Friday, May 25, 2007

The Gospel - Part 1: "A Matter of First Importance"

One of the trends taking place in the modern evangelical church that is most alarming to me is the disappearance of the Gospel. That sounds ironic doesn’t it? Of all places that the Gospel is missing it certainly couldn’t be the church! You may be tempted to dismiss me as an alarmist. “How is the Gospel disappearing?” you may ask. After all, didn’t Mel Gibson make five zillion dollars on his Jesus movie and didn’t Amy Grant have a TV show for a little while? True enough I suppose. But as I survey our rather substantial corner of Christendom I cannot help but notice the appalling lack of attention the Gospel garners in our preaching and writing and Larry King Live appearances. This is worth our sounding the alarm. Could it be that a significant portion of evangelicalism is neglecting the very centerpiece of our faith? Have we sold our birthright for a bowl of sweet tasting but un-nourishing porrage? At this point it would probably be valuable to make sure we are speaking the same language.

In our day the good news has been so generalized that any “God talk” is often classified as the Gospel. It seems that anytime a man stands in the pulpit and merely mentions God, fumes about a political hot topic, or makes reference to a verse in the Bible he is said to have “really preached the Gospel.” But contrary to current trends, the Gospel is very specific. It is not a general word meaning all things Christian from Prayer of Jabez shofars to Testamints.

Scripture tells us exactly what the Gospel is. It is the doing and dying of Christ in the place of sinners. The Gospel is the announcement that in Christ (that is through His perfect obedience and sacrificial death and glorious resurrection) God was reconciling sinners unto Himself. Paul wrote to the Corinthian believers, “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you…For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures…” (I Cor 15:1-5). The Gospel is not political action or family values. It is not even discipleship. The Gospel is Jesus dying on a cross at the Father’s sovereign decree so that sinners might be saved and God’s righteousness vindicated.

The apostles were slaves to this Gospel. Their ministries, indeed their very lives made little sense if they did not faithfully trumpet God’s good news. Everywhere they went, even in hostile towns, the apostles “continued to preach the gospel” (Acts 14:7). Paul’s commitment to proclaiming the Gospel was singular. “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel…” (I Cor 1:17). Explaining why he willingly subordinated his own rights for the sake of others Paul writes, “I do it all for the sake of the gospel…” (I Cor 9:23). On behalf of his fellow apostles Paul prayed for a widening influence in Corinth “so that we may preach the gospel in lands beyond you…” (II Cor 10:16). To the Thessalonians Paul explains that he and his companions had come not to flatter them to gain favor but “just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not to please man, but to please God who tests our hearts” (I Thess 2:4). Unfortunately too many pastors and churches seem to be asleep at the wheel in this most important of duties. How else can we explain the number of church members and professing Christians who do not understand this most elemental part of Christianity?

One Southern Baptist church I know of in the northeast wisely asks all prospective members to give a sixty second explanation of the Gospel. What they have found is that many of the people coming into their church from other Southern Baptist congregations have a hard time faithfully articulating the Gospel. Similarly, a Christian radio producer in California recently attended the national conference for the Christian publishing industry. He interviewed approximately seventy individuals with one question: “What is the Gospel?” Sadly, only one of the persons interviewed in this Christian conclave was able to offer an answer that was even remotely biblical. All this begs the question, can one be a Christian and not understand the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

The struggle for the Gospel is a struggle for conversion. Since the Gospel is “the power of God for salvation for everyone who believes” then the stakes are sky high that we believe and proclaim this Gospel. There are many “new gospels” operating in the world today just as there were in the first century. There is the gospel of self-improvement which holds that we need only to do our best in order to get in God’s good graces. There is a cross-less gospel which holds that salvation is found in looking to Jesus as a moral example to emulate rather than a crucified Savior to believe upon. But God’s judgment of these gospels and those who preach them still stands. Addressing the Galatians Paul writes, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” (Gal 1:8).

From the time Adam and Eve rebelled in the garden all of history pointed toward the cross in hopeful anticipation that God would redeem His people from their self-imposed sentence of death. One dark Friday some two thousand years ago all that God had promised came to fulfillment on a Roman cross. Since that time the church’s highest obligation has been to faithfully steward the Gospel of our crucified Savior. It was for the apostles and remains for us today the matter of first importance. May we therefore be zealous to get the Gospel right.

When from the dust of death I rise
to claim my mansion in the skies,
ev’n then this shall be all my plea,
Jesus hath lived, hath died, for me.

Jesus the endless praise to thee,
whose boundless mercy hath for me -
for me a full atonement made,
an everlasting ransom paid.

O let the dead now hear thy voice;
now bid thy banished ones rejoice;
their beauty this, their glorious dress,
Jesus, thy blood and righteousness.

von Zinzendorf, 1739

The Gospel - Part 2: "In Our Place"

The Gospel is all about the work of God on behalf of sinners. It is the news that through His beloved Son, God has done everything necessary for sinful man to be forgiven of his sins and receive full pardon from the sentence of death. This was all done through the ministrations of a crucified Savior who fully satisfied the Father’s just demand that sin be punished to the utmost. What is more, man is completely unable either through kind intentions or good works to contribute in any way to the work of his Divine Redeemer. Even our responses to the Gospel, repentance and faith, are owing to God’s gracious work to draw us to Himself (John 6:44).

One prominent evangelical leader appearing recently on Larry King Live said that one of the main themes of the Bible was redemption. Good enough so far. But then he went on to explain that redemption is when we love God back as much as He loves us. What?! This is not a negligible error. This is a flub up of monumental proportions. It is precisely this kind of error which turns the Gospel upside down and leads to the common misunderstanding that the Gospel is something we do. This will inevitably lead to the heresy that our standing before God is determined more by our good works than Christ’s work of atonement on the cross in our place.

The theme of substitution is the heart of the Gospel. It is expressed in the biblical term “propitiation” which New Testament scholar Leon Morris defines as “a sacrifice that bears God’s wrath to the end and in so doing changes God’s wrath toward us into favor.” Romans 3:25 refers to Jesus “whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood…” So the cross vindicated God’s righteousness in that sins would indeed be judged. We refer to the propitious nature of the cross as the “substitutionary atonement.” Christ died the death we deserved. He paid the debt we owed. He died in our place. Unfortunately, this essential doctrine is under attack within the church today.

One of the men recently identified by TIME Magazine as being among the twenty-five most influential leaders in evangelicalism denies this cardinal doctrine of biblical faith. But this is nothing new in American evangelicalism. Charles Finney, the 18th century revivalist, is revered in many evangelical circles today as a pioneer of mass evangelism. No one much reads Finney anymore. If they did they would find that the great evangelist was a Pelagian (Pelagias was a fifth century heretic) who denied such essential Christian doctrines as original sin and the substitutionary atonement of Christ, the very essence of the Gospel. Finney considered the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to sinners “a theological fiction.” He insisted that it was impossible for Christ to die in our place and that our justification before God was dependent upon our ability to obey the letter of the law. Nevertheless, Finney was able to make an indelible mark on evangelicalism through his emphasis on revival meetings and a new innovation often referred to as the “altar call.”

If the substitutionary nature of the atonement is dispensed with then the cross is, at best, nothing more than an example of God’s love. Certainly the cross is the ultimate example of God’s love. No greater love has ever been seen than that shown in the torn and anguished body of Christ. But God was doing much more on the cross than just saying “I love you.” He was saying, “I love you so much that I will punish your sins in the person of my only Son.” This is what the cross meant above all else. From the beginning the gospels point us to Jesus’ rendezvous with the cross. The Gospel of Mark, for instance, is often described as a passion narrative with a long introduction. The entire movement of the account is toward the cross. Jesus is presented as the ultimate Passover Lamb, covering us from God’s wrath (Mark 14:12). Jesus described his mission to his disciples by saying that he would “give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).

Thy works, not mine, O Christ,
speak gladness to this heart;
they tell me all is done;
they bid my fear depart.

Thy pains, not mine, O Christ,
upon the shameful tree,
have paid the law’s full price
and purchased peace for me.

Thy cross, not mine, O Christ,
has born the awful load
of sins that none in heav’n or earth
could bear but God.

Thy righteousness, O Christ,
alone can cover me:
no righteousness avails
save that which is of thee.

- Horatius Bonar 1857

The Gospel - Part 3: "Still the Power of God"

For I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes…
Romans 1:16

What a great promise on which the church may cling! When the power of God has been identified with everything from “holy laughter” to big budgets it is good to be reminded of the true locus of God’s power. Think of it: The conversion of sinners, the most extraordinary of miracles, is brought about by the Holy Spirit through the simple means of the Gospel made plain. What is more, proclaiming the Gospel does not require money, social status, priestly vestments, or an impressive resume`. Rather, to proclaim the Gospel we need only to understand what it is and then be willing to go and tell. We can be sure that God’s power is present, whether we feel it or not, whenever the Gospel is faithfully proclaimed in churches, living rooms, and front yards.

Unfortunately, when it comes to evangelism the church has come to rely too heavily on technique and not enough on the simple means that God has prescribed. There are I believe two primary reasons for the ascendancy of technique-driven evangelism. The first reason is a lack of confidence in God’s power to regenerate a lost heart. The second reason why evangelism tends to become technique-driven springs from a mistaken notion that the Gospel needs to be made more palatable if people are going to accept it.

A Crisis of Confidence
In recent years the church seems to have been suffering from an increasing lack of confidence in the Gospel. I fear that all too often God’s own people are not aware of the primary means by which He converts the lost. This then leads to an unhealthy reliance on techniques and a tragic neglect of the very thing God has promised to use to reach unbelievers.

Paul makes very clear in Romans that proclaiming God’s Word is the primary means by which faith is generated in the unbelieving heart: “For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ But how are they to call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’…So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (10:13-17). The proclaiming of God’s good news from pulpit, in Sunday school, in small groups, and in one-on-one conversations is God’s design for the conversion of the lost. Why is it then that so many pastors and churches seem to have confidence in almost everything but the clear proclamation of the Gospel?

Of course this trend to rely upon technique is nothing new. In his days as an evangelist during in the 19th century Charles Finney advanced the idea that many “excitements” or “enthusiasms” were needed in order to gain a response from those attending evangelistic meetings. He taught that revival was wholly the work of man and that conversion was not the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit in the human heart but was instead the work of man to change his own ways. Clearly, any theology that so diminishes God’s power in salvation while at the same time exalts man’s power will lead to a technique-driven approach to evangelism. Among the new excitements that Finney pioneered was the altar call which was almost unheard of prior to his time. Don’t misunderstand. I am a strong believer in calling people to respond to the Word of God when it is preached. Indeed, the preaching of God’s Word always demands a response. But it seems that the altar call, along with a host of other traditions and techniques, has been invested with near sacramental powers.

There is no doubt that techniques will often deliver quick and quantifiable results. But what is the fruit of such work? In or own denomination the statistics are not encouraging. Over 50% of Southern Baptist Church members do not attend church with any regularity. For all or our success in getting people to pray a prayer or walk an aisle we have not fared as well in seeing genuine converts to Christ.

Making the Gospel palatable
The second reason for the ascendancy of technique-driven evangelism arises from the conviction that the only barrier between a lost person and salvation is the church’s ability to make the Gospel attractive. However, Scripture tells us that the message of the Gospel will be downright offensive to many. Paul makes it clear that for some the Gospel is sweet while for others it is thoroughly unpleasant. Speaking of those who are privileged to proclaim the Gospel Paul writes, “For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life” (II Cor 2:15-16). Also, we know that the apostles were routinely driven out of towns, arrested, beaten, and eventually killed because of the message they preached.

The message the apostles preached was the matter of “first importance” that Christ died, was buried, and rose again to save sinners (I Cor 15:3-4). Mankind will not come to know Christ through intuition or effort. In his own wisdom man will always wander away from the knowledge of Christ. “For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (I Cor 1:21-24).

Preaching is folly. After all, aren’t there more relevant methods available to the church today? I recently read an article about a new church where the pastor never preaches but rather produces dramas each Sunday. Their reasoning is that no one wants to listen to preaching anymore. But this has always been the case. God’s means will never make sense to our world. To make matters worse, the message we are called to proclaim is either foolish or offensive depending on who is listening. It is true that we must not allow our own foolishness to interfere with our message. But the only way to make the Gospel palatable to the world is to remove the cross.

Over one hundred years ago J.C. Ryle wrote with characteristic clarity:
The Gospel in fact is a most curiously and delicately compounded medicine, and is a medicine that is very easily spoiled. You may spoil the Gospel by substitution. You have only to withdraw from the eye of the sinner the grand object which the Bible proposes to Faith, - Jesus Christ; and to substitute another object in His place,…and the mischief is done…
You may spoil the Gospel by addition. You only have to add to Christ, the grand object of faith, some other objects as equally worthy of honor, and the mischief is done…
You may spoil the Gospel by disproportion. You only have to attach an exaggerated importance to the secondary things of Christianity, and a diminished importance to the first things, and the mischief is done. Once alter the proportion of the part of the truth, and truth soon becomes downright error…

The Gospel is still God’s power for the salvation of all those who believe. Faith still comes from hearing the word of Christ declared. God’s gospel will always be the effective means by which Christians are birthed and upon which churches are built.

The Gospel - Part 4: "God's Third Way"

Man is incurably religious. The problem is that because of sin we are hopeless to find our way into the truth apart from the intervening grace of God (Romans 8:7-8). The Gospel, the message that Jesus died on a cross in the place of sinners, is not something that will appeal to man unless God opens his mind and heart to the truth. The good news is that once a sinner comes to realize his hopeless plight the Gospel becomes sweet truth indeed. But until man realizes his sinful state he will always distort the truth of the Gospel. There are primarily two ways that religious man distorts Gospel truth: relativism and moralism.

There are religious relativists and irreligious relativists. The religious relativist is a Baptist, Taoist, or Hindu not because of a belief in what Francis Schaeffer called “true truth” but because of strictly pragmatic reasons. They are a Christian (or other) not because Christianity represents the truth of God and must therefore be yielded to but because it “works” for them. Irreligious relativists defend their agnosticism on much the same grounds. But being good relativists they will give an approving nod to a Christian or a witch for finding the thing that works for them.

The relativist denies the Gospel because he sees no need for a substitutionary atonement because God is not a righteous Judge who demands that sin be punished. God is a kind loving grandfather figure who, in the end, will let every sinner off the hook because He is so nice. Likewise our sins are not indicators of a heart that is hopelessly inclined away from God but simply human frailties that God does not hold against us. Relativism does not see sin as an offense against a holy God but, rather, common weaknesses that can be overcome with enough effort and positive thinking.

Moralism should not be confused with morality. Moralism is what happens when we look to moral behavior as a means to gain favor from God. It is morality for my sake; morality for the sake of putting God in my debt. By insisting on good behavior as a condition for our acceptability to God moralism denies Scripture’s promise that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1). But the religion of man has a strong hold on our hearts. We insist on believing that we must add something to Christ’s atoning work on the cross if we are to be acceptable to God. At the same time it operates on the assumption that we are capable to doing something that will make us acceptable to God. In the Christian context, moralism is always “Christ plus.”

Moralism seeks to compel obedience through external pressures. Its message is, “I must obey in order to be accepted.” Gospel-driven obedience on the other hand is radically different. The Gospel teaches us to say, “I am accepted by God through Christ, therefore I gratefully obey.” If we obey God’s law without believing that in Christ we are accepted by God then our obeying is really a striving after something other than Jesus for life. The ultimate end of this striving is always the same: idolatry. We come to worship whatever feeling or lifestyle we believe our obedience can earn us rather than worshiping God alone.

Moralism is deceiving because it can be a very religious way to live. However, as the Gospel always directs us to be supremely concerned with God’s glory moralism is inherently self-focused. It offers a twisted kind of virture that is conditioned on bargaining with God. “I will do such-and-such and surely God will give me the life I want in return.” Obedience becomes a way toward self-salvation by controlling God. This is man’s religion.

The Gospel drives our obedience for very different reasons. Obedience generated by Gospel truth is not a frantic search for favor from God. In light of the Gospel we obey God from a place of rest knowing that God fully loves and accepts us in Christ. The Gospel tells us that there is nothing we still must get from God. We are heirs with Christ so that all that is His is ours and this all because of grace. Therefore we obey out of sheer gratitude for the kindness of God. Jonathan Edwards helps us understand how this works in relation to honesty. Why should we be honest? Certainly we should be honest because God commands it. But even a lost person can be honest for the sake of outward conformity. Edwards however defines true virtue in honesty as being honest not because it profits you or makes you feel better but because you are struck with the beauty of God who is the essence of truth and sincerity and faithfulness. Only the Gospel can do that to the otherwise idolatrous and self-serving human heart.

The relativist sees no need for justification because God is not a Judge. The moralist sees justification as something that can be achieved through enough effort. He is the elder brother in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15) who is convinced that his good behavior has earned him good standing with his father. Relativism does not understand truth. Moralism does not understand grace. As a result the relativist cannot then truly understand the grace he says he loves because he has not rightly understood truth. In the same way, the moralist cannot properly understand the truth he claims to champion because he has failed to properly understand grace.

The Gospel, on the other hand, is entirely different from both of these systems of thought and religion. The Gospel is not a way in between relativism and moralism making use of “the best of both worlds.” The Gospel is a distinct third way. It tells of God’s acceptance of sinners through Jesus Christ so striving for acceptance can now finally cease. It also offers a way of obedience that is free of any bargaining with God. Obedience becomes an offering given freely out of a heart that is endlessly amazed by grace.

The Gospel - Part 5: "Getting the Gospel Right"

As early as His covenant with Abraham God promised to save people from every “language, tribe, people, and nation” (Gen 12:1-3; Rev 5:9-10). God has promised this and it will happen! What a wonderful source of encouragement for the church to know that her evangelistic efforts at home and around the world will ultimately not be in vain. Indeed, the church, obeying the great commission of her Lord and empowered with the message of the Gospel is God’s means to bring salvation to every corner of the world.

Scripture tells us in Romans1:16 that the Gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes…” Later Paul explains the logic of conversion: “But how will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?...As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’” In I Corinthians we are told that “it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe” (1:21). This “folly” that Paul refers to is the message of the cross or the Gospel. “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (I:23-24).

How important it is then that we get the Gospel right. This message of the cross needs no gimmicks to help make up for its shortcomings for it has none. It must not be hidden or otherwise discarded for more “relevant” messages. If we do not hold forth the Gospel in our preaching and personal witness then we are robbing both of their only power. The following outline will help us make sure we are getting the Gospel right.

I. God
All faithful evangelism should start with God. He is, after all, the author of salvation. Salvation is not accomplished as a joint effort or partnership between God and man whereby each does his fair share. Salvation is entirely of God. “Salvation belongs to the Lord” (Ps 3:8). “On God rests my salvation” (Ps 62:7). “Salvation belongs to our God…” (Rev 7:10). “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God…”(Eph 2:8ff). “So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” (Rom 9:16).

So if salvation, and thereby evangelism, begins with God, what do we need to say about God? After all, there is no way we can tell a person everything there is to know about God when we ourselves have not even begun to know all there is to know about God. Graciously, however, God has made clear to us in Scripture those things about his character that we need to know. In his proclamation to the Athenians Paul is a model for how to introduce God to a people who do not know Him. In his message recorded in Acts 17:22-34 Paul highlights God as Creator, self-sufficient, sovereign, providential, omnipresent, righteous, Judge, and Savior. Granted, this is not the only model for how to introduce people to God. But it does fly in the face of the many one-dimensional models of God’s character that are often presented in our post-Christian culture. I have heard well-known evangelical leaders present God to unbelievers simply as One “who wants to be your forever friend.” We must do better than that. We owe it to the many people who still need to hear about the “unknown God.”

II. Man (Rom 1:18-3:20)
We all begin life with a problem. We are sinners by nature and as a consequence by choice. In other words we sin because we are sinners. As a result of this we distort the truth of God because it is the truth which spotlights our sin and reveals our guilt. Outside of Christ we are not neutral in our feelings toward God. Rather we are born runners seeking to avoid the God whose holiness exposes our corrupt hearts. So like our first parents we busily weave together the fig leaves of our own righteousness to cover over our guilt. We conclude that either our sin is not that bad or God is not all that holy. This is how sinful man suppresses the truth of God (Rom 1:18).

Much of modern evangelicalism (an almost meaningless term these days) seeks to avoid the bad news of man’s sinfulness. The pastor of America’s largest church recently told Larry King that he never uses the words “sin” or “sinner” because those are negative words. He explained that at his church they want to “lift people up not tear them down.” It makes perfect sense in the wisdom of man. After all who wants to be told that they are enemies of God? (Rom 5:10; Eph 2; Col 1:21). But it is vanity to believe that somehow we can present the Gospel in such a way as to make it inoffensive to sinners (I Cor 1:18ff). The Gospel must offend before it saves. It must confront our sin before it applies the sweet healing of Christ’s atoning work.

III. Cross (Rom 3:21-26)
If the final word in the story was our sin then we would truly have no hope for a holy God cannot have fellowship with an unredeemed sinner. From the time man sinned his fellowship with God was broken. He no longer had direct communion with God as he did in the garden. At that point in the history of redemption the great question in the universe became “How can God dwell among His people?” But God in His mercy began to call forth mediators or go-betweens that would make it possible for Him to still interact with His people without compromising his holiness or justice. All of those mediators from Moses and the prophets to the high priests and the sacrificial system itself were merely shadows pointing to the ultimate Mediator between God and man: Jesus Christ (I Tim 2:5-6; Hebrews).

On the cross Jesus would become the ultimate paschal lamb. His atoning work which satisfied the holiness and justice of God led to the final Passover. Jesus’ blood was a better covenant than that which had been made with the people of God during the days of Abraham and Moses. On the cross God was able to be uncompromising in his holiness in that sin was indeed punished. If God had left the sins of his people unpunished then he would not have been just and therefore less than God. What is more, on the cross God was uncompromising in His love. This is seen in the fact that it was not you and I hanging upon the cross of God’s wrath. The only begotten Son of God paid the price of our sin so that we could live with Him in eternally blessed fellowship (John 3:16).

IV. Response
There are two essential components to a saving response to the Gospel: repentance and faith. Repentance is a determination to turn away from sin in response to a Holy Spirit wrought conviction. Repentance is what happens in a sinner’s heart and mind when he becomes aware of his guilt before a holy God and grieves appropriately. Jesus and John the Baptist routinely called people to repent from their sins. At Pentecost the people cried out, “What must we do to be saved?” not because Peter had told them “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” Peter, by today’s standards was quite rude and thoroughly non-user-friendly. He pointed squarely in their direction and held them accountable for the death of Jesus which happened “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:14-36). In response the people were “cut to the heart” (Acts 17:37). Even to the pagan men of Athens Paul does not shrink from calling them to repentance (Acts 17:30). There simply is no salvation apart from repentance. This is why it is a lethal error to fail to call attention to sin. From what will a sinner repent if he has yet to acknowledge and grieve over his sin? How can he look to a Savior if he has yet to know he needs saving?

The second essential part of a saving response to the Gospel is faith. This is part of the miracle of the Gospel. We are not saved by works. We are saved by God’s grace alone through the means of our faith alone (Eph 2:8-10). God never calls us to come and work for our salvation. God has done all the work through the life and death of His own Son. The Gospel is good news precisely because it is finished. Having completed all the work of salvation the Son is now seated in Heaven at the right hand of the Father in heaven signifying the completion of the work of new creation. With the work of salvation having been completed it is now left to us to believe upon the only One who can save (Jn 3:16; 8:24, 20:31; Acts 16:31; Rom 3:22, 26; 10:9-10).

If you will remember this structure of God, Man, Cross, Response and the substance behind each point you will be ready to share the Gospel faithfully. May we all be ready to proclaim the news that truly is good; the Gospel of God’s great salvation.

Recommended Rresources:
· Tell the Truth by Will Metzger. Maybe the best book on evangelism I have read.
· Operation World by Patrick Johnstone. A comprehensive guide to the world’s people groups and how to pray for their evangelistic needs. Essential reading!
· Cross Words by Paul Wells. An important new book on the biblical doctrine of the atonement with particular emphasis on Christ’s role as our sin-bearing substitute.
· Two Ways to Live. This is a great evangelistic track that will help you share the Gospel in a faithful, God-centered way. They can be ordered from

Guidance - Part 1: "The Lord My Shepherd"

The question of guidance is an important one for God’s people. Over the years I have been asked more times than I can remember how one knows the will of God in a given circumstance. It is an important question for two reasons. First, it assumes correctly that God does indeed have a will. There are things that God desires for His people and the world He created and rules. Second, the question correctly presupposes that God has made at least portions of His will knowable. But how do we move from knowing that God has a discernable will to knowing how He guides us in making right decisions? In other words the question that simmers within so many of our minds is How does God guide us?

The world, of course, completely misses the point of Divine guidance. If the reality of God is accepted He is seen as a benevolent but rather irrelevant part of life to be consulted or blamed in only the most extreme of difficulties. This is the world that demands immediate answers and quick satisfaction. Man imagines himself to be the master of his own destiny; that his will is supreme over any sense of providence. It is little wonder that Jesus was crucified through the supposed wisdom of this world.

Misunderstandings about how God guides His people abound in the church as well. These misunderstandings have led many into error. The Christian TV airwaves are full of preachers who seem to have a direct line to God’s secret plans. They continually announce the fresh revelations that they receive. “God told me...” is the heavenly trump card that they hold out to any doubters. Still other forms of less Pentecostal mysticism promise direct encounters with God through “moving deeper in” or “climbing the inner staircase.” The assumption is that the more we meditate, the more we “center down”, and the more candles we light the greater will be our experience of the voice of God guiding us into His hard to find will.

Sinclair Ferguson addresses the confusion in the church well when he writes, “[The church] may spread before us guidance by intuition, guidance by dreams, guidance by visions, guidance by prophecies, guidance by tongues, guidance by peer-groups, guidance by leaders – and so on, in an apparently never-ending stream of possibilities. We can take one emphasis seriously, and perhaps make shipwreck of our souls. Or, we can bounce from one to another until confusion brings us to a halt.”

There are certain decisions we face that seem to set the pattern or at least heavily influence the pattern of our lives. The first is who or what will we worship. Christians understand that this decision rises above all others and influences not only our lives in the here and now but determines the life hereafter. The second is more like a category of decisions – those that revolve around our patterns of behavior. What choices will we make regarding financial and sexual ethics? Will we work hard or be lazy? Will we determine early in life to be honest, gentle, forgiving, and patient? The third big decision we face is what vocation we will pursue. This influences where we go to school, where we live, and what kind of income we can anticipate. The fourth decision that influences the pattern of our lives is whom we marry or do not marry.

Often times we look to God for some sort of direct guidance about where we should attend church, what we should eat or drink, which college to attend, which job to take, and which spouse to choose. What I hope to accomplish in the months ahead is to explore what we can realistically expect from God in regard to these and many other decisions. The question is not does God guide us. The question is how God guides us. The place to begin is by acknowledging that our need to know God is always greater than our need to have certain questions answered. Job found this out in a profound but painful way (42:5) as indeed so many saints have.

Martin Luther said that true Christianity consists in personal pronouns. In other words God is more than a Shepherd, a Guide, a Leader. We must know God well enough to say with confidence:
The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.

In this series of articles my goal is not to answer every question we might raise regarding God’s guidance. I am far too frail and foolish to do that adequately. However, I am confident that Scripture will give us answers we will find to be sufficient in those moments when our seeking can be assuaged by nothing less than the tender guidance of our good Shepherd.

Guidance - Part 2: "Our Goal, God's Glory"

What a comfort it is to know that God is a Shepherd for His people (Ps 23). The image of God as Shepherd helps us to understand the care He takes in leading His flock. God knows exactly where He is going and He is committed to bringing His people along. Aimless wandering is not something that should mark the lives of Christians. We are given the great gift of purposeful lives in the present as well as a secure destiny for the future. The fuller title of John Bunyan’s classic allegory is appropriate: The Pilgrim’s Progress from this world to that which is to come. Indeed, we are God’s pilgrims traveling purposefully toward that city which is yet to come (I Peter 1:1, 2:11).

When God called a pagan from Ur named Abram, made a covenant with him, and assured him of a great future it became clear that history was not the outworking of random events or the playground of capricious and feuding deities. History had a beginning and an end. It had a deliberate direction that was designed and held secure by God Himself. History is not the slave of man’s sinful will, evolution, or the impersonal power of fate. Rather, history is a canvass upon which God paints His grand purposes with the brush of His gracious providence.

What does all this have to do with the question of God’s will for our lives? Simply this: We cannot begin to rightly ponder the smaller issues concerning God’s will (whom to marry, where to live, etc) until we first settle on the greatest issue of God’s will. In other words, God’s daily guidance is entirely conditioned upon His eternal purpose. Without this understanding we will squander our lives pursuing whatever gives us the most immediate satisfaction. When this happens life becomes a monotonous cycle of craving and gluttony.

The drafters of the Westminster Shorter Catechism were wise to begin with the question:
Q – What is the chief end of man?
A – Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him for ever.
That brief statement sums up well the central theme of Christian life: above all else we are to live for the glory of God. From Genesis to Revelation Scripture teaches us that the chief reason behind the creation, the fall, and God’s redeeming work through Christ is that God might promote His own glory. The motive behind Jesus’ entire ministry was to promote God’s glory (John 12:28; 14:13; 17:1, 4). Sinclair Ferguson writes, “The essence of the Christian life is that God should be glorified in us. The aim of our evangelism is ‘so that the grace which is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God’” (II Cor 4:15).

The apostle Paul works this truth out through his epistles. Romans is a full doctrine of salvation demonstrating the central concern that God be glorified. The great offensiveness of sin which necessitated the cross work of Christ was based upon the fact that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). Ephesians makes plain as well that the movement of salvation is to show forth the glory of God. In saving sinners God shows forth His glory in election, redemption, and adoption (Eph 1:6, 12, 13). Once saved God is determined to show His glory in our growth in holiness. The Bible tells us that God is changing us from one degree of glory to another (II Cor 3:18). That is, as God works to make us resemble Jesus more and more His glory is made increasingly manifest in our lives.

What a blessed rescue that God has saved us from living for ourselves! How small and petty our lives would be without the grand purpose of God’s glory to guide and motivate us. The basic question that must inform our decisions becomes clear: Will this course of action further the glory of God? How our lives would take on more clarity if we simply led with that question. How our spending and relationships and career choices and leisure would be radically altered if we considered God’s glory as of prime importance.
One thing I know, I cannot say Him nay;
One thing I do, I press towards my Lord;
My God, my glory here, from day to day,
And in the glory there my great Reward.
- F. Brook

Guidance - Part 3: "Look to the Word"

Every culture knows that God is and yet because of sin this knowledge is distorted so that instead of being led into truth there is a further falling away (Rom 1:18-25). Thankfully however God did not abandon the crown of His creation even though it was His right to do so. Because of common grace (the goodness that God sheds upon all humanity) men and women are capable of comprehending profound truths and accomplishing great things. However, the knowledge of which we are most in need, that of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, is beyond our grasp apart from the gracious intervention of God.

Man desires to be in relationship to the divine; to know the mind of God; to possess His wisdom in light of the day’s circumstances. Mankind has always sought to discover the will of his god or gods through means that seem to us sometimes fanciful at other times violent or even profane. The dilemma is that outside of Christ the hearts of men and women are darkened. “They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the created things rather than the Creator – who is forever praised” (Rom 1:25). “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (I Cor 2:14). So if we are to have any hope of comprehending guidance from God then we must begin with spiritual birth. Unless God raises us to life spiritually (John 3:1-8) then we will be unable to comprehend that which is spiritual as God defines spiritual.

Where are Christians to look for guidance from God? In ancient times God spoke to His people in various ways through His prophets (Heb 1:1-2). There were even times when God’s people cast lots in order to discern His will. “The lot is cast into the lap, but its decision is from the Lord” (Prov 16:33). In the New Testament the disciples chose Judas Iscariot’s replacement through the casting of lots (Acts 1:15-26). But such things as the casting of lots were temporary means that were used during the church’s infancy. We live in a day of final revelation whereby God has spoken most supremely to His people through His Son Jesus Christ (Heb 1:2). And where do we find all that we need to know about Jesus? Our fullest and only truly reliable witness to Jesus Christ is Holy Scripture where He is foreshadowed in the Old Testament, revealed and explained in the New Testament.

In these last days (the days between Christ’s first and final advent) God has established His Word as the rule for guiding His people (II Thess 2:15; 3:6). Our problem is that we often want God to provide for us a roadmap that will answer specifically which college to choose, person to marry, job to take, car to buy, etc. People who rarely drink from the well of Scripture wait until the moment of decision to beg answers from God. Their lack of a sense of guidance should not surprise them. Their neglect of God’s Word has left them unfamiliar with His voice.

How then does God use the Scriptures to act as His voice of guidance for His people? In His book Discovering God’s Will Sinclair Ferguson offers three ways:
1. God’s Word directs us through commandments and prohibitions. Certainly the moral law of God answers many of questions for us before we even ask. The Ten Commandments are an example of the timeless expression of God’s character and therefore a clear guide to what He expects from His people. Certain applications of those particular commandments have changed but the principles stand. Scripture provides many other commandments and prohibitions concerning sexual, business, work and family ethics. These are given to us not that we may be justified before God by them but that we may glorify Him in our joyful obedience. What a rich source of guidance God has given us through His precious law (Psalm 119).

2. God’s Word directs us through certain principles. While Jesus does not tell everyone to sell everything they have and give it away there is nevertheless an important principle enshrined in that command. The principle is that Jesus must be Lord of all and that He will not abide our idols. In His Word God has left us with a deep supply of guiding principles that will serve as faithful guides to help us navigate life.

3. God’s Word directs us through illustrations. The many biographical accounts in Scripture show us the ways of God’s working with men and what He “requires of us, does for us, and works out through us.”

Look to the Word of God. Treasure it. Live in its pages. You will find God faithful to give you what you need when you need it. You will find your desires changing as God molds your character to reflect His priorities. As we grow in knowledge of God and of His ways we will see a corresponding growth in our love for Him and His ways. Ferguson writes, “An instinct is created within us by which we know the will of the Lord for our lives.”

“But how then may the Lord’s guidance be expected?...In general, He
guides and directs His people, by affording them, in answer to prayer,
the light of His Holy Spirit, which enables them to understand and to
love the Scriptures. The Word of God is not to be used as a lottery;
nor is it designed to instruct us by shreds and scraps, which, detached
from their proper places, have no determinate import; but it is to
furnish us with just principles, right apprehensions to regulate our
judgments and affections, and thereby influence and direct our
- John Newton

Help for the Weak

I love reading the Puritans. Often misunderstood in our own day, the Puritans have in recent years been rediscovered by historians who have found that their grim caricature bears little resemblance to the real men and women who made up this 17th century movement within Protestantism. In their day, the Puritans faced alternating periods of tolerance and persecution depending on whomever was ruling in England at the time. The Puritans were characterized by a zeal to see Scripture as the sole authority for the doctrine and practice of the church, which put them squarely at odds with the church of Rome. This was a dangerous position. The persecutions heaped upon them drove thousands from their pulpits forbidding them to preach under pain of imprisonment and even death. John Bunyan is one well known example of a Baptist Puritan who spent twelve years in Bedford jail for preaching the free grace of God in Jesus Christ. Eventually, Puritans would pursue religious freedom in places like the Netherlands and even the New World.

We are fortunate that a vast wealth of Puritan writings is available in our own day. Their books are Bible saturated. The Puritans had a knack for writing book-length treatments of single verses of Scripture. Also, more than any of their contemporaries the Puritans knew how to wed proper doctrine with proper practice. They knew that an insistence on theological precision was never at odds with a fervor for Christian charity and all its fruits. This is why reading the Puritans will enlighten the mind, challenge the will, and thrill the heart. Most helpfully, the Puritans never intended their sermons and books to be ends in themselves but rather to drive the reader back to the Scriptures.

One of the most beloved books of the Puritan era is The Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes (pronounced “Sibs”). It is an extended commentary and meditation on Isaiah’s messianic prophecy: “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice” (42:1-3). Matthew’s gospel confirms that Jesus was the fulfillment of those words (12:18-20). What a tender image this is of Jesus and His ministry. Can you think of anything weaker than a bruised reed or faintly burning wick? While Jesus was known for dealing harshly with the self-righteous and those more offended by other people’s sins than their own, He was extraordinarily tender with those who were well aware of their sins and sickness. He made a place at the table for swindlers, lepers, and various people of ill repute. It is not that Jesus turned a blind eye to sin. But He did come to save sinners. This is good news for all of us who have at one time or another come to terms with our own desperately lost condition. Jesus is Lord and Savior of the bruised reeds. It is of this truth that Sibbes writes so beautifully.

Of The Bruised Reed, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the 20th century’s greatest Bible expositor, wrote, “I shall never cease to be grateful to…Richard Sibbes who was balm to my soul at a period in my life when I was overworked and badly overtired, and therefore subject in an unusual manner to the onslaughts of the devil…The Bruised Reed…quieted, soothed, comforted, encouraged and healed me.” Since its first publication in 1630 a long line of men and women have given similar testimony to Sibbes’ masterwork of pastoral exposition.

Sounding much like the apostle Paul in his second letter to the church at Corinth, Sibbes helps us understand that it pleases God to “bruise” His people that we might be humble. He writes:
This bruising makes us set a high price upon Christ. Then the gospel
becomes the gospel indeed; then the fig-leaves of morality will do us
no good. And it makes us more thankful, and, from thankfulness, more
fruitful in our lives; for what makes many so cold and barren, but that
bruising for sin never endeared God’s grace to them? Likewise this
dealing of God establishes us the more in His ways, having had knocks
and bruisings in our own ways…After conversion we need bruising so
that reeds may know themselves to be reeds, and not oaks. Even reeds
need bruising, by reason of the remainder of pride in our nature, and to
let us see that we live by mercy.

Beyond his keen insights into God’s ways of keeping us humble and tender, Sibbes also offers challenging instruction on how to care for the bruised reeds within the body of Christ. He does this first by reminding us of how Christ has treated us: “There is more mercy in Christ than sin in us…Christ refuses none for weakness of parts, that none should be discouraged.” With the tender example of Jesus firmly established the author turns his attention to how we treat one another. He writes:
It would be a good contest amongst Christians, one to labor to give no offence,
and the other to labor to take none. The best men are severe to themselves,
tender over others…Men must not be too curious in prying into the weaknesses
of others. We should labor rather to see what they have that is for eternity, to
incline our hearts to love them, than into that weakness which the Spirit of God
will in time consume, to estrange us. Some think it strength of grace to endure
nothing in the weaker, whereas the strongest are readiest to bear with the
infirmities of the weak.

The church today could learn a great deal from this man and his wonderful book. Sibbes does not uncover new truth. He simply shines a light upon the truth of God’s sweet mercy in Christ. It is a mercy that is often conspicuously absent in so many of our dealings with one another. How the world needs to see a church that is full of love for the weakest. Charles Spurgeon once wrote, “Sibbes never wastes a student’s time, he scatters pearls and diamonds with both hands.” This has certainly been my experience in reading The Bruised Reed. I trust you will find the time to take it up and read.

Losing Jesus

The late Donald Grey Barnhouse once pondered what it would look like if Satan were to take over an entire city. His observation, made some fifty years ago, bears repeating in our own day. Dr. Barnhouse believed that a city where Satan truly ran the show would quite possibly be very moralistic. People would be nice to each other, stop using profanity, and the porn shops would be shut down. All of this would, or course, lead to a feeling of moral sufficiency. Such people would find it very difficult to consider themselves “sinners.” Most significantly, in the city where Satan was in charge the church would be filled on Sundays but Christ would not be preached.

Could it be that our own community is coming to resemble the one that Barnhouse envisioned? The problem in most churches is not a preoccupation with doing bad things. Rather the problem that we must constantly guard against is failing to do the necessary things. There is no doubt that many churches do many good things. But it is possible, indeed common to focus on such things as meaning in life, purpose, child-raising, and personal wholeness without seeing them as means to help us “fix our eyes on Jesus the Author and Perfector of our faith” (Heb 12:2).

Recently, my wife and I were watching the hip pastor of a huge church in Dallas preach a message on what he called “the cantaloupe principles” (don’t ask). At the conclusion of the message he promised that if we will just apply these principles we will be living “in the zone” and “God will bless everything you touch.” Upon hearing this I turned to Karen and asked, “If you were a lost person or the average church attendee what did you just hear him say?” To which my wife replied something along the lines of “Apply these principles and you will have more money, better relationships, nicer kids, etc.” And this is why I say such preaching, rather than leading to genuine conversion actually turns people away happier pagans. It effectively inoculates them from the Gospel by giving them a weakened version of it.

The above mentioned church is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. It is identified with Bible-believing mainstream conservative evangelicalism. Their highly influential pastor would certainly sign off on an orthodox confession of faith. The problem is that Jesus makes rather rare appearances in his preaching and when He does it is usually in the guise of one who will help you achieve what you want out of life. This is the Jesus that is occupying more and more evangelical pulpits. It is the magical Jesus and he bears little resemblance to the Savior Jesus. Can such a Jesus truly save?

Some of you may tire of my harping on this subject but the stakes are sky high. What lies in the balance truly is the salvation of men and women. Preaching that carefully removes Jesus as the main theme or excludes Him entirely does not produce converts but moral lost people. It provides them with the latest principles for success but not the Gospel which is still God’s power for salvation for all who believe. But how will they believe unless someone preaches to them? (Rom 10). A magical Jesus is a distorted Jesus. A “cross-less” gospel is no gospel at all.

Preaching that keeps Jesus and His atoning work at the center of our worship, our message, and our very lives will require that pastors lead their people into the wonderful but sometimes challenging depths of biblical doctrine. And how can pastors do any less than this? How can men entrusted with the responsibility to herald the “faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) give God’s precious people romantic superstitions, “cantaloupe principles”, and lessons on likeability? I think it has something to do with the fact that doctrine divides and “Jesus the Life Coach” unites. For a man seeking to build a mega-church this is a powerful reality. “Thus says the Lord of hosts: “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord. They say continually to those who despise the word of the Lord, ‘It shall be well with you’; and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, ‘No disaster shall come upon you’” (Jer 23:16-17).

In a recent article theologian Michael Horton writes, “So it’s not surprising that the world would think that ‘all we need is love,’ and we can do without the doctrine, since the world thinks it can do without Christ. Doctrine is where the religions most obviously part ways. Doctrine is where things get interesting – and dangerous…Jesus was not revolutionary because He said we should love God and each other. Moses said that first. So did Buddha, Confucius, and countless other religious leaders we’ve never heard of. Madonna, Oprah, Dr. Phil, the Dali Lama, and probably a lot of Christian leaders will tell us that the point of religion is to get us to love each other. ‘God loves you’ doesn’t stir the world’s opposition. However, start talking about God’s absolute authority, holiness, wrath, and righteousness, original sin, Christ’s substitutionary atonement, justification apart from works, the necessity of the new birth, repentance, baptism, communion, and the future judgment, and the mood in the room changes considerably.”

You men who are called to be shepherds, God has not changed the call to that of church CEO or religious entrepreneur. Despite the words of some prominent pastors, God has not stopped calling pastors to be Christ’s under-shepherds. Neither is “shepherd” a culturally conditioned metaphor that no longer holds meaning for sophisticated 21st century Americans. A church CEO may have to manage growth and understand his “market niche” but he does not need to know the mysteries of the faith. He certainly does not need to feed God’s beloved sheep. Oh how the church needs more shepherds!

Thursday, May 24, 2007

A Divine Cordial

I know the title of this article sounds a bit odd to modern American ears. A cordial refers to a sweet after dinner drink or a variety of chocolates that have a sweet liquid center. It was not unusual for the Puritans to refer to certain passages of Scripture as cordials from God or Divine cordials. This was the original title that Thomas Watson gave to a book that was later renamed All Things for Good.

Thomas Watson was pastor of St. Stephen’s Walbrook during the 17th century and a giant among the Puritans. Among his most important works are A Body of Divinity, The Lord’s Prayer, and The Ten Commandments which deserve a place in every Christian’s library. Watson believed that his work as a pastor involved two great goals. The first was to help unbelievers to be saddened by the reality of their sin so that they would recognize their need for Christ. The second was to help the believer respond joyfully to God’s grace. The second challenge he believed was found in the “cordial” of Romans 8:28: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose.” His book is an extended and glorious meditation on that single verse.

The book was published in 1663. This was a hard time to be a Puritan. It was usually hard to be a Puritan in England. The previous year was the time of The Great Expulsion. Some two thousand Puritan ministers, Watson among them, were removed from their churches. Along with the loss of income, many of them faced the confiscating of their homes and even imprisonment. Imagine a time when preachers and pastors were forbidden to preach, chased from their homes, and even thrown in jail for simply refusing to conform to the state-run church. The Church of England at that time was filled with clergy who were biblically illiterate and in many cases unregenerate. The Puritans were perceived as a threat to the status quo and indeed they were. For that they suffered greatly.

It was out of the fresh and brutal persecutions of 1662 that Thomas Watson’s heart overflowed into the pages of All Things for Good. It is the fruit of what happens when a man clings to the promises of God’s Word in the midst of troubled times. Indeed, it is in the midst of bitter trials when God’s promises taste most sweet. They truly become, as it were, a cordial from God. So Watson writes, “There is more in the promises to comfort than in the world to perplex.”

We can learn from men like Thomas Watson that our hearts and minds must be tethered to the Word of God. Without this tethering we should not be dismayed when our faith fails. Why is it that we walk so often through the desert of the soul and forsake the water of the Scriptures?

“Are we in great trouble? There is a promise that works for our good, ‘I will be with him in trouble’ (Ps. 91:15). God does not bring His people into troubles, and leave them there. He will stand by them; He will hold their heads and hearts when they are fainting. And there is another promise, ‘He is their strength in the time of trouble’ (Ps 37:39). ‘Oh,’ says the soul, ‘I shall faint in the day of trial.’ But God will be the strength of our hearts; He will join His forces with us. Either He will make His hand lighter, or our faith stronger” (p.16).

Ever the pastor, Watson strives for simplicity and clarity in his exposition of Scripture. He also writes in such a way that passion seems to drip from the pages. One other characteristic in Watson’s writing that was common among the Puritans is practicality. He works to apply well the Scriptures to the hearts of his hearers. So it is with his exposition of Romans 8:28. He takes each clause in the verse and magnifies it. He exposes us to every contour of the verse; every place where application might be derived. To every beam of light proceeding from the promise he seeks to direct our eyes. His explanation of how God uses even the worst experiences to further our good is deeply moving. He goes on to explain what it means to love God and to be among those “who are called according to His purpose.”

The heart soars with the reading of such sound and inspiring meditation upon the Scriptures. My friends, they don’t write ‘em like this any longer. I encourage you to take it up and read.

The Whole Book, A Christian Book

The Bible, the whole thing, is a Christian book. The Old Testament is for Christians just as much as the New Testament. The division of the Bible into two testaments has often been misunderstood. It has allowed for a fractured view of the Bible to be enshrined in our thinking. We easily come to imagine there are two Bibles with the newer, improved testament replacing the older one. Much contemporary preaching has not helped the matter. And unfortunately, once the unity of the Scriptures has been lost it is not easy to regain it especially if that division has been drilled into us from our childhood.

This fracturing has produced a generation of Christians who have lost their grip on the Old Testament. As a result the church suffers from a tragic ignorance of an entire category of revelation concerning the nature and word of God. This matters because the all too common approach of interpreting and applying the great stories of the Old Testaments results, among other things, in the loss of Jesus and His gospel. We become like the religious experts in Jesus’ day who could not find Him in the Old Testament Scriptures.

Preachers commonly use the Old Testament, albeit unwittingly, to imprison their hearers behind the bars of moralistic legalism while depriving them of the liberating Gospel which boils with life just under the surface. In sermons, Sunday School literature and popular Christian books the Old Testament is routinely treated as a collection of helpful moral stories that are especially interesting for children. “Be like Abraham. Be like Ruth. Be like Daniel” becomes the supreme point of application for these great passages. Theologian Michael Horton calls this “the Grimm’s Fairy Tales method of biblical interpretation.” The Old Testament is gazed upon through a “moral of the story” interpretive grid. When a pastor wants to beat up his congregation, when a writer want to us the Bible as a “success-in-leadership” manual, or when the heretics of the prosperity “gospel” want helpful proof-texts they turn to the Old Testament.

How many times has God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice his beloved and only son been turned into a generic challenge to “trust God”? If you are thinking, “Does this guy have a problem with challenging people to trust God?” I can only reply, “No, so long as that is what the particular text of Scripture is really doing.” The problem with the example that I mention is that the Gospel is lost as the real significance of the story is ignored: God’s coming redemption through the sacrifice of His beloved and only Son.

Another common error made with the Old Testament is the misappropriation of God’s promises. This is especially popular among the preachers of prosperity but it is also common in mainstream evangelicalism. We have a tendency to want to make the Bible all about us; therefore, we reason, each promise found in Scripture must be somehow applied to our own situation. But there are entire categories of promises in the Old Testament that were temporal blessings for the people of Israel. These promises served as shadows of things to come through God’s redemptive plan in Christ. Unfortunately, promises that God made to bring His people into the land and bless them are commonly taken out of context and made to read as if God is promising us more property, a better job, and healthy children. These errors arise from seeing the self as the interpretive key to Scripture rather than Jesus Christ.

The great Old Testament scholar John Bright likened the Bible to a two-act play. He pointed out that (a) the play is incomplete without both acts; (b) that each act has something unique to say; and (c) that neither act can stand alone. For example, there is a tension in the Old Testament as the sacrificial system unfolds. The prophet Isaiah discerned that ultimately only a person could adequately serve as a substitute for persons (Is. 53). So act one anticipates act two. Yet act two is required for act one to be properly understood. After all, it is act one that establishes the Divine pattern of the innocent being substituted for the guilty.

The stakes for rightly interpreting the Scriptures are high. In an increasingly pagan world and biblically illiterate church we cannot afford to replace the unfolding revelation of God’s redemptive plan through Jesus Christ with well-intended but ultimately futile, moralistic lessons that tend to produce narcissists or Pharisees rather than Christians. Work hard to read the Scriptures well. School yourself in the Bible. Above all, read the Bible with Christ in view. The whole book is a Christian book. There is a formula that will help us keep this in mind: the Old Testament is Jesus predicted; the Gospels are Jesus revealed; Acts is Jesus preached; the Epistles are Jesus explained; and the Revelation is Jesus anticipated.

Great books to help you understand and love the Old Testament:
God’s Big Picture by Vaughan RobertsThe Unfolding Mystery by Edmund ClowneyAccording to Plan by Graham Goldsworthy