Anti-LGBTQ, Pro-LGBTQ, & Jesus

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It rattled me. I felt uneasy, uncomfortable…even offended. There it was glaring at me, a revised Google logo, decked out with rainbow colors and reminding me it’s LGBTQ pride month. I was raised to be a conservative guy, and still am, so my knee-jerk reaction was strongly negative.

My visceral, moral anti-LGBTQ response felt so “right”…but was it? On the flip-side, I’m sure the pro-LGBTQ folks feel their passion is “right” too…but is it?

I imagine for people in the pro-LGBTQ community this month feels exciting, hopeful, and liberating. Meanwhile, for people in the anti-LGBTQ camp, it definitely feels offensive, scary, and intrusive. 

It’s a divisive issue, and we live in a divided country…in case you haven’t noticed. The culture war rages on. The pro-LGBTQ camp voices contempt for the anti-LGBTQ camp, and the anti-LGBTQ camp returns fire. 

As the battle over this issue continues, the question debated by many in the religious community is this: If Jesus were here, whose side would He be on? Would He champion “traditional values” and side with the conservatives, or would He embody the “compassion” and “tolerance” of liberal progressives?

In my opinion, Jesus’ view of this issue is far more radical than simply, “Pro-LGBTQ is right, and anti-LGBTQ is wrong,” or vice versa. What He taught was much deeper, much more offensive, and also much better than, “This side is right, and that side is wrong.” 

Here’s what He said essentially: “None of you are right, morally speaking. You’re all wrong…You all reject your God personally and perpetually. You ignore Him and His rightness, seeking to establish a rightness of your own. This is the true source of all your misery. And yet, He loves you and offers you mercy.” 

It is spelled out clearly in Luke 18. The Gospel writer introduces a parable of Jesus by saying, 

“He told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt” (v. 9). 

In other words, His parable has something to say to all of us who are confident that we are morally right and who have disdain for those we deem morally wrong. Here’s how He continues,

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"Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: 'God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 'I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.' But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, the sinner!' I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted" (vv. 10-14).

So, you get the idea—the radical, other-worldly idea: The man who trusted in himself that he was right and who boasted in pride regarding his moral superiority—even feigning reverence for God—went away declared wrong by God.

On the other hand, the man who was so humbled by moral bankruptcy that he couldn’t even look up, let alone condescend toward the first man, that man went away justified. Seeing himself as the worst of sinners and crying out for mercy, he was declared right by God. 

The irony of ironies—and the profound truth of the Gospel—is that God reckons us wrong when we think we are right, and right when we admit we are wrong. 

Coming back to the LGBTQ debate, here’s what I believe Jesus would say to both sides: “You’re both wrong.” Each side is guilty of self-righteousness and contempt. That’s the bad news. 

And, here’s the good news: God loves wrong people and offers us grace and the gift of “rightness” in relationship with Him. To use big theological words, He offers us justification. 

I truly believe that even if the 7+ billion people on earth fully embraced and enthusiastically celebrated the pro-LGBTQ community, it still would not be enough to satisfy their cravings for affirmation nor assuage their deep sense of guilt. 

Similarly, if the world’s population unanimously affirmed the anti-LGBTQ group, that still would not be enough to satisfy their cravings for a pure society or silence their fears of what could go wrong. 

Neither extreme would end the war within or bring peace for anyone. The only One who can do that is Jesus who invites us to drop our false sense of self-righteousness, and to come to Him for grace. He is the Prince of Peace and the only hope for any of us to have it. He lived a life of true rightness, not by harboring contempt, but by having compassion; not by fighting for His cause, but by dying for others. 

This compassion is available to us all. God knows us better than we know ourselves. He knows that we have all spurned Him personally and violated His standard for sexuality, and He invites us to find full pardon and cleansing in relationship with Him. Only His voice, declaring us right in Christ—declaring us forgiven and free—can give us the peace we long for. 

Societal discussions over important matters like the LGBTQ issue will continue. We will passionately debate which view is biblical as well as what is best for individuals and for society. I have my strong opinions, and you have yours. It is a hugely important topic, worthy of deep thought and careful argumentation.

As we wrestle our way through, surges of disdain for others will well up within us. It is inevitable. May we experience these uprisings as invitations to remember our condition and our Savior, and to receive anew His compassion, mercy, and forgiveness. Only His grace can settle our hearts and grant us much needed measures of gratitude and peace. It might even help us engage those on the opposite side of the issue with compassion and respect. 

 

pastor’s blog



Communion & Examination

It was really nice to be back with you last Sunday after a week away. I enjoyed teaching Matthew 26 and looking together at Jesus’ last meal with His disciples. It is such an amazing passage, contrasting the darkness of human betrayal with the light of Christ’s love. It was a great opportunity to revisit the Gospel again of how Jesus secured our forgiveness by offering Himself—giving His very body and blood.

When we paused to observe communion together after the message, I shared—in keeping with its theme—that God’s intention for communion is not, in my view, that we take inventory and freshly unearth every sin we’ve ever committed, nor even the ones we’ve committed since last time. That was my practice in the past when I thought it possible to accurately tabulate my sins, and when I presupposed that my recognition of them somehow contributed to the absolution of them. Now realizing that my sins are incalculable, and often completely undetected, I am convinced that my only hope is that He knows them and has provided full pardon for them on the cross.

Therefore, I encouraged you to join me in partaking of the bread and cup freely, rejoicing in the astonishing gift of Christ for us. In my estimation, that is the appropriate tone for communion. It is a grateful celebration of an indescribable gift. It is open to anybody and everybody who has heard the Gospel preached and who desires to partake, in order to signify their faith in Christ—including children.

After the service, a friend asked a great question: What about 1 Corinthians 11 and the call to “examine ourselves” lest we partake in an “unworthy” manner? 

Since it is such an important question, and possibly one you may have as well, I spent some time studying 1 Corinthians 11 and wanted to explain what I believe to be the point of that passage.

If this question has challenged you too, please take a minute to carefully read 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, and then consider the following comments, which will hopefully shed some light on the topic, as well as give food for future conversations.

The Problem

Sadly, there were divisions and factions in the Corinthian church (11:17-19), and this severely perverted their observance of the Lord’s Supper. In fact, it was so bad, Paul says in verse 20, “When you meet together, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper.” In other words, “You may think it’s the Lord’s Supper, and you may even call it the Lord’s Supper, but it isn’t, because what you’re doing doesn’t reflect what Jesus did.”

Here’s what seems to have been happening: Some early comers were taking excessive amounts of bread and wine for themselves, and depriving those who came along later. While one was getting drunk off of excess, another was going without (v. 21). In effect, some were barring others from the blessing of communion, robbing them of bread and wine and of the gift of remembering Christ’s body and blood.

It was deeply troubling to Paul. You can feel his frustration in verse 22: “What! Do you not have houses in which to eat and drink? Or do you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing? What shall I say to you?” He is rebuking the selfish ones, saying essentially, “If you’re that hungry, eat at at your own house. Can’t you see how self-centered you’re being, literally gorging yourself while others are going without?”

This was the problem occurring in Corinth. In fact, as Paul closes his discussion of this topic in verse 33, he urges them to “wait for one another,” i.e. to give others a chance before barging ahead, and even to “eat at home” if they are too hungry to yield to others.

In the surrounding context, Paul has over and over made a point of the oneness of the body of Christ, which God has established (1 Cor 10; 1 Cor 12). Sadly, their selfish actions during the Lord’s Supper amounted to an extreme, experiential undermining of this union. They were once again guilty of creating divisions in the body as if some were more worthy of partaking than others. That was the problem, and it resulted in an unworthy observance of communion.

Communion was instituted by Jesus for His people to collectively and equally enjoy, to remember together His body and blood, given for forgiveness of sins, and to proclaim His death till He returns (vv. 23-26). That truth seemed completely lost on the Corinthians.

Blinders to the Gospel, selfish disregard for others, and divisiveness were the root causes of what was going wrong in Corinth. This was precisely what made their way of partaking “unworthy” (v. 27). So, to be very clear, despite the way this passage is often interpreted, it was not that the Corinthians failed to take mental inventory of all their sins; it was not that they failed to say sorry to God for every single, solitary sin, or that they weren’t sincere enough when they said sorry. It was that they were utterly disregarding the selfless sacrifice of Christ for them and their collective union with Him. They showed up to a meal intended to be centered on Christ’s provision and love and turned it into a selfish occasion to glut themselves and ostracize others.

They were a living contradiction to what Christ’s Last Supper represented. They could not have been esteeming His sacrifice, while exploiting and excluding others at the same time. They just don’t go together. So, Paul writes to call them back to Gospel clarity regarding what Christ has done for them, both individually and collectively.

The Examination

What about when Paul says we must “examine” ourselves and “judge” ourselves lest we are judged by God (vv. 27-32). Is he suggesting that we’d better take inventory of our sins or we are in grave danger—danger that could possibly even invite God’s condemnation?

No. Contextually, the call to examine one’s self is to consider how one is valuing Christ’s sacrifice and the union of the body of Christ. It has to do with “[judging] the body rightly” (v. 29), that is, assessing and esteeming the body of Christ, or the church fellowship, rightly. The context indicates this to be the sense in which Paul uses the term “body” here (cf. 1 Cor 10:16-17 and 12:12). He is speaking of believers collectively in Christ.

Are we truly valuing what Christ has done for us according to its actual worth? Are we seeing things the way God sees them, according to the truth? That is the question. If so, we would be seeing the Gospel of what has been done for us the way God sees it, and seeing others the way God sees them, i.e. as those who are forgiven by Him and united with us in Him.

I believe Paul is saying, “If you don’t see things clearly, and judge things clearly, God will.” He is attentive to His family. He is committed to His children. He will discipline us. He will do it in His way and His time, even to the point of ordaining trials and tribulations in our lives, both physical and spiritual.

To what end? Ultimate judgment? No, Paul makes it unmistakably clear that this is not the point. Verse 32 says God disciplines us precisely “so that we will not be condemned along with the world.” In fact, in the next verse Paul goes on to call them—even the most guilty among them—“brethren”(v. 33).

So, this is not a threat of jeopardizing salvation or anything of the sort. It is about God’s commitment to override our ignorance and selfishness and to teach us of His love in relationships with others. It is the discipline of a loving Father, reserved for all those who are truly His (cf. Heb 12).

Some Implications for SLCC

We are not the Corinthian church. We probably don’t practice communion the exact same way they did. It is not a part of our potluck, and I’m pretty sure they didn’t have any tiny plastic cups or wafers purchased at Fred Meyer : ). To my knowledge, no one at SLCC is being deprived of communion—thankfully.

While some of the dynamics are different, however, there are nonetheless some timeless take-aways to consider in our body:

First of all, communion, every time we observe it, is a wonderful opportunity to reflect on the greatness of what Jesus did for us, giving His body and blood in death for us. When we take in the bread and the cup, we physically depict what is true of us spiritually: By faith we have accepted the fact that Jesus’ death has given us life.

Additionally, communion is an opportunity for us to think about our union in Christ and the absence of any class distinctions. There are no first or second class citizens in His body. We are all equally forgiven, loved, and welcomed to His table.

May God continue opening our eyes to the greatness of what’s been done for us–for all of us.


Where is God in This?

I was recently asked to write a few words on the personal nature of God, why it matters, and how it is encouraging in my personal life and ministry. Here’s what I came up with. Hope it encourages you!

There are countless implications of the personal nature of God, but the one that is most impactful to me at this point is the fact that God cares about every detail of my life. I have often marveled over passages highlighting the sovereignty of God in merely cerebral ways. The concept of God determining the bounds of the universe, sustaining every molecule, knowing the minds of all people, and orchestrating all events is fascinating.  It is awesome to consider, according to Ephesians 1:11, that God “works all things after the counsel of His will.”

As I grow older physically and spiritually, however, I am also realizing just how awesome it is that God’s sovereignty has a personal touch to it. As the surrounding context of Ephesians 1 tells me, God’s orchestration of all things involves, as one of its goals, granting me an inheritance, a hope, and a future in Christ. Every part of my life, the good, the bad, the victories, the defeats, the successes, the failures, all of it plays out according to the counsel of God’s will. And, it is all intended to take me deeper in my relationship with Christ. God is personally participating in every part of my life, every moment of every day. I am thankful for undeserved grace!

As an overflow, I am regularly privileged to share the same truth with counselees for their encouragement. Everyone who comes to me for counsel is struggling, to one degree or another, with where God has them in life. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t come. I am delighted to share this truth with them and to watch their reaction as they realize that God is indeed involved in what they are going through, and that He does in fact love them!


It’s the Relationship that Heals

While reading a book by a leading psychiatry professor, I stumbled across a statement that blew me away with its Gospel significance:

“It’s the relationship that heals, the relationship that heals, the relationship that heals—my professional rosary. I say that often to students. And say other things as well, about the way to relate to a patient—positive unconditional regard, nonjudgmental acceptance, authentic engagement, empathetic understanding.”[1]

Here it is again, another unmistakable fingerprint of Christ in this world. Psychiatrists are increasingly realizing and teaching what God has been telling us all along: We were made for relationships, and only through relationships do we find healing for our souls.

The author is specifically highlighting the effectiveness of a loving relationship between therapist and patient. He has found that connection to be—more than any wise words spoken—the real means of help and change in the lives of his counselees. I couldn’t agree more. The one thing I would add—and this is huge—is the Gospel implications for such thinking. By calling for healing relationships characterized by unconditional regard, non-judgmental acceptance, authentic engagement, and empathetic understanding, the author cries out for the Gospel.

The Gospel tells us that our root problem is relational and God’s solution is relational. The problem is that we have all abandoned relationship with God and perverted our relationships with others. We have violated the greatest commandments and have not loved Him with heart, soul, and mind; nor have we loved our neighbor as ourselves. That is the true source of what ails us. The solution is God sending His Son to live and die in our place and to restore the relationships we wrecked. While we were running away from Him in rebellious hate, He ran toward us with redemptive love.

God offers us the most healing relationship of all, which truly is the basis for any relational healing experienced among us down here. By sending His Son into this world, He has provided the greatest therapist of all, the Wonderful Counselor, who knows us entirely and loves us perfectly. Jesus doesn’t simply give us information; He offers us Himself, His sympathy, His pardon, and His unconditional acceptance. The friend of sinners gets close and refuses to reject us no matter what disturbing thing He sees within us. The Great Physician mercifully applies the balm of His grace to every wound left by sin.

It’s the relationship that heals!

Not only does this give us reason to rejoice with thankfulness before our God, it also sets the tone for the relationships we have with others. The church especially was created by God to be a place of healing fellowship, a place where broken sinners can share together the love and safety we have with Him.

It ain’t perfect, of course. The old flesh still rears its ugly head—all too often—and relationships suffer in church-land like everywhere else. But in the brilliant design of God, even these pitfalls bring us deeper into the Gospel. As we bang into one another, like rocks in a tumbler, God pours the water of His grace into us and around us, and engenders true love between us, polishing off our rough edges.

We can make church about a whole lot of other things: political activism, social activities, sensational entertainment, intellectual stimulation, church-growth hype, etc. But, it’s the relationships that heal, our relationship with God and our relationships with one another. That’s what we all need, and that’s what God has provided. That’s why He said, “Love others as I have loved you.”

It’s the relationship that heals.

 

[1] Love’s Executioner, Dr. Irvin D. Yalom, p. 112


Are We Just “Working for the Man”?

Years ago I had a water cooler conversation with a coworker who complained, “I’m tired of just working for the man!” To that point we had worked for a good company, and morale was fairly positive, but we found ourselves in the midst of a stressful software implementation. There were long hours, late nights, and tense outbursts from just about everyone. We had a deadline to meet, and time was ticking. The demands coming down from management were many, and the rewards were few. My friend said what we were all thinking, “I’m tired of just working for the man!”

Who is “the man”? The boss is “the man” of course. And in our case, we were experiencing the full weight his authority. We knew that our professional destinies were in his hands, and that we had better get things done or else face his wrath. It was extremely tense, and what used to be a peaceful, even fun, work environment became a stress fest with a lot of friction between coworkers. We were all fighting for survival, and we ended up fighting with each other.

Thankfully, in the end we all survived and we got the project completed…close to on time.

Does the Christian life amount to just “working for the man?”

Is that what the Christian life is like, just slugging it out, trying to keep the boss happy with us, so as to not jeopardize our future? Sadly, it often feels this way. We tend to view God like a temperamental, slave driver who demands much and gives little. But, we couldn’t be further from the truth.

The truth is God is not a tyrannical boss; He is a gracious, generous Father. He does have standards as to how we should treat Him and others, but knowing our utter sinfulness and inadequacy, He decided to provide for us everything He expects from us through Jesus.

When the time was right, He sent His Son to live in our place, to live under the law and to fulfill it.[1] From the beginning of His life to the end, Jesus did it all and He did it all right. He loved His Father and others perfectly. It was all for the glory of God and the good of His people. He lived without sin and died for our sin. It is finished![2] The work is done; we are free to rest.

This has huge implications for our relationship with God and others?

Since all the expectations have been met, you are free to relate to God as a son to a Father. In fact, you can call Him “daddy” if you’d like.[3] You are unconditionally loved by Him, and are part of His family forever.

You are liberated to live with passion for Him and compassion for others. This is what Jesus was getting at when He said on several occasions to the Pharisees, “I desire compassion, and not sacrifice.”[4]

The religious folks of Jesus’ day had the same tendency to misunderstand God that we have today, viewing Him as a strict task master. They also had the same drive to work, or “sacrifice,” their way to God’s favor. And there were devastating implications.

They were unable to see and appreciate God’s compassion toward them, and they were unable to extend compassion toward others. They mercilessly trampled on the needy sinners around them.

Sadly, we often make the same mistake.

The solution is to have an accurate view of our heavenly Father. Only when we realize that Christianity is not about our sacrifices for Him, but His sacrifice for us will compassion flow. Jesus gave it all so that we might be forgiven and accepted forever. He worked that we might rest. He died that we might live. Having been shown this kind of infinite mercy, we are invited to share it with others.

The Christian life is not about “working for the man,” but “resting in the Son.” As broken sinners who have been saved by His grace, we can give thanks for His compassion and the opportunity we have to share it with others.

[1] Matt. 5:17; Gal. 4:4

[2] John 19:30

[3] Gal. 4:6

[4] Matt. 9:13; 12:7


Personal Holiness

There is often talk in church-land about the importance of “personal holiness,” but there seems to be a lot of confusion about it. What is it exactly; how can we get it; and what does it look like in our lives? Personal holiness must be pretty important because the writer of Hebrews urges us to “Pursue…the holiness, without which no one will see the Lord.”[1] So we’d better figure it out or—get this—we won’t ever see God. That’s pretty alarming, right? We all want to see God and to be in His presence.

What is it?

For some reason when I think of holiness, the first picture that comes to mind is a shiny, glowing cloud. And when I think of a holy person, I think of someone who is good on the inside and the outside. They have a pure heart within them and a glowing aura around them—maybe even a golden halo above them. Is that what we should be pursuing in order to see God, moral perfection and some kind of golden glow? Is that what personal holiness is all about?

In essence the word “holiness” means “set apart.” Most basically, it speaks of something being separated from something else. In Scripture the term is used in many places and translated in many ways. The words “holy,” “holiness,” “sanctification,” “sanctified,” and “saints” are virtually synonymous, all coming from the same Hebrew and Greek roots. These terms all speak of the same general idea of being set apart.

People, places, and things are said to be “holy” throughout the Bible. God Himself is called “holy,”[2] the dirt beneath the burning bush where Moses stands is called “holy ground,”[3] the temple and its many utensils, furnishings and sacrifices are referred to as being “holy,”[4] Jesus is called “holy,”[5] and Christians are referred to as “saints,”[6] or “holy ones.”

Generally speaking, here’s what we can say: God is Himself holy; He is set apart and transcendent over everything He has created; and, He sets apart certain people and certain things within His creation for His own possession and purposes. That is basically what holiness is. It speaks of being set apart by, and belonging to, the holy God.

Therefore, personal holiness is not really about cleanliness on the inside or the outside. It is not a glowing aura around you or a golden halo above you. It is not moral uprightness or personal piety. It is a status conferred upon us in association with the holy God. It is being set apart by Him, united with Him, belonging to Him, and enjoying all the privileges and blessings of belonging to Him.

Now, if that is what personal holiness is, how can you get it?

How can you get it?

Under the guise of pursuing personal holiness, Christians are regularly exhorted to take all sorts of radical measures: to go to some places religiously, like church, and avoid other places at all costs, like bars. We are urged to engage in some activities with tenacity, like family devotions, and to abstain from others entirely, like watching movies.

The most holy people are apparently the ones who are in church every time the doors are open, but avoid the mall like the plague, the ones who have family worship every day, but wouldn’t think of owning a home theatre, the ones who shun potty-mouthed beer drinkers and only associate with religious right-wingers.

Is that how we get holiness, by doing some things and not doing others, by hanging around with some people and rejecting others? Am I more holy today if I wear a nicely pressed suit and go to church instead of staying home in my sweats to watch football?

How do we attain holiness? Simply, and gloriously, there is only way. It is the same way we gain every other spiritual blessing we possess. It is granted to us as a gift of God’s grace through Jesus Christ. When God works in our hearts to convert us, such that we repent of our sin and believe in Jesus, we are once and for all made holy. Our personal holiness is gained by God’s work, not ours.

There are numerous places in Scripture which make this point, but to see it most clearly let’s consider the context of the book of Hebrews. Remember the statement referenced earlier from Hebrews 12:14 “Pursue…the holiness, without which no one will see the Lord.” Well, the surrounding context of the book helps us understand clearly the nature of this holiness which we need in order to see God.

While this verse is often taught in such a way that would lead me to think that I had better get my act together or I won’t see God, that is not at all what it is saying. It is not suggesting that I’d better increase my holiness by having a more reverent attitude, or by memorizing more Bible verses, or by turning down my friend’s invitation to see the latest Marvel superhero movie. Those could all be appropriate, and even advisable, but they are not really the point of the verse in Hebrews.

The prior context of Hebrews makes it unmistakably clear that the sort of holiness God is referring to is the holiness that is found in Christ alone. That is the kind of perfect holiness we must pursue and without which we will not see God.

In the book of Hebrews the author is passionately exhorting his Jewish readers to trust fully in Christ and to resist the constant temptations to return to the outward rituals and practices of the Old Testament for their personal holiness, lest they prove to be unbelievers and fall from grace (cf. 6:4-6; 10:26ff.).

Over and over the author makes the point that we do not make ourselves holy by our own activity, but that we receive holiness by Christ’s activity for us:

NIV Hebrews 2:11 Both the one [i.e. Jesus] who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers.

NIV Hebrews 10:10 And by [God’s] will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

NIV Hebrews 10:14 because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.

NIV Hebrews 13:12 And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood.

So let’s get this straight: who makes who holy, and on what basis? Jesus makes us holy, and He does so on the basis of His perfect life and perfect sacrifice for us. We are made holy by His work for us, not ours for Him. We are the passive receivers, not the active providers of our holiness:

We could say it this way: personal holiness comes from the person of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Holiness, like every other spiritual blessing, is a gift of God’s grace. It has nothing to do with what we do for God and everything to do with what He has done for us through Christ.

Holiness is not up to us. There are no degrees of holiness which rise or fall dependent upon where you go or don’t go, how good an attitude you have or how bad an attitude you have, how pure or impure you are, or how well you behave or how poorly you behave. You are either holy, in Christ, or you are not holy, out of Christ. If you have believed in Christ, you are holy. Period.

There is no need to work hard for holiness, to shed any blood, sweat, or tears for it. Jesus’ blood, sweat, and tears will suffice…As if any sacrifice we make for Him could hold a candle to the sacrifice He has made for us anyway.

Now, I know what many of you are thinking: “Wait a minute, if people believe that then they will surely rush headlong into rebellion and debauchery! And, what about all the passages which exhort us to live a holy life?”

What can you do with it?

Make no mistake, God’s gracious gift of holiness in Christ has major practical implications. When you are personally holy because of Jesus, you get to do a lot with this privileged status! You really have been set apart by Him and you get to—by His supernatural power—think of people the way He thinks of people and act toward them the way He would act. Your personal holiness in Christ absolutely will affect how you view people and even how you use your time.

There are several passages of Scriptures which encourage us to live out our holiness, to let the reality of our holiness transform our lives and our dealings with others.

Peter exhorts us in this way: “…but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior;” (1 Peter 1:15). In essence, Peter is urging us to live consistent with our new identity in Christ—to be who we are in Christ.

We are set apart by a loving, gracious God through our union with Christ in order to be loving, gracious people. Thus, we are encouraged over and over to behave in such a way that matches our new identity. For example, our association with the holy God ought to make us loving people,[7] sexually pure people,[8]self-controlled people,[9] content people,[10] etc. That is what holy living looks like. It is very different from the norms of the world.

But we must understand that these God-glorifying attributes emanate from us not as we pursue personal holiness as something we gain for ourselves, but as something given to us by God through Christ. We live from our holiness, not for it. Holiness is a gift of God’s grace like every other spiritual blessing we enjoy.

In light of the clarity of the Gospel, and all that we have considered about being made holy by Jesus, it cannot be that these passages are telling us to live this way in order to become holy, but rather because we are holy.

Personal holiness comes from the person of the Lord Jesus Christ, and it propels us forward in a life that looks like His, a life characterized by self-denial and radical love for sinners. Jesus holiness did not compel Him to withdraw from the world, but to invade it with redemptive love. Our blood-bought, grace-given status of personal holiness moves us the exact same direction for the good of others and the glory of God.

 

[1] Hebrews 12:14

[2] Exodus 15:11; Isaiah 6:3

[3] Exodus 3:5

[4] Leviticus 8:11; Matthew 23:17

[5] John 10:36

[6] Psalm 16:3; 34:19; Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:2; etc.

[7] 1 Thessalonians 3:12-13

[8] 1 Thessalonians 4:3-7

[9] 1 Timothy 2:15

[10] Ephesians 5:3


What does the Gospel have to do with counseling?

I was recently asked to answer several questions related to how the message of the Gospel gives shape to my personal philosophy of counseling, and I figured I would share it for any budding counselors at SLCC. Hope you find the following Q&A encouraging!

Q: What is the role of the Gospel in Counseling People?

A: I believe the Gospel ought to be central in all Christian/Biblical counseling. It is important to define the term “Gospel” before considering its implications for counseling. The Gospel is the “Good News” declaration that God has sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to live, die and be raised for our salvation (John 3:16; 1 Cor. 15:1-4). Through faith in His finished work for us we gain assurance that we are right with God, fully forgiven for all of our sins, spiritually reborn, and destined for heaven. We are made alive in Him and will forever live with Him.

In terms of counseling, the Gospel is central because it is exactly what both unbelievers and believers need to hear. It is the promise and reminder that God has solved our greatest problem, namely our sin problem. It reassures us that freedom from the penalty, power, and presence of sin has been forever secured for us by Jesus. This has massive implications for counseling. It reminds both the counselor and the counselee of God’s sufficiency for every significant struggle of life. Again, our sin is our biggest problem, and Christ is the solution for that problem. Every counseling session should reveal how the counselee’s problem—whatever shape or form it takes—is related to their sin problem in the heart. And, every session should include a time when the counselee is pointed to Jesus and new life in Him as the ultimate solution for what plagues them at the heart level.

Q: What role does justification, sanctification, and glorification play in the counseling process?

A: In accord with the answer above regarding the Gospel, these Gospel-related doctrines also play a significant role and ought to be expounded upon throughout the counseling process. Once again, definitions must precede their relevance for counseling.

Justification speaks of the declaration of righteousness which believers in Christ enjoy. God has credited righteousness as a free gift to the account of those who refuse to trust in themselves and their own goodness before God, but instead put their trust in Jesus’s perfect record. As Romans 5:1 states, “having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” This doctrine has vital relevance with regard to counseling, because every counseling scenario in one way or another relates to the counselee’s relationship with God and their understanding of righteousness. People experiencing enough difficulty to seek the help of a counselor are always struggling at some level with their own right-ness, in their own eyes or in the eyes of other people, and ultimately in the eyes of God. They need to be re-assured of God’s promise to make them right in Christ. Incidentally, if their struggle relates to the wrongness/sin of another person, they still need to be pointed to justification to understand more deeply the human condition of all people, including themselves, and the provision of God for naturally unrighteous people.

Sanctification is another doctrine related to the Gospel. Essentially it has to do with the holiness, or set apartness, of God’s people by virtue of their union with Christ. Sanctification is often spoken of being both positional (E.g. Heb. 10:10) and practical (E.g. 1 Thess. 4:3). It is positional in that it is a done deal once a person has become one with the Savior through faith. It is practical in that believers have the opportunity throughout their lives to live either consistently, or inconsistently, with their holy status. Their behavior can reflect their new position in Christ or not. Counseling of a believer always involves revelations of where the counselee’s life fails to fit their sanctified identity in Christ and encouragement to revisit and live out of that new identity by faith.

Glorification speaks of the future hope of the believer in Jesus. It is the promise that one day we will be fully like Jesus “because we will see Him just as He is” (1 John 3:2). God has committed Himself to the final glorification of every Christian (Rom. 8:29-30). He will welcome His people into heaven; He will instantaneously perfect their hearts and character; and He will even give a new physical body in which to explore and enjoy the glories of heaven. This doctrine is relevant for the counseling of unbelievers because it introduces them to the future hope they can enjoy if they repent and believe in Jesus. It is relevant for the counseling of believers because it reminds them of the hope that one day they will be with Jesus and that their struggle with sin and all its destructive effects will finally be over. Every counselee needs that kind of encouragement!

Q: Do you embrace a particular theory that shapes your counseling? If so, please list and explain.

A: I don’t espouse any particular theory of counseling other than the Gospel-centric theory outlined above.  That said, I am never opposed to reading counseling theories, even secular counseling theories, understanding that while they cannot ultimately reach people’s deepest needs (only the Gospel can do that), they may provide insights into the human condition, illustrations of human depravity, and even, at times, practical helps in communicating with counselees.

Q: What role does the Bible play in counseling?

A: Since counseling always deals with how a person understands himself/herself and his/her God, the Bible is an indispensable resource. The Bible is the inspired, inerrant, infallible revelation of God. It presents everything we need to know in order to have an accurate view of God and ourselves and to find salvation in Jesus. Along these lines, it is crucial to point out that the Bible is only helpful insofar as it is interpreted accurately. Over the millennia, many people have twisted the Scriptures to their own destruction (2 Pet. 3:15-16). The most seductive and damning way to misinterpret Scripture is to miss the Christ of Scripture. To drive this point home, I often say, “The whole point of the written word is to point us to the living Word, Jesus.” Jesus rebuked the religious leaders of his day saying, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life.” (John 5:39-40)

Tragically, many are guilty of this same oversight today. So, when it comes to the Bible and its role in counseling, I view it as indispensable, but only and especially as it is interpreted rightly, as it diagnoses the human need/sin and God’ s provision/salvation through Christ.

Q: What role does prayer play in counseling?

A: Prayer is vitally important in counseling, because apart from God’s activity counseling is useless and hopeless. Meaningful and lasting change in the heart and soul of a person is utterly impossible apart from the supernatural working of God. Without the Spirit of God, people cannot see their sin for what it is (John 16:8); they cannot experience repentance concerning it (Acts 11:18); and they cannot see how great a deliverer the Lord Jesus is (1 Cor. 12:3). In light of our utter dependence upon God for true results, prayer is appropriate part of counseling. The counselor is urged to pray for the heart of the counselee to be more open to his/her sin and for their eyes to be more open to the love of the Savior (Eph. 3:14-21). Likewise, the counselee is invited to pray for God’s illumination and help, for eyes to see their need and God’s provision for their need.

Advertising Salvation

I believe advertisements are evangelistic. I understand that they seem like nothing more than routine annoyances taking us away from our favorite TV shows for 30 seconds at a time, or littering up the magazine and website articles we are trying to read. But, I believe they can actually serve an important spiritual purpose. Unbeknownst to their creators, they point us to our Creator. They point us to Jesus, our Savior, if we have eyes to see Him.

You see, commercials advertise salvation in one form another every day. Listen carefully and you will hear it:

This pill will save you from whatever ails you, in body or mind. (Of course it may introduce a variety of new symptoms, but we’ll ignore that for now.)

This new car will save you from the shame of driving your old clunker, or the sluggishness of your 4 cylinder, or the weak towing capacity of your wimpy old truck.

This bed will save you from sleepless nights and back pain.

This airline can save you from your cabin fever and from the annoying bag fees of other airlines.(“Ding…You are now free to move about the country!”…Ring a bell?)

This food will save you from your hunger. (Think Olive Garden’s bottomless pasta bowl…and don’t forget the endless salad and breadsticks…Yum!)

This guy can save you from car problems; another guy can save you from a leaky faucet; and another guy can save you from clogged gutters.

You get the idea! Every commercial points us to a need for which there is some provision. Even within the prosperous United States, we cannot escape our perpetual needs. We live with lack and afflictions of all kinds. And we demand relief!

In reality, these external, circumstantial needs are echoes of internal, spiritual needs—if we have ears to hear. While we often live in a delusional state of self-sufficiency, the constant barrage of advertisements we see ought to remind us regularly that we have necessities—things we must have in order to survive. We are not independent creatures. We cannot sustain ourselves. We need resources from outside of ourselves in order to live. We need something or someone to come in and rescue us.

Spiritually speaking, the same thing is true. Apart from God’s grace, we are needy in profound ways. We are dead in trespasses and sins and destined for destruction (Rom 6:23; Eph 2:1). And there is nothing that we can do to rescue ourselves. Ultimately, this is the real cause of our discontentment and misery, not the fact that we don’t have the right pill, or the right car, or the right vacation destination.

Here’s the deal: The various products of our nation of good and plenty may be able to save us from our hunger, our boredom, our headache, our fever, even our cabin fever, but, they cannot save us from our sin! They cannot save us from the self-absorption, the anxiety, the anger, the fear, the lust, the greed, or the impatience of our fallen minds.

There is only one who can. His name is Jesus!

When announcing the impending arrival of the Son of God on earth, the angel excitedly instructed Joseph, “You shall call his name Jesus for He shall save his people from their sins.” (Matt 1:21)

Salvation is Jesus name, and the reason He came. He has come to rescue us from our greatest need—our need for forgiveness and freedom from sin and death. Jesus is the solution!

And unlike the products endlessly displayed before us in man’s marketplace, this divine provision is absolutely free. There is no cost to us at all. He paid for everything, as advertised by Isaiah hundreds of years before Jesus arrival:

Isaiah 55:1 “Ho! Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; And you who have no money come, buy and eat. Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.”

Jesus came as the refreshment and savior of our souls…and He offers Himself to us without cost. Salvation is free. That’s not just good advertising, that’s good news!

So, the next time you see one of those annoying or enticing commercials, take a moment to reflect on your deepest need and the way it has been abundantly supplied by Jesus, your Maker and your Savior!


Undercover God

My wife and I recently became fans of the popular TV show, Undercover Boss. For those who haven’t seen it, the basic idea is that the owners or CEO’s of successful companies disguise themselves and go to work as entry level employees in one of their businesses. They lay aside their title, their rights, and their privileges to become like one of the little people, to experience the difficulties and challenges of work in the trenches. Often for the first time, they get a good glimpse of life at the bottom. And along the way something inevitably happens on the inside of these bosses. Their hearts are softened. Sympathy and compassion arise for the difficult, daily grind of their faithful employees.

The climax of each episode comes toward the end when the boss removes his disguise and reveals his true identity to one of the previously taken for granted workers. He then expresses his appreciation and promises to reward them for all their hard work going forward. I’ve seen many bosses–with tenderness in their voice and tears in their eyes–saying that they are determined to take better care of them by giving them a promotion, or a big fat raise, or a huge scholarship for college, or something along those lines. And how does the unsuspecting employee respond? As you would imagine, they are usually overwhelmed with excitement and joy. They pour praise and thanks upon their boss for his extreme kindness and generosity. It is always a powerful and moving scene!

I believe this is yet another echo of the Gospel, if we have ears to hear it. It ultimately points us to Jesus, if we have eyes to see Him. A show like this strikes a chord in the hearts of all of us who realize that deep down there is something intrinsically beautiful about the humility, sacrificial love, and compassion of a leader. It reminds us of what God is like and what He did in sending His Son to earth.

In Matthew 1, we are told that God sent His Son to be Immanuel, “God with us.” (v. 23). He was born into a lowly family. Joseph and Mary were simple, poor folks, not high society. They were from the obscure, blue-collar town of Nazareth. But nevertheless, Jesus, the Creator and King of kings came into their lives like an Undercover God. He humbled Himself and clothed Himself in frail humanity, and He did so in order to sympathize with all their weaknesses and temptations. He came to be touched with their infirmities and to suffer with them, and for them. And in the end, He would go to the cross to “save His people from their sins” (v. 21).

Now, as much as the show, Undercover Boss, is in many ways a good analogy of the Gospel, there is at least one important way in which it is not. There is one huge difference! In every episode, the undercover boss awards a diligent and responsible employee, an overachiever. They are the ones who get the big time benefits. Never is a bad employee rewarded; never is a lazy, non-productive person given a raise or a promotion. No, on the contrary, the underachievers are always punished.

On one recent episode, there was a man caught doing a terrible job. He was a restaurant employee with a horrible attitude. He regularly whined and complained about the customers behind their backs. He cursed at his co-workers. He was indolent and unproductive. Guess what happened to him? He got canned! There is a scene toward the end of the show where the boss takes him out to the parking lot to talk with him. She reveals who she is, and then she swiftly fires him! It makes sense, right? That is, after all, what the guy earned with his poor performance.

Now, imagine another scenario. Imagine if upon discovering just such a bad employee, the boss actually still gave him a promotion and a raise. Better yet, imagine if the boss happily did all the work for him and then rewarded him. That would be crazy, huh? Yes, that would be crazy! That would be grace! And that would be more like what we have with the Gospel.

The fact of the matter is, Jesus came as the undercover, incarnate God to live and die in our place because we were all doing a horrible job down here. We weren’t following the policies and procedures of the work place, so to speak. We weren’t keeping God’s law, by loving Him and loving others (Matt 22:36-40). It’s not that we weren’t working hard or achieving things down here at all. We’ve all managed to accomplish some things. We’ve even done some things well. But when it comes to the most important things—the spiritual things—we’re all blowing it!

So, Jesus came to save us. He came as the undercover God to live and die in our place and then to bless us with the benefits He earned. He came to give us eternal life and everything that goes with it, including full joy and peace in Him. And it’s all for free. It cost Him everything, but it costs us nothing. It’s not something we work for, or else it would be considered a wage (Rom 4:4). It would be like God paying us for our productivity. But, that is not the way it goes. It is God paying us for His productivity. It is grace!

In reality, the only thing any of us are earning down here is death. That is the payoff of sin. But, instead, because of Jesus we get eternal life. Paul sums it up in Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Jesus is our Undercover God. He came to our level to sympathize with all our weaknesses and temptations, and yet He responded with perfect obedience. He did all the work for us. He loved His Father and others flawlessly in our place, and then He died in our place so that we might be forgiven and blessed.

When Jesus pulls the blinders from our eyes and reveals Himself to us, we don’t just get a little promotion or a some extra money for college, but the infinite treasure of eternal life with Him!


Why Do This Church Thing?

I recently watched a segment on Fox Business News which described the shrinking sales in the retail world and the main reason for it: online shopping! Apparently, normal brick and mortar stores are not making nearly as much money these days because more and more people are buying stuff on the internet. It makes sense. If you can sit in front of your computer and order from the comfort of your own home, with just a few clicks, and then have it delivered conveniently to your front step, why not? Malls are frustrating, gas is expensive, and shipping can be pretty cheap. Why not ditch the whole “shop till you drop” thing? It’s a no brainer to me!

And then I thought about church and this question popped into my head: Why go to church? We live in a day when we can get instant access to countless church services and sermons 24/7 from the comfort of our own homes through TV and the internet. We literally don’t have to go anywhere. Shoot, we don’t even need to roll out of bed. Just reach for the remote or the tablet!

So, why get involved in a church at all? Why invest the time and the money and endure the challenges of church life?

Well, there are many reasons that involvement in a church is a God-ordained and very good thing for all of us. But, for now I just want to highlight the main one. We just passed Christmas, so think “incarnation.”

Jesus came in flesh and blood to live amongst His people. He accomplished salvation up close. He lived with the people He was living for. He ministered to them shoulder to shoulder, face to face, and eye to eye. He walked with them and talked with them. He laughed with them; He cried with them. He corrected them when they needed correcting, and He encouraged them when they needed encouraging—and He did it all close by. Then, He went to the cross before their very eyes. That’s the point of the incarnation; that’s the significance of the name Immanuel, which means “God with us” (Matthew 1:23).

As Christians living in union with Jesus, we have been commissioned and sent into similar “up close and personal” relationships. We have been taught to love one another as He has loved us (John 13:34; 15:12), which means we too have been called to incarnational ministry with one another. Obviously, Jesus is not here physically now, so we become his mouthpiece and his hands and his feet. He lives in us; He lives through us. He is giving Himself to us through others and to others through us. That’s how His love is experienced.

And the church is where it all happens! I don’t mean the building, but the congregation—the people! We meet together, learn together, pray together, sing together, and eat together in the name of Jesus. God uses it all—the ups and the downs, the goods and the bads—to enrich our walk with Christ. By design, we fellowship most deeply with Him as we fellowship with one another. We learn of His love and experience His love most in the context of intimate, human connections.

So, don’t give up on the church quite yet!


Nakedness, Shame, and Christ’s Covering

You’ve had the dream before, probably more than once. You’re at school or at work. Everything and everyone around you seems pretty normal. There’s nothing unusual…until you suddenly notice that you’re not wearing anything but your underwear! You immediately think to yourself, “How in the world did I make it all the way here without realizing I forgot one very important detail this morning…getting dressed!” Just then you realize that everyone is looking at you. They’re staring, they’re pointing and they’re laughing. You feel the weight of their judgment and the embarrassment. It is a nightmare. It is horrible. And then, just when you can’t take the shame and humiliation any more, you finally wake up. Whew!!! It was just a dream. Thank God.

Almost of all of us have had dreams like that one. But, have you ever asked yourself why? Why is this type of fear of exposure and scrutiny so basic to the human condition? I believe this is yet one more reminder of our universal need for the Gospel. It points to our shameful condition apart from the grace of God, and our need for the grace of God.

When our spiritual parents, Adam and Eve, were in the garden before the Fall, the Bible says something about them that makes us scratch our heads: “the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed” (Genesis 2:25). How is this possible? How could they be completely naked, completely exposed and yet not feel shame?

Here’s the simple answer: There was no sin yet! There was nothing wrong. Shame did not exist. There was nothing judge-able and nothing to be ashamed of. Adam and Eve were everything God intended them to be.

Once they made their dreadful choice of fruit over God, however, everything changed. For the first time, they sensed that something was wrong. They felt guilt and shame. They felt vulnerable before the eyes of God and others. What did they do? Did they run back to God for help? Nope. Rather than trusting in the goodness and graciousness of God, they got to work trying to solve their own problem. They sewed fig leafs together in an attempt to cover themselves. And clothing has existed ever since.

Clothes represent our efforts to hide ourselves. Our outward coverings are emblematic of our desire to cover ourselves inwardly, to hide our flaws from the eyes of others. Those embarrassing dreams we’ve all had reflect our innate aversion to exposure and vulnerability. We don’t want to be seen for who we really are beneath all the artificial, man-made coverings. We don’t want to be judged, especially by people.

You see, deep down, we all know that we are judge-able. We all know that there is something wrong with us, that we are flawed, that we are not what we should be. On the inside, we are ugly sinners. In our honest moments, we know it is true. And we want to cover it. We want to hide it. We want to convince people that we’re not as bad as we know ourselves to be. That’s our only hope for acceptance, approval, and escape from judgment and shame.

There are basically only two options for us.

We can, like Adam and Eve, try to solve our own problem. We can continue the human game of trying to cover ourselves and trying to hide. We can continue fleeing to the darkness and avoiding the Light (John 3:20). We can keep drinking in the poison of our self-esteem culture; we can continue trying to convince ourselves that we are not that bad, hoping that if we say the lie enough to ourselves we’ll believe it. We can keep turning our spotlights of scrutiny onto others in hopes that we won’t be noticed. We can keep playing a game which is ultimately unwinnable—everyone is eventually exposed for who they really are—or we can run back to our gracious God who is willing to cover.

Let’s return to the story of Adam and Eve. Despite being pushed out of their lives, God re-inserted Himself into their lives as a compassionate coverer. In a beautiful foreshadowing of the crucifixion, God killed an animal and covered Adam and Eve with its skin (Gen. 3:21). It was a symbol of His commitment to deal with the human problem of guilt and shame.

This gracious act of God providing physical covering points us to the spiritual covering He has provided for us in Christ. Jesus came and lived a life of perfection and shamelessness and then died a death of sin and shame in our place so that we might be saved, rescued from our miserable plight. At great cost to Himself, He was willing to provide clothing for our souls. He, like that animal back in the garden, was killed so that we might be clothed in His righteousness forever. The book of Revelation portrays the people of God wearing white robes, washed by the blood of Christ (cf. Rev. 7:14-17; 22:13-14). That is how God sees us.

In Jesus, we have become un-judge-able. Oh, people can still scrutinize us. They can poke and prod us with criticism and condemnation. It’s a free country. They can say what they want. But, in the final court of arbitration—the only one that really matters—the verdict is in and it favors us. Because of Christ, we are Innocent, Perfect, Right! We are hidden in Him. There is nothing wrong with us. We are all what we were originally meant to be. In heaven, there will be no trace of guilt or shame, not the slightest feeling of embarrassment or vulnerability. We will be safe forever in the gaze of God and others and we will forever have Jesus to thank.


Jesus, Our Friend Request

When was the last time you received a friend request on Facebook? It was a good feeling, wasn’t it? It’s always good to know that someone out there in cyberspace wants to be friends with you…even if that friendship is a little overly two-dimensional at times.

Recently I was struck by the fact that the coming of Jesus a few thousand years ago was essentially a divine friend request. God reached out to us. The Creator befriended His sinful creatures.

The Gospel tells us that though we have not been friends of God, but rather enemies (Rom 5:8-10), He has been a friend to us. Though we have ignored Him and failed to honor Him as we should, He has nevertheless pursued us. Though we have pushed Him out of our lives, He sent Jesus, the friend of sinners (Luke 7:34), to re-enter our lives.

Imagine sending a friend request to one of the enemies of your past. You wouldn’t do it, would you? You’ve seen his face pop up on the screen; you know he is there, but you wouldn’t think of clicking “add friend”…no way!

But, thankfully, God is a greater friend than we are. There is no greater friend. In John 15, Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.” He said this just hours before His crucifixion when He would prove Himself to be the greatest friend any of us has. He laid his life down in the most extreme way, by literally dying for us.

There was a price to be paid for our friendship with God. Because of the nature of our rebellion against Him, and the infinite debt it incurs, it cannot come cheap. But, Jesus has Himself paid that price. So for us, this friendship is free…no strings attached!

Jesus allowed Himself to be separated from His Father, “unfriended” in FB terms, so that we might be friended by Him. It is amazing!

Now, wait a minute! Doesn’t it seem a little too casual to speak of our relationship with God as a friendship? Doesn’t that go against our high view of God and our pursuit of personal piety? Not at all! This is not in any way attributed to the smallness of God, or the near humanness of God, or anything like that. It is instead a testament to the amazing love and grace of God. Yes, He is high and exalted, but He associates with the lowly.

Consider Isaiah 57:15 “For thus says the high and exalted One Who lives forever, whose name is Holy, ‘I dwell on a high and holy place, and also with the contrite and lowly of spirit…’” 

The God of the universe “dwells” with the lowly. He hangs out with the little people, those who know that apart from His grace, they don’t amount to much. That is mind-blowing. He is willing to condescend to that degree. He is that gracious…He is that kind!

So, while we should be amazed to speak of God as our friend, we shouldn’t be afraid to do so.

Jesus Himself said, “You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends.” (John 15:14-15)

In Jesus, God has revealed Himself fully to us. He holds nothing back. He has brought us near. We are His friends and we will be for all eternity. We have a lot to be thankful for!


A Different Kind of King

Last Sunday’s sermon was a great reminder of the uniqueness and superiority of King Jesus. It reminded me of a series I preached years ago from John 12 called “A Different Kind of King,” so I decided to go back and grab some of my favorite, most impactful quotes from those messages about the Triumphal entry of Jesus one week before His crucifixion. Here’s a little flash-back, reminding all of us how much different and how much better Jesus is when compared with every other human king who has ever lived:

 

“Jesus, the King of kings doesn’t enter Jerusalem riding in a royal chariot, or on the back of a black stallion or a war horse, but on the back of a donkey—and a young, small donkey at that. The Gospel of Matthew makes clear that when the disciples brought him the donkey He requested, they brought two, both a mother and a young colt (21:2ff.). Well, Jesus sat on the younger and smaller of the two. This was a demonstration of stunning humility! It was a shocking display of meekness! Donkeys were just slow, simple, unimpressive creatures. They were beasts of burden, often used to carry baggage or goods for business trips. They were sometimes used to carry people, but not Kings, and certainly not Kings during their Triumphal entries. This is crazy! It would be like President Obama arriving at his presidential inauguration on a mo-ped. So, what is Jesus doing? Here’s what He’s doing, He is vividly and boldly declaring that He is a different kind of King! He is not the typical arrogant, self-celebrating, and self-exalting earthly King. He is a meek and lowly King and He has come not to bring conquest but to bring peace.”

 

“Jesus does not refuse to be hailed as King, but He does insist on being hailed as a different kind of King…a kind of King who spreads His kingdom not by pride and force but by humility and gentleness!”

 

“Jesus is such a contrast to every human authority, whether king, or president, or boss, or parent in the home. Natural leadership is typically about advancing self and the causes of self. But, in a world of prideful leadership, Jesus comes as a humble leader; in a world where leaders put themselves over their people, Jesus puts Himself under His people; in a world where leaders put themselves out in front, Jesus puts Himself in the back; in a world where leaders make themselves first, Jesus makes Himself last.”

 

“There is a scene in ‘The Return of the King,’ the final movie in “The Lord of the Rings” series, that has been burned into my mind from the time I first saw it years ago. Throughout the movie, the tension is building between the good humans of earth and the evil orks of Mordor. The tension builds and builds as it leads to the final culmination where in the end there will be a massive battle between the humans and the orks. Well, at one point in the movie there is a battle scene where the men of the kingdom called Gondor are trying to retake one of their cities which had been seized by orks. As they’re charging the city on horseback, the orks are picking them off one by one from behind the fortified city walls. And as you’re sitting there watching these men giving their lives with absolutely no chance of victory, the scene suddenly shifts to the inner lair of the ruler of Gondor, where their king is hiding. Shockingly, he is sitting at a massive dining room table in his kingly throne room, eating ravenously. As His men and even His own son are being slaughtered on the battle field, the leader of Gondor is sitting there safely behind his castle walls pigging out. He’s alone at the table with this massive spread, a huge cooked turkey in front of him and a whole platter of fresh fruits and vegetables, and a silver chalice filled with red wine. The guy is just going to town, sitting there stuffing himself, chomping on a Turkey leg, drinking the wine. Turkey grease is all over his beard, and red wine is dripping down his chin. It’s pretty gross. And I’ll tell you what is most disturbing about it, not the way he’s eating, but the fact that he’s eating, he’s chowing down while his people are out on the battle field dying for His kingdom! They’re out there sacrificing their lives and this guy is sitting in the peace and quiet of His dining room glutting himself on what may be his last earthly pleasures. What a contrast between sacrifice and selfishness, right? But, what an accurate picture of normal human nature and normal human leaders. It’s the way it usually goes, isn’t it? The leader is the most protected guy, he’s kept safe and sound and in as much comfort as possible, and he’s as far from the front lines as possible. That’s normal for human Kings, isn’t it? Well, Jesus is gloriously abnormal. He is a sacrificial King! Other Kings demand service, Jesus offers service; Other Kings place themselves behind the last lines of defense, Jesus places Himself on the front lines. Other Kings are the last to die, Jesus is the first to die for His kingdom! He is a Different Kind of King. He is a Sacrificial King!”

 

“I’m not much of a Chess player, but I’ve played a few times, and I know basically how the game works. The whole point is to protect your King as much as possible as you go after the King of the other guy!  Where do you keep the King? You keep him in the back, behind your defenses. You use every one of your pieces to protect him, pawns, knights, bishops, rooks. Even the queen is to sacrifice herself for the protection of the King. He is the most important piece; He is the most valuable piece. He stays in the back, where it is safe! Well, Jesus is a different kind of King. He is the most important and the most valuable, but instead of staying in the back, Jesus moved Himself to the front. He sacrificed Himself. What He really did is that He, as King, made Himself a Pawn and sacrificed Himself for the benefit of His other Pawns, so that His other Pawns might go free. He did that for you and for me!”

 

“As we bring this series to a close…Let’s just reflect one more time on that fact that Jesus is radically different from all other earthly kings. He is so lowly in comparison, so unimpressive, He is so much less impressive than other human kings…And yet so exceedingly triumphant and so exceedingly successful. The kings of this world have in one sense been very impressive. All were broadly accepted and yet all eventually failed. Christ was broadly rejected and yet succeeds! Their impacts only diminish over time, Jesus’ impact only increases over time! This world has known many kings and many powerful rulers. But, they have failed and their kingdoms have all crumbled. From Alexander the Great to Julius Caesar to Napolean Bonaparte to Joseph Stalin to Adolph Hitler to the great world leaders of today, their kingdoms either have already or will some day crumble. All human kings and kingdoms eventually fizzle out. Human history is a series of unsuccessful attempts at sovereignty. Human kings fail…but Jesus succeeds! Of all the kings on the earth, there is only one king who has truly succeeded. His name is Jesus! He is a different kind of king. Is He your king?”

 

“Behold your King, crowned not with a golden crown, but with a crown of thorns…adorned not in a beautiful purple robe, but in a blood-saturated purple robe…paraded not before adoring crowds, but before mocking crowds…lifted up not on a throne, but on a cross!”


Cash Is Not Our King, Christ Is!

In the business world they say, “Cash is King,” and that is a good thing. The more cash on hand the better. Well, in the spiritual world when “Cash is King,” it is not a good thing.

In yesterday’s sermon from Acts 16 we saw a few “masters” (v. 16, 19) who were actually slaves—ironically. They were enslaved to their own destructive desires for wealth. Their love for money caused them to take advantage of a young slave-girl, using her demon possession with all its physical and emotional misery for their own financial gain. And when that gain was threatened by Paul and Silas who exorcised the demon and set the girl free, these merchants lashed out furiously. They immediately called for Paul and Silas to be beaten up and thrown in prison. Cash was their king and it resulted in hatefulness toward others.

When cash is king for us, we too become hateful toward others. When we worship the false sense of security and satisfaction money gives us, we inevitably mistreat the people around us. It is human nature.

In his book The City of God, the church father Augustine said it well: “The City of God is a place where the inhabitants love people and walk on gold; the city of man is a place where the inhabitants love gold and walk on people.” 

When cash is king, miserly husbands look over the shoulders of their wives scrutinizing and criticizing every purchase. When cash is king, extravagant wives go on plastic spending sprees at the mall, utterly disregarding the wishes of their hard working husbands. When cash is king, workaholic fathers neglect their children now, hoping to make enough money to enjoy with them in the future. When cash is king, mothers obsessively protect every square inch of their palatial home and incessantly scold their unintentionally clumsy and messy children. When cash is king, selfish young children steal money from their parents’ wallets, and lazy adult children drain their parents’ retirement accounts, rather than working toward their own. There are countless ways our relationships with others are damaged when cash is king.

That is the bad news. The good news is cash isn’t really our king; Christ is our King! And unlike cash, Christ is a gracious and merciful king. While money is a cruel master, always promising security and satisfaction but never really delivering, Jesus is a gracious Master, delivering everything He promises—everything money can’t buy.

The truth is, everything we look for money to be, Jesus actually is!

We are tempted to think money is the source of SECURITY when only Jesus is. The writer of Hebrews says, “Make sure that your character is free from the love of money, being content with what you have; for [Jesus] Himself has said, ‘I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you’” (Heb. 13:5). In other words, Jesus says to us, “I will take care of you!”

We are tempted to think money is the source of SATISFACTION when only Jesus is. He says, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst” (John 6:35). Jesus says, “I will satisfy you!”

We are tempted to think money is the source of JOY when only Jesus is. He says, “These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full.” (John 15:11) Jesus says, “I will give you joy!”

We are tempted to think money is the source of PEACE when only Jesus is. He says, “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Do not let your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful” (John 14:27). Jesus says, “I will give you peace!”

Jesus is our real King! And when we bow before Him instead of the almighty dollar bill, He liberates us from the tyranny of wealth and enables us to be gracious toward others. As we bask in His love and generosity, we are empowered to be loving and generous as well.

Let’s remember and give thanks that Christ, not cash, is our King today!


Conflict: Inevitable, but Redeemable

My wife and I feel like referees a lot these days. We have three young children, and as anyone with young children knows, they tend to fight often and over seemingly everything: clothes, shoes, toys, food, coloring books, crayons, stickers, air…Yes, seriously, air. “Daddy, she’s getting in my space…I don’t want her in my space!” Sound familiar?

Being addicted to peace and quiet as I am and having the strong aversion to bickering that I do, I often try to prevent my children’s conflicts. I try to outsmart them. For instance, I know that my older two girls feel strongly about the color of their plastic dinner plates (apparently some colors are much more pleasurable to eat off of than others). So, in order to avoid conflict, when getting plates out for them before dinner, I wisely select two plates which are exactly the same color–and the same shade of the same color. That way I won’t have to hear “I don’t want the light blue plate; I want the dark blue plate like she has!”

Ah ha, conflict averted, right? Nope. Not for long. Because inevitably one has more French fries than the other, or one more blob of ketchup. And then guess what, the fight is on!

Are my children unique? Are they more competitive and cantankerous than most? No, they are human, and unfortunately this is the way it goes for us humans. Even the most “spiritually mature” among us are not immune to conflicts.

Recently in our sermon series on the book of Acts, we watched as Paul and Barnabas—two of the most prominent leaders of the early church—experienced a “sharp disagreement” between them (Acts 15:39). In modern lingo, they got into a fight!

Before this point, these two guys were inseparable. They were a match made in heaven, literally (Acts 13:2). They were a ministry dream team, and they had many fruitful ministries together all around Asia Minor. They preached the Gospel side by side; they saw many people saved; they planted several churches. They even risked their lives together (Acts 14).

But their relationship, like all human relationships, was fragile. All it took was one disagreement about whether to take Mark along with them for their next mission trip, and they went separate ways. Paul took Silas and went one direction and Barnabas took Mark and went another. In fact, the remainder of the book of Acts will highlight the ministry of Paul and say absolutely nothing about Barnabas. We never see these two guys together again. Sorry Michael W. Smith, apparently friends aren’t friends forever when the Lord’s the Lord of them!

What happened? Sin happened! As they say, “The best of men are men at best!” And men are sinners.

So, here’s the bad news: Conflict is inevitable.

But, there’s good news too: Conflict is redeemable.

In God’s good redemptive plan, He went on to use the quarrel between Paul and Barnabas to split up their team and to create two missionary teams instead of one. He also went on to use both men for the furtherance of the Gospel. Paul enjoyed a fruitful ministry around the Roman empire according to the remainder of the book of Acts, and according to tradition Barnabas went on to solidify the church which had been previously planted by Paul and him in Cyprus.

So, despite the ungraciousness of these men, God kept spreading the message of the grace of Jesus to others. God redeemed the situation and used it to continue promoting the greatness of His Son.

And this reminds us how God uses the inevitable conflicts in our lives. They will happen and they will happen often, but God will redeem them. He will use them to uphold the glory of His Son. And if you have eyes to see it, you can see the greatness of Jesus in each earthly conflict.

For Christians, the strength of our relationship with Jesus is most obvious in contrast to the fragility of our relationships with people. Every quarrel is an opportunity to remember afresh that Jesus is the only one who is never at war with us. He is the only one who has never been angry with us, but always gracious towards us; He is the only one who has never fought against us but always for us; He is the only one who has never wished to kill us, but instead was willing to die for us!

In reality, He and He alone is the only “friend who sticks closer than a brother.” (Prov 18:24)

So, instead of trying to avoid conflict—which is inevitable—let’s ask God to open our eyes to the way it is redeemable!


Through Many Tribulations

It has been a difficult week. While still processing the gruesome and heartbreaking details of the Boston Marathon bombing, I heard a message on my voicemail telling me that a young girl, a 17 year old named Amanda Winters, died in a car crash on Summit Lake Road. Then, the day after attending her funeral, I received an early morning phone call telling me another young girl, a 15 year old, committed suicide on Harstine Island on Friday night.

The waves of bad news just kept coming in…but thankfully, reminders of God’s good news came in as well.

I was preparing to deliver a sermon from Acts 14. In that passage, Paul is beaten up severely for preaching the Gospel and then—after dusting himself off and tending to his wounds—gives the following reminder to his brothers and sisters in Christ:

Acts 14:22 “…through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”

It was a timely word for me. It reminded me that “tribulations” are a necessary part of living in this world and that God always brings His people “through” them! He doesn’t bring us into trouble and leave us there. He always carries us through it. As we’re told in Psalm 34:19, “Many are the afflictions of the righteous, But the LORD delivers him out of them all.”

God is committed to our salvation from beginning to end, and in between nothing can separate us from the love of Christ (Rom 8:35-39). His grace saves us and it sustains us—always! Like the famous song Amazing Grace says, “Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home!”

As you are touched by tribulations today, whether distantly or directly, remember God’s gracious commitment to carrying you through them all.


Broken is the Best You’re Going to Get

Well, it happened again the other day. We had ordered a brand new bunk bed for our girls. When it arrived, we excitedly opened it up and began assembling it…only to find that one of the bright white boards was broken, split down the middle. Shoot!

It seems inevitable; whenever I buy something “brand new” I discover something wrong with it. Perfectionist that I am, this drives me nuts. I don’t have a problem with imperfections with used things or hand-me-downs; however, when shelling out the extra money for something that is supposed to be new, I really don’t like it when it’s damaged. But it seems like it always is. I honestly can’t remember buying anything without discovering some kind of dent, ding or scratch already on it.

Okay I give up, God, that’s the way it’s going to be. But, is there anything I can learn from this? Is there any point for me to get?

I think there is. I think it teaches us all a very important lesson. Everything and everyone in this world is broken. It’s been that way ever since human rebellion began with the first sin back in Genesis 3. The earth is cursed. So, we can look long and hard to find something or someone that isn’t broken in this world, but we never will. That’s the bad news.

Here’s the good news: God isn’t broken. He is perfect and He sent His Son to insert His perfection back into this imperfect world. Through Christ—and through Him alone—God has provided redemption and reparation for all things (Col 1:19-20).

While I tend to interpret the brokenness around me as a bad thing, it is actually a good thing. It is a good thing because it points me to Him—His wholenesss, His perfection. There is no other place I can take my craving for wholeness and perfection; there is nowhere else it can be satisfied (cf. John 6:35).

Through the brokenness of our world, God is reaching out and sending to us a very important message: “Everything and everyone is broken…except Me!”

Brokenness and imperfection is a part of everything in this world and accepting it helps us find Jesus in it. And this has huge relational implications. It helps us to accept who we are and who everyone else is. It helps us give up on our pursuit of relational perfection among humans and encourages us to look for it in God alone.

I hear evidence of the fruitless pursuit of relational perfection all the time.

I hear it from single people looking for a spouse. “I’m looking for Mr. Right (or Ms. Right). I’m looking for someone who doesn’t have any sexual baggage, or who hasn’t been married before or, who doesn’t already have children.” This of course is another way of saying, “I don’t want somebody broken.”

I hear it from parents. “I don’t want my kids to be corrupted by the bad, bad world. I’m not going to let my kids make the same mistakes I made. I don’t want them to screw up. I don’t want them to try drugs or alcohol or to get pregnant. I don’t want them to get broken.”

I hear it from church hoppers. “I’m looking for a church that does preaching right and worship right and community right. I’m tired of listening to hypocritical pastors and performance driven worship teams and seeing church people mistreat each other.” In other words, “I don’t want a church that is broken.”

We all understand what these feelings are like, don’t we? And we certainly shouldn’t wish failure or moral disaster upon anyone, but we must not forget what God tells us. The fact of the matter is, everyone is broken.

Even if this brokenness escapes your notice for a time, be patient, it will show up. Your spouse, or future spouse, is broken. Your kids are broken; they were born that way (Ps 51:5). Your church is broken because it’s filled with broken people. Accept it, and look for Jesus in it.

In search of a mate? How about this: instead of trying to find one who isn’t broken, find one who is and knows it. And learn to take your brokenness to Jesus together. (Remember, you’re broken too!)

If you’re already married—in which case you know how flawed your mate is—let their flaws point you to Jesus’ flawlessness. Let go of your expectations for them and put your hope in Christ.

If you’re a parent, give up on the goal of trying to keep your kids from getting broken.  Teach them that they are broken, and point them to Jesus.

Are you in search of a church? Rather than looking all around for the perfect church, look for one where the imperfection isn’t covered over but put right out in the open where Jesus is. Look for a church where human sinfulness is exposed and where Christ’s sinlessness alone is extolled. Look for a church where the need for redemption of people is constantly made obvious and where the provision of redemption in Jesus is constantly deemed glorious.

Embrace God’s story of redeeming and repairing broken people through Jesus for His glory. If you belong to Him, it’s the story of your life and it’s the story you’ll be celebrating for the rest of your existence.

Remember, the perfect and whole Christ is coming back and when He arrives we will know perfect wholeness forever… “we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is” (1 John 3:2)…Until then, embrace the brokenness, because it’s the best you’re going to get!


How the Gospel Saved My Marriage and Ministry

A few years ago, God wrecked my world and revived my heart in the Gospel. Here is the short version of the story. I was strolling along in pastoral ministry when suddenly I found myself in the midst of a church split and a marriage crisis. I became crippled by my own sin, unable to overcome thoughts of anger, bitterness, and unforgiveness related to offenses against me from church members and my wife–real or perceived. It was largely an internal struggle with which I battled through many miserable days and many sleepless nights, but sadly my sin also manifested itself in explosive outbursts of anger toward my wife and others at times. After grappling with these sins for over a year, and wondering if my marriage and my ministry would survive, God broke through in profound ways teaching me something hugely important: I need Jesus just as much today as the first day He saved me! 

God was exposing and killing the Pharisee within. Jesus said to His closest followers “beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.”[1] Well, I was realizing that I hadn’t been vigilant enough in this regard. I was a full-fledged Pharisee, religious, biblically knowledgeable (got the summa cum laude label from seminary to prove it!), puffed up with pride and self-reliant. That worked for a while…But now I was on my face. I was learning the stunning reality that if I was to be anything as a husband, father, or pastor…that if my marriage or my ministry was going to survive, it was going to be because Jesus rescued me from my sin—plain and simple. It was going to have to be because He beat my sin for me, not because I was beating it myself.

And He did rescue me. He turned my eyes back toward the Gospel—which I had evidently left behind. God reminded me that the only hope for my sins, including my present sins, is the good news declaration that Jesus lived the life that I cannot live and died the death I deserve to die. That’s it, plain and simple. He was, and is, the husband, the father, and the pastor I cannot be. My primary responsibility is to cling to Him in faith and bear the fruits of His power. By this and by this alone will God be glorified in my life. [2]

As my heart gradually, and painfully, began believing this, I was increasingly relieved and set free. My thoughts of unforgiveness and anger were being miraculously replaced by thoughts of forgiveness and compassion. And as far as my ministry was concerned, for almost the first time in my life, there was a sense of freedom and joy in the work. God was giving me what I didn’t have on my own: excitement for the way He has loved me and love for His people! He gave me love for my wife, for my kids and for my parishioners, something I couldn’t seem to conjure up despite all my self-discipline, all my biblical study, and all my bull-dogged devotion to the commands of Scripture.

Not only was I experiencing newfound freedom and joy in my personal life, but by His grace my study of Scripture also became alive. My time in God’s Word previously had grown stale. I was like a biblical technician with all the right tools and methods but with very little genuine interest or passion for what I was doing in studying and preaching. I remember praying several times before this trial began that God would please help me to appreciate His Word more and to have more excitement about sharing it. Well, He answered that prayer! Now, as I studied I was seeing Jesus everywhere. I was realizing that, formerly, I was, in many ways, like the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, biblically knowledgeable but blind to Jesus’ ubiquitous presence. I had fallen prey to the error of the religious people whom Jesus rebuked saying “You search the Scriptures diligently because you believe that in them you have eternal life; indeed, it is these which testify of Me.”[3] As I studied God’s Word previously, I was primarily focused on me and what I was to do for Him rather than Him and what He has done for me. And it was killing me…but God was resurrecting me!

I began approaching my studies with a new set of eyes, and I was being continually blown away by the grace of God all over the pages of Scripture. I started seeing the Gospel everywhere, not just in passages which address initial conversion and justification but in passages which address sanctification and growing in grace as well. I started realizing that every biblical text points to two fundamental realities: my desperation and God’s deliverance, my sin and God’s salvation, my need and God’s provision. I began grasping the fact that Jesus Christ is the point, that His Gospel isn’t just the introductory material of the Christian life, it is the advanced material as well. I was learning what RTS professor J. Knox Chamblin meant when he said, “The Spirit does not take his pupils beyond the cross, but ever more deeply into it.”[4]

The Gospel has become my banner. Jesus has become my life line. The more I look away from myself and see Him, the more I am transformed by Him.[5] The more I trust in Him rather than myself, the more I experience His joy and the other fruits of His Spirit—God glorifying fruits which no human effort can supply.[6]

And I can say, from the bottom of my heart, this is why, and this is the only reason why my marriage and my ministry are intact today. It is all Him! He does the work, and I reap the rewards. I get the grace, and He gets the glory!

[1] Luke 12:1

[2] John 15:1-11

[3] John 5:29

[4] Chamblin, J. Knox, Paul and the Self: Apostolic Teaching for Personal Wholeness, Baker, 1993, p. 117.

[5] 2 Corinthians 3:18

[6] Galatians 5:22-23