Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Challenges to the Gospel

That's the theme of the new 9Marks newsletter (available in a PDF version) which contains the following articles:

The Therapeutic Gospel by David Powlison
The therapeutic gospel limits itself to giving people what they want, instead of calling for a change of what they ultimately want.

Brian McLaren and the Gospel of Here & Now by Greg Gilbert
This emerging leader is alright on the “already,” but neglects the “not yet.”

Satanism, Starbucks, and Other Gospel Challenges an interview with David Wells
The medium is the message, and theologian David Wells says the gospel message is increasingly compromised by “relevant” methods.

Leaving Home, Returning Home by Michael Lawrence
This biblical theology of the Fall identifies precisely why a gospel is necessary.

The Devil’s Favorite Domino—the Penal in Penal Substitution by Jonathan Leeman
Here’s why the penal in penal substitution is all precious, and why the devil always topples it first.

Gospel Coalition Travelogue by Michael McKinley
A report from the frontline of Carson and Keller’s Gospel Coalition Conference.

There is also a roundtable discussion on explaining the gospel to unbelievers and reviews of the following books: N. T. Wright's Simply Christian, Leonard Sweet's The Gospel According to Starbucks, and Erwin McManus' Soul Cravings.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Why the Gospel Often Seems Irrelevant (to Christians)

Yesterday, as I've done so frequently in the past, I reflected on my deep appreciation and gratitude for the Journal of Biblical Counseling and those responsible for producing it. In some ways, the title is misleading because it could give the impression that only those engaged in formal counseling ministry can benefit from it. To be sure, it's a valuable resource for pastors, so much so that I think it should be a staple in every minister's reading. However, every issue contains thoughtful, theologically-rich content that can aid any follower of Christ in his or her pursuit of spiritual maturity.

A conversation with a frazzled parent seeking help in how to deal with a child's explosive tantrums led me to read an article by Michael Emlet and David Powlison called "Helping the Parents of an Angry Child" (Winter 2007, Volume 25, Number 1). As is so often the case when I read JBC articles, I not only received guidance for helping others but was confronted about issues in my own heart and life. The following paragraph, especially the last sentence, stood out to me because it addresses something that I think about frequently:

A child needs to learn how her anger operates directly against God. Too often parents only focus on the horizontal aspect of their child's sinful behavior - what the child has done to them. Targeting the heart means helping the child understand that her attitude, words, and actions violate God's standards first and foremost. To be self-willed is to assault God's right to rule. This God-ward focus keeps the gospel front and center, because sin against God and others has a remedy. If we confess our sins honestly, He is faithful and just to forgive us and cleanse us (1 John 1:9). Opening up the vertical dimension presents the immediate relevance of the gospel.
When considering my own reactions to life's problems and from conversations with other believers, I often wonder why it is that the gospel seems so disconnected and unrelated to the here and now. When we're dealing with the complexities and difficulties that are bound to arise, I think our (usually) unspoken mindset is "Yeah, I'm a Christian and I believe all that Bible stuff but I'm talking about real life here." That attitude betrays an underlying assumption that the gospel is largely impractical in terms of its explanatory and transforming power as far as our everyday struggles are concerned. As Paul Tripp and Tim Lane note in their book How People Change, believers often live with a gap between the two "thens" of the gospel:
The good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ is a "then-now-then" gospel. First, there is the "then" of the past. When I embrace Christ by faith, my sins are completely forgiven, and I stand before God as righteous. There is also the "then" of the future, the promise of eternity with the Lord, free of sin and struggle. The church has done fairly well explaining these two "thens" of the gospel, but it has tended to understate or misunderstand the "now" benefits of the work of Christ. What difference does the gospel make in the here and now? How does it help me as a father, a husband, a worker, and a member of the body of Christ? How does it help me respond to difficulty and make decisions? How does it give me meaning, purpose, and identity? How does it motivate my ministry to others?
Emlet and Powlison have identified one of the primary reasons that the gospel is functionally distanced from our daily lives - to the extent that I fail to see misguided worship as my greatest problem and adopt alien anthropologies offering alternative visions of what it means to be human, to that extent the gospel's luster appears dull and its melody sounds flat to my ears.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

"My Dream is to Spend My Life Doing What I Feel I Was Born to Do"

My eyes welled with tears when I caught this story on the news yesterday but it didn't occur to me to mention it here until I received an email linking to the video from a friend who rarely sends such things. I agree with his decision to depart from his practice in this case.

The video is of a mobile phone salesman named Paul Potts who recently appeared on the television program "Britain's Got Talent" and wowed both audience and judges (the indomitable Simon Cowell among them) with his rendition of "Nessun Dorma." His performance was beautiful not only because of his amazing talent but also because of his evident humility and passion for his art. You can read more about Paul here. Enjoy!

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Resources for Dads (and Moms)

Donald Whitney is the author of several helpful books on spiritual disciplines including one (Simplify Your Spiritual Life: Spiritual Disciplines for the Overwhelmed) for those who think their hectic pace of life precludes the consistent integration of such practices. Brief (usually no more than two pages) chapters offer encouragement and practical steps on how to take steps toward spiritual maturity in the midst of our busy lives. Excerpts from the book and Whitney's other writings are available for free download in bulletin insert format. Since it's only the middle of the week, pastors may want to consider this one on simplifying family worship for inclusion in this week's Father's Day bulletin.

Another valuable resource worthy of fathers' attention is John Piper's recent sermon called "Marriage is Meant to Make Children...Disciples of Jesus." He concludes with the following brief observations based on Ephesians 6: 1-4:
  1. The father has a leading responsibility in bringing the children up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
  2. Nevertheless, both mother and father are called to this together.
  3. It is important that both mother and father be united in this effort.
  4. The most fundamental task of a mother and father is to show God to the children.
  5. God has ordained that both mother and father be involved in raising the children because they are husband and wife before they are mother and father.
Finally, Westminster Bookstore is running a sale on children's books, two of which I highly recommend based on my use with my own kids - the ESV Children's Bible and Grandpa's Box.

Classic Works on Spiritual Growth

The folks at Reformation Theology and Monergism Books have compiled a top ten list of books on piety, sanctification, and spiritual growth but don't expect to find any of these on the best-seller shelves of your local Christian bookstore. Come to think of it, they're probably not on any of the shelves! I wonder which contemporary Christian books will be counted as classics by future generations.

Monday, June 04, 2007

A Few Quick Thoughts on Love, Fear, Marriage, and Idols

Inactivity here definitely hasn't been due to a shortage of things on my mind. If anything, the opposite is true.

The following thoughts were generated in a recent conversation I had with a young man questioning what it means for him to love his wife. At the close of our meeting he asked if I'd mind sending him a bullet point list of the main ideas we covered. In hope that others might also benefit, here's an edited version of my correspondence to him:

  • Loving someone involves seeking their good where goodness is defined by God. The essence of sin is to ignore and/or reject what God calls good and to operate as though I or some other creature is the ultimate judge of what is good or evil.
  • Fear of how someone might respond to my actions can greatly hinder my capacity to love them appropriately (i.e., according to the need of the moment). For example, love in some instances requires correction. But if my heart is captivated by the desire to avoid conflict, to be well-liked, to avoid rejection at all costs, etc., I will not risk correcting another for their sake but will selfishly serve my own desires.
  • When my actions are motivated and determined more by how I think someone else will react to me than by a desire to do what is pleasing to God, then I have made an idol out of that person. Their estimation of me means more to me than does the Lord's and functionally I am worshiping, serving, and trusting in them in place of the true God.
Shortly after you left my office I picked up a book that many years ago brought greater clarity to my own thinking about the above issues. It's called Encouragement: The Key to Caring by Larry Crabb and Dan Allender. The following paragraphs profoundly struck me and pretty much encapsulate the above points:

Whether the cause of fear is major rejection or mild discomfort, the final solution is the same: I must be willing to hurt (greatly or minimally), to suffer loss (be it everything or a few moments of social ease). Only when I accept what I fear, resolving that I am willing to endure whatever may happen, will the fear lose its power (1 John 4:18). The perfect love of Christ provides me with what I need to face my fears. In Christ I have a relationship I cannot lose, a relationship sufficient to sustain me if all others fail. I have an unbreakable safety net beneath me as I venture across the tightrope of involving myself in other people's lives.
When I declare myself, by an act of will, to be willing to lose all human relationship (approval, recognition, love, etc.) if obedience to God requires it, I will be freed from the entanglement of fear. And only when I am freed from the fear of losing a relationship will my motivation approach the reality of love. When I encounter an embarrassed stranger in Sunday school or a close friend who is seriously mishandling his problems, my words will have the power to encourage if they are prompted by love. Notice the paradox: To love a person, I must be willing to lose my relationship with him. Dependently holding onto anyone or anything but God is, in its final form, idolatry. Idolatry is at root a fear of the wrong god.