What is the Gospel?

Excerpt from What is the Gospel? by Greg Gilbert

MAN THE SINNER

I just paid a parking ticket the other day. It was easy. I read the charge against me, flipped the ticket over, checked the box that said “I plead guilty to the charge,” filled out a check for $35 to the Metropolitan Traffic Citation Department, sealed the envelope, and dropped it in the mail.

I’m a convicted criminal.

For some reason, though, even though I checked the “guilty” box, I don’t feel terribly guilty. I’m not going to lose any sleep over my walk on the wrong side of the law. I don’t feel the need to ask anyone’s forgiveness, and now that I think about it, I’m even a little bitter that the ticket was $10 more than the previous one I got.

Why don’t I feel bad about breaking the law? I suppose it’s because, when you get right down to it, breaking a parking regulation just doesn’t strike me as being all that important— or all that heinous. Yes, I’ll be sure to drop an extra nickel in the meter next time, but my conscience isn’t exactly torn up over the whole thing.

One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that most people tend to think of sin, especially their own, as not much more than a parking infraction. “Yes of course,” we think, “technically sin is a violation of the law handed down by God on high, and all that, but surely he must know there are bigger criminals out there than me. Besides, nobody was hurt, and I’m willing to pay the fine. And come on—there’s no need for a whole lot of soul-searching over something like this. Is there?”

Well, I guess not, at least not if you think of sin in that cold way. But according to the Bible, sin is a lot more than just the violation of some impersonal, arbitrary, heavenly traffic regulation. It’s the breaking of a relationship, and even more, it is a rejection of God himself—a repudiation of God’s rule, God’s care, God’s authority, and God’s right to command those to whom he gave life. In short, it is the rebellion of the creature against his Creator.

What Went Wrong

When God created human beings, his intention was that they would live under his righteous rule in perfect joy, worshipping him, obeying him, and thereby living in unbroken fellowship with him. As we saw in the last chapter, he created man and woman in his own image, meaning that they were to be like him, to be in relationship with him, and to declare his glory to the world. Further, God had a job for humans to do. They were to be his vice-regents, ruling his world under him. “Be fruitful and multiply,” God told them, “and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen. 1:28).

Man and woman’s rule over creation was not ultimate, however. Their authority was not their own; it was given to them by God. So even as Adam and Eve exercised dominion over the world, they were to remember that they were subject to God and under his rule. He had created them, and therefore he had the right to command them.

The tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which God planted in the center of the garden, was a stark reminder of that fact (Gen. 3:17). When Adam and Eve looked at that tree and saw its fruit, they would remember that their authority was limited, that they were creatures, and that they were dependent on God for their very lives. They were only the stewards. He was the King.

When Adam and Eve bit into the fruit, therefore, they weren’t just violating some arbitrary command, “Don’t eat the fruit.” They were doing something much sadder and much more serious. They were rejecting God’s authority over them and declaring their independence from him. Adam and Eve wanted to be, as the Serpent promised them, “like God,” so both of them seized on what they thought was an opportunity to shed the vice-regency and take the crown itself. In all the universe, there was only one thing God had not placed under Adam’s feet—God himself. Yet Adam decided this arrangement was not good enough for him, and so he rebelled.

The worst of it, though, is that by disobeying God’s command, Adam and Eve made a conscious decision to reject him as their King. They knew what the consequences would be if they disobeyed him. God had told them in no uncertain terms that if they ate the fruit, they would “surely die,” which meant above all that they would be cast away from his presence and become his enemies, rather than his friends and joyful subjects (Gen. 2:17). But they didn’t care. Adam and Eve traded their favor with God for the pursuit of their own pleasure and their own glory.

“The Bible calls this disobedience of God’s commands— whether in word, thought, or deed—“sin.” Literally, the word means “missing the mark,” but the biblical meaning of sin is much deeper. It’s not as if Adam and Eve were trying very hard to keep God’s command and just missed the bull’s-eye by a few degrees. No, the fact is that they were shooting in the opposite direction! They had goals and desires that were categorically opposed to what God desired for them, and so they sinned. They deliberately violated God’s command, broke their relationship with him, and rejected him as their rightful Lord.

The consequences of Adam and Eve’s sin were disastrous for them, their descendants, and the rest of creation. They themselves were cast out of the idyllic garden of Eden. No longer would the earth willingly and joyfully present its fruits and treasures to them. They would have to work, hard and painfully, to get them. Even worse, God executed the promised sentence of death upon them. They didn’t physically die right away, of course. Their bodies continued to live, lungs breathing, hearts beating, limbs moving. But their spiritual life, the one that matters most, ended immediately. Their fellowship with God was broken, and thus their hearts shriveled, their minds filled up with selfish thoughts, their eyes darkened to the beauty of God, and their souls became sere and arid, utterly void of that spiritual life that God gave them in the beginning, when everything was good.

Not Just Them, but Us

The Bible tells us that it is not just Adam and Eve who are guilty of sin. We all are. Paul says in Romans 3:23, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” And just a few paragraphs earlier he says, “None is righteous, no, not one” (3:10).”

The gospel of Jesus Christ is full of stumbling stones, and this is one of the largest. To human hearts that stubbornly think of themselves as basically good and self-sufficient, this idea that human beings are fundamentally sinful and rebellious is not merely scandalous. It is revolting.

That’s why it is so absolutely crucial that we understand both the nature and the depth of our sin. If we approach the gospel thinking that sin is something else or something less than what it really is, we will badly misunderstand the good news of Jesus Christ. Let me give you a few examples of how Christians often misunderstand sin.

CONFUSING SIN WITH SIN’S EFFECTS

It’s become fashionable lately to present the gospel by saying that Jesus came to save humanity from an innate sense of guilt or meaninglessness or purposelessness or emptiness. Now of course those things really are problems, and many people feel them deeply. But the Bible teaches that humanity’s fundamental problem—the thing from which we need to be saved—is not meaninglessness or disintegration in our lives, or even a debilitating sense of guilt. Those are merely symptoms of a deeper and much more profound problem: our sin. What we must understand is that the predicament we’re in is a predicament of our own making. We have disobeyed God’s word. We have ignored his commands. We have sinned against him.

To talk about salvation being from meaninglessness or purposelessness without tracing those things down to their root in sin may make the medicine go down easier, but it is the wrong medicine. It allows a person to continue thinking of himself as a victim and never really deal with the fact that he himself is the criminal, unrighteous and deserving of judgment.

REDUCING SIN TO BROKEN RELATIONSHIP

Relationship is an important category in the Bible. Human beings were made to live in fellowship with God. What we must remember, however, is that it was a specific kind of relationship in which they were to live—not the relationship between two equals, where law, judgment, and punishment are out of view, but the relationship between a King and his subjects.

Many Christians talk about sin as if it were merely a relational tiff between God and man, and what is needed is for us simply to apologize and accept God’s forgiveness. That image of sin as lovers’ quarrel, though, distorts the relationship in which we stand to God. It communicates that there is no broken law, no violated justice, no righteous wrath, no holy judgment— and therefore, ultimately, no need for a substitute to bear that judgment, either.

The Bible’s teaching is that sin is indeed a breaking of relationship with God, but that broken relationship consists in a rejection of his kingly majesty. It’s not just adultery (though it is that); it is also rebellion. Not just betrayal, but also treason. If we reduce sin to a mere breaking of relationship, rather than understanding it as the traitorous rebellion of a beloved subject against his good and righteous King, we will never understand why the death of God’s Son was required to address it.

CONFUSING SIN WITH NEGATIVE THINKING

Another misunderstanding of sin is to say that it’s just a matter of negative thinking. We saw that in some of the quotes in the introduction to this book. Get rid of your old wineskins! Think bigger! God wants to show you his incredible favor, if you’ll just get rid of all those negative mind-sets that hold you back!

Now that’s a compelling message to self-reliant people who want to believe they can take care of their sin all by themselves. That’s probably why men who proclaim that message have managed to build some of the largest churches in the world. The formula is pretty easy, really. Just tell people that their sin is no deeper than negative thinking and that it’s holding them back from health, wealth, and happiness. Then tell them that if they’ll just think more positively about themselves (with God’s help, of course), they’ll be rid of their sin and get rich, to boot. Bingo! Instant megachurch!

Sometimes the promised goal is money, sometimes health, sometimes something else entirely. But however you spin it, to say that Jesus Christ died to save us from negative thoughts about ourselves is reprehensibly unbiblical. In fact, the Bible teaches that a big part of our problem is that we think too highly of ourselves, not too lowly. Stop and think about it for a moment. How did the Serpent tempt Adam and Eve? He told them they were thinking too negatively about themselves. He told them they needed to think more positively, to extend their grasp, to reach toward their full potential, to be like God! In a word, he told them to think bigger.

Now how’d that work out for them?

CONFUSING SIN WITH SINS

There is a huge difference between understanding yourself to be guilty of sins, and knowing yourself to be guilty of sin. Most people have no problem at all admitting that they’ve committed sins (plural), at least so long as they can think about those sins as isolated little mistakes in an otherwise pretty good life— a parking ticket here or there on an otherwise clean record.

Sins don’t shock us much. We know they are there, we see them in ourselves and others every day, and we’ve gotten pretty used to them. What is shocking to us is when God shows us the sin that runs to the very depths of our hearts, the deep-running deposits of filth and corruption that we never knew existed in us and that we ourselves could never expunge. That’s how the Bible talks about the depth and darkness of our sin—it is in us and of us, not just on us.

On the second floor of the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, there is what is said to be the largest flawless quartz sphere in the entire world. The sphere is a little bigger than a basketball, and there is a not a single visible scratch, pockmark, or discoloration on the entire thing. It is perfect. People often think human nature is like that quartz sphere. Yes, every now and then we may smear it up with dirt and mud, but underneath the grime it remains as pristine as ever, and all we really need to do is wipe it clean in order to restore its brilliance.

The Bible’s picture of human nature, though, is not so pretty. According to Scripture, the sphere of human nature is not pristine at all, and the mud is not just smeared on the outside. On the contrary, we are shot through with sin. The cracks, mud, filth, and corruption go all the way to the center. We are, as Paul said, “by nature children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3). We are included in Adam’s guilt and corruption (Romans 5). Jesus taught this, too: “Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Matt. 15:19). The sinful words you speak and sinful actions you do are not just isolated incidents. They rise out of the evil of your own heart.

Every part of our human existence is corrupted by sin and under its power. Our understanding, our personality, our feelings and emotions, and even our will are all enslaved to sin. So Paul says in Romans 8:7, “The mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.” What a shocking and frightening statement! So thorough is sin’s rule over us—our minds, understanding, and will—that we see God’s glory and goodness, and we inevitably turn away from it in disgust.

It’s not enough to say that Jesus came to save us from sins, if what we mean by that is that he came to save us from our isolated mistakes. It’s only when we realize that our very nature is sinful—that we are indeed “dead in our trespasses and sins,” as Paul says (Eph. 2:1, 5)—that we see just how good the news is that there is a way to be saved.

God’s Active Judgment against Sin

One of the most frightening statements in all the Bible is in Romans 3:19. It comes at the end of Paul’s indictment of all humanity—first the Gentile, then the Jew—as being under sin and utterly unrighteous before God. Here’s what Paul says, as the grand conclusion of the matter: “Every mouth [will] be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God” (NIV).

Can you even begin to imagine what that will mean? To stand before God and to have no explanation, no plea, no excuse, no case? And what does it mean to be “held accountable to God”? The Bible is very clear, as we saw in the last chapter, that God is righteous and holy, and therefore he will not excuse sin. But what will it mean for God to deal with sin, to judge it and punish it?

Romans 6:23 says, “The wages of sin is death.” In other words, the payment we earn for our sins is to die. That’s not just physical death, either. It is spiritual death, a forceful separating of our sinful, wretched selves from the presence of the righteous and holy God. The prophet Isaiah describes it like this:

Your iniquities have made a separation

between you and your God,

and your sins have hidden his face from you

so that he does not hear. (Isa. 59:2)

Sometimes people talk about this as if it is just the passive, quiet absence of God. But it’s more than that. It is God’s active judgment against sin, and the Bible says it will be terrifying. Look at how the book of Revelation describes what the end will be like on the day of God’s right and good judgment. The seven angels will “pour out on the earth . . . the wrath of God,” and “all the tribes of the earth will wail on account of him” (Rev. 16:1; 1:7). They will call out to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” (Rev. 6:16–17). They will see Jesus, the King of kings and Lord of lords, and they will cower, for “he will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty” (Rev. 19:15).

The Bible teaches that the final destiny for unrepentant, unbelieving sinners is a place of eternal, conscious torment called “hell.” Revelation describes it as a “lake of fire and sulfur,” and Jesus says it is a place of “unquenchable fire,” (Rev. 20:10; Mark 9:43).

Given how the Bible talks about hell and warns us against it, I do not understand the impulse some Christians seem to have to explain it in a way that makes it sound more tolerable. When Revelation speaks of Jesus treading the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty, when Jesus himself warns of the “unquenchable fire . . . where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:43, 48), my incredulous question is, Why would any Christian have an interest in making that sound less horrific? Why on earth would we comfort sinners with the thought that maybe hell will not be so bad after all?

We Didn’t Just Make This Up

The images the Bible uses to talk about God’s judgment against sin are truly horrifying. It’s really no wonder the world reads the Bible’s descriptions of hell and calls Christians “sick” for believing them.

But that misses the point. It’s not as if we just make these ideas up ourselves. We Christians don’t read, believe, and talk about hell because we somehow enjoy the thought of it. God forbid. No, we talk about hell because, finally, we believe the Bible. We believe it when it says that hell is real, and we believe it with tears when it says that people we love are in danger of spending eternity there.

This is the Bible’s sobering verdict on us. There is not one of us righteous, not even one. And because of that, one day every mouth will be silenced, every wagging tongue stopped, and the whole world will be held accountable to God.

But . . .”

Posted in Meditations

Bethlehem’s Supernatural Star

From Solid Joys by John Piper

“Where is he who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.” (Matthew 2:2)

Over and over the Bible baffles our curiosity about just how certain things happened. How did this “star” get the magi from the east to Jerusalem?

It does not say that it led them or went before them. It only says they saw a star in the east (verse 2), and came to Jerusalem. And how did that star go before them in the little five-mile walk from Jerusalem to Bethlehem as verse 9 says it did? And how did a star stand “over the place where the Child was”?

The answer is: We do not know. There are numerous efforts to explain it in terms of conjunctions of planets or comets or supernovas or miraculous lights. We just don’t know. And I want to exhort you not to become preoccupied with developing theories that are only tentative in the end and have very little spiritual significance.

I risk a generalization to warn you: People who are exercised and preoccupied with such things as how the star worked and how the Red Sea split and how the manna fell and how Jonah survived the fish and how the moon turns to blood are generally people who have what I call a mentality for the marginal. You do not see in them a deep cherishing of the great central things of the gospel — the holiness of God, the ugliness of sin, the helplessness of man, the death of Christ, justification by faith alone, the sanctifying work of the Spirit, the glory of Christ’s return, and the final judgment. They always seem to be taking you down a sidetrack with a new article or book. There is little centered rejoicing.

But what is plain concerning this matter of the star is that it is doing something that it cannot do on its own: It is guiding magi to the Son of God to worship him.

There is only one Person in biblical thinking that can be behind that intentionality in the stars — God himself.

So the lesson is plain: God is guiding foreigners to Christ to worship him. And he is doing it by exerting global — probably even universal — influence and power to get it done.

Luke shows God influencing the entire Roman Empire so that the census comes at the exact time to get a virgin to Bethlehem to fulfill prophecy with her delivery. Matthew shows God influencing the stars in the sky to get foreign magi to Bethlehem so that they can worship him.

This is God’s design. He did it then. He is still doing it now. His aim is that the nations — all the nations (Matthew 24:14) — worship his Son.

This is God’s will for everybody in your office at work, and in your neighborhood and in your home. As John 4:23 says, “Such the Father seeks to worship him.”

At the beginning of Matthew we still have a “come-see” pattern. But at the end the pattern is “go-tell.” The magi came and saw. We are to go and tell.

But what is not different is that the purpose of God is the ingathering of the nations to worship his Son. The magnifying of Christ in the white-hot worship of all nations is the reason the world exists.

Posted in Gospel Centrality | Tagged , , ,

The Language of Experience

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Ephesians 3:16–19 ESV

I recently watched a message by Ligon Duncan on Ephesians 3:14-19 (here) in which he discusses how Paul’s plea for the Christians at Ephesus was that they would “know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.”  In his message, he says “Paul just prayed that you would know a love that is beyond knowing – that is clearly the language of experience.”  Something clicked in me as I began to recall how the bible is so full of experiential language.  Most modern evangelicals are uncomfortable with such language and have nowhere to file it.  Perhaps it is because we are so information driven or because we can’t program it or make it happen.  However, the language of experience seems to be the Bible’s native tongue.

How does one know that God is good?  We know that He is good by tasting and seeing that He is good (Psalms 43:8).  There is a difference between knowing that honey is sweet and tasting honey and experiencing its sweetness.  And what about anxiety?  We are told that there is a peace available to us that surpasses all surpasses (Philippians 4:7).  We are to be partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4).  Our souls will be satisfied when we hunger and thirst for righteousness (Matthew 5:6).  In John 6, Jesus identifies himself as the Bread of life that satiates our soul’s hunger pangs.  He is the living water that quenches our thirst (Jeremiah 2:13, John 4:10, Revelation 7:17).

One can hardly read a page in the Psalms without being invited to experience God at a level that is beyond mere intellectual understanding.

  • “For he satisfies the longing soul, and the hungry soul he fills with good things.” (Psalms 107:9 ESV)
  • “O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” (Psalms 63:1 ESV)
  • “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God.” (Psalms 42:1 ESV)
  • “My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God.” (Psalms 84:2 ESV)
  • “If your law had not been my delight, I would have perished in my affliction.”  (Psalms 119:92 ESV)
  • “When I remember God, I moan; when I meditate, my spirit faints. Selah” (Psalms 77:3 ESV)

Let us taste; let us hunger; let us thirst; let us pant; let us long; let us delight; let us be satisfied.  Let us pray with Paul “that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” (Ephesians 1:17–23 ESV).  Lord, give us eyes to see, ears to hear and hearts to believe (Mark 8:17-18, 7:31-35, 8:22-26, Isaiah 6:8-10)

 

Posted in Gospel Centrality, Growth/Pursuit | Tagged , , ,

Marked by the Almighty

When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand as he came down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. Aaron and all the people of Israel saw Moses, and behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them, and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses talked with them. Afterward all the people of Israel came near, and he commanded them all that the LORD had spoken with him in Mount Sinai. And when Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil over his face.
Whenever Moses went in before the LORD to speak with him, he would remove the veil, until he came out. And when he came out and told the people of Israel what he was commanded, the people of Israel would see the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses’ face was shining. And Moses would put the veil over his face again, until he went in to speak with him. (Exodus 34:29–35 ESV)

God instructs Moses to cut two stone tablets (like the first ones that he broke) and to bring them up the mountain (Exodus 34:1) for their second face to face meeting.  The people feared God and appointed Moses as their mediator (Exodus 20:19).  Once Moses had climbed the mountain, the Lord descended from heaven and passed before him and revealed his majesty and glory to Moses (34:5-7).  The result?  Moses bowed his head and interceded on behalf of himself and the people (v8-9).  Moses worshiped and pled for mercy.  Being in the presence of the Almighty always brings a sense of awe, reverence and personal smallness.

Interestingly, when Moses descended from the mountain with the tablets, he was glowing.  His face literally shone with the glory of God.  It caused the people to be fearful so he wore a veil over his face.  He would remove the veil when he met with God and he would replace it when he met with the people.  The glory of the Lord was too much for them.  Moses had been marked by the Almighty.  His experience with God marked him – spiritually, emotionally & physically.

Being in the presence of the sovereign God of the universe always marks us – it leaves us changed, transformed.  Think about Isaiah’s experience with God in Isaiah 6.  Think about Psalm 73 where the psalmist wrestles with the prosperity & blessing of the wicked.  He wrestled with what he saw, “but when he thought how to understand this, it seemed to him a wearisome task, until he went into the sanctuary of God; then he discerned their end” (Psalms 73:16–17 ESV).  Though the psalmist wrestled with real world questions, he was marked by meeting God in His sanctuary and, as a result, his perspective changed.  David is another example.  In psalm 51:1-12, David is wrestling with his sin and being laid bare before a perfectly holy God.  Something interesting happens in verse 13, though – David is so marked by the forgiveness that he has received that he vows to “teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you” (Psalms 51:13 ESV).  David had been so marked by the forgiveness of God that it changed him to the core.  When Job encountered the Almighty face to face, he proclaimed “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you” Job 42:5.

The same was true of Peter and John when they were gathered before the elders in Jerusalem.  Luke tells us, “now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13 ESV).  They were filled with the Spirit (4:8) and His presence marked them, transformed them and empowered them.

Let us goto out bibles intent on seeing God. Let us not search for trite formulas to make our lives work better in order to cope with living in this fallen world; let us not primarily focus on what we must do until we have spent plenty of time focusing on who He is and what He has done to forgive us, save us and adopt us into His family.  Let us seek to see Him and beg him to show us His glory.  We far too often approach the bible as a way to fix our problems, rather than a story that reveals a powerful, just, merciful God that redeems a rebellious people.  How we read our bibles matters.  Lord, help us to see you and savor you as supreme.  Help us to believe that “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalms 16:11 ESV).

 

Posted in Growth/Pursuit | Tagged , , , , , ,

Rats in the Cellar

“We begin to notice, besides our particular sinful acts, our sinfulness; begin to be alarmed not only about what we do, but about what we are. This may sound rather difficult, so I will try to make it clear from my own case. When I come to my evening prayers and try to reckon up the sins of the day, nine times out of ten the most obvious one is some sin against charity; I have sulked or snapped or sneered or snubbed or stormed. And the excuse that immediately springs to my mind is that the provocation was so sudden and unexpected: I was caught off my guard, I had not time to collect myself. Now that may be an extenuating circumstance as regards those particular acts: they would obviously be worse if they had been deliberate and premeditated.

On the other hand, surely what a man does when he is taken off his guard is the best evidence for what sort of a man he is? Surely what pops out before the man has time to put on a disguise is the truth? If there are rats in a cellar you are most likely to see them if you go in very suddenly. But the suddenness does not create the rats: it only prevents them from hiding. In the same way the suddenness of the provocation does not make me an ill-tempered man: it only shows me what an ill-tempered man I am. The rats are always there in the cellar, but if you go in shouting and noisily they will have taken cover before you switch on the light.

Apparently the rats of resentment and vindictiveness are always there in the cellar of my soul. Now that cellar is out of reach of my conscious will. I can to some extent control my acts: I have no direct control over my temperament. And if (as I said before) what we are matters even more than what we do—if, indeed, what we do matters chiefly as evidence of what we are—then it follows that the change which I most need to undergo is a change that my own direct, voluntary efforts cannot bring about And this applies to my good actions too. 

How many of them were done for the right motive? How many for fear of public opinion, or a desire to show off? How many from a sort of obstinacy or sense of superiority which, in different circumstances, might equally had led to some very bad act? But I cannot, by direct moral effort, give myself new motives. After the first few steps in the Christian life we realise that everything which really needs to be done in our souls can be done only by God. And that brings us to something which has been very misleading in my language up to now.”

CS Lewis, Mere Christianity page 93-93

Posted in Gospel Centrality, Growth/Pursuit | Tagged

The Sovereignty of God in the Genealogy of Jesus

which he [God] promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh
(Romans 1:2–3 ESV)

“But in Jeremiah 22:30, in the chapter just before the one prophesying “a righteous Branch” that would arise in David’s line, a harsh curse is pronounced on a king named Jehoiachin, the last of the actual reigning kings descended from King Solomon: “Record this man as if childless, a man who will not prosper in his lifetime: for none of his offspring will prosper, none will sit on the throne of David or rule anymore in Judah.” Because of God’s curse, no king descended in that line could reign legitimately.

There was another strong line of descent, however. King Solomon had an older brother, Nathan, who would have been king if God had not given the throne to Solomon. Nathan had also produced descendants, but any descendant of this line who claimed inheritance of the promises made to King David would have been challenged immediately be descendants in the line that had actually reigned. How could such a dilemma be solved? There was a lack of reigning kings in one line and a curse on the other.

The way God solved the issue was so simple that it confounds the wisest skeptics. The line of Solomon ran on through the centuries until it eventually produced Joseph, who was betrothed to the Virgin Mary and eventually became her husband, though not until after she had conceived and given birth to the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus was not descended from Joseph; otherwise he would have inherited the curse on that line. But when Joseph took Mary under his protection and thus became the adoptive father of her divine child, he passed the right of royalty to him. And since Jesus was also descended from Mary – who, as it turns out, was a descendant of David through the line of Nathan – Jesus combined the claims of the two lines in his unique personhood and thereby eliminated the possibility of there ever being any other legitimate claimant to the throne. In other words, if Jesus is not the Messiah who has descended from David according to the Old Testament prophecies, there will never be a Messiah. For Jesus had no human children, and each of his brothers (who are the only other possibilities through whom another Messiah might descend) had the curse on him and would have passed it on to his children.”

An Expositional Commentary on Romans by James Montgomery Boice, pages 41-42.

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The Gospel of God

“Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God,” (Romans 1:1 ESV)

A slave. Paul viewed himself as a slave (Greek word for servant is also translated “slave”) of Jesus. He was under the authority, rule and command of Jesus. This thinking is used throughout Paul’s writings. We are a slave to sin or to righteousness; to the flesh or the Spirit. Slaves are purchased, they have an owner and master. For the Christian that owner is God, the purchase price was the blood of the Son of God. We have been legally transferred from one kingdom to another; we have been delivered from darkness to light; moreover, we have been adopted into God’s family. We have been emancipated from the bondage to sin. We are first, and foremost purchased by Christ before we are ever called to go and do anything.

The Gospel of God is the proclamation of good news regarding God’s redemptive purposes in the world which are culminated in the life, death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. The gospel is not only a call to saving faith, but the comprehensive message about Jesus’ redemption of all things – this gospel saves us AND transforms us. It is comprehensive from start to finish as the letter of Romans boldly proclaims. The gospel reconciles and sanctifies.

“The noun euangelion [translated gospel] originally signified announcement of victory after battle and later the content of that message. The term also came to describe the birth or the rise to power of a new king. An inscription from Priene in Asia Minor, probably written around 9 B.C. describes the enthronement of Augustus as the new Roman emperor. Augustus is lauded as the savior who will bring peace and hails his birthday as “the beginning of the glad tidings (euangelion) that have come to men through him.” This illustrates the religious content of the term in emperor worship.
When one compares pagan use of euangelion and the LXX’s [Greek translation of the Old Testament] use of euangelizomai, a striking parallel arises of a king worshiped by his people. The gospel and its confession that Jesus is Lord confront the claim that Caesar is Lord and declare that in the cross and resurrection Jesus is enthroned as the King of kings. Caesar or any other created thing claiming lordship will bow before the crucified and risen Jesus. “GOSPEL,” Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, n.p.

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Boice on Romans

“We cling to man-centered, need oriented teaching. And our churches show it! They are successful in worldly terms-big buildings, big budgets, big everything-but they suffer from a poverty of soul” Page 10

“The fundamental human problem is not to understand what proper behavior is; generally we know that quite well.  The problem is that we do not do what we know we should do.  Indeed, we even seem incapable of doing it.” Page 14

“Our hang-up is that we do not love God, as Luther, the pious monk, discovered.  We are at war with God.  In effect, we hate him; at the very least we do not want him to rule over our lives and resent any meaningful attempts he makes to do so.” Page 14

“The problem with the merely religious person is that the practice of religion alone cannot change the heart.” Page 15

“God is utterly consistent.  There had never been a time in history in which every Jew was saved, just because that individual was a Jew.  And no one is saved today merely by being what he or she is natuarally: a churchgoer, a moral person, a philanthropist, an American (or any other nationality), or even a child of Christian parents.  Salvation is by grace through faith, which means that it flows from God’s choice and activity.  It is God’s salvation, after all, not man’s.  And God will work it out-he is working it out-until the fullness of his purpose regarding salvation of a people for himself is complete.”  Page 16

An Expositional Commentary on Romans by James Montgomery Boice

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John Owen on Romans

John Owen writes in the Introduction to Calvin’s Commentary on Romans:

“We have set before us in this Epistle especially two things, which it behoves us all rightly to understand — the righteousness of man and the righteousness of God — merit and grace, or salvation by works and salvation by faith. The light in which they are exhibited here is clearer and brighter than what we find in any other portion of Scripture, with the exception, perhaps, of the Epistle to the Galatians. Hence the great value which has in every age been attached to this Epistle by all really enlightened Christians; and hence also the strenuous efforts which have often been made to darken and wrest its meaning by men, though acute and learned, yet destitute of spiritual light. But let not the simple Christian conclude from the contrariety that is often found in the expositions on these two points, that there is no certainty in what is taught respecting them. There are no contrary views given of them by spiritually-minded men. Though on other subjects discussed here, such men have had their differences, yet on these they have ever been found unanimous: that salvation is from first to last by grace, and not by works, has ever been the conviction of really enlightened men in every age, however their opinion may have varied in other respects. It may seem very strange, when we consider the plain and decisive language, especially of this Epistle, and the clear and conclusive reasoning which it exhibits, that any attempt should ever be made by a reasonable being, acknowledging the authority of Scripture, to pervert what it plainly teaches, and to evade what it clearly proves. But a right view of what human nature is, when unrenewed, as exhibited in God’s Word, and as proved by history and made evident by observation, enables us fully to account for what would otherwise remain an enigma. No truth is more fully confirmed by facts (and it ought ever to be remembered) than that “the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God,” and that he “cannot know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” This declaration clearly accounts for the fact, that men of great learning have often misunderstood many things in Scripture, and such things as are plain enough even to the unlettered when spiritually enlightened. The learned Scribes and Rabbins were blind leaders of the blind, when even babes understood the mysteries of the kingdom of God: and no better then the Scribes are many learned men, professing Christianity, in our day.

There is indeed a special reason why, on these points, unenlightened men should contrive means to evade the obvious meaning of Scripture; for they are such things as come in constant contact with a principle, the strongest that belongs to human nature in its fallen state. Other doctrines may be held as speculations, and kept, as it were, at a distance; but when we come to merit and grace, to work and faith, man’s pride is touched; and as long as under he is its prevailing influence, he will be certain, in some way or another, direct or evasive, to support merit in opposition to grace, or works in opposition to faith. When the authority of tradition supplanted the authority of Scripture, the doctrine of merit so prevailed, that the preposterous idea, that merits were a salable and a transferable commodity, gained ground in the world. A notion of this kind is too gross and absurd to be entertained by any who acknowledge God’s Word as the only umpire in religion; and yet what is not essentially different has often been maintained; for to say that salvation is partly by faith and partly by works, is really the same thing, inasmuch as the principle of merit is thereby admitted. Man naturally cleaves to his own righteousness; all those who are ignorant are self-righteous, and all the learned who understand not the gospel; and it is wonderful what ingenious evasions and learned subtleties men will have recourse to in order to resist the plain testimony of Scripture. When they cannot maintain their ground as advocates of salvation alone by merits, they will attempt to maintain it as advocates of a system, which allows a part to grace and a part to works — an amalgamation which Paul expressly repudiates, Romans 11:6.

But it is remarkable how the innate disposition of man has displayed itself in this respect. Conscious, as it were, in some measure of moral imperfections, he has been striving for the most part to merit his salvation by ceremonial works. This has been the case in all ages with heathens: their scarifies, austerities, and mechanical devotions were their merits; they were the works by which they expected to obtain happiness. God favored the people of Israel with the rituals of religion, which were designed merely as aids and means to attain and preserve true religion; but they converted them to another purpose, and, like the heathens, regarded them as meritorious performances, and expected God’s acceptance for the very religious acts which they exercised: and in order to make up, as it were, a sufficient quantity of merit, they made additions to those services which God had appointed, as though to multiply acts of this kind was to render their salvation more certain. The very same evil crept early into the Christian Church, and still continues to exist. The accumulation of ceremonies is of itself a sufficient proof, that salvation by faith was in a great measure lost sight of: we want no other evidence; it is what has been ever done whenever the light of truth has become dim and obscure. We see the same evil in the present day. Outward privileges and outward acts of worship are in effect too often substituted for that grace which changes the heart, and for that living faith which unites us to the Savior, which works by love and overcomes the world. The very disposition to over-value external privileges and the mere performances of religious duties, is an unequivocal evidence, that salvation by faith is not understood, or very imperfectly understood, and not really embraced.

The only remedy, as means for this evil, is that which we find employed by Paul in this Epistle. He begins by showing what every man, Jew and Gentile, is by nature; he proves by the clearest evidence, that all have sinned and become guilty before God. And having done this, he discloses the way of salvation which God himself has planned and revealed; and he teaches us, that it is altogether by grace and through faith that we can be saved, and not by works. In order cordially to embrace this latter truth, it is necessary to know the first, that we are sinners under condemnation. It is impossible, according to the very constitution of man’s mind, that he should really and truly accede to the one, without a real and deep knowledge of the other. The whole need not a physician, but the sick. It is only he who is really convinced of sin and who feels its guilt and its burden intolerable, that ever will, or indeed ever can, really lay hold on that free salvation which God has provided. And when this free salvation is really known, all other things compared with it will be deemed as nothing; and then all outward privileges will be viewed only as means, and all outward acts of religion only as aids and helps; and then also all our works, however great and self-denying, will be regarded in no way meritorious, but imperfect and defective, and acceptable only through the merits of our High Priest at God’s right hand.

-John Owen

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Truly Transformational Small Groups & Relationships

We’d rather work a formula than submit to a process that will be scary and unknown, even if it will ultimately change our hearts and character. So don’t give in to the temptation to just “do” something else, to come up with a new plan, a retooled strategy, alone—again. There are no shortcuts to believing the difficult but life-giving, heart-changing, and joy-enhancing truths I’ve shared in these chapters.

Hide or Seek: When Men Get Real with God about Sex, Page 122

“Unfortunately, I’m finding more and more accountability groups to be pretty ineffective. If people are not careful, these groups can become nothing more than places where people unload and confess but do not change. In many cases the confidentiality, safety, and security of such groups become the highest goal of the group, inhibiting group effectiveness. Now, of course, you need these elements in a group—that’s a given. But when the dynamics of the group primarily center on the commonality of the struggle itself, then what can happen is that the expectation of change—and more importantly, how it happens—can get lost. Then the group will become ineffective and eventually collapse in a spirit of defeatism and hopelessness. Maybe you’re in a group like this and know what I’m talking about.

Not long ago I was talking with a guy who had been in such a group for several years. He told me, “John, the problem is that no one in the group is experiencing any type of breakthrough or change.” He went on to say that there is something of a “spiritual” basis to the group. A Scripture portion is read each week. Songs are sung. People share challenges, falls, and similar information. There’s lots of camaraderie. But, he added, “The common denominator of why we’re all there seems to be the problems themselves and the difficulty and shame of the struggles we share. This seems a more powerful glue to the group than does the hope and expectation that Christ will show up and actually do something.” The expectancy that God would work in hearts to bring about new steps of faith and repentance had been “dumbed down,” as had been the call to serious holiness. People in the group just weren’t that hopeful that they would ever change.

This can happen so easily in a group. It’s the natural path groups sometimes take if they turn inward and the essence of the group becomes the struggle itself. Ultimately, that’s the wrong “content” to focus on so exclusively. The commonality and the camaraderie are important, but effective change groups must put the application of God’s Word front and center. The Scriptures, carefully applied to real-life situations, must take priority and be highly valued as part of any group meeting. Otherwise, the group will remain comforting and safe but will lose its power to be an agent of change. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a fan of groups. I believe in them. Part of our ministry’s mission is to help churches begin partner ministries, and I’ve seen groups used powerfully in the lives of hundreds of people over the years. I would say that groups can be used of God in ways that individual counseling can’t match. Something happens in groups that can become a very significant part of how Christ meets people in a new way, giving them the hope of the gospel, as well as being a tangible symbol of God’s love and care expressed through the group members.

When the centrality of the gospel is at the heart of a group, then the other elements of the group can be made more effective. There are three life-changing activities that must take place as part of any successful biblical support group. The first crucial element is accountability. Accountability happens when I speak honestly about my temptation, my sin, and the condition of my heart with other Christian brothers. This requires ruthless honesty about the destructive stuff that fills and fuels my heart and speaking of it with other men. Discipleship is the second, central element, which I have already mentioned. As a group member, I am growing in faith and in God’s truth and grasping more and more who I really am as God’s child because of God’s love for me. I can expect to see step-by-step move- ment (even if they are only small steps) and growth as I take hold of the reality of the gospel. Discipleship happens where I am and helps me apply the gospel to all the chaos, conflict, and confusion in my own heart, in order to make me a new and different person. Effective discipleship also enables me to get out of myself; to begin to love and serve others with my time, energy, and resources—because of what God is doing in me and what Christ is coming to mean to me. Third, there’s the important element of transparency. Transparency is when I commit daily—with everyone, and not just with the members of my group—to living openly and without deceit, offering my life and the motives of my heart to the examination of others! Transparency may seem like accountability, but transparency is when I begin ruthlessly speaking the truth about everything I do, on a day-to-day basis. Because my sexual struggles and sin have been hidden for so long, I realize that lying and deceit have become a part of my daily habits. Now, by God’s power, I learn to walk in the light and no longer in the darkness.

Do you see how the ordinary “accountability” group may fall far short of being an effective agent of change? That’s because the element of accountability is only one of several things that are needed, and it’s not even the most important one. But we often mistake it as such, omitting other crucial building blocks to wholeness.

I know that when it comes to that last ingredient, transparency, you may be thinking, John, that seems like death! The accountability part is hard enough, but transparency, with everyone? Believe me, it may seem like death, but it’s the way to real life! It’s the way to a clear conscience and to knowing God’s love and acceptance through others who are on your team, rooting for you! There’s nothing like it. If you’ve not experienced it, you may just have to take my word for it. Small groups and one-on-one-or-two-or-three connections like this are what have helped change my life for over forty years now. Having relationships like this, where I’m reminded of the gospel through others, is what’s often made it possible for me to preach the gospel to myself in challenging situations, when my heart could easily head “south” into dark and destructive places.”

Hide or Seek: When Men Get Real with God about Sex, Page 127-130

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