Marks of Smoking Flax

June 27th, 2017 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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The Puritans left behind a great store of wisdom—rigorously theological, warmly devotional, and always centered on Christ and his gospel. Sadly, given the diminishing attention paid to language, grammar, and the humanities, they are less accessible to modern audiences than they deserve. Still, there are a few Puritan works that are short and simple enough that I wouldn’t hesitate to suggest every English-speaking Christian read them. John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress would head the list, undoubtedly. But not far behind would be the wonderful little classic The Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes.

 

Sibbes takes as his text Isaiah 42:1-3,

 

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight;

I will put my Spirit on him, and he will bring justice to the nations.

He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets.

A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.

In faithfulness he will bring forth justice.

 

and from it shows the tender, loving grace of Christ, the Lord’s servant, towards his people.

 

If we’re honest about the struggle—the war our flesh and the Spirit wage within us, the temptations we face, and (all too often) our falls into sin—we will soon feel discouragement and doubt. Will we ever be sanctified? Will the war ever cease? Can I be sure of my salvation when I struggle so? Hear how Sibbes describes this struggle:

 

Some think they have no faith at all because they have no full assurance, whereas the fairest fire that can be will have some smoke. The best actions will smell of the smoke. The mortar wherein the garlic has been stamped will always smell of it; so all our actions will savour something of the old man. (45)

 

But how may we know that we are truly Christians, and not hypocrites hiding behind a profession of faith? “In a gloomy day there is so much light,” Sibbes writes, “that we may know it to be day and not night; so there is something in a Christian under a cloud whereby he may be discerned a true believer and not a hypocrite” (37-38). A smoldering wick, though it show no flame at the time, nevertheless bears the mark of heavenly ignition. And once lit by heaven, according to the promise given in our text, Jesus will not suffer to see it extinguished, but will fan it into flame once more.

 

With this in mind, Sibbes suggests ten marks of “smoking flax,” that is, of a smoldering wick. When the marks are present, when we see these rules at work in our lives, we can be sure God’s irresistible grace is at work within us to mortify sin and raise us to newness of life. He is actively forming Christ in us.

 

  1. “If there be any fire in us, it is kindled from heaven.” The light kindled in us by the Father of lights, Sibbes reminds, is the same light as in the Word. We must have heavenly light to discern heavenly truth. If we accept the Word as true, receive it, and seek to see its truth lived out in our lives, God’s light has surely “sparked” the interest within us.
  2. “The least divine light has heat with it in some measure.” Sibbes goes on to say, “Light in the understanding produces heat of love in the affections.” As we grasp biblical truth, it affects more than just our intellect; slowly but surely we begin to feel the fundamental structures of our hearts changing, until our affections are in line with the truth we profess. We value supremely what is supremely valuable; we treasure Christ above all. Here Sibbes follows Augustine’s famous dictum: “As a man loves, so is he.” Our affections truly determine our nature.
  3. “Where this heavenly light is kindled, it directs in the right way.” The world clamors for our attention, and many forces seek to direct us: media, politics, culture, friends and family. However, a true Christian will always look to God’s light as revealed in Scripture first and foremost. Sibbes offers a helpful analogy to distinguish between those who had a moment of intrigue when hearing the gospel, and those whose hearts were truly set aflame by God’s grace: “The light which some men have is like lightning which, after a sudden flash, leaves them more in darkness. They can love the light as it shines, but hate it as it discovers and directs.” If we say we like Jesus well enough, but bristle at his teaching (or the teaching of his prophets and apostles), we hate God’s light as it discovers and directs; if, however, we trust his light to guide and direct even when we struggle to understand the why, we prove ourselves to be smoldering wicks at least.
  4. “Where this fire is, it will sever things of diverse natures, and show a difference between such things as gold and dross.” If God’s light is at work within us, and as we trust it to direct us, it will reveal impurities within us. We will allow it to separate flesh from spirit, to help us identify and ultimately mortify what is carnal.
  5. “So far as a man is spiritual, so far is light delightful to him.” When God’s light reveals uncleanness, immorality, and sin within us, we receive the rebuke with joy. “Wounds from a friend can be trusted” (Proverbs 27:6), and what better friend have we than God himself, speaking through his Word? Our affections have been changed, so we delight most in Christ, and delight to be like him in increasing measure. Whatever tends to that end, we welcome with joy. If, however, we feel the sting of rebuke and resist it—draw the shades of our heart to keep the light out—it is likely we remain unregenerate. “There is nothing in the world more uneasy than the heart of a wicked man made to listen to spiritual instruction, until, like a thief, he puts out the candle so that he may sin with less restraint.”
  6. “Fire, where it is present, is in some degree active.” Grace works. Even in the midst of sin, when our flesh seems to be all-conquering, there is a “contrary principle, which breaks the force of sin, so that it is not boundlessly sinful.” The true light will flicker even in our darkest moments.
  7. “Fire makes metals pliable and malleable.” And so grace, where it is active, makes our hearts soft and prepares us to be changed. However, “Obstinate spirits show that they are not so much as smoking flax.”
  8. “Fire, as much as it can, sets everything on fire.” Grace, where it is active, will make everything in us gracious. All will tend in a Godward direction, to the fame of his name. As Paul puts the same principle, whatever we do, we will do to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).
  9. “Sparks by nature fly upwards.” Our desires and aims will mount upward, toward heaven. A person cannot desire the holy unless grace is at work, “for we cannot desire anything which we do not believe first to be, and the desire of it issues from love.” Sibbes notes these desires must be (1) constant, for this shows their supernatural origin, (2) directed to spiritual things such as faith and love, not because of a pressing need or emergency (in which case the desire is selfishly motivated), but “as a loving heart is carried to thing loved for the sake of some excellency in it,” and (3) accompanied with grief when the desire is hindered—that is, when sin masks Christ’s loveliness.
  10. “Fire, if it has any matter to feed on, enlarges itself and mounts higher and higher, and, the higher it rises, the purer is the flame.” Where grace is truly active, it grows in measure and purity. “Ignis, quo magis lucet, eo minus fumat (As fire gives more light, it gives less smoke).” If we are truly in Christ, we will grow more like him; when we see no growth in grace, we show we are not so much as smoldering wicks. As one contemporary pastor puts it, “It’s okay not to be okay, but it’s not okay to stay that way.”


Lessons from the Garden

May 30th, 2017 | Posted in Blog | 1 Comment
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I love to garden. When I’m outside planting or weeding or pruning, it reminds me that I was made to garden. I feel like I’m back in Eden, worshiping the Creator by stewarding his creation. Occasionally I even feel I’m imitating my Father—like the son who follows behind with his toy lawn mower while Dad actually mows the grass—by using the creativity he’s given each of us to design and develop (I won’t say create) a landscape.

 

But there is another reason I love to garden, and that is because I am reminded of deep spiritual truths every time I’m out there working. The garden is filled with illustrations of our spiritual lives which minister to me as I dig and deadhead, water and weed. Here are ten spiritual lessons from the garden.

 

  1. If you neglect the garden, weeds will overrun it. I wish it were otherwise, but it isn’t. If you neglect a flower bed, you won’t walk out one day to see splendid color and brilliant blooms. You’ll find all those nice plants you put in have been choked out by weeds. So it is with our character. If we neglect our spiritual development, we’re unlikely to discover the fruit of the Spirit in full bloom within us; we’re rather more likely to see our hearts overrun with idolatry, and sin choking out the life of the Spirit.
  2. The best way to keep weeds out is to make sure what you’ve planted is healthy and thriving. You can weed a bed over and over again—picked bare every time—only to find the weeds are back in force unless you plant something else there. If you want to keep a bed free from weeds, put in some groundcover. Once more, so it is with our character. The best way to keep our lives free from sin really isn’t relentless weeding (although that has its place, of course), but cultivating virtue. Paul used the analogy of clothing to make the same point: you put off sin, but then have to put on If we spend all our time mortifying sin and no time cultivating Christlikeness, we’ll likely end up weeding and re-weeding endlessly.
  3. If you just pick off the flower, the weed will grow back. I can remember as a child helping my mom “weed” by picking the heads off all the dandelions. When I got a bit older I did better, picking off all the leaves as well. Not surprisingly, the weeds always grew back. If you really want to get rid of the weed, you have to dig out the whole thing, all the way down to the root. In the same way, if we want to mortify sin truly and completely, we need to attack it at its root—the idolatry that feeds and encourages our transgression. Too many of us keep playing an interminable game of Whack-a-Mole because we don’t deal with the root issue; so sin keeps springing up in new places, and we keep whacking it down, picking off the dandelion flower only. Speaking of flowering weeds, though. . . .
  4. When weeds flower, it helps us locate them easily so we can dig them out at the root. The trouble with so many weeds is that they blend in—they’re green like the grass! That’s why I love dandelion season even though I hate dandelions: now I can find them easily so I can put them to death. When we mess up noticeably—when our sin flowers in a particularly flagrant way—it helps us locate and identify the roots that our nourishing it, so we can put the sin to death at its deepest point. Too often we simply repent of the flagrant sin without attacking the roots. Did you blow up at your kids again? Okay. Repent of that, absolutely. But then dig a bit deeper and find out why. Do you have deep control or comfort issues? What is the root idolatry that produces this particular fruit or flower? When our sin flowers, as awful as it is, we can start to discover what’s really going on within us.
  5. The hardest weeds to get out are the ones growing up in the middle of a plant. I’m dealing with this in my backyard right now. I’ve cleared out a bed that was overrun with weeds (because it had been sorely neglected for some time). However, there are still a few prominent weeds shooting up—right in the middle of my boxwoods. I’m not sure how to get to them without hurting the plant. It’s very irritating. Now, I find that the hardest sins to eliminate are the ones growing up right in the middle of my virtue. I finally get into a good rhythm of prayer and study, only to find I’m taking sinful pride in my habits. I devote myself to a genuinely fruitful ministry, only to discover my identity is wrapped up in it rather than my unity with Christ. How do I eliminate the transgression without killing the transformation? Seeing the weeds in the middle of the shrub reminds me to examine even my virtuous habits for iniquity.
  6. If the roots grow strong and deep enough, the plant will flower again, even if it’s been trampled. I had some people working at my house this week, and they trampled some of the perennials I’d just planted. I had to replace them because I knew the plant wasn’t established enough to survive that sort of turmoil; the roots weren’t deep enough yet. But give those same plants a few more years, and I’d expect them to come back even if they got trampled to the ground. Circumstances will inevitably trample us to the ground. A cancer diagnosis will come, the marriage will hit the skids, layoffs will strike. Though those circumstances might seem to destroy our faith for a while, if our roots go deep enough, we will soon see our peace and joy in Christ flower again.
  7. If you want full blooms, you need to prune and deadhead relentlessly. I spend more time than I care to admit deadheading my petunias, but I want them to keep blooming, so I don’t have any choice. If you want various perennials to flower throughout the season, you have to keep trimming them back. Similarly, if we want to keep vital in our union with Christ, we need to keep pruning any dead branch or leaf or flower from our lives. Do I have any wasted time? Is there any habit that is draining life from me? Is there some good that is the dreaded enemy of God’s best for my life? Snip, snip, snip.
  8. What wondrous variety in God’s creation! One of the reasons I love to garden so much is because I’m never bored. There is always a new flower, a new color, a new shape that I haven’t seen before. How does he do it? He is infinitely, endlessly creative, and I worship him for it. It reminds me that every person is both created in his image and yet wondrously unique. How boring it would be if every flower were yellow! And how boring if every person had my personality, or your gifts, or his passions, or her story. We each bear his image uniquely, to his everlasting praise.
  9. I can’t cause anything to grow, but I can help get the conditions right so that growth can happen. Since I don’t sustain all things through my powerful word, I need to leave the growth of my garden in his hands. But that doesn’t mean I sit back and wait for him to do it. I am active: tending the soil, fertilizing, watering, pruning. I want everything I can do to be done well, because I know growth won’t happen apart from it. (He could miraculously sustain my plants, of course, but he chooses not to, and I can’t say I blame him.) So it is with my life in Christ. As Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 3:6, he alone can cause the growth. But that doesn’t mean I’m inactive in my life or the lives of those around me. I use the means of grace—prayer, study, meditation, memorization, fellowship, fasting, evangelism—because I want the conditions for my growth to be ideal. Any good that is in me is his work alone, a gracious gift to an undeserving sinner; but I strive to do all I can to put myself in the right position to receive that gift.
  10. Very little seeds and seedlings can grow very large. You put these tiny dots into a giant bed and hardly expect anything to happen. Soon enough, however, you see the seedling grow and expand until it takes up more of your garden than you’d planned. Jesus himself compared the kingdom to a very small seed, which soon grows until it is almost a tree, large enough for birds to nest in it (Matthew 13:31-32). Don’t despise the day of small things. Just as tiny seeds grow into large plants, tiny acts of devotion grow into true Christlikeness, and tiny relational investments—life-on-life evangelism and discipleship—produce harvests of conversion and growth.

 

Perhaps the most wonderful reminder of all comes any time we transplant a flower, shrub, bush, or tree. You go to the nursery, select a plant, and then make it a part of your home. In Psalm 1:3, the psalmist tells us that the blessed person—the one who delights in God’s Word—is “like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither.” The Hebrew word for “planted” means transplanted. It didn’t spring up by the stream on its own. Someone put it there—took the time to prepare the soil, dig the hole, water and care for it until it grew. All of us who are in Christ are there because God chose us, uprooted us from our selfish, self-determining ways, and planted us in him. Every time we plant we preach the gospel of our salvation; and as we care for what we’ve planted, we remind ourselves of God’s unfailing presence and goodness in our lives. That’s a lesson from the garden I’m delighted to keep learning!

 

What other lessons have you learned while out in your garden?



Evil Unmasked

February 14th, 2017 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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In the short essay “After Ten Years,” which serves as prologue now to Letters and Papers from Prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer makes an astute observation:

 

It is one of the most surprising experiences, but at the same time one of the most incontrovertible, that evil—often in a surprisingly short time—proves its own folly and defeats its own object. That does not mean that punishment follows hard on the heels of every action; but it does mean that deliberate transgression of the divine law in the supposed interests of worldly self-preservation has exactly the opposite effect. (10)

 

When we choose to disobey God, to transgress the moral law written on our hearts, it invariably goes poorly for us—and, as Bonhoeffer points out, often in a short time. Evil unmasks itself as folly. That is, sin is not only wrong, but positively foolish, for it never obtains the object it seeks. In fact, often it obtains precisely the opposite of what it seeks.

 

Part of this involves what some have referred to as the “boomerang” nature of sin. Sinful actions against other people frequently return, like a boomerang, to cause harm against the evildoer. The psalmists recognize this “incontrovertible” truth, and frequently cling to it when being assailed by wicked people. Take, for example, Psalm 7:14-16:

 

Whoever is pregnant with evil conceives trouble and gives birth to disillusionment;

Whoever digs a hole and scoops it out falls into the pit they have made.

The trouble they cause recoils on them; their violence comes down on their own heads.

 

Or Psalm 9:15-16:

 

The nations have fallen into the pit they have dug; their feet are caught in the net they have hidden.

The LORD is known by his acts of justice; the wicked are ensnared by the work of their hands.

 

I especially like that last couplet, because it combines the notion of God’s justice with the boomerang nature of sin. In God’s justice, you reap what you sow.

 

It isn’t difficult to see how this works today. When we foolishly choose to sin against others, we experience the consequences of our folly. We maliciously slander our competition in order to make ourselves look better, only to discover that people now think worse of us because we’ve been exposed as petty, self-serving, untrustworthy. We erupt in anger, take justice into our own vengeful hands, and, rather than turn the metaphorical cheek, strike him on his literal cheek. Now we discover we have justice coming our way in the form of an assault charge. Our “deliberate transgression” has produced “exactly the opposite effect” from what we intended and desired. Evil unmasks itself as folly.

 

But this isn’t only true with these “boomerang” scenarios, where harm we envisioned for another comes back on us. No, it proves equally true with any deliberate transgression of the divine law in service of self. When we seek satisfaction apart from and in rebellion against God, we will find ultimate disappointment. But, as Bonhoeffer points out, this isn’t true in an ultimate (i.e., eternal) sense only; it often proves true in a “surprisingly short time.”

 

Take the pursuit of false intimacy through illicit sexual relationships. Many pursue intimacy (seek true love) by hopping into bed before a covenantal commitment is in place. Statistics (never mind a brief perusal of social media) consistently demonstrate how foolish this is. Not only does this lead to less sexual satisfaction, it hardens the heart to true intimacy should the opportunity ever arise. Because we settle for the cheap imitation, we can no longer enjoy the genuine article. Cohabitation, an ever-growing trend, seems like a stepping stone to marriage. Let’s try this out for a bit, see if we’re compatible, and then make an informed decision. One would expect this might lead to a decrease in divorce rates, but the opposite is markedly true. Couples who cohabit before marriage are far more likely to divorce (undoubtedly because they bring a consumerist/contractual, not a covenantal, mentality to the marriage). Evil unmasks itself as folly.

 

We could multiply examples. Harboring bitterness and unforgiveness will eat away at you like a cancer, frequently affecting other relationships too, while leaving the object of your bitterness untouched. Arrogance makes people less likely to listen to your opinion, and makes them rejoice all the more when you are wrong (which you will be). Complaining steals joy, breeds discontent, whereas gratitude increases joy and contentment even in the midst of adversity.

 

The conclusion seems easy enough to draw. When is sin ever a good idea? Never mind the offense it gives a holy God (reason enough to pause and reconsider!)—it simply won’t accomplish what you want. It will produce the opposite effect.

 

So the next time you’re tempted to sin, consider that the evil desire is not only wrong, but downright foolish!



Identifying Idols

January 5th, 2017 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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bell_idol_louvre_ca_573_%e2%88%9aGod takes idolatry very seriously. The first of the Ten Commandments—and they are given in order of priority—is about idolatry: “You shall have no other gods before me.” Nothing else should get pride of place in our lives. He alone deserves our highest devotion, he alone is of infinite worth, and he alone can provide us with the ultimate meaning we seek.

 

But our hearts are idol factories, as John Calvin wisely noted. You see, we are sinners—every one of us—and the root cause of sin is always idolatry. That is, we sin because we value some object more highly than God himself, even though he is the infinitely valuable One. We make something an idol when we attach ultimate value or meaning to something other than him, which is why even good things—marriage, family, achievement, ministry—can become idols if we are not vigilant.

 

If this is true, we need to pay exceedingly careful attention to our own patterns of idolatry. I will experience no victory over sin unless I see I am treasuring something above the love of Christ. What is it that I treasure more? Or, to put it another way, how can I identify my heart’s idols?

 

Here are six ways I have found helpful in pinpointing the root idols in our hearts.

 

  1. You are devastated if you lose it (or never get it). We all experience disappointment and grief when we lose something we treasure, and that is true even if we have not made an idol of it. I am speaking of something else though: an utter devastation—the feeling of being unmade or undone—at the loss of your greatest treasure. We would all feel fear, anger, disappointment at losing our job, for example, but if your self-regard is tied to your career (“I achieve, therefore I am”), then the loss of a job becomes something else entirely. You will soon plunge into despair, desperate because you’ve lost, not just a job, but your very self. (And you can experience this same devastation if you never get the idol you’ve been worshiping—never made partner, never have children, etc.)
  2. You are always dissatisfied in this area. No matter how much you get, you always want more—more money, more fame, more power, more pleasure. Your heart is like the leech’s two daughters crying, “Give! Give!” (Proverbs 30:15). Where do you see that you lack contentment? Dig deep enough, and you will undoubtedly find an idol at the core. Do you always want newer, nicer things? Look for idols of comfort, status, or security. Do you struggle with an addiction? Check for idols of pleasure and self-indulgence. Do you need another degree, another accolade, another promotion? Search for idols of success, approval, or achievement.
  3. You spend your time and/or money on it. Worship demands sacrifice, and we will gladly count that cost to get what we treasure most. Watch your spending habits—time and money—and see what patterns you discern. If you’re spending more time exercising than connecting with your family, I’d be concerned about the idol of health or appearance (and likely the deeper idols of security/control or love/acceptance). If you’re not giving sacrificially to support the work of God’s kingdom because you’re always on five-star vacations, I’d worry about the idols of comfort and self-indulgence.
  4. You are willing to sin to get it. This may seem like an obvious one, but it’s worth teasing out a bit. What sin habits have you formed in your life—and why? Do you find yourself gossiping time and again? You’re probably looking for status or acceptance, and the best way to get yourself in the inner ring is to get someone else out! Do you sit in self-righteous judgment of others? You’ve probably made an idol of your religious performance. Are you in a sexually illicit relationship, or willing to date someone who doesn’t share your religious convictions? There’s a good bet you’re worshiping the idol of human love—marriage, sex, a sense of belonging. Are you a bully, trampling on people in meeting after meeting? I’d check for the idol of power.
  5. Your emotions spike in this area. You don’t just feel happy; you feel elated when that person compliments or affirms you (acceptance, approval). You don’t have a good time; you have a great time when you’re chasing that hobby (comfort, pleasure). You don’t feel hurt; you feel crushed when you receive criticism at work (achievement, success). This is a bit more subjective—some of us feel more deeply than others, many factors contribute to our emotional state, and so forth—but if you see patterns of extreme emotional highs and lows, I’d start asking the hard questions.
  6. You can’t help but mention it—right away. Pay attention to what information you want to make sure people know about you early on. When you first meet someone, how do you introduce yourself? If you’ve listed all your degrees, titles, and credentials by the sixth sentence, for example, I’d check for the idol of status or achievement. This can be subtle, by the way. I knew an older woman who always shared about her singleness when introducing herself, usually right after giving her name. It may have been her approach to her biography, but it may have inadvertently revealed a hidden idol of love (marriage, family, romance, belonging).

 

Those are some of the ways I have identified the root idols in my own desperately sinful heart.

 

What are some other ways you’ve used to help you identify idols in your life?



Imitation Maturity

October 14th, 2014 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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I always enjoyed walking the streets of Bogotá because of the remarkable variety of goods available for sale by innumerable street vendors. In fact, my wife and I began keeping a list of things we saw being sold, because we were so surprised by the spectrum. From toys to housewares, from food to technology, we could purchase just about anything we wanted without getting out of our car.

 

There was a small danger though: we were never quite sure if we were getting the genuine article. We might purchase something hurriedly at a stoplight, only to discover when we got home that the Nike “swoosh” was going in the wrong direction, or that the new purse was a DKNV special. (Apparently Donna has a base in Nevada in addition to her better known New York line.)apple-iphone-knockoff

 

One may face a similar danger in the church, unfortunately. The church seeks, by the grace of God and in the power of the Spirit, to produce disciples. The genuine article bears his trademark: increasing Christ-likeness. Genuine disciples display equipped maturity, to draw on the language of Ephesians 4:11-16. They demonstrate growth in both spiritual character and spiritual abilities. In them one discerns the fruit of the Spirit in increasing measure—spiritual character; in them one also witnesses the gifts of the Spirit effectively stewarded for the sake of the kingdom—spiritual abilities. The two elements are inseparable. As one develops the ability to read Scripture rightly, one’s heart softens increasingly to the claims of Christ on our lives, leading to growth in humility and faithfulness, for example. Or as one learns to deny self and love others sacrificially, one learns simultaneously to serve in the local congregation.

 

However, owing to the triple threats of the world, the flesh, and the devil, local churches may begin peddling imitation wares—may settle for a version of maturity that falls far short of God’s standard. I suspect this stems from our love of systems and processes, of efficiency and convenience, though I am confident the enemy has had his part in it. Attaining to any form of maturity is hard; cultivating a disciple-making culture that pervades a local congregation, and still maintaining oversight of that culture, is a whole other beast. But that doesn’t mean we settle for an imitation article; rather, we fall on our knees in humble, dependent prayer, trusting that the Lord will provide, will supply our need.

 

I am sure this is far from exhaustive, but here are four imitation brands sometimes sold in place of equipped maturity. Each one contains a genuine element about it—otherwise it wouldn’t deceive unsuspecting buyers!—but none fully encompasses true discipleship.

 

  1. Law

In place of equipped maturity, some will substitute mere law. Jesus did not suffer the agony of the cross so that we would keep a list of dos and don’ts. He endured God’s wrath so that we could enter back into full fellowship with the triune God—adopted to sonship through Christ—and then live in the light of that vital relationship. Training people what is kosher and what is forbidden is moralism or legalism, not discipleship (and certainly not the gospel!). This happens in many “fundamentalist” churches, of course, where legalism replaces gospel, and socially acceptable behavior—“don’t drink, smoke, gamble, or go with girls who do”—replaces discipleship. This also happens in many “seeker-sensitive” churches, however, with the moralism of Oprah and Joel Osteen substituted for gospel-centered discipleship.

 

  1. Activity

In place of equipped maturity, some will substitute mere activity. The end goal in this scheme is to have people actively participating in the local congregation: serving in a ministry, fellowshipping in a small group, and giving cheerfully and sacrificially to support the church’s ministry. These are all good aims, of course, provided they are not regarded as the final aim. One could serve, fellowship, and give actively, and yet not even know Jesus truly. These are all aspects of equipped maturity undoubtedly, but if taken as markers of discipleship themselves, they are liable to deceive. What if someone gives to ease a guilty conscience or to win God’s favor? What if the small group is a glorified social gathering? What if the service offered is the same as coaching your child’s soccer team?

 

  1. Information

In place of equipped maturity, some will substitute mere information. Churches that emphasize the life of the mind, usually for historic, denominational reasons, are particularly susceptible to this imitation product. The sermon becomes mere data transfer; small groups are only Bible studies; devotions center on knowing more about God, his Word, and theology. Now, anyone who reads my blog knows how much I value the life of the mind; nevertheless, information is not the same as equipped maturity. There are many scholars living in active, cheerful rebellion against God who have much more information than I will ever have. If information is not sought in service of transformation, as in Romans 12:1, then it is inimical to growth in grace—knowledge puffing up, where love would do the better work of building up.

 

  1. Leadership

In place of equipped maturity, some will substitute mere leadership. If leadership is defined carefully, it may mean equipped maturity, in which case it should be the genuine article. This is not always the case, unfortunately. What makes a leader? Sometimes churches will elevate someone to leadership because they are willing to do the job, which is really just an extension of replacing discipleship with activity. Often we select leaders because they have the requisite abilities, while paying but cursory attention to their character. I suspect one reason why “leadership development” and discipleship are so rarely synonymous is because discipleship places a great deal more emphasis on following, not leading. Leadership is an unexpected, unsought, reluctantly accepted consequence of learning to follow. To make it the center of the target will likely turn that truth on its head, with leaders begrudgingly learning to follow instead.

 

Jesus Christ gave us a clear commission, to make disciples. We would do well to examine the sort of disciples we are making, lest we discover—too late!—that we have been producing but a pale imitation of Christ’s glorious desire for us all.



Punctuated Equilibrium

November 20th, 2013 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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Throughout his first epistle, John declares his unwavering expectation that Christians will grow in obedience and love. For example, in one particularly strong passage, he writes, “We know that we have passed from death to life because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him” (1 John 3:14-15, NIV).

 

While we appreciate John’s uncompromising anticipation of sanctification, an honest examination of our own lives might reveal more muddled pictures. I have not always loved. I have fallen into hatred many times—gossip, bitterness, anger, lust, jealousy, divisiveness—and all hatred is embryonic murder (cf. Matthew 5:21-22; 1 John 3:12).

 

Does eternal life reside within me? I begin to wonder.

 

Of course, John does not expect perfection (cf. 1 John 1:8-10); rather, he expects progress—growing increasingly more like Jesus as the years pass. Those who fall into patterns of habitual, impenitent sin have cause to fear, but not the Christian struggling to follow hard after Jesus even as the battle between flesh and Spirit continues to rage in her life. Not even our ongoing sin can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus. Thanks be to God!

 

It may be of some comfort to take an analogy from biology—ironically, from evolutionary theory (one’s views of evolution notwithstanding). In the absence of sufficient transitional forms in the fossil record, some biologists developed the theory of punctuated equilibrium. In short, this theory posits that genetic change takes place in the soft tissue over many generations (thus inconveniently leaving no fossil record), until—in a tremendous, almost miraculous leap—the skeletal structure itself reveals massive change.

 

I cannot say I’m a fan of the scientific theory, but I have seen something like this in my own life many times. Looking back across the days and weeks and months, I lament that I have seen no spiritual growth in many areas of struggle. But this is probably because I expect to see steady change each day: I expect that I will struggle with anger 87% one day, then 86% the next, and then—by the grace of God—only 85% the day after. That would be a laughably uncommon experience though.

 

More often, God works in the “soft tissue” of our hearts, producing change that might not have worked itself out in the fossil record of our behavior just yet. And then, all at once, in a tremendous—no, a miraculous—leap, we see that we are experiencing new victory in Christ.

 

We must develop patience. God is faithful: he will sanctify us through and through (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24). One day we will look back and see overwhelming victory in our struggle against anger or jealousy or worry etc. But it might not come all at once.



Devotional: “Cut It Out” (Mark 9:42-50)

August 2nd, 2013 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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Mark concludes this series of short stories by giving us a collection of Jesus’ sayings about the cost of discipleship. He begins by warning those who cause immature believers to “stumble”—that is, fall away from the faith—in very strong language. It would be better for them to die a painful, public death than face the wrath of God in the age to come.

 

But, of course, we usually don’t need anyone else’s help to stumble. We are pretty good at causing ourselves to stumble, gratifying—as we so often do—the flesh instead of the Spirit. So Jesus gets even stronger in his words to us about us.

 

Is there anything in your life causing you to sin? Then cut it out. Literally. If your eyes cause you to sin, gouge them out—because it would be better to be blind and reconciled to God than sighted and damned. If your hand causes you to sin, amputate it—because it would be better to be maimed and reconciled to God than whole and damned. If you are wounded, and the wound turns gangrene, you must amputate the diseased member or die. Is it any different with our sin? This is not hypothetical. I’m not sure this is even meant to be exaggeration. We need to attack the sin in our lives ruthlessly. And that will mean making some serious cuts.

 

We need to act proportionately radical to the degree of sin in our lives. Consider, for example, two men whom Jesus encounters who have succumbed to the sin of greed. Zacchaeus meets Jesus and voluntarily divests himself of his wealth. He knows what a serious issue it is in his life, so he elects to cut out half his income by giving it to those in need. Sin was serious, so he takes a serious step.

 

But now consider the rich young ruler. His sin runs deeper, so Jesus calls him to make a truly radical amputation: to get rid of all his possessions. Will it cripple him for life? Yes, absolutely. But it will also free him to live true life in fellowship with the Father. He is unwilling, and goes to damnation instead—a damnation Jesus describes all too clearly in this passage (cf. verse 48).

 

But what about us? Is there a sin that threatens to destroy? Lust? Greed? Pride? Bitterness? Selfishness? Envy? Anger? Jesus’ words show us precisely what needs to be done.

 

Will it be easy? Of course not. Jesus never intended it to be. As he says, “Everyone will be salted with fire” (verse 49). Referring to Leviticus 2:13, Jesus teaches that we are to offer ourselves to God like a sacrifice. Every sacrifice was sprinkled with salt, and then consumed totally by the fire. That is what our lives should be: a total, irrevocable offering to God.

 

If we have been salted with fire—if we have given ourselves totally to God—then we will be “salty” disciples, so to speak. Our character will reflect the sacrifice we have made. We will be the savor of God in an unsavory world—speaking truth in grace (cf. Colossians 4:6), adding wisdom and integrity, preserving and ministering in his name.

 

Do you want to be great? Then cut it out. Whatever it is that keeps you from living wholly for him, a purified and purifying substance in a corrupted world.

 

Questions for Reflection and Application

  1. What sin threatens to destroy your life? What steps do you need to take to cut it out before it kills you—body and soul? Are you taking wimpy, easy steps to put a bandage on the problem? Or are you going to take ruthless, uncompromising steps to amputate the issue, even at great cost to yourself? Let someone know what steps you plan to take.
  2. Are you a “salty” disciple? When people are around you, do they “taste and see that the Lord is good” by your witness? Or have you lost your saltiness through compromise and complacency? Offer yourself to God as a total, irrevocable sacrifice.


American Idols

May 28th, 2013 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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Some time ago I noted the importance of “cultural discernment,” the willingness to judge the culture in which we reside and minister lovingly and incisively. Paul did so with Crete especially (cf. Titus 1:12-13). This is simply a tangible acknowledgment of the doctrine of total depravity, that all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory, that there is no one righteous, not even one. If this is true—and it seems to be empirically verifiable—then there are no righteous cultures either. This means that, if we are to be effective ministers in this present cultural darkness, we need to recognize the sinful tendencies of the culture and address them graciously by the gospel of Christ.

 

As I am living now in the United States, and as the bulk of my very limited readership is likewise, I propose to consider some of our peculiar, pervasive sins. For the sake of levity in the midst of much gravity, we’ll call them our “American Idols.” I will mention four, though I suspect this is not an exhaustive list.

 

Egalitarianism:

One would not normally think of equality as a sin or idol, but so it has become in most of the Western world, springing from our uncritical acceptance of democracy. At its root, this is the belief that every opinion has equal value and should therefore be given equal weight. It is at its worst when we applaud and accept every reading of a passage of Scripture in our small groups and education classes, no matter how ill-informed, anachronistic, or inane. Not only is this an unfortunate capitulation to the excesses of postmodernism, but it carries with it an implicit denial of the hierarchy God himself established.

 

God has made it clear that he has given some to be leaders in the local assembly of universal church (cf. Ephesians 4:11), and that they are responsible for the doctrinal purity of the congregation (as even a cursory reading of the Pastoral Epistles would show). I have already written on the damaging effects of this “flip principle” on the church, especially the office of preaching, so I won’t belabor the point.

 

It is worth noting that some of the democratic egalitarianism of the church comes from a faulty application of the priesthood of all believers. While no one would wish to deny the importance of the whole body of Christ in ministering the gospel to each other and the world (cf. Ephesians 4:12-16; 1 Peter 2:9), it is an unwarranted leap then to the abolition of the leader-congregant distinction. What the Bible maintains, as in Ephesians 4, I would not wish to deny.

 

Individualism:

America has long prided herself for her doctrine of “rugged individualism.” We have developed asinine proverbs like “God helps those who help themselves” to justify our self-reliance (to use Emerson’s description of this vice he regarded as virtue). We worship the self-made person and seek to emulate those who have “pulled themselves up by their bootstraps.” The fact that this is a physical impossibility should have been our first clue that something is amiss.

 

The church has not been immune to this cancer. We have imported this mentality and so diminished the importance of regular fellowship—as well as radically distorting the nature of that fellowship. Consider the habits of the early church:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47)

At one time, the church gathered daily, sharing regular meals together and holding everything in common (including their schedules, it would seem). In marked contrast, many Christians today have a hard time attending church regularly, comfortably skipping if another event conflicts with their regular time of worship. Beyond that, many more find it difficult to fellowship regularly outside of scheduled church activities. Given our current culture of loneliness and isolation in the suburbs especially, it seems people simply cannot make time for Christian community, friendships, and engagement.

 

Unfortunately, this affects more than church attendance statistics. The trouble with this unholy brand of Christian individualism is that sanctification is a community project. Quite simply, we do not normally grow in isolation from other Christians; we need the ministry of the assembly (cf. Ephesians 4:11-16; 1 Corinthians 12:1-31; Hebrews 10:24-25; Galatians 6:1-2 and a host of other similar passages). Without the ministry of fellow pilgrims, we will delude ourselves into thinking we have achieved greater holiness than is true; we need loving reminders—living mirrors—of how far short we fall of the standard of God’s Word (James 1:22-24).

 

Remember, God is calling a people for his name, and a people is more than a collection of individuals (1 Peter 2:9). And that people will grow to become the mature body of Christ as a people, not as individuals (Ephesians 4:15-16). John Stott sums it up nicely, with all the necessary holy boldness: “We are not only Christian people; we are also church people.  We are not only committed to Christ, we are also committed to the body of Christ.  At least I hope so.  I trust that none of my readers is that grotesque anomaly, an un-churched Christian.  The New Testament knows nothing of such a person.”[1]

 

Consumerism:

Americans are driven by a consumer mindset. Inundated by an unceasing deluge of advertising—on the road, on the web, on TV, in the paper—really, anywhere they can put it—we have believed the lie. We do deserve it. We should have the latest and greatest. Our lives would be incomplete without those. And the adversary snickers. For we have exchanged shadows for substance, trinkets for the Trinity, things for the King of kings. We have “amused ourselves to death,” to use Neil Postman’s phrase—and the death has been spiritual, not physical.

 

Worse still, we have allowed consumerism to vitiate our experience of worship. At one time, not that long ago, people came to church expecting to meet the living God, to hear a heart-piercing truth from his Word, and to glorify him corporately in song and service. Now, should we even make it to church (see above: indvidualism)—that is, if it is the best program available in that timeslot—we expect to be pleased, appeased, to have our burdens eased. In short, we expect the church to provide for us what we think they should provide for us (see above: egalitarianism)—after all, every other segment of society functions in this way—and if they do not, we will find someone who will. We will vote with our checkbook, so to speak, by taking our tithes and offerings to the competitor, by which we mean another local congregation, where we will restart the cycle.[2]

 

And, even more sadly, many churches have accepted this as the ineluctable status quo, and so reward the fickle and disregard the faithful. It seems more and more churches today are willing to enter into the advertising business, to woo and coddle customers to a spurious gospel of self. To our shame.

 

Litigationism:

Sometimes a neologism is needed. Litigationism is a specific form of egotism in which we consider our rights more important than our duties. When we feel someone has trampled on our rights, we take to the courts with alacrity. I would be hard pressed to think of a more fitting epithet for our culture than “litigious.”

 

The notion of human rights springs from a Christian worldview. God has made us—all of us—in his image, and he has thus endowed us with worth and dignity. No less ardent an anti-Christian than Thomas Jefferson could acknowledge this much.[3] However, the Christian view of rights is actually framed in terms of duties. God does not command us to be loved by others, even our enemies, but to love them; he prohibits murder, for example, not so that we can preserve our lives, but so that we will not take another’s. Our focus, if we are truly Christian, will always be outward (cf. Mark 12:29-31). Such was the example Christ provided for us—an example he expected us to follow (cf. John 13:15, 34-35).

 

It was instructive to me that, next to our dietary habits, this was the aspect of American culture most amusing to my friends from other cultures. When large swaths of humanity find our approach to rights inscrutable, it may be because we are wrong. I have written on the subject already, so, again, I will not belabor the point.

 

It should come as no surprise that pride—the love of self—undergirds all of these sins. C.S. Lewis famously referred to pride as the chief sin, endemic to humanity, the “complete anti-God state of mind” that leads to every other vice.[4] Above all else, Americans love themselves. We are all, in the most painful sense of a familiar phrase, “proud to be an American.”

 

Our pride leads us to think more highly of ourselves than we ought, so we expect to have a vote in every proceeding (egalitarianism). Our pride demands we pull ourselves up by our spiritual bootstraps, so we neglect the community God provides for us (individualism). Our pride whispers that we have a right to whatever we want, so we expect to be coddled and comforted even in our churches (consumerism). And our pride insists on our rights, so that we will fight anyone who doesn’t do as we please (litigationism).

 

When a single disease produces such pernicious symptoms, we would do well to seek a cure. “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34).

 



[1] The Living Church: Convictions of a Lifelong Pastor (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2007): 19.

[2] How do you know if you are a church consumer? Have you ever said something like, “I couldn’t worship today because . . . ,” as though our worship depended on the church’s programming abilities? Do you listen to the sermon critically, to see if the pastor was worth your time, or as if this were God’s Word for you today? What sorts of complaints are you likely to make about the church?

[3] An atheist, however, could not: there is no philosophical sleight of hand convincing enough to rescue dignity for the product of time, chance, and matter, despite the impressive efforts of “charitable” atheists like Luc Ferry.

[4] Mere Christianity, 1st Touchstone ed. (New York: Touchstone, 1996): 110.



Love and a Multitude of Sins

November 27th, 2012 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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I have noticed a curious phenomenon among Christians today: when it comes to sin in the church, we speak when we should remain silent, and remain silent when we should speak.

 

If someone sins against me, causing personal offense—by which we usually mean a wounded ego—I am likely to confront the person, sharing my hurt and frustrations with him. It is almost unforgivable that someone who claims Christ as Lord could treat me in this unholy manner! However, if I see that same brother reckless in a sin that does not injure me—does not wound my pride or comfort—I am likely to keep quiet and not involve myself. After all, what if he becomes angry with me? It just isn’t worth the headache to admonish someone—unless his sin causes me more discomfort than confronting him does.

 

I think we have got this perfectly backwards.

 

Jesus commands us—not a polite request, mind you, but a demand from the Lord Almighty—to deal with sin in the church decisively: “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you” (Matthew 18:15). This is to be done privately, at least initially, as Jesus goes on to explain (18:16); and it is to be done gently and humbly, mindful of our own propensity to sin and need of grace (Galatians 6:1). Above all, it is to be done lovingly. But that is the point, of course: to refrain from speaking—to leave a brother or sister in their sin without the exhortation and support of the fellowship of believers—is no love at all. It is indifference, perhaps the severest form of hatred for a family member. (And we are family.) James understands this well, writing to his scattered flock, “My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins” (James 5:19-20). To save a sibling from death, to cover over a multitude of sins—is this not love?[1]

 

The trouble comes when we have been personally offended. When this happens, as it will inevitably in the fellowship of sinners, we so rarely respond in love. Instead, we respond in pride and anger—damnable sins, to be sure. I suspect God calls us to forgive without admonition in these cases to keep us from the temptation to pride, to keep us in the humble experience of grace. As he so often does, Bonhoeffer strikes at the heart of the matter: “Brotherly love will find any number of extenuations for the sins of others; only for my sins is there no apology whatsoever.” Our community life usually suggests the reverse. Remember, just a few verses after Jesus commands us to call out a sinful sin, he shares the parable of the unmerciful servant in answer to Peter’s question, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me?” (Matthew 18:21; cf. 23-25). The parable’s powerful lesson is apropos: how can we trifle with a sibling who owes us a small debt—spare change, really—when we see the immensity of the debt God has canceled in our own lives? Paul expresses it tersely, “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Colossians 3:13). We remain silent for our own sakes, pray for our siblings, entrust them to the infallible work of the Spirit. We forego pride. We choose love.

 

Love. Love compels us to speak, compels us to call the beloved, but wayward sibling to the abundant life Christ tenders. And love compels us to fall silent, to contemplate the magnitude of God’s love in our own lives, to forgive as we have been forgiven.



[1] The language of covering over a multitude of sins calls to mind 1 Peter 4:8: “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” Here Peter makes explicit the connection between love and overcoming sin.



Trust Me

August 28th, 2012 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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Jeremiah, in some of his best known words, wrote, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” The implication to the final rhetorical question seems to be no one can understand it. And, in particular, we cannot understand our own hearts. We think we know ourselves, but our own hearts deceive us, blinding us to our real motivations, thoughts, feelings. We do not need Satan to deceive us when it comes to our own sin; we are perfectly capable of accomplishing that on our own.

 

As I prayed this morning, I asserted boldly that I was not motivated by pride in some specific request. (I am sure God needed that information in any case.) But these words from Jeremiah came to mind almost immediately. If I do not know my heart as well as I should because my heart actively deceives me, then I should pray differently. Instead of asserting my innocence without knowledge, I should take a line from the psalmist: “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-24). Rather than assuring myself that I am not, I need to implore God to reveal if I am driven by sin unknowingly.

 

I suspect I am not alone in this overweening boldness. When addressing girls on the issue of modesty, for example, I inevitably hear loud protests. Immodesty, I believe, springs from a lack of satisfaction in Christ, trying to make oneself feel lovable and beautiful apart from God. But most of the women who have heard me speak on the subject assure me this could never be in their hearts; rather, they are only trying to look “cute,” and weren’t even thinking of the response they get from men, other women, or even themselves. Maybe. But I would guess some heart-deception is at work. “Search me, God, and know my heart.”

 

Or consider the thorny issue of gossip. How many of us have flattered ourselves that we’re having a long conversation about someone else because we love them and just want what’s best for them? We have assumed our motivation is love and proceeded accordingly. But if we trusted ourselves less, and asked God to search us more, revealing the many offensive ways within us, we might arrive at a different conclusion.

 

While in Jerusalem for the Passover festival early in his ministry, many people saw the miracles Jesus performed and believed in him. The feeling was not mutual. John writes, “But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people” (John 2:24). If Jesus would not trust us because he knows what is in us, should we trust ourselves?