Wednesday, April 30, 2014


Scotty Smith post:  A Prayer for Peace in the Midst of Broken Stuff

     You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you. Trust in the Lord forever, for the Lord God is an everlasting rockIsa. 26:3-4
Most kind and trustworthy Father, you haven’t promised us a storm-less, hassle-free, disappointment-empty life. You offer us no formulas for decreasing the probability of sad things happening around us, or disruptive things happening to us. But you havepromised something that transcends the predictable uncertainty of life—your peace.
You’ve promised to keep us in perfect peace in the midst of whatever happens. The older I get, the more I absolutely treasure the promise of being kept by you, because I simply cannot keep myself. I’m out of bootstraps to pull up; there’s no magic happy pill to take, no fix-it button to push. Thank you for being a Father who will never forget or abandon your children—who will never forget or abandon me.
But you’ve promised even more: you’ve promised to keep us in perfect peace. All we have to do is mine the riches of the gospel and keep in mind the wonders of your love. For you are the Lord—the eternal Rock that is higher than us, the Rock of refuge, the Rock of ages.
Because the gospel is true, because Jesus is the precious “living Stone” (1 Pet. 2:4-8), I won’t despair when I am weak in concentration and focus—when my grasp is slipping and my heart is wandering.
Indeed, Father, you’re not calling us to trust in our ability to trust, but to trust in you—in your trustworthiness. You’ve promised your children a peace that passes, surpasses, and at times even bypasses all understanding. Hallelujah, many times over.
What a God you are. There is none like you, Father, not one. You’ve made your peace with us through the gift of Jesus—the Prince of Peace. You cannot love us more, and you’ll never love us less. How great are your mercies, how profound your kindnesses, how more-than-sufficient your grace! So very Amen we pray in the exalted name of Jesus—the basis and bounty of all our peace.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Grace on Display

Spencer Harmon post:  My Wife Has Tattoos:  Marriage, New Birth and the Gospel

Today is the day of my wedding.  And I am not marrying the girl of my dreams.
If you would have told me when I was a teenager that my wife would have seven tattoos, a history in drugs, alcohol, and attending heavy metal concerts, I would have laughed at you, given you one of my courtship books, and told you to take a hike.  My plans were much different, much more nuanced with careful planning, much more clean-cut, and much more, well, about me.
You see, it wasn’t my dream to marry a girl that was complicated.  I never dreamed that I would sit on a couch with my future wife in pre-marital counseling listening to her cry and tell stories of drunken nights, listing the drugs she used, confessing mistakes made in past relationships.
This isn’t my dream – it’s better.
Many people wouldn’t put Taylor and I together.  In high school, we probably would not have been friends.  She probably would have thought that I was a nice, boring, judgmental Christian kid; I probably would have thought that she was a nice, lost, party-scene girl that guys like me are supposed to stay away from.  People like us, with our backgrounds and histories are not supposed to meet, fall in love, and covenant their lives to each other.
But everything changes when people meet Jesus.  Jesus takes people like rebellious teenage partiers, and goody-two-shoe homeschoolers and puts them together in marriage to put something on display much bigger than their own hand-crafted, perfectly planned love-story.
Right in the middle of the mess of life, Taylor met Jesus, and he planted his flag in her life, and she believed in him and he transformed her.  The Taylor who spent her life living from one pleasure to the next died, and a new person was born.  A new person with new desires, and a new heart that longed to please God, serve people, and treasured Jesus Christ above all other pleasure.
And this is how I see Taylor.  She is completely new, completely transformed, and completely clean.  This is not because she became a part of a helpful program, or because she really “pulled herself together.” It’s because God, in his incredible, infinite kindness, took Taylor’s dark, crimson life, and made her as white as a snow.  He took all of her sins on placed them on his Son, and then gave her Jesus’ righteousness to wear like a perfect white wedding dress.
In reality, Taylor’s story is my story as well.  As Taylor walks towards me today, I will be reminded of how much I do not deserve the precious gift she is to me.  I have spent much of my life singing a self-centered siren song.  Nothing about my life cries for blessings; it calls for curses forever.  Yet, God has dressed me in white, put my sin upon his Son, and given me a heart that loves him.
I love Taylor with all that I am.  She is gentle, kind, patient, joyful, beautiful, and loving.  I don’t deserve to marry someone like her.  I didn’t plan for this, but I’m so glad I am not getting what I planned for.
So, today when she walks down the aisle to me, I will be reminded of the beautiful reality that God exchanges that sin of our past in exchange for the perfect righteousness of his Son.  Contrary to popular opinion, our wedding day is not our wedding day; it is the display of the most stunning reality in the universe: that God sent his Son to die to redeem a people for Himself made clean the blood of his Son.
God’s ultimate plan in putting Taylor and I together is that he wants to uniquely put his grace on display so that other people will praise him (Ephesians 1:5-6).  That’s his purpose for our marriage, and that’s his purpose in the world at large, and Taylor and I are taking part in that, and hope you will too.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Trust God's Promises

Jon Bloom post:  When It Seems Like God Did You Wrong

The story of Naomi in Ruth chapter one teaches us that how things look and how things feel are often not how they are.
The last time Naomi had seen her hometown on the Judean hillside, the barley fields had been barren in the House of Bread.
The famine had stirred the specter of starvation. Naomi’s husband, Elimelech, not a patient man even in bounty, was convinced that Moab held a better life. This had frightened Naomi nearly as much as starvation. There was no fear of Yahweh in Moab. Chemosh, the bloodthirsty, was worshiped there. She had prayed desperately for a full harvest to keep them home. Yahweh had not moved. So her man of action had moved her, their two sons, and the necessities they could carry, to Moab.
Now, a decade later, Naomi was returning home. The Bethlehem barley fields were full and ripe. But her house was now barren. In Moab she had suffered a famine of men. So as her friends greeted her, she replied, “Do not all me Naomi [pleasant]; call me Mara [bitter], for the Almighty has dealt very bitterly with me” (Ruth 1:20).
It had been a hard ten years. Elimelech had died just over a year after they had settled. But with a crop in the ground and famine still ravaging Judah, she was trapped.
And then more Moabite chains fastened on her when Mahlon and Chilion each married Moabite women. She had grieved this deeply at first. But Ruth and Orpah had surprised her. They proved to be solaces, not sorrows. Quickly she had come to love them like daughters.
Especially Ruth. How such a woman had come to Mahlon was a marvel. Naomi had never known anyone like her. Ruth was unusually kind and wise beyond her years. And she proved to be the hardest worker in the household. Ruth was an oasis of joy in Naomi’s Moab wilderness.
But then the Lord brought disaster on her again when Mahlon and Chilion died just weeks apart. This left her destitute. Love-less, man-less, wealth-less, she was left with nothing in a land that cared nothing for her.
What added to the cruelty was that her sons’ deaths would strip her of Ruth and Orpah, the only two left in that God-forsaken place that did care. It felt like driving two more knives into her heart, but with no marriage prospects or way to support them, she knew she had to send them away. Their best chances for salvaged lives was to return to their fathers’ homes and hope to marry again someday. Hers was to go home and hopefully live off the good will of anyone in Elimelech’s clan who had any.
The girls had taken her decision hard. They wept together over their dead and over the death of the life they had known. Both young widows feared for Naomi’s survival and expressed their willingness to stay with her. But Naomi would not hear of it. And Orpah knew she was right.
But not Ruth. Ruth would not hear of leaving. When Naomi had pressed her, Ruth made a vow — to Yahweh: “Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the LORD do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you” (Ruth 1:16–17). Such a vow could not be broken and Naomi both rejoiced and grieved over it.
And she marveled again. Why would this young Moabitess, who excelled all other women, cast her lot with a hopeless old widow and a God whose favor seemed clearly to have been withdrawn?
The odd thing was that in Ruth’s favor on her, Naomi recognized the faint scent of Yahweh’s favor. But she fought against hope. What harvest could possibly spring up from the seeds of all those tragic tears sown over the past ten years?

When Naomi arrived in Bethlehem after her sorrowful sojourn in Moab, she could not see a harvest from her tears. It all looked like a tragedy; like “vanity and striving after wind” (Ecclesiastes 1:14).
That’s how it looked. That’s how it felt. But that’s not how it was.
In reality, the famine, the move to Moab, the deaths of Elimelech, Mahlon, and Chilion, Ruth’s loyalty, Naomi’s return at barley harvest, Boaz, and the kinsman who chose not to redeem Ruth all played parts in God’s plan to redeem millions and weave a Moabite into the royal, Messianic bloodline. The story and their parts in it were far bigger than they imagined. None of them could see it from their vantage point.
This is what we must remember in our times of desolation, grief, and loss. How things appear to us and how they actually are are rarely the same. Sometimes it looks and feels like the Almighty is dealing “very bitterly” with us when all the while he is doing us and many others more good than we could have imagined.
God’s purposes in the lives of his children are always gracious. Always. If they don’t look like it, don’t trust your perceptions. Trust God’s promises. He’s always fulfilling his promises.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

By His Wounds We Are Healed

Marshall Segal post:  Let His Blood Be On Us (Holy Saturday)

Holy Week waits in relative silence on Saturday. The tomb has been sealed, the guards stand watch, the disciples likely hide in confusion, fear, and devastation. And the Savior lies lifeless, having surrendered all to save his people from their sins.
How would you process the horrors of the last couple of days in the quiet, disturbing shadow of the cross? The disciples had to have a thousand painful questions. How could he be the long-awaited King if he was just killed? Is there something we could have done to stop it? If they tortured and slaughtered him like that, what will they do to us? It was all playing back through their minds while they waited on Saturday.
We too still hear the dark, sobering echoes of Thursday and Friday. But we wait with expectation for tomorrow — for the empty grave and risen King. Filled with hope, we can look back into the crowd that crucified Jesus and see our old selves, and then forward, in preparation for Easter, rejoicing in the transformation that’s taken place in us because of his sacrifice. We’ve been covered by the blood that confounded those first followers.

The Pro-Choice Pilate

One of the echoes sounds from Matthew 27. Jesus has just been betrayed, arrested, tried, and handed over to the governor to be executed. Matthew writes,
Now at the feast the governor was accustomed to release for the crowd any one prisoner whom they wanted. And they had then a notorious prisoner called Barabbas. So when they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?” For he knew that it was out of envy that they had delivered him up. (Matthew 27:15–18)
Pilate has the power to release one criminal from death row. Before him is Barabbas, a notorious villain and convicted murderer, and Jesus.
Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and destroy Jesus. The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” Pilate said to them, “Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” They all said, “Let him be crucified!” And he said, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!”
So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” And all the people answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” Then he released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, delivered him to be crucified. (Matthew 27:20–26)

The Crowd’s Suicidal Cry

It’s envy and hatred and ignorance. How could they be so deceived and manipulated and corrupt to give the Son of God over to death and spare a known murderer? Pilate knew that what they were demanding was wrong, that Jesus was innocent. He wanted no part or role in his execution. But these people, filled with unbelief, with rebellious hearts, with envious rage against their own Messiah, cried, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” “Pilate, if you won’t kill him, let his blood be on us!”
Let his blood be on us? Let the blood of God himself be on you? Let the blood of the eternal living and creating Word be on you? Their unbelief and their jealousy — their sin — led them to the ultimate act of defiance and rejection of God. They crucified his Son, the Promised One — the Son he had sent to save them from centuries of unfaithfulness. Let his blood be on us!

The Sin That Nailed Him There

This is sin, to reject Jesus, to declare he is nothing but a delusional or deceitful man. And this was the condition of our heart, when filled with unbelief, we rejected God, his Son, and his sacrifice. We have screamed, “Crucify him!” with our unfaithfulness and disobedience. We have said with the crowd, “He is not our King!” “He is not our Messiah!” “Let his blood be on us!”
But God, being rich in mercy and being patient with us, his chosen people, “has shown in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of this crucified Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). And being alive by faith in him, we cling to the cross on which our Savior died. It is by his precious blood that we are forgiven and freed from sin and its consequences.

Same Cross, New Cry

So, now, we say with an entirely different meaning, let his blood be on us, not defiantly as the crowds that crucified him, but desperately — with gratitude and hope and adoration — as those who depend wholly on his sacrifice. Jesus, let your blood be on us. Let it cover us. Let the blood that flows from your head, your hands, your feet wash over us and cleanse us from all of our iniquity.
We proclaim Jesus’s death. We rejoice in his death, not because we believe he was a fraud or a lunatic, but because it is by his death, by his wounds, by his blood that we are healed.

Sunday's On the Way

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Strengthening Him

John Piper post:  The Greatest Prayer in the World (Maundy Thursday)

It is Thursday, the night before Jesus’s crucifixion. This evening has been laden with teaching (John 13–17), shocking with foot-washing by the greatest for the least (John 13:3–20), epoch-making with the institution of the Lord’s Supper (Matthew 26:20–30Mark 14:17–26Luke 22:14–20), and pivotal with the departure of Judas (John 13:30).
Now Jesus and the eleven have gone to the Garden of Gethsemane (John 18:1;Mark 14:32). Here Jesus prays the greatest prayer in the world. What hung in the balance was the glory of God’s grace and the salvation of the world. The success of Jesus’s mission to earth depended on Jesus’s prayer and the answer given. He prayed with reverence and his request was given.
The question I would like to try to answer is: How does Hebrews 5:7 relate to the prayers in Gethsemane? Hebrews 5:7 says, “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence.” He was heard. He got his request. What does this refer to in Jesus’s life?

Loud Cries in the Garden

Nothing in Jesus’s experience comes closer to this description than the prayers of Gethsemane. “Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears,” corresponds emotionally to Luke 22:44, “Being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.” “Loud cries and tears” is a description of the “agony” of Jesus.
What was the content of Jesus’s “prayers and supplications” in Hebrews 5:7? If we assume the content was: “Remove this cup from me” (Mark 14:36), then what would it mean that “he was heard because of his reverence” (Hebrews 5:7)? Hebrews teaches that, precisely because of his “godly fear,” Jesus “was heard,” that is, he received his request.
But the cup was not removed. He suffered the fullness of physical pain and divine wrath. So in what sense was Jesus “heard because of his reverence”?

His First Prayer and the Angel’s Help

Both Matthew and Mark portray Jesus as praying three separate times, and each time returning to the sleeping Peter, James, and John. Luke, on the other hand, gives a single summary description of Jesus’s prayers, and includes a detail that points to an answer to our question, namely, the visitation of the angel. Luke writes,
He withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, saying, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground. (Luke 22:41–44)
Before the angel came “to strengthen” him, Jesus prayed that the cup be removed (Luke 22:42). Then the angel came, “strengthening him.” Strengthening him for what? Presumably to do what he had to do. In other words, the angel was God’s response to Jesus’s first prayer. The angel bears God’s message that there is no other way, but I will help you. Do not turn from your mission now, in spite of the terrifying prospect. I will help you. Here is my angel to strengthen you.
Then the question is: What was the content of the prayers that followed? Luke 22:44 says, “And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly.” Does this mean he kept on saying: “Remove this cup from me,” even more earnestly? That assumption would be unworthy of Jesus. What then was he praying? And is this different prayer what Hebrews says “was heard because of his reverence”?

He Prays a Second Time

According to Matthew, when Jesus went away a second time to pray, he did not say the identical words as the first time. The first time he said, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” The second time he said, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done” (Matthew 26:42).
May we not assume that the angel had come to Jesus the first time he prayed, and had made plain to Jesus that it was, in fact, not possible for the cup to pass from him, but that God would help him drink it? Which is why, in his second prayer, Jesus does not ask for the cup to be removed, but instead asks for God’s will to be done in view of the revealed fact that “the cup cannot pass”: “If this cannot pass unless I drink it [which has now been made plain to me by the coming of the angel], your will be done.”
When Mark says, of the second prayer of Jesus, “And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words” (Mark 14:39), it need not contradict this, as thoughonly the same words were spoken all three times. “The same words” may simply refer to, “Your will be done,” which indeed Jesus prays each time.
If we are on the right track, then the content of Jesus’s supplications after the angel came was not the same as before. He did not go on praying: “Let this cup pass from me.” It says, “And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly” (Luke 22:44). If he was not praying more earnestly for the cup to be removed, then what was he praying?

His Greatest Act of Obedience

Hebrews 5:7 says, “Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence.” If “save his soul from death” does not mean, “Remove this cup from me,” what does it mean? For he was certainly heard and received this request.
Jonathan Edwards answers,
This was the greatest act of obedience that Christ was to perform. He prays for strength and help, that his poor feeble human nature might be supported, that he might not fail in this great trial, that he might not sink and be swallowed up, and his strength so overcome that he should not hold out, and finish the appointed obedience.
He was afraid lest his poor feeble strength should be overcome, and that he should fail in so great a trial, that he should be swallowed up by that death that he was to die, and so should not be saved from death; and therefore he offered up strong crying and tears unto him that was able to strengthen him, and support, and save him from death, that the death he was to suffer might not overcome his love and obedience, but that he might overcome death, and so be saved from it. (“Christ’s Agony”)
Jesus did not go on praying for the cup to pass. He went on praying for success in drinking it.
When Paul says, of Jesus’s resurrection, “Therefore, God has highly exalted him” (Philippians 2:9), the “therefore” refers to Jesus’s unwavering obedience unto death: “Being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore . . .” (Philippians 2:8). God saved Jesus from death because he was obedient. His prayers were answered.

The Father’s Answer

If Jesus had not been obedient unto death, he would have been swallowed up by death forever and there would be no resurrection, no salvation, and no future world filled with the glory of God’s grace and God’s children. This is what Jesus prayed for “to him who was able to save him from death” — that is, save him from a death that would not succeed its saving mission.
“He was heard for his godly fear.” God did save him from the threat that such a death posed to his obedience. Jesus did succeed. There is salvation for all who believe. There will be a new world full of the glory of God’s grace and God’s children.
And all of this is owing to the greatest prayer in the world. Every hope of the gospel succeeds because of Jesus’s reverent earnestness in prayer, and the answer of the Father. “Being in an agony he prayed more earnestly . . . and he was heard because of his reverence” (Luke 22:44Hebrews 5:7).
Evidently, by the time Jesus was done praying in Gethsemane, the Father had not only made clear that there is no other way than the cross, but also that this way would succeed. The Lamb would have the reward of his suffering. He will “see his offspring; he will prolong his days; the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand. Out of the anguish of his soul he will see and be satisfied” (Isaiah 53:10–11).
Surely this is why Hebrews 12:2 could say, “For the joy that was set before him he endured the cross.” Beneath the terrors of present agony was the taste of future joy. The angel had come, “strengthening him” — clarifying, confirming, connecting the coming joy.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Public Square

Tim Keller post: Cultural Engagement that Avoids Triumphalism and Accommodation

Greg Forster's important and practical new book helps Christians think out how to engage culture. Many would say this is not a proper goal for believers, but that is a mistake.

Acts 17 records Paul's famous visit to Athens, the academic center of the Roman Empire of the day. One commenter likened the intellectual power of Athens at the time to all the Ivy League schools as well as Oxford and Cambridge universities all rolled into one. Though Paul was repulsed by the idolatry he saw there, he did not turn away from the city in disgust. Instead, he plunged into the marketplace, the agora, where we are told he daily "reasoned" with those he found there about the gospel. Now when you or I think of a "marketplace," we think of shopping and retail. Of course the agoras of ancient cities contained that, but they were much more. The agora was the media center—the only place to learn the news at a time before newspapers and other technological media. It was also the financial center where investors connected with businesses. It was the art center as well, the place where so much art was performed. It was the place where new political and philosophical ideas were debated. In short, the agora was the cultural center of any city. And since this was Athens—which along with Rome had the most influence of all cities—it could be said to be part of the cultural center of the Greco-Roman world. The ideas forged and accepted here flowed out and shaped the way the rest of society thought and lived.

It is instructive, then, to see that Paul takes the gospel literally into the public square. It means that he did not see the Christian faith as only able to change individual hearts. He believed that the gospel had what it took to engage the thinking public, the cultural elites, and to challenge the dominant cultural ideas of the day. He was after converts of course—he was first and foremost a church planter, not a theologian or Christian philosopher. But he wouldn't have been able to engage the hearts of cultural leaders unless he also engaged the ideas of the culture itself. He did not shrink from that challenge. He did not merely try to find individual philosophers to evangelize in a corner. He addressed them as a culture, a public community.

It is often missed that, although later Paul was invited to give an address, he did not start by preaching in the agora. He did not get up on a soapbox and merely declare what the Bible said. It says Paul "reasoned" (Acts 17:17) in the marketplace, using a word—dialegomai—that sounds like "dialogue." However, as John Stott says in his commentary on Acts, this term probably denoted something more specific than we would think of today when we hear it. Stott says it was something closer to what we might call the Socratic method. This was not a "debate" as we see debates today, where two parties read off talking points at one another. It required lots of careful listening, and in particular it meant asking questions that showed that your opponents were self-contradictory, that is, they were wrong on the basis of their own premises. And indeed, when we actually hear Paul's address to the philosophers in Acts 17:22-31, we can't help but notice that he does the Socratic method even here. He does not expound or even quote Scripture, but rather quotes their own thinkers (v. 28) and then shows them that, on the basis of their own intuitions and statements about God, idolatry is absolutely wrong (v. 29). Many have pointed out how Paul's address lays the foundation for a doctrine of God, contrasting the contemporary culture's beliefs in multiple, fallible, powerful beings who must be appeased with the idea of one supreme Creator, sovereign God who is worthy of awe-filled adoration and worship. Every part of what Paul says is deeply biblical, but he never quotes the Bible; instead he shows them the weakness and inadequacies of their own views of the divine and lifts up the true God for their admiration. He appeals as much to their rationality and their imaginations as to their will and hearts.

What It Is and It Not

The term "cultural engagement" is so often used by Christians today without a great deal of definition. This account of Paul and Athens gets us a bit closer to understanding what it is by showing us what it is not. Christians are to enter the various public spheres—working in finance, the media, the arts. But there we are neither to simply preach at people nor are we to hide our faith, keeping it private and safe from contradiction. Rather, we are as believers to both listen to and also challenge dominant cultural ideas, respectfully yet pointedly, in both our speech and our example.

When Paul addresses the Areopagus, a body of the elite philosophers and aristocrats of Athens, he was, quite literally, speaking to the cultural elites. Their response to him was cool to say the least. They "mocked" him (Acts 17:32) and called him a "babbler" (v. 18), and only one member of that august body converted (v. 34). The elites laughed at him, wondering how Paul expected anyone to believe such rubbish. The irony of the situation is evident as we look back at this incident from the vantage point of the present day. We know that a couple of centuries later the older pagan consensus was falling apart and Christianity was growing rapidly. All the ideas that the philosophers thought so incredible were adopted by growing masses of people. Finally those sneering cultural elites were gone, and many Christian truths became dominant cultural ideas.

Why? Historians look back and perceive that the seemingly impregnable ancient pagan consensus had a soft underbelly. For example, the approach to suffering taken by the Stoics—its call to detach your heart from things here and thereby control your emotions—was harsh and did not work for much of the populace. The Epicureans' call to live life for pleasure and happiness left people empty and lonely. The Stoics' insistence that the Logos—the order of meaning behind the universe—could be perceived through philosophic contemplation was elitist, only for the highly educated. The revolutionary Christian teaching was, however, that there was indeed a meaning and moral order behind the universe that must be discovered, but this Logos was not a set of abstract principles. Rather it was a person, the Creator and Savior Jesus Christ, who could be known personally. This salvation and consolation was available to all, and it was available in a way that did not just engage the reason but also the heart and the whole person. The crazy Christian gospel, so sneered at by the cultural elites that day, eventually showed forth its spiritual power to change lives and its cultural power to shape societies. Christianity met the populace's needs and answered their questions. The dominant culture could not. And so the gospel multiplied.

Do we have Paul's courage, wisdom, skill, balance, and love to do the same thing today in the face of many sneering cultural leaders? It won't be the same journey, because we live in a post-Christian Western society that has smuggled in many values gotten from the Bible but now unacknowledged as such. Late modern culture is not nearly as brutal as pagan culture. So the challenges are different, but we must still, I think, plunge into the agora as Paul did.

Greg Forster's new book does a marvelous job of showing us a way forward that fits in with Paul's basic stance—not just preaching at people, but not hiding or withdrawing either. Within these pages, believers will get lots of ideas about how to "reason" with people in the public square about the faith and how to engage culture in a way that avoids triumphalism, accommodation, or withdrawal. Paul felt real revulsion at the idolatry of Athens—yet that didn't prevent him from responding to the pagan philosophers with love and respect, plus a steely insistence on being heard. This book will help you respond to our cultural moment in the same way.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Great Answer Lies Not In Our Activities

843 Acres Lent post: When All You've Ever Wanted Isn't Enough

Lord, There is nothing new under the sun. The Great Answer lies not in our activities, but in Christ. And it is his resurrection that gives meaning to our daily lives. May we be people who receive your gifts with joy and pleasure, not rushing through them to get to more "important" things. May we savor them, spend time with them, and thank you for them. Amen.


Success: "If the book of Proverbs is about wisdom for people who want success," writes Mark Dever, "the book of Ecclesiastes offers wisdom for people who have success. Particularly, it is for individuals who have gotten what they wanted out of life, or at least what they thought they had wanted, and then have found it wanting."

Vanity: The author of Ecclesiastes was wealthy and wise. Yet he laments the daily drudgery of life that seems to be nothing but repetitive: "Vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What does a man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? ... What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun."

Enjoying: In When All You've Ever Wanted Isn't Enough, Harold Kushner writes that the dailiness of our activities is the beauty of life: "When we stop searching for the Great Answer, the Immortal Deed which will give our lives ongoing meaning, and instead concentrate on filling our individual days with moments that gratify us, then we will find the only possible answer to the question, What is life about? It is not about writing great books, amassing great wealth, achieving great power. It is about loving and being loved. It is about enjoying your food and sitting in the sun rather than rushing through lunch and hurrying back to the office. It is about savoring the beauty of moments that don't last, the sunsets, the leaves turning color, the rare moments of true human communication. It is about savoring them rather than missing out on them because we are so busy and they will not hold still until we get around to them ... When we come to that stage in our lives when we are less able to accomplish but more able to enjoy, we will have attained the wisdom that Ecclesiastes finally found after so many false starts and disappointments."

Prayer: Lord, There is nothing new under the sun. The Great Answer lies not in our activities, but in Christ. And it is his resurrection that gives meaning to our daily lives. May we be people who receive your gifts with joy and pleasure, not rushing through them to get to more "important" things. May we savor them, spend time with them, and thank you for them. Amen.

Must Teach the Bible

the beginning of wisdom post:  the assumption we cannot afford

We ended another year of women’s Bible study last Tuesday: eleven weeks in the epistles of John and eleven weeks in James. Fifty-four different churches were represented in our enrollment this year. A couple thousand more podcast from around the country. At the conclusion I was deluged with cards and emails from participants expressing their gratitude, reflecting on what they had learned, and, almost uniformly, uttering a confession I have heard so often that it no longer surprises. I still waver between joy and discouragement as I read that confession on card after beautiful thank you card. I still vacillate between celebration and grief each time it turns up in my inbox. I still hesitate between thankfulness and frustration every time it is spoken to me over coffee. Their confession is this:

I’ve been in church for years, but no one has taught me to study my Bible until now.
I remember confessing the same thing myself almost twenty years ago. It is gratifying to know that our efforts at FMWBS to help women know the Bible are changing the way they understand their God and their faith. But it is terrifying to me that so many log years in the church and remain unlearned in the Scriptures. This is not their fault, and it is not acceptable.

Church leaders, I fear we have made a costly and erroneous assumption about those we lead. I fear that in our enthusiasm to teach about finances, gender roles, healthy relationships, purity, culture wars, and even theology we have neglected to build foundational understanding of the Scriptures among our people. We have assumed that the time they spend in personal interaction with their Bible is accumulating for them a basic firsthand knowledge of what it says, what it means and how it should change them. Or perhaps we have assumed that kind of knowledge isn’t really that important.

So we continue to tell people this is what you should believe about marriage and this is what you need to know about doctrineand this is what your idolatry looks like, but because we never train them in the Scriptures, they have no framework to attach these exhortations to beyond their church membership or their pastor’s personality or their group leader’s opinion. More importantly, they have no plumb line to measure these exhortations against. It never occurs to them to disagree with what they are being taught because they cannot distinguish between our interpretation of Scripture and Scripture itself, having little to no firsthand knowledge of what it says.

And they’ve been in church for years.

When we offer topical help – even if the topic is doctrine – without first offering Bible literacy, we attempt to furnish a house we have neglected to construct. As a friend and seminarian said to me this week, “There is a reason that seminaries offer hermeneutics before systematic theology.” He is right. But it would seem many who have enjoyed the rare privilege of seminary have forgotten to pass on this basic principle to the churches they now lead.

We must teach the Bible. Please hear me. We must teach the Bible, and we must do so in such a way that those sitting under our teaching learn to feed themselves rather than rely solely on us to feed them. We cannot assume that our people know the first thing about where to start or how to proceed. It is not sufficient to send them a link to a reading plan or a study method. It is our job to give them good tools and to model how to use them. There is a reason many love “Jesus Calling” more than they love the Gospel of John. If we equip them with the greater thing, they will lose their desire for the lesser thing.

I wish you could see how the women in our studies come alive like well-watered plants after a drought. I wish you could hear their excitement over finally, finally being given some tools to build Bible literacy.

"I can’t believe how much I’ve grown since I started studying. ..I had only done topical studies… I didn’t know you could study like this… I was so tired of navel-gazing... I’ve never been asked to love God with my mind… My husband teases me about how excited I am to tell him what we’re learning… I’ve never studied a book of the Bible from start to finish…"

They are so humble in admitting what they don’t know. We must be humble in admitting what we have left undone.

As I read their notes joy always trumps discouragement. Celebration overturns grief. Thankfulness overrides frustration. And because the need is great, I commit myself to wade through another stack of commentaries, to write another curriculum on another book of the Bible, to give another year to building the house of Bible literacy in which the furnishings of doctrine and other worthy topics can take their rightful places. We owe our people more than assertions of what is biblical and what is not. We owe them the Bible, and the tools necessary to soberly and reverently "take up and read". The task requires resolve, but the reward is great. Will you join me? 

Sunday, April 13, 2014


Justin Taylor:  Why Eugene Peterson Keeps Reading Calvin’s Institutes

Eugene Peterson, writing in Books & Culture:
Although I had been a pastor for a couple of years, I had little interest in theology. It was worse than that. My experience of theology was contaminated by adolescent polemics and hairsplitting apologetics. When I arrived at my university, my first impression was that the students most interested in religion were mostly interested in arguing. Theological discussions always seemed to set off a combative instinct among my peers. They left me with a sour taste. The grand and soaring realities of God and the Holy Spirit, Scripture and Jesus, salvation and creation and a holy life always seemed to get ground down into contentious, mean-spirited arguments: predestination and freewill, grace and works, Calvinism and Arminianism, liberal and conservative, supra- and infralapsarianism. The name Calvin was in particularly bad odor. I took refuge in philosophy and literature, where I was able to find companions for cultivating wonder and exploring meaning. When I entered seminary I managed to keep theology benched on the sidelines by plunging into the biblical languages.
But midway through [Douglas] Steere’s lecture, theology, and Calvin along with it, bounded off the bench. A new translation of the Institutes by Ford Lewis Battles (edited by John T. McNeill) had recently been published. I knew of the work of Dr. Steere and trusted him. But Calvin? And theology? After the hour’s lecture, most (maybe all) of my stereotyped preconceptions of both Calvin and theology had been dispersed. Steere was freshly energized by the new translation. He talked at length of the graceful literary style of the writing, the soaring architectural splendor of this spiritual classic, the clarity and beauty of the thinking, the penetrating insights and comprehensive imagination.
The lecture did its work in me—if Calvin was this good after four hundred years, I wanted to read his work for myself. The next day I went to a bookstore and bought the two volumes and began reading them. I read them through in a year, and when I finished I read them again. I’ve been reading them ever since.