“There is no better test as to whether a man is really preaching the New Testament gospel of salvation than this, that some people might misunderstand it and misinterpret it to mean that it really amounts to this, that because you are saved by grace alone it does not matter at all what you do; you can go on sinning as much as you like because it will redound all the more to the glory of grace. That is a very good test of gospel preaching. If my preaching and presentation of the gospel of salvation does not expose it to that misunderstanding, then it is not the gospel.”
– Martyn Lloyd-Jones
Jared C. Wilson is the pastor of Middletown Church in Middletown Springs, Vermont, and a writer whose articles, essays, and short stories have appeared in numerous publications. A minister for over a decade, he has become known for his passionate gospel-centered teaching and strong calls for missional Christianity. Jared's book Your Jesus is Too Safe is now available from Kregel Publications. His next book, a Bible study resource titled Abide: Practicing the Rhythms of the Kingdom in a Consumer Culture releases from Threads Media in Spring 2010. Encounter his passion for the ongoing reformation of the evangelical church almost daily at www.gospeldrivenchurch.com.RSS feed for this author
A few months ago on my own blog I wrote about something I write often about: how the good news is that Christ’s finished work actually means the work of salvation is finished, so that even our feeble participation in sanctification is both covered by Jesus and empowered by him through the Spirit. A somewhat prominent blogger then brought up the idea of our own “sweat equity” contributing to our sanctification. I couldn’t think of a more abhorrent idea at the time, an idea more antithetical to the gospel, which suddenly becomes no gospel, because it means Christ made a down payment and now I’m on the installment plan.
I saw the idea again yesterday, as someone linked to the May 2008 edition of The Gospel Coalition’s Themelios journal, in an article titled “How a Mega-Church is Rediscovering the Gospel”. An excerpt, from the pastor of that church:
I met with a man who had been attending our church for four years. He said he needed to ask me a theological question before he could join our church. I never like those kinds of conversations since the question is usually about a distinctive rather than about something central. We met for breakfast, and his question was the best theological question I had ever been asked. He simply asked me how people grow. He said that he knew people were saved by grace, but he wanted to know if I thought people were sanctified through their own sweat equity. I thought for a moment and then told him that the only thing that ever really changed me was love. Ever since the mission trip, I had been feeling that it was more important for me to understand how much Jesus loved me than it was for me to figure out how to love Him. I watched in amazement as relief spread across my friend’s face. He said he had tried for twenty years to be sanctified through his own effort; it had ground him to powder, and he would not go back.
I know this myself personally. Talking about how the gospel and the law relate to sanctification is no mere intellectual exercise for me. It’s not just one more idea for the blog. It made the difference between the crushing weight of my own sinful failure and the freedom that comes from tasting and seeing that the Lord is good. This is a real freedom, a freedom that makes “good works” a celebratory dance, not a day-laborers’ accumulation of sanctifying sweat equity. That way leads to burn out and bitterness. “Do not again return to a yoke of slavery,” Paul practically yells at us.
And I don’t care if this offends you (because it needs to): If you don’t get this, you do not have the joy of gospel wakefulness.
Pastor Joe Coffey continues:
Gospel-driven transformation is both liberating and terrifying.
There are some in our church who have not yet rediscovered the Gospel this way. There are others who hear the terrifying part but not the liberating part, and they sit on pins and needles. Many of them will leave soon, I think. But there are many others who have felt the shackles start to fall off, and, like me, they are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy.
It is counterintuitive, but wakefulness to the reality that the work is done makes us work more and harder. The gospel creates what the Law requires. And when we approach the notion of sanctification from the angle of “How much reminding of the spiritual homework can we do?” we miss the point entirely. It is often because we do not trust the proclamation to be effectual, and we do not really believe that the gospel is power in itself, that it bears fruit of itself.
[C]ontinue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. — Philippians 2:12b-13
For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. — Ephesians 2:10
“We must re-evangelize the church.” — John Armstrong
Gospel deficiency is the major crisis of the evangelical church. The good news has been replaced by many things, most often a therapeutic, self-help approach to biblical application. The result is a Church that, ironically enough, preaches works, not grace, and a growing number of Christians who neither understand the gospel nor revel in its scandal.
There are lots of good reasons to reclaim the centrality of the good news of Jesus in our preaching and teaching and writing and blogging, and I’ve come up with four basic arguments for (what I’m calling) The Gospel Imperative, but perhaps defining our terms is in order. It’s no good going on about making the gospel the center of our worship and discipleship if we are not on the same page for what the gospel actually is.
Like many others, I affirm that the gospel is big. I favor a robust gospel, a good news proclamation with many facets and ramifications. It is everywhere in the shadows and in the light of the Old Testament Israelites’ desert wandering, and it encompasses the brilliant kingdom landscape of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. It is in God’s gracious covering of the freshly fallen Adam and Eve (and in the cursing of the serpent) in Genesis, and it is in the awesome return of the tattooed, sword-wielding Jesus 65 books later in Revelation. I agree with Tim Keller, who argues that the gospel is “both one and more than that.” It is certainly “more than that.” But it is also “one,” which is why a nutshell like “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23) can work well.
While acknowledging that the gospel is about the inbreaking kingdom of God setting a fallen world back to rights, the gospel I am speaking about here is the “essential” gospel, which is the news that Jesus has died to make atonement and risen bodily to establish his Lordship and has thereby murdered sin and conquered death.
Pretty powerful stuff, ain’t it? And yet many of our churches consider this news, which eternal angels still long to gaze into, merely introductory stuff.
The editorial I referenced in a recent post is now available online. It is Philip Yancey’s last CT column (for the foreseeable future anyway), after 26 years of writing for the magazine.
The piece is short but potent. A taste of “O, Evangelicos!”:
As I survey evangelicalism I see much good, but also much room for improvement. Our history includes disunity—how many different denominations do this magazine’s readers represent?—and a past that includes lapses in ethics and judgment. We have brought energy to faith, but also division. We celebrate the transformation of individuals, but often fall short in our larger goal of transforming society.
It saddens me to hear the media’s caricature of evangelicals as right-wing zealots. The word means “good news,” and I have seen that message broadcast in creative, practical ways in over 50 countries. But I can see where the media get their stereotypes. I have a folder of scorching e-mails circulated by evangelicals during the 2008 presidential election, and a more recent collection fanning fears over proposals for health-care reform. These supplement a larger folder on gay issues. Evangelicals haven’t always found a way to combine loving acts with a loving spirit.
In one encouraging trend, the fundamentalist-social gospel divide that marked the church a century ago has long since disappeared. Now evangelical organizations lead the way in such efforts as relief and development, microcredit, HIV/AIDS ministries, and outreach to sex workers. I have visited thriving ministries among the garbage dump communities outside Manila, Cairo, and Guatemala City. Evangelicals have taken seriously Jesus’ call to care for “the least of these.”
I recently heard from a friend who visited a barrio in São Paulo, Brazil. He grew nervous as he noticed the foot soldiers of drug lords standing guard holding automatic weapons. They were glowering at him, a gringo invading their turf. “Then the chief drug lord of that neighborhood noticed my T-shirt, which had the logo of a local Pentecostal church. He broke out in a big smile: ‘O, evangelicos!’ he called out, giving us hugs. Over the years, that church had cared for the children of the barrio, and now we were joyfully welcomed.”
Some of my friends believe we should abandon the word evangelical. I do not. I simply yearn for us to live up to the meaning of our name.
Read the whole thing.
. . . is somewhat inevitable in the customer-driven church. Isn’t it?
This was in a recent email newsletter sent by a church from my past:
“While you only need to be baptized once, if you’d like to reaffirm your commitment to God we encourage you to participate in baptism again.”
This church, which I resigned from several years ago with resolve but regrets, is still near and dear to my heart, but this is, frankly, one of the dumbest things I’ve ever seen in an invitation. It doesn’t even make sense. (But you don’t need me to tell you that.) You only need to do it once. But if you want to reaffirm, you should do it again. I was not surprised to read this, but greatly saddened.
Today I saw on Twitter someone announcing that hundreds of requests for baptism were coming in . . . for this Sunday.
I think baptizing hundreds of people is great. What a blessing! God grant me the blessing of baptizing hundreds in my lifetime, let alone one Sunday!
But while I don’t see baptism classes or extensive counseling in the Scriptures precipitating baptism, and while there is much spiritually to admire in so-called “spontaneous baptisms,” I don’t feel it’s being inordinately cynical to wonder how even a megachurch will sort through the hundreds of needs attendant in hundreds of baptism requests. Not all of those people will really need to be baptized. But will the church do its due diligence in figuring that out?
A blogger shared this year that he was baptized for the sixth time. Or maybe it was the seventh. (I forget, but it was more than four.) This time, I remember him saying, it was “for hope.” I wonder if “faith” and “love” were already covered in previous dunkings.
Last year a young man approached me about re-baptism. I knew I was going to have to be tender with him when his reasoning began, “I’ve been listening to a lot of praise and worship music lately . . .”
He was a believer and had been baptized, and I explained to him he did not need to be re-baptized. I love this guy, which was why I wouldn’t baptize him. I didn’t want to reinforce the idea that his faith was contingent upon his feelings. The sacrament of baptism is not seasonal. Christ died and rose once.
I have re-baptized candidates when by conscience and conviction they do not believe their first baptism was valid, typically because they are now credo-baptists but were born into either a paedo-baptizing tradition, whether Catholic or Protestant. But I counsel substantively with them beforehand. I generally try to convince them they don’t need it. Baptism is not “re-dedication,” which my Baptist heritage is very fond of.
This new movement of mass baptisms, if it is a move of the Lord, is wonderful. Time will tell if the number of professing Christians in the West is truly rising, if the fruit of these churches reporting hundreds of baptisms on any given Sunday are producing growing disciples. But it is not out of order to have grave concerns about the way the baptisms are offered, taught, and administered. Precisely because people’s hearts are precious. A lot of the mass baptism hoopla does look like re-dedication turned to eleven. It makes for good press, good buzz. But I don’t know if it makes for good baptisms. Or solid believers.
I think — I think — the good press of hundreds and thousands of baptisms solicited in this manner is part of what makes the un-clued-in think everything’s hunky dory in the evangelical church. I will not rejoice to be right about this.
There’s a curious and discouraging article in the November 20th Entertainment Weekly magazine about producers’ efforts to “sell” the upcoming film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road to Christians (by way of their pastors).
[T]he adaptation of . . . McCarthy’s acclaimed novel about a father (Viggo Mortensen) and son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) traveling through a bleak wasteland is getting the full pitch to Christian audiences . . . Plans include 15 advance screenings for church leaders nationwide, a website featuring free sermon and discussion guides, and a special trailer with extra scenes underscoring the film’s moral message.
This is a relatively new phenomenon, but it has been successful in the past. The most notable film-to-pulpit crossover is undoubtedly The Passion of the Christ, which held advance screenings for ministers and church groups and later supplied resources for pastor use in sermons and group use in Bible studies. The teams that produced Facing the Giants and Fireproof followed suit, although their crossover into pulpit “advertising” was probably considered more acceptable as the movies were made within the Christian subculture pretty much for the Christian subculture. (Hollywood had lesser success but still some crossovers made with the Narnia adaptations and Evan Almighty.)
But The Road has no explicit Christian content. It may very well be the best film of all the films ever marketed for pulpit use, but elements reminiscent of Christian themes are the feeblest excuse for church marketing yet. The money quote from the EW article:
“There are pastors who might not be able to recommend [the film], but would preach about it. I’ve got a pastor right here in Dallas who’s doing a sermon series on the end of the world, and I’m hoping that he’ll incorporate some of the metaphors from this film into his sermons.”
Ah, Dallas: the epicenter of evangelical awesomeness. ;-)
Cutting to the chase: The Road will probably be a good movie. Pastors can reference films (and other artifacts of popular arts and culture) till the cows come home. But this is not about helping pastors preach. This is about getting pastors to help impact a film’s box office. None of these guys have impacting evangelical communities as their motivation: they want evangelical communities to impact their bottom lines. We are a market share, a consumer base.
Any pastor who affords preaching time to help pitch a film because of some preferential treatment and free swag is a sell-out. If that’s you, I hope you have a congregation that cares and calls you out.
A real Christian life is one infused with the qualities of Christ himself. But we have replaced submission, service, and sacrifice with salesmanship, self-help, and success.
Here is an excerpt from a challenging article written by someone who may surprise you. Read it first, and I will tell you who wrote it after.
I really wish someone would post online Philip Yancey’s most recent Christianity Today column, his last for a long while apparently. It is titled “O Evangelicos” and would serve as a nice companion piece, if not an incidental rejoinder, to this recent Patrol Mag editorial, itself not without merit.
I find it ironic that in the popular fulminating over “evangelicals” trying to come up with definitions for themselves, ostensibly because it’s a losing and wasted preoccupation, the critics have no trouble identifying “those evangelicals.” But if our unity is only to be found in our identity crisis commiseration, in our “definitional masturbation” (to use Patrol Mag’s phrase), we most definitely lose.
This is why my attempt at “definition” — evangelicals are people shaped by the gospel — had more to do not with philosophical common ground but with God’s Christ-formation in Christians. Yeah, that sort of makes the whole thing supernatural, and yes that requires evangelicals to see the fruit of the Spirit and the “mere Christianity” in believers in other denominations (and none), but I’m just naive and stupid enough to think God can do stuff like that.
As for evangelicalism: I agree, it’s collapsing.
As for the word evangelical: I’m with Yancey. We need not abandon it, just work harder at making it mean what it’s supposed to.
That said, and if you’ll forgive the bluntness, we won’t achieve this by hand-wringing about Obama under the banner “Evangel.”
“Do Not Go Quietly” is the name of the message I’m preaching this Sunday, from Titus 2:11-15:
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.
Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you.
The gospel of God’s grace in Jesus is an amazing trainer. It humbles us as it emboldens us. It drives us to our knees in awe while it empowers us to stand and walk. It takes away the burden of meritocratic discipleship while it moves us to a life of good works.
It calls us to deny ourselves as it gives us the authority of being ambassadors for the kingdom.
“Let no one disregard you,” Paul says to Titus. This is similar to his admonition to Timothy to not let anyone look down on his youthfulness. But it is less specific and more emphatic: don’t be disregarded.
Are you living as if the kingdom of God is a force to be reckoned with?
Jesus did not get betrayed and arrested and tortured and crucified because he taught peace, love, and good vibes. Anybody can ignore a hippie. But a guy who claims to be the Son of God? A guy who heals people and pronounces God’s forgiveness and walks into the temple and acts like he owns the place? And then announces its destruction? That’s somebody you have to deal with. You can’t disregard him.
On October 20, two suicide bombers launched near simultaneous attacks on both the men’s and women’s side of the campus.
Afsheen Zafar, 20, is in mourning. Three of her classmates, girls she describes as “shining stars,” were killed on that terrible day.
Still, she says the carnage could have been much worse if not for the actions of a lowly janitor, who was also killed.
“If he didn’t stop the suicide attacker, there could have been great, great destruction,” Zafar says.
“He’s now a legend to us,” says another 20-year-old student named Sumaya Ahsan. “Because he saved our lives, our friends’ lives.”
The janitor’s name was Pervaiz Masih. According to eyewitness accounts, the attacker approached disguised in women’s clothing. He shot the guard on duty, and then approached the cafeteria, which was packed with hundreds of female students.
Masih intercepted the bomber in the doorway, however, and the bomber self-detonated right outside the crowded hall, spraying many of his explosive vest’s arsenal of ball bearings out into the parking lot instead of into the cafeteria.
“The sweeper who was cleaning up here saw someone outside and went towards him,” said Nasreen Siddique, a cafeteria worker who was wounded in the head, leg and arm by the blast. “[Masih] told him that he could not come inside because there were girls inside. And then they started arguing. And then we heard a loud blast and all the glass broke.”
“Between 300 to 400 girls were sitting in there,” said Professor Fateh Muhammad Malik, the rector of the university. “[Pervez Masih] rose above the barriers of caste, creed and sectarian terrorism. Despite being a Christian, he sacrificed his life to save the Muslim girls.”
Masih was a member of Pakistan’s Christian minority, traditionally one of the poorest communities in the country.
No, not “despite” being a Christian did he save Muslim girls. Because he’s a Christian he saved Muslim girls.
Church in the West, we are living lives of disregard and consequently having little impact. Despite our big buildings and our big budgets and our big publishing empires and our big voting blocks and our big events and our big numbers, we are living in such a way to be disregarded. We are making lots of noise . . . inside our inconsequential bubble.
We cannot afford to go quietly. Exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you.
Shortly after I first met my friend and mentor Ray Ortlund, he gave me a copy of his book A Passion for God: Prayers and Meditations on the Book of Romans. The Afterword includes as prophetic and powerful an evangelical manifesto for gospel reform as I’ve ever read.
An Earnest Call For Evangelical Leaders To Recover The Gospel From Its Present Humiliation
A wave of authentic revival sweeps over the church when three things happen together: teaching the great truths of the gospel with clarity, applying those truths to people’s lives with spiritual power, and extending that experience to large numbers of people. We evangelicals urgently need such an awakening today. We need to rediscover the gospel.
Imagine the evangelical church without the gospel. I know this makes no sense, for evangelicals are defined by the evangel. But try to imagine it for just a moment. What might our evangelicalism, without the evangel, look like? We would have to replace the centrality of the gospel with something else, naturally. So what might take the place of the gospel in our sermons and books and cassette tapes and Sunday school classes and home Bible studies and, above all, in our hearts?
A number of things, conceivably. An introspective absorption with recovery from past emotional traumas, for example. Or a passionate devotion to the pro-life cause. Or a confident manipulation of modern managerial techniques. Or a drive toward church growth and “success.” Or a deep concern for the institution of the family. Or a fascination with the more unusual gifts of the Spirit. Or a clever appeal to consumerism by offering a sort of cost-free Christianity Lite. Or a sympathetic, empathetic, thickly-honeyed cultivation of interpersonal relationships. Or a determination to take America back to its Christian roots through political power. Or a warm affirmation of self-esteem. The evangelical movement, stripped of the gospel, might fix upon any or several of such concerns to define itself and derive energy for its mission. In other words, evangelicals could marginalize or even lose the gospel and still potter on their way, perhaps even oblivious to their loss.
But not only is this conceivable, it is actually happening among us right now. Whatever one may think of the various concerns noted above as alternatives to the centrality of the gospel—and some of these matters possess genuine validity and even urgency, especially the family—not one of them is central to our faith. Not one of them is the gospel or deserves to push the gospel itself to the periphery of our message, our agenda and our affections. But the gospel of our blessed Lord Jesus Christ is today suffering humiliation among us evangelicals by our conspicuous neglect of it.
When we think of the gospel, we may have a feeling that “We already know that. Ho-hum.” We assume the gospel as a given. We assume that the people in our churches know the gospel, and we are anxious to move on to more “relevant” and “practical” topics. The gospel is being set aside in our minds and hearts in favor of a broad range of issues, as broadly ranging as evangelicalism is fragmented, while the heart and soul of our faith is falling into obscurity through neglect. The holy mysteries of the incarnation, cross, resurrection, ascension and heavenly reign of our Lord, the great themes of election, propitiation, justification and sanctification, the power and deceitfulness of sin, the meaning of faith and repentance, our union with our crucified, buried and risen Lord, the infinitely superior value of our heavenly reward compared with anything this life has to offer (including the Christian life), the final judgment and eternity—these glorious themes which lie at the very center of our faith, which made the church great at her greatest moments in the past and which can do the same again for us today if only we will recover them and exploit them confidently, prayerfully and biblically, these infinitely precious treasures are being bypassed in favor of legitimate but secondary matters of concern. We must guard the centrality of that which is central.
We should not think, “Well, of course we have the gospel. The Reformation recovered it for us.” Such complacency will cost us dearly. Every generation of Christians must be retaught afresh the basic truths of our faith. The church is always one generation away from total ignorance of the gospel, and we today are making rapid progress toward that ruinous goal. Rather than carelessly assume the gospel, we must aggressively, deliberately, fully and passionately teach and preach the gospel. All the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Christ. If we do not intentionally search them out, we will miss them.
Pastors and church leaders, in particular, are under enormous pressure today to satisfy the immediate demands of the marketplace at the cost of the gospel. People want what they want when they want it, or they will drive down the street to the First Church of Where-It’s-At to get it. Are we leaders losing our nerve? Have we come to feel that the gospel itself meets people’s needs less convincingly and helpfully? But think about it. Without a clear understanding of the central truths of our faith, where will the wisdom and motivation to live godly lives come from? We are constantly offering people “Five Steps to (whatever)” in answer to their problems. But it is not working. To a shameful degree, we Christians are morally indistinct from the world. Why? One reason is that we think piecemeal, and our lives show it. We do not perceive reality from God’s perspective. We perceive reality from the perspective of our ungodly culture, and then we try to slap a biblical principle onto the surface of our deep confusion. Consequently, very little actually changes. What we really need is not to be pandered to but to be re-educated in reality, as it is interpreted for us by the gospel. We need to know who God really is. We need to find out who we really are. We need to understand what our root problem really is and what God’s merciful answer really is. And we need that new perception of reality to percolate deep down into our affections and desires, reorienting us radically and joyfully to a whole new way of life. But if we frankly feel that the plain old gospel offers very little for people’s real needs, then we have never really known it at all.
We evangelicals today are suffering massive defeat, brilliantly disguised as massive success. A record high 74% of Americans eighteen years of age and older say they have made a commitment to Jesus Christ, according to a recent Gallup Poll. That could suggest a high degree of effectiveness in our witness. But at the same time—as if we needed verification of the fact—a survey by the Roper Organization shows little difference in the moral behavior of “born-again” Christians before and after their conversion. If we come under the spell of ratings appeal rather than the imperatives of the gospel, what room can there be for the narrow gate and the hard way? Even as our churches enjoy a measure of outward success, we remain the influenced, not the influential, as long as we shift our power-base from the ways of God to the ways of man, from Spirit-anointed biblical truth to human skills and novelties. Operating in a man-centered rather than a God-centered mode, our churches do not necessarily fail. They stand as good a chance of success as any other franchise network. Some even become popular—but popular as what? As a religious pastime, or as a force for God?
And you, O desolate one,
what do you mean that you dress in scarlet,
that you deck yourself with ornaments of gold,
that you enlarge your eyes with paint?
In vain you beautify yourself.
Your lovers despise you; they seek your life.
– Jeremiah 4:30
O desolate evangelicalism, what do you mean by your stylish fads and restless search for ever new “relevance”? Why are you so insecure that you long for the world’s approving recognition? They despise everything you hold dear! “All things to all men” is no license to cater to the whims of the consumer. Christ alone is Lord. Or have you yourself forgotten his majesty? And why are you so boastful of your numbers and dollars? How poor you really are! Come back to the gospel. Come back to the wellspring of true joy and life and power. Sanctify Christ again as Lord in your hearts. Wake up! Strengthen what remains, for it is on the point of death. But if you will not return to the centrality of the gospel as God’s power for the church today, then what reason does your Lord have for not abandoning you altogether?
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.
Paul articulately asserts the truth of the Incarnation in Colossians 1, but his use of “firstborn” does not mean that there was a time when the Son of God wasn’t (any more than John 3:16′s use of “begotten” does — as the Nicene Creed insists, Jesus is “eternally begotten”). But Paul’s use of “firstborn” here holds such a wealth of meaning: namely, as it applies to Christ’s sovereign authority and to his redemptive activity.
Biblically and culturally speaking, the firstborn son carried the weight of the family inheritance on his shoulders. The family name rested first with him. In the absence of the father, he is the head of the family. The firstborn son receives more honor, more expectation, and more authority.
This is Jesus, of course. The author of Hebrews tells us he is the radiance of God’s glory. Romans 8 tells us that he is the heir of God. Inheritance talk is big in Galatians and Ephesians and Titus and Hebrews.
As our older brother, Jesus is due the authority and the wealth he is owed. But unlike all other older brothers — and I am one, so I know — he walks in a way worthy of his honor. For our sake!
All through the Scriptures, from the murderous Cain to the sniveling tattletale in Jesus’ parable of the Lost Son, the older brother is consistently an utter and absolute failure. (So are most of the younger brothers, actually, but God consistently chooses them to make a point, I think.)
But not Jesus. Where disobedience and disregard ruled the roost of the firstborn, Jesus obeys the Father perfectly, submits to the eternal cause of the glory of the Father completely, and cares for and rescues and sacrifices his own well-being for his younger siblings to the utmost.
Jesus is the older brother who will not trade his birthright for a bowl of soup. Jesus is the older brother who will not trade his siblings into slavery.
Jesus is the older brother who leaves the comfort of his Father’s estate to seek out his lost brother among the brothels and pigsties and actually rescues him from the degradation of the mud and dresses him in the Father’s robe of his own accord.
To borrow from Sinclair Ferguson, Jesus is the “true and better” older brother.
To borrow from a favorite line in a favorite movie, Jesus is the older brother who does his job. Everybody else is the other guy.
I am from Texas. I love Texas. I get Texas.
I lived half my life in Texas, grew up in Texas churches, ministered in 3 of them, accepted the gospel of Willow Creek (which is from Chicago but is Texas-sized) in one of them, and know full well what Jesus meant when he said a prophet is not accepted in his hometown.
Most every time I talk “church” with Texas folk who are still in Texas, the leading question is “How many are you running?” or “How big is your building?” It would be an exaggeration to say every conversation begins this way but it would not be an exaggeration to say most of them do. I have been in Tennessee for the last 12 years, and the Bible Belt is in full cinch there, along with its focus on bigger, better, and faster. Your church is not taken seriously by most in Nashville if you’re not big. But nobody makes bigness the looming necessity that Texan evangelicals make it. In Nashville, the bigness is an unspoken rule while people are talking about small groups and spiritual formation and music, but in Texas they talk about bigness without apology, without any trace of irony, without any sense that it’s utterly ridiculous to assume the church growth movement. Most of them don’t know what irony is or what the “church growth movement” is. But they know what church is, and it’s big, dang it. Or else you’re not doing something right. Or, bless your little heart, you sure are giving it a go.
In Nashville, the people might think your small church is cute but in Houston they will tell you it is, as if this is a compliment and not a condescension. The second pastor I was a youth minister for planted his church in 1995 in Houston. He’s been there 15 years now with a regular attendance of about 100 for the last decade, and our mutual friends consider this as “Hanging in there.” As if 15 years of existence with 100 people constitutes the verge of death.
This isn’t just a Texas problem, but it is a Texas-sized problem in evangelicalism. Enter First Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas and their new $130 million building campaign. Normally I don’t give one whit about how much a pastor is being paid or how much a church spends on whatever; I get my ire raised more by other things. And what FBC Dallas is doing doesn’t really raise my ire. But it is reflective of something that, yes, is bigger than FBC Dallas, bigger than $130 million.
Do we even know what $130 million looks like? Well, we do, actually. It looks like this.
What is at stake is what church is. In the building Q&A linked above, we find this gem: “[T]he glass walls have an evangelistic effect: people walking by have a view in from the street and feel drawn in.”
In the same way a hobo on the sidewalk might press his face against the window of a fancy restaurant in a Norman Rockwell painting, no doubt.
Nobody should fault FBC Dallas or anybody else for building a building. But this isn’t a building. This, and a bunch of other stuff, is Bible Belt Disneyland. This is evangelicalism with more cowbell. This is Field of Dreams attractional church. And it stinks to high heaven. I was directed to a church website once while doing some research that had in its mission statement this sentence: “We will be a missional church, reaching out to the community to invite them to come see what we’re doing at ___________.”
Not go and tell. Come and see is the “mission” of megachurchianity. Which is why you need evangelistic windows.
(Ever heard of Francis Chan? May his tribe increase.)
Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” (Matthew 4:17)
Looking at his disciples, he said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when men hate you,
when they exclude you and insult you
and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man.
– Luke 6:20-22
If the Gospel is not the message for the poor, starving, thirsting, sick, and unclothed, we need a new message, don’t we?
Once there were two brothers. You know their story, more than likely. One was wasteful, exploitative, wanton, licentious. One was rigid, moralistic, uptight, legalistic. Two brothers with two personalities and two sets of attendant sins. But their father loved them both and all that he had belonged to both of them equally.
This is how staggeringly awesome the gospel of Jesus is.
Two sisters. One is a busybody, the other kinda poky. One rarely Sabbaths; the other makes every day a Sabbath. The prescription for both is worship of Jesus.
Two Americans. One is a practicing homosexual and proud of it. The other is a practicing Baptist and proud of it. One trusts his feelings, the other trusts his actions. Both are in desperate need of Jesus for pretty much the same reason.
This is how wonderful the gospel of Jesus is. It’s the skeleton key for all of humanity.
Medicine doesn’t work this way. You don’t treat spina bifida with drugs for leukemia. (At least, I don’t think you do.) You don’t give a decongestant to a kid with athlete’s foot. For every condition, there is a specific treatment. Different symptoms, different fixes.
But the gospel isn’t like that. It fixes everything.
We all exhibit a multitude of symptoms for our conditions, running the gamut from self-indulgent immorality to self-satisfying morality. Opposite ends of the spectrum and everywhere in between. Whatever your symptoms, the gospel is the answer.
There is no problem, pain, or perniciousness outside the universe-spanning scope of the gospel.
The gospel carries with it resurrection power.
So Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, rich or poor, smart or dumb, well or sick, bad or good . . . the gospel is the power to save for all who believe.
The gospel is the antidote to everything.
Proving there is nothing new under the sun that entrepreneurial Christians won’t want to slap a “Jesus fish” on, today marks the emergence of www.ChristianChirp.com, a social media site that is to Twitter what Fireproof is to Citizen Kane.
Yes, “chirping” is annoying. Yes, it’s pretty silly. Yes, it’s beyond a joke how ghetto-ized evangelicals prefer to be. (GodTube, anyone?)
And yet, the only thing lamer than Christians aping the world (poorly) is Christians who think this is the cardinal sin. I wouldn’t have known about ChristianChirp until someone mentioned it on Twitter. I thought its creation rather amusing in its predictability. Then someone else mentioned it. Then several people mentioned it all. dang. day.
My sympathies were transferred. I no longer thought ChristianChirp was so bad. Instead I flashed back to those church-produced Mac vs. PC parodies that posited differences between a “Christian” and a “Christ follower.” The difference of course is that the Christian listened to CCM and wore a tie, while the Christ-follower wore jeans and listened to U2. Don’t you get it, people? There are Christians, and then there are cool Christians, and the regular Christians are ruining it for everyone. Testamints are ruining Christianity!
My friend Bill Roberts, my fellow blogger at the RC Cola of Christian group blogs, The Thinklings, calls this phenomenon I Have Identified the Problem, and It is You.
It reminds me of a great post by a former fellow of the Boar’s Head Tavern blog, A Toast to the Low-Minded Christian by Judson Heartsill (archived at Thinklings, as well).
A good number of the cool kids have effectively said, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” and “I have no need of you.” All of us, however, ought to have love for all the saints, even the dorky ones.
Look, it’s possible Jesus needs new PR, but I seriously doubt those who’ve accepted Jesus in their snark are the ones who should be providing it.
(For now, anyway.)
When evangelicals stop preaching sermons on Gran Torino and dropping iPods from helicopters on Easter, I’ll start caring about Fatima.
I mean, do I have a Spiritual aversion to the “ceremonies, vows, works, and merits” of my brothers and sisters across the Tiber? Yes, and it is strong, theological and visceral.
But we are Keystone Kops over here. We are the Million Stooges, the overflowing clown car.
I think one reason the Reformation was so brilliant, so powerful, so swift in its spread, and still such an anchor—honestly: Luther and Calvin and Zwingli, et.al., but especially Luther, make me feel sane—for many of us today is because as it was taking shape and rescuing hearts, there was no Protestant Church yet to discredit it.
I never even noticed the ad for the Pope’s book at the top of the page until someone pointed it out to me. But for the last two weeks I have been honestly chagrined to keep seeing the word Evangel with a post beneath it that had nothing explicitly (and usually not implicitly) to do with the gospel.
It occurs to me that of the major Western holidays, Halloween is the only one that originated with Christendom but got handed over to the pagans. Did we trade it in for the holidays of theirs we redeemed and turned into Christmas and Easter?
I’d say that’s a fair enough trade, but I think we should have them all. Christ is the Lord of All Hallow’s Eve, after all.
“A Christian is an impregnable person. He is a person that never can be conquered. Emmanuel became man to make the church and every Christian to be one with him. Christ’s nature is out of danger of all that is hurtful. The sun shall not shine, the wind shall not blow, to the church’s hurt. For the church’s Head ruleth over all things and hath all things in subjection.
Therefore let all the enemies consult together, this king and that power, there is a counsel in heaven which will disturb and dash all their counsels. Emmanuel in heaven laugheth them to scorn. And as Luther saith, ‘Shall we weep and cry when God laugheth?’”
—Richard Sibbes, The Bruised Reed
I remember when it was cool to see Jesus in The Matrix. When that five minutes was over, and even your father in law was reading up in 2 Kings to figure out the significance of Neo’s spaceship, the whole thing was a joke. The tide had turned from a Lewisian seeing of celestial beauty in the jungle of filth and imbecility that is Myth to a marketable spotting of Christian symbolism in every pop cultural artifact imaginable. Jesus became Waldo.
I remember when it first hit me to see Christ at the center of the Old Testament narratives. It was only a few years ago—I’m a late bloomer, so sue me—listening to a sermon by Tim Keller given at the inaugural Gospel Coalition Conference. I mean, I wasn’t so dense not to see Jesus in the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac, and of course I knew about the messianic psalms and prophecies, but Keller’s address, replete with appeals to Jonathan Edwards’s non-allegorical homiletical beauty, outlining of the gospel as news not advice, and laser accurate delineation of what constitutes Gospel-Centered Ministry (the name of the sermon, actually), didn’t just blow the rockface off of my understanding. To borrow one of his own illustrations, it burrowed in, planted dynamite, and devastated me. In a good way.
“It is the unhurried meditation on gospel truths and the exposing of our minds to these truths that yields the fruit of sanctified character.”
– Maurice Roberts, The Thought of God
Or as my friend Ray Ortlund says, “Stare at the glory of God until you see it.”
Very few Christians get gospel wakefulness because it sounds so ethereal, intangible. And aside from the facts that Jesus Christ is material and tangible and that what he did was physical and historical, the process of gospel wakefulness is kinda ethereal and intangible. It’s supernatural. It happens in the regenerate heart and overflows into the sanctified life.
But it results from gospel proclamation and transformation (Rom. 1:16; 10:14).
And this is why all the practical tips in the world won’t save a dang soul.
Lazarus didn’t need 7 steps. He needed Jesus’ resurrecting word.
Doug Estes anticipates his forthcoming book SimChurch: Being the Church in a Virtual World with an article at Christianity Today’s Out of Ur blog: In Defense of Virtual Church.
The opening paragraph contains perhaps the least thoughtful thing I’ve ever read at Out of Ur:
If we read carefully the criticisms levied against internet campuses, they boil down to some very common and tired themes: Internet campuses and online churches are not true churches because they don’t look like and feel like churches are expected to look like and feel like
This sentence tells me two things: 1) Estes has not, as he says, “read carefully.” 2) He is about to engage in some extended silliness.
And he does. For several lengthy paragraphs, he interacts with nobody in particular and nothing of substance. It is, fittingly enough, a fine simulation of an argument.
It is not worth the time of an old school fisking. A sampling of its rhetoric will speak for (or rather, against) itself.
“Let’s lay aside for a moment that nowhere in the Bible does it preclude online church, in any way.”
“Virtual churches are not fake churches; they are real churches that use synthetic space as a meeting place”
“We hear and read the myth that the reason why virtual churches are not real is because they don’t have real community. Really? All this time I thought that church—and real, biblical community—had nothing to do with where a church meets. Isn’t church supposed to be about people in communion with God rather than the building?”
If I have to explain the un-virtual deficiencies in such lines, Estes’ work is probably right up your alley.
But if Estes’ book is anything like his blog post, he has done the “internet church” crowd no favors.
This is an elaboration of a comment I left on Justin’s last post. Figured it could be brought up to the main page.
I didn’t want to go through the rigmarole of registering so I could comment at the greater Wilson’s place, especially since only to do so would feel to me as becoming the “Someone’s wrong on the Internet” cartoon, but the most distressing thing about the responses to my post is the assumption that I have zero concern for the systematic murder of children (and that there is apparently no other route to stop it than politicking).
As I said in another post of mine from another site that I linked to from another comment in another of Justin’s posts on this site — everybody follow that? — I am a fan of both politicking for the repeal of Roe v. Wade and attacking with the gospel the sort of social and cultural decay that leads to both unwanted pregnancies and killed babies.
Doug counters at one point that nobody he knows thinks legislation can make anyone a Christian. I have affirmed in one of the myriad comment threads ensuing from my original (apparently) hornet stirring post that I know that if pressed almost no Christian would say it would. (Although I did have one guy say he was essentially argued into the kingdom.) But my concern here is not in what we say in the fine print of our evangelical theology, but what we say and do day to day in our evangelicalism. My argument is that we routinely betray our theology. Not just one hour ago — I’m not making this up — I was talking about the new American missional frontier of New England with someone who made the connection in their response to the liberal government and the fact that we are not a “Christian nation” any more.
This has been a common reaction in the comments: I am attacking a persona that doesn’t exist. I must be that dude from “Beautiful Mind,” then, imagining literally hundreds of people throughout my life. It astounds me that many are acting like they have no idea what I’m talking about. We need to trade Facebook accounts for a while, I suppose, so you can see the daily deluge of trusting in chariots and horses evident in the status updates. Visit a Bible Belt community or even an evangelical pocket outside. Nobody would say laws make people Christian, but just the fact we’d have to ask them in order to clarify makes my point.
But this is the comment of Doug’s I’d most like to address:
yet Jesus, with this transparently “non-political” agenda, managed to get Himself on the hit list of all the political authorities. How did He manage that? Was it all a big misunderstanding?
This is a nice slight of hand.
It disagrees in a way that implies I have no possible explanation for how Jesus ran afoul of the powers that be. Very clever.
Jesus ran afoul of the religious powers that be by “blaspheming” and the governmental powers that be by letting people treat him like Lord and King (which of course he was and is), which is insurrection language.
But do any of us think he wasn’t God or that he was actually plotting military overthrow or political shenanigans?
My entire point, for goodness’ sake, is that the Kingdom doesn’t look like the kingdoms of this world. And lo and behold, that is still scandalous in this world and in the Church.
I’m a part of the Acts 29 network, which is at the forefront of what has been called the “new Calvinism” and the “young, restless, and reformed (YRR)” (both of which are horrendous labels that reek of too much editorial spin to sell books and magazines). This is the tribe I run in, and I love it. God is doing something very unique, and I am thrilled to play a tiny part of it. But in the midst of it all, there is this danger:
I think we’re in danger of making “gospel-centrality” an idol.
We’ve replaced “gospel” with a very distinct understanding of theology, essentially drawing a circle around a small part of the body of Christ, and then we throw verbal stones at those who are outside of the circle. We’ve created a sub-culture of language and jargon that makes us unique, and if people describe things in a different vernacular we hold them in suspicion.
My prayer, actually, is that evangel-centrality will actually mean a larger circle for evangelicalism, which is something I hinted at in my original “What is an evangelical?” post.
The shame is that the guys most vocal about it are typically one sort of guy. (My sort of guy, actually.) And that not only makes it sound like the latest evangelical fad, it makes it in actual danger of being the latest evangelical fad.
But I think it is important for those of us inside the thing to begin speaking as Bill is doing here, guarding the good word that means the good news from becoming a registered trademark of Young Restless Reformed Inc. and guarding our own hearts against idolatry.