Cultivating Faith Like a Child

“I’m getting a new friend tomorrow!”

This was the announcement my 5-year-old daughter had for me when I picked her up from kindergarten. She was absolutely sure she would have a new friend coming. This was kind of mystifying for me, for while I am aware that little kids make friends with an ease that adults can only envy, to be so sure a new friend was coming seemed another level. It was only after some follow up questions that the truth was revealed. My daughter’s teacher was informing the class that they would have a new student joining them the next day. And as kindergarten teachers will, she used the language of a new friend joining their class.

But this was not just fun language to my daughter. If the teacher said there would be a new friend, then there would be a new friend. My daughter had faith in what her teacher said. She believed with conviction, and so loudly and proudly proclaimed to me that she would have a new friend arriving the next day. She had faith like only a child could.

Jesus spoke on several occasions about having a child-like faith. We see Jesus correcting the disciples’ mindset about who would be the greatest in the kingdom by using a child as an illustration (Matthew 18:1-6). We see Jesus receiving children in Matthew 19 and blessing them and when the disciples try to stop these parents from bringing their kids to Jesus, he says, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus even calls for his disciples to have child-like faith in Mark 10:15, “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” So what is this child like faith?

Faith like a child is a faith that believes because they trust. Like my daughter who believed she was getting a new friend because she trusted her teacher. We have child-like faith when we trust what Jesus says. When we trust the Word of God without asking endless questions or making countless caveats, we are experiencing child-like faith. The sad thing about growing up is experiencing people letting you down and realizing that things don’t always work out as you hoped or were promised. A level of cynicism creeps in and we start to doubt a little. We say things like “I believe… but.” Or we say we believe and trust but we are not shocked when it doesn’t happen.

Jesus is calling his disciples and us to have a faith that is sure and confident. A faith that leaves no room for doubt. A faith that hears the Word of God and is absolutely sure it is true. This is a faith that can carry us through the tough times of life. This is a faith that can withstand the storms of life. This is a faith that looks upon God as our good Father who is working all things for our sanctification and good. This is a faith that trusts.

So let’s practice a child-like faith. We can start easy by simply reading God’s Word and having the same conviction my daughter has when her teacher tells her something. This is true and I believe it.



Why Your Students Need a Reading Plan

To be totally honest, I didn’t start reading the Bible on a consistent basis until I was in college, I didn’t read much of anything until I was in college. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the Bible or think it wasn’t important, I just didn’t know where to start. The Bible is a big book with 66 books within it, where would I begin and why would I begin there? It took getting a reading plan before my daily Bible reading took off. It gave me a rhyme and reason to the daily grind of jumping into God’s word. Sure, some days I didn’t feel like it, but I had a passage to check off, a place I was going, the hope I would soon finish Leviticus! I had a guide taking me through the Bible one day at a time, and the fact is your students need one too.

Of course, there is the main reason of having a reading plan, spending time with the Lord, it is the best way to nurture a relationship with Him, and to grow in Christ-likeness and seek God’s will for our lives. However, I want to offer some practical benefits a reading plan can give students that will hopefully carry on into their adult lives.

Biblical Literacy

I don’t know about you, but in teaching every week I usually found myself giving 10+ minutes to the explanation of overall general biblical ideas. Everything from who Noah was to why Israel is such a big deal in the Bible. This is not because I want to study more and impress all my students with my vast biblical knowledge, it is because I cannot assume most of them know what I am talking about. I have found that most students are simply biblically illiterate, and so are many members of our churches.

You cannot just jump right into Jonah and expect students to know that Tarshish is the opposite direction of Nineveh, or why he didn’t want to go there in the first place. In many cases, most students don’t have any context of a passage and how it relates to the overall story of the Bible. Therefore, having a reading plan can help a student understand the story of the Bible. Reading through the Bible gives them a context to fit passages in, and helps them locate what part of the overall story they fit into. Two great plans for this is the Bible in one year plan for ambitious students and the Bible in three-years plan, reading one chapter a day for students who are maybe just starting out.

Vocabulary

Justification, sanctification, propitiation, and redemption are all amazing words packed full of books and books of theological truth. They are words that describe the depths of the gospel and the foundation of our faith. However, many of our students have no idea what these words mean. They don’t know that sanctification is the process of becoming more Christ-like, or that Christ is our substitute, our propitiation. Having a reading plan will put these words in their view and cause them to seek out their meaning by looking it up themselves or coming to ask you. Having a reading plan allows students to become more familiar with the vocabulary of the Bible that is used in church services, conferences, and a plethora of Christian books. A great reading plan for this is the one year plan through the new testament. This can help them get more acquainted with the theological vocabulary used to describe the gospel and possibly allow them to see aspects of the gospel they haven’t seen before.

Habit

We’ve all been there. It’s time for you to spend time in the word and prayer, your quiet time, or whatever you like to call it. But there are 100 things on your mind that need to be done. So you make a list, send that email, or make that phone call. It will only take a second right? Then you realize 30 minutes later your time is gone.

Our students do the same thing. They have the best intensions. They are going to read right before bed, then the Xbox calls their name or they had practice that evening and are whipped out. There goes their good intentions. Having a Bible reading plan helps make the practice of spending time with the Lord a habit, just like brushing your teeth, eating a meal, or having a date night with your spouse. Planning the time with the Lord already gives you a place to go in the word and leaves you looking forward to what will be read tomorrow. Having a plan to spend time in the Word can lead to a healthy habit of Bible intake that can carry on into adulthood.

So as January kicks off the year of 2023, be sure to have some reading plans available for your students. Create an atmosphere of expectant Bible reading, check up on those students who take a plan and ask where they are. Share what the Lord is teaching you through your reading plan and it can act as an everyday guide taking students to the scriptures and into a deeper walk with the Father.



Keeping the Faith: Spurgeon and the Downgrade Controversy

As Christians, we are called to share our faith, but we are also called to keep it. Like the Apostle Paul, every believer should aspire to the epitaph, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith.”

Perhaps no one in Baptist history better kept the faith than the illustrious Charles Spurgeon—especially as seen through the prism of the Downgrade Controversy.

The year was 1887, and Spurgeon was in the winter of life. For more than three decades, he had enjoyed singular status as the world’s most well-known preacher, but just over the horizon, storm clouds gathered.

The Downgrade Controversy began slowly at first, with three anonymous letters appearing in the March, April, and June (1887) editions of the Sword & Trowel. The three letters (later revealed to be authored by Spurgeon’s friend, Robert Shindler) warned of doctrinal slippage on a downhill slope, thus, a downgrade.

While the anonymous letters drew interest, the controversy did not explode until a few months later when Spurgeon directly entered the fray. In the August 1887 issue of the Sword & Trowel, Spurgeon threw down the gauntlet in his six-page editorial entitled, “Another Word on the Downgrade.”

At that time, Spurgeon was less than five years from his death. He was near the height of his popularity both in the Baptist Union and globally, but near the depth of his personal anguish.  Physical ailments like failing kidneys and chronic gout wracked his body, and depression plagued his soul. Simply put, he did not need, nor was he much poised for, the conflict he was about to enter. Withdrawing the largest Baptist church in England from the Union would have dire consequences.

Nevertheless, Spurgeon entered his Westwood study, fountain pen in hand, and proceeded to join the battle himself by drafting for publication the six-page article.

I own the original six-page manuscript Spurgeon wrote that day in 1887. It is fascinating to review his words, penned in his hand, with his markings, alterations, and emphases. It radiates the spirit of Paul and the urgency of keeping the faith.  The first paragraph especially has taken on immortality:

No lover of the gospel can conceal from himself the fact that the days are evil. We are willing to make a large discount from our apprehensions on the score of natural timidity, the caution of age, and the weakness produced by pain; but yet our solemn conviction is that things are much worse in many churches than they seem to be, and are rapidly tending downward. Read those newspapers which represent the Broad School of Dissent, and ask yourself, How much farther could they go? What doctrine remains to be abandoned? What other truth to be the object of contempt? A new religion has been initiated, which is no more Christianity than chalk is cheese; and this religion, being destitute of moral honesty, palms itself off as the old faith with slight improvements, and on this plea usurps pulpits which were erected for gospel preaching. The Atonement is scouted, the inspiration of Scripture is derided, the Holy Spirit is degraded into an influence, the punishment of sin is turned into fiction, and the resurrection into a myth, and yet these enemies of our faith expect us to call them brethren, and maintain a confederacy with them!

Spurgeon goes on:

The case is mournful. Certain ministers are making infidels. Avowed atheists are not a tenth as dangerous as those preachers who scatter doubt and stab at faith… Germany was made unbelieving by her preachers, and England is following in her tracks.

Most prophetically, Spurgeon argued true believers cannot be ministry affiliates with those who have compromised the faith. His words portended the schism to come. Spurgeon was a lone voice, but he was the loudest and most revered voice of all, calling for doctrinal fidelity over programmatic confederation.

Spurgeon’s “Another Word on the Downgrade” landed like a bombshell. It sent shockwaves throughout the Baptist Union and British Evangelicalism. It reverberated throughout the Protestant world.

For decades the press had attacked Spurgeon, but now he would be savaged by his own Baptist Union. Prior to the Downgrade Controversy, if the Baptist Union had a papacy, Spurgeon would have been its unquestioned pope. But now, his erstwhile brethren brutalized him. They charged him with pugilism, and being a schismatic. They even questioned his sanity with a whisper campaign that his physical maladies had made him mad. Graduates of Spurgeon’s College turned on him, and the leaders of the Baptist Union pilloried him.

Over the next two months, Spurgeon penned two more articles on the Downgrade in the Sword & Trowel. Then, on Oct. 28, 1887, Spurgeon wrote the General Secretary of the Baptist Union, Samuel Harris Booth, to announce his withdrawal from the Baptist Union.

Three months later, in January 1888, the Baptist Union Council voted to accept his withdrawal, and then, the Council of nearly 100 members voted to censure Spurgeon, with only a meager five men supporting the Prince of Preachers.

The Baptist Union adopted a compromise doctrinal statement, which was altogether too weak, neither clear nor comprehensive enough. Though outside the Union, Spurgeon opposed the statement for its obvious deficiencies. Nonetheless, it passed overwhelmingly, by a vote of 2000–7, and can appropriately be interpreted as a second vote against Spurgeon. Most tragically, Spurgeon’s brother, James, seconded the motion to pass the compromise doctrinal statement.

Spurgeon, the “Lion in Winter,” was prophetic, if not popular. He said, “I am quite willing to be eaten of dogs for the next fifty years, but the more distant future shall vindicate me.”

Indeed, Spurgeon has been vindicated. The British Baptist Union is a shadow of its former self. Moreover, Spurgeon’s Downgrade foreshadowed the Fundamentalist/Modernist Controversy of the 1920s and the great SBC Controversy at the end of the 20th century. Doctrinal decay always brings dire consequences.

The controversy cost Spurgeon dearly. It cost him his friendships. It cost him his reputation. Even his own brother disowned his decision. Yet, for Spurgeon, to remain within the Union would be tantamount to theological treason.

Less than five years later, Spurgeon would die. Against his previously stated wishes, his supporters erected a massive burial tomb in the Norwood Cemetery. Ensconced on the front of it, beneath the marble replica of his likeness, is a marble Bible, open to 2 Timothy 4:7 –  “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith.”

Indeed, Spurgeon kept the faith, and his accomplishment must be our aspiration—to keep the faith even when confronted with our own Downgrade Controversies.

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared at JasonKAllen.com.



Worship: The Completion of Our Affection

C.S. Lewis is one of my favorite authors. One of the most impactful things he has written in regards to worship isn’t about the subject of worship in particular, but it definitely helps my heart to feel and my mind to know what is true. He says this in “Reflections on the Psalms” :

    “I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed. It is frustrating to have discovered a new author and not to be able to tell anyone how good he is; to come suddenly, at the turn of the road, upon some mountain valley of unexpected grandeur and then to have to keep silent because the people with you care for it no more than for a tin can in the ditch; to hear a good joke and find no one to share it with. . . . The Scotch catechism says that man’s chief end is ‘to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.’ But we shall then know that these are the same thing. Fully to enjoy is to glorify. In commanding us to glorify Him, God is inviting us to enjoy Him.”

Lewis helps crystallize in this short paragraph what I feel immensely when I am leading worship. It’s what I want my church to understand. It’s what I aim for as I am leading. Lewis helps us understand that our affection and our delight is incomplete until it is expressed. Imagine if you never told, showed, or acted upon your affection for your spouse. They would feel dejected, unloved, and unimportant. If we have affections… we act on them. This is true in all of life as we worship and in the corporate gatherings as we sing, feast on the Word, and partake of communion together. If we have affections for the Lord and His gospel, then we will worship Him with all of our lives as we obey His commandments, serve Him in gospel ministry, and join Him on mission. Our affections will be completed as we act upon them.

This is also true when we gather as the church to worship Him corporately. Our affections well up within our souls and we complete the delight by expressing our worship with hands lifted, songs raised, as well as hearts and minds reveling in the glory of our Savior together. I truly believe we are missing out when we stand with arms crossed, sipping coffee, and half-way singing out. Our affections are either dim in our hearts, or we are missing out on completing the cycle by expressing them to the Lord. We don’t do this because the worship leader is singing our favorite song or because all of our preference boxes are being checked. We complete our affection by acting on them because God is worthy… so, so very worthy.

If there are two things I want you to take away from this very short treatise on affections and worship, it is this:

  1. As a worship leader: a major part of our job is to stir people’s affections towards Christ. No, you cannot make them worship… that isn’t your job… but you can (over and over) point people’s affections to the Son of God who came, died, and rose again. Then you can encourage them to complete that affection by expressing their delight in Christ alone. They are missing out if the affection stays hidden in the depths of their heart.
  2. As a worshiper: what if this Sunday you made the worship leader’s job easy? What if you came with your affections having been freshly stirred by your own heart prep in the Word of God, on your knees in prayer, and in just daily delighting in the God of the Bible? What if your affections were bursting in your heart… ready to be completed in their being acted upon through engagement in song, prayer, and the Word? Let your affections lead you to smiling, lifting your hands in victory or surrender, singing with all you have, and delighting in the beauty of your Savior.

There is nothing better than on a Sunday morning standing next to brothers and sisters in Christ and (metaphorically) “to come suddenly, at the turn of the road, upon some mountain valley of unexpected grandeur”. And instead of having no one to share in the beauty of the Savior with,… to look around with delight in your heart and point to the glory of Jesus in song with others and say, “look at how great He is!” May we find this to be more and more true in our lives: “… we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment.”



A Plea for Sound Doctrine

If you could write a letter to someone before you died, what would you say? Many of us would write to our spouses, children, or close friends to remind them how much we love them. Or perhaps some of us would write to that person who we had withheld forgiveness from for so long to try to make amends before our passing. Death has a way of shedding off the insignificant matters of life and highlighting what is most important.

This perspective from death is seen in the life of the Apostle Paul. Thirty years prior to his death, he had an experience that changed his life forever: He met the Risen Lord Jesus (see Acts 9:1-22, 22:3-16, 26:9-18). This encounter opened his eyes, literally and figuratively, and he finally understood the truth of God’s Word revealed and fulfilled in the gospel of Jesus Christ. He understood that God had made a way of salvation for all peoples through faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

What good news!

With this good news, Paul spent his life traveling the world to tell as many people as he could of the salvation that is found only in Jesus Christ. He founded many churches. He led many to faith in Jesus. He spoke before the political, religious, and philosophical elites of his day, and he spoke to the down-and-out everyday people. Paul accomplished much for Christ, and His life is an excellent model of faithful living and witness for Jesus.

Yet, like all men, Paul soon found himself face to face with death. Near the end of his life, Paul decided to write letters to two of his dear disciples (Timothy and Titus) to encourage them as he prepared to depart from this world. Remember the question: What would you say? Notice Paul’s main themes in some of his final letters: 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus:

1 Timothy 4:6: “In pointing out these things to the brethren, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, constantly nourished on the words of faith and of the sound doctrine which you have been following.”

1 Timothy 4:16: “Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching…”

1 Timothy 6:3: “If anyone advocates a different doctrine and does not agree with sound words, those of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the doctrine conforming to godliness, he is conceited and understands nothing…”

2 Timothy 1:13: “Retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me…”

2 Timothy 2:2: “The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many faithful witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.”

2 Timothy 3:14-17: “You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.”

2 Timothy 4:2: “Preach the word…”

Titus 1:9: “An elder must be…able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict it.”

Titus 1:13: “For this reason reprove them severely so that they may be sound in the faith.”

Titus 2:1: “But as for you, speak the things which are fitting for sound doctrine.”

Titus 2:7: “…in all things show yourself to be an example of good deeds, with purity in doctrine…”

Do you see the recurring thought throughout these letters? Sound teaching. Sound faith. Sound doctrine. Of course, this list is not exhaustive what Paul says on this topic in these letters, but the point is clear: Paul, more than anything else, wanted ministers to be faithful to the word of God amid a world that would be unaccepting of it. Sound doctrine was the primary focus of his last words. More than anything else, our churches need to heed this plea today, and the responsibility lies with the ministers. 

At this point, two reminders are helpful as we reflect on Paul’s plea for sound doctrine from the pastorals.

First, as ministers, we teach sound doctrine because that is God’s will for our ministry. We often fail to grasp the fact that refusal to do so is disobedience to God. God has given the church His word so they may know Him, and ministers who shy away from the word for a more attractive method of ministry deprive their people of God.

Second, although a commitment to sound doctrine may be difficult and discouraging when so many are unwillingly to hear, we must remember that there are those who will hear, and it is what they need most. I am only a young man in ministry with much to learn on how to be faithful to Paul’s plea, but that should be an encouragement. I am representative of many young men and women in the church who truly hunger for deep truths. Who long to know God deeply.

With these two exhortations in mind, may we hear the plea for sound doctrine, and press onward to answer the call!



5 Books Every Student Should Read Before Graduating High School

When I was in high school a pastor put Don’t Waste Your Life by John Piper in my hands and it changed my life. It helped reorient my worldview around a sovereign God who called me to spend my life for the things that mattered. That book was a cheap, but enormous investment in my future spiritual life.

As a student pastor I often have parents or mentors ask me what books they should be putting in front of their high-schoolers to help equip them to both grow in their faith and learn to defend it. There are no shortage of books marketed at teenage Christians, but not very many of them are helpful—where some are downright harmful. Over time, these 5 books have become mainstays that I recommend and hope they will for you too!

What is the Gospel by Greg Gilbert

It’s hard for students to get anywhere spiritually if they’re unclear on the Gospel. This small, accessible book is a great entry point to understanding the Gospel. The Gospel is the best news in the world, and this book will help your student understand how to define it.

This Changes Everything: How the Gospel Transforms the Teen Years by Jaquelle Crow

If What is the Gospel defines the gospel for your teen, This Changes Everything will give them an on the ground look at how the gospel changes their life. Written by a teenager for teenagers, it gives a unique and biblically rigorous look at gospel living for highschoolers that I haven’t seen repeated anywhere else.

The Jesus I Wish I Knew in Highschool by Cameron Cole and Charlotte Getz

Teenagers live in a complicated world full of failure, loneliness, anxiety, sin, shame, and more. The Jesus I Wish I Knew in High-School is a one of a kind book that covers everything from rejection and shame to disability and tragedy. It is written by adults who are chronicling how a better understanding of the gospel would have transformed their teen years. This is a new book that is becoming essential reading for my students and leaders.

10 Questions Every Teenager Should Ask and Answer about Christianity

Challenges to the Christian faith have shifted quite a bit over the last 20 to 30 years. Objections have shifted from being primarily scientific to primarily ethical. This leaves a lot of older apologetic resources answering questions no one is asking. The same cannot be said for this book. McLaughlin answers 10 broad questions that every student will be confronted with in this day and age. Written for high-schoolers, it is an accessible resource from them.

Don’t Waste Your Life by Piper

This book was influential for me and it is as relevant today as ever! The American dream still beckons to many of our students. Worldly success at the expense of joy in Christ is a temptation in every culture for every age. Don’t Waste Your Life is a classic work that helps students see the emptiness of mere success, health, and wealth—calling them instead to a life of joyful sacrifice for the sake of the Gospel. Don’t let your student waste their life on success. Help them spend it for joy!

Teenagers today face a host a unique challenges that necessitate unique answers. Books like these manage to confront the specific challenges present with this generation of high-schoolers without compromising the Gospel. They are also readable, applicable, and easy-to-use in a discipling relationship. Getting the right book in a teenagers hand at the right time just might change their life—I know it did mine.



The Other Gospels of Our Day

He cuts straight to the point because the issue is that serious. In most of Paul’s letters, he spends some time praying for and blessing the church he is writing. But in Galatians, he says “hello” and gets right to it.

“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel…” (Galatians 1:6)

Paul had spent time in Galatia preaching the true and only Gospel to them: Christ died for their sins and rose again so that all who repent and believe can be made right with God and have forever fellowship with Him. And false teachers had crept in, telling the people they also have to be circumcised. Paul calls this a different gospel and a curse (Galatians 1:9).

I don’t know many churches today teaching salvation by circumcision. But we must be on guard against other gospels in our day. What would they be? Perhaps we can narrow them to six.

The Fire-Insurance Gospel

This is the gospel where all that is emphasized is that you make a one-time decision. You walk down the aisle and pray the prayer and you are set to go. You won’t go to hell when you die, no matter what. You “accepted Jesus into your heart” (a phrase that never appears in Scripture).

When this gospel is believed, you get people who pray a prayer at seven at VBS or at twenty-six when an emotional preacher at a revival moved them. And then church memberships have hundreds of people on it five decades later that nobody can identify. But you also have hundreds of people who believe they are going to heaven because they prayed a prayer once, but who are out living unrepentant lives, thinking nothing of God.

The Moral Gospel

This is the opposite of the Fire-Insurance Gospel. This is the gospel where the main point is that you are a good person. Jesus came to give you an example to follow, so you just have to try your best to be an example to others. 

In this gospel, you’re never allowed to struggle again. If you ever slip into sin, you know there will be somebody who condemns you as a hypocrite and says you are the reason they don’t go to church.

This gospel is not about the goodness of God. It’s about your goodness and you can’t be a perfectly good person (Romans 3:10-12). It robs God of His glory and it exhausts you because you can never measure up.

The Social Gospel

This gospel makes our standing with God based on how much we are working to make society better. It’s usually masked behind the idea that we are to love others. God is love, so Christians will be loving others by helping the poor and feeding the hungry. Or fighting against racial injustice. Or serving the pro-life movement. Or political involvement. Or building wells in Haiti. You fill in the blank.

This gospel takes the effect and makes it the cause. The gospel of Jesus Christ moves us to serve the least of these and work for righteousness and justice in society. But that’s not the gospel itself. It’s a result of the gospel.

The Prosperity Gospel

This gospel is dramatically seen in the “health and wealth” movement where God’s will is that you will never be poor or sick and that if you are, you don’t have enough faith. Most Christians know that is silly.

My preaching professor at Southern Seminary, Dr. David Prince, used to say, “Most of us hold to at least a Wal-Mart prosperity gospel.” We don’t necessarily believe we will become millionaires as Christians. But we tend to believe if we follow God faithfully, He will keep us from any hardship or suffering. Things will go pretty well for us. 

But we know that’s not true. Our Savior suffered and so will we. We will one day have a glorious life of no sickness and pain in the New Heavens and the New Earth. But not yet. In this world, we will have tribulation. Our hope is in the One who has overcome the world (John 16:33).

The Sentimental Gospel

“We’ve always done it that way.”

If I did what I had always done, I’d still be dead in my sins. This gospel says that faithful Christianity is doing it the way our traditions say. Any deviation is heresy. 

There is a difference in truth and practices the Bible prescribes and the traditions of man. We hold to those Biblical prescriptions, but we recognize traditions of man are going to change every generation and across every culture.

This gospel makes righteousness before God no longer based on repentance and faith but on whether you wear a necktie to church or sing the right music. 

The Inclusive Gospel

This one has become pretty rampant in the last ten years. It applies wrongly the fact that Jesus welcomed tax collectors and prostitutes. It says the point of the gospel is to welcome sinful people and not judge them. It says we must accept people exactly as they are and never challenge them to change. 

But that’s not what Jesus did. Jesus welcomed sinners and those sinners always left changed. Zacchaeus agreed to repay everyone he had defrauded. The woman at the well found the thirst she had been searching for in men. Jesus welcomed sinners and lovingly called them to repent and we must do the same.

——

Notice that none of these other gospels are flat-out rejections of Christ. They actually take an aspect of the true gospel and make it the only thing that is important. That’s why it’s so easy to be deceived by them.

There is no other Gospel (Galatians 1:7). There are only those who want to trouble you and make you accursed by believing a message inferior to the good news of Jesus Christ. Don’t believe them.



Serving Jesus: Our Effort or His?

I have often struggled understanding what I should leave up to God’s sovereignty and what is my responsibility. 

Some people emphasize God’s sovereignty in salvation almost to the exclusion of human responsibility. For example, when William Carey planned to go to India as a missionary, he was told by one minister, “Young man, sit down. When God pleases to convert the heathen, He will do it without your aid or mine.” I disagree. That does not square with my understanding of the Great Commission, nor did it square with Carey’s understanding of God’s sovereignty.

Other people take human responsibility to the extreme. Rick Warren once said, “It is my deep conviction that anybody can be won to Christ if you discover the key to his or her heart.” Really? I don’t even understand the keys to my own heart, let alone others’ hearts. This sentiment places far too much emphasis on human ability to manipulate and persuade.

When it comes to sanctification, or growing in our salvation, some teach a very passive approach. Let go and let God, they say. Proponents of the “Higher Life” movement have argued that to actively strive against sin is to operate in the flesh. Conversely, others stress high standards of spiritual discipline to the Holy Spirit’s work, so that people end up trying to live the Christian life in their own strength. For instance, the Institute for Basic Youth Conflicts boasts of its “non-optional principles of life which, when followed, will result in harmonious relationships in all areas of life.”

It seems I’m not the only one who struggles to reconcile God’s sovereignty and human responsibility.

Where is the biblical balance? Or, more to the point: do I need to get busy working on becoming Christlike, or should I simply pray and ask God to do the work in my heart?

Consider Paul’s words in Philippians 2:12-13. I’m indebted to Steven Cole in his handling of this critical text.

12 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12-13 ESV)

Previously, Paul had exhorted his readers to live in a manner “worthy of the gospel of Christ” (1:27). This gospel-worthy life is itself a picture of a life that is at work serving Christ and trusting in God’s sovereignty. It is not passive but active, because of its deep rootedness in relationship with Jesus Christ. Let’s see how Paul describes this lifestyle in Philippians 2:12-16.

Verse 12: Our Human Responsibility

Paul begins with a call to obedience: “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence…” (v. 12a).

Paul begins by commending the Philippians for their obedience. He has been discipling them, mentoring them and teaching them how to follow Christ, and he is pleased with their progress.

But what if Paul never returns? That is a real possibility, given Paul’s legal predicaments. So he calls them to obey his teaching regardless of his presence.

Paul is looking for unprompted obedience. I once developed a program at our Christian school with the goal of producing in students what we called “unprompted service.” The goal wasn’t just for students to serve but to develop the habit of serving—of being a person who student who sees needs around them and simply serves, unprompted by a leader. 

This is similar to what Paul was looking for. He wanted his Philippian disciples to follow Christ while he was watching and when he wasn’t. He wanted their obedience to Christ to be free from Paul’s prompting.

Paul’s second call was to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (v. 12b).

The day we put our faith in Christ, we obliged ourselves to obey him too. By embracing Jesus Christ as my Savior and Lord, I removed every other god off the throne of my heart and welcomed him to assume the throne of my life. Since then, I have been working out the implications of that decision in my life.

Working out our salvation does not mean we are working for our salvation. No one can receive eternal life by working for it. Rather, as Cole helpfully points out, the only people going to heaven are those who have recognized that they were lost and called out to God to save them through the blood of his Son Jesus. Yet once we receive Christ, we enter the process of sanctification, whereby believers begin adopting and demonstrating their new life in Christ.

In fact, the ultimate aim of evangelism is not simply to avoid hell but to obey everything Jesus has commanded us: “Go, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who died for his stand against Nazism, said, “Only the believer is obedient and only those who are obedient believe” (Stephen R. Haynes and Lori Brandt Hale, Bonhoeffer for Armchair Theologians, 1st edition., Armchair Theologians Series [Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009], 44).

Paul expects his readers to understand that while we are not saved by our works, we are saved for good works (cf. Ephesians 2:10).

“Working out our salvation,” then, means living out the faith we have in Christ. It is virtually the same thing as letting our manner of life be worthy of the gospel” (Philippians 1:27)—a life-long process.

Make no mistake about what Paul desires. He wants real change in the lives of the Philippian believers and he is calling them to obey and work hard to make those changes. This is our human effort side…But wait, look at verse 13.

Verse 13: God’s Side of the Equation

“[F]or it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (v. 13).

Paul just told us to obey and work hard. Now he defines the way in which that obedience and hard work happens. And the ability to obey and work out our salvation is supplied by God himself!

It is God himself that produces both our desire (or will) to live righteously and our ability to work for God’s good pleasure. This is all of grace. 

Sometimes I catch myself thinking, I know that my salvation is from God, but now it’s up to me to do the hard work of living for Jesus. But the Dutch Reformed minister Andrew Murray (1828-1917) had this to say: “No, wandering one, as it was Jesus who drew thee when he spoke ‘Come,’ so it is Jesus who keeps thee when He says, ‘Abide.’ The grace to come and the grace to abide are alike from him alone.”

In other words, the same grace that God supplies for us to come to him in faith is the same grace that transforms believers and enables them to live obediently and righteously.

Paul described his own conversion this way. He went from being a church destroyer to a church planter because of grace (Galatians 1:13-15). So too, Paul calls the Philippians to obedience and good works empowered by God’s grace and not merely their own efforts.

Thus, we return to our initial question: Do I need to get busy working on becoming Christ-like, or should I pray and ask God to do a work in my heart?

The biblical answer is: yes.



Unraveling the Riddle of Rejoicing Always

Some Bible verses lend themselves quite well to becoming a tweet, a “life verse,” or the inside of a greeting card. But when we read the Bible looking for catchphrases and mottos, we risk mangling the meaning of the Bible and invariably miss out on important truths. Two verses in particular have become slogans for inspirational posters or t-shirts: “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice” (Philippians 4:4), and “In everything give thanks for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). Well-meaning people drop these verses on folks in the midst of a crisis, pressuring them to put on a happy face, and burdening them with guilt if they are sad.

Growing up in church, I often heard these verses, and quite often they left me scratching my head. How am I supposed to rejoice always or in everything give thanks? I heard a few preachers along the way try to explain that the preposition solves the riddle. They said we don’t have to give thanks for everything, but in everything. Their explanations left my confusion completely intact. How can I possibly rejoice when my sister is diagnosed with cancer? How can I give thanks when bad things happen? Of course, I’m not thankful for these things, but how can I even give thanks in them? My efforts to muster enough positivity to overcome the negative things I saw and experienced seemed forced and phony.

Several years ago, while meditating on Philippians 4:4, the Lord helped me glimpse why it makes sense to always rejoice—even in hard times—and how it is possible to give thanks in everything. The key is not just the preposition “in,” but the phrase “in Christ.” Nowhere does Paul instruct his readers to rejoice or give thanks in a vacuum, but always in Christ. The key to joy is our union with Christ. In Philippians 4:4, Paul uses the phrase in the Lord and in 1 Thessalonians 5:18, he uses the phrase in Christ Jesus. 

Union with Christ is a major New Testament refrain. Paul uses phrases like “in Christ” or “in the Lord” about 150 times. We cannot unite ourselves to Christ; it comes as a gift through the gospel. The gospel is the only way to experience union with Christ. United to Christ, His joy becomes my joy, and His joy is infinite. Apart from the gospel, joy is more ephemeral than a soap bubble, a mere pretense, an illusion, a vapor.

Without Christ, there is no reason to believe that things will get better. Without Christ, there’s no reason to hope. Without Christ, this world is the best I’ll ever get, and when I die, I face hell. Life is literally a tragedy. 

Because of Christ, I have an entirely different perspective on suffering. With Christ, this world is the closest to hell that I’ll ever be. If I’m in Christ, no matter how bad the situation I’m facing, it isn’t the end of the story. I grieve, but not as those who have no hope. In strict literary terms, life is a comedy, which means the story has a happy ending.

The joy of the Lord has the astonishing characteristic of being compatible with other emotions. Deep joy can co-exist alongside profound sorrow. I don’t need to suppress my pain or sugarcoat my grief. I can weep and lament while simultaneously clinging to the hope-giving promises of God. Because I am united to the One who overcame death, to use Tolkien’s phrase, “Everything sad [is] going to come untrue.”

Union with Christ means the good things I experience now are a foretaste of eternity with Him, and the bad things I endure are temporary. That’s a good reason to rejoice.



After the Manger

Christmas is over. The presents were unwrapped, the food was eaten, and the stockings may or may not still be hung. The lights have a leftover glimmer on the trees and houses, and in a few days we might un-deck the halls, then wake up to a new year.

We celebrated Christ born in Bethlehem. Now, life must go on, and so did his.

After the Manger

He “increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man,” Luke tells us (Luke 2:52). Readers blink and the gospels transform the infant Savior into the prophet, teacher, miracle-worker, and sacrifice promised for centuries (Matthew 1:21). Luke, however, uniquely different than all the other gospel writers, includes one more chapter in Jesus’ life between the manger and his ministry: his childhood.

Christ the Boy

Jesus was once the baby we sing about in our Christmas carols and see in our nativity scenes, but he was also a child. He learned to walk, talk, read, write, and take care of his household just like any other Galilean boy would have.

In Luke 2:41-52, we find the 12-year-old Jesus making the trek to Jerusalem with his parents, just as they did every year at the Passover. Imagine the Son of God hiking the dusty roads with his people to celebrate a deliverance that would pale in comparison to the one he came to accomplish (Exodus 12:1-28). This deliverance would not come from a runaway prince, ten plagues, parted Red Seas, and dead lambs, but from God in flesh to redeem all flesh for himself. His triumph would not merely be over human kingdoms but heavenly ones, disbanding sin and death, not merely Pharoah’s armies. And yet he, in the form of a 12-year-old boy, made his way with the rest of the Jews to the Passover. The deliverer walked with those needing deliverance.

After the Passover, Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem (unbeknownst to his parents) to listen to the teachers there and ask them questions (Luke 2:46). Why would the omniscient ask questions? Didn’t he know everything? They asked him questions, too, and “were amazed at his understanding” (Luke 2:47). He did not hide his awareness that he was the Son of God, and yet he still took the form of a pupil.[1]

Imagine his temple conversations interrupted by Mary and Joseph’s gasps. After days of looking for him, they finally found their son, though he made it clear that he was not merely their son. The temple was his “Father’s house,” yet it was not beneath him to return his earthly parents’ home and obey them (Luke 3:49, 51).

Lowly Lord Jesus

The boy Jesus, while maintaining his divinity, showed unexpected lowliness—at least, unexpected to us and our own egos.

How often do we truly stoop to the level of the needy and broken for their good, instead of praise for our own charity? When do we look like Jesus walking to Jerusalem, looking like those in need of deliverance and remembering God’s faithfulness?

When do we choose to be humble, listen to others, and be curious with them and about their thoughts, even when we could know as much as they do, or more? The lowliness of Jesus’ posture in the temple is lower than we will ever stoop. Athanasius, in his work On the Incarnation, wrote on the lesson of Christ’s human form: “For as a good teacher who cares for his students always condescends to teach by simpler means those who are not able to benefit from more advanced things, so also does the Word of God,” who is Christ.[2] Christ himself as a 12-year-old boy was the lesson the teachers needed to learn—their long awaited Savior had come for them! And yet, Jesus did not boast about his known divinity. In humility, he listened and asked them questions, as if his greatness was not “a thing to be grasped” (Philippians 2:6). What freedom to listen and ask about the truth without ourselves and our greatness getting in the way.

Do we gladly and willingly submit to our God-given dependencies, like to parents or employers or our basic human needs for rest or work? It was not beneath Jesus to follow Mary and Joseph back to Nazareth. He did not resist the care of his parents, even though he would take care of their eternity on the cross, and neither did he discard their authority over his human wellbeing.

Children of God

In this week that bookends Christmas and the new year, I hope you remember that Christ was not only the baby born for you and the man who died for you, but a boy who lived for you. Our childlikeness, humility, and dependency on God is mirrored in him.

I don’t know what this year has been like for you or what the next year holds, but I do know God did not make us into an image of either helplessness or self-dependency, but the loving care of the Father. He will take care of you this coming year and always, because you are his.

“See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.” (1 John 3:1)

[1] R.H. Stein, Luke, New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992), 120.

[2] Saint Ignatius the Great of Alexandria, On the Incarnation, Translated by John Behr (Yonkers, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011), 65.