Category: Gospel

Why I Preach the Gospel

If you follow Ligonier Ministries at all you would know something of the heartache the Sproul family have encountered in recent times.  Two days ago RC Sproul Jr. lost his 15 year old daughter to her struggle against a condition she was born with called Lissencephaly, a condition that caused significant disability. This death follows just a year after the death of his wife at the hands of cancer. Reading about this tragedy (perhaps with new eyes as I now too have a beautiful young daughter), I was overwhelmingly reminded of why I preach and believe the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.

I preach the gospel because I want to be able to mourn like RC Sproul Jr. mourns. On the day that his daughter died he sent out the following words in a series of tweets:

“My precious girl Shannon’s mute tongue is now loosed, though once lame she now leaps for for joy. She and her mom are held by our Lord”

“Death, who has haunted my home for 15 years, struck again today. And again his prey escaped. Christ is risen, and that changes everything”

“My Princess Happy is now a Queen of Joy”

“We don’t say, “I know You love me, unless You take my wife” nor “I know You’re all powerful, unless You take my girl” Though He slay me…”

I preach the gospel because without Jesus taking my sin upon his shoulder and bearing it to calvary I cannot have the hope contained in those tweets, I cannot hope for a better resurrection of the dead, I cannot make sense of the injustice, pain and suffering I see around me all the time, and I cannot lift my head to face another day with those I treasure knowing this life is but a fleeting instant.

I preach the gospel because in Christ is hope, hope eternal, and I desperately want everyone to know that.

The Main Thing is the Only Thing

Joe Thorn has written an interesting blog post lending his voice to the current discussion about the “gospel-centered movement”. There’s been a lot of talk on this issue, and issues related to it in the last month or so. If you’re curious in following the whole discussion see Justin Taylor’s summary blog. I think I understand something of the tension that has given rise to this discussion in the first place. People like Sean Lucas have pointed out that this issue has a long history and so I don’t expect that tension to be resolved overnight. Essentially there seems to be this feeling that we can overemphasize the indicatives of the gospel to the detriment of the imperatives and as a result we need to be careful not to smother the imperatives in our quest to make the main thing the main thing.

Joe Thorn is a very thoughtful and pastoral blogger and so at one level I’m loathe to (ever so slightly) disagree with him, but here goes. His main contention is that in our quest to make the main thing the main thing we pretend as if it’s the only thing. So here’s a quote at the heart of the post:

There is more in God’s word than the gospel. God has given us his law to show us the way, uncover our corruption and condemnation, and point us to our need of redemption. There are commands to be obeyed, there is wisdom to learn and practice, and affections to feel and be moved by. But, the law itself is unable to create within us new hearts, or empower us to obey its demands. So let me say it this way: The gospel is the main thing, it is not the only thing. However, it is the only thing that brings life, power, and transformation. The gospel isn’t everything, but it does connect to everything, and preachers and teachers in the church must be able to show that connection lest we allow the church to drift (or even be lead) into various kinds of hopeless, powerless legalism.

He goes on to apply this to the issue of prayer. Now I would pastorally tackle the issue of prayer in exactly the same way that he does. My slight difference comes in the way he’s nuanced his thesis in the whole post – i.e. questioning whether the main thing is the only thing. I wonder, just wonder, if that’s the most helpful way to think about it: As if the Bible contains the main thing (the gospel) at it’s center and then it’s surrounded by a whole bunch of other stuff (law, wisdom, etc). Whilst we’d all, no doubt, confirm that all those things are connected (so law leads us to our need for redemption for example – Thorn affirms the connection), I wonder if it might not be the intimacy and inter-connectedness of all the different elements, that make up the Bible’s content, where the tension is coming in. I think we might still be systematizing the content too much which allows us to talk about “the main thing” as not the “only thing”, presuming the existence of “other things”. My contention is that the main thing is so tightly tied to the other things that in a cohesive whole sense it is the only thing. Does that make sense?

Is it not possible that lingering modernist epistemology forces us to diminish that intimate connection and relationship somewhat as we try to put categories to the content of the Bible. I’m not for one second saying that we can’t systematize or categorize the content of the Bible, but I am saying that the relationship is so intimate and integrative between the gospel and the categories that for me it’s hard to speak about other things that are in some way separate from the main thing and therefore need to be emphasized in their own right (as DeYoung seems to suggest). Maybe I’m sprouting nonsense.

My concern is simply the centrality and supremacy of the gospel of Jesus Christ as our hope, guide, wisdom, life, everything pertaining to our relationship with God and this world. If we don’t have that (and I think we are prone to move off of it daily in our sinfulness) then we ave no power (Rom 1:16) and we are trusting in ourselves and law to bring about transformation, renewal, life and relationship.

Cruciform: Following the Shape of the Cross

On the eve of the Easter Weekend I thought I’d post an article I wrote for our church magazine. (Warning: It’s a fair bit longer than my average blog post):

Once a year the period of Easter brings the church to think about and embrace, perhaps more deeply than any other time, the significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is at this time of the year that we remember with sobering clarity the hands struck through with nails, the thorn pierced brow, the pain and the anguish of a king who would come into this world and die for his people. I’ve often thought that the third verse of Isaac Watt’s famous hymn ‘When I Survey the Wondrous Cross‘ best captures the emotion of the scene:

“See from his head, his hands, his feet
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?” (Isaac Watts: 1707)

Charles Wesley, probably the greatest hymn writer of all time, once reportedly remarked that he’d give up all his other hymns to have been able to write this one.

At no other place in the grand story of God is our mind and heart so engaged as when we reflect on the cross of Christ. Perhaps what grips us most is that this act of enormous magnitude involves us – it involves you and me. It was our collective sin that saw Jesus die on the cross, it was our eternal forgiveness that was earned in that moment and it was our unending joy that overflowed as he exited the empty tomb three days later. The cross fundamentally affects us in every way by what it achieves.

Usually, and rightly, our focus at Easter time is on exactly that, ‘what the cross achieves’. We focus on the reality that at the cross Jesus stands in our place to take the punishment against sin thereby satisfying God’s justice and at the same time making forgiveness and reconciliation between God and man a possibility. The cross is the centerpiece of God’s grand plan to fix this world and undo the horror of the fall in the Garden of Eden. And so we rightly meditate on the achievements of the cross at Easter time.

But I want to shift gear slightly – not shift from the cross – but rather shift from how we normally think about the cross at Easter time. A large part (if not all in some sense) of the New Testament reflects upon the significant effects of the cross upon humanity and yet Jesus doesn’t only talk about what his own death will achieve but he also sets it out as pattern for the life of his followers.

Notice his words to his disciples and all the other followers gathered around him in Mark 8:34-35:

Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it”

Just a few verses earlier Jesus announced to his disciples that he was to suffer and die at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law. The striking issue in this text is that the first thing Jesus announces to the crowds, after making a prophetic declaration about his own death, is a call to join him in death.

Whilst contemporary culture has romanticised the image of a cross, to the point of obscuring its significance, a first century crowd knew that the term ‘cross’ meant only one thing for them: a shameful, cruel, death. Jesus was inviting them to die.

Now once again for us the significance of the cross rests in how it bears out on you and I. Well here we’re not left to wonder how. Jesus is explicit, “if you want to follow me”. If you want to come into this big thing we call Christianity, if you want to be a follower of Jesus then the invitation stands for you to come and die.

Our popular culture has significantly veiled the meaning of this invitation. So you’ll often hear people say things like, ‘we’ve all got our crosses to bear,’ by which they mean ‘life is rough, bad things happen’. That really shifts the blame to circumstances and the ups and downs we face as a result of things outside of our control. But that’s not at all what Jesus is talking about here. Here Jesus wants us to adopt a pattern of life, a way of living that is shaped by and informed by his own sacrifice on the cross. He’s not talking about being tossed about by harsh circumstances he’s talking about choosing to live according to a certain pattern. And the best way Jesus can describe this pattern is by alluding to death, and his death in particular.

The cross doesn’t only achieve marvelous things for us it also sets the agenda for how we should live in light of it’s great achievements. One way that I like to talk about this is to use the word Cruciform – literally: in the form or pattern of the cross.

So what does a cruciform life look like? Well to state the painfully obvious, it looks like Jesus’ death on the cross. Now obviously we can’t all go back to the first century and be nailed to a cross to die a death that atones for the sins of the world – that’s not the call of the cruciform life. The cruciform life has more to do with the character of the cross and the events surrounding the cross.

At the cross the King of the world, the king for whom this world was created (cf. Col 1:16), comes and humbles himself to receive a criminal’s death. It’s a complete reversal of expected norms and values – a complete reversal of our values. And when we get this complete reversal it shapes absolutely everything we do.

So Paul, for example, picks up on this in Philippians 2 and he calls on believers to be humble, unified, to do nothing out of selfish ambition and to be caring about others more than they care about themselves – all things that are often the reversal of what our culture glories in. And the way Paul gets us, as believers, to move from our current (expected) values to the way of the cross is by pointing to Jesus and his very example on the cross. So in that famous line in Philippians 2:5 he says, ‘your attitude (literally: your mind) should be the same as that of Christ Jesus…’ and then he proceeds to unpack the story of the cross where the King of the world humbles himself to death, even death on a cross.

The reality is that you and I are living lives that are, more often than not, conditioned by our culture and not by the cross. Daily we look out for opportunities for self-promotion, opportunities to make ourselves look bigger and better – and that often at the expense of others. Our careers and social status continually push us to aspire after the world’s values and to shape our lives accordingly. And we will cave in to those values because the pressure around us is immense.

Only if our hearts can savour and taste the cross of Christ in all its fullness will we begin to see our lives shaped in a cruciform way. Only as the gospel sinks down deep will we be able to resist the pressures that call us to abandon cruciform living and turn to self-centered, self-glorifying living. And only as God’s Spirit burns calvary into our hearts will we begin to know what it means to take up Jesus’ invitation to die as he did.

This Easter let the cross of Christ become a deep reality for you through study, meditation, prayer and meeting with God’s people. Marvel at what it achieves but also begin to note how you might have your life conformed to the pattern of the cross as the truth of the cross sinks in deep.

Resources for Healthy Congregations

Having moved out of the church planting scene (for the time being at least) and into ministry in a more traditional and established local church one pressing issue that has given me much cause for thought and reflection is the issue of congregation health. My guess is that there are several ways to measure the health and spiritual vitality of a congregation – and there is a plethora of books and guides out there aiming to give us insight in this area. In the midst of all those resources and litmus tests I want to offer one primary indicator upon which I think the health of a congregation stands or falls: The ability of members to integrate the centrality of the gospel into every single sphere and occasion of their lives.

Gospel-centered ministry is something of a trendy watchword in contemporary ministry circles and I think we’re starting to get really good at throwing the term around and dubbing our ministries as ‘gospel-centered’ – but are our congregations actually being enabled and equipped to apply the gospel personally in a multitude of different ways to address the multiple facets of their lives. Do your congregation members know how to apply the gospel to negative thoughts, feelings and attitudes? Do they understand the difference it makes to how they work, what sort of citizen they are in their neighborhood, how they interact with their family, how they view and respond to the poor, the destitute? Do they see the difference it would make to the way they speak to friends, to colleagues, to the way they prioritize their time during any given week, to the way they prioritize their values and goals for the future? Do they know how to call on the resources of the gospel in the midst of pain, suffering, loss and frustration? Do they know how the gospel should shape their celebrations, their joy in this life, their expectations? Have your people developed a “gospel-instinct” in their approach to dealing with life?

There has been a very big and welcome push from some notable preachers and teachers to see the gospel as more than simply the entrance or the “door” to the Christian faith but rather to also see it as our central means for lasting transformation and growth in the Christian life. And whilst I praise this rediscovery of the comprehensive nature of the gospel I do wonder if we’re any good at getting it to move from our conferences, books and seminars and into the hearts and daily lives of our congregation.

Here are three resources that I’ve found particularly helpful in moving from theory to the hearts of the congregation. All three are really small group curriculum and work best in that environment for obvious reasons and so I suggest pastors, preachers and teachers work hard to dove-tail the formal teaching in larger groups with the curriculum of these resources:

1. The Gospel Centered Life (published by World Harvest Mission) is a fantastic 9 week course (developed in part by Bob Thune) that works really hard at practically applying the gospel to every aspect  of life. It’s a great course to really get people talking about their own hearts and whether or not the gospel is really making a difference to them. The exercises in the course are particularly helpful in getting people to really engage their hearts with the gospel.

2. The Gospel Centered Life (published by the Good Book Co.) has the same name as the course above but this one is in booklet form and it comes from Steve Timmis and Tim Chester who are both very insightful and experienced practitioners when it comes to seeing the gospel shape every aspect of the human life. The authors actually have a whole series on the go of gospel-centered booklets that deal with various aspects of life and interaction.

3. The Gospel in Life (published by Zondervan) is a course that comes from the ministry of Tim Keller. This course probably deals less with personal application of the gospel than the above two but it does outline the scope of the gospel more comprehensively than the other two. This course is great for giving your church a vision of what the gospel should be achieving amongst them.

Applied gospel-centrality is, I think, where the health of our congregation stands or falls. These resources have helped me see real fruit in congregations I’ve worked with in the past. I humbly suggest them as help to anyone who might be wondering whether or not their congregation is in a healthy state.

And can it be…

And can it be that I should gain
An interest in the Savior’s blood?
Died He for me, who caused His pain—
For me, who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be,
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
Amazing love! How can it be,
That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
– Charles Wesley 1738

I needed the gospel to dwell richly in me this afternoon and as I tried to get my mind and heart focused on the beauty of what God has done in Christ the words of this song floated into my head. I caused his pain and I pursued him to death yet in that very act he died for me. I need this truth desperately. I need it branded upon my heart in such a way that it makes it emotionally impossible for me to pursue other idols and lusts in this world. I need it to be impressed on my heart in such a way that my will is overcome with grief at the thought of disobedience. I need Christ to have such a hold on my heart that it is caged up to the point that it acknowledges only one reality: I am the recipient of amazing love!

Rethink Mission

rethink-badge-largeJonathan McIntosh is a really cool guy that I met in St Louis last year when I visited the Journey Church. He’s an amazing thinker about cultural engagement and the developer of some really creative cultural engagement ministries at the Journey, some of which I got to see last year and which I’ll hopefully be getting to see more of in October when I’m there again.

Now he has a new web project called ‘Rethink Mission‘ which is all about inspiring gospel-centered, missional churches. It’s a site dedicated to helping churches think clearly about the gospel and about mission in their context. One of the great features on the site that helps with that aim is the Missional Q & A with other key missional leaders. All in all it looks like a great site and resource – so head over there and give it a look.

Excited about Jesus?

What do you get excited about? Listening to an audio talk of DA Carson’s this morning (I forget where the link is: sorry) on the way to work I was struck by a statement he made about what his students actually end up learning from him. Basically he said they don’t always retain all the content but the do tend learn what ever their given teacher is excited and passionate about. I think that’s essence behind this quote that Justin Buzzard posted:

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” Antoine de Saint-Exupery

So if our convictions are that Jesus is most important person in the history of the universe and his gospel is the only message that makes sense of everything in this world then surely in our public teaching and our casual conversations our excitement must bubble over infectiously. Telling people what to do can become tiring and joy-less – making people excited about Jesus, now that’s something worth giving your life to. Personally, I’m tired of getting my cheap excitement, joy and satisfaction from trite fleeting pleasures. I want an excitement and a joy that reaches far deeper than that.