Monday, March 16, 2015

Navigating the pitfalls of obedience

Whenever we take an honest look at how we’re doing with obedience to Jesus’ commands, we tend to go in one of three unhealthy and sinful directions, ultimately not obeying the command at all.

  1. Commonly, we rightly realize that we’re really not doing well obeying Jesus, and we feel a weight of guilt. This guilt is not a bad thing, but it’s what we do with it that matters. Many times, we turn our attention to getting rid of the guilt and appeasing God. We make following Jesus all about us getting rid of guilt and forcing God to love us. What we care about most is feeling better about ourselves, not obeying Jesus as Lord.
Usually, when we do this, we look for the easiest way to fulfill the command. We’re not really concerned to develop a life of obedience to Jesus. We just want to fulfill the minimum requirements of a command, so that we can “get God off our back” and get on with our life. This often means we look for one-time acts we can perform to feel like we did enough, but don’t develop a long-term pattern of joyful obedience and worship.

  1. A second sinful way we respond to an honest look at obedience to Jesus is this: we still rightly realize we’re not doing too well, and we feel guilty about it. Yet because we don’t like feeling guilty, we tell ourselves that following Jesus’ commands isn't really that important because we’re saved by grace and God forgives us for all our sins. And so we don’t feel guilt but we also don’t feel conviction. In doing this, we make light of the cross, as if it cost God nothing to win our salvation. This is called cheap grace.
  1. A third sinful way we respond to Jesus’ commands is that we feel no conviction at all. We think we've got it all down. This usually means we don’t recognize the depths of our sin, and we don’t understand the extent of God’s commands, that they speak to the condition of the heart and mind, and not just outward moral conformity. The truth is, his commands are so wise and penetrating that there should be no end to conviction and repentance and growth.
So how do we take God’s commands seriously, submitting to them for his glory, while keeping ourselves from both legalism and antinomianism (the opposite of legalism: no law). Here are three things to keep in mind:

  1. While we must never make light of Jesus’ commands, we must also never think that our obedience contributes anything to our salvation. We are rescued from sin, death, and hell, and given a new identity as beloved children of God, by what God has done for us through Jesus, and not by anything we can do for him.
  1. When we don’t desire to obey, it isn't all on our backs to conjure up right desires. God not only provides strength sufficient to obey, but changes our desires. Obedience in a certain area may seem impossible, but God is working on our hearts, minds, and wills and nothing is impossible with Him. Often times, obedience feels like doing what we don’t want to do with strength that we don’t’ have. This is exactly where God would have us to teach us to depend on his strength and presence and not on our will power.
  1. Obedience isn't something that we’re going to perfect today, this week, this year, or this lifetime. In our attempts at self-righteousness, we often look for quick-fix good works that make us feel good about ourselves and like we've put God in our debt. But the truth is, we will need God’s grace, mercy, and forgiveness every day of our lives. We should pursue obedience with every effort, while continually looking to the cross as we fail again and again.
Obedience to Jesus was never meant to give us a reason to boast. No matter how mature and faithful we are, all the glory belongs to God. Obedience is a result of his initial saving work in us and of his ongoing conforming of our wills, emotions, and actions by the power of his Holy Spirit in us. Though we must put forth every effort, all the glory and credit goes to God for all growth and faithfulness in our lives.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

1 community; 1 vision; 1 sentence

A few months ago, I wrote several blog posts outlining the vision for planting a church in the Stanwood-Camano community. Yet as a group of us have begun talking through this vision, and I’ve attempted to share this vision with others, it’s become clear that we need a way to effectively communicate it in a short and easy-to-understand way. A way to succinctly say, “This is who we are and what we’re aiming for as a church; if you find this compelling, come and take part in carrying forth the vision.”

So here it is: four blogs worth of material boiled down into one sentence. I’ve bolded words and phrases that are most important and that probably each need a whole paragraph of explanation. But the purpose of this blog is to keep it short and easily-digestible, and the longer explanations can be found in the previous posts on church planting (see the links on the right).

Our vision is to grow a community of Christ followers in the Stanwood-Camano area in which the good news of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection and its implications are clearly taught and consistently applied to every area of life.

So there you have it! Pass it around.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The great and terrifying love of God

How often we impose our ideas of love onto God! Oh, how we mock his providence and wisdom by insisting that he fit into our small ideas of love. We believe that God is loving only if he meets our demands and expectations. But if God is sovereign over all, holds the future in his hand, and has wisdom that is immeasurably greater than ours, then surely our perspective of the events of our lives is limited. Unless we see what God sees, possess his wisdom, and have his power to carry out that wisdom, our interpretation of situations is faulty. Hence the wise words out of Proverbs: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding.”

God’s goodness is not dependent on you getting what you want or what you think you need. God’s goodness is not dependent on him answering that one prayer you so desperately want answered. You don’t even know what’s best for you. The proof of God’s goodness is Jesus’ death on the cross.

Do you doubt his goodness? Look to the cross. He may not answer your prayer as you wish. He may not give you the comforts and pleasures that you wish. But he gives you the cross. This means that he gives his presence and protection to those who put their hope in him. Oh, that we would believe that his presence and promises are better than all the lesser desires we want fulfilled!

I’ll let C.S. Lewis sum it up:

“In awful and surprising truth, we are the objects of His love. You asked for a loving God; you have one. The great spirit you so lightly invoked, the ‘lord of terrible aspect,’ is present; not a senile benevolence that drowsily wishes you to be happy in your own way, not the cold philanthropy of a conscientious magistrate, not the care of a host who feels responsible for the comfort of his guests, but the consuming fire Himself, the Love that made the worlds, persistent as the artist’s love for his work and despotic as a man’s love for a dog, provident and venerable as a father’s love for a child, jealous, inexorable, exacting as love between the sexes….It is certainly a burden of glory not only beyond our deserts but also, except in rare moments of grace, beyond our desiring.” (C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 46-47)

We are discussing this and other attributes of God at community group this week. Join us Sunday at 5 at our place on Camano.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Gospel clarity, part 3 (Tim Keller)

In our Sunday community group meetings we are using Tim Keller's Center Church as a jumping off point to discuss the vision for church planting in the Stanwood-Camano area. The vision revolves around three ideals:

1) We will think long and hard about the gospel (the central message of Christianity that J.I. Packer sums up as "God saves sinners") and it's implications for our lives,

2) We will respond to the gospel as a community (not just as isolated individuals), speaking the truth in love (both are needed) to one another so that we become more and more Christ-like, bringing glory to God and joy to us, and

3) We will respond to God's grace in Jesus by seeking to engage the spiritual and physical needs of those in our community.

Keller touches on all three of these topics in a brilliant way. His clarifications on the gospel are especially helpful and practical. Here's a snippet:

"Think for a moment of all the ways you can say no to ungodly behavior. You can say:

No-because I'll look bad.
No-because I'll be excluded from the social circles I want to belong to.
No-because then God will not give me health, wealth, and happiness.
No-because God will send me to hell.
No-because I'll hate myself in the morning and lose my self-respect.

Virtually all of these incentives use self-centered impulses of the heart to force compliance to external rules, but they do very little to change the heart itself. The motive behind them is not love for God. It is a way of using God to get beneficial things: self-esteem, prosperity, or social approval...

But the truths of the gospel, brought home by the Spirit, slowly but surely help us grasp in a new way how safe and secure, how loved and accepted, we are in Christ. Through the gospel, we come to base our identity not on what we have achieved but on what has been achieved for us in Christ" (68-69).

Keller is fond of pointing out how legalism (looking for salvation in our obedience and goodness) leads to both despair and pride, depending on how well we're keeping up to our standards at any given moment. But the gospel leads to both confidence and humility.

"The gospel destroys pride, because it tells us we are so lost that Jesus had to die for us. And it also destroys fearfulness, because it tells us that nothing we can do will exhaust his love for us...The gospel leads us to do the right thing not for our sake but for God's sake, for Christ's sake, out of a desire to know, resemble, please, and love the One who saved us. This kind of motivation can only grow in a heart deeply touched by grace" (69).

Searching our hearts to see where the gospel has yet to pierce is a never-ending process. Thanks be to God that our acceptance and favor depend on his sweat, blood, and tears and not ours.

All are welcome to join our community group Sunday evenings at 5 at our house on Camano. Come to grow in God's grace, to learn about our vision to church plant, or just to hang out with some (mostly) cool people!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Gospel clarity, Part 2

It’s easy to throw around the word “gospel.” I like to explain that when I use the word “gospel,” I’m referring to that which I believe is the central Christian message. If others are also using the word to refer to what they see as the central Christian message, it’s little surprise that the word can be used with a variety of meanings. For there are numerous proposals as to what constitutes the central Christian message.

The definition of the gospel that I’ve seen most widely used is that given by J.I. Packer: “God saves sinners.” Simple and to the point. Many respond that this is too simple. They say that the gospel is also about God remaking and renewing the world. Or that the gospel is about becoming a part of God’s family, the church. But I think it’s extremely important to make distinctions between the gospel and the results of the gospel.

With this in mind, here are four areas that, when perceived as results of the gospel, are a great and necessary benefit to the Christian, but when mistaken for the gospel, greatly weaken the Christian message.

  1. Renewal of the world, social justice: That God wants to bring the peace, justice, and goodness of his kingdom to this earth, and that he wants us to be a part of this movement, has been a popular, and valuable, teaching as of late. Yet the power of the gospel is greatly diminished when “God saves sinners” is exchanged for “God is renewing the world. Come and join Him.” One of the consequences of this exchange is that our vertical need of rightness with God is replaced by important, but secondary, horizontal needs. “If only we spread peace, if only we put an end to war, if only we eliminate greed, then…” Not only does this put too much trust in human power and wisdom, but it neglects the means by which God brings about renewal. The message of the cross of Christ gives identity and motivation to those pushing forth God’s kingdom. God’s kingdom isn’t characterized merely by healed social structures, but also by rightly directed worship. Jesus, the Lamb who was slain, is the central focus of the picture we are given of the completely renewed creation (Rev. 21-22).
  1. Personal moral living: “God saves sinners” is a radically different message than “Be a good person,” and there is no end to the need for this clarification. Equally important to recognize is that the central Christian message doesn’t lose its significance once one is saved. The gospel message of God saving sinners isn’t just for the unconverted. Christians, too, need daily to rest in the identity-altering news that salvation is a work of God through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
  1. Charismatic experiences: I’m all for powerful encounters with God and expecting God to work in miraculous ways. But the temptation for those of the charismatic bent is to quickly move past “God saves sinners” and become more interested in subsequent experiences of God. The core message that is often either articulated or at least implied is, “Come and live a supernatural life” or “Experience greater power in your life,” both of which are wonderful results of the gospel, but they are not the central Christian message. The power of God is seen most clearly in the message of the cross (1 Cor. 1:18, Rom. 1:16). We ought to never tire of meditating on and speaking of the wonder of this gospel that even angels long to look in to (1 Pet. 1:12).
  1. Community life: This is probably the area that I feel the most temptation to put forth as the gospel. Through the cross, God calls believers into a body or family. God has ordained that both Christian growth and witness depend on the church community. Those of us in the West don’t really get this. We are conditioned to see the individual as supreme, not the community. As a church planter, I want to push back hard against this Western idolization of the individual. I want to show how living life together is absolutely essential to Christian faith. Yet for all that Christian fellowship has to offer, “Give yourself to community and experience growth” is not the gospel message. While we need to see how we our intricately connected to other believers in our lives, we ultimately need to see that our identity comes from Christ. Christian community that loses this vertical focus becomes idolatrous and cultish. Yet Christian community that centers on the message that God saves sinners is a powerful force for change both inside and outside the church.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Gospel Clarity, Part 1

           “What do we mean by ‘the gospel’? Answering this question is a bit more complex than we might assume.” So begins Tim Keller in his book Center Church. And yet how we answer this question has huge implications.

            The gospel is the news about what God was doing in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. And what God was doing through Jesus was healing the rift between man and God caused by sin and creating a people for himself.

            This understanding implies that our separation from God is a big deal, and that restoring this relationship is of utmost importance. And the big idea of the gospel is that it is God’s work alone which heals this relationship, not any work or effort of ours.

            This is why, as Keller says, the gospel is good news, not good advice. Most other religions present you with good advice on how to live life or how to please God or how to make it to the next life. Christianity presents you with good news of what God has done to make us right with him, to empower us to live new lives here, and to bring us safely into eternal life.

            The gospel means that God is the focus, God gets all the glory. The phrase “gospel centered” is a popular one today. The idea is that the Christian message is first and foremost about God and his work. Our hope and strength for both this life and the life to come are dependent on Jesus living the life we should have lived and dying the death we should have died.

            Our response is to repent, or turn from our sins, and trust in God’s gracious work in Jesus for our salvation, life, and hope.

To be continued…

We are currently discussing what the gospel is and isn’t, and what it means to us practically, in a community group that meets Sundays at 5 in our home. We'd love to have you join us. Email me at or text/call at 770-714-3865.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The new gospel vs. the old gospel

It's tempting at the beginning of a church plant to jump to the "what" questions: What will we do as a church? What will our services look like? What will our engagement with the community look like? It's tempting to jump to the tangible and practical and neglect theology and the "why" questions. But I'm convinced that we must spend considerable time asking questions that get to the root of motivation: What is God like? Why has God saved us? What is the gospel and its implications for our lives?

If, in our concern to meet practical needs and be relevant, we skirt around these questions, our gaze will slowly become less on God and more on man, and we will miss the purpose for which God saved us: his glory. As J.I. Packer explains so well:

“[The new gospel]... fails to make men God-
centered in their thoughts and God-fearing in their
hearts because this is not primarily what it is trying
to do. One way of stating the difference between it
and the old gospel is to say that it is too exclusively
concerned to be 'helpful' to man - to bring peace,
comfort, happiness, satisfaction - and too little
concerned to glorify God. The old gospel was
'helpful', too - more so, indeed, than is the new -
but (so to speak) incidentally, for its first concern
was always to give glory to God. It was always and
essentially a proclamation of divine sovereignty in
mercy and judgment, a summons to bow down and
worship the mighty Lord on whom man depends for
all good, both in nature and in grace. Its center of
reference was unambiguously God. But in the new
gospel the center of reference is man. "
- JI Packer