On Conversion as Our Aim

The grand object of the Christian ministry is the glory of God. Whether souls are converted or not, if Jesus Christ be faithfully preached, the minister has not labored in vain, for he is a sweet savor unto God as well in them that perish as in them that are saved. Yet, as a rule, God has sent us to preach in order that through the gospel of Jesus Christ the sons of men may be reconciled to him. Here and there a preacher of righteousness, like Noah, may labor on and bring none beyond his own family circle into the ark of salvation and another, like Jeremiah, may weep in vain over an impenitent nation; but, for the most part, the work of preaching is intended to save the hearers. It is ours to sow even in stony places, where no fruit rewards our toil; but still we are bound to look for a harvest and mourn if it does not appear in due time.

The glory of God being our chief object, we aim at it by seeking the edification of saints and the salvation of sinners. It is a noble work to instruct the people of God and to build them up in their most holy faith: we may by no means neglect this duty. To this end we must give clear statements of gospel doctrine, of vital experience, and of Christian duty, and never shrink from declaring the whole counsel of God. In too many cases sublime truths are held in abeyance under the pretense that they are not practical, whereas the very fact that they are revealed proves that the Lord thinks them to be of value, and woe unto us if we pretend to be wiser than he. We may say of any and every doctrine of Scripture: “To give it then a tongue is wise in man.”

If any one note is dropped from the divine harmony of truth, the music may be sadly marred. Your people may fall into grave spiritual diseases through the lack of a certain form of spiritual nutriment that can only be supplied by the doctrines you withhold. In the food that we eat there are ingredients that do not at first appear to be necessary to life, but experience shows that they are requisite to health and strength. Phosphorus will not make flesh, but it is wanted for bone; many earths and salts come under the same description—they are necessary in due proportion to the human economy. Even thus certain truths that appear to be little adapted for spiritual nutriment are, nevertheless, very beneficial in furnishing believers with backbone and muscle and in repairing the varied organs of Christian manhood. We must preach “the whole truth,” that the man of God may be thoroughly furnished unto all good works.

Our great object of glorifying God is, however, to be mainly achieved by the winning of souls. We must see souls born unto God. If we do not, our cry should be that of Rachel “Give me children, or I die.” If we do not win souls, we should mourn as the husbandman who sees no harvest, as the fisherman who returns to his cottage with an empty net, or as the huntsman who has in vain roamed over hill and dale. Ours should be Isaiah’s language uttered with many a sigh and groan “Who has believed our report? And to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed?” The ambassadors of peace should not cease to weep bitterly until sinners weep for their sins.


Excerpted with permission from Lectures to My Students, Deluxe Edition by Charles H. Spurgeon, introduction and edited by Jason K. Allen. Copyright 2023, B&H Publishing.

Jonah’s Audience Unlocks Our Preaching

I don’t remember a lot from Sunday School as a kid, but one picture that remains clear in my mind was coloring the picture of Jonah in the belly of the fish. That picture, which so beautifully engages imaginations young and old, makes the Book of Jonah exciting and difficult to preach.

With a familiar story like Jonah, I have had to fight the temptation to skip exegetical work because I think I know what is going on already. This familiarity makes preaching the first two chapters easy but the last two quite puzzling. In case you need a reminder in the first two chapters, Jonah heads the opposite way on a boat from the mission that God gave him. God sends a storm and the sailors, after trying everything else, listen to Jonah and throw him overboard. God appoints a fish to swallow Jonah. In the depths of the sea, Jonah cries out to God and the fish spits him onto shore. In chapters 3 and 4, Jonah goes to Nineveh. After a rather short sermon, the city repents and God does not destroy them. The story concludes with an angry prophet outside of the city who does not understand God’s mercy. It ends with a final question from God to Jonah: will the prophet begrudge God’s grace? The preacher is left with a different question. What do you do with an ending like that? The whole book becomes clearer when we consider the audience to whom the book of Jonah was written.

Jonah’s Audience

This is the spot where familiarity can really hinder clarity. We know the story, so we don’t take the time to dive into the context. Think about it. Jonah was written at a particular time for a particular people. That’s true of every book. Jonah was not written to the prophet; he is the main character! Jonah was also not written to the Ninevites. If it were for the Ninevites, then it would not have ended up in the Hebrew Scriptures. Jonah was originally intended for the people of Israel. It was for the Northern Kingdom who saw a great enemy named Assyria casting a shadow over their land whose capitol was Nineveh. Understanding the audience of Jonah helps us answer the question of Jonah. Namely, trust God when what he appointed is different than what you expected.

Appointed vs. Expected

From the beginning of the story until the end, God is doing something different than what Jonah and the original audience would have expected. The call to go to a rival nation is not expected. The storm that frightens the sailors was appointed by God but was far greater than anyone expected. The fish was appointed by God and saved the rebellious prophet. The prophet proclaimed God’s Word and the Ninevites (of all people!) unexpectedly repent. Finally, the Lord speaks to Jonah after showing His mercy to the Ninevites and we don’t expect Jonah’s reaction. All of it is about expectations and reality, what the prophet expects and what God appoints. Jonah expected destruction. He wanted to sit and watch God destroy the enemy of God’s people. Yet God was merciful, gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. God had one last thing to appoint for Jonah and the people of Israel to understand. The Lord appointed the plant, the sun, and the worm to give Jonah relief and take it away. God appointed the plant to show mercy for a moment in hopes that Jonah would love the mercy more than he hated the Ninevites. But sometimes when what we expect is different than what God appoints, we cannot move beyond it. God wants Jonah to love His character and to desire it for himself.

Loving God’s Character

Jonah knew God’s character. He quotes the familiar refrain in Jonah 4:2 from Exodus 34:6, “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” Beyond that, Jonah referenced at least 10 Psalms in his prayer of chapter 2. Jonah knows God’s Word and he know God’s character. The question for Jonah and for us is whether that knowledge will move from our heads to our hearts. Jonah rages at God’s kindness to his enemies. The Israelite audience was confronted with such an unexpected outpouring of grace. So, the question at the end is how we respond to God’s character. God is gracious and merciful, and we cannot despise God for being who He is. Will we let the message of grace and mercy come into our hearts even when it is extended where it is not expected? Will we be amazed by grace or offended by it? God’s grace is truly amazing in that it comes to all who will trust in Christ, a different prophet who sat outside a different city and was in anguish enough to die. His anguish was not anger; it was grief and it was for us. So, let’s love God’s character and be amazed at the grace given to rebels and enemies like you and me.

Go Outside: An Interview with Jared C. Wilson

Jared C. Wilson serves as Assistant Professor of Pastoral Ministry and Author in Residence at Midwestern Seminary as well as General Editor at For The Church. In his most recent publication titled Go Outside: And 19 Other Keys to Thriving in Your 20s (Moody Publishers), Jared and Becky Wilson share advice they’d give their younger selves. In 20 short chapter, they discuss the value of time spent with Jesus, taking care of your mind and body, how chasing your dreams is overrated, and more.

Tony Merida, Pastor at Imago Dei Church, commented on the new publication, “Go Outside is a treasure trove of wisdom for all present, future, and even former twentysomethings. It is filled with wit, written from a loving heart, and has the markers of battle-tested wisdom from years of serving this age group.”

Ronni Kurtz, Assistant Professor of Theology at Cedarville University, also said, “This book is a wonderful exercise in showing that gospel-centrality and practical advice are not at odds with one another.”

Costi Hinn, Teaching Pastor at Shepherd’s House Bible Church, said, “I can only wish that this book was written when I was in my twenties, but find great joy that countless lives will have this godly insight for one of the most foundational seasons of life.”

In a recent interview, Jared Wilson answered a few questions about his latest publication and the importance of the book of Acts.

For The Church: Why this book now?

Jared C. Wilson: If not now, when?

Just kidding.

In terms of the audience opportunity for this book, Becky and I both feel like young people are more hungry for mentorship and godly counsel than they’ve been in a long time. They are certainly more interested in it than our generation was at their age. In our day of increasing moral chaos and spiritual confusion, I think a book that carefully and clearly re-articulates the basic stuff of Christian spirituality for young adults in a practical way and really meets a need.

In terms of our timing in writing it, I would say that in now our middle-aged years we’ve spent over a decade now ministering directly to twentysomethings and speaking into their lives, and after thirty years of adulthood ourselves, feel equipped to share some of the most valuable lessons we’ve learned along the way.

FTC: What was it like writing a book with your wife?

JCW: It was fun! Though I should add that we didn’t exactly write the book together. Meaning, we didn’t collaborate on each chapter, but rather, divided up the chapter outline between ourselves. Becky came up with ten topics she wanted to address, and I came up with ten I wanted to address. We took our own time writing our chosen chapters.

The one thing Becky has enjoyed pointing out is that it took her months to write her half of the book, while it only took me a few days to write mine. You could conclude from this discrepancy that I’m a more natural writer than her, or you could conclude that she’s a more thoughtful writer than me. Take your pick.

FTC: What might readers be surprised about after reading this book?

JCW: I think most readers might be surprised at how relatable and refreshing the book is. Most things like this – stuff young people need to know – either comes across very legalistic or very dry. Both of us have good senses of humor. I write with a lot of illustrations and stories, and Becky writes with a very laid-back, unassuming, non-judgmental tone. Even when we’re giving advice or reminding our readers about things Christians must do or should do, we are constantly pointing young people back to the grace in the good news for their assurance and sense of okay-ness. In fact, there is more than one chapter on the importance of knowing God approves us fully because of Jesus, not our religious performance or spiritual production.

FTC: Which 2-3 of the 20 principles in the book do you wish you’d applied in your twenties?

JCW: Well, all of them! That’s the premise of the book: If we could go back, what are the 20 things we’d tell our younger selves. But if I had to pick just 3 of the chapters that are most important to me, I would say:

Chapter 4 – Porn is more toxic than you realize

Chapter 18 – Center on the gospel

Chapter 20 – You are not only as good as what you haven’t done

These three chapters probably best outline the plot points of my own testimony of sin and redemption in my twenties.

FTC: What’s one main point you hope readers take away from this book?

JCW: The biggest thing I hope readers take away is just how big Jesus is! How much he can be trusted. How investing in our friendship with him in our early adulthood isn’t just a way to be one of the “Christian college kids,” but the way we make sure we start out on a track of life that will fill our joy and keep us from looking back when we hit our thirties and forties and beyond with regrets and desires for a do-over.


Editor’s Note: Go Outside: And 19 Other Keys to Thriving in Your 20s is now available for purchase.

True Servanthood in the Footsteps of Jesus

Editor’s Note: This post is excerpted from A Ransom for Many by John J.R. Lee and Daniel Brueske (Lexham Press, 2023). This book is now available for purchase.

We believe that the term “service,” as applied to the mission of Jesus, must be understood in a nuanced and refined manner. Its overuse in our era has cheapened the concept. But in Jesus’s case, “service” meant embracing the most shameful and despised fate of his time—death on a Roman cross. It meant being condemned by his fellow Jews as one accursed by Israel’s God (cf. Gal 3:13; Deut 21:23). It meant being mocked by the Romans as a failed insurrectionist (cf. Mark 15:16–20). And the final phrase of Mark 10:45 (“to give his life as a ransom for many”) points to the ultimate expression of the Son of Man’s radical servanthood, his atoning death. Jesus did not allow his unique identity and authority to exempt him from the kingdom principle of sacrificial servanthood (cf. Phil 2:6–8). Instead, he lived it out fully (Mark 10:45) and thus provided the foundation and prototype for his followers’ radical servanthood in his footsteps (10:43–44; cf. 9:35–37;).

This emphasis on sacrificial servanthood is not limited to Mark’s Gospel alone. It is found across the New Testament (John 15:12–13; Eph 5:2; 1 John 3:16). Church history is replete with examples of radical servanthood in the footsteps of Jesus. Just beyond the apostolic era, 1 Clement 55:2 reports, “We know that many among ourselves have delivered themselves to bondage, that they might ransom others. Many have sold themselves to slavery, and receiving the price paid for themselves have fed others” (trans. J. B. Lightfoot and J. R. Harmer). This reported practice among early Christians reflects a literal application of Mark 10:45.2 Other examples of Christian servanthood across the centuries are not hard to find. One of the most notable examples is Francis of Assisi. Before his conversion, Francis felt a strong aversion to the sight of lepers. But after his conversion, he went to live in a leprosarium to care for those with the disease.3

Mark 10:45 does not describe service in general and abstract terms. Instead, the portrayal is quite specific and personal. The service in Mark 10:45 is a service that a particular person, Jesus, has offered in a specific manner at a specific time and place, namely, giving his life sacrificially for the sake of others by being crucified on a Roman cross. And he did this despite the defeat that such a death signified in the eyes of his contemporaries. If we want to follow in Jesus’s footsteps, we must also do so in a personal way in our own specific time and space. The readers of this book will likely have one or two people they can quickly identify as their models of sacrificial service. For some, time would fail them to tell about their heroes of Christ-like servanthood (cf. Heb 11:32).

However, following Jesus’s example of servanthood may also take less conspicuous forms and may have a more manageable and mundane expression. For instance, welcoming neighbors over for dinner, staying late after church to vacuum the building, serving in a food line that feeds the hungry, or offering to babysit for a single parent can all be meaningful ways of serving others sacrificially. The core thread common to each of these acts is a willingness to subordinate our liberties, comforts, rights, and sometimes even our necessities to those of others, and, in so doing, we embody Jesus’s own habit of sacrificial service in a small yet meaningful way.

To be clear, Mark’s message is not that we must suffer or serve in order to get into heaven. Suffering and service do not earn our redemption and reconciliation with God. And not everyone who follows Jesus will face the same obstacles. Interestingly, Acts 12:2 mentions the death of James, which likely occurred only a decade or so after the request of Mark 10:37, yet church tradition indicates that his brother John lived to an old age. Likewise, in John 21:18–24, the resurrected Messiah foretells two very different paths for Peter and “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” Mark does not claim that we will all experience the same afflictions and persecutions or identify the same needs among our neighbors.

Instead, the message of Mark is that those who follow Jesus must be willing to complete the journey. It is not enough simply to hear the message of the kingdom (Mark 4:4, 15). It is not even enough to receive that message with joy and start following Jesus if we are not committed to remaining with him to the end (4:5–7, 16–19). It is only those who receive the message of the kingdom and bear the fruit of loyal perseverance—committed to following Jesus wherever he leads and whatever it costs—who can say that they have truly followed him (4:8, 20). If you consider yourself a disciple of Jesus, it is worthwhile to ask yourself periodically, “What obstacles might deter me from staying on the path?” This world offers many distractions to lure us off the path of discipleship. For the rich man, it was his earthly treasure (10:17–22). For James and John, it was the pursuit of honor (10:35–37). For Peter, it was an aversion to shame and suffering (8:32; 14:66–72). What tempts you to sidestep the shame and suffering that may come with following Jesus? What are you unwilling to give in service to Jesus and others?

The spirit of competition and worldly success that once possessed James and John (10:35–40) is still rampant in our generation. Even churches, Christian institutions, and missions organizations are not immune. Too often, we view one another as competitors, not recognizing that Jesus sharply opposed this sort of perspective. We must again listen to Jesus, who sharply contrasted his way (Mark 1:3; cf. Isa 40:3) with that of the world: “it shall not be so among you”(10:43, ESV)! We who would follow Jesus on the way to the cross must deny ourselves and take up our own crosses (8:34), and we must learn to embrace the way of God rather than the ways of the world (8:33).

2 Garland, A Theology of Mark’s Gospel, 453n62.

3 Augustine Thompson, Francis of Assisi: The Life (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013), 18–19.

Encourage Discouraged Pastors

There are plenty of pastors with generous smiles on their faces each Sunday who, deep down, are very disheartened.

Pastoring a church is hard work. For one thing, it is usually thankless. I know there are some churches that seem to remember their pastors with such fanfare, but most do not ever esteem them. They don’t work for just the members ultimately, so they can get over it, but never hearing those words, “Thanks for what you do, pastor,” is discouraging. But you can remedy this one, can’t you? Perhaps right now is the best time to write that email or note, or to make a phone call.

Some pastors get discouraged because their people expect a Dr. Internationally Known Mountain, when what they really are stuck with is only Brother Molehill. Expectations are at an all time high in these days of exceptional media coverage. Every pastor is happy when a member listens to sermons every day, but he knows he doesn’t measure up to the gifted pastors these people hear most of the time.

Some are discouraged because they are physically worn out. It just takes a few sensitive members to help him remedy this problem by pulling him away from normal tasks for a break. A member who makes special efforts to show love to his or her pastors will never be forgotten. I used to have a man who took me to lunch each week just to talk. He would usually say something to encourage me and even slip me a $20 bill. He helped me immensely to keep perspective. Perhaps you can pull your pastor away for that fishing trip or golf outing. Such things are like a drink of cool water on a dry, dusty day. Paul said of Philemon, “You’ve often refreshed me.” Be like that.

Some are discouraged because they cannot resolve long-standing conflicts in the church. Churches have conflicts because they have people. Even the early churches had them. But pastors take these very hard, and long for conflict resolution.

Well, there may be other reasons pastors are discouraged. They aren’t perfect and can even bring more on themselves than is dealt to them by the church’s health.

What can you do? Perhaps more than anything else, just become your pastor’s friend. Friendship has a healing aspect to it. Open your home and care for them. Think of the pastor’s wife and kids. They need you also. I doubt that you could possible know what intentional love can do for those God has, in his providence, put over you in the Lord. Do what friends do—take them extra vegetables from the garden, invite them along for your trip to the Mexican restaurant in town, buy that scarf that you think the pastor’s wife will like. You’re not buying friendship, but nourishing it.

“Let them do this [the management of the church] with joy and not with grief, for this would be unprofitable to you,” the writer of Hebrews said. But I know you church members pretty well. When you get to thinking about it, you can do some amazing things for the pastors God has given you. Get started right now.

“Esteem them highly in love.”

Editor’s note: This article was originally published at ccwtoday.org

The Gospel Never Does Nothing

Christ who is the content of the gospel leaves no one in a neutral state.[1]

—Herman Bavinck

The one thing the gospel never does is nothing. Under the preaching of the gospel, no one remains the same. We are either moving closer to God or further from him. No one remains neutral. No one remains unchanged. We soften, or we harden.

Encountering Jesus is a life-altering event every time it happens. His word is always fresh. Even if we believe we know it, because he is God, his word is not returning void. Every time it is spoken, something happens. We fall in love with him, or we grow to despise him. We lean in, or we turn away. In every church meeting every Sunday morning, there is a massive movement in the hearts of people all over the world because of the gospel of Christ. Because Christ is the gospel, when we hear his word, we hear him, and when we hear him, we either fall down before him, or we run the other way. The one thing we don’t do is nothing.

It’s not always easy to perceive this movement. Perhaps we notice the leaning in more than the turning away. Yes, we can sprint in the other direction, but that’s not how it works for most of us. It’s more like drifting away at sea. The waves of doubt take us out. The depths of sin call us away. We move inch by inch, and we don’t see it until we’re further than we ever imagined we’d be.

Just as we can drift away, we can also inch closer. When Jesus melts our heart again and again, when his gospel surprises us with its grace and mercy, when we feel his love, and keep letting his love come into our heart, we step closer to him.

The one thing the gospel never does is nothing. No one remains in a neutral state.

God is in control of all things. He is sovereign. But he does ask us to believe him. Our only part in the gospel is our response to it. We either accept it or deny it. We either open our arms or cross them. We run toward or away. But we cannot stand motionless.

The good news of the gospel, of course, is that even if we jump a ship to Tarsus like our old friend Jonah, and even if a great fish swallows us up after we are thrown overboard, there is still hope. God still hears our cries in the deep, dark places of the stormiest sea. The gospel never does nothing, and because of that, there is always hope of redemption, even as there is always the danger of drifting away.

As long as Jesus is on this throne, as long as the Spirit blows like the wind wherever it will, as long as God is still a Father, there is hope. As we continually expose ourself to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and as we just open our empty hands before him, we can trust that he will do his work. He will not leave us as we are. He will increase our joy. He will soften our sorrows. He will heal our wounds. He will, if he must, even cause the fish to get sick and spit us upon his shores to witness his redemption.

God works in ways we can’t understand. The one thing we can be sure of, always, is that he works. He never does nothing. That’s good news.

[1] Herman Bavinck, The Wonderful Works of God: Instruction on the Christian Religion according to the Reformed Confession(Glenside, PA: Westminster Seminary Press, 2019), 399.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published at thingsofthesort.com.

The Layered Path to God: Finding God in Truth, Goodness, and Beauty

The path to God is singular (i.e., Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life [see John 14:6]), but it is also layered. In fact, does not that famous passage—John 14:6—bear witness to the path’s layered-ness? Jesus is one Person in whom all three realities—Way, Truth, and Life—consist. When it comes to Jesus, there is therefore a unity-within-diversity and diversity-within-unity.

Three Stubborn Realities

Following the footsteps of Plato and Aristotle, many of the wisest philosophers and theologians have orbited their thoughts and writing around the ‘three Transcendentals’ of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. Though some [almost entirely modern] thinkers have tried to abandon such categories as relics of an old age, these three metaphysical Rascals keep showing up to the party. You can drag them through the mud of your modern philosophical assumptions (and presumptions), you can treat them as if they don’t exist, or you can blithely shrug at the fact that they do exist, and still, one fact remains: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty stand at the door and knock.

Longing for Embodiment

In Acts 17, the apostle Paul proclaims the good news of Jesus Christ to an incredibly diverse crowd of thinkers in the city of Athens. Among this crowd are Stoic and Epicurean philosophers (Acts 17:8), whose ancient philosophical ideas have made a (not-so-surprising) comeback among today’s public intellectuals.1 Smack-dab in the middle of this 1st-century TED talk, Paul says that God providentially places all peoples within their given localities “so that they might seek God, and perhaps… reach out and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:27). Soon after, he concludes his talk by doing what Christians have done ever since: calls people to repent of their sins and trust in Jesus for eternal salvation (Acts 17:30-31).

So, God is not far from you, right now, even as you sit and read this article. More than that, He’s calling you to “reach out and find Him.” He wants you to take hold of all that He is for you in Christ Jesus. He wants you to trust, in your heart of hearts, that Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life; that He is the fullest embodiment of what those philosophers and theologians haven’t been able to run from; that he is Truth, Goodness, and Beauty “in human form” (Philippians 4:7).

For Those Who Are Lost (Non-believers)

You’ve heard echoes of the God who is Goodness, Beauty, and Truth, haven’t you? The echoes might have been faint, but even so, they’ve been unmistakably, and even hauntingly, there. In the fruity and bittersweet taste of morning coffee that leaves you feeling calm and collected (Goodness); in a sunrise or sunset that seems to beckon you upward and onward to Something in the beyond itself (Beauty); in the delightful book that leaves you pondering the deep and mysterious things of life, things which you know are there, even if you can’t see them (Truth).

Or maybe you’ve heard the echoes in the minor keys of your life. Maybe it was in the devastating loss of a young child (which cried out for Goodness); or the ugliness of a long-and-drawn-out divorce (which cried out for Beauty); or the falsehood of a lying “friend” or co-worker you once trusted (which cried out for Truth). What you experienced in these moments was not a sense of divine Fullness but a sense of the world’s emptiness, maybe even your own emptiness. These minor keys in your life have created an acute sense of absence in your heart and mind.

What I want to suggest is that, in all of these moments, moments of delightful Fullness and vacuous emptiness, the Lord Jesus Christ is inviting you to fall into His loving embrace. Out of his own Fullness, he is calling, “Come to me and receive more than you could ever imagine,” and in the darker moments of your own emptiness, he is saying, “Come to me and be filled until you are full and overflowing.” So, the ultimate question is: will you lay down your defenses and come to the One who is infinitely Good, Beautiful, and True? Will you enter His rest?

For Those Who Are Found (Believers)

If you are a Christian, then the same God who is Goodness, Beauty, and Truth has already drawn you to Himself by the very same means. Was it not your experience that the faint echoes of transcendence, at some point in your life, gave way to the full Melodies of “Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2)? And did you not receive Him with the empty hands of faith? If so, then you are now a new creation, walking in the midst of an age that is both old and passing away (see Galatians 1:4, 6:15).

And so here’s the trick: don’t forget about those echoes. Don’t forget the fact that God has called you out of evil, ugliness, and falsehood into his own Truth, Goodness, and Beauty (cf 1 Peter 2:9). In fact, the echoes of these things were the very means by which God awakened your dead and dying heart to resurrection Life. Furthermore, in Christ, every last echo you’ve experienced of these things in our fallen world will one day be redeemed and restored in the new heavens and new earth (Revelation 21:1-5). Thus, “God [will bring] everything together in Christ, both things in heaven and things on earth in him” (Ephesians 1:10).

There’s only one path to God, to be sure, but never forget: the path is layered with Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.

1 One thinks of the neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris, whose app Waking Up, resounds with Stoic and Epicurean philosophical thought.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published at credomag.com

The Scariest Thing Jesus Ever Said

For some, the Bible is and should be a great comfort.

For others, it is and should be deeply disturbing.

Throughout the Bible, God heals with reassuring words of forgiveness, kindness, and welcome. Also throughout the Bible, God thunders with warnings meant to stir people toward repentance, restoration, and peace.

Jesus, the center of the biblical story, comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. He gives grace to the humble and opposes the proud. He is kind to shame-filled prostitutes and fierce with self-filled Pharisees. He gives special attention to the poor and denounces those who ignore the poor.

Perhaps the scariest thing Jesus ever said is that at the final judgment, many will say to him, “Lord, Lord,” and he will respond, “I never knew you; depart from me” (Matthew 7:21–23). He will also say the following:

“Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me … Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me” (Matthew 25:41–45).

These words should jolt us, especially because they will be spoken to church folk. These are people like me who spent their lives attending church and reading their Bibles and giving their money and praying their prayers and getting their theology right and even preaching sermons and writing Christian books. And yet, like the ancient church at Laodicea, though they will have built reputations for being spiritually alive, Jesus will expose them as naked, poor, wretched, and blind (Revelation 3:14–22).

James, the half brother of Jesus and leader of the church at Jerusalem, linked genuine faith with an active concern for the poor. He wrote, “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” (James 2:15–16).

James answered his own question, saying, “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17).

Earlier in his letter, James said, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27).

Both Jesus and James are putting a spotlight on our inclination to replace Jesus’ call to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow him. We replace his call with a self-serving path in which we deny our neighbors, take up our comforts, and follow our dreams. When we do this, we exchange true faith for a counterfeit. We exchange irresistible faith with a way of thinking, believing and living that God himself will resist. Why is this so? Because demonstrating active concern for our neighbors—especially those whom Jesus calls “the least of these”—is an inseparable aspect of a true, Godward faith.

The apostle John, who was quite possibly Jesus’ closest friend on earth, gave a similar warning: “If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:17–18).

One of my predecessors at Christ Presbyterian Church, Dr. Charles McGowan, says that our doctrine—that is, our stated scriptural beliefs about God, ourselves, our neighbor and the world—is the “skeleton” of our faith. Our doctrinal skeleton is a foundational, necessary structure around which the muscles, tendons, veins, and vital organs of faith must operate and grow. In other words, our doctrinal beliefs provide the foundation for our Scripture reading, listening to sound teaching, prayer, spiritual friendship, involvement in a local church, observance of the sacraments, and active love for our neighbors, including those who are without advantage among us.

As it is with the human body, so it is with faith: if the doctrinal “skeleton” is the only thing or even the main thing people can see when they look at our faith, it means either our faith is malnourished and sick, or it is dead.

Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

And a dead faith, like a dead corpse, is one of the scariest things of all.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published at scottsauls.com

Valentine’s Day Meditation

It’s Valentine’s Day. The day that most people pretend to hate because they either don’t feel loved, or don’t want to show love, but mostly because they always wish the love they had was more intense, more real. So, it’s the day that we eat candy and have nice dinners and buy flowers and try to imagine a love that is so powerful that romance bursts out of us spontaneously, without even trying.  But for the most part, people are disappointed because they see that even love itself is too often a fleeting feeling that we can’t create even in the perfect of circumstances. That’s why love can’t be defined in terms of experience, merely, but must be defined in terms of underlying reality, eternally. A reality that shapes every day and every thing, not relegated to the convenient or designated times.

God is love (1 John 4:8). He is not love because we exist. That would mean he needs us to be who he is. We exist because of his love. Without that love of the Father, there would be no reason for us. That is the underlying eternal reality. Because God is love there has never been a day in all of existence that wasn’t defined by love. Love itself is the foundation and ground work, it is the structure and frame, the heartbeat and skeleton, the flesh and blood that reverberates throughout each day. So, why do we not feel it moment by moment?

If God is love and God upholds the universe by the word of his power (Hebrews 1:3) would not love then be even the ruling reality of the universe? It’s more than foundational, it’s governmental as well. The love of God literally sustains the entire cosmos. Love then is meant to be intense and real because God himself is intense and real and God himself is love.

So, here on Valentine’s Day we look out on all those disappointed in the world. Their experience of love isn’t working. They feel let down. They feel betrayed. They feel as if something as good as love should be more real and so why isn’t it? Simply put, their eyes are too low.

God is love. I am not love. I love, but I’m not Love. But God is. So, on Valentine’s Day, if we want love, we have to raise our sights to him. We wouldn’t go to someone who has water and expect for them to be the satisfying reality of water. We must go to the water itself for that. So, if we want real love, shouldn’t we go to the source? And the good news is that this Love isn’t unavailable to us. He is there. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

Do you want a love that exceeds even the most thrilling of Valentine’s Days? Go to him and get it. After all, it’s the most real thing in the universe. Ultimate reality is a God who is love.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published at thingsofthesort.com

Good Shame, Bad Shame, and Ugly Shame

Shame is a popular word today. Sometimes preachers like to substitute the word “sin” for “shame,” as if the antithesis to a whole and fulfilled life is a life free of shame. In this respect, such pastors do not sharply contrast with the rest of our world. If our culture is anything, it is on a mission to rid ourselves of shame. Of course, if you think the antithesis to a whole and fulfilled life is shame, this will shape how you go about seeking wholeness and fulfillment (and not at all in a good way). If shame is the primary problem, shamelessness is the solution. This is why our world is intent on ridding ourselves of all absolute standards of morality. The sexual revolution is nothing if not a grand attempt to whistle in the dark and wish our consciousness away. If shame often comes from the transgression of sin, there is nothing to do but rule sit out as a category. There are no taboos anymore. If someone else’s sexual sin causes you to have a reaction of disgust, we are told, that says more about you than it does them. There is no accident to the fact that the phrase “you do you” is often coupled with the phrase “no shame.” We vehemently hate the shame that accompanies knowledge of moral transgression, so we erase the idea of moral transgression. There is no nature nor command behind sexuality—it is what I want it to be. Christians should steer clear of this kind of wholesale antipathy for shame. 

Christians should steer clear of this kind of wholesale antipathy for shame. Shame is not our sworn enemy. Sometimes shame is useful. Some sins should cause us to have reactions of disgust! The Scriptures often appeal to shame at various points. Much of the time, shame is an indication of a conscience that still functions properly. It is often the rightful corresponding emotion to shameful acts.

Bad Shame

Having said that, undue shame is a horrible thing. Shame that persists wrongly is not good. This would include, for example, shame for a sin that was committed against you. Victims often feel shame for sins that their oppressors should feel shame for. In such situations, shame is doubly perverted; where it should be absent in the psyche of the victim, it is overactive, and where it should be present with a vengeance in the psyche of the oppressor, it is altogether absent. I can tell you most assuredly that the cure is not a look inward—you keep looking inward and you will only find more reasons for more shame.

Another kind of undue shame is that kind that hangs onto sins that have been truly confessed, repented of, and forgiven by Christ. This kind of shame, while it may feel pious, is actually dishonoring to Christ. It cheapens his blood and essentially says that Christ’s atonement is not sufficient—it needs to be supplemented with wallowing shame. So, the opposite of shame is not shamelessness; the opposite of shame is a humble gratitude for forgiveness. Now, it’s easy for me to say that in the abstract—“let go of the shame for the sins that Christ has atoned for and cleansed you of”—but practically, this is easier said than done.

I’ve recently read Shakespeare’s tragedy, Hamlet, for the very first time, and was reminded of the power of shame in a scene with the King of Denmark, Claudius. Now, I won’t give away too much of the story, but I will say that Claudius is Hamlet’s uncle, and he was made King after conspiring against and murdering Hamlet’s father—the rightful King of Denmark. In one scene, Claudius is struck with the shame of his guilt and says this:

O, my offense is rank, it smells to heaven;

It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t,

A brother’s murder. Pray can I not,

Though inclination be as sharp as will.

My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent,

And like a man to double business bound

I stand in pause where I shall first begin,

And both neglect. What if this cursed hand

Were thicker than itself with brother’s blood,

Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens
To wash it white as snow?

Claudius could not bring himself to pray because of the shame of guilt. He had committed the “primal eldest curse,” the same sin as Cain—the murder of a brother. And he asks, “What if this cursed hand Were thicker than itself with brother’s blood?” In other words, “What if there is more of my brother’s blood on my hand than there is my own flesh and bone?” In that case, is it even likely that heaven has enough rain to wash the guilt away? Have you ever felt paralyzed by the guilt of your sin like this? Have you ever been paralyzed by shame? What’s the cure?” Well I can tell you most assuredly that the cure is not a look inward—you keep looking inward and you will only find more reasons for more shame.

Worthy in Christ

The cure for this kind of paralyzing shame is not to search for how precious you are, it is to behold how precious Christ is, and what an unfathomable grace he has shown to bring about your reconciliation. If you are in Christ Jesus, you should remember that our Triune God did not wait for you to even realize your sin before acting on your behalf. The cure for this kind of shame is to be reminded that Christ was not compelled to lay his life down for you by your beauty—you had none. It is not our intrinsic worth that is seen in the gospel—as if God simply could not be happy until we were restored to him in salvation. No, friends, it works the other way around. It’s not that Christ was compelled to pay such a price because we were so worthy, but rather, we are now made worthy because of the infinite price he paid to purchase us.

Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation” (Romans 5:9-11).

If you are in Christ Jesus, you should remember that our Triune God did not wait for you to even realize your sin before acting on your behalf. You were at your lowest—your ugliest, and most shameful—when Christ came for you. He did not save you on your best day, but on your worst. God did not stand afar off, aloof, with his arms crossed, waiting for you to work up the courage to come and ask for forgiveness. As if to say, “You got a lot of nerve showing up here…” No, Christ came to you at your lowest and he positively transformed you from an enemy to a friend. The Father’s overflowing, gushing love for you he displayed when he sent his Son to win your reconciliation with his life, and purchase your reconciliation with his death—all while you were breathing out venom and hatred and rebellion towards him. That is news good enough to put undue shame to shame.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published at credomag.com