Posts Tagged ‘ gospel ’

2011 in review – 10 things i learned

No doubt this post is late. Most people wrote their “2011 review” columns in December. But I guess it just didn’t occur to me until recently that it would be beneficial to me (and maybe others) if I spelled out what a year’s worth of God pursuing me accomplished.

In 2011 I saw a seismic shift in my theological presuppositions. I was raised a fundamentalist, and I saw enough good in fundamentalism that I wanted to remain in those types of churches. That was until I realized that my disagreements with fundamentalism were not just minor ones (as I had always convinced myself) – they were major enough that they were keeping me from growing the way I should. So, for the first time in my life, 2011 saw me in a non-fundamentalist church, and there were many things that I found myself thinking and doing that I had never thought or done before because of my upbringing – and yet many of these things seemed so simple and obvious.

So I say this to warn you that some of what I “learned” will likely be radical to you if you fancy yourself a fundamentalist. For many others, these things will appear incredibly basic, even elementary. With that in mind, let’s begin.

1. Gospel-centeredness. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, one of the main things that drove me out of fundamentalist churches was their teaching of the gospel. To the majority of them, the gospel is something for the unbeliever, and growth through good works is for the believer. I had a significant problem with this works-based model of sanctification (Paul calls it “another gospel” in Galatians), and so I fled to the gospel and found that my growth in Christ is not based on something I must do, but what He has already done.

I had striven my whole life to put on the fruit of the Spirit in my own power – with zero success. I realized that the fruit of the Spirit is something that comes naturally when one looks to the Cross. We love because He first loved us. We have joy because Christ has secured our eternal home for us in heaven. We have peace because God’s wrath has been satisfied by Christ’s death. Think about what an insult it is to our Savior when we feel like we need to conjure up the fruit of the Spirit in our lives. Was His death not enough? Is the knowledge of Him and what He accomplished not sufficient for life and godliness? These truths gripped me more than ever this past year, and the result was dramatic.

2. Continuationist but not entirely “charismatic.” My church is continuationist is doctrine and it’s very refreshing to be around Spirit-led people who are pursuing the gifts of the Spirit. This is, in my experience, absent in most churches that teach cessationist pneumatology. As a result, I’ve found myself agreeing with the vast majority of continuationist doctrine.

However, I still don’t know what to think about speaking in tongues and healing. I definitely do not see anywhere in the Bible that clearly teaches that these have ceased, but on the other hand, I do not see them being performed in the same ways that they were in the Early Church. (When was the last time you saw someone healed of a sickness by going under the shadow of someone with the gift of healing?) So the jury is still out for me on how to view these “charismatic gifts.”

3. Biblical fellowship. I never truly understood the importance of Christian fellowship until this year. In many churches I had been involved with, fellowship is having a pot luck meal with the rest of the church. The result was that spiritual growth was strictly a one-on-one thing. In other words, it’s between “you and God” and no one else should be involved with it. If that were the case, then why did Christ institute the Church? Why does the Bible command us to confess our faults to each other? Why does Paul tell us to encourage one other? How are we to bear each other’s burdens? These are things that cannot be accomplished merely in pot luck dinners and church visitation. These are things that should be done throughout the week – encouraging, warning, helping, loving. Spiritual growth does have a “one-on-one” element, but it also has an “us together” element. And I found this past year that I need the latter just as much as I need the former in order to grow.

4. Enjoyable (biblical) worship. Fundamentalism teaches that you should enjoy worship but not too much. You must develop a taste for classical music and 18-19th Century hymns, otherwise you won’t be able to worship properly. For much of my life, I attempted to do this, and I had some success with it. But it always felt shallow. It seemed strange that, even though Scripture never addresses the subject of specific musical styles, this was such an important aspect of worship. Why was it that the music that I was best able to express myself through was so sinful? Why was it that the worship that I most enjoyed allegedly resulted in me “walking in the flesh?”

In reality, I had tossed out that bad doctrine a few years ago, but it wasn’t until this past year that I actually began visiting churches that had a biblical view of worship. It was remarkable what a difference it made when I was able to enjoy worship for the first time. It was no longer just a part of the Sunday service but a crucial time of offering my praise back to God.

Now, worship is one of the highlights of my week. In fact, when my wife and I went on vacation last year, we actually went out of our way to find a good church to attend on the Sunday we were out, drove over an hour to visit it, and loved every moment of it. In past vacations, attending a church service would have been absurd. This time, it felt like our week would’ve been incomplete without worship.

5. Loving parenting. Being a parent is hard. Being a loving one is even harder. Many times this past year I found myself responding to my daughter in the flesh. It’s the easy thing to do. When something goes wrong, get angry, yell, and put the child in her place. But this model of parenting isn’t what we find in the gospel. God is our loving Father who graciously shows mercy and love to us in our rebellion. This is still something I have to constantly grow in, but what I learned in 2011 was an important first step.

6. Bible reading/study programs. There are many Bible reading programs out there, but all of them involve one thing – time. The Bible is no small piece of literature – a compilation of 66 books which each have their own unique message but which also depend on each other to comprise the larger message of the gospel.

This creates a challenge because each book contains so much depth that it is virtually impossible to understand one book without camping out in it and studying it for days, weeks, or even months. But at the same time, you cannot understand that book without understanding the other 65 books. So you must choose your poison – either study one book at length to the detriment of the others or read through all of them relatively quickly to both the advantage and detriment of each of them.

However, in 2011 I found what I believe to be the best possible compromise – a read-through-the-Bible-in-90-days plan that exposes a person to the entirety of Scripture but still leaves 9 months to study several books in depth. It’s certainly a challenge to stay on a plan like that, but it is much more beneficial than a “camp out on one book” plan that ignores the rest of Scripture or a “read the Bible in one year plan” which has just enough daily reading to make it difficult to study in depth but not enough to give you a big picture overview of the book.

Many people object that 90 days forces you to read through the Bible too quickly to digest what you’re reading. I 100% disagree. I feel like that is the perfect amount of time for catching on to some of the major themes and ideas that the authors were trying to communicate. Many, if not all the books of the Bible were written under the assumption that the audience would read through them quickly. As such, there are many things that you pick up on reading through a book in 1, 2, or 3 days that you would not pick up on in 10 days. If there is something you don’t understand that you would like to camp out on, you can make a note of it and come back to it after the 90 days is up. You still have 9 more months for in depth study!

7. Bible audio. One thing I did more of this past year than ever before was to listen to audio of the Bible. I always shied away from it because I liked to have the option of taking time to stop and think about a verse or passage that struck me, and I didn’t think listening to an audio recording would allow that.

However, what I learned from this experience is that much of the Bible makes for great listening. The majority of the Bible was written as a narrative/story and the authors probably intended that their stories would be read aloud. I found that there were many things that I never picked up on when reading a passage that I did pick up on when listening to it. There were several, “Ohhh, that’s why that happened!” moments that occurred as I listened to the books.

And really, the same thing is true of some of the “meatier,” deeper books – most notably, the epistles. Many, of them were written with the intention that they would be read allowed to a local church body. (If you look closely, you will see references to this throughout the Bible, such as in Revelation where John commends those who both “read aloud” and “hear” the book.) So while there is good reason to read and study a passage in depth, parsing each noun and conjugating each verb, many passages were ultimately written with a listener-audience in mind.

8. More reformed. I’ve had a more reformed theology of salvation since high school, but only recently have I started questioning dispensational eschatology as well. Having always been taught dispensationalism, some of the nuances of reformed theology are a little foreign to me, but the more I learn it, the more I find myself embracing it. I do not currently consider myself amillennial, but maybe in the near future I will. There is still much studying that I must do on the subject before I fully come to my own conclusions.

9. Knowing less than before. In many ways I feel like I know less than I did last year. That’s not because I have forgotten a substantial amount during that time (although that may be true). It’s more of a mentality shift, and it’s built on the foundation that Christians (myself included) tend to be more dogmatic on many relatively inconsequential issues than Scripture is. The Bible says a lot, but it also doesn’t say a lot.

For instance, Genesis says that God created the world and poetically depicts Yahweh as speaking creation into existence in 6 days. Did Moses intend for his audience to interpret that literally or is there a more figurative significance? (Maybe the “speaking” the world into existence signifies the ease with which God created everything, or maybe the “6 days” was intended to be more of an allusion to the work week (and subsequent Sabbath Day of rest) than it was an actual time stamp on God’s creative labors.) I tend to learn towards the more literal understanding of Genesis 1-2, but the reality is that Moses explains the entire creation of the cosmos in 2 short chapters, and he clearly does not intend for his readers to analyze these chapters scientifically (yikes). Shouldn’t that lead us to be a little less dogmatic on how it all happened, considering that there are clearly an abundance of details left out from this creation narrative? The answer is: yes. And I don’t feel like that’s a heretical response, as long as you believe in the one part of the narrative that is clear – that God created the world on His own the way He wanted to. Ultimately, that’s what all the debate over Genesis 1-2 is about anyway.

So whereas in the past I would staunchly challenge those who disagreed with my interpretations of passages, such as Genesis 1-2, now I find myself becoming less certain that I am right and those who disagree with me are wrong. The reality is that no one is right 100% of the time – not even theologians. I think it’s better to recognize that up front instead of having to learn it the hard way.

10. Conservatism vs. Christ-likeness. Maybe the most drastic change in my thinking occurred when it finally sunk in that I could be extremely conservative and yet know nothing of Christ. The Pharisees were probably the most conservative people of their day, and yet their conservatism became sin because they elevated it above the clear teachings of Scripture.

As I began to meditate on this, it became clear that many times the most conservative choice is not the most biblical one. Was Christ conservative in the way He approached the Sabbath Day? Clearly not. Read the OT Sabbath laws and then read what Christ did on the Sabbath. Many of the things He did appear to be blatant violations of Scripture, but that was ok because He recognized the big picture and understood that slavishly conservative adherence to Sabbath law was not what God was looking for.

What is wrong in large doses might be right in smaller ones. What is wrong in some circumstances might be right in others. What is wrong to one person might be right to another one. Obedience to God isn’t a formula. You can’t just assume that it’s always best to be conservative, to play it safe. Christ didn’t play it safe. He didn’t just do the most conservative thing all the time. He did things that caused others to call him a drunkard, a glutton, a friend of prostitutes, and demon-possessed! And if Christ-likeness looks to some like gluttony, then I hope someday to be accused of being the most gluttonous person alive.

Christianity and Homosexuality Part 1: A Political Perspective

There is a sad reality that we face as Christians – our rallying point is no longer the gospel; it’s politics. What I mean is the most surefire way to have Christians from different denominations, races, agendas, subcultures, worship styles, and general theological presuppositions get together and be unified is to have them rally together over “family” (i.e., against homosexuality) or “life” (i.e., against abortion). Politics.

I’ve heard tons of examples of “great success” that churches have had coming together with other churches (with whom they could never find fellowship in the gospel) for a political rally. Such was the case with a former church I attended in Greenville, which bragged about how they had rallied several years ago with other Christians and churches, with whom they had serious theological disagreements, because they were able to set their gospel differences aside for the cause of politics. This type of thinking is simple – we can’t spread the gospel with these other believers because we have too many significant theological differences that would cause more disruption than unity. On the other hand, finding unity in politics is much more simple because you either believe in abortion or you don’t. There aren’t as many potential issues that two Christians could disagree on within the discussion on abortion as there are when it comes to the theologies of salvation and sanctification.

Now, I understand this argument. It makes sense. Using human logic, it is very reasonable – compelling, even. It’s just not biblical. Don’t believe me? Read John 17:20-23, where Christ prays that His followers would be unified in the same way that God the Father and the Son are unified. In other words, His prayer is that Christians will enjoy a unity that mirrors the most unified unity in all the cosmos – the trinity. Why does He pray this? “So that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me” (v. 23). Do you think that this unity Christ prayed for was supposed to be a unity in politics? Maybe at times, depending on the circumstances. At the exclusion of unity in the gospel? No way – Jesus said twice in these 4 verses that the goal of this unity is all about the world seeing God’s love that He displayed in sending Christ (the gospel)!

So how does this relate to homosexuality? Christians, in their zeal to reform our society’s morality, have painted a false picture of Christ to the rest of the world, particularly with regard to the issue of homosexuality. Because we will quickly unify for a rally over “the traditional family,” but can’t seem to find a way to rally for the gospel, the world perceives that we are more concerned with stamping out homosexuality than we are with celebrating and sharing God’s love. Maybe they’re right. But even if they’re not, it’s still pretty clear from John 17 that we’ve failed. We aren’t showing the love of God. We are showing our love of traditional, conservative politics.

Now let me caution you from concluding that I am against Christian involvement in politics. I, for one, actually enjoy politics, and I feel very strongly that Christians ought to make their voices heard in this arena. I am not against Christians participating in (or even sponsoring) political rallies. We live in a great democratic republic, which empowers the people to elect those who represent them. With that in mind, I would argue that it is the Christian’s responsibility to be involved in politics at some level.

The problem is not that Christians are involved in politics and shouldn’t be. The problem is that we worry about saving our country from liberal legislation more than we do about saving it from sin. For every teaspoon of politics there should be 10,000 gallons of gospel. But instead we make excuses that we can’t find enough common ground with other Christians on gospel issues. So we abandon the Great Commission out of some misguided sense of superior theology. Our world is lost and dying, and we sit around making excuses why we can’t come together to bring it hope! This isn’t a “commitment to the truth” or an “unwillingness to compromise” – these phrases are euphamisms that lazy, prideful Christians use to excuse their lack of commitment to fellowship in the gospel. More accurately we should call it a “commitment to disobedience” or an “unwillingness to follow the Great Commission.” Christ expects us to find a way to be unified under the gospel, and it’s not our place to come up with a myriad of excuses why we can’t.  Churches need to think more seriously about how they can have fellowship with other churches and Christians. Instead, many churches have chosen the easy route – unity on politics, dissension on the gospel.

To make matters worse, in their zeal for politics, many conservative Christians have zeroed in on the issue of homosexuality to the exclusion of many other important political issues that directly impact the church. (When was the last time you heard Christians discuss the ramifications of churches ministering to the poor as opposed to the government creating a welfare state that supports them? For me – never. Does anyone else feel like the apostle Paul would be horrified at this?) My guess as to why this has happened is that, because homosexuality has been a losing battleground for Christians, many churches and church leaders have felt compelled to up the amp and make their anti-homosexual arguments louder, more frequent, and more passionate. The end result is that we sound obsessed, angry, hateful, and hypocritical. In other words, Christians sound unChristian when it comes to discussing homosexuality.

But there is a bigger problem here, which I alluded to earlier – Christians will never be able to reform secular society through politics. Only the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit can do any true work of moral reformation. We can’t expect non-Christians to pass laws that are based in Scripture – this is ludicrous. If our society is going to be more Christ-like, then it must be made up of more Christians. It’s as simple as that.

So I’ve got sad news for all those Christians who have rallied against homosexuality and abortion over the years – for the most part, you wasted your time. Maybe you went to the rally for fellowship and found it. Maybe you went there to better understand the issues and learned something new. Maybe you went just to get caught up in the excitement and had a good time. But if you went there to bring about any meaningful change on our nation, you failed. Our nation is more pro-gay, pro-abortion, anti-Christian than it’s ever been. Your efforts to change that went nowhere.

Rally all you want. Yell and kick and scream and preach about politics as forcefully as you can. When you wake up the next day, you’ll wake up in a country that’s run by overwhelmingly godless men who represent an overwhelmingly godless constituency. Eventually you’ll run out of moral pearls to cast at the political swine, and then what will you do? How is a Christian supposed to be “light and salt” in a society that is becoming ever increasingly hostile towards Christianity? The answer is found not in reforming society from the outside in, but from the inside out. The answer is found not in changing laws but in changing hearts. Not in winning debates but in winning souls. Not in conservatism but in Christ. Not in politics but gospel.

Yes, my friends, “Christ and Him crucified.” That, not a list of political agenda, is to be our only message. And that message is our only hope of reforming society. People will never care what Christians think about homosexuality until they care about Christ. Our only sure hope for society to be reformed morally is if it is transformed spiritually.

That is why, if as a Christian, you are truly concerned about where our nation is headed politically, you will find yourself less and less at political rallies and more and more at gospel ones. Christ wants Christians unified in politics, but He wants them unified in the love of God first.

someone worth dying for?

Our society lives for positive messages. We love to hear that we’re held in high esteem, that things are looking up, that the economy is improving, that others love us, that God has a plan for us. These types of messages are in high demand – just turn on TV or the radio or swing by Barnes and Noble and look at some of the best-sellers out there. We want to hear people say things that make us feel good. That’s just a part of our nature.

Christian song-writers have picked up on this, and some of the top hits on Christian radio today are feel-good messages. This in itself is not a bad thing since Scripture is filled with many promises and encouraging passages that are intended to make God’s people feel good about their faith and their lives. But there is a danger here – the danger is when a feel-good message violates the message of the gospel.

The way I see it, there are three kinds of feel-good messages/songs. The first one operates on the assumption that I should feel good because I am good. It could be a song that simply praises a person (e.g., You Raise Me Up) or that encourages them that, even though they don’t feel good right at that moment, it ultimately doesn’t matter because they are good on the inside. The second type of feel-good message operates on the assumption that my life is about to get much better. For example, “You may be down and out now, but things will be getting better soon; so keep your head up!” The final feel-good message is the only one of the three centered on the gospel. This one operates on the assumption that I have nothing in myself, but in Christ I have everything. Whereas the first two focus on the presence of good apart from Christ, this final one emphasizes that the good in a person’s life comes only through Christ, and through this truth it drives home the message of encouragement.

Practically speaking there is a lot of overlap between the different feel-good messages, but it’s the perspective that ultimately determines whether the message is gospel-centered or not. For instance, you might say to a believer who was recently laid off, “Don’t worry. Things will get better. Just fight through the difficulty now, and eventually you’ll see the silver lining on the storm clouds.” Or you might say, “Don’t worry. God is in control, and He has promised that in His saving work all things happen in perfect harmony with His plan to make you more like Christ, even though you may not currently see how that is possible.”

Both of these messages of encouragement at their core are saying the same thing – don’t worry about what you’re going through now because, although you can’t see it, something good will come out of it later – but where they differ is in perspective. The first one is inherently man-centered because all of the focus is on the subject who is experiencing difficulty. The second one is inherently Christ-centered because all of the focus is on His work of salvation. The first one is grounded on an assumption that things will improve. The second one is grounded on the truth of the gospel. The first one fails to encourage because it brings about more questions than answers – What kind of better circumstances will I experience? When will it happen? How will I know when it comes?  The second one succeeds at encouraging because it challenges us to confront the questions we have with biblical doctrine – God’s sovereignty, His love for us, His plan for us in sanctification, His ultimate goal for us in glorification, etc.

Unfortunately, it’s very easy for us to blur the lines between gospel-centered and man-centered encouragement. A few months ago, I was listening to Christian radio and a new single by Mikeschair came on called Someone Worth Dying For. Here are the lyrics to the chorus of the song:

Am I more than flesh and bone?
Am I really something beautiful?
Yeah, I wanna believe, I wanna believe that
I’m not just some wandering soul
That you don’t see and you don’t know
Yeah I wanna believe, Jesus help me believe that I
Am someone worth dying for

The end of the song rounds out with repeating, “You’re someone worth dying for.”

Now, my goal is not to attack Mikeschair in this. I can’t be 100% sure what they were trying to communicate through this song. It is very possibly that, in an effort to make the lyrics fit a certain standard for rhyme or meter, the message they were trying to communicate was distorted.  But unfortunately, not knowing their motives, I can only look at it and tell you that to me it communicates something that is very anti-gospel. The entire message of Scripture is that humans are sinners, not worthy of heaven or God, but that Christ in his great mercy, while we were dead in our sins, came to earth and paid the penalty of our sins and made us righteous so that we could be fellowship with Him. So, to echo Mikeschair, yeah, I wanna believe that I’m someone worth dying for, but Scripture doesn’t allow me to do that. The encouragement of the gospel isn’t that I’m worthy for salvation but that Christ saved me despite my unworthiness.

The sad thing is that currently this song is #12 on the Christian music chart and has been on the chart now for 23 weeks. Is this the kind of message that Christians need to encourage themselves with? Am I supposed to console myself with feel-good words of my own worthiness before the cross of Christ?

Allow me to present an alternative. Tenth Avenue North came out with a song last year called You Are More that is very similar but seeks to encourage a Christian from a gospel perspective. Here is the chorus and bridge of the song:

You are more than the choices that you’ve made,
You are more than the sum of your past mistakes,
You are more than the problems you create,
You’ve been remade.

‘Cause this is not about what you’ve done,
But what’s been done for you.
This is not about where you’ve been,
But where your brokenness brings you to

This is not about what you feel,
But what He felt to forgive you,
And what He felt to make you loved.

What a refreshing change of perspective! It’s not about me but about Him. It reminds me of what John the Baptist said: “He must increase, but I must decrease.”

In order to encourage one another from the gospel we must do a lot of decreasing. We are nothing. God is everything. We are temporal. He is eternal. We are sinful. He is gracious. We deserve death. He gives us life. If every good thing we have comes from the Father through Christ, then how could we possibly be encouraged by lesser things? Ultimately, the only true encouragement that we can have is when we look to Christ. It’s not about us but about Him.