Don’t run from the past

 

I can relate to Paul’s amazement at being shown mercy. I’ve lived in the same part of Maryland since I was a boy. Hardly a month goes by that I’m not reminded of who I once was.

 

Before God saved me in 1972, I, too, was a blasphemer. I lived for myself and my own pleasure. I lived in rebellion against God and mocked those who followed him. I spent my high school and college years deeply immersed in the local drug culture.

 

Sometimes, late at night, my friends and I would seek out quiet, isolated places where we could come down safely from drug highs. On more than a few occasions it was a D.C. monument. Other times a peaceful street under thick, deep trees. Or even the terminal at what was then a little-used airport called Dulles, where the doors stayed open long after the day’s flights had ceased and we could move through the nearly deserted canyon of a building.

 

Someday soon I’ll be near one of those places again, and the memories will flood back in. I’ll remember what I once was, and be reminded of what I now am.

 

Often my eyes fill with tears at the memories of my foolishness and sin. And in the same instant, my heart will be filled with an unspeakable, holy joy. I am no longer the same! By the finished work of Christ on the cross, I’ve been forgiven of the countless sins I’ve committed.

Many people today try to run from the past. I suppose I could try to as well, by leaving the hometown that holds so many reminders of my sinfulness. But I consider living here a gift from God. The regular reminders of my past are precious to me.

 

Why? Because, like Paul, I never want to forget the great mercy shown me.

C.J. Mahaney, The Cross Centered Life, 16-17

Last words, lasting words

Last night was my final youth group meeting with First Baptist Church Canoga Park. Most of the time we celebrated– which, of course, means we got extra pizza, candy, and a ton of soda. Sandy brought in homemade cupcakes that we gorged ourselves in. I gave my final talk, which was short and periodically interrupted by Emma saying, “Hi daddy!” Then we all prayed together and thanked the Lord for the time he gave us.

I started my talk by telling them I had three goals for them. More than anything, I wanted them to love three things. Having heard me speak to them over the last year and a half, I hoped they would be able to identify these things. If they couldn’t, I knew I hadn’t done well in communicating them. But they did not disappoint. Here are the three things:

1. Love Scripture. They got this one right away. My conviction is that you love Jesus to the degree that you love his Word. The two cannot be separated; anyone who professes love for Christ must to desire to hear from Christ. That’s why Jesus said, “Whoever does not love me does not keep my words” (John 14:24). Isn’t, then, the opposite true– “whoever does love me will keep my words”? My goal was not to make them legalistic, thinking that reading the Bible every day would guarantee them a spot in heaven, but to remind them of the truths of salvation– that whoever has been converted has been regenerated, and whoever has been regenerated, has new tastes, loves, and affections. And there at the top of the list of new affections is love for Scripture. So I told them, over and over again, love Scripture.

2. Love the Gospel.  After we talked about loving Scripture one last time, I asked again: What’s the second thing I want you to love? It took them a little bit, because they kept saying “Love Jesus” or “Love the Lord” to which I would say, “Yes, but be more specific!” The reason why I wanted more specificity is because it’s popular to love Jesus, and nowadays it’s possible to “love Jesus” without actually being a Christian. When they finally got it, I said, “Yes!”

Once they got this one, I did what I do often: I asked them the ever simple, ever pressing question: what is the gospel? I never assumed they understood it. I’ve explained it countless times to the same students. I do this because you never know when it will hit them with Holy Spirit power. I remember being a senior in high school, sitting in Mr. Nandor’s Bible class, and finally understanding what Jesus’ death had to do with my salvation. I knew Jesus “died for my sins” by I didn’t understand what in the world that meant, and how the transaction occurred, or how it was effective.

So when I speak to these students, I address the great doctrines as much as I can (without using the hard-to-understand theological jargon). I’ll make sure they understand how the active obedience of Christ is imputed to us, how Christ’s death was a penal substitutionary death, and how God’s wrath was poured out on him instead of us, and how the resurrection guarantees our future hope. I’ll mention those terms briefly, so that they become familiar, but it’s the concept I’m most concerned about. And last night they did surprisingly well in explaining the gospel to me. Sin, judgment, Christ’s perfect life, Christ’s sin-bearing death, his resurrection, God’s justice and mercy were all mentioned. I’d say they were pretty thorough.

But I didn’t only want to them know the gospel. I wanted them to love it. So I constantly told them how practical it is. I (hopefully) taught them how to preach to themselves.

3. Love the Church. I don’t want to produce theological eggheads who are too sophisticated for the church. I also don’t want to breed individualistic spiritualists who see no purpose for the church in their walk. I want them to love the church as they love Christ, because the church is Christ’s manifest presence on earth. After speaking on this point for a bit, I read them Matthew 16:18, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” What a sweet way to end our time together– hoping in the risen Christ to build his church!

I hope these last words are lasting words– that they stick for a long, long time. May God use them, and every other word I’ve spoken to the students, as a means of grace. “The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed”– and I pray that mine have been driven deeply into their hearts.

I am thankful for each student in the youth group I’ve been able to serve. Many prayers have gone up for them. I trust the Lord has much good for them in the future, and I look forward to continuing our relationships, and seeing how the Lord grows and uses them in the future.

 

The power of God’s Word: A testimony

Every spring semester at The Master’s Seminary seniors are given the opportunity to share 5-7 minutes testimonies about how they got saved, how they ended up at TMS, and what their future plans are. I am always blessed by these times; it’s amazing to hear the stories behind each graduating student. There are students from literally all over the world– last week’s chapel saw two graduates from South Korea, another from Argentina, one from Canada, and another from a land even more strange: Texas. These testimonies are Providence put to words. It’s fascinating.

One graduate’s testimony was particularly amazing. John Chester. I’ve never met him, but if the audio of his testimony shows up on the TMS website (which they sometimes do), I am going to download it and keep it. Anyway, I hope he doesn’t mind that I am going to try to relate his testimony here on my blog. I hope I don’t butcher it. At least he would be happy to know that it has already encouraged me to share the gospel and give out Bibles to the four skater-teens outside my building here. I hope it encourages you as well.

John was raised in a non-believing home. His father left his mom when he was young, and his mother, though unbelieving, thought it would be good to send young John to a Presbyterian church. John, now looking back on the church, said it was dead. He attended out of duty, and never heard the gospel.

But when John was 13, the pastor gave him a Bible– which he brought home and promptly put on the shelf. That Bible sat on his shelf for 16 years, untouched.

John became a writer. One particular night, as a 29 year old, when he was working on a piece for some worldly magazine (he mentioned the name but I don’t remember it), he got writer’s block. To break out of writer’s block, he began to do what he always did– he picked a random book off his shelf and begin to read, just to get the words flowing again. When he looked at his shelf to pick a book, it seemed (and this is his description) that all the books were out of focus– except one. The Bible that pastor had given him many years ago stood out from all the rest. So he picked it up– for the first time.

He didn’t know where to start reading, so, like any other book, he started in the beginning. Genesis 1:1. He became so enraptured that he kept on reading. And reading.

Two days later he arrived at Mark 12:17 “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” At that moment the sword of the Spirit pierced his heart. He was overwhelmed with his own sin, the holiness of God, and the grace offered in Jesus Christ. He knew that he himself was one of the “things that are God’s.” He crawled under his desk in shame over his sin, and eventually surrendered his life to Jesus Christ. The Hound of Heaven got another one.

Isn’t that amazing? No one to share the gospel, no one to explain the text, no one to lead him in prayer– just the simple reading of the Word of God. O how often we need to be reminded that the work of God is accomplished by the Word of God! Unleashed, the Word saves, seals, sanctifies, and secures. It is wonderfully powerful, and it does not need the accouterments of man to be effective. Let us, especially we who handle the Scriptures, never forget this.

 

Take hope, sin is the root of your marriage problem

The gospel story makes it very clear that the main human problem is sin. We are sinners who sin against each other. We are sinners who respond sinfully to being sinned against. We are sinners who often respond to blessing sinfully. That’s why Jesus came—to save us from our bondage to sin.

If it’s true that sin is the core issue of failing marriages, then we have reason to hope. Why? Because Jesus came to rescue us from the destruction of sin. And he can rescue a marriage from the sin that’s destroying it.

If marriage problems were genetic, there would be trouble because Jesus didn’t come to change genes. If marriage problems are purely circumstantial, we’re in trouble because Jesus never promised to make our lives nice and neat. Since every marriage problem grows in the arid desert of indwelling sin, we are hopeful because God has given Living Water in Jesus Christ. He is a Rescuer. He rescues sinners from their sin. He is our Living Hope.

Gritty wisdom for church planters

Over at Raw Christianity Gunner is posting a series called Church Planting Among the Unreached: Gritty Wisdom with Brad Buser. It’s a recounting of some notes he took during one of Buser’s classes when he was at The Master’s College.

He writes:

Listen to people with scars. That’s become a motto of mine. Brad Buser has scars. In processing some old files recently, I came across one of his handouts from a class on Cross-Cultural Church Planting at The Master’s College around 2004. I never took the course, but Brad and his teaching were so well received by the students who took the course that I sat in on several sessions during my time on staff. The handout was entitled “Ministry Team Startup Talk,” a title that completely understates the priceless value of what Brad had to say. Brad’s teaching is rich in experience, incomparably honest, and fiercely missional (before missional was cool). The outline contains 20 points, and I’ll be sharing five at a time in coming days.

I remember Buser speaking at one of my church gatherings when I was in college, and being deeply moved. This guy has something to say worth hearing. Stop by and get some of the time-tested wisdom from a missionary who’s been-there-done-that.

Part One (Points 1-5)

Part Two (Points 6-10)

Part Three (Points 11-15)

Part Four (16-20)

The human dilemma

God’s holiness is the reason why the Fall was so devastating. God’s holiness is the reason why Nadab and Abihu were consumed at the altar. God’s holiness is the reason why the earth opened up and swallowed the complainers. God’s holiness struck down Uzzah when he touched the ark.

When the ark returned to Israel after the Philistines had captured it in 1 Samuel the men of Beth-shemesh were elated to see to ark coming back. 1 Samuel 6:13, “Now the people of Beth-shemesh were reaping their wheat harvest in the valley. And when they lifted their eyes and saw the ark, they rejoiced to see it.” But do you know what happened? Just a few verses later: “And [God] struck some of the men of Beth-shemesh, because they looked upon the ark of the Lord. He struck seventy men of them, and the people mourned because the Lord had struck the people with a great blow.”

The ark, in God’s amazing providence, returns to Israel on an oxcart. The people rejoice and offer sacrifices and praise to God. And as they’re sacrificing, and worshiping, and praising God, a man drops dead. Then another. And suddenly there’s something like an epidemic—and seventy men die. Why? Because they looked at the ark. A direct violation of Leviticus 16:13.

In the Bible, some of the most profound insight comes after a person, in some way, experiences God’s holiness. This clash between God and man causes the men of Beth-Shemesh to ask one of the most important questions a person can ask: “Who is able to stand before the LORD, this holy God?” (1 Sam 6:20)

That’s the human dilemma. Anyone who as ever really experienced God asks the same question. In fact, this is the question that all sinners ask before they grab hold of the grace of God in Christ. Until the dilemma haunts you with its stone-faced reality, you wont’ find any need for a Savior.

If God were not holy, we would have no hope because though he’s sovereign he wouldn’t be good. But because God is holy, we are doomed, because when the unholy and the holy meet, someone has to die. And it’s not going to be God.

Or is it?

 

Our unique Gospel

The gospel slips away when it stops being emphasized. When it ceases to be central. When Christ’s atoning work on the cross, his validating resurrection takes back seat to other things, a false gospel, with glacial slowness, begins to creep in.

Let me make this clear: If the Christian gospel isn’t prominent in our lives and in our church, there’s nothing special or unique about us. What makes Christianity Christian is Christ. Profound, right? And once the message of Jesus Christ and his work on the cross is removed from its primacy, other things start vying for first place. And if the gospel ever gets replaced, we turn into something less than Christian. We become “moralistic therapeutic deists.”

Sometimes I overhear students talking about a friend at school, and I ask, “Is he a Christian.” Sometimes their response is, “Yeah, he believes in God.” My usual reply is, “That’s not what I asked—I asked if he’s a Christian.

If our unique gospel isn’t in the forefront, we might as well all be Jews and your church might as well be a synagogue.

Let me take this a step further. We can even have a lot of talk about Jesus and not be uniquely Christian. What makes Christianity unique is not that we believe in Jesus. It’s not that he was a great prophet—Muslims believe that. It’s not that we believe he taught great things. Mormons believe that. Get this—it’s not even that Jesus resurrected himself from the dead. Catholics believe that. What makes Christianity unique? This—and this is what Paul is driving at—it is the gospel of salvation by grace through faith alone. Not works. Not rituals. Just faith.

Don’t try to pay for your sins

When I was a senior in high school I got the opportunity to travel to the Philippines with my church for a mission trip. We went around Easter time, which meant that there were going to be a lot of Easter rituals going on in this nation drenched in Catholicism.  I wasn’t ready for what I saw.

In the middle of the city there was a road, about a mile long, that stretched from one end of the city to the other. As we were walking through some of the shopping areas we came to this road. And walking along the road were two men. They were shirtless, with bags on their heads covering their faces, and in their hands they had a cat of nine tails—a whip with nine strands. They were walking the mile-long road and with every step that they took, they would whip themselves.

When we arrived on the scene, their backs were raw flesh and their shorts were so drenched with blood they were dripping on the road as they walked. I was so amazed by what was happening that I got too close, and it wasn’t until later that I looked down at my shirt and noticed the crimson red splatter of blood. In their system of belief, they had to pay for the guilt of their sins by flogging themselves bloody.

They believed Jesus was the Son of God. They believed in his death. They believed in his resurrection. What they missed was the gospel. They didn’t believe that faith alone could justify them before God. They thought they still had to pay for their own sins.

Listen—if people had to pay for their own sins, we’d all be damned. If you had to pay for your sins, let me tell you it’d cost a whole lot more than the skin on your back. There’s only one way to pay for your own sins: go to hell for eternity. That’s how you pay for your sins. You can’t pay for your sins by flogging yourself. Penance doesn’t work.

The gospel of grace is the better option, right? We are justified by faith. Faith. Not works. Not penance. Not attempts at self-righteousness. Not money. Not status. Not being nice. Not being well-behaved. None of those things has every power to save. We are completely justified by faith. Not partially justified. Completely, utterly, absolutely, totally justified when we take Jesus as our Lord.

 

Jesus came to deal with sin

Let me say something about other religions real quick. Why do people get religious? They get religious because they’re looking for something. Maybe it’s inner peace. Maybe it’s purpose. Maybe it’s to placate their guilt. Maybe it’s the satisfaction of intellectual curiosity. People get religion because it satisfies some aching of the heart—or at least poses as something that will satisfy.

People say that Buddhism gives them inner peace. People say that the Baha’i Faith gives them purpose. Muslims take solace that their life of submission to Allah will result in a heavenly reward of black-eyed virgins. And so they find peace, purpose, and solace in their false, misguided religions. But let me tell you something—though they may have a measure of peace, a newfound purpose, or even a solace in death—they do not have anything to deal with their sins. They enter eternity without anything or anyone removing the stain of sin that plagues them. That’s what separates Christianity from everything else.

Jesus said that he came to seek and save the lost. The reason Jesus came into our world was to deal with the problem of sin. It wasn’t to be an instruction manual. It wasn’t to be your life coach. It wasn’t to be a glowing example. It wasn’t to be a martyr. It wasn’t to give you your best life now. It was to deal with the problem of human sin.

If you’re looking for a life-coach, or some principles to help you get through the days, or some great advice on how to live morally—go to the local bookstore in the self-help section. You’ll find all kinds of helpful things—and none of them will be able to deal with the problem of sin.

If you come to church because Jesus is a good example, Jesus gives you purpose, Jesus was a great moral teacher—you’ve missed the point. Jesus was all those things but that wasn’t the point. He came to die for sins. He came to bear the brunt of God’s wrath toward repentant sinners. That’s what Christianity is—we are justified before God by faith in Jesus Christ. That’s Christianity. That’s the gospel. It’s not rules, lists, rituals, laws—it’s not be good, be better, be a servant—be, be, be. The gospel is not be. It’s believe. Believe that Jesus is the son of God, the King of the Universe, and give your full allegiance to him. And what happens when you do that will blow your mind. Peter calls it “joy inexpressible and filled with glory”—he’s running out of adjectives! There is a solution to your guilt. There is a solution to your condemnation. And his name is Jesus.

 

Get wholly excited about the gospel

“Beloved, I urge you, as sojourners and exiles, abstain from the passions of the flesh that wage war against your soul.”

What is your strategy to abstain? Get wholly excited about the gospel, that you have been justified by Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection; that you were in darkness but now you’re in the light; that death once reigned in you but now death has died; that you were once separated from God but now you’ve been brought near. Think of the utter impossibility of having God as your Father; think of the absurdity of being his child; think of the insanity of being forgiven by such a holy God—and then marvel at the breathtaking love that he has accomplished all this for you. He has shown all who believe his love—that while they were still sinners, enemies, rebels, haters, Christ died for them. You are God and God is yours. Did you hear that? God is yours. Marvel at this, O sinner! Be stunned and amazed at this great mystery. And never lose sight of it. Gaze continually into the depths of the gospel, as angels do, and be enthralled at all that God has for you. If you do this, your zeal will not go. Your fervor will not cease. You, like Moses, will die with your eyes undimmed and your zeal unabated. Sin will lose its sway. The passions of the flesh will be replaced by the passions of the Spirit.

* * *

I can’t wait to preach this Sunday night.