Category Archives: sin

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.

 

Jesus is the Better Atoner

jesus-cross

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis argues that “we feel the rule of Law pressing on us so ­ that we cannot bear to face the fact that we are breaking it, and consequently we try to shift the responsibility…human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it.”[1] He says that even though humanity knows what is right and wrong, “they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it.”[2]

Truth and untruth are hardwired in us but it’s in the dabbling with untruth that we know there is a culpability. It is in the “breaking” that we taste the bitter loss of innocence. The result? We just can’t seem to get out from under the anvil of guilt.

It finds it origins in Genesis 3. “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths. And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden” (Gen. 3:7­-8). After disobeying God, the first actions of our first parents were to cover up and hide. These are the activities of ones who find themselves mired in disgrace.

We know this to be true because its antithesis is found a few verses prior in Genesis 2:25, “And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.” In a moment, an identity once hidden in perfect and safe communion God was now subsumed in an overwhelming sense of shame. Now present was a gaping sense of insecurity where there was once peace. A cavernous space where there was once intimacy. And instead of running in their newfound vulnerability to God, they disguised themselves and holed up away from him. Commentator Alec Motyer describes it this way:

They [sense that] they cannot meet and keep company with the Lord God as before, but neither do they see that the consequence of sin is loss of paradise. Hearing the approach of the Lord, they hide, but within the Garden… The blindness of sin is beginning to take effect…From the moment of the Fall, humankind has suffered from moral schizophrenia: neither able to deny sinfulness nor to acknowledge it for what it is. [3]

This is what shame does. It disorients. It muddles. It flusters. But those are only its horizontal affects. There was something else that happened in this moment of moral failure. Something more sobering. Something more destructive. After cursing the serpent, God approached Adam and Eve and said these words, “…for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19). The “hide and seek” that Adam and Eve played was short­-lived. God found them and relayed to them a harsh but necessary truth. Death would now be the repercussion of their blatant disobedience to the parameters that he had set. In God’s economy, the reach of the spiritual consequences had to be relative to the sinful activity of his human creations. Rebellion cost something.

In a way, God was following through with his earlier promise that if they ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they would surely die. “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen. 3:16­-17). But did they? Not immediately. What did happen in the fall were two “kinds” of deaths. The first, the promise of physical death. Dust returning to dust. The second, the actuality of a spiritual death.

Yes, sin brings horizontal a sense of internal shame and insecurity but graver was that the chomp of an apple was a defiant spiritual action of the heart. It was an exploit that produced a cosmic condemnation of the soul. “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Rom. 5:12). No one escapes this kind of guilt. It is corporate. And it has a debt.

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Maybe that is what we all really feel. We may call it “guilt” but at the bottom of it all, what we sense is a deep, pervasive debt. We detect that there is a settlement that we can never repay. When Adam and Eve tried to conceal themselves and cover their nakedness from God, they were beginning to feel that there was a deficit that could not be reimbursed. They were keenly aware of a bankruptcy of the soul that resided in the red. It’s what they did with their guilt that was the problem.

When feelings of spiritual indebtedness start to overtake us, we mimic our first parents. We hide. We self-protect. We self­-justify. And maybe most threatening ­ we try to make up the difference. We attempt to pay back the debt in one form or another. We functionally do “penance.” Pastor C. John Miller says:

Penance is a religious attitude deeply rooted in the human heart which prompts people to attempt to pay for their own sins by good works and sufferings. Self­-justification is the goal of this effort. In practice this means that humanity always has one more scheme for getting things right with God and their conscience. Sinners doing penance always say in their hearts, ‘Give me one more day, a new religious duty, another program, another set of human relationships or a better education, and then things will come right­side up’…They are preparationists—that is, sinners who are forever getting ready for grace. They want to make themselves worthy of grace so that God will reach out to them once this work of preparation is completed. [4]

Notice Miller’s statement that those who do penance are “forever getting ready for grace.” It’s interesting that we know that our guilt requires something radical to handle the chasm between our deeds and what is required for forgiveness of the debt. But we go on. We think one more bible study, one more soup kitchen visit, one more degree, one more zero at the end of our salary will balance the shortage, one more intimate relationship. It never does. We will never be able to get “prepared” for grace.

Herein lies the rub. We don’t want anyone to give us mercy because that means we have to, one, admit we can’t make up the difference, and two, admit that what have to look outside ourselves to someone who can. This is offensive to our Western ideals of independence and strength. But this confession is the very beginning point for absolution. Acknowledging our spiritual inability is actually where we begin to see the light. Powerlessness is the prerequisite.

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Head over to Grace For Sinners to read the third section of this article to see where atonement can be found – outside of ourselves.