One Shepherd, One Flock

Throughout both the Old and New Testaments, the shepherding metaphor is used to relate God’s promises to the context in which his people lived. Agrarian life was a mainstay in ancient near eastern society. And this was not always to be seen as a lowly position. On the contrary, when David was anointed king, his charge was to be a shepherd over God’s people, leading them in the ways of righteousness (2 Samuel 5:2). The call to shepherd God’s people was dignified by the office of king, especially a king like David. But Jeremiah, prophesying near the demise of the kingdom of Judah, makes it clear that Israel’s kings had all but abandoned the call to lovingly shepherd God’s people.

Jeremiah 23 recounts God’s righteous anger toward these evil shepherds who cared only for their own glory, rather than for the good of the flock, God’s people. God speaks through the prophet of his impending judgment on such shepherds, and then he foretells the future gathering of his flock to himself—and that with no one missing. Finally, in consummate prophetic expression, Jeremiah foretells of the one who makes all this possible, the Righteous Branch who will reign as king. It is no mistake that this prophecy comes on the heels of the shepherding metaphor, for this Branch would be the true Shepherd-King, everything that David pointed toward, and everything that the evil shepherds should have been. However, this Shepherd has a name unlike any other: the Lord is our righteousness (Jer. 23:6).

In John 10, Jesus is the Good Shepherd, not only guiding his sheep toward the way of righteousness, but literally becoming the way of righteousness for them. Here, he is not only the shepherd, but also the door—the only way to enter the sheepfold (John 10:7-9). All of the shepherds who came before him—and all who would come after—could merely point to the way. Jesus came to be the way. The Lord is our righteousness.

And it is Christ himself who harkens back to Jeremiah 23, among other prophecies, to declare that none of his chosen sheep will be missing. He says

I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. (John 10:14-16 ESV)

Make no mistake, this declaration—though forged in blood—was meant to erase all bloodlines of privilege and position. I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also. This act of redemption, this exodus from exile, would include sheep from every tribe, tongue, nation, and people—and there will be one flock.

The Apostle Paul wrote of the removal of such bloodlines.

For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. (Ephesians 2:14-16 ESV)

There was a historically pretentious kind of hostility which existed between Jews and Gentiles. We see this throughout the New Testament, embodied in the actions of the Pharisees, and even the Apostle Peter, as he withdrew from the Gentiles in the presence of the Jews (Galatians 2). The rift between Jews and Gentiles was deeper than location, culture, and more. It was spiritual. To the Jews, Gentiles were unclean. They were outsiders who did not merit inclusion in the commonwealth of heaven. They were not to be allowed within the realm of God’s blessing. In fact, the “dividing wall” Paul is referring to here may well have been a literal wall located on the outer courtyard of the temple, bearing an inscription which warned Gentiles of passing into this space, on the threat of death.

The point is this: there existed from Jews to Gentiles an “us & them” mentality which bred ethnic superiority and hostility between the two groups. And as we know all too well within our cultural context, an “us & them” mentality is devastating to communal flourishing. Most recently, we have seen this “us & them” mentality become the source of unrest in communities like Ferguson, and all over the United States as protesters (both peaceful & otherwise) have taken up the causes of the racially oppressed. No matter what you believe about the policies behind the recent Supreme Court decisions, it is impossible to deny that the root of these issues is disunity based on “us & them.”

In light of all that the Bible teaches about the sheepfold of Jesus, it is passively irresponsible, or actively prideful (and in both cases sinful) for any Christian to use “us & them” language with regard to ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or virtually any other distinction. To be clear, I am not speaking of pointing our differences, distinctions, or cultural norms, for these should be celebrated in light of God’s plan to redeem a diverse but unified people. When I speak of “us & them” I am referring to a hostile kind of pretention not unlike that described between the Jews and Gentiles throughout the New Testament. There is no room for this kind of talk within the family of God.

Christians, our first response to such divisive issues should always be a movement toward reconciliation, whether prayer, honest and open discussion, or—perhaps most appropriate for today’s issues—simply listening. White Christians, we need to listen to our African-American brothers and sisters. Seriously listen. Do we have any idea what it feels like to be suspected of criminal activity anywhere we go based on the color of our skin? No, we don’t. Do we have any idea how deep the wounds from periods prior to the Civil Rights movement run? No, we don’t. Do we have any idea how the remaining vestiges of racism affect our society today? I believe most of us don’t. Or at least we don’t try to.

I’m not making this into merely an ethnic issue. There are a million “us & them” qualifiers out there. Here are a few: private school & public school, old & young, educated & uneducated, rich & poor, spiritual & sinful, and the list goes on. Can you think of a qualifier you struggle with that I haven’t mentioned?

One of the only occurrences of “us & them” we see in the New Testament comes from Paul’s argument for unity in 1 Corinthians 6.

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-11 ESV)

In other words, the only “us & them” qualifier that amounts to anything is “those who have been washed & those who haven’t.” However, the key here is who does the washing. You see, the Jews thought their cleanliness came by their ritual observance. They were believed to be active in it. Not so with Christ’s Church. We were washed “in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.” We were washed in regeneration—once dead, now made alive—and all this is from God, through the blood of Jesus. In light of the list above, one wouldn’t even want to boast the “us & them” mentality in this case, except perhaps to proclaim “I once was lost, and now I’m found.”

Christians, we have one shepherd, and we are one flock. We must strive for unity because the Bible tells us time and again that unity is the very reason our Savior came to die. We are united to God in Christ, and we are united to one another by his blood. We are a new family, a new humanity. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. (Colossians 3:11 ESV)

 

Soli Deo Gloria

Book Review: The Unbelievable Gospel

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Evangelism. One word that, if we are all honest, makes every Christian a bit nervous. Refreshing. One word that comes to the forefront of my mind as I have read through Jonathan K. Dodson’s The Unbelievable Gospel. In the book, Dodson takes perhaps one of the biggest hurdles the church faces in this postmodern era and tackles it head-on. What we are left with is an honest assessment of the state of Christian evangelism and several brilliantly crafted responses to many of culture’s main turn-offs to the approach of Christians in recent years. The book is thoughtful. This is perhaps its greatest strength. It is not as if Jonathan sat down and sought to create a formulaic, “next-big-thing” kind of approach to evangelism. Rather, he seems to be seeking to answer this question: “How can we faithfully contextualize unchanging truth in an ever-changing world?” Or, as he puts it: “How can we make an unbelievable gospel believable?” What a worthwhile endeavor which will certainly benefit the church at large.

The structure of the book is helpful in that it begins by openly discussing many of the cultural barriers Christians are undoubtedly facing as they engage in evangelism—Dodson calls them “defeaters.” In seeking to unearth the false motivations such as self-righteousness, fear, and apathy, Dodson begs Christians to check their hearts before they engage someone in a discussion over the most important truth that exists. Your motivation matters. Your approach matters. Your half-heartedness certainly affects your witness. Furthermore, Dodson tackles the difficulties of pluralism, overcoming old stereotypes, and ensuring we are well informed and well equipped.

Jonathan’s confession that, “evangelism is not proselytizing,” (p. 56) uncovers a helpful distinction between “recruiting” and “evangelizing.” Whereas the former seems to be concerned with numbers and fast converts, the latter is more concerned with people. Dodson’s honesty about the negative perception that plagues the church in this area is vital to an understanding of how we can change.

In his fourth chapter, Dodson lays ax to the root of our fear of the word “tolerance” by simply talking about what it is (as well as what it has been historically). “Old tolerance,” according to Dodson “held that other opinions have a right to exist; the new tolerance is the belief that all opinions are equally valid or true.” (p. 71). Drawing from D.A. Carson’s helpful work The Intolerance of Tolerance, Jonathan calls Christians to think deeply as we approach this new form of tolerance. Understanding that “the new tolerance is intellectually careless” will be helpful to Christians who continually find themselves up against a wall with regard to the issue of tolerance.

With regard to many traditional approaches to evangelism–which seem more like a sales pitch than a life-giving transmission of truth–Dodson asks, “Is there a better way?” (p. 39). His answer comes in parts two and three. Part two, “Re-evangelization,” is a breath of fresh gospel-air, in the sense that it helps the reader to uncover how the gospel affects the release from pressured evangelism and the like. The idol of acceptance is tackled head-on at the outset of this section, and rightly so. Until Christians embrace their own acceptance in the gospel, they will be unlikely to put their reputation on the line by sharing Christ in the workplace or elsewhere.

Next, Dodson depicts the depth and scope of the gospel by describing its “three-dimensional” nature. By understanding that the gospel is historical, personal, and cosmic, Christians are able to step back and embrace a much bigger and more compelling gospel message, indeed the one that is presented in the Scriptures. It is also within this section that Dodson first introduces his gospel metaphors, which he further espouses in part three.

These metaphors (justification, redemption, adoption, new creation, and union with Christ) are perhaps familiar to Christians, but they should be considered from the vantage point of evangelism. Many Christians think that the various nuances and deep truths of the gospel are needed only after we are in the family of God. However, Dodson skillfully debunks this notion by showing how each of these metaphors can apply to lost people with certain needs and differing stories.

It is important to note that these metaphors all have one commonality—Jesus. Dodson is not deconstructing the gospel or trying to make it more palatable by removing the offense of the cross or of the depravity of man. He takes great care to emphasize the work of Jesus within his examples of each of these metaphors. Jesus is central, and Dodson does not depart from this.

Perhaps the most helpful chapter of the book is the final one, in which Dodson emphasizes the vitality of Christian community for evangelism. Throughout the book, Jonathan has made clear that his church has rallied together on mission with the various examples he gives. He is not some lone ranger pastor. Rather, he has skillfully equipped his people to understand the importance of being a community on mission. Emphasizing the familial nature of evangelism and the importance of Christian hospitality (which he and his wife have embraced, according to numerous examples), Dodson shows that God’s intent is for the community to be sent out together. This point cannot be overemphasized.

 

 

The Unbelievable Gospel has been vastly helpful for me in this way: it has forced me back to a time in which I was first evangelized. I was evangelized by a community. It didn’t happen in a vacuum. As an artist, I had questions about self-expression and the laying down of my dreams for the sake of pursuing Christ’s mission. At the time of my conversion, I was struggling with depression, self-pity, and all kinds of other ills. And all along the way, men and women who loved Jesus simply loved me and continued to share the life-giving nature of the gospel with me. But how easily we forget those early days. You see, all too often, we expect people to respond immediately and in a certain way. We expect that, since we seem to have it all together, the people we evangelize should easily lay down their questions, their hurts, and their legitimate hurdles in coming to the church. We expect it to be clean and neat.

But regeneration is anything but clean. Why? Because it involves death. Jesus was crucified, and our old man is crucified with him. This is more often than not a painful process. We reluctantly lose our grip on our old idols. We deal with the wake of destruction sin has left in its path.  We try to put broken relationships back together.

Jonathan’s book reminds us that the hope of the gospel is God descending to man, not man ascending to God. As central as this truth is, we Christians can be so prone to self-salvation that we grow impatient with those who are not able to “get it together.” When our hearts are disposed in such a way, we miss the whole point of the beautiful gospel that captured our hearts in the first place.

Evangelism is intensely personal. Listen, empathize, and ask questions. Show people that you care. The days of throwing tracts out the window of your church van and yelling “Jesus loves you,” are over. They are no longer (and may have never been) culturally relevant. We need real, tangible, cultural engagement. We need to love people. We need to meet them where they are, just as our great Savior met us where we were. Toward that end, I pray this book will go a long way in changing the way many think about evangelism.

Some great quotes from the book:

“Respectful dialogue can go a long way in overturning bigoted impressions of Christianity. In fact, it will open doors that would remain closed otherwise.” (p. 175)

“Because we desire the approval of our spiritual mentors, our peers, and even God, we end up evangelizing to impress.” (p. 23)

“We possess the most attractive (and repelling) message on earth, which has been and should be communicated in endless dazzling (and mundane) ways in order to thrill the human heart, capture the imagination, and rivet the intellect.” (p. 109).

“Our therapeutic culture reinforces the idea that we deserve to have all our longings fulfilled by others. These good, deep longings—to know other and be known without fear of rejection—can only be met by someone big enough to fill them.” (p. 162).

“If there’s one thing urbanites can detect, it’s a lack of authenticity.” (p. 169)

Soli Deo Gloria

 

 

Racism or Complacency?

Most evangelical pastors feel the weight of Tom Sine’s observation that “11 A.M. Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour in American Life.”[1] This is true for so many churches across American Evangelicalism. Let that settle in. It is 2014. Americans have made huge strides in race relations over the past hundred years, and yet, the Church—a community created by the gospel of Jesus—remains one of the most segregated places in our society. I’d like to explore why.

Now, before we get started here, I’d like to add this caveat. I know I’m painting with a broad brush. Some statements I will make about the Church need not apply to all churches. I have been parts of churches that are racially diverse and continue to strive for the kind of diversity which makes the gospel look big. But, for the purposes of this article, let us admit together that the Church as a whole has a long way to come, particularly in the South.

So first, I’d like to talk about the lasting effects of racism in American society, for these have certainly spilled over into the American Evangelical Church. In his book, Bloodlines, John Piper explores whether the lasting effects of racism are more weighted toward systemic problems or personal responsibility. His conclusion, drawing from various writers and activists, is simply “yes.” It is both/and. Our society must seriously consider systemic issues which perpetuate racist tendencies, and individuals must search their hearts. In the middle of this discussion, Piper quotes Juan Williams, who relates the African slave trade to today’s rap music industry. Before you give up on my point, here’s what he says:

“In fact, there are similarities between the economics of slavery and the modern rap industry. Cheap labor, slaves, made it possible for the Southern plantation to make money…In today’s rap business, young musicians hungry for stardom are cheap labor, able to satisfy the white America’s continuing desire to see Jim Crow jump in the black face minstrel shows. The problem is the white-owned corporations making big money off the music have to get past the risk of facing charges of promoting racial stereotypes.”

 And that very stereotype that is being promoted, according to Williams, is “that black women are sexually indiscriminate, stupid, greedy, and lazy. Young black men are thugs, and, in the words of music critic Stanley Crouch, ‘monkey-moving, gold-chain-wearing, illiteracy spouting…combative buffoons.” [2]

My point here is not to launch a discussion about the pitfalls of the music industry. Rather, I simply want to illustrate the perpetuation of racism in our society, albeit subversively. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, I want white people (like me) to understand this: that words matter and prejudices have consequences.

When you use words like “they, them, and those,” to categorically paint a picture of a particular demographic—white, black, Hispanic, or any other ethnicity—you are communicating something. Now, sometimes this may be harmless. But let us be careful not to cross the line.

Here’s what I mean. Saying of a group of white young men “they can’t play basketball” when compared to a group of black young men may be a completely accurate statement. African American men dominate popular sports today. And this is good.

But, here’s where you cross the line: “Those black guys only got into that school because they are athletes.” Now you have made a categorical error that is rooted in racial prejudice. And it’s tricky because you may not even mean this to be a derogatory statement. But what you are subversively communicating is this: “Black people are athletes, and white people are scholars.” This is of course an evil statement.

As John Piper rightly observes, “There is a fine line between legitimate probability judgments and sinful prejudice.”[3]

What has happened, I think, is that the use of words and phrases with the “us/them” mentality has actually created in the minds of “us” and “them” that such dichotomies not only exist, but they exist to divide us. In other words, if you tell someone they are inferior for long enough, two things begin to happen: they start to feel inferior, and you start to feel superior, regardless of what ethnicities you are dealing with.

Let me give you perhaps an extreme illustration. If I genuinely tell my wife every day for a year that she is the most beautiful woman in the world, do you think she would be increasingly affirmed in her sense of identity and self-worth? How about if I tell her that she is hideous every day for a year? Get this…even if I was joking? How would this affect her sense of self-worth?

Ok, so let’s drive this thing home for the Church today. Most Christians I know are NOT racist. In fact, I don’t know if I know anyone I would classify as an outright racist. This is, after all, 2014. Praise God for all the progress in the area of racial reconciliation.

But here’s what I know about Christians (because I know it to be true about me)—we are often complacent. And there may not be an area in which complacency is more dangerous than in racial relations.

It is difficult to dig up these issues. It hurts to get to the bottom of some of this. If we really searched our hearts and asked God to reveal hidden bastions of racism, I think we’d be frighteningly surprised by how much would be revealed. The healing process would be tough. It would take some uprooting, renouncing, and re-working of our thinking. It would take time, and lots of prayer. It would take open confession. It would be a “two steps forward, one step back” kind of thing.

And I think once we got to the bottom of some of this, it would require changing the way we do some things. And again, if there’s one thing I know about Christians (and people in general), it’s that we hate change. We are absolutely terrified by it.

This kind of uprooting may require us to change our worship style, our preaching style, the length of our services, the kinds of weekly programs we offer, and much more. Even more ominous, this kind of change may cause us to lose people—I’m talking numerical decline.

And let’s face it. If a church starts loosing people, it takes us about two seconds to pronounce upon it the title of “dying.”

Look, it’s really easy to justify certain practices when numerical growth is happening. But what if our churches got much smaller, yet much more diverse? How much more glory would God get? How much less glory would pastors get?

For the Church today, I don’t think this is an “either/or” issue, as if our problem is either outright racism or outright complacency. I think complacency actually goes hand in hand with racism. We don’t want to uproot because we don’t want to find out the truth about ourselves. We’d rather place the blame on “them,” whoever the “them” is from our vantage point.

But here’s what the gospel says,

For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh—
(Philippians 3:3 ESV)

We. We are the circumcision. Not “them vs. us,” but “we together.” We place no confidence in the flesh, and we bank everything on the blood of Christ, who died to reconcile to himself one people from every tribe, tongue and nation on earth. He is the end of racism and he is the end of complacency. He is our righteousness. He is our only hope.

Soli Deo Gloria.

[1] Tom Sine, as quoted in Russell Chandler, “Racing Toward 2001: The Forces Shaping America’s religious future?”

[2] From John Piper, Bloodlines, p. 65.

[3] Ibid., 222.

8 Thoughts That Will Wreck Your Community Group

At the risk of making an endlessly ironic statement, I think the electronic world we live in has become both a mask for and a barrier to true community. Yeah, I said that in a blog post.

But here’s what I mean. Phrases like “the online community” and “the blogosphere,” and even “my friends,” have warped our understanding of what true community is, giving us a cheap, buffet-style, pseudo-community which provides just enough of a buzz to keep us from the real thing.

Think about it. How many “friends” do you have online that you’d call in a pinch? And how many “followers” do you have that you’d actually want to follow your offline activities? How many “groups” are you a part of that actually know who you are? And how many “likes” do you have to get before you feel renewed, validated, and accepted by this pseudo-community.

And in all the confusion, I think we’ve lost the idea of what real community is. So, here’s what I want to do: 1) provide a biblical definition of community, and then 2) lay out 8 thoughts that I think will absolutely destroy your community group (maybe even before it gets started).

Biblical Community

We see pieces of the puzzle all over the Bible, from the national community of Israel, to the small group of fishermen who followed Jesus, to the house churches that emerged throughout the book of Acts and beyond. But theologically, I’m not sure that there’s a more succinct passage of Scripture on this topic than Colossians 3.

Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. (Colossians 3:9-14 ESV)

A few observations.

1. Community Renewed- A biblical community group is one that has been made new by the life-giving work of God in Christ (regeneration). You have been given a new heart. You are a new creation. You were brought from death to life. You are being conformed into the image of Jesus by His grace.

2. Community Reorganized- A biblical community group is not structured on the basis of race, background, socioeconomic status, cultural acceptance, or any such distinction. Greeks and Jews were not naturally inclined to be together. Barbarians and Scythians were thought of as dirty and vile. Slaves in this culture were enslaved because of their poverty (i.e. indentured servitude). If you were free, you were inherently richer than a slave (indentured servant). None of that has any bearing on the Christian community. The ground is level at the foot of the cross

3. Community Re-centered- Simply put, Christ is all and in all. He is the central pursuit of a biblical community. He is their desire. His glory is their aim. His mission is their mission. He is their everything.

4. Community Reconciled- A biblical community forgives one another on the basis of Christ’s forgiveness. They are reconciled in humility, patience, love, compassion, and more. All this is based on the life-giving love of Christ.

8 Thoughts That Will Wreck Your Community Group

As a result of this brief definition of biblical community, I see within our culture 10 thoughts that will absolutely destroy your group’s chances at the kind of community outlined in Scripture.1

8. I don’t like to be around people who are different from me. In light of the beauty of Paul’s statement in Colossians 3:11, how could such an argument hold any weight? One of the great beauties of the gospel is the fact that it compels people who are different to come together. In fact, unity in diversity actually glorifies God more than unity in uniformity. Why? Can you think of anything else that brings such a diverse group of people together for a meaningful and lasting cause? Only the gospel does that. Only grace can change your heart on that. Ask God to give you a desire to exalt His glory through the diversity of your group.

7. I’m too young to lead a group. This one is tricky because it has an air of humility, but may actually be grounded in fear and pride. I say “fear” because the longing for the approval of man drives us to think we have to “have everything together” before we can actually do anything for Jesus. Well, if that were the case, no one would do anything for Jesus. And I say “pride,” because it could actually be that you don’t want to get close enough to older saints for them to see the rough edges of you that need to be knocked off. You don’t want your corporate image to be tarnished. Your reputation would be shattered.

Paul told Timothy “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.” (1 Tim. 4:12).

It seems to me that if you are striving to honor God in those 5 areas, you are well on your way to becoming a great group leader.

6. The logistics of the whole thing are too messy. I get it. Childcare, food, space, time, etc., etc., etc. There are a million excuses for why you shouldn’t meet with a small group of believers. Your kid has soccer practice. The group doesn’t have childcare figured out. There’s simply not enough time in the week. These are all legitimate excuses.

But here’s what I know…there are many things in your life that were logistically difficult at one point, before you intentionally figured them out. That’s the point: you were intentional. Your kid’s soccer practice is important. So, you figure out who’s taking him and who’s picking up and how you’re going to afford his uniform and all those things. You figured it out because it was important.

Don’t get caught in the weeds. Take it one step at a time. And be intentional. The Bible makes it pretty clear that you need community. Make it important.

5. I don’t like to confess my sin before others. Well, take a number. No one likes to confess their sins. That’s not the point. Here’s the point:

Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. (James 5:16 ESV)

But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. (1 John 1:7 ESV)

Accountability is a beautiful gift from God. You need to be accountable to someone. Why not be accountable to a small group of believers who is going to encourage you, pray for you, and point you to Christ?

4. I’m single, and everyone in the group is married. Um…that’s like saying: “I’m ten and my parents are forty, so I shouldn’t be around them.” Hello! If you are single, what better place for you to learn about what it means to be a part of a God-honoring family than in a community group setting! How valuable would it be to see husbands and wives walking together with their community and confessing their sins? How much could you learn? How much better prepared for marriage would you be?

Singles, the community needs you just as much as you need the community. Lean into the church, not away. And if you are divorced, please don’t let this hold you back. Again, the ground is level at the foot of the cross.

Singles, you are valuable to the church.

And, by the way, what better place to meet God-honoring singles than in a small group community?

3. I’m not sure I’m committed to this church. I’m still looking around. Two words. Man Up. Or Woman Up. Stop “shopping,” and find a place to become accountable. Don’t like a certain church’s doctrine? Find one that holds to faithful, biblical Christian doctrine and engage there. Don’t focus on petty things like the color of the flowers, the voice of the worship leader, or the trendiness of the website. We are so spoiled by a plethora of churches that we can find an excuse to leave anywhere. But there are places on Earth where this is not the case. The community of faith rallies around the gospel and the exaltation of Christ. Commit to a local body. Be accountable. Stop shopping.

2. These groups are doing (x,y,z…), and our group isn’t. Teddy Roosevelt hit the nail on the head when he said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Don’t compare yourself to other groups. You are not them. You are you. Your group is your group. You have the members that you have. God has orchestrated it to be this way. He has organized the gift-mix of your group, and he has given your members their passions and desires. So…study the Bible together, pray together, eat together, fellowship together (Acts 2:42), and do what your group does.

1. It’s just not worth it. It’s too much work to leave my Sunday School class or to rearrange my Sunday morning. If I get in a community group, I will have to be committed to people, and people are messy. People take time. People can be needy, and I’m just not sure it’s worth it.

Friend, you couldn’t be more wrong. In fact, it was worth Jesus dying for. It cost him everything.

For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, (Ephesians 2:14-19 ESV)

It was worth it to Jesus. You were worth it to Jesus. You have been adopted into the family of God. So, the question is…now what’s your excuse?

Soli Deo Gloria

1 For a more thorough treatment of biblical community, see chapter 10 of my new book, Gospel Regeneration.

The Prodigal Dad

dad

I was recently with a father who has been through the ringer with his son over the past few years. Suffice it to say that he has run into the wall just beyond the line of God’s sovereign will and the common grace of parenting. Or perhaps more illustrative, he’s living in the tension of “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.”

This man is a great dad. His heart’s desire is that all of his children would, like the apostle Paul, “be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” (Philippians 3:9 ESV)

As we discussed God’s sovereignty, man’s depravity, and the life lessons therein, I was reminded about something my own dad has always told me. “Never be afraid to come home.”

Six simple words that meant so much more. They meant that I will always have a home under my father’s roof. They meant that my dad would be the first person I call (save perhaps my wife nowadays) if I found myself in real trouble. They meant that there is literally nothing I could do to lose my right to be a part of my father’s family. I always knew this. And so do the kids of my friend above.

But as I drove away from our meeting, a distant realization caught up with me all too quickly. It was as if I had walked out my front door into a maelstrom of reality dragging me deeper into its grasp. You see, as I have often written about, I have a great dad. And my friend is a great dad. But many in our own church cannot say the same thing.

The fatherhood deficiency in American society is nothing new. In fact, the worldwide phenomenon has been pandemic for years. I was recently in Nicaragua. They have the same problem. I’ve been to 3 or 4 other Latin American nations that are in the same boat. It’s not a new thing.

But the striking reality is this. As the trend grows, fewer and fewer children will hear the words “Never be afraid to come home.”

Now, why are those words so important?

Because of all the things they tell us. “Never be afraid to come home” is a clear picture of the reality that God searches for his prodigal children. It’s the declaration that there is literally nothing a child of God can do to lose the right to be called his son or daughter. It means that, for the Christian, our first response when we sin is to run to our Father, rather than away from him. And that is a true mark of maturity.

But I’m fearful that without our earthly dads to tell us that, we will have a difficult time learning it about our Heavenly Father. My dad–his actions, his love, and his words–were instrumental in my regeneration experience. And what’s more, my dad was a father figure for some of my closest friends when we all lived in a house together. They may not have called him dad. But a good father is a father in the same way a good athlete is an athlete. It just comes natural.

Don’t think that I’m attempting to take the supernatural away from God, as if he couldn’t possibly regenerate hearts to faith without the example of good earthly fathers. The truth is, God has ordained fatherhood to be a vivid illustration of his relationship to us. Why else would he call us sons and daughters?  So, for Christian fathers, the office of fatherhood carries a grace-filled weight that is unlike any other office that men can occupy.

But the problem is we have too many prodigal dads. Fulfilling their own destinies through achievement. Chasing a different woman every night at the local dive bar to escape chronic loneliness. Exploring “feminization” and “metrosexuality” simply because they are the latest trends on their news feeds. Searching for the kind of identity that is only to be found within the scope of God’s good design.

So, this is a plea to the prodigal dads. It’s not too late. My dad’s not perfect. Far from it. But he was, is, and will always be–first and foremost–my dad.

If God can heal the most fractured relationship that has ever existed–the one between you and him–he can surely reconcile your relationship with your wife and kids by his grace. He can certainly bring you under the fountain of joy that comes from renewal in Him. He can put you back together.

Prodigal dad, “Never be afraid to come home.”

Soli Deo Gloria

The Depth of Meaning

edwards

Modern culture is great at a few things which past cultures simply could not do. Communication, for example, is faster, broader, more convenient, and less of a hassle than it was during, let’s say, early colonial America. I mean, let’s face it. In our time, Paul Revere would not have had to expend all the energy to ride through the town and shout “The British are coming!” He could have just tweeted it— though history might not have been quite as faithful to the dramatic nature of the event. Imagine the scope of the first Thanksgiving if the Pilgrims had been able to send out an e-vite. And I suspect the Puritans would have appreciated having access to the Blogosphere, as they sought to extinguish the last bastions of Roman Catholic practices in English and American Christianity.

But, alas, for all the progress in the areas of technology, communication, and more, you and I must admit that we’ve taken a few giant steps back in more than one arena.

Here’s one that irks me. Our culture has hijacked and diluted the meaning of words. Think about it. In 2013, the Oxford English Dictionary formally added the word “selfie” to our lexicon. That’s right. You and I live in a culture that has made “selfie” an official word.

Can you imagine some of the great men and women of years’ past taking a “selfie?” John Hancock—with his iPhone in one hand and his pen in the other as he awkwardly snaps a photo of the signing of the Declaration of Independence? Betsy Ross—with the newly sown American flag draped over her shoulders, the caption simply reading “…’Merica.”

One of the most abused and misunderstood groups of words within our culture is that which revolves around the ideas of feeling, emotion, and affection. For us, the word “feeling” has come to mean a whimsical sensuality, which is wholly based on circumstantial, temporal pleasure. It is immensely subjective and totally contingent upon the prevalent whims of the individual.

And yet, there was a time when the ideas of feeling, emotion, and particularly affection, stood for something much deeper. Jonathan Edwards, the 18th century leader of the Great Awakening, wrote “The will, and the affections of the soul, are not two faculties: the affections are not essentially distinct from the will, nor do that differ from the mere actings of the will, but only in the liveliness and sensibility of exercise.”[1] In other words, according to Edwards, the affections are “the sensed or felt exercises of the will.”[2] Now, that definition certainly runs much deeper than our modern understanding.

Let me give you an illustration. The kind of affection which Edwards described is in fact what drives the Christian pursuit of God. But what kind of pursuit is this?

 It is not the kind of response that a young girl would have at catching the eye of a boy in her class. Her heart would flutter; she might giggle and recount the story to her friends. But almost all young girls (no offense) are fickle. She would eventually become bored or smitten with the new boy in class. That is not the kind of response the gospel of new life elicits.

No, the kind of response the gospel evokes is like that of a bride who sees her husband laboring in the yard, earning at the marketplace, playing with his children, dancing with her at a party, and kissing her goodnight. She watches this faithful man as he pours himself out for his family, and she cannot help but love him for it. He asks for nothing in return, but she cannot hold back her expression of love in light of his sacrifice. She is compelled, by his selfless love, to live out her love for him. This is the love of a Christian for his Savior.[3]

This kind of feeling is driven by a deep, heart-felt gratitude for the redeeming work of Christ. It is sustained by a perpetual sense of one’s neediness before an all-sufficient God. It is a continual confession of a kind of thirst which can only be satisfied by eternal streams of glory.

At least, that’s how David and the other men who penned the Psalms saw it.

 As a deer pants for flowing streams,
so pants my soul for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.
(Psalm 42:1)

O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
(Psalm 63:1)

 My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food,
and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips,
when I remember you upon my bed,
and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
(Psalm 63:5-6)

We even see this sort of poetic expression throughout the deeply theological writings of Paul, as if after long stretches of theological reflection, the natural overflow of his heart is joy-filled worship. One can hardly read through Philippians 2 and not feel the depths of Christology stirring the affections of the heart.

And so, I implore you to dig deeper. Look beyond the surface-level meanings of words that have been hijacked by our skin-deep culture. Search the Scriptures and seek the depths of such words. Journey back through the annals of Church History and read the writings of the Patristics, the Reformers, the Puritans, and more. Think deeply, that you may deeply worship a God in whom there is no end of depth.

Soli Deo Gloria

[1] Jonathan Edwards, Treatise Concerning the Religious Affections.

[2] Ibid.

[3] The previous two paragraphs were taken from my new book, Gospel Regeneration, available now at Amazon and other retailers.

Biblical Counseling for All

therapists-chair

Let me begin this post by confessing that I’m not an expert at anything (which you hopefully already know). But one of the things I’ve seen, particularly pastoring teens, is that there is so much ambiguity around the idea of biblical counseling. And typically, when we hear the words “Biblical Counselor,” our antenna shoots up, as if there’s some major issue that the “regular” community is not equipped to address. In that moment, we can tend to tune out, turn off, and just think “I’ll let the experts do their job.”

And praise God for the experts. In our small town, I’ve heard of several great professionals who counsel from a biblical perspective. My office sits in between two of the best biblical counselors I’ve ever met! So, I’m certainly not downplaying the need for skilled, knowledgeable, godly men and women who are able to use God’s word to skillfully point people to their ultimate need. 

But, Christians, let’s be honest. We know we’re all supposed to be biblical counselors. Let me give you a few simple commands from Scripture that’ll catch all of us.

But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. (Hebrews 3:13 ESV)

And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. (Colossians 3:15-16 ESV)

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope…

…Therefore encourage one another with these words.

(1 Thessalonians 4:13, 18 ESV)

OK, so now that we’re all under the umbrella of these “one another” commands, let’s dispel some of the false notions about biblical counseling.

What it’s not

1. Biblical counseling is not merely an academic discipline. Hear me, while men and women study and train in this arena (and praise God for that), those who go into the field know that biblical counseling is intensely personal, emotional, and relational. How can you counsel some one you don’t know? How can you exhort some one as a brother or sister if there’s no relationship there? It’s nearly impossible. The best biblical counselors are those who take time to simply get to know people. 

2. Biblical counseling is not “therapy,” at least in the common sense of the word. When you hear some one say, “I’m going to see my therapist,” what kinds of images flood your mind? Are they taking crazy pills? Are they getting hypnotized? Are they dependent on this person to help them get through the week? Once again, I do not seek to demean the profession itself, but rather to expose the common misconceptions. You see, the underlying principle for biblical counseling is the radical notion that only God is in control. We become totally dependent on Him, not on our counselor (as any good biblical counselor will point out).

3. Finally, biblical counseling is not only what happens for an hour after church in the pastor’s office (though this pastoral function is so vital for the church). That begs us to look at what biblical counseling actually is.

What it is

1. First and foremost, biblical counseling is biblical. In Colossians 3, Paul tells the church how it’s supposed to function. He tells them that the Word of God is supposed to dwell in you richly. This isn’t some perfunctory knowledge of the Word which is attained by a 5 minute “Quiet Time” each morning. This is a deep, heart-level, knowledge of and passion for God’s Word. It is an understanding of the overarching story line of the Bible, the gospel. It is a faithful approach to biblical interpretation and a Spirit-wrought understanding of its application to all of life.

And this kind of passion for the Scriptures should be a consistent pursuit for all Christians. We’re all over the spectrum with regard to how deeply we’ve probed the waters of God’s inexhaustible riches found in the Scripture. But there’s one commonality for those whose hearts have been captured by Christ: we’re all swimming in his Word

2. Next, biblical counseling is gospel-centered. As mentioned above, the Christian should have a knowledge of, and a love for, the great story line of the Bible. Creation. Fall. Redemption. Consummation. These are the four big acts. They make sense of the stories within the story. They make sense of all of our stories.

Matt Chandler, in The Explicit Gospel, calls the approach above “the gospel in the air.” But biblical counseling must also consider what he calls “the gospel on the ground.” This is the up-close-and-personal approach to understanding the gospel. Every man is sinful, and this sin causes separation from a holy God. Jesus entered into our reality in order to bring reconciliation. He imputes to us his righteousness, and he took on God’s wrath toward our sin. And because of his glorious resurrection, we are assured that he’ll one day raise and renew our bodies to be like his resurrected body. This gospel-centered approach to counseling is so vital, as the gospel is the only cure for the great sickness of man.

3. Finally, and so often missed, biblical counseling is a community project. As mentioned above, it is not merely what happens in the pastor’s office or on the time clock of a professional. Though both of these professions are necessary, Christians cannot be satisfied with just referring our brothers and sisters to a professional without first entering into their struggles, as Christ entered into ours.

I’m not saying you have to be fully equipped to deal with some of the deepest hurts of the human heart, but I’m also saying that the Bible says you should be somewhat equipped.

Who are the people you live closely with? Do they come to you for advice? If so, you have already been a biblical counselor (whether a good one or a bad one). Unless you’re just too young, you’ve probably already had the opportunity to comfort some one in the face of death, loss, illness, and more. Hear me…what you say (or even don’t say) in those moments is actually biblical counseling.

So, to wrap up, let me give you a few thoughts to hide away for those critical moments.

1. Paul told the Corinthians that something unique happens when you become a part of a church. You become a part of a body. And when one part of your body hurts, your whole body hurts. 

If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.
(1 Corinthians 12:26 ESV)

So, when your brothers and sisters come to you in confidence with their deepest hurts, you should hurt with them. I’m not saying you feel their hurt as deeply. What I’m saying is that their hurt should hurt you. This only happens in relationship. If you think you can skate through the Christian life without close, intimate relationships with your brothers and sisters, you are missing out on one of the best gifts of God.

Sometimes, in those most profound moments, the best thing you can do is mourn with some one. That’s biblical. 

2. Gospel-centered is really not just a catch-phrase. Every single time you have a chance to counsel or advise some one, ask yourself, “How does the gospel bear weight on this situation?”

Let me give you an example. If you are counseling some one who is dealing with anger at a past abuse, holding a grudge, or feeling like they’ve been unjustly wronged, consider Romans 5. 

For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Romans 5:7-11 ESV)

You see, God is the ultimate example of being unjustly wronged. He is holy, blameless, and perfect. He is the Creator. And yet we, the creation, have blatantly disregarded him. If Christ died for us when we were hostile to him, how much more should we live our lives with a posture of forgiveness toward those who have wronged us?

Clearly, this is just one example, but the point is to think critically about how the gospel applies to every situation. 

3. Finally, when counseling some one facing death, or the loss of a loved-one, consider the eschatological implications. I’m not talking about whether you’re pre-mil, a-mil, post-mil, or any-other-mil. What I’m saying is that death is the separation of the body from the spirit. That’s not how God created things to be, and that’s why death is such a formidable enemy. 

But, we have this promise in Scripture.

But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. (Philippians 3:20-21 ESV)

This means that, though creation is now subject to things like cancer, decay, and death, there will be a day in which death will be totally destroyed. And those who believe in Christ will be raised anew, with glorified bodies that are totally sinless and totally able to enjoy fellowship with God, needing nothing else for all eternity. This is all because of the life, death, and glorious resurrection of Christ. 

And I could write so much more about how the grand story of the gospel applies to counseling. But the point is to get you thinking. Who are those people in your life who need to hear you speak these truths? Before you shrug and refer them to a professional, what biblical truths can you convey that will point to the problem (sin) and then to the cure (Christ)? 

After all, biblical counseling is a community project.

 

Soli Deo Gloria.

Book Excerpt: Born Again to a Living Hope

The following is an excerpt from my new book Gospel Regeneration. You can now buy the book on Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com. Keep in mind that 50% of the profits will go directly to Acts 29 Network to support church planting efforts across the globe. 

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus
Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused
us to be born again to a living hope through the
resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an
inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and
unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s
power are being guarded through faith for a
salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In
this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if
necessary, you have been grieved by various trials,
so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more
precious than gold that perishes though it is tested
by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory
and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though
you have not seen him, you love him. Though you
do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice
with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory,
obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation
of your souls. (1 Peter 1:3-9)

What a beautiful passage describing the regenerative hope that God grants to His chosen. We are born again (regenerated) to a kind of hope that is alive! How glorious! The new hope which is granted by God in Christ is filled with, well…life. Living hope.

That hope is made possible through the resurrection of Christ. Because He was made alive, our hope is kept alive. And the full realization of that hope will not be revealed to us until “the last time.” This means that, even in the midst of trials, we hold on to the hope, the belief, the reality, that there is a coming light that far outshines the darkness.

And what’s more, the endurance of such trials actually produces a genuine stamp on our regenerate life. In other words, you can take literally everything from a regenerate person, except this: the expectant hope of the future. You can torture him, rob him, ridicule him, and even kill him. None of this will remove his hope in the outcome of his faith, the salvation of his soul! Why is this true? Because of the whole scope of regeneration! If God is the one who does it, God is the one who will complete it. No man can take away a hope that was implanted at regeneration by God. It is a living hope. It will not be killed. It will, by the power of God, be fulfilled upon the return of Jesus Christ.

I think Tolkien may have taken his cues from the Apostle Paul when he wrote of Sam Gamgee’s resolve. Paul, a man who suffered deeply, once wrote, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18). He was peering out over the darkness in search of the bright light of God’s glory which would be fully revealed to him at some point in the future. He looked around and saw that even if there was beauty to be had, it was only a shadow. He saw the futility of sin and death manifested throughout all of creation, and he longed for the day all would be set right. So it was in this kind of hope that Paul found the confidence to endure beatings, shipwrecks, prison stays, the loss of his idols, and much more.

Paul lived his life in such a way that the hope of the future sustained him in the midst of present discomfort. He called his intense suffering “light and momentary” compared to the weight of future glory. He eagerly anticipated the moment when his body would no longer be subject to sin and decay.  He was driven by his deepest desire, to be with Christ—to finally be made whole in him. That is a living hope.

Soli Deo Gloria