Category Archives: gospel

The Danger of Gospel Osmosis

Cross-posted at For the Church

We find ourselves in an age of a great renaissance. The gospel of Jesus Christ has resurfaced as both a means of entrance into the kingdom of God and the key to our growth in the kingdom. Churches, small group ministries, sermons, and the like are finding an infusion of life, centered on the unchanging and active power of the gospel. But amidst the hopefulness of this resurgence, there remains an ever-present dilemma. It’s the danger of gospel osmosis. It’s the threat of being in the proximity of the gospel but not being truly in its grip.

It isn’t enough to just know about the gospel. It isn’t enough to just know the language of gospel-centeredness. It isn’t enough to read Tim Keller and Jerry Bridges and the Puritans. It’s not enough to just listen to Matt Chandler and John Piper and R.C. Sproul. It’s not enough to just go T4G or The Gospel Coalition or the Desiring God conferences. It’s not even enough to go to a church that claims it’s centered on the gospel. While these are great things worthy of praise to God, they are only good to the extent that those things are leading to lives being transformed by the gospel.

The apostle Paul once had this same concern. Paul prayed this for his friends in Colossians 1:9-10:

we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.

Paul’s prayer for the church in Colossae was in response to a promotion of a form of knowledge by the false teachers of his time that was fruitless. In fact, Paul believed that this kind of false teaching led to the wrong behavior because it was disconnected from the gospel.

Paul’s logic in his prayer for the Colossian church went like this. Knowledge of the gospel should lead to wisdom and understanding – or said another way, it should impact the way that you live. True knowledge in wisdom and understanding of the gospel bears fruit. Knowledge of the gospel is not enough. It must lead to wisdom – to practical living empowered by the gospel.

Ray Ortlund says it this way in the context of the church community:

Churches that do not exude humility, inclusion, peace, life, hope and honesty — even if they have gospel doctrine on paper…undercut their own doctrine at a functional level, where it should count in the lives of actual people.  Churches that are haughty, exclusivistic, contentious, exhausted, past-oriented and in denial are revealing a gospel deficit. The current rediscovery of the gospel as doctrine is good, very good.  But a further discovery of the gospel as culture — the gospel embodied in community — will be infinitely better, filled with a divine power such as we have not yet seen. [1]

The responsibility that we have living in this resurgence of the gospel in our times is this: what are we going to do with it? Will we be good stewards of it or will we squander it? Will our lives be marked by the life of Jesus – a life lived with a laser-focus on God’s mission and not sidetracked by lesser things? Will our lives be marked by the death of Jesus – dying to ourselves for the sake of others and to our own self-salvation projects? Will our lives be marked by the resurrection of Jesus – believing the same power that raised Jesus from the dead that now lives in us to help us resist sin? To be marked by the gospel means that we are known by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in our living – not just in our thinking.

In our time, there is a great temptation to be gospel-centered in name but not in deed. But to live out God’s will is to bear fruit through the gospel. It’s not enough for us to have gospel-centered doctrine on our websites and position papers and taught in it membership classes, it must be demonstrated. We mustn’t window-shop the gospel – we must enter and partake of its goods. It’s time to resist merely being puffed up with gospel awareness and instead, enter into the land of fruit bearing. We must desperately ask the Lord that he grace our church with not only gospel knowledge but with a gospel yield. With the Lord’s help and our humility, may we know the gospel deeply but also live out the gospel fully in our lives. Our lives and our churches depend on it.

[1] Ray Ortlund, “Gospel Doctrine, Gospel Culture,” https://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/rayortlund/2015/09/17/gospel-doctrine-gospel-culture-2/, accessed April 25, 2017.

It is Finished

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Cross-posted at Gospel Centered Discipleship

After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.” A jar full of sour wine stood there, so they put a sponge full of the sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. – John 19:28-30

In 1862, French poet, playwright, and novelist Victor Hugo released his magnum opus Les Miserables, considered one of the greatest novels of the nineteenth century. In 1998, Hugo’s masterpiece found its cinematic zenith in the Bille August-directed film by the same name. In both works, one scene stands out above the rest.

At the beginning of the narrative, we meet ex-convict Jean Valjean who has just been released from a nineteen year prison sentence for stealing a loaf of bread. Trying to get on his feet, Valjean attempts to find a place to live but no one would take him in except for one—Bishop Myriel.

It doesn’t take long for Valjean’s old temptation to rear its ugly head. When everyone is asleep one night, Valjean goes to the cupboard and pilfers some of the bishop’s silver. He makes a run for it but is eventually caught red-handed. The police bring him before the bishop.

Valjean stands before the bishop, being held by the police. Bishop Myriel looks at the police and proclaims something extraordinary. He says that he gave the silver to Valjean as a gift. If that wasn’t enough, the bishop goes over to the mantelpiece, takes two silver candlesticks, and says that actually more silver had been forgotten by Valjean. He places the candlesticks in Valjean’s hands. The police have no choice but to let Valjean go free. But the story doesn’t end there.

After the authorities leave, the bishop looks at Valjean and says this to him, “Now, go in peace. By the way, my friend, when you come again, you needn’t come through the garden. You can always come and go by the front door. It is only closed with a latch, day or night.”

The bishop not only gives him mercy by forgetting the original crime and letting him keep the silver he stole, he gives him more mercy by giving him more silver. And then, he gives him even more mercy by giving him the best gift of all: his trust. The bishop does something so radically counter-intuitive to us. Something that feels so unnatural to us. He gives him unconditional grace.

Quid Pro Quo

We live in a society based on conditions. When you look at the world around us, everything in our culture demands a trade of some kind. “You do this for me; I’ll do this for you.” “You scratch my back; I’ll scratch yours.” But unconditional grace? We just can’t seem to wrap our feeble minds around that. It doesn’t’ make any sense to us. We are so acclimated to a culture of quid pro quo that we believe everything must have a catch.

We impose this idea upon God as well. We think that in order for God to truly extend his mercy to us, we must give him back something in return. We feel like we owe him something. So we resort to a spiritual checklists because they feel much safer. We like conditions because they keep us in “control.” If we can complete our spiritual “to do” list, it gives us the illusion that things are good between God and us because we have played a part in it. Theologian Gerhard Forde can help here:

The gospel … is such a shocker … because it is an absolutely unconditional promise. It is not an “if-then” kind of statement, but a “because-therefore” pronouncement: because Jesus died and rose, your sins are forgiven and you are righteous in the sight of god! It bursts in upon our little world all shut up and barricaded behind our accustomed conditional thinking as some strange comet from goodness-knows-where.

God’s grace isn’t conditional. It’s unreserved. It’s not a back-and-forth, two-way love. God’s grace always moves in one direction. And that is why it disturbs us. Forde continues:

How can it be entirely unconditional? Isn’t it terribly dangerous? How can anyone say flat out, “you are righteous for Jesus’ sake?” Is there not some price to be paid, something (however minuscule) to be done? After all, there can’t be such thing as a free lunch, can there?

That’s exactly what we do with God’s grace. We put conditions on it. We take a “yes grace but …” position. We think there is something that must be done on our end. There can’t just be free grace for the taking, can there?

The Beauty of Grace

The last words that Jesus spoke before he gave up his spirit on the cross were three words we need to massage into our hearts. “It is finished.” Grace announces that Jesus met all of God’s conditions on our behalf so that God’s mercy towards us could be unreserved. That’s the beauty of grace. It requires no work on our part. The work of redemption is complete in Jesus. In Christ, we are completely accepted. We are completely loved. In full. The work is done. It is finished.

This rightly rages against our insatiable need to work for our salvation. When we look to the cross and see the Savior of the world proclaim that the work is finished, it disorients us because we are a “conditional” people. Work, not rest, is our modus operandi. But that is exactly why Jesus breathed out those three words. God knew we would need to hear over and over, “Your effort is not needed. It is finished,” because to rest feels like a waste of time.

But deep gospel rest is exactly what we can find in the finished work of Jesus. Our hearts can truly engage with the words from Hebrews, “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his” (Heb. 4:9-10). Entering spiritual rest means that we are resting in Christ’s finished work on our behalf—not our work or our reputation or our accomplishments. It means we are swapping effort for rest. It’s at the heart of what Jesus achieved on Calvary’s cross.

As we hear again the crucified Jesus’ final words this Holy Week, hope is uncovered. We are saved solely by grace through Christ’s work. In Jesus, we can be forgiven. We can be made clean. We don’t earn it. We simply receive grace because that’s the only way grace is received. Grace isn’t grace unless it’s unconditional. It looks as if there is such a thing as a free lunch after all.

Limitless Grace for Limited Leaders: How Accepting Our Boundaries Frees us to Flourish as Pastors

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Cross-posted at For The Church

Since the day our church was planted, our pastors have fielded many questions on the topic of mission from the younger generations in our midst. “Do we have a plan to serve the poor?” “How are we going to plant missional communities in the most underserved parts of our city?” “How soon are we going to be able to bring the gospel to the unengaged peoples in the world?” Our standard (and honest) answer has been that we have a heart for any place where Jesus is not truly known. But we look at the work and our five fish and two loaves and know that the Great Commission is a God-sized task.

One the one hand, we love their ambition. It challenges and sharpens us. It’s easy, even as pastors of a church plant, to suffer from missional drift. On the other hand, the pastoral wisdom that comes with experience and age makes us cautious. We know that we can’t achieve everything that needs to be done missionally. We find ourselves speaking the truth in love that there are confines to what only one church can accomplish.

I recently was reflecting our church’s missional ambitions and I began to feel a deep sense of conviction about something. I began to see inconsistency in the way I shepherd others with their dreams of mission versus the way I shepherd my own heart in ministry. I warn others of the dangers of trying to do too many things missionally but struggle with warning my own heart of the hazards of not understanding the “perimeters” of my pastoral abilities. I remind others that God will clarify those few things we must do missionally but struggle with reminding my own heart that God has set boundaries of gifting for me in ministry to “move” within. I even preach to others that we should have faith that God will help us do a few things well but struggle to preach to myself that I’m only a small part of God’s eternal plan.

So why am I nervous to admit that I can’t do everything that needs to be done? I think it’s simple. I am afraid to to confess that I have limits. I’m afraid to admit that I have God-allotted periods and boundaries of my dwelling place (Acts 17:26). And I’m afraid that will render me unimportant.

In a 2012 New York Times article entitled “The ‘Busy’ Trap,” Tim Kreider says:

“Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.”

Kreider is touching on something we would do well as pastors to hear. And there’s so much more. The clamor to be the smartest person in the room, the pressure to make everyone like us, the temptation to be the biggest church in our city – these are attempts to make our lives exceptional. But admitting that we have boundaries means that we have to accept that much of our ministry “busyness” is a veiled attempt to make much of ourselves and not Jesus.

Jesus didn’t seem to struggle with limits or boundaries like us. In Zack Eswine’s book, Sensing Jesus, he says:

“Limits repulse the driven. The driven therefore struggle with the sense of place that Jesus had…[But] the holy One of God became a man – and this incarnation included limiting himself and inhabiting a locality on the earth.”

This is the heart of Philippians 2. Jesus emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. This was a “limiting” act on the part of Jesus.

Why was Jesus willing to do this? Jesus was inclined to live within earthly boundaries because he had a white-hot focus on one thing: joyful obedience to his Father that would lead him to a cross for our sake. This should reorient us all. Eswine again, “The divine condescension to locality challenges my ambition that is restless to embrace various things at once.”

See, if the God-man Jesus was willing to live within human flesh and in a local place that would ultimately lead to him sacrificing his life for ours, we can joyfully accept our lesser limits too.

This is where limitless grace meets limited leaders. We can only rest in our limitedness when we see that Jesus limited himself by leaving the culture of the Trinity and entering the culture of man for our sake. His act of incarnation and redemption settles our need for significance on this side of eternity. Healthy leaders accept their limits because when we look to Jesus, we see the ultimate limitation – God becoming flesh and blood to bring us spiritual rescue. And as we rest in this truth, we can let the unlimited One and his limitless grace give us courage to be the limited leader that we are and in the end, flourish for the good of our churches and the gospel.

Book Review: Gospel Conversations  by Robert Kellemen

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Two years ago, as I was preparing for a new year with the incoming interns at our church, I was searching for a resource that would assist them in better connecting relationally with those they would one day minister to. With well over a decade in ministry under my belt, I know that effectiveness in ministry is not just what we say but how and when we say it. In fact, if you neglect your emotional intelligence as you minister to others, you will most definitely come up against frustration.

After culling the available resources at my disposal, I came across a resource called 5 GRACE Biblical Counseling Skills by Bob Kellemen. This great little resource – a 25-page PDF developed from a larger work by Kellemen called Spiritual Friends: A Methodology of Soul Care and Spiritual Direction – was perfect for our interns. Though written primarily for biblical counseling contexts, I was struck by its potential broader application in giving anyone language and skills for relating effectively to others. And after using this resource for the last two years, it has done just that, exceeding my expectations.

I recently had the privilege of poring over Kellemen’s newest book, Gospel Conversations: How to Care Like Christ and Kellemen – the executive director of the Biblical Counseling Coalition, the founder and CEO of RPM Ministries, and Vice President of Institutional Development and Chair of the Biblical Counseling at Crossroads Bible College – has provided us with another outstanding resource. In Gospel Conversations, Kellemen accomplishes exactly what he set out to do with this resource, “…to give careful thought and attention to how to use the gospel to encourage one another to resist temptation and to respond with suffering with love for God and one another.” (15)

In Gospel Conversations, Kellemen provides a comprehensive and highly practical manual to equip pastors and lay persons alike around what he calls four “compass points”: 1) sustaining (offering biblical care for hurting people), 2) healing (offering biblical comfort and encouragement for suffering people, 3) reconciling (offering biblical help for people struggling against besetting sins), and 4) guiding (offering wisdom for people growing in Christ).

A Deep Appreciation

I sincerely appreciate Kellemen’s emphasis on the centrality of the gospel. He says that a gospel conversation is to “promote personal change centered on the person of Christ through the personal ministry of the Word.” (16) Too often in our ministry towards others, we default to first giving “common sense” advice (this seems to make the most sense) or “street smarts” advice (this is what I’ve experienced, so it must be true).

While experience and logic can be helpful tools in conversation, they should not be the starting point nor the grid we continue to press help and change through. The gospel, as understood in the Scriptures, should be the focal point and end game for our conversations in ministry. Kellemen says as much, “The essence of gospel conversations is helping one another to understand and apply the gospel to the details of our lives as saints who struggle with suffering and sin.” (16)

Here’s a great example. In chapter nine of Gospel Conversations, “Reconciling through Grace-Maximizing,” Kellemen does a masterful job of explaining the tension between helping expose heart sin and its affects relationally, rationally, volitionally, and emotionally and the importance of applying the comforting grace of Christ.  He says, “Since little counsel can be received when the conscience is in intense turmoil, biblical counselors refuse to let sin overwhelm the conscience. The worst sin of all is denying grace…Sin can be forgiven, but believing sin can’t be forgiven leaves [one] hopelessly despairing.” (285)

So what to do? Be quick to extend the Spirit of sonship. Kellemen says that that this “liberates the spiritual conscience, causing it to understand that it’s now under freedom of grace and forgiveness of God.” (285) To this end, Kellemen says that to calm the conscience, we may need to remind our friend that “Christ always loves you accepts you” and ask the very practical question, “What scriptural meditation can you use to keep this truth in the forefront of your mind?” This is just one of many illustrations of how Kellemen weaves the tapestry of grace throughout this book. The “axis” that Gospel Conversations revolves around is rightly the liberating grace of God in the person and work of Jesus.

A Minor Caution

For the lay person wanting to grow in their ministry effectiveness in relating to others, Gospel Conversations may be somewhat challenging to navigate. Though it is not, as Kellemen says, “your father’s textbook,” it truly is a highly robust “how to” handbook (read, a 393-page opus). Kellemen successfully leaves no stone unturned in his attempt to provide, as he says, “an experiential training manual.” (17) For someone not accustomed to this kind of writing, it may take some time to digest. There are many hypothetical situations, acronyms, diagrams, and questionnaires to meditate on and absorb throughout the book. But for those willing to dig in, it will be worth the effort.

I wholeheartedly recommend Gospel Conversations for anyone desiring to grow in their ability to connect the gospel in conversation to those that they minister to.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

 

Quotable…
from The Prodigal Church  by Jared Wilson

I am posting some of the quotes that caught my attention from Jared Wilson’s new book, The Prodigal Church: A Gentle Manifesto against the Status Quo, chapter by chapter. Wilson is the director of content strategy at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri, and managing editor of the seminary’s website for gospel-centered resources, For the Church. He is a popular author and conference speaker and blogs regularly at The Gospel Driven Church, hosted by The Gospel Coalition.

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Today, we look at Chapter 3 entitled – “What Works?”:

While we have great freedom in contextualization, we also face a great danger. That the Bible is somewhat vague about specific methodologies does not mean every methodology is fair game. Not every method is neutral. We have to go deeper and test our working assumptions. Beneath the exercise of liberty in methodology is always a functional ideology driving our decisions. (48-49)

 

Pragmatism reasons that God’s ability to use anything means our freedom to use everything. Pragmatism treats church methodology like a vending machine. (53)

 

The pragmatic approach to too many attractional churches aims for quantity in disciple making but suffers in quality. So as the pragmatic spirit drives our methodology, the kind of discipleship culture that results is shallow and frequently artificial…So the most effective way to turn your church into a collection of consumers and customers is to treat them like that’s what they are. (54)

 

In the attractional model, the center of worship is too often the preferences of the children and too rarely the proclamations of the Father. (60)

 

Pragmatism and consumerism also can taint a church’s numeric growth, because even as the place fills up with people, it may actually become less distinctively a church. (60)

 

Truer to the biblical portrait…is the church as a community that certainly values the worship gathering (and even the quality of the experience therein), but not as the central hope of evangelism or life change.(62)

 

What the Bible seems to express is that unbelievers in the service are best served not by having their tastes catered to but by witnessing the gathered church exalting God in the receiving of Christ-centered teaching, the singing of God-centered songs, and the observing of the sacraments. (66)

 

I fear that many evangelical church leaders have not adequately explored the relationship between the dominant youth ministry culture of yesteryear and the production-minded, casually relevant attractional church culture of today. (67)

 

What we do in church shapes us. It doesn’t just inform us or entertain us. It makes us who we are. The worship service, in other words, doesn’t just cater to certain tastes; it develops certain tastes…what we win them with is what we win them to. (67)

 

It is not in the best interest of the very unbelievers we’re trying to reach to appeal to consumerist tastes in the interest of offering them the living water of Christ. They’ve been drawn by the promise of lesser satisfactions. And when we make such a big production out of these lesser satisfactions, we communicate that in actuality they are what really satisfies. (67-68)

 

As the production values begin to dominate our worship, we relay that it is the production that we find really compelling, not so much Christ himself. When the invitation to trust Jesus comes, if it ever does, Jesus feels a little like an awkward guest at someone else’s party. (68)

 

The Bible’s ‘functional ideology’ – contrary to consumerism and pragmatism – is that ‘what works’ is the Holy Spirit through the message of the gospel of Jesus. And neither the Spirit nor the gospel needs help from our production values. (70)

Quotable…
from The Prodigal Church  by Jared Wilson

I am posting some of the quotes that caught my attention from Jared Wilson’s new book, The Prodigal Church: A Gentle Manifesto against the Status Quo, chapter by chapter. Wilson is the director of content strategy at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri, and managing editor of the seminary’s website for gospel-centered resources, For the Church. He is a popular author and conference speaker and blogs regularly at The Gospel Driven Church, hosted by The Gospel Coalition.

prodigalchurch

Today, we look at Chapter 2 entitled – “What If the System’s Broken?”:

There’s not really anything wrong with having or not having a cross on your church walls, but for many of us, in retrospect this removal became symbolic of what seemed to be taking place message-wise. (27)

 

A cognitive dissonance can result for those who hear a message all about what they should do to be more successful or victorious or happy…only to hear the proposition that Jesus died for our sins. To hear a lengthy appeal to our abilities, culminating in an appeal to our utter inability, can cause spiritual whiplash. (27)

 

…we may mistake the rising of something for the health or success of the thing. So it’s possible to look big, to look successful, and to not actually be big or successful in the ways that matter. The is not a strike against having a megachurch. It’s only a strike against the idolatry of the megachurch. It’s a strike against a church of any size that is trusting in growth, whether it’s actually experiencing it or not. (40)

 

Sometimes healthy things grow, but the growth continues on in a momentum of its own and ends up obscuring areas of concern or deeper need that are easy to ignore because of the easy justification and visibility of the growth. (41)

 

…the problem is not really one of size but of an unhealthy obsession of size, with a pitting of bigger against smaller, and with the failure of growing churches to compensate for their numeric growth with scalable efforts to maintain pastoral care, community, and discipleship. (43)

 

In too many attractional churches, committed Christians are put to work largely in service of the weekend worship experience…In the beginning of such ministry, enthusiasm is high. But when the lion’s share of one’s discipleship is occupied with weekly efforts toward the worship service, it is not too long before the volunteers begin to feel interchangeable, like cogs in a wheel…if they [weekly efforts] are the sum total of one’s connection to the church, they do not provide the nourishment that growing Christians need. (44)

 

…when it comes to proclaiming the gospel to the lost and feeding the sheep, we have to give great care to the means. And in fact, how we do church will have a direct impact on the quality of the results we get. (46)

Four Lessons From Visiting a Prosperity Gospel Megachurch

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Image Credit: The Gospel Coalition

Recently, Steven Morales, associate editor for The Gospel Coalition’s Spanish site, Coalición por el Evangelio, who lives in Guatemala with his wife and is pursuing church planting in Guatemala City, visited a prosperity gospel megachurch in his home country. In reflecting on his visit, I thought the four lessons he shared were helpful for all of us who struggle with how to respond to this subculture. Here are the four lessons from Morales, with thoughts from within each lesson:

1. It’s easy to make the Bible say whatever you want.

If we approach Scripture only a few verses at a time, we’ll easily change its message to adapt to our own. The Bible is the key to its own lock, and we must let it interpret itself. Read it. Study it. Pray over it. And don’t teach it until you know the whole story.

2. False teaching can be easily hidden under superficial Christianity.

Although this is most evident in false teachers, we’re all guilty of this sin to some degree. After all, who hasn’t tried to look his best, do the rights things, and act as “Christianly” as possible to hide the filthiness residing within (Matt. 23:27)? We need Jesus. If our exterior doesn’t correspond with our interior, it’s time to pray for repentance and run to Jesus (1 John 1:9–10).

3. It’s easy to focus on the wrong things.

I don’t care if your music is loud, as long as your theology is louder. I don’t care if your church is big, as long as your view of God is bigger. I don’t care if your stage has bright lights, as long as your love for Christ is brighter. I don’t care if you make a joke or two, as long as you’re serious about the gospel. Don’t get upset about peripheral things; get upset that the gospel isn’t being preached.

4. People need Jesus, not your snarky criticism.

We don’t need to share another video depicting another ridiculous thing that happened in a prosperity-preaching church; we need to start sharing the gospel with people…patiently explaining why King Jesus is better than any promise of earthly prosperity.

 
Read the entire article here.

A Buoyant Hope

Behind the veneer of much of our discipleship (and honestly, my own weathered and jaded heart), there is something in the depths of my heart that regularly flusters and flummoxes. It is something we all crave but even on our best days, we feel very little of. In our pursuit of it, we have replaced it with falsified versions that aren’t up to spiritual snuff. And thought it’s right under our noses, it’s possible that the reason we may not have much of it is because we are looking in the wrong nooks and crannies for it.

Oh hope, where art thou?

More Like the Mona Lisa

One of the reasons that we overlook hope is because we are wrongheaded in our definition of it. Hope is typically expressed as doubt rather than a deep certitude that what seems impossible is assured. I’ve said it before. “I hope everybody shows up tonight for missional community” or “I hope they remember to show up for this counseling meeting” or “I sure do hope they like this sermon.” But that is not biblical hope. Hope is not just an aspiration for something good but an expectation that it will happen—an assurance that it will happen. An inevitability that the good we anticipate and long for will transpire. In other words, biblical hope is not finger­-crossing. It is a thumbs up kind of hope—a hope that it is embedded, not in skepticism, but in the stalwart faithfulness of God.

My children loves to color our carport sidewalk with chalk. It’s one of their favorite activities. Pinks and greens and blues and yellows all scribbled on gray concrete. I love to watch them as they make the grandest creations with no thought about their lack of permanence. Inevitably, a rain shower eventually rolls in and washes away their artwork. Gone. In a moment. Hope in a faithful God is never like this. It doesn’t wash away with a little rain. There is firmness in it that can’t ever be dissolved because God’s purposes are more like the Mona Lisa—enduring and unfading. Hoping in God and hoping in anything else is the difference between chalk and paint. One fades, the other abides.

Seeing the Unseen

The writer of Hebrews adds a vital component to the idea of hope: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1). Wherever there is full guarantee of hope, there is faith. Or said another way, faith is the jam-­packed, self­-confidence of hope. I admit that I regularly lack that kind of confidence but that is what real hope brings. It brings spiritual assuredness. I need that kind of inspiration for my flimsy faith. But the writer of Hebrews also says that yes, faith includes hope but it is more than hope.

Charles Spurgeon says it this way, “Though the ‘things’ are only ’hoped for’ and ‘not seen’ at present, the eye of faith can see them, and the hand of faith can grasp them.” See, faith­-shaped hope does the unthinkable and the counterintuitive. It sees what is unseen and clasps on what is intangible. It has vision for what is undetectable. It clutches onto what is indiscernible. That’s good news to me because frankly, my faith tends to be miniature sized. What was Jesus’ proposal to his disciples for their little faith? He told them to grow it to the size of a tiny mustard seed (Mk 4:31). I love that. Jesus, as only he can, gives me hope that I can have a faith that believes and sees what can’t be seen if it’s as big as something that is very small because my faith is small most of the time.

The Bible describes the patriarch Abraham as a man of deep faith who had this kind of hope. He was filled with hope that God was able to do everything that he had promised ­ even though reality raged against God’s promise. “In hope he believed against hope” (Rom. 4:18). Interesting verbiage. Webster’s Dictionary has a separate entry for the phrase “hope against hope.” It is defined as “to hope without any basis for expecting fulfillment.” Does this sound like Abraham’s faith? Not even close. Abraham’s hope had a different tone and focus.

Abraham’s “against hope” meant that from a conventional human perspective, there was not an ounce of likelihood that a miracle could happen. Remember, Abraham was old and his wife was barren. Abraham knew that hope is never anchored to what is achievable by man’s effort. Biblical hope gazes to the promise of a miraculous God. Abraham had a Hebrews-like hope. We must point our hearts and the hearts of others to this kind of hope in our discipleship.

Head over to Gospel Centered Discipleship to the last part of this article and read how hope is like a cork for the soul.

The Full Circle Gospel

ascension

 

I

Jesus wasn’t always in the flesh.

John 1:14 reminds us that “the Word became flesh.” Becoming flesh means Jesus existed before His incarnation. In our quest to prove the veracity of God becoming man so that as a man, he could do what only God could do, we sometimes caper right past the beauty and mystery of one aspect of the incarnation’s import. Before it, Jesus didn’t have skin.

When John claims that “in the beginning was the Word . . . and the Word was God,” he is implying that Jesus had been around long before his earthly arrival. Before the God­-man was a God­-baby, he existed eternally in perfect community with the triune God outside of time and space.

In the incarnation, Jesus resolved to lay aside the majesty of his deity to take upon himself man’s likeness and a servant’s form. Before that moment, Jesus had only existed in his preincarnate glory. He was in the form of God, according to the apostle Paul. The early church father John Chrysostom affirms, “The form of God is truly God and nothing less. Paul did not write that he was in process of coming to be in the form of God; rather ‘being in the form of God,’ hence truly divine.” Jesus has always been truly divine but his divinity hasn’t always donned flesh.

So from the vantage point of finite beings and though Jesus has no beginning, we see that the God­-man’s timeline “began” before his advent in an earthly manger. And as we deal in beginnings and endings to make sense of the sacred, we can’t lose that the pre­incarnate Christ’s pre­-skin context was the harmonious community of the Godhead in heaven. His ex nihilo eternality is necessarily an essential in understanding the gospel’s content. You have to have a Jesus who was in the form of God eternally before he was in the form of man to do what only the God­-man himself could have done—make a way for the soul to be rid of it’s one dark blot.

II

We love to sing in our church community.

We heartily belt it out in our retrofitted fellowship hall Sunday after Sunday. One of the songs we routinely revisit says, “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.” I recall when I first sang these lines, I thought I was singing about the cross. It was my gazing upon the cross that could recalibrate my vacillating spiritual discouragement. While that can be true factually, those lines aren’t about peering at the crucified Jesus on a cross. There about something entirely different. They are about looking at my resurrected and ascended Jesus in heaven.

Now, I can’t literally look up and see Jesus in heaven. It exists in an unseen dimension at the moment. But what these lines point to is the reality that Jesus currently resides in the eternal home from whence he came. He has returned to his divine community—but not in his preincarnate form. No, he has returned as one who possesses a resurrected body that “made an end to all my sin” and is now exalted to the place of highest honor—God’s right hand. That is the God I am to “see” when I sing those lines. But without the ascension, I can’t look to Jesus in that way. Without it, we omit another crucial aspect of comprehending the thrust of the gospel message. Jesus is back in heaven. And that means something.

There are three primary passages which give us the historical record of the ascension of Jesus: Mark 16:19, Luke 24:51, and Acts 1:9. And while there are many themes we could extract from these texts, in my opinion, one stands out above the rest. John Calvin put it best when he said, “For as soon as God’s dread majesty comes to mind, we cannot but tremble and be driven far away by the recognition of our own unworthiness until Christ comes forward as intermediary, to change the throne of dreadful glory into the throne of grace.” Christ as intermediary. Christ as advocate. Christ as intercessor. No ascension—no throne of grace. Only a throne of dreadful glory that we can’t approach boldly. But Jesus.

Head over to Grace For Sinners to read the third act and why the ascension matters to the fullness of the gospel’s timeline.