I have said for some time that my favorite book on pastoral ministry is John Piper’s Brothers, We Are Not Professionals. While every point may not be exactly in line with my own pastoral convictions, it gets the essentials right, puts the focus in the right place, and is never short on challenging statements.
The second edition of this book was just released. The pastors at our church are working through this book at our monthly meeting. With the new edition came a few new chapters. I wanted to share a portion of one such chapter. The author is trying to explain how God can be for his glory and for us. In defending why he as (over?) emphasized God’s self-glory he describes the plight of many Christians (so-called):
I feel a special burden for the millions of nominal Christians who are not born again who believe God loves them and yet are on their way to hell. And the difference between them and a born-again believer is this: What’s the bottom, the decisive foundation, of their happiness? As you penetrate down deeper and deeper to the core, or the bottom, of what makes you happy?
Millions of nominal Christians have never experienced a fundamental alteration of that foundation of happiness. Instead, they have absorbed the notion that becoming Christian means turning to Jesus to get what you always wanted before you were born again. So, if you wanted wealth, you stop depending on yourself for it, and by prayer and faith and obedience you depend on Jesus for wealth. If you wanted to be healthy, you turn from mere human cures to Jesus as the source of your health. If you wanted to escape the pain of hell, you turn to Jesus for the escape. If you wanted to have a happy marriage, you come to Jesus for help. If you wanted peace of conscience and freedom from guilt feelings, you turn to Jesus for these things.
In other words, to become a Christian, in this way of seeing things, is to have all the same desires you had as an unregenerate person — only you get them from a new source, Jesus. And He feels so loving when you do. But there’s no change at the bottom of your heart and your cravings. No change at the bottom of what makes you happy. There’s no change in the decisive foundation of your joy. You just shop at a new store. The dinner is still the same, you just have a new butler. The bags in the hotel room are still the same; just a new bellhop.
A two part series I recently preached on Isaiah’s encounter with God and how it informs our understanding of grace and the Christian mission:
In yesterday’s post I discussed the need uncage the gospel. Jesus is the only person worthy of the risk to which Christians are called, a risk that involves everything (Matthew 10:38-39). On the flip-side of the sin of familiarity is my often too familiar relationship with sin.
In the same way that I try to maintain and manage the gospel (to avoid its totalizing demands), I often try to manage my sin. My point is simple: sin is not to be tamed, it is to be killed. I have learned to regulate my sin so as not to be caught or not let it interfere with my life. Even when I have my sin “under control” I am not often experiencing the reality of the freedom from sin that God promises (Romans 8:2).
Even with the most positive intentions, I find that most strategies regarding sin are centered around management rather than victory. The Bible clearly tells us to flee from temptation (e.g., 1 Cor. 6:18, 10:14; 1 Tim. 6:11; 2 Tim. 2:22). However, avoidance is not a strategy for overcoming sin. In fact, there is a time to not only flee but to fight (e.g., James 4:7).
When our lives are connected to Christ we are not managing our sin or hoping to avoid situations over which we have no control but are actually fighting our sin.
If you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live (Romans 8:13).
John Owen, the seventeenth century Oxford theologian and churchman, is famously quoted in reference to this verse: “Be killing sin or it will be killing you.”
Now, this post could easily devolve into a hodgepodge of strategies for “sin-killing.” I suspect there is a place for such strategies but the focus in Romans 8 (and 7 for that matter) seems to be clearly focused on the reality of salvation and the hope of redemption. We have been set free from sin and death by the Spirit (v. 2). Sure, there is a fleshly way to live and a Spirit way to live (vv. 5-8) but, as Paul says, you “are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you” (v. 9).
So, whatever battle exists between the flesh and Spirit occurs in the “in between” of the “already” and “not yet” (as so many theologians have reminded us). Therefore, the outcome of our spiritual war is not in question though the battle continually rages. Our sure victory provides all the more motivation and confidence that we can, in fact, destroy our sin. Our sin is not something we have to learn to live with.
Seek to see and feel the gospel as bigger as years go by rather than smaller. Our temptation is to think that the gospel is for beginners and then we go on to greater things. But the real challenge is to see the gospel as the greatest thing — and getting greater all the time.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my unhealthy familiarity with the gospel. I’ve sat through thousands of sermons. I’ve seen all sorts of clever illustrations and explanations. I’ve heard preachers whisper with seriousness the importance of the cross and scream with passion our need for a savior. I must confess, after a while I just got used to it all. I’d heard it before; it seemed familiar.
When I say the gospel became familiar, I am not speaking of intimacy and depth of knowledge. I mean something more like the famous phrase that says “familiarity breeds contempt.” I became presumptuous toward God and his grace. I took it all for granted.
That’s just the way we tend to be. Things that are magnificent and awe-inspiring quickly become normal and, dare I say, we feel entitled toward them. It reminds me of a famous bit from comedian Louis C. K.:
Many of us bring an entitlement mentality into our relationship with Christ. His love and grace becomes expected. As a result we enter God’s presence with an ease and flippancy that is unthinkable in the Bible. Paul was never so presumptuous; though he knew his salvation was secure he still approached God with humility.
“I desire to know Him and the power of His resurrection, participating in His suffering, being molded by His death, if, perhaps, I might attain the resurrection from the dead”
Philippians 3:11 emphasis added
I can’t help but think of Isaiah’s experience in the presence of God (Isaiah 6). Just compare the prideful and audacious attitude of Uzziah (2 Chronicles 26) with the humble “woe is me” attitude of Isaiah (Isaiah 6:5). Isaiah’s experience was life-altering. He could not be in God’s presence without conviction of sin, an experience of forgiveness, and a clear commission to go and tell others. It seems that I’ve so domesticated the gospel that I’ve effectively minimized its totalizing commands.
I remember another stand up comedian discussing the infamous Siegfried and Roy incident. The famous (and famously flamboyant) Las Vegas duo successfully trained wild cats (e.g., lions, tigers, etc.) to stand on glittery balls, jump through flaming hoops, all while being poked with sticks and such. Not the wisest idea if you ask me. You see, if a domesticated housecat gets mad at you, it might hurt but you’ll win. Anything I can punt 25 yards is gonna lose. However, when a 600 pound tiger gets mad — you lose! And so it happened for half of the Las Vegas duo. Doing the same show over and over again does not negate the fact that a wild animal is not safe.
The gospel is not something to be domesticated or tamed. The gospel cannot be treated as simple and safe. The gospel can never be routine and mundane. The gospel is not to be managed or maintained. The gospel is to be obeyed. We are to risk everything to follow Jesus and spread the life-changing news of his death and resurrection.
In the summer of 2011 I preached a four part series on “Discipleship.” It ended up being a sort-of stripped down presentation of “discipleship” according to the gospels or maybe even the first steps in a New Testament theology of discipleship.
Part 1: “Discipleship is Everything” Matthew 4:18-22
Part 2: “Why Jesus Said You Should Hate Your Parents” Luke 14:24-35
Part 3: “Barriers of Discipleship” (Luke 18:18-30)
Part 4: “To Know and Be Known” (John 10:22-30)
Recently I preached a two part series on “Finding the Will of God” at Nansemond River Baptist Church. You might be surprised at my take on the matter from 2 Peter 1. So many people want to find God’s will but go about it in a completely incorrect way. God’s design is much clearer and straightforward than most of the faux-spiritual hoops we try to jump through.
“Finding the Will of God” (Part 1)
“Finding the Will of God” (Part 2)