Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Reflections from "ONE"

Last night, I went with some church friends to hear John Piper and John Lennox give a talk at the Sydney Entertainment Centre. Here is a thought I had based on something John Lennox said and a prayer that I wrote at the end of the night.

John Lennox
A five-year old child and a father are spending time together by watching cartoons. That's a nice occasion. Do you know what would be a tragic one? A twenty-five year old son and his father spending time together by watching cartoons. Why is that tragic? Because they should have other ways to spend time together! They should be going to a baseball game or to a Broadway theatre show. They should be sitting at home by the fireplace chatting about work. They should be sharing drinks at a pub chatting about married life and having children! They should debate politics or theology, share about finances or where they're going next for vacation! They shouldn't be watching Spongebob!

Don't misread me. The problem isn't the idea of watching cartoons with your dad. There's nothing wrong with that. The problem is if you have nothing else to do, no other way to relate to your father than to watch cartoons with him. That's the real problem. If you've got no other dimension in your relationship, no other things in life to share with your father, that says that there's something wrong in your relationship. It's not that you don't have a relationship with your father; it's that it is tragically shallow.

Yet this is what so many of our relationships with our heavenly father are like. Every single church have people that have been going for years, five years, ten years, fifty years... but still demonstrate the same exact knowledge of God as a new Christian. After so many years of going to Sunday school or attending Bible study or listening to sermons, they still pray the same exact prayers, state the same exact biblical truths, and live the same exact lifestyle, not having grown deeper in their knowledge of God in years. They supposedly know God and are in a relationship with him through Jesus, yet feel so little passion for the one who went to the cross for their sakes that they can't be bothered spending time with him.

John Lennox last night mentioned 2 Peter 1.5-7: "For this reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge and self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love." The thing about all these attributes is that they do not save. goodness, knowledge, self-control... without them we would still be secure in the kingdom as long as we have the faith in Jesus that imputes on us righteousness before God. But they still matter. Why do they matter? Because they are things that we automatically seek if we have that saving faith. And if we don't seek them? "But if anyone does not have them, he is nearsighted and blind, and has forgotten that he has been cleansed form his past sins." (1.9).

To add to my faith other things does that mean that the gospel isn't central in my life. The knowledge that Christ died and was risen to atone for sins will always be central in my life. I am not departing from that truth, I am increasing in my knowledge of it in depth and breadth. As I go deeper in the Scriptures, I grasp all the complexities of the atonement that make God's redemption plan beautiful: the covenant of Abraham, the foreshadowing through the law and the prophets. As I grow in breadth of the gospel, I discover its implications for all the different aspects of my life; I grasp the way the gospel transforms my relationships with people, my pursuits in life, my finances and the way I spend money, my view of work and career, my view of family and marriage, my disappointments and regrets, my recreation and the way I relax, and on and on.

I am not unsaved if I do not add to my faith. I am saved by grace alone, through faith in Christ Jesus alone. I do not need to work to be in a relationship with God. I do not need to present myself perfect before knowing him. Christ has already secured that all for me. The problem is, if I do not add to it, then my relationship with God is tragically shallow. And who, knowing the greatness of God and his abounding mercy and steadfast love, knowing what he's done on the cross, who would WANT a shallow relationship with him?

I wonder how many people are going to go to heaven knowing pretty much nothing about God. I wonder how many people are going to know more about Jesus than the elementary ideas they learned in Sunday School. I wonder how many people are going to get to heaven, have a look a the supremacy of the eternal world over our world, and say, "If I had known what it was like, I would have invested more in it."

I resolve to making knowing God my chief pursuit in life. I resolve to consider all other investments a waste compared to the investment I make in my savior. I resolve to diligently study the Bible to know God more deeply in this present age, and in eager anticipation of the day when I will know him and see him face to face.

I resolve not to waste a second any longer on things that won't last. I resolve to know suffering and all manners of difficulty as gaining Christ. I resolve to use every challenge and difficulty to magnify Christ by declaring that he is worth me enduring every trial.

For Christ died for me, to give me himself, to secure for me pardon, to give me new life. And therefore every challenge that I face I rejoice in. I relish every tribulation as an opportunity to consider all other things loss for the sake of knowing him. I resolve to rejoice when I am counted worthy to suffer for his name. I resolve to pour out my life, reserving not a drop for myself. I resolve to know that every effort that is not made to gain Christ is an effort wasted.

I resolve to count every breath of life on earth a gift. I resolve to live my life reflecting the grace of my king, with an ever sure sense of his presence in my life.

God, help me to do all these things that I resolve to do. I know that I cannot do it of my own strength or will because in my sin I do not love your nor do I consider you great. What I need is such a revelation of Jesus' greatness, such a knowledge of his love and goodness, such a clear, real vision of his greatness and glory that my heart would be turned towards you, that I would consider you alone worthy of praise. In the name of Jesus, who bought me and who advocates for me before the holy throne of God, in his mighty name I pray. Amen.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Two ways to "do" in a church

I'm starting this blog back up again and this is the only fanfare for it.

"You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace." Gal 5.4

"So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature.... But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law" Gal 5.16, 18

There are two ways to do things in a church. Well, actually, there are two ways to do things in the Christian life. There is the grace-based way, and the works-righteousness-based way.

The works-righteousness-based way does things in order to secure salvation, whereas the grace-based way does things as a reaction to being saved. Those who do things by a works-righteousness framework are seeking to be justified by their works. There are two different ways you can do this. One is, you do things in order to earn the love of God. The thinking behind it is basically, "If I do this consistently, then my relationship with God will be right." Ex: If I just go to church every week, if I pray and read the Bible regularly, because I heard that God likes that, if I try to do fewer selfish things, if I talk about Jesus all the time, wear a cross necklace, and make the bulk of my social circle Christians, then I will be right with God. The other way to do works-righteousness stuff is to do things in order to establish or prove your love for God. Now this way is a fair deal more sinister, because it is a sinful heart condition masquerading as a godly motivation. This method basically says, "I am doing this in order to prove, either to myself or to others or to God himself, that I love God." What makes it sinful is the second part that is implicitly tacked on: "...because if I love God this much, then he'll have to love me back and accept me.

What the two have in common is that both presume that the individual needs to initiate a love relationship between God. I need to make an effort, I need to go first and open a relationship with God, I cannot face God before I get this part of my life straight, etc. The problem is that no amount of righteous deeds can cover up this sinful heart of mine. For someone who operated under the works-righteousness framework (or as Paul says in Galatians, "seeking to be justified by the law", Gal 3.10-12), there are only two outcomes: self-deceived pride as I make myself think that I am doing just fine by my own efforts, or inescapable despair as I realize just how sinful I am and my inability to get rid of my guilt just by doing

Come ye weary, heavy-ladened
Lost and ruined by the fall
If you tarry, 'til you're better
You will never come at all

The grace-based way of doing things is when I realize that I am not made right before God by my own efforts, but by what Christ has done for me. In the grace-based way of doing things, I do them not because I want to earn my salvation, but because I already have salvation. Those who live this way say, "I do this stuff because I know that God loves me through Jesus and I am so overwhelmed, so taken, so changed, so transformed by the reality of that love that I respond in obedience." People who do things this way do not so much establish or create their love for God through deeds, but merely express their love for God, a love that was created as a result of God's first love for us. The key difference is that God initiated, not me (1 John 4.19).

The problem in church is not so much that we actively encourage a works-righteousness-based framework for doing ministry or serving; it is that we are passive in our teaching of grace. The human heart, when left to its own devices, ALWAYS gravitates back to the works-righteousness framework of faith. This is true even of seasoned ministry workers and Christians. Take church announcements for example. Say, I want to make a church announcement about doing a short-term summer missions to university students. I can do it this way:

"Let me encourage you all to seriously consider doing summer missions! There are so many opportunities out there; you can go to another country like Taiwan or Malaysia, or you can stay local and do a mission somewhere in another state. We're all uni students and we've got lots of time and this is the best way to redeem that time for the kingdom! You know here in Sydney (or NY), we take for granted the freedom to worship God and all the great teaching about the Bible that we get here, but out in other places, they don't even have Bibles. I went last year and I had so much fun and made so many new friends who were so passionate about the gospel... what could be more fun that hanging out with other Christians who are on fire for Jesus?"

Do you see what's going on there? What are the reasons I gave you to do summer mission?

1) It's a great way to invest your time in heavenly treasures as a university student
2) Lots of places outside of home need to badly hear the gospel preached.
3) Being with other passionate Christians is a great experience.

Now here's the astounding thing. None of those reasons are wrong or even bad. They can all fall either into a works-righteousness framework of doing, OR a grace-based framework. But for an average young Christian who is trying to work out what the Christian life looks like, which framework do you think he'll gravitate to?

If you don't give the grace of God as a reason, it doesn't matter how many other reasons that you give that are really good. Chances are, the average Christian will only come away thinking, "Wow, if I want to be a real Christian, I better go on summer mission sometime", and that's only a short step away from, "I'm an alright Christian. My relationship with God is just fine, because I went to summer mission last year. I'm doing my part, so I should be fine", which is only a short logical leap from the mentality that, "It's what I do that saves me."

So the application point here is, when you teach other Christians, never neglect to mention grace. Do not take it for granted. It can be anything from plugging your missions team to asking people to help out for an outreach event, to teaching your disciple how to be servant-minded, to preaching a sermon to writing a Bible study to having a godly conversation with a Christian brother or sister. Any time you tell someone to "do", give them grace as a reason.. It may sound forced the first few times you try it, but it's better to awkwardly mention grace than to coolly lead someone down a path of works. Here's an example of how I'd give an announcement about doing summer mission:

"One of the things about life is that joy is not make complete until it is shared. Isn't it true that one of your first impulses when you receive good news is to find somebody to tell? Well, this same principle holds true for the Christian life. That is why Jesus says to "go and make disciples of all nations..."; the reality that he is the risen King is so great that the disciples couldn't have kept it to themselves even if he tried! Well, if you're someone who is likewise so blown away by the good news of Jesus that you want to share it with someone, then let me tell you about summer missions...."

The whole idea is to make clear that, "If you're feeling so moved by the love of God and the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ, given to you so undeservingly and expressed through the cross, then let me tell you how you can express that joy!"

This is a MUST-DO in all our churches, in all our ministries, and in all the ways that we teach, disciple, and work for the kingdom of God. If we are not serious and intentional about this, we'll end up with a bunch of shallow Christians keeping our churches going but who ditch the work of the gospel the instant that the going gets tough or the going gets boring. Or we'll end up with a bunch of Christians who lack the assurance of salvation and frantically do thing after thing in the hopes that at the end of their life they'll muster just enough works to get into the gates of heaven but secretly in their heart no that it is not possible.

Come ye sinners, poor and needy
Weak and wounded, sick and sore
Jesus, ready stands to save you
Full of pity, love, and power