Monday, 27 July 2009

Who do we love the most?

The answer is "me"! No-one takes more of our time, no-one gets more of our attention, we give no-one more care than ... ourselves!

Paul David Tripp wrote: "Only love for Christ has the power to incapacitate the sturdy love for self that is the bane of every sinner, and only the grace of Christ has the power to produce that love." (A Quest for More)

How true that is! Nothing else is powerful enough. Nothing else seems important enough to divert our attention from satisfying our own interests. I need to be reminded of this often else ME and MY interests and MY needs and MY desires will be the selfish motiviation behind everything I do. We love and make much of what we think is the greatest thing deserving our love and attention and the reality is we're all so me-centred that we think WE are the greatest and most deserving there is. But the truth is there is one who is greater. One who is God Himself who, though He was rich beyond our wildest imagination, yet became poor for our sake. One who was perfect in every way and yet took the punishment for our sins instead of us. No-one is more worthy of our love and attention. No-one is greater than the Lord Jesus Christ.

Of course the question could be asked how do we get such love? Love powerful enough to rescue us from our tedious little self-focused kingdoms where we never quite get the life we want, where we're never quite satisfied? C J Mahaney offers this simple yet profound advice:
"To grow in your passion for what Jesus has done, increase your understanding of what He has done. Never be content with your grasp of the gospel. The gospel is life-permeating, world-altering, universe-changing truth. It has more facets than any diamond. Its depths man will never exhaust"
(The Cross Centered Life)

It seems to me though that we face a challenge for neither the world at large nor the church in general seem to have much awareness of how me-centred they are nor of the destructive force it has. Most of the church seem to have at best only a superficial awareness of the extent of their 'sturdy love for self'. For some Christianity is not about what Christ has done for them but about what they can do for Him. Others seem to know and talk much about grace and yet there's little heart transformation. I think its because they've never been convicted of how self-focused they are. Its especially hard to detect when its wrapped up in a belief that one is about the Lord's business. There seems to be little experimental knowledge of the Apostle Paul's confession that when he wants "to do good, evil is right there" (Ro. 7:21). We are so consumed by self-love and self-protection that we can read a statement like this and automatically think it applies to other people but not ourselves!

We need to spend more time meditating on the gospel asking the Lord to shine his gospel light into all the dark recesses of our self-love. Perhaps if the world were to see a people in the church who are honest about their self love and who are increasingly growing in love for the Lord Jesus and for others then they might notice?

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Are you in default mode?

We all need justification, we all need to be accepted by God. We don’t think about it much. At best we may think we’re trying to justify ourselves before other people or before our own conscience but deep down, our real need driving all we do is to be accepted by God. Taking his cue from Luther and Calvin Tim Keller says that the default mode of the human heart is “works-righteousness”, that is, trying to justify ourselves before God by our own moral efforts and/or our religious affiliation.

What is odd is that most Christians don’t seem to realise this. I can understand how atheists would reject this idea. After all, if they claim not to believe in God, they’re not going to admit that deep down their in-built need to be right with God motivates everything they do. Besides, the bible quite shockingly describes non-believers variously as blind, deaf and even dead. But why don’t Christians understand this?

Richard Lovelace wrote that most Christians have “so light an apprehension of God’s holiness and of the extent and guilt of their sin that consciously they see little need for justification, although below the surface of their lives they are deeply guilt-ridden and insecure. Many others have a theoretical commitment to this doctrine, but in their day-to-day existence they rely on their sanctification for justification ... drawing their assurance of acceptance with God from their sincerity, their past experience of conversion, their recent religious performance, or the relative infrequency of their conscious, wilful disobedience.” (Dynamics of Spiritual Life, IVP, 1979, p101)

I think many flip-flop between these two categories. I know I have done for years. Even now I can only say that as I am beginning to grasp how deep this goes so I am only beginning to experience some periodic joy-filled moments of not falling into either of these two traps.

It’s easy to illustrate how this works. For example, watch someone who is falsely accused of some horrible sin. Immediately they will rise to defend themselves, indignant at the slur on their reputation – as though their reputation actually makes a difference to whether God justifies them.

The basic problem, according to Lovelace, is that even Christians do not ordinarily live as if the gospel is true. We don't really believe the gospel deep down and so we live as if we have to save ourselves. We can even be crammed full of knowledge about the theological nuances of all that is entailed in justification by faith alone in Christ alone, yet its impact on our lives is more theoretical than practical. With our lips we say “we cannot save ourselves by our own efforts, therefore I obey because Jesus has already accepted me” but our hearts operate as if we have to live a good life for Jesus to accept us. This leads to defensiveness, judgementalism, intolerance, and bigotry and to pride, when we think we’re doing a good job, and to self-deprecation when we don’t. No wonder the world generally doesn’t think that Christians are worth listening to!

What we need first is an awareness of how our hearts constantly try to default to self-justification and thus a greater awareness of the true extent of our sin and second, in light of that, a renewed (and repeated) revelation of the wonders of the riches of God’s grace to us in Jesus Christ. The more we grow in both repentance and worship, the less we go back to default mode and the more we enjoy the freedom, joy and hope of the Christian life. The only kind of life capable of rejoicing in hardships and the only way of seeing real change in our increasingly messed-up world.

Monday, 20 July 2009

Why are we so stubborn?

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. Romans 1:16

The Gospel is that we are more sinful and therefore deserve God’s wrath far more than we realise and yet, through the sending of His Son Jesus, who died on the cross for our sins in our place, we see that God loves us far more than we dared hope.

This Gospel is the only power of God that will transform us and satisfy the longings of our hearts yet it appears so foolish to our natural wisdom and so offensive to our natural pride that we will ignore it and mock it and do anything except submit to it.

We refuse to accept that we are helpless, and, if we are without Christ, hopeless. Yet how odd that we should want to reject something which cost Christ everything, yet costs us nothing. How strange that we don't want to accept what has been done for us and instead try to save ourselves by our own efforts. How foolish that we should reject the only thing that would give us lasting joy, peace and confident hope and assurance, because its based on the perfect work of Christ, preferring instead to spend our efforts forever striving after happiness and acceptance that eludes us and worrying whether our own flawed efforts will measure up.

The thing is God's standard is perfection. We'll never measure up. Why try?

The highest expression of God's Love

Of First Importance have posted a quote from Billy Graham. I was struck by a certain irony as I read that quote. Many Calvinists like to pick on him and criticise what he believes as I myself once did. Yet now, at least as far as this sentence goes, I know that, not only is it biblical, but also it is actually perfectly in line with what many notable and more reliable Calvinists have said.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Glory Junkies

24 The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, 25 nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. 26 And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, 27 that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, 28 for “‘In him we live and move and have our being'; as even some of your own poets have said, “‘For we are indeed his offspring.'
Acts 17

In some way, every one of us is a “glory junkie”. There is within each of us a deep desire for something better, something glorious. The sports fan longs for his team to win the play-offs. The Father wants his children to excel at something. The Mother wants to be told what great kids she has. The ambitious politician seeks status and recognition. The business man strives for fat profits. Each great deal struck along the way becomes a foretaste of the ‘glory’ to come. The American Idol wannabe longs for fame and adulation. The adrenaline junkie dreams of his next big ‘rush’.

Even in ordinary, everyday life, the party or leisure trip planned for the weekend is awaited eagerly, the vacation / new car / new gadget cannot arrive soon enough. We desperately need something to bring meaning and hope to our lives. Yet the disappointment that follows isn’t far behind. The excitement wears off and the next ‘project’ enters onto the drawing board. We spend hours dreaming and planning how the next piece of ‘glory’ will be better.

If only ... then life would be better.
If only ... then I would be happy.
If only ... then I would really have ‘arrived’.
If only ... then people will like me.
You fill in the blanks. We all do it.

Our dreams rarely come true yet even when they do we soon move to the next dream because they never really satisfy the deep longings within.

It is no surprise really, we were made for glory. But that glory will never be found in ourselves, our friends and family, our jobs, our possessions, our vacations or even what others think of us. That glory can only be found in a person, the Lord Jesus Christ. God incarnate. Even after a tiny glimpse of His glory we are never the same again. When we have “seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14) all other ‘glories’ lose their appeal. Sure, we may be tempted back occasionally. Indeed, except for the grace of God we are like a sow washed clean who returns to wallow in the dirt (2 Peter 2:22). Yet the appeal of the things of this world has been broken. They’ve lost their sheen compared to the glory of God.

All because the only One who is spotless took all our ‘dirt’ on Himself so that God could declare us clean. Jesus set aside His glory and endured the cross so that we could enter in to that glory. All the obstacles have been removed. Now, He says, you can find me and I will welcome you. The glory you long for is found only in me. Seek me. Why spend your efforts on what does not satisfy? Seek my glory and your soul will be satisfied with the richest of fare (Ps. 63).

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

The reason for the name

I’m a strange hybrid. Part modern, part post-modern. Depending on whose definition you take I’m a late Boomer or an early Generation X-er. I’m a 60’s child, part rebel part traditionalist. I’m all mixed up for sure. Generally, relativism frustrates me. I need concrete answers. I often feel uncomfortable with ambiguity. Ask me a question and I might ask you to define your terms. Yet, in other ways I feel equally uncomfortable with precision and dogmatism – particularly the sort in the church that says you must believe exactly these things. One thing I have learned for sure: mere knowledge is never going to satisfy the deep longings of my heart. The ‘post-modern’ in me desperately yearns for authenticity and community, to experience God, to taste of His goodness, to be lifted way beyond the plane of mere knowledge. Yet the “enlightenment” side of me needs solid facts. I need to know that my experience is founded on ultimate truth. You could say I am too rational for mysticism and too mystic for rationalism! This is why I have benefited so much from two quite different streams within the church, one old, one new. Though the one that is old is still very much alive today and the one that is new has been around a long time.

The old stream is what we might call classical reformed soteriology in line with the early reformation. On the one hand this rejects what I believe to be the man-centred theology of Arminianism which elevates free will above the sovereignty of God. On the other it rejects the “limited atonement” beloved by many modern, and sadly, aggressive, internet ‘Calvinists’ who would have us proclaim an empty Gospel that would call us to repent and believe not knowing whether or not Christ died for our sins. It is NOT four-point Calvinism as some refer to it. (I suppose we are all prone to assign quick labels to things we don’t understand). This is classical reformed doctrine which can be neatly summarised with the old formula that Christ died sufficiently for all and efficiently for the elect. In one sense the atonement is limited, in another sense it is not but more of that some other time. This ‘stream’ is still alive today and I for one am thankful. It played a part in rescuing me from the clutches of cold hyper-Calvinism.

The new stream, which we might call “gospel-centredness” takes its cue from the likes of Tim Keller, the late Jack Miller and Jerry Bridges. From this I have learned that the gospel is not just the A-B-C of how we enter the kingdom and the thing we proclaim to unbelievers, but is, in fact, the A-Z though which we grow in sanctification. It has helped me understand why I have spent so much of my Christian life basically volatile and unhappy. More of that in due course too.

Of course, the doctrine of sanctification by faith isn’t new. It is a common theme amongst some of the puritans. Its just the terminology and the renewed emphasis that it brings that is new. And it is a much needed antidote to the superficiality and coldness of much of the church today. It can both expose the pride of the Pharisees and self-appointed guardians of orthodoxy on the one hand and lift-up the down-hearted and self-pitying on the other.

These are two recurring themes you will see here. In fact I’m excited about them both. I hope that if you stick around long enough you might catch some of that excitement. Of course, I don’t mean excited for excited sake. My hope is that together we may grow in love for the Lord Jesus Christ to the glory of God.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Size doesn't matter, the Gospel does

Jared Wilson wonders whether a fixation on size is a Texan thing. Interestingly, it would seem he is originally from Texas but has never noticed this before. Over here in the UK we've long had this stereotyped idea of swaggering John Wayne-like Texans in large Stetsons driving Oil Tanker sized cars lighting fat cigars with fifty dollar bills who boast about how big everything is in good ole' Texas :-)
Not sure where we got that idea. Maybe it was from the TV series Dallas. Anyway I wanted to raise a question about what is behind this concern with size and I don't think its a uniquely Texan thing. I've encountered it here in the UK. The numbers may be different (we would probably consider a megachurch to be one with over two hundred people!) but I suggest the underlying cause is the same.

In my opinion the idea that size matters is the product of a combination of poor theology and worldly thinking. Actually the two are closely related. There's an underlying assumption by many that size is an indication of God's blessing yet I can think of no biblical justification for that. Rather I suggest it is the product of our materialistic, performance oriented, western cultures. Now it is true that quality attracts, but the question is what are the criteria used to define quality? Good music? A great show? Some guy oozing charisma who tells funny stories and makes you feel better about yourself?

What we really need is deep, heartfelt repentance over sin and godly, Christ-exalting people who are patient and joyful in affliction. And when I say repentance I'm not talking external law keeping here. I mean the secrets of our hearts, those inward motives that we try to dress up as doing the Lord's business when its really all about making us feel good about ourselves. This isn't a popular idea in this day of sugar-coated superficiality on the one hand and cold, dead orthodoxy on the other. One thing such talk doesn't do, with one or two notable exceptions, is attract large numbers. Sadly some churches don't even mention the Word sin let alone talk about our inward desires.

What I think is really behind this fixation with size is the idolatrous belief that "I'm part of something big therefore I matter". It doesn't matter how much we might say that our trust is in Christ alone our sinful hearts will constantly be looking elsewhere for something to appease our consciences, inflate our egos and satisfy the longings of our hearts. Longings that only Christ will satisfy. What we desparately need are churches who will expose our idolatrous hearts and patiently, consistently, lovingly and constantly point us back to the cross as the only thing worth boasting about.

What's it all about then?

In my profile I said I was an average Christian. So, you may ask, what’s the point of an average Christian writing a blog? I mean most Christians who write blogs are clever, but not me. Many who write Christian blogs display a wisdom and insight I lack. Many are bright, shining beacons compared to my faint glow. I have been a Christian for almost twenty years yet I’m ashamed of most of them. I’ve messed up most of my relationships and responsibilities and done a pretty bad job of looking anything like what the Bible describes a Christian should look like. But I’m still here. I suppose I would have to admit I may be a little bit wiser than I was twenty years ago. But what little progress I may have made has been slow, with many twists and turns. I offer no profound insights here. No great Godly wisdom. If you should find a nugget here you can be sure it won’t have originated with me. So why bother blogging? Isn’t the blogosphere full of enough pointless drivel without me adding to the problem? All true, but then I’m not forcing you to read it now am I? :-)

So what’s it all about then? Well, first I hope to encourage those who, like me, struggle in their Christian walk. Often I’ll write about or share things that have helped and encouraged me. Secondly its an opportunity for me to write about things I’m a little unsure about in hope that others will give me feedback from which I can learn.

I’ll talk a lot about the gospel and about sin because that’s what I’m convinced we need to hear most. So I’d better warn you: some of this could get a bit ugly. That, after all, is the nature of sin. But it is my firm belief that, only by dealing with our ugliness do we get to see and truly savour the beauty of the Lord Jesus Christ who calls us to Himself.