Stand On Your Head for Joy!

I get the privilege of preaching God’s word to our congregation every so often, about once per month. When I preach, I will do my best to post a snippet from my manuscript (it will not always be exactly what I say!) here on the blog with a link to the full audio. In my first two weeks at Grace Chapel, I preached twice. Here’s a portion of my first sermon, “A Father and Two Sons” from Luke 15:11-32.

So Jesus leaves the story open-ended. What will the elder brother do? He ends it there to leave the Pharisees and us longing something—for a true and better elder brother. An elder brother who would leave the presence of his Father and the comforts of his home in heaven to go on a rescue mission and sacrifice all he has to bring his Father’s lost children home. You see, Jesus is the elder brother we need and long for. He gave up his heavenly inheritance and paid our debt. He was stripped of his heavenly clothes, hung naked on a cross, and died thirsty, so we would be clothed in the best robe and enjoy a feast fit for a king. And God is the real prodigal in this story. He is the one who is radical, extravagant, seemingly wasteful in his generosity.

So now younger brothers and elder brothers can relate to God through grace. It’s a gift. We receive it by faith. No one is too bad to receive it and no one is good enough to earn it. Jesus is directing us to himself. He’s saying, you don’t have what takes. You need to trust in a God who is recklessly generous. A God who is wastefully extravagant. A God who shatters your categories of sin and righteousness. And the only way to get to him is through his Son, who provides both the perfect obedience and payment for sin we need.

Some of you might be saying right now, “Okay, I’m already a Christian. I get it. I’ve already received grace. What am I supposed to do?”  Well, Jesus doesn’t say, “Go and do likewise.” He is directing us to himself. So if that is your reaction, let me humbly suggest that you guard your heart from a spirit of legalism: be astonished by grace! Second, let me ask you to consider: if this is your attitude, have you encountered grace in the first place? This grace should astonish you and fuel your faith!

Martin Luther once said, “If I could believe God was not angry with me, I would stand on my head for joy!” If you want an application, maybe try that as one this morning!

Listen to the whole thing.


The Miracle of Striving

Often, the mystery of how we grow as Christians baffles us. There are some Christians who say, “God takes care of all the work. Those commands in the Bible simply show you that you can’t do them and need Jesus.” Others say, “No, you gotta clench your fists and get to work. God gets this rolling, but you need to seal the deal.”

I think both of those approaches to sanctification are wrong.

If we are going to be ruthlessly biblical however, we are going to see grace and effort working together. We are going to see that Paul is adamant that Christians need to strive, but all of their striving is by God’s power and grace. Earlier this week, I spent a devotional time in 1 Thessalonians 5:12-24, where this idea is extremely clear:

12 We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, 13 and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves.14 And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. 15 See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone. 16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise prophecies, 21 but test everything; hold fast what is good. 22 Abstain from every form of evil.

23 Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.

In one breath, Paul can command the Thessalonians to “be at peace,” “admonish,” “rejoice,” and “do not quench.” In the next breath he can say, “Now may God sanctify you completely.” How can he do this?

Paul understands that, at bottom, the Thessalonians will grow in holiness only by God’s grace. He also understands that his teaching, exhorting, and commanding are the God ordained means to accomplish what God wants in the Thessalonians. So yes, God is sovereignly working for the holiness of the Thessalonians (and us). On the other side of the coin, people have to actually do something. As John Piper has said, Christians have to act the miracle of sanctification. And who gets the credit for that acting? God. Therefore, it is not legalism for Paul to give a command, and it is not legalism for us to do so either.

Paul is clear that Jesus delivers from the wrath to come (1:10). He delivers through his perfect obedience and substitutionary death. The only proper response to being rescued by Jesus is love, joy, thanksgiving, abstaining from evil, devotion, and obedience. John Stott once wrote, “To teach the standards of moral conduct which adorn the gospel is neither legalism nor pharisaism but plain apostolic Christianity.” Those who have been saved by grace will respond with obedience. They will not obey perfectly, of course, and that is why salvation is all of grace. It is only by the grace of God that our soul and body will be kept blameless when Jesus returns (5:23). That is why Paul prays in verses 23-24, “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you!” We do the acting, but God is the one causing the acting to happen in such a way that he gets the glory and ensures that we will arrive at the end the way he intended.

So what’s the difference for you and me? If someone asked me, “If you seek to do some act of obedience even though you don’t want to do it, isn’t that the definition of legalism?” my answer would be, “No, because my theology is right.” That might sound like a snarky answer, but think about it.  If I believe my rejoicing in God (one of Paul’s commands above) merits love from God, then yes, it is legalism. But consider an alternative. I strive to rejoice in God even when I don’t feel like it. I do it not to earn God’s love because I realize I am already loved in Christ through the gospel. No amount of rejoicing will earn more of God’s favor I already have. Instead, I know rejoicing in God is what God deserves in light of the gospel and that only rejoicing in him will bring true joy. I ask God to help me strive. I confess my apathy and laziness. I recognize that Christ is the treasure and some other comfort has subdued his rightful place in my heart. I realize that through my striving, God is working in me to kill idolatry, laziness, apathy, self-pity, etc. in order to find true happiness in him. Only when I strive this way is my striving not legalism but proper response to God’s grace in the gospel. 

And that kind of striving, my friends, is a miracle. It is a gift of grace, and that makes it all the more beautiful, lovely, and exciting. I want this for myself, and you. May God be gracious to do it!

Life Theology

Resolutions, God’s Grace, and Jonathan Edwards

As the New Year is still underway, perhaps many are still sorting out what they want to work on this year (or, at least, until mid-February). For the most part, we list things like not eating as much, losing five pounds a month, reading more, praying more, or others.

Those are good things, of course. And goals are, to be sure, very good to have. It’s easier said than done, but we need to remember that we need God’s grace through the Holy Spirit to do these things–to do anything. Simply mustering up motivation and esteem to lose weight might make you thinner, but it also might make you angrier or arrogant. Manufacturing energy and will power to read the Bible and pray might get you practicing these disciples, but it also might turn you into a coldhearted Pharisee. Remember God’s grace, pray for God’s power, love God above all else, and, as St. Augustine, said, do as you please.

In the spirit of New Year’s resolutions, then, I want to direct you to the resolutions of Jonathan Edwards. He didn’t pen these during one of the wild Puritan New Year’s Eve parties. Rather, he compiled them over a period of time, mostly during the year 1723. Edwards had a ferocious passion for holiness in life and ministry, one that God used to rebuke me as I read these earlier this week. These resolutions are grace-driven and faith-fueled. I trust that God will use them to spur me on in the faith, and I hope they do the same for you. I plan to read them often throughout the year, not because they are inspired or revelatory, but because they are focused on the glory of God and living life to reflect the centrality of that.

You can read the resolutions as they originally appeared here. I found Desiring God’s post on Edward’s resolutions very helpful, as they put them into modern categories with subheadings to increase readability.

Happy resolving for the glory of God in 2013!

Life Theology

Where Did the Phrase, “Preach the Gospel to Yourself,” Come Frome?

From Drew Hunter:

So, where did it come from? Thankfully, it’s used all over the place these days. My hunch is that the person who put feet on it and therefore caused it to run throughout this generation is Jerry Bridges. Perhaps surprisingly, this theme wasn’t in his first and probably most well known book, The Pursuit of Holiness. It wasn’t until after writing this book that he began to more clearly see and stress the centrality of the gospel in the life of the Christian (See second paragraph here). Following that book, however, he began emphasizing the centrality of the gospel for everyday life and often used the phrase, “preach the gospel to yourself,” to express it.

While I think Bridges has promoted the phrase more than anyone, he got it from someone else. In the preface to The Discipline of Grace, a book wherein one of the chapters is titled, “Preach the Gospel to Yourself,” he says, “I… owe a debt of gratitude to my friend Dr. Jack Miller, from whom I acquired the expression, “Preach the gospel to yourself every day”

Read the whole thing.

HT: Brandon Levering


Does Our Effort Nullify God’s Grace?

There has been quite a bit of debate lately, particularly in Reformed Evangelical circles, about the relationship between God’s grace and our effort in sanctification. A while back, there was quite the conversation on The Gospel Coalition blogs about this relationship. I’ll spare you the details, but check out the roundup of the debates if you have time.

God demands that we pursue holiness after being saved. We are not saved to “let go and let God.” Rather, by grace we strive to flee from sin and strive to pursue holiness. This past month, my morning devotions in 1 Timothy have made this clear. In chapter 1, Paul says that all of our effort in the Christian life is by God’s grace. Effort is not equated with earning God’s love; effort simply works out what God has worked in (Phil. 2:14). (For one of the best sermons you will ever hear on grace and effort, watch Doug Wilson’s sermon “Grace and Sweat.”)

Notice how Paul links grace (God’s sovereign role) and effort (our responsibility) in 1 Timothy 1:1-14.

  • Faith is a gift of God (1:6).
  • God gives us a spirit of power, love, and self-control to overcome fear (1:7).
  • We endure suffering by the power of God (1:8).
  • We are saved by God’s purpose and grace, not our works (1:9).
  • We have life through the gospel, not in our own selves (1:10).
  • God guards the deposit in us until we obtain full possession of it (1:12).
  • We guard the “good deposit” of the gospel by the power of the Holy Spirit, not our own power (1:14).

We are called to holiness, but God is the one who ultimately does the work. Yet, God works through means: our willful choices. Throughout 1 Timothy, Paul instructs Timothy  to appeal to his flock to believe in gospel truth and live in gospel-shaped ways because of grace. Therefore, the motivation for our “sweat,” as Wilson puts it, is not to be loved and accepted by God. We have gospel motivation: we are already accepted by God in Christ. We have the power of Christ in the person of the Holy Spirit who enables to obey. Our obedience is done out of gratitude for who God is and what he has done in the gospel. Obedience is not done out of a desire to “get God in our debt” or “get him to love us.” And when we fail, we repent, knowing our assurance with God is not based on our performance, but on Jesus’ performance for us.

In saving sinners (1 Tim. 1:15), Jesus bought all the graces of God that I mentioned above with his blood. God justifies us by grace and sanctifies us by grace. Therefore, knowing we are already loved and no longer have the weight of the law bearing down on our shoulders, we are free to pursue holiness. That is why Paul can say to Timothy at the end of his letter, “But as for you, O man of God, flee these things [false teaching and wickedness]. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. Fight the good fight of faith. Take hold of eternal life to which you were called” (6:11-12, emphasis added).

These are commands to be active. How does this all happen without believing effort is the root of our acceptance with God? Four words: “Grace be with you” (6:21b). Timothy can flee evil and pursue righteousness because God’s grace is with him. Grace brings joy-filled effort and heart-level obedience that arises from the fact that our standing before God is secure in the strong name of Jesus. That is incredibly freeing, and it always produces a holy sweat.

Does our effort nullify God’s grace? Not one bit. In fact, our pursuit of holiness—even our desire for it—proves that God is the one who gets all the glory. Our pursuit of holiness exalts God’s grace. It exalts the cross because it shows us that we need the gospel—Jesus life, death, and resurrection for us—more than we ever imagined. When we put for gospel-motivated effort, Jesus’ words to Nicodemus become that much sweeter: “Whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been carried out in God” (John 3:21).