A theology of the cross

Martin Luther in the Reformation taught that there are two approaches, two ways to view God and the world. You can embrace a theology of glory or a theology of the cross. 

The theology of glory essentially creates a picture of God which reflects our own expectations and desires. We have certain hopes and expectations, and a theology of glory says that God basically lives according to our expectations. For example: we expect that God rewards those who do good things. Those who do well will enter heaven. And this is because they think God’s idea of justice is just like their own.

The theology of the cross does not start with human expectations. It starts with God’s self-disclosure; divine revelation. And according to Luther, God reveal himself most stunningly and most clearly at the cross. This idea has paradigm-shifting implications. 

Carl Trueman writes about this and he asks, what do we see when we see the cross?

What does the theologian of glory see there? Well, based on upon rational, empirical enquiry, one would have to say that the man on the cross is a filthy criminal of some kind. Why else would he be dying such an indescribable death as a punishment? The cross is a disgrace, both by the standards of Roman law and Jewish custom, and thus the one upon whom such punishment is inflicted must be the lowest kind of criminal imaginable. In addition, one would have to say that he is broken, crushed, defeated. As he dies upon the cross, we see no king, no victory over sin, no cause for rejoicing or glorifying the one who hangs there. The eyes of reason, judging on the basis of what we as humans expect, would have to see the scene as one of darkness, pain, and deep personal tragedy…The theologian of the cross, however, approaches the event with the eyes of faith and with the criteria provided by God’s revelation of himself, sees the a very different picture: not a sinner, but the only sinless man; not defeat, but triumph; not wrath, but mercy. What we have on the cross is not the defeat of a criminal, but the triumph of the king of glory; not the victory of the powers of evil, but the victory of good over evil; not the hopeless curse of God, but the blessings of God by which all may be saved.”

Helping a brother find assurance

A brother came up to me after a sermon in which I walked through Jesus’ teaching on the new birth from John 3. Distraught is a word that could describe him— anxious, inquiring. At one point the desperation turned into these words: “Am I just being presumptious? I’ve always presumed I’m saved; I don’t want to presume anymore.”

How you council a brother in that scenario is crucial. Their wound is open, and how you treat the issue at hand could have profound effects. A wrong move could harden. A right move could strengthen a believer, or, perhaps, lead that anxious individual to Christ for the first time.

Recognizing the significance of the situation, I thought back to one of the most helpful tips I’ve ever read on the subject. It was from a book I read last summer, Princeton and Preaching. The book tells the story of Archibald Alexander’s conversion. His was accompanied with many struggles and pains. He wrestled deeply with assurance. Two men in particular were near to counsel him in these times, Dr. Smith and Mr. Mitchell. They both counseled him in different ways. The author writes:

We have here an instructive illustration of the two methods in which even good men and experienced Christians deal with anxious inquirers. Dr Smith undertook to judge of the exercises of the heart, and to decide whether or not they exhibited evidence of regeneration. He led the inquirer to refuse hope in Christ until he was satisfied he had experienced the new birth. He thus drove him to the borders of despair.

Mr. Mitchell pointed the wounded spirit to Christ, and bid him hope for acceptance on the ground of his merit and mediation. This brought peace. Had any one persuaded the bitten Israelites not to look in faith on the brazen serpent until they felt themselves cured, they too would have despaired. Our first duty is to receive Christ, and in receiving him, he brings convictions, repentance, and all the graces and blessings of the Spirit.”

Those two paragraphs have shaped my ministry to these kinds of people immensely. For a struggling inquirer, the worst place you could tell them to look for assurance is in the mirror. Self-examination does one of two things: it leads to despair or to delusion. One either becomes hopeless or self-righteous.

The better way is to point people to Christ.

Back to my friend, standing amid the Sunday morning after-service bustle, questioning his own salvation. I asked, “Is Christ able to save you?” Normally, such a rhetorical question would require no answer. Of course. But this time I let it sink in and re-asked the question signalling I wanted him to answer verbally: “Is Christ able to save you?” “Yes.” He said. “Is Christ willing to save you? Is his death enough to cover your sin? Is his righteousness enough to make you acceptable to God? Is his love strong enough to hold on to you?”

“For every look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ.” This is great advice for the one seeking assurance. Point them to Christ. Show them Christ. He is much better at granting assurance than you.

The disruptive Word of God

For fallen humans who are prone to forge their own paths, who love autonomy and hate authority, God’s Word shatters our idea of autonomy and presents us with the objective, concrete reality that there is a Sovereign Other, who really exists outside of us, and who has the right to speak into our lives without our permission.

In this sense, God’s Word is always disruptive. If you want tidy schedules and cozy retirements and comfortable lives and uninterrupted “me” time, avoid God’s Word at all costs. Don’t want to sacrifice anything? Throw away your Bible. Ignore all it says. Your life will be more peaceful. But it is the peace of the quiet cemetery, the calmness of a coffin, the repose of a morgue.

Jesus disrupts comfortable, cozy, safe, lives. Jesus calls us to total commitment, extravagant generosity, self-sacrificing, self-denying, love. As Deitrich Boehnhoffer says, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die!” That’s disruptive. Gloriously disruptive, because the Word that disrupts is the Word of Love and Grace.

If God’s Word never disrupts your life, because it’s indicating that you’ve made God in your own image. You know you’ve invented a new god when his word never contradicts you.

The more diligently you peruse the Scriptures

My own experience convinces me that the oftener and the more diligently you peruse the Scriptures, the more beautiful will they appear and the less relish you will have for light and superficial reading. There is in an intimate, in a daily, conversation with the Scriptures something sanctifying, something ennobling. A satisfaction is felt in perusing them which no human composition can excite. You feel as if you were conversing with God and angels. You breathe a heavenly atmosphere. The soul is bathed in celestial waters. It imbibes a sweetness and composure which shed over it unearthly attractions.”

Archibald Alexander, Princeton and Preaching

He is always to be found in the thickest part of the battle

“He is always to be found in the thickest part of the battle. When the wind blows cold He always takes the bleak side of the hill. The heaviest end of the cross lows ever on His shoulders. If He bids us carry a burden, He carries it also. If there is anything that is gracious, generous, kind, and tender, yea, lavish and superabundant in love, you always find it in Him.”

Charles Spurgeon, Autobiography: Volume 2: The Full Harvest

Three Aspects of Sanctification

Anthony Hoekema defines sanctification like this: “that gracious operation of the Holy Spirit, involving our responsible participation, by which He delivers us as justified sinners from the pollution of sin, renews our entire nature according to the image of God, and enables us to live lives that are pleasing to Him.” Or, more simply, the process that believers are made more like Jesus.

There are three aspects of sanctification.

Positional sanctification happens immediately at salvation, and is the washing and cleansing of the new believer where God sets him apart as his own. Paul writes of believers who were sanctified at a specific time in the past: “but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified…” (1 Cor. 6:11). When a person gets saved, he is considered positionally sanctified. He is a saint. He is holy.

Progressive sanctification happens after salvation and is the process by which the believer is transformed into the image of Christ. Romans 6:19b reads “so now present your members as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification.” Believers are to strive for holiness “without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14).

Permanent sanctification happens at glorification, when believers are finally “not able to sin.” This will only come when we die and go to be with the Lord. “When we see him, we will be like him” John says (1 Jn. 3:2), ;and Revelation 21 makes clear that all sin and struggle and pain will be eradicated. In that state of glorification, there will be no possibility of sin destroying anything.

Twitter Me This: 4/18/16

When a Pastor Falls
Russell Moore asks a good question: what should we do when a pastor falls? Here’s my favorite line:
The reason I am so frustrated is because of my inadequate doctrine of sin. It doesn’t matter what I confess in creedal documents or teach from pulpits; when I am surprised by the irrationality of a particular sin, I am demonstrating that I’m a latent Pelagian of the heart. All sin is irrational and self-destructive. If we don’t get that, we don’t know what sin is. My reaction is a reminder to myself of how much I need the sanctifying presence of the Spirit.
After You Preach 

Here’s a short, memorable resource from Dave Harvey to help preachers in  what can often to their most vulnerable moments: after they preach.

Live Smart, by Dan Dumas

I am thankful for anyone who writes strong, robust books aimed at teenagers. There aren’t many, but I think Dan Dumas put together a good one. I picked up a few for some of my guys. Here’s a link: http://www.livesmartbook.com

College Kids Say the Darndest Things

Watching this is half hilarious and half heart-breaking. Ladies and gentleman: higher education!

Aren’t we like Cain?

“We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother.”

Why would John say that? He’s talking to a church. He’s talking to a group of believers who were in danger of false teachers. He wasn’t talking to a bunch ex-gangbangers and thugs, who had a history committing the high crime of murder. He’s not speaking to inmates. He’s talking to church folk. Why does he warn them about murder?

The answer is because there’s something else going on here. Something deeper. John knows that while we may not ever murder something, the murderous motivations that compelled Cain to kill his brother are inside us all.

John knows that we have a problem. We are more devious than we often think.

Look at what motivated Cain: “And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous.”

This passage is for you and me. It lends great insight into the tendencies of the human heart. It’s written because we are prone to act like Cain.


Aren’t we like Cain when we compare ourselves with others? Remember, it wasn’t Abel who disapproved of Cain’s offering. It was God. But Cain’s hatred broke against Abel. Why? He lost the comparison game, and it made him angry. How often do you compare yourselves with others, only to grow in silent anger because you envy them?

Aren’t we like Cain when we secretly despise the successes of others? How do you feel toward the Golden Child whose life seems to prove that God loves him more than you? And people ooze with praise and compliments for the other guy? How does it make you feel toward others when they get the recognition and you don’t? Abel did nothing to Cain, yet Cain hated him–for nothing other than God approved of Abel’s worship and not his own.

Aren’t we like Cain when we try to steal credit for every good thing in our lives? Deep in his heart, Cain wanted credit for his act of worship, even though it was corrupt. But don’t we all? Don’t we all want take credit for all the good things we do? Don’t we want to get the glory for any success that we have? Don’t we try to trace every blessing’s origin back to our own goodness, our own efforts, our own power? We are credit thieves.

Aren’t we like Cain when we make excuses for our shortcomings but are hyper-critical of others? Cain hated Abel’s offering; didn’t think it should be approved. But he apparently saw nothing wrong with his own sacrifice. We critique others with incisive tenacity, but expect everyone else to extend grace. Double-standard much?

Aren’t we like Cain when we want recognition and approval so badly that we will trample on whoever gets in our way, or we will be infuriated by those who hinder us? Cain wanted to be approved, get recognition, get noticed—in all the wrong ways. When Abel got in his way, he killed him. We do the same thing. Think about the times you got angry this last week. Was it not because someone or something got in the way of what you wanted?

We have a sin-problem. We have a Cain-like heart. We love ourselves way too much, and self-love dams up our love from flowing to others. Our hearts become a stagnant pool of self-absorption, rather than a flowing river of life-giving love.

We need a Savior. The Savior breaks the dam of self-love and releases the flood of God’s love. Springs of life start flowing. Our Savior’s love transforms our self-love into genuine love. But first, we must recognize our weakness, and cling close to Jesus, and depend entirely upon him to work in us.


Twitter me this

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Notable tweets:

What’s the main reason why our young people leave the church? It’s because they were never converted. Their youth pastors were far more concerned with entertain than discipleship. The ones who stay are the ones who were drawn to the Word by the Spirit.

That’s when you know you’ve gone too far. Yes, there’s more under the hood. But that you don’t need to know it to drive it.

I liked that. A matter of perspective, I suppose.

I always enjoy good one-liners that I can tuck away and save for later. I’ll come back to this one again, I’m sure.

Why God’s immutability matters for you

Absolute_ImmutabilityImmutability is hard for us to understand. If you look around, you look at things that are changing. Whether it’s the change of location, or change of expression, or change of emotion, or change of mind, there are always changes going on. And not to mention the changes that are happening that we can’t control. You’re getting older. Voices are dropping. Some bodies are developing, others are declining. We are constantly changing. It’s like we’re on a sailboat in the middle of the ocean. Wind blowing. Swells come and go. Up and down. That is our world. The only thing that is constant is change.

But God does not change. He does not mutate. He is immutable. Everything that God was, God is. “As Thou has been, Thou forever will be.”

Here are some reasons why God’s immutability is good news for believers.

1. We can trust all his promises. Numbers 28:19 “God is not a man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind.”

God distinguishes himself from mankind in two ways here. First, he doesn’t lie. Men lie. Sometimes intentionally, sometimes accidentally. But nothing God has ever said is false. He only, always speaks truth. And second, he doesn’t change his mind. Men do this all the time, but God never changes his mind. People change. But God never changes. People mispeak, God doesn’t. People change, God never has.

The only hope for a changing world is a changeless God. The only certainty in a storm-tossed world is an immovable anchor. The only security for an insecure world is a rock-solid, unchanging, unalterable God. Because God does not change, every promise he’s ever made is trustworthy and true. Take it to the bank.

2. We can actually know him. If God changed, then we couldn’t ever truly know him. The Bible would only be a single snap-shot of an ever changing being. We would know things he had done, things he had said, things he had purposed, but we could never know whether or not they had changed. We wouldn’t know him.

You’ve probably had the experience of reconnecting with an old friend only to find that they’re not the same person you knew all those years ago. “I hardly know him anymore,” we often say. Such things cannot be said of God. What was true about God a thousand years ago is true about God right now. Hebrews 13:8 “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.”

Was God powerful when he spoke the universe into being? Yes, and his voice this day is no less powerful, his Spirit these days is just as omnipotent. Was God wise when he crafted this globe, when he shaped the mountains and dug out the deeps for the sea? Yes. Was he wise in how he devised salvation, how he planned to redeem for himself a people? Yes, and this hour this wisdom has not atrophied one bit.

Was God attentive to the prayers of his people? Did he hear their prayers and answer their groanings? He did. And he does. And all the cries of all the prayers in all the world from all the ages has not wearied him for one second.

Was he patient? Then he is now. Infinitely patient. Long suffering. Steadfast. Immovable.

Was he ever gracious? Yes, and so he is now. Spurgeon said, “God’s strong love stands like a granite rock, unmoved by the hurricanes of our iniquity.”Rock_of_Gibraltar_1810

Anything God has ever said about himself has never been modified, edited, abridged, or altered. And so what A.W. Pink says is true: “He cannot change for the better for he is perfect; and being perfect, he cannot change for the worse.” And as such, we can know him.

3. We can understand how he relates to us right now. Sometimes we tend to think of God as sometimes gracious and sometimes angry and sometimes merciful and sometimes wrathful. It’s like we think he is emotional like us. Certainly, God does display features that we might identify as emotions in the Bible, but they do not exactly correlate to how we experience emotions.

Unlike me, unlike you, God is not susceptible to mood swings. He’s not groggy in the morning, apathetic at noon, and wired at night. He doesn’t get emotional like we do. He’s a constant, perfect embodiment of all his attributes all the time. He does not change.

And the reality is that God is, at all times, his unchangeable self. In his nature, he never changes. He always responds to sin with wrath; he always responds to repentance with grace.

A.W. Tozer says, “God never changes moods or cools off in his affections or loses enthusiasm. His attitude toward sin is now the same as it was when he drove out the sinful man from the eastward garden, and his attitude toward the sinner the same as when He stretched forth his hands and cried, ‘Come unto me, and ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.'”

mood-swingSometimes when we are offended, we take a little time to settle down. Sometimes it takes time before we’re in a frame of mind where we can forgive our enemies. Not God. He is always extending his hands out to the sinner, and always opposing the pride in their folly. And the nano-second a person comes to him on his terms he accepts. It doesn’t take him time to “get over it.”

Believers ought to be very encouraged by this. Right now, God’s wrath is against your sin. But your sin has been detached from you and placed on Jesus. God’s grace is toward you, because you have Christ’s righteousness. This is the unchanging reality of the Christian: forever blessed, irrevocably accepted, unchangeably beloved.

4. Because of God’s unchanging-ness, man’s ability to change is a gift. For fallen man, the prospect of real change taking place is a immeasurable blessing. The unbelievers don’t see it that way. For the unbeliever, change is a frightening idea. It signifies decay and loss. Change is the harbinger of death. Change is a monster, terrorizing every poor soul that has nothing immutable to hold on to.

But for the redeemed, change is a gift.

  • Our spiritual lives began with a change, when God changed our hearts and gave us faith to believe the gospel.
  • Our spiritual lives continue in change, as God’s Holy Spirit continually works in us to make us more like Jesus.
  • Our spiritual lives will end in change, when Jesus Christ gives us new, glorified bodies in the New Heavens and the New Earth.

Because of God’s immutability, we need not fear change. The hurricanes of this world need not frighten us; our live is hidden in the unchanging Creator. He is working in all things to change us each day. And he does. The unchanging God uses all change to change his children into the likeness of their changeless Savior.

5. We can feel the weight of eternity. The promises of God to save the repentance and the punish the sinner are immutable, written-in-stone, promises that will bear throughout eternity.

Those who do not believe will suffer immutable wrath. Unchanging anger. Immovable judgment. Unending torment. Be as good as you want, be as upright as you please, be as honest as you will, the weight of this threat stands toward all who do not give up trying to save themselves and trust Jesus Christ. Those who do not know Jesus savingly will have no second chances, there will be no do-overs, there will be no opportunity to set things right, there will be no fixing what went wrong. The gavel will sound and the judge will issue the immutable sentence: damned.

Believers ought to feel this weight and live with a marked urgency to help people see and believe in Jesus Christ, the only Savior.

But those who come to Jesus in repentance and faith will receive unchanging, immovable, granite-like salvation that will last them throughout all the ages of eternity. The oceans of his love will be dumped on them, he will delight in showing them kindness forever, he will not grow weary of them, he will not get bored of them, he will never get tired of them. Out of the infinite, unchanging riches of his grace he will lavish his generosity toward them.

God’s immutability guarantees this hope for the believer. God will not grow tired of heaven, wipe us out and start over. God will not change his mind. He never has.

Immutability is a very practical doctrine. And when we import man-like attributes into God, immutability is one of the first things to go.  God becomes less like a rock of refuge and more like a sea of uncertainty. We are as secure as what we trust in, and there’s nothing more secure than an immutable God.