Monday, December 31, 2012

The Gospel is Better than your New Year's Resolution

I am going to lose weight...
I am going to quit smoking...
I am going to spend more time with the kids...
I am going to find Mr/Mrs Right...
I am going to get that promotion...

Almost without consciously thinking about it our minds switch into resolution mode at this time of year.  It's funny because it's just a date on a calendar... it's not like 01.01.13 is going to usher in a radically different regime of life compared to 31.12.12!  And yet it seems normal and natural at the end of year to reflect on the last 12 months of life and speculate on what lies ahead.  For many the thought of a New Year is the promise of a new start; the hope of a different life, a better life, a more fulfilling life.

And so we make our resolutions... And for a brief moment in time adrenaline surges through our veins and a sense of determination grips us... nothing is going to stop us this year!  The fact that we failed to keep last year's resolutions, if we can even remember them (HINT: They were probably the same as this year's), doesn't deter us in the slightest; we steadfastly set our face towards a new version of ourself and embrace the challenge with zeal.  2013 will bring a healthier, wealthier and more spiritual you!

I don't know if anybody really knows what percentage of resolutions made each New Year actually come to fruition, but I reckon it would be pretty low.  Every year once the holidays are over, the adrenaline subsides and the grind of daily life recommences... and all our resolutions seem to have given us is a crippling sense of disappointment, anger and guilt; the knowledge that we failed again!

See the problem is that our resolutions, no matter how honourable and well-intentioned, are actually powerless to address the real issues that we face in day to day life.  First and foremost resolutions are a decision of our will... thus they are fueled by our will-power alone.  The success of my resolution all hangs on whether I can steel my determination and summon the strength of character from within to confront the things that tempt me to abandon my resolution.  We think, "Either I have a strong enough will to defeat temptation or I will be defeated by it!"

But the problem with this is that our failures are not primarily matters of the will... but rather they are matters of the heart.  See we are not stupid, clueless idiots... we know that the thing that we want to change is bad for us and those around us... that is why we want to change it!  But it is not our knowledge of the problem or our desire to overcome it that is lacking... more often than not it is our hearts... our emotions... that pull us away from our goals!  Don't believe me?  Then why are most diets normally broken through "comfort eating"?  Because when our heart has been injured it tricks us into thinking that the only way it can be healed is with chocolate, ice-cream or a juicy steak... The reality is that most resolutions will be broken when our hearts are vulnerable; when we are hungry, lonely, angry or emotionally drained.

So you can make all the resolutions you want this year... you can steel up more courage than ever before... make promises to yourself, get others to keep you accountable or even be prepared to beat yourself into shape, but unless the fragility of your heart is dealt with you will only ever be adding more weight to the guilt that will eventually crush you.  The first time your heart feels lonely, angry or overwhelmed it will grab for anything and everything to cure its cravings.

The gospel is radically different from a New Year's resolution because the gospel actually deals with our hearts!  Jesus came not to strengthen your will-power but to completely change your heart!  But so many people view Jesus and the gospel as a kind of New Year... they think Jesus forgives our sins of the past and gives us  fresh start so we can steel our resolve and give life another crack... but the reality is that this is just a recipe for more failure and Jesus did not come to set us up for more disappointment and guilt.

Our response to the gospel begins with repentance... a concept that is the polar opposite to will-power... rather than a proud attempt to overcome our weakness it is the honest acknowledgement of our failings and our incapacity to save ourselves.  But this repentance is followed by belief... specifically the belief that Jesus Christ through His life, death and resurrection has fully paid the price for our sin.  The gift of God in the gospel is the complete regeneration of our heart... God removes the very cause of all of our problems and gives us a completely new heart that begins a process of daily renewal in our lives by the power of His Spirit.

The gospel is radically better than any New Year's resolution because it actually deals with the root cause of our problem... our sinful hearts.  What's more it doesn't load you up with the unrealistic expectation of perfection and weigh you down with the fear of failure... instead it tells the story of the One who came and lived the perfect life but died to pay the price for all of your failures!  Where there is only guilt, disappointment and failure in a resolution... there is only freedom and forgiveness in the gospel.  Only this Jesus is able to truly satisfy your troublesome heart!

This year perhaps you don't need a New Year's resolution but a New Year's repentance!
In 2013 perhaps you shouldn't crave a new start but a new heart!

Friday, August 3, 2012

You don't win a Silver... you lose the Gold: Why the gospel is better than the Olympic Dream

Aussie culture is known for its sporting pride and uncanny ability to punch above our weight in most sports that we participate in.  Nowhere else is this seen more vividly than every four years at the Olympic Games.  Time and time again we have come up trumps against the odds... rising victorious over the bigger and more powerful nations, filling the hearts of young children the nation over with a passion to live the Olympic Dream!

That is until this year!

This year so far we have seen our athletes fall agonisingly short of all that was expected of them.  This has brought cries of anger and frustration from the media and viewing public alike.  Only in Australia can 2nd in the world be a failure... If we could bottle the Australian attitude towards our athletes into a single phrase it would be: "You don't win a Silver... you lose the Gold!"

There is no margin for error when you follow the Olympic Dream... it is winners covered in glory and losers covered in shame.

I feel for our athletes when they are forced to break down in tears at post-race interviews.  It is like they bet all of their hopes, dreams and self-worth on victory only to see it ripped from their grasp by 0.01 of a second.  What a terrible system to live under... the Olympic Dream that promises so much fame, glory and significance, but can just as easily rob you of everything and leave you broken, shamed and defeated.

Jesus Christ was never one to beat around the bush when it came to speaking hard truths.  In Luke 17:33 He says, "Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it."   The Olympic Dream tells you to bust your guts hoping to promote your life and find everything you ever hoped and dreamed of... but time and time again it leaves you lost, broken and hurting; feeling like a failure.  Jesus was right here... if you seek to preserve your life you will lose it because just like the Olympic Dream you are trusting in something that is destined to fail you... no one is guaranteed of Gold at the Olympics... just ask the guys who fell over in front of Steve Bradbury... you can train the hardest, be the strongest, mentally prepare yourself and even earn the tag of favourite, but at the end of the day there are things outside of your control...

The sad thing is that so many people live their lives with their own dream of Olympic proportions... sure only a small percentage of people actually pursue high level sport, but pretty much everybody puts their hopes in "preserving our lives" one way or another.  Sport, education, career, relationships, attractiveness, sex, power, riches and fame... we are all chasing something that we think will "make us" something that we hope will fulfil our lives.  Jesus says that this is destined for failure because none of these things will last... all of them will disappoint us and leave us broken... if we seek our lives we will lose them.

But Jesus goes on to say that "whoever loses his life will keep it."  In other words if we lay down our quest for finding meaning, significance and joy in the things of this life that are destined to fail, we will actually find what we have been looking for!  If you lose your life you will keep  it!  Ultimately Jesus offers Himself as the perfect example of this:  He was the eternal Son of God and yet He relinquished His right to a heavenly dwelling and took on the very nature of a broken and weak human being... He suffered in every way that we suffer and endured mockery, torture and ultimately an agonising death on a cross all so that we might have life.  Jesus lost His life when He laid it down for us on that cross; dying the death we should have died... but God raised Him from the dead and gave Him the Name above all Names!

The Olympic Dream will crush you!  And so will the Career Dream, Relationship Dream, Riches Dream, Sex Dream and any other Dream.  They will promise you the world but leave no room for failure... they will nver give you a sense of surety about life... you will always be walking on unstable ground just one slip away from a complete meltdown.  Jesus is the only pursuit that will never let you down.  To abandon your pursuit of meaning and significance in the things of this life and to pursue life in Christ instead is to take your hopes and dreams off shaky ground that is crumbling around you and place them on a rock solid foundation that will never fall.  Unlike the Dreams of this life which offer you everything with no guarantee of success, Jesus has guaranteed His promise of life to the full by giving His own life as a down payment on your eternal joy!

The Olympic Dream offers you the slightest chance of momentary glory saturated with the fear of failure... The gospel guarantees you the fullest of joys and most glorious life forever...

Friday, July 27, 2012

Truly Gospel-Centred????

Paul's benediction at the end of Romans might seem on the surface to be a typical doxology/benediction where people just try to cram a heap of classic Christianese clich├ęs into as short a space as possible.  However, I think if we look deeper we will see something that is formative for the church:
Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ,according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith—to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen. (Romans 16:25-27)
If we are to follow the logic of Paul's prayer we see:
A. Paul prays to God who is the One who is able to strengthen the church
        B. God strengthens the church through the gospel & preaching of Jesus Christ
                C. This gospel is the revelation of the mystery of all that God was doing in times past
                C. This message has been disclosed through the Scriptures to all nations
        B. This is the command of God to bring about faith
A. God gets all the glory forever

The A statements represent Paul's recognition that God is the One who is at work in the life of the church and therefore is worthy of all the glory.  The B statements show by what means God strengthens the church, namely His command to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ (see great commission).  Finally the C statements show what the significance of this gospel message is, namely it is the fullest revelation of God and is proclaimed through the Scriptures (prophetic writings).  Basically what we see in Paul's prayer is a vision of what God's desire for His church is and the means by which He commands us to achieve that vision. In short God desires that the church is strengthened AND the nations are brought to faith through the proclamation of Jesus Christ in the gospel.

Unfortunately, I think we can sometimes be guilty of attempting to drive church reform by some means other than the gospel.  Legalism, traditionalism, reductionism, professionalism, pragmatism and other philosophies all have the potential to derail God's gospel work amongst His people.  While there are other beautiful and essential ministries that should be on the radar of every church like unity, purity & justice; time and time again the Scriptures point to the gospel being the power of God for the sanctification of the church (Rom 1:16-17; 1Cor 1:18-31; 2Tim 4:1-5; 1Pet 1:22-25).  Therefore I think we need to start thinking about purity, unity and justice being the overflow of gospel reformation rather than the means to reformation itself.  So if we want a strong church then I think it is wise if we pray like Paul. That God would be the One strengthening the church and that we would be prepared for Him to strengthen the church through the means that He says He will, namely through the proclamation of Jesus Christ in the gospel!
  • Instead of legalism (enforcing legalistic purity), we proclaim the message by which God is bringing about the obedience of faith all over the world.
  • Instead of traditionalism (doing things because that is the way we have always done them), we let the gospel impact each generation and be open to the creative contribution they will make to mission.
  • Instead of seeking unity by reductionism (removing doctrine to satisfy the lowest common denominator), we preach the gospel and bring unity through a common Lord, Spirit, faith & baptism.
  • Instead of professionalism (restructuring our churches to match the models we see in the business world), we conform our structures to elevate and promote gospel proclamation.
  • Instead of pragmatism (embracing the programs, models and strategies that have worked in other contexts), we need to embrace the gospel as the formative message of the church because that is where God says He will work.
Lots of people talk about "gospel centred ministry" these days but my fear is that many people identify with the idea not because they have been gripped by the gospel themselves but because they have perceived that it is a trendy, attractive idea; because it is the buzzword at the moment! As long as we are still bound to pragmatism our gospel-centredness will only be a product of our desire to be trendy rather than a product of the church and its leaders being informed, convicted, challenged and transformed by the gospel.

In other words what I think I am saying is: The gospel needs to master you and your church!  We need to worship God with, through and because of the gospel.  We need to preach the gospel to reach the lost.  We need to teach the gospel at depth to grow believers.  We need to sacrificially and passionately serve the hurting and marginalised in our communities so the gospel will get a foothold in their lives.  And of first importance we need to put our ministers in places where they will be convicted and challenged by the gospel through the Scriptures so they can reproduce this conviction in the life of the congregations they serve!  It is one thing to talk about what you are doing with the gospel... it is another thing to talk about what God is doing in you through the gospel.

By way of analogy, just about every funeral home that advertises on TV or radio says they are "caring & compassionate", it is almost the gold standard of funeral advertising.  But simply because a funeral home puts the words "caring & compassionate" in their slogan or business statement doesn't make them actually "caring & compassionate".  A funeral home is caring & compassionate when they put genuine care into practice and people are actually touched by their sacrificial and selfless service in a time of need.  In the same way you don't become "gospel-centred" by putting the words in the your mission statement, you become truly gospel-centred when you put the gospel at the centre of everything you do!  When you let the gospel loose in your church and trust that God will use it to convict, challenge, encourage and transform you and your people.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Gospel & Narrow-Mindedness

One of the common criticisms levelled at Christians is the charge of being narrow-minded.  It really stems from the fact that we believe in an "ultimate truth", a truth that is true regardless of where you are, who you are or what you believe. That truth is basically that Jesus Christ is the only way to God. Now much of the narrow-minded accusations are thrown at us over issues such as the Christian worldview concerning marriage, sexuality, science and world religions; these are the public face of our alleged narrow-mindedness. But we must remember that our worldview on these issues is really derived from our belief in Jesus as the only way to God and because of this Jesus has some kind of authority over humanity - He decides what is right and wrong.

I guess sometimes Christians can feel the sting of the narrow-minded charge and have nowhere to turn and no answer to give - I know plenty who have begun to believe their accusers and question the direction of their faith as a result. If we are going to know how to proceed as Christians in the face of this allegation there are a few questions we are going to have to answer:

How narrow-minded are our accusers?
"Like attracts like!" This is almost a law of humanity. Whether we like it or not all humans regardless of religion or background generally trend towards social groups full of people just like them. In these groups we feel a level of security and solidarity on the basis of common interest and common values. It is actually rare to find a group of people who are all vastly different from one another hanging out together on a regular basis. This might happen from time to time when it is forced upon you (university group assignment, an 8 person room at a backpackers, etc...) and I guess most people will enjoy this short stint finding out about the lives of people who are completely different, but in the end us humans will always gravitate back towards our friendship groups that are familiar and similar to us.

But more than just narrow groups of friends I think people in the secular world are equally open to the charge of narrow-mindedness as anybody else - in the way they think and talk about people who are different. One of the reasons that the comedy of Jerry Seinfeld resonated so prolifically with Generations X & Y is because of the way he was able to show up our ingrained narrow-mindedness. Seinfeld built his comedy routine by becoming a self-absorbed self-obsessed guy who was only really attracted to himself. And in so doing he tapped into the psyche of our generation and made us laugh because we saw in his exaggerated character something of ourselves.

The reality is that very few people have a truly open mind. People might be prepared to say, "different strokes for different folks" and affirm a kind of "all roads lead to Rome" philosophy... but in reality, deep down inside the average person thinks that the road they have chosen is the best - why else would they have chosen it? The first thing we need to understand is the charge of narrow-mindedness should not be reserved for Christians alone - it could well be levelled at the vast majority of humanity as well.

Is being narrow-minded necessarily bad?
In the debate on this issue "narrow-minded" seems to be a loaded term; loaded with negative connotations. In fact an easy way to gain an upper hand in a debate is to caricature your opponent with negative terms like, "narrow-minded", "oppressive" and "regressive" and to caricature yourself as "open-minded", "progressive" and "liberating". But the opposite of open-minded is not narrow-minded it is closed-minded and so the question we have to ask is: Is narrow-mindedness a bad quality?

The answer to this question is: well it depends what you are narrow-minded about. If you are narrow-minded about racial supremacy, militaristic domination, greed at the expense of others, revenge, etc... then sure it is going to seem as if narrow-mindedness is one of the worst qualities you could possess. But we praise athletes for their narrow-minded dedication to winning Olympic gold, we respect whistle-blowers for their narrow-mindedness is seeing the truth come out into the open, we exalt aid workers who have a narrow-minded dedication to help the oppressed and disadvantaged. So it is not narrow-mindedness that is the enemy; it is what we are narrow-minded about. The enemy is not narrow-mindedness it is racism, violence, greed, hatred and the like.

In what way is Christianity narrow-minded?
So the question is no longer: Is Christianity narrow-minded? The real questions are: Is Christianity any more narrow-minded than the rest of humanity? And what are we narrow-minded about? Now while there are some branches of Christianity whose narrow-minded hatred is an embarrassment to the church and an offence to the gospel, it is not fair to caricature all of Christianity based on the worst possible examples of it. No group of people deserve to be caricatured by the worst of their kind. So let us look instead to the source of our faith, namely the gospel message and Jesus Christ Himself.

The gospel message has an incredibly global focus and does not lump people into different categories based on age, gender, race, religion or sexuality. It simply looks at the global population as a whole and identifies the reality that no one is perfect, that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God". The gospel does not discriminate between sins or sinners, it tells us that all are equal in God's sight. And then in almost the same breath as it declares the whole world guilty it offers the whole world the forgiveness, acceptance, mercy, grace and love of the God we all offended. "Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all." (Col 3:11) So on one level the gospel is incredibly open-minded in that there is no one who is excluded from its reach, but on the other hand it is narrow-minded in that everything it offers come through one source only - Jesus Christ.

And now we look at this Jesus; one of the most narrow-minded people to ever live. From the moment of His birth He was in this world for one clear purpose; "to save his people from their sin". Jesus was narrow-minded in His desire to show love, mercy, healing, forgiveness, restoration, freedom and life to a broken and hurting world. Surely no one would see this narrow-minded goal as wrong? Not even a hardened atheist can accuse Jesus of the negative picture of narrow-mindedness! And so in Christ and His gospel we find the answer to our accusers. We find a freedom to embrace the charge of narrow-mindedness as long as we are narrow-minded in a Jesus kind of way. As long as we are narrow-minded about the things He was passionate about; love, mercy, healing, forgiveness, restoration, freedom and life. So let us be narrow-minded in our desire to take the open call of the gospel to the whole world regardless of how narrow-minded they might be about us.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Grace is our Teacher

The word grace is almost the quintessential Christian word. For those who have come to know Jesus grace is everything. In the church there is a strong message that we are saved by grace alone and in many ways this is one of the most beautiful aspects of the gospel. After all this is the gospel which tells us that God has looked on us who were His enemies and reached out His hand of compassion and mercy and brought us close. This is a radically stunning and compelling message. A message that softens hard hearts and inspires worship and thankfulness. The concept of grace should be at the very heart of our Christian faith.

However, I wonder if we as humans struggle to comprehend exactly what this grace is and what it means for our lives and our faith. Unfortunately when concepts like grace are spoken about regularly it is incredibly easy for us to develop a colloquial meaning based on the way it is used in the church rather than a meaning based on how it is used in the Scriptures. By and large the colloquial meaning of grace which has dominated our culture is the image of a "get out of Hell free card" whereby God forgives us without demanding anything of us.  It is often phrased like "nothing you could say or do can make Him love you less", now while there is a hint of truth here it is phrased in such a way that makes grace a once off gift you receive at conversion that guarantees your salvation regardless of what you say or do.

The problem is that the fruit of our adoption of this colloquial definition is that people have come in contact with the message of grace but have experienced little or no change in their lives. There is no real victory over sin, there is no desire for holiness and there is no thirst for righteousness. If this is the case we have to question what people are being saved to through this message of "grace"? It seems that many think they are saved to a "safety zone" in which their thoughts, words or actions are not counted against them. They think they have something like "diplomatic immunity" and their lives can never be questioned.
About 75 years ago Bonhoeffer famously wrote the following,
“Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession.... Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” 
His main point being that cheap grace, or the colloquial definition of grace in our churches today, is actually a human invention and thus it has no connection whatsoever to the grace that God Himself bestows. It has a hint of godliness but no real power to change us. We might think of our concept of grace as a "safety zone" but in actual fact it is a "God-free zone" where we give ourselves the freedom to ignore the discipleship call of God with seemingly no consequences.

We need to have our colloquial definition of grace blown to pieces and we need to let the Scriptures light the fuse... Scriptures like Titus 2:11-14,
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, 12 training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, 13 waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.
Here grace is not a safety zone but a teacher. A teacher that God employs in order to train us to turn away from our godlessness and to live with self-control and godliness. So often our colloquial understanding of grace emphasises the freedom God gives from final punishment for our sin (a truth that we need to uphold), but this passage emphasises that grace also sets us free from the power of sin here and now. Jesus did not give His life for us to remain unchanged but to purify us for Himself, to transform us into a people who are zealous for good works.

This is not some legalistic demand where God will not accept you unless you are squeaky clean or promise to be more holy... This is a recognition that the grace of God is not some puny one dimensional safety zone... it is a robust teacher that trains us and shapes us. Grace is so much bigger and more powerful than our pathetic colloquial definition. Grace is the means by which God conforms us into the disciples He longs for us to be. He longs for this both for His glory and our benefit, because a life lived under the training of grace, where our sin is actually confronted and demolished, is far more wondrous and fulfilling than remaining in the prison of our sin all the while kidding ourselves that we will get out for free in the end.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Time to Wean that Baby

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews outlines his sadness that the church has not been weaned off milk. He is sad because this reveals that they are only spiritual infants, weak and unable to fend for themselves in a world that is riddled with false teaching and legalism. "Milk" in this context is the "elementary teachings about Christ". As I read this passage in Hebrews I am challenged to think about whether I am serving up milk or meat to the people I minister to. In our church context today what is milk and what is meat?

When I think of elementary teachings about Christ the first word that pops into my head is "the gospel". Surely the gospel is the most elementary teaching about Christ. 1 Corinthians 15:1-4 outlines these elementary teachings pretty well:
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you— unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures...
Some people would see the call to leave the "milk" and move onto the "meat" as a call to leave the gospel in the realm of initial salvation, something given to unsaved folk so they can receive Christ, and then to move onto something else in order to grow the church to maturity. But does this represent a shift away from the foundation of our faith and reliance on something other than Christ? Other churches these days are describing themselves as "gospel-centred", (in fact it has become a bit of a catch phrase in church circles), believing that the church should be all about calling unsaved people to respond to the gospel. But if all you do is preach the gospel to call people to initial salvation are you simply loading up people with milk and never weaning them onto meat?

Here is the dilemma: How can we move people onto maturity without abandoning the foundation of the gospel? And how can we be gospel-centred without letting our people miss out on the meat they need to mature?

I have called this blog Gospel at Depth because it is the phrase that best encompasses my answer to this dilemma. Teaching the gospel at depth is to take the foundational message of Christ's atoning death and resurrection, the message of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, and to apply it to every circumstance of life. My desire is to see the people I teach given the gospel not only as the means of salvation but as the means of sanctification as well. I want the first question they ask when confronted with the daily events of life to be: how does the gospel apply here? I want them to mature by chewing on the meat of the gospel.

It is my hope that this blog will present the gospel in such a way that we can wrestle with its implications for daily life and openly discuss how the gospel can grow us into maturity.