Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Ransom David


This past Tuesday, Steph and I were blessed with the arrival of our son, Ransom David Chang.  Several have asked us the meaning behind that name, so I thought I would write a few words about that.  David is my father's English name, and I am proud to give my son that middle name.  I pray that Ransom would one day reflect something of my father's faithfulness to God and to his family.

For his first name, I first came across the name Ransom during my drive out from Washington, DC to Portland, OR.  I listened to CS Lewis' fascinating Space Trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Peralandria, That Hideous Strength) on audiobook, and the main character's surname is Ransom.  It's not a made up name, but as the character explains, it has an Old English origin of "Ranulf's (or Randolph's) son".

I was immediately drawn to the name, however, because of its modern usage.  A ransom is a payment required for the release of a captive.  In describing his mission to his disciples, Jesus says, "the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:45).  This is what Christianity is all about: that in his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus has given his life as a ransom for sinners, rescuing them from God's judgment and reconciling them to God.

In naming my daughter Jubilee, I was glad to give her a name which reflected the joy and freedom that is found in the gospel.  The name Ransom, however, is a more serious and solemn name.  It reminds us that there is something wrong with the world and with us.  We are in bondage to sin and headed for destruction.  But at the same time, it reminds us that there is a Rescuer.  Jesus has made the ultimate payment, giving His own life in order that we might be forgiven.  It is our prayer that Ransom's life will one day come to reflect something of the gravity and the gladness of this reality.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Basketball, Ethnicity, and the Gospel

Originally posted over at the Project Antioch blog
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There’s been some excitement this past summer over Jeremy Lin’s one-year contract with the Warriors. As a fellow Asian American, I’m looking forward to seeing how he’s going to perform and I hope he does well (unless he’s playing against the Rockets). It’s pretty cool to watch someone play in the NBA with whom you can identify so closely, and I do hope he’ll get to play. However, purely as a basketball fan, I’m a bit more skeptical. I’ve seen the highlights, and its not clear to me how good he’s going to be in the NBA.

So what does that mean for me, an Asian American basketball fan? Well, it means that even though I’m glad to have the 2nd Asian American ever in the NBA, I’m still going to be a fan of the game. It means that if I had to choose, I would still rather watch Lebron dunking on the competition or Kobe taking over a game, than Lin playing his game. It means unless he has an amazing year, I wouldn’t want Lin voted on the All Star team simply because all the Asian Americans rallied to vote him in. As a fan of the game, basketball talent matters more ultimately than where he’s from.

What’s my point in all this? Well, as an Asian American Christian, I find that this sort of thinking applies also. In the past few years, I’ve heard grumblings here and there about the lack of of Asian American representation at conferences, in books being written, etc… Some have asked, why do these venues always seem to have Caucasian preachers up on stage, rather than people of other backgrounds? Now, I understand that here in America, in our diversity, we have a special opportunity to display the power of the Gospel for all peoples. This can be a wonderful testimony to the truth of the Gospel.

But as a Christian living in a world where the Gospel is so often assumed, adjusted, misunderstood, and rejected, I don’t want to take faithfulness to the Gospel for granted. Just because I’m at a “Christian” conference or walking into a “Christian” bookstore, I don’t want to automatically assume that everything I encounter is going to be faithful to God’s Word. What this means is that as a Christian, I’m not going to be excited simply because there’s an Asian American up on stage speaking. Rather, I am much more concerned to have someone (anyone!) who will preach the Gospel faithfully and powerfully, than for someone of a particular ethnic representation. What this also means is that I’m going to be far more excited for faithful Gospel preaching that happens in the tiniest house church, than for Gospel-less teaching in the largest of venues. In the end, as a Christian, what matters to me is the Gospel, faithfully and powerfully held out to a dying world.

When asked about how important his Asian American identity was, Jeremy Lin got it right: “You know, it’s important but not as important as my being a Christian. That’s first and foremost the most important thing to me when it comes to my identity.” And the way we make this clear is by prioritizing the Gospel over everything else.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Praise of the Redeemed - Psalm 103

I preached on Psalm 103 at Capitol Hill Baptist Church a few weeks ago.  It is one of the sweetest psalms of the entire Psalter and it was a joy to meditate on this text.  My introduction:
How has God been good to you? What reason do you have to praise God this morning?

For some of us, what immediately come to mind are God’s many blessings in our lives. Even as I stand here, looking at this congregation through which I have been so richly blessed these past few years, I’m amazed at God’s kindness to me. Even while being so far from home, God has blessed me with a new family, with numerous fathers and mothers and sisters and brothers, all who have blessed me and encouraged me in countless ways. And as I think on how God has so richly blessed me, I can’t help but give thanks and praise to Him, and I know many of you could testify the same.

But I’m guessing there are others, for whom such thoughts do not come so easily. God’s providence has been difficult for you lately. You might be facing loneliness, sickness, loss of loved ones, unemployment… And in the midst of this, God’s goodness seems distant. It’s challenging to come here and sing of Him, “who wondrous things hath done”. Though in your mind you know you’re supposed to believe that God is good, it’s not always evident how God has been good to you. And so your heart is silent in singing His praises, or worse, you are struggling with anger and bitterness when you think of God.

And for others, if it’s not trials and hardships that are keeping you from praising God, then perhaps it’s simply apathy, or distraction. You’ve sung some words this morning, but your mind is on other things… work, people, lunch. And the only reason you’re here is because someone else invited you, or because you’ve always gone to church on Sundays. You’re not sure why anyone would want to praise God.

And so I ask you again, friends, what reason do you have to praise God this morning?

This morning we come to Psalm 103, one of the loveliest psalms in the entire Bible. And as we look at this passage, the question we should ask ourselves is: Why should I praise God? Has He given me any reason to do so?
Listen to the rest here.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Enjoying my kindle

Yes, I've hacked my Kindle and put John Owen (and others) on my screensaver.

Once I found out that the iPad wouldn't be a viable e-reader solution because of the backlit screen, I decided to take a chance on the Kindle.  I've now owned my Kindle DX for almost a month now, and I'm loving it.  Three things have made it well worth the money:

1) Free (or almost free) books - If you love classic Christian books, there are tons available for free.  Some of my best free finds so far:

  • The Bruised Reed - Richard Sibbes
  • The Christian in Complete Armour - William Gurnall
  • The Biography of Robert Murray M'Cheyne - Andrew Bonar
  • Commentary on Galatians - Martin Luther
  • Communion with God & The Glory of Christ - John Owen
  • Farewell Sermons - Edmund Calamy
  • Institutes of the Christian Religion - John Calvin
  • John G. Paton Autobiography
  • Lectures to my Students - Spurgeon
  • Life & Letters of Henry Martyn - John Sargent
  • Precious Remedies Against Satan's Devices - Thomas Brooks
  • The Saints' Everlasting Rest - Richard Baxter
  • The Works of Jonathan Edwards (2 Volume; 99 cents on Amazon)
Places to look for free books would be on Amazon, ccel.org, archive.org (ridiculous amount of free stuff, but not all good quality), and books.google.com.  The list above is just the beginning, but I'm pretty sure I've already made up the price of the Kindle with these books, and other works will only become more available as digitizing technology continues to improve.

2) Portable library - The problem with building a library is that I have to be in my study in order to read my books.  If I want to go somewhere else to read, I have to plan ahead and pick a few books to bring along.  With the Kindle, I'm just finding myself reading more, since I'm carrying an entire library with me where I go, and chances are pretty good that there's something in there that I want to read.  I'm curious to see if this will last, but for now, it's provided a big boost to my reading.

3) Clipping - This is the killer function for me on the Kindle.  As a preacher, one of the things I want to do is keep a searchable quotes file from my reading, where I'm recording useful quotes, anecdotes, illustrations, etc... that I can use in the future.  The problem is that once I've read a book, I've not been very disciplined at going back through to type out all the stuff I've marked.  Now with the Kindle, as I'm reading, I can "clip" sections of the book, which will automatically dump the clipped text into my quotes file.  This is so convenient, that it has made me want to re-read some of my old books so I can start clipping useful text, and reluctant to read my actual books since it doubles the work I'll have to do in keeping my quotes file.  This makes my Kindle not only an enjoyable reading experience, but also a productive one!

Monday, August 10, 2009

God Relents - Jonah 3-4

Once again, this Sunday I had the opportunity to preach at Chesterbrook Taiwanese Presbyterian and finish out the book of Jonah. It was a joy to meditate on God's compassion for the lost, even while exhorting the church in their evangelism and missions. From my introduction:
God loves everybody. That’s a popular sentiment these days. Most people would affirm that statement. Find a random person on the street and ask them, does “God love everybody?” and if that person believes in God, then the answer you’ll likely hear is, “Yes, of course, God loves everybody.” And we would agree with that.

But what do people mean when they say that God loves everybody? Do they understand that God’s love to be the sovereign care of a personal Creator, who knows us and desires a relationship with us and cares about how we live? Or would it be more of an impersonal, benevolent spiritual force, that supports us no matter what we do?

Living in a self-consumed culture such as ours, when people affirm that God loves everybody, I wonder who “everybody” includes. Most definitely, “everybody” includes the person in question. And that’s usually about as far as people think it through. But I’d love to ask a few questions: Does everybody include only people who are like you, who think the way you think, and live the way you live?

Or does God also love those who strongly disagree with you? Those who annoy you every time you see them? Those whom you find unlovely and repulsive? Even those whom you hate? Does God personally love them even as much as He loves you? If so, what does that say about God? Does that lessen your appreciation for His love?
Listen to the sermon here.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Christ and the Church

St. Chrysostom, commenting on Ephesians 5:25:
Do you wish that your wife would submit to you as the Church does to Christ? Then care for her, as Christ does the Church; and if it is necessary that you should give your life for her, or be cut into pieces a thousand times, or endure anything whatsoever, then refuse it not; yes, for if you were to suffer in these dreadful ways for your wife, you still would not have done what Christ did for you. For you did this for one with whom you were already united; but he did it for her who, until then, had only rejected him and hated him.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

God Pursues - Jonah 1-2

This past Sunday, I had the opportunity to preach at Chesterbrook Taiwanese Presbyterian Church from Jonah 1-2. It was sweet to meditate on how God pursues us even in our disobedience. An excerpt:
Of course, for humans, running away is usually far more sophisticated than simply taking off on our two feet. Sure there are bullies that can chase us, but too often, our fears are far more complicated: Sickness, loneliness, stress, frustration… all these are things that hound us, and so we spend much of our lives inventing ways to run away from these things. Whether it’s procrastination, or the Internet, or romantic fantasies, or alcohol… For so many people, life consists entirely of finding new ways to escape from the realities of life.

But as much as we may be running from a thousand things, the Bible really describes our lives in much simpler terms: We are either running away from God, or running to Him. That’s basically what it boils down to. We are either running away from God, or running to Him. So which one are you? I think if we’re honest with ourselves, we have to admit that too often our lives are characterized by a running away from God. In all the things we are running away from, we are ultimately running away from God and running to ourselves.

Well this morning we’ll be looking at a prophet who also decided to run away from God, and what we’re going to find is that even more important than the fact that we run, is the fact that God pursues.
LIsten to the sermon here.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Psalm 15

I had the privilege of preaching from Psalm 15 this morning. An excerpt from my manuscript:
Here in Psalm 15, we encounter a description of what God expects of those who would dwell with Him. God is not just giving us suggestions or recommendations. Rather, He requires a kind of character from those who would live with Him. God is a holy God and anyone whose life does not bear these marks will ultimately be rejected by Him.

And this is an astonishing truth: God cares about how we live. Given all that is going on in the world today (global warming, bio-genetic engineering, political upheavals), isn’t it amazing to think that the God of the Universe is concerned about how you live? And He’s not so much concerned about your professional resume, or your financial portfolio, or your academic background…but rather He’s deeply concerned about the character of your life. Your decisions, your actions, your words matter to God. And the life you live now will have implications into eternity for your relationship with God.
Listen to the rest here.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Guilt: Fact or Feeling?

An important distinction that we need to make as Christians is the difference between the fact of guilt and the feeling of guilt. The world today acknowledges that people struggle with feelings of guilt. So much of secular counseling is designed strictly to help people get over such feelings, whether by medication, self-affirming thoughts, or other techniques, without any attempt to address the reality of guilt in people’s lives. Yet these remedies fail to treat the root problem.

We see in God’s Word that shame (feeling of guilt) entered this world not as a result of chemical imbalance or behavioral disorder, but as a result of our sinful rebellion against God. The feeling of guilt resulted from the fact of guilt. As sinners, we not only feel guilty, but we, in fact, are guilty, before God and before men. And as such, we deserve God’s just judgment for our guilt.

This is why the cross is so precious. At the cross, Jesus Christ has born the punishment and death that we deserved for our sins. And being raised from the dead, He has proven victorious over our guilt, so that now, by repentance and faith in Christ, we may receive forgiveness from our sins. In Christ, God has provided true healing for all the shame of our sins. As you head out this week, rejoice that your guilt has been truly and decisively dealt with in Christ. And as you rejoice, proclaim this message of God’s grace to a world struggling with guilt.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

God's covenants and human failure

2 Samuel peaks when [God] entrusts his kingdom forever to the house of David. [But the next section] of 2 Samuel tests that covenant. God’s other covenants – the Noahic, Abrahamic, Sinaitic, and new – are immediately tested by the failure of its beneficiaries: Noah got drunk; Abraham in unbelief fathered a child by Hagar; Israel worshiped a golden calf; Peter denied Jesus Christ. Shortly after the David covenant, David took away a wife’s purity and murdered her husband, but in spite of David’s gross sin and its contribution to his psychological decline, God’s unconditional covenant with David stands. David’s sin and spiritual funk point to a greater son of David, the Son of God whose eternal person sits on the heavenly throne of which David’s earthly throne in Jerusalem is a type. He fulfills the Davidic covenant.

An Old Testament Theology, Waltke, pg. 654-655

Thursday, August 23, 2007

"Christians" and ethnic diversity

Perhaps Luke's most fundamental purpose in the Book of Acts is to help Christians answer the question "Who are we?" Two thousand years of church history sometimes prevents us from seeing just how basic that question was for the first believers. As long as Jews only were among the faithful, it could always be thought that this new group was just another sect of Jews who had some crazy notion about who the Messiah was. But as soon as Samaritans and Gentiles began entering the picture, identity with Judaism ceased to be an option. Something new had come into being - in continuity with the old, of course, but distinct from it as well. Luke, of course, leaves us in no doubt about whether the inclusion of Gentiles and the casting loose from temple and Torah were directed by God. And so a new name has to be coined to identify this new group: "Christians," followers of Christ (11:26).

An Introduction to the New Testament, Carson, Moo, pg. 325

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Luke 13:14

14 But the synagogue official, indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, began saying to the crowd in response, “There are six days in which work should be done; so come during them and get healed, and not on the Sabbath day.” - Luke 13:14
Whenever I read this, I am struck by just how legalistic and heartless this official was. It makes me wonder how anyone can be so merciless?

But then I remember, oh wait... that's me. That's so often my own self-righteous attitude. I'm just a lot better than the synagogue official at hiding it.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Ephesians 1-3 pt. 4

Below is part 4 of 4 of a sermon I preached on 7/22/07 on Ephesians 1-3

The glory of God displayed in the future of the Church

Well, we’ve seen how God has displayed the glory of His grace in the past, we’ve seen how God is displaying the glory of His grace in our present lives, now let’s briefly consider how God promises to continue display the glory of His grace for the rest of eternity. The key verse I want us to think about is Ephesians 2:7. Look with me beginning in verse 2:4:
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
Do you see the amazing statement that Paul is making here? God has saved us why? So that we might be in bondage to Him? So that we would have to pay Him back? No, so that for the rest of eternity, God might show the riches of His grace to us, by pouring out His kindness to us in Christ Jesus. God’s design for all the coming ages is that His people would be the recipients of His infinite grace, as a display of His glory! If you are a Christian here today, this is your glorious and guaranteed inheritance! This is what every moment of your life is bringing you one step closer to!

God’s purpose for the church is that through us, we might be the means for God to display the glory of His grace. From beginning to end, from eternity past to eternity future, this is what we were created for. God, because of His love, has appointed your life is to be an object lesson to the universe of just how glorious and gracious God really is. Every blessing you receive, every sin that forgiven, every bad situation turned for your good, and an eternity of joy to come, all these things exist as for your good and for God’s glory. I love the last verse of Amazing Grace:
“When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun,
we’ve no less days to sing God’s grace, than when we’ve first begun.”
Conclusion: Application

In closing, I want us to think about two implications of all this for our prayer lives and for our evangelism.

First, for our prayer lives: We’ve just spent the past 40 minutes or so discussing weighty, glorious truths and I hope that the Holy Spirit has been working in your heart and opening your eyes to see wonderful glimpses of the glory of God. But in about 30 minutes from now, you’re going to be hungry and you’re probably going to be thinking what’s for lunch. Pretty soon you’ll be back home and you’ll see the pile of bills that need to be paid, and the stuff that needs to get done once again. And before you know it, it’ll be Monday morning and you’ll be back in the grind of the week, and all these glorious truths that are currently occupying your mind will be pushed aside.

My point in saying all this is not to discourage you, but simply to confess with you the fact that our capacity for joy is often so small, that we are often unable to hold onto these great and glorious truths. We’ve spent so much of our time with sitcoms, and YouTube, and games on our cell phones, and sports, and all the other little pleasures in life, that our capacity for joy has shrunk and we’re so easily satisfied by all these tiny, eentsy-wintsy pleasures. And so when we come to Church and encounter the waterfall of God’s glory, we are able to hold on to only so little, before that little bit gets pushed out by the other things in life.

So what do we do? We pray the way Paul prays. Look at chapter 3, beginning in verse 14:
14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, 16 that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
What an amazing prayer! Paul is praying that God would grant us the strength that we need in order to comprehend the greatness of the love of Christ for us! It takes spiritual, God-given strength for us grasp just how great God’s love for us, and not only to grasp it, but to know this love, to internalize it, and to be filled with all the fullness of God every moment of our lives. Brothers and sisters, the fight of faith in the Christian life is the fight to comprehend the unfathomable grace that God has for sinners like us! Pray that God would grant you strength to have this kind of faith. Make this your prayer for yourself! Make this your prayer for your family! Make this your prayer for your church! If you will commit to praying this way and devote yourselves to meditating on God’s glory in the Word, God will cause your heart’s capacity for joy to grow so that the little distractions or pleasures of this world will no longer affect you like they used to, but instead you will be filled with a greater love and joy in God Himself.

And finally, the implication of all this for our evangelism: If our purpose in this world is to display the glory of God’s grace, oh how important it is that we verbally proclaim the Gospel in everything that we do! When people look at our lives, the last thing we want them to think is, “Wow, look at how joyful this person is, look at how well-behaved his children are, look at how honest and hard-working he is, what a great guy! He must really have it all figured out!” Or when visitors walk into this church, the last thing we want them to think is, “Wow, this place is full of happy, successful, hard-working, morally upright people. I could never be as good as them.” If this is what people are thinking when they look at our lives, then we have failed in our purpose to display God’s grace. The only way we will be able to begin to do justice to what God has done in our lives is by clearly communicating the Gospel. People must understand that we were at one point under the same condemnation of guilt that all people are under. In fact, our sin was so bad, that only the death of the holy Son of God was sufficient to pay God’s punishment for our sin. Yet this is exactly what God has freely provided for us, so that now everything good in our life is only possible through of the grace of God in Jesus Christ. Left to ourselves, we are not morally superior people, we are not cleverer, or more virtuous, or more righteous. Left to ourselves, we are as spiritual dead and as enslaved to sin as anyone. The only thing that has made us to differ has nothing to do with us, and has everything to do with God’s grace. It is God who has saved us. Therefore, brothers and sisters, preach the Gospel. Make the Gospel crystal clear in all your relationships with non-Christians. Make the Gospel crystal clear in every church program, in every community service, in every worship service. In everything that we do, may it be known that we are a people who have been saved by grace through faith; that our salvation is not of our doing, but is a gift of God, not a result of our works, so that no one may boast and God may get all the glory.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Ephesians 1-3 pt. 3

Below is part 3 of 4 of a sermon I preached on 7/22/07 on Ephesians 1-3

The glory of God displayed in our present lives

Well, God’s purpose of displaying His glory is not limited to things God has done in the past, but also includes what He has done and is doing in our lifetimes. Look at chapter two, beginning in verse 1:
Eph. 2:1 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— 3 among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.
We’ve seen reflected on how God has satisfied the punishment of sin through the death of Jesus Christ, but here in verses 1-3 we see that our problem with sin goes far deeper that we ever imagined. Our problem with sin goes right down to the core of our heart. Paul describes us as being “dead” in our trespasses and sins. Of course, he’s not speaking of a physical death, but a spiritual deadness. It means that we had no desire for God, no love for God, and not even the ability to generate those things within us. This is why Paul describes us being enslaved to “the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind”. Not only that, but the “prince of the power of the air”, Satan, was also at work to ensure that we would remain enslaved to sin. We see in verse 3 that our condition was “like the rest of mankind”. We might look at the drug dealer or terrorist or dropout and think, “My life isn’t so bad”. But the truth is that all of us, left to ourselves, were at one point under the same deathly bondage to sin as they are. And as a result, all of us were by nature children of wrath; we were destined for God’s everlasting wrath.

But in verse 4, we see two amazing words: “But God”. We have made a mess of our lives, but now God steps in the picture. Read with me beginning in verse 4:
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
Rather than treating us as our sins deserved, God loved us and made us alive together with Christ. He exchanged our heart of stone for a heart of flesh. He opened our blind eyes to see the glory of Christ and trust in Him. He caused us to be born again. All these phrases are different pictures that the Bible gives us to describe God’s transformation of the human heart so that it no longer hates God, but is now able to love and trust God. God has raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly places so that our affections and our longings are no longer here on earth, but are now focused on Christ. He is the one whom we follow and serve. How is this possible? Is it because God has seen something lovable or good in us? Look at vs. 8 - “For by grace, you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast”. No, there is no boasting in our salvation. There was nothing in us that earned God’s approval, but God has saved us by His sheer grace. So my dear friends, put to death your human instinct to earn God’s approval and rest in a salvation that has been wrought entirely by God.

Yes, our condition was infinitely terrible…BUT GOD! Yes, we were dead in our trespasses and sins, BUT GOD made us alive together with Christ! Yes, we once followed the prince of the power of the air, BUT GOD raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly places! Yes, we were once destined for eternal wrath, BUT GOD saved us so that now He might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus!

Well as we keep reading chapter 2, we see that God’s glory is not limited to our individual salvation, but is also shown in the way He has created a Church by bringing people together under Christ. Look at verse 11:
Eph. 2:11 Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— 12 remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. 17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.
One of the effects of our sin was not only that we were separated from God, but that we were separated from each other. We see in the Old Testament that God’s intention from the beginning was for the people of this world to reflect the glory of God in their unity, but instead, because of sin, humanity ended up using their unity to cooperate in their rebellion against God. So in judgment, God confused peoples’ languages and the world splintered into thousands of different tribes and nations.

Yet, God remained faithful to His plan, and decided to show His grace to the nation of Israel, and it was through this nation that He promised bless all the nations of the earth. It was to this nation that God made all His promises for salvation and blessing, but as we see history progress throughout the Old Testament, its not entirely clear how exactly these promises would be passed on to the rest of the world, especially since so many of Israel’s laws were designed to separate them from the rest of the world. In the Old Testament, we see that the fundamental division within humanity was between Jews and Gentiles, between those who had the promises of God, and those who didn’t.

But now in Jesus Christ, we see God’s amazing promises fulfilled. Through Christ, God has united Jews and Gentiles into one, tearing down “the dividing wall of hostility”. How exactly has he done that? Look at verse 15: “by abolishing the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two (i.e. Jew and Gentile), so making peace.” Through the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the way we get to God is no longer through the law of commandments and ordinances, but simply through faith in Christ. Therefore, the law that once separated Israel from the rest of the world has been fulfilled in Christ. And now through the Gospel, within the Church, God is creating a new humanity, whose primary identity, primary allegiance, is not any ethnicity, or culture, or political party, but rather is their identity with Christ. In the Church, God is beginning to undo the effects of sin by uniting all of humanity under Christ.

Now, I want to be clear that the unity within the Church is very different from the kind of pluralistic, relativistic unity that the world advocates. The unity of the Church is based on a message, namely the Gospel. This is why Paul emphasizes in verse 20 that “we are built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone”. In other words, the only true unity that we’ll find is grounded on the testimony and teaching of the apostles about who Jesus Christ is and what He accomplished. Be careful of anyone who would compromise Biblical truth in the name of unity. Unity without truth is a false unity. The only true unity that we’ll ever find is a unity that is based on a true faith in Jesus Christ. In the Church today, we are seeing the fruits of the amazing wisdom of God in orchestrating redemptive history to destroy the dividing walls of this world and to create a glorious new People comprised of men and women from every tribe, tongue, and nation.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Pride as heresy

While I'm posting my sermons, Carl Trueman offers a timely reminder:
I was talking with someone last week about a well-known theological personality. `I don't think he wants to be a heretic' was my friend's comment. `No,' I responded `I think the problem is he wants to be a big shot.' It reminded me of the reflections of another friend on a New Testament passage which I cited in a recent email exchange with Martin Downes:

1 Tim. 1:5-7 (here I use the ESV):

The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions.

My friend made two observations about this passage. First, the drift into dubious theological discussion is here described as moral in origin: these characters have swerved from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith; that is why their theology is so dreadful. Second, their desire is not to teach but to be teachers. There is an important difference here: their focus is on their own status, not on the words they proclaim. At most, the latter are merely instrumental to getting them status and boosting their careers.

Thus, what concerns me most is that students may simply desire to be teachers. If that is their motivation, then they have already abandoned a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith, and their theology, no matter how orthodox, is just a means to an end and no sound thing. It is why I am very sceptical of the internal call to the ministry as a decisive or motivating factor in seeking ordination. Nine times out of ten, I believe that the church should first discern who should be considering the Christian ministry, not simply act as a rubber-stamp for a putative internal call which an individual may think he has.

Further, such students whose first desire is to be teachers are more likely to try to catch whatever is the latest trendy wave. Orthodoxy is always doomed to seem uncreative and pedestrian in the wider arena; if the aim is to be a teacher, to be the big shot, then it is more likely that orthodoxy will be less appealing in the long run – though there are those for whom orthodoxy too is simply a means to being a celebrity.

In this sense, orthodoxy can be heresy as well.

Ephesians 1-3 pt. 2

Below is part 2 of 4 of a sermon I preached on 7/22/07 on Ephesians 1-3

The glory of God displayed in the past

So how has God done this? How has He displayed His glory through the Church? We’re going to walk through Ephesians 1 and 2 and we’re going to look at what God has done in the past, what he is doing in the present, and what He promises to do in the future. So first, let’s look at what God has done in the past. Look with me in chapter 1, beginning in verse 3:
Eph. 1:3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, 8 which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight 9 making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
Eph. 1:11 In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will
Here we see that God’s actions towards the church didn’t simply begin at Genesis 1 in the creation of the world, but rather, God chose us “before the foundation of the world”. This is what verse 5 is referring to when it talks about how “in love, [God] predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ”. In other words, before the world even existed, God had freely decided those whom He would adopt into His family, simply because of His love for them.

Now this is a difficult teaching isn’t it? This teaching of God’s unconditional choosing runs counter to our most basic human instinct. Human instinct teaches us, “God loves you if you are a good person. God is angry at you if you’re not.” We are naturally wired to want to work for God’s approval. But fundamentally, what is at the root of this instinct is our desire to be in control of our destiny, to be our own masters, our own gods. But friends, we are not our own gods. We are creatures, created by God. Now, I’m not saying that our actions or our decisions don’t matter… they absolutely do matter, and we’re going to see very soon that they matter a lot! But along with that, I also want to affirm what this passage seems to be affirming, namely that at the end of the day, when we get to the very bottom of things, it is God who has chosen us. It is God who has acted first.

Now, I have to confess that so much of this is still a mystery to me and I don’t claim to understand everything about all that works, (and if you have any questions about this, I would love to talk to you more afterwards). But even though I don’t understand everything, I want to be careful to affirm everything that Scripture seems to affirm, and not limit my understanding of God simply to the things that I can understand with my brain.

Well, we can be pretty sure that this is what Paul is getting at when we ask the question: What attribute is God looking to magnify in all this? Verse 6: “to the praise of His glorious grace”. As we said earlier, the reason why God has decided to make our adoption ultimately dependent on His love, rather than our worth or our decision, is because His ultimate goal in all this is to display just how amazing His grace is. If there is any thought process that we can rightly imagine in the mind of God in His predestining, it’s probably the question, “Whom can I predestine that will most display just how generous and gracious I am?” Therefore, it’s no wonder that Paul writes in 1 Cor. 1:26-28:
26 For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.
Another indicator that God’s predestining was based on grace and not on anything we do is the phrase “in him”: vs. 4 – “He chose us in him”. This is clearly referring to Jesus Christ in verse 3. What this means is that if there was any good that God saw when he chose us, it was not any good in us, but in Christ. When God chose undeserving sinners to be adopted into His family, He did so with an eye to what Christ accomplished on the cross. This is why our adoption in verse 5 is “through Jesus Christ”. How did Jesus Christ make our adoption possible? Look at verse 7 “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace.”

What are these trespasses that we see here? They refer to the fact that all of us here are sinners. All of us have rebelled against God and refused His Lordship over our lives, and instead, have lived according to our own ideas of what is good and right. As a result, not only have our lives been corrupted, but this entire world has fallen into a corrupt and wicked state, and what used to be a beautiful and clear reflection of God’s glory, has now become a muddy, filthy cesspool of evil that brings insult to the glory of its Creator. So what will God do? Will He look the other way and allow His glory to be trampled on? Or will He vindicate Himself and bring destruction to these rebels?

Well, like we saw earlier, God is committed to His glory and He will not let sin go unpunished. But instead of simply obliterating all of His enemies at once, God did something really amazing. God Himself stepped into human history, by sending His Son Jesus Christ into the world. Jesus Christ was born into this world and grew up, and lived a life of perfect obedience and love to God and man. He was the only perfect, sinless human that has ever lived on this earth (the kind of people that we should’ve been). And yet, at the end of his life, instead of receiving the honor and reward he should have received, he was falsely condemned and crucified on a cross. And there, on the cross, God laid on him the sins of His people, and Jesus Christ received the punishment and death that our sins deserved. On the cross, we see the full display of God’s hatred for evil and sin, in the fact that the only sacrifice sufficient to satisfy God’s judgment of sin was the death of the infinitely worthy Son of God.

But Christ did not remain dead. Three days after His death, God raised Jesus Christ from the dead, proving that the punishment of sin has been fully paid by Christ’s sacrifice. Death has been defeated. God’s wrath has been spent. And now to those who will repent of their sins, and place their trust in Christ by faith, God promises to count Christ’s work as accomplished on their behalf, to forgive them of their sins and adopt them into His family.

If you are a non-Christian here this morning, if you understand nothing else in this sermon, I hope you’ll understand this message. Jesus Christ has come to save sinners from the wrath of God by suffering in their place. And the way you are connected to this gracious work is not by your efforts, or your own self-righteousness, but simply by turning away from your sin and trusting in Christ by faith. If you have any questions about what that means, please make it your business to talk to me or someone here today.

And if you are a Christian here, as we think about all the ways that our salvation is rooted in what God has done for us in the past, do you see what an awesome foundation this is? The next time you are wavering with doubts, or struggling with sins and unsure of whether or not God really loves you, rather than looking to yourself for comfort, place your hope and your trust in God and recognize that your salvation is ultimately not rooted in what you have done, but in what God has done for you. This is what it means to rest in God and to hope in God.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Ephesians 1-3 pt. 1

Below is part 1 of 4 of a sermon I recently preached on Ephesians 1-3

Have you ever had one of those mornings where you wake up, you pull yourself out of bed, and as you think about the coming day or week or months or years… all you feel is the emptiness or meaninglessness of it all? All you see before you is an endless string of more classes or projects or spreadsheets or chores. And as you think about all these things that you are so busy doing, you wonder, What is the point of all this? Does what I do really matter at all? Where is my life going? Sadly, this kind of thinking can often creep into many areas of our lives, from our work, to our families, to our ministries, to our spiritual disciplines, and even into our church life. Every once in awhile you might get a glimpse of something great in what you’re doing, but then you wake up, and everything once again seems so small and insignificant.

My brothers and sisters, we were not made to live this way. God intends for us to know that regardless of what situation we are in, our lives were meant to be part of something significant and that every step we take is one step closer to a glorious and wonderful future.

For the next two Sundays we are going to be studying the book of Ephesians and the truths contained in Ephesians are the remedy for our despair and fears. Paul’s goal in writing this letter is to help us take a step back from our daily activities and responsibilities, and see a big and glorious picture of all that God is doing. And when our hearts are captivated by this awesome picture, we’ll begin to see that the things that we once thought were so hopeless and meaningless, actually have incredible significance in God’s purposes, and we will be able to re-enter our everyday lives armed with these glorious truths.

This morning we’ll be looking at Ephesians 1-3. For my sermon today, I have four main points: First, I want us to look at God’s purpose for the Church. Second, I want us to look at what God has done for the Church in the past. Third, what God is doing through the Church in this present age. Fourth, what God promises to do for the Church in the future. And then, I want to wrap all this up by helping us think of what implications this might have for our lives.

The purpose of the Church

So first, I want us to begin w/ the big picture: What is God’s purpose for the Church? To find the answer to this, we’re going to have to go towards the end of chapter 3. Look with me at Ephesians 3, beginning in vs. 8:
Eph. 3:8 To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, 9 and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, 10 so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. 11 This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, 12 in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him.
We’re very soon going to see in chapters 1 and 2, God has been actively involved in the creation and salvation of the His people, the Church, stretching from before the foundation of the world, going forward to all the ages to come. But what is the point of all this? What is His purpose for the church? Vs. 10: “so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places”. The reason why God has gone through all the trouble of creating this world and redeeming a particular people called the Church, is because He desires to display the glory of His wisdom through the Church to the watching universe. Paul gives this same concept in chapter one, verse 5:
5 he predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace,
We’re going to talk about this word “predestined” later, but for now, notice what “the purpose of His will” is, namely “the praise of his glorious grace”. The reason God has predestined us for adoption in Christ is so that through His dealings with us His glorious grace would be shown and praised. So I ask again, what is the purpose of the Church? For anyone who is a Christian here today, what is the meaning or the purpose of your life, both individually and as a corporate body? The answer: You exist to glorify God. If you have ever wondered, “What is the meaning of life?” This is your answer: God has created you ultimately so that through His relationship with you, His glory might be displayed.

Now, how are we to think about God creating us in order to glorify Himself? I mean, if any one of us to made it our ambition to show off our own greatness, we would quickly be accused of being conceited or shallow or foolish. So why is it any different with God? Well, it’s different for two reasons. First, it is right for God’s greatest purpose to be the exaltation of His own glory. There is no higher value, no greater perfection in this world than God Himself. So if God were to pursue anything besides His own glory, then He would not be pursuing that which is of the greatest value, but rather something imperfect and inferior. If He were to do so, He would not be a perfect God. In essence, He would be committing the sin of idolatry, namely pursuing that which is not of the highest worth. Therefore, it is only right and good for the God of the Universe to make the pursuit of His own glory His highest priority.

But not only is it right, but it is also extremely loving for God to do so. Because God is a perfectly good God, it is a wonderful thing that He would seek to display His glory in the world. For example, think about God’s wisdom… it is loving that God would seek to display the glory of His wisdom in this world. We don’t want to live in a world dominated by disorder or foolishness or chaos. Rather, we want to live in a world ordered by reason and laws and authority established by God’s wisdom. Or think about God’s justice… it is loving that God would seek to display the glory of His justice in the world. We don’t want to live in a world where evil and injustice prevails, but we want to live in a world where God will get the final word and He will see to it that injustice is ultimately defeated and His justice is displayed. I could go on and talk about all the other attributes of God (His power, His patience, His kindness, His holiness), how it is to our blessing that God would seek to display those attributes in this world. So brothers and sisters, rejoice that we have a God that loves to magnify His glory in this world. Everything good, everything that we love and enjoy that exists in this world is a result of God’s passion to display His glory in this world.

And here’s the amazing thing: Right in the middle of this great purpose of God to glorify Himself is the Church. God has chosen the Church, God has chosen us, specifically, to be the exhibition, the object-lesson, to the watching universe, of just how great He is. This is the purpose of the Church.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Attraction

Michael Lawrence has written an excellent two-part series on the theme of attraction. Here, he addresses issues that deal with some sinful attitudes in my life... really convicting stuff. His introduction to part 1 of the series:
How many times have I talked to a single guy who wants to get married, only to hear him say that he knows lots of great women? He admits these women have godly characters and fantastic personalities. But he's not dating any of them. When I ask why not, the reply comes with a sigh. "I'm just not attracted to them." Pity the single Christian man with high standards and good taste. He can't help it he's single. The godly women he knows just aren't beautiful enough.

This is not just a Christian problem. Debra Dickerson, an African-American writer for Salon magazine, reflected on her sense of sadness after watching the brazenly crude and essentially misogynistic movie, The Wedding Crashers. (It came out a couple of years ago, and I sincerely hope you didn't see it.) Was she depressed at the way women were viewed simply as objects of lust, trophies to be won, conquests to be notched? Unfortunately not. She was depressed because, "by the end of the parade of weddings crashed and women laid, the crashers had seduced their way through every culture and every ethnicity but mine.... Why didn't they want to seduce me, too?" she asks. The answer, left painfully unspoken, was that they didn't find her ethnicity beautiful. While the judgment that black is not beautiful is patently false, that knowledge did not ease Dickerson's pain at being implicitly labeled "undesirable."

The Problem of Attraction

What do immoral wedding crashers, Debra Dickerson, and single Christian men have in common here? They're all operating on the assumption that beauty is altogether in the eye of the beholder. All of us are attracted to beauty. But this assumption says that none of us can help who or what we find beautiful. It's just something that happens. We like what we like, and who's to say why? At a superficial level — the color of hair, the shape of a face — there is some truth to that old adage. One of the reasons that I married my own wife is that I found her beautiful. I didn't need friends or strangers to tell me she was beautiful. I knew she was beautiful and I was attracted to her beauty.

But when we move beyond the accidents of appearance, to the roots of our desire and the motivation for marrying this woman rather than that one, the old adage is both false and dangerous. False, because it defines the beauty of the women around us by the distorted and inadequate measure of our own taste and desires. Dangerous, because it creates in us, as men, a passivity toward beauty. Beauty becomes a thing that the woman we're dating, or thinking about dating, either has or doesn't have. And we are the unimpeachable judge and jury. As long as she is beautiful in our eyes, we appreciate and savor and pursue that beauty. When that beauty fades, our desire slackens and our pursuit turns elsewhere. Like art critics at a gallery, our gaze is captured only until something more interesting appears. We are responders, not producers, without obligation or responsibility. After all, we can't help who we're attracted to. Or can we?
Read the rest here: part 1, part 2

Thursday, June 21, 2007

How to glorify God when questioning Him: Principles from Habakkuk

In Scripture (and in real life), we have many examples where people question God out of unbelief and thereby incur His displeasure. Yet, there are also some examples where people question God in such a way, to which He is pleased to respond. Habakkuk is a such an example for how we can express our questions to God in a way that glorifies Him.

When questioning God, acknowledge what God has revealed about Himself to be true.
Your eyes are too pure to approve evil,
And You can not look on wickedness with favor.
Why do You look with favor
On those who deal treacherously?
Why are You silent when the wicked swallow up
Those more righteous than they?
- vs. 1:13
Habakkuk was living in the midst of great wickedness and injustice, both from within Israel and from the coming Babylonians. And yet, he did not give in to the temptation of denying God's holy, just character. Nor did he give in to the temptation of denying God's sovereign control over this world. Rather, Habakkuk persevered in faith in what God had revealed about His own character to be true, even though the circumstances around him seemed to tell him otherwise. Habakkuk lived by faith in God's Word being true even though he could not perfectly understand how a holy and sovereign God could permit such evil.

Likewise, when encountering circumstances we do not understand, we must first acknowledge those truths that we do understand to be true from God's Word. When calamity strikes and everything seems to be falling apart, we must first remember that because of Christ, God is now our loving Father, who ordains all things for our good. As we continue struggling with sin in this life and become discouraged, we must first trust in the truth that Christ came to save sinners and that He promises to forgive all those who repent and come to Him in faith. When our future is unclear and a thousand questions fill our minds, we must rest in a God who knows all things and is in control of all things. Glorify God in your questioning by acknowledging what God has revealed to be true.

When questioning God, make the glory of God your highest concern.
LORD, I have heard the report about You and I fear.
O LORD, revive Your work in the midst of the years,
In the midst of the years make it known;
In wrath remember mercy. - vs. 3:2
What first initiated Habakkuk's concern wasn't just wickedness in the world in general, but particularly wickedness and injustice among the people of God (vs. 1:2-4). Israel was supposed to a special display of God's glory and kingdom in this world. Israel was supposed to be a light to the nations in the way the lived out God's law. But instead, we see that Israel became as wicked as the surrounding nations and failed in this task. For Habakkuk, this was a terrible evil and it had to be addressed by God. For God to fail to address Israel's rebellion would be for Him to deny His own Word, His own authority. At the heart of Habakkuk's plea was his concern for God to defend His Name, to vindicate His promises before the watching world.

Likewise, when we question God, we must also have God's glory as our ultimate concern. Yet, often I fear that Christians struggle with this concept because they think of God's glory in an ethereal, abstract sense. But the amazing truth that we see in Scripture is that God, in making a covenant with His people, has graciously tied His glory to our good. Therefore, when we plead our case before God, we can do so in a way that understands our welfare to be connected to His reputation, to His name. To behold the glory of God is the highest joy of the Christian. So glorify God in your questioning by making His glory your greatest concern.

When questioning God, be persistent in your prayers.
How long, O LORD, will I call for help,
And You will not hear?
I cry out to You, “Violence!”
Yet You do not save. - vs. 1:2
Habakkuk's complaint in this verse did not come on a whim. Rather, it is the fruit if a much longer period in his life when he has repeatedly seen injustice in this world and has had his heart grieved by it. He has been praying to God and questioning Him for a long period of time, and even though God has not yet answered, Habakkuk has persevered in his prayers.

This perseverance in itself is pleasing to God. Jesus reminds us of this in Luke 18 with the parable of the persistent widow. Yet as I reflect on my own life, what is striking is not the simply the challenge of persevering in prayer itself. I've often persevered in prayer over the course of years for many things: a new job, relationships, a certain problem... But what is striking is that Habakkuk has persevered in prayer over the injustice that he sees around Him... over the way God's name is being blasphemed among the nations because of the wickedness of Israel. These are the things that grieve Habakkuk's heart and consume his prayers. I don't know if I've ever had a persistent portion of my life where I was given over to such prayers. May God create in us a similar, lasting, persevering concern for eternal, rather than temporal, matters.

When questioning God, have a heart of total dependence on Him
Are You not from everlasting,
O LORD, my God, my Holy One?
We will not die. - vs. 1:12
The reason Habakkuk has so long persevered in His questioning is because God was His only hope for life. Habakkuk had built His life on the hope that the God of Israel is the one true God and that He would one day establish His Kingdom in this world and set all things to right. This was something that only God could bring about. Habakkuk had no plan B, no contingency plan, no exit strategy. If God somehow failed to keep His promises to do this, then Habakkuk would be undone. This kind of wholehearted dependence should also mark every Christian.

And so, like Habakkuk, as we watch the news, as we encounter difficulties, as we see the fallen-ness of the world around us, we must understand that our only hope is the truth of the Gospel. Namely, that God has reconciled sinners to Himself through faith in the blood of His Son. There is no plan B, no contingency plan, no exit strategy. If the Gospel is false, then we are all undone. But if the Gospel is true, then like Habakkuk, we can look forward with the eyes of faith to the day when God will indeed establish His kingdom here on earth and set all things to right. It is when we do so, that we can rejoice with Habakkuk:
Though the fig tree should not blossom
And there be no fruit on the vines,
Though the yield of the olive should fail
And the fields produce no food,
Though the flock should be cut off from the fold
And there be no cattle in the stalls,

Yet I will exult in the LORD,
I will rejoice in the God of my salvation. - vs. 3:17-18

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Five Priorities for Mercy Ministries

One of the ways churches, Christian organizations, campus ministries, etc. are trying to stay relevant today is by redirecting their outreach efforts to mercy ministries, rather than more "traditional" forms of outreach. Whether it is homeless outreach, or poverty-relief work, or raising AIDS awareness, Christians are increasingly looking to these mercy ministries as ways to engage the world about the truth of the Gospel. And without a doubt, much good has come from these efforts. These ministries have not only allowed non-Christians to see the Gospel lived out, but have also provided new venues for Christians to live out their discipleship to Christ.

But these new ministry efforts have not come without challenges to the Christian faith, particularly to the message of the Gospel. One reason this is so is because these mercy ministries are often so evidently good to the watching world. Any observing non-Christian will likely consider a church's effort to care for the homeless a good, admirable thing to do. And yet, if we are to be faithful to Scripture, we know that the Christian understanding of what is good and admirable is to be very different from what a non-Christian considers good and admirable. Moreover, we know that the Gospel is far more than receivng a meal, or a handout, or free health care. The Gospel is about sinners under the wrath of God being reconciled to God through the death of His Son. How can church seek to engage in mercy ministries without compromising the Gospel? Allow me to suggest five priorities that we need to maintain, if we are to do mercy ministries in a distinctively Christian way:

- Maintain the priority of the Gospel

"1CO 15:3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep."

A popular saying these days is, "Preach the Gospel at all times. If necessary use words." I can appreciate the call for Christians to live a life consistent with the Gospel at all times. However, I could not disagree more with the premise of this statement. The Gospel cannot be preached without words. The Good News is ultimately not a lifestyle, but it is news. It is a message rooted in historical events involving specifically, the life and death of a Jesus Christ, and more broadly, God's redemptive work throughout human history. But this is not just any message, but this is an extremely offensive message to the world. It speaks of a perfect, holy God, Who has placed demands on every area of our lives. It speaks of our utter sinfulness, God's eternal wrath against our sin, and our utter inability to save ourselves. It speaks of the bloody death of the Son of God who died in our place for our sins. It speaks of the need to continually turn away from sin, trust in Christ, and live under His lordship. As we seek to show mercy to the poor and oppressed, we must be careful to understand that the Gospel is only proclaimed when this message is proclaimed.

- Maintain the priority of evangelism

"RO 10:14 How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?"

If the Gospel is a message, then it is no wonder that the means God has appointed for salvation of sinners is the preaching of the Gospel. It is through the hearing of the Gospel that God chooses to work in the human heart to produce repentance and faith. In other words, apart from the preaching of the Gospel, no one will hear the Gospel. And if they do not hear, they will not believe in God. And if they do not believe, they will not call on God for help. Therefore, as churches look to engage in mercy ministries, they must maintain the priority of evangelism. To feed a person a meal but do nothing to care for his soul, is ultimately to fail to love that person. Does this mean we have to verbally speak the Gospel every single time we do an act of mercy? I don't think so. But I do think that it means that we must always be deliberately moving towards a proclamation of the Gospel in every act of mercy. Mercy ministries ultimately exist to commend our proclamation of the Gospel. John Piper puts it well when he describes his church's goal in mercy ministries: "We seek to alleviate all suffering, especially eternal suffering".

- Maintain the priority of the spiritual

"2COR 4:18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal."

One of the things that stands out in all of Paul's exhortations is not simply the emphasis to do good to others, but more specifically, to do spiritual good to others. As Christians, we are ultimately to be more concerned for a person's spiritual needs than his temporal needs. We do this because we know that God is the greatest joy in the universe. Therefore, the greatest, most loving good that we could do to another person is to bring them closer to God, to help them enjoy God more. This is ultimately how Christ has loved us and this is how we must love others, if we are to imitate His love. As we seek to do good to other people, we must remember that doing physical good is only temporary, but doing spiirtual good to others is of eternal value.

- Maintain the priority of the Church

"GAL 6:Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers."

As Christians, we have a greater responsibility to other Christians. We see this modeled in the New Testament church, where believers gave sacrificially to care not just for any poor, but particularly those within her walls. Why are we called to show particular love to the body of Christ? Because the unique love that Christ's disciples show to each other is the church's distinctive witness to the Gospel. Many secular organizations can engage in mercy ministries. But only the church can engage in the kind of Spirit-wrought, Christ-like love for those within her covenant community. The church's unique testimony to the Gospel exists nowhere else in the world, except in the church. This love produces a unity within the body of Christ that trascends all human boundaries (Gal. 3:28). This unity displays to the world the truth of the Gospel and God's coming judgment for all those who reject it (Phil. 1:27-28). This love shows to the world that our unity comes not from ourselves, but from Christ (John 13:34-35). Again and again, the "one another" commands throughout the New Testament remind us of the priority of our relationship with other Christians. And again and again, we see in the New Testament that the way Christians love and care for one another is the church's testimony to the truth of the Gospel. Therefore, even as we seek to commend the Gospel in serving all people, let us be especially vigilant to preserve this unique testimony by growing in our love for one another.

- Maintain the priority of Christ

"MT 26:11 The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me."

Many today are quick to point to Jesus' compassion for the poor and oppressed, and there is no doubt that Jesus did indeed show special concern for the suffering. However, to paint Christ simply as one who taught us to care for the poor and do good to others, is a far too shallow picture of him. When we dig deeper in the Gospels, we find that Christ did not primarily come to feed the poor and heal the sick, but came first and foremost, to ransom sinners through His life, death and resurrection. When we dig deeper, we find that we cannot come to Christ with our notions of what is good and right, but rather he calls us to die to ourselves and follow Him. When we dig deeper, we find that Christ's greatest passion was not the good of man, but the glory of God. Therefore, as churches pursue mercy ministries, they must do so in a uniquely Christ-like way. That is to say, they must do so in a way that seeks to proclaim the truth of the Gospel, to call people to true discipleship, and to bring glory to God in all things.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Andrew Peterson has written a beautiful meditation on the eight days leading up to Easter Sunday.

Read it here: http://www.andrew-peterson.com/journals.php?q=2&y=2007

Thursday, May 17, 2007

“Keep watching and praying that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” - Matt. 26:41
I've been struck recently by this comment that Christ makes to his disciples at Gethsemane when they are falling asleep on him. Here he is, facing the most difficult trial of his life yet, not only in terms of physical torture, but also as he is about to drink the cup of the wrath of God for all the sins of the world from the beginning to the end of time. So he asks his disciples to pray... but instead finding them praying, he returns to find them sleeping. And how does he respond?

"The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak."

What a merciful statement! Rather than blasting them for their weakness and laziness, He graciously comments on God's work that is evident in their lives ("the spirit is willing"), and acknowledges His sympathy of their weakness ("the flesh is weak"). Rather, than giving up on them, He encourages them to persevere, even as they have failed and are currently failing. In the moment when Christ was in greatest agony, His disciples failed to support him... and yet Christ still has a gracious word for them.

As the failing sinner that I so often am, this is a great encouragement: The Great Physician came not for the healthy, but for the sick. And the One who neither slumbers nor sleeps on us (Ps. 121:3) came not for perfect disciples, but for those who struggle to stay awake.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Thorns

Michael Lawrence gave a powerful Good Friday meditation last night. Below is my summary of it:
Matt. 27:29 And after twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on His head, and a reed in His right hand; and they knelt down before Him and mocked Him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!”
When the Roman soldiers placed a crown of thorns of Jesus' head, their intent wasn't simply pain. After all, Jesus had already been flogged and beaten. Rather, they wanted to make a point. Jesus had claimed to be a king, when there was only one king, Caesar. Caesar wore a crown of laurels covered in gold, signifying his dominion over the Roman empire. For this impostor king, they would find him a crown of thorns, in order to show the utter ridiculousness of his claims. But what the soldiers never realized was that this crown of thorns was the most fitting crown he could have worn.

Throughout Scripture, we see that thorns are a picture of futility and frustration, and are good for nothing except to be burned. Unlike the rest of the plants and trees, thorns were not created on the third day of creation. God's creation of the world consisted only of that which was good. It was only when Adam rejected God's authority and chose his own way by eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, that God curses the ground with thorns. Indeed, with Adam's sin, he has begun a new path of independence away from God. It is only then, that God curses the ground with a new plant, namely thorns and thistles. Adam's rebellion produces something new in God's creation and the futility and worthlessness of these newly-created thorns and thistles become a powerful picture of the futility and worthlessness created by sin. This picture is replayed everyday in our lives, when we sow the seeds of our sin and reap a harvest of frustration and heartache.

And it was for sinners, wallowing in this world of cursed futility, that Jesus Christ came to save. The King to whom all allegiance is owed, came to bear the curse that rebels deserved for their rebellion against Him. The One who wore a crown of infinite glory, laid it aside in order to wear a crown of thorns on his brow. And on the cross, "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us". And in doing so, He ushers in a new Kingdom where those who will place their trust in him will one day inherit a world free of all thorns and thistles.... a Kingdom where we will one day wear not a crown of thorns, but a crown of glory... a Kingdom where we will no longer rebel against our King, but will lay our crowns down at His feet.
Heb. 2:9 But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

How would anyone ever disprove Christianity?

1 The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.”
They are corrupt, they have committed abominable deeds;
There is no one who does good.

2 The LORD has looked down from heaven upon the sons of men
To see if there are any who understand,
Who seek after God.

3 They have all turned aside, together they have become corrupt;
There is no one who does good, not even one.

Psalm 14:1-3
All the controversy regarding Cameron's "Jesus tomb" reminds me of a conversation my OT professor had with an atheist friend that he shared with us. They had previously engaged in many friendly and spirited discussions on Christianity and one day his friend called him up saying he had a question that would stump the professor. He seemed pretty excited and this is what he asked: "How would anyone ever disprove Christianity?"

Now that is a good question.

So my professor thought about it for some time and pondered what archaeological evidence people could come up with that might prove that Christianity is false (including finding the "Jesus tomb"). But even if such a thing were to happen, it would be impossible to prove that the tomb and corpse really belonged to Jesus and etc, etc... But then finally, he thought of something.

He said to his atheist friend, "If scientists can ever bring about the next level of evolution, where we are living together in perfect patience, kindness, self-control, self-lessness, harmony... or to make it even simpler, where we're not destroying each other and stealing from each other and defrauding each other (as has been the case since the beginning of human history; just look at the past century), then Christianity is false." (Of course, his friend was a sharp guy, so he had to throw in the necessary disclaimers, for example, you can't drug up people.)

I think my OT professor was right on. If ever we are able to get to a point where sin is no longer a problem, then Christianity will have proven to be a sham and the gospel will have been a terrible lie... but if my life is any indication of the human condition, I'm pretty sure sin will remain until Christ returns. In any case, if Cameron really wants to try to disprove Christianity, he should stop wasting his time on this tomb and work on bringing about this next level of evolution... or better yet, he should stop wasting his time altogether before its too late.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Jesus of the Scars

One of the most difficult questions in the world that a Christian must face is the question of a good, loving, sovereign God and the existence of evil in this world. How is it that a good, loving, and sovereign God can allow, and even ordain, evil and suffering of the most extreme magnitude to exist in this world? I have studied much on this issue and have found many helpful truths by careful Bible study, listening to sermons, reading theological book... but at the end of the day, I have to confess that so much of this is beyond my understanding. This is even more so when I, or someone close to me, undergoes suffering. In the midst of grief, the fight of faith is often the most difficult.

However, there is one thing of which I am certain. The only way I can begin to grapple with the problem of evil and suffering is by first coming to the cross of Jesus Christ. There, the same good, loving, and sovereign God became man and entered into the very experience of evil and suffering that we experience in this world.

Edward Shillito was an English Congregationalist minister who survived the horrors of artillery, machine guns, and trench warfare during World War I. As he reflected on his experience, he found peace only when he considered the suffering and death of Christ and he wrote the poem below, entitled "Jesus of the Scars". As you read this, I hope you also will look to the suffering Savior, and there, find peace in the midst of the suffering in your life.
If we have never sought, we seek Thee now;
Thine eyes burn through the dark, our only stars;
We must have sight of thorn-pricks on Thy brow;
We must have Thee, O Jesus of the Scars.

The heavens frighten us; they are too calm;
In all the universe we have no place;
Our wounds are hurting us; where is the balm?
Lord Jesus, by Thy Scars we claim Thy grace.

If when the doors are shut, Thou drawest near,
Only reveal those hands, that side of Thine;
We know to-day what wounds are, have no fear,
Show us Thy Scars, we know the countersign.

The other gods were strong; but Thou wast weak;
They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Perspective

I had lunch with an Iranian pastor today and among many other things, I got to hear him share about how hard it has been to learn to forgive as a Christian. Before the revolution, his father worked as a security officer for the king and when the revolution happened, his family lost everything and barely had food to eat. He and his family became a Christian after that time, and this doubled the hardship they experienced. He shared about how his brother-in-law was once going to work late at night and was stopped by a patrol. While reaching for his ID, they shot him and killed him, leaving his sister a widow with three children. In order to reclaim the body, the government demanded payment for the bullets, demanding an inexorbitant price for each bullet. As poor as they were, they were never able to reclaim the body. On another occasion, his nephew became extremely sick and yet his family could not afford to purchase medical care for him and he died a slow, painful death. He shared many other stories like this. He confessed his struggle to forgive those who had so harmed his family, and how he often refused to witness to government workers because he hated them and desired their damnation. But by God's grace, after many years, he has learned to forgive them and even to pray for their salvation. It is still not easy, and he is still growing in this, but God is clearly at work in his life. It was powerful to see the emotion in his eyes as he shared all this. Today, as a pastor of a local church, he also seeks to help members of his congregation to forgive those who have persecuted them. Most recently, he is working with a mother whose Christian son was tortured to the point of kidney failure, encouraging her to find forgiveness and peace in Christ.

Pray for the Christians in Iran.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Loving God, loving His people

One of the surprising themes in the New Testament is how love for God is shown by love for His people. Oftentimes, we limit our ideas of what it means to love God to privatized experiences: longer quiet times, giving more money, an emotional rush during worship singing, etc... Now, these things all certainly can be aspects of true affection for God. But the Bible presents to us a much more tangible, corporate picture of what it means to love God:
If anyone says, "I love God," yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. - 1 John 4:20

God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them. - Heb. 6:10

"The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.' - Matt. 25:40
We also see this theme repeated throughout the New Testament in all the "one another" commands. Our love for Christ is reflected in our obedience to His commands (John 14:15) and His command is that we love one another. We love God by loving His people. Which is why it makes sense that when Paul was persecuting Christians, Christ asked him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?"

What is striking in these verses, however, is that their message goes against any popular notions of Christianity. The world is comfortable with a Christianity that advocates a general love for all people. It is not comfortable with a Christianity that promotes a specific love for God's people. The most fundamental reason for this is that it implies that there is such a body as "God's people" and those who are not in this body are not "God's people". This strikes at the root of the inclusivism, relativism, and pluralism of our age.

Of course, this does not mean that we have no obligation to love non-Christians (Matt. 5:43-48). However, it does mean that the evidence of a heart transformed to love God will be our love for other Christians (1 John 4:20). It means that the way we persevere in faith is by showing love to other Christians (Heb. 6:10). It means that what will distinguish Christian love from general philanthropy is our special care and concern for persecuted Christians (Matt. 25:40).
Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. - 1 John 4:11

Monday, December 04, 2006

"I am a king"

When Christ uttered, in the judgment hall of Pilate, the remarkable words - "I am a king" (John 18:37), he pronounced a sentiment fraught with unspeakable dignity and power. His enemies might deride his pretensions and express their mockery of his claim, by presenting him with a crown of thorns, a reed, and a purple robe, and nailing him to the cross; but in the eyes of unfallen intelligences, he was a king. A higher power presided over that derisive ceremony, and converted it into a real coronation. That crown of thorns was indeed the diadem of empire; that purple robe was the badge of royalty; that fragile reed was the symbol of unbounded power; and that cross the throne of dominion which shall never end.

- J.L. Reynolds, Church Polity of the Kingdom of Christ, in Polity, Dever, Mark, p. 298.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Offence of the Cross Ceasing

Further proof that there's nothing new under the sun. He could very well be describing much of today's preaching.
Leave out the holy character of God, the holy excellence of his law, the holy condemnation to which transgressors are doomed, the holy loveliness of the Saviour’s character, the doctrine, and the holy tempers and conduct of all true believers: then dress up a scheme of religion of this unholy sort: represent mankind as in a pitiable condition, rather through misfortune than by crime: speak much of Christ’s bleeding love to them, of his agonies in the garden and on the cross; without shewing the need or the nature of the satisfaction for sin: speak of his present glory, and of his compassion for poor sinners; of the freeness with which he dispenses pardons; of the privileges which believers enjoy here, and of the happiness and glory reserved for them hereafter: clog this with nothing about regeneration and sanctification, or represent holiness as somewhat else than conformity to the holy character and law of God: and you make up a plausible gospel, calculated to humour the pride, soothe the consciences, engage the hearts, and raise the affections of natural men, who love nobody but themselves.

And now no wonder if this gospel (which has nothing in it affronting, offensive, or unpalatable, but is perfectly suited to the carnal unhumbled sinner, and helps him to quiet his conscience, dismiss his fears, and encourage his hopes,) incur no opposition amongst ignorant persons, who inquire not into the reason of things; meet with a hearty welcome, and make numbers of supposed converts, who live and die as full as they can hold of joy and confidence, without any fears or conflicts. ...

What wonder if, when all the offensive part is left out, the gospel gives no offence? What wonder if, when it is made suitable to carnal minds, carnal minds fall in love with it? What wonder if, when it is evidently calculated to fill the unrenewed mind with false confidence and joy, it has this effect? What wonder if, when the true character of God is unknown, and a false character of him is framed in the fancy,--a God all love and no justice, very fond of such believers, as his favourites,--they have very warm affections towards him?

I would not give needless offence. Let this matter be weighed according to its importance. Let the word of God be examined impartially. I cannot but avow my fears that Satan has propagated much of this false religion, among many widely different classes of religious professors; and it shines so brightly in the eyes of numbers, who ‘take all for gold that glitters’, that, unless the fallacy be detected, it bids fair to be the prevailing religion in many places.

Thomas Scott, Letter and Papers, edited by John Stott (London: Seeley, 1824, pp. 441-444)

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The chief dangers to Christianity

The chief dangers to Christianity do not come from the anti-Christian systems. Mohammedanism has never made inroads upon Christianity save by the sword. Nobody fears that Christianity will be swallowed up by Buddhism. It is corrupt forms of Christianity itself which menace from time to time the life of Christianity. Why make much of minor points of difference between those who serve the one Christ? Because a pure gospel is worth preserving; and is not only worth preserving, but is logically (and logic will always work itself out in history) the only saving gospel.

- Benjamin Warfield, 1894, Selected Shorter Writings, vol. 2, p. 665-6.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

What I will be doing this Thanksgiving

Unfortunately, I will be spending Thanksgiving away from my family this year, but I'll have the opportunity to spend it with the Devers. Mark describes a few Thanksgiving traditions:
We will, before we eat, sing a hymn or two. We will read a psalm and pray. When people sit down with their food, I will read some early thanksgiving proclamations from the 17th century, perhaps from the revolutionary period, from Lincoln, and the current year's. (Each year the president makes a thanksgiving proclamation, which you can print out from the White House's website.) I'll read a little about the history of Thanksgiving, and ask a few questions about it. (Like, how did it get moved from the last Thursday in November to the fourth?) My wife generally lays out 3 corns on each plate before dessert to remind us of the thanksgiving for surviving the first winter at Plymouth. We go around 3 times, each expressing something that we're thankful for. This time ranges from serious to light and back again. And then we pray. All of this is interspersed with lots of conversation (and eating) and likely some games for those who want to stay around into the evening. (And, ok, maybe we do watch Mr. Bean's Christmas special.)