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Posts Tagged ‘pastoral theology’

sadface

I’ve heard it from a few people now… stories of depressed friends going to their GP and at some stage being asked, “Are you, by any chance, an evangelical Christian?” Have you heard similar tales?

I’m not sure whether we’ve ended up on any official lists of “predisposing factors” but it certainly makes you think.

So let’s ask a tough question: Is there anything about evangelicalism (as opposed to other kinds of Christianity) that makes depression even harder? Or even, perhaps, more likely?

Is it worse to be an evangelical Christian when you’re depressed?

I can think of two reasons it shouldn’t be and two reasons it might be…

READ THE WHOLE POST ON EMMA’S BLOG

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I’ve been thinking about Job a lot recently (see yesterday’s post). When I consider the miserable comforters, I’m often reminded of this…

The interviewers and those phoning in were undoubtedly well-meaning. But so were Job’s comforters (Job 2:11). They do want to fix him. But again, that was the motivation of the comforters too.  Yet, after endless rounds of “Do this and be healed”, comfort becomes torment.

Interestingly, Chris Sands was eventually cured because a brain surgeon was watching one of these interviews. He wondered whether a tumour pressing on a nerve was the problem. It was. And so Chris went under the knife for drastic surgery. That was the answer and it went so much deeper than all our home spun remedies.

The true answer to suffering is so much deeper than our little platitudes ever acknowledge. In our pastoral care, let’s have true compassion on people, admitting our own helplessness and pointing sufferers away from their paltry efforts to the true Doctor of our souls.

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Book by Book 1
For the last two days we’ve been filming Book by Book’s study in Job. Here’s me with Richard Bewes and Paul Blackham – what a privilege to be involved! I think the DVD and Paul’s insanely good study guide (best resource you’ll find on Job!) will be available later in the year.

In the past I’ve blogged my way through Job on the King’s English:

The LORD gave and the LORD hath taken away

Miserable Comforters

Man is born unto trouble as the sparks fly upward

Escaped by the skin of my teeth

I know that my Redeemer liveth

Gird up thy loins

Repent in dust and ashes

Old and full of days

…And given this sermon on the whole book…

But it was great to look in more depth at the book. Some new thoughts I’ve had as we’ve studied this more together:

1) So much of Job is about knowing Christ – the Mediator.  His mediatorial work comes up at key points – Job 9:32-35; Job 16:19-21; Job 19:23-27; Job 33:23-28; Job 42:7-9.  Whenever Job is doing well, he has his eyes on Christ. Whenever he’s doing badly, he has his eyes back on himself.

2) The great problem with the miserable comforters is a total ignorance of Christ. Eliphaz, the prosperity teacher, thinks you can get your best life now without Christ and His future. Bildad, the works righteousness preacher, thinks you can become just by your own efforts. Zophar thinks you can be spiritual, without Christ, just by your own devotional commitments. From their christlessness flows their terrible theology – in their various ways they basically believe ‘you get what you deserve.’  And from their terrible theology flows their terrible pastoral care.

3) The comforters don’t intend to be tormentors. They come in chapter 2:11 to sympathise with Job. They spend a week sitting in silence with him – what commitment!  It’s just that having miserable theology means – necessarily – giving miserable comfort.  Application: If you don’t know the gospel, don’t you dare do pastoral care!

4) Elihu is a good guy. Once you grasp this, it really helps you a) to take his own wisdom more seriously, but even more importantly, b) to reappraise Job as someone who errs as well as speaks rightly (cf 32:1-4). Job errs (especially from chapter 30 onwards) in continually justifying his own uprightness to the friends, and even to God. Job is certainly a believer and he hasn’t brought his suffering on himself through any particular sins. However, he ends up insisting on his innocence almost as much as the comforters insinuate his guilt.  In his better moments he forgets about either innocence or guilt and looks to Christ. But when he doesn’t, he invites the critique of Elihu (and then the LORD).

5) Job’s insistence on his innocent suffering – while correct on one level – tips him, at times, in the direction of a miserable-comforter-style theology of glory. Towards the end, he begins pitting ‘knowing God’ against ‘experiencing suffering’. He becomes nostalgic for times of intimacy with God. But he loses sight of the intimacy he can have in suffering.  This is a key truth Elihu brings.

6) I’d never really noticed them before but Elihu’s words in Job 36 are some of my favourite in the book:

“But those who suffer the LORD delivers in their suffering; he speaks to them in their affliction. He is wooing you from the jaws of distress to a spacious place free from restriction, to the comfort of your table laden with choice food.” (Job 36:15-16)

Beautiful!

7) Job asks for answers throughout the book.  But he never gets them.  Instead he gets an experience of the LORD in suffering (Job 16:19-21; cf Job 38-41) and a promised hope after it (Job 19:23-27; cf Job 42).  It’s the same with us.  Who cares about answers?  We need the LORD Jesus Himself and the future He will bring.

8) When James looks back on Job, his take-home message is: “Job’s perseverance and… what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.” (James 5:11) Job’s ending is crucial.  It’s a happily ever after that pictures the good purposes Christ has for all our suffering.  When we read Job all the way through, our response should be: “Hallelujah, the Lord is so full of love and grace!”  If we’re not saying this, we haven’t understood the book (and we won’t cope with suffering as we should).

Book by Book 3

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PornScars4A while back The Big House asked Emma and I to come up with some resources for a conference called Porn Scars. It’s material to help foster discussion of porn among teens.  We came up with a fictional story, some discussion questions and a bible study in Colossians 3.  The Big House turned it into a very attractive pdf which you can download here.

It’s billed as an evening’s worth of material, but if you did everything it would take 2.5 hours easy.  Feel free to download the attractive pdf and use in your own context.

Below is the text:

FREDDY’S STORY:

Finally, Freddy’s parents got him a smartphone. And not just any smartphone – it was 4G, with dual core processor and unlimited internet. It was faster than his dad’s laptop. He wasn’t allowed it at school, but as soon as he was home he was surfing the net, messaging friends and playing games. As far as Freddy was concerned this was the best present ever.

One day he was watching the latest viral video on Youtube. It was pretty funny – something about sneezing pandas dancing to Korean pop songs. At the end there was a link to another video. It was a compilation of girls in bikinis falling over. Pretty funny too. Then there was another link. This one was basically just the bikini girls.

At this point, Freddy plugged in his headphones. He didn’t want anyone to hear. When the “bikini girls falling over” finished there was another link – this one from a porn site. He swallowed hard, locked the door and clicked again. It was nothing he hadn’t seen before on TV but there was an address on the video. He typed it in and instantly his screen flashed red. Freddy almost jumped out of his chair. It was a massive sign saying “Restricted Access. You must be over 18 to enter this site.”

In a fit of honesty Freddy clicked the box saying saying “No I am not 18”. Suddenly he was returned to Youtube. “Oh!” he said, surprised by how loud he said it. It felt like he’d come to the borders of a mysterious land but instead of exploring, he had turned back to boring normality. Nothing on Youtube seemed remotely interesting now. He took a deep breath and hit the back button. This time he clicked “Yes, I am 18+”. In an instant he had a dozen naked women in the palm of his hand. His heart was pounding so hard it felt like it might beat a hole through his chest. (more…)

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job miserable comfortersI’ve just blogged over at A New Name (Cos, you know, the author and me. We Have A Thing.)

Anyway, it begins thus…

Here’s the story: Job loses his wealth, his health and his family in a series of extraordinary calamities. The reader is aware – though Job is not – that the whole thing began in heaven with a kind of wager between the LORD and Satan. The LORD is proud of His servant Job and so permits truly diabolical attacks which He knows Job will endure. But the suffering is intense. Job himself sits down in the ashes and wishes he was dead, his wife tells him to ‘curse God and die’ and his three friends – who are meant to be comforters – end up tormenting him in the most grotesque way imaginable.

Twenty times Job asks what we all ask when we suffer: “Why?”  Why me? Why now? Why this? In Job, the reader knows the answer – or at least, knows more than him.  But Job is in the dark and the why question remains conspicuously unanswered, even when the LORD shows up for an almighty happy ending. Apparently the question which Job asks most is one the LORD was content to ignore.

What do we learn? Let me give five observations…

Read more here…

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Matthew11vs28Last night our home group loved exploring the fascinating contrasts of Matthew 11.

The one who ‘prepares the way’ for Jesus, has a wobble when the ‘way of Jesus’ (suffering) hits.

Jesus is the fulfilment of Isaiah 61, but doesn’t release the captives (i.e. John!)

The Lord of new creation does not fix everything in the old.

John the Baptist is the greatest of men and least in the Kingdom.

Those most prepared for the King are least responsive to His coming.

The Kingdom is too serious and too joyous for the ‘children’ of Christ’s generation.

One kind of ‘child’ is fickle (v16), but Jesus wants us to be ‘little children’ in a different sense (v25)

Joy-filled Jesus (v19) shows He is a Jealous Judge (v20)

The best of the best according to the flesh (Chorazin, Bethsaida, Capernaum) are the worst spiritual Sodomites.

They reject a Jesus who is only bringing life, healing, blessing, restoration!

Judge Jesus turns instantly back to joy in v25.

God delights to hide Himself… on full display to the world. (v25-27)

Jesus is God’s open secret, inviting the world into the most intimate family mystery.

Jesus Himself is unknown to any but the Father, even as He freely reveals the Father.

Jesus claims to hold all divine power and to be ‘lowly in heart.’

He has mighty hands (v27) and a meek heart (v29).

There is a “yoke” that gives “rest”

The Judge of all has come to give the world an easy life.

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lutherEmma’s just written a stonking post on combating the lies which threaten to overwhelm us. She quotes an example from Luther’s Galatians commentary:

“Sir Devil,” we may say, “I am not afraid of you. I have a Friend whose name is Jesus Christ, in whom I believe. He has abolished the Law, condemned sin, vanquished death, and destroyed hell for me. He is bigger than you, Satan. He has licked you, and holds you down. You cannot hurt me.” This is the faith that overcomes the devil’.

Here are some other brilliant moves from the same Kung-Fu Master – let’s learn how to comfort ourselves, and each other, with gospel hope:

You will readily grant that Christ gave Himself for the sins of Peter, Paul, and others who were worthy of such grace. But feeling low, you find it hard to believe that Christ gave Himself for your sins. Our feelings shy at a personal application of the pronoun “our,” and we refuse to have anything to do with God until we have made ourselves worthy by good deeds. (1:4)…

…Learn to believe that Christ was given, not for trifling and imaginary transgressions, but for  mountainous sins; not for one or two, but for all; not for sins that can be discarded, but for sins that are stubbornly ingrained. Practice this knowledge and fortify yourself against despair, particularly in the last hour, when the memory of past sins assails the conscience. Say with confidence: “Christ, the Son of God, was given not for the righteous, but for sinners. If I had no sin I should not need Christ. No, Satan, you cannot delude me into thinking I am holy. (1:4)…

…If he says, “Thou shalt be damned,” you tell him: “No, for I fly to Christ who gave Himself for my sins. In accusing me of being a damnable sinner, you are cutting your own throat, Satan. You are reminding me of God’s fatherly goodness toward me, that He so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. In calling me a sinner, Satan, you really comfort me above measure.” With such heavenly cunning we are to meet the devil’s craft and put from us the memory of sin. (1:4)…

…When you see a person squirming in the clutches of the Law, say to him: “Brother, get things straight. You let the Law talk to your conscience. Make it talk to your flesh. Wake up, and believe in Jesus Christ, the Conqueror of Law and sin. Faith in Christ will lift you high above the Law into the heaven of grace. Though Law and sin remain, they no longer concern you, because you are dead to the Law and dead to sin.” Blessed is the person who knows how to use this truth in times of distress. He can talk. He can say: “Mr. Law, go ahead and accuse me as much as you like. I know I have committed many sins, and I continue to sin daily. But that does not bother me. You have got to shout louder, Mr. Law. I am deaf, you know. Talk as much as you like, I am dead to you. If you want to talk to me about my sins, go and talk to my flesh. Belabor that, but don’t talk to my conscience. My conscience is a lady and a queen, and has nothing to do with the likes of you, because my conscience lives to Christ under another law, a new and better law, the law of grace.” (2:17)…

…True Christian righteousness is the righteousness of Christ who lives in us. We must look away from our own person. Christ and my conscience must become one, so that I can see nothing else but Christ crucified and raised from the dead for me. If I keep on looking at myself, I am gone. If we lose sight of Christ and begin to consider our past, we simply go to pieces. We must turn our eyes to the brazen serpent, Christ crucified, and believe with all our heart that He is our righteousness and our life. For Christ, on whom our eyes are fixed, in whom we live, who lives in us, is Lord over Law, sin, death, and all evil. (2:20)…

…When we look at ourselves we find plenty of sin. But when we look at Christ, we have no sin. Whenever we separate the person of Christ from our own person, we live under the Law and not in Christ; we are condemned by the Law, dead before God. Faith connects you so intimately with Christ, that He and you become as it were one person. As such you may boldly say: “I am now one with Christ. Therefore Christ’s righteousness, victory, and life are mine.” On the other hand, Christ may say: “I am that big sinner. His sins and his death are mine, because he is joined to me, and I to him.” (2:20)…

…Read the words “me” and “for me” [in Galatians 2:20] with great emphasis. Print this “me” with capital letters in your heart, and do not ever doubt that you belong to the number of those who are meant by this “me.” Christ did not only love Peter and Paul. The same love He felt for them He feels for us. If we cannot deny that we are sinners, we cannot deny that Christ died for our sins. (2:20…)

…We comfort the afflicted sinner in this manner: Brother, you can never be perfect in this life, but you can be holy. He will say: “How can I be holy when I feel my sins?” I answer: You feel sin? That is a good sign. To realize that one is ill is a step, and a very necessary step, toward recovery. “But how will I get rid of my sin?” he will ask.  I answer: See the heavenly Physician, Christ, who heals the broken-hearted. Do not consult that Quackdoctor, Reason. Believe in Christ and your sins will be pardoned. His righteousness will become your righteousness, and your sins will become His sins. (3:6)…

…Let us become expert in the art of transferring our sins, our death, and every evil from ourselves to Christ; and Christ’s righteousness and blessing from Christ to ourselves. (3:14)…

…We ought to feel sure that we stand in the grace of God, not in view of our own worthiness, but through the good services of Christ. As certain as we are that Christ pleases God, so sure ought we to be that we also please God, because Christ is in us. And although we daily offend God by our sins, yet as often as we sin, God’s mercy bends over us. Therefore sin cannot get us to doubt the grace of God. Our certainty is of Christ, that mighty Hero who overcame the Law, sin, death, and all evils. So long as He sits at the right hand of God to intercede for us, we have nothing to fear from the anger of God. (4:5)…

…Train your conscience to believe that God approves of you. Fight it out with doubt. Gain assurance through the Word of God. Say: “I am all right with God. I have the Holy Ghost. Christ, in whom I do believe, makes me worthy. I gladly hear, read, sing, and write of Him. I would like nothing better than that Christ’s Gospel be known throughout the world and that many, many be brought to faith in Him.” (4:5)…

…This is sweet comfort for us (5:5) . And we are to make use of it in comforting the afflicted. We are to say to them: “Brother, you would like to feel God’s favor as you feel your sin. But you are asking too much. Your righteousness rests on something much better than feelings. Wait and hope until it will be revealed to you in the Lord’s own time. Don’t go by your feelings, but go by the doctrine of faith, which pledges Christ to you.” (5:5)…

…Defy Satan in times of despair. Say: “O cursed Satan, you choose a nice time to talk to me about doing and working when you know very well that I am in trouble over my sins. I will not listen to you. I will listen to Christ, who says that He came into the world to save sinners.  This is the true Christ and there is none other. I can find plenty of examples for a holy life in Abraham, Isaiah, John the Baptist, Paul, and other saints. But they cannot forgive my sins. They cannot save me. They cannot procure for me everlasting life. Therefore I will not have you for my teacher, O Satan.” (5:8)…

…When I was a monk I thought I was lost forever whenever I felt an evil emotion, carnal lust, wrath, hatred, or envy. I tried to quiet my conscience in many ways, but it did not work, because lust would always come back and give me no rest. I told myself: “You have permitted this and that sin, envy, impatience, and the like. Your joining this holy order has been in vain, and all your good works are good for nothing.” If at that time I had understood this passage, “The flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh,” I could have spared myself many a day of self-torment. I would have said to myself: “Martin, you will never be without sin, for you have flesh. Despair not, but resist the flesh.” (5:17)…

…When the flesh begins to cut up the only remedy is to take the sword of the Spirit, the word of salvation, and fight against the flesh. If you set the Word out of sight, you are helpless against the flesh. I know this to be a fact. I have been assailed by many violent passions, but as soon as I took hold of some Scripture passage, my temptations left me. Without the Word I could not have helped myself against the flesh. (5:18)

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unitarian worshipContinued from here

In his book, “Worship, Community and the Triune God of Grace”, James Torrance sums up much of the teaching we’re considering, especially as he highlights the difference between Unitarian and Trinitarian worship.

Unitarian and Trinitarian Worship

According to Torrance these are the two broad models of worship.  Unitarian worship is not necessarily that offered by Unitarians – most often it simply reflects the functionally monadic doctrine of God latent in our congregations.  Worship on this model sees only two parties – the LORD who is simply the recipient of worship; and the human worshipper (or congregation) who may be divinely enabled and empowered but who, nonetheless, is wholly responsible for performing the worship.

As against this, Trinitarian worship recognizes that God the Father has set forth God the Son to be the True High Priest who, by God the Spirit, offers to the Father that which He demands.  Worship is therefore not the efforts of humanity in approaching God but a participation in Christ’s perfect worship of the Father, graciously offered through the Spirit.

This, in turn, leads to different accounts of intimacy.  On the Unitarian model, intimacy is an ideal to be reached (if only we can raise our moral and mystical games).  We are external to God and must figure out how to approach Him in an acceptable way.  The only priesthood here is our priesthood.  The only offering involved is our offering.  The only intercession is our intercession.  And if we get all these things right, then, perhaps, we will attain to a measure of intimacy.

On the Trinitarian model, adoption into the life of God through the Son and by the Spirit is the incomparable intimacy which guarantees true and acceptable worship.  The order is thus reversed. Worship does not bring us near to God.  Rather ‘the blood of Christ’ has brought us near (Ephesians 2:13) that ‘through Him we… have access to the Father by one Spirit.’ (Ephesians 2:18).  Blood-bought intimacy with God is the beginning of true worship – not an added bonus when the mood is right.

The Perfect and Eternal Priesthood of Christ guarantees our acceptable worship before the Father.  Therefore we’re always late to worship. We’re always joining something that is already under way. We begin our worship in the embrace of the divine love – our worship is merely God’s appointed means of experiencing such intimacy.

How then do we worship?

When we think of “intimacy with God”, what do we picture?  Probably we’re thinking of a private experience.  But in the Bible our intimacy with the Father, through the Son and by the Spirit is expressed corporately.  In community we reflect the Triune life to which we have been called.  As a community we are Christ’s Body and Bride.  A merely private intimacy with God is a rejection of the terms on which we have been offered fellowship.  It’s true that worship of God is 24/7 (Romans 12:1ff).  And it’s true that I am continually ‘one with Christ’, whether by myself or with others. But consider the marriage analogy.  I may be ‘one with my wife’ even when we’re separated by oceans.  Yet our experience of intimacy comes with setting aside times and places.  So it is with our experience of intimacy – the Scriptures envisage corporate fellowship with God, as we gather.

The Gathering

Acts 2:42 gives four characteristic marks of the post-Pentecost church: the Apostle’s teaching, the fellowship (koinonia), the breaking of bread and prayer.

Firstly, the Word is set forth. This is essential.  The Spirit brings us Christ through the Word since, as Calvin would say, Christ comes clothed in His promises.  There is no unmediated or self-generated approach to God.  It is of the essence of grace that God approaches us at His initiative and by His appointed means.  In the Bible, Christ is offered to us freely in words of promise.  God has ordained that ‘faith comes by hearing’ (Romans 10:17), thus the Bible must be at the absolute centre.  There ought not to be any meeting without the Word. When Luther wrote ‘Concerning the Order of Public Worship’ he advised: ‘Let everything be done so that the Word may have free course… We can spare everything except the Word.  Again we profit by nothing as much as by the Word.’

‘The fellowship’ is an objective, Spirit-created, communion to which believers are to be ‘devoted’.  This fellowship subsists in the organic union we share as the Body of Christ.  In it we are given various gifts and roles for our mutual edification and mission to the world (cf 1 Cor 12-14).  To be devoted to this involves the exercise of gifts in ministering to one another (cf Romans 12:4-8) and practical, costly service (eg 1 John 3:17-18).

‘The breaking of bread’ we take to be sacramental (hence the).  Along with the preached Word, the dispensing of the sacraments was taken by reformers as the other defining mark of a true Church.  Christ has given us Himself in this supper through ‘visible words’ (Augustine’s phrase).  Via these, we ‘feed on Christ in our hearts by faith, with thanksgiving’ (Cranmer’s phrase).  This sacrament is communal by its very nature – uniting us with Christ and each other.  It ought to be a genuine high point in our gatherings though always attended by the Word, by clear teaching on its purpose, and eaten in peaceable fellowship with all (1 Corinthians 11:17-22).

Corporate prayer is an essential part of worship.  The prayer Jesus taught His disciples was corporate – ‘Our Father’.  The Spirit equips the Bride to call on her Husband ‘Come’ (Revelation 22:17).  Prayer is an activity of the Church and one that expresses our complete dependence on, and devotion to, the Lord.  Our intimacy with God could not be more evident than when the Father sends the Spirit of His Son into our hearts “who calls out ‘Abba, Father’” (Galatians 4:6).  All kinds of prayers should therefore be made in our services – prayers of praise (Revelation 5:9-14), of thanksgiving (Ephesians 5:20), of confession (Nehemiah 9) and of supplication (1 Timothy 2:1ff).

Conclusion

Right worship is possible only on the basis of our intimate union with Christ, under-written by His blood and sealed by His Spirit.  Intimacy should not be held out as the goal of Christian worship but the ground.  Our experience of intimacy with the Triune God comes as we appreciate that which is already ours in Christ.

Grace, therefore, is the very atmosphere of Christian worship since Christ, our great High Priest, has already performed the perfect service to God.  Even worship is a gift that comes from on high – not a work to be generated by us. We receive the benefits of His priestly worship through faith-union with Him, and we experience, understand and deepen that union especially in corporate worship.

The Communion of Father, Son and Spirit is known most fully in the communion of His people.  This happens as the Spirit works through word and sacrament, through a communal lifting of our hearts in prayer and through mutual encouragement, to awaken us to Christ’s presence in and with us.  As we grasp and appreciate Him we know our exalted position, caught up in the intimate life of God Himself.

 

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Dali CrossContinued from here.

Christ’s Work

“But now in Christ, you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ.” (Ephesians 2:13)

As we speak about intimacy with God we must never forget the way into divine fellowship. Ever since humanity rejected the LORD Christ and trusted Satan instead, the way back to fellowship has been blocked by fiery judgement (Genesis 3:24).  This fallen flesh and blood cannot participate in the life of God (1 Cor 15:50).  Only ‘the Man out of the Heavens’ could ever belong in the inner circle of God’s life (1 Cor 15:15:47-49).

Yet, with infinite grace and condescension, this Man came out of the heavens.  He took the very flesh and blood of our humanity and He redeemed it.  Where we had failed, He succeeded, where we had sinned, He obeyed, where we had fled, He stood tall, where we had hated, He loved, where we had erred, He taught, where we were enslaved, He set free, where we were ashamed, He gave dignity, where we grasped at glory, He gave freely, where we clung to life, He poured it out.

On the cross, God’s Man took on Himself all the sin, guilt and shame of this fallen humanity.  He endured the divine fury at sin, passing through that fiery judgement which bars the way into God.  And now, in His glorious resurrection body, Christ, the True Man, sits at the Father’s right hand.  He is beyond death and judgement.  Our Brother is now in the inner circle of the life of God.  We, in ourselves, would be swept away by God’s righteous anger at sin.  Yet Christ is the Way to the Father and in Him, Who “quenched the wrath of hostile heaven”, we have obtained access.

Why do I recount these gospel truths? A) Because they are glorious!  B) Because sometimes people (and I’m sure I’m guilty of this too), manage to speak of  “union with Christ”  as a warm ‘n’ fuzzy truth. Often the Fatherhood of God, adoption into His family, one-ness with Jesus can be articulated without the blood and fire of the Bible’s presentation.  But we desperately need the grit and grime – the sweat and tears – of Christ’s atonement if we’re going to experience true intimacy with God.  A toothless, bloodless message about a heavenly Father-figure doesn’t connect with people who live in the midst of suffering and sin.  It can’t connect, because the only real point of connection is a Bleeding Sacrifice choking to death on a cross.  But He’s who we really need if we want intimacy with God.  Because He actually meets us in the godforsakeness of life as we know it.

If all our talk of intimacy with God is not dripping in the blood of Christ we’re just holding out “a nice idea” to people who are burdened by shame and guilt and who will never connect with our words of “divine participation” – no matter how warm or inviting we sound.  More than this, if our talk of divine intimacy is not utterly cross-shaped then people will play off “taking up our cross” against enjoying life in God. Which would be absurd – yet it happens all the time!  But no, triune glory is cruciform glory. Therefore participating in God means participating in the cross. The way to God is through Christ and Him crucified.

Christ’s Priesthood

Our Great High Priest, Jesus, does not simply bring God’s life down to us. He also offers our life up to God. He is not just God-for-us, He is also Man-for-God.  Thus, from Christ’s representative humanity (for us) there is a presentation to the Father.  This is Christ’s Priestly work – again a work done for us.

By the Spirit, Christ has made the perfect offering to the Father:

‘Christ, through the eternal Spirit… offered Himself unblemished to God.’ (Hebrews 9:14)

Christ’s worship constitutes the fullness of all acceptable worship to God.  Without participation in His perfect obedience, His perfect sacrifice and His perfect Priesthood, there is no worship worthy of the name.  To offer true sacrifice to the Father we must be in Christ.  Only then do we have a share in acceptable worship.  Yet, in Him, we are pure, spotless and holy – as acceptable as Christ Himself (Colossians 1:22).

What place does our worship have?

If Christ is our Great High Priest, where does my worship fit in?

Worship is the gracious invitation which the LORD makes to us to share in His own worshipping life.  Just as Christ is the Righteous One (for us) and yet invites us to share in His holy life, just as Christ is the Great Sufferer (for us) and yet allows us to share in His sufferings, so we, His people are to share in His worship.

Hebrews 8:2 calls Christ our Leitourgos – ‘the leader of our worship’. Calvin, following Psalm 22:22, called Christ ‘the great choirmaster’, tuning our hearts to sing the Father’s praises.  Worship is the participation in Christ’s perfect worship.  As James Torrance says,

“Whatever else our worship is, it is our liturgical amen to the worship of Christ.” 

Every act of worship or devotion that we perform is grounded in and surrounded by Christ’s prior and perfect offering.  Thus we do not worship as those attempting to gain intimacy with God, but as those who have been gifted it. And the ‘direction’ of the activity is the gracious movement of God coming to us in Christ.  Any ‘upward’ movement is that done by Christ and we participate by faith.  Thus, the focus of all worship must be on the LORD Jesus.  In other words:

I am the Way, the Truth and the Life, no-one comes to the Father except by me. (John 14:6)

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union-with-christContinued from here.

Participating in the Divine Nature

The God who is an eternal communion is a God who wills to share.  He does this through creation and maintains His offer in redemption.

The Father, by the Spirit, has created a love-gift through and for the Son – the creation (Col 1:16).  His desire is that the Son be the firstborn among many brothers (Rom 8:29).  The Father wants many brought into the life of God through the Son and by the Spirit (Gal 4:4-7).  This is the goal of all His creating and redeeming purposes.

As Christ says Himself:

 ‘Father, I want those You have given me to be with Me where I am, and to see My glory, the glory You have given Me because You loved Me before the creation of the world… I have made You known to them, and will continue to make You known in order that the love You have for Me will be in them, and that I myself may be in them.’  (John 17:24-26)

The glory of our Triune God expresses itself in His will to share His divine life with us.  The love of the Father for the Son – that which defines both God and the creation – cascades over to His people when they are united, by His Spirit, to the Son.

By our union with Christ (discussed below), we are thus adopted as sons and daughters in the same Family.  In this way, we do not simply share in a favoured status external to the LORD, we share in the Father-Son relationship which is constitutive of the divine life itself.  To know and appropriate the love of God is to participate in that which forms the very being of God.

2 Corinthians 1 tells us that God bellows an exultant YES towards His Son (v19).  The incarnate Son answers with a mighty AMEN on our behalf (v20). By the Spirit we are sealed into Jesus and find ourselves responding to God with Christ’s own AMEN (v21-22).  In the Bible, we do not simply admire the LORD from afar, we participate in His divine nature (2 Peter 1:4).

Union with Christ

The way in to this divine participation is the Son.  As John Owen says in his classic book “Communion with God”:

‘Scripture shows us that we hold communion with the Lord Jesus in grace by a marriage relationship…  This spiritual relationship is accompanied with mutual love, and so in this fellowship with Christ we experience and enjoy all the excellent things which are in Him.’

Christ is the Bridegroom, we (the Church) are His Bride.  In this union we enjoy all His benefits as though they were ours by right.  Not least of these is His status as the Father’s beloved Son.  Therefore Christ can say to His Father, ‘the love You have for Me will be in them.’  In this way we are caught up into God.

The bible speaks of our union with Christ at different levels.  In one sense, we share in Jesus’ benefits as co-beneficiaries:

As Christ is the Son, we can be called sons (Galatians 4:4-7)

While Christ is Heir, we are co-heirs (Romans 8:17)

While Christ is the Living Stone, we are living stones (1 Peter 2:4-5)

In this way we are graciously allowed to come alongside Jesus, to be treated to His blessings on the same level.

Yet, at times, Scripture tells of a higher level of identification.  Often we are said (in the plural) to be exactly what Jesus is in the singular:

While Christ is the Seed, we are the seed (Galatians 3:16 <=>3:29)

While Christ is the Light of the world, we are the light of the world (John 8:12 <=> Matthew 5:14)

While He is the Vine, we are the branches (John 15:5)

Note that, with this last example, it is not that Christ is the root structure and we are the branches.  Rather we form part of the Vine Himself!  The Vine is One, we are others, but in this organic relationship that He creates and sustains, we become part of Him.

This leads naturally to a third category by which the bible speaks of our union.  That is, in the sense of a symbiotic relationship.

Thus, Christ is the Head, we are the Body (Colossians 1:18)

Christ is the Groom, we are the Bride (Isaiah 54:5; Ezekiel 16; Ephesians 5:21-33; Revelation 19:6-9)

When the bible speaks in these kinds of terms, we are on hallowed ground indeed.  Christ unites His Church to Himself that our union might redound to His greater glory.  As He says in John 17:10, He is glorified in us.

This is not to say that we sinners complete Christ in the sense of contributing our worth to the equation.  In ourselves we could only bring shame to Jesus.  Yet Christ redeems and cleanses a Bride and then (Eph 5:26) presents her to Himself.  In this way Christ becomes more truly who He is because of His union with us.  After all, must not the Head have a Body?  Should not the Vine have branches?  Ought not the Bridegroom to have a Bride? If He did not have a Bride, would He not have to give up the glory of being Bridegroom?  Therefore Christ is very committed to His covenant partner – His own Person and glory is bound up in the fate of His Church.

Christ takes His own marriage advice and loves Himself by loving His Bride (Eph 5:28).  Thus when the infinite powers of the Father have been committed to the Son, He employs them solely ‘for the church’. (Eph 1:22).  All divine power in heaven and earth is employed for the good of Christ’s Bride. Thus the Church has its immeasurable status both conferred by divine right but also under-girded by divine commitment even to death.  No wonder Paul can ask ‘Who will separate us from the love of Christ?’  This is more than impossible.

Our union with Christ could not be closer.  The Apostle Paul can speak of our history and identity as entirely bound up in Jesus: ‘When Christ, who is your life, appears, you also will appear with Him in glory.’ (Col 3:1-4) The believer is in fact seated with Christ in the heavenly realms and has not actually appeared yet.  We are hidden with Christ in God.

In this way, we are more united to Christ than we are to ourselves.  Certainly His identity and not our own determines our standing in God’s eyes both now and in eternity.

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Last Supper # 2“Those who receive and bear the Spirit of God are led to the Word, that is to the Son.  But the Son takes them up and presents them to the Father, and the Father bestows incorruptibility.  Therefore one cannot see the Word of God without the Spirit, nor can anyone approach the Father without the Son.  For the Son is the knowledge of the Father, and knowledge of the Son of God is through the Holy Spirit.  But the Son, in accord with the Father’s good pleasure, graciously dispenses the Spirit to those to whom the Father wills it, and as the Father wills it.” (Irenaeus of Lyon)

“Christian worship is therefore our participation through the Spirit in the Son’s communion with the Father.” (James Torrance)

Introduction

Participation in the life of God is cherished by some as the very goal of God’s Gospel and it’s mistrusted by others as a spurious Hellenization of the truth.  In the next few posts I will outline a biblical case for divine participation. I’ll examine the precious doctrine of union with Christ that brings us such participation, and I’ll highlight the work of Christ as Mediator, guaranteeing and grounding the free offer of this relationship.

I want to show that intimacy with God is not an optional extra for the more ‘emotional’ among us.  To ‘know’ the Father and the Son is eternal life (John 17:3).  When we understand “knowing” in the biblical sense we cannot deny that profound intimacy with God is the essence of our Christian lives. It is not a carrot to be held out for the pious, nor a bonus given in response to particularly ‘successful’ worship. Intimacy is guaranteed to the Christian in Christ.  It is therefore the indispensable starting point of the Christian life – not an optimistic goal.

The intimacy of God

Any talk of intimacy with God must begin with the intimacy that is within God.  As a community of Persons united in self-giving love, the Triune God knows worship and intimacy within Himself.  The creation does not give rise to relationship, rather relationship gives rise to the creation. In other words, the Father creates for the Son (Colossians 1:16).  Thus, worship is not the self-willed response of creature to Creator but rather an eternal dynamic within the being of God.

Before the foundation of the world the Father delighted in the Son in the bond of the Spirit. Virtually every verse regarding the pre-creation life of God describes the Father focussing His affections and purposes on the Son: (Prov 8:22-30; John 3:35; 5:20; 17:5, 24; 1 Pet 1:20; Eph 1:4-6; Col 1:15-17; Romans 8:29.)

Likewise the Son, in the power of the Spirit, commits Himself to the service of the Father: John 17:4-5; 5:17; 12:27f; 14:31; 17:24; Hebrews 10:5-7; Revelation 13:8.

The Persons of God commit to one another in a common love and purpose.  To use the technical terminology of Trinitarian theology, these inter-relations are referred to as the perichoresis of the Persons. To get a sense of the meaning of this Greek word, think of a choreographed dance around a perimeter. The Trinity is described as performing a round dance, each of the Members committing to the Others in love, service and empowerment.  The divine life is a dance of giving and receiving in joyful communion.

Now this dance is not simply something the Persons do.  It is not a part-time hobby of the Persons.  We must not think of the Persons in isolation, deciding to come together.  If we could ever conceive of a time when the Father was not committed to the Son or when the Son was not obedient to the Father we have imagined the Father not being the Father and the Son not being the Son.  We have imagined false gods.  The Persons are who they are IN the relationships that they share with one another in this dance of love.

To “see” this dance is to witness the divine being.  As Colin Gunton says, ‘the ousia – general being – of God is constituted without remainder by what the persons are to and from each other in eternal perichoresis.’

Without Trinity there is no intimacy with God. Without this give-and-take to God’s being there would be no room for us to participate. We must say this.  But we must say more than this.

Intimacy Earthed

It is not enough to say that “God is a dance” and then expect the worshipper to “link arms and join in.”  It’s not enough to say “God is an intimate community – we should follow suit.”  We can’t just say “There’s room to God, come on in.”  If we did then intimacy with God would be our doing.  And it could only ever be as solid as our own feeble hearts.

No, there’s better news than that.  God does not leave us to make our own way to the party. If He did, then our intimacy would depend on us. It would be about our ability to spiritualize our humanity up to God.  But God in Christ does something much more profound.  He incarnates His divinity into our humanity.  He earths His own intimacy into our very being and raises it back up to the highest heaven.

At Christmas, He moves down into our life. At the ascension, He sweeps us up into His life: really, substantially, eternally, irrevocably. As we’ll see in the next post – the triune God does not make participation something that’s up to us.  The triune God takes the whole intimacy thing into His own hands.  And that’s the only safe place for it to be.

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Emma and I have just done a seminar at Bible by the Beach. Emma told some of her story and I spoke about ‘The Big Story’ around pastoral care and addictions as well as ‘The Carer’s Story.’  Here are the notes I was working from:

A New Name Seminar 1

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Christ is our Identity

15 times “in Christ” in Ephesians. What a preposition: Can’t get closer than “IN”

You’ve died and gone to heaven. Ephesians 2:1…5-6.

“Seated in Christ” – nothing more to do – don’t need to move an inch.

What do we need? To know more of what we have: Ephesians 3:14ff

Don’t try to feel Christ in you – look to HIM.

To the degree you know yourself in Him, you will know Him in you.

Despite your feelings (or lack of them) it’s His relationship with the Father that’s central, not yours!  You can’t trust your feelings, you can’t even trust your faith.  Just know that Christ has faith for you.

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We’re All Addicts

People are not free, rational decision-makers

Ephesians 2:2-3: In pursuing the desires of our flesh we are enslaved to the devil.

You say “I’m not enslaved, I just do what I want.” Exactly – that’s your slavery. You keep feeding your foolish desires though they never actually give you what you want or need.

Human beings are not decision-making machines, calculating costs and benefits and acting rationally.  We’re foolish lovers who abandon ourselves to bad relationships that only enslave.

We’re not bound against our will. We choose what we choose. Nonetheless, we are trapped.

Addictions to substances or behaviours (like exercise or starvation) are obvious manifestations of this truth. But we’re all addicts. Ephesians 4:17-20

Both sufferers and carers need to know that the sufferer is not deciding to be unhealthy to spite everyone. Neither are they able to choose their way out of this. If you don’t understand the nature of their slavery you’ll only end up hating them. You’ll spend your whole time resenting them for their wilful rebellion and/or beating them with the will-power-stick to make them better.  If you don’t believe that we’re all addicts, you cannot love people through their self-destructive behaviours.

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Suffering is not a detour, it’s the way

We naturally think that the ultimate Christian life is one free from suffering and struggle. Of course we have to forget all about Jesus to believe that.

It’s not that God’s up there and we ascend through our strength.

Christ comes down because we have no strength of our own.

It’s not “There’s light at the end of the tunnel, here’s the 17 point plan for how you can get there in the end.”

It’s: “You’re dead in transgressions and sins. Utterly helpless.  And Christ joins you in the mess.”

If you find yourself in this kind of mess: Know that RIGHT HERE is where Christ is at work.  This isn’t a detour, it’s the way.

The Lord knows how to redeem the years the locust has eaten (Joel 2:25).  Maybe you’ll be able to comfort others with the comfort you’ve received in your affliction (2 Corinthians 1:4).  But whatever happens, Christ is IN the situation.

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Redemption is Forward-Looking

When a loved one is suffering, it’s very natural to want to say “We just need to get the old Emma back.”  It’s very natural to look backwards.

I’m not so sure this is wise.  It seems to me that redemption works differently.  In Ephesians we get saved out of the pit and raised to a new height.  Salvation moves us onwards. In Exodus, the Israelites were brought out of Egypt and taken to the promised land.  In the wilderness they yearned for Egypt with its decent food and shelter.  But the Lord doesn’t take them back to the old place.  He takes them through the desert to a new place.  Their true home is ahead – a spacious land they haven’t yet seen.  This is the whole pattern of God’s dealings with us – from a garden but onto a city.

I think it’s a mistake to try to return to the way things were. It’s very possible that the way things were got you into this mess in the first place.  As you go through a wilderness time, the goal is a transformed you ahead (not the old you which you left behind.

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A New Name Seminar 2.

Church Comes First

Ephesians 4 comes before Ephesians 5!

We belong to each other in baptism before we belong to our spouses in marriage – or even to our children in families. Modern understandings of “coupledom” are very destructive.  We’re taught to cosy up to each other with a meal for two and a boxed set and we sing that old song from the 60’s “We’ll build a world of our own, which no-one else can share…”  But church has a claim on us before even our spouse does.

So quickly crazy can become normal when you try to manage by yourselves.  Far too often I coddled Emma in the darkness when I should have been moving her into the light of community.  That’s a hard judgement call when she becomes afraid of others and when she needs to know you’re safe.  But you need to be committed to life in community and to moving in that direction.

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One Flesh Gets Twisted

FLESH: Ephesians 2:3 5:31.  Those who deal with addictions will tell you that most addicts have an enabler somewhere in their life.

There are all sorts of dynamics that come into play when destructive behaviours flare up and if you’re close to the sufferer then it’s quite possible that you are some part of the problem.

Giving an addict what they want is not love. FEEDING HALF TON HUBBY is a chilling example of how an enabler can give the addict everything they want in the name of love.  It was the story of Patrick Deuel who weighed half a ton and his wife who could bring herself to stop feeding him. He was in hospital on nil by mouth and his wife would smuggle pizzas into the hospital. Why?  She said “Because I love him and it’s what he wants. I can’t say no to him if that’s what he wants.”  This kind of “love” can kill.

When Emma and I got married I basically thought that love meant saying “Yes” to my wife, no matter what.  If she wanted poison… well, what’s a loving husband to do but give her poison?  That’s a stupid analogy but only because it highlights the stupidity of what I was doing.  I took no lead in casting a vision for what healthy desires and directions might look like in our marriage.  In the absence of this Emma demanded more and more of her own way and I conceded more and more to drives which were ultimately self-destructive.

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You Need to Change

Ephesians 4:14-15 – we’re all being told lies every day.  We need “truthing in love” in church family to fight the lies. And that means that the carer needs to repent too.

This is hard to hear, but it’s vital. BOTH of you need to repent.  Can I suggest talking to a trusted Christian friend about the details of how you’re handling all this?  Don’t just get your friends to tell you There, there it must be so difficult – of course its difficult and of course you need sympathy and care.  But give friends permission to speak the truth in love: to challenge you on how you’re handling things.

When I did this in Christian community, I started to see a pattern emerging…

IMAGE: Dancefloor – Emma edging towards the dark edges, I would follow to coddle her from behind.  I should have spun her around and danced her into the light.  (It would mean kicking and screaming and tears and accusations – and that would mean I’d have to repent of my need to be “Mr Nice Guy”.  But that’s ok – I need to repent, and we both need community).

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Prayer is Warfare

Ephesians 6:10ff

Headship means being a prayer warrior.  This one’s for husbands but it has implications for others…  There are few other things I’d articulate as implications of headship, but it seems to me that prayer is top of the list. The LORD thunders at the head of His people (Joel 2:11) and husbands make war at the head of their wives.  When I’m prayerless Emma suffers.

And remember community. Some of the most powerful help we ever received as Emma was at her worst was going to another Christian couple’s house and praying on a Monday evening. They didn’t know much about eating disorders. Emma was able to talk about her struggles, talk about what the NHS were doing, talk about what was hard and we took those requests to God. It’s incredibly powerful to open up your needs before God and before church family.  It’s a total reversal of the condition actually.  The condition is about solitary, self-sufficiency. Praying with others is about a corporate expression of dependence and community.  Very powerful!

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grow-upThis is a re-post reflecting on a couple of things. First, Luther’s saying: “God doesn’t need your good works.  Your neighbour does.”

Second, Dave K’s observation that, post-resurrection, no-one summarizes the law with “love God and love neighbour” but only with “love neighbour” – read it, it’s very stimulating.

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A friend recently told me of some “higher life” Christians he met who would chant together:

“I refuse, I refuse, I refuse to come down from heaven to deal with earthly realities.”

They were horrible people to be around.  Their marriages were a mess.  And it was impossible to get at their sins because they were supposedly “hidden” from it all at God’s right hand.

Well you do have to admire their sense of unbreakable union with Christ.  I will give them that.

But you’ve also got to question the kind of Christ they feel united to.

Isn’t the true Jesus exactly the kind of Person who does come down from heaven to deal with earthly realities?  Isn’t that His eternal glory?  And therefore, doesn’t Paul constantly take us from that secure union and then into those battles with the flesh?

Never for the sake of our union. But always from that union and in the power of it.  How can union with this Christ mean anything else?

Jesus said: “For their sake I sanctify myself.”  (John 17:19).

Our response should not be “And likewise, Lord, for your sake I sanctify myself.”  No.  There can be no payback here.

But there is a response to Christ’s work.  And it does involve our sanctification.  It means receiving Christ’s setting-apart-of-us, and passing it on in costly ways – just as Jesus passed it on to us in the most costly way.

We do engage with the mess, not for God’s sake but for our neighbour’s.  Jesus doesn’t need my sanctification, but my wife does.  Desperately.  And the way I glorify the other-centred Christ is not to pay Him back with godliness but to pass it on in sacrificial love.  “Hidden in Christ” does not mean hidden from the battle.  Christ leads me into the battle because He’s adopted me into His kind of other-centred life.

So, for God’s sake, don’t grow up for God’s sake
But, for God’s sake, do grow up for your neighbour’s sake.

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cartmanThis follows on from my series “Why be good?

Kath has been writing about obedience and asking what’s helpful in seeking to love an obedient life.  It’s a good question, because people in the Bible seem pretty thrilled by the idea. The Psalmist sees the law as eminently loveable (Psalm 119:97), Paul calls it “holy, righteous and good” (Romans 7:12). Jude, Peter, James and Paul all introduce themselves as “Slaves of Christ” in their letters.  They love obedience!  They have seen an awesomely attractive vision of life and they’ve submitted themselves to it with joyful abandon.

We don’t like obedience – as a rule. (If it were a suggestion, we’d be much more amenable).

Why don’t we like it?

  1. We’re not any good at it. I’m always inclined to hate something I’m bad at. (I’m afraid there’s no real solution to this one – we’ll always be really bad at obedience.  All of us.  Until we die. But it’s we who are bad, not the law).
  2. Obedience feels like it’s taking us away from the good life. We imagine that God has set up an arbitrary set of hoops for us to jump through. We imagine he’s not really interested in goodness, in justice, in flourishing, in cosmic shalom.  We fear that he just sets little tests for the world in order to sort out the pious wheat from the irreligious chaff.  It rarely occurs to us that God has laid out “The Good Life” for us.  We consider it to be merely “The Hard Life.”
  3. Law sounds like the opposite of love. Somehow someone convinced us that law and love are on opposite sides of an unbridgeable chasm.  They must have had their bibles firmly shut at that point because law and love go together everywhere you look in Scripture. But, according to the caricature, over there are law people obsessing over irrelevant duties, but over here, we’re just liberated lovers, leading with our big, warm hearts. In this world, the word obedience definitely belongs over there. But notice too – in this world, both sides of the supposed chasm are far from self-forgetful gospel faith.
  4. Works seem like the opposite of faith (rather than the fruit). In our minds, we set up the difference between gospel faith and legalistic religion like this: YOU are faithlessly busy.  I am trustingly inactive.  God prefers my internal “faith” to your external “works”.  Notice though, that this understanding is actually Christless – it makes me the Saviour, through my cognitive contribution.  But the gospel is that we’re saved in spite of our inactivity and in spite of our busyness – we’re saved by Christ. It’s not really our faith that saves us (as though God prefers internal mental assent to external physical acts!) It’s Christ who saves us and sets us on our feet as children of the same heavenly Father.  Now that we’re in the family, how could obedience be a dirty word?  All of a sudden obedience makes sense.
  5. Obeying God seems besides the point, perhaps even Pharasaical. If, in the gospel, my goodness is irrelevant to my standing with God, we very quickly ask the question “Why be good?”  We rarely round on the question and ask an equally incredulous: “Why on earth be bad??” (We don’t react that way because we’ve bought into lie no. 2 – we think that badness is a kind of delightful naughtiness). Positively speaking, it rarely occurs to us to answer the “Why be good?” question with an emphatic: “Because goodness is good!”  Or “Because Father knows best”.  Or “Because the life of Christ works through us!”  Or “Because there’s a world out there to bless!”

Once the incentive of heavenly reward is absent we seem to lose whatever interest in obedience we might have had.  But that’s not a sign that we’re too focused on the gospel.  The very opposite – it’s a sign that we haven’t allowed the gospel to properly re-calibrate our thinking.

It’s the legalist who sees obedience as an arbitrary set of hoops to jump through.  Legalists are like the older brother of Luke 15 – happy to prove themselves by jumping through the hoops. The licentious are like the younger brother of Luke 15 – happy to find themselves by casting such burdens away.  But both of them completely misunderstand obedience.  We should think of obedience as one way – a beautifully attractive way – of characterizing ‘the father’s house.’  Yes it is a place of love, blessing, security, celebration, joy, mercy, peace, etc, etc.  But it’s also a place where the beautiful will of the Father is done.

On this understanding, legalists are like the older son, self-righteous in the field. The licentious are like the younger son, lost in the far-country. The true position is to be a sinner robed, in the father’s household.  But just imagine that younger son, the morning after the feast.  With what eagerness he will serve his father now!  He’ll get it wrong.  He’ll have to learn. But obedience in the father’s house is not a dirty word, it’s the very atmosphere of home.

It’s true that there is a slavery on the near side of sonship and that is spiritual death.  But there’s a slavery on the far side of sonship and it is life and peace.

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define-good3If we’re freely forgiven in Christ – apart from any goodness of our own – why be good?

Everyone asks the question.  All the time.  And evangelicals aren’t always brilliant at answering it – at least, not without undermining the whole ‘free forgiveness’ thing.  So what can be said?

First we thought about the nature of forgiveness.  Forgiveness is not a “Get out of hell free card”.  Jesus is forgiveness.  To receive Him freely is not to receive a licence to sin.  Rather we’ve been redeemed from sin and delivered into the realm of God’s Beloved Son.  Here we have free forgiveness, but we have so much more.  We have Christ Himself, unbreakably and unconditionally. This ought to transform the way we think about salvation and sin.

Then we thought about the assumptions going on behind the question.  To think that grace removes any motivation towards goodness is to admit to something very perverse indeed.  If our motives for goodness are only about avoiding punishment and attaining reward, those motives are not good!  Whatever “goodness” is  ruled out by the gospel was never good – it was only the “filthy rags” of our own righteousness.  The gospel kills such “goodness” but it also establishes the possibility of true goodness.  Now, without any carrots or sticks, I am free to love you, and to do it for your sake, not mine.

Yesterday  we explored Isaiah’s teaching on this. Apart from Christ, our goodness is a filthy covering which cuts us off from our neighbours, gives us a false “holier than thou” status and focuses us on strengthening our imagined bond with God.  In Christ, we are judged for our goodness, but then raised with Him to spread His righteousness to the ends of the earth.  The good news makes goodness truly good.  It turns us out to the needy to participate in Christ’s self-giving love.

Finally, today we’ll see how Jesus transforms our views of God, the world and ourselves (and yes, that does sound uncannily like 321, but I promise I had no intention of crowbarring that in. It just happened ok?)  When we focus on our goodness it always ends badly.  When we get the big picture, genuine goodness results.

So first – Jesus reveals the real God.

The God of Jesus is not like Allah.  He is not administrating a cosmic experiment in delayed gratification. He’s not interested in moving you closer or further from “paradise” according to your performance.  He’s a Father who has deposited you, once and for all, into the radiant Kingdom of Jesus, His Beloved Son (Colossians 1:13f).  Now you inhabit a realm of freedom, love and unconditional mercy.

When sinners hear this, they might ask: “Wow, so what kind of behaviour can we get away with now?”  But that’s not usually our response to those who love us unconditionally.  Usually when a person loves you unconditionally you treat them better because of it, not worse!  Therefore, if I’ve understood Christ’s redemption, my real question will be: “Wow, so what kind of God is this??”  The answer is, He’s a Father, who counts me as His unrejectable child and who loves me with all His almighty Paternal love.  This is the God revealed by Jesus.

Second – Jesus reveals the real world

I can’t overstate how crucial this is.  These days we’re tempted to think that the real world consists of scientific and practical certainties.  You know, like the four laws of thermodynamics and GPs’ surgeries and mortgages and Newsnight.  That’s the real world and the Jesus stuff is a very important past-time that sends us back into the real world with some other-worldly hope and courage.  Hopefully.  And when we encounter moral choices in the real world we weigh up, on the one hand, the brute facts of the matter and, on the other, the spiritual teachings of Jesus.  And if we’re very moral we’ll allow the spiritual teachings of Jesus to outweigh real considerations.  How very Christian!  Except that it’s not.

What is Christian is to insist that Jesus defines reality.  This really is His world.  Like, really.  And if it’s His world then a life of down-scaling, cheek-turning, rights-yielding, self-giving love is The Way. And not just “the way” for religious types.  It’s literally THE WAY.  It’s how, properly, to correspond to the universe.  Because it’s Christ’s universe.

Third – Jesus reveals the real me

Paul says: “I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.” (Romans 7:18)  When Paul looks for goodness, he realises he cannot ‘search for the hero inside himself’.  There is no such hero within.  But that’s less than half the story about ‘the real Paul.’  It’s vital that he understands his birth in Adam and that inherited nature – it means he won’t try to dress up “the old man” in “filthy rags”. But the real Paul lies beyond himself.  The real Paul is hidden in Christ (Colossians 3:1-4).

This means that his desire to do good – implanted by the Spirit of Christ – will never be fulfilled by drawing on his own resources. If he wants to do good he will have to constantly turn from self and turn towards Christ (i.e. it’s the life of faith).  The real me is the me that forgets me and trusts Jesus instead.  Or to put it the way Jesus said it: “Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:39)  Whenever we’re tempted to indulge the sinful nature we imagine that we’re being true to ourself.  Jesus begs to differ.  We are true to our real self when we lose our old self.

So Jesus reveals the real God, the real world and the real you.  How does that free us into goodness?

Worked example: Many times in the last few months Emma and I have sat in a fertility specialist’s office and insisted – against all his objections and scoffing laughter – that we want no part in treatments that lead to “embryo wastage” [shudder].  By law he has to follow our wishes but he’s making us insist on it at every point.  If we weren’t alert to the issues and adamant about our chosen path, we would have easily been led into a procedure that involves the “wasting” of about 8 “embryos” per cycle of IVF.  A chilling thought.

Now, why ‘be good’ here? Why not cave in to the specialist who, for goodness sakes, knows about the real world of fertility facts and figures. Why not go for options that will increase our chances of pregnancy many times over?  God knows we want kids.  Why be good?

Honestly, it’s not a hard decision.  Not having kids is hard, sure.  But life is hard – there simply are no options that can sidestep the curse.  Childlessness is hard but saying ‘No’ to children-at-all-costs is not hard.  Because this doctor is not God, neither are the odds of pregnancy, neither is the estate of parenthood.  We have a Father who is very, very good and who has given us all we need in the kingdom of His Beloved.

What’s more, the real world is not the world of utilitarian calculations.  It really is Jesus’ world.  And however medics want to speak of it: “embryos”, “zygotes”, “blastocysts” – Jesus names reality.  And once you call life “life” you gotta admit, the ethics of the whole thing resolve pretty starkly, wouldn’t you say?

More than that, if this is Jesus’ world, He’s not a coach who’s trained us hard, given us advice and is now yelling from the sidelines.  He’s the One in whom every atom and act coheres.  We’re not shutting our eyes to the real world to follow our spiritual advisor, we’re going with the grain of the universe – His universe.

Finally, the real me is not found in indulging my desires (no matter the cost).  The real me is in Jesus.  Which means He is never taking me away from real life and real fulfilment.  Never.  Because He’s it!  There are some burdensome yokes out there – millions of ’em.  But Jesus’ yoke is not – it’s the one easy yoke.  That’s what He said.  His life is the only easy life.  I promise you – He said that.  Seriously, look it up.

Some preachers manage to make Christianity sound like the second worst experience in all existence – second only to hell (but at least it’s not hell so it’s the clever option).  But no, life in Christ is a life connected to the real God, the real world, the real you.  All other yokes fit badly – they burden you. But His yoke is easy, His burden is light.

So why be good?  Because forgiveness is not a blank cheque, it’s Jesus.  He’s put to death our point-scoring moralism and raised us up into His self-giving life.  He shows us the real God, the real world and our real selves.  In Jesus, the Good Life is simply given to us.  And now, instead of using or spoiling or avoiding goodness, we’re free to live it!

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holier than thouYesterday we mentioned Isaiah’s take on “goodness”.  Perhaps no other biblical author plumbs the depths of the problem like Isaiah.  Let’s look a bit deeper at his teaching.

He begins his book with a withering attack on the Israelites’ “meaningless offerings”, their “trampling of my courts.” The “blood of goats and bulls” in which He finds “no pleasure.”  “The multitude of your sacrifices – what are they to me?!” asks the LORD. (Isaiah 1:10-17)

Oh.  But LORD, I thought… didn’t you want… I assumed you were into this whole…?

…No, not like this, says the LORD.

And so we see God’s prophet dispensing woe after woe upon the world (chapter 2-5). The nations, but Israel too.  Israel especially, in fact.  The flagrantly wicked are exposed but then – chapter 6 – in the Holy of Holies, the One who is ‘Holy, Holy, Holy elicits the only proper response from Isaiah: “Woe is me, I am unclean.”  Isaiah was the best of the best – God’s prophet, a model Israelite.  But in the presence of the LORD Christ (cf John 12:41) – in the presence of superlative holiness – Isaiah is completely undone.

Human goodness is condemned – even the best of the best.  And yet, from the altar, fiery forgiveness flies to Isaiah. Guilt is taken away, sin is atoned for (Isaiah 6:6-7).  And from this redeemed prophet a message will sound forth.

What’s the message?  Be good and God will save you?  Be religious and He’ll save Israel?  No, the message is one of utter doom and destruction (Isaiah 6:9-13).  Cities, houses, fields will be ruined, the people will be sent away, the land will be forsaken.  The whole tree is coming down.  But beyond this destruction, the Seed will sprout – the Holy One (Isaiah 6:13).

In chapter 7 He’s called Immanuel.  In chapter 9 He’s the Divine Son given to those walking in darkness. In chapter 11 He’s the Spirit Anointed Shoot from the stump of Jesse.  He will save the world.  He will bring righteousness (v4-5).  He will restore the cosmos (v6-11).

Christ is the only hope for the world.  He’s the only hope for God’s people.  No amount of goodness can save Israel – judgement will fall.  Their only hope is the one Righteous Branch – He would begin something else, something beyond mere human goodness and religion.

Christ’s righteousness is a spreading goodness – an outward-looking, overflowing generosity to the ends of the earth.  He comes for the needy and poor of the earth (Isaiah 11:4); the bruised reeds and smoldering wicks (Isaiah 42:3); the weary and those in darkness (Isaiah 50:4,10); the sinful, suffering, straying sheep (Isaiah 53);  the poor, the brokenhearted, the bound, the despairing.  To those who have nothing, Christ will be their everything.  But to those who consider themselves somebodies…

There is fierce condemnation for those who imagine themselves to have something to offer.  We’ve seen Isaiah’s assault on the “filthy rags”  of our “righteousness” in chapter 64.  Perhaps even more famous is His attack in the following chapter.  The LORD sees these folk “standing by themselves” saying:

“Come not near to me; for I am holier than thou.”  (Isaiah 65:5, KJV)

Don’t you just despise that attitude?  Not as much as the LORD does.  The verse continues…

These are a smoke in my nose, a fire that burneth all the day.

The “holiness” of these religionists keeps them “standing by themselves” and it helps them to rank themselves above their neighbours.  Is this true holiness?  We know it’s not.  Isaiah has shown us the Holy One of Israel flying to sinners to atone for their guilt (Isaiah 6:5) and constantly moving towards the suffering and straying.  The LORD’s holiness is a radiant goodness that enters the darkness to transform it.  But the “holier than thou” keep themselves to themselves, attempting, through religion, to strengthen whatever bond they imagine exists between themselves and the divine.

These were the kinds of people who were fasting in chapter 58.  Intent on strengthening the bond between themselves and God, they are indignant when God seems not to notice their spiritual displays:

‘Why have we fasted and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’ (Isaiah 58:3)

Just like those “trampling God’s courts” in chapter 1, these “do-gooders for God” are seeking to strengthen their vertical relationship with God.  And they expect God to be impressed.  He is mightily unimpressed:

Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?  (Isaiah 58:5)

What an image: bowing one’s head like a reed.  Is that what a “good person” looks like?  Religious folk the world over will tell you it is.  They “stand by themselves” in order to “come before God” and affect humility by bearing the burden of being good.  Jesus spoke of those who actually disfigured their faces so everyone would know they are fasting (Matthew 6:16).  It’s a pathetic charade.  To them the LORD says:

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?  Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.  (Isaiah 58:6-9)

The religious wanted to strengthen the bond between themselves and God.  The LORD says, True godliness is releasing the bonds of others.  The LORD’s idea of goodness is the complete reverse of His people’s!  The LORD does not treat us as good (or potentially good) religious try-ers who need to strengthen our bond with Him.  We are wicked sinners, who need to be released from our guilt and set free.  Now what does godliness look like?  It looks like what our God looks like.  It looks like joining Him in His liberating mission to the world.

True goodness begins with knowing we’re not.  It begins with “Woe is me.”  But instantly Christ flies to that sinner, atones for their guilt, sets them on their feet and says “Pass it on.”  There is a radically horizontal aspect to true goodness.  Nothing is now done to strengthen our bond with God.  We receive our relationship with God in Christ.  He is our covenant with God (Isaiah 42:6).  The vertical is taken care of.

Does that mean there’s no doing in the Christian life?   By no means!  Before God, I simply receive, but before the world there is everything to be done.  To be sure, none of my actions can ever strengthen or loosen my connection with God – I am in Christ and as close to the Father as He is.  But there’s much that I can do to release my neighbours from their imprisoning chains.  Having received from God, there is a fullness to share.

In this other-centred mission, “righteousness goes before us and the glory of the LORD is our rear guard.”  All holier-than-thou attitudes are swept away in the LORD’s outgoing flood.  No longer do we “stand by ourselves”, no longer do we consider goodness to be a rank that elevates us.  It’s a gift that propels us onwards and downwards towards the needy.

Why be good?  It is not an act (or even a habit) by which we’re raised up to God.  Instead it’s a life, joined to Christ’s life, in which we reach out to the world.

More to follow…

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FilthyRagsYesterday we began thinking about the gospel and being good.  If we’re forgiven already why try?

This question is asked all the time.  By non-Christians trying to get their head around the good news, and by Christians – pretty much every time you preach the gospel.  It’s hugely, hugely common.  Which is revealing, isn’t it?  Because the question is founded on a very troubling assumption.  People assume that, as soon as you remove the threat of hellish punishment or the reward of heavenly blessings, there’s no reason left to be good.  And that goes to show that our basic motivation towards goodness is not good.  Our basic motivation is to avoid pain and accumulate praise.

If the carrot and stick are removed and we can see no further reason for goodness we’re only confessing that our “goodness” has nothing to do with the good that we do. Our goodness is merely a strategy to negotiate the rewards and punishments due to ourselves.

Isaiah was always saying things like this.  See for example chapter 64:6 where he proclaims that all our righteous acts are filthy rags.  Notice he says our righteous acts are filthy.  Obviously our unrighteous acts are filthy.  It’s one kind of window onto human depravity when you see naked evil.  But Isaiah says, when you see someone clothing their nakedness in the fig-leaves of human religion and morality you are witnessing an even deeper evil. Those fig-leaves are filth because they hide the human problem not under the blood of Christ but under our own ‘righteousness.’

Isaiah is making a point that religious people always resist.  In our own day religious folk commonly deride the findings of evolutionary psychology.  Certainly such findings can be overly reductionistic.  But when a scientist claims that “altruism” is really a strategy for propagating our “selfish genes” they are naming a deep truth.  They’re thousands of years late to the party, and they’re not diagnosing the issue with anything like the depth of Isaiah, but the observation is correct.  Naturally speaking, when I’m good, it’s not for God (who provides His own covering for sin) and it’s not for my neighbour (who is merely the occasion for my “altruism” not the object of it).  I’m good for my sake.  Which is not good.

So is that it? Do we just abandon goodness?

Well yes.  Obviously.  We abandon all ‘goodness’ that is in any way threatened by the gospel.  Whatever ‘goodness’ is ruled out by the free forgiveness of Jesus was never good in the first place.  It was a filthy covering and we must be happy to see such ‘goodness’ nailed to the cross of Christ.

But after death, there’s resurrection.  Having condemned our goodness, we see how Jesus rises up to offer us the gift of true goodness.  Isaiah again:

I delight greatly in the Lord; my soul rejoices in my God. For he has clothed me with garments of salvation     and arrayed me in a robe of his righteousness, as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the soil makes the sprout come up and a garden causes seeds to grow, so the Sovereign Lord will make righteousness and praise spring up before all nations.  (Isaiah 61:10-11)

All our righteousness is like filthy rags. But His righteousness is a royal robe. Or, to switch the picture, it’s a priestly crown.  Or – he switches it again – it’s a bride’s jewelry.  Or – one more change of analogy – it’s like a fruitful crop springing up all over the globe.  This goodness from above first clothes us and then, organically, it grows through us and reaches the world.

Suddenly I – a filthy sinner – am clothed.  I’m royalty.  I’m holy.  I’m married.  And when Isaiah pulls back to the wide-angled shot, he sees this righteousness bearing immense fruitfulness, the world over.

Does Isaiah want us to give up on goodness?  Our own goodness, yes.  But there is a righteousness from God: He is the Bridegroom-Priest-Firstfruits.  He is the Anointed Saviour speaking from the beginning of the chapter – the One who binds up, frees, comforts and clothes the filthy to make them “oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of His splendour” (v3).  He is Jesus: the end of our goodness and the beginning of true goodness.

In Him there is simply no need to buy off God, or cover my sins, or establish my moral standing, or reassure my own heart, or put you in my debt.  Every motivation for selfish goodness is taken away in Jesus.  And now, from a fullness in Him, I have something to share.  God may not need my goodness (in order to love me), and I don’t need my goodness (in order to justify me) – but there’s someone who does need my goodness.  You do.  And now – for the very first time – I can actually serve you.  I’m free to be good.

The gospel does not end goodness, it establishes it.  Without the free forgiveness of Jesus you can’t be good.  Now you can.

In other words:

19 We know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. 20 Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin…

21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness is given through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ to all who believe… 

28 We maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.

31 Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law.  (Romans 3:19-31)

To be continued…

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hellIn March I had a fascinating discussion with three Muslims at Plymouth University.  Having just given a talk, my microphone was still on and I have the whole 40 minutes recorded.  Twice in the course of our conversation a Muslim man admitted to me that, if there was no fear of punishment, he would ‘get drunk and commit fornication all day.’

Rather than using this as proof of the perversity of the human heart, they used it as proof of the perversity of the cross.  As far as they could see, this was the only logical response to a belief in Christ’s atonement. If you knew you were forgiven once and for all, you would enjoy an over-realised Islamic eschatology right?  You’d embrace ‘paradise now’ – rivers of wine, never-ending sex. That’s the life, isn’t it?  It’s just that Allah has ordained this life as a test. If you can forego such pleasures now, you’ll be proved worthy of them later.

To me this sounds like those emotional intelligence tests where a child is told to resist eating a marshmallow for 10 minutes. If they pass the test, they get two for proving their patience.  Is this how God operates?  What would this mean about the character of God?  What would it mean about the character of ‘this life’?  What would it mean about the character of goodness?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot because I’ve heard many Christians essentially ask the same question as the Muslims: Why be good?  I mean really.  If Jesus has really atoned for all my sins – past, present and future – why not get drunk and commit fornication all day?

At this point various answers are given that sound very close to:

“You’re forgiven, but not that forgiven.”

“You’re provisionally forgiven, but you can lose those privileges.”

“If you commit sins graded “delta” and above you prove that you were probably never forgiven in the first place.”

“You’re only forgiven if you’re really repentant (and by that we mean ‘you’ve been a decent chap(pette) all your life‘, none of those ‘death-bed conversion’ schemes).”

In other words, we don’t really believe the gospel.  We turn the promise of forgiveness into a status to be earned, and why?  Well, because our fear is basically the same fear as the Muslims I spoke to.  We imagine that declaring the free forgiveness of sins for the sake of Christ alone will lead to an exodus from the church and into the strip-club. Millions of Christians will rush into sin brandishing their ‘get out of hell free’ cards in the face of all naysayers – whether from earth or heaven.

Except that we won’t. Because there’s no such thing as a ‘get out of hell free’ card.  There’s only Jesus.  He is our forgiveness, our free forgiveness.  But Jesus is the One in whom these realities exist:

The Father has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.  (Colossians 1:13-14)

We are not given diplomatic immunity and then set loose into enemy territory.  We are rescued from enemy territory and delivered into a kingdom iridescent with the Father’s love.  We are now in Jesus, and He is the inescapable environment of our lives. Forgiveness is not a ‘wiped slate’, or even a ‘Teflon slate’.  Forgiveness is a realm into which we’ve been brought in Jesus – a realm of sonship; of freedom; of fellowship with the Beloved.

Why not get drunk?  Ephesians 5:18 says the Spirit of this sonship is better. Why not ‘commit fornication’? Paul writes to Corinthians visiting brothels and what does he say? Does he say, “Stop it, Jesus remains outside the brothel, arms-folded waiting for a very good display of contrition before He’ll even consider forgiving this“?  No, he says to the Corinthians “Stop it, you’re taking Jesus into the brothel with you!” (1 Corinthians 6:15-17)  And you say, “How horrible!”  Well exactly.  So don’t do it.  But don’t give up fornicating because Jesus isn’t with you all the way.  Stop it because He is.

Paul doesn’t say to sinners caught in the act: “Now you have less than forgiveness”, he says “You have more.”  We have so much more – we have Christ Himself.

Why be good?  Not to avoid punishment. If you’re “good” in order to avoid punishment or to gain some other reward, then that aint “good”!  That’s self-interest.  Be good because Jesus is yours and you are His.  He has redeemed you, brought you out of the slavery of sin and opened your eyes to the real God and the real world.  More on this tomorrow…

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