Ash Wednesday at Grace Chapel

Wednesday, March 5, is Ash Wednesday. This marks the beginning of Lent, the 40 day period before Easter (46 including Sundays). The word Lent comes from a Latin word meaning “spring,” which comes from an earlier Germanic word meaning “lengthen” or “long” (since the days get longer in spring). At Grace Chapel (a non-denominational, Protestant Evangelical church), we’re encouraging our congregation to observe this season—not to merit favor with God or even because it’s hip to be ancient. We want to take advantage of these valuable observances so we can dive deeper into the gospel. That’s it. It’s really all about Jesus.

Observing Ash Wednesday and Lent are not commanded in Scripture. Therefore, we’re free to observe them or not. However, there’s a few reasons you may want to consider observing them. Ash Wednesday and Lent can provide us the opportunity to:

  • Connect with the historical church. Our faith is not born in a vacuum. We aren’t the first of our kind. We have descended from a great community of faith which has gone before us, of which Ash Wednesday and Lent have been significant traditions.
  • Be confronted with reality of death and our need for Jesus. How often do you think about death? Ours is a death-averse culture, but we must face the reality that we are all going to die because of sin. In the midst of this bad news, however, the good news of Jesus’ death for us is our glorious hope.
  • Freely experience sorrow and lament. Individually and corporately, we make little room for mourning our sin and brokenness. This season provides a ripe time and space for that.
  • Fast with anticipation. We fast (abstain from food or other things) to deny temporal pleasure in order to pursue the ultimate pleasure of knowing, loving, and obeying Jesus as we long for his kingdom to come.

So to kick-off Lent, our church will gather this week on Ash Wednesday to lament and confess our sin, meditate on the glories of the gospel, and worship God.

Our Ash Wednesday gathering will be an interactive time. One aspect of the gathering that some Protestant Evangelicals may balk at is what Christians have historically called “the imposition of ashes.” This is when you receive ashes on your forehead in the shape of a cross. Why would we do such a thing? Isn’t that meritorious? religious? legalistic? ritualistic? It could be, but it doesn’t have to be. Ashes and dust in Scripture are symbolic of the brevity of human life and picture repentance (e.g. Gen. 3:19; 18:27; Job 30:19; 42:6; Matt. 11:21; Luke 10:13). The ashes are simply a tactile and solemn reminder that we are finite creatures and death looms over us all; they are drawn in the shape of the cross to remind us that in the midst of this bad news, there is infinite hope in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Let me be up-front: the imposition of ashes is not a sacrament, and observing Ash Wednesday or Lent can’t save us. At the same time, even our repentance can’t save us. God alone saves us through his Son Jesus! Repentance is a response to God’s saving work, and while Christians are by no means required to participate in Ash Wednesday or Lent, we are praying that God might use these rituals to drive our congregation to repentance and faith in Christ. Who knows whether or not, in his grace, God will use these instruments to spur renewal in the hearts of individuals and our congregation as we anticipate the glory of Easter. Of course, this should be the normal rhythm of the Christian life! However, Lent provides us with a special time to zero-in on this as a church community. This approach to Ash Wednesday and Lent is undeniably Christ-centered and gospel-driven.

So if you are in the Capital Region, consider joining us this Wednesday, March 5 at 7pm at Grace Chapel. Even more than that, whether you join us or not, consider how you might take advantage of these forty days to repent of sin and fix your eyes on Jesus.

God’s Glory-Sharing

Two Sundays ago, I preached a sermon called “Jesus’ Missionary Prayer” from John 17. Here’s a snippet:

So because God is complete in his Trinitarian love and glory-sharing, the reason we exist cannot be because God needs us to love and glorify him. The reason for mission cannot be that he needs us to find more people to love him, as if he lacked love. He already has that in himself. The only possibility is that God wants to share his glory with men and women so that we might be filled and complete as we behold his glory. Carly and I did not want to have children to fill a void in our marriage. We wanted to have children to share the love we have for each other. We didn’t need more love, we wanted to spread love so that our kids might know something of it. Listen to Jesus in vv. 22-24:

22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: 23 I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. 24 “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.

So, again, let me reiterate that the great goal of mission is that people will behold and experience the glory of God.

But there’s a problem. We have exchanged the glory of God for lesser glories. Money, relationships, power, control, recognition, achievement, or a thousand other things. We want glory in places where glory is menial and temporal.

So we have no right to this glorious divine community—unless, of course, one of the members of the community is cast out to make room for us. And that’s what happened to Jesus on the cross. The cross was his mission—that’s the whole context of this prayer. In v. 1 when he says that his “hour has come,” it’s a term Jesus uses repeatedly throughout John to refer to his appointment with death. The crucifixion has arrived, and Jesus is going to put his glory aside and, in a sense, revolve around us. He is going to willingly step out of sweet fellowship with the Father so that we might be welcomed in and share in God’s glory. But not because God needs us, but because we will never be complete without God.

Listen to the whole sermon.

What Do ‘True Christians’ Believe about Homosexuality?

In the aftermath of the Phil Robertson-GQ debacle, one talking head, Wilson Cruz, spokesman for GLAAD (formerly called Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), ignorantly said this in GLAAD’s statement to Robertson’s comments:

Phil and his family claim to be Christian, but Phil’s lies about an entire community fly in the face of what true Christians believe.

Let me state up-front: the way Robertson stated his position might “fly in the face” of what true Christians believe. His answer was unnecessarily crass. He put an obstacle in the way for people to listen to his perspective. This is not commendable. However, true Christians have always believed that living an unrepentant gay lifestyle is sinful. This is where Cruz is dead-wrong. Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox Christians all agree on this, and they always have. (By the way, so do Muslims, and the Dalai Lama.)

So what specifically do true Christians believe about homosexuality? Cruz, and others, might argue that Jesus never talked about homosexuality. So, he doesn’t condemn it, and neither should Christians like me. This is, in fact, a very popular argument. And a bad one.

Ancient Jewish culture did not celebrate homosexuality like Western culture does today. Though people engaged in homosexual activity, it was labeled as an abomination in the Hebrew Scriptures (Lev. 18:22; cf. 20:13). That did not change between the testaments. Even today, rabbis do not condone the practice. We can be confident there was no Jewish effort in Jesus’ day to get so-called “gay marriage” legalized. In the Gentile pagan culture, people were more apt to practice homosexuality (as is evidenced by Paul’s letters, one of which I will address below). Yet it was never seen as a viable alternative to heterosexual marriage.

When Jesus had the chance to talk about marriage (and thus God’s design for covenant, sexual relationships), how did he talk? Fielding a question about divorce, Jesus said this:

And Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart [Moses] wrote you this commandment [i.e. allowance for divorce]. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Mark 10:5-9)

The context is about divorce, but the point is clear enough: marriage was instituted by God from the beginning of creation to be a life-long union between man and woman. For those still waiting to hear the words “homosexuality” out of Jesus’ lips, you won’t hear it. You won’t hear it because, according to Jesus, there’s not a debate to be had. Marriage is for one man and one woman. Case closed.

Paul, speaking and writing authoritatively as an apostle of Jesus did talk about homosexuality:

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9-10; cf. et al.).

What this means is that homosexuality (and a host of other sins!) are contrary to a gospel-shaped life. Each sin is contrary to the gospel in its own way. Homosexuality is contrary to the gospel because marriage is designed to be a picture of Christ and his Church (Eph. 5:32). When marriage is altered to serve sinful desire, it not only communicates, “Marriage doesn’t matter,” but it assaults the gospel by saying, “The gospel doesn’t matter.” This is why Christians get fired up in the marriage debate. It’s not that marriage in and of itself is the end goal (though some Christians come across that way). Rather, marriage is a picture of something far greater: the gospel! It is a live-action dramatization of the gospel: the husband (illustrating Christ) loves and self-sacrifices; the wife (illustrating the church) respects and defers ultimate leadership to her husband. This is the gospel in action. A Christ-centered marriage will be the best sermon a Christian couple can preach.

What this passage (1 Cor. 6:9-10 above) does not mean is that people who identify as gays and lesbians are “worse sinners” than anyone else. Let me put it simply: a person can be a Christian and have same-sex urges, temptations, and even behaviors just like a person can be a Christian and desire to lie (and engage in lying behaviors) to gain approval from her friends. How can this be? True Christians fight. Christians are people who continually repent of and confess the root cause of their sin and run to Jesus. Christians fight to believe daily the gospel promises that Christ is their new identity, he is their righteousness, his death provided their forgiveness, and he is working in them to change them to look more like himself. No one is immune to sexual temptation and sin, so Christians should stop acting as if same-sex attraction is in the “God-could-never-deal-with-that-sin” category. If the heterosexuals reading this are honest (along with me), we have sexual baggage, too. Christ deals with us in his kindness and calls us away from the lie of our (fill-in-the-blank) sexual temptation toward the fullness he offers us in the gospel. The way Jesus introduced his ministry is what the Christian life is about: “The kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).

So in this “vice list” in 1 Corinthians 6 (cf. 1 Tim.1:10; Rev. 21:8), Paul is talking about people who find their identity in sin: sexual immorality, idolatry, homosexuality, greed, alcohol, swindling, etc. A 20-something who claims to be a Christian but sleeps with his girlfriend and wastes his days and nights on the XBox and shows no signs of repentance does not find his identity in Christ. He is in the same precarious position as an openly gay or lesbian person who professes faith in Jesus yet fails to acknowledge that homosexuality is contrary to a gospel-shaped life. Both find their identity in something other than Jesus. Both people are suppressing the truth and exchanging the glory of God for created things (Rom. 1:18-23). They may not be true Christians, therefore they should examine themselves to see whether or not they are truly in the faith (2 Cor. 13:5).

A person who finds their identity in Jesus, however, will listen to Jesus’ words. And listening to Jesus’ words means repenting and going to him by grace through faith, rejecting the lies of sin, and fighting to continually believe the promises of the gospel and live in a manner worthy of Jesus.

Advent 2013

Historically, the Christian church has devoted the month of December to celebrating Advent (from the Latin adventus, which means “coming, arrival”). The first Advent was Jesus’ birth: when God himself took on flesh as a humble baby, born in a dirty stable. For centuries upon centuries, the Old Testament saints had anticipated the Messiah’s arrival. We, too, are saints who anticipate the Messiah’s second arrival. Jesus’ next Advent will come when he returns at the end of the age, not as a poor, humble carpenter, but as a warrior King who rescues his friends and subdues his foes.

As we celebrate Jesus’ first arrival, and anticipate his second, we join millions of other Christians around the globe, in purposeful and intentional daily reflection on the wonders and glories of the gospel. Below are a few resources to help you as you celebrate Christ’s first coming and await his second coming

The Center of Luther’s Theology

As a follow up to my post yesterday, I wanted to write about the center of Martin Luther’s theology. I am by no means a church history expert (or an expert on Luther), but I hope this will provide you even more insight into Luther’s heart for gospel-centered theology.

Without a doubt, all the aspects of Luther’s theology play a vital role across the spectrum of Protestantism today. The doctrine of justification by faith is typically the preeminent banner that flies over Lutheran theology, in particular. Perhaps, however, Luther’s doctrine of “law and gospel” was his theological center.

According to Luther, the revelation of God is made manifest in two ways: law and gospel. This does not mean the Old Testament is law and the New Testament is gospel. Rather, God reveals himself throughout the Bible—in both Testaments—through law and gospel. Throughout Scripture, God reveals both words of judgment (law) and words of grace (gospel). Indeed, grace is empty without hearing a word of judgment. A word of judgment drives to despair without grace.

The reason that the doctrine of law and gospel may preeminent in Luther’s theology (over against justification by faith) is that it logically precedes it. The law communicates God’s infinite holiness and how unworthy humans are of relationship with him because of their sinfulness. The word of forgiveness is found in the gospel. The gospel is only good news because of the incredibly bad news that humans cannot (even will not) be reconciled to God. Therefore, law and gospel paves the way for justification by faith. Rather than simply believing that God justifies sinners, law and gospel helps the Christian understand why God can justify sinners. God can only justify sinners because of his word of grace in the life, death, and resurrection of his Son Jesus. Once a person receives this by faith, they are justified in God’s sight.

Justification by faith may lead some to assume antinomianism. This is not the case, however, according to Luther. After justification (being declared righteous before God) by faith, the word of law plays a different role in the believers life than before. The law, which used to be a word of condemnation, is now the pathway to joy and blessing. It was formerly a word of “must do;” now it is a word of “get to.” As Luther himself writes, “Earlier it told me what I ought to do. Now I begin to adapt myself to it.”[1]

Finally, there is a constant dialectic between law and gospel which leads the Christian to believe he is at the same time both sinful and justified.[2] This was a hallmark of Luther’s view of the Christian life. Thus, there is an inherent link between law and gospel. The law is given to show our sinfulness even as Christians and our constant, continually need of the Redeemer. The gospel reveals Christ, the Redeemer, in all his saving might. Then, even after we are justified by faith, the gospel frees us to adapt ourselves to the law and live in a manner worth of our justification.

Whether or not we perfectly agree with Luther on this law-gospel tension as the center of Christian theology, we can be thankful for his relentless pursuit of gospel-centeredness in his own day as we seek to pursue the same in ours.


[1] Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity: The Reformation to the Present Day, rev. ed., (New York: Harper One, 2010), 51.
[2] Ibid., 62.