Can You Explain the Gospel?

There are many questions we have to answer each day: what will I wear to work or school? What’s for breakfast? Lunch? And dinner? What project should I tackle first? How will I respond to this e-mail?  How will I accomplish this task? What will I say to this co-worker? How will I help this customer, client, or student? How am I going to pass this exam when I didn’t study?

There are many questions to answer each day.

But what if someone were to ask you today for a definition of the gospel, how would you respond? What is the gospel? How do you put it into words? The answer to this question is of vast importance. The gospel is the central message of the Christian faith and is something that all Christians should know by heart. So what is the gospel?

The short answer: The good news of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection on behalf of sinners (1 Corinthians 15:1-4).

To answer the question more fully allow me to explain.

It is important to know that the word “gospel” means “good news.” The gospel is the good news of Jesus Christ. But before the good news becomes good news we must first know the bad news. The bad news is that all have sinned (Romans 3:23) and the penalty for that sin is death (Romans 6:23). We have sinned against an infinite God and we deserve an infinite punishment. There is nothing that we can do to fix this, no good work or righteous deed can take away the punishment we deserve (Romans 3:20; Titus 3:5). This puts us in a bad position. We have sinned, we deserve punishment, and we cannot make amends for our wrong doing.

But the good news of the gospel is that God sent His Son Jesus into the world (1 John 4:10) to live the life that we were supposed to live but failed (1 Peter 2:22), and to die the death that we deserved in our place (Romans 5:8). Then three days later He rose victoriously from the grave defeating sin and death (1 Corinthians 15). He then ascended into heaven (Acts 1:9-11) where He rules and reigns at the right hand of the Father (Ephesians 1:20-23) and will one day return to judge the living and the dead (John 5:27-29).

And now all those who by grace turn from their sin and put their faith (Ephesians 2:8-9) in Jesus’ redemptive work will escape from that judgement, be forgiven of all their sin (Colossians 2:13-14), and will live for all of eternity with God (John 3:16). That is the gospel! That is the good news that we are to cherish each day. That is the good news that we are to share with this lost world.

The gospel is not only good news, it’s the best news! Let us never forget what God in His mercy has done for sinners like us.  Let your heart rest and rejoice in the graciousness of God.

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Philemon Part 4: Confident in Grace

We’ve looked into this letter for 3 weeks now and today as we finish walking through Philemon we’ll focus our attention on Paul’s closing remarks in v21-25. 

Paul is Confident of the Grace of God in Obedience (v21)

v21 says, “Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.” The first thing that ought to rise in your heart after hearing such a sentence is the question, “WHY?” Why is Paul confident that Philemon will not only obey his request and welcome in his runaway slave Onesimus unconditionally and wholeheartedly, but how can Paul be confident that Philemon will do even more than asks? I think, Paul’s confidence is not that he trusts in Philemon to obey him, but rather that he trusts in the work of God’s grace in the heart of His friend Philemon. What I mean by this is plain: Paul is trusting that the grace of God at work in the heart of Philemon will lead to what the grace of God at work in the human heart always leads to – obedience. Paul is so confident in God’s work inside the heart of Philemon that Paul is expecting Philemon to go above and beyond what he is asking him to do. Whether this means that Paul expects Philemon to send Onesimus back to him to continue alongside him in ministry, or that Philemon would free Onesimus from slavery we can’t be sure of. What we can be sure of from this v21 is the one thing we see, Paul is confident that the gospel of grace at work in human heart will lead to obedience.

Does this seem like a hard concept to you – that grace leads to obedience? I think that personally for many years I had trouble with this idea, that placing the two realities of grace and obedience together in unison doesn’t mesh well together, and so for many years I had a sort of false dichotomy at work within my own understanding. From people I’ve talked to this isn’t rare to me but seems to be common experience that we all naturally either want grace or we want obedience, we don’t want them together. We wrongly think that if we’re to live our lives under the banner of God’s grace we shouldn’t be concerned about obedience because God’s grace covers all our sin regardless of how much there is to cover. Or on the other side, we wrongly think that if we’re to live lives of obedience to God’s Word we won’t be concerned with God’s grace because obedience is all about being disciplined enough to do the right thing no matter what and that type of resolve is merely something I can create on my own.

Yet, if we merely hang onto grace we’ll have a deficient view of what the Christian life is supposed to be lived like. When God draws us to Christ He always draws us toward Christ and away from sin. God calls us out of sin, wickedness, and darkness to live new lives by His strength walking in the light, in obedience, and in holiness. Having this false dichotomy at work within us makes us miss the grand reality that when God through the power of the Holy Spirit works His grace into the human heart, obedience to the gospel is always the result. Thus, the realities of grace and obedience should never be separated but always held as they really are – inseparable. Paul is confident to expect such living in the life of his friend Philemon. Remember v8? Paul is asking Philemon to do what the gospel requires him to do. How can he confident that Philemon will actually do this in v21? He trusts in the power of God’s grace at work in the hearts of His people.

Paul is Confident of the Grace of God in Prayer (v22)

See the power of prayer. Paul in v22 states that God, through their prayers, will graciously give him to them. In this we see that our prayers in and of themselves contain no special power, save only for the grace of God working through them. Because of this we have such a special hope in prayer, for by our prayer, things really could change. Not because of anything in us, or that when I pray for you I bank on some kind of pastoral prowess in prayer – no, I have nothing of the kind. Rather, the power and therefore the privilege of prayer is seen not in the person praying, but in the Person being prayed to. Who are we speaking to? God Himself! With God all things are possible, and through prayer we offer up our desires to God, for things agreeable to His will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of His mercies.

There’s something about prayer that doesn’t feel sexy right? I mean if you were to ask 100 churches about how they plan to reach their communities with the gospel, 99 of them would probably respond by giving some sexy ministry philosophy saying “We’ve got this strategy, we’ve got this vision, we’ve got this outreach director, we’ve got a kicking praise band, etc., etc., etc.”

Where is the congregation willing to seek the face of God in prayer? Where are the people who understand that we’re at our strongest when we’re kneeling before our Father?

It’s nothing sexy, or showy, prayer doesn’t really contain much flair, but tell me this – what is more powerful than coming before the throne of God to adore Him and ask Him to give us the cities we live in? We don’t know if Paul was ever released from his chains to visit Philemon to see how things really played out in this situation, but that’s not the point here. The point is that without being told about that they are praying for him, Paul knows this Colossian church is praying for him, and that God by hearing their prayers may move in power and free Paul from his chains. His confidence in the grace of God through prayer is stunning to see, and from seeing it we should be rebuked for our prayerlessness, and freshly give ourselves to the pursuit of God in public and private prayer.

Paul is Confident of the Grace of God, Just (v25)

v25 is the end of this small letter and in it Paul says, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.”

v25 is almost the exact same as the end of Paul’s greeting back in v3. These two verses (v3 and v25) form bookends to this book. The lesson here is that as Paul began with the grace of God, he wants to end with the grace of God and by so doing teach the Colossian Church and teach us, that the Christian life begins and ends with the grace of God. For while the sinner is lost wandering aimless in sin and darkness, God’s grace pursues, chases, grabs, and saves! The same grace that started our salvation in the beginning, sustains our salvation throughout our life, and finally secures our salvation in the end. Grace at the birth, grace in-between, and grace at the close.

We shouldn’t expect Paul to end any different either…grace gripped Philemon, and now if grace is to really get to the ground and make a difference, he must give the grace he received to someone as unworthy as he himself is – Onesimus.

6 Ways to Stay Humble

An old country song goes like this: “Lord, it’s hard to be humble, when you’re perfect in every way.” Most of us would not put it so bluntly, but we all find it hard to be humble. The problem with us is that we forget who we are in the grand scheme of things. We must remember that we are but dust created in the image of God and made to display His worth. One particular passage of Scripture is thoroughly helpful in turning our eyes off our own navels and onto God’s glory: Philippians 2:5-11. By meditating on the gospel in this text, even the most prideful among us will be leveled low.

To stay in a humbled position…

Feast your eyes on the matchless glory of Christ (vv. 5-6)

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped…”

Paul ascends to breathe the air of Mount Everest in this ancient hymn of the church. He speaks of Jesus’ divinity and equal status as God with the Father and Spirit. By bringing us to heaven, Paul reveals the amazing condescension of Christ coming to earth and the cross. Getting a fresh look at the majesty of Christ always has the effect of humbling the believer’s pride. When Isaiah saw the Lord seated on His throne, he cried out, “Woe to me!…I am ruined. I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell among a people of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5). When Peter saw Jesus’ glory in the fishing boat, he fell on his knees before him and cried out, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8). Make it a practice everyday to behold Christ’s glory in His Word and carry it with you. This will put a check on your prideful moments during the day and remind you who you really are apart from Him. Before you open your Bible, pray with Moses, “Show me your glory, Lord” or with the psalmist, “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things from your law.”

Contemplate Christ’s humbling Himself in the incarnation (v. 7)

“…but made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men…”

The steps toward humility are not upward, but downward. Christ stepped down into this world, humbling Himself greatly for us. We must follow Him if we wish to be properly humble. We would be wrong to assume that in the incarnation, Christ was subtracting certain aspects of His divinity in order to save us. It isn’t subtraction going on here, but addition. Stephen Wellum, in his book, God the Son Incarnate, helps us see this when he writes, “Paul’s point then, is not that Christ exchanged the ‘form of God’ for the ‘form of a servant’ but that he manifests the ‘form of God’ in the ‘form of a servant.’ The text says nothing about Christ emptying his divine attributes. Rather, he empties himself by adding to himself a complete human nature and a willingness to undergo the agony of death for our sake and for our salvation.” Wellum quotes theologian Donald Macleod, who also informs us by writing how Christ, “had glory with the Father before the world began (Jn. 17:5)…He possessed all the majesty of deity, performed all its functions and enjoyed all its prerogatives. He was adored by his Father and worshipped by angels. He was invulnerable to pain, frustration, and embarrassment. He existed in unclouded serenity. His supremacy was total, his satisfaction complete, his blessedness perfect. Such a condition was not something he had secured by effort. It was the way things were, and had always been; and there was no reason why they should change. But change they did, and they changed because…Christ did not insist on his rights.”

The thought that this glorious a subject would choose to undergo birth as a human baby with all the limitations of life in this fallen world is truly astounding and ought to keep us ever humbled.

Think over the servant-hearted nature of Christ (vv. 7-8a)

“...taking on the form of a servant…”

It was this divine Sovereign who dwelt from eternity past in perfect fellowship with the Godhead who stooped to wash the filthy feet of the disciples. God’s Agent of creation who lit the fire of a million blazing suns with His powerful words washed a mixture of sweat, dirt, and animal feces off the feet of fishermen. In one of the key passages in John Mark’s account of the gospel, Jesus defines His mission in this way: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45)

Behold the wonder of Christ crucified for sinners (v. 8)

And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

The lowest step was not the manger. It was the cross of Calvary. Keith and Kristyn Getty, ponder the wonder of the cross in their song Gethsemane, when they write:

“What took Him to this wretched place,

What kept Him on this road?

His love for Adam’s cursed race,

For every broken soul.

No sin too slight to overlook,

No crime too great to carry,

All mingled in this poisoned cup ‚

And yet He drank it all,

The Saviour drank it all,

The Saviour drank it all.”

The first place we all must look in our struggle with pride is the cross. As low and despised as the cross was, John presents it as the place where Jesus reigns in the fullest extent of His glory. We see at the cross so many things: the ugliness of sin that it would crucify God’s Son, the wrath of God against sin, and the love of God in Christ for sinners that He would go to such an extent to save us.

Worship the now exalted and glorified Christ on bended knee (vv. 9-11)

Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Once we come to this point, we are properly humbled. We realize we are nothing and Christ is worthy of all the glory. Now that we are on our spiritual knees where we belong, Paul reminds us that Christ’s pre-incarnate glory has been restored and he promises us that one Day every soul will acknowledge it. Paul’s phrase comes from Isaiah 45:23 where we see this One to receive all glory is none other than the only God Himself. We must make it our aim each moment of the day to keep our spiritual knees bent. Christ will receive all the glory and we must give it to Him through our daily lives.

Get busy serving others in the name of Christ

It would be easy at this point to be so eclipsed and engulfed in this glorious gospel that we forget that it carries with it everyday ramifications. The gospel is never given to us so that we can simply bask in its light and forget the world outside. Christ didn’t die to simply make us worshipers, but to make worshipers of His glory through us. Christ humbled Himself to serve us so that we would follow His lead and humble ourselves to serve others too. Look for humbling and lowly acts of service Christ may be leading you toward. It may mean doing something uncomfortable for you and yet the very doing of it will help you flesh out this gospel theology. There are widows around us who don’t see God’s love in action. There are neighbors around us who wonder if there is such a thing as authentic love. Whether it be a mission trip, a chance to work in the nursery, or the opportunity to bring food to a hurting family, only we will give an account to God for how we practically live out this gospel. But whatever we do, we must carry the humbling gospel message with us and serve out of this glorious news.

The Gospel Never Retreats

There sat the world’s most outspoken Christian evangelist, chained to two Roman guards behind a locked jail cell. If most of us found ourselves in Paul’s shoes, we’d have thought for sure this was a sad day for the Gospel. “Poor Gospel”, we’d think. “Your days of victorious spreading have now come to a screeching halt. I guess I might as well just retreat to the cold recesses of this cell and silently go over some memory verses to reassure me. There’s no point trying to preach now.” Yet the Apostle Paul knew better than all this. He wrote to the church of Philippi, “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear” (Php. 1:12-14).

We may be tempted to see such circumstances as hindrances to the gospel spreading, but Paul saw them as opportunities which served to advance the Gospel. Paul knew that God often allows the troubling trials into our lives for His own divine purposes. Paul knew after watching Stephen’s martyrdom that persecution has a way of lighting a fire under God’s people to spread the Gospel elsewhere. It was Paul’s travel companion Luke, who wrote, “And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles…Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word” (Acts 8:1b, 4). So God could even use the terrible stoning of one of His own children to get the gospel beyond the confines of Jerusalem. An early Christian named Tertullian was right when he stated, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”

What does this have to do with me, you may wonder. While you may not face much persecution for your faith at the moment, you probably do encounter “trials of various kinds.” In order for us to “rejoice” with Paul or “count it all joy” with James, we must understand that God allows all this to advance His Gospel, not send it in retreat. His Gospel knows no such thing as retreat. We must see every screaming toddler, every financial burden, every unexpected doctor’s call, and every natural disaster as events guided by the hand of our sovereign God to advance His Gospel. We must learn to behold the invisible King of glory as He sits on the throne of heaven, guiding all things according to His perfect counsel. All human authorities from ages past to today and into the future cannot stop or silence His gospel. North Korea’s emperor says, “No evangelism allowed!”, and South Koreans send thousands of Bibles into their territory via giant balloons. China says, “No other churches authorized!”, and hundreds of millions of Christians gather with greater earnestness in underground churches and in houses. As Paul said to young Timothy, “I am suffering, bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound!” (2 Tim. 2:9). No chains can hold back the gospel from going forth.

What should this mean for us?

Rejoice when you encounter obstacles that seem to stand in the way of Gospel advancement.

Rejoice not in the obstacles themselves, but in the God who secretly works through them and despite them to accomplish His purpose of spreading His glory.

Rejoice as you consider that God is currently making a way in your personal life and in the Church universal to extend His Gospel to those He will redeem.

Rejoice as you consider the words of Christ when he said, “And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd…My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:16, 27-28). Rejoice as you believe the promise, “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (Hab. 2:14).

May we keep our mind’s eye on the multitudes John saw around the throne praising the Lamb who purchased them with His blood (Revelation 7:9). Then, let us put on the armor of God and commit to advance Christ’s Gospel, come what may. Since the Gospel never retreats, may we never retreat in declaring it until the trumpet sounds and our King comes to rescue us. 

 

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.

Killing Jesus!

In the concluding chapter of the Book of Mark we are introduced to Jesus’s rejection and eventual execution by the hands of the Romans, but what is so interesting about the text is the fact that He stands alone. Throughout the course of some 18 hours Jesus goes from having a crowd of merry men to no one. He goes from being a celebrated possible messiah to an executed rebel. As the story unfolds in the Gospel texts we see His followers fall away and as they do those who stand opposed to Jesus become more emboldened, but have you ever stopped to think how these same attitudes that existed with Jesus in the presence of his disciples still exists within us.

It is easy to say that if Jesus was alive today we would stand and defended him, but that is the very thing peter Said before Jesus told him of his eventual desertion. Why do we somehow think we are more spiritual or better than those who have gone before us, in the concluding narrative of Mark’s Gospel (14:43-15:15) we are introduced to a series of events, each feature a rejection or desertion, and each coming from a variety of motives; So today I would like us to briefly examine theses six groups and how their attitudes can infiltrate ourselves and the church.

His Betrayer: In Mark 14:43-46 we see the betrayal of Jesus by one of the Twelve; Judas. Now of course none of us would like to think of ourselves as Judas, who would; there is a reason no one names there child this. However, If you think about it, the attitude of Judas can often be seen in the church by those who feel they are being disenfranchised, by the church. Here in lies an attitude that believes that the church owes them something and as long as the church is doing what they believe to be filling there needs then everything is awesome, but when the church “changes course” or no longer meets their expectation they take it as a personal affront and attack on themselves. We betray Jesus when our own mission and goals supersede, to the point of division, His mission of reaching the lost and making disciples through the church

Those Who Have Fled: Now many of us may not associate ourselves with Judas, but the other 10 who flee may hit a little closer to home. After Jesus is arrested the remaining disciples (aside from Peter) flee into the unknown for fear that they too may be arrested. Here we see an attitude that is tough on the surface about faith and trust in Christ, but when the pressure mounts it is easy to fall away and flee. While you won’t deny the faith you won’t take a stand for it either. In a modern context this would be to say that your faith is a Private faith. In fear of facing the cost of standing strong for Jesus when it could cost us something we shrink back out of fear. We flee from Jesus when we fear what the world might think about us.

The Denier: The next major event in the abandonment of Christ is the outright denial by the very one who first stated that Jesus was the Christ, Peter. In the gospel of Mark we see that Peter didn’t immediately flee with the others, he followed behind the crowd and traveled to the court of the High priest. What seemed like a victory for standing with Jesus soon turns sour when he is confronted about his relationship to Jesus. Unlike those who simply fled Peter goes on the defensive, at first by feigning to not understand the question to outright attack as he swears curses upon himself. Here we see a perfect illustration of one who stands strong in the company of brothers and sisters, but when the world presses in with its own accusation, they deny the whole truth. This is an attitude that creeps in to the church where we love to be bold on Sunday mornings but Monday through Saturday the faith seems to not exist.  We Deny Jesus when we reject who He is openly to a dying world for fear of what they think about us.

While the first three groups were made up of those that should have followed Jesus the concluding three groups are made up of those who by nature are hostile to Jesus, just as we once were when we lived apart from Him, but these attitudes as well can find themselves re-rooting themselves in our own hearts at time.

Religious Leaders: The religious leaders in the text see the teachings of Jesus as a threat to their power and stability. He defies their religious understandings of the Torah and seems to pose a threat to their very way of life, as he offered hope and salvation to the Gentiles, as well as the Jews. In our modern context we see this is in every major religion (including the segments of the Christian faith). Those who prefer their way of truth and righteousness apart from Christ. This is saddest when it is seen in the context of the church. For when these attitudes take hold in the church we see a shift from turning people’s hearts and minds to Christ and on to ourselves. It is a shift that tells people they can earn their salvation, not that they are in need of a savior. It teaches that the way to truth is through morality and self-discipline, not through the cross of Christ alone. We can become like the religious leaders when our faith becomes solely about us and not about Christ and the Cross.

Pilate: Many look at Pilate in the text and see a conflicted man, on the one hand he clearly sees that the religious leaders are simply trying to kill an innocent man out of envy for his crowing support and his challenging of their way of life, but on the other hand he also has a country to run and a people to keep pacified. He was man who chose to do what was expedient, rather than what was just. This happens all the time when we reach out to an unbelieving world. They may clearly see the reality of who Jesus is, but also see the pressing realities of what it will cost them to act on the truth. Pilate doesn’t kill Jesus because he wants to, but because the alternative seems to high a cost. He even attempts to bargain his way out of the situation to no avail. There is no bargaining with Jesus, He is an all or nothing God. We become like Pilate when we feel the pressures of the world as more demanding then our faith in the righteousness of Jesus, and choose to give up the truth for the sake of expediency.

The Crowd: The crowd is the one group that will always get a lot of flack, and rightfully so, but what is so interesting when we stop and look at the crowd is that there overall goal seems to be to receive their “true messiah.” When they demand the release of Barabbas and the crucifixion Jesus we see that the crowd was once again rejecting Jesus because he wasn’t the messiah they wanted. The wanted a strong military leader, one who would overthrow Rome and return to them power and freedom. The people didn’t like the freedom from sin and death that Jesus offered they wanted power and military freedom from Rome. In this group we see a desire to create our own messiahs out weigh the truth of the Christ who offers true freedom. We become like the crowd when we would rather follow a messiah of our own creation then the Christ given to us by God who sets us free from sin and death.

WE ARE BARABBAS!

The second greatest figure in this gospel narrative, after Jesus, is Barabbas. Not because of who he is or what he had done, but because of who he represents. In that moment on that day he was set free from the bondage of prison and given a pardon from execution, because Jesus took his place. This is one of the greatest realizations for any of us, when we see that we are Barabbas. A sinner who deserved the just punishment due us, one who stood against God and the truth of His word, one who did not deserve another to stand in our place, and yet by the intervention of God we have been set free. We no longer carry the charges against us, we no longer carry the punishment that was due us, we have been set free because he has taken our place. We are Barabbas when we repent and believe and put our faith in Christ who takes our place!

The Six Glories of John 3:16

In 1917 pastor and hymn writer Frederick Lehman wrote the following words, “The love of God is greater far, than tongue or pen can ever tell, it goes beyond the highest star and reaches to the lowest hell; the guilty pair, bowed down with care, God gave His Son to win, His erring child He reconciled and pardoned from his sin…Could we with ink the ocean fill and were the skies of parchment made, were every stalk on earth a quill and every man a scribe by trade, to write the love of God above would drain the ocean dry, nor could the scroll contain the whole, though stretched from sky to sky.”[1]

These words describe the beauty and wonder of the boundless and wonderful love of God. This love is revealed to us all over the Bible. From Genesis to Revelation we see a holy God in love choosing, pursuing, rescuing, changing, and keeping sinful men and women for the glory of His name. There are literally 1,000 places we could go to in Scripture to see this love revealed to us in manifold splendor, but there is one place which rises above all others. John 3:16 is the most famous, the most well known, as well as the most prized verse in the whole Bible. This verse is literally everywhere: from Tim Tebow’s eye black to the lips of every evangelist, from countless posters at sporting events to innumerable bumper stickers, from the pulpits of churches around the world the millions of Christians in those churches, John 3:16 is without a doubt a massive source of comfort and security. But while this is without a doubt the most well known verse of all the Bible, I also think it is also without a doubt one of the most misunderstood and distorted verses in all of the Bible. I believe this to be true because one can know John 3:16 without really knowing what it teaches. Everyone loves it’s big, grand, and universal scope, but no one gives a thought to how particular the verse is. 

See here the six glories of John 3:16

1) “For…”

This first word of the verse isn’t a throwaway word for it connects John 3:16 to the larger context of John 3. So in order to know what John 3:16 means we must see it in the context it comes to us. In John 3:1-15 we witness the evening meeting between Jesus and Nicodemus where Jesus unfolds the details of what He calls the new birth and what it means to be born again. It was difficult for Nicodemus to hear and embrace these things, he was confused and a bit appalled at what Jesus had to say, even after Jesus used earthly imagery to explain what He meant Nicodemus still doesn’t get it. Jesus then in v14-15 draws a parallel between His own Person and Work with the bronze serpent Moses lifted up in the wilderness in Numbers 21. Then seemingly in order to drive that point home, we then have John 3:16 being the very next verse and the ‘for’ means that v16 is a continuation and implication of v14-15. But pause and ask, who said v16? Most red letter Bibles use red in John 3:3, v5-8, and v10-21, leading us to believe the famous words of John 3:16 were given to us from the lips of Jesus Himself. But, I differ in opinion here, and think that the evening meeting between Jesus and Nicodemus ended at v15, which would mean John 3:16 is where the apostle John’s reflection on this meeting begins.[2] And the first thing John has to say about this meeting has become the most famous verse in the entire Bible. This opening word, “For…” answers a question we have. What does this evening meeting’s dialogue ultimately mean? “For…” is the indication to us that the apostle John is about to tell us.

2) “For God…”

So John 3:16 is not only meant to be read and understood in the context of v1-15, but that the very next word is ‘God’ tells us that John 3:16 is first and foremost about God. Before this verse is ever about you or me this verse is about God. It tells us who He is, what He is like, and what He has done. “For God…” reminds us that there is a God who exists, that this world and we ourselves are not a cosmic accident or a result of chance, and that this God is not a distant God, but a God who is near to the creation and the creatures He has made. Many deny God’s existence saying He is a figment of our imagination similar to the tooth fairy, and just as we all grew up and out of our childish belief in the tooth fairy we must also grow up and out of our childish belief about God. I tell you today that God is not a mere symbol that mankind created and attaches meaning to. God is not a divine fairy tale character. God is not a figment of our imagination. What does John 3:16 say? The reality of John 3:16 is that before any of us existed, and before this world existed God was! The wonder of John 3:16 is that this God, who was and is fully sufficient, independent, lacking nothing, out of sheer grace created this world and every human on it so that we would glorify Him by enjoying Him forever. John 3:16 is rightly and surely a verse loaded with good news, but the first piece of good news John 3:16 gives us is this: “God is, and He has not remained silent.”[3] What then did God do toward this world He made?

3) “For God so loved the world…”

Just like a full size crunch bar gets better and better with each bite, so too, the glory and beauty of John 3:16 gets better and better with each phrase. We have seen that there is a God – holy, just, independent, gracious, and fully sufficient. We have seen that this God isn’t aloof from the world He made. We now see here that this God who made the world has a certain disposition toward this world, toward us, He loves. “For God so loved the world…” Two things are important to see here:

a) How we interpret the word ‘so’ is incredibly important to how we interpret this verse. For example most of us, being native English speakers, interpret the word ‘so’ to carry a meaning of intensity as when a husband says to his wife ‘I love you sooo much.’ This is a legitimate use of the word ‘so’ in English but this notion of intensity is not in view in the original Greek word here. Rather than intensity, the Greek meaning of the word ‘so’ is one of ‘manner’ which makes John 3:16 say something like, “For God loved the world in this manner…” or “For God loved the world like this…”

b) How we interpret the word ‘world’ is also incredibly important. John’s use of the Greek word ‘cosmos’ which means ‘world’ is an all-encompassing word that includes the entire created order. It’s not so much referring to individual people, but referring to all God has made. God, therefore has a loving disposition toward all He has made. Knowing this should then lead to us being surprised because this world is a fallen world. We believe that when our first parents Adam and Eve bit the fruit they plunged mankind into death, and the entire created order fell from its original position. Thus, ever since Genesis 3 this world has been a fallen world, filled with a humanity that is hostile to God, unwilling to submit to God, and rebellious to God. Yet, in spite of this continual rebellion and hostility God what? He loved this world? John 3:16 says so. That God would love a world like this, filled with sinful people like us, does not communicate our own value or worth – no – it communicates the greatness of His love that is characteristic of who He is.

But this poses a new question: how did God love the world?

4) “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son…”

How did God love the world? He loved the world that He gave to it. So God isn’t merely a God of who is characterized by love, but this love moved Him to give. What did He give? He gave that which was most dear to Himself, His one, unique, and only Son.[4] Now comes the larger question: why did He give His Son? Think of it like this. If you don’t like me, you could probably hide around the church until everyone left, pop out as I’m locking up and punch me in the face. There probably wouldn’t be very serious consequences to doing that, you probably could just leave like normal, go home and have lunch while I’m lying on the floor knocked out. Now contrast punching me in the face with trying to punch President Trump in the face. It is highly likely the moment you tried to get close enough to do so that a secret service member will take his gun out and shoot you. Why? He’s the President, there are very serious consequences and penalties to trying to harm him. But why is there a difference in punishment between harming President Trump and harming me? Because the nature of punishment is measured by who the crime is committed against.

Now come back to John 3:16. Remember, we have sinned against the highest One there is, God. And because we sinned against God who is the cosmic King of all, even the smallest of sins against Him is cosmic treason. Why then did God in love give His Son? To to live the perfect life we never could have lived and die the death we deserved to die. So Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, was given by God live for us, die for us, and wonder of wonders…the very thing we’re celebrating today…rise for us.

5) “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him…”

Wrongly, many assume John 3:16 says something like “For God so loved the world that God sent His only Son to save everyone.” The word ‘whoever’ truly is universal in its scope, but do you see how the verse places a condition on how to gain the benefits of Christ’s work? ‘Whoever…believes.’ The great and loving work of God through Christ is not doled out to everyone in general. No, it only applies to those who believe, those who trust, those who come to Christ clinging to Him as we would cling to a parachute while skydiving. This is none other than the ‘way of salvation.’ God doesn’t say He gave His Son to whoever obeys His commandments, or that He gave His Son to whoever does not sin, or that He gave His Son to whoever does not struggle with doubt or despair. No, He gave His Son to whoever believes. Charles Spurgeon once said it like this, “Faith, however slender, saves the soul.”[5]

I wonder, what are you believing in today? What are you trusting in? What are you clinging to? Perhaps some of you know the facts of the gospel, you may even believe that those facts are true, but you’re not believing in them one bit to save your soul. No, the life you’re now living is a life of unstable hopes and you’re looking to many other things in this world to give you stability and rescue from the evils you feel within your own fallen and sinful heart. If that’s you be challenged, hoping in the world or in other people will leave you distressed, only hoping in Christ will bring you rest. Or perhaps you’re discouraged and feel that you’re too weak or despairing to grab ahold of Christ by faith, that the pit you’ve fallen into is far too deep to get out of, so deep that the sun itself doesn’t even shine where you exist day by day. Be encouraged, for the smallest faith receives the same strong Christ as the strongest faith in the world.[6] Whether you’re barely entering your teens, in the middle of life, or gaining more and more of a grey head – ‘whoever believes’ is a call from God that has no limit!

6) “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”

See here a contrast God intends us to see. The end of unbelief is the beginning of eternal suffering in hell, while the end of belief is the beginning of pleasure forevermore in heaven. This is not just a matter for the future. For all hard-hearted sinners who reject the Son of God will be hardened even more in this life, while all hard-hearted sinners who embrace the Son of God are softened and experience the spiritual blessings and benefits of the New Covenant Christ came to begin even now.

Citations:

[1] R. Kent Hughes, John: That You May Believe, Preaching the Word Commentary, page 89.

[2] R.C. Sproul, John, St. Andrew’s Expositional Commentary, page 44. See also Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, NICNT, page 228.

[3] See Francis Shaeffer, He is There and He Is Not Silent, Tyndale House, 1972.

[4] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, NICNT, page 230.

[5] Charles Spurgeon, Immeasurable Love, sermon delivered on 1850 in the Metropolitan Tabernacle.

[6] Jared Wilson, There is No Faith So Little That it is Not Saving, For the Church Blog, accessed 4/13/17.

May Easter Weekend Smite Your Heart With Christ’s Beauty

At the end of Tolkien’s epic The Lord of the Rings there is a scene to behold. Far into the dark and evil land of Mordor a solemn and weary Samwise Gamgee looked up into the sky, saw the clouds part, and beheld a single star. Tolkien describes this moment like this, “Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing; there was light and high beauty forever beyond its reach.”[1]

In the evil and fallenness of our own present existence we often feel a similar despair, and may be tempted to lose all hope. But like the single star that smote Sam’s heart with a beauty that revived his soul for the journey before him, so too, there is one thing that can smite our hearts with a fierce beauty and revive us again – the good news, or the gospel of, Jesus Christ. “One new discovery of the glory of Christ’s face and the fountain of His sweet grace and love…” says Jonathan Edwards “…will do more towards scattering clouds of darkness and doubting in one minute than examining old experiences by the best mark that can be given a whole year.”

Being that it is Easter weekend, I want to remind you of great gospel truth. To see the wonders of the gospel I want to take you to 1 Corinthians 15:1-7, where we see two things: A Reminder of the Gospel (v1-2) and An Explanation of the Gospel (v3-7)

A Reminder of the Gospel (v1-2)

Here at the end of a long letter to the Corinthians Paul begins chapter 15 (which contains his famous defense of the resurrection) by reminding them of the gospel he had once preached to them. He says they not only received it at first in the past, but that they continue in the present moment to stand fast in it and are being saved by it. So for these Corinthians, and really for all Christians, believing in the gospel is part of our past, something that we at one time did. Whether it was from our parents, friends, a book, a preacher or however we heard it, we heard the gospel, felt convinced of it’s truthfulness, repented of our sin, embraced it by faith, and experienced the power of God in salvation – this is a past memory for all Christians. But notice how Paul is speaking here: belief in the gospel is not just something involving our past, it’s also something that has an ongoing present and future importance to us.[2]

Yes our past is settled, but because of the gospel our present is secure and our future is certain. Thus, we can hold fast to Christ amid the troubles of this world knowing that Christ has been, is, and always will be holding fast to us.

Note the “if” as v2 ends? After all the glory of receiving, standing in, and continuing to be saved by the gospel, Paul says “if you continue to hold fast to the word I preached to you – unless you believed in vain.” There is a warning for us here, a call to examine how we first believed in Christ. We will only stand in and be saved by the gospel in the end if we received it correctly at the beginning, that is in true repentance and true faith. By this Paul means, if we cease to hold fast to the gospel in the present moment it is evidence that we, at first, believed in the gospel in vain. Or we can read this another other way – if we truly believed in the gospel at first, we will hold fast to it for all our days.

Well what is the gospel Paul is eager to remind them of?

An Explanation of the Gospel (v3-7)

Let me read these words again, so they wash over you afresh. “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. Then He appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles.”

Paul is eager to remind them that this gospel isn’t something he made up, but is a gospel he received from God. And more so, this gospel he’s about to explain to them carries first importance, it carries an unmatched prominence, so that nothing is more central or precious to the Christian than the gospel. But again I ask, what gospel? Beginning in v3 Paul explains the gospel through a series of propositions:

Proposition 1: Christ Died for Sins

That Christ died for sins carries with it some implied meaning Paul doesn’t explicitly speak of here. Firstly, for Christ to die for sins implies that the eternal Christ once came to us, that He in His Person bridged the gap between God and man. Truly God He became truly Man in His incarnation, He walked among us, He lived among us, He became and is now forever the God-Man. Secondly, for Christ to die for sins implies that man is in a desperate sinful condition and cannot save himself. I’m afraid this is a point many people leave out of the gospel because it is so unwelcome to the heart of man. If the bad news about ourselves is left out we not only have no true understanding of the good news, we have what amounts to a kind of gospel-lite where one learns how to be saved without learning why one needs to be saved. Thirdly, for Christ to die for sins implies that Christ died for sin. Which means He absorbed the wrath of God due to us, in His body, in our place, as our substitute. The wages of sin is death, and because Jesus drank the full cup of God’s wrath dying for our sins as the Old Testament Scriptures had foretold, we can have the free gift of eternal life.

Proposition 2: Christ was Buried

The culmination of the shame Christ bore for us was not just that He condescended and came to us, not just that He lived a life acquainted with sorrow, not just that He died on the cross for us, but that He was buried. That the very Author of life laid dead in a tomb is staggering. It shows us the ultimate end sin will bring us to if we remain in it. It shows us the truth that because He truly expired we can now truly be born anew. He embraced the chill of death that we could feel the warmth of new life.

Proposition 3: Christ was Raised

Wonder of wonders, when Jesus died, did He stay dead? No! He rose! He rose! This resurrection was the divine stamp of approval that the Father had accepted the Son’s sacrifice. This resurrection was the validation that Jesus was truly the Son of God in power. This one act sets Jesus apart from all others. Think of all other religious teachers what you will, there has only been and will ever only be One who rose from the dead. Where is Moses? Where is Mohammed? Where is Buddha? Where is Confucius? Where is Gandhi? Where is Mother Teresa? In the grave. Where is Jesus? Ruling at right hand of His Father, interceding for and building His Church. As they did of His death, so too, the Old Testament Scriptures told us Jesus would rise.

Proposition 4: Christ Appeared to Many

After rising from death, Jesus made public appearances to all the leaders of the early Church[3], and a group of 500 people who are, for the most part, still alive. You know what that’s called. Verifiable data. He came, He lived, He died, and He publicly rose.

These are Paul’s gospel propositions that he employs to explain the gospel to us.

I do wonder if on the surface of things some of you think writing to Christians about what the gospel is is as unnecessary as explaining what a hammer is to a group of carpenters.[6] But as Paul was eager to remind these Corinthians of the gospel, I’m eager to remind you as well.

A deep belief and embrace of the gospel and the kind of full life the gospel leads to is a mark of a healthy local church. Sure we gather together to sing of the gospel, to pray over and from the gospel, to hear preaching about the gospel, and to see the gospel in the sacraments, but has this gospel gotten into your soul? Has it reminded you of the propositions of good news? I pray it has, and I pray it continues to do so.

As that small star high up in the sky smote Sam Gamgee’s heart with beauty, may the gospel, may this gospel, ever smite your heart with the beauty of God.

 

 

Citations:

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King, quoted in Ray Ortlund’s The Gospel, page 55.

[2] Stephen Um, 1 Corinthians: The Word of the Cross, Preaching the Word Commentary, page 259.

[3] Craig Blomberg, 1 Corinthians, page 296.

[4] Stephen Um, 1 Corinthians: The Word of the Cross, Preaching the Word Commentary, page 261.

[5] Christopher Ash has a book about this that’s worth reading, Zeal Without Burnout.

[6] Greg Gilbert speaks of this in the opening pages of his small book, What is the Gospel?

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.

3 Ways Biblical Theology is Practical

Everyone is a theologian. Some of you may think that statement makes as much sense as the above picture of someone swimming on a road. If that’s you, you’ll want to keep reading.

You ever thought of this? Everyone you’ve ever met in your life and you yourself, are a theologian. Let me explain. If you’ve ever had a thought about God: who God is, what God is like, what God demands of us, what God does, what God doesn’t do, etc, you’re doing theology. I hear many Christians say today, ‘I don’t do theology…it causes too much division. I just love Jesus.’ What’s often overlooked in this statement is that it’s a profoundly theological statement because it presents a view of God they not only have accepted, but a view of God they would recommend others to embrace as well; a view of God in which love for God trumps thinking deeply about God. Do you see that to even come up with a view one has to do some deep thinking about the nature of love and thinking, it’s wrong thinking of course, and wholly opposite to what the Bible says, as we’ve just seen. But the point is simple, we can never escape theology. It isn’t just for pastors and elders, it’s for everyone.

So the question before us is not ‘Do you or do you not do theology?’ The question is ‘Do you do theology correctly or incorrectly?’ and that question is answered depending on how you do theology. Do you think about God on your own terms? Do your beliefs about God reflect what you want Him to be like or do you submit to His Word and believe what His Word says about Him, even when it goes against what you would naturally think or want to be true? Doing biblical theology on our own terms is simply humanism wrapped in Christian garb. Doing biblical theology on God’s terms is a rich, life-giving study that delights the soul of all who dive into the ocean of Scripture.

 

Biblical Theology is Practical

2 Timothy 3:16-17 says, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God might be complete, equipped for every good work.” Since the Bible is God-breathed it is profitable, and because the Bible is profitable there is nothing more practical for your life than what it contains. It will teach you, rebuke you, comfort you, correct you, train you in righteousness, and equip you for the good works God has prepared us to do. Knowing what this passage teaches about the nature of Scripture moves us to ask, not whether or not theology is practical, but ‘are you interested in being trained for righteousness?’ If you’re not interested in training in righteousness you won’t love the Bible and won’t love theology either. But if you are, you’ll love the Bible and will therefore love theology.

Likewise Psalm 111:2 says “Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them.” The works of God are great and if we think they’re great our response to these great works will be a deep and rich study of them. But there is more. Not only will the great works of God lead us to study them, but from studying them we’ll begin to grow in our delight over them. Too many people believe the two realities of deep study and deep delight have nothing to do with one another, yet this passage links them together. This is no accident. Studying of the great works of God leads to a deep delight in God. C.J. Mahaney stated the same like this, “Thinking deeply about the gospel is the only way to consistently feel deeply about the gospel.” So naturally a new question comes into view: do you want to delight in God? Do you want to feel deeply about the gospel? Study His works. Where are His works found? His Word.

Of course we could go to all other sorts of places throughout the Bible to see the practical nature of biblical theology and sound doctrine. For example: Rom. 16:17, “I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught.” Eph. 4:14 “…no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.” 1 Tim. 1:3, “As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine…” 1 Tim. 6:3, “If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing.” Titus 2:1, “But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine.” So as you can see, sound doctrine, or biblical theology, is ever practical to the Christian.

Biblical Theology is Practical for Life

When I was a young boy and our family would go on vacation we would always drive. And somewhere in between getting tired of the Gameboy I brought along with me and asking ‘are we there yet’ I would turn to the big Rand McNally map in the seat pocket in front of me. Maps have always fascinated me. They not only tell you where you are currently, they show you where you want to get to and how to get there. It’s immensely practical. Does it surprise you to hear me say that biblical theology is just as practical? We read maps for direction on trips, and we study sound doctrine for direction in life. We listen to teaching, not to build up our own personal information archive, but for the purpose of living it out. Instruction is for action.

We could also liken this to the work of a doctor. Doctors spend years studying the whole of human anatomy so that when a patient comes to them with a particular problem, they know what to do. In a very similar way, the Christian life deals with the same things. We have to make complicated decisions in real time, decisions that sometimes carry a lot of weight. And just as there’s no easy formula for practicing medicine, there’s no easy formula for living the Christian life. We need wisdom greater than our own for all that God brings to us in life. Where can we gain such wisdom? In biblical theology. There we learn who God is, who we are, where we’ve come from, what went wrong, how God is mending all of it, and what the ultimate end of it all will be. If we’re to live lives pleasing to God we must know these things. And praise God, 2 Peter 1:3 tells us God has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of Him. True, all of Scripture does not speak to all we will face in life, but it will give us guidance and principles we can apply to all things in life. For example, the Bible won’t tell you how to get from Tampa to Tokyo, but it will tell you how to walk wisely on the journey. The Bible doesn’t tell you who to marry but it does instruct us on what a godly spouse looks like. The Bible won’t tell you what clothes to put on in the morning, but it does give us principles about how to use our bodies to glorify God.

We can make this point in many different ways. We have already said ‘biblical theology is practical for life.’ We can also say it like this ‘sound doctrine is for sound living’ or ‘right doctrine leads to right living.’ This is why J.I Packer says, “Ignorance of God, of His ways lies at the root of much of the Church’s weakness today…Knowing God starts with knowing about Him.” Just as a good map is essential on a road trip, so too biblical theology is essential for navigating the turbulent waters of this life.

Biblical Theology is Practical for Life within the Church

When we take a step back from books in the Bible to look at the whole book, we often see things that stand out. The book of Romans makes this especially clear. In Romans, the first 11 chapters give us some of the richest, deepest, and thickest theology in the entire Bible. Paul deals with many things in the first 11 chapters which we ought to give long attention to. But when we get to Romans 11 we see something that acts as a bridge. After writing this glorious treasure trove of theology in Romans 1-11 Paul explodes into praise and says this in 11:33-36, “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! For who has known the mind of the LORD, or who became His counselor? Or who has first given to Him that it might be paid back to Him again? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.”

This praise from Paul has often been called the bridge in Romans because of where it comes from and where it leads to. It came from the rich theology in chapters 1-11; and it leads to the vast application in chapters 12-15. Why is this important? Does it surprise you to see that deep biblical theology leads to deep praise, and deep praise then leads to deep application of that theology? Imagine Paul writing this as a pot of water getting hotter and hotter as he is approaching the end of chapter 11. Chapter 11:32 brings him to the boiling point, and he then explodes in praise in 11:33-36 because of all the robust biblical theology before. Then what? This praise leads Paul to describe what? How our everyday relationships with one another in the Church are transformed by that very theology. Chapter 12 deals with how we do life with all the varying gifts present and active among us. Chapter 13 deals with how we do life with our authorities. Chapter 14 deals with how we do life with the weaker brother and sister among us. Chapter 15 deals with how we do life with one another in encouragement and harmony, helping one another to endure to the end by glorifying God together.

What does all of this mean? What’s the lesson here? Everything Paul mentions in the biblical theology of chapters 1-11 leads to the praise of God, and what does a theologically induced praise of God lead to? It leads to a rich and thorough application of how we do life together within the Church. Biblical Theology is not only practical for us individually, it’s practical for us as we are doing life together as the Church.

Perhaps you’ve tracked with all this and still think biblical theology feels like dissecting a frog in a cold science lab. If that is you be encouraged. Studying who God is and what He is like doesn’t have to be that way. Joshua Harris gives good counsel to this when he says, “You can study God the way you study an ocean sunset or sunrise that takes your breath away. You can study God the same way a husband studies his wife, knowing exactly what she likes and dislikes, her joys and sorrows.” So Church, the study of God doesn’t have to be cold and lifeless, in fact, it was never meant to be like that. We don’t want a lifeless orthodoxy – the pattern throughout Romans shows us true biblical theology leads to a fervent orthodoxy. Truth isn’t just for the head, it’s for the heart as well. R.C. Sproul makes this point well saying, “A truth can be in the head and not the heart, but a truth cannot be in the heart without first being in the head.”

Therefore, I believe those who set themselves to studying deep theology are the happiest people on earth.

And you know what is the happiest of all doctrines to study? The Everest of all theology? The gospel, where the wisdom of God, made a way to satisfy the wrath of God, without evading the justice of God, to make much of the glory of the grace of God. Thinking lightly of what God has done in Christ on our behalf will cause us to grow cold toward the things of the gospel. But thinking deeply about what God has done in Christ on our behalf will cause us to burst out in song.

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.

Be Disciplined for Christ

“But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” (1 Cor. 9:27)

When It comes to the Christian life we must think deeply about our commitment to holiness and a pursuit of Christ and the gospel in all we do. What Paul writes to the Corinthians is no less true today. He is addressing a church in distress and full of heresy and conflict. Brothers and sisters in Christ are living in open sin while others are being shunned and pushed aside because of their social status. This is at its core a church divided, a church who has become more concerned with their personal rights and desires than the gospel. They lost holiness and self-control. The lost sight of preaching the truth and living it out in a world that was dying.

When we look at the world today we continue to see a lack of self-control, humility, grace towards many in our churches, and especially towards those outside. So, today’s post is more of a reflection and a look inward. Paul while writing to this divided church took a moment to look at his own heart to instruct. He points out that the Christian life is hard, that it requires a life of commitment towards God and the desire to love and serve the family of God in humility, and reach out as a servant. Earlier in this very chapter of 1 Corinthians Paul reflected on what it meant to lay down his rights for the gospel, because the gospel was paramount. His aim was to bring glory to God and to do so he lived a life pursuant to the gospel command and the model set before him in Christ.

During this tumultuous time, we as believers need to reflect on how we are presenting the gospel to the world around us, whether or not we’re seeking to become all things to all people for the sake for the gospel, and whether our desire to be right or more important. I’ll confess even this past week I got into a minor disagreement and allowed my need to be right to surpass my need to be Christ, and the spirit convicted me of that fact and brought me back to this text and the point Paul wants us to see. We are gospel people first and foremost. We have been saved and set free from sin and death and given a new life. We have joy abundantly in him, that the world could take our life and we inherit a greater one.

However, there are those on the outside. They live under the wrath of God. They are stuck in sin, whether it brings them happiness or pain it’s destination is the same. They live in pursuit of that which is not God. They may even ‘drink smoke and chew and go with girls who do’ to quote an old pastor of mine. The point is they need the gospel and the truth it brings, and we need to discipline our bodies and run the race set before us to reach them. Our personal holiness is an evangelistic holiness. We are called to them. We are called to lay down the things that are not the gospel to reach them with it.

Part of what we do is grow in holiness for the sake for the cross. Paul points to the hope we have in Christ as the motivation for running the race. So, when we speak online or in person are we more concerned with their desire to see Christ in us and through us or us being right and seen as such? Anyone who knows me knows I like being right, but at the same time I know and am being reminded by the truth of the gospel and that being right for the sake of being right is not worth the loss of my gospel witness.

It is not worth running the race in vain.

So will you join me in running the race with grace and holiness, seeking to become all things to all people for the sake of the Gospel? That we may be witness’ to a dying world? That through the work of Christ we may see lives changed by the power of the Gospel which is the only true salvation in this life?

Do We Really Believe in the Bible?

While many of us may have heard this question from someone who doesn’t believe in God or at least not the one presented in Scripture, it is a bit different when it comes from a Christian.

For many in evangelical Christianity this is an argument that has been settled since the mid-twentieth century, and in the SBC it was met by a landslide victory in the 1980’s that solidified the foundation of our faith in the Christ of Scripture. Now when we use the word ‘believe’ we are not talking about salvation, but as the apostle Paul says to Timothy “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:15-16).

So why has this discussion come back up again? In the last few weeks a prominent Pastor has spoken in 2 different forums and in both case exposed a belief that the Scriptures are a stumbling block to non-believers and as us such we should make them less important to our conversations with them. Instead of focusing on what Scripture says we need to only focus on what Jesus says and making a historical case for His resurrection…in the end is not the Bible that saves anyone it is faith in a resurrected Savior.

To this I would agree, that we’re saved through the work of the Spirit in us leading us to repentance and faith in the one true God, and this faith is not placed in ourselves but in the work of Jesus the Christ who came to earth in the time of Caesar Augustus and was crucified under the governance of Pontius Pilot in Caesarea. But who is this Christ, not who is Jesus, who is Christ? Apart from the rest of Scripture the title means little or nothing. Apart from a belief in the Old Testament prophecies, the covenants handed down from Adam to David, the words of Isaiah of one who would suffer so that we may live, what is it that our belief is founded in?

Now I could spend a lot of time giving an apologetic on the reason we believe the Bible, but that is not my goal today. My goal is to point out a simple flaw in the whole realm of thought that we can somehow jettison the Scriptures for the sake of evangelism.

For those who have read my first two post here and here, the final call of Christ is an important one, but one that encouraged the disciples not to hide from the Scriptures but to embrace them. In Luke 24 while on the road to Emmaus Jesus doesn’t just talk to these disciples about all the cool things that He did on earth and how they should put their faith in Him because of those things. No, He points back to the Old Testament and walked them through how this Jesus who they followed had to be the Messiah because all of Scripture pointed to this moment. He was the fulfillment of all that went before. They were talking to the Son of God and He wanted them to see how He was the fulfillment of scripture, not for them to abandon Scripture. When He appears to the rest of His disciples at the end of the chapter we see that Jesus opens their minds to understand the Scriptures in light of Himself.

So in Jesus’ own words the Scripture must be true and valid, for if they are not then how can we trust that He is the promised one. How could Peter preach in Acts 2 that the day’s prophesized by Joel were coming to pass? The teachings and work of Christ mean little if we do not have the Old Testament, without them we cannot fully understand or appreciate the Christ,. We cannot fully appreciate the long suffering work of God. We cannot fully grasp that God is working all things to His end, in His time table, and that He will bring these things to pass.

Clearly, the Scriptures are essential for our full understanding of God and His Christ, Jesus.

Now then the question will arise ‘Are they necessary for salvation?’ And to that I would ask ‘What are they being saved to?’ The first words of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark are a look into the message he came to proclaim: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).

What is so interesting is the Gospel we are to believe in is based on the reality of two preceding things, 1) the time is fulfilled, and 2) the Kingdom of God is at hand. It is out of these two things we are called to repent and believe. We don’t repent and believe because we want a ‘better life’ or because we want to feel better about ourselves. We repent and believe because of the conviction of sin and the reality that the time has come and the plan of God is fulfilled in His Son the Christ, who is the foundation of the message Jesus is proclaiming. Our faith is deeper than a prayer, it is more than a moment, it is a life with Jesus the Christ the Son of God who was promised from Genesis 3:15, who visited Joshua before Jericho, who stood beside the faithful in Babylon, and who is the suffering servant portrayed in the book of Isaiah.

So while we would agree the Bible doesn’t save anyone (only God can do that, only the Spirit at work can change a heart of stone to the heart of flesh) we cannot agree that the Old Testament is not a very important part of the Christian faith. It teaches us and points us to the only promised one of God. By it Phillip leads an Ethiopian eunuch to an understanding of Jesus as the one promised in Isaiah 53. By it Stephen makes his defense for his faith before the Jewish religious leaders.

For some this brief article will just seem like semantics, to others it will seem like nit picking, to some maybe it will be another reminder to be clear and concise when speaking about what you believe, but personally listening to the talks this past week and the follow up this week by apologists attempting to clarify (sort of) the view of Scripture that started this whole theological and pastoral pondering, it was a reminder to know what and why we believe.

My faith is in a risen Savior. Who came, suffered, and died as the Word of God declared would take place, and now has risen from the dead 3 days later and ascended to the right hand of the Father as testified to by the apostles. I believe because of the work of Christ in me and I am assured of His love and promises because of His written Word to us, both the Old and the New.

Yes I believe in the Event and in the Words that testify to it. Both before and after its occurrence.

Want Some Good News?

“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ…” (Mark 1:1a)

Do you ever watch the evening news? Man, is it a downer, sometimes. Within the first five minutes you hear about a double homicide, a kidnapping, a terrorist attack, and some corrupt politician who has been caught doing something shady. And then on top of all that, you find out it’s going to rain all weekend. It just seems like the world is full of bad news. I think that is why we have the saying, “no news, is good news” because so much news is bad news.

Well, the word “gospel” in the verse above literally means “good news.” And in a world full of bad news, we need some good news. This news that Mark speaks of is not just good news, it’s the best news we could ever hear. It’s the good news of Jesus Christ! And the reason that news is so good is because we are sinners who have rebelled against God and as a result His wrath hovers over us. We have offended a holy God with our sin. And left to ourselves, there is no way that we can make this right.

Imagine if you were given the task of counting every single grain of sand in the world.  Do you think you could do it? Of course not, it is literally impossible. And as impossible as it is, the chances of you counting every single grain of sand in the world is far more likely than you being able to remove the wrath of God that rests upon you because of your sin. It can’t be done. On our own we cannot appease God, we cannot make right what we have made wrong. We have sinned against God and we deserve punishment and there is nothing we can do to fix that.

But the good news of the gospel is that

Christ has done what we could never do.

He lived the perfect life that we were supposed to live but failed, and died in our place taking the death we deserve, and then three days later He rose again. And in doing so, He has removed the punishment off of those who trust in Him. Our sin, our shame, and our punishment has all been nailed to the cross, and we have been forgiven because of Christ’s sacrificial work. The good news is that all those who turn from their sin and turn in faith to Jesus will be saved and will spend eternity with Him.

That is the good news. That is the gospel of Jesus Christ!