Why do bad things happen to good people? PART ONE

Yesterday I introduced the series that I’ll be blogging through this week. It aims to biblically answer the question, why do bad things happen to good people?

Today is part one:

1. There’s no such thing as a “good” person. All we enjoy is pure, unmerited grace.

The question why do bad things happen to good people is flawed from the start– there is no one good. Romans 3:10-12:

No one is righteous, no, not one;

no one understands; no one seeks for God.

All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;

no one does good, not even one.

There are nice people, no doubt. But nice doesn’t not equal righteous. Nice does not permit you to stand justified before a holy God. Even nice people are sinners. Every person starts life with a sinful nature and a natural bent toward rebellion against God. All have turned aside and deserve to be tossed aside by God. The better question to ask would by why do good things happen to bad people? Each person deserves condemnation. God would be completely just to let me starve in a frozen cell for the rest of my life– that’s all I’ve ever deserved. Thank God there is another side of his character that triumphs over judgment: mercy.

There’s no such thing as a righteous person. When Christians are saved, it is not by their own qualifications. It’s completely by God’s work on our behalf. It’s God redeeming, God forgiving, God cleansing, God clothing me in Christ’s righteousness. I simply accept the grace by faith (Ephesians 2:8-9).

If we understand the gospel, we will enjoy grace because we know that it is a free gift we have not earned. We will hold that both God’s kindness (Romans 2:4) and God’s severity (1 Peter 5:10-11) is meant to draw his people into a closer relationship with him. All God’s acts toward his children are loving. Even the ones that temporarily cause pain.

Every ounce of enjoyment we have ever received is pure, unmerited grace.

James 3:16-18

Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.

Enjoy a sunrise lately? Grace. A laugh with a friend? Grace. A deep breath of mountain air? Grace upon grace. It is something good to enjoy we have not deserved. These are gifts from God.

God is the creator of life. The creatures he made have turned against Him. God has the divine right to take life whenever he pleases. He chooses when to pull the plug– he can do it one whenever and however he wants. He will do it to everyone, eventually– we all die. He is not unjust to take some sooner than others.

God has all our days numbered. When the time comes, we die. In the meantime, we enjoy things that we have not deserved.  He does not owe us another breath. If you are a believer, he is giving to time to accomplish the “good works he has prepared for you beforehand” (Ephesians 2:10). If you have not yet been reconciled to God through Jesus Christ, he is giving you time to repent of your sins– for “the Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).

Praise God that there is a way to make death not so final. Praise God that there is access to free grace for whoever calls upon Jesus Christ for salvation.  There is a way to stand guiltless before the Almighty. This is the gospel. It is the ultimate act of free, unmerited grace. It is the message of life.

* * *

Tomorrow’s point is that “The highest good in the universe is God’s exaltation, and therefore everything God does is toward that end.

To understand the sovereignty of God in suffering we must grasp why God does what he does. Certainly God has the power to stop all suffering. Why doesn’t he?

The Bible shows pretty clearly why God acts. We are going to look at how God does everything for his own glory.

One Million Years Later…

I guess it’s natural in times like these to think of eternity.

One million years from now, what will I be glad of? In ten million, will I wish I spent my time here differently?

On Monday after the funeral hundreds of family and friends gathered at the Larson house to celebrate and remember the life of Tyson Larson. Out of the thousands of conversations that took place there, one I took part in lodged a place in my brain and has been with me since. The conversation was with an uncle, a cousin, and my mother.

The uncle was Uncle Jack. He stood with his arm in a constant hug around my cousin, Katie Larson, while my mom leaned in against them. He spoke with tears quietly waiting behind his eyes:

I have so many friends. I have a thousand friends. I have friends comin’ out the ears. But the reason I have so many friends is because I’m not bold enough to confront them about their lives. I’m too afraid to share the gospel.

And though he only meant to speak of his struggle, he nailed us all.

Because often we are very good at being relational and terrible at evangelism, when the blatant truth is that “faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). Ultimately, the pithy quote ascribed to St. Francis of Assisi is not biblical—“Preach the gospel. Use words if necessary” – and is usually a copout for those of us who fear sharing the gospel.

The simple, terrifying truth is that if people don’t hear the gospel, they don’t get saved—it doesn’t matter how moral your life is. Faith comes by hearing. Someone needs to speak up.

Relationships with people have eternal consequences because people last forever.

But to have the message of hope that has the power to save the wickedest sinner and not share it is unloving. To neglect the only possible news that can satisfy them forever is actually much closer to hate. Even if we succeed in making them have higher moral standards we will have accomplished nothing eternal. The most loving and eternally valuable action we can ever take toward an unbeliever is evangelism. And that means speaking the gospel to the lost.

The gospel is the story the God-man Jesus Christ coming to a people who didn’t deserve him to give them a gift they didn’t want.

And it was the most loving act in all of history.

It’s our example.

If the gospel shapes our attitude, we will not be “preachy” in a self-righteous way. If the gospel is properly understood it will demolish any semblance of self-righteousness.  Evangelism can’t happen with this poison– it contradicts the message of free, unmerited grace. The gospel is good news. Incredible, life-changing, eternity altering, soul-satisfying news. And if we believe it, we will lovingly evangelize with slave-like humility, sage-like patience, and lamb-like gentleness. The gospel-driven life—that is, the Christian life—is both relational and truth-telling.

Thanks Uncle Jack for the reminder. Thanks Ty for making it stick. This is just one way this tragedy is reshaping our family. Praise God.

O how I pray that God would give us eyes to see that which is eternally valuable!

Radical Christianity: Imbalanced?

Every truth must be held in balance. It’s like truth sways like a pendulum. One generation emphasizes hell without emphasizing grace. The next generation talks all about grace but never mentions judgement. One generation spends most of its mission budget on international missions. The next generation senses the neglect of the local community and forgets overseas missions. One generation is immersed in tradition. The next generation hates anything that is institutionalized. You get the point.

I think my generation is reacting against something I’ve heard called “churchianity.” And the flow of this movement is toward radical, passionate, self-sacrificing Christianity. It is repulsed by the passive, no-nothing, Sunday-only Christianity. I’d put myself in this category– the desire to live the life that Jesus said is taking up your cross, denying yourself, and following him. It’s extreme. It’s radical Christianity. Is it imbalanced? Is the pendulum on the other side now?

Influential pastors and speakers like Francis Chan and John Piper place a huge emphasis on this kind of living. In America, it is a good message to be reminded of. We are filthy rich compared to the rest of the world (Chan). Many of us do retire and waste the last fifteen or twenty years of our lives on the golf course or the yacht (Piper). They’re right– and it’s a message we need to hear.

The problem comes when we (as pastors or teachers) start either guilting people into radical living by saying things like “There are starving children in Africa right now who don’t have any money for a single square meal today, and you’re spending your money on Starbucks five days a week?”or when we (as regular people) start thinking that regular day-in, day-out mundane (non-radical) tasks can’t be done for the glory of God and therefore are unimportant.

The first problem creates a sort of legalism. As if giving more is a gateway to deeper spirituality. There is a way to live simply and give lavishly for the sake of the gospel. But guilting people into it by telling them about starving people isn’t the way. There are always going to be hurting people here– we can’t always live in guilt about not meeting everyone’s needs. But we can teach that Christ is a far superior treasure than money, and in him there is the kind of joy that frees us to give away what we don’t need. Because Christ is reliable and our treasure is in heaven!

The second problem creates a kind of Christian fantasy world. Recently in my youth group we went through Francis Chan’s video series that goes with his book Crazy Love. It was a good series– challenging and convicting. But one thing I noticed was that regular, disciplined, not-so-glorious steps of obedience like daily Bible reading, consistent prayer, loving your family and friends were shoved to the background. Why? Because these things aren’t radical. Selling your X-Box to give the proceeds to the poor is.

So I tried to counter it by calling the regular disciplines of the Christian life radical. When one of the students said, “That’s not radical” I immediately felt the imbalance. In emphasizing the radical nature of the Christian life we had downplayed the significance of the regular spiritual disciplines that take place in the closet. In this fantasy world, only the extreme acts of sacrifice are radical. Waking up early before school starts to spend time in the Word isn’t– and therefore it’s not as important. A radical outpouring of sacrifice and generosity without the consistent exercise of the mundane spiritual disciplines will lead to a pervasive (and “radical”) shallowness in ministry.

Radical seems to be a buzzword these days. And overall, I believe, it is a good thing. We do need to be radically devoted to Jesus Christ, so we are ready to “sell all that we have to follow him.” But we must be devoted to our Redeemer, not radicalism. If we trade Christ for radicalism we’ll find ourselves with a new kind of legalism– one that says if you don’t sell your 5 bedroom house to live in a 2 bedroom, your not deeply spiritual.

I recently came across a quote by Paul Tripp:

We live in the mundane. If God doesn’t rule your mundane, He doesn’t rule you.

At the heart of the gospel is a sovereign God suffering and dying for a world that hates Him.  When the gospel shapes our lives, it will shape us into that kind of character– people who are willing to suffer, sacrifice, and deny themselves for the kingdom. The motivation for radical Christianity is a radical Christ who gives us all we need for a life that bears fruit.

And for most of us, that fruit develops as we go to our knees, Bible open, day-in and day-out, pleading with Him to change us from the inside out.

Finding Hope Amidst Your Sin

Peter said to him, ‘Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.’ Jesus answered, ‘Will you say down your life for me? Truly, truly, I say to you, the rooster will not crow till you have denied me three times.’ (John 13:37-38)

The account of Peter’s declaration of his willingness to die for his Lord is one that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. Peter has good intentions that the Lord sees straight through. Jesus knows Peter’s desires, but he also knows his weaknesses. He knows the sins of denial that Peter is about to commit.

We like to make bold claims for our Lord. But often, our eyes are bigger than our stomach. We believe we are much more capable than we actually are many times. We downplay our capacity for sin and we bank our stalwart abilities to do what’s right. We look at ourselves and think “Pshh, I could do that.” In other words, too often we are woefully self-dependent.

This story has the piercing ability to cut through self-sufficiency and self-reliance and bring us to our knees before the cross. Here are three reflections on the little story:

1. God already knows when we will sin, and what the sin will be. It is clear to him. And Jesus doesn’t forsake us because of it– his love for us doesn’t change–he still goes to the cross. O what a savior!

2. God is not dependent on our obedience to accomplish his purposes— in fact, our failures can be used for good. For example– in the Luke account of the story Jesus said to Peter, “And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers” (22:32). His ability to strengthen the brothers came after he was broken. It is good to get broken now and again.

3. Good intentions, commitments, or aspirations to obedience don’t mean anything. The obedience that matters is the obedience you incarnate– not the kind you hypothetically will do if such-and-such happens.

“When Satan tempts me to despair, and tells me of the guilt within, upward I look and see him there, who made an end to all my sin.” Hope in the gospel, even when your adversary the devil tells you otherwise.

Head, Heart, Hands– Don’t Forget the Heart

I think I was in Sunday School as a boy when I learned the “head, heart, hands” saying that describes how God’s Word should affect our lives. It is a great way to show how knowledge is the spring from which obedience flows. Each of the three parts toward obedience is necessary; eliminating any single one is dangerous. In this post I want to examine the danger that skips the heart aspect of obedience.

It’s very clear that the Bible commands certain conditions of the heart. I can list countless verses where we are commanded to feel a certain way– perhaps most popularly the shema in Deuteronomy 6:4-5 “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” Love is an emotion. “Rejoice in the Lord with all your heart. I will say it again: rejoice!” Joy is an emotion.

The way to get around this is the redefine love. And this is how Christians do it: they say God can’t command emotions because emotions are spontaneous and transient– coming and going without our command– and God wouldn’t command us to do something out of our capacity to obey. So love, then, is no longer an emotion, it’s an action. Loving God isn’t having affection for God, it’s doing things for God. It’s reading the Bible. It’s going to church. It’s praying. It’s serving. And it’s all justifiable because it’s impossible to feel love for God every single day.

I can’t tell you how many Christians buy that. Too many. So these things become to equivalent of love. And the true nature of love is lost. Suddenly you are able to love God without liking him very much. And the fact that you are a joyless person isn’t a big deal because, after all, you are going to church, reading your Bible, and giving your tithe.

One way they further illustrate how love is not an emotion is by speaking of marriage. It’s kinda like marriage, they say. “You won’t always feel love for your spouse, but love means you stay committed, you work it out, you make it through.” We equate love with service, commitment, and sacrifice. While I agree with the first statement, that we won’t always feel love for our spouses, I don’t go so far then to redefine love as simply “staying committed”. But that is what love is for many Christians and many spouses.

Why are we so ready to believe that God wouldn’t command an emotion, believing that God wouldn’t command something we aren’t able to control? God commands us to be born-again (John 3:3) and the new birth is a gift from the Spirit (John 3:8). God commands us to repent (Matt. 4:17) and repentance is described as something granted to us (2 Tim. 2:25). Paul calls us to be reconciled to God (2 Corinthians 5:20), but he also tells us it is God who justifies (Rom. 8:33). Why do we think it strange that God would command spontaneous (as opposed to conjured up) emotions such as love, joy, humility, fervor, hatred (toward sin), or peace?

I’ll show you why love can’t be defined as service, commitment, or even sacrifice. 1 Corinthians 13:1-3:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.

You can speak nicely to someone without loving them. You can be a brilliant person without loving people. And here’s the kicker: you can die for another person and not necessarily be a loving person. Here the line is drawn– love is not words, love is not knowledge, love is not even service, commitment, or sacrifice. Love is, well, love. Love likes.

God is commanding your heart to be a certain way. To feel certain way about things. There’s no getting around it. And the  reason God does that is precisely because it’s impossible for us to succeed apart from his changing power.

Here’s the scariest consequence of skipping heart and go straight from head to hands.  This scariest consequence is this:

We might succeed.

And if we succeed in becoming obedient, nice, churchy people (without serious heart-change) we will become self-righteous, joyless, stagnant Christians.

Because the message of the gospel is not simply “behave.” It’s not know what to do, now do it.

Why? Because once full obedience is accomplished we will think we’ve arrived. We may not say it that way, but we will act that way. We will be satisfied with avoiding the sins of infidelity and perjury and cheating on your taxes. And we will stop looking after our souls. And if the church succeeds in creating this kind of culture, it will succeed in something extremely dangerous. C.S. Lewis once said,

We must not suppose that if we succeeded in making everyone nice we should have saved their souls. A world of nice people, content in their own niceness, looking no further, turned away from God, would be just as desperately in need of salvation as a miserable world.

Head, heart, hands. Don’t skip the heart part. You might succeed and have no further need of the cross.

All We’ve Got is a King who Rises from the Dead

“A dog barks when his master is attacked. I would be a coward if I saw that God’s truth is attacked and yet would remain silent.”

John Calvin’s words came to my mind after reading Chris Mckinny’s open letter to Bil Cornelius of Bay Area Fellowship, who is giving away millions of dollars worth prizes to attract people to his church this Easter. What an attraction!

I like Jared Wilson‘s perspective on it– here’s his (sarcastic) tweet from a few days ago:

Man, my church can’t even compete with this…all we’ve got is a KING WHO RISES FROM THE DEAD

Four Things the Gospel is Not

In Mark Dever’s The Gospel & Personal Evangelism he gives us a list of four things that the gospel is not.

  1. The gospel is not simply that we are okay.
  2. The gospel is not simply that God is love.
  3. The gospel is not simply that Jesus wants to be our friend.
  4. The gospel is not that we should live the right way.

In another book of his, The Deliberate Church, he gives us a helpful four step guideline to sharing the gospel.

  1. God– who is God, and what is he like?
  2. Man– what is man, and what has he done?
  3. Christ– who is Jesus, and what did he do?
  4. Response– a call for repentance and belief

Give them Gospel

What’s the point of trying to entertain kids toward Jesus. Never works. How about some gospel?

Today I am going to share with you the pure gospel.

You who have been Christians all your lives: please do not turn off your ears.  The minute you think that the gospel is something that saved you in the past, and is not something to help you right now today is the day you cease to grow in Christ.  You can never outgrow the gospel. Listen.

The gospel is the good news that Jesus came to earth as a man, lived a perfect life and died on the cross. On the third day he rose victorious over the powers of hell, Satan, and sin.

He died the death we should have died, and offered a righteousness we didn’t deserve. So that, if we believe in him—with real authentic belief, not just “belief” on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights—we will be forgiven of our sins, and adopted by God as his sons and daughters into his eternal heavenly kingdom.

There are three categories of students in this room.

  1. Some of you know this, and you stake your life on the promises of God. You strive to live every moment by the power of the gospel. You want more people to know and understand and believe it. I thank God for students like you.
  2. Some of you know the gospel, but your life doesn’t match up. You live like a hypocrite. You say that you live for Jesus but you don’t. Christianity is just something to help you when you feel down or depressed—it’s not your everything. You know the gospel intellectually, but you haven’t tasted it. God knows your heart, not me.
  3. And then there are without a doubt some of you who either don’t know the gospel or don’t believe the gospel. You are not trusting in Jesus Christ, so you can only expect condemnation.

Here is my plea for all of you. Believe the gospel. That Jesus Christ, the Son of God, died for your sins. He rose triumphantly on the third day. Forgiveness of sins comes freely through him by faith alone. Not by following rules, but simply by faith.

Do not put it off. Please come talk to me.

This is the talk I gave today at IMPACT, the on campus ministry we have at Fallbrook High School.

Biblical or Gospel-Centered?

A while back I sent a question off into the twitterverse to see if there was any opinion on the subject.  This was my question, in it’s 140-character concised glory:

Is there any difference between being gospel-centered and biblical? Or is it just semantics? What do you think?

A friend of mine replied in a tweet of his own:

It’s semantics if you’re thinking biblically. 🙂

I think he’s right.

I’ve recently discovered that there are many pastors and churches out there who are beginning to use “gospel-centered” to describe their church and ministry. Whereas a typical church might say: “Here, we are biblical, everything we do is by the book” more churches are starting to say things like “we try to make everything gospel-centered and gospel driven.”  Should such a distinction exist?

Well, in short, no. The resurrected Jesus told his friends on the way to Emmaus that all the scriptures pointed to Christ. “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). Essentially, the Bible is the story of the gospel.  It’s all about Jesus and what he did for mankind. The Bible is the gospel. Being biblical is being gospel-centered.

But those who are beginning to use this “gospel-centered” language actually have a point. Pastors and churches have falsely assumed that it is possible to be biblical without being gospel-driven.  There are churches that hold up the banner BIBLICAL and yet refuse to clearly address the issues of sin- how it offends God and merits eternal judgment.   Robert Schuller once said this about the subject:

I don’t think that anything has been done in the name of Christ and under the banner of Christianity that has proven more destructive to human personality, and hence counterproductive to the evangelistic enterprise, than the unchristian, uncouth strategy of attempting to make people aware of their lost and sinful condition.

But how can there be a gospel without these things? John MacArthur said this in referring to these kinds of “gospel” messages:

No repentance, no judgment, no hell, no heaven, no self-denial, no discussion of sin, no laying down of the law of God against which the sinner is broken, no sense of guilt, no sense of condemnation, no fear of eternal torment– that is an inadequate gospel. That is a gospel that I will tell you will contribute to apostasy. It will contribute to defection.  Because people are going to come to that which they think is the saving message and when it doesn’t do anything, they’re gone. A shallow gospel presentation that doesn’t present the reality of eternal judgment, the reality of the law of God, the reality of condemnation, eternal hell, does not warn of God’s wrath, that does not crush the sinner under the weight of his violation of the law of God, that does not make him stand before God guilty– the gospel presentation that doesn’t do that isn’t a faithful gospel presentation.

And because there are so many popular preachers out there who are “biblical” and yet say nothing of the gospel, I like the distinction. And from now on, I’m going with gospel-centered.