Sunday, April 17, 2011

Make Us This Kind of People Lord!

"May a merciful God preserve me from a Christian Church in which everyone is a saint! I want to be and remain in the church and little flock of the fainthearted, the feeble and the ailing, who feel and recognize the wretchedness of their sins, who sigh and cry to God incessantly for comfort and help, who believe in the forgiveness of sins."
--Martin Luther, in Luther’s Works (St. Louis, 1957), XXII:55.
Only a week ago I wrote an email to a friend here in Nairobi echoing this very prayer. But Luther says it much better than I could.

Amen, brother. Amen.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Freedom: The End of the Matter

I originally wrote this post in the summer of 2010 after we finished preaching through the book of Galatians in a series called "Freedom" at West Hills Downtown.

But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.
Galatians 6:14
Most of us aren’t audacious enough to boast. We don’t go out of our way to explicitly draw attention to ourselves. So if that kind of boasting is what comes to mind when you hear Paul make this statement, you’ll probably miss its effect.

In order to see how deeply penetrating this statement is meant to be, first consider two other places where Paul uses this same Greek word that is translated here as “boast.”
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice [= boast] in hope of the glory of God.
Romans 5:1-2

More than that, we also rejoice [= boast] in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
Romans 5:11
The same Greek word that is translated as “boasting” is the same word that is elsewhere translated as “rejoicing.” In a few other places, it’s translated as “glorying.” So the question that Galatians 6:14 should beg for us to ask isn’t limited to “What do I boast in?” but it should be expanded to include “What do I rejoice in? What do I take comfort in? What gives me confidence and emotional stability?” Whatever my answer is to these questions, that is what I boast in.

Last week, I played in the championship game for the lunchtime intramural basketball league at work. My team ended up losing a long, competitive game. I don’t think I would have boasted if we won, but why did I feel discouraged and as though I had failed my team for most of the rest of the day? Not just because we lost, but because I felt I had played poorly. And this revealed that my “boasting” was really in my performance.

Last week, I ended up staying at work one night much later than I had planned to because I was trying to get something done even though I didn’t have to meet a deadline the next day. I didn’t want to leave work until I had accomplished my goal. But I was frustrated that I had to stop working that night without getting the task done. I don’t think I boast about my achievements at work, but why did I experience a growing frustration that made me stubbornly refuse to leave work no matter how much time went by? Because my “boasting” is in feeling like I’m successful in my career.

Last week, I spent some time after work having an extended conversation with one of my co-workers. After having dinner, we joked and laughed and talked about life. But why did I afterwards feel a little disappointed in myself? Because I felt as though I didn’t seize the opportunity to talk to him about Jesus. And this revealed that my “boasting” is in how well I do the job of an evangelist.

The reality is that there are many things that I boast in. There are many things that you boast in. Yet Paul’s statement is clear in its scope. All boasting is excluded except for boasting in the cross. There is to be only one source of our joy, our comfort, our confidence, and our emotional stability: the cross of Christ.

The world and its philosophy give us comfort when we perform well. The world gives us emotional stability when we’re successful in our jobs. The world gives us its vote of confidence when we make logical decisions. Because, in these moments, there is something we can point to in ourselves that makes us acceptable.

But here’s the catch. The world will NOT give us comfort when we don’t perform well. At least not the kind we desire. The world will NOT provide us with emotional stability when we’re not making as much progress at work. The world will NOT give us its vote of confidence when we make decisions that put us in the minority. Because, in these moments, there is nothing we can point to in ourselves that makes us acceptable.

The reality is that the times will come when we don’t perform well, when we’re less productive at work, when we make decisions that are unpopular. If we’re looking for our joy, comfort, confidence, and emotional stability in the places where it’s nowhere to be found because the world isn’t giving it, that’s slavery.

But if we’re always looking for our joy, comfort, confidence, and emotional stability in the cross of Christ, then we’ll never be lacking. It’s always available. And that’s why freedom is found when our only boast is in the cross of Jesus, by which He made us acceptable to God through His life and death in our place, and when the world has been crucified to us.

When the world is crucified to us, we’re no longer seeking our joy, comfort, confidence, and emotional stability in the world so it doesn’t matter whether or not the world gives these things to us. And in this sense, we’re crucified to the world.

And what’s usually the case is that the things we seek to find our joy, our comfort, our confidence, and our emotional stability in are really just different ways of trying to make ourselves acceptable (which is what the Judaizers in Galatians were seeking by forcing the Gentiles to be circumcised). Last week, I wanted to make myself acceptable to the guys I played basketball with. I wanted to make myself acceptable to my employer. I wanted to make myself acceptable to my ministry partners (in a very worldly sense). I’m trying to make myself acceptable in multiple ways every day. We all are.

Does the world offer acceptance? It certainly does. But only if you always meet its conditions. Which again and again you will fail to do. However, the gospel tells us that through the cross of Christ we’re already accepted by God. Always. There’s only one condition: trust Jesus. Look away from yourself (both your failures and your successes) and trust the One who never failed and never will.

So what do you “boast” in?
  • Six-pack abs?
  • Owning your own home?
  • Good grades?
  • Job performance?
  • Having a certain amount of money saved in the bank?
  • Obedient children?
  • Always pleasing your spouse?
  • The autonomy of being single?
  • Your plans for the future?
  • Being the leader of or part of a successful church plant?
  • Being told how great your sermon was?
To “boast” in these things is to look to them as “functional saviors” even if you trust Jesus for eternal life. It’s to look to these things to make you acceptable, whether before yourself, before others, or before God. But Jesus didn’t just die to give you eternal life. He died so that you could die to the bondage of boasting in your “functional saviors” and live in the freedom of boasting in Him alone. He died so that you could find your acceptance before God (the only acceptance you need!) in Him alone. In other words, He died to become your only Functional Savior.
And because of [God] you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
1 Corinthians 1:30-31
Don’t wait for the time to come when your “functional saviors” disappear in your time of need (they fail to make you acceptable) because you fail to meet their conditions before you look to make Jesus and His cross your only boast. We boast in the things that make us acceptable. If He’s not your only boast now, there’s no way He’ll be your boast then, when He’ll really be all you have to boast in.

The gospel is simple. And yet so profound. Only the cross of Christ makes us acceptable to God. Believe it. Be free.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Do I Define the Jesus Story or Does It Define Me?

Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
Matthew 10:39
So what does this mean: "Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it?" The context, of course, is the imminent persecution of the disciples and indeed the wider church. Those who cling to their life as it is will never receive eternal life. The securities of this fleeting lifespan pale in comparison with the riches of the inheritance that the saints have in Christ. (This is precisely the point that the apostle Paul makes in Romans 8:17-25.)

Such passages speak directly to suffering brothers and sisters in China, India, Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia, but what about the rest of us? We like to imagine sometimes that we too share in Christ's sufferings, but we do not suffer in the same way or to the same degree as the martyrs and the persecuted. The suffering that Jesus had in mind is not the general troubles that believers face in common with unbelievers, such as physical or financial hardships. It was suffering for their witness to Christ that Jesus had in mind.

Yet precisely because we do not find ourselves threatened with death for the sake of the gospel, those of us in liberal democracies may be the ones who find it most difficult to accept Jesus's exhortation. Like a cross that is worn around one's neck, Christ can become an accessory. Rather than being commanded at gunpoint to deny Christ, we are led by the devil into the wilderness of consumerism, shopping for identities. Far from being harried and harassed, we are shown the kingdoms of the world that can be ours if we will only turn away from Golgotha. We don't have to become atheists. We do not even have to renounce Jesus Christ. In fact, we can sell everything from rock concerts to coffee mugs with Jesus as the trademark. All that is necessary is for us to cling to ourselves--the securities, aspirations, felt needs, and relationships that define us and that we have chosen for ourselves--rather than to God's saving love in Christ and the identity for which he has chosen us.

To put it simply, Jesus's warning about finding our life by losing it versus losing our life to find it presses us to ask ourselves this question: Do I define the Jesus story or does it define me? Is Jesus's significance objective and universal, which I am simply to acknowledge and embrace, or do I determine his significance in my own life? Paul tells believers, "For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God" (Col. 3:3).

This is more radical than anything we could conceive. According to the gospel, "I" don't really exist anymore. Our self-identity is not a stable "thing," but is defined by the story that we tell--or hear--about ourselves. Of course, the gospel does not obliterate my identity; it comes to save nature, not to destroy it. However, my nature "in Adam" is corrupt, in bondage to sin and death. Even in my moral striving, I am decadent. Even in my craving for spiritual experience, I am an idolater. Another makeover or transformation will not really change my identity. I must be crucified and buried with Christ--and raised with him to newness of life.


The salvation that God promises in Christ requires my death. Here I am, cheerfully going about my daily affairs, picking and choosing the roles I would like to play from the advertisements, movies, and "put-together" people I admire around me. I may even find a role for Jesus, although who am I to say that others are wrong for finding someone or something else more helpful for achieving their goals in life? Then along comes the law, nailing me, telling me who I really am, telling me how this character I have written for myself is doomed. I begin to question the believability of my screenplay. And then God hands me a new script: the Good News that I am no longer a child of Adam, stranger and alien to God's promises, but a child of God in Jesus Christ, stranger and alien to the world's spin. I no longer can see God as existing to make me happy, to satisfy my felt needs, even giving me a sense of well-being and add a few suggestions to improve my life. He comes to kill me and to make me alive. Repentance means I give up my script; I stop pretending that I can write the story of my life. Through faith in Christ, I become a character in God's story, part of the new creation.

Saturday, April 02, 2011


God. Our. Sins. Paying. Everyone. Life.

My favorite quote:
His righteousness, His death functions as payment. Yes. Payment. Wrote a check with His life but at the resurrection we all cheered cuz that means the check cleared.

HT: Desiring God Blog