh at them or that reminds people of a negative historical figure.

I recently preached a funeral for a deacon in our church with the middle name Adolf, a very popular name before World War II. Now no one names a child Adolf or Judas. This is why expectant mothers and fathers-to-be labor over the name of their progeny. When my wife and I were talking about names for our future children, I liked the name Clark for a boy, after my heroic great uncle, but my wife once babysat a Clark that forever secured in her mind the doctrine of total depravity. Likewise, my wife liked the name Autumn for a girl, but I knew an Autumn who would make you cringe whenever you saw her coming.

Names carry a sense of one’s identity. This is why we name children after godly relatives, heroes of the faith, or that remind us of characteristics we hold dear.

Why God Changes Our Names

Yet in Scripture, we encounter a God who changes the names of His people. Abram became Abraham, Sarai became Sarah, Jacob became Israel, Simon became Peter, and Saul became Paul. When God renames people in Scripture, He is doing several things: He is asserting His sovereign authority over that person’s life, giving that individual a new mission to pursue, identifying a clean break from their former manner of life, and emphasizing a new character they will thereafter possess.

Abraham and Sarah were so renamed because they were to become the father and mother of all who believe. God gave Jacob the new name Israel because He had turned him from a “heal snatcher/cheater” into His blessed servant. Simon carries the idea of instability, while Peter means rock; a name change that identified a dramatic difference after Pentecost. Saul became Paul, a name meaning “small”, because the Lord had humbled His arrogant pride when He knocked him off his high horse on the road to Damascus.

Every Child of God Given A New Name

The resurrected Christ promises a new name for all God’s people in Revelation 2:17, when He states, “To the one who conquers I will give…a new name…that no one knows except the one who receives it.” While a person may go through the legal process of acquiring a new name, the Lord God gives each of His children something much more lasting and significant: an entirely new identity and life purpose. 

For the child of God, this new identity and purpose begins at conversion, where we are transferred from the kingdom of darkness to God’s kingdom and adopted into the family of God. Paul describes the new identity of God’s children at conversion in these famous words found in 2 Cor. 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”

How to Respond to Our New Names

If you are reading this and have never experienced this radical inward transformation known as regeneration or new birth, you must pray for God to make real to you your spiritually dead condition and show you the beauty of Christ’s person and work on the cross. If you are reading this and you have been born again and God has taken out the old heart of stone and replaced it with a new heart that loves His commands, you must rejoice and tremble. The rejoicing part may seem obvious, but we always need reminding of this. 

After the disciples returned from the mission Christ sent them on, they were rejoicing at the authority He had given them to cast out demons, heal the sick, and raise the dead, but Jesus called them to another source of joy. In Luke 10:20, Jesus said, “Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” In the very next verse, Jesus rejoices in the Spirit and dives into spontaneous prayer, praising God for revealing these things to the humble and withholding them from the prideful. 

Have you ever heard the expression that someone’s name was thrown in the mud? Because of our sin, we had dragged our own names through the mud. We have all lived in ways that ruined our name and our identity as God’s image-bearers. We have even blasphemed the holy name of God with our lives of selfishness, anger, bitterness, ingratitude, lust, hate, and gossip. Yet in His astounding grace, God has given us a new name through faith in Christ. At the cross, God poured out all His judgment on our sins on Jesus and by the Spirit has given a new and everlasting name to His redeemed people. Now we must rejoice always that the Gospel was received by us through the Spirit’s gift of faith and repentance. Yet our rejoicing must always involve trembling. It is possible to be connected to Christians and rich theological truths and yet fall away from Christ, proving we never knew genuine salvation. 

In such cases, Peter and Solomon are right when they say, “the dog returns to its own vomit, and the pig, after washing herself, returns to wallow in the mire” (2 Peter 2:22). The dog was still a dog and the pig still a pig. We must tremble before the Lord, not in a fearful state of uncertainty concerning our salvation, but in a prayerful dependency that acknowledges our desperate need for preserving grace. God has truly saved all who persevere and all who persevere do so by clinging desperately to the cross of Christ. You and I ought never to think that our conversion has secured for us the freedom to go back to wallowing in the mire.

Rejoice that God has given you a new name in Christ and tremble so that you live in a way that verifies this name change.

The Word that Sparked the Reformation

I’ve heard it said that one spark from a campfire can travel over a mile before burning out. But there is one spark that has managed to travel thousands of miles, even across oceans, and through five centuries of time and has spread a blaze across the world; this spark is the reformation doctrine of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. The word that sparked this Reformation is the word ‘sola’ or ‘alone’ in English.

In his book Faith Alone:The Evangelical Doctrine of Justification, R.C. Sproul remarks, “It was the sola of sola fide that was the central point of dispute…Martin Luther and the Reformers insisted that justification is by faith alone. Rome affirms that justification is “by faith,” but not “by faith alone”’ (page 36, 122).

How could such a small word carry so much weight and cause so much controversy? Because the word sola differentiated not between two different ways of understanding the gospel of Jesus Christ, but two totally different gospels altogether: the true gospel and a false gospel. In the Roman Catholic view, which hasn’t changed since, our good works contribute to our salvation. In the Reformers’ view, which also hasn’t changed since, we are totally depraved sinners who cannot contribute anything to our salvation except the sin that reveals its necessity.

When you really boil it down, the Roman Catholic understanding of justification is a false gospel that teaches we are not as sinful as the Scriptures reveals us to be, God is not as holy as the Scriptures reveal Him to be, and the cross is not as essential as the Scriptures reveal them to be.

The current leaders of the Church of England have called for Protestants to “repent of the sins of the Reformation.” Some may agree with them and see the Reformation as an unnecessary division in the one body of Christ. Many in our Western age of tolerance consider any divisions, whether doctrinal or anything else, to be from a lack of love. But it would be foolish for us to repent of the sins of the Reformation not only because we weren’t there to do them, but also because it wasn’t a division of the one body of Christ at all. Rather, the Reformation marked a differentiation between those in the true body of Christ and those in a heretical body claiming Christ. As far as the unloving claim, it was love and unity for the protection and preservation of the true body of Christ that drove the Reformers to take the stand they did. Rather than repent of the Reformation, we ought to rejoice in it. Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, and their fellow Reformers fought for the purity of the gospel and for the purity of the church and we owe them a great debt.

Some have argued that the Reformers held to a view of justification that allowed for sin. They claim that the constant use of the word alone or sola actually implies a salvation that doesn’t have any connection to good works or righteous living. The Reformers were not teaching, however, the unbiblical notion that our justification and our sanctification are not related. Rather, they were teaching that our sanctification flows out of our justification, not vice versa. John Calvin himself noted that while we are saved by faith alone, it is not by a faith that is alone. Justification produces the fruit of sanctification. Where Rome went wrong was that they confused the fruit with the root. If, according to Rome, our salvation is through faith and works, then we have something to boast about and this would turn heaven into a big merit party (“Look at how much I did with my life”). But, aligning themselves with Scripture, the Reformers taught the full and free gospel of God’s grace to guilty sinners who would repent and believe. This is the salvation that consumes the attention of the worship of heaven.

We have so much to be thankful for when we think of the Reformers. They refused to offer to the world a checklist and say, “Here is how to get saved.” Instead they heralded the true gospel of grace and so extended to the world a crucified and resurrected Savior who said, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

May we never cave to the voices around us that call for an end to our resolve to stand on the gospel of grace. These voices are more than five hundred years old, going back to the garden of Eden where the serpent questioned, “Did God really say?”

May we stand with the Reformers in our own day, no matter what the culture thinks of us and say, “Yes, God did say that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.”

Then, may we extend the only true gospel to all types of sinners, while calling them to repent and believe in Christ.