Wednesday, February 26, 2014

While We Were Yet Sinners

Tullian Tchividjian post:  We Don't Find Grace, Grace Finds Us

I love the introduction to Sally Lloyd-Jones’ Jesus Storybook Bible.  A piece of it goes like this:
Other people think the Bible is a book of heroes, showing you people you should copy. The Bible does have some heroes in it, but…most of the people in the Bible aren’t heroes at all. They make some big mistakes (sometimes on purpose). They get afraid and run away. At times they are downright mean. No, the Bible isn’t a book of rules, or a book of heroes. The Bible is most of all a story. It’s an adventure story about a young Hero who comes from a far country to win back his lost treasure. It’s a love story about a brave Prince who leaves his palace, his throne – everything – to rescue the one he loves.
She’s right. I think that most people, when they read the Bible (and especially when they read the Old Testament), read it as a catalog of heroes (on the one hand) and cautionary tales (on the other). For instance, don’t be like Cain — he killed his brother in a fit of jealousy – but do be like David: God asked him to do something crazy, and he had the faith to follow through.
Since Genesis 3 we have been addicted to setting our sights on something, someone, smaller than Jesus. Why? It’s not that there aren’t things about certain people in the Bible that aren’t admirable. Of course there are. We quickly forget, however, that whatever we see in them that is commendable is a reflection of the gift of righteousness they’ve received from God-it is nothing about them in and of itself.
Running counter to this idea of Bible-as-hero-catalog, I find that the best news in the Bible is that God incessantly comes to the down-trodden, broken, and non-heroic characters. It’s good news because it means he comes to people like me — and like you.
Our impulse to protect Bible characters and make them the “end” of the story happens almost universally with the story of Noah.
Noah is often presented to us as the first character in the Bible really worthy of emulation. Adam? Sinner. Eve? Sinner. Cain? Big sinner! But Noah? Finally, someone we can set our sights on, someone we can shape our lives after, right? This is why so many Sunday School lessons handle the story of Noah like this: “Remember, you can believe what God says! Just like Noah! You too can stand up to unrighteousness and wickedness in our world like Noah did. Don’t be like the bad people who mocked Noah. Be like Noah.”
I understand why many would read this account in this way. After all, doesn’t the Bible say that Noah “was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked faithfully with God” (Genesis 6:9)? Pretty incontrovertible, right?
Not so fast.
Let’s take a closer look. You can’t understand verse 9 properly unless you understand its context.  Here’s the whole section, verses 5-7:
The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled. So the Lord said, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created—and with them the animals, the birds and the creatures that move along the ground—for I regret that I have made them.”
Now that’s a little different, isn’t it? Look at all the superlatives: every inclination, only evil,all the time! That kind of language doesn’t leave a lot of room for exceptions…and “exception” is just the way Noah has always been described to me. “Well,” I hear, “Everyone was sinful except Noah. He was able to be a righteous man in a sinful world…it’s what we’re all called to be.” But that’s not at all what God says! He says, simply and bluntly, that he “will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created.” No exceptions. No exclusions.
So what happens? How do we get from verse 7 (“I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created…for I regret that I have made them.”) to verse 9 (“Noah was a righteous man.”)?  We get from here to there – from sin to righteousness — by the glory of verse 8, which highlights the glory of God’s initiating grace.
“But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord” (Genesis 6:8).
Some read this and make it sound like God is scouring the earth to find someone—anyone—who is righteous. And then one day, while searching high and low, God sees Noah and breathes a Divine sigh of relief. “Phew…there’s at least one.” But that’s not what it says.
“Favor” here is the same word that is translated elsewhere as “grace.” In other words, as is the case with all of us who know God, it was God who found us—we didn’t find God. We are where we are today, not because we found grace, but because grace found us. In his bookSurprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis recounts his own conversion with these memorable words:
You must picture me alone in my room, night after night, feeling the steady, unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had come upon me. In the fall term of 1929 I gave in and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most reluctant convert in all England. Modern people cheerfully talk about the search for God. To me, as I then was, they might as well have talked about the mouse’s search for the cat.
It took the grace of God to move Noah from the ranks of the all-encompassing unrighteous onto the rolls of the redeemed. Pay special attention to the order of things: 1) Noah is a sinner, 2) God’s grace comes to Noah, and 3) Noah is righteous. Noah’s righteousness is not a precondition for his receiving favor (though we are wired to read it this way)…his righteousness is a result of his having already received favor!
The Gospel is not a story of God meeting sinners half-way, of God desperately hoping to find that one righteous man on whom he can bestow his favor. The news is so much better than that. The Gospel is that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).  Sinners like Noah, like you, and like me are recipients of a descending, one-way love that changes everything, breathes new life into dead people, and has the power to carry us from unrighteousness to righteousness without an ounce of help.
So, even in the story of Noah, we see that the Bible is a not a record of the blessed good, but rather the blessed bad. The Bible is not a witness to the best people making it up to God; it’s a witness to God making it down to the worst people. Far from being a book full of moral heroes whom we are commanded to emulate, what we discover is that the so-called heroes in the Bible are not really heroes at all. They fall and fail; they make huge mistakes; they get afraid; they’re selfish, deceptive, egotistical, and unreliable. The Bible is one long story of God meeting our rebellion with His rescue, our sin with His salvation, our guilt with His grace, our badness with His goodness.
Yes, God is the hero of every story—even the story of Noah.

Make Good Men Wish It Were True

Tim Keller post:  Pascal's Method for Presenting the Christian Faith

Men despise religion. They hate it and are afraid it may be true. The cure for this is first to show that religion is not contrary to reason, but worthy of reverence and respect. Next make it attractive, make good men wish it were true, and then show that it is.
Blaise Pascal was a brilliant 17th-century French mathematician and physicist who had a dramatic Christian conversion experience and thereafter devoted much of his thought to Christianity and philosophy. He began to assemble notes and fragments he hoped would be woven into a book called The Defense of the Christian Religion, but he died just two months after his 39th birthday and it was never written. Those fragments, however, were published as Pensees ("Thoughts"), and it has become one of the most famous Christian books in history.
One of the most interesting of Pascal's Pensees is the one quoted above. Here Pascal looks holistically at how to present the Christian message to those who do not believe it. He begins with the psychology of non-belief. He says that people are not objective about religion (here meaning Christianity). They really despise it and don't want it to be true—yet fear it may be true. Some of these are fair-minded people who see good, well-thought-out reasons Christianity is not true. Others are not so fair-minded, and they just vilify and caricature it. But no one is neutral. People know instinctively that if Christianity is true they will lose control, and they will not be able to live any way they wish. So they are rooting for it not to be true, and are more than willing to accept any objections to the faith they hear.
How should Christians respond? Pascal thinks there are basically three stages to bringing someone on the way to faith. First, you have to disarm and surprise them. Many people hope Christianity does not make sense on any level. They especially enjoy hearing about professing Christians who are intemperate, irrational, and hypocritical—this confirms them in their non-belief. When, however, some presentation of Christian faith—or simply a Christian believer's character—comes across as well-informed, thoughtful, sensible, open-minded, helpful, and generous, then this breaks stereotypes and commands a begrudging respect.
After this, Pascal says, we should be somewhat more proactive. "Next make it attractive, make good men wish [Christianity] were true." We might object to the term "make" and suggest that Christianity is already attractive, but that's to miss Pascal's point. Of course he isn't saying we should make Christianity into something it's not; rather, we should reveal, point out, and expose its existing features. But the phrase "make good men wish it were true" gets across that this takes determination and ingenuity. We must know our culture—know its hopes—and then show others that only in Christ will their aspirations ever find fulfillment, that only in him will the plot lines of their lives ever have resolution and a happy ending.
I'm glad Pascal calls for this because, understandably, in these conversations we want to talk about sin and the barrier it creates between God and us. Pascal isn't arguing against that. Certainly he isn't telling us to hide that. But do we take time to talk about the manifold and astonishing blessings of salvation? Do we give time and effort to explaining the new birth; our new name and identity; adoption into God's family; the experience of God's love and beholding Christ's glory; the slow but radical change in our character; a growing freedom from our past and peace in our present; power and meaning in the face of suffering; membership in a new, universal, multi-racial counter-cultural community; a mission to do justice and mercy on the earth; guidance from and personal fellowship with God himself; relationships of love that go on forever; the promise of our own future perfection and glorious beauty; complete confidence in the face of death; and the new heavens and new earth, a perfectly restored material world?
If we do this, Pascal gives us a very specific outcome to shoot for. If we've pointed out such things in an effective way, then some (though surely not all) will say, "If Christianity really can give that, it would be wonderful. Yes, it would be great if it were true. But of course Christianity isn't. What a shame!"
Only then will most people will sit through any kind of substantial presentation of the evidence and reasons for the truth of Christianity. Now Pascal says to "show that it is [true]." If they have not been brought through stage 1 (being disarmed and surprised by the lives and speech of believers) and stage 2 (seeing the great and attractive promises of God in Christ), their eyes will simply glaze over if you begin talking about "the evidence for the resurrection." They will still expect Christianity to be at best useless and at worst a threat. But if Christianity has begun to make emotional and cultural sense they may listen to a sustained discussion of why it makes logical and rational sense. By "emotional sense" I mean that Christianity must be shown to be fill holes and answer questions and account for phenomena in the personal, inward, heart realm. By "cultural sense" I mean that Christianity must be shown to have the resources to powerfully address our social problems and explain human social behavior.
Only if their imagination is captured will most people give a fair hearing to the strong arguments for the truth of Christianity. Let's appeal to heart and imagination as well as to reason as we speak publicly about our faith in Jesus.
Editors' note: This article originally appeared in the newsletter of Redeemer Presbyterian Church.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Sustaining Grace

Vaneetha Rendall Demski post:  When God Does the Miracle We Didn't Ask For

Countless childhood surgeries. Yearlong stints in the hospital. Verbal and physical bullying from classmates. Multiple miscarriages as a young wife. The unexpected death of a child. A debilitating progressive disease. Riveting pain. Betrayal. A husband who leaves.
If it were up to me, I would have written my story differently. Not one of those phrases would be included. Each line represents something hard. Gut wrenching. Life changing.
But now, in retrospect, I wouldn’t erase a single line.
Honestly, it is only in hindsight that I can make such a bold statement. Through all of those devastating events, I begged God to deliver me. To save my baby, to reverse my disease, to bring my husband back. Each time God said no.

Instead of Deliverance

“No” was not the answer I wanted. I was looking for miraculous answers to prayer, a return to normalcy, relief from the pain. I wanted the kind of grace that would deliver me from my circumstances.
God, in his mercy, offered his sustaining grace.
At first, I rejected it as insufficient. I wanted deliverance. Not sustenance. I wanted the pain to stop, not to be held up through the pain. I was just like the children of Israel who rejoiced at God’s delivering grace in the parting of the Red Sea, but complained bitterly at his sustaining grace in the provision of manna.
With every heartache I wanted a Red Sea miracle. A miracle that would astonish the world, reward me for my faithfulness, make my life glorious. I didn’t want manna.
But God knew better. Each day he continued to put manna before me. At first, I grumbled. It seemed like second best. It wasn’t the feast I envisioned. It was bland and monotonous. But after a while, I began to taste the manna, embrace it, and savor its sweetness.

A Far Deeper Work

This manna, this sustaining grace, is what upheld me. It revived me when I was weak. It drove me to my knees. And unlike delivering grace, which once received, inadvertently moved me to greater independence from God, sustaining grace kept me tethered to him. I needed it every day. Like manna, it was new every morning.
God has delivered me and answered some prayers with a resounding “yes” in jaw-dropping, supernatural ways. I look back at them with gratitude and awe. Yet after those prayers were answered, I went back to my everyday life, often less dependent on God. But the answers of “no” or “wait,” and those answered by imperceptible degrees over time have done a far deeper work in my soul. They have kept me connected to the Giver and not his gifts. They have forced me to seek him. And in seeking him, I have discovered the intimacy of his fellowship.
In the midst of my deepest pain, in the darkness, God’s presence has been unmistakable. Through excruciating struggles, he speaks to me. He comforts me through his word. He whispers to me in the dark, as I lie awake on my tear-stained pillow. He sings beautiful songs over me of his love.

The Joy of His Manna

At first, I just want the agony to go away. I don’t rejoice in the moment. I don’t rejoice at all. But as I cling to God and his promises, he sustains me. Joy is at first elusive. I have glimpses of delight, but it is mostly slow and incremental.
Yet over time, I realize I have an inexplicable joy. Not in my circumstances but in the God who cares so fiercely for me. Eating the everyday, bland, sometimes unwelcome manna produces a joy beyond my wildest imaginings.
I have found that this joy, which is often birthed out of suffering, can never be taken away; it only gets richer over time. My circumstances cannot diminish it. It produces lasting fruit like endurance, character, and hope. It draws me to God in breathtaking ways. It achieves a weight of glory that is beyond all comparison.
I still pray earnestly for deliverance, for the many things I long to see changed, both in my life and in the world. That is right. It’s biblical. We need to bring our requests to God.
But much as I long for deliverance, for delivering grace, I see the exquisite blessing in sustaining grace. It’s not about getting what I want; it’s about God giving me what I desperately need: himself.

Our Only Hope Is In the Kindness and Mercy of God

Michael Horton post:  When Life Hurts

Monks go looking for a cross, thinking that they are pleasing God by their stoic resolve. We encounter this sometimes in our own circles today, as believers often feel obliged to smile in public even if they collapse at home in private despair.
John Calvin counters, “Such a cheerfulness is not required of us as to remove all feeling of bitterness and pain.”
It is not as the Stoics of old foolishly described “the great-souled man”: one who, having cast off all human qualities, was affected equally by adversity and prosperity, by sad times and happy ones — nay, who like a stone was not affected at all. . . .
Now, among the Christians there are also new Stoics, who count it depraved not only to groan and weep but also to be sad and care-ridden. These paradoxes proceed, for the most part, from idle men who, exercising themselves more in speculation than in action, can do nothing but invent such paradoxes for us.
Yet we have nothing to do with this iron philosophy which our Lord and Master has condemned not only by his word, but also by his example. For he groaned and wept both over his own and others’ misfortunes. . . . And that no one might turn it into a vice, he openly proclaimed, “Blessed are those who mourn.”

The Sufferer’s Asylum

Especially given how some of Calvin’s heirs have confused a Northern European “stiff upper lip” stoicism with biblical piety, it is striking how frequently he rebuts this “cold” philosophy that would “turn us to stone.” Suffering is not to be denied or downplayed, but arouses us to flee to the asylum of the Father, in the Son, by the Spirit.
It is quite unimaginable that this theology of the cross will top the best-seller lists in our “be good–feel good” culture, but those who labor under perpetual sorrows, as Calvin did, will find solidarity in his stark realism:
Then only do we rightly advance by the discipline of the cross when we learn that this life, judged in itself, is troubled, turbulent, unhappy in countless ways, and in no respect clearly happy; that all those things which are judged to be its goods are uncertain, fleeting, vain, and vitiated by many intermingled evils. From this, at the same time, we conclude that in this life we are to seek and hope for nothing but struggle; when we think of our crown, we are to raise our eyes to heaven. For this we must believe: that the mind is never seriously aroused to desire and ponder the life to come unless it is previously imbued with contempt for the present life.
Yet precisely because “this life, judged in itself,” is filled with misery, the obvious evidences of God’s grace to us in the gospel fill us with hope. For our life is not merely judged in itself.

The Sufferer’s Hope

Only when the burden of this life presses us to lodge our entire confidence in Christ and the blessings of the age to come do we not only find the strength to endure this life, but also recognize bright beams of God’s kindness even in our temporal circumstances. “Since, therefore, this life serves us in understanding God’s goodness, should we despise it as if it had no grain of good in itself?”
Only when we are made certain that our only hope is in the kindness, love, and mercy of God — and not at all in the circumstances of our lives now — can we begin to wonder at so many blessings instead of complain at the slightest adversity. “When we are certain that the earthly life we live is a gift of God’s kindness, as we are beholden to him for it we ought to remember it and be thankful.”
In spite of some of his bleak comments, Calvin makes it clear that the misery of this present life is not natural. He longs to be liberated not from creation, but from sin. “Of course,” he says, the present life “is never to be hated except in so far as it holds us subject to sin; although not even hatred of that condition may ever properly be turned against life itself.”
Meditation on our frailty — even death — is not an end in itself. It is meant to lead us to hope in the resurrection. Ironically, it is the denial of death and the resurrection of the body that leads pagans to suppress the tragic aspect of life — even while “the brute animals and even inanimate creatures — even trees and stones — conscious of the emptiness of their present condition, long for the final day of resurrection” and know that “this earthly decay” does not have the last word. “To conclude in a word: if believers’ eyes are turned to the power of the resurrection, in their hearts the cross of Christ will at last triumph over the devil, flesh, sin, and wicked men.”

The Sufferer’s Realism

As it turns out, then, Calvin’s “meditation on the future life” is not a flight from this world, but a deeper identification with it. It is a realism and hope grounded in the gospel that opens us up to his grace and our callings in the world.
We are not monks, depriving ourselves of everything but the basic necessities. “And we also cannot avoid those things which seem to serve delight more than necessity. Therefore we must hold to a measure so as to use them with a clear conscience, whether for necessity or delight.”
Paradoxically, those who have let go of this life, those who are no longer slaves to its promises of health, wealth, and happiness, are free to enjoy its gifts as pleasures directing our gratitude to a generous Father.

Adapted from Dr. Horton’s forthcoming book, Calvin on the Christian Life: Glorifying and Enjoying God Forever (Crossway, March 31, 2014), 253–5. Footnotes removed, headings added, and posted here by the publisher’s permission.

From childhood Calvin’s life was filled with suffering and pain, and at the recent conference for pastors, Dr. Horton shared a six-minute small talk on his many physical ailments, saying, “There’s almost nothing he didn’t have.” You can watch it here:

Thursday, February 6, 2014

In My Place Condemned He Stood

Tullian Tchividjian post:  God Threw A Stone

As I’ve said before, God speaks two words to the world. People have called them many things: Law and Gospel, Judgment and Love, Critique and Grace, and so on. In essence, though, it’s pretty simple: first God gives us bad news (about us) and then He gives us Good News (about Jesus).
This is perhaps most clearly seen in another incredibly well-known (and incredibly misunderstood) passage of Scripture: Jesus’ interaction with the woman caught in the act of adultery.
The scribes and Pharisees catch a woman in the act of adultery, and drag her before Jesus. Can you imagine a woman who ever felt more shame than this one? Literally caught in the act of adultery? Unfathomable. They tell Jesus of her infraction, and remind him that the law of Moses says such women should be stoned. Then they issue a challenge: “What do you say?” They’re trying to trick Jesus into admitting what they suspect: that he’s “soft” on the Law.
Boy, were they wrong.
Confronted by this test, Jesus bends down and writes in the sand with his finger. Now, we aren’t told what he writes, but I think it’s instructive to look at the only other instances in the Bible where God writes with his finger. The first is obvious: The inscription of the 10 Commandments on the stone tablets. The second, though, is less well-known.
In Daniel 5, King Belshazzar is having a huge party, at which “they praised the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone” (v. 4). Suddenly, a hand appears and begins writing on the wall. When Daniel is called in to translate the writing, this is what it is revealed to say: “Mene: God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end.Tekel: You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting. Peres: Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.” There can be no doubt that these are three words of judgment—i.e. Law. “You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting.” Has a more chilling word of judgment ever been uttered?
So the two other times God wrote with his finger, he wrote law. I don’t think, therefore, it’s a stretch to think that when Jesus writes in the sand with his finger, he’s writing law. I like to think that perhaps Jesus wrote, “Anyone who even looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:28).
Far from being “soft” on the Law, Jesus shows just how high the bar of the law is. How do we know? Because the scribes and Pharisees respond the same way that all of us respond when we are confronted with depth of God’s inflexible demands—they scattered. Beginning with the oldest ones, they all, like the rich young ruler, walked away defeated.
When Jesus and the woman are left alone, and she acknowledges that no one remains to condemn her, Jesus speaks his final word to her: “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more” (John 8:11). This is where the story gets misunderstood.
“Aha!” we cry. “See! Jesus tells her to shape up! He leaves her with an exhortation!” But look at the order of Jesus’ words: First, he tells the woman that he does not condemn her.Only then does he instruct her to sin no more. This is enormous. He does not make his love conditional on her behavior. He does not say, “Go, sin no more, and check back with me in six months. If you’ve been good, I won’t condemn you.”
No. Our Savior does so much better than that.
Jesus creates new life in the woman by loving her unconditionally, with no-strings-attached. By forgiving her profound shame, he impacts her profoundly. Now free from condemnation, she walks away determined to leave her old life behind. As this account demonstrates, redeeming unconditional love alone (not law, not fear, not punishment, not guilt, not shame) carries the power to compel heart-felt loyalty to the One who gave us (and continues to give us) what we don’t deserve (2 Corinthians 5:14).
Like the adulterous woman, we are all caught in the act—discovered in a shameful breach of God’s law. Though no one on earth can throw the first stone, God can. And he did. The wonder of all wonders is that the rock of condemnation that we justly deserved was hurled by the Father onto the Son. The law-maker became the law-keeper and died for us, the law-breakers. “In my place condemned He stood; and sealed my pardon with His blood. Hallelujah, what a Savior.”

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Spiritual Life

Jonathan Leeman post:  Dear Donald Miller

You don't know me, but I've been a fan of your book Blue Like Jazz since I read it a few years ago. It draws from a worldview perspective I do not share, but taken on its own terms, it's a work of art. I mean that.
I don't have the exact quote, but Emerson said somewhere that great writers hold up a mirror to the world around them and say, "Here you are." Blue Like Jazz holds up this mirror for the Gen X segment of 1980s and 90s evangelicalism—my own peer group. We grew up with one foot in the world of seeker-sensitive worship services and another foot in the world of MTV, shopping malls, and sitcom laugh tracks. We eventually discovered how much the first world borrowed from the second to keep us coming back. This realization in turn led us to be skeptical toward the whole Christian program, as if Jesus were just one more product. Many of us therefore left the faith, while those of us who remained insisted on something more real, more authentic, from our Christian spirituality. Often, this search led us outside the boundaries of conventional churches.
All that to say, reading your book was like walking up to a painting that captures the spirit of the age, only this painting captured my own. Thank you.
From that shared starting point, my life and spirituality traveled down a road—a way out of the inauthenticity—that's very different from yours. And here is where I have wanted to strike up a conversation with you ever since reading the book. Yes, that means pushing back a bit, but perhaps you can do the same with me.
Your recent blog post, "I Don't Worship God by Singing. I Connect With Him Elsewhere.," reminded me of all this background. In addition to saying you "don't connect with God by singing," you also say "I don't learn much about God hearing a sermon" since "a traditional lecture is not for everybody." And you admit that you don't attend church often since "church is all around us."
The worldview and spirituality here resembles what I found in Blue Like Jazz. But now we're not talking about a piece of art. We're talking about how a Christian chooses to live. And, as I said, the path I've taken from those early days of angst and displacement, neither at home in the world nor in the American evangelical church, has turned in a very different direction. Instead of moving away from the traditional forms of institutional Christianity, I've moved toward them. My way out was deeper in.
I'm now an elder in a church with hour-long sermons, several long prayers, lots of singing, membership classes and interviews and meetings. We talk about repentance, practice church discipline, and use phrases like "submitting to the elders." In fact, Don, it gets worse. I've written about these things. I've advocated for them. I've drunk the Kool-Aid and then filled a tray of Dixie cups to hand out.
No, we must not mistake these structures for authentic Christian living and love. But I do believe they are both the food that gives life to the body, as well as the skeleton that holds the organs and muscles in place. And I believe they are biblical, by which I mean prescriptive for all Christians in all times and places, albeit with circumstantial adjustments.
Spiritual life comes by hearing, seeing, and submitting, typically in that order. We hear God's Word preached, sung, prayed, and counseled. We see it lived out in the lives of fellow Christians and leaders. And we submit ourselves to the Word and these fellow sinners, with all their faults and eccentricities, in a local congregation. As my own pastor has put it, we admit that we are not the world expert on ourselves, but need one another and his Word in order to see ourselves clearly and to follow Christ. Life in the midst of Word-centered, accountability-giving fellowship, he has said, is like throwing paint on the invisible man.Wow! I didn't know I looked like that.
Pick just one word out of the Bible—say, patience. I will not know how wonderfully patient God is, and how impatient I am, until I close my mouth and listen to a fellow believer open the Bible and say, "God is patient." And then ask, "How patient were you this week with your wife and kids?" And finally tell me, "Consider God's patience for you in Christ!"
Even then, this word patient will remain a little abstract. So on Sunday morning I look across the pew at Tom, who I know is being treated unfairly at work. But there he is, belting out at the top of his lungs, "When through fiery trials, thy pathway shall lie, my grace all sufficient, shall be thy supply." The next day I ask Tom how he's doing, and he tells me how he's praying for his colleagues and inviting them to dinner. That's what Jesus' patience looks like: Tom waiting on the Lord—forgiving, praying, and singing with joy.
I need Tom, and I need every other member. I need the honorable parts of the body and the dishonorable parts. I can't say to the hand or foot, "I don't need you." I need all of them, the weak and strong, the winsome and irksome. And we all need the Word—in sermon, song, and prayer—guiding us. So we gather weekly to listen. Then we scatter to look, love, and help each other live.
I'm glad you connect with God in your work, as you wrote. Your comment reminded me to be more prayerful in my work. But shouldn't connecting with God in work be the "output"? Don't we need the "input" of Word-centered fellowship, so that we truly "connect" with him and not subtly spiritualized regurgitations of the world's influence on us?
Speaking of connection, the main thing that struck me about your article were the wordsconnect and intimacy. They occur over and over, and seem to be the measure and goal of your spirituality. And how life-giving both are!
But if we're brainstorming on a whiteboard, we need to jot down a few more words to get the full biblical picture, words like submissionobediencelove, and worship. Jesus says that anyone who loves him will obey his teaching (John 14:23). He says that claiming to love God but failing to love our brothers makes us liars (1 John 4:20). He says the world will know we are Christians if we lay down our lives for other Christians just like Jesus laid down his life for us (John 13:34-45).
And here's where the rubber meets the road: I don't know how we can say we love and belong to the church without loving and belonging to church. Or saying we want to connect with God, but we won't listen to God's Word for only 45 minutes out of all the minutes in a week. Ultimately, it's like claiming we're righteous in Christ, but not bothering to "put on" that righteousness with how we live.
Let me say it again: Our love and unity with the church should manifest itself in a church. Our listening to God means listening to his Word—spoken and sung.
Bottom line, Don, I've always appreciated much about your diagnosis of the contemporary evangelical church. But I don't understand your prescription. Since you're obviously a thoughtful person, I hope you will receive my challenge as a sign of respect, which I mean it to be.
Best regards to you.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

We Need to Behold the glory of God in the face of Christ

Matt Boswell post:  Corporate Worship:  A Lifting of the Gaze

I had preached the funeral of their baby just a few days before. Some of our best friends laid to rest their little girl, marking one of the most difficult days of my life. While preaching graveside, my eyes rested on my wife, dressed in black, who we knew was in the process of miscarrying a child.
Now, the Sunday after had come. I had chosen songs to remind them, to remind me, of God’s faithfulness and goodness in the midst of suffering. It is difficult to sing with sorrow in your throat.
What our friends did not need were three tips to overcome pain, or a weightless song that may pacify for a moment. What they needed, what I needed, was to behold the glory of God in the face of Christ. We needed a lifting of our gaze.

Lifted Gaze, Lifted Heart

In Psalm 121, the psalmist feels this tension as he ascends to the temple to worship. Along the journey, we find him in need of remembering where his help is found. He sings to his heart to remind it to hope in God.
In the opening line of his hymn, he asks his soul a question that demands a sure response. “I lift up my eyes to the hills, from where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth” (Psalm 121:1–2). When the gaze of the psalmist is low, he is filled with doubts and questions. When his gaze is lifted up, his heart is lifted up also.

Any Given Sunday

Corporate worship is a lifting of the gaze from created things to the created one. On any given Sunday morning, as people walk into the room, questions come with them.
Is there grace enough for someone like me?
Will my marriage make it through this?
Has God forgotten me?
Amidst the singing, there are other songs being sung: songs of pain and suffering, songs of doubt and fear, songs of desperate need. These songs may not ring through the microphone, but they are there. The resounding theme of each of these songs is simple: we need to behold God.

Renew Your Hope

Corporate worship reminds us that our hope is not fixed on anything less than our sovereign God. There is a tendency in all of us to forget our neediness. Like the psalmist, we question where our help comes from and must be continually reminded of the source of our hope. We are easily distracted. We are lulled to sleep by the idols of comfort and self-sufficiency. We are prone to forget that Christ is the sure and steady anchor in the fury of every storm.
We gather together in worship to have our eyes set upon Christ. The hand of the gospel lifts our drooping head to remember that in Christ the acceptance of God has been fixed upon us. The weekly practice of hearing the gospel in song and in sermon clears the hazy effects of sin from our eyes and focuses our hearts on the glory of God. Lifting our gaze brings clarity to us of who God is and who we are as his people.
Allow corporate worship to help renew your hope in God. In the call to worship, call your heart to worship. In the confession of sin, lift your gaze to Christ whose blood has satisfied the wrath of God. In the preaching of God’s word, hear the gospel and allow it to echo through the chambers of your soul. In the benediction, be sent into the world to remember the glorious and steadfast hope that is ours in Christ.