The Father’s Love in Revealing (Part 2)

FathersLove
In the first post on the Father’s love I introduced both the challenge and the importance of seeing God the Father as loving. As we meditate on the biblical truths of the depths of his love and begin resting in that love we will be refreshed with newfound freedom and security to keep drawing near. Therefore, thinking rightly of God our Father is not just a matter of having our theological ducks in a row but it’s a game changer in living the Christian life. We will consider seven NT examples of how God puts his love on display for us, wanting us to know about it and be wrapped up in it.

1) The Father’s love for us is nowhere more clearly seen than in the sending of his only Son—freely, unprompted, undeservedly—to reconcile us back to himself. If you missed this first point you can read it here, otherwise today we’ll jump into our second example.

2) The Father’s love is seen in the incarnation where the Son is sent to reveal the Father to us. Jesus is the revelation of God to us as one of us. “[Jesus] is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Heb. 1:3). He is “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15).This is most clearly stated in John’s prologue (1:1-18), where the Word takes on flesh and dwells among us, but this theme must be seen throughout the gospels. The OT background of the word is “his powerful self-expression in creation, revelation, and salvation.”[1] When an OT prophet received a word from the Lord it was more than just a message. It was God’s revelation of himself to his people.

The clarity and beauty of God’s self-revelations gets ratcheted up when God the Son dwells among us. As the Word, he is the self-expression of God. Jesus is God and reveals God to us. This points back to the Father’s love because it proves he wants to be known in a way that is clear, intimate, and according to truth. Because God is not like us in so many ways and cannot be seen or touched there are moments he seems distant. It might even make him at times seem hard to relate too. But, God doesn’t want things to stay that way so he sends Jesus to show us the Father. Philip said it would be enough if Jesus would show them the Father, and Jesus assures them that the Father is seen and known through his son Jesus (John 14:9). This is what John meant when he wrote, “He [Jesus] has made him [God] known” (John 1:18). God has expressed himself, and he has done so most vividly and visibly in his son Jesus Christ.

In his typical style C. S. Lewis wrote: “He is the self-expression of the Father—what the Father has to say. And there never was a time when He wasn’t saying it.” Jesus takes our vague or slightly distorted notions of God and gives us the real picture of the Father in his fullness of grace and truth. When we think about the beauty, humility, and glory of the incarnation we should also find comfort in the Father’s desire to be clearly and intimately known by us. If the Father seems distant or unapproachable we should look to the incarnation of Jesus to see just how near and inviting the Father has come.

“You don’t need to be in the dark about God. He has gone beyond parchment and paper. He has gone beyond tapes and cassettes. He has gone beyond videos and even beyond live drama. He has actually come and pitched his tent in our backyard and beckoned us to watch him and get to know him in the person of his Son Jesus. When you watch Jesus in action, you watch God in action. When you hear Jesus teach, you hear God teach. When you come to know what Jesus is like, you know what God is like.”[2]

The incarnation is God’s evidence he wants to be in relationship with us but it also the proof that he wants to be known rightly, clearly, and intimately. This is one reason why I try to consistently stay in the NT Gospels. The more I see Jesus in action, hear his teachings, watch his encounters with people, and consider his redemptive works I will see the heart of God the Father behind it all. It should astound us that the infinite, transcendent, and perfect God would make knowing us and being known by us one of his highest priorities. What a joy that God is a Father who doesn’t just show mercy—and that would be wonderful enough—but he wants a real relationship where he know and love him. Our perceptions of God become fuzzy and distorted when we look at earthly figures of fathers or authorities. However, when we look at Jesus the character and compassion of the Father is clearly and accurately put on display.

Footnotes:
[1] D. A Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 116.
[2] http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/sermons/the-word-became-flesh

The Father’s Love in Sending (Part 1)

FathersLove
Loving God is hard. That’s a strange thought in light of the fact God is the only perfect being with boundless love and unending goodness, untainted by even the tiniest spot of evil. And yet, our experience proves that loving God is in fact curiously hard for us. Even more remarkable is how difficult it can be to let ourselves be loved by God. There is no richer, more desirable and comforting place for the Christian than in the love of the Father. But, there is no more alienating and lonesome place than to feel estranged from His love.

For many Christians, the love of Jesus comes through loud and clear, but God the Father often seems distant and looming. Unfortunately, many of our perceptions of God have been distorted by earthly shadows. Usually topping the list are experiences of fathers who failed, dealt with us according to our performance, or were a figure invoking more fear than freedom. Coming in at a close second might be religious leaders or other authority figures heavy on the “truth” and light on the “grace. Because of those inadequate human representations of God and because of performance-driven tendencies assuming God relates to us according to what we deserve, we must hit the refresh button on our false notions with the truth of God’s Word. Not just once, but we need to go back to the Scriptures repeatedly to let God’s priceless promises silence our false fears. Rinse and repeat.

Throughout Scripture, God reveals himself in relationship (covenant) through his words and actions. These demonstrate his character, motives, purposes, and attributes. God being the perfect being that he is, his attributes aren’t like human traits that strengthen or weaken nor are they like moods that come and go. God is all his perfect attributes perfectly, all the time. One of those attributes is love. God is love and therefore expressions and illustrations of his love fill the Bible.

Those are the facts, but unfortunately our experience doesn’t often beat to the drum of those facts. We might read the Bible and yet struggle to see the Father’s love. We find it hard to believe it can be true. We resist and keep God at arms distance. Sometimes we do this because we don’t feel his love on a day to day basis like we desire and so walls of doubt begin to shut him out. Other times we unwittingly read his word not through the lens of God’s love and grace to us in Christ but through tinted lens of condemnation and fear.

For some then, it takes work and careful reading so as to not misread the Scriptures with their assumptions of God—based on past experiences or personal feelings—but to read and see beautiful ways God expresses his care, compassion, and kindness to us. Rest assured, the work required and the patience you might need to keep at it in the midst of discouragement are worth it in the end. Growing in both believing and feeling the Father’s love leads to the warm embrace of assurance and the joy that it brings. My hope is that our grasp of God’s love will move from a general and vague idea to a sweet and personal experience. God desires as much and once the fountain of the Father’s love is opened we’ll find ourselves stepping into new streams of gratitude, contentment, joy, and safety.

The examples in the story of the Bible proving and picturing God’s love abound. Here are seven such examples—one at a time—from the NT of how God clearly and convincingly conveys his fatherly love to his children.

1) The Father Gives His Only Son To Gain Adopted Sons and Daughters
The Father’s love for us is nowhere more clearly seen than in the sending of his only Son—freely, unprompted, undeservedly—to reconcile us back to himself. We love Jesus for his sacrificial suffering on the cross to rescue us from sin. No question about it, Jesus deserves every ounce of gratitude and love we possess. But, don’t miss that the same Scriptures showing us Christ’s love in dying also reveal the immense love of the Father in sending and sacrificing. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). He so loved us that he gave his only begotten Son. No verse has been placarded in more places than John 3:16 and yet somehow we miss the particular and pursuing love of the Father as the dispatcher. The Father is the fountain of the love and Christ is the stream that carries it to us. Every time we return to the cross and find ourselves awash in the love of Christ be amazed at the Father who sends.

The Lie
Whether from the lies of the accusers or deception from our own minds, Christians can act as if Jesus is the good guy who convinces the fear-inducing father to show mercy. It’s as if we think the NT story is that God wants to bring down the gavel because he’s fed up with our unrelenting bent to ruin things. So, to patch things up, the Son sneaks away from heaven and shows us love by dying in our place. Now the Father is compelled to become a tad bit gentler with these new and unwanted family members Jesus brought home. Of course, we wouldn’t say we believe anything close to that but that’s how all too many people unconscientiously view God the Father.

The Truth
In reality, this couldn’t be further from the truth. The Father dearly wants to be in a loving and intimate relationship with us so he sends the Son to bring us back. Both the Father and the Son stagger us in the way the cross expresses their love. The Bible reminds us that the Father sent Christ for us with a full awareness of how sinful, broken, and messy we were. “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). Isn’t that the point of grace? We certainly didn’t deserve it before receiving Christ nor do we earn or keep it because how we act as Christians. The all-encompassing work of Christ covers our sins from the past, our sins today, and our sins in the future. There are no exceptions. No “but you don’t understand what I’ve done” and no “my case falls outside the lines.” There is no sin too filthy to outmatch the purity of Christ’s blood. There is no one who has sinned so often or to such a degree that they’ve exhausted the infinite grace Christ purchased for them.

This unmerited and unprompted love of God shines even brighter against the backdrop of our dark and ill-deserving condition. That’s why John erupts into saying, “Here is love!” when he thinks about the Father giving Jesus to get wayward children into his family. “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (I John 4:9-10). God knows all things fully and so make no mistake, he knew better than you how undeserving you are, but he still sent Jesus to save us from our sins because he loves us and he wants us back.

John Owen called this the great discovery of the gospel.[1] Without the gospel we can only think of God as offended and angered by our sin—and rightly so—but through the gospel our relationship is reconciled and changed so that we can now know him as love. In the gospel God offers some amazing benefits of salvation but none are greater than the gift of himself. It is a gift of communion with God as our Father, full of an affectionate love our hearts ache for.

Every day we have vivid reminders of our sin and so we return to the gospel to find grace that justifies us not because of what we’ve done but because of what Jesus has done for us. This glorious and free grace comes to us through Christ but finds its initiating source in the Father. In his wonderful book The Bruised Reed, Richard Sibbes pushes us to not only see the beauty of Jesus in willingly taking the commission of Savior, but also to “see the sweet love of God [the Father] to us,” in commissioning his Son for the work of our salvation. “This saving object [Jesus] has a special influence of comfort to the soul, especially if we look not only on Christ, but upon the Father’s authority and love in him”[2]. The cross is the exclamation and the evidence of how much the Father loves us.

I watch the following video often as a reminder of the “mega-love” (Piper) of God.

Footnotes:
[1] John Owen, The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, 24 vols (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, republished 1997),II:19. Owen says we have communion with the Father in his love that is free, undeserved, and eternal. We are to eye it, to receive it, and to return it as we are delighted in it. “This is the great discovery of the gospel…here he [Father] is now revealed peculiarly as love, as full of it unto us; the manifestation whereof is the particular work of the gospel.”
[2] Richard Sibbes, The Bruised Reed (Carlisle: Banner of Truth, Reprinted 2008), 2.

Richard Sibbes, The Bruised Reed (chapters 7-8)

sibbesI’ve been blogging my way through The Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes. It’s only a couple of chapters a week and I’m now halfway through the short book. Books are like movies in that it’s hard not to make your most recent favorite your all-time favorite. The temptation to overstate things notwithstanding, this is quickly becoming one of my favorite books. Sibbes was known as “the sweet dropper” and throughout this book the sweetness of the gospel is thick. He wrote against the Catholic (“popish”) remains in religion such as a reliance upon external behaviors without consideration of the sincerity of the heart and ritualistic forms of penance instead of genuine repentance. Later Puritans outside a heavy Catholic context would write with other issues at the forefront.

In Chapter 7 of The Bruised Reed, Sibbes addresses two main concerns. First, he investigates some things that might hinder comfort, and secondly, he answers the question whether our weaknesses should keep us from our Christian duties. In the first section, he addresses four ways our comfort and assurance might be hindered in the person who is a “smoking flax.” Whither those hindrances come from Satan or from within the answer is the same: fly to Jesus and open up your complaints to him. As he mentions earlier in the book when discussing the bruised reed, Sibbes here mentions that remaining sin and a struggle of comfort can be an opportunity to be honest about our helpless estate and lean harder upon the mercy and supply of Christ. The realization of the weakness of the flesh can lead to a more steadfast watching and purging of the flesh, and a thirst for pardoning grace from God. The bright compassion and grace of Christ can be seen more clearly against the backdrop of our dark hearts. Furthermore, the fact that there is in us a discontent with our weak state of grace and an unhappiness to remain might conflict us in the moment but it gives comfort by its evidence that we are not happy in our sin. Such is a mark of the work of the Spirit in us.

In the second section of chapter 7 he encourages believers to keep performing their duties even when they don’t feel like it. Though their faith might be weak and they struggle to believe anything they do might actually change the situation or be pleasing to God, don’t let feelings trump the truth. Having seen the compassion of Christ to a bruised reed and smoking flax throughout the whole book, “it should encourage us to duty that Christ will not quench the smoking flax, but blow on it till it flames” (50). The image their is striking. Though there is but a spark of grace in us, Christ will stir this spark into flame by gently breathing into it. Sibbes gives the example of prayer. Although our efforts in prayer might be weak and our thoughts unclear and confused as we pray, this should not keep us from praying. Weakness in prayer is always better than not praying, and the same is true in all Christian duties. “Christ looks more at the good in them which he means to cherish than the ill in them which he means to abolish…Christ loves to taste of the good fruits that come from us, even though they will always savour of our old nature” (50). Going back to the example of prayer, Sibbes preached these words to his congregation: “There is never a holy sigh, never a tear we shed, which is lost. And as every grace increases by exercise of itself, so does the grace of prayer. By prayer we learn to pray” (51).

In chapter 8 Sibbes asks where these discouragements come from. From what he’s already said about God he reasons with us that these discouragements cannot come from the Father, the Son, or the Spirit. They cannot come from the Father because he will “pity us as a father pities his children (Psa. 103:13)” (56). They cannot come from Christ. “We see how Christ bestows the best fruits of his love on persons who are mean in condition, weak in abilities, and offensive for infirmities” (56). And finally, they cannot come from the Spirit because he is our comforter (Rom. 8:26; John 14:16). “If he convinces of sin, and so humbles us, it is that he may make way for his office of comforting us” (57). That conviction is quite different from the discouragement the author has in mind. So, if they do not come from God then what is the source? “Discouragements, then, must come from ourselves and from Satan” (57).

The next chapter-“Believe Christ, Not Satan”-will continue on with this line of thought. In his last sentence Sibbes exhorts us to flee from our Accuser and run to our Advocate. “In time of temptation, believe Christ rather than the devil. Believe truth from truth itself. Hearken not to a liar, an enemy and a murderer” (61).

Remember Remember

In the movie V for Vendetta, the masked man frequently speaks these key words: “remember, remember.” Referencing Guy Fawkes and the failed Gunpowder Plot on November 5, 1605, the character known only as V quotes the famous poem: “Remember remember, the fifth of November…” Throughout the movie, the call to remember is a call to action. V is not merely interested in history for history’s sake (though he recognizes history’s importance and power), but he sees it as a catalyst for the past speaking into the present.

Continue reading Remember Remember

Stephen Charnock on God’s Eternality & Immutability: It Matters

CharnockI get it. Thinking about the attributes of God can be tough work, but it is work with a payoff. As our minds do the heavy lifting our hearts reap the benefits of bigger affections. We often think of God in small, bland, and largely insignificant terms. We bring God to our level as we construct our view of him by tiny, often misguided thoughts. Thinking biblically—i.e., theologically—quickly leads to our view of God being shattered as we see him getting larger and larger in immensity, glory, and holiness.

Thinking through God’s attributes also helps us know how God relates to us. A firmer grasp on who God is directly relates to who God is for me. Most of God’s self-revelation in Scripture is relational, or covenantal. God explains himself in the context of how he relates to his creation, especially his own people. The fact that God reveals himself not primarily in philosophical or scientific terms but in relational terms should convince us he wants our theology about him to directly influence our relationship with him.[1}

I’ve started slowly reading A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life.[2] Is there any other way to read the Puritans than slowly? Chapter 4 concentrates on Stephen Charnock’s (1628-1680) Discourses upon the Existence and Attributes of God. Charnock, like any good theologian, doesn’t talk about God’s attributes in isolation from each other as if sometimes God is more of one attribute than the other. Instead, God is all of his attributes to their fullest extent at once. Furthermore, these attributes are actually God’s essence. God isn’t simply loving, but he is love. “For though we conceive the essence of God as the subject, and the attributes of God as faculties and qualities in that subject, according to our weak model…yet truly and really there is no distinction between his essence and attributes; one is inseparable from the other. His power and wisdom are is his essence.”[3]

God’s eternity teaches that there never was a time when he was not. There is no beginning or end to God. “His duration is as endless as his essence is boundless.”[4] Here is one description Charnock provides.

“[God] is not in his essence this day what he was not before, or will be the next day and year what he is not now. All his perfections are most perfect in him every moment; before all ages, after all ages. As he hath his whole essence undivided in every place, as well as in an immense space; so he hath all his being in one moment of time, as well as in infinite intervals of time….He is what he always was, and he is what he always will be.” [5]

As the quote indicates, there is a clear synthesis between God’s eternality and God’s immutability. God always has and will exist (eternal) and he always has and will exist in the fullness of his perfections (immutable). There is no change in God because he eternally exists as the whole essence of all his perfections which are “most perfect in him every moment.” Beeke and Jones quote Charnock to explain how these two attributes of God relate. “Immutability in God is a ‘glory belonging to all the attributes of God.’ God has attributes and perfections that are different, but ‘immutability is the center wherein they all unite.’ What God is, He is eternally and unchangeably.”[6]

Doctrine for Life
Let’s briefly consider how God’s eternality and immutability are what the subtitle of the book suggests, doctrine for life. If God is all of his perfections perfectly—all the time—then I never have to pit his attributes against one another. Nor should I worry if at any given moment he is acting out one of his attributes more than the other. Because every person I know is the opposite of this, unless I intentionally remind myself God is not like us I will think of him in finite and false terms. For example, how I treat you might depend on not only the day but the moment you run into me. If I had some great coffee and an easy drive into work, then I’ll probably be in a good mood and so I’ll act with more grace and patience than normal. However, if my morning gets off to a rough start or the day goes south quickly, then you’re more likely to get the impatient and graceless me.

When I’m not thinking rightly about God I start believing his relationship with me and how he treats me must be similar. Maybe God’s had enough of my failings and is tired of me not getting it—and so I imagine I’m in danger of God deciding to give up or lash out on me. When trials or seemingly avoidable pains are placed on my path I can quickly conclude God is not as good or caring as he used to be. Our faith operates from our theology, and unfortunately our theology often starts to err as it’s built upon false thoughts from our own minds instead of truthful thoughts from the mouth of God (Bible). This is why theology is vital for all Christians. We study the Bible so we can know God better and more rightly.

The truth is it takes work on our part to think of God rightly and not piece together a view of God based upon how fallen people act and upon my own thinking and assumptions. Studying God’s eternality and immutability does me good because it reminds me God is not like me or anyone else I’ve come across. He doesn’t relate to me according to up and down moods he’s in but according to his unchanging and perfect character. If he is perfect in all his attributes and is them perfectly all the time, then I can trust he always deals with me according to his goodness, care, and love. In the midst of either frustratingly confusing circumstances or unbearable pain I might not have answers as to the why but I know the Who. During seasons of life where things seem trivial, or where “darkness hides his lovely face,” or even when our hearts are bursting with gratitude, I can know that God has not changed and he is not being anything other than the fullness of God. As James tells us, there is no variation or shifting shadows in God (James 1:17). In you and I, yes; but not in God. That type of theology not only evokes adoration in the moment but it sustains us for a lifetime.

For Christians who tend to shrink because of weak hearts, doubting minds, troubling fears, or soft consciences, we would do well to commit ourselves to studying God’s attributes—especially his love, grace, compassion, and care. As we start to grow in our theology of what God is really like it becomes an immense encouragement to know he is all those attributes all of the time to their fullest extent. God is always all of his perfect perfections.

Footnotes
[1]. This of course isn’t to suggest God’s self-revelation doesn’t involve philosophy or science, and it certainly doesn’t suggest God is not accurate in his revelation. It simply conveys that God’s revelation comes in the context of relationship. He reveals Himself as Maker, Sovereign, and Redeemer.
[2]. Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012).
[3]. Stephen Charnock, Discourses upon the Existence and Attributes of God (London: Thomas Tegg, 1840), 242. Found in A Puritan Theology, 65.
[4]. Charnock, Existence and Attributes, 175-76. Found in A Puritan Theology, 63.
[5]. Charnock, Existence and Attributes, 178. Found in A Puritan Theology, 63
[6]. A Puritan Theology, 64. Emphasis mine.

The Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes, chapters 5-6

sibbes
The thrust of chapter 5 is that we should reciprocate to others the same mercy we’ve received. Experiencing compassion lends itself to being compassionate, but that requires we understand at the front just how gracious Christ has been to us. Richard Sibbes demonstrates his pastoral heart multiple times in this book. You read him and get the sense he lived and talked among his people in their need and weakness, so much so that he gets people.

Chapter 5 opens with another caution to pastors in particular, but it applies to all of Christ’s body. We should be careful not to make things “necessary evidences of grace which agree not to the experience of many a good Christian” (26). That is not quite the same thing as saying there will be no evidences of grace or fruit whatsoever in the life of a believer. Many have pressed undue weights upon struggling saints and thereby have crushed their spirits. Some need an exhortation and the strong teeth of Scripture but others need encouragement and the gentle touch of Scripture. Be wise in what truths you give because some truths are “unseasonable truths” when given at the wrong time or to the wrong person. Spiritual discernment might not be the easy way but it’s how we know whether to choose affirmation or rebuke. There are certainly those without any fruit who should be warned, but the focus of this book are the many burdened Christians who need encouragement for the evidences of grace they do have not discouragement for the evidences they don’t have. Sibbes says we are in fact “debtors to the weak” and should labor alongside as the crawl towards Christ. “We must supply out of our love and mercy that which we see wanting in them. The church of Christ is a common hospital, wherein all are in some measure sick of some spiritual disease or other, so all have occasion to exercise the spirit of wisdom and meekness” (34). If the church were to read and embrace the heart and content of this chapter, the spirit of unity, peace, and gentleness in the church would surely be multiplied.

In the next chapter, the author begins with a description of the smoking flax. Sibbes tells us we must have two eyes, one to see the sin in us that remains but another to see the good in us from God’s Spirit. Most of us can clearly see the former but often have a closed eye to the latter; and therein lies reason for why so many Christians feel discouraged. This chapter-like the book as a whole-proves to be a wonderful help to Christians lacking assurance. “Those who are given to quarreling with themselves always lack comfort, and through their infirmities they are prone to feed on such things as will most nourish that disease which troubles them…We must not judge of ourselves always according to present feeling” (35). Sibbes encourages us throughout this chapter not to base assurance on our feelings but on truth, and any work of the Spirit-however small-is in truth an evidence of grace. When we dismiss God’s work in us or others we rob God of his glory and assist Satan the Accuser. Instead of joining the Accuser in condemnation we should look to Christ our Advocate and to what his Spirit has in truth done in our lives.

With the remainder of the chapter, Sibbes continues with the thoughts expressed above as he sets out to argue that God doesn’t require grace in a measure, but that “a spark of fire is still fire.” “There is no mere [complete] darkness in the state of grace, but some beam of light whereby the kingdom of darkness does not wholly prevail” (38). He expands upon this with ten points, or rules, to understand why we should see and encourage the smallest spark instead of pouring water on it because it’s not a flame. Just in case this sounds like Sibbes is doing his best to lower the bar for conversion, he’s not. Instead, he’s reminding them not to base their justification on their sanctification while also pointing to the difference between no light and a beam of light. On one side, he cautions us against over analyzing our lives for fruit since we are prone to condemn ourselves and miss what God’s Spirit has done in us. But, at the same time, he does make clear that even though a believer might be in sin there will always be a contrary principle in them making them uneasy with it. God does not give up on his work of sanctifying us because of the sin that remains in us. He is not pleased by sin in us but he is still pleased with us. Our sin doesn’t negate Christ in us and a genuine work of the Spirit, and thus God continues to work in us so we might mature in our faith and experience a greater degree of evidences of grace.

Martin Luther on the Christian Life

luther It’s never too early in October for a Martin Luther plug. I just gulped down my first pumpkin pie slice of the year so Reformation Day can’t be too far away.

On October 31, 1517 Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg. It’s slightly less dramatic than it sounds, although that’s not to diminish Luther’s boldness. It wasn’t like putting up a flyer at your local Starbucks but it also wasn’t like pinning it on the White House door. Think of it along the lines of an ad in the paper. Since the church remained the center of society, notices were often nailed to the church doors. These theses were meant to call the Church back to living in line with God’s Word instead of the drastically off-course path Rome had taken it on.

Theses number 1 reads as follows:
“When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said ‘Repent,’ he intended that the entire life of believers should be repentance.”

This idea of the Christian life as daily repentance remained a constant part of Luther’s teaching, and for many people it continues to aid their understanding of the Christian life. Even our best deeds carry hints of corruption. Rather than feeling crushed by this it should free us to pursue sanctification in Christ without the need to be perfect. Repentance isn’t relegated to conversion. No, the Christian life is a life of daily repentance.

Robert Kolb provides the following commentary on Luther’s understanding of repentance.
“Repentance is an earnest attack on the old creature and an entering into new life. In light of the passive righteousness of faith, confession is no longer something that we do for God while trying to render the appropriate recompense to God for our sins (that would be to deny the work of Christ). Instead, by the activity of confessing sins, Christians empty their hands of their sins. It is a way of carrying out the blessed exchange. In confessing their sins, Christians may say, ‘Lord, I don’t want to hang on to my sins anymore. You take them. Get them out of my sight.’ Only when their hands and hearts are empty are they in a position to receive the benefits of Christ” Robert Kolb and Charles P. Arand, The Genius of Luther’s Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 99.

A Follow Up on Sanctification: What It Is and Isn’t

s

The last post attempted to look at three ways being “gospel-centered” might actually affect our understanding of sanctification and how we then live that out in the life of a church, primarily through small groups and discipleship. I thought I would list a few more that could be added. If you have others that you would add leave a comment with your thought and a couple supporting verses.

Gospel-Centered Sanctification includes:
From the last post
1) It is about receiving news not advice.
I Cor. 15:1-8; Eph. 1:13-14; Acts 15:6

2) It is about repentance not resolve.
James 5:16; I John 1:8-9; Ps. 32:5

3) It is about our need not our self-sufficiency.
Rom. 8:9-11, 13; Phil. 2:12-13; Eph. 3:16; Gal. 5:16-17, 25; Col. 2:20-23

At least a few others I might add would be:
4) Sanctification is about heart transformation not behavior modification.
Mt. 15:19-20; Luke 6:43-45; Matt 23:25-28; Heb. 8:10;

5) Sanctification is becoming like Christ not becoming the best me.
2 Cor. 3:18; Rom. 8:28-29; John 3:2; Col. 1:28

6) Sanctification is motivated by freedom in Christ not slavery to law.
Rom. 8:1, 15-16; Gal. 5:1, 14-16;

7) Sanctification is about a striving for progression not arriving at perfection.
Phil. 3:12-14, 20-21; I Thess. 5:23; I Pet. 5:10;

8) Sanctification happens in the church community not in isolation.
Heb. 10:24-25; I Thess. 5:11; Col. 3:16; I Cor. 12:25; Gal. 6:1-3

9) Sanctification involves deliverance to live under the rule of Christ not to be self-ruled.
Rom. 6:6-7, 22; Col. 1:13; I Cor. 6:20; Ex. 20:1-2

Putting the Gospel Back in Gospel-Centered

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[Editors note: This blog post originally appeared at The College Park Blog and is being recycled here to tie into other posts on sanctification.]

My pastor beats the gospel drum with regularity, not as an afterword to the message, but as the fulcrum. I can hear his passionate voice: “God is holy, we’re not, and that’s a problem.” Sunday to Sunday our church progresses through a sermon series, and our pastor refreshes us not with something new but with something that never gets old. The unconverted must awaken to their biggest problem in life, their sin, and so we hold up before them again and again God’s graciously given solution, Jesus Christ. We the converted presume there must be a different word we need to hear but again we‘re told: “God is holy, we’re not, and that’s a problem.” We are gospel-centered, in practice not merely in theory, because the gospel must guide every area of our lives as Christians.

Think through how quickly we move past the middle part of that message: “we’re not [holy].” When we gather together in small groups or in one-to-one relationships we often speak and act as if the problem is no longer our sinfulness, but rather our lack of discipline, effort, or commitment. When we first believed the gospel it was clear our performance couldn’t overcome the impasse that God is terribly holy and we’re tragically sinful. We used to be the problem and only God could provide the solution, but now we tend to jettison faith and think we’re capable of fixing our problems. Stuart Smalley’s classic quip soon describes how we live: “We’re good enough, we’re smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.” When we ignore indwelling sin and see ourselves as basically good, our performance becomes central because we figure the answer must be somewhere within.

Here’s where being “gospel-centered” reorients us. We must recognize that our default mode is to turn back to good works we do to make things right instead of trusting in the truly good work Jesus accomplished that made us right. How can you tell if you’ve fallen into this thinking? Consider how often, in small groups and discipleship, we give advice instead of the gospel, turn to effort instead of repentance, and live out of self-sufficiency instead of need. We must be vigilant, therefore, lest the tide of self-reliance pulls us away from the safe shores of the gospel.

News, Not Advice
Since you’re an acute reader with a disdain for obscurity, you’re likely asking what I mean by “gospel.” Most simply, it means good news. The gospel in its full-length version unpacks many important details and implications. But, for a truncated summary, it is the news that the God-man Jesus redeemed sinful men and women back to God through his redemptive death on the cross and victorious resurrection from the tomb.[1] The good part of the news asserts anyone can receive this redemption through free grace from God.

I know, your reading pace picked up because you’ve heard this song a hundred times. But don’t miss out on this subtle truth: news isn’t advice, opinion, or motivational speech. News reports—whether on TV, your mobile device, or that ancient script called a newspaper—spread the word about what already occurred in history, not what I think should happen.

So where might our actions betray a gospel-centered perspective? Trouble arises when we resort to offering sage advice to one another, giving opinions, or dispensing the latest spiritual maxims. For the gospel (and no shabby replacements) to remain the center we must regularly remind one another of the good news of Jesus Christ. We retell this accomplished, objective, historical news and unpack the never-ending applications gushing from it.

In Transformational Discipleship, the authors draw a clear line in the sand between advice and news. “Advice often masquerades as the gospel. Messages filled with advice to help people improve their lives or turn over a new leaf are in contradiction to the nature of the gospel—news we respond to, not insight we should consider heeding.”[2] If the majority of our conversations sound like “you should try doing this or that” instead of “Jesus has already done this for you” then we’re quickly heading out to the stormy sea of advice and opinion.

I sense the nervousness in you heating up, so yes, almost every situation we come up against does lead to some next steps with legs on them. However, that happens after firmly rooting ourselves in the news of the fully sufficient work Jesus already accomplished for us.

Repentance, Not Resolve
Unlike a lot of other news, however, the gospel is dynamic; it does something to us. It grabs us and shakes us back into the reality we quickly forget: sin is a big deal and our hearts reek of it.

I avoid thinking of myself or my sin in these stark terms. Instead of confessing my sin, I pray that I would “do better.” Instead of seeing my cutting tongue as sin requiring humble repentance I might piously say, “I’ve not done a good job in my speech this week and I need to make that a higher priority.” Talk about a weak and surface-level disclosure! How much more freeing would it be if I would simply admit that my hurtful words are sins and they come out of my rotten heart? Through my language of “doing better”, “trying harder”, or “being more disciplined” I create the mirage of being a good person. All I need, I tell myself, is to dig deeper into my inner reservoirs of strength and goodness. In reality, I need more God-dependent and self-humbling repentance and less self-sufficient and God-ignoring resolution.

Repentance allows us to move beneath the surface and deal with our need for true heart change. When we don’t identify sin as sin, but merely call it a weakness we fail to adequately deal with it. The Bible paints sin as rebellion against God and choosing our own way, whereas our culture tells us we simply struggle with flaws needing improved upon. Repentance of sin to one another must replace recounting our struggles and the self-will behind resolving to try harder. Confessed sin calls upon our community of faith to both lead us back to the gospel for forgiveness while walking with us in a life of righteousness holding out the greater joy.

Need, Not Self-Sufficiency
Once we choose repentance from sin instead of improvement of our weaknesses, it becomes clear we can’t dig out of the problem we got ourselves into. And yet again, we have to intentionally avoid speaking and acting as if our maturity in Christ simply makes or breaks itself depending on my strength. I don’t just need more discipline. The problem isn’t primarily that I’m not trying with enough vigor. The performance foundation teeters because we make our growth self-centered instead of gospel-centered.

The gospel frees me by taking the yoke off my back as I live in the truth that Jesus atoned for my sin and gave me his righteousness. It also liberates by putting God in charge of my sanctification instead of me (deep exhale). When I stop relying on myself and my resources and collapse into trust in God, I see He possesses the power I needed all along. Not only does He supply the power for change, but when we shift our focus from what I should do to what Jesus has done, it changes our motivation and fuels a genuine longing for God. “What I needed is what all of us need—continual belief in the depth of God’s forgiveness and the resilience of his genuine approval in Christ. In brief, what I needed was more Jesus, not more discipline.”[3]

In our small groups and discipleship we must cease speaking as if we only need to grit our teeth, be more disciplined, and fight harder to overcome where we’re falling short. To be gospel-centered in practice and not just in name requires us to honestly tell one another that you’ll never be able to look like Jesus by your performance and energy. Jesus has already redeemed us so as we ask the Holy Spirit to take over and change our heart, to convince us of our identity in Christ, and to help us live as a new creation—one who rests in God’s power, not our own. And we do it for God’s glory, not our own.

The Center HoldsGospel-centered isn’t a label we claim to feel like we’re in the right camp. It’s something we live by to enjoy and experience Jesus in our lives. The first thing we need to hear isn’t a pile of “do’s and don’ts” or “should have’s and next time’s.” Instead, our greatest need is to go back to the well of the gospel to discover fresh life in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Being gospel-centered means we turn to the news of the gospel instead of advice and we meditate on what Jesus has already done before thinking about what I need to do.

Footnotes:
[1] Several recent books deal with the wide ranging scope of the gospel, including: Jared Wilson, Gospel Deeps (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012); Daniel Montgomery and Mike Cosper, Faithmapping (Wheaton: Crossway, 2013); Milton Vincent, A Gospel Primer for Christians (Minneapolis: Focus Publishing, 2008).
[2] Eric Geiger, Michael Kelley, and Philip Nation, Transformational Discipleship (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2012), 72.
[3] Jonathan Dodson, Gospel-Centered Discipleship (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), 39.

Have Some Sam Adams This Weekend

adamsSamuel Adams penned the following in a letter to Joseph Warren on November 4, 1775. The notion of separation between one’s public and private life, especially for leaders, was completely foreign to Adams. Doubtless, it would have been just as curious an idea for other founding fathers. Samuel Adams helped found our country, and he was one of many who discerned the importance of the government assisting in the promotion and protection of Virtue for both the improvement of our private and public spheres of life. [I have left the original spelling.]

“The Eyes of Mankind will be upon you to see whether the Government, which is now more popular than it has been for many years past, will be productive of more Virtue moral and political. We may look up to Armies for our Defence, but Virtue is our best Security. It is not possible that any State shd [should] remain free, where Virture is not supremely honord.
…Since private and publick Vices, are in Reality, thought not always apparently, so nearly connected, of how much Importance, how necessary is it, that the utmost Pains be taken by the Publick, to have the Principles of Virtue early inculcated on the Minds even of children, and the moral Sense kept alive, and that the wise institutions of our Ancestors for these great Purposes be encouraged by the Government. For no people will tamely surrender their Liberties, nor can any be easily subdued, when knowledge is diffusd and Virtue is preserved. On the Contrary, when People are universally ignorant, and debauchd in their Manners, they will sink under their own weight without the Aid of foreign Invaders.”

Taken from ed. William J. Bennett, The Spirit of America (New York: Touchstone, 1997), 261.

For more on the importance of virtue (across the board) to our founding fathers, see Gordon Wood’s Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founding Fathers Different.